People often ask me what my favorite book is. I cannot answer that question. In fact, I freeze like a deer in the headlights when forced to think of favorites. There are just too many great books that I love for me to be able to narrow it down to one or two. Furthermore, I am no spring chicken; I have been reading heavily for a long time, so there are many, many from which to choose. Some of them are hidden in the deep recesses of my memory at this point.
In this section of my blog I will write briefly about some of my favorite books as I re-read them or as I think about them again for whatever reason. These are not reviews. Rather, they are my very biased reflections on why I like them and what I find interesting about them.
Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien are also on my “Classics Club” list of books. For more information about the Classics Club, see http://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/.
Here you will find my complete list of books I’ll be blogging about for the Classics Club.
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“I thought it [the My Lai massacre] was murder, the same thing I think today. It makes me angry that so many people got off, the charges were dropped, people got off on technicalities, only one person was convicted. That was Lieutenant Calley. People who testified that they killed 20 people, they were never prosecuted. What really bugs me is that of all the people who were there, about 150 or so, the American public only remembers Calley’s name. But what about the rest of them? Those people are still among us, all over, maybe even some in Baltimore, what are they telling their wives and children? Are they guarding their secrets, too?” –Tim O’Brien
“If anything I do, in the way of writing novels or whatever. . . isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it isn’t about anything. I am not interested in indulging myself in some private exercise of my imagination . . . which is to say yes, the work must be political.” –Toni Morrison
This week I am fortunate in that I am teaching two of my favorite contemporary novels at the same time (in two different classes). Although it is hard for me to pick favorites, I CAN say that Beloved is my favorite contemporary novel about slavery and In the Lake of the Woods is my favorite novel about Vietnam. The fact that I am teaching these two novels at the same time is random. However, reading them again at the same time has made me realize how many similarities they have.
Beloved was first published in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize (justly in my opinion.) She went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1993. Beloved is about a former slave woman named Sethe who is living in the 1870s in Ohio with her daughter Denver. Life is hard for many reasons, one of which is that her house is haunted by her baby daughter. Later that daughter comes to life in the body of a young woman and comes to live with Sethe and Denver. We learn eventually that Beloved is dead because Sethe killed her when she was a toddler by slitting her throat. As horrifying as this act sounds, we learn that Sethe killed out of love, not out of hate. She killed to keep the slave catchers from taking her and her children back into slavery. She believed that although others may have survived slavery, she could not let her children experience it: “Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful , magical best thing—the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; . . . whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon” (251).
Sethe’s act of desperation is based on a real historical occurrence. In 1856, Margaret Garner escaped slavery with her husband and seventeen other Kentuckian slaves. They made it to a safe house in Ohio, but they were soon discovered by the slave catchers. When Garner realized they would be taken back into slavery, she cut the throat of her daughter, killing her. She had planned to kill all of her children and then herself, but others intervened before she could do so.
In the novel Beloved, we enter Sethe’s life around 18 years after the killing. The only person left in Sethe’s life is her daughter Denver. Her two sons left home as soon as they could because they could not withstand the anger of the ghost haunting the house. Sethe’s mother-in-law, Baby Suggs has also died. Slavery is over, at least legally, but the past is still ferociously present. Sethe is literally haunted by her dead baby and is emotionally frozen. She is surviving rather than living. She survives by suppressing her memories of the past—both horrors done to her and the horrors she did to others. The cost of this suppression, however, is a sort of death-in-life. She thinks little and feels less. She has no friends, lovers or joy in her life. Then Paul D enters her life and things start to change. Gradually, she and he begin to confront their past and the memories they tried so desperately to suppress. It is a long and painful process, but Sethe begins to heal, with the help of others in her life. Amy Denver, the white girl who helps Sethe give birth, says to Sethe, “Anything dead coming back to life hurts.” We readers witness the pain Sethe goes through as she starts to come back to life, but Morrison also helps us to understand how essential it is to confront this painful past in order to get past our demons.
This confrontation rings true not only for the fictional character Sethe, but also for our nation as a whole. We in the United States, like Sethe, are haunted by our history of slavery. Legally, slavery may be abolished, but its legacy is a long way from being over. Too many people want to try to minimize the past or to ignore its continuing impact. We Americans are not good at remembering our past, especially the painful parts, but we must. As Morrison’s Beloved suggests, we are still haunted by the repercussions of slavery and always will be until we confront it squarely and speak the unspeakable.
Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods seems on the surface to have little in common with Beloved. His novel is about a character, John Wade, who has come back home to the United States after serving in Viet Nam. After working hard for years—graduating from law school, serving his state in minor political roles—he is poised to be elected as a United States Senator when it all falls apart. He and his wife Kathy seclude themselves in a cabin on the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota to recover from his humiliating political defeat. But then Kathy mysteriously disappears. The ostensible point of the novel is to investigate what happened to Kathy: did she get lost in the lake and die? Did she run away from John? Did John kill her?
As we read further in the novel, however, we discover intriguing similarities between In the Lake of the Woods and Beloved. Both narratives are structured around a historical trauma at their centers, traumas that the main characters try to forget. Sethe’s trauma was the murder of her own child specifically, and slavery more generally. Wade’s trauma was his participation in the massacre at My Lai specifically, and American involvement in Viet Nam more generally. Just as we do not learn the truth about Sethe’s past until well into the middle of the novel, we do not discover Wade’s involvement in My Lai until we are almost halfway done. And just as Morrison’s novel emphasizes the need for the nation to confront our past of slavery, so too does O’Brien’s novel compel readers to think about the repercussions of our history, in this case, our military invention in Vietnam.
The novels share a narrative structure that might be described as a spiral, with the outside layers focusing on mundane details of life, but gradually turning in to get closer and closer to the traumatic center of the stories. The novels also share the same psychological insights about the dangers of repressing traumatic memories. Both Sethe and John Wade try to move on with their lives by forgetting, by “beating back the past,” to quote from Morrison. The results of this repressing are disastrous for the long-term. Sethe is not only haunted by the ghost of her dead baby, she is eventually devoured by her and would not have survived if her other daughter Denver did not intervene and get help from the community. John Wade can put on a good show in front of strangers: he is a magician as well as a politician. But eventually the truth about My Lai comes out and his career is over. More disturbing than his damaged career, however, is his damaged psyche. Readers discover as they read the book that the effort Wade has put into keeping his memories buried have contributed to his becoming seriously emotionally disturbed. He is possibly so disturbed that he may have killed the wife that he loves voraciously.
The theme of voracious love is something else these two works share. Even before John Wade is sent to Vietnam, his heart has been wounded. His need for love is so bottomless that nobody, nothing could ever fulfill it. He has a black hole in place of his heart. In Vietnam he once saw two snakes “eating the other’s tail, a bizarre circle of appetites that brought the heads closer and closer until one of the men in Charlie Company used a machete to end it” (61). He writes home to Kathy that this image of two snakes eating each other is how he envisions their love. “That’s how our love feels. . . like we’re swallowing each other up, except in a good way. . . and I can’t wait to get home and see what would’ve happened if those two dumbass snakes finally ate each other’s heads” (61).
Similarly, in Beloved, Morrison describes the relationship between the incarnated child Beloved and Sethe as one in which the love for each other is insatiable. Sethe is so consumed with guilt that she allows Beloved to take everything from her without protest: “The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became; the brighter Beloved’s eyes, the more those eyes that never used to look away became slits of sleeplessness.. . Sethe sat in the chair licking her lips like a chastised child while Beloved at up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur” (250). Sethe lets herself be devoured by her child just as Kathy lets herself be devoured by John. In neither case is the outcome good.
I could go on (and on and on) about the similarities and differences between these two novels. I will end, though, by strongly recommending both of them (even though neither writer really needs help from me by this point in their careers). Both of these novels are powerful explorations of the effects of trauma on both individuals and nations. Both of them remind us that while it may be tempting to repress and deny our past atrocities, the long-term consequences of doing so are devastating.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Plume Contemporary Fiction, 1988
O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
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