Several times over the last couple year, I've blogged about feeling like something was missing from my pleasure-reading. As if, after my long hiatus when working on my first couple of novels, either I'd forgotten how to immerse myself in a good book, or the SFF field had moved on and stopped producing things I enjoyed reading. The feeling was most apparent when it seemed as if all my friends--people whose taste generally seemed to march with mine--were raving over a book as the best thing since sliced bread and I found it merely...good. Merely pleasant. Merely well-written. What was wrong with me that I wasn't finding anything to be OMGWTFBBQ-excited about?
Well, maybe I just don't excite on the same level other people do. Maybe I'm mistaking the dialect in which people are discussing books for the meaningful content of the language. I dunno. Maybe I have simply gotten a lot pickier about what it takes to excite me. But some things have.
I got very excited about T. Kingfisher's The Raven and the Reindeer, after all. And Beth Bernobich's fiction has been consistently passing the treadmill test. I've recently started diving shallowly into the graphic novel pool and am discovering some woman-produced, woman-centered stories that are making me reconsider my disinterest in the medium. I just finished reading Kelly Gardiner's Goddess (a fictional account of Julie d'Aubigny's life) and will be saying very nice things in my review of it.
Maybe, if I'm not getting over the top excited about the hottest new SFF property...maybe that's ok. Maybe it doesn't mean that my reading organ is failing. Maybe it doesn't mean that my taste is broken. Maybe I simply like different things than my friends do. (Goodness knows, it wouldn't be the only path in life where I'm out of step with everyone else around me.)
As an author, I regularly feel a pressure to treat my reading habits as an essential part of community involvement. But that pressure pushes me in a lot of different directions: publishing community, genre, connections of publisher, of project, of convention community, of friendship. Even when I resist that pressure, there's this looming guilt that I should be reading Book X or Book Y because: reasons. Currently I'm looking at my Worldcon panel schedule and thinking, "What if I have to admit to a fellow panelist that I've never read anything of theirs?" (Never mind that I wouldn't expect them to have even heard of my books, much less have read them.) That pressure and guilt isn't the only reason for my reading malaise, but it's one of them.
But I think...I think I might be starting to get my reading mojo back. Because on a few hot, sultry summer evenings lately I've found myself sitting out in the garden with an ebook and a cool drink until well after everything else went dark around me and the mosquitos began coming out. Some of it is because I'm in a break between major writing projects. Some of it is...well, hot summer night. Not feeling productive. But some of it is because I was enjoying that book so much that I didn't want to put it down and go to bed yet.
Today’s discussion springs off of the later part of Chapter 11 (Ram Dass) but ranges backward and forward to examine Sara’s concept of what it means to be a princess. After the encounter with Ram Dass, and being reminded of what it was like to be treated as someone rich and privileged, Sara contemplates her current expectations and makes a resolution. “If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”
But what does that essence of princess-hood mean to her? It wouldn’t be easy to extract from the next passage, where she imagines the final days of Marie Antoinette in prison and sees her as an inspiring figure of strength, dignity, and nobility. I don’t know—maybe Marie Antoinette did become a tower of strength and dignity at the end, but she seems a very odd sort of role model, especially given the behaviors Sara invests with royal meaning. But conversely, having chosen Marie Antoinette as her icon of royal behavior, the imagery of revolution and the Bastille and all the rest provides a framework for turning the school garret and Sara’s menial duties into a Story.
It is in the behaviors that Sara performs when she is “being a princess” that we truly see her touchstones.
A princess is polite to everyone, high or low, no matter how rude or harsh other people are to her. When she was riding high, Sara always said please and thank you to the school servants. When she was riding low, she continued to do so, even when they were rude to her and mocked her.
A princess performs her duties without external complaint, even when those duties have been thrust on her without her consent. And even when she is seething inside. When Princess Sara took on the role of mothering Lottie, she didn’t always enjoy it, but she carried through. Now that her duties involving cleaning and running errands in all weather and following whatever orders the other servants give her, Sara takes pride in performing everything asked of her as best she can.
And “pride” is a good word for it. Not just the pride that one assigns to the downtrodden who have nothing left but pride, but a privately smug, self-satisfied pride. This is one of the things that humanizes Sara consistently: she is not inherently and reflexively “good”, she works hard to perform goodness no matter what she feels. We see this in Sara’s silent internal dialogue directed at Miss Minchin, “You don’t know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution. I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, unkind, vulgar old thing, and don’t know any better.”
It’s clear that Miss Minchin accurately senses that hidden pride and smugness. There’s a point later in the book when Miss Minchin describes it as “defiance” and the authorial voice contradicts this, saying it was nothing like defiance. But I disagree: Sara is defiant. And we applaud her for being so. She uses her politeness and calm demeanor as a sword and shield to maintain her integrity in the face of circumstance.
A princess is generous; she grants largesse. When Sara was rich, she expressed her generosity through tangible gifts, such as the food she sneaks to Becky., but also through the generosity of spirit that led her to tutor Ermengarde, and to invite the younger students to play with her dolls, and to share her stories with anyone who wanted to listen. Now that Sara has so little to give of tangible benefit, she comes to understand the nobility in giving until it hurts, simply because you can. Because you have the ability to give and the insight to know another’s need. We will see this later on “the dreadful day” when Sara’s lucky fortune in finding a coin to buy bread turns into a challenge to her Princess Nature when she is faced with a starving beggar.
And with Sara’s rededication to this model of princess-hood, understood through a new lens, she is ready to enter the next phase: earning her reward.
The final schedule for MidAmericon II, this year's Worldcon, is up and I've added my singing signing and kaffeeklatsch events to my posted schedule. Barring a delivery disaster, I'll have Alpennia badge ribbons to hand out, so make sure to find me and ask for one!
ETA: Typo corrected. Wouldn't want to mislead folks into thinking I'd taken up filking again! Sorry about that.
I skipped over Luzie Valorin's first chapter in these teasers. It isn't always easy to find a good extract when you're first introducing a character. But now Luzie's life has intersected with my other protagonists. Serafina Talarico was looking for a place to live for the Rotenek season and Luzie had a room to let. By one of those tangled social webs, Jeanne de Cherdillac hears of the opportunity and drops a note requesting that Maisetra Valorin see if she could accommodate her dear friend Maisetra Talarico.
As existing fans of Alpennia know, that web of connections is a continuing theme in the books. A room opens up in Luzie's home because the violinist Iustin Mazzies has gotten married. Iustin was a protegée of the Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, who introduced her to her new husband. Jeanne is an old friend and former lover of Barbara, Baroness Saveze. Barbara's very dear friend Margerit Sovitre is trying to teach Serafina thaumaturgy. Serafina hears Luzie playing some of her own compositions late in the evening when she thinks no one is listening, and she hears something in the music that Luzie doesn't even know is there. And Serafina recollects that Baroness Saveze has been thinking of commissioning some settings for her favorite poems. So Serafina suggests Luzie as a candidate, knowing Margerit will be in the audience when the work is first performed...
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(from Chapter 5 - Luzie)
So many people! The open doorway was cracked open just enough to see the first few rows of chairs beyond the open space where the fortepiano stood. Luzie could barely remember the first time she’d played in public, perched on a box set on top of the bench to raise her hands high enough to reach the keys. One of her brothers had played the violin—she couldn’t remember now whether it had been Gauterd or the unfortunate Ianilm. Later it had been duets, side by side at the keyboard with her father. She hadn’t performed since her marriage—not for more than a few friends in private or for her lodgers. And never her own compositions before. She had confidence in her hands, but this crowd!
Somehow she’d thought it would be a small affair—a parlor, or at best a private ballroom—not the Salle Chapil. In rehearsals she’d imagined a private salon with a dozen listeners. A few friends, the baroness had said. Zarne will be reciting some of his new works after you play, and Hankez is showing off her portrait of Maisetra Sovitre. Baroness Saveze’s few friends seemed to include half of Rotenek society.
How had Maisetra Talarico fallen in with this crowd? She didn’t pry into her tenants’ lives, but one couldn’t help being curious. A letter of reference from the famous Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, familiar enough with Baroness Saveze to secure this commission for her, and yet not familiar enough to be invited to the performance?
Luzie looked out again. The space glittered with gilded woodwork and elegant jewelry. The guests were beginning to take their places. She could see the baroness seated in the place of honor in the front row wearing a gown of peacock-blue silk, her head bent in conversation with the woman seated beside her.
If only her father could see her now! He hadn’t set foot in a Rotenek concert hall since his hands had grown too stiff to play, but he would have come, if only she’d known to ask. She wouldn’t have dared to beg an invitation for a truly private concert, but for something like this…surely it could have been arranged. Perhaps there would be more opportunities after this one. There were a few faces in the audience she knew from her own acquaintance: the Alboris and the Silpirts. And everyone in musical circles in Rotenek knew Mesnera Arulik.
She glanced behind her to smile nervously at the singers. DaNapoli from the Royal Opera, and the other two no less prominent. Baroness Saveze had suggested them. She couldn’t have commanded that level of talent on her own. And now the baroness was standing before the assembled company, saying something and nodding to call her forth. Luzie stepped out and curtsied to the crowd, barely hearing what was said of her as she and the singers took their places.
It's a common (and tiresome) critique of historic or fantasy novels that place women in pre-industrial military roles that such a character and activity is simply implausible. "Women couldn't do the work." "A long-term disguise as a man is not believable." And so forth at tiresome length. The best counter to such critiques is to drown them in data. Alas, even that approach won't satisfy the more stubborn of the nay-sayers. I've watched online discussions where such critics picked away at each piece of data as "a special case", "marginal", "not really a combat role", "poorly documented", "exaggerated for sensational purposes"...all while ignoring how much of male military history would fall in exactly those same categories by the same criteria.
This isn't to say that historic women in military roles were ever common, or that they were openly accepted except in special circumstances. But there's no reason to think that the simple act of creating a fictional historical woman in a military context should break the suspension of disbelief. Diane Dugaw's book on "warrior women" in fact and pop culture focused mostly on the 17-19th centuries. Today's publication brings that picture up to date by focusing on the 19-20th centuries.
Wheelwright, Julie. 1989. Amazons and Military Maids: Women who Dressed as Men in the Pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness. Pandora, London. ISBN 0-04-440494-8
This book is aimed at a popular audience rather than being a scholarly treatise, and is focused strongly on the 20th century and on personal reminiscences and memoirs. But there is a great deal of coverage of prior centuries, and many biographical specifics. A book well worth browsing for inspiration.
Somewhat similarly to Dugaw’s book on gender disguise in military contexts in the early modern period (both in life and literature), this book examines the phenomenon of persons born as women who took up military careers as men, whether out of patriotism, as one facet of a transgender identity, from some other desperate need, or a combination thereof. The book is copiously illustrated, including many photographs of the more modern subjects who are included. Although some of the individuals documented in this book would most likely identify today as trans men, I will follow the framing given in the book and use female gender.
The introduction (chapter 1) notes the relatively common occurrence in the 19th century of women passing as men for economic reasons, not only in military contexts, but in industrial settings. The survey of historic roots of passing women notes cross-dressing roles in 17th century theatre, as well as “female warrior” ballads.
Some of the best documentation comes from military contexts (sailors and soldiers), which was a popular choice in part due to indiscriminate recruiting practices. Most of these came from the working classes, but there are examples such as Fredrika Bremer in early 19th c Sweden and Nadezhda Durova, fighting for Russia against Napoleon, as well as many other women from the middle and upper classes in France, Prussia, Germany, and Austria at a similar era, who enlisted for the adventure or out of patriotism. Women also took defensive roles in desperate circumstances without necessarily attempting disguise.
As one of the tropes of “female warrior” biographies was the adoption of masculine behaviors with regard to women (flirting, visiting brothels, and engaging in sexual teasing) it can be difficult to determine to what extent homoerotic desire may have been a motivating factor for passing. In some cases, the passing women had a clearly heterosexual motivation in pursuing or accompanying a husband or male lover.
Military women, both fictional and historic, were held up in popular culture both as aberrations and as role models. Some women pointed to such pop culture representations as their inspiration for taking up a military career in disguise themselves. Military women were also used in pop culture to reinforce gender norms, used as a symbol to shame men into enlisting, or contrasted with images of women’s “natural” pacifism.
Nineteenth century Europe was undergoing a conceptual shift in how armies were organized, moving toward a more rigid, professional approach, rather than the previous system which allowed for the integration of supporting roles (“camp followers”) that were often filled by women. This shift meant that women lost opportunities to participate in an unofficial (and often unpaid) capacity. In the “new” military, disguise became the only way for a woman to participate, rather than being only one of several options.
Chapter 2 begins with biographies from the American Civil War, including that of Emma Edmonds, whose gender-disguise was inspired by a fictional female pirate captain. She left home to avoid an unwanted engagement in disguise as a man. After a time as a traveling bible salesman (during which she strongly considered marrying a girl she met in her travels), the start of the Civil War spurred her to enlist. In the same era, the English story of Christian Davies includes a detailed explanation of how her transformation was accomplished via dress, accessories, and behavior, including a urinary device that helped her keep her disguise intact. Madeline Moore, another American Civil War participant, notes how she used theatrical whiskers to help her impression. One American Civil War nurse (not in disguise) estimated in 1888 that there were 400 or more female soldiers in the war in disguise.
Women who were accustomed to hard physical labor had little trouble performing the military duties of men, and having achieved the more lucrative careers that made possible, they sometimes were loathe to leave them when the war was over. In the mid 18th century, Mary Lacey served in the Royal Navy in disguise, learning a carpenter’s trade, and continued working in the shipyards in disguise until her death. Mary Anne Arnold in Kent and Isabelle Gunn in Orkney both took up careers as sailors in disguise driven by the economic disparity in men’s and women’s wages. Similarly, Almira Paul and Elsa Jane Guerin, who had been left widowed with small children to support in the early 19th century, enlisted as sailors in disguise as the best economic option available.
Another path to enlistment was in the line of a family trade. Phoebe Hesssel was the daughter of a military drummer, who disguised her as a boy in order to keep her with him as a fife-player, from which she moved on to a combat position. Not all such family connections were positive: two late 18th century stories involve women being forced into menial naval occupations in disguise to accompany a controlling husband or stepfather (Mary Anne Talbot and Marianne Rebecca Johnson).
The text continues to provide names, dates, and specifics of particular individuals, but for the rest I’ll confine myself to summarizing themes. Unless otherwise noted, all discussions include 18-20th century examples, but I’m skipping over material that focuses only on the 20th century.
Chapter 3 discusses the process by which disguised women integrated themselves into their male roles. Romantic entanglements with women, including marriage (or at least engagements) were often part of the process. In some cases, these appear to be “part of the act”, but in others, the women’s memoirs express genuine romantic attachment. Acting the part could also mean meeting challenges and suspicions by simply outdoing their male comrades at the work, or by taking on an exaggeratedly masculine affect to balance any physical deficiencies. Due to the context, however, these examples of proficiency weren’t understood as contradicting myths about feminine frailty, and the disguised women frequently put on misogyny as an essential element in their disguise.
Chapter 4 covers the context and consequences of being unmasked. This might happen during treatment for injury, but it also might happen that a co-worker became suspicious and the woman was directly challenged. Expulsion from the ranks was the expected result, with the resulting economic consequences of both loss of a job and loss of access to male wages. In some cases, the unmasking would create an opportunity for marriage, though even the heterosexually inclined might be bitter about a return to a feminine social role. In rare cases, she might be allowed to continue working as a man, if there were an urgent need. Several military women continued to serve after discovery, but then had to struggle to be granted the wages and pensions they’d earned.
More rarely in life than in fiction, discovery might be a consequence of pregnancy (indicating that the disguise had not been entirely complete). Warrior ballads often gave their heroines behavioral “tells” that betrayed their femininity. In real life, disguised women often chose to tough out wounds with little or no medical treatment--or horrific self-treatment in some cases--to avoid having their secret discovered by doctors.
In rare cases, a woman might be granted permission to continue in a military role, if she could function as a powerful propaganda symbol, such as Angélique Brulon in the Napoleonic forces. A mitigating factor in her case may have been a strong family tradition within the specific regiment she joined, including her father, brother, and late husband. Family connections (and inspirations) similarly were behind the acceptance of Félicité and Théophile de Fernig after discovery within their father’s French Garde Nationale detachment in the late 18th century. More often, a tacit allowance to continue would be due to the pressing need for soldiers. During the American Civil War, references to soldiers discovered to be female received little comment or reactions.
Some women chose their own moment to end the masquerade. Mary Anne Talbot, confronted her villainous guardian while still in male disguise in 1797 and had the satisfaction of revealing her identity to him when he lied and said “Miss Talbot” had died some years previous. Unfortunately her satisfaction did not include regaining her stolen inheritance from him. The famous Hannah Snell made certain to collect her final pay before disclosing her sex to her former comrades and officers.
And some women continued in disguise until discovered only after death.
Chapter 5 looks at how these women’s stories were shaped and presented for public consumption after their “retirement”. Some of them used their notoriety for their own benefit, continuing to perform the act of “female soldier” now more openly either literally on the stage, as did Hannah Snell, or as a public persona to attract interest for their new professions. An entire genre of gender-disguise biography developed (often ghost-written, and almost always fictionalized to better conform to social expectations and ideals). Moving into the 20th century, these narratives developed a didactic purpose of arguing for the suitability of women to serve in the military beside men.
Chapter 6 considers several case histories of women who struggled for recognition, and especially financial compensation, for their service in male guise. Some were successful in gaining pensions or stipends, but often framed as a special and personal allowance, rather than as something earned by right.
With the invention of the science of sexology in the late 19th century, women who had taken up male lives to escape the restrictions of a feminine role now faced a diagnosis of psychological disorder and sexual inversion. Under this interpretation, the desire for a (inherently “masculine”) military career was a sure sign of “transvestical and homosexual impulses” and perhaps transgender identity (under the term “erroneous sex determination”). This medicalization of the behavior erased all the many different motivations and contexts that had previously led women to pass as men to enlist.
The final section of the book presents selected brief biographies of many of the women discussed, about 2/3 of which fall before the 20th century.
(The fabulous Historic Fantasy StoryBundle is still running -- but don't leave it to the last minute to take advantage. Here's a column from Martha Wells about the struggle to keep diverse representation in stories.)
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This is an old post I did back in 2011, and I wanted to repost it for the Storybundle (https://storybundle.com/fantasy) curated by Melissa Scott, which has The Death of the Necromancer and Between Worlds: the Collected Ile-Rien and Cineth Stories.
This is about when The Death of the Necromancer was first sold to a publisher, and how a rogue copyeditor tried to take out Reynard, who was gay.
Don’t Let Then Take Your Reynards
The Death of the Necromancer, published in 1998, was my third novel, and my first with a new publisher, Avon Eos. Everything went fine through the editorial process, right up until I received the copyedit, and found that one of the major supporting characters, Captain Reynard Morane, had been all but removed from the book. And it happened that Reynard was gay.
I’d worked hard on Reynard, and I liked him a lot. He had started out as a template. I wanted the main character, Nicholas Valiarde, to be Ile-Rien’s version of Moriarty, and Reynard was his Colonel Sebastian Moran. But in the writing, Reynard emerged immediately as funny and kind to his friends and deadly to his enemies. The one guy in the room that everybody knew they really didn’t want to get in a fight with. A very good soldier, a very good friend, and a very sexual person. He was kind of a weird combination of Oscar Wilde and Oliver Reed, but unlike Oscar Wilde he wasn’t going to come to a bad end because of a love affair. He was a little too old and too experienced and too much of a serial monogamist to fall too hard for anybody. I wanted him to be the polar opposite of the stereotypical gay character who suffers and dies because of his forbidden whatever, and to end the book better off than the other characters.
(One digression, for those who don’t know about the publishing process. The editor, usually the person who has acquired the book for the publisher, is the one who edits the book and suggests changes to improve plot, characterization, and other major elements. The copyeditor is the person who reads the book after it’s in its near-final form and checks for things like grammar, spelling, continuity, and style.)
By the time I got the copyedit, I had already revised The Death of the Necromancer based on the editor’s comments and things I realized I needed to fix, so the copyedit should have had only minor changes at best.
(To give you an idea how minor, back then the copyedit was handwritten marks done on the actual printed manuscript. The copyedited manuscript was shipped by mail to the author who would go through it and accept some of the copyeditor’s changes, stet others (an instruction that means the original text is supposed to be that way and to leave it alone) and handwrite additional changes on the pages. Then you ship it back and the publisher would take the whole thing and type it in, it would be printed in galley form (the actual printed pages that you see in books) and then shipped back to the author for a final proofread.)
But this copyedit came back with massive alterations handwritten on the manuscript, with bad grammar and incorrect word choices inserted, weird demands for all sorts of things to be explained that didn’t need to be explained (like the color of the tablecloth in a room description, or the main character’s choice of beverage), and odd demands for rewrites. (The copyeditor wanted me to rewrite one section because she thought it was too cold for the characters to be outside.)
(The publisher really doesn’t want you to rewrite the manuscript during the copyedit. They really, really don’t, to the point that there are sometimes clauses in the contracts stipulating what percentage of the manuscript can be changed during the copyedit. And they really don’t want a copyeditor to tell you to do rewrite.)
There were a lot of seemingly random deletions of descriptions, including whole scenes, conversations and other things you needed to understand the plot, but the thing that stood out to me was that Reynard’s dialogue had been all but excised from the book, and that the cuts to his part had started after it became apparent to the reader that Reynard was gay.
He was important to the plot in a number of ways and helped uncover some of the information that let Nicholas and Madeleine, the other viewpoint characters, solve the mystery before the Necromancer kills them. In the copyeditor’s expurgated version of the book, Reynard is still around for the first couple of chapters, but after the point where it was made clear that Reynard is gay, suddenly his dialogue was all marked as deleted.
The conclusion I instantly snapped to was that Reynard had been removed for his sexuality. Of course, I don’t know for certain if that was the case and I sure can’t prove it. I never found out why the copyeditor did what she did, or why she thought she could get away with it, if she thought it was really her job. (And some of the things she did were really strange, not like she had never read a fantasy novel before and didn’t understand the genre, but like she had never read fiction before.) But on that day, I would have sworn in court that Reynard was deleted because he was gay.
And it amounted to the same thing. He was gay and he was gone.
Would have been gone. It turned out fine. For my first two books I hadn’t encountered a problem even remotely like this, and this was my first time with this publisher, and I panicked. During a semi-hysterical sleepless night I carefully assembled a list of everything that was wrong with the copyedit, wrote down what I was going to say so I could pretend to be calm on the phone, then called my editor in the morning. I made it through maybe two items on my list before she stopped me. (Actually, she started laughing. I think it was the one where the copyeditor told me I couldn’t say that an evil sorcerer was buried in the crossroads because it was “a Christian concept.”)
The editor asked me if I could just stet everything, but I thought the book really needed a real copyedit, and it hadn’t gotten one. I sent back the mutilated manuscript and the editor ended up throwing out that copyedit entirely and having it redone, so everything was fine and my version of The Death of the Necromancer (with Reynard intact) was the one that got published. And the book ended up on the 1999 Nebula ballot.
This was an extreme case, and if I had been so dumb as to let this go by, my editor (who liked Reynard just fine) would have noticed that something had gone terribly wrong. (The copyedited expurgated version of the book was half the size it was supposed to be, for one thing.)
But I guess my point is, it’s your book, and don’t let anybody take your Reynards out of it.
(Note: Reynard appears again in "Night at the Opera," a new story in Between Worlds: the Collected Ile-Rien and Cineth Stories, and it was a lot of fun for me to make his acquaintance again. Both books are in the Storybundle (https://storybundle.com/fantasy) along with several other fabulous books, and it’s an opportunity to make a donation to Girls Write Now and Mighty Writers.)
(Melissa Scott talks about the air race that features in Steel Blues, one of the books featured in the Historic Fantasy Storybundle. Such a great deal on so many great books!)
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Because Steel Blues is featured in the current Historical Fantasy Storybundle, I thought I'd repost a piece from several years ago about how we got the idea for the Great Passenger Derby that features in the novel. Becasue sometimes you just can't make this stuff up...
The Great Passenger Derby is based loosely on a real air race held in 1930, the All-American Flying Derby, which was won by Lee Gehlbach and his Command-Aire MR-1, the Little Rocket. Like our imaginary race, the All-American Flying Derby offered an enormous purse — $25,000 to the first three finishers —and captured the imagination of the public.
I first encountered this race in the pages of the Arkansas Gazette, which I was reading as I researched an entirely different project. The Little Rocket, as you might guess from the name, had an Arkansas connection: Command-Aire was based in Little Rock, and Gehlbach’s entry was sponsored by a consortium that included Command-Aire’s owners and the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. For Command-Aire, this was a desperate gamble: the Depression had hurt the company badly, and this was owner John Carroll Cone’s last chance to stave off complete dissolution. For the Chamber of Commerce, and the other sponsors, it was tremendous publicity, and the cash prize, half of which went to the sponsors, was just added incentive. The Gazette was happy to provide full front page coverage, and I followed along, thrilling to reports of bad weather and accidents, flyers forced to land in the desert, injured in crashes, and eliminated in various risky take-offs and landings. (And in other odd ways: Cecil Cofferin of Brooklyn collided with a car in the small California town where he landed for fuel, splintering a wing tip.) The race route covered 5541 miles, Detroit to Los Angeles and back again, and Gehlbach and the Little Rocket took an early lead and never really looked back.
After the win, Little Rock turned out for a parade in his honor, according to the Gazette, and the Chamber of Commerce brought Gehlbach and the Little Rocket back to town in the fall in an attempt to stimulate business, but the victory wasn’t enough revive Command-Aire. The company closed, and its owner ended up in Washington DC as an assistant director of the Air Commerce Bureau.
In designing the route of the Great Passenger Derby, we cribbed shamelessly from the first legs of the All-American Flying Derby: after all, if the fields could support the latter, they certainly could support our race. San Angelo, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas are on the route for precisely that reason. We also borrowed or were inspired by a number of the race regulations: the insistence on stock planes, for example. But the biggest thing we took from the All-American Flying Derby was the fact that it had happened — that a bankrupt aviation company had a chance to recoup all its losses by winning a single grueling race. How could that not become a novel?
My basic take is the same as for Fury Road: if I were an action movie fan, it would not be possible for a movie to target me more forcefully and specifically than this. I'm not an action movie fan, so there are sections where my reaction is, "Ho hum, can we get past the speeding around and blowing stuff up part and back to the interpersonal interactions part?" Ghostbusters had a bit higher people-to-explosions ratio than Fury Road, but they were both exellent in their own ways.
I'll leave off reviewing the premise, which is inherently goofy and doesn't stand anything in the way of scrutiny. The four principal actresses have outstanding chemistry and all play clearly distinct types without ever being reducd to sterotypes. Leslie Jones's Patty nails the type of local-history-geek who makes for great exposition. Kristen Wiig handles the initially-uptight academic, but redeems the character by the grace with which she's recalled to her original wonder and curiosity. Melissa McCarthy's character covers the combination of no-nonsense drive and tinfoil-hat focus needed to pull together a team of this sort. But it may come as no surprise that my heart belongs to Kate McKinnon's Holzmann--the archetypal mad scientist who mixes in the ass-kicking skills of an action hero.
It is evidently an open secret that Holzmann was supposed to be canonically lesbian. A few traces remain (like greeting Wiig's character with "Come here often?") but it would have been nice to have it confirmed in script by something more than innuendo. Definitely an icon for the ages!
The casting of Chris Hemsworth as the ditzy airheaded eye-candy secretary was a piece of genius. And the role is such over-the-top satire that I think reactions to the character can validly be used as a litmus test for sense of humor. The many call-backs to the original movie and cameos also add to the message that the movie is meant to be just plain fun. (I'm sure a lot of the cameos passed me by, due to the whole "somewhat face-blind" thing. But I did spot Murray and Aykroyd with no problem.)
I don't know that I'll be a repeat watcher of this movie, mostly because of the whole "not really my genre" thing. But it was a great way to spend a hot summer afternoon with the BFF.
I asked Twitter for a topic to write about--something frivolous, since I've been focusing so much on promotion lately--and Chasia Lloyd (@WriterCMLloyd) came through with, "What fashion trend do you wish would come back in style?"
I have an uneasy relationship with fashion and style. I spend a lot of time resisting the notion that I should put a lot of effort into "performing" through my appearance, rather than focusing on performing through accomplishments. I also sometimes let myself be manipulated by the desire to avoid attracting certain types of attention through dress. I blogged about that last year.
But today I'm going to answer in a totally frivolous context, rather than a sociological one.
The fashion that I love, and that I'd love to have the guts and the excuse to wear on a regular basis, is 1720s-1730s western European upper class men's wear. The embroidered waistcoats! The bright, full-skirted coats with the enormous cuffs and pocket flaps, all picked out with gold or silver braid! The buttons! And, of course, swaggering around with a gilded walking stick. *swoon* This sort of thing.
I've actually made a couple of dressy business suits that were inspired by that era, though I rarely have an appropriate context for wearing them. They're both a bit too dressy for the occasions at work when I might wear a suit, and yet at the same time, too subdued to fulfill my fashion fantasies. But there you go: the style I wish would come back so I'd have an excuse to wear it.
OK, let's just plunge into this.
It is, I suppose, a testament to Burnett's talent that the character of Ram Dass as an interesting, sympathetic, inventive, witty, and accomplished human being shines through from under the layers of Orientalism, condescention, and an oblivious racism that is shared by both the author and the viewpoint character. As the barest of backgrounds: Sara is up in the attic, taking a brief opportunity to view a gorgeous sunset through her garret window, when Ram Dass appears in the corresponding window of the house next door, holding a pet monkey. They acknowledge each other wordlessly, and then the monkey escapes and makes for Sara's open window, precipitating a closer encounter. Sara invites the man to climb over to her attic to catch the monkey. (I suppose we should imagine this to be a set of connected row houses, based on this scene and later ones.) He does so, gets a good look at her living conditions, thanks her, and leaves again.
A great deal of emphasis is placed on Ram Dass's subservient manner and his verbal performace of respect and gratitude. "He poured forth a flood of respectful thanks. ... [he] thanked Sara profoundly ... as if he were speaking to the little daughter of a rajah ... those moments were given to further deep and grateful obeisance." But his manner is not simply presented as a performance. And it never seems to occur to Sara that it is a performance, as opposed to a spontaneous expression of inner nature. When Sara reflects that, in her old life in India, she was "surrounded by people who all treated her as Ram Dass had treated her; who salaamed when she went by, whose foreheads almost touched the ground when she spoke to them, who were her servants and her slaves," she finds irony that she, who had been set so high is now insulted and mistreated by the other servants of the school. But it never seems to occur to her to map her experience onto those "servants and slaves" and recognize their equal personhood.
Well, no, why would it? This is a story about Sara's inherent nobility, not about her being a class revolutionary. And so she accepts the respect of Ram Dass as her due--as a reminder of a now-lost world. And that reminder inspires her to re-dedicate herself to being a princess, in behavior if not in station. I want to come back to Sara's peculiar notion of what it is to be a princess, but this entry is about Ram Dass.
It would be more comfortable if we were able to to read Ram Dass's behavior purely as a performace of servitude, necessary for comfortable survival in his situation of employment. But the authorial voice of Burnett disrupts this possibility by assigning elements of this performance as essential characteristic. When Sara greets him in Hindi, "The truth was that the poor fellow felt as if his gods had intervened, and the kind little voice came from heaven itself." (Note that if we are reading Ram Dass correctly as a Sikh, then "his gods" is wildly inaccurate, as Sikhism is monotheistic. So it's quite likely that despite the cultural trappings of the Sikh religion, the author is presenting him as relgiously Hindu. Or we can just chalk this up to an error from ignorance.)
There continues to be an interesting conflict between interpreting offensive stereotypes as authorial truth and as meta-performance. Ram Dass inhabits the trope of the "Ethnic Magician", but in a way that is explicitly fictional. That is, he is never ascribed actual supernatual power, but rather he is assigned--and takes up--the role of magician in being the driving engine (and most likely the mastermind) behind the "magical" transformation of Sara's attic, later in the story. Jumping ahead, we are repeatedly told of his ability to move soundlessly and invisibly, to observe without being obeserved. And in his discussions with Mr. Carrisford, the image of the magician is repeatedly invoked: "When she awakens [to the transformed attic] she will think a magician has been here." Mr. Carrisford's secretary tells him, "It will be like a story from the Arabian Nights. Only an Oriental could have planned it. It does not belong to London fogs."
In addition to tropes of supernatural Orientalist fantasy, Ram Dass is occasionally infantilized--he does not simply enjoy things, he experiences "a childlike pleasure" or is "filled with rapture" (a description he shares with Becky). On one element under this general umbrella, I will acquit Burnett. When Ram Dass describes how he would sneak across the roof at night to spy on Sara in her bedroom, the lack of any whiff of a sexual element is not a specific desexualization of Ram Dass but a blanket desexualization of the story entirely.
It is not enough simply to say that the book is a product of it's times, or that Burnett is actually quite enlightened in how she presents Ram Dass for her day and age. One of the reasons I have labeled this series as a "problematic favorite" is that I recognize that the presentation of his character is offensive and riddled with stereotypes, and that this presentation goes unchallenged even by the nominally enlighted protagonist. Despite the positive character traits that shine through it all, I squirm every time I read or listen to these passages. (In the same way I squirm every time Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy gets to the Jewish moneylender chapter. Though it isn't nearly as bad as that one.)
Next week, I'll tackle Sara's rather startling choice of Marie Antoinette as a role model.