The book, the reading of which is an exercise in being uncomfortable, seems, at least to me, odd, in that the writer is practicing the very things for which he holds his characters to be judged. For instance: women and people of color are used as plot points, lessons, examples, and nothing else. And FORGET IT, when it comes to a woman of color - she is merely used to develop the character of the white male narrator. The book is narrated by Owen Brown, one of John Brown's sons, and so of course his perspective is indulged. But no real character development is given to any woman or person of color. These people never speak, they are never given interior lives, they are never sketched out. Are we to assume Owen, though surrounded by people of color and women, never engaged with them, thought of them, saw them take actions that were particularly revealing of the people they were? And while the book is really supposed to be all about John Brown, from his son's perspective, and some would argue of COURSE no one else is rendered at depth except for John Brown, that's a cop out. While Owen Brown is busy narrating all about his father's attempts to end slavery, the author is busy rendering women and people of color as two dimensional paper characters. How can a book about John Brown erase the voices and persons of people of color? That seems to be perpetuating a different sort of racism itself, where the white man is again lionized, and despite his cause, the minorities around him are made invisible.
The easiest example as to how women are used as character development for the white male narrator is when Owen meets a young woman on a ship to England (by the way, the novel highlights John Brown's insistence that too many don't see women or black people as real people, real equals. The author, it seems, did not heed his advice. Also, I recognize the difference between narrator and author - I suppose one could argue that the narrator is the sexist, and thus women are represented as mere plot-movers. The problem is that the narrator may well be sexist, but the author doesn't have to use women as plot points to move along his own story. The author could very well show his narrator's sexism without employing it to tell his story himself). SO. Owen meets a young woman on the ship, and she herself is escaping America because she is pregnant with a married man's child.
Owen meets her for one night - she is the first female in the book to actually speak at any length (meaning: more than two sentences put together). She points out how constrained she is, as a female, as she is not free to remake herself, change her mind, change her path in the world; she points out Owen needs to stop being a sad sack and just make his own life better. If he wills things, as a man, he can make them happen. She, on the other hand, is very much trapped. It is incredibly feminist, and incredibly true, and sad, these things she says, the way she upbraids him. Then, Owen leaves her. The young woman that very night? Throws herself into the sea. But that is ok! Why? Because this young woman, Sarah Peabody, was only needed to bring a transformation in the character of Owen Brown:
I saw that there had been completed, almost without my intending or even hoping for it, a thorough-going transformation in my character . . . completed by the sad, wasted death of the young woman. pg. 359-360
This was what I had learned the night that I spoke with Miss Peabody aboard the Cumbira - her last night on earth and, in a sense, my first. pg. 384
GRRRRR. And then, THEN, not a hundred pages later, Owen Brown it turns out somehow has been magically in love with a woman of color who has spoken but TWO SENTENCES MAYBE in the entire book, only one that I am sure of, and all she did was tell her husband, "I'm sorry" for losing the baby she had just given birth to. A woman who has been rendered nearly invisible - we are suddenly to believe the narrator is in love with her? HOW?????
You can imagine why he's in love with her. IT WILL BE TRANSFORMATIVE, I can assure you.
I said this was a Mad Men post, and it actually is, and this sort of all clicked when I read the letter at Jezebel from Carla, the black maid, to the Drapers, which held the show itself accountable for not developing her character. And that's the thing - Mad Men is trying to point out racism, and it does. It is trying to capture the the way white people thought at the time about civil rights. But it does not go so far as to actually develop a black character. Black characters are still mostly absent, silent character actors that are there to serve as character development for the leads. And so while we are meant to see the racism through the lens of white experience, the show manages to reinforce the very racism it is trying to point out.
And this is where I saw the parallels with Cloudsplitter - because the same defense could be made of Mad Men, that the show is about white people and focusing on their experiences. But the show itself doesn't have to silence black characters, just to illustrate white racism, just like Cloudsplitter doesn't have to erase women, black folks, and especially black women to get its message across, either. You don't get to conflate subject with method. Your SUBJECTS may be racist folks and your MESSAGE may be about racism, but your METHOD of telling that story need not be. And if it is, then I am going to take your righteous anti-racist message with a grain of hypocritical salt.
So, I love Mad Men, folks, you know I do, but: I want better. Let's continue to hold people accountable for their methods of storytelling, as well as their messages, because hearing the voices and perspectives of more people can only make our stories richer, the tales more compelling, and advocate for the change that we still need to bring.