Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ree Dolly, my hero

When a book keeps you up all night thinking about it after you've finished reading it, it has to be a powerful book.  This book by Daniel Woodrell, Winter's Bone, scared the bejeezus out of me, as one of his characters might say, and I couldn't go to sleep till after midnight, worrying about the characters.  And not just because it's "noir":  it's because it's "country noir," as one reviewer put it.  It situates the violence and darkness not in its usual urban environment, but in my home:  the rural South.

OK, so Faulkner depicted a lot of violence and darkness in the rural South too. What else is new? Well, the setting here is the rural South, circa early 21st century, a bit closer to home for me than the Mississippi Delta in 1910 or 1830. And I'm sorry to say that the villains are instantly recognizable. They are the men who used to make moonshine in the past and have now diversified, first into marijuana growing, a fairly harmless pursuit in the seventies, and now into the cooking of meth, or crank, as it's called in the Ozarks apparently. We still mostly call it meth in the Upper Cumberland.  A few years ago it was a huge problem here.  Young people were losing their teeth over it, and losing custody of their small children.  But fortunately for us, Mexicans started making meth better and cheaper, and those "jobs" went south over the border, like the jobs in the shirt factories that used to be here.

In Winter's Bone, Daniel Woodrell makes the world of white rural poor people very vivid and exact, down to the last detail, of the interiors of their houses for example:  the old woodstoves, the guns lying casually on the kitchen table next to bags of pot and crank, the inherited old clothes, the cut-off shirt sleeves, the junk food bought as cheaply as possible,  and the still-useful relics of an older, more self-reliant past like a wooden "skinning board" for skinning squirrels.  He is also very good at describing the way beaten-up poor people look:  the missing ears and teeth and fingers, the limps caused by gunshot wounds, the pallor caused by days and nights of living on drugs, beer and cigarettes.  Even the smells of people--the bail bondsman smells "like town"-- are instantly believable.  His transcription of their speech is dead-on.  This is what makes or breaks a novel about the South, I think:  the writer's ability to remember and transcribe the unique  speech patterns and vocabulary of Southerners, which varies a lot regionally.  Flannery O'Connor was a past master of this, as was, of course, Faulkner.  But it's not that easy to do without sounding condescending, as if you are writing "dialect."  Woodrell never condescends.  His third-person narrator's voice participates in this voice too, so as not to distance itself too much from the main character, Ree Dolly.

And what a character she is.  She is absolutely, totally real and memorable.  She was the one I stayed up late worrying about.  She is a teenager when the events of the story happen, but she has already had to assume responsibility for feeding and caring for her two little brothers and her mother, who has gone crazy.  Her crank-cooking dad is absent, run off to escape prison.  The family home, inherited by her mother, has been put up by her dad for his bail bond.  So she has to find him, make him appear in court, or prove he's dead.

This task takes her on an odyssey through her broken-down neighborhood, meeting scary character after scarier character, like that baby bird in Are You My Mother?  She seems as vulnerable as that baby bird, only she's looking for her no-good daddy, ironically to bring him to justice to save the family home place.  The bad guys she meets are mostly men.  Her own uncle is one of the scariest.  Frequently these encounters lead to a slapping at the least; once she's knocked down some stairs; always she's threatened and told not to ask so many questions.  Her courage in persisting in this do-or-die effort to save her home, the ancient trees on the hill above it, her crazy mother, and her not-yet-mean little brothers is both admirable and reckless.  And people tell her so.  But she seems to feel she has no choice but to risk venturing into the dens of these crank crooks, asking them, in effect, if they have killed her father or know where he is hiding.

The fact that in the end she doesn't give up or die trying means that this is a novel where things mostly end happily, rather than real life, where it's just one thing after another with no real denouement.  In real life she would have gotten scared off; there would be no real resolution to the mystery of what happened to her father; she would join the Army, and her brothers would be adopted by a relative, her mother dropped off at the local mental institution.  To Woodrell's credit, for a while it seems as if this might be the way it ends.  But again, this is art, not life, and something like a satisfying victory is achieved, although the reader knows it's fragile.

You can't help admiring this amazing young woman and her sheer physical courage, tenacity, stubbornness, endurance, and all-round know-how:  she can shoot a squirrel out of a tree and skin it; she splits wood expertly; she negotiates with the bail bondsman.  It's all the more gratifying to think that a man wrote this wonderful portrait of a young woman; it's not a woman writer fantasizing about what she would have liked to have been.  When I was a little girl, I loved the Caddie Woodlawns and Pippi Longstockings of my fiction world: the strong, independent little tomboys.  Ree Dolly is a more realistic, grown-up, contemporary version of those little girls:  Pippi grown up not just to lift horses onto a porch, but to fight hardened, ruthless, meth-addicted rednecks.  And win.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Stressful Serengeti


Nature is supposed to be calming. We are urged to take vacations in 
"nature."  But people who spend a lot of time in "nature" know better.  Nature is not good or bad; it just is.  And sometimes it's violent and dangerous, and that's not just hurricanes: sometimes your fellow organisms can be a pain in the butt.

Nobody knows this better than Robert Sapolsky, the author of A Primate's Memoir.  Sapolsky has studied olive baboons in the Serengeti for decades, as a way of understanding stress in animals in general, including humans, the most numerous primates.  Sapolsky went to Kenya shortly after his graduation from Harvard and began chasing olive baboons with a blow-gun, in order to dart them with an anesthetic, draw blood from them, and measure their cortisol levels to determine their stress levels.  He found that being an alpha baboon was good.  Duh.  Being lower down on the pecking order caused a lot of stress for baboons.  The lower-ranking baboons, male and female, were subjected to bullying from higher ranking baboons, and some of them failed to mate as a result.  Both these things--physical abuse and isolation--make stress hormones sky-rocket, leading to stress-related diseases.

But this book is not just a parable about all the reasons not to let other people (or baboons) bully you.  It's a very entertaining account of life in Africa during the eighties and nineties.  Many of Sapolsky's stories revolve around his travels outside Kenya--to Sudan and Rwanda, memorably--and close scrapes and narrow escapes from bad guys and con artists in that part of the continent. The picture emerges of a beautiful but troubled continent, where desperately poor people are inured to corruption.  The last, tragic chapter is a lesson in the damage that corruption can do.

During his sojourns in the Serengeti, Sapolsky's neighbors were the Masai, with whom he seems to have had a love-hate relationship. At first he wanted to BE a Masai, and he practised diligently with the spear they gave him, trying to throw it through a rolling tire.  He became close friends with several Masai.  But as the decades went by, Masai culture changed.  The Masai turned out to be instrumental in the destruction of the baboons that Sapolsky loved.  In the end, he had some sympathy for the Kenyan government, which made being a Masai warrior illegal eventually.  Nevertheless, Sapolsky feels some sadness for the loss of this warrior, cow-herding culture.  (He mentions parenthetically that they practiced clitoridectomy,  which detracts somewhat from the romance of the culture.)

Sapolsky is a very good story-teller.  He is good at pacing a story, finding the telling detail to make it vivid and usually funny, and delivering the punch line. Some of his stories are poignant as well as funny, like the story of his trip to visit the dwindling reserve where Dian Fossey's mountain gorillas lives.  Fossey was apparently not as good at getting along with the locals as Sapolsky has learned to be, and he is critical, although also admiring, of her, especially since mountain gorillas were Sapolsky's first love.  He switched to baboons when he realized that baboon society is more analogous to human societies, and thus better for studying social stress.

I laughed out loud several times reading this book. It's rare to read a book by an academic scientist that is so well-written and entertaining that it makes you laugh out loud.  But also it made me think differently about people. I started noticing that people are really very sophisticated baboons. A lot of what goes on between people is exactly the kind of power-mongering and jockeying for position that olive baboons are obsessed with.  Somehow that realization--that it's just part of primate nature to bully and resist bullying--makes it, well, less stressful.  Groom your friends, avoid your enemies, make a loud noise if you need to, to scare enemies off, avoid the hyenas, and life is pretty good.