It’s time to play Six Degrees of Separation again. Those of us who join this challenge start with the book for the month, and see what books suggest themselves to us as links in a chain leading away from the original. You can bet that not one single participant will have made the same choices as you. That’s what makes it so interesting.
The starting point this month is Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. This compelling and uncomfortable book, set in a Glasgow brought low by Thatcherism in the 1980s is the story of a single family. More particularly it’s the story of Agnes Bain and one of her sons Shuggie. It’s the story of living in inferior housing, surrounded by inadequate or non-existent facilities and schooling. It’s the story of one woman’s descent into alcoholism, and the profound effects this has on her own life and that of her family. I was fully involved in this book, unable to leave it unread. At the same time, it left me feeling depressed and impotent, and I think it’s a testimony to the quality of the writing that it involved and affected me so deeply.
Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing is about another young inadequately parented loner. The perfect novel? Perhaps. It’s got something for everyone: a coming-of-age story about a young friendless girl, Kya, abandoned by her family and siblings, who has to make her own way in the world as ‘Marsh girl’, living in a shack on the shoreline. It’s a mystery story. Though this element unfolds slowly, once it developed, it had me gripped until the very last page. It’s beautifully evocative nature writing too, informed yet lyrical, capturing the soul of a North Carolina marshland shoreline rich in bird and other wildlife.
Another loner. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin is set in small town Mississippi. Larry, who’s white, and Silas, who’s black become friends against the odds in a community where such relationships are not so much frowned upon as simply not even thought of. The relationship sours, the boys become teenagers, and misfit Larry, again against the odds, gets a date. He takes the girl out, and she is never seen again. Nothing is ever proved against Larry, but from this moment, this loner becomes quite simply ostracised, and lives a life of complete solitude, taking comfort from his compulsive reading habit. Silas becomes a police officer, and the years pass. What happens next? You’ll have to read it to find out. This is a convincing read, and one with an unerring ear for dialogue. I loved it.
Living a life under suspicion leads me to The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead, a tautly-written account of one black boy’s experience of reform school in segregated 1960s America. Bright, studious Elwood Curtis finds himself there, having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its cruelties and injustices, the differences between the experiences of black boys and white boys incarcerated at the Nickel Academy are always understated, never dwelt on. A few characters apart from Elwood’s are developed, but the strength of the story derives from its understating the horrors of the system it describes. The central premise is that racism was so endemic it wasn’t even recognised as such. It’s all very well resolving to be good, keep your head down and play the system, but nobody can work out how to do this. A thoughtful book, with an impact that remains long after the last page has been turned.
There’s law enforcement of a different kind in The Line Becomes a River. Francisco Cantú was a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Arizona and Texas for four years. He stalked, captured and processed those Mexican citizens seeking a new life in the US. A few were criminal. Most weren’t. Cantú was good at his job, but it stressed him beyond measure. Eventually he quit to return to an academic life. It was then, funding himself by his job as a barista that he met an illegal immigrant, José Martínez, a diligent, God-fearing family man who had been with his family in the US for decades:. This man returned to Mexico to see his dying mother. And could not get back. Cantú and many others fought unceasingly to have him released to his family in America. For Cantú the battle was a way of seeking absolution, as he now saw it, for his four year career in inhumanity. Stuck in Mexico, unable to see or communicate with his wife and three sons, Martinez tries repeatedly to cross the border in attempts which he knows may result in his losing his life. By the end of the book, he has not succeeded.
It’s an obvious leap from Cantú’s book to American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. This is a compellingly readable account of how even a comfortably middle-class family from Acapulco – journalist husband, bookshop-owning wife Lydia, eight year old Luca – can have their lives thrown into complete disarray. Lydia and Luca become migrants seeking safety in the United States after their entire extended family is murdered. And in their flight, they discover that their education, their money brings no extra privileges. Their day to day struggles to reach el norte are as real as those of the least privileged migrant. I understand that the book has raised controversy in the Latino community: that many feel the characters are stereotypes, the plot little better than disaster porn. I’m not qualified to judge. But it did open my eyes to the difficulties faced by those who make the dangerous journey despite the odds stacked against them, and this vividly told story has engaged my interest in a way that more serious and informed journalism might not have done. I’m more likely now to want to know more.
Let’s finish with a book I’ve just this week finished, as it too deals with a pair at real risk of being dispossessed of what they thought they had: Claire Fuller‘s Unsettled Ground. 51 year old twins Jennie and Julius Seeder have always lived with their mother, largely self-sufficient and in some seclusion at the edge of a village. Then their mother dies, and their lives slowly fall apart. Their poverty, their unworldliness and reluctance to fit in with an ordinary 21st century existence leaves them exposed to the fragility of their way of life. Only their talent for, and love of music links them to moments of being carefree, and to a wider world. Here is a book about family secrets, about threats which seem overwhelming to such an unworldly pair; about poverty so constricting that impossible choices have to be made at the village shop; about friendships old and new and about the limitations imposed by lack of education and unworldliness. An involving and satisfying narrative.
I don’t seem to have made a cheerful chain for this Easter weekend. Every one of these books is well-worth reading. Just … not one after the other.