Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review: The St. Simon Trilogy and a Feminist Rant

I was in my early teens - possibly not even into the technical teens, but what is now referred to as a "tween" - when I first read the St. Simon trilogy by Eugenia Price. The first volume, entitled Lighthouse, tells the story of James Gould, a young man who leaves his family in late eighteenth century Massachusetts, and travels to Spanish Florida to make his fortune. The spell in Florida, traveling to Baltimore, and a stopover in Georgia are all steps on the way to James achieving his dream: to build a lighthouse.

As a youngster who was beginning to understand what architecture was, I was enthralled by Lighthouse, and the way that the author spoke about James's struggle with proportion and materiality. (Later, I would learn that the most accurate portion of the novel is actually the bureaucratic entanglements and unreliable contractors.)

In the years since I first read the novels, which were originally published in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they remained in my imagination as the pinnacle of architectural romanticism, if that makes any sense. In my early 20s, I read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, and briefly fell in love with Howard Roark, before deciding that the whole "screw everyone else, just worry about yourself, and the others can all go to hell" idea was callous and selfish and inhumane.

But I digress.

After my love affair with Ayn Rand came to an end, my passion for the Lighthouse novels was rekindled, and I decided to reread them, after twenty-something years.

I ordered the books on Amazon - all three of them - and eagerly awaited their arrival two days later.

The books arrived, and I withdrew from the cardboard box the pastel volumes with their impressionist portraits of anonymous ladies in white tea dresses and straw hats. The fact that Lighthouse - a book set in the late 1700s to early 1800s, I remind you - was adorned with an impressionist portrait of a woman in 1890s-era clothes on the cover should probably have been a tip-off.

Either my memory was sorely damaged, or my taste in novels has changed entirely since my tween years.

I was a die hard romantic as a young girl - I mean "sweep me off my feet", "tall, dark and handsome", "night in shining armor" romantic. As I've grown up, I've learned more about what it means to be controlled by men, and how important it is to NOT be controlled by men. I was raised to question everything I was told, to think for myself, and not to be afraid to ask "Why?".

For those reasons, the books are now almost impossible to read.

Almost, I said. Because I will force myself to slog my way through a book, even if I end up writing notes on the book's shortcomings on the fly leaf to keep me sane.

The women in the books - who are not the main characters, despite the prominent pastel wasp-waisted women on the covers - are insufferably meek. The author seems to think that the ideal woman is child-like, incapable of thinking critically, and in need of a man to tell her what to do.

In the second book, New Moon Rising, the protagonist's sister is held up as a paragon of womanly "can-do" spirit, because she runs a plantation single-handed. And yet, despite the fact that she undoubtedly has to make decisions about her land and crops based on the national and local economy, she still has to ask her brother, Horace, for his advice at every turn. When war looms (we're in the mid-1800s now, folks), she questions whether the South will really go to war with the North.

Honey, the South has already shelled Fort Sumter and captured the Federal Navy. Yes, we're going to have a bloody war.

In Lighthouse, one of the secondary characters - a woman, of course, because women are second-class citizens - has a husband who is constantly chasing "big ideas" that invariably lead to their financial ruin. He's a terrible businessman with little intellect, but a ton of bravado and a pretty face, so he's likeable. He makes his wife's life a living hell because he won't go find a job working for someone else.

And his wife just says, "Oh well. I love him, so I'm happy."

She's just blissfully happy while her children are malnourished, and under-clothed, and sponging off of her poverty-stricken mother. Because a wife shouldn't stand up for the physical needs of herself or her children if it might embarrass her husband. No, it's the wife's job to support the husband no matter how selfish and inadequate he is.

One of the biggest things about the St. Simon Trilogy - and I mean, something that really sticks in my craw - is its treatment of the slaves held by just about everyone in the South.

Every slave in the books, with one short-lived exception (he gets mentions on 5 or 6 pages, tops), is a "happy darky" caricature. They are all grinning, happy, contented people, who adore their masters and don't want to be freed. The author, Price, writes her dialogue in dialect, but only when the slaves are speaking. And though I myself write in dialect when I compose dialogue for my characters (who none of you have encountered, because I'm a closet novelist), the way she writes her slaves' spoken words upsets me. Example:

Horace (white slave owner): Are there any more hot biscuits?
Larney (slave): Yes, sir, Mausa Horace - jis' one minute! ...Larney's boy wants more biscuits, an' dey ain' nobody gon' stop 'im- an' ah's got another pan ready to put on de fire.

There's reams of dialogue written in the slave's dialect, and I feel slightly queasy every time I read it. There's something about it that's just so... patronizing. Condescending. Maybe it's the fact that everything they say adds to the depiction of Georgia slaves as happy children who need to be taken care of by their white owners.

Add to the blackface atmosphere (the slaves literally sing and dance for the reader's enjoyment, in dialect, of course) the fact that almost all of the slaveholders depicted don't want to own slaves, and it's all a little too saccharine sweet. The men who are slaveholders are good men, because they don't want to own slaves, but they have to, you see, or they can't compete economically with their neighbors. And they only bought their slaves because they felt sorry for them, in the first place.

No, really.

One of the characters buys something like fifteen slaves, and since it's illegal to free them in Georgia, he just decides he has to keep them. Aw, shucks. Because it would be impossible to take them to - just spitballing, here - Massachusetts, maybe, to free them. You know, send 'em up to his relatives who live in the northern states and free them.

Just an idea.

Another thing that's driving me nuts about these books is the fact that the characters are all fairly static and lack depth. They're all too perfect, from the strong, handsome manly men, who know how to operate sawmills and plantations, and can capably manage "poor white trash" employees, to the sweet little wife, whose highest ambition in life is to pop out a baby each year, like a pre-antibiotic version of the Duggars (but not as creepy). All the women - even the intelligent ones! - are written as "dumb bunnies" who worship their husbands unquestioningly and live only for baby-making. And if there's a gal who doesn't meet this cartoonish standard, she is immediately portrayed as a virago who makes her husband miserable, or she's ugly, and therefore unworthy of either the characters' or the reader's attention.

Since I first read the books, my spiritual outlook has changed. Sort of. It had nothing to do with the books, this change, but it has altered my viewpoint of the books.

I didn't remember the St. Simon's Trilogy having such heavy-handed Christian undertones, and though they probably didn't rankle as a tween, they sure do, now.

[EDIT: Okay, they're not undertones, by the third book, they're the whole story, essentially.]

Up until I was in high school, I struggled with my faith. I was confirmed in the Methodist church as a 12 year old, but I didn't exactly believe everything I professed at the confirmation ceremony.

I don't know many 12 year olds who will stand up to their parents and say, "Hey, guys? I know you believe this, and that's great, and I respect your beliefs, but I'm not sure I buy this. Can we wait a few years to have me join the church? Until I've really had time to figure this out?"

Heaven knows, I didn't say it.

I felt guilty, up until my final year of undergraduate education, because I didn't feel the whole "Christ is Risen!" hallelujah thing. I wrestled with my spirituality, sometimes deciding I could maybe force myself to believe, or at least to pretend, and other times realizing that I would be lying to myself and to everyone around me if I claimed to be a Good Christian.

As a 12 year old who was frequently exposed to Christianity (church and those confirmation classes, all of my friends at school being either Baptist or Catholic or Nondenominational aka Southern Baptist), I probably went right along with the Christian messages of the books.

That Christian message is that, if you believe in God and Jesus, then your life will all get fixed up, somehow, and you'll be happy. Believing in God, in the Lighthouse universe, is literally a deus ex machina: when the male protagonists turn to God, their problems are solved almost immediately.

The "god from the machine" is literally God, you guys!

And it's never the women who doubt God. [EDIT: In book 3, it's a woman. Mea Culpa.] No, women unquestioningly believe that God will save them, no matter if the hurricane just destroyed all the cotton, or the Indians near the sawmill are scalping and burning settlers.

But it isn't enough for the women to believe, because ladies aren't strong enough to flag God's attention with our feeble little arms.

Lady arms are made for holding babies, not signalling monotheistic deities.


No, our big, strong husbands/brothers/fathers have to believe that God will save us, otherwise nothing will happen.

Because God is a misogynist.


I'm almost finished with the second volume, and I was wrestling with whether to read the third volume or not. I've decided I will read it, despite my reservations.

That is, if my feeble lady arms can support the volume's weight.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Wide Awake

It's a little before 1:00 am on a Saturday morning, and I can't sleep.

I've never been "a good sleeper." As I've aged, the insomnia has only worsened. In theory, there's a physiological reason for it: a calcified pineal gland, preventing my body from properly synthesizing melatonin. So I take melatonin at night, so I can sleep.

Tonight, however, my insomnia is super awful. I'm wired. I need to be making, or doing, or something, but I don't know what I want to make.

I tried reading, but I'm not 100% into the book I'm reading, and I couldn't force myself to continue slogging through it in my current frame of mind.

I tried writing, but I've been bogged down lately on that, and am having trouble pushing myself forwards in my story. I don't know how George R.R. Martin does it, frankly.

I tried to order wedding photos online, but had trouble with my account, so that failed, too.

And I'd love to be organizing our office, re-styling the bookshelves and cleaning out the boxes of wedding ephemera that will go in our album (once I succeed in ordering photos), but that would be noisy, and my exhausted husband has long gone to sleep.

In all probability, the insomnia is a forewarning of a migraine to come. It's common for me to have a night of awful, restless insomnia, and to have a full-blown migraine, next day.

Or, the inability to settle myself down is a symptom of my anxiety and depression, which can also cause migraines, which then cause anxiety and depression and insomnia, and...

I'm still having migraines and am unable to work, and I've made a decision about my treatment: I want to cleanse myself.

I've been on so many drugs for so long that I no longer have any idea what it's like to just feel like myself. Back in 2010 - or possibly 2009 - my neurologist/best friend took me off of everything, so we would know what my baseline was. Since then, I've been on oodles of medications for various reasons: antidepressants and antipsychotics to prevent migraines, pain medicine for sciatic pain, muscle relaxants for muscle tension due to migraines.

I no longer know what it feels like to be me, without any chemical alterations.

For years, between the end of my chemotherapy and 2011, when a doctor put me back on antidepressants, I had very strong emotions. When I was happy, I was amazingly happy. When I was sad, I was completely devastated. But my emotions were true, and they were mine. I feel, these days, like I'm completely numb. I don't really feel, anymore. I try to, but really the only thing that gets through is sadness and anxiety.

I don't know if taking myself off of my medications* will make a difference. I don't know if I'll feel happier again. I don't know if my migraines will grow worse, or better, or stay the same.

But I do know that I'm tired of not feeling.

*taking myself off of my medications under doctor supervision and with their blessing, because some of this stuff will f*&$ you up if you just stop taking it