While I snuffled my way through ten days of illness, I had one day where I felt like reading. I don’t usually read when I’m sick. Too much thinking, too much chance of a headache, too productive. But, there you have it, I couldn’t stand another nap or Nintendo or a game or tv or a movie, so I grabbed the fluffiest look book out of my library pile and began to read.
I actually finished the Secret Life of Bees that same day, and it turned out to be perfect for my feeble mind. It was a simple story that flowed and moved well. There was just enough action and history to keep you intrigued and engaged in the characters, but just enough thoughtfulness for it to be interesting for this sociologically-inclined mind to turn over.
Set in the civil rights era deep in the Carolinas, it gives a picture of a time that I find rather mysterious and that, to me, seems more like the 19th century than a time when my own parents were young.
The characters – especially August, June, May, and, of course, Lily – are real, warm, and alive. Lily, the storyteller, is a young girl with a very tragic and emotionally disturbing past who runs away and learns to know what love, fulfillment and, ultimately, peace, are in the home of three black sisters who run a bee farm.
Everyone in the story has a troubling history and is carrying real suffering in their hearts, even though each one shows it differently – through violence, through ambition, through understanding, through mental suffering, through denial. But as the story unfolds each persons actions and responses to their pain – usually through the words and guiding hand of the oldest sister, August – become understandable, become someone you want to reach out to and love.
I have a heart for the normal people walking around who carry deep burdens in their hearts, and so I loved August’s unconditional and redemptive love – not a blind love, but an understanding love – towards those around her with problems that supports them, helps them, and gives joy and peace. It was fascinating to hear her talk Lily through her instinctive emotions towards the people around her, and to show her how to appreciate their attitudes and actions based on a knowledge of what they had been through. In the end, Lily is able to apply this understanding towards the most hated person in her life, her own father.
As much as I appreciated this attitude of the book, I did not like the weird religious tendencies of the sisters nor their proclamations that self-reliance and finding yourself are the way to fulfillment. In fact, despite the centrality of the black Mary idea in the book, it seemed almost superfluous. The best messages of the book came through August’s ministrations to Lily and to others, not from Lily’s “discovery” of Mary in her own heart. It was August’s example and love and the support of the odd little family that gave Lily the ability to find peace and forgiveness.
The book embraces beauty in life and in people, no matter what their history or their struggles are, and for that, I loved it.
Sometime a year or two ago, I was home alone (maybe sick?) and stumbled on a movie on Netflix Watch Instantly called The Other Boleyn Girl. As much as I love history, I tend to avoid medieval dramas simply because they are too dark, disturbing, and violent for me to watch alone and Andy and I are usually looking for more of a light-hearted, relaxing movie to watch together.
But for some reason that day I was bored, and so I watched it. And it was the type of movie that I couldn’t get out of my head for days. It was everything I avoid in medieval dramas – dark, disturbing, and violent. But while Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson may not be my favorites, this movie was fascinating.
It took until last week for me to finally pick up the book. And it too was dark, disturbing and violent. But it too was fascinating.
I don’t want to speak to the historical accuracy of the novel. I have never studied the Renaissance period in depth and so I am not well-versed in Henry VIII’s history. Gregory takes theories that hang by a thread and she writes as if they were true.
But what I did enjoy about the book was Gregory’s treatment of the psychology of the English court in the 1500s. She weaves a complex story in a complex world but she makes it personal. She shuts out the courtly love and the manners and the feasts and she zeroes in on the individuals, on what went on in their privy chambers, in their family councils, on their ambitions and their motives and their comforts and their fears. They are embedded in the world we know from history books, but one is drawn past all the historical trappings and facts until they become real people – motivated, schooled and believing differently than us, but real people nonetheless.
I think too that Gregory’s treatment of every stage and year of Mary and Anne’s life as it connects to Henry VIII is a very useful device. As we wait with both of them through all the long years, we get a sense of the waiting, the endless, exhausting web-spinning and playing that was a constant part of the courtiers’ lives.
By the end, when you both hate Anne and pity her and know that she deserves her ending but yet wish it could be taken away, you find that you have entered Mary’s mind and emotions fully as they are represented by Gregory. And when Mary finally walks away from everything, after the glitter has worn off, after the world has turned upside down around her, you just go with her.
The movie is different from the book, as the book is different from history, as history is different, undoubtedly, from reality. But it is interesting, and gripping.
One note for my recommendation – Gregory can get rather graphic at times. Often this is really in service of her historical theories and stories and let’s face it – Renaissance living was often rather bawdy, most especially the lives of these mistresses swirling around the king. Other times it is unnecessary and could easily have been removed.
The name Henry is currently following me around. When I started reading The Time Traveler’s Wife I was startled by it, but by the end of the book it seemed quaint and timeless. But then I began reading The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and there, it was the last name but it sounded so wistful. In both cases, nothing seemed more appropriate to the characters than the name Henry. How can such a traditional name feel so fresh, new and appropriate?
It probably flows out of the fact that the characters were carefully and thoughtfully named, both time-appropriately and character-appropriately.
One of the most severe cases that I’ve come across of very poorly named character would be Natty Bumppo in The Deerslayer. That’s a bumbling name, a very abrupt and rude name – and the character was overly romanticized, overly given to Shakespearean soliloquies and overly obsessed with ideals. It completely didn’t fit.
And honestly, that’s how I felt about Natty Bumppo. In the end, he just didn’t fit. Nothing about him suited – his surroundings, his names, his dialect, his ideals, his monologues, his affections. He was followed around by an aura of incongruousness and it rather killed the already pedestrian plot of the story. And the awkwardness just resulted in a flat story that went nowhere.
Although if you think about it, the one appropriate thing about the name “Natty Bumppo” is that that is the most un-epic, un-heroic name I’ve ever heard. And that is the one character trait that was actually appropriate to the “Deerslayer”.
The Deerslayer has been lying on my side table for three weeks, constantly in the periphery of my vision with its giant, green presence. I feel guilty. 200 pages in, and I have lost the will to continue. Of course, my inability to not finish a project means that I have refused to begin any other books. And so I’ve spent my fatigued evenings sloughing around the apartment, vacillating from tv to netflix to early bedtimes.
But tonight is the night. Deerslayer, I will conquer you. I will not just finish reading your pages but I will find something good in you. I will read a sentence that doesn’t cause me to roll my eyes, cringe, or nod off.
How is it that I can spend three hours engrossed in a Jane Austen spin off movie in which Elizabeth escapes to the modern day world, Darcy proposes to Miss Bingley, Lydia runs off with Bingley, Wickham is noble, Georgiana is a schmuck, and Jane ends up married to Mr. Collins… and yet I can’t refrain from scoffing at one single page of The Deerslayer?
Well, perhaps that is just enough of a testimony to how mind-numbingly unrealistic and laughable The Deerslayer is.
But, this evening, I resign myself.
To me, Mark Twain is the key by which all all 19th century American literature is to be assessed. My shelf is full of Twain’s books and essays and my sense of humor, my feeble story-telling abilities and my lens to view the world has been completely shaped by his work. His humor was, in a word, perfect. His ability to pull the Ridiculous out of any situation and cause it to blossom is so brilliant, yet understated and nuanced that by the time you’re done laughing, you can’t perceive the serious reality of the event anymore at all.
So when I first read Twain’s essay “James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” as a high schooler, I was fully persuaded that Cooper was a sub-par, overly romanticized writer who set 19th century dollhouse figures marching around a rural frontier setting.
I realize that his title “The Last of the Mohicans” is a household phrase and that by most he is a romance writer to be reckoned with. I’ve seen him compared to Sir Walter Scott, whom I absolutely adore but yet, I remained unmoved. I wasn’t able to see any of his novels in their cheap reprintings without scoffing at the suckers who take him home expecting to read literature.
So why did I send my husband to the store to blow $8 on a mammoth volume with such a tacky name as “The Deerslayer”? I’m not sure. Maybe sometime in the last couple of years I felt a touch of remorse for my automatic dismissiveness. Maybe I just figure that I should give Cooper a chance. Or, most likely, I just wanted to read Cooper and see everything that Twain said proven true. I wanted to rest assured that my hero was justified in everything that he said.
225 pages in, I alternate between chuckling in disbelief and banging my head against the page. And all I can say now is, Twain was spot on. Deerslayer is no hero; but I’m not left wanting for someone to idolize.
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