". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

For Reading Wednesday - Good Man Friday

I actually have something for Reading Wednesday!  A book that is not non-fiction related to The American Slave Coast!

As other writers will say, it's hard to find a novel that one can read when so deeply involved making one's own book, particularly a novel that might be dealing with the matters you as writer are also dealing with.  Hambly's Good Man Friday was perfect for me: filled with matters I think about everyday, yet it is fiction, and she's got the precise touch for these matters -- she does not patronize or denigrate the historical issues or the readers, and she does not sensationalize or preach either.  As well, her research does not overhang the narrative, it does not draw any attention to itself. Instead, her research impeccably supports the story, the location and the characters. In contrast, too often, there are novelists whose endless research appears to be about world building, rather than supporting either the story or the characters. In other words these are novelists who are in love with the world they've built, rather than creating fiction. Their research, their characters and story serve the world building rather than what makes a novel a good one, one entirely immersive.

 No one would ever accuse Hambly of this.

In two nights of recreational reading (between after dinner reading of William Dusinberre's Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, and the lights out period of reading aloud to each other from Henry Adams and the Madison administrations) gulped Barbara Hambly's latest January mystery, Good Many Friday.  This one's set in Washington D.C. during the Panic of 1837, when the nation's credit and capital had collapsed, as in a domino line, Andrew Jackson's pet banks failed, in the wake of his destruction of the United States Bank.

The simplest background to this is to say that Andrew Jackson waged a war on the USB because he hated banks and believed only in hard money. Thus Jackson vetoed the the Bank of the U.S. charter, renewed by Congress. All the specie deposits were pulled out of the central USB and given to new, local banks quickly chartered, without sufficient capital on hand to support their charter. The oversight of capital and lending that the USB was entrusted to perform, was over. These banks issued credit and loans far beyond any specie holdings they possessed, and issued their own paper without anything backing them -- except the mortgages they took on land and chattel -- particularly slaves.  It was an economic disaster of biblical proportion, and now-POTUS, Mattie Van Buren, Jackson's chosen successor, was left holding the bag with not the faintest idea of what to do. The price of cotton simultaneously dipped. So did the price of slaves -- for a time, though only for a short while, as Texas became a Republic, and further, those lands cleared of Indians by Jackson came online and slaves were needed to build the new plantations. Thus the brutal abduction of slaves and free people of color got accelerated because it was a good way for poor white people to make a living.

But more importantly for the story in Hambly's novel is the U.S.'s concurrent troubles with Canada, including Upper Canada's rebellion against Britain and a secret plan in Michigan and environs then, to invade and annex Canada for the U.S.  Thus -- spies, thus Hambly's novel. About which no more.

I did have a couple of quibbles.

The first is that Henry Clay is described as handsome, which by all accounts, and his portraits, he was anything but handsome. But his personality and character and social graces were such that women adored him anyway, so yes, he is handsome in the eyes of these beholders, you could say.*  You, hostess, wish a successful social event, you want Henry Clay present. Thus this quibble is irrelevant.

The second quibble is that for no reason at all, we are told a woman on a Louisiana plantation is a Yoruba. This is highly unlikely for all kinds of historic reasons. This is the kind of thing that unpleasantly does throw a reader like me out of immersion, wondering what this woman's story is, since Yorubas did not come to North America -- or Louisiana before or after the American era -- in any numbers that register in either African American culture or genetics. And then -- which Yoruba group would she be from? Moreover, she wouldn't have called herself Yoruba.  The people whose origins were in the Oyo Kingdoms, Ife and so on, did not begin to be called collectively Yoruba until after the second half of the 19th century, by, of course, an Anglican missionary bishop. She would have more likely characterized herself as Lucumi, but that didn't happen until after the 1860's either.  And why are we told this at all, since she never appears in the novel except in that sentence. 

This is one of Hambly's best, most tightly plotted January novels. We have more access to the other characters than in previous books in this series, and Hambly, as novelist, is splendid with insight into their situation and condition -- and there's a wide variety of characters, particularly of color. Another of the reason can be expressed in a single word: baseball.

That's all I'm going to say about Good Man Friday. I'd hate to spoil this reading experience for anyone. It would be especially poor form to inadvertently or advertently spoil Good Many Friday, because it still feels so wrong that the novelist spends a year at the least, working to write the best novel she possibly can, getting every detail as correct as possible, and then the reader comes along and just gobbles it up in no time at all.


* Sometimes el V will (playfully) accuse me of having fallen in love with both Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson, which would mean their flaws -- and particularly with Jackson, his monstrosity -- is taken too lightly on my part, as I enumerate all the ways in which they embodied, shaped and were the giants of that national era then filled with giants (like Napoleon).  My rebuttal is: Calhoun. I cannot view Calhoun with even slight wonder.


Sarah Johnson said...

I'm going to have to check this one out. Such a rich historical period for an author to mine -- and so few of them have.

I also agree with you on this: "Too often, there are novelists whose endless research appears to be about world building, rather than supporting either the story or the characters." For me, the new Dunant was like this. Meticulous world-building, and I enjoyed her depiction of the atmosphere, but the amount of detail was overwhelming for me.

Foxessa said...

Thank you!

Going by what you enjoy reading -- and you do enjoy a wide variety of historical novels -- you would like this one.

I particularly enjoyed the glimpses of both Dolly Madison and Louisa Adams (John Quincy Adams's First Lady / Wife) we see.

Love, C.