Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Steep and Thorny Way: Something Was Rotten in the State of Oregon

I liked the last two Cat Winters books, The Cure For Dreaming and The Uninvited.  When I discovered that she had written a new YA novel with a bi-racial protagonist, I was intrigued and wanted to find out if she could pull it off.

 I know that one of the reasons why African Americans object to POC characters as protagonists in novels written by Caucasian writers like Cat Winters is that it leads to books by African American writers being ignored.  The more visible and successful Caucasian writers get to dominate the market with their portrayals of African American life.  Although some African American authors do get contracts from traditional publishers, there aren't as many as there should be.  I really do recognize that as a problem.

I want readers to be aware that I do read and review African American writers.  Maybe not as often as I should.   Yet I can say that in 2015 I read and reviewed Hurricane and Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes, Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett and Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez on this blog.  I don't feel that I'm privileging books about African Americans written by Caucasians.   In fact, The Steep and Thorny Way is one of the few that  I've read in this category.


So I saw that someone on Goodreads was asking whether this book is racist.   Please note that I saw no one asking if the YA novel Soundless by Richelle Mead is racist or anti-deaf because she writes about a Chinese deaf village when she is neither Chinese nor deaf.   While I can't vouch for the cultural authenticity of either this novel or Richelle Mead's, I can speak about the impact they had on me.  I felt that that Richelle Mead's book strongly condemns prejudice against the deaf, and I felt that Cat Winters was strongly condemning racism.

In fact, it seems to me that framing a narrative about a bi-racial girl trying to get justice for the death of her African American father as a Hamlet re-telling implies that her story is just as significant as the one that Shakespeare was telling in Hamlet.   It's saying that her readers should sit up and take notice because something having been rotten in the state of Oregon is as important as something having been rotten in the state of Denmark.   And the rot in Oregon in 1923 was that prejudice was king. 

Is this a good Hamlet re-telling?  Well, re-tellings come in a variety of flavors.   Some are closer to the original version than others.   Some are very creative in their approach to re-telling.  The Steep and Thorny Way is an example of a creative re-telling.  For one thing, it appeared to me that there were two Hamlets with each fighting for the justice of their separate causes.   Hanalee was one, but  I thought that Joe Adder was also a Hamlet. He too was struggling against prejudice.   So Hanalee doesn't need to fulfill all the aspects of the Hamlet role.  It's divided between her and Joe Adder.   I felt that there was similar doubling or even tripling of other roles in Hamlet among the characters in this novel. For example,  I think there were actually three Ophelias.  They were recognizable by what they did or what happened to them that paralleled the characters and events in Shakespeare's play.   The re-telling aspect is complex.  Most people will conclude that it doesn't work as a re-telling.  I disagree.  I think it's a very good re-telling.

Finally, Hanalee is a strong female protagonist.  She is very independent.  She refuses to be confined by conventional expectations.    She wants to marry anyone she chooses regardless of race which she couldn't do legally in Oregon at that point.  She wants a good education so that she could become a lawyer.  She carries a pistol and is a very good shot.  This is why The Steep and Thorny Way qualifies for this blog.





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