Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Book Review: Tam the Untamed

Title: Tam the Untamed


Author: Mary Elwyn Patchett

Date: 1955

Publisher: Bobbs-Merrill

ISBN: none

Length: 186 pages

Illustrations: drawings by Gerald McCann

Quote: “If anything could have made the idea of the foal more exciting to me, it was to be told that he was the son of Bobs...probably the most famous buckjumper of all.”

In the introduction Mary Elwyn Patchett explains the horse stories in this book as memories from the same years as the dog stories in her previous book Ajax, but claims that writing the stories in the order they happened meant that “the powerful personalities of” alpha dog Ajax and alpha horse Tam “seemed to be continually overshadowing”  memories of her beta dogs. I'm not entirely convinced. The books were published as fiction, and followed by at least one adventure story published in the U.S. that reads like pure, polished, fiction. Nevertheless, the narrative in Ajax and Tam the Untamed is unpolished enough that it does sound like mostly true memoirs, “improved” no doubt, but fact-based. It's possible that Patchett always intended to market the dog stories to dog lovers and the horse stories to horse lovers.

It may be significant, given the way horse and dog stories were marketed in the 1950s, that fictional Mary mentions an older brother in Ajax but never mentions this brother in Tam the Untamed, just as she never mentions Tam in Ajax. Dog stories were supposed to appeal to boys, so they had to have a boy character; horse stories were supposed to appeal to girls, so in them a girl character could share center stage with her horse alone—although in Tam the Untamed Ajax emerges as the rescuing hero and Tam, like his namesake, more of a tragic hero.

I remember discovering both these not-quite-novels, not-quite memoirs at age eight, or maybe even seven, which was about the right age to enjoy them. I knew they weren't quite as well written as other books that were either fiction or nonfiction, but at that age the fact that they weren't really coherent novels, nor were they separate short stories, nor were they credible memoirs, didn't bother me at all. If the more dramatic stories weren't likely to be true, I felt, they ought to have been. Shouldn't every child whose pet has been stolen get a chance to roar at a hard-drinking rodeo crowd, “If you move one step, my dog will tear that beast's throat out, and then I'll set him on you!”? Shouldn't every child who's been bullied at school be able to beat up two bullies at once, and be commended for it, even, in a subtle way, by teachers?

Patchett presents herself in this book as a de facto only child on a large farm “on the border river between New South Wales and Queensland.” She doesn't know, or want to know, children her own age; the brother, and any other siblings that may have been left offstage in the stories, would have been much older, so when she has to go to school for a month the teachers don't know how to deal with her—a child who's intelligent and mostly polite, having been socialized so exclusively by adults, but ignorant of “book learning” and socially backward around other children. Apparently nobody's ever thought of anything to do with this fictional Mary but give her more of what she wants—freedom, including the freedom to go camping in the bush, all alone with her two less than fully safe pets, for a week if she feels like it.

So in this story Mary spoils Tam in much the same way. From a dear little orphan foal he quickly grows into a big strong athletic horse who's never quite free to develop his potential as either a race horse, a show “buckjumper,” or the leader of a wild horse herd. In some rodeos “bucking broncos” are abused, as shown in this book, until they really go wild and want to harm riders, but according to Mary the horse Bobs was humanely trained to put on a hard-to-ride act, using one of those special moves that a minority of horses seem to do naturally; skill at these performances seems to correlate with hereditary physical traits, and Bobs seems to have passed on his “buckjumping” talents to Tam. Although he's only a mixed breed, Tam shares his color, and possibly the advantages of his conformation, with the Lipizzan dancing horses. 

Mary feels his frustration. Toward the end of the book, does she ever feel it! Rescuing Tam from a horse thief, she frustrates Tam's efforts to rescue himself, and he starts to vent his aggressions on Mary. Immediately after Mary has rounded on that rodeo crowd like Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the Temple, Ajax has to rescue Mary from Tam. And although the melodrama of Mary's reclaiming Tam has to have been exaggerated, that an overexcited animal, or even human, should immediately attack its rescuer is not unusual; that part I believe.

What the story has in the way of a plot may be that learning from the mistakes she's made with Tam reconciles Mary to turning him over to men who can work with a horse like him (maybe), going off to school, and learning to relate to other half-grown girls—but the story doesn't say this. Patchett leaves adult readers free to infer it, from the timeline of the story, and child readers free to leave Mary, Tam, and Ajax alone together, for the moment, all calmed down and friends again. In real life horse stories like Tam's don't have very happy endings, but this book stops tactfully short of whatever ending Tam's story might have had.

All I can say is that somehow, when I went back to reread Tam the Untamed for you, I realized that I'd read that plot into the story. I remembered that Tam teaches Mary her mistakes with harsh physical punishment, twice. As a child I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the book if it had ever actually said “So then my parents, brother, and favorite farm laborer convinced me that the relatively humane 'showman' who'd worked with Bobs was the one who could save Tam from a forlorn, unnatural, neurotic life, and that at least a few years of school might save me from something similar; a deal was worked out, and Tam helped to pay my tuition fees.” As an adult, I reopened the book having worked out in my mind that that was how it must have ended...but no. “[O]nce again the long,happy days began for the little girl who was part animal, and the animals who were nearly human.”

There's a lot to be said for a human character, if only a fictional one, who appreciates “that no animal should be forced into a human pattern” clearheadedly enough to understand, when one of her pets hurts her, that the animal is not “bad” but is correcting her mistake. Around the time I read Tam the Untamed I had a few firsthand experiences of horses correcting stupid human mistakes, not by real threat displays like Tam's, but just chomping a finger curled up around a food treat, or stepping on a misplaced foot...I suspect that's why I never became really horsey. Anyone with spare time can bond with horses, but actually working with them takes a talent for nonverbal communication, and also a certain tolerance for pain. I thought about this and became more appreciative of smaller, safer animals.

And after all, the way I'd misremembered Tam the Untamed isn't the only possible happy ending Tam's story could have had, although Patchett does mention on page 127 that “I knew I would be sent to boarding school.” There was also Mary O'Hara's Thunderhead, where the alpha horse who knows one human friend, but no master, gets to go feral in peace. Fictional Mary does more of the things real children dream of doing than any fictional human-child protagonist I can remember, verging on the pure fantasies of Mowgli, Tarzan, or Pippi, but obviously the real Mary Elwyn Patchett did settle down into human society; that does not necessarily mean that Tam did.

Let's just say that if ever a book communicated to a child the message that children shouldn't have their own way all the time, without actually saying it, Tam the Untamed is that book. In that peculiar way this rambly little half-breed of a book remains the most successful book I've ever read.

If this triumph of subtlety weren't enough to make Tam the Untamed worth keeping, we also meet the rest of Mary's menagerie, two more dogs, a monkey, an Australian possum, a tame snake, a kangaroo (rescued from an abusive “showman” in Ajax), a cat, a lizard, a tortoise, a duck, lambs, all of whom have become pets and can even be treated to a party together if “carefully watched,” and a “flying fox” bat she completely fails to tame. Naturally some of these animals are more interesting than others; the domestic dogs get the most attention, but what imaginative child could possibly ignore a book with a tame kangaroo in it?


This is a collectors' book; the best price we can offer is $10 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment, and Patchett no longer has any use for the $1 we'd sent her if it were A Fair Trade Book. However, at least three more books of this size will fit into the package beside this one, and they can be Fair Trade Books if you like. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Book Review: All the Trouble in the World

A Fair Trade Book


Title: All the Trouble in the World

Author: P.J. O'Rourke

Date: 1994

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

ISBN: 0-87113-580-9

Length: 341 pages

Quote: “Why do people spend so little time contemplating the ugliness of nature?”

In this book O'Rourke, caustic-witted car reviewer, satirist, and Gulf War reporter, set out to explore the global sites of “fashionable worries.”

The shade of his reactions is one I'd call “Bitter Green.” O'Rourke is writing as a disillusioned hippie turned Republican Party Reptile. (Not, however, too much of a reptile to receive aid and comfort from Christopher Buckley, John McCain, and half a dozen Republican organizations as well as the libertarian Cato Institute.)

In the 1990s right-wingers were as infatuated with certain pieces of ecological science that have since been debunked as left-wingers are infatuated with certain other pieces of ecological science that have been debunked today, and I've really tried to say with consistently equal patience to both of them, for a long time: You're wrong. And it's not just that I called the corrections where youall were wrong; it's that oldtimers like Wendell Berry and George Peters and J.I. Rodale called them first. O'Rourke consistently embraced the ideas that overpopulation might be fun and burning up all the gasoline was fun for him, too bad for future generations. So there are parts of All the Trouble in the World where my chuckles are at O'Rourke, not with him, and the smile on my face as I chuckle is probably the ugly kind.

But it's still laugh-out-loud funny. O'Rourke is easily among the top five laugh-out-loud-funny writers alive today. His zingers are delivered with neither real malice nor mercy to anybody on any side. He's willing to be the target of his own jokes if they have enough LOL potential. Often they do. He drinks lots of things that nature clearly intended humans to use for cleaning only. He gets sick. He narrates these experiences as if it were normal and acceptable to be sick whenever you were having “fun.” You have to wonder how much better this book would have been if O'Rourke had recognized the mild form of the Irish alcohol intolerance gene in himself and become a teetotal abstainer, but his descriptions of “hummingbirds that could actually carry a tune. Well, maybe that...was the haya huasca,” a fermented herb drink he sampled in South America, are funny anyway.

He raises questions about the emotional quality of contemporary concerns about overpopulation. His zingers on pages 58-63, where he argues that “Fretting about overpopulation is a perfectly guilt-free—indeed, sanctimonious—way for 'progressives' to be racists,” probably do apply to some of those who've fretted about overpopulation. (Note that they don't apply to this web site; we do fret about the observed effects of overpopulation—floating hostility, loss of community spirit, suppression of awareness of neighbors' survival needs, aggressive selfishness, commitment-phobia, inability to bond with friends or to mate for life, sterility and/or asexuality and/or homosexuality, chronic depression, “anger addiction,” many other forms of mental illness—among blue-eyed all-American yuppies. Often. We also think that living in slums contributes as much to the character defects of the welfare class as the welfare class contribute to the ugliness of the slums. Then again, we also trace the idea that birth control is something the neighbors should be doing through the animal kingdom; when overcrowded rats turn cannibalistic they will eventually eat their own young, but if they get a chance they'll eat other rats' young first.)

Famine? In Somalia he observed that there was a lot of food, but people were fighting over it. A load of rice identified as the gift of elementary school children—badgering their elders, hoarding their lunch money—had been commandeered and was being sold at obscene profits by public-spirit-impaired armed men. What O'Rourke saw was a far cry from the traditional Islamic norm, which also permeates the Old Testament, of rich people trying to get more of things in order to enjoy the “honor” of redistributing those things to the less wealthy. Generosity as a point of honor is an ideal valued in many cultures around the world but not, evidently, in nominally Muslim Somalia. Loyalty to other Muslims, “brotherhood,” as a point of religious observance also seems to have been broken down by some element of Somali culture. O'Rourke doesn't pretend to have even an educated guess what that element might be...at least he admits that what he did, when observing these global trouble zones, was to go to a country where he didn't speak the language, find another heavy-drinking man or group of men who spoke English, get drunk with them in the evenings, and write snarky hung-over descriptions of the landscapes and people he saw the next day. “But...[w]e had even more to drink and reasoned as hard as we could. Professor Amartya Sen says, 'There has never been a famine in any country that's been a democracy with a relatively free press'...Sylvia Nasar says, 'Modern transportation has made it easy to move relief supplies. but far more important are the incentives governments have to save their own people. It's no accident that the familiar horror stories...occurred in one-party states, dictatorships or colonies: China, British India, Stalin's Russia.'...Well, for the moment at least, Somalia certainly had a free press. The four of us were so free nobody even knew where we were.But how do you get Somalia one of those democratic systems...Sell the place to Microsoft?”

The environment? O'Rourke goes to the Amazonian rain forest to report that it's “an interesting, if sticky, place for rich people to visit. But...the employees of the ranches and timber companies and, for that matter, lots of the Yagua and Orejon wouldn't be there if they had another choice. The rain forest could then fester away in ecologically invaluable peace.” O'Rourke has always been one of your libertarian, basically-open-borders type of conservatives, not the anti-immigrant party—as am I—and hints that one way to save the rain forest might be letting more of its natives do unskilled labor in the U.S. He conveniently forgets the number of skilled workers in the U.S. who are desperate enough to do unskilled labor.

He also goes to Czechoslovakia, partly in order to provide a place in the book's outline where a preliminary witty debunking of Earth in the Balance will fit. He visits an alarmingly nasty toxic waste dump called Chabarovice, compares it with the famous traditional cleanness of Germany, and suggests that socialism contributes to the messiness of Chabarovice. This web site withholds comments.

He's on firmer ground, though, when he discusses the role of the federal government in mismanaging the United States' own ecological resources: “When resources are controlled by government instead of by an individual, the disposition of those resources is no longer guided by common—or any other kind of—sense...For example, the elk herd in Yellowstone National Park needs culling. But elk hunts cause uproar from the kind of people who think they'd like an elk for a pet. So all summer the elk eat everything in reach, destroy the Yellowstone ecological balance, and, come winter, they gruesomely starve.” 

And, “the Department of Agriculture...has been paying crop subsidies since 1927...the more you grow of something nobody wants, the more the government pays you for growing it. Thus farmers have been encouraged to heap their land with fertilizer and soak their crops in pesticide, and damn the costs, ecological or other­wise...The government has another method of keeping food prices high, through acreage-reduction programs. The Department of Agri­culture gives you cash for staying in bed and planting nothing. But, in order to get paid for not farming a piece of land, you have to prove that you used to farm it. So woods were cleared and swamps were drained anyway, to get money for leaving them alone later.” 

In short, “Government programs fail. There's no shame in this. Lots of things fail, as anyone who's over forty-five and has body parts knows. But government failures refuse to go away. When a private entity does not produce the desired results, it is (certain body parts excepted) done away with. But a public entity gets bigger.” Er, um...try sixty-five as the likely expiration date of those body parts if you say no to alcohol, as O'Rourke does not. (Grandma Bonnie Peters, who claimed between the ages of 55 and 80 to be healthier than she'd been at 35, is not typical even of teetotal abstainers—but neither is she really all that much of an outlier.) But as far as the government programs are concerned, check out a few for yourself and see how right our man P.J. was...and still is.

To study “Multiculturalism,” O'Rourke goes back to the college he attended. It's called Miami University, in Ohio. Miami, Florida, was named after a lot of dispossessed former residents of Ohio, several of whom wound up in Oklahoma. The university's sports teams were formerly nicknamed “Redskins.” O'Rourke reports that “Chief Floyd Leonard of the Miami Tribe in Oklahoma said he is not making any public comments,” as of 1993, possibly because “whether varsity squads are called Redskins or Dust Kittens, Miamis themselves would not be welcome to roam southwestern Ohio again—pitching their wigwams beside calm blue backyard swimming-pool waters, hunting and gathering midst the rich bounty of Safeway aisles...” Ironically, although the non-Miamian, “pink and well-fed” students see nothing derogatory or appropriative or whatever about the name “Miami,” they holler that “'Redskin' makes me cringe...the fact that we're here to discuss this today shows that there's something wrong with the word.” A Lakota activist living in Dayton, Ohio, “was very angry” and claimed the Lakota reservation's “as much as 92% unemployment, as much as 47% alcoholism rate” existed “because White Americans think it's good to call us 'Redskins,'” an extraordinary logical leap. The team has been renamed, of course, just because people got tired of the logic-free harangues, and the benefit to needy Hopis (or even Miamis) has been: zero. I'll stop now.

Meanwhile, “In the fall of 1992 I went to see multiculturalism in practice in former Yugoslavia. there all manner of diverse cultural groups were fully empowered—with guns.” O'Rourke's narrative of this trip is just one great gorgeous irony after another.

To discuss “Plague,” he goes to Haiti. It is unlikely that a conservative writer has ever written so fondly of this troubled nation as O'Rourke does, before, or ever will again. His narrative concludes with “All I could manage was 'Thank you.' But what I really wanted to tell the voodoo celebrants was 'I wish all of you could come to the United States and live there. You're an immense improvement on the other people who go to Florida.”

Right...if O'Rourke were reading this book to a large mixed audience the reading would now need to pause for while Cuban-Americans pelted O'Rourke with wadded-up programs. But his sympathy for his Haitian hosts is contagious. I know for a fact that, fifteen years later, when Associated Content was doing a fundraiser in aid of Haiti, my contributions to the barrage of fundraising articles were informed and inspired by memories of Chapter 8 of All the Trouble in the World. I cited more recent reportage, but O'Rourke's was the story that had stuck in my mind.

For the grand finale chapter on “Economic Justice,” O'Rourke, who famously dodged the draft during the Vietnam War by telling the recruiting doctor he'd used all kinds of illegal drugs, finally goes to Vietnam, where he reports, “never has there been such a pure, uncon­cealed, all-hogs-to-the-trough rush into capitalism among the citizens of a supposedly collectivist society.” Yet, “in the end, Vietnam was a bit depressing, too...the thrilling idea of human liberty always results in people acting so...human. Like Americans.”

In the end O'Rourke's travel book is hilarious (I've reread it every two or three years since 1994 and I still laugh out loud), picturesque, lively...and subjective, because it's one traveller's story...and historic. He saw things happening in 1993. That's not what's happening now. Then again, although some of his observations are date-stamped to the precise day, some of them are more “evergreen” than might have seemed possible in 1994.


I think this may be my favorite O'Rourke book. It's hard to say. The Bachelor Home Companion was also hilarious, and Eat the Rich has much to recommend it. Which is your favorite?

If you don't yet have a favorite, or aren't yet familiar with O'Rourke's earlier books, you can buy them here for $5 per book, $5 per package, plus $1 per online payment, from which this web site will direct $1 per book to the author or a charity of his choice. 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Book Review with Bible Study and Sermon: Liberated Through Submission

(Edited because, between the day I pre-scheduled this post and the day it went live, I reread the book and think this review really needs a clarifying paragraph, which I'm flagging in the updated text.)

A Fair Trade Book


Title: Liberated Through Submission

Author: P.B. “Bunny” Wilson


Date: 1990

Publisher: Harvest House

ISBN: 0-890-81-843-6

Length: 191 pages

Quote: “[A]s a new Christian, I encountered a Scripture which said: 'Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord'...I suddenly pictured myself...obediently dropping grapes into his mouth as he leisurely reclined...[O]nly one other experience came close to matching my emotional response...morning sickness...!”

Wilson also admits that her husband liked the idea of wifely submission...and it's instructive that my copy came from the library of a male minister. Then again, Wilson was married to the same man for forty years (he died in 2012).

Before readers start throwing their bouquets and brickbats, let me state for the record that the Bible does not, ever, say “Women should be submissive or subordinate or in any way inferior to men generally.” It says, to women living in a culture that did say that, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands.”

Service to “gods” other than the Holy One, in the Bible, is considered idolatry; loyalty to kings (or other forms of government) other than your own country's is considered treason; and submission to spouses other than your own is at least a form, if not the physical act, of adultery. Agreed? In ordinary social relationships, if those relationships are hierarchical or “asymmetrical,” the disparity should be defined by considerations like who's been there longer and who's paying whom.

In marriage...Wilson clarifies her use of terms on page 36. “Most people felt that submission was synonymous with being subservient or inferior. The general impression was that a person would be treated like a 'doormat'...Yet Jesus Christ led a totally submissive life.”

Yes, you may reply, and Jesus was on Earth to carry out a totally unique mission of self-sacrifice that was possible because He was the unique incarnation of God in human form, and He submitted to His Father in Heaven, not to some other mortal, and...

Basta ya! What the Bible actually says about marital relationships is more complex than what some Christians have wanted to understand it to say.

In his letters to the “Gentile” churches in places where women had few legal rights or none, Paul advised Christian women married to unbelievers to avoid open rebellion that would have led to more intensive persecution of the church.

In his letters to Jewish Christians, Peter advised those women to “obey their husbands as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him 'milord'.” Those Jewish Christians knew very well how Sarah obeyed Abraham. On one formal occasion, and presumably on others, when they addressed each other by their official titles before strangers, Sarah's role in a ritual of hospitality was to obey Abraham, and she did. In their private life, Sarah was evidently the boss—that's what her name means! Abraham was not exactly a mousy old gentleman. He was the son of an influential family before he left home to become a nomadic prophet and a sheik in the classical manner, the “I'm just an old man living in a tent, who happens to own thousands of cattle, employ hundreds of young people, and be someone kings can call on to furnish the equivalent of a city's military force in wartime” type. Priests and kings and the Pharaoh of Egypt, which was then the dominant nation in the world, treated Abraham as a peer and a teacher. And Sarah, his half-sister who may or may not have literally had royal blood, made the decisions in no uncertain terms, and Abraham obeyed her orders even when they obviously gravelled his soul...Sarah told Abraham to have a son with another woman, rear that son as his heir for fourteen years, and then drive that son out into the wilderness, but at least she didn't disrespect Abraham in public.

Other Scriptures reinforce the idea that, although the ancient world had many sexist customs, God-fearing women always had rights that Pagan women often lacked. They could inherit property, live and travel apart from their husbands, herd sheep, do any kind of job at which they were competent including governing the nation and directing the army, be authoritative enough scholars that the validity of the whole Bible rests on the authority of a woman, preach, teach, and even fight on the home front (although women were barred from the regular army). Bible writers describe women formally addressing men in high-status positions in very deferential terms, as etiquette required, but they also describe a religious person drawing closer to the Holy One by analogy to a wife who “calls her husband 'Man' [or perhaps the word sounded more like 'Dear'?] and no more calls him 'Milord'.” Their ideal girl was strong and sunburnt from outdoor work, and their ideal wife was not so much charming or pretty (“Charm is deceitful, beauty is vain”) as she was tough, smart, and entrepreneurial.

In times other than the very volatile formative years of the Apostolic Church, the Bible gives no hint of any mandate that wives submit to husbands. The book of Genesis taught that, although mortality and the discomforts of childbirth might make it reasonable for women just to opt out of marriage and motherhood altogether and let the species come to an end, “thy desire shall be to thine husband and (he) shall rule over thee”--that most women would voluntarily submit themselves to this funny, foolish, inconvenient thing called love. Sure enough, most did, and most still do. During the “in love” phase of a relationship most women's temptation is to idolize the men they love. Then if they get married they wonder why and whether they have to do all the things they once wanted so much to do...

But, whatever commentators have added to it, the Bible does not actually say that all men are “above” and all women “below.” The father of the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, the prophet who ended human sacrifice in the name of the Holy One, was evidently a submissive husband. God made men like Abraham and women like Sarah too.

Even Paul never objected to men's having the right to feel and act submissive. In fact, some of the passages that mention wifely submission specifically advise all Christians to “submit yourselves one toanother”--reciprocally. It was very specifically the Christian wives married to suspicious Pagan husbands who were told to be submissive.

So the position of this web site is that nobody has to be submissive. In our personal relationships Christians can be as dominant, as submissive, or whatever else, as our natural temperaments make us. It's not a moral issue...but if people want to live together for the rest of their lives, it certainly helps if one, or better yet if both, of them feel called to be submissive.

That's a long preamble. That's also the viewpoint from which it's possible for me to review Liberated Through Submission. I think Wilson is in error in saying that all wives “must submit to” all husbands because, just for one thing, when wives genuinely want to defer to our own husbands, what some of us find is that some of them want to defer to us. I think she is correct in saying that wives who want to submit to our own husbands can be both liberated and blessed by doing so.

Some Christians have made a really terrible mistake by interpreting the idea of wifely submission to suggest that wives are still obliged to submit when what their husbands want to do is evil—beating the wives, for instance, or sexually abusing a child. The Bible says no such thing. In fact, when what the husbands want to do is merely stupid, the Bible suggests that wives may be blessed for ignoring or cancelling the husband's bad decisions. In I Samuel 25, a rich farmer called Nabal (possibly a nickname since it means “fool”) refused to feed the future King David and his future army, who had been protecting Nabal from foreign enemies' raids. Nabal's wife Abigail, being wiser, quietly told the hired men to feed David and his army, begged them to forgive Nabal for being a fool, and prayed that David would remember their family when he became king. Not two weeks later Nabal died, probably of an apoplectic fit, and David married Abigail. This story's inclusion in the Bible clearly tells us that sometimes wives can, should, and must overrule their husbands—if the husbands are fools.

The funny thing is that, most of the time, neither wives nor husbands are fools. They disagree. The usual solution for interpersonal disagreement is interpersonal distance. If you don't like the noise of someone else's radio or the smell of someone else's lunch, get out of the room! Go back when you want to talk to, work with, or be close to the other person enough that you're willing to endure the noise, the smell, or whatever, if those things are still present. Sarah and Abraham did not always pitch their tents within a day's journey from each other. 

But marital love offers us another option. We can choose to “be submissive” and learn to put up with our mates' tastes and habits, telling ourselves that loving this person is a package deal and X is part of the package. Husbands can share in the blessing this approach to marriage brings, but as long as wives accept the idea that “femininity” means “being more relational” and caring more about “the relationship,” then wives are likely to claim more of it.

Non-Christians, of course, have long used the idea of submission to refer to the kind of elaborate erotic games described in Fifty Shades of Grey and practiced in “kinky sex clubs.” All that needs to be said about that sort of silliness, here, is that it's not what Paul was talking about, it's not what Wilson is talking about, and it's not what I'm talking about when I say that my husband and I were blessed with a mutually submissive relationship. Some people are excited by the idea of one of two people stage-managing every move in a private, personal act, and others are excited by the idea of mutuality and free-form tickling and pillow-fighting and so on. “Debates” (or pre-courtship displays) about that sort of thing are private and don't belong on this web site.

So what does submission mean? I've used the idea of putting up with someone else's peculiar tastes in food and music, mainly to get away from the Shades of Grey images. Wilson mentions:

* “asking Daddy” [for permission] “to do everything”
* cooking
* “longing to find a man who will take charge”
* “pampering” the husband: “before he can shift the car into park, his smiling wife rushes out to greet him...dressed as if she'd just stepped out of Vogue. The children are right behind her. One of them carries a cool glass of lemonade. The other has his house slippers. Dad is ushered into the house and taken into the family room where the TV is turned to his favorite show. The children...are not seen for the rest of the night. Husband's dinner is placed on a tray, and the TV adjusted for comfortable viewing. Finally...the wife...leads him to a hot bath, washes his back and then joins him in bed.”
* housecleaning
* spending money, or spending less money
* sex “on demand”
* letting the husband invest money without the wife's consent (a bad investment, it turned out)
* not having a job outside the home, being a full-time housewife (Are there any men in Generation X who would ever allow any wife, even if paraplegic, to think of that as an act of submission?!)
* not reacting with anger when the husband utters a “favorite saying, which he reserved for use only when he really wanted to make her angry” (That's Verbal Self-Defense, but is it an act of submission?)
* letting the husband interrupt and distract when the wife needs to focus on a job
* taking back a husband who has committed adultery
* getting up to bring a cup of tea to a husband who's perfectly well able to get it for himself

Even among people who are on the same page with the concept of “submission” as a relationship style rather than a sex game, there's room for variation...because none of what Wilson describes as her acts of submission sounds like any of mine.

The closest might be the question about the timing of sex. Women have a monthly cycle, and some young men seem to have a daily cycle, between maximal and minimal interest. The definition of a submissive relationship is that the submissive partner is excited by giving pleasure to the other. In a marriage this could work like C.S. Lewis's description of how Christians of different persuasions would act if they were in serious agreement about charity and humility—the ones who hadn't grown up “crossing themselves” doing it so as not to tempt a friend into impiety, and the ones who had grown up making that gesture refraining so as not to tempt a friend into blasphemy. Those humble Christians would be practicing submissiveness in the context of fellowship in church. In a mutually submissive marriage a couple can apply the same concept to sex, and I can say that both of those people know they've been well and truly blessed.

[Flag for the clarifying paragraph:] Wilson defines wifely submission as not actually meaning any of those specific acts of submission, but as, in a broader sense, requiring the husband to take full responsibility for the physical and spiritual well-being of the couple. I'm not convinced that that's what the Bible actually teaches, because it fails the reality test--many husbands become disabled first. I am persuaded that it's an acceptable interpretation of what Paul or even Peter would have advised contemporary young women whose husbands were in literal fact "the savior of the body," or bodies, of those women and their children: if the husband was providing for the family (even by his work with non-Christians), or if his non-Christian affiliation was protecting the wife from religious persecution, there were good practical reasons to let him be responsible for whatever seemed necessary at the time, and Paul was a very practical apostle. I'm even persuaded that, for today's wives, in times of disagreement, "Very well, do it your way, and don't blame me  afterward" may be a good practical strategy that worked for Wilson...but not that it's the best or only strategy for all couples. In today's reality, it may be a good strategy for husbands too. As C.S. Lewis observed (he was the able-bodied partner who had to watch his wife die of cancer), one of the crowns the Bible awards to husbands is made of paper (erotic fun'n'games) and the other of thorns; having to choose between what you want, and what you know your Life Partner (or even one of the children) really wants, is that crown of thorns, and nobody is likely to be willing to wear it twice.

Wilson adopts the interpretation of Ephesians 5:21-22 that “the word 'submit' does not mean the same thing in both cases...In verse 21 the word hupodeiknumi means 'to exhibit'...In verse 22 the word hupotasso means 'to place in an orderly fashion under.” This is true, but not necessarily relevant, because the epistle to the Ephesians is at least as much about contemporary evangelical strategy as it is about how all people should always behave.

Wilson would have done better to explain that the “I submitted/deferred to you on decision A, so you should now submit/defer to me on decision B” model is just not what submission is about. Again, couples have to work out for themselves exactly what their mutual submission should look like, but as long as you're thinking “I want to get my way about this” you are not practicing submission. (In some cases you may not need to be.) Mutual submission is more like “The Gift of the Magi.” Each party is thinking “I want a gift for X more than I want this treasured possession of mine; I want to please X more than I want to please myself.”

Baby-boomer feminists may find themselves liberated to be submissive through liberation, actually. I know my own mental path to submissiveness led through a lot of “Left to myself I'd do/buy/eat/read/listen to A...oh blah, I've done that...I'd really rather be with my Life Partner, sharing B with him, instead of being alone with my A.” That, I believe, was mutual.

Then there was the great marital-quarrel-killer premise, “I earn my money and my Life Partner earns his money, and even though he's now earning enough that we can afford to share an 'our house' located in between 'my house' and 'his house,' where he pays all the bills but each of us continues buying our own groceries and cooking them together, we trust each other to handle our own money.” When we met I was comfortable, and he was bankrupt but talented and hardworking. Over the next ten years...both of us were frugal. My rule was to save, spend, and give approximately equal amounts of money. I never asked what his rule was, never insulted him with a question about his bankruptcy. I knew he'd made some bad investments, like his ex-wife, and some good ones, like IBM. When he sponsored a politician in his State I knew he felt that he was back on his feet financially. I knew, also, that we were living like comfortable students by most Washingtonians' standards, living in obscene wealth by global standards, able to afford to do what we chose to pay for what we wanted and support what we wanted to support. Only when my husband was dying did I realize that he'd set up seven bank accounts, one for each heir, and the one for his adoptive son had gone into six figures. I knew we were rich; I'd never imagined that we'd become what most Americans would call rich.

We had exactly one real quarrel, one summer. It fell into the in-law category. How much of that summer would we spend in Maryland, where his ex-wife was neglecting his ex-foster-daughter, and how much in Virginia, where my sister was neglecting our father? Both of us really wanted to be able to defer to the other, if the other could think of a good answer to the problem. There were no good answers. Both of our disabled relatives died, not that summer but in the next few years, and it was a long hard time. Mutual submission doesn't make that kind of thing easy or pleasant but it did keep us from nagging each other about it for the rest of our lives.

I seriously believe that, whether they call it that or something else, any couple who stay together very long have to be practicing mutual submission to some extent. This submission can have asymmetrical qualities—the “traditional” tradeoff where the sole breadwinner became a bit of a visiting landlord in his home, or newer-model tradeoffs where the vulnerable, clingy partner is allowed to act overtly dominant because the more confident partner senses her/his fears, or whatever—but it's unlikely to last long if it's not mutual.

I think, if you have to choose, Marabel Morgan did a better job explaining wifely submission than Wilson does. For some readers Morgan used too many specific examples that related to her own unique relationship with her own unique husband, but at least she presented wifely submission as erotic and romantic fun, rather than leaning heavily on the “Eve sinned and therefore all women are condemned to subordinate positions in life” misinterpretation of the Bible, as Wilson does. All baby-boomers grew up with the “Eve sinned” routine. Those of us who weren't totally turned off the Bible by it noticed that, according to the NT, Adam's sin was considered greater than Eve's. In view of that, any argument that begins with “Eve sinned” is likely to be rejected by serious Bible scholars, or even Bible Mavens.

At the same time, I salute Wilson for having the courage to write about this controversial topic at all.

There is no question that the whole idea of male dominance, worldwide, is based on the fact that men are usually stronger than women at the time of marriage. Men who have thought about this idea have voluntarily rejected it; when you're in love, even if you want your own way, you don't want to get your own way by being able to force or threaten the one you love to go along with you. The Bible encourages young men to rejoice in their youth and strength--and one way they've traditionally rejoiced in those things has been the idea of chivalry.

I propose, however, that the idea of female submission, worldwide, may be more relevant to the fact that women are, more often than not, stronger than men as a couple grow older. (I had a particularly small great-grand-aunt, whose lifespan didn't overlap with mine for very long, who was remembered for telling everyone she'd found a big strong man who could help and protect her. What made this memorable was that, five years later, he'd become a paraplegic, and she had to help and protect him, physically, for the next thirty years. And she did.) Women, too, need to cultivate chivalry.

I don't think it ever has done or will do a young woman any harm to think through the following mental exercise: Picture the young athletic hero of your choice...with both legs broken at once. Right, simple fractures of only one bone in each leg, and he's still young; he won't be disabled and burdensome for very long. But he is those things now. And then while having the casts put on he picks up some boring little infection in the hospital. It responds well to a new antibiotic. There's nothing at all to worry about except that the antibiotic happens to produce acute unpredictable food intolerance reactions, similar to morning sickness only perhaps a bit messier. It would be an awfully lucky couple who stayed together thirty years, or even ten years, without something like this happening. And here I stand to testify that if a woman has accepted, early on, that some day she may need to practice the most abject kind of self-abnegation, then the life passages that are too disgusting for this web site to mention will be much easier. 

Not that it hurts anything for a man to accept that too; not that my husband hadn't had his turn to think of carrying mops and basins as an act of love. But I spent one day in bed with listeria, and he spent six months in bed with cancer...and even when women rack up points for burdensomeness by having babies, that's probably close to a typical ratio. Most bridegrooms are bigger and stronger than their brides, and most old couples have seen for themselves that "the bigger they come, the harder they fall." 



So no matter how much gender parity we may succeed in building into society-as-a-whole--and I say the more the better--I still think it's a good idea for women to think seriously about this idea of wifely submission. Or, if you're not prepared to put your life and thought on hold and wait on him hand and foot when he really needs to be waited on, maybe sleeping alone and being the last in your crowd to get married have more to recommend them than you might have thought they had.

I go into this because I'm following e-friends on Twitter and Google + who are going through that "healthy care giver" stage of life, at the time of writing, and that stage of life stinks. And most women who choose a life partner either become healthy care givers, or become horrible deserters-of-sick-partners. And, like living to grow old, being the healthy care giver is preferable to the only real alternative. 

Be liberated, young woman reader. Be a feminist, or a "post-feminist." Be an entrepreneur. Be a leader. Be strong. Be smart. Be brave. And within marriage, be submissive enough that when your man says "I need to get up, to use a basin, bedpan, whatever, again," in the middle of the night, you've formed a habit of responding with love. 

Liberated Through Submission is a Fair Trade Book, available on this web site's usual terms: $5 per book, $5 per package (up to five more books of this size will ship in the same package), $1 per online payment, from which we'll send $1 to Wilson or a charity of her choice.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Tim Kaine Likes the Individual Mandate

Yet another reason not to vote for U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA):

"
This week House Republicans passed a tax bill that will hurt middle class families and small businesses. As the Senate considers a similar bill in the coming weeks, here’s where I stand.
I have major issues with proposals in the Republican tax plan. Their plan tilts benefits heavily to the wealthiest few, while estimates indicate millions of middle class families and small businesses will face a tax hike. It would be particularly bad for Virginia by repealing or limiting important provisions to the Commonwealth, such as the state and local tax deduction and the Federal Historic Tax Credit, a program that has brought investment and helped renovate historic buildings in Virginia towns and communities. The bill is also a deficit buster; three former defense secretaries have said that this tax plan jacks up the national debt so much that it would make it harder for the Pentagon to make future investments in our national defense. Lastly, Senate Republicans have decided to include a provision that would repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual insurance mandate, which would cause higher health care premiums for Virginians and an estimated 13 million fewer Americans with insurance.
This isn’t how we should be doing tax reform. I would support a bill that prioritizes middle class Virginians and small businesses, but this plan does the opposite. Republicans should drop this partisan effort and work with Democrats on a bipartisan tax reform bill.
Sincerely,
"

[nice signature graphic that didn't paste: Tim Kaine]

Book Review: A Lady's Proposal

A Fair Trade Book, I Think


Title: A Lady's Proposal

Author: Jeanne Savery

Date: 1998

Publisher: Kensington

ISBN: 0-8217-5992-2

Length: 252 pages

Quote: “Actually, her beauty had been her bane for...something near a decade...ever since age sixteen when Lady Hel's beauty burst forth much as a rose opens overnight.”

Lady Helena Woodhall is an interesting fictional confection: a child of the 1990s living in a rather flimsy mock-up of the 1790s. She likes Simon, Earl of Sanger, and he likes her, but she has more money than he has...and in their version of Regency England, that money is hers, not assigned to a male “guardian” until it's automatically transferred to her husband upon her marriage. Lady Hel also climbs walls and crawls through tunnels, completely unimpeded by the flimsy gowns and drapey shawls that looked so “elegant” and “romantic” because they positively shrieked “Wearer does not do any work, or even go outdoors.” She doesn't believe in any of the superstitions that dominated her era, and she can take a bullet, as the contemporary expression was, “like a man.”

She is in danger, and hopes to obtain protection from marriage, but obviously nobody has ever succeeded in persuading Lady Hel that men don't feel a need to protect a woman who they suspect can kill her own snakes. In a proper “Regency romance,” the boy rescues the girl. In this one, Lady Hel does respect the rules enough to faint in Lord Sanger's arms, and technically the murderer dies by misadventure, but we all know Lady Hel kills her own snakes. Sanger marries her anyway.

You knew, of course, that they'd be married, because this is a Romance. You knew that their courtship would be cute and comedic (Lady Hel is not a sweet heroine) rather than earthy and physical, because it's a Regency Romance. No rule of the genre would keep the identity and motives of Lady Hel's enemy a matter of suspense, but Lady Hel knows the answer to those questions, and so do readers.

The best thing to be said for Regency Romances is that they convince us that characters are “in love” without dragging us through the details of every smooch. The turn of the nineteenth century was a period when the English admired wittiness, and although in practice most of them preferred women who smiled at men's wisecracks rather than wisecracking in their own right, even a real Regency Romance (the genre, of course, being inspired by Jane Austen) requires couples to flirt wittily rather than flop into bed.

Historically this novel is about as credible as that 1978 nightgown (the drape of brushed acetate tricot, not linen gauze) and 1998 makeup job Lady Hel is modelling on the front cover. Still, she's pretty; the story's pretty. Does a contemporary story that gives pleasure need to be historically sound? Say it takes place in an alternate universe, somewhere on the Lost Planet of Nice, and enjoy it in peace.


Jeanne Savery appears to be alive, though not active in cyberspace, so this is A Fair Trade Book. If you buy it here, $5 per book, $5 per package, $1 per online payment, for a total of $10 or $11, we'll send $1 to Savery or a charity of her choice. At least seven more books of this size will fit into a package along with this one, and, if able to locate living writers and/or identify their charities for all seven, the package would cost $45, of which we'd send $8 to the writer(s) and her/their charity/ies. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review: Age and Guile

A Fair Trade Book


Title: Age and Guile Beat Youth Innocence and a Bad Haircut

Author: P.J. O'Rourke

Date: 1995

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

ISBN: 0-87113-609-0

Length: 341 pages

Quote: “Everyone, rich or poor, needs healthcare to live. And everyone, rich or poor, needs food to live. Therefore, next year, the Clinton administration will introduce legislation mandating federal preparation of everybody's breakfast.”

In this collection of articles P.J. O'Rourke documents, and to some extent explains, the rightward drift in his politics: He started out infatuated with idealistic notions of revolutionary Communism, then noticed what that way of thinking had done for other big, formerly rich countries, such as Russia, and became the classic Republican Party Reptile of our generation. Basically, he admits in some of the later pieces, his politics are informed by an anti-authoritarian temperament. And a little serious study of economics.

Along the way, he shares several non-political thoughts: “Concrete poems” from the 1960s. Stories about hippie adventures in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Car reviews, including one that documents the harm done by open-air spraying of “agricultural pesticides.” Two book reviews, of a book about relationships and a book about etiquette. And, finally, four sports articles—participatory rather than spectator sports, and the one about hunting diverges into recipes, unfortunately not including bear. (I suspect P.J. O'Rourke at least knows people who can make gourmet food out of bears.)


(O'Rourke would undoubtedly say, on reading the paragraph above: “How do you know it was agricultural pesticides? Maria didn't claim to know any such thing...” I know from firsthand experience. Several experiences. I know exactly what he describes the photographer going through, I've gone through it enough times to know that the pollen allergy remedies are useless, and if poison hadn't been sprayed in the vicinity of the magnolia tree I would probably have been better off living in it than sitting inside a poison-sprayed house with the windows down to protect me from pollen. The corporations that market poison sprays don't tell you the sprays cause hayfever and asthma and all kinds of other nasty things, they sponsor all sorts of useless verbiage about how some combination of “triggers” that have never done the patient any harm before has to be causing these symptoms, but over time, if the patient pays attention and gets better, the patient will notice that no combination of “triggers” does him or her as much harm as the poison spray does. If you have melodramatic allergy symptoms or sudden dramatic flare-ups of any number of chronic conditions, check for exposure to “pesticides”--many people notice a correlation every single time. For years, while our feeble (bribed) federal agencies keep drivelling on about all the other possible factors that might blah blah blah EXCEPT THE OTHER FACTORS DO NOT HAVE THAT EFFECT IN THE ABSENCE OF POISON SPRAYS.)


O'Rourke has selected his own autobiography-in-early-published-writing and it's entirely likely that he's selected the early pieces for their juvenile, shallow, hysterical, if-you-can't-be-funny-be-rude qualities, as a way of showing us how far he's come. The funny thing about his poems is that in the 1960s he was able to publish them. Not that he hasn't always written like a guy (in the Dave Barry sense, where “guy” is almost as opposite to “Man” as it is to “Woman”); not that he's ever passed up a joke merely because he knew some readers would hate it. (In some of these articles, he jokes about readers acting out their dislike of his politically incorrect jokes.) Not that he's ever denied being more libertarian than conventionally Republican, politically; he's in favor of legalizing recreational drugs and opening the borders to immigrants who've shown initiative and intelligence, and similar things. Not that he's ever had—or that he shouldn't have had—the benefit of a Drill Sergeant Dad to remind him to save the “Army language” until he's in the Army. Just that he's become much funnier, as well as better informed, with maturity.

What's not to love about this book, if you liked O'Rourke's other books: Less travel. Many find O'Rourke funniest when he's on the road, and although the car magazines did put him on the road to test cars—a Jeep in Wales, a Bugatti in Italy, a Lincoln Town Car in Mexico, a Ford Explorer in Hawaii, and a snowmobile in Michigan during heavier than usual snow—and this book contains another account of a journalistic trip to Mexico, mostly these articles were written in, of, and for Middle America, with minimal descriptions of scenery to help a maximum number of readers imagine that wherever O'Rourke was sitting looked just like wherever they were sitting while reading this book. Not that that prevents me from laughing out loud, frequently, each time I've reread the book every few years since I bought my own copy, but if the travel stories are your favorites then this will not be your favorite O'Rourke book.


But even if it's only your seventh or eighth favorite O'Rourke book, it's still definitely too funny to be a good present for anyone recovering from a broken rib. The first person I knew to have bought a copy of Age and Guile warned me, “Try to discipline yourself to read only one or two articles a day.” Good advice, although you probably need to be at the point where you can keep using the same glasses for another year, if you just reduce your reading time, in order to follow it. 

(Since I inserted a rant above, I should probably not go into one about how readers should be blessed with more friends like me who, when we see a funny book at a friend's house, will skim through bits of half a dozen articles and rush out and buy their own copy, rather than "borrow" the friend's book for longer than they'd need even if they were meticulously reading one chapter a day.)

Age and Guile is A Fair Trade Book. Buy it here for $5 per book, $5 per package, plus $1 per online payment, and O'Rourke or a charity of his choice gets $1. You could add O'Rourke's other books of similar size and vintage, Give War a Chance, All the Trouble in the World, and Parliament, to the package for a total of $25 (or $26), in which case O'Rourke or his charity would get $4.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Review: We Were the Mulvaneys

A Fair Trade Book


Title: We Were the Mulvaneys

Author: Joyce Carol Oates

Date: 1996

Publisher: Penguin

ISBN: 0-525-94223-8

Length: 454 pages

Quote: “We were the Mulvaneys, remember us? You may have thought our family was larger...but in fact there were only six of us.”

Judson Andrew Mulvaney—Judd for short—was the youngest of the six Mulvaneys in his nuclear-family-of-origin. He grew up in a family that was falling apart for reasons he was too young to understand, and the fictive premise of this novel is that he sets out to document and thus understand what went wrong with his parents, brothers, and sister...first with the sister, worse with the father and brothers.

They were a successful, happy, Irish-American Protestant farm family, parents doing well in business, kids doing well in school, pillars of a church, members of a country club they derided but found useful. They loved one another. The three teenagers were starting to date, and were quite popular, none of them yet “in love.” Sister Marianne, though only in grade eleven, was tiara'ed as one of the attendants to the official campus queen, an honor usually reserved for grade twelve. (Brother Patrick, in grade twelve, is less popular but more brilliant. For him, scholarships. Brother Mike, the fullback, bequeathed some of his popularity to them when he went off to college; everyone knew he would go far.)

What went wrong was a date rape, and Marianne's Nice Girl qualms about calling it rape in court, and Mike's, Patrick's, and their father's failure to act as a team and carry out a strategy to punish the lousy creep who goes on to ruin some other classmates' lives. Yes, despite the male point of view, this is an intensely feminist book. Sexual violence affects victims and their families in different ways; for some families, like the Mulvaneys, it actually ruins the men's lives more than the victims'.

All Marianne really wants to do is finish being a happy little Nice Girl at home, and, since her home is falling apart, that's the one thing she'll never get to do. (She will, and I'm grateful to Oates for sparing us the first-person scenes involved, eventually be able to choose the sort of marriage-and-motherhood life for which girls like Marianne were so happily preparing when they were cheerful, contented daughters at home.) Having her around depresses her father, so her mother packs her off to live with a distant cousin, then go to college, then drop out and hit some sort of emotional bottom that even Judd will never know about.

After that Mike joins the Marines, manages to have a successful peacetime military career, and has a reasonably normal life without staying in touch with his parents or siblings. Mr. Mulvaney and Patrick know that they ought to get some sort of justice for Marianne, but they don't sit down and strategize; each one separately ruins his life in his own way, and of course, along the way, they make Mrs. Mulvaney and little Judd fairly miserable too.

I think the purpose of this book was to help some readers achieve some kind of catharsis, but I have to admit that reading it made me feel angry. First of all, Marianne was too dang nice for her own good, and should not have been allowed to go out with boys until she'd learned how to say “no” in ways even a drunken fool can understand. Then her menfolks...

Well. In my home town, when I was growing up, the story was told of some very old men that their long-dead sister had become a single mother and could not marry the father of the baby (because he was already married). The girl had three man-sized brothers, two older than she was, one younger. The brothers weren't especially big but they were strong. They went out to explain things to the man, even though his adulterous act had not apparently been violent. Nobody claimed to know how much of the explanation was accomplished by words, fists, or boots. Only the brothers really knew that, and they weren't telling. What was known was that the father of the baby got himself into a local mental hospital as a suicidal alcoholic, and spent the rest of his life there; and, in those days before welfare, the brothers paid for the care of the baby, and, having a sense of justice, of a pre-school-aged uncle on the father's side the baby happened to have. And their sisters, daughters, and granddaughters were respected by men.

Oates has presented the Mulvaneys as that kind of men, with that kind of instincts...so what's wrong with the lot of them? Southern readers might be forgiven for saying, “Well, they're Northerners,” but the news media show us Southern men reacting to evildoers in their midst as feebly as the Mulvaney men do.

Marianne finds an inadequate solution for herself. Though brought up Protestant, she starts going to a Catholic church, trying to “offer up” and spiritualize her suffering. This is about as effective a short-term coping strategy for Marianne's emotions as going to a psychiatrist and taking tranquilizers might be. The emotions continue to “process” through Marianne's body and mind, for years rather than weeks, while she merely copes with her own feelings, and meanwhile the facts are that the boy who got away with raping her goes on to rape their other little school friends. Marianne obsesses with her own guilt feelings—she said no to the actual rape but she had been drinking and flirting with someone else's date, at the party—and, by choosing the most “spiritual, unselfish” way of dealing with those feelings, she deals with the rape in an altogether selfish way that offers no benefit to others. That might be some part of her menfolks' problem...that whole idea of ignoring the facts, denying responsibility for the community (“Some branch of the government should take care of these things”), and obsessing with one's own individual emotions (“You are the part of the situation you can control”). Is Psychology—clinical psychology treated not as a way to help sick patients become responsible adults, but as a way to enable responsible adults to behave like sick patients—what ruins the Mulvaneys?

The Mulvaneys started out as a Christian family, although the way they relate to their faith certainly changes, if they keep their faith at all, through the course of the novel. Do they go to one of those churches that exaggerate and misconstrue the distinction between Christ's forgiveness and God's justice, and end up preaching passivism? Do they blame themselves for not having nice, happy emotional feelings about the rapist in their community, consciously, while an inherent human instinct is telling them that they deserve blame for letting a rapist live in their community? If this story had been told as true, I'd be inclined to suspect that this heretical passivist perversion of Christianity is what's wrong with the Mulvaneys. Christianity is not a socially dysfunctional religion, but passivism preached in the name of Christianity is one.

If this story had been told as true I'd wonder to what extent it identifies the use of alcohol as what's wrong with the Mulvaneys. The same pattern of alcohol intolerance is found in almost equal majorities of the Irish and Native American populations. Both in Ireland and in North America, alcohol was deliberately used to put the leaders of indigenous communities at a disadvantage during negotiations. For the fictional Mulvaneys as for most Native American families and—although many deny it—for most Irish families, health equals sobriety. A healthy Mulvaney might drink a thimbleful of wine at Communion, no more. When any Mulvaney drinks more alcohol than that, major difficulties ensue.

Whatever might have saved them, this novel vividly depicts how a happy family becomes a scattered, dysfunctional family by allowing a rapist to continue in his evil ways. As the blurb on the back cover promises, Oates does show the Mulvaneys “reunit[ed] in the spirit of love and healing”--not really through a “miracle” so much as through Mr. Mulvaney's premature death, but the blurb writer can be forgiven for thinking Oates intended to create a fictional “miracle,” because she doesn't show us the healing process. We leap from the year Mr. Mulvaney dies to the year the four siblings finally meet at their mother's house and talk to each other. If Oates tried to write about what gets them from the former point to the latter point—talking with Judd?--whatever she wrote about that has been cut from the final story.

That's what's not to love about We Were the Mulvaneys, in the end. (Surely readers can forgive a novel for raising their blood pressure—although hypertensive people should avoid this one, because it'll keep your blood pressure up most of the way through the story, and it's a long story.) Oates is a very good writer; at times readers may want to hurry her through the process of bringing the early 1970s to life, but she does that well. We're persuaded through her skill that we're reading the story of a real family, or families, that might have become dysfunctional for different reasons than some family we know, but might be recovering its functionality in some way that might work for that family we know. We want to know just what that way of recovering might be. And that we're not told.


But of course, if the real family Oates had in mind were her own, she'd have no right to write about the real healing process even as she might have imagined it working in connection with a fictional crisis; if the real families she had in mind were not her own, she'd have no source of accurate inside information. I still think the lack of equally clear insight into the solution, after so much insight into the problem, is a major shortcoming of this novel, but I don't see a way Oates can be blamed for it.

Any book endorsed by Oprah Winfrey will sell enough copies to keep prices low for a good long time, but this is still A Fair Trade Book. Buy it here, rather than from other web sites that might offer lower prices, and of the $5 per book plus $5 per package plus $1 per online payment this web site will send $1 to Oates or a charity of her choice. At least two books of this size will fit into the package. Oates has written dozens, some as long as this one, some child-sized, and the way Fair Trade Books works is that if you buy two of her books together, you pay $15 (or $16 electronically) and Oates or her charity gets $2.