Woman Inherits the Earth: Dinosaur Feminism and Virgin Births

Their children will surely be dangerous. Men don’t want them having children. So men create expensive, inefficient, and cruel systems to control the potential for reproduction. This is the secret history of Jurassic Park.

“You want to have one of those?”

There are two primary systems the male scientists use in their efforts to contain the dangerous potential of the creatures on Isla Nublar. One: electrified fences, which keep the animals isolated not only from humans, but from each other. Some dinosaur species are given more freedom than others—look at the wide open plain teeming with brachiosaur and pachycephalus herds, and then at the high-walled, claustrophobic fortress of the velociraptor pen. The more times I watch this movie the odder this enclosure seems: why create this species for the zoo if people are never going to be able to actually look at it? Did they just try every dinosaur species they had cloneable samples for and breed groups of the ones that proved viable? That hardly speaks of a stable technology under its creators’ control.

Control, I believe, is central to this question: it is impossible to imagine a conversation in which male InGen scientists believed they could clone a velociraptor, but chose not to because the creature was too dangerous. Such self-doubt would look too much like cowardice. So they clone not just a single velociraptor—though that would be hubris enough—but a whole pack of them. Even though both Muldoon and Grant tell us—and how exactly does Grant know this?—that velociraptors are most dangerous in pairs. Muldoon’s entirely justified paranoia must have been contagious, though. Later we learn that the raptor pen is not only separate from the perimeter fence but is also almost literally on top of the island’s central power station. The male scientists—no doubt egged on by the imperially-coded, quintessentially patriarchal Muldoon—have placed their most dangerous creation at the center of what they feel is their bastion of strength. It’s a dungeon, plain and simple—and every good storyteller knows that a dungeon primarily exists to be escaped from. The velociraptors have no choice but to break free.

“There is no unauthorized breeding in Jurassic Park.”

The second system of control is medical manipulation. What’s striking about Dr. Henry Wu’s statement in the laboratory scene is how nakedly authoritarian it is: children aren’t conceived in this world, they are authorized. Gender is rigidly policed as an absolute law, in defiance of real biological science (where intersex bodies and ungendered bodies happen all the time). We learn that all the Isla Nublar dinosaurs are designated female—because female animals are presumed to be easier to control, and male animals are assumed to be necessary, but more on that later—while Malcolm delivers his famous line about how life, uh, finds a way and a baby velociraptor hatches from an egg. Hammond is as giddy as a grandfather shoving his way into a maternity ward: “I insist on being here when they’re born…Come on, little one! Very good, push!” But he’s applying human patterns to what is a fundamentally inhuman birth. This baby velociraptor has to bring itself into the world. It has to be its own mother. And it isn’t cute or sentimental: it’s bloody, with eyes and claws and a hissing beak and sinister undertones to the musical cues. The shape of the egg and the sterile laboratory setting are strikingly reminiscent of Alien/s, another franchise obsessed with how feminized reproduction resists male control and containment.

Throughout this early part of the film, Grant is excited to learn what ‘real’ dinosaur behavior is like, but he’s been tricked by an illusion. He’s reading these dinosaurs as authentic, when they are the results of provably ignorant human manipulations. We know now that many of the species on Isla Nublar would have been feathered—imagine the proud cloning scientists watching the growth of their first newborn hatchlings, only to see those babies sprout plumes and pinions and down in vivid, eye-searing colors. Would those men recognize such seeming chimeras as authentic prehistoric animals in truth? Or would they assume instead that there had been some mechanical error in the cloning process, and go through batch after batch tweaking the recipe until they produced something that looked more comfortably reptilian? They’re not so much trying to discover the truth as they are trying to manufacture a species to fit a faulty pattern.

Considering how often scientists get it demonstrably wrong in this movie, it’s a wonder nobody has stepped up to challenge Grant’s later assertion that frog DNA allows adult dinosaurs to change sex to produce offspring. There is a lot of evidence against this hypothesis: it’s time- and resource-intensive, for one thing, and would be unimaginably complex in an animal as big as, say, a fully grown T. rex. Grant observes the evidence of wild dinosaur eggs, but is misled by the interpretive lens of human patterns of reproduction. He assumes dinosaur babies imply the existence of dinosaur fathers. He also assumes human science made this unauthorized reproduction possible, giving InGen's scientists much more credit than I think they actually deserve.

In fact, a much more likely explanation for these wild offspring is that they were created by parthenogenesis, the scientific term that means virgin birth and which describes the process wherein a female animal produces offspring that are genetically identical to the mother (usually) but otherwise viable for survival (more or less). This phenomenon has been observed in captive populations of pythons, cobras, turkeys, Komodo dragons, and chickens.

In other words, I contend that the female dinosaurs in the matriarchal dystopia of Jurassic Park have learned how to clone themselves. Which is not to say Isla Nublar has to remain strictly matriarchal forever: certain types of parthenogenesis can result in male offspring with the capacity to reproduce. Human fixations upon rigid gender and sex categories completely fail to apply to what the dinosaurs are doing as they recolonize their prison. (My dinosaur feminism will be trans inclusive or it will be bullshit.) The process male scientists and capitalists spared no expense struggling to master and control from the outside is something these creatures are naturally capable of. And the humans don’t even recognize this, thanks to what Dr. Sattler aptly terms “sexism in survival situations.” Human civilization has the gender binary and the nuclear family and the cultural narrative that women and children are weak and need male protection. Nature—inhuman, insatiable nature—needs none of these social constructs to ensure a species’ survival. Nature is happy to improvise.

“Dinosaurs eat man, woman inherits the earth.”

Since Frankenstein, male attempts to colonize and control female-coded powers of reproduction have driven countless science fiction plots. It never ends well. But just why should artificial reproduction always turn out so terrifying? Part of it surely is that what’s reproducing itself on Isla Nublar are predator species. But the terror here is not just the fear of death. The dinosaurs we read as villains in the film—the T. rex, the velociraptor, and the dilophosaurus—aren’t killing mindlessly, or for the evil joy of it. They’re killing for food. The fear is not that our characters will die, it’s that they will be devoured. The most notoriously frightening scene in the film happens in a kitchen as two raptors learn how to open human doors and try to make a meal out of two children. This beautiful piece of horror edges beyond butchery and into a realm I’d dare to identify as almost cannibalistic, with overtones of both Hansel and Gretel and Hannibal Lecter. This means the real threat in the film is about being used, or used up. Consumed. Human bodies are reproductive resources: women use men for genetic material (parthenogenesis has yet to be firmly established in mammals) and then women use their own bodies to build children. And we see at the start that Ellie Sattler’s desire to become a mother is explicitly presented as the key thematic framework in which this whole story takes place. Grant is hesitant about becoming a parent—a father—so the story sends him to an island full of monstrous mothers and gives him two human children to protect. As a test of his fitness. Grant’s arc is triumphant not because he has conquered the dinosaurs—he really, really hasn’t—or even (re)conquered Dr. Sattler (he hasn’t—compare this with, say, the reconquering romance arc in Die Hard). Grant wins because he’s learned to accept becoming a father in the human civilization he’s returning to.

We misread this plot arc badly. Distracted by restrictive meta-conversations about characters with agency, we mistake Grant’s busyness for narrative centrality. We watch him slowly warm up to the kids and we know it matters but we never stop to remember why. Grant’s not changing for himself. He’s changing so he can live up to Dr. Sattler’s hopes. The whole point of the whole plot is to get him up to her level. At the end the dinosaurs reclaim the island, and Dr. Sattler smiles approvingly at her newly nurturing partner. The dinosaurs have eaten the men; the mothers inherit the earth.

Catullus 5

For a recent milestone birthday, Mr. Waite and I flew to Italy for ten days of food, wine, and historical geeking out. On the plane I realized I'd neglected to take even a scrap of Latin poetry with me -- a shameful omission for an amateur classicist on her first visit to Rome. Luckily, my Latin professor had always insisted we memorize at least one poem, so I had Catullus 5 available upon request from my brain. It is one of the most breathtakingly romantic poems in history. And because it was a very lengthy flight, I had time to work out the following rather loose translation into verse.

Enjoy!

We'll live my darling, and we'll love,

And all those grim and senile sneers

We'll hold a cheap accounting of.

The sun can set and reappear,

But us, we burn so brief and brave

That one day's light is all we get

Before night tucks us in the grave.

Give me a thousand kisses, yet

Another hundred and again

A second thousand, and then add

The sum twice more, with tips. And when

We've kissed so much that we have had

To turn the counter back to none

Let's keep the number hidden so

The haters hating down below

Can't nullify a single one.

Jane's Cowboy's Father's Secret Space Ranch

{Olivia never met a fake romance title she didn't immediately want to write. This story title was found during a magnificent workshop given by Courtney Milan and Alisha Rai during RWA 2016. Enjoy!} Something was wrong with the cows.

Jane glared at the GPS monitor, which showed the location of every animal the Bar Sinister Ranch owned on the plateau. Normally the herd moved as an amorphous, amoeba-like blob within the boundary fences, drifting to and fro in search of water and good grazing.

Today, they were making patterns. Human patterns. Clear, recognizable shapes no cow should know anything about. It was, to Jane's mind, odd.

She crested the final rise and brought the Jeep to a skidding stop. Sure enough, there they were. Three hundred head of Flying Guernsey, standing precisely in the outline of a giant cartoon heart.

One thing the GPS hadn't been able to show her: they were glowing.

The setting sun made it hard to be sure at first, but as Jane strode forward with boots crunching on the dry summer grass, she noticed faint silver outlines on horns and hooves. The closer she got, the brighter they became.

This was more than odd, Jane decided -- this was downright spooky.

When she moved a few steps closer, she spotted the cowboy.

He was tall and lanky and absurdly hatted, wearing a Stetson with enough silver sequins to embarrass even Autry. He leaned lazily against the boundary fence while Jane approached. As questions and curses elbowed each other aside behind her clenched teeth, he hooked one thumb beneath the brim of his hat and raised it to fully show his face.

Crap, the man was gorgeous.

Long nose, sea-blue eyes, just the right amount of stubble on a rugged chin. Lips that looked sweet enough when still, and even better when the corners turned up. "Evenin', ma'am," he drawled, all black velvet and whiskey. "I suppose these cows belong to you?"

"They sure do." Jane kept her tone firm, though she couldn't help letting her eyes wander along the sling of his hips and the long of his legs. The boots were silver, too, she noticed -- almost like aluminum foil, but stiffer. "What the the hell have you done to my cattle?"

The cowboy glanced skyward, then pushed away from the fence. Suddenly the laziness was gone replaced by a steely sense of purpose. "Sorry to tell you, they'll have to come with me."

"Sure," Jane snorted, since there was not a wheeled thing in sight besides her Jeep. "Are you planning to ride them all into the sunset?"

"Nah." The cowboy smiled, and despite herself Jane's mouth went dry. That smile was trouble, and she'd always had a weakness for trouble. "We got something a little more technical planned." He put finger and thumb up to those lips -- oh, those lips, Jane, stop staring -- and let out a piercing whistle that carried a bit farther than Jane expected it would.

The sky lit up, bright as day but twice as cold. White light poured down onto the earth, giving every blade of grass a shadow like a bared knife.

Cows rose gently from the ground, bobbing like balloons, some of them lowing in irritation at being moved and others stretching their necks to keep lipping at the grass.

"Son of a bitch!" This couldn't be happening. Jane had leveraged every last cent of credit she could squeeze out of the bank to buy this herd and put the Bar Sinister back in the black. Without these cows, she'd have nothing.

She'd worked too hard to have it all vanish now.

A callused hand clasped her shoulder, not ungently. "I'm afraid you'll be coming along with us, ma'am," said the cowboy. "Can't leave any loose ends."

Jane cursed a navy-blue streak all the way up from the ground.

~~~~~~~

The ship itself was round and silver and every surface was studded with rhinestones. "Light collectors," Ed explained. (The cowboy's name was Ed.) Everything sparkles on the moon."

Jane floated by a porthole, fuming, as the great grey sphere drew nearer outside. Ed had gone to change -- Jane had yakked all over those silver boots as soon as they reached zero-g. It wasn't exactly her proudest moment, but then again it kind of was.

The door hissed open as Ed returned, boots freshly wiped and gleaming. "I brought you something to wear for when we land," he said. "One of my sister's spare outfits." It was as silver and glittery as Ed's clothes, but with considerably more puffiness around the shoulders.

Jane hurled the thing to the floor. Tried to, anyway. The suit rebounded off the tile in the low gravity and careened ceilingward. "Put me the fuck back down!" Jane demanded.

"Could do that," Ed said, unflappable. Jane swore to herself she would flap him before this was through. "But the Men in Black would have to kill you to keep the secret safe."

"What secret?" But just then the ship rounded the curve of the moon, and the question answered itself.

Below was a vast complex of domes, spheres, and spires -- a sprawling, bubblous city that covered nearly half the moon's surface. Slender antennae swiveled to track them, and eerie neon lights flashed in cryptic patterns.

"What," said Ed, as Jane goggled. "You didn't think we came all the way up here and then just turned back around?"

It took Jane a minute to catch her breath. God, but it was beautiful. "What is it for?"

"Mining, at first," Ed said. Pride and, yes, love warmed the whiskey of his voice. "Helium-3, other minerals. But later science got a foothold. Some things are easier here than waybelow: nanotech, diamond synthesis, artificial intelligence. Some of it's been up here since Grissom. My grandmother came up around then."

"So you're…"

Ed tipped his hat. "A space cowboy, born and raised."

Jane rested one hand on the window, glass cool against her palm. Chilled by the vacuum of space just outside. "What on earth does a city like this need with my cows?"

"What else? We eat 'em. Moon-raised beef's not the same, trust me. Of course, I've got something a little different planned for this herd. You'll see." Klaxons began to sound, and Ed waved at the suit that was still bobbing cheerily around the cabin. "Gotta bring us in, but soon as you're outfitted I'll give you the ten-cent tour. Considering you're a resident now." He nodded, and something sheepish softened his features. "Welcome home."

~~~~~~~

Jane had only known about Artemis for an hour now, but that was plenty long enough to have developed certain expectations. The city had looked so dazzling at a distance, but up close the flaws queued up to introduce themselves. "You said your family'd been up here since the 70's," Jane snapped. "I didn't think you meant the 1870s."

"It's rotten, I know," Ed said, all apologies. "Dad's a little old-fashioned."

Old-fashioned didn't quite cover it: they were standing in the middle of what looked like an old movie set from a spaghetti Western, with swinging hinged doors, wooden beams, and honest-to-God ropes hanging from hooks on the walls. Mint-green grass grew hopeless and humble on a layer of washed-out topsoil. Above them, in unsettling contrast to the decor, was a glass dome ringed with solar panels. The lower panes of glass were half-blocked with the soft grey lunar dust Jane had already learned to loathe. She wrinkled her nose against the taste of that dust in the back of her mouth. They'd better have whiskey here, or she would damn walk back to Earth. "Ed, honey, this is just not going to be enough space for three hundred head of Flying Guernsey. They're a nervous breed if you pen them up -- they need room to roam."

"They're going to get it," Ed said. He'd gone all steely again. Determination suited him, and Jane's heart kicked up in spite of her irritation. She let herself enjoy the view as he strode to a broad pair of doors in the dome's wall and flung them open. The room beyond had the too-full, harried air of all storage sheds, but from out of the piles of spare parts and equipment Ed rolled a giant hollow sphere of iridescent plastic, taller than he was. "I mentioned the nanotech?" he said, grinning at Jane's confusion. "A friend of mine's been working on something for me. It's going to be a game-changer." He tapped his fingers on the side of the sphere, and grass sprang up along the lowest curve of the sphere. Ed put a hand on the side of the sphere and pushed -- instead of rolling up the side, the grass slid along to stay at the bottom as the sphere rolled over the dusty ground. Another tap of the fingers and a stream appeared, clear water making a flowing circle around the grass. "Space is at a premium up here, and of course we can't get real grass to grow on the surface," Ed said, beaming with pride like a miniature sun, "so I thought: what if the cows could take the grazing land with them when they moved?"

Jane squinted, skeptical. "So you put the cows … inside? Like a hamster ball?"

"Yep. It's climate-controlled, UV-protected, and airtight. Waste gets broken down and recycled as fertilizer, or reconstituted into more grass. You can put one of those Guernsey of yours in here and set 'em loose for days on the lunar surface, no trouble. I've got five hundred of these all set -- I was just waiting to snatch a herd that wasn't being watched too closely. Finally, free-range beef for Artemis without the import markup and trouble of going waybelow."

"Cow balls," Jane said flatly. "You've invented cow balls."

Ed laughed. "I guess I have, at that."

Jane pinched the bridge of her nose. "Why are the pretty ones always so dumb?"

Ed's face went still, and Jane had one moment to regret her thoughtless tongue. But then that smile appeared again, catching her breath. He stepped forward and rested a hand on the wall behind her, leaning in, all conspiracy. "You think I'm pretty?"

"Sure," Jane said, not at all breathlessly, no matter how much her heart hammered. "And dumb."

Ed leaned in one more inch, and Jane's whole body tightened. That whiskey-velvet voice went even lower. "Maybe I just haven't had the right teacher."

Jane licked her lips, but then her defensive instincts kicked in. "Maybe kidnapping people isn't a great way to convince them to trust you."

Ed's lean face sobered. "I'm sorry about that. And sorry I scared you."

"Scared me? You pissed me off, is what you did. Maybe I'll be scared when I have the time." When this was over. Except it would never be over. She would never go home again. Never see the sun set behind the mountains, or smell the salt breeze coming off the ocean. No more oceans, ever.

Fingers brushed her chin, tilting her head up. Ed's blue eyes peered down into hers. "Look, damn the Men in Black," he said softly. "If you want to go home, I'll take you back right now. Cows and all."

It was sweet, but it was too late. "I'd have to spend the rest of my life on the run, wouldn't I?" Ed nodded, his eyes still on hers. Jane shook her head. "I'm not the running kind."

"You sure aren't." He bent, and his lips touched hers and were gone again before she even realized what he was about. He put some distance between them and stuck out a hand. God, Jane realized, with a silent laugh -- he was blushing. It was adorable. "Partners?" he offered.

"Partners." Admittedly, the moon wasn't where she'd meant to end up as a rancher, but Jane had never been one to let the details get in the way of her dreams. She grasped Ed's hand, callus to callus. Sparks flew up her whole arm.

Ed, bless him, went stiff and steely again. "There's only one more person you have to convince: my father, Edward Goodnight III."

~~~~~~

Ned Goodnight's only concession to appropriate lunar attire was the silver fabric of his suit. In every other respect he was the nearest thing Jane had ever seen to an Old West cattle baron -- waistcoat and string tie, silver watch-chain, and a fussy calligraphy sweep of salt-and-pepper mustache. He'd been running the Mare Desiderii Beef Company the exact same way for thirty years, and from the stubborn gleam in his eye he looked forward to running it for another thirty. "I thought we put this cow ball nonsense to rest two months ago," he said, chewing on the silver end of an electronic cigar. Beside him, his second wife Corinne took notes on a transparent clipboard, her brown skin looking smooth as velvet next to the shiny silver of her moon suit. Hers was a jumpsuit, impeccably tailored, and Jane was already planning to ask where she could get one of her own.

"It's the best option we have, if we want to save the company." Ed looked so much more boyish without his hat, his chestnut hair mussed and sticking out at all angles. His eyes had the same stubborn gleam as his daddy's, though. "Face it, the MDC is a sinking ship. Profits are lower than they've ever been, and we can't turn things around unless we start making changes. Big ones. Bringing in new ideas, new blood." His eyes flicked briefly to Jane, then away.

"New ideas," Ned scoffed. "You know how many new ideas I've seen in my time? They come and go, and you could lose a whole lifetime chasing after them, but let me tell you what never changes: people have to eat."

"Sure," Ed shot back, "but they haven't been eating beef. The new GMO labs are producing plenty of tasty proteins at half the cost of imported steak."

"Supply has also been an issue," Corinne added. Her black hair was pulled back into a demure ponytail, and her ankles were crossed and tucked beneath her chair in the most ladylike way, but there was something confident in her voice that had Jane sitting up and paying better attention. Here was the power behind the throne. "Waybelow advancements in surveillance have made it more difficult to acquire the necessary numbers of raw product. It's not going to get any better, either."

"It'll come back around," Ned insisted. "Business is a cycle, you have to ride it out."

"Excuse me," Jane broke in, "but does this mean you brought my herd all the way up here just to slaughter them?"

Ned turned to face her, hands tucked into the blue sash wrapped around his silver suit. "I suppose you have a better idea?"

"Sure do," she said at once. "You moon folks know anything about running a dairy farm?"

"Dairy?" Ed looked confused, then intrigued. "Nobody's ever had a chance to try it in Artemis. We never had the pastureland to support a dairy herd. We get the dehydrated stuff from ISS transfers: powdered milk, crunchy cheese, astronaut ice cream."

"Your cow balls mean we've got the pastureland now, don't they?" Jane said.

"That's right." Ed drummed his fingers on the boardroom table, his enthusiasm building. "I've had the real stuff waybelow. Ice cream, pepper jack, sour cream. People up here would love it. They'd pay anything."

"Don't forget butter," Jane added.

Corinne paused her note-taking. "Butter?" Her gaze drifted into the distance. "I had that once." She smiled faintly, pen poised in the air. "It was the most delicious thing I've ever tasted."

Jane leaned forward, her eyes on Corinne. "Those GMO proteins the competitors' labs are making? They'll taste even better fried in butter, I guarantee it. Why fight the competition when you can force them to collaborate, and corner a unique share of the market?"

"I can have projections made within the hour," Corinne said, pen flying.

"This is all well and good," Ned huffed, "but I'm the CEO here and what I say goes."

"Not quite," Jane said. She slapped both hands down on the table. "That herd belongs to me, even if we're nowhere near my ranch. And I'm not handing them over just to be killed for a batch of steaks nobody's even going to buy. So either we turn your pastureland into a proper dairy barn -- no more of this frontier crap -- or I'm taking all three hundred cattle and going back waybelow."

"The Men in Black will find you within days," Ned growled.

"And what good will that do you, all the way up here?" Jane pushed back. "You'll be left with nothing and no hopes for the future. Bankruptcy on Earth is a vicious process, and I'm sure it's no different in Artemis. Worse, I'd guess."

From the angry spots in Goodnight's cheeks, she'd guessed right. Ned chewed on his cigar, moved it away, chewed on his mustache, and put the cigar back in his mouth. Jane raised an eyebrow in challenge. Ed bided his time and bit his lip. Finally Ned's eyes wandered to his wife, who was patiently waiting him out. "You think it'll work, Corinne?"

"I think it's the best idea I've heard in decades," she replied.

The transformation in Ned was instantaneous. "Right," he said, and shoved himself to his feet. Cigar vapor trailed him as he began pacing the office. "I'll need a list of materials -- technical specs, cattle feed, production specifics, you can give me all that, right?"

"Right," Jane said.

"Do it. Meanwhile we'll work on converting the slaughterhouse to a dairy barn, and you two'll get those cows in balls and make sure they're ready to go as soon as we are." He stopped and waved at his son. "Ed can show you the city, find you some accommodations within the family compound. Easiest if you stay close -- we're going to be going at it 24/7 for the foreseeable future."

Jane glanced out the window as Ned continued, Corinne easily keeping up with the list. Artemis spread out beneath her, glittery as a gem. A prize waiting to be seized.

"You hungry?" Ed said, and she glanced back to see he was looking nervous and adorable again. "Artemis food's a bit different than what you're used to. My fridge is stocked up right now -- I could take you back to my place, show you what moon cooking is like. If you're interested."

"Oh, I'm interested." She'd let her tone turn suggestive, making Ed blushed again. Jane wondered just how far down that blush went, and if he'd let her find out tonight or if he'd make her wait. Jane grinned -- this was going to be fun. "Show me what you got, cowboy."

THE END

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Space, Science, and the Gender of Perfection

{Courting Critique is a post series that takes an analytic and intersectional feminist look at romance texts — not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because good criticism can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound!} Engineer Eugene Parsons demands perfection. It's the first thing, possibly the only thing, people know about him.

The problem: perfection is unattainable, like a limit in calculus that is never quite reached. The other, less obvious problem: the definition of perfection keeps shifting, especially where gender is involved.

Cover image for Earth Bound. Starry background behind two light-skinned people in a tense embrace. The woman has dark hair, artful makeup, a black dress, and full-length black gloves. The man has a grey suit, intense expression, and his hands on the woman's bare skin.

First, a capsule review: Earth Bound,  the latest entry in Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner's stellar Fly Me to the Moon series, is an absolute gut-punch of a romance between two difficult, critical, closed-off engineers who put their ambitions and the mission above everything else. Oh, and seedy '60s motel sex. I could not have possibly loved it more. Full spoilers from here on out.

The most basic definition of perfection is free from factual or mathematical error. Parsons has good reason to pursue this kind of perfection, as the lives of real people depend on the machines and mathematics used by the American Space Department to send men and machines into orbit: "If the capsule wasn't traveling fast enough, wasn't flying straight up, the massive hand of gravity would catch it and pull it straight back down. It could crash right into a place filled with houses and families" (Kindle location 63). Not to mention that whole Cold War business, which Parsons at times seems to be fighting as though he's out to win it single-handed. The urgency of this mission leads him to look for the very best -- which is how he meets our heroine, computer and programmer Charlie Eason.

Charlie is a perfect hire for ASD -- except that she's a woman.

To clarify, Parsons has absolutely no issue with hiring women. Many of the computers are women (just like in real life: see the wealth of links at the end of this piece). Parsons does, however, have a problem with how deeply attracted he is to Charlie's astonishing beauty. With the other computers their gender is a nonvariable, an unimportant detail he can put aside in the interests of getting the best work from the most competent people. But he can't do that with Charlie -- "his body refused to stop noticing hers" (197) -- and he loathes himself for this failing, even as he insists on hiring her for her undeniable talents. In the classic romance tradition, this self-loathing adds a potent charge to the characters' interactions on the page (Parsons happily avoids being creepy or domineering, or at least not any more domineering than he is with his male subordinates).

Charlie doesn't recognize it's attraction at first, of course. Parsons is a closed book (and locked, and chained, and encrypted…), and Dr. Eason is used to being undermined and underestimated on account of her gender: "It would never be enough. No matter how many papers she authored, no matter how many projects she successfully completed, deadlines she met, or snafus she navigated, all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts" (879). No matter how objectively skilled a woman is, her femininity is read as a flaw when it appears in spaces and roles designated masculine. She will always be imperfect by default. The same is clearly true about race, though the text only briefly glances at this. (Again, links below!)

[perfectpullquote align="right"]No matter how many papers she authored ... all they'd ever be able to see were the breasts.[/perfectpullquote]

Which is not to say there is no standard for a specifically feminine perfection, because of course there is -- rigidly defined and lionized gender roles trouble the course of both hero and heroine. There is an unwritten expectation of purity in the binary gender construct, and a sense that real, flawed humans are constantly falling short of what it means to be a perfect man or a perfect woman. Consider this bit about the astronauts' wives: "Their wives sat among the spectators, looking cool and polished, and in the case of the new Mrs. Campbell, a little bored. She didn't yet have Mrs. Reynolds' expertise in being utterly blank every second of the day" (1508). Blankness is perfectly feminine; polish is perfectly feminine; emotion and thought are to be hidden or erased while attempting to conform to the ideal.

Charlie has the markers of idealized femininity down pat: makeup, polite smiles, skirts and heels, never a sign of anger or hurt. Cool, cool as marble, polished, frozen -- these descriptions surface over and over about Charlie and other women. I feel like I've seen a lot of romance heroines characterized as 'naturally' feminine (contemporaries do this with surprising frequency): in this text high-femme presentation is explicitly a strategy for social leverage, even though it leaves women open for predation (lecherous astronaut Carruthers) and exploitation (shameless magazine photo ops to get good press for ASD): "Yes, she used her looks to gain the advantage in certain situations. But they were her looks and her advantage. She was furious that her face was going to be used to sell ASD to the public. Why couldn't they discuss the mission, the technology, and the sheer wonder of what they were trying to do? Why did it have to be the surface, the glamour, the stuff that meant nothing?" (2033). Having spent so much time constructing that surface in self-defense, Charlie is nevertheless frustrated by people who choose to treat it as the sum total of who she is. It's a double-bind that still feels far too familiar to those of us here in 2016.

Expectations of purity also underscore a beautifully ironic conflict between Charlie's love for computer programming and her parents' romanticization of physics: "For a long time, the conversation had been about Charlie's field of study. Why couldn't you go into physics like Tom? Tom the golden child, who couldn't get enough of splitting and combining atoms -- and whose genitals were the right shape" (290). Charlie's mother even pronounces the word engineering "like she might pronounce shit" (281): in her parents' eyes Charlie's intellectual talents make her too pure for her chosen profession. They believe she is squandering herself on something corrupt and pedestrian: the scorn they heap on her career choices is couched in the language of support and pride in their daughter (why isn't she living up to her potential?) but Charlie can't help but read this as scorn for her as a person -- especially in comparison to her brother, whose gender is part of what makes him the Platonically Ideal Physicist. All this despite the fact that the pure 'secrets of the universe physics' the elder Easons are so enamored with is the actual Manhattan Project. Hardly a landmark of non-applied, non-militarized, above-it-all science.

Meanwhile, Parsons' family offers a contrasting image of masculine perfection in war hero brother George. He's smart, handsome, charming, and brave: the town is literally putting up a statue to him to memorialize his death in combat. Like younger siblings the world over, Parsons feels he suffers by comparison: "I felt like I was this weaker, lesser version of him and could never measure up" (1795). This sense of falling short mixes with grief and guilt (Parsons and George had argued before he was killed) and poisons Parsons' interactions with ex-Nazi rocket scientist Friedrich Gerhardt (clearly a von Braun analogue). Gerhardt's presence not only reminds Parsons of the masculine standards he feels he fails to meet, but he's also an indication that the world itself is the furthest thing from perfect: "The fact that George -- his wonderful, boisterous, heroic brother -- wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked" (1676).

Defining the universe as unfair, perverse, and cruel is absolutely vital in a historical that addresses sexism and misogyny in such a head-on manner. We know -- at least, if we've been reading tons of books about the Cold War and the Space Race and the Manhattan Project, have you not? -- that Charlie's contributions are not only neglected by her contemporaries, but also erased from the broad historical narrative. Like Lise Meitner, Margaret Hamilton, Hazel Ying Lee and the WASPthe Mercury 13, the real-life women of NASA, and countless others, Charlie's battle against discrimination and diminishment will be endless and unrewarded. She'll be written out of the narrative, and that unwriting will be used to deny women spaces and voices in decades to come.

[perfectpullquote align="left"]The fact that George wasn't here and Gerhardt was was all the evidence Parsons needed to know the universe was fundamentally fucked.[/perfectpullquote]

What saves this point of view from being far too harsh to nourish a romance plot is the last and, I think, best definition of perfection: something that is neither too little nor too much, but just right. This is perfection as completion: two satellites meeting in orbit against all odds, the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. What makes this kind of life-saving perfection possible? Love, of course.

If you think I wasn't hearing Origin of Love while rereading this, think again. (Two Plato references in one blog post! It's a banner Thursday.)

An early passage sees Parsons thinking of himself and Charlie in astrodynamic terms: "She was the capsule here, serenely making her orbits, while he was the rocket casing, jettisoned to burn up in the long fall back to earth" (158). Geeky penis metaphors aside (come on, right?), Parsons continually views himself as secondary to Charlie, as a resource who's only there to be used and discarded so she can achieve her proper glorious heights. He's a man who demands perfection, but once he decides she is perfect, his devotion is absolute: "I'll work to get you whatever you need, Charlie. You know that" (1305). This is undoubtedly part of what makes Parsons work so well as a version of the Demanding Boss hero archetype, which usually makes me grimace: the dedication and generosity he displays toward the mission and toward Charlie more than balance out the barked orders and fraying temper.

Charlie recognizes this devotion and even refers to Parsons once as an "acolyte" (916); she also envisions their relationship in terms that echo his : "She didn't think she was perfect, but she thought that together, they might be more than they were apart. Together they might be something like it" (2465). The inevitable crisis in the relationship is paralleled by a crisis in a planned orbital rendezvous mission. Charlie and Parsons have to navigate their way back to one another emotionally even as they maneuver two soaring metal ships within kissing distance of one another. Their final reconciliation is as subtle, tense, and minutely managed as any astronaut's docking procedure.  It's a sublime and elegant piece of work and as an author I am equal parts delighted and envious.

Charlie and Parsons' HEA doesn't make the world perfect -- he's still going to be snappish, and she'll still be subject to plenty of micro- and macro-aggressions --  but it shows they've earned the kind of perfection they find with each other. And what more can a romance possibly offer?

 

___

Barry, Emma, and Turner, Genevieve. Earth Bound. Amazon Digital Services, 2016. Kindle edition.

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Further Reading:

  • You know about the Hidden Figures book and movie already, right? Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe? I could not possibly be more excited.
  • But since that's not out until September, here is Rise of the Rocket Girls, a primer on the race to the moon focusing on women's contributions and participation.
  • Also Amelia Earhart's Daughters, which expands the years examined and looks at women pilots in WWII and the Cold War.
  • Something from the Russian side of all this: The Night WitchesMost of the prose in this book about Russian women flying bombing runs in WWII comes straight from interviews with survivors, so it's a little plain prose-wise -- but you cannot beat the level of detail and vividness.
  • Girls of Atomic City. Summers spent driving by Hanford on our way to Eastern Washington campsites kicked off my fascination with the Atomic Age. (You might have noticed this is something of a pet topic of mine, huh?) But Hanford was basically a glorified military base -- Oak Ridge was a whole damn city, with segregated living spaces and sock hops and I swear to God a rabbit breeding club.
  • Also great: 109 East Palace, about a woman who worked as Oppenheimer's trusted secretary (and front) during the early days of Los Alamos.

Batman and Bootleggers: For the Love of Lit Crit

{For the Love of Lit Crit is a post series that takes a feminist look at romance texts -- not so much to prove that romance is feminist or anti-feminist, but because sometimes analysis can be as fun and escapist as a love story. Spoilers abound! Also, a content note for discussion of guns and violence, though I don't think things get really graphic or specific. Meanwhile, during the month of January I'm catching up on a bunch of books from the TBR list, most of which have been out for some time because I am perpetually behind the curve. I'm also tweeting about what I find as I read; follow #Readening on Twitter for comments, thoughts, Titanic design corrections, and critiques of bee metaphors.}

That last long post must really be sticking with me, because here I was reading a lusty paranormal romance set in Jazz Age San Francisco and all I could think about was the violence. Not the sensual wardrobes, not the issues with race -- nope, the violence and how actions are morally coded based on the actor rather than the deed itself. Cover for Bitter Spirits by Jenn Bennett.

Capsule review: I'm torn about whether to recommend this. I loved the detail of the built world and I'm definitely going to read the next in the series because I already ship Bo and Astrid and I need to at least stay caught up until their story in book 3. And I'm revising a Prohibition paranormal of my own now (with monsters instead of ghosts and magic) so this series is totally Necessary Author Research and probably even tax-deductible. But I had a lot of issues with the way the book dealt with race: those concerns are pretty much covered in this Dear Author review (click the spoiler tag), and they're just problematic enough that I hesitate to give this book an enthusiastic two thumbs up. Not because I am easily offended, but because lot of the issues here are recognizable stereotypes with a long horrible history, and seeing them repeated in modern texts can make a reader so damn tired. It's less How outrageous! and more Ugh, not this again.

I'm glad Dear Author's review tackled the issues with depiction of Chinese-American characters, because that leaves me free to talk about the contradictory way this book presents violence -- specifically gun violence and domestic violence -- in regard to our hero.

A Good Man Who Does Bad Things

I knew going in that a bootlegging hero was probably going to have to kill someone. Not every rumrunner forbade guns like Seattle's Roy Olmstead, though I suspect that's partly who Bitter Spirits hero Winter Magnusson was based on. And there's definitely room in romantic heroism for killing: Han shot first, after all. So I wasn't surprised when the book revealed that Winter has a few deaths on his conscience.

I was a little surprised that one of them was his wife, though. Again, spoilers everywhere in this analysis.

It's negligence rather than murder, but Winter still holds himself responsible for the car accident that killed his mother, his father, his wife, and left Winter himself visibly scarred. The fallout of this trauma is one of the major emotional arcs of the romance. And you know what? All I could think was: That sounds about right. You killed your family, buddy. That feels like one of those events that maybe one shouldn't be able to entirely get over? It's like Batman, only instead of a thief in the alley it's like little Brucie was playing with a pistol and shot Mr. and Mrs. Wayne himself.

(I just giggled for five fully minutes imagining how self-flagellating and angsty Batman could get in that scenario. Batman really is the funniest superhero.)

Winter reserves the greatest measure of guilt not for his parents, but for his wife Paulina -- because, he explains, she'd asked him for a divorce and he'd refused: "I should have just let her go. I'm not sure why I didn't. I think maybe I saw it as a failure, and that was unacceptable ... I told her divorce was impossible, that I'd never let it happen ... So that's why I feel guilty -- because even though I didn't love her, I refused to let her go. If I had, everyone would still be alive" (Kindle location 2335).

Heroine Aida replies: "Paulina made the decision to marry you. You didn't hold a gun to her head."

This metaphor struck me as being in extremely poor taste.

For one thing, while I haven't specifically researched divorce laws in 1927 California (anyone with a quick link is free to add it in comments), my understanding is that divorce at this time in this place has to be agreed to by both parties. So that if Winter refuses to grant a divorce, Paulina has to stay married to him, no matter how she personally feels about it. This may not be violence, per se, but it's definitely an unpleasant level of control for him to exert for very little reason. It feels mean. It feels petty. It feels, in a word, unheroic.

For another thing, he's literally just told Aida he caused his wife's death. A woman is dead -- two women, and a man, if you count his mother and father, but he doesn't seem to agonize over that as much. And the best our heroine can muster is: "But the important thing is you shouldn't feel bad about it."

I for one am perfectly okay with the hero feeling bad about this. Forever. Maybe not to Batman levels of self-flagellation, but surely this tragedy is more than just an opportunity for him to grow emotionally as a person. There should be consequences for a mistake of this magnitude. Our hero is not in prison, he is not making restitution to his wife's family, he is not working to make automobiles safer or donating to charity or doing anything else to atone for his actions. He is merely berating himself emotionally. I find it unpleasant that those are the only consequences for such a colossal waste of life, but I am equally loth to see any consequence of that event erased because the heroine feels one should "live in the moment." (Yep, actual quote, Kindle location 2335 like the others.)

Taken on its own, bereft of genre context, this exchange makes Aida look cold and amoral. She's not, of course. She's simply being a Good Heroine: her job in the narrative is to reassure the hero about his past mistakes to prove he is a Good Person Deserving Of Love. And Good People don't do Bad Things. The hero is by definition a Good Person -- ergo his actions are Good, and must be construed in the best possible light. The cause of Paulina's death was not really the hero's inattention while driving; the cause of Paulina's death was her own "character defects" -- specifically, not being 'strong' enough to leave on her own when her husband refused to divorce her. Her rich, powerful, musclebound, lawbreaking husband with a ton of underworld connections and corrupt cops on his payroll, who'd just said he'd never let her go. Gosh, why wouldn't she be scared to leave? Again, "character defects" is a direct quote from our heroine. About the dead wife, not about the hero.

I was a little stunned. We're blaming the dead wife for her own death at this point and I'm supposed to be rooting for these two as a couple.

And it's not as though the violence of Winter's career as a bootlegger can be separated from his family life. His job was the reason why Paulina wanted a divorce in the first place. Later, when Aida gets nervous before she and Winter have sex for the first time, our hero reflects: "he was reminded of Paulina, timid and guarded -- worse, he was reminded of how he used to feel around her. Like a monster and a bully. Like the bad guy" (2412).

Two points:

  1. Winter clearly prioritizes his own feelings in this moment over his sexual partner's. He thinks his feeling that he might be 'the bad guy' is worse than Aida's feeling of being unsafe or unsure about the sex they are about to have.
  2. Winter wants Aida because he likes that she believes he's a Good Guy -- not because she has a solid moral compass, not because he can trust her judgment, but simply because it makes him feel better about himself. It's an ego-stroke, pure and simple. There's no sense that Aida expects him to do better. In fact, it's the opposite: Aida is presented as a better match for Winter because she can accept his violent actions.

We are a long way here from the world of Filthy Lucre, where the heroine wants a good man to stop doing bad things, and tells him so. Winter's tendency toward violence is by definition Good, because he is a hero, and the text gives him leave to be as vicious as he wants, consequence-free.

My concern about this moral framework is not only for Paulina: it's for our villain, too. Our evil Chinese necromancer villain whose big evil plan is to bring Pauline's corpse back from the dead as a weapon against our hero. Reader, I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a really fun plot point. I was hoping Pauline would get some of her own back; there's an earlier scene where Aida, a spirit medium, calls forth a dead husband who exposes his much younger widow's adultery and callousness. I was hoping either Paulina would get to yell at Winter, or that she'd get to say she understood it was an accident; either one would be fine with me.

Instead, Paulina is a wordless, mindless zombie monster, controlled by black magic. A really lushly described, viscerally gross zombie corpse. Who never talks. Who maybe needs to be exorcised by the heroine and/or shot re-dead by the hero because that's how we deal with first wives in romance, amirite?

Ugh, not this again.

A Bad Man Who Does Bad Things

The weirdness of the division between Good People and Bad People is illustrated most vividly in a scene between Aida and Doctor Yip, our villain.

Here is the first part.

Doctor Yip's motivation, as Dear Author pointed out, is a historical truth and major act of bigotry: "After the Great Fire, the city tried to move Chinatown and seize our land, and when we resisted, you kept us in cages on Angel Island, separating our families for years" (4126).

Aida's response: "didn't."

(#NotAllWhiteHeroines)

The text continues: "Aida could empathize with grief for a lost sibling, but she didn't lash out and kill people for revenge when [her brother] Sam died." Note what happened here: the villain laid out a sustained, horrible, systemic, racist injustice he personally suffered from, and the heroine rejected his moral claim because she personally had not participated in said injustice.

Here is the second part.

Doctor Yip makes another moral claim: despite the many killings he's orchestrated, he has not shed a single drop of blood: "'I have no blood debt on my hands. I am clean.'"

Aida's response: "'Just because you didn't pull the trigger doesn't mean you're not guilty.'" She refuses to allow him to salve his conscience with technicalities when the greater point is that he's responsible for several murders.

These two parts? They happen on the same damn page.

What this tells me as a reader is that the underlying moral structure of this text is tied to something other than action. Or facts, really. Aida resists any moral statement made by the villain, even if doing so means she contradicts herself within three paragraphs. The villain is Bad: he must be opposed. Winter is Good: he must be supported. Even if his actions in this same scene are comprised of several brutal murders (one done with Aida's complete knowledge and approval). But he's defending the heroine and himself, so it's okay, right? He's Good, isn't he?

I'm coming down hard on this text not because it makes a uniquely irritating choice, but because it's a vivid example of something I find all over the romance genre. I don't mind having Good People and Bad People in fiction; I am not criticizing the lack of moral subtlety. But I do object to moral categories being applied as fixed traits, regardless of what we see a character actually do. Like many readers I bring my own moral compass with me when I read, and it is a rare book that can convince me to abandon it. I can sympathize with a hero who wants to not seem monstrous on page 10: but when we get to 100 and he's murdered, tortured, threatened, and intimidated his way through the book, I begin to think that all those frightened secondary characters have a point.

If you've noticed a lot of gun metaphors -- pulling the trigger, put a gun to her head -- you're picking up on one of the very strong motifs of this book. Guns both as props and as symbols are everywhere. Even at the climax of the sex scenes!

... he shuddered in her arms like a great, divine beast taken down by a single bullet.

She didn't know if she was the gun that fired the bullet or the hunter who'd pulled the trigger ... she knew she had made a terrible miscalculation.

She was the one who'd been shot. (2910)

There's also a lot of guns-as-power imagery, but I won't tire you with all that. Suffice to say that in the world right now -- what with Ferguson, and Ottawa, and Paris, and now Boko Haram -- I am increasingly wary of those who idealize guns as the proper tools of Good Men, whose violence shouldn't be questioned.

At least Batman tries not to kill people.

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Chinese-Canadian romance author Vicki Essex points out that new CBC show Strange Empire is an awesome diverse take on Western tropes, including violence and vengeance.

Speaking of Batman and the pitfalls of vigilante justice, here is a marvelous article from Cracked that lists Batman's 6 most brutal murders. Some of these veer hilariously into self-parody, and others are just plain awful, so click at your peril.

Leigh Kolb at Bitch Flicks has a grounded and thoughtful feminist reading of Sons of Anarchy's inescapably violent masculinity.

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Bennett, Jenn. Bitter Spirits (Roaring Twenties Book 1). New York: Berkeley Sensation, January 2014. Kindle edition.

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.

The very first thing we see is heroine Theodora Holliday -- Teddy -- being robbed. She's in a general store at the wrong time, and a small man with a shotgun takes everything in the till and the purses of the two women present. Unlike the other (white) woman, Teddy initially refuses to hand over her cash: she needs it to buy flour to make a pecan pie for her elderly neighbor. She only changes her mind when it becomes clear the choice really is between her money or her life. She hands over the purse and fumes all the way home -- money is hard to come by, and losing twenty dollars means her choices become more constrained. She resents that her kind and generous impulses (the pie) have been thwarted by someone else's violence and greed.

This is therefore not an auspicious moment for our hero Louis Daniels to make his entrance -- especially as a white man, in a fancy car, flashing a Hollywood smile and a wad of bills. Teddy often rents out rooms to make ends meet, and Louis is looking for a room somewhere quieter than the hotels in the middle of town. (The town is Joplin, Missouri, *ominous musical cue for those who know their Bonny and Clyde*.) Teddy is instantly (and correctly) suspicious of both his whiteness and his obvious wealth: "In her twenty-eight years, she'd learned that shiny, new things sometimes brought trouble with them… the man was just as 'shiny' as his car. Something about him set her spider's senses off" (page 7). She turns down the extra cash, despite her straitened circumstances -- a single white man boarding with her will be cause for damaging rumors and innuendo, and she's pretty sure he's got an agenda he isn't being open about.

Then the man offers her a hundred dollars. Per night. For three nights. It's a ludicrously high sum; for comparison, here is a current Seattle AirBNB listing for about the same price with a ton of amenities in a great location with excellent reviews. Teddy caves: "She'd heard people say that everyone had their price, and he'd found hers" (8). This is good money, an irresistible windfall, and she allows herself to be persuaded.

But what has she been persuaded by? Money in the earlier scene was something that increased Teddy's agency. But here, money substitutes for trust: Teddy's distrust of the shiny man is put aside in favor of an astronomical sum of cash. The less trust Teddy has initially, the more money it would take to change her mind. Now money is itself what limits her choices, what constrains her actions. Or to put it another way, Teddy is choosing one short-term limit (shutting down her inner qualms) in favor of a long-term goal (being financially stable for months). It says a lot about this book that I never felt like Teddy was powerless, even when she was technically being victimized. It always felt like she was making clear-eyed choices as best she could in an imperfect world, and that the text wasn't interested in punishing her or in making a fetish of her weakness (with one possible exception, which I'll get to in due course).

Even though her decision has changed with the money, her mind is still clear. When her handsome new tenant offers to go to the store to get the flour she couldn't buy earlier, Teddy's suspicions are alerted again: "Handsome and helpful, usually two traits she found good in a man, but she wasn't sure she was buying what he was selling" (11). Money is again a stand-in for trust, but in reverse: now instead of taking money to compensate for her distrust, Teddy is (metaphorically) reluctant to offer money as a signal of trust. Money's symbolic value in the text is already amazingly fluid, and we're only eleven pages in.

The Unheroic Hero

We switch to Louis' POV for a trip to the same store Teddy was robbed in earlier. Surprise! He's not a good man, or an honest one. He's shot people for cheating him at cards. He's robbed banks before, too, despite telling Teddy he's not on the run from the law. And then there's this revealing passage, which I'm going to quote in full:

Louis left the store wondering why the owner assumed he was married and then remembered the ring on his finger. He'd never taken it off, even after Laureen had up and left one day a few years ago saying she was sick of living off the measly money he made doing road work. She'd gone off with some starched-collar type who worked at the Kansas City credit union.

One of them fancy head doctors might say that Laureen's leaving was why he'd started knocking off credit unions, eventually moving up to full-on banks. And maybe that fancy head doctor might be right; maybe he was trying to get back at her, as though he had something to prove to her memory at least. (15)

Olivia's notes: No shit, Sherlock. This is classic hero backstory, a man getting revenge on his evil materialistic ex. (Romance heroes are so pissy about rejection sometimes, I swear.) And as part of my habit of always trying to see things from the Evil Ex's perspective, I have to say: I can completely understand why someone would care about the financial stability of their partner during the Great Depression. It is the Great Depression, Louis. I'm sure your feelings are hurt by the fact that your ex wants to, you know, eat every day, but I'm not sure that a bank robbing spree constitutes a really mature emotional response to romantic disappointment.

To give Louis his credit, he knows this is not a sustainable career path. And he's never killed anyone, which is important both for his own morality and for my comfort as a reader. But like Teddy, he can't resist the siren call of an enormous sum of money: "The money split up evenly would mean twenty-five thousand dollars for each of them. That was enough dough to keep him on the up and up for a while" (19). Louis has made plans to rob the Joplin Citizens Bank with three other people named Bud, Buck, and Sis; he met Bud when they tried to rob the same store at the same time: "They'd held guns on each other; then Bud had broken out in a laugh and said, 'Halfsies?'" (20). Reader, I laughed. But this agreement means that Louis is handing over a certain amount of agency in exchange for a payoff: Bud is volatile and violent and unpredictable, a killer. The Joplin bank has only one elderly guard, but Louis is already worried the man will try to play the hero and get shot by an angry Bud.

Spoiler: Louis is right to be worried. But it's easy to say that Bud and Buck and Sis aren't due until the next afternoon, when right now you have a good home-cooked meal and a pretty woman to talk to over a highly symbolic pecan pie. And a slow dance with the radio on, and a good steamy kiss. Despite Louis' secrets, which the reader is privy to, it's lovely watching these two characters connect. They have a great deal in common despite the barrier of race (which the text does not shy away from in the slightest).

And then Bud shows up early and ruins everything. First, we learn that he is the man who robbed Teddy at gunpoint yesterday morning. Nice friends you've got there, Louis! Then he introduces himself as Clyde Barrow, which is when I yelled "Holy shit!" out loud and dove for Wikipedia to read up on Bonnie and Clyde before things went any further. Because honestly, I never in my life thought I would read Bonnie and Clyde as the villains in a romance novel. It's a great portrayal: humanizing without glorifying, empathetic and scary at the same time. The choice of characters takes only a minor liberty with history in a way I can easily approve of, and it plays into the text's themes in a way I won't forget for quite a long time.

Bud quickly realizes Teddy is an upstanding soul and therefore a liability. Suddenly our heroine is a hostage in her own home, her life very explicitly in jeopardy. And she is pissed at Louis for his role in events: "Snake! Here she'd given him a room and a good meal and ... and her company ... and this was how he repaid her. The money he'd handed her yesterday morning couldn't even begin to make up for this" (41). Louis tries to apologize, but Teddy's not having it: "'Sorry is worth to me about a sliver of a penny and not even that'" (46). Instead, she begins deliberately exploiting Louis' physical attraction to her, trying to win him over to her side, to deepen the bond they've formed so he'll help her escape. He sees what she's doing but goes along, since it means he gets to touch her more. (Heroes, amirite?) He's trying to win her over as well, to make her see things from his perspective:

'I hate preachers! ... They're like the cops, supposed to be helping you and what do they do? They take just like any robber you'd meet in the street. Same with the rich folk. They'd sooner kick you in the teeth than help out a child starving in the streets ... The big fat cats of the world have at least taught me a lesson. Those that got keep getting. They're not out on the roadsides, putting up tents, finding clay and dirt to eat. They're sitting down to plates of steaks and potatoes -- with the -- with the gratin -- and the champagne. Yeah, I want that. I want not to ever have to worry where my next meal is coming from' (51)

This is a persuasive argument, emotionally speaking. What's more, this speech marks Louis as the kind of Bootstraps Billionaire we see so often in both contemporary and historical romance: the man whose anger propels him to fame and fortune, the poor kid made good through sweat and seething vengeance, the self-made man who builds an empire on ruthlessness and intelligence and daring. Captain Wentworth from Austen's Persuasion is probably the origin point of this trope; see also every hero who runs a gambling hell in fictional London or who owns a penthouse apartment in a major contemporary metropolis. And generally such heroes have to either atone for the ruthless things they did on their way to the top, or learn that true love means more than bespoke suits and chrome furniture, etc. But here there's a twist -- and honestly, I think this is really innovative for a romance -- because we're catching Louis at the beginning of that typical arc. This is the Self-Made Hero before he's Made (shiny Studebaker notwithstanding). Teddy's job (as a heroine, not as a person) is to convince Louis to abandon that whole arc at the beginning. To give up on the money before he has the money to give up on.

I gotta say, that's a pretty radical move. Will he change his mind or go through with the bank robbery as planned? I was dying to know.

A Disarmed Heroine

Teddy's rejection of Louis' chosen means to wealth could not be more clear: he offers her a cut of the bank money, to compensate her for the danger and stress of being held hostage. She not only refuses that, but also gives back his original three hundred dollars:

"I'm not taking it back..."

"And I'm not keeping it..." she said as she let the bills fall to the floor. And their stalemate began.

She refused to pick up the bills, and he simply pretended they weren't there. (74)

THE MONEY LITERALLY COMES BETWEEN THEM I swear my lit-crit brain was giggling so hard at this point. Note the language is clearly tilted in Teddy's favor: she's the active one, refusing, while Louis is merely pretending. She's the one in touch with reality, and he's kidding himself. By giving back all the money she's taken from him, Teddy is withdrawing her implied participation not only with the coming robbery, but with everything Louis did to earn that first wad of bills too. She's making her distrust of him foremost in the relationship again. She's choosing her self-worth over his expedience. And she's doing it without being at all idealistic or naive: she knows damn well what that money could mean for her, but she knows she would betray herself by accepting it. She's principled in a realistic, grounded way. Also -- and this is only striking me as I write this -- she manages to refuse money without ever once resorting to prostitution references or using the word 'whore' or anything. She talks about sin and souls and the devil, but in the context of reckless murder during a robbery such language is fairly tame.

Have I mentioned how much I love Teddy? She's great. Just great. I only have two small reservations. 1) I was, and I can't believe I have to type these words in public, supremely uncomfortable with what I can only refer to as the Amos 'n' Andy sex scene.

2) I can't stop wondering what the author could have done differently with Teddy's knife.

Teddy keeps a knife strapped to her thigh because she's dealt with harassment before and wants to take no chances. It's a nice counterbalance to the secrets Louis keeps during the initial few days of the novel: he's hiding a criminal past she doesn't know about, but she's got a weapon he doesn't know about. It evens the scales and ups the stakes in a way that had me steepling my fingers.

Unfortunately, Louis catches sight of the knife when she attempts escape and takes it away. Now, for the first time, Teddy is presented as a victim: "He hated that she seemed so broken. She might as well be their first casualty. Not actually dead, yet something dead inside" (77). He also notes the knife was tied with a red ribbon -- a detail that sexualizes the exchange, as though Louis were a bridegroom removing a very sharp garter. (I should clarify that Teddy is not a virgin -- this is explained but not used as a shocking plot point and it was great.)

And now, if you're anything like me, some practical questions arise: How do you tie a knife to your thigh with a ribbon? There's no indication of a sheath, no indication that this knife is anything other than a common kitchen utensil: are you telling me Teddy's walking around with a butcher knife tied to her leg? Edge-out, or possibly dangling? Right alongside the carotid artery? This does not seem safe. This does not seem possible. And none of it matters, because once Louis takes the knife it disappears entirely from the text.

Oh, how I wanted her to stab somebody.

Or rather, since this book takes such issue with violence, I wanted her to half to stab somebody and to choose not to, or to choose to stab somebody in defense of her life or in defiance of principle. I wanted this to be a thread that tied up, not one that was cut short. Chekhov's gun is meant to be fired, after all. Instead, the text saves Teddy from having to make that choice. It felt a little bit like a waste.

Bonnie and Clyde

Mirror couples are fairly common in romance, particularly when there's a theme to illustrate. Bonnie and Clyde here are a contrast to the hero and heroine -- they are the Charlotte and Mr. Collins of this novel. It helps a lot that they're called Sis and Bud because it gives the reader a sense of distance: the historical facts don't get in the way of the characters on the page. Louis is puzzled by their connection and puts it in monetary terms: "He'd never figured out why Bud had taken up with her. Probably because she gave out easily what many women put a high price on" (56). This is pretty much the only time sex work is used as a money metaphor, so kudos to Ms. Cullars for avoiding that particular pet peeve of mine.

The more I think about Bonnie Parker in this book, the more amazing her character becomes. In the early chapters I was cringing every time Sis spoke: she drops the n-word, she's described as a bitch numerous times, she's unhappy and unpleasant and picks fights with our heroine. The men leave to case the bank for the robbery, and Sis is given a gun in case the hostage proves troublesome. Everyone is tense -- Teddy in fear for her life, Louis in fear for Teddy, Sis because she would rather be going with Bud. Then Teddy's neighbor Mrs. Williams (of the aforementioned pecan pie) drops by and it's looking like we're going to start the part of the book with the shooting before we even get to the robbery.

Then something wonderful happens: the women connect.

Mrs. Williams doesn't know there's a gun in Sis' pocket. She can tell Sis is unhappy, though, and treats her gently. Like a real person. Somehow, now that the men are gone, these three women are able to simply spend an afternoon talking to one another about their lives and their hopes. Sis even recites one of Bonnie Parker's most notorious (real) poems, which Mrs. Williams greatly enjoys. The threat of violence is dissipated -- for the moment, anway -- and afterward Sis starts treating Teddy better, helping out in the kitchen and everything. Teddy meanwhile sees Sis walking down a road our heroine wants to avoid, getting caught up in murder and mayhem for the sake of a man she loves beyond choice, beyond morality. When eventually -- after many turns I don't need to go into here -- Teddy ditches Louis (oh, she was totally right to do it), she does so in part because she doesn't want to end up like Sis, alone and friendless and cut off from society.

In the moral framework of this story, Bonnie and Clyde's bloody death -- not a spoiler, because who hasn't seen stills from the Warren Beatty film? -- could have been presented as a punishment. The hand of justice strikes down evildoers, that kind of thing. Instead Ms. Cullars puts it on-page in Bonnie's POV, which may be one of the most startling things I've seen in a romance in some time. It's intensely human, almost a stand-alone short story, and I know it's going to haunt me in the best way. There's no sense of voyeuristic pleasure, no sense that Sis gets "what's coming to her," even as the scene is much more violent than the usual fates of villains in romance. When the death makes the headlines, everyone is all "good riddance" except for our hero and heroine, who secretly find themselves mourning the loss. The moral position of the text is clearly weighted against celebrating the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde.

Again, that's a pretty radical move.

There's a lot more I could talk about -- the heroine's house, the realistic handling of race, the evil ex, the family issues -- but my stars, we're nearly at four thousand words already. Suffice to say that you can't write four thousand words about just any romance: this is a book I'm going to be thinking about for some time to come.

___

I talk a lot about the meaning of money in this review of Jeannie Lin's phenomenal romance The Jade Temptressand also reflect (rather more loosely) on money in romance here.

While I'm tooting my own horn, I'm also spending this month catching up on a great many books from my TBR: follow #Readening on Twitter for real-time updates, comments, and links to future reviews.

Jackie Horne at Romance Novels for Feminists has a great discussion of money in category romance, and how heroines deal and don't deal with money (with a really thoughtful comment thread, too).

My favorite detail from the surprisingly good Wikipedia entry on Bonnie and Clyde: "Several days later [slain highway patrolman] Murphy's fiancée wore her intended wedding dress to his funeral, sparking photos and newspaper coverage." That is some grade-A fuck-you material right there.

If you have the spoons for it, reading about sundown towns in America is terribly illuminating. Especially when you start searching the database for places you have lived. Content note for violent racism, white supremacy, and lynching.

The Toast has an excellent list of wealthy heroines in romance, for a palate-cleanser.

A fleeting anachronism led me to the history of the nylon riots after WWII, which are one of those things you think can't possibly be real until you see the photographs and read witness accounts.

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Cullars, Sharon. Filthy Lucre. Loose Id Publishing: 2014, PDF.

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.

DavidManuel1

DavidManuel2

These images are so absurdly sensationalized that they are all but parodies of themselves. I believe them to be quite toxic. They remind me of the Pawnee murals from Parks and Recreation -- about whose defacement Leslie Knope says: "We need better security. We also need better, less offensive history."

It's a joke, but we laugh because it's accurate. Our history is full of things to regret, both personally and at a distance. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Chattel slavery. New World colonization and colonialism in Africa. The East India Company. The death of Hypatia. We have a responsibility not to sweep these things under the rug in service of our own comfort. We have a responsibility to face the mistakes we have made and the crimes we have committed. It would be easy at this point to say that I've never personally disenfranchised anyone or committed genocide, but since I also benefit daily from the actions of those who have, I'm going to let that guilty-defensive impulse rest in the darkness where it belongs.

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

And these thoughts in my mind are becoming entwined with recent conversations about the depiction of past eras in historical romance, especially in this Vacuous Minx post (the comments are legion and golden). Historical accuracy does of course matter.  Misrepresenting the past does a disservice to truth. But often, a too-perfect representation of the past risks recreating the same violence and harm. Consider how romances set in the American antebellum south so often dehumanize black characters as a matter of course. (Shout-out to Beverly Jenkins' Indigo for doing pretty much the opposite of that.) Consider the ways that aristocratic systems are ennobled (ha! see what I did there), romanticized, and democratized in historical romance. Every duke deserves his rank by merit of character/leadership as well as by birth. Every duke is also kind to his servants.

What matters, I think, are not so much the mistakes, but the mistakes we insist upon repeating. Repetition creates a space for its subject, like water drops wearing away a stone; accumulation becomes important. David Manuel's paintings depict a single historical fact: the Cayuse did in fact kill Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. But to focus on this one moment is to lose sight of the larger truth: Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were active, deliberate participants in a system whose goal was the elimination of the Cayuse people and their culture.

Similarly, historical romance has a marked tendency to focus on equalizing the oppressions of one white, straight, cis, aristocratic couple. The problem is that this is not simply one elision, in one book, by one author. It is the thousandth time this particular and very basic erasure has occurred -- which means it is not precisely a mistake. It is a tactic, a narrative necessity to make the duke palatable as a hero to a modern reader's taste. Romance authors and readers discover these rules without having to speak of them too much.

I am increasingly suspicious of rules we learn without speaking of them too much.

This campus is also where I rediscovered my love of historical romance. I wrote my first fan letter, to Julia Quinn, at a chair not ten feet away from where I'm currently sitting. Romance is an escape, people tell me -- but there are important corollary question: an escape for whom, and an escape from what? Julia Quinn's books gave me a break from the dude-centric, often joyless books I was slogging through at the time in service of a well-rounded education. Now I see what else that education tended to pass over -- and a lot of the same subjects don't appear in Julia Quinn's books, either, even if they could. Patterns shift, and escapes become cages. I still read Julia Quinn -- though I think I'm a few books behind at this point -- but I also hunger for something else. An escape from feeling like the frothy romance is the only acceptable or legitimate kind? An escape from a trope or template that is growing stale for me? I'm not entirely sure.

When I was an undergraduate, everything on campus was designed to convey the feeling: You belong here. I still feel it -- it's woven into the very ground of this campus. It's how I feel about historical romance as well. There is a way in which this belonging is true. There is another way in which it is not. This much I have found, since last I was here.

I wonder what else I have yet to learn?

___

For anyone near Washington, DC, I cannot recommend highly enough the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. They dive head-first into historical confrontation, amplify NDN voices, and have the best cafeteria in the entire Smithsonian. 

At RT this past May, I was fortunate enough to get a free copy of Carrie Lofty's Starlight, which is a romance with a mill owning hero and a union-leader heroine in Scotland's textile industry. It definitely pulls some punches, but is still really different and enjoyable. I've been thinking I need to read the rest of the series, especially the one set in South Africa.

Bonus image: for those of you who enjoy dark irony, this screenshot comes from David Manuel's website.

Screencap that shows David Manuel's website has been built by a company called Cherokee Designs.

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.

___

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.

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.

___

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.

G is for Gold Mountain

{Click here for the complete A-Z of intersectional feminism in romance.} So yesterday was really something, wasn't it? Today will be much more relaxed, I promise. Less righteous vitriol; fewer italics; hardly any swears at all.

It appears that this blog series is developing ongoing themes and topoi -- such as 19th-century California, which has appeared in Beverly Jenkins' Destiny's Embrace and yesterday's unmentionable disaster. Sharon Cullars' short romance Gold Mountain is set during the wild and lawless days of the building of the railroads: our heroine is a black laundress/cook and our hero is a Chinese immigrant building the railroads. It's a short, quick read that didn't entirely work for me but did have the benefit of featuring hardly any white people at all.

Cover art for Gold Mountain by Sharon Cullars. A brown-skinned woman with dark hair looks out at the reader. Behind her, a shirtless man with narrow eyes and golden skin hides half in shadow. As we saw with Tessa Dare's book earlier, portrayals of marginalized identities can become stronger and richer when you have more than one character with that identity. I mean, come on Olivia, that's called tokenism and we knew that. But there's often a sense, when writing books specifically in resistance to a dominant kyriarchal narrative, that building books with marginalized characters is an act of rehabilitation. There are so many reductive, venomous stereotypes out there for us to rebel against. Highly Recommended Author Zen Cho describes how this very impulse informed her creation of Jade Yeo:

I think of this imaginary genre as being a reactive one, a thing that I am producing as part of a long slow recovery process. What I am doing with it is, I am processing my childhood reading — all the stuff that was really influential and enjoyable, but also kind of secretly toxic — and I am trying to extract the poison from it while preserving the things I loved.

So when romance has a long, long history with the gay villain, for instance, the initial temptation is to write the Nicest, Most Moral And Upright Gay Character Ever in response. And this is important and necessary, because we need to see heroes and heroines of every stripe; because I really believe that heroism (in both the romance sense and in the wider sense) should be something every person on earth feels they have access to. The title of protagonist should be one any human being can claim for themselves.

Unfortunately, we are not all heroes. Or heroines. Or admirable. Some of us are shit-eating bastards -- okay, so there are a few swears in here -- and others of us are purely mediocre, or cowardly, or weak, or self-serving. And being disabled or black or queer etc. doesn't magically forestall any of this. (Apparently today is Saying Obvious Things day on the blog -- bear with me.) So the need to resist toxic stereotypes is therefore directly at war with the need to depict human foibles in all their ugly reality.

The solution is obvious and yet so often not employed: if more than one of your characters is black, or Asian, or trans, you do not have to worry so much about making them all Model Minorities. Authors are also free, in this scenario, to complicate the story's conflict in realistic ways. Because marginalization is not martyrdom, and ugly power dynamics have a tendency to trickle downward through increasingly vulnerable layers of the social fabric. Oppressed groups can and do respond to systemic discrimination with violence of their own. This is precisely what we see in Gold Mountain, and I found it by far the most compelling aspect of the book.

The reason there are not a lot of white characters in Gold Mountain is this: white people in this world are dangerous. Our black heroine Leah and Chinese hero Quiang avoid them when they can. The two white people we spend the longest time with are a pair of bigoted arsonists who (it is implied) would probably not be averse to a little bit of rape as well. Then there are the railroad overseers, who are as negligent of the life and safety of their Chinese employees as you would expect.

The way that abuses of power filter through the social strata is very clear in this text. We start with 19th-century robber barons, who hire cheaper Chinese labor as a cost-cutting measure:

All the [Chinese] workers knew they were making far less than the whites who worked alongside them, but there was nothing they could do. The one time they'd decided to strike for better pay, the railroad management withheld their monies until they all went back to work. (Kindle location 890)

Naturally, the lower-class white workers are sympathetic to this Catch-22 in which their Chinese counterparts are trapped. Oh wait, no they are not:

If anything the Chinese were often the victims of those who resented their good fortune in this land. That was why the esteemed families had come together as the Seven Companies, as the Heaven and Earth Society, to protect those who were regularly beaten and sometimes even murdered. (1427)

In other words, when faced with economic hardship, abuse, and no legal recourse for redress, the Chinese immigrants organize their own shadow authority. Naturally, the triad is focused on justice and benevolent care for those harmed by the state of California's racist policies. Oh wait, no they are not:

The night running was often dangerous because several families were in contention for the opium trade. And certain independents without honor thought to push their way into the competition, making the running even more hazardous. On two occasions [Quiang had] had to take extreme measures to protect himself. One man would never walk again. And he had gained a few more scars to join those already mapped on his body. (1427)

Racist penny-pinching policies by railroad company men whose names we do not even know are directly responsible for the fact that Quiang has to maim a fellow immigrant in self-defense. And it must be stated: the dramatic tension of this situation makes for some eminently compelling scenes. My favorite moment in this novella is not anything to do with the romance -- though the romance is well-handled -- but rather the scene where Quiang is framed for stealing from the triad, resigns himself to death, and then convinces the dragonhead that if he must kill someone for the crime, to kill both Quiang and Quiang's boss, the real thief. It's a total badass move on the part of our hero as well as a riveting piece of drama, and it's all due to the fact that we know he has no legal recourse and is at the mercy of this deadly, whimsical brand of outlaw justice.

Meanwhile, our heroine Leah is dealing with similar though less obviously fatal dynamics. Black Pastor Caldwell has noticed her continued absence from church:

She didn't know how many Sundays she could let pass before it would be plain that she just didn't want to go to that church any longer. She was as pious as anybody, but she liked to worship in her own way. Not within the confines of a place where the menfolk made it known they were there more for wife hunting than worshipping God. She had just gotten plain tired of the male parishioners coming up to her with nary a word of wooing and expecting her to accept off-the-cuff proposals ... It didn't help that Pastor Caldwell was one of those men. (440)

Naturally, the black men are only looking out for a sister in a land full of predatory and lawless white men. Oh wait, no they are not:

She understood too well that in a community of only a few Negroes, any unmarried Negro woman was open game for not only decent-minded suitors, but those with less-godly intentions ... Some folk would always assume that a Negro woman, no matter how primly dressed, was a loose woman. Outside of the church and the colored women's auxiliary, there weren't too many places she and Clara could go to socialize. (465)

But of course, naturally, when Clara is killed and Leah in the hospital recovering from injuries, Pastor Caldwell offers to help her because of disinterested Christian charity. Oh wait, no he does not:

"I know you don't have a place to live right now. There's a room above the rectory where the church puts up visitors. I can have it made up all feminine-like for your comfort, and you can stay as long as you like. I know people will probably talk -- they always do. But maybe in a few months, we ... we can make the talking stop by ... I don't know any other way to bring this up. I haven't courted you properly, but I think you might have figured out by now that I have a soft spot for you, and I would be honored and privileged --" (1571)

Leah cuts off his inelegant speech at this point before he can go completely Collins on us. Her objections are that A) Clara loved him, and B) Leah does not, so his proposal is doubly unwelcome to her. Naturally, Pastor Collins takes this refusal with good grace. Oh wait:

The pastor took up his hat and stood. His face was stern and formal. "I'm sorry to have overstepped myself. You can trust that I will not make that mistake again. I wish you well, Sister. And .. if you ever do need anything ... well, the church is always open to you." (1597)

Injured and grieving, Leah has now been cut off from the only society she knows by her refusal to prioritize the pastor's romantic desires over her own. Racist discrimination in society and the law directly lead black women to be victimized by black men as well as whites. I'll admit that I spent a large part of this book giving Pastor Caldwell the side-eye as he lurked creepily through his scenes. He doesn't end up being more than self-absorbed and unpleasant, but the threat was very palpable. And if his fiancée Tallulah -- an engagement acquired immediately after Leah's refusal -- had not offered our heroine a place to stay after her discharge from the hospital, she would have been out on the dangerous streets of Sacramento.

These two social groups, black and Chinese people, each building a unique response to a unique pattern of repression, are deliberately isolated from one another, just as Quiang and Leah are initially separated from one another by the language barrier: Quiang does not speak English, and Leah does not speak Taishanese (Quiang's particular dialect of the Chinese language family). Mixing the systems of black, Chinese, and white power and resistance gets volatile very quickly: the one scene we have with characters of all three races leads rapidly to Clara's death. Leah is in no doubt about her responsibility for this: "Clara was dead because of her, because she had stood up for a Chinaman" (1336). Nothing good can happen when different groups or ethnicities mix:

At near midnight the streets were deserted but for the most base of the citizenry, whether white, Irish, Chinese, Negro, or Mexican -- races kept apart by the laws of man, brought together by the pursuit of illegal or lascivious distractions." (1355)

Quiang's inability to get free of association with the triad puts his and Leah's lives in immediate danger. Being shut out from legal existence means that illegal existence will necessarily flourish -- we see this with alcohol Prohibition, and we see it here in Gold Mountain. During the course of Leah and Quiang's romance, I was on tenterhooks to see how these tensions would be resolved.

Turns out -- spoilers! -- they aren't. Quiang and Leah move away, driven by the need to get away from the sinister control of the triad and its leaders. They raise happy children in Colorado, which I had a hard time believing was free from any prejudice against a mixed-race couple and their mixed-race children in 1865. The children are sweet and the romance was too, but I wish there had been more answers at the end.

___

Sharon Cullars really, really needs a new website -- seriously, no way to click through to page two of your blog? does page two even exist? I can't tell -- but the landing page did provide a link to this excellent interview she did with late mystery author and former Massachusetts cop Judith Smith-Levin (link is at the top left).

Lately activist Suey Park has provoked a larger -- and often vitriolic -- discussion about anti-Asian racism and white progressive allyship. Feministing has a piece that discusses how the response to Park's #CancelColbert mirrors other recent backlashes to women's online speech, particularly women of color.

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Cullars, Sharon. Gold Mountain. Loose Id LLC: 2010. Ebook.

C is for Zen Cho

{For the full alphabet of intersectional feminism in romance, click here.} Let me not even pretend I can write with perfect objectivity about author Zen Cho's The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. It has been a long time since a book has charmed me so thoroughly, on so many levels. This Dear Author review by Sunita sums it up nicely: "It’s frothy but not at all insubstantial. Rather, it’s effervescent and sparkling like Champagne; it goes down easy, feels like something special, and tastes complex and subtle." I love champagne, both as a beverage and as a metaphor for intoxicating prose, so this was precisely to my liking.

Oh, there will be so many spoilers in the paragraphs ahead.

Jade (Geok Huay) Yeo is a Malayan writer of Chinese descent, living and working in 1920s London. She has a Dorothy-Parkerish keenness of voice, self-deprecating and self-confident by turns. She writes both articles with titles like 'What The Well-Dressed Woman Is Wearing' and literary pieces for the Oriental Literary Review. Her critic's eye is crucial to her story, which is surprisingly rich in literary antecedents for so short a book: Eliot, Austen, two of the Brontës, Tennyson, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Wodehouse are all represented -- and those were only the ones I noticed. This post and the comments name a few more.

But most significant are the frequent allusions to Jane Eyre, whose plot the novel parallels rather closely:

  • Our bookish and independent heroine refuses to be intimidated by a volatile, wealthy man.
  • The volatile, wealthy man finds her resistance irresistible.
  • The two begin an affair, but the first man turns out to have a wife already.
  • After a confrontation with the wife, our heroine takes refuge in a quiet spot in the country.
  • Our heroine finds a second chance at romantic involvement, with a less wealthy but more moral partner, and makes the choice most conducive to her personal happiness.

These are the broad strokes, though I could go on (our heroine has an overbearing aunt, our heroine finds employment through periodicals, Jade is one letter away from Jane, etc. there are so many it's really exciting I'll stop now honest).

Despite all these clues, Jade refuses this very comparison: "I had no intention of being anyone's Jane Eyre, particularly as Jane Eyre herself declined to be a second wife" (Kindle location 726). When filtered through a Malayan cultural lens that includes polygamy, the  catastrophe at the heart of Brontë's text -- the strong taboo against bigamy -- becomes something quite different. Jane Eyre in this context does not flee from a nearly committed crime: instead, she rejects a form of inclusion that would make her subservient, secondary. Western literature's meaning alters when it is viewed from the margins rather than from the center.

Jade's gently ironic tone should not prevent us from noticing that the state of second wife is the very type of subservience she is being offered by Diana Hardie. Again the threat is not bigamy or even adultery: the threat for Jade is being subsumed into a Western, high-literary, colonialist house; being subject to endless microaggressions about her country of origin; being "Hardie's assistant" rather than a writer with her own name and career. It would mean the obliteration of her entire self and experience: "It would be like forswearing rice, and only eating cake for the rest of my life. I couldn't do it" (752).

Sebastian Hardie, after all, could not be a more obvious symbol of the Western colonial and literary agenda. He is a celebrated author with a sexually adventurous lifestyle and a rampaging libido -- the perfect Roaring Twenties sheik -- the consummate romance novel hero. And like his wife, he would place Jade in a role as a sidekick. On their very first meeting, he refers to her as "Ariel ... Alone on an incomprehensible island"  244). It's clear he's  attempting flattery, envisioning the Asian female critic as a waifish, magical sprite who was rescued by a European and must repay that debt with servitude and gratitude. But Jade's not having it. "I'm really more of a Caliban," she replies. It's probably nothing more than a one-off joke, offered in a moment of social anxiety, but Hardie attempts for the rest of the novel to confine her within this persona: he refers to her as "little Caliban" (534) and writes revealing poems to her under that name. He has effectively colonized Jade, renaming her and confining her personhood within an explicitly English, literary framework.

It is never made explicit in the text, but I believe it's safe to assume that in this little game Hardie imagines himself as Prospero, a figure often associated with creative and artistic powers (not to mention God complexes). But from the perspective of a reader it is abundantly clear that Sebastian Hardie is a Miranda, traipsing around his island home, talking a great deal of nonsense about love, and wondering if the people he sees are real people or magical spirits. The role of Prospero is reserved for Sebastian's wife Diana, who is very clearly in charge of everything: "Being with Diana must be like living in a beautiful play written by a playwright of the modern school" (674).

Pregnant and disenchanted, Jade leaves the Hardies (and The Tempestbehind and goes to the country to have her child in seclusion. Like Jane Eyre, she finds herself in a place that operates on high moral principles and charitable acts:

Mrs. Crowther is a widow, but her assistants are Misses mostly. They are all very nice: they knit and are tremendously tactful. The food is British and hearty, and the furnishings are soothing, if plain. Perhaps they thought patterns might distress our minds further. (856)

Also like Jane, Jade finds friendship in this lonely place -- but while Jane finds solace in the puritan spirit of the Riverses, Jade is drawn to a fellow inmate, Margery, who suffers from what is pretty obviously clinical depression: she describes "a black thing with horns and wings ... that stares at one with yellow eyes -- and one can't get out of bed, but lies there and wishes one was dead" (910). Their sisterhood is not a literary-coincidental blood connection, but a sympathy created by marginalization. "I'm mad," says Margery; "I'm bad," replies Jade (892), but they do not let the prevailing cultural narratives about madness/badness impede their connection as human beings. Strict adherence to the plots of such narratives belongs to people like the Hardies, or to Margery's relatives, who privilege "scientific" medical authority over her own lived experience of her illness (933).

By this point in the book Jade has realized the depth of her true feelings for her friend Ravi, the editor of the Oriental Literary Review, but she has no hope that he returns them -- until he shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm. Jade is reading Agnes Grey and cites David Copperfield  -- another book with two wives -- to describe her shocked reaction. These are small details, but it soon becomes apparent that Ravi and Jade have each been telling themselves stories about the other, and that those stories have not matched. They get things sorted out almost in spite of themselves, in the charming way of all the best romantic comedies -- and since we're talking about the Jane Eyre parallels still you may note that Ravi has been imagining himself as suffering from unrequited love for an unattainable object, just as St. John Rivers does for Rosamond Oliver. In the course of proposing, Ravi reveals that he knows Jade's untranslated name, Geok Huay. Jade is puzzled, as she'd never actually told him this -- but he mentions that she had written it but then crossed it out on the very first letter she'd written to him as an editor. It is clear that Ravi has deliberately chosen to address her by the name she'd chosen to use in public, in London, in the literary world -- but he has not forgotten her real name, and in this private, intimate moment he uses it, setting aside the colonial need for a 'normal-sounding' (read: British) identification.

If Jade excels at subverting and deflating the narratives of privilege and colonialism -- her initial bad review of Hardie's novel, her refusal to adore London's golden boy, her refusal to move in with Hardie and his wife, her rebellious friendship with Margery -- Ravi "remembers the things one has said" (176). He is an editor, someone who can keep multiple versions/visions of a narrative in his head without contradiction -- and also someone who can spot the telling details, the places for improvement, the moments where a story's plot or tone may be revised. As Jade says quite early about the Mimnaugh review: "I was worried he would give me helpful critique, which I would have to listen to because Ravi's judgment is unerring" (87). Jade is constantly shifting between social and personal narratives -- British imperial subject/foreigner, good girl/fallen woman, literary critic/pleasure reader -- and Ravi is the one person in the book who can follow the thread between all these shifting stories. As such, he is perfectly suited to her, and Jade recognizes it.

And of course, in a truly subversive move that's like catnip for lit-nerds like myself, Jade finds happiness not with the Rochester figure but with a much friendlier, warmer version of St. John Rivers, who initially offers her a similar kind of companionate marriage (before the two realize their mutual romantic feelings).

Nobody's Jane Eyre, indeed.

___

There is often the sense, as Zen Cho explainsthat "that fiction by or about people who are traditionally underrepresented in Western literature is kind of innately worthy and dull." This perceived gap between reading-for-escape and reading-for-representation became a strong theme in a recent Dear Author thread asking what books readers were hoping to see in the future. But this is a false dichotomy, a lingering symptom of the way that non-white people have been Othered and limited throughout literature and history. I for one am thrilled that Zen Cho is hoping to write more "post-colonial fluff for book nerds."

She has also complied this handy list of Malaysian science fiction and fantasy writers working in English, for your further reading pleasure.

___

Cho, Zen. The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo. Seattle: Zen Cho, 2012. Ebook.

The Ghosts of Christmas

Dickens' preface to A Christmas Carol famously describes it as a "Ghostly little book." Scrooge's journey is indeed full of ghosts -- the ghosts of memory, of imagined futures, of symbolic spirits and metaphors come to life. And death. Death is the hidden secret of A Christmas Carol, with all the attendant terror of the powerlessness and isolation of the grave. One ghostly vignette in particular is usually left out of stage and screen adaptations (even the otherwise perfect Muppet version):

The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

The book is remarkable for presenting many such scenes of tortured regret, but no corresponding images of Heaven. Do good people even have an afterlife in this cosmology? They seem to vanish from the world, never to be heard from again. Only the unhappy and the damned linger in the mortal sphere. A life well lived might bring eternal rest -- but good or bad, death inevitably brings a severance, isolation from warm hearths and loving hearts.

There are more than a few ghostly Christmases in my own past -- such as the one during my first year of college. My mom, sister and myself all came down with a particularly nasty flu, and my dad was in the middle of a lengthy recovery from a hernia surgery the month before. Later we would learn that his immune system was too busy fighting cancer to be able to heal other things, and it's hard not to let the memory of that news color what came before. I remember the four of us prostrate and miserable, variously nauseated or eating microwaveable pot stickers -- the only thing Mom could manage to cook before collapsing back on the couch with the rest of us. I've never quite forgiven pot stickers in all the time since.

A few years later, Christmas again turned ghostly when we lost both my great-grandmother and her youngest brother three days apart, one on either side of the holiday. An entire generation vanished in the blink of an eye. They'd been an enormous part of my entire life -- my grandma had poured me cup after cup of strong black tea, and let me climb all the trees in her yard-that-was-basically-a-farm, and made the most delicious applesauce you've ever tasted. My great-uncle was also the elementary school janitor who played St. Nicholas to all us Catholic schoolkids -- he made me my first hot buttered rum when I was (not quite) old enough to drink them, and was always in the most unfailingly generous humor. By the time this holiday was done, we were on first-name terms with the gentleman at the funeral home. We would see him again when my dad died a few years later.

And now this year came the news that my grandmother had cancer. A different, new cancer -- not the one she managed to fight off two years ago. This one is much worse, caught at a much later stage. She went into the hospital last Tuesday, certain that the doctors would have a treatment plan for her. I walked around for most of a week with fists clenched, absolutely spoiling for a fight. Then I drove down for a day to visit her along with with a broad coalition of family members, who are camping out in Portland the way they camped out in Seattle during my dad's final decline.

My grandmother passed away Friday afternoon.

This weird space of grief is starting to become familiar. I've visited enough times to know the landmarks and mileposts. I know that wine will help but Scotch will not, that watching Game of Thrones will be a solid distraction but watching Lilo and Stitch will leave me a sobbing, snot-daubed wreck. Time becomes an accordion, compressing and expanding unpredictably. Some hours fly by, while other minutes linger long past their usual welcome. I spent the entire trip to Portland and back listening to Welcome to Night Vale, because the eerie tone and portentous language seemed to acknowledge the weirdness and darkness in my own life.

Times like this we cling hardest to the stories that encompass what we're feeling. I keep thinking of the Ghost of Christmas Present -- the pleasant, hospitable, yet somehow fierce second spirit that Scrooge encounters. He's had "More than eighteen hundred" brothers, but he can't have met any of them -- they are born, live, and die in the space of a single night. (The way the Ghost fades away into sparkles in the Muppet version is particularly heartbreaking.) He is the embodiment of human warmth and holiday feeling, and he is terribly, tragically ephemeral. Mortal, even. What does it mean for a Ghost to die?

I think, insofar as I can think these days, that it's about memory. The Ghost of Christmas Present may not have met his brothers, but he remembers them. The Ghost of Christmas Past remembers everything. And one of the reasons death is so frightening is that it threatens us with forgetting. There's a shock that comes when you can't precisely recall the face of someone you've lost -- what was their nose shaped like? The precise color of their eyes? Photographs and home movies are not as much help as you'd think -- they are limited, incomplete. They don't so much fill the void as remind us that it exists.

We have to trust that the important things will still be remembered. The way someone laughed, or smiled. The gifts they gave -- and not just the ones wearing bows under a glittering tree. The inextinguishable light they brought into our lives. On these longest, darkest, coldest nights of the year, we night that light the most.

And we will remember, as best we can.

My New Tintype Author Photo

On a recent trip to Astoria, Mr. Waite and I were walking back from dinner when we quite literally stumbled over a man on the sidewalk outside a tattoo parlor. He had a butane torch and was running it along the back of a small metal rectangle, held carefully in his fingertips. Beside him on a tripod was a tall antique box camera with a bowler hat. As he torched the metal, it tilted and I saw a greyscale, grainy portrait, lush with depth and rich with texture. I couldn't believe it: this man was making tintypes, right out in the open.

His name, we learned, is Giles Clement of Clement Photograph in Portland, Oregon. He was charming and talented and willing to describe each step of the photographic process while he worked. The results are beautifully ghostly -- I feel like I somehow stepped backward in time.

Tintype photograph of a dark-haired, fair-skinned woman. She has her head tilted slightly and looks slightly mischievous.

How Do You Read a Clinch Cover?

Recently the glorious Sequential Crush posted a link to Scott Edelman's thoughtful reflection on the differences between romance comics covers and romance novel covers. He points out that he's never noticed this variation before -- that makes two of us, to my chagrin -- and then he says something about clinch covers that surprised me:

They depict (or seem to anyway, since we have no idea what the characters are really thinking) people in love. And more than just in love, happy in that love. What you’re seeing is the aspirational goal of a romance—its, yes, “happily ever after” loving conclusion.

And I realized there is another disconnect here: Scott Edelman assumes that a clinch cover depicts the happily ever after.

Cover for Sandra Hill's Frankly, My Dear. A tan-skinned shirtless man with dark hair holds a tan-skinned, dark-haired woman in a yellow historical gown. Red background. The cover pose references the famous movie poster for Gone with the Wind.It has never occurred to me that clinch covers were meant to be happy. Angsty, of course -- impassioned, sure. But happy? Never. For one thing, as Smart Bitches loves to point out, there is a distinct tendency for the couple to look constipated. Or sleepy. But I always interpreted the clinch as the moment where the hero and heroine have recognized that Doin' It Is A Bad Idea, but have decided that We Just Can't Help Ourselves. (Leaving aside questions of ravishment and forced seduction, which were definitely operating in many an Old Skool clinch cover. I'm looking at you, Kathleen Woodiwiss -- though most of your clinches were stamp-sized mini-clinches glued on top of a misty landscape, for some reason.) Clinch cover from Victoria Alexander's The Emperor's New Clothes. A pale-skinned blond man with a blue neckerchief half-wears a lighter blue button-up shirt while standing hip-deep in a pool of water. His arm is wound around the waist of a pale-skinned, red-haired woman in a damp white chemise with her hand on her hip, looking tempestuous. This view of the clinch might explain the Mysterious Wind, which will often be tugging the hero and heroine's flowing locks in opposite directions at the same time. They're caught, you see, in a literal storm of passion -- they lean toward each other even as the wind swirls around, about to tear them apart. The clinch is danger -- the love is under threat -- separation and destruction are looming.

Then again, this is all my own interpretation. I went through my collection, looking for clinch covers that showed scenes from the actual text, and came up empty-handed. (Curse my tendency to cull my shelves every other year!) The closest was the Victoria Alexander cover above, which is from a book I found recently at a library sale and haven't had a chance to actually read yet. But judging from the title and the synopsis on the back (mistaken identities, actresses in the Wild West, and untrustworthy ladeez), I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the scene on the cover is almost certainly not the happy ever after.

I don't have a conclusion here. I'm just kind of fascinated. Thoughts, o Reader?

 

Now That You Mention It, The Internet Is Totally A Speakeasy

{Background: people have been saying -- on Techdirt, more recently on Techdirt, and now in a thorough 57-page paper that I haven't finished reading yet -- that copyright enforcement is 'our generation's Prohibition'. I'll have more thoughts once I've finished the paper, but for now this is immediately where my mind leapt. Metaphors are powerful, yo.} Mickey pulled his hat down lower over his face before heading into the alley. It was an unpromising canyon of a shadows with a single rivet-bound door at the end. For a moment his heart stuttered and fell to its knees, trying to convince him this was all a terrible mistake.

Anne tugged on his elbow, her smile like a slash in the dim light, as bloody red as her dress. "Come on," she said. "It's only frightening the first time."

Mickey pulled his heart up to its feet and followed.

Anne's heels staccattoed the concrete as she strode to the door. At her knock, a window slid open just wide enough to reveal a pair of thoughtful brown eyes. Said the man, "Weather's bad tonight. Looks like rain."

"They say it's going to come down in torrents," Anne replied.

The window snicked shut, then the whole door creaked open. The thoughtful brown eyes belonged to a pale man with wild, astonishing hair and a self-effacing smile. "Hurry up," he said.

Anne pulled Mickey inside and the doorman pulled the door closed once more. A long hallway led left, then right, then down, then through a dusty cellar. A tuxedo-clad man took Mickey's hat and politely opened a second thick door.

Mickey stepped into a swirl of music and color and noise.

He stopped to try and get his bearings. Straight ahead was a dance floor, crammed with bodies gyrating to bootlegs of live concerts, lost tracks, and illicit mash-ups—all of which were available upon request from the cat-eared DJ in the front of the room. In velvet-lined booths to the right people were trading reproductions of famous paintings, fan art, and celebrity photos. One girl proudly displayed a sketch where Disney's Belle and her Beast had been transformed into Chewbacca and Han Solo: Belle's blue skirt and white apron had changed into a white shirt, blue vest and pants, and the Beast sported a bandolier across his broad chest. The caption read: "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere."

On Mickey's left were a row of glass-walled rooms with flickering screens that displayed the latest smash hit movie, classic decade-long television shows, and forgotten classics that were rarely seen outside art houses and film schools in the nation's two largest cities. Above was a balcony studded with couches and chairs, each of which held someone curled up for comfort, balancing the slender weight of an e-reader in their hands.

And everywhere people were talking, squealing, laughing, fighting, creating, comparing, emjoying. It was lunacy—and it was infectious.

Anne encompassed the whole room with one regal gesture. "Where should we start?" she asked.

Mickey's face split in a wide grin. "The music," he said.

Within an hour, Mickey had procured albums by Tom Waits and Otis Redding, things he'd purchased years ago and had since lost. Someone told him about some band called the Avett Brothers, and gave him a copy of Four Thieves Gone. He found a set of headphones and hit play.

Thanks to the high volume of the music and the excellent quality of the headphones, Mickey only noticed the police had arrived when they yanked out the jack. "You're under arrest," said the detective. His white trenchcoat fit his broad shoulders like the wings of an avenging angel.

Mickey blinked in surprise. Blue-clad street cops moved somberly through the room, but everyone else had vanished, even Anne. CDs and mixtapes, videos and Blu-rays lay scattered and crushed on the caramel wood floor. As he watched, one cop lifted an axe and brought it crashing down on a screen showing a gifset from The Avengers.

Meanwhile, Mickey's detective was examining his list of titles. He pursed his lips and whistled. "The Avett Brothers?" he said. "You son of a bitch."

"I'm starting to really dig that album," Mickey protested.

"Then why would you take money away from hard-working young artists?" The cop kicked over a stack of copies of Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. "It's one thing to steal a dead man's tunes," he said. "But a small band struggling to make good?"

"I didn't know I would like it until I heard it," Mickey said weakly. "Aren't they coming to town next month? I'm sure I've seen the poster somewhere. I'd love to hear them play in person."

"Why not just download a bootleg of that concert, too?" the detective snarled.

"Well," said Mickey, "because concerts are fun."

"You won't be able to afford concert tickets for a long while, buddy," the detective replied. "The last guy we caught with this many MP3s got a six-figure fine and community service."

"Six figures!" Mickey cried. "You've got to be joking."

"It's piracy that's the real joke," said the detective. "Like the proverbial bad penny, you criminals keep turning up." He sighed and waved one hand to his subordinates. As the police hauled Mickey away, he craned his head over his shoulder to see that the DJ had already crept back into his booth and the readers were back in their chairs up above. (Had they ever really left?)

Lounging in one of those overhead chairs was Anne, her long legs stretched out easily before her. She smiled and blew Mickey a kiss.

The riveted door slammed shut.

{The inevitable disclaimer: I believe that copyright is vitally important, but that enforcement of copyright has taken some ludicrous turns in the course of developing a practical law. Piracy's overlap with fair use, international law, and fan culture is still a murky, ill-defined territory. The metaphor of copyright-enforcement-as-Prohibition is initially intriguing -- we'll see if the historical argument holds up -- especially since it implies that popular culture is intoxicating, vital, and impossible to quash. But it also implies that popular culture is vulgar, morally dodgy, and may provide a financial building ground for organized crime. And I'm not just talking about bootleg Sopranos episodes. I'll have more coherent thoughts about this in future.

Also if anyone wants to draw me a picture of Belle and the Beast as Han and Chewy that would be spectacular.

UPDATE: Ask and you shall receive!}

Belle and Beast as Han and Chewy -iPad sketch

This Star Trek Post is Brought to You by Not Getting Whooping Cough

So there is a pertussis epidemic afoot in our neck of the woods at present, and after one local news source referred to it as the Hundred Day Cough—the Napoleon of viruses!—I ran out and got myself vaccinated. At which point my brain fell all to pieces.

It's not whooping cough, and it's not an allergic reaction: it's just my body taking energy to make antibodies, like it's supposed to. But it has drained all the thinky-juice from my brain-parts, so instead of making headway on any of my works-in-progress I am weeping over episodes of My Little Pony (that poor tortoise just wants to be loved!) and watching a lot of original series Star Trek for the first time ever.

Which is why I want to talk about the Unnamed Female Romulan Commander.

A still shot from 'The Enterprise Incident,' featuring (among other figures) the Unnamed Female Romulan Commander in a long-sleeved, two-tone asymettrical mini-dress with black over-the-knee boots and sheer black hose.

That's her there, center left, in one of the greatest outfits Star Trek has ever given humanity. She appears in an episode called 'The Enterprise Incident,' which is also pretty fantastic. The UFRC is in charge of the Romulan flagship (!) with a cloaking device, and spends most of her on-screen time seducing Spock (!!) using her words, logic, and that incredible minidress-boot combination. (Which is, of course, what any right-thinking dude-inclined woman would do if dropped into a Star Trek episode.) All while trying to also seduce him into defecting, which somehow doesn't come across as evil so much as it does, well, strategic. Spock is clearly a badass and good to have on your side, plus if he's fighting with the Romulans then she can keep seducing him, and it feels like everybody wins.

Spock, of course, is there to steal the cloaking device. There's an elaborate game of espionage being played, though the episode goes to some lengths to keep the reveal from happening too early. It's one of Star Trek's most effectively plotted stories. And though the UFRC doesn't win, she's not humiliated, and she's treated with the respect due to her rank by everyone on the Enterprise, and Spock even privately admits that their brief sexytimes will have a greater impact on him than the theft of the cloaking device.

And then she disappears from the Star Trek universe forever.

This is unacceptable.

I mean, look at her accomplishments!

  • She can command a damn Romulan flagship, which bespeaks a certain amount of ruthless intelligence and political cunning, but she is never vicious or cruel in the use of her power.
  • She can seduce both the human and Vulcan sides of Spock, and very nearly bend him to her will without denting his awesomeness or independence. Not even Kirk can do this—except in the slashier areas of internet fandom (love you, K/S!).
  • She respects the rights and dignity of her prisoners, even those she has condemned to death.
  • She does not lose control when she discovers Spock's betrayal, and she is as gracious in defeat as she is in victory.
  • She has emotions and expresses them, but they are not her sole motivation.
  • She manages to find two flattering, tasteful outfits in the Star Trek universe—which let me tell you, is no small feat. I expect she has a personal dressmaker on staff, because every other non-Federation lady has the worst outfits.

I don't really have a larger point here. Just that one of the weaknesses of the original series is a tendency to ignore opportunities for long-form narrative arcs, as well as a distressing amount of sexism for a show that was/is considered a progressive benchmark. Following up on the UFRC would have been an excellent way to address both.

And if anyone knows where I can find a replica of that minidress, please let me know.

Today in Unlikely but Useful Research Topics

Via the always-delightful Improbable Research blog comes this incredibly handy piece by Oxford scholar Michael Burden: "Pots, Privies and WCs: Crapping at the Opera in London Before 1830." We here at Olivia Waite love a good opera scene in a historical romance, and this article offers plenty of rich details, just the sort of gritty, astonishing information that historical authors are always looking for:

In general, the documented behaviour of London audiences suggests that it had little or nothing in common with anything that might be experienced by opera-goers today. These audiences pushed, shoved, argued and, as the vomiting character in the centre of Figure 1 suggests, the crush could be tight. Recorded incidents in the nineteenth century include a terrific squeeze at the Opera House in 1830, where there were ‘torn clothes and a few fainting fits’;8 a Mr Jones who was knocked over and crushed, and emerged gushing blood from his ears, eyes and mouth;9 the positioning of fire engines at the stage doors in an effort to persuade the audience to remain under control;10 and a crowd ‘violent beyond precedent’ for Jenny Lind’s long-expected debut that gave currency to the expression ‘a Jenny Lind crush’.11

It's available to read online as a PDF; I highly encourage you to read the whole thing.

The First Book I Ever Wrote

We here at Olivia Waite can't remember the first thing we ever tried to write, but we sure do remember the first book we ever finished writing. It was a terrible high school romance written longhand on blue-lined notebook paper, and it was inspired by seeing an ad for this book in Seventeen magazine:

I knew nothing about the book and I didn't want to know. {NB: The author is still writing, and appears quite popular! Here is her Amazon page!} All I knew was that the title—Zoey Fools Around—struck me as the most ridiculous title in the world. What kind of plot went with that title?

I sat down over a weekend and wrote it.

And oh, looking back, it's clearly horrible. You know that scene in Twilight where Edward and Bella are partners in science lab or whatever? {Disclaimer: I haven't read Twilight, though I've read just about every piece of Twilight criticism on the whole wide internet.} Imagine that scene without the abstinent sexual tension and sparkly vampires. Then imagine that scene drags on for several more scenes, before ending with something even more disappointing than a whimper.

There may also have been attempted date rape depicted at one point, to let the reader know the popular-kid villain was the villain and not the hero. (He was handsome, and I didn't want anyone to get confused.) I was reading a lot of Catherine Coulter at the time, and date rape seemed like the high school translation of the forced seduction that was The Thing in romance of that era. Especially as I hadn't been to high school yet myself, but had gathered my information on it from a variety of terrible movies, magazines, and after-school specials.

It's possible this manuscript still exists either here in my library or at home in the house where I grew up. I'm a little afraid to go looking.

From such a beginning, there was nowhere to go but up. No manuscript I ever write will be as awkward, as shallow, as wooden as that first one. Damned if You Do and Hearts and Harbingers are masterworks by comparison—and hopefully those too will be eclipsed by the books I have yet to write.

It's a comforting thought. The worst book I've ever written is behind me, and I hope that the best is yet to come.

Leap Day Birthdays And Other Calendrical Shenanigans

When we here at Olivia Waite hear that Leap Day is coming up, surely we're not alone in thinking, "Frederic finally gets a birthday!" Because if anything is always culturally relevant, it's the nonstop patter-filled story of an uptight young British man finding true love after being mistakenly apprenticed to pirates in his youth. Poor Frederic won't be free of the indenture until he turns 21—since he was born on February 29, it will take him about six decades. Pity the poor soul with a Leap Day Birthday!

A recent episode of Parks and Recreation (Knope 2012!) titled "Jerry's Sweet Sixteen" was based on the same premise: perennial joke-butt Jerry Gurgitch was born on February 29, so from a very technical standpoint he's only had sixteen birthdays.

Of course, the Leap Day Birthday does not mean Jerry has not spent sixty-four years on this planet as it revolves around the sun. The Leap Day Birthday is an aberration that reveals the way we culturally build the idea birthdays: you can live however long you want, but the anniversary of the date you were born is the important day, and if that day comes around only once in four years then those years somehow don't count toward your total age. Like dog years, but in reverse and for people.

Annual birthdays of course were invented by the ancient Romans. This is quite true: according to Denis Feeney's wonderful and mind-bending Caesar's Calendar, the fact that Ovid shares a birthday (and a calendar day) with his brother is the first documented instance of the same date occurring with precisely 365 days between. This was made possible by the recent invention of the Julian calendar (which included leap days, and eventually fell to the Gregorian calendar). Before then, the ancient Greeks would celebrate the date of their birth every month, which sounds like a pretty transparent justification to have symposia all the time with your friends. Hey, οινοχορος! Βring me more birthday wine! It's the 15th again!

Before the Romans began to standardize the calendar, each nation, region, or city-state kept its own history on its own time, with its own reckoning. This sounds terrifyingly chaotic—but it bears pointing out that after the Gregorian calendar was contrived in the 16th century, it took centuries for other nations to adopt its use. Which is to say the date varied from country to country during the periods we like to call the Renaissance, Enlightenment (don't forget the French Republican Calendar!), and Industrial Revolution. The US adopted the current calendar just in time to screw with George Washington's birthday, and Greece only changed calendars in—wait for it—1923.

Let me say that again, because it kind of blows my mind: Greece has not been using the Gregorian calendar for a full century yet.

Maybe it's that I'm always kind of obsessed with the nature of time, or maybe I've just been watching too much Doctor Who lately, but thinking too hard about calendar changes and moving dates and adding/vanishing days is starting to make me fundamentally nervous. Wednesday doesn't exist, not really! It's all just a vast conspiracy by popes and world leaders and elite historians and astronomers and, um, people who enjoy being able to make plans in advance, I guess.

Therefore, as a pleasing distraction, and since we've been talking about time and Romans and Doctor Who, here is a picture of Rory Williams as the Last Centurion. Because nothing is more comforting than a devoted geek in Roman garb.

Ah, that's better ...