Survival Hints from Three Novels
Deadlands: A Novel;
The Flock: A Thriller;
The Dark Wind: A Leaphorn and Chee Novel
I’m an optimist.
Some of my friends say they hate optimists. Fools, we are. Some of these friends are hunkered down in bunkers out West.
I have never been West. I have often been moved to write about books I love set in the American West.
The West is both the beginning and the end of the world.
Going west, sailing the seas, going to outer space are all actions of optimists, no? (I love sailors and astronauts, too.) Not that these things aren’t capable of quite a bit of wreckage along the way.
Do you read dystopian literature, apocalyptic novels? I always liked science fiction, and I suppose speculation on the future has always been filled with warning and dread. I gravitate toward optimistic takes on the seeds of promise in the future, in the hope that something of the good in people survives.
Remember Ray Bradbury’s story, where the family gets their glimpse of the first Martians, on seeing their own reflection.
My heart rose at the resurgence of technology in Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, when after the darkness, they finally see a street row of electric lights in the distance. (Not everyone reads it the same way. I know readers who experienced that implication of the presence of other humans with technology as menace.)
Is it just a matter of inclination, to find hope in a work and feel uplifted? I assume it is the author’s intent, or maybe the writer has to find the right reader?
As it happened, by pure circumstance, I had read two or three end-of -the-world, wasteland novels in a row. Or were my choices guided by Spirit?
Do you judge best books by their life-changing effect? Something stays with you which comes to mind again and again through your future outlook? I do. A book can be just entertaining of course, I love books which entertain, but I just don’t continue reading any which don’t entertain me.
My favorite of this particular trio is Deadlands: A Novel, by Victoria Miluch.
[May contain spoilers?]
I experienced some dread in the course of reading this book, but the story had me anxiously anticipating bedtime so I could keep reading. I was spellbound.
A girl and her brother are living with their father in an abandoned compound in the desert Southwest. Or perhaps they had built the compound as part of a community themselves, and something happened.
“The fruits of our labor you can enjoy by living here. Can I not call that a claim? Surely it’s more legitimately defensible than the right of conquest or the principle of first possession.”
I wonder, is it just land that's claimed, conquered or possessed, or did he mean people are subject to claims?
The father is clearly the head of their current little group and the family is living off the land and their own agricultural and engineering ingenuity. They are homesteaders and gatherers and have learned all the admirable kitchen basics from scratch, self sufficiency and thrift.
[Did you have home economics back in the day, with an older lady teacher, who taught us economy in the kitchen, managing scraps and spills of ingredients? Now I find the time left of my life is more valuable than the avoidance of making waste...sometimes. Selfishly. Guiltily.]
Her father has taught them that survival demands “control, restraint, sacrifice.” Sometimes he refers to a “contamination” which took the others.
The girl has no experience of a life among civilization, but she does collect fossils in the desert, and artifacts from human culture, and wonders about them, much like Ariel the mermaid under the sea.
Then a man and a woman arrive at the compound and are sheltered with the family. The couple seems mysterious in their relationship: are they really husband and wife? It is hard to assess whether they are each other’s allies or enemies, and to guess at what history they share, probably not unlike many couples in real life, to an outsider’s view.
My trepidation arose from the stranger’s attraction to the girl, or her attraction to him, and the sexual initiation I anticipated. Her complex adolescent feelings and actions in the situation with the man and his wife are handled really well though and seem true enough.
It’s a hot, dry, sweaty world in Deadlands, lonely and claustrophobic, with characters confined too close with a few people by chance, not choice.
However! My wild, irrational optimism is finally sated, when the family encounters an old rebel friend of her father’s who has seen the Domes where pockets of people still live in cities.
"So the world really is falling apart out there?' I ask.
“Pretty much. But I don’t think it’s the end.
“When you’re knee deep in problems, like we are, when hundreds of acres are becoming new deadlands daily, maybe you can’t imagine a way to fix your problems without an intermediate solution to keep you going. Otherwise, it’s too easy to give up and think there’s no point. And my thinking these days is, there is a point. It’s been like this before, you know? Not in this particular way, but in ways that also meant the end of civilization as people knew it."
With her exposure to other possibilities, the girl comes to think of her father and brother as fossils, whereas she herself: “Who knows what I’ll morph into next. It’s strange to me that I think of this with curiosity, not dread.”
When the girl visits a convenience store for the first time, with iffy solar generated electricity, in smoggy Phoenix, she finds an array of junk food in disposable packaging, all alien to her.
She doesn't despise such things, she is just curious. In the settlement, she would have preserved the peculiar pop bottle as a relic. “Here, it’s one of dozens in the convenience store, only too common to be special. …The bottle of liquid a potion: marking me as either free or forsaken."
What I rejoice over, and carry with me from Deadlands, is this:
“It’s a heady experience, even here, in this day and age. Half the shelves empty, the bottom-of the barrel dregs nobody else wants, and we still have all that choice.”
I was less keen on this darker novel, The Flock: A Thriller, by J. Todd Scott, but it kept me reading.
This one’s a murder mystery set against the background of a doomsday cult which considers itself an Ark against the End of the World. Once isolated and inbred, cult association is now widespread but disguised in the community, involving certain law enforcement officials and unexpected other people you'd trust. The first chapter title promises "This is How the World Ends." And that “[f]ear breeds faith. And faith makes all things possible," a dark foreshadowing of horrors to be revealed.
People raised in the cult family look for signs of the end. Raining birds. Fires. “The entire Southwest is on fire again, flames more than three hundred feet high, higher than our blue spruces will ever grow, although that doesn’t matter anymore. Nothing does…”
A young woman, marked as uniquely blessed, had escaped. She now remonstrates with her sister, raised alongside her in the cult but who persists. "You have no idea what you’ve unleashed, how hard it will be to control.”
It is noted that the messenger isn't worthy, but only the message matters.
I am not a huge reader of murder mysteries. This FBI thriller is darker than my preference, and resolves with survivor grief, (probably more realistically than a cozy murder resolution though, right.)
After the trauma, the only hope left is this: if you go off the grid to live, you won’t even know when the world is ending. And for the moment the birds can be just birds, and not harbingers.
"Signs" are debated in another desert novel, The Dark Wind:A Leaphorn and Chee Novel, by Tony Hillerman.
I read this novel because I’d seen one episode of the TV series and the desert landscape was so emphatic. And blessedly the desert figured just as beautifully astonishing in the book.
My most interesting experience of this novel is how the different values of two peoples are contrasted without judgment on either.
This passage of desert beauty introduces the distinct cultures in their interpretation of signs:
"The cloud loomed in the southwest. The sun on the horizon lit the underface of its great anvil top a glittering white, but at its lower level its color varied. A thousand gradations of gray from almost white to almost black, and–from the dying sun–shades of rose and pink and red. To Cowboy Dashee’s people such a cloud would have sacred symbolism. To Chee’s people, it was simply beautiful, and thus valuable just for itself." [Emphasis added.]
But with his cultural education as a tracker, Chee does look for signs, a gift in solving murders. He puzzles over connections between the marks of incidents:
“Nothing in his Navajo conditioning prepared him to accept happily the fact that coincidences sometimes happen.”
Chee is a hunter, and approaches the work of catching a criminal with ceremony:
"From their very beginnings, the Navajos had been a society of hunters. Like all hunting cultures, they approached the bloody, dangerous and psychologically wounding business of killing one’s fellow beings with elaborate care. Everything was done to minimize damage."
This murder mystery kept me reading. The mystery, and tracking of the criminal; the unique perspectives; the exotic (for me) desert landscape, as a natural and beautiful creation and not just a wasteland of human error and grief–[notwithstanding the horrors of historic relations between whites and the tribes]–all gripped me. Most of all, I felt at home with the innocence, or purity perhaps, of the detectives. Their moral discomfort with or acceptance of conduct aligns with their ceremonies seeking spiritual identification with animals.
I'll leave you with this telling observation:
"And now her brother, too, was revenged. At least Chee thought he was. It wasn’t a value taught, or recognized in the Navajo system and Chee wasn’t sure he understood how it was supposed to work."
I embrace these messages from the three novels, as tools I can use now:
- Joy in all the good things we have, and in freedom and choice. [I remember a former POW saying that if there's a doorknob on the inside of your door, you have everything.]
- Life in the moment.
- Tolerance. We might not understand someone's thinking because they are steeped in a different culture.
I wish you a happy future. What books bring you hope?