Monthly Archives: November 2010

Thanksgiving, or how we used Squanto to survive..

Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends. For those in other places, I am most thankful for your blogs, your comments, and this community. In teaching American Literature, early American writings are, by far, the most painful. I am certainly glad we have them for historical purposes, but boy – talking about “how many people have died of that awful disease because we have displeased God” is kind of a downer.

But – the Thanksgiving story fascinates me, or rather, the holiday we have come to know as Thanksgiving and its origins fascinate me. A few lines in journals and memoirs created what is now one of America’s most dearly-loved holidays.

Basically, in 1621, the Pilgrims (or Separatists, as they were also known) were so dang happy everyone had stopped dropping like flies. Half their party had died within three months of landing. Squanto, who could communicate with them because he learned English as a captive, taught them how to best use the land, and Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag, befriended them. So the Pilgrims had actually learned how to navigate this New World, and it was time to party Pilgrim style – with thanks to God, hunting, and boasting to friends and family back in England (even then we were a bunch of disrespectful upstarts).

So here it is folks: a couple of the passages behind your ovens full of turkey and sweet potatoes, stoves with bubbling pots of vegetables, televisions blaring football and parades, and of course, houses packed with family. It’s truly an American holiday, and I love it, even though it marks the beginning of the end for Native Americans and the tenuous friendship we once shared.

From William Bradford, in Of Plymouth Plantation:

Thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, and to bless their outgoings and incomings, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity. They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

And Edward Winslow, in Mourt’s Relation:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

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I am invisible … because people refuse to see me.

Teaching is a funny profession. Teaching well is insanely difficult. At this point in the semester, I am usually battling an upper respiratory infection. I don’t want to grade another essay. Students asking for their averages in the middle of class elicit blank stares and a speech balloon above my head that looks like this: $&@*! In other words, I am ready for a break.

However, the end of the semester for my American Literature class is also the point in the semester during which I get to teach and discuss one of my favorite novels – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I believe it is a vastly underappreciated novel. Also, don’t make the mistake one of my students did and download THE Invisible Man.


Invisible Man is a novel of race and identity, but it’s also a bildungsroman, the story of a faceless, nameless narrator and his realization that everyone around him only uses him for his or her own purposes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Epilogue of this novel begins:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Pie; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.

The narrator is living in a basement in Harlem, a good bit after the Harlem Renaissance, surrounding himself with light bulbs, leeching electricity from the city, desperate to see himself. The proceeding novel is the story of why he can’t see himself. Told in episodic fashion, the novel begins when the narrator is young – school age, in fact. He is intelligent and knows he is intelligent, winning a scholarship to an all-black school, Tuskegee Institute. He is invited to speak before his town’s leading white citizens, which culminates in one of the most anthologized chapters of this or any other book, “The Battle Royale.” The scene, in which other young black males are blindfolded, stripped down to their underwear and told to fight, is brutal and horrifying. The men are taunted by a blonde white woman dressed provocatively, and the fear and scent of that fear is palpable. The men are then tossed coins as payment, but the coins (fake) are tossed onto an electrified rug, and the older white gentlemen see sport in this.

During this humiliation, though, our narrator can only think about his speech. He is proud, and he is focused. My students, when we began discussing the novel last week, were confused by the scene as it is rather chaotic, but even more so because, thankfully, they also saw how disgusting this behavior was and is and couldn’t believe anything like this could or would happen. We also discussed the subtext of the erotic here, and the danger for these men in this scene, particularly as our narrator then goes on to give his speech, slipping up and saying “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” and the tense moments after before he is basically told to “know his place.” Even as we only discussed half of the book last week, they were already beginning to pick up on one of the key themes of this book – blindness.

The narrator feels invisible, says he is invisible, yet he, too, struggles to see throughout the novel. In the scene depicted above he feels “a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness.” Once he arrives at Tuskegee, again he is blind, but in a different way, believing his intelligence will be his champion; unfortunately, at every turn, he is thwarted. He leaves Tuskegee and the South for New York, a place where he can eat yams if he wants, wide out in the open, and he “no longer ha[s] to worry about who [sees him] or about what was proper.” However, the narrator never fully realizes that even the North has its own racial code, and there are consequences for every action, no matter how you gloss it over.

One day he watches as an old couple is evicted from their walk-up, seeing their possessions dumped into the street, and as he watches the crowd becomes more and more expectant of violence, until he steps up shouting at the people to remain “law abiding” in one of my favorite moments in the book:

Did you hear [the old man]? He’s eighty-seven. Eighty-seven and look at all he’s accumulated in eighty-seven years, strewn in the snow like chicken guts, and we’re a law-abiding, slow-to-anger bunch of folks turning the other cheek every day in the week. What are we going to do? What would you, what would I, what would he have done? What is to be done? I propose we do the wise thing, the law-abiding thing. Just look at this junk….Look at that old woman, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother, maybe….Eighty-seven years, and poof! like a snort in a wind storm. Look at them, they look like my mama and my papa and my grandma and grandpa, and I look like you and you look like me. Look at them but remember that we’re a wise, law-abiding group of people. And remember it when you look up there in the doorway at that law standing there with the forty-five.

I can in no way do justice to the brilliant journey this spontaneous moment will begin for the narrator or its accompanying symbols of darkness and light, blindness and vision, invisible and visible. Suffice it to say, whether our narrator is working in a paint plant watching “the right white” paint made whiter by a dark black tint or standing on the porch to a small walkup shouting “Dispossessed!” after the old couple is forced out of their home, Invisible Man is an intricate, enthralling read that forces me to think about the ways in which we choose not to see certain people in our society or the ways in which we simply ask (or require) they take on our own comfortable idea of personhood in order to be recognized and seen.

Hm.. this one would also make a great readalong. I’d love to get some discussion going in comments if you have read it. I haven’t heard many bloggers mention it, so I’m wondering – has anyone out there read it? Or am I alone in my love of this book?


“Dear Reader, I married him.”

Now don’t get excited. I’m not married – or getting married (at least any time soon). The title is one of my favorite lines from Jane Eyre. A little backstory here: I read Jane Eyre for the first time in 4th grade when I had no clue how to pronounce the word rendezvous, but I completely fell in love with this novel. Over the years, I read and re-read it, along the way linking the pronunciation ron-day-voo with the word rendezvous. I am almost embarrassed to say I have read this novel over a dozen times. In the last few years, I just go back to my favorite passages. I have six copies of Jane Eyre, and I am always, always on the lookout for more interesting editions.

I still remember in high school a Channel One (high school news program) commercial break where they previewed Jane Eyre the movie (from the 90s). I was ecstatic; unfortunately, the movie was not everything I had hoped it would be. Honestly, I haven’t seen a single version I have really approved of and enjoyed. So imagine my joy on seeing a trailer for a new vision of Jane and Mr. Rochester – one that looks quite beautiful:

And I have to wait until MARCH!!! I may even be more excited about this than HP7 – different kind of excited, but still…

Much to my delight, it seems Jane Eyre‘s allure has spread like wildfire across the blogosphere lately. Raych at books i done read had a great series with intertextual comparisons here (with The Crimson Petal and the White) and here (with Rebecca) and here (with Wide Sargasso Sea). The gal might love Jane nearly as much as I do. Simon had his say wherein he says he didn’t hold high hopes for Jane Eyre after reading her sister’s ugh, yuck, gah novel Wuthering Heights. [Sorry for those of you who love it.] Fortunately, Simon and I can still be blogging friends, as he loved Jane’s story.  Then Iris fell in love with Jane Eyre as well. Here she discusses prejudice in Jane Eyre and debates Bertha’s treatment in the novel, and several commenters popped in to say they liked Mr. Rochester less after reading Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s supposed prequel to Jane Eyre. [ For those interested in Wide Sargasso Sea, I read it last summer (before I was blogging). It tells the story of Bertha, or Antoinette as she is known in Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel depicts Antoinette’s descent into madness, and the book can be a difficult read because of that. However, it’s short and gives insight as to why Mr. Rochester locks Bertha away.]

Particularly since there are so many posts out there at the moment, I will leave you quite simply with why this novel has dragged me back into its pages year after year, time after time: It is a true love story – and not just in a romantic sense. It is painful, heart-wrenching really, and hopeful. I cry ugly tears when Jane thinks she hears Mr. Rochester’s voice, knowing it cannot be. I cry when I see how Rochester changes, how he realizes what he has done to himself, Bertha, and Jane. Jane Eyre is about ordinary people who find small moments of the extraordinary within their lives. When Helen, Jane’s young friend at Lowood, dies of consumption, the scene with Helen’s arms wrapped around Jane, comforting her even as Helen lies dying, is majestic. It is these moments in which Bronte works her magic, luring me yet again to the dog-eared pages of the 50 cent copy of the novel I’ve had since 6th grade.

Perhaps a readalong is in order; strike while the iron’s hot and all that. It would be a perfect companion to the approach of the film. Let me know in comments if you’d be at all interested.


Green Books Campaign*: The Texas Legacy Project

This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.
The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

One of my favorite childhood memories is going to meet my grandparents at Dam B, Texas. They had an RV and would travel extensively when I was young. It was always a treat to go to this mystical place with cypress knees, green water (it was covered with algae), and all sorts of wildlife. PawPaw would bring bamboo fishing poles, made from his crop in the back yard, and I would fish, most often catching turtles. I’d break into tears, devastated for the poor little turtle, still not wanting to touch it. In the evenings we’d make s’mores, and I’d crawl up into the bunk space above the driver and passenger seat in the RV, cuddled with old quilts whose smell I can still remember if I try hard enough.

We weren’t the most outdoorsy family – my mom, dad, brother, sister, and I – but those early trips and the mysticism of East Texas stuck with me. The Texas Legacy Project edited by David Todd and David Weisman is a celebration of the people who allowed me to enjoy those woods and ponds, lakes and trails. The introduction begins:

The stories in this book are excerpts from informal and unscripted interviews with Texas conservationists, collected from 1997 through 2008 by the Conservation History Association of Texas. We see value in them as personal reminiscences, as citizen journeys, and as first-hand histories of conservation in Texas during the past sixty years.

Texas is a mythical place – it’s vast. It has 11 different ecological regions. Texas is the land of endless plains, mountainous regions, swamps, and beaches. Home to cowboys, oil riggers, fishermen, tobacco lawyers, and larger-than-life country music stars, Texas is a wonderful place to live.

The interviews, many of which are fascinating, suspenseful accounts worthy of a John Grisham or Steve Martini legal thriller, are divided by topics such as law enforcement, exploration, government, wildlife, religion and philosophy, education, policy, agriculture, communication, community politics, and sustainability.

Most notably for me, there was an interview with Geraldine Watson, who is legendary in my part of Texas. I live 20 minutes from the Big Thicket, one of the most fascinating ecological regions in the nation. Termed a “biological crossroads,” the Big Thicket National Preserve is home to “south eastern swamps, eastern forests, central plains, and southwest deserts. Bogs sit near arid sandhills. Eastern bluebirds nest near roadrunners.” (National Parks Service site)

It is truly an unbelievable place, and I feel lucky to be so close to it. Geraldine Watson is a large part of why I am able to enjoy this beautiful area of Texas. As many of those interviewed confess, the fight came to Ms. Watson’s front door. Literally: “We wanted a little bit of woods for [the children]. And I put trails through it and planted azaleas and ferns and all that sort of thing. Then they decided to make a big bypass of Highway 96,and guess where they took the bypass? Right across my woods!” So Ms. Watson joins the Big Thicket Association and becomes a force to reckon with.

It is this spirit, this die-hard characteristic that struck me again and again as I read these accounts. Similar to the Erin Brokovich movie and story, this group of people goes into the underbelly of big Texas corporations and does what it must to ensure the people are safe and healthy but also that the land stays safe and healthy and productive.

The book, of course, is a niche book. It’s not for everyone, but I don’t think it’s intended to be. The book mentions several times the desire for readers to pick it up, relate to it, and maybe take away the desire to preserve this place we call home. I’ll certainly be paying attention, and in that, and in its execution, the book is a great success.

A big thanks to Holli with Texas A&M Press for getting this great book to me!

*One of the most horrifying aspects of this book was reading about clear-cutting, when companies go in and clear the land completely, selling whatever is salvageable and often leaving the land barren. It is important to note that this book is certified as Mixed Sources paper, a product group from well-managed forests, and other controlled sources. Learn more at www.fsc.org.