Over the Woodward Wall

Cover image for Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Bakerby A. Deborah Baker

ISBN 978-0-7653-9927-4

“Are you sure you want an ending? Endings are tricky things. They wiggle and writhe like worms, and once you have them, you can’t give them back again. You can hang them on hooks and sail the seas for sequels, if you realize you don’t like where your story stopped, but you’ll always have had an ending, and there will always be people who won’t follow you past that line. You lose things when you have an ending. Big things. Important things. Better not to end at all, if you can help it.”

Once upon a time, on an ordinary street, in an ordinary suburb, in an ordinary town, two perfectly ordinary children wake up on what should be an entirely ordinary day, only to find themselves on an adventure. Restless and quick, Zib Jones loves messes and surprises, and playing in the woods behind her house. Quiet and steady, Avery Grey is a boy who likes order and polish, and long hours spent at the library looking for the secrets of the universe. Though they are neighbours, these two very different children have never crossed paths, so the paths are about to cross for them, whether they will it or not. Despite being students at two entirely different schools, both children find a mysterious wall cutting through their neighbourhood where it has no right to be, blocking their way to school. On the other side is the Up-and-Under, and the adventure that awaits them there.

Over the Woodward Wall is the middle grade debut of fantasy author Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker (she also writes horror as Mira Grant). Tor describes it as a companion book to Middlegame, one of her books that I have not read yet. In many ways, however, it actually feels like a sibling book to McGuire’s Wayward Children series, but for a slightly younger audience. A wall leads to the Up-and-Under, not a doorway, but what comes next is much of a kind, a portal fantasy with two children on an adventure that is about self-discovery and finding their place in the world(s). This is as much about knowing where you do not belong as where you do, the choices that you make along the way, and the companions that you choose or discard.

Over the Woodward Wall employs a fairly self-conscious narration style, wordy and clever, one that draws attention to the fact that the story is being narrated rather than allowing you to relax into it. Baker does not want you to forget that this is a story, and that stories have rules, even if rules are meant to be broken, or at least interrogated. Although it is like a fairy tale, it is one that warns children against many of the things fairy tales sometimes perpetuate. The Queens of the Up-and-Under are beautiful, but “it is a myth that goodness is always lovely and wickedness is always dreadful to behold; the people who say such things have reason for their claims and would rather those reasons not be overly explored,” Baker warns. Similarly, “sometimes anger is a good, true thing, because the world is often unfair and unfairness deserves to be acknowledged. But all too often, anger is another feeling in its Sunday clothes, sadness or envy or—most dangerous of all—fear,” she cautions.

This book is only two hundred pages, and the ending still came more quickly than I expected, but Over the Woodward Wall is listed as first in a series, so there is likely more to come for Zib and Avery. I’ll definitely be sailing the seas for that sequel.

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2020

The year is drawing to a close, and I’ve left it to the very last minute to name my top picks from this year’s reading! These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

From the Ashes

Cover image for From the Ashes by Jesse ThistleFrom the Ashes is the account of an unstable childhood, intergenerational trauma, and a young adulthood lost to the streets. After being abandoned by parents who struggled with their own demons, Jesse Thistle and his two brothers landed in the home of their paternal grandparents, where the boys were expected to work hard, were scolded for eating too much, or for any behaviour that reminded their grandfather of their wayward father. A lacklustre student, Thistle dropped out of high school, and was kicked out of his grandparents’ home when they caught him with drugs, beginning a decade-long downward spiral into homelessness and addiction. From the Ashes recounts his troubled childhood, his lost years on the streets, and his eventual recovery and journey into academia and Indigenous Studies. Thistle’s chapters are often short and somewhat fractured, an accurate reflection of a disjointed life punctuated by black outs. It is a chronicle of poor choices informed by pain, loneliness, and heartbreak. Occasional interludes are more like poems, including a disturbing section in which Thistle envisions turning into a wendigo who then cannibalizes himself.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir

The Golden Spruce

Cover image for The Golden Spruce by John VaillantSometime around the year 1700, a spruce seed took root in the fertile soil of the Yakoun River valley on Haida Gwaii, off the west coast of what would become British Columbia, Canada. Despite a rare mutation that caused its needles to be yellow rather than green—a flaw that should have impeded its ability to photosynthesize—the tree that became known as K’iid K’iyaas or the golden spruce, grew to be a giant that stood on the banks of the river until 1997, when it was deliberately felled as a protest again the logging industry. In The Golden Spruce, John Vaillant documents the history of tree, the troubled life of the man who destroyed it, and the impact of this act on the community that was its home. The Golden Spruce is part history of the logging industry, and part post-mortem of the murder of a culturally significant icon of the Haida people. The early part of the book is dedicated to the history of the Haida, and the North American logging industry, as well as a brief foray into the fur trade that preceded it. Vaillant treats this all as necessary context before introducing Grant Hadwin, the man who destroyed the tree in the dark hours of January 20, 1997. The Golden Spruce is a sad and disturbing story of destruction, ignorance, and waste. According to Vaillant, “left in peace, the golden spruce could have lived until the twenty-sixth century.”

Categories: Canadian

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

Cover image for A Mind Spread Out on the GroundAlicia Elliot grew up largely on the Six Nations Reserve, home of her father’s people, with a gaggle of younger siblings. Her mother lived with them only intermittently; whenever her bipolar disorder became too pronounced, Elliott’s father would shuttle her mother across the New York border, and have her involuntarily committed. Her childhood was shaped by poverty, intergenerational trauma, and mental illness, all of which she reflects on in a series of essays. The collection opens with the award-winning titular essay, which is a rough English translation of the Mohawk word for depression or mental illness. This proves a central theme of the collection, as many of Elliot’s stories are about her mother’s bipolar disorder, and how it shaped and warped their family life for most of her childhood. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground blends the personal and the critical into incisive essays that cut to the heart of colonialism, and its effects on identity, community, and Canada’s conception of itself.

Categories: Canadian, Essays

Spillover

Cover image for Spillover by David QuammenZoonoses are diseases that originate in animals, usually harboured by a reservoir—a species that chronically carries the bacteria or virus but is not sickened by it—and are transmissible to humans. When the right set of circumstances occur, when the fragile ecological balance of the world is disrupted in a new way, a pathogen can spill over from animals to humans. Author David Quammen is a journalist with a long history of covering zoonosis, with the consequent experience in translating a highly technical subject for a lay audience. I read a variety of pandemic books this year, but if you’re only going to read one book about epidemics, this one combines multiple outbreaks into a single volume, highlights trends and commonalties, and provides a good basic understanding of the relationship between virology, ecology, and epidemiology. You’ll emerge from Spillover with a much better contextual understanding of our current situation, armed with many of the essential concepts for understanding the virology and epidemiology underpinning the ongoing public health conversations that have been dominating our discourse over the past year, and will no doubt continue into 2021.

Categories: Pandemic, Science

We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra HabibSamra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her. In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her parents. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong they did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step.

Categories: Canadian, Memoir, LGBTQ+

What were your top non-fiction reads this year? Did you read any pandemic books, or did you avoid the subject like the plague?

Top 5 Fiction 2020

What a strange year it has been! I hope reading helped get you through the ups and downs. I know I definitely turned to books for both comfort and information, rereading old favourites, and learning about newly relevant subjects. These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2020. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Burning God

Cover image for The Burning God by R. F. KuangDisillusioned with the Dragon Republic, Fang Runin has broken with Yin Vaisra and his Hesperian backers, and returned to the South, seeking new allies among the rag tag armies of the Southern Coalition. Nikan remains riven by civil war, and Rin finds to her dismay that the men who lead the Southern forces are no more willing to put a young woman in charge than their Northern counterparts, no matter if she is one of the last shamans in the Empire, able to call down the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance, onto the battle field. The final installment of R.F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars series follows Rin as she makes the latest in a series of bad bargains with untrustworthy allies who both fear and covet her power.  The Burning God is a visceral finale that forces Rin into reckoning with the carnage wrought by her rash decisions and shifting alliances, even as she attempts to mentally retreat and wall herself off from the catastrophes Nikan will have to overcome in order to ever have any hope of recovering from these cataclysmic power struggles. Kuang brings her first trilogy to a close as it began, in fire and blood, and with many questions for which there are no easy answers or neat solutions.

Categories: Fantasy

Felix Ever After

Cover image for Felix Ever After by Kacen CallenderKacen Callender tells the story of Felix Love, a high school student who has already transitioned to male, but is still exploring their gender identity and coming to terms with some of the non-binary options. Felix has never been in love, but has a deep romantic streak, and this novel sees him caught between an enemies-to-lovers epistolary romance via Instagram messages, and the possibility that one of his oldest friendships is actually romantic. Next to the romances, my favourite element of this book was the way it explored the complicated forms of internalized homophobia and transphobia that can exist within the queer community where Felix is supposed to feel safe, such as his ex-girlfriend Marisol, and the anonymous bullies causing trouble at school and online.

Categories: Young Adult, LGBTQ+

Red, White & Royal Blue

Cover image for Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuistonAs the son of the President, Alex Claremont-Diaz, his sister June, and their best friend Nora Holleran are America’s golden children, beloved by the press, and the perfect political surrogates for President Claremont and Vice President Holleran as they pass through the 2018 midterms and aim for re-election in 2020. But Alex commits a very public faux-pas when he gets into an altercation with his long-time rival, Prince Henry of England, at the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Prince Philip. As the White House and Buckingham Palace fly into damage-control mode, Henry and Alex are forced to fake a public friendship for the press, even while the sparks that are flying behind closed doors are of an entirely different sort. But if they ever want to really be together, they’ll have to come to terms with themselves, their families, and their place in history. Casey McQuiston has written what is at heart a light, fluffy romance, but one that also cheekily sends up the problematic aspects of the trope at its center. I suspect that some people won’t like politics intruding into their fluffy romance in this manner, but I personally found it helped to acknowledge the cognitive dissonance rather than simply ignoring the problems inherent in the trope. Your mileage may vary, but for me this was a perfect bit of fluffy, swoony fun.

Categories: Romance, LGBTQ+

Son of a Trickster

Cover image for Son of a Trickster by Eden RobinsonOld beyond his years, teenage Jared feels responsible for all the adults around him, from his mercurial mom Maggie, to her deadbeat boyfriend Richie, to his lying father and his pregnant step-sister, and the elderly neighbours who helped him out in a time of need, as well as their wayward granddaughter, Sarah. His mom is estranged from her own family, and his father’s mother has always harboured the belief that he isn’t actually her grandson, but rather the illegitimate son of a Trickster. His only support, his beloved dog Baby, has recently died, and Jared is having a hard time keeping it together for everyone who needs him. He drinks too much, and smokes too much, and sometimes he blacks out. And sometimes he think he sees and hears things, even when he isn’t half-cut. Things that make him wonder if his grandmother might not be crazy after all. At first, Jared’s life seems normal, or at least, only abnormal in sadly normal human ways. Slowly but surely, however, Eden Robinson layers in little bits of weirdness that creep in around the edges, and Jared’s chapters are mixed with bizarre, expansive interludes that hint at a world beyond his day-to-day reality. The magic seeps in until it is almost pervasive, slowly invading every corner of his life until he has no choice but to face the destiny he has been running from.

Categories: Canadian, Speculative Fiction

The Starless Sea

Cover image for The Starless Sea by Erin MorgensternZachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student who studies video games, but has a passion for story and narrative in all its forms. Visiting the nearly-deserted library between terms, Zachary stumbles across an old book of short stories, an improperly catalogued and mysterious donation to the university’s collection. But what is truly remarkable about this book is that Zachary is in it; the third story perfectly describes a real incident from his childhood, one that he never dared to speak of, let alone commit to paper. Coming eight years on the heels of Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel The Night Circus, The Starless Sea is divided into six books within books. At first, alternating chapters from Zachary’s perspective are interleaved with fragments from his mysterious library find. Morgenstern also layers in excerpts from the diary of Zachary’s friend Kat, one of the few people who seems to notice or care when he goes missing from the university in pursuit of answers, desperate to discover the provenance of the book, and ascertain once and for all whether the world it describes might be real and reachable. The Starless Sea is the story of a magical library, but also something much more impossible than that. It is a story of doorways, and possibilities, of choices and their consequences.

Categories: Fantasy

An honourable mention also goes out to S.A. Chakraborty, who completed her truly excellent Daevabad trilogy with The Empire of Gold this year.

What were your top fiction reads of 2020? I especially want to hear about your comfort reads and fluff! What got you through?

The Burning God (The Poppy War #3)

Cover image for The Burning God by R. F. Kuangby R.F. Kuang

ISBN 9780062662620

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“Every day since the end of the Third Poppy War, Rin had learned that her victory on Speer mattered less and less. War hadn’t ended when Emperor Ryohai perished on the longbow island. War hadn’t ended when Vaisra’s army defeated the Imperial Navy at the Red Cliffs. She’d been so stupid to once think that if she ended the Federation then she’d end the hurting.  War didn’t end, not so cleanly–it just kept building up in little hurts that piled on each other until they exploded afresh into raw new wounds.”

Disillusioned with the Dragon Republic, Fang Runin has broken with Yin Vaisra and his Hesperian backers, and returned to the South, seeking new allies among the rag tag armies of the Southern Coalition. Nikan remains riven by civil war, and Rin finds to her dismay that the men who lead the Southern forces are no more willing to put a young woman in charge than their Northern counterparts, no matter if she is one of the last shaman in the Empire, able to call down the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance, onto the battle field. Unable to trust her supposed allies, Rin will be forced to reach high and low, turning the common people to her cause, while also making dangerous bargains with former enemies as the Hesperian threat looms larger, and Yin Nezha mounts a final clash between the Republican army, and Rin’s forces.

The final installment of R.F. Kuang’s Poppy Wars series follows Rin as she makes the latest in a series of bad bargains with untrustworthy allies who both fear and covet her power. As the last Speerly, and one of only a scant handful of shaman, she is a wild card that can find no comfortable home, and like all of the god-touched, her grip on reality is tenuous at best. The Burning God is a visceral finale that forces Rin into reckoning with the carnage wrought by her rash decisions and shifting alliances, even as she attempts to mentally retreat and wall herself off from the catastrophes Nikan will have to overcome in order to ever have any hope of recovering from the cataclysmic power struggles that have poisoned rivers, flooded towns, laid waste to crops, and displaced large portions of the population. The series maintains a strong military focus, with a series of battles that take Rin and her allies across the empire and back again.

Displaced and defeated, former Empress Su Daji would seem to have no place here in The Burning God, with her empire in ruins and her crown lost. Indeed, I expected a deeper focus on Hesperia, and perhaps an increased role for General Tarcquet or the Grey Company. But in reckoning with the cycle of history, and intergenerational trauma, Kuang brings Daji back in a new capacity, with the deposed Empress as a tantalizing potential source of shamanic power and information for an increasingly desperate Rin. With the power struggle between Rin and Nezha reignited by her break from his father’s Republic, Rin finds herself increasingly interested in the power struggles of the Trifecta, and how the Vipress became the last shaman standing, ruling the Nikara Empire alone. But it remains to be seen if Rin can grasp the cautionary tale of their downfall, or if she will simply succumb and repeat their mistakes in her quest for power. While fundamentally different characters, there are fascinating echoes between Rin and Daji, and their approaches to ruling.

The relationship at the heart of this final volume is the one between Rin and Kitay, her best friend and her anchor, and the one person who has never betrayed her. As she wins victories and gains power, she comes into responsibilities for which she is wholly unprepared, and reliant upon his logistical and strategic talents. Kitay also represents her greatest weakness; without him near, she cannot call the fire, and if he dies, so does she. For an increasingly isolated and paranoid general, such a bond is both a touchstone and a secret to be guarded at all costs. Kitay is also her conscience embodied, her voice of reason, the measured response that counterbalances her impulsive nature and more violent tendencies. In many ways, he is the key that keeps us following Rin deeper into madness; what does he see in her that inspires such loyalty?

Kuang brings her first trilogy to a close as it began, in fire and blood, and with many questions for which there are no easy answers or neat solutions. If Rin and her fiery god win, is tyranny inevitable? If Nezha and Hesperia triumph, does colonization and erasure follow? These are uncomfortable questions that do not lend themselves to a tidy conclusion, and the scope of Nikara history stretches beyond the final page with possibilities that are both tantalizing and terrifying, shadowed by the real Chinese history on which Kuang has been masterfully drawing throughout her epic series.

The Poppy War

The Dragon Republic 

Know My Name

Cover image for Know My Name by Chanel Millerby Chanel Miller

ISBN 9780735223714

Content Warnings: Sexual assault, depression, suicide, mass shooting.

“The rules of court would not necessarily protect me; swearing under oath was just a made up promise. Honesty was for children. Brock would say and do what he needed, unabashedly, self-righteous. He had given himself permission to enter me again, this time stuffing words into my mouth. He made me his real-life ventriloquist doll, put his hands inside me and made me speak.”

When her victim impact statement was released to the world by Buzz Feed in June 2016, the young woman who had been sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus by Brock Turner was known to readers only as Emily Doe. In Know My Name, Chanel Miller reclaims her identity, shedding the scant protection of anonymity in order to more fully tell her story and advocate for systems that better serve and protect victims. In doing so, she reintegrates Emily Doe with Chanel Miller, breaking down the wall of separation she built between the two in order to protect herself as she tried to continue some semblance of her life while also navigating the court system in search of something like justice.

On the night she was assaulted, Miller was no longer a college student herself. Having graduated with a degree in literature form the University of California Santa Barbara, she was back home working her first job in a start-up when she attended the fateful party with her sister and her sister’s friend. Many memoirs begin with the inciting incident that is the book’s promotional hook, and then flash back to the subject’s childhood. However, Miller takes a more integrated approach, telling stories about her family, childhood, and education as they fit into the larger context of her experiences as a victim of sexual assault. As a result, they are more uniformly dispersed throughout the book and the early part of her narrative dives right into her memories of the night of her assault before her black out, and the aftermath as she wakes up in the hospital. The trial concludes near the middle of the book, and the latter half is given over to dealing with the sentencing and appeal, as well as the broader #MeToo movement, and the recall campaign to unseat the judge who sentenced Turner, as well as Miller’s fraught relationship with Stanford in the aftermath of what took place on their campus.

Know My Name is filled with visceral details that make it a difficult read. This includes not just Miller’s own assault, but several friends who were also victims of sexual violence, as well as accounts of a rash of student suicides at her high school, and the death of a friend’s roommate while she was at college in Isla Vista, in a mass shooting motivated by misogyny. However, sometimes the biggest impact is in the smallest details, such as Miller’s description of the moment that she realized her underwear was gone when she woke up in the hospital, or her heartbreaking account of the guilt she felt for taking a long shower to wash off the assault, because California was experiencing a drought. Miller articulates clearly that she is writing more for victims than for the general public in making these narrative choices: “As a survivor, I feel a duty to provide a realistic view of the complexity of recovery. I am not here to rebrand the mess he made on campus. It is not my responsibility to alchemize what he did into healing words society can digest.”

Nevertheless, there are a few small bright spots in Miller’s account, as she returns repeatedly to the two Swedish graduate students who were riding by on their bicycles when they witnessed her assault, interrupted her attacker, and chased him down when he tried to run away. Miller looked to both their actions and their testimony as evidence of the better side of human nature. She explicitly acknowledges Peter Jonsson and Carl Arndt, saying, “May the world be full of more Carls and Peters.” For months, she slept under a small drawing of two cyclists, guardians watching over her troubled rest. Miller’s relationship with her family, and her sister in particular, also stands out. In moments where she could hardly fend for herself, Miller nevertheless fought for her sister’s sake, fiercely protective of her since Tiffany’s identity, unlike Chanel’s, was not protected by the legal proceedings.

Although a very personal account, much of the book is about systemic effects and experiences, and the process that Miller did not fully understand she was undertaking when she told the police that she would agree to press charges. Miller rips back that curtain for the reader, taking us inside the grueling legal process, and the still more fraught mental and emotional recovery that followed. The court case is over, but the latter is clearly ongoing. Know My Name marks Miller’s effort to finally break out of that system, with all its failures and constraints, to tell her story on her own terms, as a fully fleshed-out person rather than a nameless victim.

You might also like We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib

The Heroine’s Journey

Cover image for The Heroine's Journey by Gail Carrigerby Gail Carriger

ISBN 9781944751500

“I like it when things end happily, and most of the time that means, to me, together. I enjoy it when characters end up in solidarity, friends or family, lovers or platonic. That’s what I hunt for…connection.”

The Heroine’s Journey is a story structure book mapped to three goddess myths, including Demeter, Isis, and Ishtar.  Gail Carriger delineates three main stages, including The Descent, The Search, and The Ascent, and highlights key beats such as the breaking of the familial network in act one, the appeal to, or creation of, found family in act two, and the negotiation for reunification in act three. Each of these beats emphasizes the importance of relationships, casts asking for help as a strength, and points out that the heroine is weakest when she tries to go it alone. While the Heroine’s Journey can be turned tragic, the heroine is more likely to get a happy ending surrounded by friends and family. Carriger provides examples from a number of well-known pop culture works, relying particularly on Harry Potter and Twilight due to their common currency, and also talking about how she has employed the ideas in her own novels.

Carriger is the author of a variety of steampunk and urban fantasy fiction titles, including the young adult Finishing School series, and the Parasol Protectorate books. The Heroine’s Journey is her first non-fiction title, but her voice is still distinctly recognizable. She employs humour and short chapters with a chatty tone, but her insights are sharp if not always perfectly organized in her first foray into non-fiction. Her fiction books feature casts of cooperating characters building relationships and finding their place in the world, so it is no surprise that The Heroine’s Journey deals in precisely the types of stories Carriger likes to read and write. These are stories of connection, romantic, platonic, familial, and everything in between. Carriger was an anthropologist in a previous career, and describes The Heroine’s Journey as a social, anthropological approach to story with a grounding in the classics, and decidedly not a Jungian or psychoanalytic approach derivative of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

Although she emphasizes that the Heroine’s Journey is not derivative of the Hero’s Journey, Carriger does frequently cast the two in contrast to one another, using our familiarity with the Hero’s Journey to illuminate the key differences between these structures. She summarizes the Hero’s Journey in one pithy sentence as: “Increasingly isolated protagonist stomps around prodding evil with pointy bits, eventually fatally prods baddie, gains glory and honor.” By contrast, the Heroine’s Journey rendered in one pithy sentence is: “Increasingly networked protagonist strides around with good friends, prodding them and others to victory together.” The sections in which she examines what happens when a hero enters a Heroine’s Journey, or a heroine enters a Hero’s Journey are particularly interesting as a result of these conflicts and differences.

Carriger weaves an important caveat throughout the book, stating it explicitly up front, but then reiterating it throughout the text. Although it is called the Heroine’s Journey, it can be undertaken by a person of any gender, just as the Hero’s Journey can. She underscores this point by using the 2017 Wonder Woman movie as a prime example of the Hero’s Journey structure, and then arguing that Harry Potter is in fact a Heroine’s Journey, clearly hitting the beats of broken familial network, found family, and the importance of belong, love, and working together. This is key to her point that “biological sex characteristics are irrelevant to whether a main character is a hero or a heroine. In other words, women, female-identified, and non-binary characters can be heroes. Men, male-identified, and non-binary characters can be heroines.”

With National Novel Writing Novel upon us, I’d recommend this book for anyone writing a story that doesn’t map easily to something like the Hero’s Journey or other common plotting structures due to its emphasis on interpersonal relationships or emotional rather than action outcomes. Fans of mythology and those who enjoy looking for patterns and structures in their stories may also find The Heroine’s Journey to be an interesting exploration of story types and structures that are wildly popular with many readers but don’t fit well into other models.

How the Post Office Created America

Cover image for How the Post Office Created America by Winifred Gallagherby Winifred Gallagher

ISBN 9780399564031

“As radical an experiment as America itself, the post was the incubator of our uniquely lively disputatious culture of innovative ideas and uncensored opinions. With astonishing speed, it established the United States as the world’s information and communications super power.”

In 1774, an enterprising revolutionary called William Goddard established the Constitutional Post, a service that illegally competed with the Crown mail, and provided the movement for American independence with a secure means to transport mail that would have been considered seditious by the British government. In 1775, the Continental Congress officially adopted the service, with Benjamin Franklin appointed as the first postmaster general, and the post office was born. Author Winifred Gallagher argues that this first institution of the federal government, which predates the Declaration of Independence, was essential to connecting and unifying the disparate colonies, and developing a country with a shared identity, as well as an emphasis on literacy and freedom of information. Gallagher focuses on high level developments and broad social impacts, with occasional anecdotes about the experiences of a few individual postal workers of America’s oldest public service.

I picked up this book as a means to contextualize recent debates about the US postal service in light of increased use of mail in ballots for the 2020 Presidential election, and claims about the nature and duty of the post office under the American constitution. I quickly learned that the exact nature of postal service was contentious even under Crown rule, when there was debate about whether postage constituted a fee for service, or a form of taxation without representation. However, the theme of what exactly the post office should be and do arises throughout the book, faced again in each new era as the post continued to change and evolve. Based on Gallagher’s account, there is far from any historical consensus about whether the post office should support itself, or be able to run a deficit with additional support from tax payers and the Treasury. Both Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and the first postmaster general, Benjamin Franklin, were restrictionists who believed the post should support itself or even turn a profit. Early postal advocate and founding father Benjamin Rush and President George Washington were anti-restrictionists who regarded the circulation of information as essential regardless of the cost. However, the question of funding has been revisited and revised repeatedly over the course of the country’s history, and has to be hashed out again every generation or two.

A theme that arises frequently throughout the first half of the book is the issue of States’ Rights, which is prominent in American history generally, but had a surprising amount of influence on the operation of something as mundane as the post. While most citizens wanted to be connected to the post, and would petition their congressional representatives for service, the establishment of a federal outpost in a community was not necessarily without controversy. Of particular contention were postal roads, which were essential to mail service. The post office was nominally responsible for establishing them, but lacked the authority to actually build roads, a matter which states did not want to cede to the federal government. The post therefore had to work creatively, subsidizing the nascent transportation industry, and encouraging local creation and maintenance of roads in order to have postal service established. This push-pull desire for both the benefits of confederation, and also the independence of statehood seems particularly illustrative of early America, and I learned as much about the country as the post from this book.

Another theme that weaves through Gallagher’s history of the post is the subsidization of the developing transportation industry as the United States grew, and expanded steadily westward, pushing out Native peoples, and swallowing up territories once claimed by other empires. Gallagher spends considerable time on stagecoaches and railroads, as well as the fledgling airline industry, all of which were underwritten by lucrative contracts to carry the mail in addition to their passengers and other freight. In 1857, the federal government offered $600,000 for any company that could carry the mail overland from Mississippi to San Francisco in twenty-five days or less. I was also fascinated to learn that mail was often sorted in transit aboard moving trains in a special post office car, by some of the service’s best clerks, who had to memorize extensive maps and timetables, reroute mail for missed connections on the fly, and sort with extreme precision and speed, all without succumbing to motion sickness.

The latter half of the book is less detailed than the first, and we get a much more cursory account of the post-World War II post office, which was beginning to buckle under the strain of austerity imposed by two wars and a recession. Here Gallagher accounts for how financial constraints and corporate lobbying combined to ensure the post office failed to modernize for the electronic age; whereas it had been on the cutting edge of steam power and aviation, it did not bring the same energy or attention to facsimile, internet, or email, which would have seemed like logical extensions to earlier postmasters general who argued for the involvement of the post in anything that helped connect Americans to information. Instead, the post office came to a point of crisis, and transitioned from being a fully-fledged federal department to being an “independent establishment of the executive branch,” or basically a non-profit business under Richard Nixon.

Although How the Post Office Created America was published in 2016 and could have come quite up to date, I finished with a more historical than current understanding of the USPS, as Gallagher does not get much into modern operations, though she does mention the legislation that financially burdened the post office by requiring it to prefund health benefits for its workers far into the future. I would also have been interested to learn more about the experiences and direct accounts of postal workers, as well as the history of government censorship of the mail, which is only briefly covered through the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Postal Obscenity Act of 1873, better known as the Comstock Law. However, these are perhaps stories for other books, as there is clearly too much rich history here to fit all into one volume. What is entirely clear is the historical importance of the post office in providing equitable access to information for all Americans, regardless of cost, a truly community enterprise that is no less necessary today.

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A Paradise Built in Hell

Cover image for A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnitby Rebecca Solnit

ISBN 9781101459010

“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in doing so they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be.”

What happens when a disaster disrupts our communities? If you’ve watched any Hollywood depictions, or followed popular media accounts, the images are immediately of panicked crowds, followed by savage competition for scarce resources. But in the field of disaster studies, crowd panic is found to be far less common, and altruistic, prosocial responses much more the norm. In a large scale disaster, you’re more likely to be helped by your neighbour or your coworker than by an emergency responder or relief worker. So why is the popular conception of how people respond to catastrophic events so skewed? In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit uses six major disasters to examine how the public really responds in a large scale emergency, and how the responses—or lack thereof—by authorities can undermine the altruism, community-building and prosocial behaviour that naturally occur, as well as the role the media can play in perpetuating these misconceptions.

Solnit uses six major disasters, three historical, and three more recent, as her case studies. Working in chronological order, she begins with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, proceeds to the 1917 Halifax explosion, and then turns to the London Blitz. For more recent history, she examines the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 9/11 attacks on New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Throughout, she blends these historical accounts with information from the academic field of disaster studies, contrasting these studies and theories of behaviour with more popular conceptions and reports. The case studies are a mix of natural disasters and man-made events; the Halifax explosion was an accident, while the Blitz and 9/11 were deliberate acts of human violence. While earthquakes and hurricanes are natural occurrences, Solnit pays particular attention to how the response of authorities after a natural disaster can create second, man-made disaster, and by contrast, how public response and organizing following a disaster can lead to political change.

A key concept in the book is elite panic, a term coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers University. Both academics in the field of disaster studies, they noticed that while authorities planning for disaster response were preoccupied with how to control public reaction, in fact it was often the authorities themselves that panicked and over reacted. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the acting commander of the Presidio marched the army out in the streets, nominally to provide aid, but in fact essentially instituting martial law in the city without the required approval of Congress. Ordered to shut down saloons and prevent the sale of alcohol, troops went a step further and began breaking into businesses to destroy their stock. Ordered to prevent looting, they shot people who had been invited by business owners to take groceries and supplies before their businesses burned in the fires that followed the earthquake. In fact, the troops were so industrious in the prevention of any possibility of looting, that they also prevented residents from fighting the fires. In each disaster, Solnit demonstrates that the most brutal acts are often committed by those seeking to preserve or restore their authority, not by panicked members of the general public, who are often preoccupied with helping one another.

In several places throughout the book, Solnit takes particular aim at the popular myth of looting in the aftermath of disaster. In a number of the cases cited in the book, including the San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina, authorities directed police or the military to shoot anyone who tried to take any property, even with permission. Solnit argues that the term looting “conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing.” Taking a television in a flooded city without electricity is theft; taking food, medical supplies, or the means to build shelter or escape drowning is requisitioning. Myths about looting can be particularly harmful because they make people afraid of one another. After Hurricane Katrina, the rumours about looting and violence in New Orleans led authorities in the neighbouring community of Gretna on the other side the Mississippi River to blockade the bridge and refuse to accept any refugees. Solnit also worked with journalist A.C. Thompson on a major story about how white residents of Algiers Point, a suburb of New Orleans, formed vigilante bands to defend their property. Thompson found that this impromptu militia shot at least eleven African-American men in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in the name of preventing looting. When the general public behaves badly in the aftermath of a disaster, it is often a more powerful group acting out against a minority. Some Germans were targeted in Halifax before it was determined the explosion was accident rather than an act of war by the enemy, and after a major earthquake in Japan in 1923, the minority Korean community was accused of committing arson or poisoning wells.

In contrast to the elite panic is the general behaviour of the public. Solnit argues that “the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic, and brave,” and she is able to back this up with ample evidence from academic disaster studies, and her various case studies. In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, the community set up camps and impromptu food kitchens in the city’s parks. After Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of boat owners crowded into the city to rescue the stranded even while authorities argued that it was too dangerous to enter the city. In the Twin Towers, occupants began an orderly staircase evacuation, even when the Port Authority directed residents of the South Tower to stay inside after first plane struck. The accounts from that day include a disabled man who was carried down in a relay by his colleagues. The urge to help one another is powerful, and so many people felt the need to do something, anything, to be of use to the evacuation and rescue operation. Volunteer services available to the victims and rescue workers included everything from food to counselling to massage therapy. This is mutual aid, which means that “every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one way street of charity.”

In addition to altruism and community, Solnit examines the opportunities for political change that can be provided by the upheaval of disaster. She argues that “disasters open up societies to change, accelerate change that was under way, or break the hold of whatever was preventing change.” She is quick to note however that change and progress are not necessarily equivalent. Nevertheless, an opportunity arises. In her account of the Mexico City earthquake, Solnit follows the story of the city’s seamstresses, many of whom worked in sweatshops that were destroyed by the quake. Their employers prioritized saving equipment over saving people, and in many cases disappeared without paying outstanding wages or severance. This led to the unionization of the seamstresses. A housing rights movement also grew out of the disaster, because many homes were destroyed due to the shoddy construction that had been overlooked by corrupt government officials and inspectors. The contrasting cases of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are particularly interesting here, because they both happened under the Bush administration. Whereas the first was used to consolidate power and curtail freedoms in the name of patriotism and safety, the latter opened up the administration to unprecedented criticism and opposition.

I picked up A Paradise Built in Hell following reading Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz, which I reviewed last week. Nawaz cites the book in her acknowledgements as an important source that informed how she wrote her characters’ response to disaster, opting against the more usual depictions of panic. Solnit doesn’t use any pandemics as examples, and indeed a pandemic would seem, by the very nature of contagion, to prevent such altruism and community-building, but Nawaz’s book, despite being written before COVID-19, proved to be a very accurate description of what life has actually been like since the pandemic began. And certainly we now know that the disruption of our ability to gather as families and communities has been one of the most difficult consequences of the pandemic. While it can be uncomfortable to try to think about positive outcomes of horrifying disasters in which people lose their lives, it can also be uplifting to be offered a more positive portrait of human nature in the face of disaster, especially in the midst of one.

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