In my sister’s neighbourhood, things change all the time. I notice the difference between my visits to Amsterdam every two years, when my family gets together around the birthdate of my mother, who passed away more than a decade ago. I used to live in the Kinkerstraat, not too far away from de Witte de Withstraat, where my sister eventually settled on her repatriation to The Netherlands from the USA. Since my own departure to Canada, the neighbourhood underwent many changes over time.
The area I am describing lies between the outermost canal surrounding the centre of old town, the Singelgracht, and the Admiralengracht, the canal ending at the border of the first tram zone, direction Old-West Amsterdam. It became the settlement area for immigrants from the Mediterranean—Morocco, and Turkey in particular. Shops changed into typical small food and clothing shops where Muslims could buy what they needed. Halal shops sprang up everywhere offering lamb and cow meat products, butchered according to the prescription of the Koran. The neighbourhood day-market at the Ten Cate Street became a mixed market as many merchant stalls changed hands, as its customers changed who needed a variety of different products. I would estimate this development period lasted two to three decades.
A new restaurant in a corner property. Across from it the old mosque.
I loved that development and the new changes, although I wondered to which area of the city the Muslim residents were moving to in this latest trend of the last few years. During the eighties, because the original Dutch citizens (autochthones) moved into the newer housing projects further out into Suburbia, the streetscape altered drastically, as the traditionally dressed Arab pedestrians replaced the original Dutch—allochthones. This created the feeling that I had made a trip to Morocco without having had to board a plane. A nice bonus. Now that is changing again.
The women’s entrance of the little mosque with a bread basket, for those who don’t have any.
Moving day, Amsterdam style. In this case, the house is under renovation.
Most of the old, residential neighbourhoods in Amsterdam contain subsidized rental housing in mostly pre-war blocks of four-story apartments with moving hooks on gable in the attic. Renting is the preferred method for housing, as real estate is expensive. The various housing co-ops are by law obliged to restore and maintain their properties, so the modern rebuilds or renovated neighbourhoods look especially beautiful, as maintaining style is a must! A beautiful, large Mosque and blocks of matching new construction, designed by a Canadian architect, arose in my sister’s backyard several years ago and are now complete and inhabited.
At the same time, a brand-new hotel was constructed that is accessible from both sides of the block. It accommodates the more adventurous travelers, mostly young people. It is called Hotel Not Hotel. All rooms have some quaint characteristic, such as an actual train compartment. It has a bar and restaurant. The lounge seating extends into the street onto the sidewalk.
In the millennium, the trend to share or sublet housing (AirBnB, etc.) became widely acceptable, as young professionals and youth, who began living independently, cannot afford to rent houses on their own, so are sharing housing. So also happened in Amsterdam. The Kinkerstaat and Oud-West changed from a barren, working-class neighbourhood into a sloppy little Morocco, then in the last two years, it again changed: into yuppy streets, well-maintained and clean: a gentrified part of Amsterdam catering to low-income students and young families, mostly Caucasian. I am attaching photos of this neighbourhood.
Above: the little mosque in de Witte de With straat, in use prior to, and after the construction of the large, brand new mosque.
The new mosque along the canal.
The cafe/restaurant across the mosque with the new apartment buildings, to buy, not rent.
My sister did wisely to just stay put. Her renovated third-floor two-bedroom home with a large sit/eating area across the width of the building and French doors with a view to the inner courtyard of green space leading to the balcony, is only a bike ride away from everywhere, and a five minute walk to the trams that will take you downtown, Schiphol, or anywhere in the city. Wonderful!
Any mobility issues of residents with the steep stairs in 4 story apartment buildings are solved with chairlifts, or with a move to a ground-floor apartment on request of the renter. The housing co-ops are in charge of the buildings and the renovations and are comparable to the Canadian situation of strata developments.
My sister and I had dinner on the balcony when it was still about 32 degrees—a hot summer.
The whole of the country is interspersed with canals, and the Dutch are still a nation of boaters. All waterways connect and are under the control of the government water control body, specifically established for that purpose in The Netherlands. As roughly a third of the country is situated below sea level, this is the most crucially existential institute in the country.
Old harbours and ship-building wharves around Amsterdam are renovated/rebuilt for additional housing or for recreation. This year I only visited for two weeks, but it was worth it.
Churches are also repurposed, and tear-downs are the last option, only when no use can be found or the structure is unsound. As the subsoil is permeated with water, all buildings are sitting on foundations of piles, so are expensive to build.
The renovated presbytery of the adjacent church that is now a hotel.
The church is converted to a neighbourhood social centre.
The leaded glass church windows are maintained, as beautiful works of art.
An old-fashioned bike that reminded me of how I sat in front of my dad as a child. We never had a car and I never had a car either as an adult—didn’t need one. M older sister could sit on the back carrier.
Nowadays, the modern, one-child family, or even families with more than one child, have this Cadillac among the bikes, hogging the roads and bike paths. Still, better than a car.
One street over is a canal, and if you had a boat, you could park it here and go to work by boat.
If you ever had a plot in a communal garden, you must have noticed the different styles and levels of maintenance of those gardens within a few weeks of the season’s start. Many gardeners used straight sowing lines, and the vegetables came up like little green soldiers in a row. Others plant without symmetry according to the available space in the plot on that day, like an English cottage garden. Some of those variations in style are due to the experience of the gardeners, and due to personal taste. The first-timers are trying their hand at a new hobby. Old hands are doing it as they have always done it.
Gardening veggies is a healthy and relatively economical way of supplementing a healthy diet. I find maintaining a garden plot rewarding and enjoyable, and so do others they assured me.
Ethnicity shouldn’t make a difference, as every plot is individual and personal, or so I assumed. The membership rules stipulate each is responsible for one’s own garden. We are not to interfere with others’ plots in any way, unless specifically asked to do something. What could go wrong?
For the first time, my garden was in an ethnically diverse community garden, when moving into a condo with a brand-new community garden next-door. Members pay a rental fee and sign the rules sheet. The city provided the organic garden soil and composted soil enhancer, and tools are purchased from the rental fees. The members can only add biodegradable organic matter to their gardens, and no eggshells or above-ground composting are allowed to discourage rats and other animals.
I learned to garden from my dad, long time ago in The Netherlands by doing small jobs for him for a quarter, like weeding. He rented space for a large garden on the edge of the forest across our home. He had placed a bench close to the trees, where he enjoyed the view together with my mom. They sat there after dinner for some quiet time, weather permitting, and listened to the birds sing.
It’s in my nature to enthusiastically take on new challenges, and getting a community project like the garden made me happy. You can take me out of the country but the Dutch mentality is still in me as an immigrant (coming up 40-year anniversary). I took on extra jobs in the garden without being asked, such as cleaning the gardening tools, sweeping the shed clean, pulling weeds, and so on: I can see what needs done.
I have no access to the garden’s membership list but I can see and hear that other gardeners are also from immigrant communities. There are European immigrants, although the majority of gardeners are white and Canadian-born. I am not sure if any Indigenous gardeners joined. There are Asians from China. The majority of visible minority gardeners originated in the Philippines to judge from the language, Tagalog. I assume that just like me other gardeners are not shedding their cultural identity after moving to Kelowna. I had an inkling about how different the backgrounds are of our gardeners. Since I am a curious person, I went online to investigate.
In Kelowna, just over 2% of the population are part of a “visible minority.” We live in an overwhelmingly white enclave. The website did not include the Canadian Indigenous living in Kelowna, and here, once again, they are excluded in the tally. For the sake of accuracy: Stats Canada lists in 2016, that 11,370 Aboriginal people live in Kelowna, making up 6.0% of the population. So, if we include Indigenous as a visible minority, the actual rate in Kelowna would be 8%.
Nearly two-thirds of the world’s population lives in Asia, where whites would be a visible minority. Think about that.
It seems that in our community garden the ratio is a bit higher than the quoted 2%. Saddened by the recently increased anti-Asian assaults by white supremacists, I feel for them and am extra friendly as a fellow immigrant.
South Asian (1.8%) which is a very diverse group of nations including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, and sometimes Afghanistan is included, although located in Central Asia.
Southeast Asian (0.6%)from Indochina with the nations Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysian Peninsula, Thailand, Vietnam, the Malay Archipelago with Andaman and Nicobar, Brunei, East Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, and Singapore. (The Philippines are located in S-E Asia, but Filipino presence in Kelowna is mentioned separately on this website).
Black (0.5%): the only racialized group specified by the colour of their skin in the western world. In other parts of the world Indigenous blacks do not identify as “black”, but by ethnic or geographic origin. This very diverse “group” in the USA is often in a political sense identified by hyphenating, e.g. African-American, whether accurate or not. Many blacks originate not from Africa but the Caribbean or (Australian-Indigenous) Oceania.
Latin American (0.4%). This group consists of a multitude of peoples and nations, descendants from Spanish conquerors, black slaves, and Indigenous tribes, and later European colonists and immigrants living in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico.
How are we, immigrant gardeners, different from each other and from the mainstream?
In the Netherlands where I wasraised during the postwar fifties and sixties, communal responsibility was the buzzword. Everybody was rebuilding in many ways after the disaster of the Second World War. Assuming one’s duties as citizens in all aspects of society is still a highly desirable behavior. In this social-democratic nation, access to information is guaranteed. An example: in the last election of 2017, the electorate’s participation rate was 82%. Voters can choose between 23 different federal parties. Consequently, the Dutch have coalition governments. It could be said that in general, the Dutch population has a high level of trust in how governments are formed, their own efficacy to determine their vote, and what government can and should do for voters. Religion does not figure much in everyday life.
The Netherlands are much like other European nations, just with a bit more freedom and less restrictions on experimental behaviour than most other European nations and a long history of not enforcing the drug laws on the books for small quantities, with drug use categorized as a health issue, nor a criminal issue.
We know that the People’s Republic of China is a centrally administered dictatorship, aiming to build communism: a unitary, one-party socialist republic. It is currently suppressing Hong Kong’s independence. China’s army—the biggest—occupied other nations, like Tibet. There are no democratic freedoms per se for individuals. The party tells you what to believe and how to behave. One of the major religions is Buddhism, a religion where all life (including of animals) matters and must be respected. Citizens and the central administration are focused on corporatism: it has the highest number of new billionaires in the world, a vastly growing middleclass, but also with vast income inequities with the poorest. The level of trust in the government might be unquestioned, as questioning it may bring you jailtime. Access to factual information might be tenuous. What you really think must be a secret as negative consequences may follow for dissidents. Many Chinese with the means for leaving have arrived in Canada recently.
In the Philippines—a former American colony—previous governments including the current president have been brutal, and disastrous for the population, with much poverty: a dictatorship.
Many citizens are seeking jobs outside the nation. Filipino workers are known all over the world as the people who take care of other people: health care workers, industrial workcamps’ housekeeping staff, elderly care, and so on, while they send money to the family living back home.
The Duterte administration’s assault on human rights and freedoms discouraged citizens’ democratic behaviour, such as exercising their rights, and closure of major mainstream news platform ABS-CBN on May 5 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. As an example of that regime’s brutality: the police killed on Duterte’s orders 10,000 drug addicts in the streets in his first year in power. Some estimate at least 29,000 have been killed in Duterte’s so-called drug war.Anti-vaxxer conspiracies around dengue fever and measles vaccinations have caused recent outbreaks of both diseases in the Philippines. And yet Duterte’s officials have spread misinformation, claiming people can rely on fictional “Filipino antibodies” to fight Covid19. ( https://theconversation.com/philippines-rodrigo-dutertes-dictatorship-sinks-to-new-depths-with-closure-of-main-broadcaster-138025).
So, in general, Filipinos may not trust government officials; their self-efficacy in the political process consequently low. Involving the authorities is not the first avenue they’d chose for dealing with a problem. Filipinos who are not part of the elite just work hard and keep their heads down. It may explain Filipino immigrants’ reluctance to take the government-delivered vaccines.
How do these differences in attitudes and self-efficacy become a potential issue in gardening, for goodness sakes? We are a happy bunch who like to get our hands dirty and enjoy being in the outdoors, each in their own way. Leave us alone, and all will be well.
Unfortunately, with the start of the Covid19 pandemic, the different attitudes toward governments, self-protection, and the BC government health measures were exposed. Some people did not wear masks in the garden against the Health Authority’s advice, but remained at a distance from others. In the outside air that was no issue, right?
When it comes to taking the vaccine, leniency becomes a different issue, at least in my mind, as the non-vaccinated gardeners potentially expose their fellow citizens to a serious health danger.
Vaccination rates improved much overall, but a core of “hesitants” remain. I know about garden members who “do not believe” in the Covid19 as a real problem, and profess to not getting vaccinated, ever. But it’s impossible to predict who will and who won’t take the vaccine. We cannot know who doesn’t not trust the BC government’s action to get vaccinated. Personal opinions about vaccines remain a secret. Not wearing a mask doesn’t mean that person is fully vaccinated.
I found this out when I asked someone without a facemask about their vaccination before getting closer to have a chat. I happily shared that I had my first vaccine shot. Turns out she is an anti-vaxxer. I stepped back and kept my distance. I see others also avoid social contact with each other and quickly leave the garden after watering.
We have an assigned “authority” in our garden, the coordinator, who represents the board of the community gardening society. She is a very busy person with more gardens to look after, but who is available by email for questions or comments about the garden—a handy avenue to quickly get in touch. As a retired person with lots of time on my hands I keep in touch with her about garden matters, such as water hoses deteriorating and broken spray nozzles, vandalism, and weeds overtaking.
On one occasion, the coordinator asked me in an email to pull the weeds from one particularly neglected garden, as the renter had moved to another town, and would not return. The day I did just that, other gardeners approached me and asked what I was doing in somebody else’s garden. I clarified the coordinator’s delegation to me on this garden, and on another garden, quoting the number. That garden turned out to be a neat and well-kept oasis with two cutesy garden decorations. I commented this cannot be correct information. Never-the-less, the two bystanders harvested the garden decorations. Once at home, I sent an email to double-check the information with the coordinator.
The next morning, the renter of that neat, non-abandoned garden showed up and I shared what the coordinator had said. He confirmed the mistake: he was not moving. One of the “bystanders, fessed up and returned the object taken to its proprietor.
The story apparently went through the garden’s immigrant community like a wildfire, and reached a Filipino gardener. The next morning, I went to water my garden. This Filipino woman screamed at me accusing me of taking authority I didn’t have, of illegally interfering in other people’s gardens, and a whole lot of other accusations that revealed her anger about me taking on these voluntary tasks, deeply suspicious of me and my connection to the leadership. She made me feel like a covert CSIS agent whose aim was to spy on the gardeners.
Her anger was loud and out of proportion with what had happened, giving me the feeling that she was triggered from some other trauma. Her screaming tirade went on for at least fifteen minutes as I watered my garden, throwing in a few words here and there as she took a breath without getting through. Until the next door’s resident-caretaker of the home for women and children-in-need appeared on his patio and told the screaming woman to shut up already. This was at 8 am on a Sunday; people were still sleeping. The woman quieted down and I finally got a chance to speak: I recommend she’d take up her concerns with the coordinator.
At the sound of my voice, she started up another tirade, but I told her to stop being such a bitch, and left the garden. At home, I concluded that to her, I as a white immigrant from a liberal social democracy must represent some danger to her that I couldn’t grasp. The angry woman didn’t seem to recognize my voluntary extra work beyond my own plot for the benefit of the community. Instead, she saw me as the undercover agent, ratting others out to the “authority.” I chalked the unwarranted response up to cultural differences, and possibly, a mental health issue coming to the forefront. It was a lesson for me to assume nothing and not measure people from my own perspective.
According the mental health professionals, Canadians reportedly had more depression, due to experiencing illness and death around us, which was aggravated by social isolation. I saw proof of that this weekend. For some, paranoia set in after a year-long of stress, ascribing malicious intent to innocent behaviors of others around them. Other slipped into suicidal ideation. The rate of ODs increased significantly since the pandemic.
How does a significant conflict like this if based on cultural differences, get solved? Talking did not work: she was not able to hear. The following day, one of the bystanders, also an Asian immigrant, told me in tears how she fell victim to the same person in the same manner, who demanded to know why she was replanting the herb she had taken from the allegedly abandoned garden. The distraught target is a kind and gentle soul, raised as a Buddhist, who had no means of responding to the fellow-gardener’s anger, and certainly did not deserve any of it. It had been an honest mistake. She was devastated. I suggested she’d send the coordinator an email about it.
Yes, the leadership of any organization needs to be aware how conflicts arise in diverse communities, and how to solve those. Just telling the parties to solve the problems between them does not necessarily work.
The “authority” is a real and often scary powerful person in some countries of origin, such as the Philippines and China—to be avoided at all costs. Immigrants from dictatorships and oppressive regimes may not have the will and the experience to assert themselves with good results. Their previous experiences may have traumatized them. Their mental health may be tenuous already. In their view, the leadership, the supervisor, or the director may be in cahoots with the unreliable government.
I believe that any immigrant who feels not heard, not taken seriously, and whose stress rises, may need a hand up to face the difficult interactions in a strange society with norms different from their own. The leadership of organizations with diverse employees must be aware and have the skills and knowledge about these valid concerns based on the immigrant’s history.
BC Health refused to mandate vaccines for health care workers partly for that reason and preferred the slow-route of building trust with the vaccine-hesitant. Their most important work to educate is not on the front lines anymore. BC Health uses “influencers”—trusted members of the community—to meet the reluctant where they are, in their neighbourhoods and places of worship to help convince the diverse communities to get vaccinated.
Since health care providers are often from immigrant communities, patience and understanding are required to dismantle myths about the pandemic and the vaccine to allay the fears. In the meantime, it is advisable to only have vaccinated health care workers on the front lines. The drawback is that many nursing professionals are already leaving the profession, overworked and burnt out. Health care institutions cannot afford to lose more staff.
When the Covid19 pandemic started, many elderly residents died in care homes, due to poor measures to contain the virus and ignorance about its spread. Canada was not prepared for a pandemic, and lagged in PPI inventory and equipment to an embarrassing degree.
Another factor was Trump calling Covid19 the “China virus”, which seemed to ignite anti-Asian incidents further and alienated white, mainstream citizens from brown people, “Asians.” This man did a lot of damage to North-American societies.
In Canada, we need all the immigrants we can get to run our sparsely populated country,and that need will not lessen in the foreseeable future. Overcoming the cultural differences, integration into the mainstream, and making a transition to the host society’s values is not a quick process for immigrants. If we require only vaccinated workers to work on the front lines in health care in a next pandemic, we will face more shortages of staff, and the closure of nursing homes and hospital beds. BC Health might as well begin hiring fully vaccinated applicants and training new staff now.
As to community garden: I hope that our board will adjust to the realities of our diverse membership and wake up to assume a more effective role—face to face, hands-on, kindly but firmly insisting on appropriate behaviors, protecting all gardeners.
Review of The Handmaid’s Tale. TV series. Season 4
I watched this series later than everybody else, as from where I spent the last six months, I couldn’t receive the TV station broadcasting the show in Canada. I heard from friends it was “bleak.” I like bleak, or in other words, the dark places in the human psyche where stories take the readers or watchers. I am the daughter born in the years following the Second World War in Europe. I spent a good part of my life trying to figure out how my parents’ experiences of war (and consequently, us, children) were affected by this extremely stressful and damaging time. As an adult, the many jobs I had in my time took me to disadvantaged and hurting families, so yes, I am interested in the human darkness and what happens in the underbelly of societies. I was intrigued.
This fourth series of The Handmaid narrates the horror of the occupation of society and the oppression perpetrated by people of the same tribe, who assumed supremacy and enslaved their brethren. It is a war story in which the torture and exploitation of women is the theme, not of certain ethnic groups or races as in WW2. As a necessary reaction to oppression anywhere, the oppressed do not take it eventually, and also in Gilead—the story’s offshoot of the former USA—the women revolt.
The protagonist in this series is June Osborn, AKA OfFred, or OfJoseph, whose two daughters are kidnapped and handed over to the righteous women of the ruling class. Unlike many other TV series, this one doesn’t hide from the jumble of extreme emotions. In the well-executed intense, and horrific scenes, we live through what June feels as she follows her instincts and harnesses her own and others’ courage in her quest to have her children back.
Interestingly, the two currently rather enmeshed nations, the USA and Canada, figure as the two neighbouring countries with opposing political systems and at war in the series. They have the largest undefended border in the world.
Margaret Atwood was only involved as the consultant in this season as the series’ writers embroider on her initial novel.
What I really appreciated was how the show’s disclosure of the cruel and hypocritical nature of fundamentalist religions and the abuse of religious mantras by its leaders to justify criminality and torture, as the perpetrators subjugated the women in an attempt to control their power to procreate. Isn’t that what all religion is about in our patriarchic and our misogynistic society? The men in power even use other, unusable women as guards, and instruments of torture, such as Aunt Lydia. “You people hide behind God every time it serves you,” says June to the former Aunt who escaped to Canada.
In the context of the recent unveiling of the successive Canadian Governments’ horrific intentional and unintentional genocidal practices against Indigenous Nations over the centuries, this series gives new meaning to the abduction of children from their culture and their parents, showing us how it’s done. It shows how schools and so-called treatments exerted control over women and how the non-compliant were abandoned and exiled to “the Colonies.”
One fact that struck me was that in storied Canada, there is no Bible to swear on in the International Criminal court: the person’s word is enough. This is not factually true in Canadian courts; a witness is always asked whether they wish to confirm or swear on the bible, to tell the truth, but in essence it is true. In Canada, the state and church are strictly separated and our leaders do not usually reference God in their political addresses.
Elizabeth Moss is a marvel of expression and can portray a wide range of emotions most people may not ever have felt: an unsettling show. She also is a co-director. This fourth season is built on her, and her capacity, and is truly a tour de force. I breathlessly binge-watched. It is an incredible show taking the watcher to deep emotions, usually nicely packed away.
People with trauma themselves may have been triggered into reliving their traumas, watching how June goes through her anger, grief, hatred, and a need for violence and revenge after tremendous losses. The last scene is a revelation.
The show should come with a warning: Be careful if you haven’t dealt with your own traumas.
Men might need their own warning: drop your male ego and sensitivity about it first before watching. I challenge all men to watch this show.
This series is a treasure trove of emotions, both in its characters and what it shakes loose in its the viewers. It is probably unusual and a challenge to those in the habit of watching innocent, easy-watching family entertainment shows. This is not that show.
As a feminist, I endorse the sentiment expressed by June and her anger. In her therapy group in Canada before her testimony in ICC to face her former Commander-rapist in court, the indomitable June says: “No, I am NOT nervous, worried, or scared. I can’t fucking wait!”
In private, she comments to the therapist about her group members: “Why aren’t they more angry?”
Of course, this is only a TV show and not reality. The Canada of the show is not the real, current country. The USA has fended off the danger of becoming an autocracy and losing its democracy—for now. The series attempts to display the ideological differences between liberal social democracy and an autocratic misogynistic dictatorship (run by men, as the Trump cabinet was: all men jockeying for power without restraint).
The Handmaid’s Tale is a warning, in line with the warning tales the travelling raconteurs did in the early days in Europe before printing was available to the common folk. Margaret Atwood went to dystopian literature and allegory to warn us. We better heed the call and look closely at our society to assess if we want this, and if not: do something about it.
First published in Great Britain by Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
I began reading this bestseller as I ran out of other books to read from my bookshelves during the Covid19 isolation time. It was called an adventure novel; its readers, I suspect, would be predominantly male. I got that from the description on the back cover and the front cover illustration of a threatening sky over part of a sail, partially seen through the ship’s porthole. The style also might be called historical fiction, but that classification might turn off the men and appeal more to a female readership. The publisher calls Smith an adventure writer.
And an adventure it was, right from the first pages, starting with a young girl offering herself up to Tom and Guy, sons of the gentry, for a sexual encounter in exchange for a sixpence. The portrayal of the girl and how the boys responded to her were in itself revealing. The omniscient narrator tells the story from the POV of three of the characters: Tom, Hal, and Dorian. The first protagonist, the reader meets on the pages, is Tom, son of Hal (Henry) Courtney and his second wife Margaret.
Hal is the owner of fifteen thousand acres in Devon, Britain, a legacy obtained as the descendant of his knighted grandfather Sir Charles, a sea captain gifted with the title and lands as reward for his service against the Spanish King Philip, defeated by Calais under Vice-Admiral Drake. Hal’s father, Francis, was also a seafarer, who died away from home in a faraway land.
Tom and his twin brother Guy were born on April 30, 1677; three days later their mother died. Hal fought the Dutch and the hordes of Islam in the Order of St. George and the order of the Templars. Hal married the first time when he brought an Ethiopian princess from his endeavors in Africa, who gave him a son, William, AKA Black Billy. Margaret, the second wife, died in childbirth. The third wife, Elizabeth, mother of Dorian, was meant to replace the twins’ mother. She drowned in a rip tide when the cutter she was on overturned in the bay. Dorian was five, and a redhead.
It may be the novel’s time period and setting in 17th century Britain, but right of the bat I resented the view of women as chattel and the disrespectful, even brutal treatment by these men in the narrative—the masters—exercising their power over the inhabitants, considered no more than slaves, and the women portrayed as treacherous temptresses or pitiful wrecks. However, the women the men fell in love with were beautiful and perfect and threw themselves at the men, in awe of the strength and intelligence of these hunky chosen lovers.
Given the brutal times and the boys’ birth order, relentless and violent competition between these sons of different mothers is unavoidable. The first twenty pages were all about that.
I was tempted to stop reading right then. Most readers do not enjoy reading about sadistic powerplays and physical assaults on women unless you are a sadist, or a masochistic woman.
Wilbur Smith is a prolific writer of “bestsellers”, but I am afraid his books are meant for a typical male readership, who might enjoy the fantasy of exerting power over women and torturing people. Nevertheless, I continued reading to find out more and discover redeeming qualities of the novel, if any.
Sir Henry Courtney, Hal for short, is introduced as he saves his youngest son, Dorian, from his eldest, William, before the latter succeeds in strangling the boy. Hal taught William all who knows to take over the estate from his father but excuses “Black Billy’s” brutality against the younger sons.
The underlying racism is expressed as white supremacy, prevalent in that time, as the narrator called Africa The Dark Continent for is hidden mysteries, unfamiliar flora, and fauna—that is to say, to European colonials, first arriving to the continent. William is the son of an Ethiopian princess, but is still black and despised by many, not just because of his cruelty.
As well, how the Arabs are portrayed as the natural enemy of Christians is not acceptable in the current global wave of Islamophobia, recently intensified by the Muslim border ban in the USA. To the characters in the novel, it may be acceptable, as their grandfather fought to keep Europe for the Christians with the Knights Templar, and their father a member of the order.
Leaving William in charge of the estate, Hal takes his other three sons away from the estate and William’s assaults to London, on a mission to meet the King’s delegates. His sons have no claim on their father’s property, as the first-born son inherits everything by law. They’ll have to seek a living elsewhere, in the army, the navy, or the church. They might as well start looking now.
At the end of the next twenty pages, the English East India Company comes to the rescue. In a private audience with Lord Childs, King William III’s Chancellor, Hal hears about his new adventure that involves protecting the company of which he, and Lord Childs, and the others present at the meeting are major shareholders; the largest shareholder is the Crown itself. They seek to protect their assets from the pirates robbing their ships and the company blind. Hal accepts the job with the generous reward of half of all recovered goods and a title of Baron to boot on completion of a successful commission.
Here, the author caught my attention, elaborating on the King and world of the time, the English King—William III. This prince was also the Stadthouder of the Netherlands as the representative of the wealthy Dutch cities and their powerful company men, who put William III in charge of the Dutch republic by invite. It was interesting to me, as a Dutchie by birth, to read the history and views of the characters from the English POV. Smith portrays the Dutch as crueler and less scrupulous than the English, so a good customer to sell captives to as slaves.
A few years ago, I attended the SAIL event in Amsterdam, when the many tall ships arrived worldwide, demonstrating their prowess and beauty over days after they arrived in the harbor. I admired the skill and agility of the crews, elevating the joyful spectacle of the event for the many thousands of visitors, sharing good food and drinks as the ships opened up for visitors. This experience ultimately brought the novel to life for me, which largely plays out at sea and in harbors on tall ships. As well, I was familiar up close with the antique tall ships after a visit to a dry dock in the Netherlands, where a crew built a tall ship according to the traditional craft. Thus, I could envision what the ships in the novel looked like.
The adventures take off in earnest when Hal and his sons leave for Africa, and the many near-misses and disasters, bloody battles, and the robbing, rapes, and destruction of enemies unfold. Of course, if the robbing and killing are perpetrated by the English side, it’s okay, but it is evil when the Arabs do it. The words infidel and pagans are used freely. So, don’t expect an ethical story.
Do not expect the women in this story to be well-defined or interesting beyond serving as the underlay or an illustration of the boys’ coming of age, or their prowess as lovers, as this adventure novel lacks those balanced views or any sense of reality. These type of escapist stories are, after all, meant for a readership of men, or should I say: eternal boys? The book could not reach me on an emotional level other than disgust reading certain chapters, except one scene where Dorian’s camel succumbed in a battle.
To be fair, the novel was well-written, and it helped me through the quarantine period at my hotel on my return to Kelowna BC, with a note that the author should check his use of Dutch, as the sloppy spelling mistakes were evident to a Dutch person. For instance, the famous Admiral Michiel de Ruyter’s name (info readily accessible on the Net) was butchered, whose brilliant naval victories in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch wars enabled the United Provinces of the Netherlands to maintain a balance of power with England.
Smith did his research and I enjoyed the historical bits. Another interesting subject to me was how ill-informed the doctors were and that the hygiene to prevent illness and infections was unknown. My toes curled at times, reading their practices.
Finally, the heroes in the novel were members of the well-to-do British upper-crust, and the narrative made it clear that the common men were just cannon fodder and used to it. No rebels, here. Indeed, Monsoon is historical fiction but also a fantasy novel.
In the end, the whole endeavor was all about the money—the primary motivator behind the adventures—and the novel shows the reader the early beginnings of capitalism. The English and the Dutch East India Companies collected vast wealth by exploiting the East Indies spice islands and Africa, including inventing the massive world of slavery, which still distorts society in North America and is the cause of ongoing racism in the world. If you keep this in mind while reading the novel, you may get educated.
After this analysis early in my read, I kept reading as the relationships between the sons and the father intrigued me. Will Dorry be saved? Will William finally defeat Tom? Will Hal keep his sons in line? Alas, the story about family got lost soon in the adventures and only occasionally returns as a structure devise.
Towards the end of this book, I almost threw it in the garbage, when the hunt on elephants is described as one of Tom’s major adventures, undertaken just for the sake of the trading value of ivory tusks. In this age, hunting of these highly evolved creatures is considered criminal. The section was hard to read, especially now we know so much more about the intelligence and family structures of elephants. I resented Tom’s ecstasy after bringing down a magnificent animal. The scene reminded me of the media reports and photos of big game hunting by the Trump sons. The very last chapters were even harder to read when the elephant hunters met the slave hunters. The small mercy of the author for readers was that Smith at least had Tom draw the line at hunting black Africans for the slave trade. Oops, spoke too early. In the last pages, his brother Dorian was indeed involved in the slave trade. Oh boy.
Well, I finished the book but would not ever pick up another Wilbur Smith book.
Historical Fiction is a popular genre of books, not in the least because of Diane Gabaldon and her series The Outlander, hefty tomes written in Scottish-accented language with numerous unfamiliar words—not the easiest, quick reads. The lusciously-filmed series made her a household name.
I did not know about the series. Only through the appearance of videos and the talk of friends did I finally bump into these historical novels.
I already had written two novels of a more immediate past. My first self-published book-in-stories (On Thin Ice) dealt with my own life experiences. My second novel (Guardians’ Betrayal) was inspired by my work experiences, which I turned into a fictional story about two adopted children. Just for fun, I wrote a murder mystery next, motivated by a three-day novel writing contest, to keep going on the job of writing.
In the meantime, I had become curious about the history of my parents during the war. As the youngest of five and born after the war, I knew nothing, although my eldest siblings knew a bit from their own memories. None of us had been able to coax more details out of our parents. The only document left behind was a spiral-bound book of coloured pages printed on rough paper with reports from the Resistance group’s various members, including one by my dad. The proof was a couple of sketches of him, portrayed in between other people.
My parents raised small children as my dad continued in his job as a rural police unit commander under the Nazis. How did they survive five years of Nazi occupation—an experience never far from Dutch memory—and at what costs? I was born four years after the end of the war on the forefront of the second generation. Even for us, the whole experience of an invasion by a foreign enemy will never be excised from our memory during our lifetime.
To explore how it affected my parents, and in turn, to find out its effects on me, raised by traumatized parents, I started researching their lives of that time—until that point, a closed book. My parents never wanted to talk about those years. My dad would wave questions away with that’s so long ago, water under the bridge.
As I researched, an unexpected trove of information opened up for me. I contacted a historian, the editor of a publication from the Historical Society in the village where it all happened. He shared a veiled suggestion that my father might have been involved in matters of foul play. It didn’t stop me from opening that Pandora’s box.
Through an online search of the publicly available Dutch war archives, I found files with my dad’s name. Since my dad was deceased, I qualified to access his files in the National Archives in The Hague—unseen for 70-plus years. On my next trip to Dutch relatives in the Netherlands, the historian and I arranged to meet and research the files together. We read the original notes and carbon copies of letters, affidavits, interview reports, charges filed, all evidence collected for the trial under the Special Court for Public Servants. It became the story.
I wanted to avoid making the obvious mistakes of so many books about the Second World War, for my story to be dismissed as fanciful and not likely to have happened, so the research was essential. I wrote it to honour the many people who have lost their lives during the Second World War and to honour my parents, who never wanted to burden their children with the knowledge of what they went through.
Of course, this novel is fictional. I wasn’t there. I didn’t witness a thing but used all the information I obtained and added fictional elements. My goal for the novel was to make this a story that reads as authentic and reflects the time. I have no idea who my parents were in those days, so all the dialogue and events were made up where the historical documentation and my siblings’ reports left gaps.
When the first few drafts were completed, I searched for people who wanted to read it and give me their feedback. Not as easy as it sounds. Unless somebody is also in a writing course or is a writer, the feedback one can expect is somewhat unfocused. I used several writing professionals to guide me along. Nine drafts followed, as well as a Dutch translation, finished by my sister.
I queried agents and publishers directly (some will consider un-agented queries) and waited.
Writers’ chat rooms and instructors of writing courses spend much time on warnings about sending in too early before the manuscript is polished and finished. Editing is paramount for acceptance. I indeed made precisely that mistake and got many rejections: almost 100. Live and learn. Even my last manuscript version was judged flawed by a Kirkus reviewer because of too many distracting editing errors. I am still working on polishing the manuscript with the publisher before its actual release on November 30, 2021. I will repost here when it is ready for pre-ordering.
What else did I learn along the way?
My relative is NOT a character. I needed to go beyond the person I based my story on and thought I knew. Make them characters and use your imagination, unshackle them, make them suffer, raise the stakes, so the reader will be intrigued and follow.
Research the facts, make a timeline of actual historical events and set the story in the correct time frame. I kept checking the facts as I proceeded through drafts and often found significant time mistakes in a scene.
Instead of reciting facts, I had to make the characters live the times, see through their eyes, experience what they feel. The reader doesn’t want to read a history lecture.
The old adage: show, don’t tell, at best is only part of good advice. The narrator (or your character) needs to “tell” how that character feels and interprets events. I took “show” to mean describing the character’s behavioural reactions, and I described the physical states as indicators of emotions. But that is not enough. I didn’t “tell” why s/he felt that way and how s/he interpreted what just happened in the scene. I left that too much open to reader’s guesswork. When the story unfolded differently than the reader had guessed, the reader got confused and lost interest.
After an editor completed the job, I changed the manuscript again; the mistakes slipped in. Know what type of edit the document needs. I contracted an editor before the work was developmentally ready for it. After the very last edit by a line (or copy) editor, nothing should change before going to press.
My nature is to do things ass-backwards in life. This may be due to my overconfidence combined with ignorance. Self-publishing is different than the process of publishing a novel with an established company. My first books were published quickly, and I now see why suspicions of lower quality exist in the industry.
I hope this was an interesting post, helpful for writers or to those who think about writing historical fiction.
This novel was published by Harper Perennial, hard cover edition and first published in 2013. It has a prologue. I was advised in my writing classes to not use a prologue or epilogue to tell the story I want to tell, but preferably integrate the material in the story itself. In this novel the prologue could have easily be a chapter, whether at the start or somewhere in the middle. The narrator is Gualteriero Agnello, the director of the Stadler Museum in Three Rivers, Connecticut, a character in the novel, who is interviewed for an article in the Connecticut Magazine.
Agnello provides the connection between two characters in the story: Josephus Jones, a black artist of primitive paintings, and the artist Annie O’Day, a contemporary creator. Josephus Jones won unexpectedly the price of Best of Show in an exhibition organized by the museum, of which Agnello was the curator, long ago.
The story takes place for most part in the town of Three Rivers in Connecticut from the points of view of a long lineup of characters, almost too many if you ask me, over a period of close to thirty years. All characters are white middle class or working-class characters, except the character of Josephus Jones, a black working-class man and amateur painter. There is the danger of whiplash, as the characters are so very different. The reader gets into the mood and the world of one personality, and then it is over. On to the next one. I was beginning to feel a little schizophrenic as I read, trying to figure out all these players and how they were related.
The author specifically mentioned the ethnic backgrounds of the characters, apparently an important aspect of these American characters, although they were all born in the USA. To me, when I first started reading the novel, it was an oddity to specifically mention these ethnicities, as it could promote stereotyping. As a Canadian immigrant and a Dutch-born person, I assume it does not matter where people’s parents or grandparents come from. Our prejudice is still under the surface in Canada and open discrimination is frowned on: you have to dig quite deep before it is revealed. Later in the book, I got the reason Lamb is using these ethnicities: to highlight the intergenerational traumas of the various characters.
There is the main character, Annie O’Day of Irish heritage, in her early fifties, who at the start of the novel is about to get married to Viveca, three years after Annie’s divorce from Orion Oh after a 27 year marriage.
Vivica is the New York gallery owner of Greek heritage, who first signed on Annie as an artist and made her famous. She is searching for more works of Josephus Jones.
There is ex-husband Orion Oh of mixed Italian and Chinese heritage, a psychologist who works in a group home and is on his way to Viveca’s beach home, to allow Annie and the children (twins Andrew and Ariane, and Marissa) to stay there the night before Annie’s second wedding, taking place at a nearby hotel, where Vivica will stay the night.
Part I Sets the stage of the book and is all about Orion and Annie, who think back and relive their lives narrated in their respective POVs in interchanging chapters.
Part II is called Mercy. The narrator is a woman, Ruth Fletcher, a neighbour of Annie’s parents. This charming character, married to Claude, thinks back on her life and her husband’s funeral, taking place at the same funeral home at the same time as the funeral of Annie’s mother and little sister takes place. Annie’s baby sister and her mother, Sunny, both drowned in a flash flood when a dam broke, when Annie was five. Claude had a daughter from a previous marriage, Belinda Jean, who is obese. Ruth likes to think Clade married her because Belinda Jean needed a mother. This is all told in a flash-back of many years earlier.
Claude Fletcher had a temper, and was a KKK member; he harassed Josephus (Joe) Jones and his brother, Rufus, stone masons, who both lived in the cottage behind the big house for which they constructed the mantel and fireplace. The big house was later purchased by Annie and Orion and they raised their family there. Rufus and Joe Jones lived with a white woman in the cottage, and Ruth suspects Claude had killed Joe, found dead head-first in the five-foot-deep well after Belinda Jean had become friends with Joe Jones.
Part III The Family.
This is the story, told in interchanging chapters of the three children of Orion and Annie. Andrew (in the army, works at the ward for ill soldiers), and Ariane—the twins, and Marissa. Andrew is engaged to Casey-Lee, both are devoted to their Christian evangelical convictions. Ariane, heart-broken from a recent break-up, is the do-gooder of the family and manages a soup kitchen. Marissa tries to break into the acting business and has a hard time with that abusive environment, the novel written before the Me Too movement and Harvey Weinstein. They tell their stories about growing up, and their struggles in their lives as adults. Annie and Orion’s deteriorating marriage is highlighted from all angles and from everyone’s POV.
Later chapters are also from the POV of the secondary characters in addition to the primaries.
Annie’s mother, Sunny, was married to Chick. They had an older son, Donald, and then Annie. Sunny’s nephew, Kent, would rather spend his time with his cousins Donald and Annie at Sunny and Chick’s. After Sunny and baby Emma drowned, Kent came to live at Chick’s to help out the family and babysit Annie, as Chick went off the rails from grief and guilt.
There is the chapter of narrator Kent Kelly, fatherless since his dad, the brother of Sunny, had runoff with another woman with a son, the cause of Kent’s intense hatred of that little boy, Peter, who attended the same school. His story of pedophilia is told from his POV, as well of from the POV of his victim, a five-year-old girl. There are many other characters, too many to highlight in this review.
Any subject one can think of, including believing in God versus agnosticism, is getting a treatment: its causes, and the consequences of the players’ deeds are narrated, using their stories in the voices of the various characters. The novel is well-written and interesting. Lamb sure knows his way around humanity and the psychology of human failure. It may be a book for those who already are okay with the shocking facts of life, but people of certain convictions may take offence. They are hereby warned. This book contains enough material for at least five books, which justifies its 560 pages. Of all the characters, I could identify most readily with Orion, and not at all with others, for instance Annie. I am not sure if that was because she is a woman but very unlike me, or because I couldn’t buy into her character and it was the writing. You be the judge.
My publisher asked me for media people, educational institutions, and reviewers of literary magazines who might be interested in my novel, to be released at the end of November. Still a long way from now, but the work of preparation happens way ahead of that day. Labouring over the questionnaire, I realized that the mandatory isolation and the cancellation of literary events put a big dent in my ability to connect with those important people. I miss the writers’ group, which meets on Zoom. I miss the genealogy society meetings (on Zoom) and the meetings at the library research table a lot. I cannot attend the writers’ conferences—cancelled. I had sunk into a prison-like state of mind. Having to fill out the list for the publisher shook me awake.
My excuse for this isolation?
I tried Zoom meetings but found that a headache-producing undertaking. The tiny pictures of people make it hard to see who is actually speaking and the difficulty breaking into the conversation myself reduced me to a watcher. There are more enticing things to watch on screens.
I had another novel on the go. This was a bonus in a way, as I had begun writing it before the actual onset of the pandemic in March 2020, and I was glad I could focus on this work. Writing is a solitary business, so I felt blessed.
In November, I escaped my small condo in cold Kelowna to a different Mexico with fewer distractions, as all the fiestas were cancelled. On my patio, the conditions for writing were perfect. Surrounded by five-meter-high walls, and the sun, shining only on part of it, I could spend my days writing. When I got tired, I could take a nap on my lounger, in or outside the sunshine. Indeed, the novel progressed well. My editor seemed to have the time and occasion to finish his work within two weeks in January. My break from writing was short, and I started a new draft—the fourth.
I am just about at the point of querying this novel. The question arises: do I send it to the same publisher as my previous novel? Or should I first see how the novel to be released in November fares? Can I afford the luxury of waiting and working longer on the manuscript? Both novels have the Second World War as setting, although the first novel takes place exclusively during the five years of German occupation in the Netherlands. The second novel, still in development, has a broader timespan (from 1890-1970) with the two world wars as the background of the protagonist’s story.
I think I am going to focus for a while on approaching reviewers to generate some traction on the novel, soonto be released (November). If you feel like reading this story and writing a review on a website for books and readers, in a magazine, a newspaper, a blog, or a publication for military personnel, please, contact me. I just sent off the list with the people and magazines I came up with to my publisher, so I will collect any responses and pass those on to the publicist with HISTRIA BOOKS. I can be reached at email@example.com
So, how to connect in isolation?
I have signed on with the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference and will watch a video life presentation with Diane Gabaldon for the conference today at 6 pm. The ticket price is reasonable. I do not have to peer into a ZOOM screen, and not do I have to travel. Three years ago and the year after that I attended the conference in person and have good memories. The workshops were delightful, the presentations inspiring and enlightening, and the ambiance unparalleled. I intend to resume visits when the Covid19 is defeated next year. There may be other conferences that offer their gifts in ways that suits your modem of communication. Diane Gabaldon is an effortless writer and the historical setting is right up my alley. There are other writers whose presentations were taped and you can access those, e.g. margaret Atwood, our wonderful Canadian celebrity author.
I have signed on with a number of relevant blogs and Facebook pages to become more familiar with what’s going on in the world of writers and books, and to interact in a less hectic pace of conversation, compared to a ZOOM meeting. I might be able to offer some useful information as well. The nature of the particular site and the kind of books is important. My blogs/FB pages are for Historical Fiction and Second World War, relevant to my new novels.
I have reached out to former instructors of creative writing programs, and editors of magazines that may be interested in my novel for a free ARC (advance reading copy). We will see what happens.
I will write articles related to the content of my novel and post it, send it to relevant papers and magazines, and contact the local media for additional exposure.
To all writers I recommend to use the isolation to your advantage and keep writing, but not to forget connecting with your tribe.
As one president left in the official government airplane after the demanded 21 gunshot military salute and a red carpet, another arrived in a private plane, because the departing one is too unhinged by his loss to honour the custom of sending a military plane to pick up the winner of this last election.
I watched the TV show with interest, noticing the obvious differences from a Canadian viewpoint.
The inauguration event—in reduced form due to the Covid19 fear for contagion—opened with a religious official, who called all present to join him in his prayer, in spite of the country not on the books as a religious state, like Israel, Iran, or Afghanistan. In God We Trust. I wondered how people felt who are agnostics, or believe in something other, possibly the Goddess.
Canada, on the other hand, has no longer God in its official discourse. State and church are clearly separate entities. Even in Quebec, established by Roman Catholic priests no longer allows any symbol of religion displayed in public service. Religion is a personal choice. Religion can be misused by governments and we have heard that lately: God wants Trump to be president. Yeah, no.
America lacks royalty since 1783 when it proudly kicked the British and its House to the curb. The impression I got is they wish to have some royalty of their own. Whenever some royal shows up, they tend to go gaga over her (Princes Diana, Duchess Megan Markle-Sussex). The inauguration event certainly demonstrated that wish. Certain people exist in American society with special status beyond the people of this day’s focus, instated in official positions. Those are the celebrities, whether from Hollywood fame or TV, famous singers, and actors, and the former presidents and their wives. An excited murmur rose among the attendants when Lady Gaga was announced. She fulfilled the royalty gig.
Canada does have actual royalty, since it kept the tie with the British House intact. Once in a while, a royal or two show up for some event, or just to show their face and remind us they are our nobility, and not just an absentee British landlord. However, none of them lives in Canada, so in fact Elizabeth is an absentee head of state.
The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag is an odd thing in my view. A flag is just a piece of cloth with colours and symbols, and it was recently abused and misused. In the lead-up to the transfer of power, the official flag competed citizens with a different flag—long since abandoned as being a traitors’ flag—the confederate flag of the losers of the civil war. It seems to me that the emotional significance is an easy short-cut to show which side you are on, and the civil war continues. The swearing allegiance to the Republic makes more sense, to its constitution and its current government.
In Canada, the choice of a flag as symbol of identity for the country was a long time in coming. Only in 1965, the red Maple Leaf became the official, first flag of Canada. Until that day, we had a borrowed, British flag, the Ensign. A flag is not an important thing and officials do not swear allegiance to a flag when appointed in office.
The specific mentioning of someone’s race is startling to me. As well, the classifications rattled me. The minister in his opening prayer mentioned Americans of “many races”. He needs a better education: there is only one human race in modern thinking. Historically, only five distinctions of race were made: African/negroid, Capoid/Hottentot & Bushmen, Caucasian/white, Mongoloid/Asian & Amerindian, Australian/Aborigine & Papuan. The preacher (and others) thoroughly confused me by classifying Kamala Harris as African and Asian, while her parents are immigrants from India and of independent Jamaica, and Kamala was born in the USA. Where did the “African” come in? Did they mean to say she is not white? Oh my God!
To have to brag about somebody coming from a non-white minority, who made it into the big leagues is pretty sad to me. Maybe it gives hope to members of minorities, so needed in that still fundamentally racist society, but it IS clearly an indication of the state of play about race.
In Canada, discrimination on the basis of race is also an issue, but it seems we do talk about race a bit easier than our southern neighbours, and we have more representation from minorities in government. Our racist origin stems from the British imperialism, and our dominion’s genocide attempts with our First Nations, although we had no civil war about race. In modern times, we use the terms black, white, brown or Asian, and First Nations. I recently heard somebody use the term African-Canadian for the first time, and it sounded VERY odd. I was going to write that person for asking not to start copying the Americans. The only appropriate usage in my mind would be, if that person came straight from Africa, born in Africa, and then it would be better to use the country’s name, not the continent to indicate background. Please, do not hyphenate our citizens.
For a young nation not even three centuries old with a reputation for innovation, and unbound by the traditions of old, like the European nations, it sounds very odd to me, that the majority of a nation would vote for an openly-Christian septuagenarian with traditional, neo-liberal beliefs to settle the unrest the previous POTUS caused. Only two choices are offered to the Americans: conservative or liberal: the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. It implies that the Republicans with their choice of name do not believe in democratic principles: you have to vote for the other party to find those. Which is of course, not true, or not wholly true. It is true, however, that the Republican choice for POTUS wanted to get rid of the constitution (about equal rights and democratic principles), and recruited white supremacist to his autocratic reign.
I am surprised there are no other parties, that Americans can only choose for one or the other (and that people kicked out of the party, still can sit as so-called independent). This bifurcation of society organically causes the divide into opposites. It demonstrates too, that diversity is not valued, different opinions not counted, and alternative views are not respected.
During the past four years, American society became one humongous conflict of the white supremacists against diversity. Black Lives Matter came out of this. The overwhelmingly male white cabinet spurred female candidates for the next president. The binary way of thinking, set up by the two parties doesn’t appeal to many people. No wonder that so many Americans did not vote until this last election, when the insurrection of the white supremacists led by a president happened.
The quintessential difference with Canada is that our federal governments emphasize that diversity is the main characteristic of our nation and highly valued, and the belief that our multi-cultural society makes ours a richer nation, whether led by a conservative-led, or a more liberal-leaning cabinet. Several federal parties exist, and another new party arises occasionally, or several parties combine into one, in other words: a dynamic, organic, political discourse is taking place, and cabinets can be formed as coalitions, or supported by a non-governing party (BC Greens supported an NDP Government). Our federal leaders have addressed our genocidal history with our First Nations, and reconciliation goals are in progress.
Canadian citizens are pulled forward by public discourse to reject discriminatory views. Public positions contain many ethnic representatives: it is government policy. So far, the trend towards conservative governments in the prairie provinces—rich with non-renewable resources—demonstrated that those conservative provinces are not successful in establishing racist and white supremacy leaders by purging them in elections.
Americans seem extremely self-conscious and have a sense of exceptionalism: they must be better than the rest, must be excellent if not perfect. Phrases I heard often: “The world is watching.” “We are better than that.” “This is not who we are.” “We have a great country.” “The best country in the world.”
Whaaat? Have they not seen the stats, the level of poverty, the income discrepancy between the top 1% and the rest, the discrepancy between white and brown and black people in terms of career, top ranks of the military, income and education, admission to elite schools, the lack of medical care and health, and the ability to pay rent, car and house insurance—what have you? It seems there is little awareness of the actual situation among its citizens. An American friend of mine thought that 17 million voted for Trump. Yeah, no: 70 million, dear.
The USA is only in the top ten of bad stats: level of environmental pollution for one, and the infection rate, death rate, and the spread of the COVID19 for another.
The inauguration seemed to offer a lot of things to be proud of and was a celebration of having kicked out the ogre, the previous POTUS. The sentiment I got from it was: now we are better, we survived, and we are a beautiful country. Hmmmmm.
Humility didn’t seem to be in anybody’s vocabulary.
In the self-help group of AA (the addiction treatment according to the Christian belief system), the first principle is: I admit I am powerless over X and my life has become unmanageable. To address the faults of the nation, the admission needs to come first, and its failures not glossed over. Time will tell how the nation will adjust to the realities it faces.
Canada is a middle-sized nation in terms of its global political influence, but the second-largest land area after Russia. Its drawbacks are a spare population and its northern climate, which makes much of it uninhabitable to many. We, as the mouse, watch the sleeping elephant America next to us with envy for its large population, its climate range, and its a rich tax base, its ability to provide for its citizens. When it moves, we risk getting crushed. We do our best to be liked, to be understood, but most of all, we try to get along, often to our own detriment. Your Canadian neighbour watches you, to be prepared for when you roll over, again.
This book was not on my radar and came into my hands because it happened to be sitting on the bookshelves in my Mexican (pre-owned) home. It is my third book review of novels placed the American Midwest—the Trump base—which I read in an attempt to understand these people, whose ideology and way of thinking is so far removed from my own.
Also in this story, a white family experiences their environment, with a predominantly white population, defensive and intolerant of anybody who falls outside of the norm.
A Map of the World, published in 1994 by Doubleday first in hardcover, was written by Jane Hamilton, born in 1957. She was coming of age in the sixties with the sexual revolution and the liberal rise in the developed world. These global movements might not have reached midwestern America, or not have perpetrated it like in other parts of the world. The title reminds us that this small world described in the novel was the world for those who lived there in 1994, and was ALL of their world, apparently. This may still be true in 2021. The meaning I interpret to the title may not have been the intent of the author, who sees the map as a metaphor for the intricate world of the heart with many regions: love, betrayal, guilt, anger, grief, etc.
Jane Hamilton lives and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin.
The novel is a fictional story of a family living in the small, midwestern town of Prairie Center and is told in separate chapters from the point of view of Alice, and her husband, Howard. The Goodwins have two young daughters, Emma and Claire, and when the story begins, Howard’s mom, Nellie, is living with them to assist the family as Alice is recovering from an illness.
Howard was raised in Minneapolis in a neighbourhood full of Lutherans, and always had wanted to farm. Although college educated, he decided to put his dream of owning a farm into reality, with help of his mother’s savings. He bought the farm off an old local who couldn’t find anybody in his family to take over a dairy enterprise in a dying industry.
Howard moved with a pregnant Alice to the farm with a barn-full of Golden Guernsey animals as the last agricultural independent, adjacent to the greyhound racetrack. They are considered outsiders, hobby farmers, hippies, and the community reacts with reticence or overly friendly, especially to their black friend, Lloyd, who helps them in the first months after arrival with fixing everything that needs fixing.
The family becomes close friends with Theresa and Dan Collins and their two daughters of similar ages, Audrey and Lizzy, living in the nearby housing development. Alice works part-time as a nurse in the elementary school. She and Theresa exchange childcare duties of their preschool girls. All goes well, until Lizzy drowns in the waterhole on the farm when Alice is supposed to watch the four children.
Affected by Lizzy’s death, and thrown into a depression, Alice isn’t herself. Then Robbie, a sickly and attention-demanding child in her care at the school, accuses her of sexual abuse, bolstered by his mother, Carol MacKessy.
This complaint and the parents’ vicious gossip causes more children to come forward, and Alice gets arrested. In the eyes of the community, she is already guilty. Her lawyer, Rafferty, is a character so far removed from her own sense of ethics that she is removing herself from the whole issue and denies anything will happen, as guilt keeps her awake in prison.
As Alice sits in jail, Howard gets support from Theresa, as Dan is away for work a lot, each dealing with their own issues of grief, loneliness, guilt, and betrayal.
This heartbreaking story deals with the issue of sexual abuse of children, and how institutions dealt with in in 1990s. The background of a small-town rural, white community is significant.
I wonder how that would be dealt with in recent times. This is a region where many people currently refuse to wear masks or practice social distancing in a pandemic, so I fear the facts of science and a rational approach still may not have penetrated here yet.
I liked the book a lot and followed Alice and Howard’s trains of thought with interest and curiosity where the story would lead. The rural descriptions are marvellous and conjure up the landscape. Raised in a small, rural town, I can imagine their lives. I can recommend the novel—even if older—as the issues have not changed that much, and people are people with the range of emotions, anywhere.
HILLBILLY ELEGY BY J.D. VANCE, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, published in 2016, Harper Collins, Paperback edition 2018.
Like my previous review of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, I wrote this review with intention after I found out that some of my ancestors immigrated to the American Midwest in the migration wave of the late 1800s. My intention is to get to know more about the American Midwest, home of the fellow-white people I could least identify with. So yes, I have to admit that we are all related in this world in ways we can’t even imagine.
HILLBILLY ELEGY is a memoir of the author’s life with his family in the communities of Jackson in Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio. It perfectly described the American condition, a widespread illness in the USA: the neglect and oppression of the poor, whether they work or not, combined with pervasive racism. It gave rise to the political far-right and populism.
If you also want to know more about these deeply religious people, who have become a force to be reckoned with in the GOP, read this memoir.
I also saw the movie version, which is in my opinion not a worthy representation of the book and mostly exposes the chaos and destruction of life under traumatizing conditions—a freak show. I am sure the family is more representative than the movie suggests.
The author, J.D. Vance managed to escape his class and his struggling family, after which he realized he owed them his loyalty—the reason for writing this book. Escaping his family at a young age, he first joined the Marines, which led to other jobs, and ultimately, to his entry into the fast lane and his success as a laywer and author.
An elegy is typically a lament for the dead—his grandparents—and not for the class itself, as the American condition continues as before. When a third of American children go hungry to bed at night, it is clear: the condition persists, and children continue to carry the wounds of their childhood trauma into adulthood.
J. D. Vance meant wrote this book in awe of the struggles and the survival instructs of those at the bottom of society. The Southern and the Midwest states were the places immigrants from Europe were welcome as people who were already known for their proven ability to survive in the struggle for existence. When life in the New World turned out just as perilous as the Old Country they left behind, they hardened, their dreams lost. The expected agricultural successes of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee didn’t pan out due to drought and the depression.
J.D.’s grandparents left the Apalachian region and Jackson, Kentucky, behind as a young couple, pregnant. Grandparents “Mamaw” and “Papaw” had their first child when she was 14 and he was 17. The child died 6 days later. They left in 1946 after the Second World War to Dayton, and moved on to Middletown, Ohio, where they settled and raised their family of eight, hoping to hire on in the industrial Midwest. Many miscarriages later, the author’s mother was born. Some of her siblings moved on to Indiana.
J.D.’s mother trained as a nurse, but struggled with addiction, and eventually lost her job. J.D.’s father moved away and gave him readily up for adoption by the second husband—the child’s first shock in Kindergarten, when his mother cruelly told him his dad didn’t care for him. His stepdad adopted him when he was six years old. His mother divorced and remarried several times. Eventually, when his mother wanted him to deliver a clean urine sample for his mother’s rehab check-up, “Mamaw” took J.D., rescued him from his mother, and raised him. They lived separated from “Papaw”, although he remained involved with his wife and the grandchild.
The events in the life of the family lead to a range of bad and good experiences for J.D., who wrestled to get from underneath the burden of the “traditional” upbringing, the poverty, and the lack of options for members of his class. His story is a spellbinding testimony of how the lives of the working poor are undermined in all aspects of their lives, and practically predestined the members to stay there.
If it wasn’t for his “Papaw” who had a job in factory, he would have gone hungry more often, while “Mamaw” with her unsentimental roughness actually encouraged him to reach for more in life. The lessons J.D. took away from his grandparents were: loyalty, honour, and toughness, with a fistfight not forbidden, but only to defend oneself. J.D. credits his grandparents for creating his resiliency and the space to become who he is.
This book is a work of non-fiction, a memoir. These are harder to read, I find, but the manner in which Vance wrote it kept my attention. My only criticism is that his analysis is not sharp enough in the condemnation of the political structures that keep the American condition in place. They have strived for the status quo in favour of the business world and the rich, in which the rich get richer, and the poor still poorer. He actually confessed his membership of the Republican belief system, which boggles my mind, seeing that the American Republicans have denied the most rudimentary support to the working poor.
CARSON MCCULLERS – THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER, First Mariner Books edition 2000, first published in 1940.
Carson McCullers of Columbus, Georgia, was only 23 at the time of writing this novel and it is indeed astonishing how wise and insightful she already was at that age as a writer, or as a person.
This book was not on my radar at all, but it happened to be sitting on the bookshelves in my Mexican (pre-owned) home. I was mildly interested when I read the backflap’s description. Since I found out in the past year that some of my grandmother’s Polish-German ancestors immigrated to the USA and settled in southern and mid-west parts of that nation, I have understood that it would be nonsense not to realise we are all related in some ways with everybody. So instead of avoiding the kind of people that in my prejudice I see as redneck and unrelatable, I set out to try to understand them on a more personal level than just as an interesting exercise of reading about them.
I read this book with that intention.
The strange coincidence is that I read two other books in the last month in succession from that shelf: books others brought into my home and put on my shelf, all three about similar kinds of Americans. All though life, I am learning the lessons that I should learn, which amounts to dropping my judgments, and becoming more open and forgiving to all kinds of people after I see where they might be coming from.
For some context of the world of the author: the Second World War was in progress In 1940, although the USA was not yet involved. The theme of war rings true throughout the story, but plays in the background.
The overall themes in my view are the class differences and the racism that permeates all of American society. These two issues colour everything, the nature of the poverty and the struggles of the main characters, and their relationships.
It is amazing to read a book that is already 80 years old and see that those things have not changed much over time.
Now that the USA has thrust itself in everybody’s face since the election of a reactive, racist, and unpredictable if not autocratic president, it is good to be aware what makes that nation’s population tick. The novel if nothing else shows the reader that poverty, discrimination, and insecurity and exploitation of the working classes has been a long-standing issue. The characters in this novel are heartbreakingly vulnerable, pitiful, and sympathetic.
In the setting of a small Southern-American town, there is the young girl Mick Kelly who is self-relying, tough, and mature before her age, observing the world around her, as she manages her younger sibs, growing up more or less without parents, although they are around and run the boarding house with a number of the characters of the book as boarders. Mick is in search of beauty in her life and invents an inside world full of it.
Doctor Copeland, a black doctor, tries to save his people and is so full of anger of their plight, and about his own children’s failures and their alienation after his divorce that his good intentions fall flat. As his children speak the black patois, he is maintaining his dignity in speaking properly. In spite of his dignity and his profession, whites demean and abuse him, including the justice system.
There is the bar owner, Biff Brannon, who suppresses an illegal attraction to the child Mick, and has to manage the flock of strange characters as he runs his establishment. He has bought into Hitler’s propaganda that Jews are a race and thinks he is one-eight Jew with a great-grandfather who was a Dutch Jew. The rest of them was Scotch-Irish.
One of the daily customers is a non-verbal, gay man who has his mentally ill partner committed. Afterwards, he moves ito the Kelly’s boarding house, who become the sounding board for everybody and their secrets, but never talks back and thus is conceived as a very wise man, possibly with supernatural powers.
Jake Blount, a lost soul who drowns his fears and anger in alcohol, and finds a marginal job at the moveable fair rides. He gloms on to people but also hates them, a man who is mentally ill and hanging on by a nail to prevent from plunging into disappearance.
There are very few actual plot points perse but the whole menagerie moves along in changing perspectives from the POV each character, and things develop to a logical end, disasters included. This is a slow-paced novel and if you crave action, you might not enjoy this novel. Character-driven, the literati liked this novel, as expected.
It grabbed me. The 360 pages of this pocketbook version are well written and disappeared quickly as I took the time to read and relax, with not much else to do in this time of isolation and solitude. Well worth the read.