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.

Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these book and TV reviews:

If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

Great American Reads

In reference to the Great American Read event presented by PBS and Meredith Vieira.

See also: my post about the results, America’s top choices for the Great American Read.


Like most things in our culture, in everyday life, reading is a highly personal affair. I won’t tell you which book to vote for, which book is the best novel for American readers, but I can shed some light on how and why to choose any work of fiction.

As much as individually we tend to choose to operate by the assumption that quality is subjective, there’s a difference between objective quality in any product and its capacity to meet our personal standards and preferences. Online product reviews use the rating system rather liberally, and people take liberties with the option to select only one or two stars out of five. Most products are never as bad as we perceive and make them out to be, and probably, most are rarely as good. A coffeemaker can usually perform more than adequately, even if it’s not a top competitor.

As consumers in a capitalist economy, we have the luxury of choosing the best possible model on the market for our budget. We take our coffee very seriously, after all. On the flip side, that special pillow you bought may have improved your life, but it’s not likely to be a literal lifesaver. Then again, it’s your sleep, not mine, so who am I to judge?

Entertainment products, such as books and movies, are different. It’s true there are standards according to which reviewers and awards committees hold most works of fiction, for instance, but novels in particular can be difficult to quantify, to categorize, and to size up. Experienced readers and reviewers have a greater claim to knowing the formula, if there is such a thing, that makes a great book. But with entertainment, the subjectivity factor carries more weight in the judgment of a book within society and against all other books; they’re not widgets, coffeemakers or pillows.

Sure, traditionally, their form has been mass produced—they’re made of paper and ink or bits of data—but the product itself moves beyond the assembly line. A work of literature is an experience over time, a thing of variable content in its use of ideas and language, and a journey through a story of imaginary people, places, and things. Its nexus of abstraction sets it well apart from the concrete world of electronic devices and motorized vehicles.

But reading is more than just a mental exercise. Stories take us on emotional and sometimes visceral roller coasters of reaction. Authors of books and makers of film can make people cry, laugh, gasp, shudder, scream, swoon, wretch, and more, simply by their artful, vivid use of words and pictures.

For me, reading is about making connections—between me and the author, me and the characters, my life and the setting and plot, between ideas in one story and ideas in another, between different art forms. I tend to read interactively if I’m not reading on a deadline. It’s about savoring as well as digesting, rather than simply ingesting, the art. I like to taste my food as it’s going down, getting to know its different effects on my palate, its aroma, texture, and consistency, rather than devour words like individual grains or layers of sauce—en masse with the rest of the meal.

I like to read about the author’s life, wondering about connections between the story and the life. I like to talk to the author, or myself, through margin notes, Post-It notes, and by writing about the book elsewhere (like here). I like to think about the book’s relationship to culture, to other books, to film, and even to itself. I read deliberately.

In part, that’s about remembering what I’ve read. Processing the content in multiple forms and ways ensures that I’ll retain more details, assuming those matter. On the other hand, a great book doesn’t require as much hard work. To me, a great book combines high objective quality with readability and complexity. It also takes the reader through the gamut of emotion and ideas, a panoply of interesting characters, in a captivating setting, through an unpredictable plot, with grace and style and wit. A great book provokes thought, touches the soul, and stays with the reader long after the final page is read.

By these standards, I hereby make my top choices for America’s best book, which is a different thing than America’s favorite book. The Great American Read started with a list of the 100 most popular novels in America. Although using it as a springboard for this post, I won’t remain beholden to that list’s rather narrow confines. My choices are based on reading the book, so I make no selections where I have not read. This makes my picks even more personal, as they omit what I’m otherwise sure are some gems of literature. At the same time, I’ll select my least favorite books from the GAR list and try to pinpoint the reasons why.

Drawing from both the Great American Read top 100 and my own Goodreads read books list, my top novels read are the following. They appear in alphabetical order, and some link to this blog’s reviews of each. Later, I’ll narrow it down further, but I don’t really believe in single, all-time favorites of any kind of thing. There’s simply too much out there for me, for all of us, to love.

  1. Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner
  2. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
  3. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. Chronicles of Narnia, #1: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  11. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  12. Howards End by E. M. Forster
  13. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  14. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  16. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  17. One True Thing by Anna Quindlen
  18. Outlander (first book only; have yet to read books 5-8) by Diana Gabaldon
  19. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  20. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  21. Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  22. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  23. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  24. War and Peace by Leo Tolstooy
  25. Watership Down by Richard Adams

Which books did I find most amazing?

  • War and Peace
  • Outlander
  • In Cold Blood
  • Gulliver’s Travels
  • Brave New World

For whom do the pages turn? They turn for me. Length is no deterrent when the words flow like melted butter. The ideas, the stories, the people, the places—all contribute to the full immersion of experience.

If I have to choose a set to honor, to recommend, to champion, each book in this collection of five can never be a mistake. And they are not the only ones for which it is so. It is not simply about enjoyment or like-mindedness. As I stated earlier, it is a marriage of objective quality in writing ability, storytelling, and transportation to other worlds, as well as interesting ideas, beautiful truths, deep connections between people, and the complexities of life and death.

This is not to say that each book is perfect. Perfection is not the aim. After all this time, I can say that with complete and utter confidence. Love is the aim. Insight. And growth. These books have all opened multiple dimensions to me, helped me grow, made me love, and urged me to shout about it.

So for now, these are my top picks for the Great American Read. Is it taking the easy way out not to choose a final top book? I would say the books that move me most are Outlander and War and Peace. In Cold Blood being a close second. Is it predictable to choose Outlander as my favorite book when it’s so clear from my blog that it’s at least well beloved by me? I love Gulliver’s Travels and Brave New World for similar reasons between them; they’re both science fiction, satire, mirrors up to their readers, and deliciously humorous, disturbing, deep, broad, and complex in proportions. They are classic epics.

All but Outlander delve deeply into social commentary on a broad scale (all but War and Peace done fully indirectly, through the story itself), though Outlander is not without indirect social commentary of a more specific nature. None but Outlander indulges in the pleasure of the human sex act. The novel is the most intimate, most personal, and in some ways, most vivid of these five. Certainly the most relatable.

War and Peace is likewise detailed and relevant to our struggles. In Cold Blood focuses on a crime, a pathology of human nature, on social dynamics and psychological dimensions. They’re all amazingly written, some in distinct writing styles. Outlander has the only female protagonist and first-person narrator, authored by a woman. These things elevate it further in my esteem. They say it’s quite difficult to write first person well, for example.

The humor and beauty, the terror and horror, the allure and fascination, the sheer intelligence and wit, as well as the greatly physical and emotional parameters, plus supernatural, science fiction, historical, mystery, romance, and action adventure aspects combine with all those elements previously mentioned to hoist Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander upon the shoulders of all the others. Its contemporary feel increases its relatability while its rich, exquisitely researched exploration of 18th-century Scotland helps anchor it further as a modern classic.

So, yes, I’m choosing one book, Outlander, for my favorite book, at least so far. I recommend this novel to most adults who have not become so totally ensnared in the cycles of pop fiction as to avoid all greater journeys.

As for the Great American Read, voting ends at midnight on October 19; results will be revealed by PBS on October 23. It’s really almost a moot exercise to pick a single book out of all 100 finalists, though. In a future post, I’ll caution against time wasted on some of what I felt were lesser choices among the 100, but again, I’m not a true expert, having not read all 100 books listed.

Meanwhile, if you don’t quite get to read Outlander before November 4th, the date of the Season 4 premiere for the STARZ TV series based on Gabaldon’s works, you’ll still have plenty in the books to explore. For this and so many other reasons, I recommend Outlander, the first in a soon-to-be-nine book series, by author Diana Gabaldon.

Outlander_cover


If you liked this post or want to learn more about why Outlander‘s the one, see my more comprehensive review at Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This blog also provides 3 Quick Book Reviews of the first three books in the series.

If you’ve read it and love it, I can only hope you’ll #VOTEOutlander on Twitter and Facebook, and select it today–only two more chances left!–online and by phone via the official Great American Read voting page

See my post about the results, America’s top choices for the Great American Read.

Croak

We might croak.

We might kick the bucket, we might shuffle off the mortal coil, or maybe even push up daisies and become food for worms. However we go, all of us, most certainly, will die.

Edward Young’s expression to “join the great majority” goes a long way toward erasing one’s sense of individuality. I prefer George Eliot’s approach, and would love to “join the choir invisible.” (Thank you, convenient Wikipedia.) I’ve always wanted to sing. Not like a frog, but sing nonetheless.

However, I have no interest in farms and would not care much to buy one.

To the degree that “sleeping with the fishes” implies being murdered and dumped in a body of water, I suppose there are worse ways to go. I don’t mind fish so much, nor sleeping.

“Kicking the bucket” actually derives from hanging, in which one kicks the bucket from under one’s feet so gravity can do its full work. Having a bucket list, therefore, might for some carry a dark undertone of the potential for suicide once everything’s crossed off your list.

My ass is somewhat large but relatively normal, so I suppose I should not be averse to kissing it good-bye, were I able to reach it.

But whether I find myself taking a dirt nap six feet under or riding the pale horse on the last train to glory, I know there is this final step I must take, whether of my own volition or not.

I’d almost rather be eaten by a large predatory animal–after, of course, being neatly and painlessly killed by the blow from a paw or the tonic of a poison–than to be reduced to ashes of lesser usefulness, or less heft. I seem to recall musical artist and singer Björk making a similar comment, that she wanted to die violently, by being eaten by a tiger or spattered with lava. (Icelanders . . . Björk.)

Diseases are pretty far down the list of most people’s preferred ways to die, but some diseases are more merciful than others.

A few years ago, a fellow writer and budding friend of mine died of cancer. She was my age, in her late thirties. Before we lost her, I had helped her refine her application essay to an MFA writing program, and she, as part of our writing group, had critiqued a nature poem of mine.

Now, every November, when my circle of friends and I participate in National Novel Writing Month, we commemorate her gift and passion, marking her departure from our lives with a day named for her, Anna’s Day, November 17th. On that day, in that week, and, for some of us, all month and intermittently throughout the year, we include her in our thoughts if not also somehow in our work. She also happened to die five days after my great aunt, who also died of cancer. It’s not easy for me to forget that week of the year.

Anna didn’t like how my poem ended. In fact, she hated it. And she did not hesitate to tell me so or attempt to soften her words to dampen her feelings, or spare mine. As I age and grow closer to death than any time since my birth (for all I know), I’m increasingly grateful for that. Useful feedback from others on a piece under construction should never be totally devoid of bold frankness or hard truths. We can’t grow without learning of our work’s flaws.

Comparatively with my other efforts, this poem was a bit of a disaster for several reasons. Yet, I felt strongly, even after receiving Anna’s notes, that the ending was far from the biggest problem. The rhythm was clunky, the lines too long. I used, as I often do, too many hyphenated phrases that become tongue twisters. In the space of one poem of 83 lines with an average of 8 or fewer words in each, there were too many different subjects and ideas competing for attention.

Perhaps above all, the themes and messages were too well concealed so that the whole became a mystery wrapped in an enigma trapped inside a puzzle pretending to be a solvable riddle. Too obscure, too obtuse, too evasive to connect with the reader. Smart writing group members couldn’t grasp my meaning. My mom understood, but she knows me very well and knows my writing, so she had an advantage. We don’t write just for Mom. When I’m apparently trying to be too clever, as in that poem, I suppose there is a dimness to my feelings or a cowardice that hides them from my readers.

At any rate, the poem, though couched in nature and wildlife appreciation, was most centrally about the persistent triumph of depression and a negative outlook over the struggle to feel alive and happy. That last line, the ending that Anna so despised, was “because when I said it I meant it, ‘Life sucks.'” Negative, true, but also inelegant.

Of course, Anna was dying of cancer at the time and doing her best to live for the moment, accomplish her goals, be her best self more than ever–in every way to rage against her dying light. How could anyone, perhaps especially a writer, a fellow poet, and someone she liked reasonably well, genuinely feel this way about the thing she desperately clung to with all her soul? Her response to such a statement might have been visceral, possibly even a kind of revulsion.

I don’t know whether she read the whole poem before starting her critique. If she did, it means she was probably a better person, a better beta reader, than I, because it means she tamped down her horror long enough to comment constructively on much more than just that nasty ending. Perhaps she was a better person than I in lots of ways. She was very likeable, friendly, and easygoing when I first met her. Clearly intelligent, astute, with a sense of humor and fellowship, she fought hard to live in spite of her death sentence.

But in truth, I didn’t know Anna all that well. Perhaps if I had, her indirect and sometimes direct message of carpe diem would have influenced me more strongly, made more of a difference. One time, in response to the question of what to do with feedback after a writing group discussion of her work sample, she said to a mixed crowd of some who knew her situation and some who had just met her, “I don’t believe in tomorrow, for lots of reasons.” She’ll take her feedback immediately, please and thank you.

I still put things off, I still take things for granted, I still undervalue my work, but I do think a lot about Anna. I think about her reaction to my autobiographical declaration in that final poetic line, and I marvel at how different people’s experiences of life, of its goodness, of its meaning, of our esteem and appreciation of it can be. I notice how even knowing that you’re going to die might not bring out a noble response in you, at least not all the time. Sometimes adversity just kicks our asses and wins the trophy.

Perhaps it was Anna’s sense of the permanence, the finality of committing that last contemptible line to print, and possibly posterity, that stood against everything she stood for. I could almost hear her: If you’re going to leave a legacy, make it encouraging, inspiring, life affirming. I’ll never know, but the poem was both. It both affirmed life and lamented the inability, the often extreme difficulty at least, to affirm it.

We wish across each other. She may have wished, in addition to not having to die, that her sense of the preciousness of life could be felt by all those around her, whether they knew they were dying soon or not, particularly in that moment when she read of someone’s opposite feeling. I wished I had had more time with her, to learn from her, to build a friendship. I often wish for that sense of imminent death, without death itself, that’s supposed to kick you in the pants and make you produce things, be better, live fully.

Maybe it’s my signals of ambivalence that so irritate the dying woman who knows she’s dying. Don’t whine. Either get it over with or get on with it. Don’t hem and haw. Pick a side and charge ahead. Irrevocably, we have so little time to lose.

As I age, my health seems to grow more precarious from different directions. I’m aware of some of the signs, if not all. I’ve got way too many medical specialist physicians.

“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special announcement,” that the writer has left the writing room so she can book a weekend getaway in Hocking Hills State Park to enjoy hiking, ziplining, and adventures with husband and dog. Carpe diem. . . .

And what did I do instead? I talked about my health with my husband, did some drug and physiological research, exorcised my fears a little–all useful activities, to a point. But when will I get around to a spontaneous leaping toward joy? Answering that, of course, would contradict the intention and fundamentally change the action’s nature.

Unless the answer is “never.” In that case, internal consistency prevails. I long ago compromised courage so as to avoid hypocrisy. Principles being principles, habits being habits, and all of these forming my identity, why would I pull the rug out now?

At bottom, I perceive one of my life’s purposes to be to earn, perpetually, the right to happiness. I don’t deserve it outright (does anyone really deserve anything, good or bad?), and I have trouble accepting it as a gift for fear of much harsher punishment as a direct response to its indulgence. In order to stave off the dropping of the other shoe, I walk around barefoot. Deprivation is my insurance policy.

The only trouble is, that doesn’t really work either. It leads exactly to the attitude expressed in my awe-filled and awful poem. And so it becomes a tug of war between, on one side, some kind of Catholic guilt-driven, Puritanical self-denial and, on the other, owning and claiming my truth while pursuing my passions. Between feeling just and feeling justified. Between “should” and “want.”

One half is always holding back the other; the other half is always straining to break free. Being locked in combat with myself like this, I envy as I compare others’ successes to my stagnation, and that comparison, and subsequent judgment, results in low self-esteem and depression.

This is why a psyche like mine can always use another dose of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program. She talks a lot about giving oneself permission to try, to fail, to be oneself, to invest in one’s art, no matter what anybody else says or does. She describes the pitfalls of the virtue trap, the thinking that being virtuous somehow leads to happiness. It doesn’t inherently do so, no. She really tapped into a selling strategy by couching the artist’s way as “a spiritual journey to higher creativity,” guided by fate, destiny, God, or some other force that only wants the best for us and calls us to express ourselves.

I don’t believe in an active, anthropomorphic God or even in the supernatural more broadly, per se. But I have seen truth to the good that can come from believing in myself and focusing my energy where my deepest instincts and greatest loves reside. So much for intuition. As an introverted thinker, an incorrigible intellectual I suppose, I’ve always lived primarily in and through my mind. Thus, the philosophy degree and the sense that the whole spectrum of reality is to me merely theoretical. So much for intellect.

If nothing beyond that cerebrally weighted attention occurs, perhaps the effort is enough. Maybe that’s my way of embracing life. Just keep doing what you’re doing. The end is not all, but it’s coming. When it does, will you be able to say that at least you tried your best? Will you look back with a sense of restless bitterness or of peace and love? Will you remain open hearted and open minded, receptive to mystery, surprise, and wonder? Will you know transcendence beyond pain and pettiness? I suppose these are decent enough measures of life’s quality.

You thought this post was going to be about frogs, didn’t you? Well, according to my train wreck of a poem, indirectly, it is.

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


If you enjoyed this review, you may also like:

Book Review: War and Peace

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

Featured image: Claire & Frank walk Culloden Battlefield, grave markers center, memorial cairn right, Outlander Ep105, “Rent,” credit: STARZ/Sony Pictures Television

Warning: Possible spoilers from Voyager, book #3 in the Outlander series

The Heart asks Pleasure – first –
And then – Excuse from Pain –
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering –

And then – to go to sleep –
And then – if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die –

– Emily Dickinson, 1890

On the cusp of our long-awaited Season 3 of Outlander STARZ, starting this Sunday in the U.S., some readers and viewers renew in their minds, if not through talk, the age-old debate over the quality of a show’s adaptation of the book it’s based on. But not me.

Since I have yet to enjoy a book in the series more than the first, this season’s treatment of book 3 matters less to me than those of the previous two books. By re-watching and closely studying Seasons 1 and 2, I’ve become accustomed to expecting improvements, surprising differences, and lackluster elements in adaptation, and I’m prepared to accept the show more fully on its own terms, independent from the books.

Admittedly, I found this easier after reading of Diana Gabaldon’s endorsement of Season 3, particularly in how closely it follows Voyager. But I never needed exactly identical details to cross the format threshold, anyway; the essence and soul of the story are what matter most to this fan. Besides, absolute mimicry would be both impossible and, if it were possible, a detriment to both book and show. The unique entertainment value of each would decline the more alike they became.

So I won’t be re-reading the book for the purpose of comparing and scrutinizing the show’s third season, and I advise both book and show fans to refrain from the activity as well. Any dipping back into the longest of the first three books for me will be piecemeal and most likely to satisfy curiosity or just enjoy reading.

As a fan who returned with her husband from an Outlander-focused Scotland vacation almost a year ago, my interests in the series relate more strongly to Scottish cultural authenticity, the romance of the saga’s milieu, and the richness of history permeating both series. The people, the places, the times.

During the latter half of our trip, we went to the Culloden Visitor Centre and Battlefield near Inverness and purchased a guidebook there. The impressiveness of the museum, enhanced by my familiarity with the Outlander series and Culloden’s role in it, and the sobering experience of walking the battlefield all made a deep impression on me.

Now I’ve been reading the gargantuan Tolstoy novel War and Peace since May, a month after my president bombed war-ravaged Syria. With lesser eruptions of political violence in my own country and North Korea’s recent missile launches escalating Kim Jong-un’s threats of nuclear war, the power and propensities of my government and others naturally darken my thoughts these days.

At the intersection of fiction and cultural history, then, my current and greatest interest in Outlander STARZ Season 3’s first episode, premiering this Sunday night, is their representation of the Battle of Culloden. With the formidable Sam Heughan leading the cast of Jacobite soldiers, making war look sexy is inevitable, but I hope a healthy dose of realism also accompanies the depiction—a rendering of the oft-obscured losing side of history and the consequences of that loss through the season’s first half.

Between the Lines

On the cover of Culloden, the National Trust Scotland’s official guidebook to the battle and field, appear two lines of identical length and thickness. Like railroad ties not on a map but in a picture, they recede at one end, seeming to reach forward and down to the right on the surface, toward some common point of interest—where the pages open. Separated by a word, their other ends point at diverging angles to the sky of the background image.

They nonetheless come from the map, these lines, the red above, the blue diving into the brown straw grass of the funereal field. A blue line, a red line, divided by a clash of cultures, red representing the government, blue the rebels. Blue underscores the beige Gaelic word “Cùil Lodair.” Red upholds the death knell in beige English type: Culloden.

Red rising into the sky, above the fray, above the dead grass of the haunted moor. Blue sinking into the nameless land of burial, of death from final battle in a year-long, lifelong, centuries-long conflict. A conflict said to have been between either English and Scottish, Highland Gaels and Lowland Scots, Jacobites and Hanoverians, or two peoples in a global power struggle for the imperialist upper hand. Shades of each dichotomy fall on the weathered pages of history, but, the guidebook says, none of these alone is strictly true.

So simple, these two little tracks of primary color. So complicated, turbulent, ironic, intriguing, and dark the history they bespeak. Separation, divergence, oppression, progress, strategy, integration, interdiction, imperialism, diaspora—such abstractions are some of the closest we can come to accurately labeling these mysterious, Hydra-headed developments. Mere words, single words, no better than colors, flags, or battle lines for explanation, inadequate to forge understanding.

The causes are many, serial, circuitous, and complex, rendering king, commoner, historian, novelist, and film-maker alike unable to capture fully the why, the how, and, to some degree, even what made this single battle, the Battle of Culloden, what it was. Despite its being the first British battlefield to see archaeological excavation, as with all of history, no one can ever fully know all of what really happened.

Story and History

Do the details matter? All of them? Every last moment, word, object, event, and item? Recorded history is never 100% true, just as works of fiction, even when not historically based, are never 100% untrue. One could also argue that history itself is an art form, not an exact science. Certain things such as names, events, and objects can be objective elements, fact. The rest is nearly, if not in some ways just, as subjective as the politics and fiction surrounding it. All lines blur at the intersection of life and its representation, where writers and readers or viewers connect.

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for.

This was not my war that I should weep for the lost or for those still suffering its reverberations through the collective consciousness. So many conflicts and disasters are not mine, thank God, not ours, yet they merit no fewer tears. I am human and can empathize with my fellow humans.

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, which I’m nearly finished reading, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

It is this individual human lens on infamous past conflict that Outlander, too, affords us. In short, though it flies in the face of conventional military discipline, be like Jamie Fraser. Follow your prince as far as you can, and then when it’s clear the cause is lost, save your people if not also yourself.

Adoption and Adaptation

Although they’re neither my books nor my monuments, museums, or people, I attend the story. And why? Why do I choose to focus on this history and these people over others, including those one could say are more rightly mine? I cling with a sense of loyalty in having adopted threads of a culture not native to me. Why have I selected Outlander, its stories, and Scotland in which to invest my time, money, energy—in short, my conscious presence as an American?

Why did a science academic from Arizona, with no Scottish heritage and who had never been to Scotland, choose a 250-year-old version of that setting for her first novel? Inspired whimsy as much as anything else. An image of a Highlander in a kilt on an episode of Dr. Who pretty much started it all, along with the desire to learn how to write a novel “for practice,” one that became only the first of an international-bestselling series. In short, because she could, and excelled at it.

Now, in more than 35 posts, my blog explores Diana Gabaldon’s imagined saga and its Scottish origins.

The following can all be found through this blog’s menu tab “Outlander.”

  1. Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy
  2. Adapted Bawdy Lyrics: Outlander TV Series, Episode 114, “The Search”
  3. Happy Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day!
  4. Response to Outlander Post, “Episode 115: ‘Wentworth Prison’ (SPOILERS)”
  5. Review: Outlander Season 1’s Ironic Chilling Effect
  6. Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  7. 3 Quick Book Reviews: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager
  8. Outlander, 2015 San Diego Comic-Con: Binge On
  9. Five-Phrase Friday (9): “Slings and Arrows . . .”
  10. Five-Phrase Friday (10): Outlander Grammar
  11. Golden Globes for Outlander Starz!
  12. Outlander “2”: Dragonfly in Amber
  13. Five-Phrase Friday (36): Comic Relief in Outlander STARZ Ep201
  14. Five-Phrase Friday (37): No “Callow” Craft
  15. Outlander STARZ: Season 2 Review, Eps 201 and 202
  16. Review: Sandringham in Outlander STARZ – Beyond Adaptation
  17. Live Event Review: Diana Gabaldon Skype Session
  18. Outlander STARZ: “Faith” and Patience

Posts of our Scotland excursion are linked below and through the far-right, top-menu tab “Scotland” on the Philosofishal home page.

Before the trip:

  1. Book Review: Fodors Travel Essential Great Britain
  2. The Labor of Learning to Set Limits
  3. Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland

After the trip:

  1. Morning Fog, Loch Long, Arrochar – photo, the Trossachs (Oct 11, 2016)
  2. Scottish Color: A Photo Essay – overview of sensory highlights (Oct 12, 2016)
  3. The Paps of Jura – sea-and-mountains vista; language lesson (Oct 15, 2016)
  4. Linlithgow Palace, a.k.a. Wentworth Prison – profile of a lesser-known Outlander STARZ filming site (Oct 20, 2016)
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns – reading “To a Mouse” & The Writers’ Museum (Oct 24, 2016)
  6. Kurdish in Edinburgh – restaurant review (Nov 4, 2016)
  7. Dial up the sun – original poem, plus photos, National Museum of Scotland (Nov 9, 2016)
  8. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1 – my take on Outlander tourism, starting with film sites in Central Scotland (Dec 1, 2016)
  9. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2 – Central Scotland cont’d, Glasgow film sites, south to Ayrshire coast, Dumfries & Galloway (Dec 23, 2016)
  10. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3 – wraps up orientation to Highland sites from Perthshire to Ross & Cromarty to Inverness; Outlander STARZ & my museum/field photos of Culloden Visitor Centre, with commentary  (Feb 11, 2017)
  11. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4 – story of my trip-planning process, snapshots of our itinerary, our experience, and improvements (Mar 11, 2017)
  12. Wildlife TV Programs This Week – a heads-up for Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild. See the end section about select Scotland nature and wildlife tourism options with brief descriptions and links to resources. (Mar 27, 2017)
  13. Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources – (a.k.a. Part 5) our Outlander tour, Slainte Scotland company review, notes on OL sites we visited alone, profiles of most popular OL film sites, list of 40 OL film sites, resources for OL book and inspiration sites, other OL tour co. links, articles on the show, plus how to survive Droughtlander (Apr 11, 2017)
  14. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6 – the final post in the OL tourism series, focused on Scottish and more general travel tips and resources, based on our Scotland trip experiences (Jun 15, 2017)

And I keep coming back to it—because I’m fascinated, captivated, intrigued, provoked in thought and feeling and spirit. It’s Gabaldon’s masterful storytelling that made all this possible and Outlander STARZ that elevates my interest even further. I write because I want to, because I can, and why the hell not? I daresay Tolstoy would approve.

My husband recently informed me that two Icelandic airlines have started direct flights from Cleveland to Reykjavik. “Wanna go to Iceland?” he asked. My coy reply? “Sure, as long as we can stop in Scotland on the way.” We spent our first vacation of any real length and substance since our 2008 honeymoon on a two-week Scottish excursion last fall. Some day, I hope to go back. For our 10th anniversary next year, I cannot think of a better, more romantic way to celebrate than reprising the trip we both so loved.

Outlander Season 3

Until then, there’s the third season journey of the STARZ adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s currently 8-novel series called Outlander. The premiere of the TV show’s return based closely, we have now been told, on Gabaldon’s third book Voyager airs in the United States on Sunday, September 10, 2017. Catch the show on STARZ at 8pm EDT or on the STARZ app.

It’s a 13-episode adventure through 1940s-60s Boston, 1960s and 1740s-60s Scotland, and various parts of the Caribbean Sea in the 1760s after our epic romantic heroes Claire and Jamie reunite in an Edinburgh print shop after 20 years and two centuries apart. I know it’s a lot of numbers to parse. . . . Stay tuned.

That separation, made possible by Claire’s time traveling ability, occurred as a direct result of the Battle of Culloden in 1746. In the Season 2 finale, Claire acknowledges to Jamie her new pregnancy and agrees to keep her promise of going back through the standing stones at Craigh na Dun, taking herself and their unborn child safely back to the future (Sam Heughan’s favorite movie, by the way).

While the battle itself is not part of the book’s plot, the TV show’s premiere features Jamie’s version of recalling the battle. The first several episodes then explore the separate, parallel lives of these time- and ocean-divided lovers, wife Claire and husband Jamie, as they struggle to learn to live and find purpose without one another.

As pivotal as it is to Scottish history, so is the Battle of Culloden to the Outlander STARZ drama. And because occasions for artistic representation of the battle are as rare as a total solar eclipse, I’ve chosen this niche topic as we prepare to watch a fresh rendering of parts of the battle in living color.

I have written previously about the anticipation of a TV representation of the Battle of Culloden in Part 3 of my six-part series An Outlander Tourist in Scotland. Key points are excerpted here:

Culloden Battlefield, a.k.a. Culloden Moor, Inverness-shire. “The Outlander action is all leading up to the bloody Battle of Culloden in 1746. More than 1,200 [Jacobite Army] men were killed [and nearly as many wounded] in the defeat of the Jacobite [side].” Source: photo caption excerpt. This final battle, while not depicted in the book, will be portrayed in the STARZ show during series 3, which is based on the third book Voyager.

Culloden Visitor Centre stewards, battle and Jacobite scholars, descendants of Scotch soldiers and their families, British historians, Outlander fans, Outlander STARZ cast and crew, and Scots citizens–in short, many, many people no doubt all eagerly anticipate this unique project coming to fruition.

I know it will be unforgettable, and I hope it will bring even more people to this historic site that has long been at the center of Scottish cultural identity and its dramatic transformation.

Previous Reenactments

Although this project is unique, the Battle of Culloden has been depicted in film before. Early during the Vietnam War, the 1960s brought us Culloden, Peter Watkins’ 70-minute docudrama, or “mockumentary,” of the battle in black and white, told as if modern TV cameras were present interviewing participants in the battle. Although I have not seen it, the film appears to have garnered some very positive reviews and has been described as “seminal” in its style and substance.

There is also The Great Getaway, a recent film about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight from British justice in the wake of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden, a production in which the battle plays a role. Although a trail of articles tracked its development, I was unable to discover whether this project ever saw the light of day or if it is still forthcoming; if you know anything about it, feel free to leave a comment.

Farther back, in the silent film era, 1923’s Culloden Avenged uses that historical turning point as a pretext for a rematch done archery style between the King’s Scottish Archers and the Woodmen of Arden in an International Archery Contest. Black and white, 60 minutes.

Beyond explanations and images in history books, there are available at the Culloden Visitor Centre museum dozens upon dozens of first-person accounts, artifacts, letters, poems, reenactment recordings, songs, artwork, and other representations of the battle in part or whole. I don’t plan to take my expertise on this subject further than reading all the articles in my Sources section at the end of this post. Perhaps I’ll watch Culloden or The Great Getaway at some point in the future, but history books about Culloden I leave to other readers.

Truth in the Balance

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well Outlander, or any production, portrays history pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, and we are free to do so. The verdict is up to each individual consumer, however, and there should be no criminal indictment, just literary criticism. Art is for everyone to make of what they will.

As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in the conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.

Acknowledging this lack of necessity for accuracy leads us to ask a different kind of question. Which elements of story have the most impact on reader perspective? Should certain aspects carry more weight than others?

If we grant that readers and viewers of the Outlander series love it primarily for one, a few, or many of the following qualities—and these are all present, in my humble opinion—then historical correctness takes a farther seat back in the stretch limo:

  • intriguing premise and sweeping scenery
  • engaging plot and dramatic conflicts
  • compelling ensemble of characters, including seminal villains
  • high-quality writing, with sharp turns of phrase and vividly descriptive details
  • 20th-century English combat nurse’s narrative perspective, intelligence, insight, rash courage, ironic wit, loyalty, compassion, sense of justice (Libra), sharp memory, sharper-tongued sauciness, resourcefulness, ingenuity, medical skills, hardiness, sexual confidence, sense of adventure, large heart, steady determination
  • 18th-century Scottish Highlander’s physical strength, resilience, hot-headed stubbornness (Taurus), decisive leadership, clever intensity, educated virility, romantic sensibilities, controversial brutishness, forward-thinking adaptability, uncanny intuition, and unimaginable tenderness, i.e., “king of men”
  • centuries-spanning heroic couple’s beautiful transcendent love and at-times shocking sexual relationship
  • sci-fi/fantasy elements of time travel, folk superstition turned real, and the generally supernatural

At any rate, the best fiction, and the best art more broadly for that matter, sets out first to inspire, entertain, intrigue, or provoke thought. It is not, and should not be, the novelist’s job to “tell the truth” beyond what is true to the essence of the story itself. It’s fine to educate and enlighten, but that’s not the top priority with fiction.

Still, as someone whose interest extends beyond Outlander’s fiction into the culture and history of the Scottish Highlands, as well as Scotland, the UK, and the Scottish diaspora more broadly, I find value in examining the intersection of history and story.

In Good Faith

Besides the numerous, varied aspects listed above and despite our relieving historical fiction authors of the responsibility for absolute factual precision, this kind of accuracy is no less part of Gabaldon’s critical praise. As a former college professor and editor, as well as a keen and tenacious mind, the author has really done her homework. Readers note her extensive, intensive research of settings, customs, clothing, technology, medical expertise, weaponry, household goods, conveyances, animals, plants, and all other specific details she has selected.

In her first volume of The Outlandish Companion, Gabaldon describes her research precepts, what she tells audiences during lectures on the topic of historical fiction, and the process she pursues to balance authenticity with storytelling.

It is true, on the one hand, that a degree of accuracy, plausibility, and internal consistency are essential to author credibility in the telling of a story if the author is going to keep readers interested and not distracted by errors, suspicion, or confusion.

On the other hand, perhaps we should aim to focus our inquiry instead on the fictional representation of historical themes and settings as fiction—how the book series author imagines contextual history in order to serve a fictional story and how the STARZ TV production imagines its own version of Gabaldon’s use of history.

For, in truth, despite their impressive efforts to create an authentic milieu, both Gabaldon and STARZ’s crew would seem to have made some historico-factual errors toward the end of Dragonfly in Amber (DIA) and in Outlander STARZ Season 2’s penultimate episode, “The Hail Mary.” In different ways, they both diverge from what the National Trust Scotland official guidebook Culloden represents as accurate historical fact concerning the events leading immediately up to the battle. I’ll present each creative choice, compare them to fact, and then discuss implications.

Creative License or Misrepresentation?

Gabaldon changed the timing of the night march. STARZ changed the reason for its being aborted.

In DIA‘s Chapter 46, Gabaldon writes that the night march, historically represented to have occurred the night before the Battle of Culloden, happened two days earlier than it actually did. I would like to give this highly experienced, research-skilled author of numerous historical novels the benefit of the doubt, but I am curious to learn her reason or reasons for making this rather noticeable change in historical timing.

While STARZ/Moore got the moment of its occurrence correct, they more than implied that it was primarily lack of sufficient troops leading to the attack’s delay, rather than solely the projected timing of the army’s arrival at the Cumberland encampment in Nairn, that made Lord George Murray turn his troops around and head back to Inverness.

Fact: The night march did occur on April 15, the night before the Battle of Culloden, and those troops that did return came back exhausted, starving (more than they had been), and barely in time to form up for the noon-time battle.

Fact: There was no errant set of lost Prince Charles troops who never showed to meet up with Murray’s troops, as represented by the show (perhaps to give Jamie Fraser a larger role in the action?). By 2am on April 16, Murray’s lot, delayed instead by darkness, rough terrain and weakened bodies, were still four miles from the encampment and would lose all advantage with the sunrise.

Both of these seemingly unnecessary errors for the story or production create alterations that substantially improve neither dramatic effect nor characterization. Furthermore, pacing could have been preserved in the same way it came out if they’d left well enough alone. An aspect of history that was not in dispute has, under each author, become a thing, so to speak, needlessly increasing potential for controversy where before there was none.

It leads one to wonder whether these differences are accidents or intentional deviations, and if the latter, deviation for what purpose. But the key question is, “Whether purposeful or not, is the misrepresentation problematic, in any substantial way, to either history, story, or present society?”

The answer will, of course, depend on whom you speak with about it. For example, perhaps historians, modern-day Jacobites, Culloden-warrior descendants, fans of Bonnie Prince Charlie, today’s nationalistic Scots, and those sympathetic to people they perceive to be oppressed Highland Scots and Gaels will be none too pleased to see even fictional characters and their circumstances casting Prince Charles and his troops in an unfavorable light.

Omitted also from the show and book is the historic fact that, even before the night march, the over-eager prince formed his lines on Culloden Moor on April 15, the day before the battle actually took place, anticipating Cumberland’s forces that never arrived. Adding this fact to the fictionalized representation would legitimately portray the troops as being as thoroughly exhausted and unprepared as they really were.

Combine the two false starts of previous-day non-battle and aborted night march, and in some respects Charles Stuart appears even more foolish and the Jacobites more imperiled in the 24 hours leading up to the battle than either Gabaldon or the STARZ crew conveys.

Specifically with respect to those few days prior to the battle, however, the TV adaptation proves more historically accurate than Gabaldon’s use of history in the book, and in so doing, the show restores some of the pitiable absurdity of those desperate last moments of build-up to combat.

Perspective and Picking Your Battles

Motives aside and changes in detail considered, what are the effects of each creative choice?

For most readers and viewers, probably none. If you never learned (from a scholarly historical text, for instance) the detailed history of Culloden or the Jacobite Rising of 1745, you wouldn’t know what you missed, except that now I’ve told you.

Those who’ve paid a little more attention, perhaps visited Scotland, including the Culloden Visitor Centre, as well as some Scotland- or UK-based fans of the show, may notice a vague dissonance between scenes watched and history lessons recalled. Perhaps a few will “mark me” that those sequential details don’t wash.

We who notice errors, discrepancies, unintended anachronisms, or timescale flubs in film and television productions, and are bothered by them, can take solace in the fact that almost everybody does it at some point. For story’s sake, a production’s budgetary constraints, because they feel like it, or because they simply don’t know any better, mistakes happen in any endeavor involving human action. Culloden itself is, in a large number of respects, a seminal example of that truth.

Yet again, the Battle of Culloden is “merely days away,” as Claire says in ep212 to Black Jack Randall of his day of death, referring to that same fateful date of April 16, 1746. Our first Outlander-filtered experience of the battle will occur on September 10, 2017. Last April marked the 270-year anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, and the final Outlander Season 2 episodes, representing the eve of that battle, aired for the first time last summer.

Now at last come the battle itself and its aftermath through the eyes of our hero Jamie Fraser. His narrative filter replacing Claire’s usual perspective (complete with voice-overs), along with the combined writer-producer lens, greatly erodes the importance of accurately representing the events Jamie “reports.”

Fictional aims take priority. So, while past error may presage future error (or, in a time-travel story, vice versa?), the author can stand confidently at least behind the acceptable claim, if not the essential trait of fiction, that no character’s or narrator’s viewpoint is ever equivalent to the author’s.

Anyone who reads novels on a semi-regular basis also should know that the narrator is never 100% reliable and, in fact, this is even a large measure of the fun of exploring literature. I’d say the thoughts of a severely injured, exhausted, starving, and love-sick survivor of a major battle having flashbacks of said battle slot him neatly in the category of unreliable limited, first-person narrator, at least in that moment. No offense to James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser.

Characters, if they are realistically drawn, get lots of things wrong—not only details but also the essence of their experiences—with imperfect, incomplete, biased, and sometimes wholly fabricated remembering. Memory, as I learned recently through my memoir writing class, is at best a reconstruction of partially formulated experiences that change in some way inevitably each and every time the mind revisits them. There are no pure, objective memories, and that’s just in real life.

With a first-person narrative pervading the fictional Outlander series, and given the degree of detail we are meant to imagine that fiery, intelligent, love-driven Claire recalling for the reader, such a saga, even as a work of fiction, must necessarily allow for the main character-narrator’s flawed memory. In other words, yes, sometimes in telling her story, Claire could be almost lying, even to herself, though that’s clearly not Gabaldon’s overall intention.

It’s not only just a story; it’s a tale told by a completely manufactured character, who, as some of the best writers and musicians argue, has a mind of its own. Conversely, in a way, we must suspend our disbelief to allow Claire’s memory to be far too intact for realism, thanks to Diana’s meticulous research and writing.

Lines Blurred and Crossed

Where does all this leave us in our questions on the relationships between history and story in the case of Outlander? Is there a red line on misrepresentation or creative alteration? Has Outlander already crossed that line? In world building, no. In some specific events, actions, and sequences, it’s possible.

So, what is a reader or viewer to do with that? My recommendations follow.

Where the creator’s conscious intentions of a certain type of portrayal of a historical figure, event, period, or atmosphere are evident, it comes down to a simple choice. As a consumer, you either accept it or withdraw support by refusing to read or watch.

Where accident seems more prominent than purposefulness, you can criticize or chalk it up to fallible humanity. If it’s unclear and not easily learned one way or another, then be confused if you must, but reserve harsh judgment for greater, more obvious crimes. With Outlander, Gabaldon and STARZ/Moore got the vast majority of things right.

Truly accurate nonfiction representation of history would mean that the red and blue lines on the battle maps of Culloden (and of most conflicts) should in fact both appear as rainbows, multicolored pixel grids, or gradient color bars with mildly contrasting shade tendencies, rather than starkly contrasting, completely separate, solid, single-color areas. In the end, complete accuracy might be both rare and indecipherable and, thus, practically pointless.

And, besides, if you’re already an Outlander fan for any or all the aforementioned non-historical reasons, and some of the historical ones, how likely are you, really, to throw the baby out with the bathwater now?

If I am to keep reading a book or watching a show, you could say my only hard-and-fast rule for soundness beyond good narrative grammar and general readability is internal consistency. By this measure, Gabaldon definitely has a leg up on STARZ and Ron Moore, due to their series of time-scale errors bridging the second half of Season 1 through the opening of Season 2. (The one I don’t discuss in the above-linked post is the “typo” on the screen caption to ep201 when Claire, Jamie, and Murtagh land in France: it would have to be 1744, not 1745, folks.)

Producers of the STARZ adaptation chose a different seasonal starting point of autumn instead of spring of the respective years of 1945 and 1743 to start the series, which in itself might not have been problematic. However, perhaps for this reason but probably also others, the time line chips fell (apart a little) from there. But again, just check the IMDB.com entry of your favorite movie or TV show, and you’re sure to find errors in the “goofs” section of the page.

Imperfect Fondness

Even knowing all that I’ve learned through close examination and a little research about both the timescale issues and the pre-Culloden discrepancies, and feeling troubled by them, I don’t plan to stop watching the show or reading the books (I’m on book 5 of 8, soon to be 9). That’s just how good it all is.

As an English teacher and a student of philosophy, I’ve always believed in the power of fiction to reveal truths of human nature and to raise valuable life questions. Both book and show of the Outlander saga have proven their worth to me by excelling in this art. I’m also curious to see how closely the story follows the battle in this first Outlander representation of scenes from it. Note that Gabaldon chose not to depict the battle, probably to keep focused on Claire’s perspective and to emphasize Jamie’s individual story over the larger context, as is fitting.

The book and TV series have made us laugh, gasp, hold our breath, stare in horror or fascination or infatuation, cringe, look away, and generally become obsessed with the story and its characters. Perhaps most of all, Outlander makes us weep, and the battle depiction may indeed prove to be another major trigger for tears–and cringing.

The infamous Battle of Culloden has been talked about in the script since the first season. It is the reason for our heroic couple’s separation, and it changed the course of history.

The real, horrific general slaughter of Jacobites in battle, their defeat, and that of the rebellion precipitated the great suffering of Scottish survivors and innocent civilians alike. As part of a campaign of punishing traitors, the Duke of Cumberland allowed government soldiers to hunt down fleeing Jacobites, pillage and burn property, torture, rape, and murder in the hours and days after battle.

Later that year, rebel leaders were executed, others including Prince Charles fled the country, and mass exodus followed. New British laws brought more formal economic and cultural suppression of Highland Gaels, and even Scots who had fought for the government, through decades of humiliating, famine-stricken aftermath. Culloden was the last battle fought on British soil.

Inevitably, then, Culloden in Outlander STARZ will be the ultimate tragedy of the entire series so far, a series that has delivered multiple, regular nightmares and personal tragedies, as well as the most hair-raising encounters, rescues, reunions, and journeys.

Till next time, enjoy—and endure in solidarity—the journeys of mind, heart, and soul that these Outlandish art forms, in their peculiar cross-dialogue, give us all. They fuel our obsession and reward our curiosity with such overarching respect, dedication, talent, hard work, and passion for the Outlander story and its cultural and historical inspirations.

I hope this post has offered fans, those on the fence, and those about to jump off some meaningful perspective on the nexus of culture, history, historical fiction, and artistic adaptation. Perhaps Outlander can teach us something about the nature of truth and fact, the variable gap between efforts and results, the wonder of resilience, the supreme importance of love, or the inescapable folly of war. In art as in life, you cannot control all the outcomes, but the choice of which most valuable lessons or beautiful impressions to take with you is no one’s but yours.

And Happy Season 3, Sassenachs! We made it—we conquered the longest Droughtlander yet. Catch the show’s return September 10 on STARZ at 8pm EDT or on the STARZ app.


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Sampling of Sources Consulted or Considered, a.k.a. Almost a Bibliography

Recent History

Headlines

Wandering Educators, Dr. Jessie Voigts, 2009: Culloden: From Battle To Exile

BBC News, 2011: Apology sought for “war crimes” in Culloden’s aftermath

I wonder if the show’s success (2015-17) at all contributed to their story selections:

History Scotland, June 2016: The Battle of Culloden – new research dispels three long-held myths. This article reviews a scholarly publication addressing myths about (1) the choice of battleground, (2) types of weapons the Jacobites used, and (3) identities of the opposing sides involved. Includes video of the professor’s views on his findings. The book is Culloden. By Murray Pittock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Works by Pittock on Stuart and Jacobite myths listed in NTS’s Culloden.

Daily Mail, Richard Gray, April 2016: Holey skull gives a glimpse at the brutality of the Battle of Culloden: 3D model of soldier’s remains shows he was shot in the top of the head in 1746 | Daily Mail Online

Daily Mail, Mark Duell, July 2016: Bonny Prince Charlie’s vanquished troops were NOT an army of Highland savages | Daily Mail Online

Outlander News

Daily Record, Carla Callaghan, June 2015: Outlander’s Sam Heughan on his excitement over Battle of Culloden plot and what writer Diana Gabaldon emails him

Cinemablend, Jessica Rawden, August 2016: Why You Should Be Excited About Outlander Season 3’s Battle of Culloden

IGN, Terri Schwartz, April 2016: Outlander: The History vs. Fiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie

Literature

Nonfiction

Culloden, National Trust Scotland, 2016, official guidebook on sale at Culloden Visitor Centre. Writers/contributors: Lyndsey Bowditch, Dr. Andrew Mackillop, Dr. Tony Pollard. Edited by Hilary Horrocks. See also the “Further reading” section opposite the inside back flap of the guidebook.

The Tears of Scotland, Tobias Smollett, 1746 (referenced in the NTS guidebook).

Culloden, John Prebble, 1961. Pimlico, 2002.

The Outlandish Companion, Diana Gabaldon, 1999. Delacorte Press, Random House.

Novels

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

Novels of the Eighteenth Century, Historicalnovels.info/Eighteenth-Century.html lists 1700s novels in English, including all of Diana’s. Sections include British and Irish, Continental Europe, North America, and mysteries in thrillers from these settings.

Scholarly Articles and Books

Joseph Knight: Scotland and the Black Atlantic. Michael Morris. International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue Four, Spring/Summer 2008. ISSN 1751-2808. Terms used to find this source: “books battle of culloden fiction nonfiction history depictions descriptions explanation”

The “Outlander” Experience: Time-Travel, Literary Tourism and North American Perceptions of the Scottish Highlands, Dr Amy Clarke, (N.d.), University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Retrieved on Academia.edu. Good bibliography with some selections below.

Bueltmann, T., Hinson, A. and Morton, G. (2013). The Scottish diaspora. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

Currie, H. (1997). Diana Gabaldon breaks the rules: best-selling author knew nothing about Scotland before writing Outlander series. Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 31 January.

Devine, T. M. (2004). Scotland’s empire, 1600-1815. London: Penguin.

Finlay, R. J. (1994). Controlling the past: Scottish historiography and Scottish identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Scottish Affairs 9, 124-140.

Gold, J. R. and Gold, M. M. (1995). Imagining Scotland: tradition, representation and promotion in Scottish tourism since 1750. Aldershot: Scolar.

McCrone, D. (1992). Understanding Scotland: the sociology of a stateless nation. London: Routledge.

Fine Art

Painting: An incident in the rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

Film/TV

Culloden Avenged, 1923

The Battle of Culloden (TV Movie 1964) – IMDb

Culloden (The Battle of Culloden) (2003) – Rotten Tomatoes

Epic battle to star in Bonnie Prince Charlie film – The Scotsman (The Great Getaway, 2016)

Historical Movies in Chronological Order. Patrick L. Cooney PhD, Rise Education Resource Center.

Outlander

Episode 212, “The Hail Mary,” Outlander STARZ TV series

Aggregate of Season 1 and 2 episodes

Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.

Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.


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