Sunday, October 19, 2014

Karolyn Miller's Under The Red Ribbon

    I have been highly preoccupied writing a big book about Australia, editing another book about teaching Australian and New Zealand literature, teaching a new set of classes, and traveling to Italy, Serbia, and Bosnia to give lectures, but I wanted to mention a book which came to me utterly fortuitously and which has really caught my imagination—Karolyn Miller’s Under The Red Ribbon. This is a book whose action starts in the Midwest in the 1920s and ends in New York in the 1940s.  The major themes in American society in this era particularly urbanization and the slow rise in women’s empowerment, are there and, surprisingly and fascinatingly, so is a concerted attention to Native American rights and the mistreatment of American indigenous people by white-run schools and institutions. (Not so far from Australia and the ‘Stolen Generations’ after all). The book, though, centers on people and relationships. Much like Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See, which rescues itself from potential sentimentality by short, staccato, lyric chapters, Miller's use of subjective point-of-view means not only is the reader kept emotionally involved with action and character development as they happen, but that we are kept guessing, cannot presume the identity of just what we are reading about. But Miller is not hemmed in by formalist susurrations; the book is bouncy and vibrant, not preoccupied with questions of form and voice but using these modalities to transmit to the reader its own affective coin.
   The book starts off with Lucille Kramer’s graduation from high school, where two events that will dominate the novel’s arc occur: she has a romantic outing with a classmate Nick Martin Jr., that goes disastrously awry and she discovers that her recently deceased mother had a secret life and that the terms of her family situation are utterly different from what she has resumed. Lucille is an exceptional sensitive young woman who is nonetheless portrayed realistically and who makes mistakes sin judgment at times The point-of-view characters--Lucille, Nick, Lucile’s father Bill, Lucille’s father’s ‘best friend’ (and there are a couple for reasons that phrase is in inverted commas) Dan, Charlie, the young man Lucille meets when she goes to teach at a school for Native Americans and who she eventually marries, and Nick’s father Nick Sr., relate the doing so a far larger swath of characters, from the father’s next two wives—the very differently tempered Madeleine and Rose—to the Indian students Lucille teaches,  the sadistic Dickensian headmistress of the Indian school where she does this, the people in the Midwestern town where she grows up—redolent of the works of Hamlin Garland, William Maxwell, and Spoon River Anthology. The novel has an epic feel while retaining an intimate tone. The joy of reading it is infectious, the pace gripping and sustained. What I especially like is that characters are not prejudged and relationships are reevaluated, so that who Nick, Madeleine, and Bill, among others are changes as we, the readers, reassess them even as Lucille—the book’s major character—does so within the novel’s frame.
       This book reminds me of a couple of other recent novels—Kate Manning’s My Notorious Life and Ronna Wineberg’s On Bittersweet Place—in being a historical novel of American life in past generations, but not simply retreating into a pseudo-authentic Jazz Age or Victorian milieu—in all these books, the characters are lively and contemporary, people who happen to live in the past rather than people othered, eroticized, by their historical articulation. With this courageous decision not to fetishize the past comes the danger of anachronism, and my one cavil at Miller’s book is that anachronism is not entirely avoided. It is not so much the presence elf issues of sexuality, gender and race in the book--these issues were there in American society then if it has taken recent cultural studies scholarship to demonstrate this. Indeed, par tot the virtue of miller's book is to show us that these issues are not new to us. No, the anachronism lies in some of the literary references, Yes, Rilke’s poetry was available in the 1920s, but I cannot see two American Midwestern teenagers reading it: more likely T. S. Eliot, or Robert Frost (mentioned in the book), even more likely Sara Teasdale or Amy Lowell. Rilke’s poetry is important to he author both in her own aesthetic response to experience and in understanding the throes of modernity and imperiled innocence into which the characters are thrown, so with a bit of license she has a 1920s Midwest high schooler quote him. I just don’t buy it, but I see why the author does it. 

        Under The Red Ribbon is an absorbing book of secrets, growth, and forgiveness. What is remarkable is that, even though it is basically a self published book, to my mind it is as good as any American novel I have read this year—and, even though I have been reading mostly Australian fiction, I have in the course of teaching read ten or so American novels of the past year, including highly laurelled ones.  (I see the same phenomenon with art galleries, where exhibitions by community groups such as the West Side Arts Coalition are as good as shows in elite prestigious Chelsea galleries). That Miller’s book is up there with the heavyweights began the question of why some books are published by big imprints and on t others and whether print-on-demand technology has the potential to be genuinely, radically equalizing, in giving us a full gamut of books to read and not just what the gatekeepers at Knopf and FSG approve…