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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Book Review That Never Was

I read Lauren Markham's nonfiction work The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life in 2018 but can’t find that I ever wrote much about it on Books in Northport beyond a passing mention. While I can hardly construct a review at this late date, I ran across the draft of a set of discussion questions I'd put together, in the event that a group could be persuaded to take on the topic. Here are the questions, out in plain sight, so I won’t risk losing track of them altogether -- such is the digital filing “system” of a an organizationally challenged philosopher-bookseller (who is better with books on shelves). Maybe some book club somewhere who is reading the book currently can use these for a springboard.

Discussion Questions:

Do you believe the death threat against Ernesto endangered the life of his identical twin brother Raul, or did Raul simply not want to be left behind? What other factors might have influenced Raul’s decision?

Do you think young people fleeing gang violence in other countries increase the level of violence to the U.S.? Explain. (What about already-American families moving to suburbs to escape gang violence in cities? )

Did you have any idea while reading early chapters what traumatic event Ernesto had experienced on his way north? Did learning what it was surprise you? What did it help explain?

If you have ever lived in a house with unrelated residents in addition to family, what was the situation, and why were you part of it? How were disputes resolved?

What aspects of poverty experienced by the Flores family, both in El Salvador and in the U.S., similar to poverty in general? What aspects were unique to their situations? Do you have any personal experience of poverty?

Did this book help you gain clarity on what a reasonable solution to immigration, legal and illegal, might look like? Having read the book, in what ways is your perspective now more or less clear, and has your view changed (if so, how?) or does it remain unchanged? What other books, if any, have you read on the subject of immigration, and how does this book’s coverage of the subject compare to that of others? Would you recommend this book to others interested in the subject?

If you were a parent in a town like La Colonia, El Salvador, would you try to keep your children “down on the farm” or send them “north”? How would you make decisions for their future? How could family life there be different? What is within their power and what beyond their control?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

You don’t have to read between the lines.

Anyone can be a book critic. All you have to do is read each word, each sentence, each paragraph carefully, generously but analytically, and then weigh the author's overall vision as well as the book's details against your wealth of background cultural knowledge. And the way to read a review is just the same. So in today’s post I invite you to come along with me for the reading of a book review and the questions and reflections it prompted in me. I don't imagine we will be a large party, but we happy few can enjoy ourselves.

Saturday morning, having come to the last page of a book I'd been reading, I picked up a New York Review of Books, the Nov. 21 issue, and found in it a stunning review by Robert Kuttner of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Having thoroughly appreciated Kuttner’s Everything For Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets, I was eager to read what he had to say about Deneen’s book, which was published last year to wide acclaim and has already been issued in an expanded paperback edition.

A careful reader and astute reviewer, Kuttner wastes no time in accusing Deneen of setting up a straw man argument. 
Liberalism is not and never was merely, as caricatured by Deneen, ‘the greatest possible freedom from external constraints.’ Rather, it is fundamentally about limiting abuses of public and private power and creating space for free inquiry. 

What Kuttner calls the 'liberal project,’ then … “included the rule of law, limits on inherited privilege, constraints on arbitrary power, freedom of conscience and speech, and reliance on liberty to develop a natural aristocracy of talent” — all features we might hope to find flourishing in a democratic society. It was not about encouraging individual excess or magically freeing mankind from constraints imposed by nature, as Deneen would have us believe. Thus Deneen's cartoon version has little relation to either the origins or historical development of true liberalism.

Of course, the point of setting up a straw man is to have an easy target, so it is probably not surprising that Deneen goes on to blame his cartoon 'liberalism’ for every woe of modern society. He conveniently ignores the fact, Kuttner points out, that much of today’s so-called ‘conservatism’ [so-called is my addition] takes its starting point with libertarianism, not classical liberalism, and it is this hybrid libertarian ‘conservatism,’ not liberalism, that has led to such modern ills as 
...the commercialization of health care, the commodification of education, the sale of private data, the outsourcing of employment, and the economic collapse of entire regions….
Even given the easy target he has created, Deneen still resorts to cherry-picking quotes, according to Kuttner, thus misconstruing and misrepresenting Locke, Toqueville, and others.

I have read enough of Locke and Tocqueville to side easily with Kuttner on the cherry-picking question. Also, having taught as well as studied logic, I am alert to the trickery of a straw man argument. Finally, as a one-time though not long-term follower and advocate of libertarianism (I got over it), it didn’t take Kuttner to open my eyes to fairly recent radical changes in American so-called conservatism and in today's Republican party. (My father would not recognize his party today.) What today’s Republicans call conservatism, religious avowals aside, is “based on a common embrace of corporate capitalism,” an ideal in which [here I extrapolate] privatization, i.e., having "everything for sale” — banking, education, health care — is the only legitimate goal.

Perhaps Kuttner’s most serious criticism, though, is the one he makes on pragmatic grounds -- and here, as a self-described romantic pragmatist, I perk up my ears. This will be the payoff! Deneen, he tells us, having indicted what he calls liberalism, offers no idea whatsoever about what would support democracy better. Surely it would not be the “Benedict Option,” that  option that counsels forming groups to retreat from secular society. Such orthodox religious communities, guided only by religion precepts and without liberal, secular safeguards to rights, would hardly be immune to autocrats and would-be dictators. And here I note that the position of women in such communities is almost always subservient, submissive, and silent. Deneen has already decried the emancipation of women, so now any remaining doubts I may have had are dispelled.

"Democracy does not work perfectly," Kuttner admits, but what system of government ever has? Before the state was overrun by the market, democracy worked better than it's working today, but whatever form it takes, Kuttner does not see -- and Deneen does not offer -- a viable alternative. 
...All of the alternatives are even more corrosive of human dignity and personal virtue. Liberal democracy may indeed be under siege; but if we are to constrain the tyranny of dictators on one flank and the rule of overweening global corporation on the other, democracy is all we have.  
- Robert Kuttner, "Blaming Liberalism," The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2019 
The book Kuttner reviewed was Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen (Yale University Press, 2019).

Disclaimer: Some readers might consider that, as an emancipated woman, I am biased in favor of liberalism, and they would be correct. I would say, however, that my bias is the result of being persuaded by facts, logic, and experience, not an undisciplined outgrowth of ignorance or brainwashing.

But that's not all I think.

So now, my take

The more I survey this whole messy political stew, the more I mistrust both socialists on the far left and libertarians on the far right, and I mistrust them on pragmatic grounds; therefore, insofar as socialist ideology has saturated progressive movements and libertarian ideology has certainly taken over and cannibalized what used to be conservatism, the more and more I mistrust all ideologies and ideologues. To say either that government intervention and regulation is always (socialist) or never (libertarian) the correct prescription to social problems — the extreme opposing ideological positions — strikes me as so short-sighted as to be downright blind to reality. 

Kuttner’s own view is more nuanced, but I wonder if even his prescriptions have the flexibility I see as absolutely necessary. It’s been a while since I’ve read Everything For Sale, so I cannot say with certainty that he would put whole domains under government oversight and leave other entire domains completely free-wheeling. Banking, education, and health care are, as I recall, fields in which he advocates government regulation, and while I have no quarrel here in general, I would still not have the federal government regulating every aspect of banking, education, and health care in every state of the union. Neither would I leave domains on the free market side of things absolutely free. Think about it. How can the two domains possibly be completely separate, when manufacturing necessarily affects health, commerce necessarily involves banking, and the education of youth comes before entrance into any section of the workplace?

What makes more sense to me is to have general federal safeguards enforced and leave the fine-tuning of details to the local level (regional, state, town -- whatever is appropriate), since conditions on the ground vary so widely from one part of the country to another. Imagine, for instance, a hospital and its procedures for admittance, care, and billing. Doesn’t it make sense that the situation in Los Angeles will be vastly different from that in a farm town in North Dakota or an isolated mountain community in eastern Kentucky or a university teaching institution in Illinois? A procedure that works in one place may be very ill-suited in another. The mix of public and private funding and control, therefore, will also vary, and we should expect that variation.  There must be room for variation to meet local needs. 

It is foolish, when advocating social policy, to ignore variations of climate, physical geography, culture, history, and demographics across a country as large as the United States — almost as foolish as believing that some populations of the nation can be governed and protected by law while others can operate as gangsters.

Pragmatism, as a social philosophy, does not say that whatever course of action gets me the most is the right thing for me to do. That is a perverted view sometimes attributed to so-called “pragmatic” individuals in business. Pragmatism is not egoism ("what’s best for me is best”). Rather, pragmatism tells us that we should look for policies that work to achieve community goals, local or state or national. Sometimes but not always a government hands-off approach will be best. Sometimes but not always a government program will solve a particular problem. What I am advocating, you see, is attention to particularity. What approach is best for a particular community problem? Can we set up a small test and see how it works out? Which aspects of the results will then be applicable to some other community, and which ones do not travel well? It is exactly this kind of experimentation that is the justification for a federal system.

All too often politicians and Americans and, I suppose, human beings in general want a “hammer mechanic” solution: I’ve got a hammer, and I’ll just pound until this thing is fixed! Not generally the best approach, I’m saying, whether you hammer from the far left or the far right. An ideological hammer will generally create as much mess as it tries to eliminate, leaving you no further ahead. 

Surgery is not always the best answer. Neither is avoiding surgery always the best answer. 

That’s my two cents’ worth, anyway.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Pollyanna, Mr. Rogers, and the Trials of November

And so it began....

November so far has been a rough month, starting with the weather. Unusually early snow, unexpected in its quantity as well as its timing (calendar winter not yet arrived), was a trial to all of northern Michigan. Even the business provided to the guys who do the plowing was not an unalloyed cause for rejoicing on their part, because many of those same guys do lawn maintenance and hadn’t yet gotten up all the fall leaves. In fact, many of the leaves had not yet fallen and are even now coming down on top of the snow and making a real mess of things. 

Autumn storms also brought additional shorline erosion, not as gradual loss but overnight disappearance. 

Well, what would Pollyanna say, that character in the novel by Eleanor Porter (1868-1920)? Pollyanna was a little World War I-era orphan who pulled crutches as her gift from the Christmas barrel instead of the doll she wanted. Well, she got through the trials of her life by playing the “glad game,” finding something to be glad about in every situation. The good thing about the crutches was — she didn’t need them! So if we apply the glad game to a blizzard that kept people home from work and school on one November Monday, we see how lucky we were. Spared forest fire, hurricane, and tornado, most of us were able to take refuge in place rather than being forced to flee our homes. And while we may not have chosen to have it in early November, who doesn’t love a snow day?

And there's no denying it was beautiful.

Trial #2, the impeachment hearings, is more of a challenge to a player of the glad game. The president, of course, feels persecuted, but the whole country is suffering, and the suffering goes back to the campaign that led to the 2016 election, when partisan divisions became more than acrimonious and turned downright nasty. Also, unlike a snow day, we can’t turn the impeachment hearings into fun by baking muffins and making hot chocolate. 

Impeachment is always regrettable. Whatever anyone’s feelings and opinions about whatever president it involves, the impeachment process is an attempt to solve a worst-case scenario -- or what we have come to hope is the worst that can happen. And what if it isn’t? If things got worse? Much worse has happened in many countries around the world over the course of human history. And so even sleep provides no surefire escape: “Perchance to dream! Ay, there’s the rub!” To have the country’s leadership invade our hours of sleep seems a most egregious violation, does it not?

As a nation, though, we have suffered and survived periods of horrible political division before this. Without harking back as far as the Civil War, I think back to violent protests over desegregation in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s, and the rash of nightmare assassinations then, too. Surely, in those times as well as these, lies were spread, friendships destroyed, families torn apart. 

But it does seem that lies travel faster in these times — almost at the speed of light. “Misinformation,” as it’s called, has become an industry, prolific and profitable. So it’s hard to find anything to be glad about in our present whole situation, isn’t it? 

And yet — as I must remind myself almost hourly — we can be glad that the situation is being addressed by hearings in Congress rather than by military coup; that men and women of courage and principle are willing to put their devotion to country above political expediency; and that we still have reliable sources of news and can hear testimony for ourselves rather than having it filtered and presented in Newspeak.

Overwhelmed, we have to carry on.

Well, the blizzard was regional. The hearings are national, with international implications. But of course each of us has, besides, always, our personal trials. I will not go into mine, because it’s an old story — the behemoth in the room — and I would be either preaching to the (tiny) choir or beating my head pointlessly against the wall. 

What I can be and am glad of in the current global retail situation are those individuals, both the ones who saw the writing on the wall from the start and those only belatedly seeing where present trends would take us all, if continued — that small but perhaps expanding contingent — the people who value and support real bookstoresI’m glad of every visitor to my bookstore who doesn’t waste my time with idle questions about business but asks instead about books and takes the time to browse seriously. I'm glad of the many wonderful authors I've met over the years. And I am especially glad of and thankful for every single customer, neighbor or stranger, who leaves with a purchased book (or more than one), because that’s what it means to “love bookstores.”

Strange as it may seem, then, when I take the time to dig down under what I can’t help perceiving at times as the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” I’m still glad to have chosen this life in the slow, challenging, difficult lane strewn with trials and tribulations. Not giving thanks for the hardships, you understand, but grateful for the opportunity to scratch out a living without compromising my principles and extraordinarily grateful for having a coterie of loyal supporters in that endeavor. 

I’m so glad my goal is not now, never was, and never will be world domination and expansion into outer space! What could be better than our green planet? I’m glad to be able to say that I have invested instead in myself and my own small-town vision.

Now, as for that small-town angle, a couple paragraphs above I used the phrase “neighbor or stranger,” but I’ve been reading quite a bit lately (as have you, perhaps, the new Tom Hanks film getting quite a lot of press) about the late Fred Rogers, who so famously and unforgettably asked on his television show, "Won't you be my neighbor?" And reading about Mr. Rogers, I can't help looking into the way I live my life and asking myself some pretty hard questions. 

Mr. Rogers spoke directly to children, to all of their fears and confusions, and also to the confused and frightened children inside every adult. I wish I could say that I always do the same, but that wouldn't be true. More often than I want to admit, I respond too quickly (even when I attempt to hide that response) from a feeling that I have been attacked or insulted or dismissed as inconsequential when there was no such intention in the words that wounded me. 

And what if there really had been an intention to inflict pain? 

I think the possibility of intention to hurt is much rarer than our almost automatic response of self-defense, actually: my personal concerns are not the center of anyone else’s consciousness, and so what other people find important to say, whatever the context of our conversation, will seldom address my core concerns but simply express their own. But whether the words of another came from ignorance, thoughtlessness, or what looks like plain meanness do not matter at all if I think of them as the words of a child, which is how Mr. Rogers counseled us to respond to one another. 

Years ago I did substitute teaching and regular tutoring up at Northport School (one of many “side jobs” undertaken over time in order that my bookstore might survive). Teaching children wasn’t what I had been educated to do, and I quickly realized that subject matter (math or spelling or whatever) is only part of the job. Kids don’t leave their personal lives and feelings in their lockers when they come into the classroom, and sometimes they can say or even do hurtful to one another or even to their teachers. They can behave destructively. And if the behavior is not somehow checked they can be dangerous to themselves and others. 

My big take-away from those experiences was this: I never encountered a child I felt was really malicious. Bad behavior might result from frustration or hurt or embarrassment or fear or confusion, but it was always a reaction to something, never sui generis meanness. 

American society in our time has taken on a pretty mean look. Movies, “reality” television, business, politics — in all these realms, it seems that dirty tricks and name-calling are held up to us as behavior to emulate. Even “Pollyanna,” the name of the character in the old story, is generally used as a derogatory term, like Goody Two-Shoes. It’s like calling somebody “Stupid!” Kind of a dispiriting picture of twenty-first American culture, isn’t it?

A year or so ago I asked someone I don’t know all that well how she maintained her positive attitude. I really wanted to know. I needed her answer. Didn’t she sometimes feel overwhelmed by threats to free speech, truth, democracy, and the natural world (of which we’re all part, even when we forget the fact)? Didn’t she ever feel downright hopeless? I cannot quote her response exactly, but it was something like “Lead from your strength.” When speaking or writing, putting her words out in the world, she wanted those words to be encouraging and hopeful. 

We need those words.

Because we can all see the negative. What we need from each other are reminders that good things are true, too, maybe something we’ve overlooked or forgotten or just temporarily lost sight of, something good we can build on. I don’t know how many times I have sat down to write in a terrible mood but managed to find some small kernel of gratitude and hope, a kernel that grew as my sentences proliferated, and that's because I am aware of writing for a community and trying -- honestly! -- to draw and lead from my strength, although I may have to dig pretty deep some days to find it!

More than one good friend has told me in person or has written to me that they appreciate my ability to find joy in small, everyday sights and events. Whenever anyone says or writes something so complimentary, I feel compelled to tell them not to give me too much credit, because it can often be a huge effort for me to seek out those small joys, and that's true despite the fact that my life in general is really quite blessed. So if you're struggling, you're not alone. Many of us can slip all too easily into feeling overwhelmed and despondent, particularly in November. 

Even that lucky dog, Sarah, is not always wagging her tail.

But who wants or needs to hear the sob story of a fortunate person? The old Eric Berne book on transactional analysis, Games People Play, called that game “Ain’t It Awful?” Ick! Who wants to be invited to that party? Besides, commiseration even with real tragedy can be best in small doses, or it risks being counter-productive and exacerbating the misery.

And we all need the gift of light.

Pollyanna’s game was one she played to keep herself cheerful in trying situations and times. Fred Rogers went deeper, inviting everyone to be his neighbor. The two messages are different but compatible. Don’t we enjoy neighbors who bring cheer rather than gloom into our lives? And aren’t we better neighbors when we look for the good in others, wherever we meet them?

Neither path is always easy, and most of us will fall down over and over, but we can get up and try again each time. As little children must.

One word of caution to neighbors in northern Michigan: what looks like wet pavement these days can sometimes hide — yes, in plain sight! — a thin coating of ice, so step carefully! My own Wednesday morning fall on an icy sidewalk brought no terrible consequences, but not falling must be the standard for which we aim.

Namaste, as neighbor Paul says. Thanks, Paul! You are a good neighbor! And thank you, Maureen, for starting my bookstore Thursday off with your smiling face, and Karin, for the beautiful journal you made for me out of that old, falling-apart school book from Quebec, and all the rest of you who buy your books from me in Northport. And please, I urge you all, while I'm gone this winter, to take your custom down the road a piece to Leelanau Books in Leland and/or Bay Books in Suttons Bay. We will keep getting each other through, one day at a time.

Love to all,

Friday, November 15, 2019

“Snowvember” at the Bookstore in Northport

Front page local news!
Photo of the front page of our local weekly newspaper is at the top of today's post just so you know I didn’t make up the name "Snowvember" for Leelanau’s first month of the 2019-2020 winter. Snow varied from one part of the county to another, but everyone got somewhere between two and three feet. Not what we expect in November, with leaves still on the trees and field corn still on the stalks. No one was ready for it. 

People have been reading and laughing at and saying they love the little sign on the bookstore door that says “Closed Sundays & Mondays are iffy.” (They almost always say aloud what they've just read, "Mondays are iffy," as they come in the door.) Because of the snowstorm that began Sunday night and continued without letup through Tuesday, however, this week it was Wednesday before we could get to Waukazoo Street and shovel our way into Dog Ears Books, but that was okay, because we were on hand Wednesday and Thursday when Dan, Dan, the UPS man, came through the door with boxes of new books. 

Among other titles, that book delivery included a fresh supply of Wintercake for Saturday, when the weather promises to be clear and Lynne Rae Perkins, our favorite young children’s author, will come to Northport to sign books. I can’t think of a better holiday gift for the little ones and the whole family than this newest Perkins charmer. If littlest ones insist on “own books!” to hold while Grandma or Grandpa reads the Wintercake story aloud, we also offer irresistible little board books by Eric Carle, Sandra Boynton, and others. 

So -- one more time -- that's tomorrow, Saturday, beginning at 2 p.m., when you’ll want to come to visit with the always delightful Lynne Rae Perkins and have her inscribe a copy for you of her delightfully delicious new children's book, Wintercake

Also, because the last day of our bookstore season will be Saturday, November 30, the last new book order I’ll be sending in will be next Monday, so if there is anything you want me to order, either for you or for a gift you want to give to someone else, please get that title to me by Saturday, Nov. 16, as well. 

Again, that’s Saturday, Nov. 16, for last book orders of the season and Saturday, Nov. 16, for Lynne Rae Perkins book signing.

And it's Saturday, Nov. 30, for your last book-shopping day on Waukazoo Street!!! Note that we will be open (barring another severe blizzard!) on both Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving Day, so whether you are shopping for holiday gifts or (if you are one of those who eschews holiday gift-giving) simply taking this rich opportunity to treat yourself, we will be most happy to welcome you, help you select books, and wish you a good rest of the winter, wherever you plan to spend the months ahead while your local bookseller takes her annual seasonal retirement in the Southwest. 

But you don't have to hold back on coming today, either. It's Friday, lights are going up on the village tree, the sun is peeking out from the clouds from time to time, and the bookstore is open NOW, so by all means pay us a visit!

Monday, November 11, 2019

Love Takes Many Forms

Never before have I fallen in love with a font, or even thought of so doing, but now that previously unconsidered possibility has become reality. I write not of the font I use to compose these sentences, Bookman Old Style, although I appreciate it and am glad to have fallen upon it after one reader years ago complained gently of another I had been experimenting with using. No, the object of my new but deep regard can be seen in the photograph at the top of this post. The name of the type is Poliphilus. I will quote from the note on the type at the end of the book:
Poliphilus had its origin in the singularly beautiful roman type cut by Francesco da Bologna for the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, issued in 1499 by Aldus Manutius (1450-1515).

Who deserved the greater share of credit for the invention of italic type, Aldus (the printer) or Francesco (the typecutter)? And who was Francesco, anyway? And does the name italic derive from — Italy, its home ground? If these questions intrigue you, let them guide your researches. For now, and for myself, I prefer to remain in the company of these beautiful pages of the illustrated edition (my copy a later printing of the 1927 edition) of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The type I am admiring is large and bold and clear. The serifs (and I love a serif) are minimal but not, thank heaven, omitted; letters are uncrowded, words and sentences easily read. At the same time, certain elegances of style make themselves noticed: the 'st' diphthong gracefully conjoined, for example, and the hyphen, rather than a dull horizontal, tipped obliquely upward in the direction of the reader’s progress.

Nor does the beauty end with the font. Every page is visually delightful, honoring the author’s work. Harold Von Schmidt, a California-born painter of Western scenes who was in 1968 awarded the first gold medal given by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, spent two years on the illustrations for this special edition of Cather’s novel. They were unlike his own more characteristic work (realistic illustrations of cowboys and horses, a world he knew firsthand), but the quiet dignity and peacefulness of the images on these pages are such that the story could not have been better served by any other style.

And the physical pages themselves! Look closely at the quality of the paper — at least, as much as you can detect in a photographic image presented to you on a lighted screen. Can you see the watermark? At the end of the note on type we find —
Composed, printed and bound by The Plimpton Press, Norwood, Mass. Paper made by S. D. Warren Co., Boston.

Ah, well, and of course there is the story itself, the novel some critics have said is not a novel at all (a criticism leveled also at Sarah One Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs). The main character, the fictional Jean Marie Latour, who came from France as a missionary in the Great Lakes region in the mid-nineteenth century, is based on the historical personage of Father Lamy, who with his fellow seminarian Father Macheboeuf spent years in New Mexico. The latter goes by the name of Valiant in the novel. The cathedral  Archbishop Lamy dreamed of building in Santa Fe stands there now, its golden hue fulfilling the fictional French padre’s dream for his flock. 

As was true in My Antonia, the author interrupts the main character’s story with stories of other minor characters, many of these interruptions self-contained and not necessarily adding to anything like a plot — but then, aren’t our lives like that? We remember knowing someone briefly and recalling a story that pinned that person in memory, and that story, unconnected to the ongoing narrative of our life, nevertheless holds its place. As Father Latour, now the retired archbishop, finally lies dying “of having lived,” he relives episodes of his life that stand out as if still present and ongoing. 

It is true, as the critics say, that Latour’s character does not “develop,” in the sense of changing over time. He is more or less himself from beginning to end. At a certain point, doubts of life’s meaning darken his way for a while, but basically he remains the man we meet in the beginning of the novel, and the same is true of his life-long friend, Father Vaillant. The two men are bound by memories of their youth and their homeland, as well as years of work together, but a time of parting finally arrives when Father Vaillant is called north to the rude Gold Rush settlement, and he goes eagerly.
Yes, [Latour] reflected, as he went quietly to his own room, there was a great difference in their natures. Wherever he [Father Vaillant] went, he soon made friends that took the place of country and family. But Jean [Father Latour], who was at ease in any society and always the flower of courtesy, could not form new ties. It had always been so. He was like that even as a boy; gracious to everyone, but known to a very few. 
Vaillant greets every new person he meets with excited enthusiasm, while Latour hides his dismay with impeccable manners. They remind of two little boys I know. Arriving at the playground to find other children there, one grumbles with a frown, “Oh, no! Other people!” while the other rejoices, “Oh, good, we can make new friends!” I imagine these differences will remain in their characters as they grow to manhood.

Cather came along too late in history to meet the historical Lamy and Macheboeuf, but not too late to fall in love with New Mexico, and that love shines through every line of description, whether she is describing a mountain blizzard, cottonwoods along a dry riverbed, apricots in the priest’s garden, or the peace to be found sometimes in his church. In fact, she makes us feel the way the way all these scenes are bound together.
He fitted the great key into its lock, the door swung slowly back on its wooden hinges. The peace without seemed all one with the peace in his own soul. The snow had stopped, the gauzy clouds that had ribbed the arch of heaven were now all sunk into one soft white fog bank over the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The full moon shone high in the blue vault, majestic, lonely, benign. The Bishop stood in the doorway of his church, lost in thought, looking at the line of black footprints his departing visitor had left in the wet scurf of snow.

Friday, November 8, 2019


Snow was falling in Northport on Thursday afternoon, sometimes blowing horizontally down Waukazoo Street, with the temperature hovering right around the freezing mark when one of my customers arrived to pick up her special order. The book she had ordered sounded so intriguing that I’d ordered a second copy, and later that afternoon I began reading. 

The central character, Evan Whitesky, up in northern Ontario, is on the trail of a moose.
He had been out since early morning and had been tracking this particular bull since around noon. The fall hunt was drawing to a close, and he still wanted to put more food away. Food from the South was expensive and never so good, or as satisfying, as the meat he could bring in himself.  
- Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow
Evan takes pride in providing for his partner and their two young children. An accomplished hunter and fisherman, he has put away enough protein for the winter to have plenty to share with his parents, and when Evan joins his father in cleaning a hide, the two men envision future moccasins. The Whitesky family is better prepared than some others on the reserve for life without hydro power.

A missing satellite signal brings the first hardship: no morning television for the children and no Internet signal for their elders. Electric power lasts a little longer before it too goes out, but people on the remote, isolated reserve have experienced power outages before and know how to cope until the electricity comes back on. They remind each other that the old ones in times past lived without electric lights and television. When there is no signal for their cell phones, some still have landlines — until these, too, fall dead.

It is the beginning of winter, so the Council needs to plan for the future as well as for the immediate situation. Without regular deliveries of fuel and food from the South, they have enough diesel to run a generator until late February, if everyone cooperates in conserving energy, and with foresight they have stockpiled a cache of canned foods for just this sort of emergency, but surviving the immediate emergency is only the first step, and the future is unclear.
Three more cold nights passed. The generator power would only last so long. The chief called another emergency meeting at the band office…. There was still no communication with anyone in the outside world.
The world of the novel is circumscribed from the outset. Its remote backstory is one of displacement — from the Great Lakes region to the south, the people had been forced to the harsher north — the nearer backstory one of dependence on regular deliveries of groceries and fuel. But that was then, and this is now, and the demands of now throw the people back on traditional ways of life and traditional values that some have been practicing all along and others need to learn.

Peshawbestown dancers in Northport

Evan has been going to school, informally, with his elders: learning the people’s language, he and Nicole are teaching it to their children, and, somewhat awkwardly, using the native words he knows interspersed with English, he speaks traditional prayers on the appropriate occasions. His parents’ knowledge of old ways is augmented by stories and lessons given him by the band’s oldest member, a woman in her late eighties. He hunts and shares with those in need, and he is learning to pray.
Aileen brought the flickering orange light under the carefully piled sage in the shell, and the medicine caught fire. She let it burn for a few seconds before blowing it out. Thick grey smoke billowed from the shell….

One-way “contact” with the outside world comes only three times in the novel, in quietly escalating pitch. First, a homecoming: Two young members of the band arrive on snowmobiles, having fled the chaos of the town below, which is also without power or grid infrastructure and where people are panicking and growing violent. Next, an intruder: A large, dangerous-looking white man, Justin Scott, has followed the trail of the returning young men and requests asylum, promising to pull his weight on the hunt. Finally, a while later, four more white refugees turn up and are taken in, nominally by the band, more immediately by Scott. What will the presence of these outsiders, especially the frightening and mysterious Scott, mean in this tight-knit community?

Words and phrases of Anishinaabemowin are a natural fit in Rice’s characters’ speech and are generally translated immediately, so a reader unfamiliar with the language can understand and perhaps learn a little along the way. Dreams are handled naturally, as well, either told by one dreamer to another character or presented without transition but also without confusion. When the legendary windigo enters the story, it does so naturally and quietly at first, without undue drama and literary special effects, so that we are gradually prepared for its full-blown presence.

Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow, like Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, imagines a world suddenly bereft of electricity, electronic and digital devices, and energy systems we take for granted in our daily lives, but the imagined worlds of the two novels are very different. In the Mandel novel, we roam cities and countryside with groups of wandering Shakespearean players, a “family” brought together by interest and necessity rather than inheritance, and in the end the world as we know it is restored. The people in Rice’s world, many of them related to each other by blood, remain in place. We follow their lives in that place through the first hard winter and leave them in the spring following their second winter, the latter — and the longer-term future — left to our imaginations. 

Both novels, you might say, are stories of post-apocalyptic survival, but Rice’s character Aileen dismisses the apocalyptic notion. She has heard of the notion from young people but puts no credence in it.
“Yes, apocalypse! What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe. Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders, anyway. 
Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention. 
“The world isn’t ending,” she went on. “Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world. When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that’s when our world ended. They made us come all the way up here. This is not our homeland! But we had to adapt and luckily we already knew how to hunt and live on the land. We learned to live here.” 
We’ve always survived, and we always will, Aileen tells Evan. 

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States presents the past of the North American continent from a perspective not taught in schools with curricula set in place by whites, and Moon of the Crusted Snow presents a possible future from a non-white point of view — one possible non-white point of view, of course. That Rice’s compelling story is told in beautiful language with sympathetic characters in a setting not difficult to imagine as the first real snow blows into northern Michigan seared it into my brain, and I recommend it for your winter reading, wherever you live and whatever your ethnic background or connection to the virtual world.

Our reading world is enriched as more voices come to be heard in fiction from different cultural, ethnic, and historical perspectives.