Thursday, October 30, 2008

Shrinking the "To Be Read" Pile by My Bed

I finished two books in the past two days. I tend to read when I eat meals alone and sometimes I get in a page or two before I sleep. If I am intent upon finishing something, it gets dragged along with me everywhere.

Len got me a pre-publication copy of our friend Neil Gaiman's new novel The Graveyard Book and it's been waiting to be read for several months. Lately, Neil's been touring all over the place reading it for charity. It's aimed at a far younger audience than I am, but I've always enjoyed good YA and kiddy lit. In this book, a toddler escapes the slaughter of his family by crawling out of the house into a nearby cemetery which has been turned into a park. The residents take him in, name him Nobody Owens, and raise him. In the process he learns a few good skills from the ghosts and other denizens. He becomes quite resourceful in protecting himself from the killer who needs to finish the job he started at the beginning of the book.

It's a perfect little book to read for Halloween. I especially liked a short exchange which was a shout-out to Alan Moore's Watchmen, a riff on my husband's favorite line from the graphic novel: "you don't understand, they are all in here with ME." I think it is debuting quite high on the best seller lists, so it isn't hard to find a copy for an avid young reader's trick or treat bag.

The other book I just finished is Travels with Charley:In Search of America by John Steinbeck. This is one of the books I picked up in Salinas at the Steinbeck Center back in August. I'd been slowly picking at it, but got a rush to the end this week. I am profoundly struck by the timeliness of the book, which is far more than a travelogue of Steinbeck's months driving around the United States in the autumn of 1960. His northern journey took him to a number of places near those I traveled to in my first trip across country by car in 1974, where we took a month to get from New York to Stanford University (one of Steinbeck's own stomping grounds.)

Steinbeck's description of the sameness of American cuisine is magnified today, and I can only imagine what he would think of the saturation of chain restaurants throughout the country. He'd probably really like the locatarian movement. I loved reading of his decision to go to Yellowstone National Park, even though he mostly avoided the National Parks on his trip as "too touresty," and how he had to beat a hasty retreat when Charley went wild over the sight and smell of bears. I so related to visiting his sisters in Salinas to get his absentee ballot and how outraged they were that he was voting for John Kennedy. When they told him his father would be turning in his grave, Steinbeck told them that if his father were still living, he too would have changed parties. He met wonderful characters, like the actor, and frightening characters, like the racist hitchhiker in the South. Throughout it all is the wonderful personality of Charley, an older standard poodle, who kept him company during the trip.

I also had a light-bulb moment when I realized what a familiar Norman Rockwell painting was all about. It's a picture of a little black girl in her go-to-church best clothing, with faceless adults walking with her. She's got to be the little girl in the part of the book where Steinbeck made a point of going to New Orleans to see the horrible white women who were daily screaming obscenities at small children on their way into an integrated public school.

I remember the news stories of the integration of the southern universities, but this slipped by my notice in the copies of Life and Look that I read in my grandfather's barber shop. Or maybe somebody hid those issues from me, because it is very disturbing to the adult me to read about these atrocities against what Steinbeck described as a "mite" of a girl, actions which would have given me nightmares when I was almost as young as she. Thus I learned of the "Cheerleaders" who Steinbeck derided as a group of people (to use a later phrase) looking for their fifteen minutes of fame, who would scream at this little girl and the little white boy and his father who also attempted to enter the school and then run home to watch themselves on television.

If you do a Google search of "New Orleans Integration Cheerleaders" you can read about this protracted battle, about a child who was afraid to eat her lunch (teachers found her sandwiches stuffed in her locker) because one of the women would hiss at her each day "we're going to poison you so you choke to death," and about white people who lost their jobs or apartments and had their property destroyed because they attempted to break the blockade and send their children to integrated schools. It is a shameful part of our history.

Reading about this brought the recent actions of Sarah Palin and John McCain into sharp focus. Their campaign has reached back to pull those same kinds of disgusting actions into today's world. They are the Cheerleaders, urging the people on who people yell "kill him" or "terrorist" or indicate that Arabs or Muslims are an acceptable object of hate, fear, or loathing in order to block Barack Obama's bid to be President. We are being forced backward to a time better recognized for the evil it generated than as some kind of rosy picture of white America. Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat its mistakes. Those who are taught history by unreliable teachers are even worse off.

Despite this, I have great hope that next week we will elect an intelligent, thoughtful, gracious man to be President of the United States, which would impress the John Steinbeck of Travels with Charley.

Vote. And volunteer to get other people out to vote. It isn't too late.

No comments: