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Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

{Disclaimer: a copy of this book was provided me by the author for review. Ms. Cullars reached out after I discussed an earlier work of hers in my Feminism A-Z series on intersectionality in romance. It’s a brave author who looks at those posts and asks to run the gauntlet again. Especially since this review turned out to be extremely long. Spoilers will naturally abound, so be ye warned.

Also, this review series really does need a better title, so any suggestions will be most welcome.}

There’s an old joke that runs though literature departments: everything in fiction is a metaphor for sex — except sex, which is a metaphor for death.

Cover for Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars.

With money, it seems to go the other way. Money in fiction — literary, mystery, romance, sff, whatever — is always a stand-in for something else. Usually power, of course, but that begs the question: what kind of power precisely? In the case of Filthy Lucre by Sharon Cullars, money stands in for agency, for freedom, and for trust. Sometimes all at once, which makes my analytical brain rejoice.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first thing: this is a thoughtful and unusual romance — bank-robbing hero and black heroine in Missouri in 1933? AMBITIOUS — and it was really enjoyable. Definitely read it before continuing this post. There are mouth-watering food descriptions and richly drawn characters and real human conflict keeping the hero and heroine apart. Things like: he’s a bank robber who’s brought his fellow bank robbers into her home and they’ve taken her hostage and are probably going to kill her so they can make a clean getaway after the robbery. Also, those other bank robbers are Bonnie and Clyde. Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.

I told you it was unusual. Continue reading Filthy Lucre and Laundered Souls

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Better, Less Offensive History

At present I am in a library, staring out a bank of windows at a grassy field. Huge pieces of public art are scattered across the space: a driftwood horse, a strange lemon-fish-bowl assembly, and others, all shaded by giant leafy trees. Yes, I am at a small private liberal arts college. It is my ten-year reunion weekend. And someone just rode by on a unicycle, because of course they did.

For the next three days, I will be meeting old friends, walking familiar and forgotten sidewalks, and staring my past self right in the face. It’s the emotional equivalent of crossing one’s eyes: uncomfortable, perspective-changing, and unsustainable for long periods. I don’t have many large regrets, but like anyone I have a collection of small mistakes accumulated over many years, often misunderstood at the time when I made them. Most of these can be boiled down to things like People can be terrible at fearlessly articulating what they need and Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes. I liked who I was in college, and I like who I am now, but my current self is much wiser in many important ways. My past self is also much less afraid in other ways; I am trying to get some of that boldness back without ditching everything I’ve gained in the intervening years.

This college, where I spent four of the most vivid years of my life, also happens to be on/near the site of a famous missionary massacre during America’s western expansionist/genocidal phase. These rolling hills and river valleys were taken from various NDN peoples (Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Colville, and others) by stealth and slaughter. The college itself — increasingly rich and white — did and quite probably still does an imperfect job of confronting this history in the course of student life. During my years, I spent much more time reading Ovid and Euripides than reading about the mass death of the Cayuse children from smallpox. Like the college, I am responsible in some part for not adequately confronting the past.

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

When we arrived, my husband came back from a visit to the hotel’s business center and told me I must visit the second floor. I joined him and to my astonishment discovered a series of paintings depicting scenes from the life and death of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Most are blandly illustrative, but the others — well, others are rather more appalling in their choice of subject. Artist David Manuel’s website celebrates his tendency to value “historical accuracy over political correctness,” and even telling you that in advance cannot prepare you for the effect of seeing these paintings. Since they are slightly bloody and almost certainly triggering, I have put them below the jump.

Continue reading Better, Less Offensive History

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R is for Robin Hood

{For the full alphabet of diversity in romance, click here.}

Carrie Lofty’s What a Scoundrel Wants is a Robin Hood romance. Yes, technically the hero is Will Scarlet, Robin’s nephew (in this version of the mythology) rather than Robin himself — but we spend a lot of time in the woods, Scarlet’s a dab hand with a bow, he’s angsty because of his impossible youthful crush on Maid Marian (now Robin’s wife), the villain is the new Sheriff of Nottingham … You get the idea.

Cover image for What a Scoundrel Wants by Carrie Lofty. Forest background. A shirtless man with tan skin and folded arms faces us, slightly to the left, visible only from his chin to his incongruous belt buckle.If people know one thing about Robin Hood, it’s this: He robs from the rich and gives to the poor. Socialism, or at least a sense of wealth redistribution as a social good, is baked right in to the legend. But we don’t see a great deal of that in Lofty’s text. We’ve got a few peasants in Nottingham, some more in a smaller village, and a gaggle of refugees in the woods, but aside from a general sense of sucks to be poor there’s not a lot of social dynamics or even description of what the general public is supposedly suffering from.  In some ways this fits with Will Scarlet’s more ambiguous morality — but even when Robin himself shows up to help with the big battle scene at the end, the focus remains on a handful of larger-than-life heroes rather than the dismantling of an oppressive social system.

In fact, collective action in What a Scoundrel Wants is almost universally bad. The first scene  of the book involves Will being framed for the murder of a nobleman, purely because he was the only one of the guards not in on the conspiracy. Then a group of forest refugees try to hang him — it’s technically on the orders of their douchebag leader, our heroine Meg’s ex-lover, but it’s presented very much as the will of an angry mob. A second, much angrier mob later attempts to burn Meg as a witch — an epithet Meg is used to, since this amorphous mass of peasants has often persecuted her on account of her blindness and her mysterious alchemical talents. The reunion of Robin’s band at the end of the book seems to promise a positive scene of group unity, but then his men turn cowardly in the face of the Greek fire Meg has made for them to use in storming the villain’s castle, and only Robin’s personal bravery and charismatic leadership keep them from breaking ranks and running away.

Essentially, every group in this text is an amoeba. Heroes and villains stand out and can exert their will upon the group. The text’s world is divided between these two types of characters: leads, who have agency, and extras, who don’t.

It is in this context that we must evaluate our heroine Meg’s blindness.

(Side note: The Dear Author review from 2008 manages to get through 800 words without once mentioning the heroine’s disability. I suppose they did this to avoid spoilers, but it feels like an erasure, especially when slightly euphemistic language comes into play: “Meg has enough of her own troubles.” Translation: We shouldn’t talk about blindness: it’s not polite.)

First of all, Meg is a fantastic heroine of a very unusual type. She’s prickly, mendacious, and constantly horny. She gives fewer fucks than just about any other romance heroine I’ve seen, and I love her even more on this re-read than I did on my first time through. As a blind heroine, too, she avoids the most common pitfalls of disability in romance: she’s not a Magical Cripple or a litmus test for the moral purity of other characters. She’s accepted her disability to the extent that she has learned to cope with it in her daily life, but she is far from happy when it leaves her vulnerable or disadvantaged, and she’s not above using it as a verbal dagger to win points when she has to. The text allows her to be difficult and human, and that’s  worth celebrating.

However, Meg’s blindness exists in the text’s world of negative collective action. Her disability isolates her and forces her to depend on others for basic needs (food, shelter, translating ancient alchemy texts, not being stabbed with swords). She has worked hard to find ways around certain aspects of this dependence — keeping the inside of her cabin strictly organized so she can find her alchemy supplies, for example — and this is presented as heroic and admirable. But because she is a lead and not an extra, this dependence on others is presented as a problem in ways that seem ridiculous outside the plot context.

Such as when the hero drags her from her sickbed (literally, not figuratively) and ditches her in the woods. Because if she’s truly strong, she’ll make it back to the castle.

At this point in the narrative, Meg has been severely burned. On her hands, which are her primary tools for navigating a world. She has not regained feeling in her extremities since the injury, the skin is blistered and tender, and her hands are wrapped in thick linen bandages. This is not the first time Meg has been injured in the course of the book — the text beats up on every character at some point — but this is definitely a pivotal trauma. To make things worse, she’s being tended at Loxley Manor by Marian, who she knows Will had deep tortured pants-feelings for. So she turns quiet, and emotionally distant, and worries that her hands will be as useless to her now as her eyes have become.

Whereupon Will Scarlet hauls her into the woods with this justification: “If you’re strong enough to be my partner, come find me” (289).

She does, of course, because Meg is a heroine and a Lead With Agency. Tearing off her bandages, fueled by anger, using the moss on the north side of trees to orient herself (which: nope), she struggles back to Loxley Manor. Her hands are bleeding, her scabs open and painful. Naturally, she and Will fall instantly into bed, happy together at last: “He had hoped and gambled, and she rediscovered her strength in the forest, conquering the melancholy that hindered her recovery” (305).

Call me cynical, but it seems like groping through a forest with open wounds would hinder her recovery a lot more than a sulky attitude. It’s the year 1199 and not only do we not have antibiotics yet, but we’re not all that clear about bacteria or hand-washing, either.

But none of this is as important to the story as making sure that we demonstrate Meg’s heroism by showing that she can rise above the limitations of her disability. Because to do otherwise requires her to depend on the kindness of extras — of that amorphous, amoral mass of humanity that has no will of its own or sense of personhood.

If you’ve read much in the way of disability studies — and I am by no means an expert — you might have encountered two models of disability: the medical model (or individual model), and the social model. Lisa Egan at xoJane explains:

Someone with a medical/individual perspective would state that I am prevented from getting around my city because I’m a person with a disability and it’s tough luck that the Tube is so inaccessible. If I want to use the Tube then I’m just gonna have to find a new skeleton from somewhere.

The way I see it is that I’ve been disabled when it comes to travelling around my city by the architects that installed stairs and escalators instead of ramps and lifts at the majority of Underground stations. Stairs and escalators are man-made barriers put in the way by a discriminatory society that excludes me because I have impaired mobility.

The world of What a Scoundrel Wants very clearly adheres to the medical/individual model, not only because of its emphasis on Meg’s personal strength, but also because it removes any agency from the extras who make up this world. Notice in Egan’s description how the social model foregrounds the actions of non-disabled people in making the Tube inaccessible: the architects have chosen to use stairs and escalators instead of ramps, and that choice impacts Egan’s ability to travel through the city.

The emphasis on personal resilience somewhat undermines Meg’s strong portrayal, in my opinion: if only individual determination and heroism can make a disabled life manageable, if there is no room for a discussion of how society’s choices impact a disabled person’s ability, then there is no way forward. Indeed, at the end of the book, we’re left with no hint as to what Meg and Will are going to do next — where they will live, how they will earn their living, how they will afford to continue Meg’s alchemical experiments (all issues previously discussed in the text). The background lack of agency in Lofty’s world reaches up at the end to swallow even our hero and heroine.

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It’s a new blog to me, but the website Blind Spot run by UK researcher and lecturer Hannah Thompson has some excellent analysis of literature and media relating to blindness — for instance, the Lego Movie.

For other books featuring disabled characters, check out this Dear Author thread and the always incisive Love in the Margins.

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Lofty, Carrie. What a Scoundrel Wants. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2008. Print.

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H is for Harmony

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.}

Sienna Mynx’s 1920s-set interracial romance Harmony was a mixed bag for me. The book was self-published and it shows, especially in the comma confusion and some occasional editing errors that jerked me right out of the story (“romp” for “rump” and such). Hero Vinnie is an alpha male mob boss, neither of which tropes are really my jam, and I had some minor quibbles with the pacing and the plot. But by far my biggest disappointment is — spoilers! — the fact that our two villains (well, one-and-a-half villains: thanks, redemption arc) are both gay. People, I am so damn tired of gay villains in romance: it was cliché and reductive in the 80’s, and it’s cliché and reductive now.

Cover image for Harmony by Sienna Mynx. A brown-skinned, black-haired woman with a white flower behind one ear stares challengingly at the camera. She wears a spaghetti-strapped black dress. Behind her, a pale-skinned man with slicked-back blondish hair dangles a cigarette between his lips and stares at the camera with a shotgun raised to one side.It’s especially disappointing in an interracial romance that is explicitly concerned with how societal norms punish our black heroine and Italian-immigrant hero for the taboo nature of their relationship. Harmony and Vinnie lament the hardships they will face as a mixed-race couple, to the point where they end the book starting over in a new town out West where they won’t be so blatantly discriminated against. There are only a few states where their relationship is even legal, and our hero and heroine suffer from the stigma and prejudiced disdain of others at several key points in the plot.

None of this gives Vinnie and Harmony any immediate empathy for their gay siblings: Harmony’s brother Willie’s homosexuality is described as a “sickness” (Kindle location 3185) and Vinnie’s brother Antonio’s as a “madness” (3289) and “sins” (4256). (Side note: I have a hard time using the word “queer” in relation to this text, as it appears several times as a slur.)

Any excuse to post this exchange between Jeff Winger and Troy Barnes.In fact, it is Antonio, our villain, who most strongly makes the argument that it’s hypocritical to defend your straight mixed-race relationship while disapproving of his mixed-race relationship with another man: “You can fuck Annie, playhouse with her, but you would never accept me and Teek” (3208). Teek is the gay brother of Vinnie’s ex-girlfriend Annie — so for those of you playing along at home, we now have three gay brothers. Two of the three are black. One of the three, Teek, is dead when the book begins, and the other two conspire for revenge — though the main impetus is Antonio’s, since Teek was “the only person who ever loved me unconditionally” (3206). Antonio is killed pretty much immediately after this reveal, and Willie gravely injured.

With the various bootlegging gangs poised for war thanks to Antonio’s big gay treachery, Harmony gives her brother a wad of cash and sends him to Chicago, saying he should “go wherever you want and be who you are … You of all people should know we can’t help who we love, only the choices we make” (4053). This has the phraseology of acceptance, but it’s really a Pilate-like washing of the hands: an earlier exchange between Harmony and Vinnie about her brother’s future sees Vinnie encourage her to “Let him go. Let him be his own man, make his own mistakes” (3487). It’s an unfortunate turn of phrase that equates gay relationships with shady criminal activity (the context in which we mostly see men’s choices characterized as “mistakes” in this text). Harmony expresses love for her brother, but it has the regretful love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin flavor we’ve seen so often in ‘not officially bigoted’ homophobic parlance.The happy ending requires Harmony and her brother to be separated, possibly forever. The text’s inability to distinguish between Willie’s criminal actions and his sexual desires is one of the many points where a thoughtful editor could have improved the book immensely. Instead we’re left with a three-pack of the Bury Your Gays trope, with a hefty sprinkling of the myth that black people are especially prone to homophobia.

Fortunately, this disappointing dynamic is only a small part of the text. The part that resonated most strongly with me is the way this text deploys the human voice as a tool and a motif — in particular, the voice of our heroine Harmony.

Harmony’s voice is an instrument of unassailable power. It soothes her when she feels anxious, and it undermines her opponents. In a narrative where she is often vulnerable, trapped and surrounded by violent, untrustworthy men — our hero included — the power of her voice consistently levels the playing field: “Nothing could touch her when she sang” (532). Even as Harmony’s song keeps her protected, it utterly destabilizes our aggressive alpha hero:

Words he hadn’t spoken since he parted the shores of Sicily escaped him. He whispered them forgetting she didn’t understand his language. He wanted to stop time. Never in his life had a woman’s voice had such an affect on him. Silently he had craved her for months after the first time he heard her sing. He bought all the jazz records he could, trying to capture the calm soothing feeling of her voice that chipped at the iceberg in his chest most would call a heart. (543)

Harmony yells “No!” more often than any heroine in my recent memory. Shouts it, more than once, to the hero and others, often after eavesdropping and overhearing something vital she wasn’t supposed to hear. In keeping with this vocal self-assertion, she consistently refuses to be sidelined, deceived, discounted, ignored, or dismissed. At one point she is given solid cause to distrust the hero, and — praise be! — she distrusts him, as any reasonable person would when choosing between a long-loved brother in peril and a three-days’ Mafioso hookup who has kidnapped you and is keeping you in the dark about his plans. When Vinnie’s racist henchman beats her and tries to prevent her escaping from the isolated farm where she’s being kept, Harmony takes a pickax to his face. Then she steals a gun and a car, finds her brother, and threatens to shoot our hero for being a jackass. The fact that she happens to be wrong about who’s really behind the conspiracy does not become an emotional plot point: she is not made to atone for her mistake the way romance heroines are so often punished by the narrative for distrusting the hero. In fact, Vinnie seems rather impressed (as well he should be).

Words are the heroine’s best weapons. Antagonists more than once refer to her as “mouthy.” This in a text that emphasizes different modes of speech — singing, promises, lies, and confessions most prominently — makes Harmony something of a superhero. She argues back against those who would shame her for loving a white man. She unravels lies and compels the fulfillment of promises. At the book’s climax, she persuades two rival gang leaders to help her rescue Vinnie from assassination — a welcome reversal of the usual suspense dynamic.

Hero Vinnie, unfortunately for him in such a world as this, is more a man of concrete physical action:

He should just hold her and talk out their goodbye. Find the comforting words to give her so she would remember him fondly, and not like this, broken and needy. But he craved the physical more. (3901)

In the course of the plot, Vinnie tries to fight violence with violence and gang warfare with gang warfare. The fight scenes tend to feature him grabbing someone by the throat, choking them, or stepping on someone’s throat — silencing moves, reflecting his discomfort with language and speech. He is simultaneously paranoid about and vulnerable to his brother’s lies, and his inability to discern the truth of someone’s words often leads him to retort with his fists rather than with argument. Many romance heroes are described as dangerous, but few truly are: Vinnie kills multiple people in truly brutal ways over the course of the plot, and experiences little if any remorse for it. Yet time and time again, Vinnie fails at what he sets out to do — to reform his brother, to get back his stolen booze shipment, to convince Harmony to trust him implicitly, to be different than his abusive, larger-than-life father.

Often in romance the violence of a dangerous hero is justified and made palatable by the narrative: he defends the heroine, he kills the villain, he defeats enemies who are equally or more brutally vicious. The hero’s violence is within his control, or at least within the scope of sympathy and heroic morality. But Vinnie’s violent nature is almost fatal to himself, to Harmony, and to their shared future. It’s a part of himself that he hates, and for once the narrative supports the hero’s self-loathing: Vinnie is absolutely right to hate the part of himself that is hateful. Harmony gives him several earfuls about it, and his stubborn refusal to listen to her is presented as a mistake (unlike her earlier distrust and threats against him). His brother, his booze-running, his loyal gangster friends — all of these are taken from him, one by one, as the consequences of violence compound and increase. Just stop, I was mentally pleading by the time of the final showdown. Just leave while you’re still alive. There’s nothing left for you here. Vinnie nearly dies in a blaze of glory, haloed by bullets, hung from his arms in the barn where he failed to get former captured enemies to confess (that language weakness again). His farm, a longtime refuge, burns to the ground in the turmoil, while Harmony throws an unconscious Vinnie in the back of her car and they take refuge with the unspeaking Amish (no, seriously, it was kind of weird).

Normally, especially in romantic suspense (which I’d argue is the proper subgenre for this book), we see the heroine’s life destroyed to push her closer to the hero. In Vivid, for instance, Viveca’s cottage was set on fire by a disgruntled local douchebag, after which she moved in to the house where Nate and his family lived. In Harmony, for once, it’s the hero’s world that burns: Harmony gets everything she dreamed of since the start of the book. Vinnie puts aside his violent urges, for the sake of Harmony and their child. It’s like the end of Jane Eyre, if Rochester used more Italian words and was only emotionally rather than physically wounded at the end. I am left feeling that it really shouldn’t be so rare for an alpha hero in the romance genre to renounce a life of violence. To have a black heroine’s voice be the most powerful in the book, to have the white alpha hero ultimately yield to her authority, is kind of a radical move.

I think I’ve talked myself into liking this book.

I guess there’s something to be said for overthinking things.

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For actual period takes on black-authored romance in the 1920s, check out this gem from the Popular Romance Project about romance stories in black newspapers of the early 20th century. 

And for a wider historical perspective, here is a piece from The Root on black LGBTQ authors during the Harlem Renaissance.

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Mynx, Sienna. Harmony. The Divas Pen: 2012. Ebook.

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