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Archive for July 2012

Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches From the Unfinished Civil War, by Tony Horwitz

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Confederates in the Attic reads like a series of character sketches of the most eccentric people Horwitz met while following his most enduring childhood interest, the American civil war, on a road trip through the country’s Southern states. While he runs the risk of using the most extreme examples of civil war mania to represent Southern values and culture in general, I do think the “characters” he portrays allow him the opportunity he so desires as someone very much an Outsider: to explore the myriad of ways in which the Civil War remains central to Southern identity construction.

After all, the interests of hardcore re-enactors–and the satisfaction they get from keeping the old fight alive–differs greatly in feel and practice from that of women playing Scarlett O’Hara at international tourist destinations, on the one hand, and confederate flag merchandisers and, yes–contemporary Klansmen–on the other. Whether the appeal is nostalgia for what may in hindsight appear “a simpler time”, community-building outside the perceived constraints and perceived banality of modern life, or simply deep-seated prejudice, the Civil War remains an effective language and reference for communicating both shared discontent and longing for camaraderie.

What is still timely about the Civil War, Horwitz is told time and again by those who look upon it in reverence, are issues like states’ rights, Red vs. Blue state lifestyle battles, and remembrance of past family member’s involvement. Of course, there is great irony in the fact that racism and racial inequality is the only part of Civil War culture that is routinely dismissed as outdated by all but the most openly bigoted despite the persistence and intensity of segregation in the present day South (and elsewhere), the contemporary violence of which is so frequently expressed through Civil War racial rhetoric. One of the most interesting of Horwitz’ encounters, I thought, was with an all-black elementary school class who provided an important counter-narrative to many of those profiled throughout the book. Though he finds their schooling on the Civil War problematic (though certainly no less so than that of mostly-or-all white children’s classes and religious or heritage groups), it perfectly illustrates his point that Southerners still engage regularly and personally with Civil War issues in a way that most people in Northern, Western, and Eastern don’t feel the need to. Why? Horwitz pinpoints the thing that Southern states share, the thing that feeds this need: the unique sense of defeat and loss from within one’s own homeland which is continually reaffirmed.

My favorite part of the book was learning about the intense hierarchy that exists amongst historical interpreters (or re-enactors). What a difference the make of a pants-button or a thread count can make! The method of salting one’s pork alone, it seems, can distinguish the FARBs (those who care not enough for authenticity) from the Hardcores. I also found his bit about Southern Jews to be fascinating. Humor is Horwitz’s strength, as it helps him keep contentious issues engaging, even when enraging. He is sensitive while trying to accurately represent such opposing world views that, as someone who has only visited the South once and briefly (and greatly enjoyed it), I felt my own negative assumptions both justified and challenged at different points throughout the book. Contradictory feelings upon reading fit, I think, as the flexibility of Civil War culture as applied to today’s South produces its own contradictory social and political tensions.

Perfect for fellow social studies and U.S. history nerds, if a little unstructured at times.

Sidenote: Horwitz was taken on a Hardcore Civil War site visit that was ACTUALLY referred to as a “Civil Wargasm”. I smirked a little inside every time I read that title, which was many times.

Written by Emily Jane

July 22, 2012 at 11:40 pm

So Far From God, by Ana Castillo

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…and so begins another LONG overdue review of a book read months ago :/

I began So Far From God after Eva of A Striped Armchair recommended it to me while discussing the Read and Resist Tucson challenge that Melissa of The Feminist Texican started early this year in protest of Arizona’s ethnic studies bans (yes, this was on the banned books list). She referred to it as something like a pleasant surprise which, happily, I found it to be as well!

So Far From God takes place in a small town in my home state, New Mexico, though the world that Sofi and her four enigmatic daughters inhabits evokes experience I was never privy to as an (atheist, Jewish) Anglo. Theirs is an existence steeped in local and ancestral lore, Catholicism, and magical realism on the most mundane of days. But it is also one that is routinely challenged by industrial development and modernist appeals to progress.

Despite Sofi’s best attempts at raising her daughters safely through adulthood, all four come to untimely, tragic ends. La Loca, so-called because her childhood death and subsequent return from the world of spirits left her mind wandering somewhere between the realms of life and death, falls prey to epileptic fits and terminal illness. Caridad, once beautiful and reckless, is ravaged by la Malogra, a wild, invisible monster. She then trains to become a curandera (healer) and falls in love with another woman on the holy march to Chimayo, where she begins to make a name for herself that travels far and wide throughout the religious community, but leaves her vulnerable. Fe, the most conventional of the sisters, wants only to work and  maintain a comfortable household with her new husband, but falls ill after being exposed to toxic chemicals at the factory that employs her. Esperanza, the oldest, achieves her dream of leaving New Mexico by becoming a reporter and flying overseas to cover conflict in the Middle East…but never returns.

None of these devastating ends comes as a surprise. Instead, they are regularly foreshadowed in the exaggerated way of upcoming soap opera events. What’s surprising is the way in which Castillo manages an easy, light-hearted tone throughout such sad happenings and keeps the reader hopeful that somehow, things aren’t all as bad as they seem. That hope finds place in the girls’ mother, Sofi, who is repeatedly devastated by the loss of her daughters, but who is not left destitute by them. In fact, she seems to swallow all their strengths as they depart her world, and she becomes a courageous, capable community organizer who works with friends, family, and strangers around her to change what isn’t right, adapting to a world in flux when necessary and holding steadfast to tried and true traditions when possible.

Castillo is a joy to read. Spanish and English flow together in a way that feels natural even to readers who know little-to-no Spanish at all. Her characters are interesting and strange but knowable, her narrative is creatively spun, and she plays carefully but easily with a number of cultures and ideas. A pleasant surprise, indeed.

Written by Emily Jane

July 11, 2012 at 9:45 pm