Sunday, June 24, 2007

Returning to Modern America...with a vengeance

I took a bit of a break from my colonial history thing to read one of Tawni O'Dell's other books. I have both her previous books out from the library. The one that I didn't leave in the car was her first novel, Back Roads.

The dust jacket and the review on the book will tell you that it's funny. I will tell you that whoever wrote that is seriously fucked in the head. Unlike Sister Mine, which deals with many of the same serious themes, there is very little humor in this book. I think it's primarily due to the age of the protagonists, and distance from their catastrophes: Shae-Lynn was 40, and had managed to overcome her difficult childhood and teenage years to become a relatively successful adult. Harley is only 20. His mother is in in prison for having shot and killed his abusive father, leaving him to raise his three younger sisters: Amber, 16; Misty, 12; and Jody, who's only 6. All this happened a little over two years before the book started, and now he works two shitty jobs, he attends therapy sessions, and since his friends are all in college, he does little else.

He also has an intensity and anger that Shae-Lynn did not have. The book opens with him in a police station, accused of murder, and works backwards. As you get to know Harley, you're not surprised. He does have a lot to be pissed about, for sure, but he also seems pissed off about things that have little to do with his home life. Women, for instance. There's a scene where he goes to visit his mother in prison and almost gets himself kicked out for yelling at a ten-year old girl about using birth control and how she's going to get pregnant as a teenager if she's not careful. Other people, in general, piss Harley off. He gets in several fights during the book, some of them physical. He doesn't get much out of his therapy sessions, and frequently visualizes violent acts: "I...imagined picking up the empty pan and swinging it with all my night, catching Jody in the head first, knocking her off her chair, and then hitting Misty and watching her spit up bloody macaroni and cheese..."

There is also little redemption at the end of the book. Unlike Sister Mine, things don't generally end up working out and resolving themselves, which I guess is realistic. But this one doesn't leave you feeling good. That's not to say that it isn't a good book. O'Dell once again takes you into a world that most people don't really care to read about: a world of dirty houses with burned-out couches on the front lawn, where women and children get beat up by the man of the house, where teenaged girls run wild, adults work at dead-end, ball-breaking jobs, high school graduation rates are low, and the people who shop at Wal-Mart are considered upper-middle-class. Her characters, and their hopes and dreams, are all vivid, and all treated respectfully.

Many people make fun of the real-life counterparts to O'Dell's characters, and most of them just prefer to pretend they don't exist. But they're a lot more representative of America than the characters in a novel by, say, Jennifer Weiner or Candace Bushnell. I've spent the past two years living and working in an area that's only marginally better than the coal towns of Western PA, and I'm glad this perspective is getting represented in modern literature.

The Code of the Brethren

Does anyone remember that phrase from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: "The Code of the Brethren, set down by Morgan and Bartholomew?" The book I've just finished, Empire of Blue Water by Stephan Talty, is about the real-life career of the "Morgan" of that phrase: Captain Henry Morgan 1635-1688.

One beautiful thing about my Colonial Reading Thing is that it's helped me to see the broader connections. When they referenced trouble between the English and the Dutch heating up, I know of the trouble they're talking about. When Morgan came to the Caribbean, the English were about 9 years away from taking New Amsterdam. You can also see many of the trends and currents swirling about the story of the pirates in the Caribbean: how the old-world thinking, mired in religion, tradition and superstition, was about to be exploded by a more humanistic, individualistic worldview.

In this book, the old worldview was quite literally, exploded, over and over again by the democratic scallywag army Morgan raised, "made up of trash tossed out of a half a dozen European countries". In my beloved Pirates movie franchise, the pirates are depicted as mercenaries and enemies of all. In Empire, Talty shows how the British crown used them as a weapon: there was a razor-thin distinction between "pirates" and "privateers." The latter (of which Morgan was the best-known) had official commissions from the Crown to pillage and plunder strategic Spanish locations. The Spanish, in contrast, were mired in their old ways. Talty talks of ships that crossed the Atlantic bearing nothing but pages and pages of records and orders. It took a very long time for anything to happen in Spain, and the Spanish were terribly overextended. They did not have a counterpart to the privateer system; in fact, it would've been anathema to their whole way of thinking, in which God was at the center of everything, not the individual.

There are many delectable characters in this book. There's the melancholy King Phillip IV of Spain, who, overwhelmed by problems he couldn't solve, spent hours staring into his own tomb. Mary Carleton, the notorious whore who had impersonated a German princess down on her luck back in England, and her cohorts, with the delectable names of No-Conscience Nan, Buttock-de-Clink Jenny and Salt-Beef Peg. The terrifying, bloodthirsty psychopathic French pirate L'Ollonais. And Morgan himself, the cunning, brave Welshman who proved to be a natural leader and considered himself not an outlaw but a British patriot.

I will confess again: I am a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I love Jack Sparrow, and would marry him if he were real, even though I know he wouldn't make a very good husband. I also like the ride, too, and was interested to see historical correlations to several details in both: the mayor in the well (when towns had advance notice of pirate raids, wells were popular hiding places for valuables); the pirate wallowing with the pigs (livestock and provisions were as highly prized as swag); Elizabeth's reluctance to reveal herself as the governor's daughter in the first film (pirates often kidnapped citizens and held them for ransom, as a way to get valuables that had been hidden). There were real Gallows Points to warn pirates of what they were in for, just like the one Captain Jack Sparrow saluted as his boat was sinking on the way to Port Royale. Tortuga was not only a real place, but it seems as though it was accurately depicted in the first film. Pirates really did have a superstition that banned women from their ships, although the real-life pirates made a few notable exceptions, too.

The book was relatively entertaining, and although I have few doubts of its historic accuracy, it's clear from the bibliography that it's not presenting anything new, unlike Shorto's book. Talty seems to have leaned mostly on secondary sources, some going all the way back to the early 20th century. He lists only ten primary sources, and all of those are previously published documents. He also used a device that further separates this book from more scholarly works: he creates a fictional character. His fictional character is a "typical" pirate that would have sailed with Morgan. Initially, I thought his invention (named Roderick) was just an example, but Roderick is with is throughout the entire book, past the death of the Captain. Anyone reading this book should be aware, then, that it's more history-as-entertainment than scholarly work. That's not necessarily a bad thing: given the upsurge in interest in pirates, it's an enjoyable, easily digestible way to start, but it is just a starting place. If you already have some knowledge of Morgan's career or the pirates in the Caribbean, this book is not likely to add much, though.