Choice and Fate in Outlander STARZ

Risk assessment in the drama of Outlander STARZ: Do the Frasers need a decision tree?

Spoilers ahead if you’re not caught up with both the books and the TV series. Also, some key details assumed without being mentioned.

Oh so many things went wrong, or seemed to, in this latest episode of Outlander STARZ, ep410, “The Deep Heart’s Core.” My husband said what might seem obvious during the revelations scene, i.e., the climax of the episode where tempers flared and horror ascended in the hearts of the guilty. (So glad he’s on board with watching my fave show, by the way!) He laughed and said, “These people need to talk to each other. Everyone’s leaving something out. They’re like children.” Too true. Too human.

But the Frasers (and Murrays and Fitzgibbonses) do the best they know how; their primary motive is love. Actually, although it may seem counter-intuitive, that motivation may be the main barrier to ensuring loved ones’ well-being and good, long-term outcomes. Emotions steer their course more often than sound judgment, thoughtful consideration, or consultation with each other of any length, or so the limited time frame of episodic television suggests. The books are more intricate, intellectual, nuanced, and intelligent, with longer conversations as a matter of course, discussions that go into much greater depth on the weighty issues.

In some ways, though, who can blame these characters? Their problems are inordinately complex. A family composed in part of time travelers who never know if their interventions will have a positive or negative impact on the long run, whether the target for improvement is their family situation or society at large. Still, the depth of their love for each other, the greatness of their need for each other, these things are the primary drivers of their actions always, which, although problematic, is also one huge reason we love them as readers and viewers.

For instance, as she tells us in ep408, “Wilmington,” Brianna would never have forgiven herself if she hadn’t gone back in time to warn her parents of the fire resulting in their deaths some time in the 1770s (stupid printer’s stupid smudge!). So almost on impulse, though she carefully plans and prepares, she goes back through the stones to her parents’ time in 1769.

Although, once he follows and finally catches up with her, Roger does try to explain why he kept his knowledge of the fire from Brianna, as usual, it should get more play than it does on the show: “We cannot be the arbiters of who lives and dies,” he argues. This in the midst of heated, emotional conversation where the fiery Fraser lass is deeply offended by being treated with such protection, like a child, which Roger then says matches her behavior of the moment.

She insists in her passion that it was her choice to make, and that she wouldn’t make such an important decision for Roger, so why did he try to make hers? This she says after he has already tried to explain that she really can’t make a difference, they are incapable of changing history in any significant way, which seems to be borne out by the Frasers’ experiences leading up to Culloden.

Still, she had to try, she says. It’s love, and foolishness, putting herself at compounded high risk for harm and death by going through the stones at all and by traveling in the 1700s as a young, thin, beautiful, 1960s-era woman–by herself. Both students of history, with this unprecedented phenomenon of time travel to consider, it is natural that Roger and Brianna should have such diverging views on the potential for influencing history.

A critical scene and discussion omitted from the first book during Season 1, to Diana Gabaldon’s frustration, may have been perhaps the first major point of divergence between book and show about the crux of the entire series—the effects of time travel.

During Claire’s discussion with Father Anselm at the abbey where Claire tends to a deeply traumatized and suicidal Jamie in the wake of his victimization by Black Jack Randall, two critical questions from the book do not make it to the screen. In Gabaldon’s Outlander, Claire confesses her sins, which admittedly are more mortal in the books than in the show up to that point. She asks the priest, first, “What have I done?”

She blames herself for the misery she has brought to both her husbands, Frank in the 1940s and Jamie in the 1740s. It’s as if she believes she were so powerful to overcome either her greater love for Jamie than for Frank when faced with the free choice, provided by Jamie, of whether to return to Frank or stay in Jamie’s time, or to overcome Captain Black Jack Randall’s will to save Jamie from the gallows temporarily only so he could have his way with and break him.

But she didn’t cause Jamie to be caught by the redcoats, to be set on the run from them, though she and Murtagh searched far and wide for him, or to be captured again, tried, and sentenced to hang. To save his family, Jamie chose to help the Watch attempt to rob a neighboring clan, which set these events in motion.

Then again, it was fate that made Horrocks reappear at Lallybroch after learning of Jamie’s outlaw status when the Mackenzies brought Jamie to meet him to see if there was a way to prove his innocence. The same Horrocks then extorted Jamie to keep silent, leading to his murder and McQuarrie’s need for another rider to join him on the raid once Horrocks became unavailable. Oh, how they try.

However, Claire also confesses to two murders she commits in the books that she does not commit in the show. No doubt, this difference led the showrunner, producers, and writers to believe that the Father Anselm conversation was less critical than it really is. The second question contradicts the basis I’m supposing for that decision to omit both questions.

“What should I do?” Claire next asks Father Anselm in the novel Outlander. He goes off to ponder her dilemma and restarts the conversation later.

With both questions, the answer is the same. In effect, be true to yourself, your goodness and good intentions. Why? Because you did what you had to do to survive (what have I done?), and there is no way to know what impact you will have (what should I do?). In other words, there is no reason to believe that you are as powerful to effect great change or alter personal events in history as you may suspect or hope you are. In fact, as Season 2 illustrates, even your best efforts tend to make little difference on the grand scale of historic battles won and lost.

In traveling through time, Claire, like her daughter Brianna, has only the power to exist in the presence of her fellow human beings and to influence the lives of those with whom she comes into direct contact, attempts to heal, saves from death, cares for, looks after, and loves with all her soul. Beyond these (not small things), fate, accident, serendipity, synchronicity, coincidence, God, and/or other mysterious, external forces have the ultimate say in how things eventually end up.

Since this is fiction, and suspenseful drama is a required component to hold reader and viewer interest, the magic of fateful convergences and divergences among key characters and the failures of major protagonists are simply par for the course. The audience suspends disbelief for the sake of the ride.

So, although it’s easy to blame Jamie and his accomplice, Young Ian, for the horrible turn Roger’s fate has taken, or to blame Lizzie for acting foolishly in her fear and telling Jamie that Roger was the man who violated Brianna, or to blame Brianna for not telling her maid, Lizzie, what really happened and who was involved, or to blame Brianna for coming back through the stones in the first place, leading to all this damage–whose fault is it really?

Claire’s, of course.

She’s the one who came back in Season 1 to collect the forget-me-nots at Craigh na Dun, which led to her accidental trip back in time, which led to the rest. But again, it was accidental, right? Weel . . . mebbe. . . . It is what she tells Geillis during their witch trial in one of the best episodes of the series, ep111, “The Devil’s Mark.”

But in a later example, how can Brianna’s encounter with Laoghaire on her way to the Colonies be seen as accidental? As nasty as Laoghaire can be, I’m hard pressed to blame her for thinking that the Frasers sent Brianna to mock her, or even that Brianna is a witch like her mother Claire. The lass does boneheadedly declare to Laoghaire of all people that she knows there will be a fire at Fraser’s Ridge. 

By notable contrast, Claire’s return to Jamie after 20 years in the 20th century was intentional, greatly inspired by Brianna’s selfless encouragement of her mother’s return to the love of her life, and deftly enabled by Roger’s research and sharing his findings about Jamie. Did Claire’s return make Brianna’s trip intentional? Or, did Brianna do that? Or, was it all inevitable? Like everything else?

Will Jamie and Claire die in the fire on Fraser’s Ridge no matter what anyone’s powers of time travel, brute strength, historical/future knowledge, keen insight, doctor’s skill, historian’s judgment, fire fighting, or deep love may be? Who really controls fate? In fiction’s case, the author of it, of course!

I’m reminded of the film Charlie Wilson’s War, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman’s CIA character tries early and then succeeds later in telling Charlie the story of the Zen master and the little boy. The lesson is, What may seem like tragedy when a misfortune occurs may be a good thing, and what may seem like victory may be a bad thing—in the long run.

If Claire had never accidentally gone back through time, we would not have the benefit of witnessing the extraordinary love and adventures of her and her eighteenth-century husband Jamie. Less intuitively, if Jamie had not been raped by Black Jack Randall, he would not have had the unique, rather comforting insight to share with his nephew, Young Ian, also victimized sexually, or with his daughter, Brianna, also raped not long after arriving in the past.

On the cusp of major actions, in the wake of fresh tragedy, misfortune, misunderstanding, brutality, and Brianna’s singular wrath and stubbornness, coupled with Jamie and Young Ian’s guilt–what should the Frasers’ goals now be?

With all they know, or think they know, all they feel, and all the don’t know or feel, it’s really hard to say. What will happen to them and their children and their children’s children in the end? While we progress through the middle of the series in its adaptation from book to screen, and while fully versed readers await Diana Gabaldon’s completion of the book series (she’s finishing up book nine and says there will be a tenth), we just have to wait and see.

A Change Would Do Me Good

I’ve been putting off blogging. I’ve also been putting off Christmas shopping, house cleaning, writing of any kind, starting to read a new book (though I’ve been chipping away at Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir–incisive stuff) along with lots of other things I was already postponing indefinitely on my Remember the Milk task list.

I also forgot it’s almost Christmas in that I scheduled myself for a 9pm tutoring shift on December 20th without bringing something to do upstairs to my designated workstation while waiting for a request. Student needs are much more evident during peak hours and peak parts of the season, which means little to no waiting. Now, not so much. So, I journal, and it happens to work as a blog post. Fancy that.

I’ve been feeling more depressed than usual lately, dealing with the end of my potential to reproduce, a prolonged period of social absence and neglect, injury and illness in connected strings through the fall season, and general feelings of purposelessness. My thoughts are fragmented as I sink back into the lulling pillows of oblivion. Death is close at my heart, but life is elsewhere. A general weepiness follows me around these days. Blah, blah, blah. Pathetic. Woe am I, as that dead-horse thought turns putrid in my brain.

My primary care doctor and I are reluctant to dial up my antidepressants. She said she could recommend a therapist, but she couldn’t think of any good ones during my visit today who were not already retired. It is as if I am retired. Retiring. Too inclined to nap, avoid, escape.

I haven’t been to therapy in more than ten years, not that I wasn’t in head spaces that would have benefited during that time. I’ve seen no counselor or support group since my rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, which became possible ankylosing spondylitis, which became generalized, or unspecified, spondyloarthritis (inflammation of the spine). At first, I tried to find a local group, but when that didn’t materialize, I admit it: I gave up. The extra pounds and serious mind load I carry also do my musculoskeletal system no favors.

Despite lingering doubts about my capacity to work full-time without exacerbating certain disease processes, I am ready for a change in work. I am ready to work more, and I would like more live human interaction. I am lonely and unfulfilled and without sufficient positive challenges to my mind and skills. I would like to tutor students in person as well as online, to start. It is something I may be able to break into with relative ease and a relatively shorter wind-up period than for other endeavors.

It’s raining and my husband plays indoor soccer while my dog snoozes, curling up with his nose tucked under his ankle and part of his tail. I continue to wait for a tutoring request. . . .

My dog is also clearly ready for me to spend more time away from home. If I’ve accomplished only one thing this year, that is “curing” my new puppy of separation anxiety/isolation distress. He can now stay at home with full access to the first floor for several hours at a time without fuss of any kind. Our diligence, research, and experimentation finally delivered the goods.

We must now continue to socialize him more often, but he’s made tremendous progress in becoming a happy, well-adjusted pup. He’s also not as skittish at home about allowing us to harness him up to go out. With our agility practice heading through its third series of eight weekly training sessions, life can open up for me beyond dog rehab and micromanagement.

Well, no requests so far, at 9:23. Looks like I may get paid for waiting time only, rather than session time. Usually by the quarter hour, something pops through.

At the very least, I’m thinking of redoing The Artist’s Way program starting in January, a dual-purpose source of therapy and regular writing practice. I am attempting to make get-together plans with friends as my in-laws prepare for their winter season in Florida and my parents prepare to spend Christmas in California with my brother’s family. My husband and I will join his folks at his brother’s house again this Christmas Eve for gifts and dinner.

I discovered the Edinburgh Advent Calendar on the Jacquie Lawson greeting card website late in the month, around December 13th, and I have been pouring myself into its gadgety distractions—games, activities, entertaining snippets about the town, and creative forays into various Scottish traditions. That bauble-smashing game is some nice, safe destructive behavior! I bought several of these calendars as gifts for loved ones, too. So what if we pile up a bunch of days in the second half of December? I’ll have to show my mother all the things I have discovered on it that she hasn’t had time to explore. Small flickers of happiness. Thank you, Jacquie Lawson team.

Mom and I attended our monthly book club meeting yesterday, having brought cookies to share from each of us. We had one newish member and eight established folks, including my friend, the moderator, and her husband. Very few of us really enjoyed Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short vignettes of small-town life and its oddball residents. It wasn’t without merit, and I got through it, but it wasn’t a delight, either. Next up is Edith Hamilton’s tome Mythology. Perhaps that will prove to be a source of writer’s inspiration for me. I have much to learn of myth and legend.

9:40 Eastern and still nothing, even from the west coast. . . .

Outlander STARZ Season 4 has been good, but it’s not knocking my socks off as the 2018 San Diego Comicon moderator of the Outlander panel claimed it would. In truth, I’ve enjoyed the show incrementally less and less as the seasons progress. It’s similar to my experience of the books, but I still prefer the books, and I have books 5-9 still to read. Besides, I think my days of genuine obsession over Outlander are long past (though don’t hold me to that!), and I don’t need more of that kind of distraction away from literature, poetry, teaching, writing, and truly living, anyway. I plan to continue dabbling in the books and the TV series on this blog, but I’m interested in too many different things to make it about them exclusively, as my posting history attests.

I’ve also been eating a lot of M&M’s, and it’s showing on my skin. I’m getting that intermittent, ruddy halo rash around my chin (I think it’s the chocolate) and breaking out a little elsewhere. Most of the gifts we’re buying are coming from Amazon, as has become our holiday trend, but I went grocery and stocking stuffer shopping tonight at least. I still have to hide a few of the stuffers I bought: gourmet candy canes and some Pez dispensers for hubby and me. (I’m fairly confident he won’t read this post at all, let alone before December 25th, so no spoilers. Although, frankly, I don’t care much whether surprises are spoiled or not. Gift exchange at the holidays has become a cold, calculating arithmetic of off-setting each other’s expenses for gifts already bought, at least with my family. B’humbug.)

Finally, at 9:42 I had a request, and a brief, mighty fine live session with a 12th grader, proofreading a report. It’s not all bad, after all.

If all goes well, my husband and I will get together with my folks this weekend before I drive them to the airport on Monday, and we’ll have Christmas Day to ourselves after his family’s gathering Christmas Eve. Maybe we’ll catch a movie. Despite a few bumps and bruises, dog hair- and clutter-covered interiors, the aches and pains of aging, Ohio’s cold winter weather, and a chronic inflammatory condition, we can do all that. Our blessings really are legion.

Although I have no words of wisdom from this particular perch, or this hollow, I do wish you all a happy holiday season.

Not So NaNoWriMo

I’m not doin’ so hot. In fact, I’m not doing much at all. The counter on my NaNoWriMo widget to the right on your screen may not say it all, but I think it does signal a departure of some kind. One week of novel writing to go, and I stopped writing almost the day I began, seven days into the month. Instead, when I attended write-ins, I wrote some memoir, did some journal writing, took notes toward a book review, and started my next major blog post draft about Argyll.

The National Novel Writing Month program, this event, continues to attract enthusiastic veteran participants: the imperative to write a novel, a story, a fictional narrative, 50,000 words of it in 30 days. Year after year, my friends dive in and sprint those fingers into victory. I, too, would run the race to the finish, understanding that everyone’s end point is as different as each story premise. But sometimes I wish we could just sit together and talk without working on a writing project. (Currently, my only nearby friends are writing friends.)

I have never finished a NaNoWriMo novel since I began participating in 2011. While that’s not unusual for participants, in October of this year, preparing for the mad dash, I told myself that this would be a good personal goal to pursue—to finish a story at last.

But maybe I’m discovering a different kind of finishing. I had almost no desire to participate this year, as much as I tried to brainstorm, read some previous years’ pep talks, and show up for our region’s kick-off and subsequent write-ins. I would say to myself and a select few others a line that was some variation of “I’m just not feelin’ it.” But I wasn’t really trying all that hard to feel it, either.

So, what’s going on? Am I bored with National Novel Writing Month? Perhaps. Was it a nice run while it lasted? I suppose. Am I just not made for novel writing? Quite possible. I do prefer writing essays and poetry most of the time. I also prefer reading novels to writing them. I finished another long book not on the classics book club reading list while also reading for the club. I thoroughly enjoyed John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I also prefer facilitating, helping, and teaching others about writing over writing myself, but I haven’t been doing much more than the usual online tutoring in the way of teaching or guiding.

Some of that has to do with my wavering health this fall, some with my focus on the dog and my blog.

Health-wise, I went from limiting neck and back problems to exhausting abdominal pain from a medical procedure to annoying cold and sinus infection to worrisome gut destruction from the antibiotics. I think I might just be coming out of that now–maybe. I was able to enjoy Thanksgiving victuals but not much of the atmosphere and company that go with the food. My mother had to come over and help us clean to prepare for hosting Thanksgiving, which we do every year. With how I felt the day before the day, I was seriously considering cancelling or postponing. But in my weakened state, I had little strength to protest. We’d already bought the turkey and started thawing it. On with the show.

One thing I’ve noticed: When we think we’re getting better as an event comes into play, sometimes, we’re just rallying, rising to the occasion only to collapse all the more afterwards when our body reminds us we’re sick. That happened to my husband at the company Thanksgiving dinner the week before, and to me next.

So that’s the health side of retreat from NaNoWriMo. But what about the genuine disinterest and alternative priorities side?

Yes, those are real.

Priority: dog training. I took Thanksgiving week off from tutoring, but I threw myself off the couch and into the car for the dog’s agility class on Black Friday. I had not anticipated sleeping for so long that afternoon, having already slept in quite late to begin with. My husband was capitalizing on a Black Friday deal while I napped with the dog, and he had time only to shower upon his return. It wasn’t until 10 minutes before time to hit the road that he called to me.

The intervention was a word of awakening: Get up; it’s time to go. I looked at the clock, and it was literally the minute we should have been driving away, but I wasn’t dressed, hadn’t taken medication recently, and didn’t have a shower, and, oh my god, do I have to go? I could have slept through the evening and probably overnight.

Still, we went, and since hubby hasn’t been attending class, I was somehow able to be the handler, running Ethan through the training exercises at class. I had to break for the toilet only once and drank lots of Gatorade in between turns. My trainer reminded me to increase my probiotic intake as well, which I did. This was all happening in the transition from one antibiotic, Amoxicillin, to another, Cipro. I hoped the new one wouldn’t utterly obliterate my digestive tract, too. So far, it has been better, but stomach upset remains a risk, and I’m just feeling run down. And now we’re back to talking about sickness again.

The agility arena is a 35-minute drive eastward from our house, and class takes an hour and a half. No small investment of time, energy, and endurance of road bumps on an upset stomach. And the poor dog hasn’t had much exercise lately either. I haven’t yet gotten around to hiring a dog walker or sending him to periodic doggy day care visits. We had been going to the dog park rather frequently, but now it’s raining and still too cold for me to be willing to venture out while on the mend. That means running him inside the house or walking him around the neighborhood. With my husband back to work and night falling fast these days, it’s up to me.

I tried walking around the block yesterday with my boys, and although I made it home, the second half of the walk was rough on the tummy and a bit slower than the first. So despite feeling better today, I was reluctant to send myself into that zone again. Instead, I’m writing this, and the dog is getting into trouble, chewing on things he shouldn’t in his boredom. I’ve already run him up and down the stairs and across the 1st floor rooms for treats today and played tug of war with him a few minutes ago, but he needs an actual walk, too. He typically won’t do his solid business except on a walk, until he can’t hold it any longer and is forced to go in the yard.

Having a “soft” tempered, or sensitive, dog can be challenging. Even though he’s perfectly healthy and quite athletic otherwise, he has persnickety quirks about, among others, walking on wet ground and soiling his territory, so he doesn’t make deviations from the active routine a simple matter. Thankfully, his fearfulness has decreased dramatically over the past several months, and he’s actually comfortable receiving affection now. No small feats!

Priority: blog. But the dog takes up some time, and so does the blog. These are choices I have made, investments of time I have committed to. If I were gainfully employed part-time (tutoring is a fraction of that), my schedule could force me to make the time for things like NaNoWriMo, but my will and preferences wouldn’t stop resisting.

The truth is I’ve had misgivings about novel writing ever since I started to try it. And those misgivings feel like more than the typical doubt and fear of writer’s block or imposter syndrome. I just don’t like writing stories as much as my peers do. I prefer writing poems and essays. I often prefer reading nonfiction to reading novels. But it’s also true that novel writing is hard, and it doesn’t take much to deter non-devotees. The project is a larger undertaking with greater complexity than most poems or essays.

The spirit of NaNoWriMo is all about “writing with reckless abandon.” I’ve seen glimpses of myself doing this in previous Novembers, but I think it would take more than a month-long word sprint for me to embrace the spirit fully. And maybe I just don’t have that “more,” whatever it is. Or, maybe I’ll be more interested next year.

I hadn’t written much for a while leading up to November, and I didn’t really miss it. Writing is part of who I am, but it’s far from the whole picture, and my hesitations extend to making a career focused on writing. As frustrating as the tutoring can be at times, it’s currently one of only a few ways I can be an educator. My blog is another. What I am missing is the social interaction and speaking and energy of face-to-face teaching.

So, once healthy, my life could use further balancing out, but we all lose our balance sometimes. It may be time for a new adventure, a new chapter, a new focus, or a renewed one. I just hope my friends and I can make peace with whatever direction my relationship to NaNoWriMo ends up taking.

And to all those still working hard and happily on their novels this month, press on.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons

It’s National Poetry Month. But beyond time, my recommendation stands.

Though it take all month, read one poem slowly, deeply, and again. Here’s a good candidate. Twice winner of the National Book Award, A. R. Ammons embraces–and shows us how to embrace–through close attention born of brave openness: freedom, motion, disorder, uncertainty, change, beauty, nature, life. And shorebirds. Gotta have shorebirds.

“Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons – An excerpt from the poem’s mid-section:

. . . 
risk is full: every living thing in
siege: the demand is life, to keep life: the small
white blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears
          the shallows, darts to shore
                   to stab—what? I couldn’t
   see against the black mudflats—a frightened
   fiddler crab?

          the news to my left over the dunes and
reeds and bayberry clumps was
          fall: thousands of tree swallows
          gathering for flight . . .

- from "Corsons Inlet" by A. R. Ammons 
Read the full poem on the Poetry Foundation website, 
quoted from The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition 
(W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1986)

See also Norton's list of other titles by A. R. Ammons.

IMG_1684_swallow

suspected tree swallow, rocks like dunes, The Glens Trail, Gorge Metro Park, Akron, Ohio, May 2017. Image © by C. L. Tangenberg


If you enjoyed this, you might also like:


Other posts in my series on famous nature poetry:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1): Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Book Review: The Good Earth

Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

book-cover_The-Good-EarthA fictional portrayal of the full life of a Chinese man from his start as a farmer to his death as a townsman still clinging to his farmland and its place in his heart, The Good Earth rarely wavers from the perspective of Wang Lung. Written in third-person point of view, the narration makes Wang Lung the central character from beginning to end. In so doing, the author delivers an unwashed, complex depiction of a human being who is very much a product of his time, his country, and his land while still being unique in his blend of naiveté, instinctual wisdom, hot temper, and abiding affections.

There is no happy ending, no comeuppance for moral wrongs done, no neat destruction or spectacular triumph. Just the steady, everyday hopes, aspirations, worries, resentments, choices, goodness, mistakes, successes, failures, moral decay, and general imperfections of a man making a living and raising a family in late 19th- and early 20th-century China.

The plot is less a plot than a complete time line of a life, but the story shares the journey through that life as lived by the main character Wang Lung. Although that journey may seem to lag in places, I interpreted those parts to be necessary components of the full picture of this character study, and the vast majority of the text never strays into tangents and never dwells on anything that is not relevant to the development of the character and his story. There is always something happening, something brewing, or something being reflected upon, but none if it feels indulgent on the author’s part. Nothing felt particularly extraneous; much of it felt very essential to a full portrayal.

The issue I take with the lagging parts is that the writing is not strong enough to support them properly. Overall, Buck is a great writer. The diction, rhythm and flow of the text keep the preponderance of pages turning. In part, the meandering quality of the prose effectively reflects the stream-of-consciousness thinking of our protagonist Wang Lung, which associates the book with other modernist literature. Written in the 1930s, The Good Earth, too, is recognizably a product of its literary moment. Still, despite these considerations, the applied technique does not escape tedium in its repetitiveness, which drags the novel down a bit.

Characters, even minor ones, never felt over-simplified. Buck had a knack for revealing personality in the sparest of gestures and shortest of lines. Some readers may disagree with this appraisal in light of Wang Lung’s sexist viewpoint, but his attitude is a reasonable revelation of context-bound character—true to both history and fictional integrity—not any kind of misogyny in the author.

Even the best of men in Wang Lung’s midst held the same foolish and limiting judgments of girls, women, and their places in Chinese society. A very strong current of Chinese culture is the favoring of male over female offspring, which persisted well into the late 20th century, with echoes even today through, for instance, high numbers of unwanted Chinese girls adopted outside of China.

Foot binding, seen in Western cultures as a barbaric form of female bodily mutilation and crippling, was common practice in making women attractive to male Chinese sensibilities. As in too many other societies of centuries past, girls and women were seen and used primarily as socioeconomic commodities and objects of male control and pleasure. To follow some misguided moral instinct of shame-based concealment into the erasure of these cultural imprints on Chinese history would have been not only false rewriting of history but also dangerous hindrance to modern efforts toward equality. How can the past be improved upon if it is not fully represented?

Yes, this is a thread in the depicted culture that reveals Wang Lung’s and his fellow men’s flaws and failings, but even a main character need not be morally superior to be worth writing and reading. The fact that their fates do not reflect a karmic meting out of justice does not make their characters any less flawed, but such neat justice might have made their lives less fascinating. The flaws make them human, and the getting away with it makes life unfair, which is eminently realistic. If reader ennui is the necessary result, I say so be it.

Furthermore, this is the story of Wang Lung, not the story of O-lan, his first wife, which means that Wang Lung’s perspective is uppermost in telling his story. Readers are free to take on the fan-fiction project of telling the same or similar period of fictional existence from O-lan’s or Lotus’ or Cuckoo’s or one of the daughters-in-law’s perspectives.

The question of whether any of the characters was likable is irrelevant to the evaluation of the book as a whole. I never need to love a character absolutely to follow his or her journey with curiosity and absorption. The need for a moral hero to champion is, in my view, a sign of unreached intellectual and emotional maturity in a reader. Such a reader either has not read enough traditional heroic tales to have outgrown or assimilated their appeal, or the reader utterly resists all semblance of the sharp, rough edges of realism, or both. This reader seeks literature to enjoy in an escapist, fantasist quality only. The trouble is that classic literature, often categorized as such through a solid foundation of many readers of balanced wisdom, is rarely, if ever, fodder for escapism.

The more pertinent literary question for me is how does any character relate to his environment? How does he express himself as a product of his environment, how does he navigate that environment, and how if at all does he transcend his upbringing and environment? By environment I mean all those people, places, and things that make up a character’s immediate sphere of influence and being influenced. On the other hand, too, how does a character relate to himself, transcend himself, or not?

Wang Lung is no great hero, but he is no great villain either. Yet this does not make his story a bland one at all. I found moments of great sympathy for him and moments of gritting my teeth and shaking my head at him. Perhaps it is a form of Stockholm Syndrome, but when a reader spends this much time with a character, a rising affection is understandable, regardless of the character’s goodness score. I found myself rooting for Wang Lung even as I waited for his punishments for wrongdoing, for there are worse moral actors than he in Buck’s story, just as there are better ones.

Moreover, Buck’s drawing of Wang Lung is wonderfully consistent and unapologetic in its nuanced results for plot and character. Although not a completely static character, Wang Lung possesses a frank incorrigibility and pervading tenderness worth loving.

There is relativism, and there is “it is what it is” and “que sera sera,” but The Good Earth never descends into this pit of simplistic judgment. In the end, the reader is free to wonder at the great changes that have occurred in Wang Lung’s life, family, and society by the time he comes to his passing. Glimmers of the wider cultural changes, in the words and actions primarily of his sons, peek through the closed curtains of Wang Lung’s singular, personal focus. At the same time, the proliferation of his family and his accumulation of wealth greatly change the needs and aspirations of that family.

The earth has been good and it has been bad for their livelihoods, but Wang Lung’s connection to the land is what is dying most with him. Even to him, however, the ground lost some of its sacredness well before he decides to move to town. The cultural and economic tides are turning under his nose and far from his sight almost his entire life. Perhaps it is the gradual nature of this change that makes the letting go less bitter and its long embrace less sweet in the reader’s eyes.

Ultimately, like so many, Wang Lung is a creature of habit and tradition. He rides the plow of these principles until there are none left anymore to work such an implement. New conveyances for new habits and traditions plant new roots for these transplanted people. While the fates of his family do not appear to be all bad in the end, Wang Lung sees the ceasing of earth works, or at least earth ownership, as the great tragedy of his legacy. However, there are worse things a family can come to, and they were coming long before the land’s primacy was ending.

In The Good Earth, the land begins and remains a powerful symbol of a simpler time of simpler pleasures, but like all things, the purity of the land’s beauty and the centrality of its importance throughout the story are always both real and illusory.


Reader Rating for The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
4.2 stars overall: 5 stars for consistent, unflinching characterization; 4 stars for vivid description and atmospheric setting; 3.5 stars for story and plot; 4 stars for prose; 4.5 stars for cultural, including literary, resonance


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The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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