asakiyume (asakiyume) wrote,

Wednesday Reading

Before we went to the Everglades in 2016, I started reading Marjory Stoneman Douglas's seminal work on it, River of Grass. It was not only hugely informative but beautifully written. At that time, I discovered that she'd written novel for young people (I think we'd call it middle grade, these days) called Freedom River (originally published 1953). It takes place just before Florida becomes a state and features three boys: a White boy, a Black escaped slave boy, and a Miccosukee boy. I was curious to read it for all sorts of reasons, including an idiosyncratic one: a 1994 reissue has illustrations by a cousin of mine (first cousin once removed; he's my dad's age).

Marjory Stoneman Douglas was born in 1890 and lived to be 108; in addition to being a tenacious environmentalist, she was also an advocate for women's rights and a charter member of the ACLU in the South. In 1948, appalled to learn there was no running water in the Black sections of racially segregated Coconut Grove, she helped set up a loan program so that the community could be connected to the sewer system and helped pass a law that no houses in Miami could be built without toilets. (Thanks go to Wikipedia for all this information.)

So--she was a social activist. But she was already in her sixties in the 1950s. So it's been very interesting, so far, to see how she handles this story of these three boys.

So far, I think she does a great job with Eben, the escaped slave, though she's into physical descriptions of both him and Billy, the Miccosukee boy, in a way that's a bit uncomfortable-making, for me anyway. She spends most time in the head of Richard, the White boy, and ugh, it's not a very fun place to be. The book jacket describes Richard as an abolitionist, but on the contrary, his "rescue" of Eben amounts to reenslaving him, and he aggrandizes himself to Arabella, the prissy daughter of the Big House, by bragging about owning Eben.

What's super curious is how nonpresent women are. The main characters are boys, and women are pretty much just pasted in the background here and there as part of the scenery. One does emerge briefly from the scenery to give a powerful warning, however. Eben has been feeling very pleased with himself because he's been able to save the White overseer's ass by showing him how to correctly plant and later process indigo. And then he has this encounter with an old slave woman:

The skin of her face hung from her cheekbones colored like a bruise. Her bare feet were misshapen in the dust. Her chin was propped on the angular turn of her wrist. Her arm was like an old stick ... Her thick voice spoke to him in the language of his mother. "Watch how you step there, young one. The further up the monkey climbs, the more he shows his tail."

"Grandmother," he gasped, "Grandmother. Do you know me?"

"I have known hundreds of you," her toothless mouth muttered. "Proud you, black boy, climb the tree. Monkey, you. Never think the white man does not see. Never think you will not be cut down."

Very sobering.

The scene where Richard and Arabella are studying together is very annoying for all sorts of reasons, not least because it makes use of that trope of irritation/annoyance-that-actually-indicates-liking:

That yellow hair hung down her back, too, in curls, in the silliest way. She had a ring on her finger she was always showing off. She sat with her white ruffled skirts stuck out around her as if she thought she was too fine to live. She had a perfectly ridiculous way of curling her lips at him. Pink. They were bright pink.

How do I hate that snippet, let me count the ways! The fact that the character really does sound unappealing, and yet it's clear that Richard is fascinated by her. The fact that she's nothing more than this: ruffles, a ring, hair, lips.

I really think I hate this trope more than straight-up love at first sight.

So... that's a lot of thoughts for a children's novel that I'm only halfway through. Oh! And yes, I picked it up again because Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School being in the news reminded me that I owned it and hadn't yet read it.

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Tags: books, marjory stoneman douglas, reading
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