Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community : After the Wreck [1st ed.] 9783030554651, 9783030554668

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Table of contents :
Front Matter ....Pages i-x
Contemporary Historical Fiction: Exceptionalism and Community After the Wreck (Susan Strehle)....Pages 1-24
Historical Fiction and Wreckage: Hilary Mantel and Amitav Ghosh (Susan Strehle)....Pages 25-46
Slavery and the Maroon Community: Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger (Susan Strehle)....Pages 47-75
War and Communities of Suffering: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Susan Strehle)....Pages 77-102
Racism and Communities Beyond Race: Toni Morrison, Home and God Help the Child (Susan Strehle)....Pages 103-131
Indian Schools and Kinship Communities: Louise Erdrich, LaRose (Susan Strehle)....Pages 133-161
Disavowed Others and Ghostly Communities: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (Susan Strehle)....Pages 163-188
Global Fictions of Wreckage and Unsheltered Communities (Susan Strehle)....Pages 189-199
Back Matter ....Pages 201-205
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Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community : After the Wreck [1st ed.]
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Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community After the Wreck Susan Strehle

Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community

Susan Strehle

Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community After the Wreck

Susan Strehle Binghamton University Binghamton, NY, USA

ISBN 978-3-030-55465-1    ISBN 978-3-030-55466-8 (eBook) © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: Peter Barritt / Alamy Stock Photo This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland

This book is for Richard E. Lee Jr. and for the Spanos family: In memory of William V. Spanos For Adam V. Spanos and Shohreh Farzan For Soren V. Spanos


I am grateful to Binghamton University, and particularly to Provost Donald G. Nieman, for a research leave that enabled the completion of a first draft of this book. Donald E. Pease invited me to present a section at the Dartmouth Futures of American Studies Institute, where I received valuable feedback on the project. The manuscript has been improved by astute and gracious readers, including the anonymous reader for the press whose comments were especially helpful. Vigorous conversations with graduate students moved the project forward. Dialogue with and insightful readings by many of the people to whom the book is dedicated shaped its claims and its commitments.



1 Contemporary Historical Fiction: Exceptionalism and Community After the Wreck  1 Exceptionalism   6 Community  12 Inclusions, Choices, Methods  18 References  22 2 Historical Fiction and Wreckage: Hilary Mantel and Amitav Ghosh 25 Theorizing Historical Fiction  27 Critical Approaches to Contemporary Historical Fiction  32 Recovery and Wreckage: Hilary Mantel and Amitav Ghosh  36 References  45 3 Slavery and the Maroon Community: Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger 47 A History of Research  53 Exceptional Systems and the Excepted Maroon Community  56 Form: Situated Omniscience  66 References  73 4 War and Communities of Suffering: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North 77 Australia in the Pacific War  81 ix



Exceptional States and Communities of the Doomed  85 At War with Narrative Form  94 References 101 5 Racism and Communities Beyond Race: Toni Morrison, Home and God Help the Child103 Morrison and Histories of Racism in America 107 Exceptionalism and Community in Home and God Help the Child 114 Inclusive Forms and Communities of Story 123 References 129 6 Indian Schools and Kinship Communities: Louise Erdrich, LaRose133 Histories of Lost Children 138 The Kinship Community 146 Kinship and Form 151 References 159 7 Disavowed Others and Ghostly Communities: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo163 Histories of Civil War 167 Exceptional Citizens in a Communal Bardo 172 Form: Genres, Fragments, and Permeable Borders 182 References 187 8 Global Fictions of Wreckage and Unsheltered Communities189 References 199 Index201


Contemporary Historical Fiction: Exceptionalism and Community After the Wreck

Late in his distinguished career, J. M. W. Turner painted the aftermath of an invisible tragedy. The watercolor of 1841 was named Dawn After the Wreck by John Ruskin, the Victorian critic and champion of Turner’s work; the work is also known as “The Baying Hound.” In the painting, sea and sky are lit with gold. A late crescent moon hangs in the sky and leaves a trail of white light across the sea and the wet beach. A bank of clouds at the upper right glows red, while the horizon at the left shows a mild pink. Deep aquamarine to frothy white, the sea breaks on the shore, but the waves are moderate, even tame. The seascape is peaceful, the dawn sky fair and glowing with early light. The wreck is invisible, except to the small figure of a scrawny hound in the foreground: tail down, head lifted to the sky, mouth open, the hound recalls, mourns, protests, and cries out to an empty landscape about what is past and absent. The canvas contrasts the lovely dawn morning on the beach and the hound’s isolated grief, a visible serenity and an implied catastrophe. Turner’s even more widely known oil painting, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon Coming On), similarly depicts mostly sea and sky, with the tragic narrative articulated by small signs in the foreground amid choppy waves: raised and imploring human hands, chains that bound slaves jettisoned by the ship. But Slave Ship, exhibited in 1840, referred to widely known stories of the jettison of living slaves, most famously in the Zong massacre,1 and it represents both sea and sky in shades of infernal fire and darkness. Dawn After the Wreck keeps enigmatic silence about the © The Author(s) 2020 S. Strehle, Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community,




catastrophe mourned by the hound and focuses instead on the aftermath of historical tragedy (shipwreck, murder, cruelty, immitigable loss) as it haunts and grieves survivors in the midst of seeming peace. “After the Wreck” speaks in several ways to and for the contemporary historical fiction explored in this book. Writers of a powerful group of historical novels written in the last quarter century represent moments of human wreckage generated by state and imperial exceptionalism: the invocation of an idealized national community that excludes its Others and legitimates violence against them. The novels represent sanctioned violations of human rights and widespread disavowals of the actions and implications of state violence. Referencing the Zong massacre, for example, living slaves are thrown overboard to drown in Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger because they are defined as insured cargo, objects with mercantile value, rather than members of a human community. In choosing to write about these moments, authors of recent historical novels take political positions from which they observe flagrant injustice in nationally sanctioned violations of human rights; they write from outrage as well as grief. They stand with the dog in Turner’s picture, giving voice to pain and anger as they narrate human, political, cosmic wrongs. The skies are bright with promise in the painting, however, and no observers gather to mourn what has disappeared; dog and author provide a witness to wake the unaware and the complacent. The dog’s solitariness is part of the pathos and loss; he mourns one or more companions, probably human, but he grieves alone. Where is the human community that should be gathered on the beach? Among the losses in historical moments of triumphant exceptionalism, the loss of kinship and collectivity with others ranks high; the dog alone howls, and the dog howls alone. Historical fiction thrives at present, spurred by the drive to understand the moment and its roots. Among recent literary historical fictions, the kind I explore in this book represents histories “after the wreck”: histories of catastrophe, represented in vivid detail in order to mourn, commemorate, and warn. These novels chronicle civil wars, slavery, genocide, and oppression, violations of human rights and decimations of suffering people; they narrate not to explain and reassure that these events are safely past, but instead to trace the logic of their emergence and deadly progression. They expose the costs of such events and endeavors, to be sure; but their deeper and more compelling interest is in exploring the causes for the wreckage. As novels, they wonder first what sort of characters lead or engage in vast destructions of other peoples and how these characters



understand their own motivations. Because the events are large, emerging from social units and grounded in political decisions, they wonder too what social and political attitudes legitimate destructive policies and actions and how personal motives intersect with political decisions. As a group, these contemporary historical novels imply that an understanding of the most damaging events in the past can illuminate our collective present—indeed, that we have an obligation to consider the wreckage of the past. This book analyzes an important type of fiction that locates the origins of historical wreckage in state exceptionalism, or the claim of an exalted national identity. Exceptionalism evolves as an advanced form of nationalism which, as Edward W. Said writes, begins in “an assertion of belonging in and to a place, a people, a heritage”; what he calls “Triumphant” nationalisms selectively re-write history as “quasi-religious texts” that “consign truth exclusively to themselves and relegate falsehood and inferiority to outsiders” (2000, p.  176). Triumphant nationalism becomes exceptionalism, though Said does not use the term, when it turns a claim of belonging into an exclusionary principle and a narrative of national coherence into a claim of destined supremacy and global power. In Said’s view, all nationalisms progress toward this triumphalist phase. While American exceptionalism has been analyzed more than others, exceptionalism appears in the self-representation, immigration policies, and treatment of indigenous and minority peoples of most nation-states today. I argue that exceptionalist nationalisms also produce the very exile that Said addresses in his essay, “Reflections on Exile,” through their narrowing definitions of who belongs and who is relegated to the “immense aggregates of humanity” that “loiter as refugees and displaced persons” (2000, p. 177). Exceptionalist nationalism constitutes a claim of community, indeed of exclusive community, in a nation-state distinguished by its ideals, its power, and the divine or historic favor it claims to enjoy as evidenced in its prosperity. In practice, however, the exceptionalist state isolates citizens in private forms of estrangement and exile. Far from abstract and passive entities, states act to enlist and interpellate citizens into their own constructed versions of an exceptional citizenry, a single unified homogeneous people who are bound to each other by shared understandings and values. The state then acts to discipline and police citizens into accord with their own governing logic, especially in relation to questions of belonging. The state relies on borders, distinctions, and exclusions: finding Others in its midst



who have no place in the community of shared values, it denies their equality, rejects their right to belong, and disavows the violence with which they are placed outside. Since no citizen has fully incorporated the ideals of the original, mythic, and obedient citizenry, none can fully belong: the exceptional citizen is both righteous and wealthy, physically able, of a majority ethnicity and religion, in a respected profession and, of course, male. But many citizens fall short of these standards, and as a result they live a double life, not fully at home, always aware of impending discovery and fighting off the ravages of exile. The exceptionalist state thus rests on a perceptible contradiction, promising a communal belonging for which members yearn and providing only a thin simulacrum, limited to insubstantial gatherings of the same. It evokes the rich rewards of a diverse and inclusive community, one enabling meaningful dialogue and interaction, grounded in mutual respect and obligation, but it extinguishes the very possibility for such communities when it restricts belonging to a privileged few. What in the contemporary moment would cause groups of novelists to write historical novels about exceptionalism and its damaging impacts on human community? When Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “On or about December, 1910, human character changed,”2 she was preparing support for an argument that because literature reflects contemporary culture, modern writers like Joyce and Eliot needed to change their tools and forms to reflect an altered character and world. Making the same connection in reverse, I argue that the changed forms of historical fiction, now focused on varieties of arrogant nationalism and the damaging exile of the nation’s Others, have arisen in response to real-world changes. The most powerful visual sign of the change, described by Said, appears near the end of Culture and Imperialism (1993): “For surely it is one of the unhappiest characteristics of the age to have produced more refugees, migrants, displaced persons, and exiles than ever before in history” (332). Indeed, the numbers of homeless exiles today have increased in ways Said could scarcely have imagined a quarter century ago, as the postcolonial conflicts he studied yielded to world-scale populist nationalisms making claims to exceptional rights for imaginary national peoples; these continue to produce war, dispossession, exile, and domestic exclusion of uncounted Others. Without the level of precision in Woolf’s “December 1910,” we can say that in the last few decades, many historical fictions have responded to a changing world landscape, to increasing national exceptionalisms, ongoing wars and internal conflicts, and massive displacements of peoples.



Contemporary historical fictions of the kind analyzed in this book represent historical wreckage. In response to the longing for more vital forms of social belonging, contemporary historical novels also represent extraordinary alternative counter-communities that form in resistance to exceptionalist pressures. The five fictions analyzed in this book imagine transformative communities of peoples whose differences cross race, gender, nationality, religion, age, education, ability, and political views. They often exist in the hinterlands rather than urban centers, as if to remain invisible to the state. Indeed, the five novels selected for analysis represent remarkable communities: in Unsworth’s novel, African slaves and British slave ship crew live together in an egalitarian and polyandrous social body governed by group consensus. Flanagan depicts socially and racially diverse Australian prisoners of war working together under extreme conditions to help each other survive. Morrison’s last two novels portray American communities that welcome and help those who have been rejected as Others. Erdrich represents Native communal groups that enable healing and growth after traumas both long-term, like the Indian schools, and immediate, like the accidental death of a child. Saunders imagines a community of ghosts, transforming their limited world to larger dimensions when they receive Others, experience empathy, and work together to accomplish change. These inclusive fictional collectives energize recent historical novels, suggesting the need for new models of social connection. To map the complex territory explored in contemporary historical fiction, I begin by showing that exceptionalism supplies assumptions that not only enable and justify forms of social wreckage, but indeed sanctify the wreckage and cloak it in invisibility through habits of disavowal. This section of the introduction draws on the work of New Americanist scholars to develop the meanings, operations, and implications of exceptionalism, especially its exclusion of Others from the promised state community. A second section develops the potential meanings of community envisioned in contemporary historical fictions. I invoke here the work of a range of thinkers who define ethical and inclusive models of community that bind members through obligation and duty to the group. Replacing a vision of the exceptional state as an ahistorical polity of the same, united by private ownership and individual rights, recent historical novels imagine diverse communities of acceptance, obligation, kinship, and service. Chapter 2 places contemporary historical fiction in the genre’s history, arguing that while all historical fiction reflects on a shared public



commons—the city, society, or nation—fictions of wreckage emerge when writers perceive the commons under threat. To return, then, to my ekphrastic invocation of Turner, exceptionalism both constitutes and creates the invisible wreckage that troubles isolated but seemingly tranquil lives in modern nation-states, leaving debris perceptible to some citizens living in the compulsory shadow of disavowal. Contemporary novelists who write historical fiction of wreckage emulate the baying hound, expressing grief and anger over exceptionalism’s historical and ongoing damages. Their fiction calls a company of witnesses to mourn, protest, and collaborate, while it depicts the power of community to change lives and counter loss. It represents dramatic moments when historically invisible characters collaborate to create communal bonds, mutual responsibility, and more humane histories than those we inherit. This type of historical fiction exposes wreckage that has been made invisible; it also sketches the outlines of better communities emerging after the wreck.

Exceptionalism Exceptionalism characterizes and serves nation-states and empires everywhere; it enabled the global slave trade, justified the seizure of lands from indigenous people all over the earth, and continues to demand the sacrifice of lives in war. Though it has been defined and interpreted most prominently in relation to the U.S.A., exceptionalism characterizes most nation-states. As a result, one prominent type of contemporary historical novel exposes national and imperial exceptionalisms, criticizing their abrogation of human rights and their destruction of the communal in favor of hierarchical, individual, and exclusive forms of identity and citizenship. No “after” has yet followed the wreckage of exceptionalism, which thrives today in states that close their borders to desperate migrants seen as threatening to monocultural purity, an illusion these states defend at the expense of subjugated Others within their borders. Exceptionalism entered the critical lexicon in relation to American culture, in part because of longstanding proclamations of American exceptionalism made by U.S. politicians, historians, and public figures, and more importantly because published work by a group of New Americanists analyzes its damaging and divisive logic. Far from a single school, New Americanists work in complementary ways to analyze the ways exceptionalism operates in literature and culture in the U.S.  An inclusive group,



many loosely affiliated with the “Futures of American Studies Institute” founded and organized by Donald E. Pease at Dartmouth and a publication series edited by Pease from Duke University Press, scholars who have done New Americanist work include Anthony Bogues, Russ Castronovo, Eric Cheyfitz, Winfried Fluck, Amy Kaplan, Eric Lott, John Carlos Rowe, William V.  Spanos, and Robyn Wiegman, among many others, in the U.S. and beyond; with Fluck, a significant group of New Americanists work in Germany at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. While “old Americanist” studies of literature and culture endorsed America as an exceptional model for other nations, New Americanists opened exceptionalism to critique, exploring U.S. imperialism, violence, racism, failures to abide by domestic and international law, concealment of such practices under the guise of national security, and interpellation of citizens as a homogeneous national community producing consensus in support of existing powers and practices. Theorized most importantly by Pease, the logic of exceptionalism is inherently exclusionary; it relies on divisions that preclude any meaningful community while creating a citizenry united in fantasy and disavowal. In The New American Exceptionalism (2009), Pease interprets the exceptionalist myth of America as a “fantasy” that unifies adherents by supplying them “with the psychosocial structures that permitted them to ignore the state’s exceptions”; “structures of disavowal” enable the state to make exceptions to its own laws and principles by sustaining “the attitude through which U.S. citizens willfully misrepresented their history as well as their place in the world” (12). Adapting Georgio Agamben’s notion of the state of exception, enabling a nation to justify suspending its laws in the name of security, Pease argues that citizens’ fantasy participation in the mythic moral stance of the nation leads them to ignore corruption and violence when the state makes exceptions to the rule of law—as it has done in “Indian massacres, the death worlds of the slave plantations, the lynchings and ethnic cleansing of migrant populations” (38). This widely subscribed fantasy enables citizens to “experience what was exceptional about their U.S. national identity as the disavowal of U.S. imperialism at home and abroad” (21). “Citizens” appears more broadly inclusive than actual practice, however; Pease quickly elaborated on the distinction between citizens who could be interpellated into the national fantasy and the Other inhabitants who would be its disempowered subjects. As his title indicates, Pease reads



America as an imperial state in “American Studies after American Exceptionalism? Toward a Comparative Analysis of Imperial State Exceptionalisms” (2010). Overseas, the U.S. collected territories; at home, it produced a racialized Other, onto which the discourse projected the contradictions internal to American exceptionalism. […] The American exceptionalism(s) engendered throughout U.S. history gave rise to two heterogeneous but co-constituting figures: the citizen-subject, who was empowered to speak the discourse and participate in the enactment of its rule; and subjugated and racialized Others, who lacked representation within the discourse but who were subjected to its rules. (2010a, 67)

The state continued to re-categorize forms of non-belonging and to design “exceptional spaces” like Indian reservations, protectorates, and detainee centers for these subjected Others (2010a, 68). With the concept of “Imperial State Exceptionalisms” in his title, Pease broadens the frame to suggest that the tactics for exclusion characteristic of American exceptionalism are not unique but common to all imperial states; the U.S. maintains these exceptions “so as to obtain an advantage in the competition with other imperial state formations” (2010a, 70). The tactics clearly create a sham-community of those who “belong” in fantasy but witness multiple grounds for exclusion of a shifting and growing group of Others. In another essay published in 2010, “The Crisis of Critique in Postcolonial Modernity,” Pease extends his analysis to suggest that the American version originates in European exceptionalism. He writes that the New World colonies served as the “obscene, disavowed underside of European civil society” (2010b, 193). Pease argues that Foucault’s critique of Western humanism “recapitulated the logics of disavowal on which Western humanism was founded” (2010b, 197); implicitly “the bearer of the rights of man,” the subjected citizen of Europe assumed “the state’s power to subject slaves, colonial subalterns, and racialized others” (2010b, 196) who “were defined as civilly dead subjects” (2010b, 197). Part of a complex argument in favor of C. L. R. James’s view of the Haitian Revolution as a radical break in world history, standing for “an account of human freedom” outside “the coloniality intrinsic to the Enlightenment model of liberation” (2010b, 205), Pease’s essay establishes earlier, broader, and more foundational forms of imperial exceptionalism. Grounded in exceptions basic to the European Enlightenment and global



modernity, exceptionalism characterizes the modern imperial state whose citizens mimic community through fantasy participation in practices of exclusion and oppression; that is to say, the state enlists them in abjuring community with Others and rigidly repressing their own Other tendencies. Writers of contemporary historical fiction live in local versions of this state all over the world, and many of them write historical novels about its legacies and practices. Ann Laura Stoler witnesses the global nature of sites of exceptionalism in “Imperial Formations and the Opacities of Rule” (2006); she identifies claims to exceptionalism in all imperial contexts. Imperial formations, she argues, are not identical to nation-states, but instead “supremely mobile polities of dislocation” reliant on “a redistribution of people and resources, relocation and dispersions” (55), full of “Ambiguous zones, partial sovereignty, temporary suspensions of what Hannah Arendt called ‘the right to have rights,’ provisional impositions of states of emergency” (56). Stoler cites Said’s observation that every empire (falsely) claims uniqueness, devotion to democracy, and a reluctance to use force; she adds that U.S. claims to exceptional status dissolve by implication, and that “discourses of exceptionalism are part of the discursive apparatus of empires themselves” (57, her emphasis).3 Just as empires rely on discursive exceptionalism to validate their ability to make exceptions, they also rely on the exceptions they produce in order to operate as imperial states: “imperial states by definition operate as states of exception that vigilantly produce exceptions to their principles and exceptions to their laws” (57). The U.S., Stoler adds, is a “quintessential” empire, “a consummate producer of excepted populations, excepted spaces, and its own exception from international and domestic law” (57). Excepted populations become defined as enemies hidden both without and within the state, while a fearful public relies on “racialized distinctions” that “replay the historical anxieties of who is really ‘us,’ who gets to be called ‘white,’ and who is just ‘passing’” (59). While these exceptions and exclusions define the national community as “exclusive,” they also define it as a non-community; instead, it is a gathering of anxious isolates who fear and avoid Others and relegate them to a marginal and subjected status. Anthony Bogues rethinks the “state of exception” in relation to minority populations and advances the important argument that liberal power has managed to substitute limited notions of political liberty for radical human freedom; in parallel, I argue here that community itself is redefined in the exceptionalist state by what it excludes rather than who it includes.



In Empire of Liberty: Power, Desire, & Freedom (2010), Bogues complicates the state of exception, arguing that within what he calls “sites of exceptions (systems of racial slavery and colonialism), there are no free individuals. Power therefore works through violence both as a first and a last resort” (31). The legal and political compact (from which exceptions can be made) always excluded the slave from the body politic; no “state of exception” changing the rule was invoked, because the Black/slave/ Other was excluded from the white compact regulating the “empire of liberty.” By implication, the “national community” was illusory from the beginning, used as a tool to manage citizens and enlist their participation in defending “liberty” as a substitute for radical freedom (37). Bogues argues that the current goal of power is to subdue subjectivities and reprogram desire so that citizens want the “liberty” they have—and, I would add, the pale imitation of community as well. William V. Spanos emphasizes the violence implicit in state exceptionalisms and the destruction of other cultural communities as a repeated motif in American history and literature. Tracing exceptionalism to the nation’s beginning, Spanos writes that the Puritans brought with them a faith in their own exceptional destiny,4 the loss of which through recidivism and complacency threatens to detach Americans from their foundational commitments. Invoking Bercovitch’s notion of the jeremiad, Spanos argues that America requires a “violent struggle” with a constructed Other, staged at a “perpetual frontier between wilderness and civilization,” to ensure the continual rejuvenation of the New World (2008, 197). Spanos thus understands American national identity defining itself, from the beginning to the present, through the violent oppression of its Others and the destruction of other cultures. America prides itself in the violent destruction of British knighthood in his reading of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (2013). Spanos interprets O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato as a meditation on the “lethal exceptionalist American national identity” that created “mutilated Others” in Vietnam (2008, 185). In his later work, he identifies exceptionalism as the still-hegemonic source and cultural rationale for the War on Terror in the aftermath of 9/11, exposing the “violence that has always haunted the exceptionalist myth” as the U.S. bombed Iraq (2014, 192). For Spanos, violence against Others within the community triggers a corresponding, instant eagerness to wage war against other national communities. While exceptionalism has targeted Others who are identifiable by race, nationality, religion, class, ethnicity, and sexuality, gender can be a target



of and also a participant in exceptionalist discriminations; women have built community and they have defended invidious exclusions. Anne McClintock develops the complex example of women’s dual roles in South Africa: “Black South African women have been justly suspicious of any easy assumption of a universal, essential sisterhood in suffering. White women are both colonized and colonizers, ambiguously complicit in the history of African dispossession” (379). A similar assessment of American women appears in The Anarchy of Empire, by Amy Kaplan; though she does not specify race, she suggests that (white) women serve American empire through “imperial domesticity” (29). In American domestic spaces and practices, Kaplan writes, women may participate in policing “the foreign” within the nation and the home, and thus the “empire of the mother” resembles “the American empire”: both “follow a double compulsion to conquer and domesticate—to control and incorporate—the foreign within the borders of the home and the nation” (34). Both McClintock and Kaplan see complex limitations on white women’s available choices and roles; to this extent women may be colonized. But they also attend closely to the ways white women participate in state exceptionalisms, support the colonization of Others, and turn the home into an imperial zone of exclusion, rather than an engaged community. In contemporary historical fiction, women characters reflect a broad spectrum of attitudes and inheritances, sometimes ambiguously conflicting. In their representations of history, authors of new historical fiction appear to accept what Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls “the ultimate challenge”: “History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous. The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposure of its roots” (xix). Historical fictions like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian make visible, in different ways, the exceptionalist violence of state power and its destruction of individuals and collectives; these fictions probe what Trouillot calls “the differential exercise of power that makes some narratives possible and silences others” (25). Because novels focus on the experiences of characters in social systems, they reflect on concepts like exceptionalism below the surface; but they demonstrate the potency and relevance of exceptionalism in shaping the histories and communities represented in the novels. Some novels recall histories of exceptionalist violence that have been occluded, wielding the novelist’s power to remember events buried by national disavowal. Writing histories of genocide directed against communities defined as Others of the nation,



Edwidge Danticat and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie retrieve past events (the slaughter of Haitians by Dominicans and the massacre of Igbos in Nigeria) that have been omitted from schoolbook histories and erased from public accounts of the nation’s evolution. To expose the roots of power, some novelists invent fictional characters who represent exceptionalist attitudes, controlling the domestic realm in ways that reflect state power and prejudice. Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Smiley invoke patriarchal claims to incarnate the divine righteousness of an exceptionalist state through Nathan Price (The Poisonwood Bible) and Larry Cook (A Thousand Acres); both patriarchs destroy small communities that stand for nations under siege by American exceptionalism.5 Contemporary historical novelists expose the state’s exceptionalist exclusion of its Others from legal rights and protections, using research as Louise Erdrich does to recall historical events like the lynching of Native children or the unprosecuted rape of Native women (The Plague of Doves, The Round House). In their characteristic approach to history as what Trouillot calls the “fruit of power,” some contemporary novels remake historical fiction, foregrounding the exercise of oppressive power, exerted against characters and communities that represent the state’s Others. While the novels detail the exercise of power, they also represent the potential for resistance in alternative communities.

Community State exceptionalism invokes the imagination of a national community, while fictions of national community support political efforts to consolidate centralized power, legitimate violence against the state’s Others, and feed the fantasy of an exceptional state. Benedict Anderson famously calls nations Imagined Communities (1983) that “inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love” (141): “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings” (7).6 In his large-scale historical project, Anderson does not of course read nations as communities; instead, he analyzes the workings of myth and disavowal in the imagination of communities for which people willingly die. He acknowledges the actual “inequality and exploitation” camouflaged by myths of fraternity, and he emphasizes the strategic importance of



nationalist myths to advancing the interests, not of citizens, but of the state itself. Nationalism, he writes, “was from the start a conscious, selfprotective policy, intimately linked to the preservation of imperial-dynastic interests” (159). The nation represents itself as an inclusive (deep and horizontal) community (fraternity) of comrades precisely in order to simulate the kinds of welcoming communities (families, homes, friendships) that deserve loyalty and “self-sacrificing love.” The state exploits these associations with communal values in order to advance its own imperial interests and continuities. The nation-state cannot possibly function as a community, in the analysis of David Theo Goldberg, because of a deeply rooted commitment to homogeneity that guides the logic of state institutions. Making an argument closely allied to those cited earlier by Pease, Stoler, and Bogues, Goldberg writes that modern state formation has been based on “racial differentiation and racist exclusion and exploitation” (73). Occluding or denying the historical migrations that had, by the seventeenth century, created heterogeneous social spaces in Europe, Goldberg claims, “modern states fashioned themselves not as heterogeneous spaces but homogeneous ones, falsely as fact and repressively as value” and then acted systematically to make it so (73–74).7 In his analysis, institutions follow an “inherently homogenizing logic” (81); they exist to institute, operate, and reproduce homogeneity. Since the state is a collection of institutions, Goldberg concludes, “the state inherently is the institutionalization of homogeneity” (81). Cultural and political repression then become “governmental logic”; the state “proceeded on an assumption of population homogeneity, of ethnoracial sameness and of externalizing difference, purporting at least nominally to keep the different out or at bay lest they undo by infecting the rationality of brotherhood” (82). These basic institutional assumptions produce the nation-state’s hostility to migrants and to those whose race, tribe, religion, class, gender, or sexuality does not match the imagined community’s exceptional identity. In the everyday life of the modern nation-state, incidents of exclusion, repression, violence, and persecution burgeon, while the “communities” in whose name these acts are committed grow smaller, more fractured, and more insecure. In Saving the Security State: Exceptional Citizens in Twenty-First-Century America (2017), Inderpal Grewal delivers a scathing indictment of the U.S. neoliberal security state that entails the complete failure of collectivity, at least among white Americans. The nation has produced uneasy “exceptional citizens” who observe the decline of



national power and white sovereignty, Grewal writes. Aware of the contradictions between “imperial state power and deeply unequal individuals, states, and cities,” these citizens perform as “securitized subjects” defending the state: the “security mom” who works to privatize state security within the heteronormative and white middle-class family through parental and community surveillance; the “humanitarian,” often white but including others aspiring to exceptionalism, who makes individual and consumer choices about who should get welfare and who should not in the hope that individual efforts can remedy the depredations of globalization and American racial/colonial histories; the “security feminist” who takes on the work of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency as a project of gendered empowerment to protect the security state; and the “shooter” who embodies the white, male exceptional citizen to whom sovereignty is dispersed so that he can use violence in the protection of the American empire. These figures are often struggling, tragic, or violent, and have become normative citizen-subjects of the United States. (4)

Surveillance and fear of the other, defense of the indefensible, and the bankrupt wreckage of state exceptionalisms isolate “normative” white citizens, preclude conversation with raced, gendered/sexualized, religious, national, abled, or classed Others and extinguish all possible forms of community. The false promises of the exceptional state hold citizens in bondage, insecurity, and isolation. While the nation-state cannot function as a community, the yearning for belonging and community escalates. Communities bring people together in experiences of exchange, communication, and relationship; they form based on proximity, shared views and interests, experiences, religion, profession, and social or political commitments. According to sociologist Gerard Delanty, the concept of community “points to an organic conception of the social as encompassing political, civic, and social relations. What is important here is the immediate and experiential aspect of community as embodying direct relationships in contrast to the alien world of the state” (10). The world wars of the twentieth century made “altogether clear” that “neither society nor state was founded on a principle of community” (29). Delanty sees community as an ideal, utopian alternative to the state, unachievable in its pure form but desired as “an expression of communitas; that is, a particular mode of imagining and experiencing social belonging as a communicative, public happening”



(26). The fluid experience of belonging is expressed in free and open communication with others; it resists “institutional arrangement” (31). Contemporary historical novels of the type explored in this book represent communities of public exchange that model the possibility of social belonging. Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito defines community in relation to giving and obligation. In Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community (2010), Esposito writes that the root of community, munus, refers to a gift that one gives “because one must give and because one cannot not give” (5); it signals a perception that one owes a debt of obligation to the other[s] in the community. Rather than receiving fellowship or safety, members are bound to community by gifts they give and debts they pay: “What predominates in the munus is, in other words, reciprocity or ‘mutuality’ (munus-mutuus) of giving that assigns the one to the other in an obligation [impegno]” (5). Moreover, the thing or service given is not definitive, but rather the repeated process of and commitment to giving. In this way, intangible debt to the group takes precedence over the things exchanged: “the munus that the communitas shares isn’t a property or a possession. It isn’t having, but on the contrary, is a debt, a pledge, a gift that is to be given, and that therefore will establish a lack. The subjects of community are united by an ‘obligation’” (6).8 Beneath community and driving it, explaining the need for it and the value people place on it, Esposito finds not a divine origin, logos, or truth, but instead the “no-­ thing” of human mortality; rather than any pretend-exceptions to the common lot, an awareness of death creates “our common ground” and pulls us toward community (8). It is a “delinquere that keeps us together, in the technical sense of ‘to lack’ and ‘to be wanting’; the breach, the trauma, the lacuna out of which we originate. Not the Origin but its absence, its withdrawal. It is the originary munus that constitutes us and makes us destitute in our mortal finiteness” (8). Communities in fiction may be created and surrounded by the threat of death; acts of generosity and obligation to the group define the successful moments in these communities. For political theorist William Corlett, the “community without unity” involves a necessary diversity that leaves members free; like Esposito, he finds that munus requires members to give “gifts” of support to each other, fulfilling “the duty of mutual service and defense” (22). Members of the munus are obliged to serve and protect others who are not the same; they accept “full implication in the infinite difference of fellow



beings” (22). Drawing on Derrida’s notion of extravagance, Corlett invokes the notion of an extravagant life, emerging from free gifts rather than contracts, binding the community: “The mutual service and defense of community can benefit immeasurably from gift-giving, this ‘accident’ that determines its own destination and the identities of the givers and receivers, while implicating everybody” (212). Distinguishing his approach to community from those who expect contractual reciprocity or repayment for acts of public service, on the one hand, and from those who expect an identity-surrendering unity among all community members, on the other, Corlett describes a community that is “accidental and free” and able to “implicate” or involve all members as intimate connections (212). In many of the contemporary historical novels analyzed here, community arises by accident, bringing together individuals who decisively lack the shared experiences, identities, and interests that have traditionally defined community. They become differentially “implicated,” in Corlett’s terms, while remaining free within the group. Said emphasizes the improvisational and anti-systemic nature of community. Near the end of Culture and Imperialism, he envisions a new, anti-imperial and anti-exceptionalist community, to be created from the energies of the exiled and marginal, that will enable “unregimented” subjects to live in a “non-coercive culture” (1993, 334). Invoking Immanuel Wallerstein’s “anti-systemic movements” (334), Said writes that people “compelled by the system” into subordinate roles can “emerge as conscious antagonists” to create a new mode of collective life. Their “hybrid counter-energies” will provide a community or culture made up of numerous anti-systemic hints and practices for collective human existence (and neither doctrines nor complete theories) that is not based on coercion or domination. […] The authoritative, compelling image of the empire, which crept into and overtook so many procedures of intellectual mastery that are central in modern culture, finds its opposite in the renewable, almost sporty discontinuities of intellectual and secular impurities—mixed genres, unexpected combinations of tradition and novelty, political experiences based on communities of effort and interpretation […] rather than classes or corporations of possession, appropriation, and power. (1993, 335)

Said’s vision includes both the costs in “waste, misery, and horrors” (1993, 332) paid by the dislocated homeless and their potential, arising



from positions subjugated within and oppositional to systems, empires, and corporations, to become “communities of effort and interpretation” (1993, 335). These communities attempt, endeavor, work, explain, understand, and clarify together: they exchange ideas without domination or mastery—indeed, in willed opposition to traditional imperial practices. They become one form of “‘the complete consort dancing together’ contrapuntally” (1993, 332). Several contemporary historical fictions envision the emergence of communities like this, dedicated to non-coercive social practices and to flexible alternatives to state and imperial systems of power. Little scholarly work has been done on community in recent fiction, none on inventions of inclusive community arising out of the collapsed promises of an exceptional national community. Magali Cornier Michael’s book constitutes a rare discussion of women’s versions of community in recent fiction; in New Visions of Community in Contemporary American Fiction: Tan, Kingsolver, Castillo, Morrison (2006), she suggests that women writers locate hope in community. Women and people of marginalized ethnic groups exercise agency based on coalition and community, Michael argues, and the literary texts “reformulate coalition to infuse it more radically with certain attributes of community, namely, community’s space for difference and its emphasis on empathy and ideas of the common good, particularly in terms of issues of collective survival and nonhierarchical forms of justice” (11). Widely read in discussions of community from multiple disciplinary grounds, Michael emphasizes diversity, commitment to social justice, and activist coalition in four women writers’ texts. In exploring a group of contemporary historical novels with an emphasis on inclusive community, open to what Corlett calls “the infinite difference of fellow beings,” this book analyzes fictions by men and women, by writers of diverse ethnicities and national origins. My choices were dictated by the fictions’ representation of social and human “wreckage,” including the subjugation and exclusion of the Other, emerging from national and imperial exceptionalism; these novels also offer unusual and powerful visions of an inclusive community. Communities arise “after the wreck” and in response to it, as a protest against the powerful harms inflicted on those the exceptional state excludes: invidious prejudice, sustained non-belonging, and denial of legal, political, economic, and cultural rights and opportunities. The communities form in order to mourn, console, and support; they protect the fragile and guard the human when



it has come under threat. In the face of what Esposito names the “nothing” or lacuna that “makes us destitute in our mortal finiteness,” they console the destitute. Contemporary historical fictions “after the wreck” represent fragile inclusive communities that serve as models of human sociality in the face of exceptionalist state and imperial systems. These communities subsist at the margins as unofficial and unscripted groups, or “counterforces,” in Pynchon’s terms, and develop egalitarian and interpretive forms of social relation. In these fictions, communities are diverse; membership crosses racial, ethnic, class, gender, religious, and sometimes tribal lines. Allegiances are commonly what Said calls “affiliative,” formed “by social and political conviction, economic and historical circumstances, voluntary effort and willed deliberation,” rather than “filiative,” bound “by birth, nationality, profession” (1983, 24–25). Members rely, often for survival, on mutuality and reciprocity. They are unruled, anti-hierarchical, and communal; while leaders may emerge, the groups function loosely in egalitarian ways, leaving individual members free to contribute their own gifts in diverse ways. They are unscripted in the sense that they do not often write rules or memorialize their practices for posterity. The novels in which they appear sketch outlines, rather than fully developed portraits, of these communities; far from perfectly utopian, each of them contains discord and misunderstandings. While the transformative potential implicit in these communities is sometimes obliterated or repressed by events represented in the novels, their unrealized potential hovers with its promise over the present: if communities like these can be imagined and desired, they can be created.

Inclusions, Choices, Methods While the conclusion sketches the breadth of global historical fictions addressing exceptionalism and community, other chapters in this book focus on contemporary historical fiction from the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. These related states share similar imperial histories; they practice kindred exceptionalisms and violent racisms. Their histories are intertwined, with colonial settlement in the U.S. and Australia adapting versions of hegemonic exceptionalism from the U.K. Indeed, the imagined community of white aristocratic rulers, seizing land and claiming imperial power, exported its assumptions to both new worlds, implanted in the hearts and aspirations of even transported criminals and landless indigents.



Anxieties regarding cultural homogeneity have continued to surface in the U.S. and Australia, where early settlers confronted indigenous inhabitants with prior claims to the land. As the following chapters will show, contemporary historical novels written in these three nations reflect similar awareness of parallel exceptionalisms, histories of racist exploitation, internal divisiveness, and the fracturing of community. In the recent U.S., especially, writers perceive a state power engaged in endless wars and threats of war, violations of international laws and policies, indifference to human rights, callous treatment of migrants, overt and damaging racism, increasing income inequality, and the shrinkage of safe spaces to insular communities of the same. This book reads a group of contemporary historical novels that reflect the diverse faces of exceptionalism across a range of historical periods. The fiction reflects kinships, rather than identity, of vision. The novels succeed as fiction: three of the six (those by Unsworth, Flanagan, and Saunders) won the Man Booker Prize, one (by Erdrich) won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the last two (by Morrison) enrich and expand the Nobel-Prize-winning novelist’s sustained exploration of African American history. These novels represent significant imperial histories: slavery and racism, multiple wars, the fur trade, the theft of Native children, and the sexual abuse and murder of children. Racism characterizes the powerful and transfers its meanness to some of their underlings in every novel; those regarded as Others suffer the costs of state and imperial exceptionalism. States and those who speak for them claim the right, especially in war, to declare states of exception and to oppress those Others. But divisive exceptionalisms are countered in remarkable alternative communities that are also important to the novels’ inclusion in this book: an egalitarian multi-racial commune based on shared trade in Florida; a mutually supportive camp of suffering prisoners of war in Burma; a kinship community on the reservation in Pluto; a small-town gathering of healers in Lotus, Georgia, and a loose anarchic collective in Whiskey, California; a graveyard full of recalcitrant dead who join forces in Washington. While some historical novels represent exceptionalism leading to disconnection and isolation, these optimistic novels also discover the potential for reinventing community. Each of the chapters follows a similar pattern of analysis, beginning with an exploration of the author’s historical research to ground the novel. This section demonstrates the novel’s commitment to representation, however complex and linguistic the account may acknowledge itself to be;



each writer represents the past with a high degree of accuracy and specificity. The use of research does not diminish the writer’s artistry, but instead empowers it, sharpening the novel’s representation of social and political contexts. Following the author’s research clarifies the impact of choices made in the fiction. Toni Morrison, for example, refers to an actually created but unpublished play banned in the 1950s as part of her portrayal of McCarthy era suppression of left-leaning ideas and arts, while Barry Unsworth details the goods traded for African slaves, including defective guns that maim some Africans and enable the capture of others. An understanding of the novelist’s research highlights the careful use of details that characterize national and imperial exceptionalisms in the fiction. A second section of each chapter analyzes the damaging impacts of exceptionalism in the novel (two novels in Morrison’s case) and the representation of communities that arise in resistance to or secession from the state’s operations. Some characters assume, exert, or replicate state exceptionalisms, which also justify hierarchies of power in large-scale historical events like war. Each novel explores the logic of exceptionalism, as well as its damaging impacts on Others, both individuals and communities, and its inevitable production of social fragmentation. In each novel, however, conditions of oppression and exclusion lead to the creation of alternative communities; these stand as models of more just socialities, offering hope despite their fragility. Not entirely ahistorical within contemporary historical novels, these communities remind readers of other traditions and belief systems that have persisted within the reign of imperial capitalism: alternatives like marronage and resistance to imperial conquest and exploitation; Native American kinship communities; brotherhoods of sharing and sisterhoods of healing in community; acceptance of and sympathy for others; egalitarian inclusiveness. The alternative communities in these novels resist any implication of determinism and reflect the authors’ understanding that people create histories, sometimes in resistance to the powers around them, by their aggregated choices. A final section of each chapter explores formal choices made by the novelists. To represent communities, the novels include multiple characters and focus on groups as well as individuals. Some fictions narrate with versions of omniscience, but they reject the pretense of complete and authoritative knowledge that accompanies omniscience in traditional historical fiction. In writing about perspective in these novels, I characterize it as a situated, inclusive, empathic, inward-looking omniscience, directed at producing a community of perspectives or a kinship collective. The



novels often use third-person limited viewpoints to situate perceptions within characters, but they typically observe through several different characters’ perspectives on events. They include characters who could be considered minor, selfish, racist, allied with exceptionalist views and values, and limited in their insights, as well as others (including one mongrel dog in Erdrich) whose perceptions appear generous and visionary. As histories, these novels often follow events in chronological order—but with a difference that disrupts teleology and closure; chronology is always fragmented, as if to dispel the illusion of historical coherence supplied by traditional progress narratives. Two different narratives appear juxtaposed in Unsworth’s novel, emphasizing ironic distances. Fragmented memories of a single catastrophic day in 1943 disrupt Flanagan’s chronological account of a night fifty years later, with departures to other moments in the protagonist’s life. Memories of a repressed secret intrude in the present lives of Morrison’s protagonists. Stories of ancestral characters, tribal members, and other citizens of Pluto interrupt and reflect on the evolving story of the youngest LaRose. Ghosts in Saunders’s graveyard try to live in tightly constructed stories of their own past, but the present burial of Willie Lincoln interrupts, disqualifies, and explodes their inventions. Origins are complex and accidental, endings often indeterminate. In its formal qualities, the new historical fiction claims its poststructuralist heritage, counterpointing the sense of “real” historical and political subjects with modes of representation that acknowledge their own construction, displace an authoritarian center, and diffuse authority to communal watchers on the margins. Chapter 2 explores relationships between contemporary historical fictions of wreckage and other kinds of historical fiction; it extends the analysis of contexts by distinguishing between “literary” and “popular” historical fiction and between visions of history emphasizing damage and others locating positive origins for modernity. Readings in the chapters that follow enliven, expand, and focus claims made in this chapter about the distinctive representation of exceptionalism and community in contemporary historical fictions. They demonstrate how an abstract concept like exceptionalism emerges at levels ranging from the treatment of prisoners of war (Flanagan) to the education of Native children (Erdrich) to crimes against African Americans (Morrison). They show how unpredictably fulfilling and joyful the experience of community can be, even for those at its margins (Unsworth) and for those who have lost almost everything (Saunders). Ranging from 1992 to 2017, the novels suggest the



enormous vitality of contemporary historical fiction in the past quarter century and the unlimited potential of this transformed genre.

Notes 1. An account of the Zong massacre appeared in Buxton’s The African Slave Trade, serialized in The Times in the summer of 1839, and other stories of the jettison of live slaves also circulated (Hamilton 47–48). 2. Woolf, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, 4. 3. Said writes that “so influential has been the discourse insisting on American specialness, altruism, and opportunity that ‘imperialism’ as a word or ideology has turned up only rarely and recently in accounts of United States culture, politics, history. But the connection between imperial politics and culture is astonishingly direct” (1993, 8). 4. Madsen writes, similarly, “America and Americans are special, exceptional, because they are charged with saving the world from itself and, at the same time, America and Americans must sustain a high level of spiritual, political and moral commitment to this exceptional destiny” (2). 5. On Smiley, see Vermillion’s essay (2014) and Strehle (2000). On Kingsolver, see Strehle (2008). 6. Responding to Anderson, Loomba points to the inevitable marginalization and inequality created by the nation-state: “it claims to include ‘all’ the people, the ordinary folk, to celebrate diversity and speak for the ‘entire’ imagined community. […] But several critics have suggested that Imagined Communities pays so much attention to who is included in the communities that it fails to consider those who are excluded and marginalized, such as women, or lower classes, races, or castes” (197–98). 7. Making a similar point, Said writes, “Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental” (1993, 336). 8. In Containing Community, Greg Bird writes that Esposito “develops a radical model of republicanism where communal duties and obligations are prioritized over private rights, interests, and property. Existentially, his community unfolds in an ontology where being takes precedence over having” (153).

References Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed., 2006. London: Verso.



Bird, Greg. 2016. Containing Community: From Political Economy to Ontology in Agamben, Esposito and Nancy. Albany: SUNY Press. Bogues, Anthony. 2010. Empire of Liberty: Power, Desire, & Freedom. Hanover: University Press of New England. Corlett, William. 1989. Community Without Unity: A Politics of Derridian Extravagance. Durham: Duke University Press. Delanty, Gerard. 2003. Community. New York: Routledge. Esposito, Roberto. 1998. Communitas: The Origin and Destiny of Community. Trans. Timothy Campbell, 2010. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Goldberg, David Theo. 2000. Heterogeneity and Hybridity: Colonial Legacy, Postcolonial Heresy. In A Companion to Postcolonial Studies, ed. Henry Schwarz and Sangeeta Ray, 72–86. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Grewal, Inderpal. 2017. Saving the Security State: Exceptional Citizens in Twenty-­ First-­Century America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Hamilton, James. 2003. Turner: The Late Seascapes. New Haven: Yale University Press. Kaplan, Amy. 2002. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S.  Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Loomba, Ania. 1998. Colonialism/ Postcolonialism. New York: Routledge. Madsen, Deborah L. 1998. American Exceptionalism. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. McClintock, Anne. 1995. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge. Michael, Magali Cornier. 2006. New Visions of Community in Contemporary American Fiction: Tan, Kingsolver, Castillo, Morrison. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. Pease, Donald E. 2009. The New American Exceptionalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ———. 2010a. American Studies after American Exceptionalism? Toward a Comparative Analysis of Imperial State Exceptionalisms. In Globalizing American Studies, ed. Brian T.  Edwards and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, 47–83. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ———. 2010b. The Crisis of Critique in Postcolonial Modernity. boundary 2 37 (3): 179–205. Said, Edward W. 1993. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage. ———. 2000. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Spanos, William V. 2008. American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization: The Specter of Vietnam. Albany: SUNY Press. ———. 2013. Shock and Awe: American Exceptionalism and the Imperatives of the Spectacle in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press.



———. 2014. Redeemer Nation and Apocalypse: Thinking the Exceptionalism of American Exceptionalism. LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 25 (2): 174–200. Stoler, Ann Laura. 2006. Imperial Formations and the Opacities of Rule. In Lessons of Empire: Imperial Histories and American Power, ed. Craig Calhoun, Frederick Cooper, and Kevin W. Moore, 48–60. New York: The New Press. Strehle, Susan. 2000. The Daughter’s Subversion in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. Critique 41 (3): 211–226. ———. 2008. Chosen People: American Exceptionalism in Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Critique 49 (4): 413–428. Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. 1995. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press. Vermillion, Mary. 2014. The Uses of Tragedy: A Thousand Acres and American Exceptionalism. LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 25: 151–173. Woolf, Virginia. 1924. Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. London: Hogarth Press.


Historical Fiction and Wreckage: Hilary Mantel and Amitav Ghosh

Historical fiction has been published around the world in the last quarter century. This chapter identifies the type of contemporary historical fiction analyzed in this book as, first, “literary” rather than “popular” in its representation of wreckage without immediate or easy consolation. Turning then to analysis of literary historical fiction, the chapter argues that historical fiction “after the wreck” revises the understandings and uses of both history and fiction. It makes an overtly political critique of state exceptionalism and self-justifying nationalism, while consciously using artistic strategies to make vivid the human consequences of state violence. A section on recent critical approaches to contemporary historical fiction argues that exploration of complex postmodernist forms has taken precedence over analysis of the fiction’s content; as a result, the distinctive kind of historical fiction exploring “wreckage” has remained invisible, together with its connection to the longstanding political concerns that characterize historical fiction. Contrasts between two recent trilogies by Hilary Mantel and Amitav Ghosh establish differences between literary historical fictions that reflect on wreckage and others that recover heroism and positive developments in history. Mantel’s trilogy recovers the origins of modern British democracy in the sixteenth century, while Ghosh’s re-creates the catastrophic opium trade of the nineteenth century with the wreckage it created in subaltern lives. Its critical representation of political histories impacting subaltern peoples and communities distinguishes fiction “after the wreck.” © The Author(s) 2020 S. Strehle, Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community,




To identify the qualities of this kind of historical fiction, it will be helpful first to acknowledge that it is literary fiction, coexisting with other kinds of historical fiction including historical romance. Impelled by the nature of romance, historical fictions in the capacious romance genre (including adventure, mystery, biography, fantasy, and science fiction, as well as the relationship fictions normally called romances) allow wreckage some scope in the plot’s middle, where it interrupts and delays the necessary resolution, but these narratives resolve historical chaos into recognizable stories of progress and continuity. This is not to deny the pleasures of historical romance; writers like Ken Follett, Diana Gabaldon, Kristin Hannah, Patrick O’Brian, and Jodi Picoult, among dozens of others, have well-deserved popular audiences. Sometimes closely researched, this fiction uses its historical setting as an antagonist blocking what romance promises: the return home, achieved union, restored safety, and joy. In Kristin Hannah’s bestseller, The Nightingale (2015), for example, Nazi brutality in occupied France during World War II provides challenging obstacles in a narrative of courage, heroism, and love. As one dying heroine is reunited with her lost lover near the novel’s end, she has a consoling recognition that “She had known love, been blessed by it” (551); her sister concludes their epic story of harrowing survival by proclaiming that “Wounds heal. Love lasts” (564). In romance narratives, reliable truths make sense of the world, carry protagonists through difficult times, and prove their changeless value at the end. Romance plots can be understood, then, to write their way around the interruptions of historical chaos in order to recover these certainties. In contrast, literary fiction represents unanswerable losses emerging from historical wreckage. Contemporary historical fiction “after the wreck” is one kind of literary historical fiction; at present it occupies significant creative space in the longstanding genre of historical fiction. While the first chapter explored the political assumptions about exceptionalism and community expressed in a group of contemporary historical novels, this chapter places the novels as a distinctive branch on the tree of historical fiction as a genre. Historical fiction tends to focus on groups and communities, on events in the commons or public realm, as opposed to private, interior, or psychological states. Because of its public focus, it often narrates the experiences of Others, represents violations of human rights, and calls for social justice. Where it focuses on one individual, that character often plays a central role in or serves as witness to large historical developments. Historical fiction



reflects on the shared commons, the city or the nation; in eras when writers perceive the commons under threat, some of them write fictions of wreckage.

Theorizing Historical Fiction Two different theoretical accounts of historical fiction have governed critical discourse for much of the past century; one develops primarily as an approach to realist historical fictions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the other develops in relation to twentieth-century historical fictions after poststructuralism. These two theoretical accounts rest on different assumptions and focus their analysis in different directions. As articulated by Georg Lukács, the Marxist view believes that historical fiction interprets a selected history for the present; it therefore focuses on the selection and interpretation of historical content. Historical fiction, Lukács believes, aims to represent political conditions of and for the masses and the nation in periods of social change. The fiction’s ethical aim, overt or implied, is to awaken readers to injustice and oppression and to improve the lives of the subaltern class. From a different position in the aftermath of the revolutionary impact of poststructuralism, the “historiographic metafiction” view, articulated by Linda Hutcheon and others, understands historical fiction as a sophisticated form of self-reflexive metafiction, using historical material as a springboard for art while undermining any simple sense of the “real.” Metafictional readings therefore focus on the development of reflexive form as a means of representation; less directly interested in questions of which history is chosen or how the fiction interprets it, these readings observe the representational aporia created by the gap between language and what people have understood, through language, as historical events. With an emphasis on fiction rather than historical material that may appear in it, metafictional interpretations awaken readers to the uncertainties of knowledge and the limits of observers’ authority. Clearly divergent, each of these theoretical approaches to historical fiction contains elements important to the study of contemporary historical novels. Important Marxist theorists of historical fiction, Georg Lukács, Fredric Jameson, and Perry Anderson think about history in relation to long-­ term, large-scale social change, and they understand narratives about history as interested in political events and their outcomes for groups of people. Perry Anderson writes, “Within the huge multiverse of prose fiction the historical novel has, almost by definition, been the most



consistently political” (1). For related reasons, they understand historical fiction as a genre making implicit judgments about the nation-state—its origins, values, and changing conditions. They believe that writers select particular historical narratives because of their bearing on current issues and therefore write to the present. Lukács and Jameson emphasize the importance in historical fiction of the impact of events on the masses, the classed population, or what Jameson calls “the collectivity itself—nation, people or multitude” (280), for historical fiction “cannot exist without this dimension of collectivity” (267). Anderson makes the important claim that historical fiction has a “constitutive heterogeneity” (5), meaning that writers represent historical issues in different ways, depending on their context. Lukács understands historical fiction as a genre that can consolidate national identity in a positive way. In The Historical Novel (written in 1936–37 and published in English translation in 1962), he argues that the genre responds to the needs of the masses during critical periods of historical and social upheaval. Individuals can see their lives as “historically conditioned” (24) and gain a “national sensibility” by achieving a personal relation to the state’s history. In Lukács’s understanding, historical fiction awakens “vast, heroic, human potentialities which are always latently present in the people” (52) and traces “the decisive role played in human progress by the struggle of classes in history” (27). For Lukács, historical fiction conveys large-scale social change through representative characters caught up in and changed by the dramatic conflict between opposed historical forces. Famous historical figures and events appear in the background of epic narratives focused on the passing of the old order and the rise of the bourgeoisie, together with emerging national identities. Lukács praises Sir Walter Scott’s fiction, for example, as an effort to consolidate British nationalism by constructing a “middle way” between “warring extremes” in English history (32); “Scott sees and portrays the complex and intricate path which led to England’s national greatness and to the formation of the national character” (54). Writing between the wars, Lukács is optimistic about the potential for national forms, for the class struggle to achieve positive social change, and for realistic fictional representation to galvanize awareness and change.1 Rather than exceptionalist wreckage, he sees a chance to gain progressive freedom in an inclusive national structure. Fredric Jameson writes about the historical novel seven decades later, after postmodernism has discredited master narratives and foregrounded



the discursive nature of accounts of the past; he suggests that the genre takes a post-nationalist but not overtly critical view of the nation. He finds historical consciousness enfeebled, the individual subject “imperiled” (260), the mass “at best imaginary” (263), and “rhetoric of the nation […] supplanted by that of small groups” (261). In “The Historical Novel Today, Or, Is It Still Possible” (the final chapter of The Antinomies of Realism, 2013), Jameson wonders “what such a tainted form can legitimately do for us” (261). Condensing the traits listed by Lukács, Jameson defines “two unique characteristics of the historical novel: the presence of ‘world-historical,’ which is to say ‘real’ historical, individuals, and the concomitant presence, however shadowy, of the collectivity itself—nation, people or multitude” (280). While Lukács sees Scott as the prototypical historical novelist, Jameson regards Tolstoy as the leading practitioner of a genre in which “named characters are able to stand for the masses behind them in a non-allegorical way, and in which the narrative can ‘include’ history without utterly abandoning those protagonists” (285). Jameson imagines a future for the historical novel as science fiction, exploring “questions about the fate of our social system” (298) and showing “the contradictions in which we are ourselves imprisoned” as they define and limit “the future of late capitalism” (308). Despite its potential distance from understandings of history, historical fiction can, Jameson believes, achieve an ongoing if ironic role commenting on history. Considering the evolution of historical fiction, Perry Anderson argues that the genre is currently vital, though altered from the nineteenth-­ century forms analyzed by Lukács and Jameson. Writing in the London Review of Books in 2011, Anderson reviews Lukács’s claims and Jameson’s “rewriting” of them (2). Anderson observes the decline of historical fiction after World War I, in conjunction with a sense that nationalism had lost credibility; but since around 1975, he argues, “in one of the most astonishing transformations in literary history,” the genre has experienced “resurrection”: “But this is a second coming with a difference,” altering many of the practices of traditional historical fiction (10). Anderson advances a version of the argument in this book: instead of affirming nation and nationalism, many of the new historical novels record “defeat: history as what […] went wrong,” “Not the emergence of the nation, but the ravages of empire” (11, 12). In the U.S., Anderson locates concerns about race and empire, together with distrust of formalized systems of power, as triggers for historical fiction. He sees the “new explosion of invented pasts” extending “around the world” and reaching “the upper



ranges of fiction”(11, 10), by which I understand him to mean that new historical fiction includes novels of the highest quality—including winners of national and international prizes like those analyzed in this book. Despite the differences among them, these three critics share similar views about the social and political focus in the content of historical fiction. Lukács sees ethical readings of historical events and sympathy for the subaltern as essential to historical fictions; Anderson characterizes these fictions as “consistently political,” and Jameson identifies a concern to include the collectivity as a definitive trait. Together, these and other Marxist readings of historical fiction establish its attention to the ways economic and social changes impact life for individuals and social groups, especially the poor and powerless. If historical fictions can function to consolidate nation, as Lukács believes, they can also criticize state and empire, as Anderson claims. In centering their analysis of the problems for human sociality on capitalism, Marxist readings could more fully attend to capitalism’s intricate links with the logics of what Foucault called governmentality and with the mode of exceptionalism common in emerging imperial nations, as well as their many discriminations including those targeting race, religion, gender, ability, tribe, and nation. While capitalism subtends these other toxic systems, it does not always account directly for their potency in human lives, especially as these are depicted in historical fiction. History itself changed with the impact of poststructuralism, which brought a linguistic and constructionist approach to histories as discursive narratives shaped by the historian’s inventive selection of details to create artificial coherence. Hayden White’s revolutionary Metahistory (1973) challenged traditional historiography by underscoring the fictional and constructed emplotment of written histories and the linguistic and discursive nature of all accounts of the past.2 Drawing on Jean-François Lyotard and Paul Ricoeur, among others, White’s work effectively erases the dividing line between the writing of history and the writing of fiction, focusing on the “invention” exercised by the historian who chooses the “kind of story” (comedy, tragedy, romance, or satire) to be told through “explanation by emplotment” (7). Although his concerns lie with implications for historiography rather than literature, White suggests that historians write historical fiction. In an allied response to poststructuralism a decade later, Linda Hutcheon analyzes the poetics (1988) and the politics (1989) of “historiographic metafiction.” She draws on Foucault, Lyotard, and other



poststructuralists in challenging “the impulse to totalize” and with it “the entire notion of continuity in history and its writing” (1989, 66). Postmodern fiction, she writes, displays “intense self-consciousness (both theoretical and textual) about the act of narrating”; the past “really did exist, but we can only know it today through its textual traces, its often complex and indirect representations in the present” (1989, 78).3 In self-­ reflexive fictions, postmodern writers call objectivity into question and foreground the provisionality and unreliability of accounts of historical events. As a result, the critic explores the formal self-reflexivity through which the fictional text creates a narrative about an otherwise unattainable past. Hutcheon lists several formal strategies: doubled plots, paratextuality (footnotes, chapter headings, epigraphs), archived documents, and illustrations, all designed to highlight the constructedness of the fictional version of the past. From such a position, the deliberate and effective artistry in a historical novel appears in the foreground, demonstrated by its self-­ reflexive strategies. Questions of content recede, including political and ethical concerns introduced by historical accounts; these lose relevance under the pressure of epistemological questions about the validity of any knowledge of the past.4 Leaving behind the pretense of naïve realism, a metafictional approach explores the deliberate formal artistry of texts confronting radical changes in the understanding of history, time, and knowledge. The drive to interpret history in fiction remains, together with the poststructural awareness of the constructed nature of all versions. These two impulses meet in contemporary historical fiction, described by Perry Anderson as “a second coming with a difference” (10). This book claims that historical fiction flourishes because of its concern with communities of people, threatened by the operations of state exceptionalism that enlists citizens to ignore or despise excepted Others—the immigrant, poor, raced, gendered, religious, tribal, or classed subalterns. Complex historical novels of the past twenty-five years criticize the exercise of state exceptionalism within the writers’ own nations, including the U.K., the U.S., and Australia, analyzed in the following chapters, and in several other nations, briefly discussed in the concluding chapter. At the same time, these fictions employ self-reflexive strategies that reveal their authors’ poststructuralist location and formal inventiveness. Many of them disrupt linear time, the staple chronology of the historical progress narrative; they use multiple narrators or follow plural third-person limited witnesses in order to relativize knowledge and create overlapping and contradictory



perspectives rather than a single version of authoritative historical truth. Contemporary historical fictions renew the historical novel, acknowledging the relative and incomplete nature of representation while producing researched versions of historical narrative. As self-reflexive stories about past events accessible only through fragmentary data and other narratives, these fictions acknowledge the situated nature of interpretation, the limitations of perspective, and the self-interested nature of truth claims. But they seem driven to expose, to imagine, and above all to critique state and imperial exceptionalisms, as if oppressive violations of human rights were the salient wreckage to emerge from history.

Critical Approaches to Contemporary Historical Fiction Responding to the burgeoning of contemporary historical fictions, recent critical studies exploring their innovations in the traditional genre have also flourished. Critics have reasoned in various ways about the validity and authenticity of representation and considered the potential for a new version of realism; they have addressed the poststructuralist characteristics of the novel, including its self-reflexive form. Peter Boxall’s Twenty-First-­ Century Fiction (2013) finds “a new relation emerging in the twenty-first century between history and fiction, a new formal means of inheriting and representing the past” (41). Boxall identifies a “twin pressure—the political desire for historical realism and the self-reflexive aesthetic engagement with the limits of narrative in capturing experience” emerging “as the basis for a twenty-first-century literary sensibility” (81). Stacey Olster devotes a chapter of The Cambridge Introduction to Contemporary American Fiction (2017) to the historical novel, which “has flourished over the last two-­ and-­a-half decades” (11), positioned between materialist and metafictional representations of history.5 Newly prominent and dynamic, historical fiction has been the focus of several recent critical studies.6 Five of these are especially significant for their interpretations of contemporary historical fiction as a genre attempting both historical representation and metafictional reflexivity. These five studies have understood the question confronting contemporary historical fiction as one of form: How can postmodern writers, skeptical about “the real,” open formal territory joining metafiction and history? As a result, they have overlooked the political and ethical content



of the fiction and disregarded questions of its focus: the ethical reading of historical events, the importance of the collective, concern for the subaltern, and the political critique of global capitalism. Attentive to form rather than content, these studies of contemporary historical fiction have missed its critical voice, its observations of the wreckage inflicted by state and imperial operations, especially summed up in the claim to exceptional privilege, and its abiding concern with the excepted and excluded Others who form the subaltern collective. In their concern to locate the new historical fiction in a space between representation and reflexivity, these five studies engage some of the serious formal negotiations in the fiction; but they overlook the political impetus that allies new historical fictions and accounts for their contemporary urgency. Creating a viable ground for representation through a sophisticated re-­ thinking of the theoretical challenges, Alan Robinson’s Narrating the Past: Historiography, Memory and the Contemporary Novel (2011) reviews the “narrative turn” in history and the “historical turn” in narrative. Robinson disputes White’s historiography and argues that White simplifies when he claims “that lived events are unconnected and meaningless prior to the historian’s retrospective interpretation” (13). The past, Robinson writes, is not inaccessible but discernable through its textual traces: “although the actuality that preceded the text is irrecoverable, some of the subjective meanings which were invested in it and later memorialized in the objective correlative of the text can once again achieve a virtual existence as mental representations” (52–53). Perceiving the distance from present to past as relative, rather than absolute, Robinson claims that historical fiction is an “interpretive emplotment” that “constructs a subjective present past […] modeled on and anchored in a former actuality” (29). Fiction interprets history from a subjective point of view “anchored in” what writer and readers can agree is an actual past. The genre is a hybrid crossing of actual and invented: “As a hybrid genre, historical fiction is partially counterfactual, in that it rewrites the historical record […]. But it has generally remained within the parameters of known historical facts and outcomes” (30). Robinson’s book occupies one end of the spectrum, where “past actuality” can be “known” and glimpsed through texts; historical fiction can interpret the past for the present. Jerome De Groot’s Remaking History: The Past in Contemporary Historical Fictions (2016) begins at the other end of the spectrum, acknowledging absence and unreality in any encounter with history: “All historical texts enact a desire for truth that is leavened with a fundamental



understanding that it is not there; there is nothing innately real in an encounter with it. ‘History’ is the attempt at reconciling the unseen other of the past with contemporary fractured identity; as in all attempts at such psychic healing of trauma, it is doomed to failure” (7). Yet even as De Groot thinks of a privatized history appropriated for psychic healing, he also recognizes the value of researched plausibility and representation in historical fictions, which “participate in a semi-serious game of authenticity and research” (14). De Groot’s historical novelist wrestles with ethical questions of form in creating a fictive past: “Every single historical novel is an ethical negotiation on the part of the author” (35). A complex self-­ consciousness characterizes De Groot’s historical novelists, who acknowledge the “wroughtness” of their version of history (37) while striving for the illusion of authenticity. For Eric L. Berlatsky, a potential space for representation opens in the “ethical turn” he identifies, not “against poststructuralism” but “within it that attempts to articulate how it may be possible to have both an inveterate skepticism toward universality and reference and a commitment to ethical causes and political action” (28). In The Real, the True, and the Told: Postmodern Historical Narrative and the Ethics of Representation (2011), Berlatsky acknowledges the “impossibility of complete, transparent reference to the past” (36) while defending the repository of the past as a source of ethical knowledge. In Berlatsky’s view, postmodern literature follows White in favoring fragmentary and incomplete modes of historical writing when it uses “nonnarrative” and “antinarrative” techniques that reject sequence, teleology, and closure; but its ethical commitments require it to be “dedicated to unveiling the ‘face of the real’ and not merely to declaring that there is nothing beneath the veil” (36). Berlatsky believes that postmodern writers of historical fiction construct ethical and political interpretations of the past: The theoretical hegemony of poststructuralism has led to the widespread interpretation of postmodern texts as merely rearticulating poststructuralist dogma in regard to historical reference. These texts do no such thing. Instead, the postmodernist historical fiction I analyze takes both political and ethical positions based upon the events of the past, but does so only after acknowledging the barriers to historical reference and theorizing some possible ways to overcome these barriers, particularly that of narrative. (37)



For Berlatsky, self-reflexive narrative forms undermine any naïve realism, while leaving room for an ethical stance in recent historical fiction. Postmodernist historical fiction coexists with traditional and realistic historical novels, Susan C.  Brantly argues. The Historical Novel, Transnationalism, and the Postmodern Era: Presenting the Past (2017) draws on Brantly’s background as a Scandinavianist to examine historical fiction as a “transnational” (3) genre, while her readings focus primarily on Swedish fiction. In Sweden, she writes, “there has been an explosion of historical novels” since the 1960s (5), including “straightforward, traditional historical narratives” in a popular “tug-of-war” against “highly experimental historiographic metafiction” (13–14). Brantly believes that “The postmodern era did not make traditional historical novels disappear, but rather raised awareness of narrative claims to power” (3). She emphasizes the potential in both traditional and metafictional versions of the genre to undermine inherited narratives and challenge hegemonic power: “During the postmodern era, many marginalized groups have produced counter-narratives, some in a similarly realistic mode, in order to challenge historical narratives produced from a Western, white, male, monied, and straight perspective” (2). Brantly identifies crucial interests in power, nation, and social community informing the historical novel: it “has become, during the postmodern era, a transnational tool for exploring how we should think of nations and nationalism and what a society should, or should not, look like” (16). These comments reflect an understanding of contemporary historical fiction closely allied to my own. Another recent study argues for a uniquely postcolonial version of historical fiction: Hamish Dalley’s The Postcolonial Historical Novel: Realism, Allegory, and the Representation of Contested Pasts (2014) observes that postcolonial thought and writing inherently engages history. Dalley’s book claims a position at the confluence of realistic historical representation and postmodernist metafictional self-reflexivity through the concept of “allegorical realism”; allegorical exchange-value or metaphoric equivalency strips realism of any static truth-claims, while realistic singularities challenge the perception of exemplars in traditional allegorical narratives. The resulting fiction, Dalley writes, produces meaning through an oscillating dialectic or movement between representational levels (40). Dalley claims for allegorical realism the status of “a twenty-first-century postcolonial realist aesthetics” enabling writers to create “ethically engaged interpretations of the actual past—and, as such, a meaningful source of knowledge about history” (5). Dalley reads fictions from Australia, New



Zealand, and Nigeria to demonstrate that, across their differences, “the historical novel is central to the project of postcolonial studies” (6). All published after 2010, these five studies agree on the vitality of contemporary historical fiction, its understanding of the complexity of representation, and its postmodernist heritage, discernable in relative versions rather than single linear paths to historical truth. Together, the books sketch a version of contemporary historical fiction poised and negotiating the formal impulses of its heritage. They identify an awareness of the constructed nature of the past and the mediated nature of interpretation. Without abandoning these formal imperatives, which lead to plural situated observers aware of their uncertainty, this book retrieves the content of historical fiction, especially its skepticism about the operations of capitalist state powers, its focus on the collective or community, and its sympathy for the subaltern.

Recovery and Wreckage: Hilary Mantel and Amitav Ghosh While fiction “after the wreck” explores the damaging impacts of exceptionalist nationalism (with the leaders it empowers and the events and movements it unleashes) on subaltern communities, a different kind of literary historical fiction recovers moments of liberation. Both kinds of fiction present a revised history, one designed to change and enrich the public narrative explaining a period and its prominent actors; both kinds are widely perceived as significant for their revisionary daring. Both may be optimistic about long-term historical change, comic or satiric in their attention to motives and actions, and sympathetic to the suffering of subaltern peoples. In their choice of historical subject and their representation of historical events, they diverge: while fiction of wreckage emphasizes damage and loss in subaltern communities, historical fiction of recovery retrieves the origins of freedom and democratic opportunity in the modern nation. This book focuses on fictions of wreckage, whose characteristics become clear with an extended look at an outstanding example of fictions of recovery. A telling contrast with “wreckage” fictions occurs in the “recovery” fiction of Hilary Mantel, perhaps the most widely known and respected historical novelist of the twenty-first century. Mantel’s literary historical fiction finds the seeds of freedom, countering loss and injustice, in the



history it narrates. An exploration of the Wolf Hall trilogy (Wolf Hall, 2009; Bring Up the Bodies, 2012; The Mirror & the Light, 2020) highlights by contrast the characteristics of the fiction analyzed in this book: Mantel finds in Thomas Cromwell a liberating democratic origin for modern England. Like other historical novelists, she confesses to a longstanding passion for historical research, commenting that she “only became a novelist because I’d missed the chance to become a historian” (Simpson 2015). Her interest in historical detail and her commitment to accuracy lead her to extensive archival research, which she sees differentiating her work from that of other historical novelists; she claims that “Nobody seems to share my approach to historical fiction” or to adhere to “my ideal of fidelity to history” (Simpson 2015). Mantel’s first novel, written in her twenties but published only after four other novels had established her reputation, was a lengthy historical novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety (1992). Her eighth novel, The Giant, O’Brien (1998), was a historical novel based on a 1780s figure. Her tenth, eleventh, and twelfth novels, those of the Wolf Hall trilogy, reimagine sixteenth-­ century British history; they credit Thomas Cromwell with empowering the shift from Catholicism to Anglican Protestantism and foreground Cromwell’s democratic, egalitarian, and cosmopolitan instincts. The first two novels won the Man Booker Prize for their daring and persuasive historical vision as well as outstanding writing. In my reading, the Cromwell novels represent a fictional recovery of historical origins rather than wreckage. They focus attention on the liberatory moment when a man of the people loosens the hold of sclerotic traditions, opening the door to modernity in a nation improved by his actions. In Mantel’s representation of the court of Henry VIII, Cromwell understands and forwards Henry’s desires for Anne Boleyn, for divorce and remarriage, and for a male heir; Cromwell manages to fulfill simultaneously his own desires for a reformed England with greater commitments to equality and justice—and reduced power in a corrupt church and aristocracy. Henry’s divorce and remarriage break longstanding English traditions, insult European alliances, rupture global teachings and mandates of the Catholic Church, and outrage an entire class of aristocratic families. Thomas Cromwell, the radical visionary of a new world, not only helps Henry achieve his divorce; he is uniquely able to see the value of new ideas in the face of traditional English resistance to them. Crossing the channel, a young Cromwell sketches improved sailing ships and tries to persuade the captain that his re-designed ships could go faster. The captain



dismisses the idea, adding that sailors don’t like or trust new things. Cromwell mutters that other Englishmen don’t like new things either and meditates: “There cannot be new things in England. There can be old things freshly presented, or new things that pretend to be old” (97). Cromwell navigates his own way through the impasse, entering the service of the long-established Tudors and using his position to advance new ideas, often cloaked in traditional garb. But his fate, delivered in the third novel, is to be abandoned by the old and condemned for heretical novelty. Cromwell succeeds in changing Britain, according to both history and Mantel’s fiction. Tudor historians agree that he played a major role in accomplishing the Protestant Reformation in England by engineering the break from the Catholic Church. In Wolf Hall, he suggests to King Henry that since Christ did not grant land or other forms of wealth to his followers, by extension the land and wealth of the church should belong to the King rather than the priests (Wolf 436). In both history and fiction, Cromwell closes the monasteries and orders an accounting of the wealth of the Church and its eventual redistribution. While he does not overturn the English aristocracy, he establishes a bold precedent demonstrating that a commoner can achieve power among (and even over) those with ancient noble titles. He guides their children, who apply for places in his household and hope to “learn statecraft” from him (Wolf 47). In Bring Up the Bodies, he plans to establish a census to gather useful data that can shape state decisions (Bodies 323). A childhood of brutal abuse by a drunken father leaves him with ready sympathy for the poor and the homeless, whom he notices in his travels. His own history gives him faith in the commoner: “In a generation these people can learn to read. The plowman can take up a book. […] England can be otherwise” (Wolf 441). In advocating for the commoner and the plowboy, Mantel’s Cromwell stands out as a heroic visionary who moves his state toward greater equality and human rights. Cromwell differs from the protagonists of contemporary historical novels “after the wreck” in his stance as a singular heroic figure isolated in the crowds around him. He does not emerge from a community; he has no supportive Lotus or Whiskey to help him become and affirm himself. While he has been shaped, like others he encounters, by brutal historical forces, he does not have a tribe like Landreaux’s (LaRose) or mates like Darky Gardiner’s (The Narrow Road to the Deep North). The narrative isolates him, rather than placing him in a network of others moving in similar directions through the historical world: Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger



watches dozens of characters in Liverpool, on the slave ship, in Africa, and in Florida, by contrast, and Flanagan represents a multitude of the doomed gathered to build a railway in Asia. In the Wolf Hall novels, narrative drama does not turn on Cromwell’s interactions with others, nor do others change him in the way members of the Whiskey community change Bride and ghosts alter each other in Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. Instead, Cromwell stands out in his time and place as an almost inexplicable anomaly. Sketchy accounts of his early and formative experiences (running away to Europe, learning languages, combat, and commerce) do not begin to account for his differences from those around him. Cromwell has followers and companions, but no community. He functions as an isolate in the midst of a complex social and political world, which he watches with acute perception of others’ motives and desires. A third-person limited perspective most often attached to Cromwell reveals his insightful interpretations, worked out in his supple mind and rarely shared in dialogue. As he reads and watches, he holds onto no certainties: “With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too” (Wolf 32). Cromwell’s household includes followers (Rafe, his nephew Richard, his son Gregory, Christophe, Wriothesley, Riche) to whom Cromwell refers as “his men” (Wolf 409) or his “wards” (Wolf 413); servants in others’ households whom he pays to spy for him are “my boy” (Wolf 426). These relations are not simply possessive, but they are certainly hierarchical; Cromwell has no confidant, no equal, and even, with Wolsey gone, no confessor. He is the sole luminous intelligence of his world, positioned by himself at the aperture to modernity. While Cromwell’s beheading at the direction of a manipulated, inattentive, and later regretful Henry constitutes tragic wreckage at the end of his story in The Mirror & the Light, the novels of the Wolf Hall trilogy counter their representation of a corrupt church and aristocracy, headed by a king who believes in his own exceptional power, with the perspective of a liberator. For his own purposes, King Henry seeks a monumental exception through divorce to what most people of his time regard as one of God’s commandments; but in attaining the King’s freedom to divorce, Cromwell manages to gain greater freedom for the commoner as well. The novels represent secession from Rome as a new beginning for the people and the state, one that affirms the potential for positive change in the lives of commoners. In the logic of the novels, Thomas Cromwell stands out as the creator of a new England, indeed as a liberator for the



English; he calls forth “new men, new structures, new thinking” (Wolf 500). The story of his rise to power through his own successful analysis and exploitation of hidden structures of power is essentially heroic—and thus a successful example of historical fiction that “recovers” a coherent, positive step from past to present, or a definitive moment in the formation of the modern state. Indeed, the trilogy ends with Petrarch’s belief that “there will follow a better age” of greater light, when “our descendants” will perceive “the pure radiance of the past” (Mirror 754); for Mantel, Cromwell holds that torch. Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy helps to define by contrast the contemporary historical novels written “after the wreck”: these novels record historical catastrophes without heroes or reformed state principles and practices. They imagine communities of the subaltern, rather than strong, perceptive, or liberatory individuals, as models for better social worlds. The other great trilogy in contemporary historical fiction, Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy (Sea of Poppies, 2008; River of Smoke, 2011; Flood of Fire, 2015), resembles Mantel’s in its ambitious scope but differs in representing history “after the wreck.” Though both trilogies focus on the events of a concentrated period (about five years in Ghosh, about ten in Mantel), both are large in historical significance. Length serves both writers, Mantel to develop the complexity of Thomas Cromwell and his evolving battles for the power to create a new England, Ghosh to add layers of characters impacted by a dense weave of imperial exceptionalism and global capitalism. Perhaps the main difference between the two trilogies lies in Ghosh’s focus on a multitude rather than a single change-agent. Cromwell is central to Mantel’s focus and rarely absent from the foreground; Ghosh, by contrast, has no single central character but a set that expands from one novel to the next, and characters who seem at first to be primary (Deeti, Zachary, Paulette, Neel, Ah-Fatt) disappear for hundreds of pages while others emerge. A similar difference concerns setting: Mantel’s novels leave London only rarely, following a few characters to the European continent and to the English homes of Queen Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour. Ghosh’s trilogy follows the course of opium, instead, from the Gangetic plains where it is grown to the factory in Ghazipur where it is packaged, to ships crossing the Indian Ocean, to Canton’s “Fanqui-town” where foreigners negotiate with the Chinese, to Singapore and Hong Kong where British and Indian armed forces gather to fight for the right to sell it.



Like other writers in the burgeoning genre of contemporary historical fiction, Ghosh researches carefully and with pleasure; his representation of historical detail reflects extensive reading, often in original archival sources. With a D. Phil. in social anthropology from Oxford, Ghosh is an enthusiastic researcher who sees close linkages between fiction and history; he tells an interviewer, “Novels create narratives and in this sense […] they actually make history, or rather the telling of history, possible” (Khan). David Simpson writes that “All of Ghosh’s books are informed by historical research, both political and scientific”; he aptly calls Sea of Poppies “subaltern history, written from below” in order to counter the “hegemonic silence of colonial history” (Simpson). Ghosh tells one reviewer of Sea of Poppies that he “looked at a lot of crew lists and passenger manifests of actual ships that sailed the Indian Ocean in the nineteenth century” and noted contrasts between white officers and cosmopolitan Lascari crew (Trachtenberg). Ghosh explains that the Ghazipur opium factory in Sea of Poppies continues to exist and to produce opium; he found a detailed account of its nineteenth-century operation in “Notes on an Opium Factory” written by the factory’s superintendent at the time (Trachtenberg). Ghosh researched the language used by nineteenth-century English speakers and, though all three novels appear remarkably full of bilingualisms, archaisms, and possibly invented words, he says that he resolved to use “very few” words not listed in the “Oxford Dictionary” (Trachtenberg). Ghosh combines a commitment to historical detail with a sweeping vision of world-historical wreckage brought about by imperial capitalism. He does not share the Western view of history as a linear progress: “I don’t believe that history is moving towards something, some sort of good point. I don’t believe it has teleology or […] a redemptive message” (Khan). The trilogy emerged from his initial interest in the worldwide spread of Indian indentured laborers, which he understands as a new captivity replacing African slaves after abolition: “India was to the nineteenth century what Africa was to the eighteenth—in the sense that it was a huge pool of essentially captive labor” (Khan). Sea of Poppies dramatizes the oppression of Indian farmers in the service of an opium monoculture; deceptive practices by the East India Company force farmers to plant only opium poppies whose sale at Company prices leaves them unable to feed their families, sinking in ever-greater debt to the Company. Replacing slave-labor on plantations in Mauritius, the displaced Indians who sail on the Ibis are also captives of the slave trade. Boat-men, sailors, and sepoys are similarly channeled into service to the Company, either shipping opium



or fighting for the right to sell it. To represent the wreckage of an imperialist and capitalist world-system in operation, Ghosh approaches his subject through multiple characters swept together by the global opium trade. Where Mantel locates her narrative at the moment of liberations shaping the modern British state, Ghosh emphasizes instead the interlocking qualities of a world economy beyond understanding or control as characters from many nations meet, travel, mate, argue, and befriend each other. Zachary Reid, a biracial American who passes as white, sails from Maryland to Calcutta on the Ibis, a former slave ship now retrofitted to transport girmitiyas or indentured Indians to Mauritius. Deeti, a widowed farmer who has never seen the sea, flees the unacceptable choice between sati or abuse by brutal in-laws and becomes a girmitiya; Paulette flees sexual abuse and pressure to marry an elderly judge. Baboo Nob Kissin, a religious devotee and gomusta or accountant, pursues an avatar of the divine Krishna as he joins the ship. Neel Rattan Halder, a high-caste zamindar, loses his property and becomes the cell-mate and friend of Ah-Fatt, the illegitimate son of a Parsi opium trader and a Chinese cook. In River of Smoke, some of these characters are joined in Canton (Guangzhou) by Ah-Fatt’s father Bahram Modi and Modi’s friend Zadig Bey, an effusive painter named Robin Chinnery, and Fitcher, a Scottish botanist. In Flood of Fire, Burnham’s wife seduces Zachary Reid in Calcutta, while Deeti’s brother Kesri Singh accompanies his East India Company regiment to China to participate in the first opium war; Modi’s wife Shireen and Zadig Bey become involved as they sail to China. Other characters in one or more of the novels include traders, investors, servants, ship owners, Lascar sailors, havildars and sepoys with the East India Company, addicts, and children. Women occupy much of the novel’s attention, and their thoughts and actions extend far beyond choosing a mate. If Ghosh’s trilogy can be imagined as having a central character, it might be the successful British trader Benjamin Burnham, who appears in all three novels and manipulates some events. The novel’s most accomplished exceptionalist, he lacks education, social position, honor, and political astuteness; he is made by and dedicated to trade and commerce. On those grounds, he claims exceptional rights for business, and particularly his own, to overcome the ethical, humanitarian, and national objections of the Chinese to the import of opium; he argues that freedom itself requires opium to be forced onto a reluctant China. He says that the opium war “will be for a principle: for freedom—for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people” (Sea, 106). Burnham believes



in “Free Trade,” which has the force of a divine commandment and a law of nature (Sea 435). As Ghosh ironically observes, however, the trade in opium is not free, but instead relies on the Company’s monopoly to enrich its own powerful British shareholders; while Britain waged war in the name of free trade, “they were trading in a substance, opium, that was produced as a monopoly of the East India Company” (Khan). Despite his wealth and power within the expatriate British communities in Calcutta and Canton’s “Fanqui-Town,” Benjamin Burnham is represented with more ironic mockery than most other exceptionalist figures in recent historical novels. To achieve sexual release, he requires to be spanked, preferably by very young women; Paulette and a servant discover that he left a liquid trail as he slid worm-like across the floor after one of the “punishments” he solicited. More, he is cuckolded by his wife, who remains emotionally bonded to her first love, a soldier too poor to marry, and who chooses Zachary Reid as a partner for a very funny sexual affair. A figure of significant economic power and bombast, Burnham reflects the exceptionalist’s indifference to the devastation his systems cause; the novel’s millionaire, he effectively steals the zamindary of Neel Rattan Halder and strips Neel of his caste and family, but he remains as oblivious to the impact on the Halder family as he is blind to the devastations of the opium trade throughout India and China. While Mantel’s central figure Cromwell dominates the text and has “his men” but no community, alliances and affiliations characterize the multitude in Ghosh’s trilogy. Born or made subaltern, characters aptly called “the precariat” by Eddy Kent7 lose home and family to the imperatives of the opium trade, whose scale and operations they cannot comprehend. Unlike Cromwell, they lack knowledge, power, and vision; they are unable to see the global trade or their own part in it, to analyze others’ motives, or to reshape historical events. Out of dispossession and displacement, they create instead what Cromwell lacks: a community in relationship, memorably named “ship-siblings” by Paulette on the Ibis in Sea of Poppies: “From now on and forever afterwards, we will all be ship-siblings—jeházbhais and jeházbahens—to each other. There’ll be no differences between us” (328). The women in the ship’s hold recognize the importance and value of this declaration, “so daring, so ingenious”; in response, they take each other’s hands in a “common communion of touch” (328). Arising from chance events that bring them together and forged in an instant recognition, this community is characterized by reciprocity, mutual responsibility, and collaboration. The diverse beings in the hold, girmitiyas



destined for coolie labor in Mauritius, form bonds out of a chosen obligation to each other, demonstrated in Deeti’s assumption of responsibility in the marriage of two girmitiyas and Neel’s tender care for Ah Fatt, as well as other events occurring throughout the trilogy. Rather than a single subject like Cromwell, Ghosh’s trilogy focuses on intricate webs of community linking the characters. Set in different historical periods and written in different nations, contemporary historical fictions of “wreckage” replace sanitized, national romance versions of the state’s past with troubling accounts of lives damaged by violence, injustice, and oppression, legitimated as necessary by-­ products of the exceptional state’s pursuit of its goals. These novels focus on the lives, travels, trials, and deaths of Others whose loss stands as a collective reproof to the exceptionalist state. The novels also represent communities at the edges of and invisible to exceptionalist states, in which people join each other across tribes, genders, races, religions, and national origins to live together in loosely organized alternative communities; these not only sustain and support individuals, but also model the potential for better forms of social life.

Notes 1. Moretti makes an allied point in Atlas of the European Novel (1998), arguing that nineteenth-century historical novels take place in the proximity of borders (35), engage “internal borders” that “define modern states as composite structures” containing “internal unevenness,” and then “abolish it. Historical novels are not just stories ‘of’ the border, but of its erasure, and of the incorporation of the internal periphery into the larger unit of the state” (40). In contemporary historical novels, by contrast, internal divisions and borders created by exceptionalist logics remain; the state relies on and perpetuates them. 2. For a discussion of the narrative turn in history and its implications for historical fiction, see especially Robinson 3–24. 3. Doležel notes that Hutcheon and McHale (in Postmodernist Fiction, 1987) wrote “the best books available on postmodern fiction” (91). He disagrees, however, with their claim that fiction expresses “a rather abstract argument concerning the epistemology of historiography”: “What I see here is an ideological position that tries to find its confirmation in fiction” (90). 4. In Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (2001), Elias follows Hutcheon in understanding history as a desired “truth” that is unattainable and inaccessible (xviii).



5. Writing in 1989, Olster formulates the concept of “subjective historicism” to describe individual approaches to history in the absence of a verifiable sense of the real (139). 6. Rousselot’s edited collection on contemporary “neo-historical” fiction calls the genre “something of a contradiction” and a “composite” of new and old. Southgate suggests that novelists approach “a new type of history” as rhetoric (3); Buchanan reads the historical novel as “an adaptable, reflexive form of communication” (3). Mitchell and Parsons collect essays on historical fiction from 1700 to the present to highlight shifts and continuities in historical representation and reading practices (2). 7. Kent adapts the term from economist Guy Standing, who coins the term by joining “proletariat” and “precarity” to describe Victorian victims of economic turbulence. See Kent 118.

References Anderson, Perry. 2011. From Progress to Catastrophe. London Review of Books 33 (15): 24–28. Accessed 19 Mar 2018. Berlatsky, Eric L. 2011. The Real, the True, and the Told: Postmodern Historical Narrative and the Ethics of Representation. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. Boxall, Peter. 2013. Twenty-First-Century Fiction: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Brantly, Susan C. 2017. The Historical Novel, Transnationalism, and the Postmodern Era: Presenting the Past. New York: Routledge. Buchanan, David. 2017. Acts of Modernity: The Historical Novel and Effective Communication, 1814–1901. New York: Routledge. Dalley, Hamish. 2014. The Postcolonial Historical Novel: Realism, Allegory, and the Representation of Contested Pasts. London: Palgrave Macmillan. De Groot, Jerome. 2016. Remaking History: The Past in Contemporary Historical Fictions. New York: Routledge. Doležel, Lubomír. 2010. Possible Worlds of Fiction and History: The Postmodern Stage. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Elias, Amy J. 2001. Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Ghosh, Amitav. 2008. Sea of Poppies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ———. 2011. River of Smoke. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ———. 2015. Flood of Fire. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hannah, Kristin. 2015. The Nightingale. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. Hutcheon, Linda. 1988. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge.



———. 1989. The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge. Jameson, Fredric. 2013. The Antinomies of Realism. London: Verso. Kent, Eddy. 2015. ’Ship-Siblings’: Globalisation, Neoliberal Aesthetics, and Neo-­ Victorian Form in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Neo-Victorian Studies 8 (1): 107–130. Khan, Azeen. 2013. Novel Interview, Ghosh—History Is at the Heart of the Novel. Novel: A Forum on Fiction. 27 March. news/2013/03/27/novel-interview-ghosh-history-is-at-the-heart-of-thenovel. Accessed 20 Feb 2019. Lukács, Georg. 1978. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell, 1962. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press. Mantel, Hilary. 2009. Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt. ———. 2012. Bring Up the Bodies. New York: Henry Holt. ———. 2020. The Mirror & the Light. New York: Henry Holt. McHale, Brian. 1987. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Routledge. Mitchell, Kate, and Nicola Parsons. 2013. Reading Historical Fiction: The Revenant and Remembered Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Moretti, Franco. 1998. Atlas of the European Novel 1800–1900. New York: Verso. Olster, Stacey. 1989. Reminiscence and Re-creation in Contemporary American Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ———. 2017. The Cambridge Introduction to Contemporary American Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Robinson, Alan. 2011. Narrating the Past: Historiography, Memory and the Contemporary Novel. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Rousselot, Elodie. 2014. Exoticizing the Past in Contemporary Neo-Historical Fiction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Simpson, David. 2009. At the Opium Factory. London Review of Books. 22 October. Accessed 20 Feb 2019. Simpson, Mona. Hilary Mantel: Art of Fiction No. 226. Issue 212, spring 2015. Paris Review. 1 March 2019. Southgate, Beverley. 2015. ‘A New Type of History’: Fictional proposals for dealing with the past. New York: Routledge. Trachtenberg, Jeffrey A. 2008. Pirates, Opium and Servitude: Retracing India’s Past. Wall Street Journal. 22 October. SB122469794798358955. Accessed 20 Feb 2019. White, Hayden. 1973. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-­ Century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Slavery and the Maroon Community: Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger

Barry Unsworth’s novel Sacred Hunger represents the global slave trade and the lives of wealth and privilege it enabled in mid-eighteenth-century England. Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 1992 (together with another historical novel of wreckage, Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient), the novel explores the state and imperial exceptionalisms that supported the slave trade, together with the potential for an alternative, egalitarian community based on the sharing of power and resources. In many ways, this 630-page novel provides an ideal starting point for analysis of the kind of historical fictions written “after the wreck.” Like other novels analyzed in this book, it is closely and carefully researched; Unsworth spent most of a decade becoming expert on the triangular trade and its global impact. Like other novels, it is artfully constructed to contrast an imperial exceptionalist state supporting (and reaping) capitalist profit with an imaginary sociality functioning through the barter and exchange of goods and services, consensual decision-making, and implicit commitments to equality and justice. The novel’s form supports this alternative vision of community with an inclusive, empathetic perspective. Unsworth’s commitment to the political and ethical nature of historical fiction makes his work an ideal starting point as well. He calls Sacred Hunger a “moral fable”: “I’m interested in moral issues. I think this is the prime ground for writers of fiction … our moral development, the choices that we make” (Humphrey 19). He writes about power: “I have always been interested in the workings of power, private and political, its abuses © The Author(s) 2020 S. Strehle, Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community,




and hypocrisies, the bullies and the victims” (Haskell). More, he aims to undermine entrenched powers and considers serious fiction subversive. His comments in interviews reveal Unsworth’s dismay over the impacts of Margaret Thatcher’s leadership (1979–90), which firmly established British exceptionalism (“she put the ‘Great’ back into ‘Great Britain,’” her daughter claims, BBC). Under Thatcher, income inequality and unemployment expanded dramatically, together with what the BBC calls “the culture of greed and selfishness” that her “divisive economic policies […] allegedly promoted” (BBC). Unsworth recalls, “It was impossible to live in the Eighties without being affected by the sanctification of greed” (Hogan). He found “inescapable analogies” between the “crass and distasteful” economic doctrines of the Thatcher government and the eighteenth-­century imperial/capitalist doctrines that advanced the slave trade, which he describes as “a perfect model for that kind of total devotion to the profit motive without reckoning the human consequences” (Kemp 362).1 In both past and present centuries, Unsworth condemns an exceptionalism that validates greed while disavowing the misery of its Others—subaltern slaves in 1750, subaltern poor, immigrant, unemployed, and disenfranchised in 1980. In both iterations, the state of exception sustains and feeds on a global network of interlocking imperial exceptionalisms. Following a mutiny at sea, the slave ship Liverpool Merchant is grounded and hidden in south Florida in 1753. Only fourteen African women survive, together with a small group of white crew members (perhaps eleven) and a slightly larger group of African men (around eighteen). The survivors build a fragile community expressing principles of Enlightenment equality and justice: all members are equal and free. Theoretically basic to European societies, these principles were sacrificed throughout Europe to capitalist profits from the slave trade; claiming exceptional moral status as conveyors of Western Christianity to the global South, European states authorized exceptions to their laws and principles, restricted equality and justice to exceptional white European men, and legitimated the enslavement of Africans and other darker races. Delblanc, Unsworth’s community theorist, calls “sacred hunger” the European imperial practice that sanctifies greed by conferring exceptional legitimacy on money, those who have it, the hunger for more of it, and the means used to procure it (325). As an alternative, Delblanc hopes the men and women in Florida will illustrate forms of natural goodness in a community based on shared governance, without money or the corruption it breeds (536). In place of



government, they have the “Palaver,” a community-wide forum for consensus-­building decisions, orchestrated by a leader elected on each occasion to help resolve issues or disputes. In place of money, they have barter, or non-capitalist exchange: pumpkins for deer meat, grass baskets for turkey, labor for sweet potatoes. Theft is rare (561); ingenuity and expertise flourish. The community establishes a woman-approved polyandry, where sexual behavior requires consent by the woman and involves two or three men sharing each woman (500). State and tribe become less significant, with only two or three surviving members from any national or tribal origin except England. Speakers of several African languages and regional Englishes, they agree to use the pidgin-English developed in African slave economies as the shared language (569). They share the children born into the community, rather than claiming them as bearers of name and lineage (503). In theory, then, differences of race, tribe, language, wealth, class, and religion are neutralized, and therefore power and resources are shared equally among all members of the community. This social experiment makes a special kind of sense in the aftermath of the slave ship, which has been its virtual opposite: capitalist, racist, imperialist, and hierarchical, dedicated to converting African peoples into salable objects yielding wealth for the merchant who owns the ship. Slaves are examined, chained, branded, and treated as merchandise with a bodily but not human value; without communication and by the pure application of force, they are stripped of agency, identity, and voice. The slave ship, like slavery itself, is also sexist, reducing women to objects of commercial, sexual, and potentially reproductive value. Captain Thurso measures the value of a hymen exactly, noting that it will bring ten additional guineas in the woman’s sale (216). The ship’s crew operates hierarchically as well, with impressed and virtually enslaved white crew members fed less than slaves and beaten for minor infractions. Flourishing at the height of Enlightenment idealism about social orders dedicated to liberty, fraternity, and equality, the slave trade demonstrates exceptionalism’s massive rationalization on a global scale. It gives the lie to every value and principle undergirding European states, makes the entire continent of Africa into a “site of exception,” and converts vast, “excepted” populations, including poor white crew members, into free labor for global profits they do not share. While Unsworth’s novel was highly praised by reviewers and awarded the Man Booker Prize, critics have written surprisingly little about Sacred Hunger a quarter century after its publication; the MLA Bibliography lists



only thirteen essays analyzing Sacred Hunger in 2020. These essays agree on the novel’s strengths, which combine an ambitiously broad focus with imaginative creation of character and event, all grounded in extensive, researched knowledge about the eighteenth-century world. Greg Forter praises Unsworth as “a historical novelist of uncommon depth and erudition” (2010, 779); he writes that Sacred Hunger attempts “nothing less than a cognitive map […] of racial capitalism in the Atlantic world of the eighteenth century” (2016, 1330). Peggy Knapp comments on the “distinctive contribution” of the novel “in its fusion of sweep with intimacy” as it portrays “the economic, political, and ideological systems that surround, produce, and critique the horror” of slavery (336). Christopher Mulvey writes that Unsworth “uses a knowledge of the British eighteenth-­ century maritime world” to produce a “significant social and moral statement” (175), and Carl Plasa praises the “meticulously achieved historical authenticity” of Sacred Hunger. Like many successful historical novels, Sacred Hunger uses authentic and accurate historical detail; like contemporary historical fiction “after the wreck,” it produces a vivid representation of an era in which state exceptionalisms created human wreckage. Most of the essays on Unsworth’s novel comment on the distinctive Florida community as a positive utopian alternative to the European societies of its time, though few see its relation to historical Maroon communities. For example, Peggy Knapp returns, through Jameson’s comment that all utopias refer to Thomas More’s text, to consider parallels between Utopia and Sacred Hunger in their yearning for social justice and indictments of corruption. In three significant essays on the novel, Greg Forter writes that it contains “a utopianism that is rigorous and skeptical” (2012, 157). He sees in Unsworth’s Florida community a compelling utopian vision: “The seriousness and ambition of the novel’s utopianism therefore remain striking. I know of no other novel outside of the genre of science fiction with anything like this fully elaborated yet historically grounded attempt to dream an alternative social order” (2010, 807). In the enlarged context of a third essay, Forter places Unsworth’s novel in a genre of postcolonial historical fiction that recovers lost and hidden stories, “resources for the radical imagination,” that have been effaced by history: “They retrieve from the dustbin of history the unassimilable, heterogeneous traces of stories that resist our dominant historiography” (2016, 1332). Like Knapp, Forter emphasizes the utopian qualities of the social community in Florida, rendering it a symbolic site of resistance rather than a historical representation of alternative communities formed by Maroons at



the edges of slave societies, including in Florida. As Toni Carrier writes for the Africana History Project, “By the time of the Revolutionary War, Florida had been a haven for runaway slaves” practicing “communal agriculture and hunting” for more than seventy years. Historian Kevin Mulroy traces relations between Seminole Indians in Florida and escaped African slaves to argue that these “Seminole Freedmen” “should be considered maroons” (xxiii).2 The community in Sacred Hunger is important not only for its communal values but also for its reference to ongoing historical resistance to slavery. Forter’s project is allied with mine in several ways; he admirably names the stakes in Unsworth’s novel and identifies community itself as an ideal. My reading differs from Forter’s in two principal ways: first, I understand Unsworth’s imagination as responsive to history rather than utopian idealism, and thus the Florida community as a fictionalized version of the Maroon communities resisting slavery in the 1760s. Second, Forter’s analysis argues for the contemporary rebirth of historical fiction out of the “non-national” economic logic of speculative capital. Invoking Lukács and Moretti, he traces the “classical historical novel” to the early nineteenth century “as a way to mourn prenational assemblages while affirming the national form that emerged from their destruction” (2016, 1340). Drawing on Baucom and Arrighi, Forter argues that the genre’s rebirth in the late twentieth century reflects a phase in which finance capital celebrates its ability to generate profits out of abstract speculation; the renewed genre, he concludes, “is born from the reemergence of a speculative capital that ‘turns its back on the thingly world’” (2016, 1342). While he sees contemporary historical fiction as global and “non-national” (2016, 1329), I understand an important group of these novels as engaging in a targeted critique of nationalisms for their manipulations of the “thingly world” to advance capitalist profits. Rather than speculative global abstractions, I find sustained attention in the fictions to specific historical wreckage, as historical fictions continue to address questions of nation, now underscoring the ways nationalism consolidates exceptional power for the few while constructing sites of exception that strip human rights from the many. Rather than abstractions of capital, the form of the novel commits historical fiction to portraits of individual capitalists and slaves, particular instantiations of nationalist expansions, and unique developments of the exceptionalist logic of empire. In my reading, Unsworth’s novel places the exceptionalist attitude at the heart of capitalist “sacred hunger.”



Unsworth develops the Florida collective as a plausible historical Maroon community, and thus Sacred Hunger presents it as historically shaped, egalitarian in vision but competitive in practice as a result of experiences shaping individual citizens, and haunted by the toxic history of slavery, rather than truly utopian in the sense of idealized, perfected, free of suffering, and, etymologically, “no place.” However generous the ideals of the Florida settlement, Unsworth’s novel depicts an imperfect and non-­ idealized social group, tangled in complex motivations shaped by memories and histories, all of which threaten the community’s cohesiveness and survival. The novel sets a substantive section in the community; in part 9, a section of just over a hundred pages, Unsworth presents several characters’ reflections on its origins and challenges, all grounded in the same exceptionalist logic that brought them to Florida. Given the length and richness of the novel, few critics have looked closely at this section; while Raphaël Lambert argues that the community “is intrinsically flawed” by the lack of an explicit social contract (130), I will show that the community frays, instead, when members claim exceptions to the implicit social contract that has bound members in a community beyond nation and capital. Indeed, this alternative community distinguishes the novel in its dramatic rejection of the premises supporting the global slave trade, where exceptionalism permitted white Europeans to enslave their Others. Sacred Hunger explores capitalist greed, sanctified by the imperial state, the law, the church, the men’s club, and the theater. Focused on imperialism at the height of the slave-trade, the novel portrays a large cast of characters in England, Africa, and the new world; many of them approve of slavery, endorse hierarchies of race, class, and gender, and understand power as the ability to dominate and oppress, in exception to law and principle. Most characters struggle from day to day, unaware of the powers that limit their lives. A few characters understand and support Enlightenment concepts of freedom and equality; as history unfolds, these values inspire but do not control the alternative community in Florida. To demonstrate the novel’s engagement with history, I begin in part 1 by sketching the extensive range of Unsworth’s research on slavery, the middle passage, and its impacts in the eighteenth century. Part 2 focuses on exceptionalist assumptions and practices in the novel, including those in the Liverpool country house and on the ship, both grounded in sacred hunger and fixed in imperial spaces of exception. The Florida community develops an egalitarian sociality that leads to trade and sharing; however, the settlers carry histories steeped in the same global capitalism and the



same drive to gain exceptional status that led each of them to the slave ship. As a result, the community is threatened but not destroyed before Kemp returns to reclaim the humans he regards as his property. In part 3, I show that Unsworth’s narrative uses omniscience to create a broadly inclusive text with multiple stories, but he declines the imperial certainty that accompanies traditional forms of omniscience. He structures the text around pairings, but rather than binary oppositions that reflect easy separations of good and evil, master and slave, he insists on complex interconnections that undermine easy judgments.

A History of Research Sacred Hunger occupied Barry Unsworth for almost a decade, during which he devoted himself to extensive research and became an expert on the slave trade. Like other writers of historical fiction, he sought opportunities to do archival research, feeding his fascination with the subject and enlivening his fiction with vivid detail. Like his compatriot Hilary Mantel, Unsworth has a commitment to history and a belief that novelists should start with “the facts as we have them” (Simpson); like Mantel, he occasionally wrote in other genres, but most of his seventeen novels are historical. His writing normally followed research; he gathered historical material in journals and scrapbooks as he began each novel (Kemp 360). In 1985, when he published Stone Virgin, Unsworth moved to Liverpool, which had served as the capital of the slave trade from the mid-1750s onward (Rediker 53).3 He experienced his first case of writer’s block and turned that into a novel, Sugar and Rum (1988) about a novelist doing research as he tries to write about the eighteenth-century slave trade. While he spends two years exploring Liverpool’s involvement in the trade, the fictional Clive Benson reads about the historical Zong case, brought to court in 1782, in which the ship’s captain threw 132 living slaves overboard to drown; the Zong’s owners petitioned for insurance restitution of 32 pounds for each murdered slave. Denying the appeal, the court ruled for the first time that slaves were not simply merchandise.4 This historical atrocity generates the crisis in Sacred Hunger, when slaves and crew join in mutiny against Captain Saul Thurso and the survivors settle in Florida.5 Unsworth did research on the slave trade in multiple sources, and details from his fictional descriptions in Sacred Hunger were validated as history fifteen years later in Marcus Rediker’s book, The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007).6 For example, Unsworth writes about the



damage done to slaves’ skin from the unplaned boards below decks (SH 381); Rediker describes the same conditions, as the slaves suffer abrasions that rub “the skin from their hips, elbows, and shoulders” (Slave 274). The newly constructed Liverpool Merchant in Sacred Hunger has thick rails designed to prevent the slaves from leaping to their deaths (SH 9); ribs of a historical ship commissioned in 1745 are “left high enough to Support Rails all round […] to prevent suicidal slaves from jumping overboard” (Slave 51). Reaching a first landfall in Africa, Unsworth’s crew members meet the tall, obese slave-seller called “Yellow Henry” (SH 200). Rediker identifies Henry Tucker as a “big man” on the Sierra Leone coast, a “bicultural mulatto merchant” who is “big in wealth, power, status, and physical stature” (Slave 82). Henry negotiates for “dashee,” drinks brandy with Thurso, and exchanges some slaves for brass kettles, bright cotton cloth, and folding knives (SH 202–10); he rejects the muskets Thurso offers because these “Brumgem” muskets destroy men’s fingers (SH 213). Rediker writes that “dashee” was common in slave buying from dealers, food and liquor was shared, and negotiations followed the same “complex, drawn-out process of deal-making” represented in Unsworth’s novel (Slave 207). Rediker also notes that muskets were “the largest part of the cargo” (Slave 208), valued for the power they gave the trader to acquire more slaves. In Sacred Hunger, Yellow Henry has his escorts display their maimed hands with missing fingers; these were lost as they used muskets he calls “brummagem,” which has a current pejorative meaning of shoddy and worthless. In 1750, the term identified the muskets as products of Birmingham, England, a city devoted to metal works—including muskets and many of the other metal goods traded for slaves. Writing in 1844, Johann Georg Kohl visited the “proof shed” in Birmingham where newly produced muskets were tested; he reported that seven of the hundred twenty guns had exploded as they were fired; sometimes, the manager explained, as many as one in five exploded (Kohl 8). Testing was required of each gun before sale in 1844, suggesting that the problems encountered by the Africans had also occurred in the British navy, the main purchaser of the weapons. The Africans’ missing fingers reflect Unsworth’s detailed knowledge of the guns used in the slave trade. Research into the eighteenth-century cotton trade, which played a central role in England’s journey toward the nineteenth-century industrial revolution, appears in the novel as well.7 William Kemp has made a fortune trading in English printed cottons (53). Grown in India and printed in



England, cotton was one of the most prominent products (with guns and alcohol) traded to Africa in exchange for slaves; Kemp had been an indirect participant in the slave trade all along.8 His fortunes changed when the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–14) and the War of the Austrian Succession (1744–48) created blockades that prevented both the import of raw cotton and the export of printed cotton. When the latest war ends in 1748, Kemp gambles on a new boom in the cotton trade that fails to materialize; he emerges with bills he cannot pay and cotton he cannot sell (169). Kemp’s decision to enter the slave trade enables him to use the excess cotton in the purchase of slaves, increasing his potential profits within a single global system of commerce. Unsworth’s knowledge of the history of the slave trade led to his inclusion among experts, primarily academic historians, cited in the Public Broadcasting System series, “Africans in America.” Among the “modern voices” on the website, Unsworth answers questions about the slave trade and the middle passage. The site contains several documents with which he was familiar; Doctor Alexander Falconbridge’s account of his voyage on a slave ship provides support for Matthew Paris’s account. The site characterizes figures like Nicolas Owen, a British factor who took a position in Africa buying slaves for export; Owen’s journal shows no “compassion for slaves or the least bit of remorse for being in the slave trade” (Africans in America).9 In Sacred Hunger, Matthew Paris visits a factor named Timothy Owen, who dehumanizes Africans and justifies their enslavement by his need for wealth (SH 262–66). The historical Nicolas Owen died in Africa in 1759; the fictional Timothy Owen faces a similar future. Unsworth represents the period with impressive historical accuracy in Sacred Hunger. Peggy Knapp comments on the appropriateness of the Wolpert family’s use of Davenant’s (and Dryden’s) Enchanted Isle rather than Shakespeare’s Tempest, writing that Davenant’s play was preferred over Shakespeare’s and performed until about 1750 and thus, “historically more likely to have been available to the Wolpert family” (Knapp 327). Bruce Mouser, an academic historian specializing in the slave trade, praises Unsworth’s command of eighteenth-century English, his use of nautical terms, and his detailed knowledge of trading on the Sierra Leone coast: He used all the requisite terms (pawning, panyaring, coffles, barracoons, Poro, sallet for medicine, guinea worms, bar rates and composition, branding) that scholars have come to recognize as important to this section of



coast, and he used them correctly. The Liverpool Merchant engaged in coasting, a practice of moving along the coast, filling its cargo with small bunches of slaves, until its captain arrived on the Gold Coast, where he received his full complement. (Mouser)

While research grounds all of Unsworth’s novels, Sacred Hunger draws on a wide range of historical knowledge. The period of writer’s block that facilitated research, coupled with a subject that deeply engaged Unsworth, led to the most ambitious and successful novel of his career. Sacred Hunger grounds its invented fiction in vivid and accurate detail, and the result is a uniquely powerful literary account of slavery and the middle passage.

Exceptional Systems and the Excepted Maroon Community In his extended meditation on the implications of the Zong massacre, Specters of the Atlantic, Ian Baucom considers slaves as a polity subject to law but excluded from legal representation; they can be killed but not sacrificed, so they belong to the group Agamben calls homo sacer. Drawing on Agamben, Badiou, and Žižek, Baucom argues that the slave ship occupies one of “occidental modernity’s classical spaces of exception,” areas in which “the law legally suspends itself” (188). In Baucom’s view, the massacre of slaves by the Zong exposed the “rule of living in a permanent state of exception […] that moment in which the sovereign law of death fundamental to modern Atlantic slavery, the law that permitted the slave to be killed without thereby being sacrificed, realizes itself” (188–89). Baucom’s analysis supplements Agamben and Badiou, both of whom overlook slavery’s suspension of citizenship in the law to create bare life; Baucom points to the networked system of capitalist states that collaborate to create a single global state of exception. What makes the slave trade particularly modern is its anticipation of global trade—and of globally linked exceptionalisms—on a massive scale, suspending nations’ laws and principles in the interest of expanded wealth. Sacred Hunger explores the creation of a global state of exception to support systems that produce profit. The novel requires its 600-page length, its large cast of characters, and its several settings in order to portray interconnected systems at work, moving people and goods, acquiring people and land, in order to secure maximum opportunities for acquisition and sale. Law enters the novel only ironically and at the will of the



church, to imprison and shame Matthew Paris when he publishes a theory of evolution. Believing that the British legal system exists to reinforce the claims of the wealthy, Erasmus Kemp expects and receives legal support in repossessing his slaves; he claims the authority of law to vindicate Thurso’s decision to throw living slaves into the sea (609). In the absolute state of exception where law can justify the murder of living humans, only the powerful mercantile interest of the insurance company, its refusal to pay for “merchandise” wantonly jettisoned, raises the question of legal rights; ignoring the human rights of the murdered, the question is limited to the rights of the owner as against the rights of the insurer. Under the conditions created by these interlocking systems, community is one of the casualties; people who sell each other have no basis for trust or community. Through its first 500 pages, Unsworth’s novel represents the absence of communal bonds in the exceptional space of empire; in the last section, he imagines a distinctive counter-community based on bartered and shared resources for survival. For much of Book One, Sacred Hunger appears designed to contrast two different social units: the apparently easy, prosperous life among the trading class in Liverpool and the brutal dictatorship by Captain Thurso over all living beings aboard a slave ship that sails from Liverpool to the west coast of Africa. In the country house, young people divert themselves with preparations to perform a play, while Erasmus Kemp’s growing attraction to Sarah Wolpert reflects the realm of leisure and courtship. On the ship, the singular and determined pursuit of profit dictates every action and relation. With its figurehead of the Spirit of Commerce and its hierarchical ordering of crew members defined by roles in delivering merchandise to market, the rigidly governed ship appears dedicated to pursuits in the public realm. The characters in Liverpool occupy instead a private social realm; their actions appear to be guided more by interest and feeling than strictly defined purpose, and thus the characters seem more flexible and free than those on the ship. As the novel progresses, it alternates with some regularity between these two settings, forming contrasts between them. In reality, however, the novel illuminates connections between these two worlds and exposes close linkages that bind them. The most obvious is financial: trade and shipping produce wealth in Liverpool, and while the city’s patriarchs regard the slave trade as a risky investment, none disapproves of it on moral grounds. They profit from Liverpool’s status as a shipping capital, combined with England’s status as the head of a global



empire; Unsworth’s narrator observes that these businessmen fully understand the Triangular Trade; in fact, many of them profit from the trade directly or indirectly (17). They have already made exceptions and practiced disavowals to profit from slavery, which funds their country houses; these in turn rely on, support, and justify the slave trade. The trade supports Vicar Reverend Mansell, an aptly named priest who wears elegant and expensive clothing funded by the sale of slaves (181). Far from opposed realms, the ship serves as emissary, salesman, and banker for the house, and the house serves as the ship’s home base, providing a showpiece for the rich profits from the trade. As different in tone as they seem, the ship and the country house share the same worldview and the same hierarchical organization for accomplishing their ends. Since their power depends on capital, both are governed by patriarchal figures—indeed, absolute rulers—whose primary motivation is to control and expand their holdings. More blunt and given to explosive rage than his Liverpool counterparts, Captain Saul Thurso controls his crew through fear, telling Paris “There is only one way to take aboard ship” (41). But rule in Liverpool is no less authoritarian. In a deliberate echo, the play’s director announces that “There is only one way to see Caliban” (142). The vicar vetoes the curate’s participation in the play (183) and Wolpert senior sets the terms under which Erasmus Kemp may visit his daughter Sarah (127). Thurso’s control of men on the ship differs in tone and degree, but not in kind: as the ship departs, he orders the public construction of a massive rope whip to control the crew through fear (99). In both realms, wealthy white men assume a naturalized right to power over a social structure ranking people according to hierarchies of race, class, and gender. A reflection of his society, young Erasmus is shocked when Mrs. Wolpert offers an opinion on a business matter (229) and disdainful when the Wolperts’s old footman mumbles information (34). Prejudices of the same kind are amplified on the ship, where racist contempt for all Africans occurs alongside contempt for the disabled (Calley), for the young (the fourteen-year-old ship’s boy Charlie) and the old (an African woman with drooping breasts 205), for the class of seafaring men impressed onto the ship (“scum, sir” 43), and for all those lower in the hierarchy of the chain of command. Other social units in Sacred Hunger mirror the hierarchical power structures visible in Liverpool and on the ship. The fort in Ghana, overseen by a languid Governor supported by garrison troops (307–33), resembles the fort at St. Augustine, overseen by Governor Campbell and



supported by garrison troops (453–96). Both Governors seek profit with a single-minded passion. The unnamed, “slack-wristed, invalidish” Governor of the fort in Ghana, who bought his post with all his savings (322), demands high profits from the sale of slaves. The “small, cautious” Governor Campbell in Florida accepts Erasmus’s private bribe and sends troops to help him recover the “property” now living in the Maroon community (495). Glimpses of the global capitalist system also reveal that slavers steal from each other (some slaves in Ghana were removed by force from a Dutch slaver, 314) and that Europeans purchase Native Americans’ land for the same defective muskets and cotton with which they buy Africans (480). The decadent Trionfi Club, a secret society in London connecting leaders of the West India Association, exposes the thick braid of racism, misogyny, and violence that characterizes men of the Triangular Trade, while they celebrate their fiscal and phallic power (410). When the artist Delblanc identifies the “sacred hunger” he has painted on the Governor’s face, he links it directly with Europe’s exploitive capitalism, declaring that “the face of plunder and death” he has depicted “is the face of Europe in Africa” (328). In sharp contrast to social systems like the ship and the country house, both shaped by and serving imperial commerce, the Florida Maroons become a community of shared resources and power. Members have no money and no system for representing monetary value; instead, individual members develop unique talents for barter in the unsettled natural world of Florida. Hughes has become expert at killing deer with a bow and arrow (501); Sullivan knows the best places for shellfish (506); Tabakali and Sallian make the best koonti cakes (531); Nadri devises intricate and effective traps (529); Calley carries firewood to the community and exchanges it for food, sex, and shelter on occasion (543). The community’s collective needs foster the development of these individual talents, so members increase their abilities to find or create things others value; the narrator devotes attention to their individual gifts. When they want or need something, characters devise an appropriate offer of trade: on the day in focus, Inchebe, Billy Blair, Sullivan, and Sefadu all desire the attractive young Dinka Meri as a sexual partner. Sullivan hopes to attract her with music played on his fiddle, but Sefadu the artisan wins her with a necklace of ground pearls, an ornament prized by the women (546). Drawing on different interests and abilities, the community gains strength from its diversity and stimulates a wide variety of individual talents.



Choice, rather than coercion, guides most decisions in the community; all members have the right to choose. Of particular importance, women have the right to accept a partner or not, and their relative scarcity gives women more power in Florida than they have in Africa or England. Sexual violence is punished by death (Wilson); women may be courted but not conquered or controlled. Men and women can choose the work they do, whether in partnership (Billy and Inchebe, Tiamoko and Cavana) or alone (Hughes, Sullivan, Calley). They choose when, where, and how to work, so leisure is possible; Sefadu can devote a whole day to collecting pearls for Dinka. Women’s work alternatives depend on whether they have young children or not, but women exercise choices in what they make or cultivate as well. Men and women choose their relationship to land, whether to clear a plot, plant and tend a crop or not. These choices are open to characters regardless of their race, age, gender, ability, and tribal or national origin; the community renders them equal in the face of life choices, limited as those are by the wilderness setting. Children belong to the group and are raised as equals, whether they are Black or biracial; Black and white men share women without priority exercised by either race. The community has no government or ruler. Its theorist, Delblanc, plans a community without government or money (536). Delblanc exercises leadership by persuasion of the group, directed toward the creation of a communal society. He regards all members of the group (the captured and indentured white crew members as well as the Africans) as formerly enslaved, and he hopes to found an egalitarian community based on Enlightenment values of liberty and justice for all (517). He envisions a sociality governed by consensus, working out agreements through discussion; when early debates turn chaotic, Delblanc introduces a formal Palaver orchestrated by a director elected for each occasion and marked by a stick held in turn by each speaker (565). This design shares leadership throughout the group and creates an equality of voices. In an early moment in Florida, Delblanc persuades the group of Blacks and whites to kill a mixed group of slavers and to free their Indian captives. The action leads to an important friendship with the local Indians, rejects slavery, and affirms racial equality in the settlement. Twelve years later, when the narrative returns to the community shortly before Erasmus Kemp arrives, tensions have arisen. The three surviving Shantee men accuse Iboti, a Bulum, of planting a fetish to cause one of them to die; they demand three years’ unpaid labor from Iboti. Iboti’s skillful defender, Tongman, and a respected African woman, Koudi,



succeed in placing Iboti elsewhere at the time he was accused of planting the fetish; temporarily, justice is done. But Paris understands that the group of Shantee, led by Kireku, has conspired to enslave a less capable African, and he follows the community’s guiding principles when he visits Kireku to reason with him in dialogue. Paris argues that enslaving weaker members is wrong; it violates the principles and endangers the survival of the community. Kireku responds by rejecting his moral assumption and by dismissing the value of the community itself: this is not a special place, he claims, but “altageddar same adder place” (579). With the two other surviving Shantee, Kireku has begun to claim his male children in violation of the community’s custom and established rule (503). Paris realizes that Kireku is becoming wealthy as a result of trade links he has established to the north and to islands in the Caribbean (522). Kireku keeps “his” woman as a sole possession, uses Barton and Libby as sycophantic servants, and rejects the community’s founding principles (576). Disavowing his own history and demanding exceptions to the implicit contract holding the community together, Kireku reconstructs the capitalist economy that made him a slave. In reading the troubled state of the community before Erasmus arrives, published criticism has accounted in various ways for the rise of competitive profiteering and the re-introduction of sacred hunger or greed into the community. Some essays understand Kireku’s stance as a perennial human drive to dominate, or the will to power. Brantly writes that “the utopian ideals of the Enlightenment apparently cannot withstand the forces of the will to power and economic interests, the ‘sacred hunger’ that rules the world” (138). Elias agrees that the community “could never last long in the world because it crumples under the pressures of human needs for competition, power, and revenge” (177).10 Mulvey’s provocative argument that Unsworth has “smuggled two mid-twentieth-century liberals on board a mid-eighteenth-century slave ship” relies on a parallel judgment that the community could not succeed (185).11 The anachronistic vision of community advanced by Delblanc and Paris must inevitably fail, and their failure exposes “liberalism’s complicity with slavery” (Mulvey 187). In these readings, the ruptures that emerge in the community near the end of the novel arise either because human nature is flawed and inherently greedy, or because eighteenth-century humans were not ready for the communal links that had bound them for twelve years. Either way, these readings imply a degree of fatalism in Unsworth’s views.



Greg Forter makes a different claim about the fractures in the Florida community, essentially that its fictionalized stories about its origins congeal and ossify, reducing “the flexibility of fictive invention” (2010, 806). Fiction, he writes, plays a “liberatory role” in creating “utopian community” (2010, 802), in part because playing at being other resembles and helps to create empathy. In the Florida community, he believes, fictions ritually performed about the origins of the settlement implicate it “in the arrogance of system” (2010, 804) and rationalize its early violence. Perhaps fictions do confuse the children who perform them under the direction of teacher/translator/apologist Jimmy; Paris’s biracial son Kenka will remember the community sixty-seven years later, after he spends his adult life as a slave in the American colonies, as a “settlement where white and Black lived together in perfect accord” (1).12 But among the adult characters whose lives and thoughts the narrator attends in the hundred pages set in the community, understandings of the community’s history are far more complex, troubled, and sorrowful, as well as less exculpatory, than the fictive myths Jimmy teaches the children. Neither awareness nor empathy has diminished among these adults, nor have fictions ceased to be invented: Inchebe creates an imaginary rainstone (506), Tabakali an ironic joke about giving fish to the buzzards (530), Nadri an elegy for an unknown dead child (552), Hambo a fiction about a fetish on his roof (565), and Barton an invented reason for serving Kireku (582). Much of the competition between characters is good-humored and civil;13 the outcome of the Palaver shows that the system has neither ossified nor failed. Raphaël Lambert believes the community fails because Delblanc designed it with “no social contract,” assuming it marked “an ideal environment from which all the wrongs of his mid-eighteenth-century world […] have been eradicated” (124). Lambert sees the community as too loosely bound: “common rule is tacit rather than agreed” and commitment to the group “is voluntary rather than compulsory” (124). But the freeing of the Indian slaves and the murders of Wilson and the slave-takers demonstrate Delblanc’s awareness that old wrongs live in the new world and his intention to forge a social contract based on freedom, equality, and justice. Given the multiple languages and literacies of community members, the social contract is unwritten and unsigned; but it includes consciously articulated and formally adopted rules, set through lengthy discussion in the settlement’s early days, rather than tacit understandings. Claiming one’s own children, for example, is not allowed by rule (503).



The Palaver demonstrates its effectiveness: everyone appears, and the losers accept the verdict against them without protest. Lambert claims that the community “can only work with a complete abandonment of the self,” but the community has “no reliable authority to regulate citizens’ lives” (133). As I have shown, however, the novel establishes the authority of group consensus, which formally resolves disputes and makes its unifying power visible in gatherings like the funeral of the unknown boy (551–53) and the naming ceremony for Kavamoko (586–92). Nor is self-­ abandonment required; basic freedoms enable isolates like Hughes to work and live by himself and traders like Kireku to establish contacts beyond the community. The contract among community members is understood to enable their development of unique strengths and their freedom to adopt differing relationships to the community. The community struggles, instead, with the historical legacies and memories members have brought with them: they have lived with social contracts that failed to protect basic human rights. Rather than internal, psychological drives (though perhaps guiding those drives in some characters), experiences of imperial exceptionalism produce resistance to shared resources and power. Rather than a failure of human nature, a limitation of fictive inventiveness, or an undefined social contract, memories of a lived past, in which the social contract was violated with impunity by “exceptional” individuals, tribes, and classes, empowered by large exceptionalist systems, divides the community. In other words, neither the human will to power nor the idealism of the community creates discord by itself; instead, remembered experiences of victimization by the intertwined systems of imperial capitalism and slavery evoke and shape particular forms of reprisal and revenge. In this way, my reading is allied with Knapp’s (Paris “inadvertently evokes recent history” when he refers to a boat, identified by Kireku as the slaveboat, 332). Sacred hunger has violated the lives and freedoms of all the Floridians. Authorized by empire and enabled by the disavowals of those who captured and sold them, sacred hunger haunts the Florida community and recurs, as traumatic memories do, to shake but not undermine the community. Echoes of African sacred hunger and exceptionalism emerge in the Shantees, though only three of them survive; they band together in a tribal union and work to except themselves from the rules of the community. These “Shantees” are clearly Ashanti (an Anglicized version of Asante), members of a kingdom in what later became central Ghana; the name refers to the “warlike” traits of this Akan people who dominated other



local tribes, governed their region, developed a rich trade in gold, brass, and wood crafts, and effectively resisted colonization until 1902. Paris names the “Ashanti” once in his journal as the tribe that enslaved Jimmy the translator (286); the nickname “Shantee” emerges as part of the pidgin spoken among members of the Florida community. Adults when they were enslaved, the three surviving Shantee reassert the historical dominance of their tribe when they amass wealth through trade, claim and privilege their own sons (but not daughters), reject community customs of polyandry that share women and give them choice, exploit weaker members of their community like Iboti, and prioritize tribe over community. Greed and exceptionalism coalesce in these moves, which refuse the rules and principles of the community while simultaneously seeking to use the community to expand their own power and wealth. The Ashanti are not the only African members of the Florida community to seek exceptional status and wealth, nor are they the only ones who have watched for opportunities to profit. Rediker writes that African “Slavery was an ancient and widely accepted institution” and trading “had gone on for centuries” (77). But while early slaves were often war captives and criminals, the increasing Atlantic trade brought guns and lucrative incentives to capture indiscriminately. Slavery became an institution, Rediker writes: “a new division of labor grew up around slave catching, maintenance, and transport. Merchants became powerful as a class, controlling customs, taxes, prices, and the flow of captives” (77). Temka Tongman demonstrates such an understanding of power and profit. Although he distrusts the Shantee and appears to share Paris’s commitment to the survival of the community, he pursues personal gain through an exception to the community’s principles. When Iboti agrees to pay Tongman for defending him at the Palaver, Tongman accepts Iboti’s offer to clear a plot of land rather than working for a set number of days, far fewer than he has now committed (502–3). While Tongman has not enslaved Iboti for three years, as the Shantee attempted, he has profited at the expense of a less capable man. Clearly no commune, the Florida community emerges from and reflects Western capitalist history, where garden-­ variety profit motives occupy the same continuum as the sacred hunger of the slave trade. In Unsworth’s complex vision, competition is not eliminated from or rejected by the Florida community, nor is self-abnegation required for membership in the group. Instead, fair competitors make reasonable offers and respect the social contract uniting the group. Competition plays out



in a recognizably comic mode when Billy, Inchebe, Sullivan, and Sefadu compete for Dinka; Dinka makes a reasonable choice of the young artisan Sefadu, and the others accept her decision. A more sinister competition divides Barton from all the others and from community itself; Barton the sycophant tries to make himself indispensable to the leader in order to gain power. Serving Thurso as first mate, he captures men who will become impressed crew members; he becomes Kireku’s lackey (582) and later agrees to serve Erasmus (610). A cringing toady who is temperamentally isolated, Barton competes against everyone, most especially the leaders he serves, on behalf of his own individual self, in a practice basic to Western capitalism. Having no community and respecting no social contract, he never needs exception to the rules of absolute self-interest that guide his behavior; he represents exceptionalism in a pure form. He envisions himself rising in wealth and power, grabbing what he sees as “pickin’s” (582). The product of an imperial capitalist system, Barton becomes the man his history produces. The separate histories of the community participants lead to and account for their frictions. While the slave ship removes all of them from tribe and nation, history returns some members to accustomed affiliations that give priority to nation, tribe, or self instead of the community. Although the mutiny erases money and the location defers trade, trade returns from outside: the local Indians trade with them; they establish connections with the Spanish (and then English) community north in St. Augustine; the Indians link them with trade to the Caribbean; and they are back in commercial contact with global capitalism. Tabakali wears a dark red cotton that Nadri purchases in exchange for three fox-skins (529); the cotton could easily have come from India by way of Liverpool. They leave race-based slavery behind with the ship, but Kireku claims that an ability-­ based slavery will always keep Calley, Libby, and Iboti enslaved (579). As for slavery, every member of the community has a direct history; none need to imagine the concept, the practices, or the misery. They have all suffered slavery, including the crew of the ship; Paris believes that their history will make them slow to enslave others. While this holds true for most of them, and while the Palaver ends by rejecting Iboti’s three-year term of unpaid labor, the novel reveals that this community has not left history behind. The large-scale forces of sacred hunger, imperialist exceptionalism, and global capitalism shadow the Maroon community through the lived experiences of its members.



Form: Situated Omniscience Like many other historical novels, Sacred Hunger uses a third-person omniscient narrative perspective. Their breadth in time and space and their attention to multiple characters lead many historical fictions to thirdrather than first-person points of view or to the use of multiple observers. But these fictions differ from nineteenth-century realistic fiction, which commonly used a third-person omniscient perspective to affirm the accuracy and security of knowledge; third-person omniscience confers authority on and claims reliability for the observations and judgments of the narrator. Where a first-person account announces its limitations and thus the partial nature of its witness, third-person omniscience makes inherent claims to truth. When the writers of recent historical novels “after the wreck” use omniscience, they recognize the plural and relative nature of truths by setting multiple, conflicting claims of authority together in the text and undermining the pretense of reliability. Unsworth reveals a troubled awareness that omniscience as a perspective supports imperial claims to certain knowledge. I have developed elsewhere the analysis of Sacred Hunger as an inverse reflection of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with a Kurtz-like arrogant imperialist, Erasmus Kemp, asserting definitive knowledge in London, while the jungle-dwelling man who consorts with natives, Matthew Paris, has the superior moral vision and the tolerance for uncertainties that characterize Marlow.14 Kemp defines himself through the repeated assertion of imperial certainty; he knows all, he knows better than other people, and he knows what is hidden and concealed. A few examples illustrate his frequent claims to omniscience: “I know you better than you know yourself,” he tells Sarah Wolpert (223); of a business associate, “he knew the man’s circumstances, his connections” (399); of the Trionfi Club members, “He knew them all for profligate and idle” (415). He manufactures an instant conviction of Paris’s guilt: “he knew him in that moment for a leader of mutiny” (430). Other characters in the novel also couple arrogance with a claim to imperial certainty: Thurso often says of Africans, “I know these people” (151, 195), and the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in the Florida colony says of Native Americans, “I know them, by God” (467). In Unsworth’s novel, omniscience reflects the arrogance of the viewer, rather than the accuracy of what is seen; indeed, imperial certainty rests on preconceptions that effectively blind the viewer.



An alternative relationship to knowledge gathers it without assuming that it is comprehensive or complete; knowledge can be extensive without conferring mastery. Paris often demonstrates such an attitude, in part because he learned a bitter lesson when he published his views on evolution and suffered the loss of his wife and child (331). Thereafter, he watches closely but rarely assumes that he knows in any final way; his journals reflect a frequent, self-canceling doubt about his own conclusions (149, 175, for example). He describes himself as “impressionable” (156) and inclined to watch without certainty or conclusive interpretation. The novel often validates Paris’s intuitions about the others around him, while emphasizing the value of his skepticism and his openness to doubt. When he triggers the mutiny, for example, he may be intent on justice for the slaves, but his memory of standing in the same posture as a slave after being pilloried also clouds the purity of his protest: “Impossible, now and for ever, to be sure” (536). While Kemp believes that he can know others with absolute certainty, even their private thoughts and motives, Paris assumes that he can never entirely know himself; even as he dies he favors doubt over certain knowledge (613). The novel affirms Paris’s errant journey toward understanding, whatever its occasional flaws. Though he uses an omniscient perspective in Sacred Hunger, Unsworth takes pains to dispel the claims of authoritative knowledge it conveys; he uses several strategies to detach from omniscience as he uses it. Most frequently, he adopts a character as the center of consciousness and effectively switches to a third-person limited perspective; in this way he locates knowledge within a character, including “knowledge” that constitutes opinion or falsehood. He often takes a perspective limited to the eyes of one of his two major characters, cousins Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris; the novel contrasts them in several ways, including their ways of looking at others and the world. In one telling scene, Paris recalls a day on the beach when Kemp, perhaps eight, tried to build a dam to hold off the rising tide. He praises Kemp for heroic persistence as he describes the day to others, but then thinks to himself how lonely and grim Kemp’s actions must have been (26). Kemp falsely denies remembering, though this definitive scene has left him with an enduring hatred for Paris; but then he recalls his “rage” at his inability to control the incoming tide (26–27). Kemp has chosen to stem the tide by himself in a beach party surrounded by a large number of relatives (25), and he recalls defeat although Paris lifted him into the air to save him from the advancing tide. The water is “elusive,” though he is sitting in it; his rage is “exquisite,” though the



frustration beneath it leaves a painful memory. In these paradoxical contradictions, Unsworth dismisses the single-mindedness that would enable observers to know Kemp in the way Kemp imagines he knows others. Yet the narrator is empathetic with both cousins, revealing their contrasting feelings with understanding and sympathy for both. Unsworth does not limit his observation to the two main characters, but instead watches through the eyes of others; about sixty named characters appear in the novel, which attends to the circumstances of impressed sailors Blair, Sullivan, Calley, and Deakin; to the alcoholic mother Jane Britto and the old footman Andrew; to Africans Tongman, Inchebe, Tabakali, Nadri, and others. Often brief, these portraits create a broad, complex portrait of eighteenth-century Britain, African exiles, and the slave trade. Some characters reflect on Kemp and Paris, providing an external vantage on their appearance and behavior. Sir William Templeton, visited by Kemp, thinks him a “low-born fellow” who made a fortune through shady dealings he wishes he knew enough about to be useful (401). This glimpse reveals that Kemp’s fortune has not brought him full social acceptance, while it also reflects Templeton’s habit, like Kemp’s, of seeking knowledge he can turn to profit. Thurso dismisses Paris on a first meeting as an intruder on his ship and a spy for William Kemp: “A landsman if ever there was one and cackhanded into the bargain” (42). Secretive and intent on profiting, without William Kemp’s knowledge, from a gold dust transaction during the voyage, Thurso fears being watched; at the same time, he quickly and correctly observes that Paris is left-handed, awkward, and inexperienced at sea. A few passages in the novel appear to be communications from the narrator to the reader, creating an alliance of understanding that appears to reflect secure omniscient knowledge. In one, the narrator claims that character reveals itself at certain moments: So Erasmus waiting there, near the beginning of the alley that goes down between tall hedges of beech, waiting for the rival he has fashioned for himself to give grievance to his love. He is there imperishably, wild with his jealousy, vague with the peace of the day. He is always, always to be found there. (165)

The passage claims that the subject distills itself, in a vivid light, to present its essence. But the character remains complex, multi-sided rather than simple—both wild and vague, amorous and combative. Kemp’s moment



combines loneliness and rage, a longing for connection and entrapment in the self. With empathy for Kemp, the narrator shows that his love requires rivalry and yields his deepest self when he is awaiting combat rather than the young woman herself. Undermining his seeming omniscience, the narrator situates himself with the observer/reader, as an observant watcher of characters. He does not “know” them in advance, by virtue of the purposes they serve in his foreordained plan, and he does not pretend to sum up Erasmus Kemp; unlike Thurso, Erasmus is not a simple man. The narrator recognizes a self-revealing moment in Kemp waiting beneath the beeches, but writes only that close and attentive observation can yield deeper understanding. Where a traditional omniscient narrator might identify what the character revealed, Unsworth’s narrator instead praises reading itself, from a position beside the reader that situates and limits his own omniscience. While some writers of contemporary historical novels disrupt chronology to represent chaos disrupting the Western linear progress narrative, Unsworth chooses instead to narrate events chronologically. At the same time, however, he creates ironic contrasts throughout the novel to invalidate the progress narrative and expose its attendant self-interest. Ironic juxtapositions occur through the paired segments in book one (1752–53), as Erasmus Kemp tries to acquire Sarah Wolpert as his wife while the slave ship acquires slaves. Both ventures rely on the ship’s successful outcome, and both fail, producing death in both locations. Book two (1765) juxtaposes Kemp’s quest to reclaim his objectified property with perceptions of the complex lives of subjects in the Florida community. Again the juxtapositions are ironic: Kemp’s decadent London life set against community codes of behavior in Florida; aggressive and violent sexuality in London against a polyandry that prohibits violence; deception and theft by British agents taking Indian land in Florida against a community discussion that maintains justice in the Palaver; Kemp’s single-minded purpose against Paris’s uncertainty and doubt. While it narrates events in linear order, the novel’s ironic juxtapositions undermine the progress narrative and the imperial logic of the slave trade. The frequent divisions and pairings in the narrative structure of Sacred Hunger could, like its omniscience, stabilize and simplify meaning around binary oppositions; in reality, the text deconstructs apparent binaries. While the novel signals sympathy with characters who resist a globally hegemonic sacred hunger for power and control, the novel does not divide characters into heroes and villains, but instead explores parallels and



overlaps between seeming oppositions. Global capitalism and slavery rest on binaries like white and Black, good and evil, first and third world, or citizen and slave; all of these established Western binaries rely, as poststructuralism made clear, on the assumption of a single transcendental Identity capable of rendering the remainder as difference—or différance, for Derrida. With a commitment to exploring the human, cultural, and political costs of culturally endorsed binaries, Sacred Hunger shows them at work, but dissolves their clear divisions, exposes their damaging logic, and chooses instead to represent a widely inclusive fictional world. For this reason, Erasmus Kemp and Matthew Paris are not cast as villain and hero; their status as first cousins indicates kinship between them, designed to invite comparisons as well as contrasts. Paris understands that his publication of evolutionary theory, cloaked as a brave proclamation of truth, was an act “obstinate and overweening” (331) and worse, augmented by his decision to serve the slave trade. Despite his pride in his own mental clarity, he recognizes that he deceived himself, used his despair as an excuse to sail on the slave ship, “called this monstrous egotism self-­ abnegation,” and imagined that it proved his love for his dead wife (313). Overweening egotistical pride, obstinate clinging to an inflexible purpose and especially self-deception: these qualities appear on a first reading to define Erasmus Kemp, but Paris recognizes that he owns them too. Kemp, on the other hand, suffers repeated bouts of compassion and sympathy for the oppressed, as well as intuitions of a moral system beyond his grasp. When he finds the ship in Florida, he intuits that it is a site of “terrible suffering” (444). Reading his cousin’s journal description of profound misery among crew and slaves (450), Kemp feels “an intolerable compassion” (451). He considers the implications of Paris’s morality, recalls his personal charm and kind smile, and intuits the potential for a liberating escape from his abiding hatred of his cousin (451–52). While Paris recognizes in himself failings associated with Kemp, Kemp hears the call of more fulfilling values associated with Paris. Rather than polar opposites, the cousins display suggestive kinships throughout the novel. The novel’s broad inclusiveness demonstrates slavery’s impact across the eighteenth-century global landscape, including the devastation among the British poor created by a capitalist economy fueled by slave labor. The novel tells multiple stories of desperation, each marked by the absence of community. The narrative presents the poor as isolates, dismissed as excepted Others but recognized as human by the insightful, sympathetic narrator. Deakin, for example, runs away at twelve from a poor farm in



Sheepwash and a father who flogged him (92), sails on a slave ship and barely survives a slave uprising (192), flees a navy ship (88), and then is sold for two pounds to the Liverpool Merchant (91). Jane Britto, the woman who sells him, takes in laundry to support her unemployed husband and three children; a sick baby, little food, no money, and a craving for gin lead Jane to sell Deakin (88–90). Billy Blair has just returned from the sea; his purse and all his pay are stolen in the ale-house; and he is turned over to the Liverpool Merchant to pay for the rum he has drunk (80–81). The ship’s boy Charlie, fourteen and abused through all his life, dies cold and sick (291). A homeless man lies dying in a dark alley, one side of his face bitten by rats (51). The novel includes the poor and hopeless, women and children as well as men, to make vivid the human costs of the slave economy and to mark the failure of community in the central cities of empire. Even in the ale house, companionship is feigned and self-­ interested; on the ship, hierarchies and floggings discourage conversation among crew members and especially among slaves. In the absence of sustaining connections elsewhere in the fictional world of Sacred Hunger, the alternative community in Florida represents Unsworth’s vision of a better way to organize social life. Far from a perfect utopian community, designed for beings outside the historical world, it contains the inevitable tensions, resentments, and maneuverings for power produced by the lived and remembered histories of its inhabitants. But more surprising and important, it also contains affable teasing between Billy and Inchebe, the respectful and dignified funeral for an unknown Black boy whose body washes up on the beach, the honored decision of Dinka and the respected testimony of Koudi, the group vote to acquit Iboti and the losers’ acceptance of it, the new baby named for both his Black and white fathers, and the party to celebrate his naming. This alternative community gathers, with firelight and music, food and drink, on the last night before Kemp arrives; it has established forms of communal kinship outside the divisive lines of nation, capital, race, class, gender, and ability. Precarious as it has been made by the histories around and within, it represents a more generous possibility for human life.

Notes 1. Unsworth considers parallels between the eighteenth century and the Thatcher era: “It struck me that the inevitable acquisitiveness and material ambition of people was endorsed by an ideology […] that gave it moral



respectability. […] I thought the slave trade was a perfect example and representative of that because it was regarded as lawful. Lawful was a great word in the Eighteenth Century—not legitimate but lawful. Everything was condoned because it was profitable and lawful. […] But ‘lawful’ is very much a man-made and expedient fabrication” (Ross, 260). See also Kemp. 2. Mulroy argues that the Africans associated with the Seminoles have been “misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misrepresented” (xxv); they should be seen in relation to resistant Maroon societies throughout the Americas. 3. Unsworth told interviewer Bryan Podmore, “I don’t think Sacred Hunger or Sugar and Rum would have been written if I hadn’t gone to Liverpool and I only went there because there was a post as Writer in Residence at the university.” 4. Unsworth’s last novel, The Quality of Mercy (2011), returns to the characters in Sacred Hunger. Erasmus Kemp claims insurance on the eighty-five living slaves thrown overboard, but the court rules against the claim (Quality of Mercy 153). 5. For broad perspectives on Unsworth’s life and career, see Kemp. 6. Rediker told blogger Mark Thwaite, “When I read Barry Unsworth’s novel about the slave trade, Sacred Hunger, I had the eerie sense that I was writing the same book. That of course was The Many-Headed Hydra, published some years later. Those two books invent the eighteenth century, its peoples, and its seascapes in similar ways. And now in my new project I find that I turn even more specifically to the subject Unsworth treated.” 7. The English East India Company imported cotton cloth from India until protectionist “Calico Acts” in 1700 and 1721 limited imports to raw cotton, to be dyed and finished in England. See Eacott. 8. Eltis writes that textiles, guns, alcohol, and tobacco “accounted for well over half of all imports” to Africa between the 1680s and 1780s; the “British and French exported on average about 45 million yards of cotton textiles to Africa” each year in the 1860s (107). 9. Owen’s Journal of a Slave-Dealer, published in London in 1930, is a likely source Unsworth consulted while researching the slave trade. 10. Likewise, Sarvan identifies “profit and power” as recurring motives (2), and Velcic writes that all utopian communities face problems “such as attempts by individuals to grab power and serve their own interest” (47). 11. Mulvey argues that “Black slavery becomes a corollary to white liberty rather than a contradiction of it” (188). 12. Kenka believes that his father never died; he is not a credible witness, either, about the perfect accord in the community. His memories of the community as paradise reflect on the comparative hardship he experienced after Kemp sold all of the recovered Black and biracial people into slavery.



13. See, for example, Sefadu’s response to Sullivan over the courtship of Dinka, 555. 14. See Strehle (2011).

References Baucom, Ian. 2005. Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Brantly, Susan C. 2009. Engaging the Enlightenment: Tournier’s Friday, Delblanc’s Speranza, and Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. Comparative Literature 61: 128–141. British Broadcasting Corporation. 2004. Evaluating Thatcher’s Legacy. 4 May. hi/uk_news/politics/3681973.stm. Accessed 16 June 2018. Carrier, Toni. 2005. Black Seminoles, Maroons, and Freedom Seekers in Florida, Part 1: Early Freedom Seekers in Florida. Africana Heritage Project of the University of South Florida. Accessed 9 Oct 2017. Eacott, Jonathan P. 2012. Making an Imperial Compromise: The Calico Acts, the Atlantic Colonies, and the Structure of the British Empire. William and Mary Quarterly 69 (4): 731–762. Elias, Amy. 2001. Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Eltis, David. 1991. Precolonial Western Africa and the Atlantic Economy. In Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System, ed. Barbara L.  Solow, 97–119. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Forter, Greg. 2010. Barry Unsworth and the Arts of Power: Historical Memory, Utopian Fictions. Contemporary Literature 51 (4): 777–809. ———. 2012. Barry Unsworth’s Utopian Imaginings. Raritan 32 (1): 140–157. ———. 2016. Atlantic and Other Worlds: Critique and Utopia in Postcolonial Historical Fiction. PMLA 131 (5): 1328–1343. Haskell, Arlo. 2008. Intensity of Illusion: A Conversation with Barry Unsworth. Littoral. Accessed 24 Aug 2009. Hogan, Phil. 1992. Standing Outside England and Looking. In: Interview with Barry Unsworth. London Observer 10.488, 59. 18 October. Humphrey, Matthew. 1996. Foul Play: The Underworld of Barry Unsworth. The San Francisco Review of Books 21 (1): 18–20. Kemp, Peter. 2002. Barry Unsworth. In British Writers: Supplement VII, ed. Jay Parini, 353–367. New York: Scribners. Knapp, Peggy A. 2009. Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger: History and Utopia. Cliometrica 38 (3): 319–337.



Kohl, Johann Georg. 1844. Ireland, Scotland, England. Vol. 1. London: Chapman and Hall. &ots=z20zAMT0to&sig=x9Pt2NgPhprZ8m0kqkYfx2ztXN4&hl=en&sa=X& ved=0ahUKEwjr1veRyIzXAhUJ0YMKHX0FC2gQ6AEIYjAM#v=onepage& q=muskets%20made%20in%20birmingham%20england&f=false. Accessed 10 Oct 2017. Lambert, Raphaël. 2017. Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger: Birth and Demise of a Community. Journal of Modern Literature 41 (1): 118–136. Mouser, Bruce. 1995. Review of Barry Unsworth. Sacred Hunger. Posted 21 November. &month=9511&week=d&msg=jY9s9QgPdFVRcHwlFX3gdg. Accessed 26 Aug 2009. Mulroy, Kevin. 2007. The Seminole Freedmen: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Mulvey, Christopher. 1999. Developing Economic Forces in the Eighteenth-­ Century Slave Trade: Radical and Liberal Readings of the Middle Passage. In Mapping African America: History, Narrative Formation, and the Production of Knowledge, ed. Maria Diedrich, Carl Pedersen, and Justine Tally, 175–188. Hamburg: LIT. Owen, Nicholas. 1930. Journal of a Slave-Dealer: A Living History of the Slave Trade. New York: Routledge, 2016. Plasa, Carl. 2013. Mainly Storytelling and Play-Acting’: Theatricality and the Middle Passage in Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. In Postcolonial Studies across the Disciplines, ed. Jana Gohrisch and Ellen Grünkemeier, 151–164. Amsterdam: Rodopi. Podmore, Bryan. 1999. A Warning Voice: Bryan Podmore Talks to Barry Unsworth. Historical Novel Society. Accessed 24 Aug 2009. Public Broadcasting System. Africans in America. aia/home.html. Accessed 8 Sept 2008. Rediker, Marcus. 2007. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking. Ross, Maria. 1992. Barry Unsworth Interview. Books March–April. Rpt in Hunter, Jeffrey W., Ed. 2000. Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 76. Gale. Online. Accessed 16 June 2018. Sarvan, Charles. 1996. Paradigms of the Slave Trade in Two British Novels. International Fiction Review 23 (1–2): 1–6. Simpson, Mona. 2015. Hilary Mantel: Art of Fiction No. 226. Paris Review, no. 212. Accessed 1 Mar 2019. Strehle, Susan. 2011. Rewriting Darkness: Imperial Knowledge in Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. Studies in the Novel 43 (1): 75–93.



Thwaite, Mark. 2005. Interview: Marcus Rediker. Ready Steady Book. 1 March. Accessed 26 Aug 2009. Unsworth, Barry. 1988. Sugar and Rum. London: Hamish Hamilton. ———. 1992. Sacred Hunger. New York: Norton. ———. 2011. The Quality of Mercy. New York: Random House. Velcic, Vlatka. 2001. Postmodern and Postcolonial Portrayals of Colonial History: Contemporary Novels about the Eighteenth Century. Tennessee Philological Bulletin 38: 41–48.


War and Communities of Suffering: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

War emerges from, rests on, and exaggerates state exceptionalism. It requires patriotic fervor, including beliefs that “our” state must be defended at all costs, that its aggressions are justified by its uniqueness and value, and that exceptional times require exceptional measures. Without exceptionalism, going to war makes no sense; it costs too much in human lives as well as capital. Exceptionalism flourishes in wartime, shared by every state that is party to the conflict; it leads young men and women to volunteer for service that may maim or kill them. States of war arouse racial and cultural prejudice against the Others with whom “our” nation fights, leading to sites of exception like the internment camps for Japanese-­ Americans in the U.S. during World War II, concentration camps for Jews and Roma in Europe, and camps for prisoners of war in many global locations. States at war become quintessential states of exception, making it possible for some deeply partisan warriors to disavow their violations of national and international law and basic human rights. Since “our” state is the uniquely correct alternative to all other failed states (which claim the same exceptional status), everything is at stake and anything is allowed. This chapter focuses on the representation of World War II (1939–45) by Richard Flanagan in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2014, Narrow Road focuses on the war in the Pacific, and specifically on the building of the “Death Railway” connecting Bangkok, Siam (now Thailand) to Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). Called the “Burma” or “Burma-Siam” railway, it was built by imperial © The Author(s) 2020 S. Strehle, Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community,




Japan, using forced labor, to support its troops in Burma, captured from the British in spring 1942. To resupply its forces, the Japanese navy had been required to make a 2000-mile nautical journey around the Malay Peninsula and through the submarine-infested Straits of Malacca. With a railway, however, supply missions would be safer and faster; the Japanese even hoped that the rail line would enable them to invade and conquer India. Japanese engineers designed a 258-mile segment of railway to connect existing rail services north from Bangkok and southeast from Rangoon. The British had previously studied proposals for such a railway but concluded that it could not be built through the rocky, mountainous jungle terrain. Imperial Japan, however, proudly completed the project in sixteen months, using 250,000 enslaved workers wielding primitive tools. The railway demonstrated Japanese exceptionalism, including fierce discipline and unflinching commitment to state and empire. Following a period of heightened labor called “the Speedo,” requiring 18-hour days of hard labor during the monsoon season, the work was completed on October 17, 1943. Conditions for the men building the railway were appalling, and many died. Southeast Asian men, called “romusha” and including Malayans, Tamils, Burmese, Chinese, and Javanese, comprised the largest force and paid the highest price in the construction; while estimates vary, as many as 180,000 participated in the work and as many as 90,000, or one in two, died.1 Some romusha were recruited with false promises of easy work and high pay, but many others were captured and forced to work. Allied prisoners of war were also used as slave-labor: over 61,000 POWs, including Australian, British, Canadian, Dutch, and U.S. servicemen, worked on the railroad. One in five of the POWs died, including over 2800 Australians. All of the men building the railway were starved and beaten. They suffered from malaria and tropical ulcers that often went to the bone and led to gangrene and amputations. Poor sanitary conditions and unsafe drinking water led to cholera and dysentery; a diet consisting mainly of rice led to beri-beri, pellagra, and other diseases caused by starvation. POWs and romusha lived in camps mostly organized by nationality and overseen by Japanese military commanders and guards, who reduced the men to what Foucault called “biological life” and Judith Butler “precarity”: “War is in the business of producing and reproducing precarity,” she writes in Frames of War (xviii-xix). Butler argues that while “bare life” casts “the lives in question […] outside the polis,” in war these lives are “bound and constrained by power relation in a situation of forcible exposure. It is not the



withdrawal or absence of law that produces precariousness, but the very effects of illegitimate legal coercion itself, or the exercise or state power freed from the constraints of all law”—in other words, the exceptionalism that flourishes in states at war generates “illegitimate legal coercion” (29). Butler understands precarity as a “shared condition” that confronts all mortals and forms the basis for an ethics of equality: “The recognition of shared precariousness introduces strong normative commitments of equality and invites a more robust universalizing of rights that seeks to address basic human needs for food, shelter, and other conditions for persisting and flourishing” (28–29). Beyond the precarity shared by all humans, the state of “forcible exposure” in war arises from “state violence and its capacity to produce, exploit, and distribute precarity for the purposes of profit and territorial defense” (32). Narrow Road dramatizes the consequences for Japanese camp commanders and guards of wielding absolute power freed from legal constraints, including the Geneva conventions of 1929; they “distribute precarity” to POWs and romusha, turning them into what a Japanese commander later recalls as “crawling corpses” (Narrow Road 295). The novel also witnesses Australian POWs affirming each other’s humanity in the face of state power that denies it. Like the other novels I discuss in this book, Narrow Road depicts extreme forms of both exceptionalism, pushed to dehumanizing brutality by the war, and of community, forging life-sustaining bonds among suffering prisoners of war. Richard Flanagan has a personal connection to the history he chooses to fictionalize. His father, Arch Flanagan, was one of the Australian troops captured in Java, transported to Changi prison in Siam, moved by train, truck, and foot into the jungle, and forced to help build the Death Railway. He survived the experience, returned to Australia, and lived into his nineties—he died, according to Richard, on the day Narrow Road was sent to the publisher, and the novel is dedicated to him. In various interviews, the novelist says that his father was haunted by his experience in the POW camp and became “a man of strange anxieties” (McGrath). Richard grew up with an awareness of trauma’s aftermath and legacy: “I felt I carried something within me as a consequence of growing up as a child of the death railway. People come back from cosmic trauma but the wound does not end with them. It passes on to others” (Akbar). He adds that the novel, which occupied him for twelve years and went through five drafts, was necessary: “I didn’t want to write this book but in the end I couldn’t escape it. If I didn’t write it, I’m not sure I could write another book” (Akbar). The personal stakes for Richard Flanagan include bringing his



father’s experience to vivid life, partly in order to mark, honor, and remember it, and partly to try to understand the experience that shaped his father and marked their family. A particularly brutal part of a grim and horrific war, the Death Railway leaves its traumatic wreckage among all of the survivors and their families depicted in the novel. Reviews of the novel identify some of the challenges it poses for interpretation. For most reviewers, the novel’s representation of the Japanese and Korean characters is “daring” (Charles) and adds valuable balance to Flanagan’s representation of the war in the Pacific; Susan Lever writes in the Sydney Review of Books that the novel “tries to present a rationale for the inhumane behaviour” of the Japanese and Koreans, and Michael Gorra of the New York Times believes that, rather than humanizing them, the novel shows them “ground within the impersonal processes of history.”2 For most reviewers, Flanagan manages frequent shifts of time and perspective with “extraordinary skill” (Gorra) to create a “complex, impressionistic structure” (Charles). In a notably negative review, however, Michael Hofmann objects to these formal properties, calling the novel “an unplanned collage” with “at least two books” at odds: the love story “refuses to have anything to do with the Burma Railway.” Hofmann reads additional failure in the characterization of Dorrigo Evans, who “is neither formed by his experience, nor capable of his actions”; meanwhile, Evans’s story is “half-submerged in a group biography of fellow survivors and alien torturers.”3 Clearly, the novel’s coherence is at issue, at least for Hofmann: the relation of war stories to the survivors’ later lives, the relation of Japanese and Korean to Australian characters, the relation of Evans’s story to the others, and the relation of love and war. Dorrigo Evans thinks of his foreword to a book of illustrations of the POW camp as a simple memorial of his experiences on the Death Railway. No simple memorial, Flanagan’s novel goes beyond chronicling trauma in war, although it certainly does that. Through its portrayal of Japanese soldiers and Korean guards, it reflects on state exceptionalism become a divine mission, leading to the state of exception that fuels war’s worst atrocities. But a memorable counter-community emerges among the suffering Australians in the POW camp, demonstrating like other novels analyzed in this book mutual responsibility, generosity, and support in sharp contrast to wartime logics of domination and conquest. The novel has two Australian protagonists: white doctor Dorrigo Evans, who survives the war to become a national hero, and his nephew, biracial Frank “Darky” Gardiner, who dies during the long day narrated in the third and central



part of the novel.4 I read Gardiner as Flanagan’s hero, practicing communal values that protect human lives under extreme duress, while Evans loses himself in becoming a symbol of the exceptional nation. Based, as I will show in part 1 of this chapter, on the historical Weary Dunlop, Evans resigns himself to isolation and passivity while assuming the public role of heroic doctor-savior. But as part 2 will demonstrate, Flanagan’s novel exceeds Dorrigo Evans’s story as well as his vision. An illegitimate biracial dock-man or “wharfie,” Darky Gardiner acts according to the communal values that emerge in Flanagan’s reading of the Death Railway: empathy, hope, responsibility to others, and commitment to the community. Part 3 addresses some implications: the fragmentation of time in the novel reflects the disruption of Western myths of coherent progress toward a saving end, while the form of the novel foregrounds the communities that coalesce in the midst of war’s forced precarity. By reading Australian greatness, not in the exceptional national hero called “Big Fella” but in the humble and disregarded “Black Prince,” Flanagan develops a contrapuntal reading of Australian history and identity.

Australia in the Pacific War Like other contemporary historical novelists, Flanagan relies on research to help him understand the history he represents. In the interviews he gave after Narrow Road won the Man Booker Prize in 2014, however, he systematically downplays the research he did for the novel. He told John Mullan of The Guardian that he went to Japan to interview two of the former Japanese guards who had been at his father’s camp, but he conducted no other interviews. He also read very little: “research: not a lot, no. […] I’m Australian, we’re a bit lazy, we just make it up” (Mullan). In reality, though, the book is carefully and extensively researched, as the Australian edition indicates in a section of Acknowledgments that do not appear in the U.S. edition.5 Narrow Road relies on a non-fiction memoir co-authored by Flanagan’s father, Arch, and his older brother, Martin Flanagan. Published in 2005, The Line: A Man’s Experience; A Son’s Quest to Understand contains material that informs several stories and characters reinvented in the novel.6 Among others, E. E. “Weary” Dunlop emerges in The Line as a historical model for Dorrigo Evans; Dunlop’s own diaries, published in 1986 as The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway 1942–45, provide additional material for the novel. Quoted in The Line, Australian doctor Kevin Fagan’s war memoir



serves as a source for one of Dorrigo’s most wrenching experiences, when he is forced to choose a hundred men to march further into the jungle to continue work on the Line.7 Arch Flanagan insists on being “relentlessly truthful” because “you owe that much to history” (Line 164). His son Richard responds to this obligation as a fiction writer, using research to create a story faithful to the men who suffered and died. A quick survey of parallel details establishes Flanagan’s use of historical narratives from The Line. Arch recalls an Australian POW, beaten by a guard, cry, and comments that it was unusual and moving (Line 67). After his own beating, Tiny Middleton begins to cry, to the astonishment of those around him (140). Martin Flanagan hears about an Australian soldier in the Middle East who shoots at a pilot who has jumped from his plane in a parachute (Line 109); the soldier becomes Rooster MacNeice, who shoots a German pilot descending in a parachute (30). Lanky redhead Gallipoli von Kessler, named by his German father to honor Australia’s valor in World War I (37), reflects tall redhead Lorrimer Anzac Von Stieglitz, a German-Australian similarly named (Line 175). Jimmy Bigelow says “Rightio” often, in parallel to Syd Burton who is nicknamed “Old Rightio” (Line 35). Two men in The Line are called “Darkie”: Darkie Williams, old and gentle, who does not survive the camps (Line 50, 95); and Darkie Durham, who survives the war but dies in a car crash after a reunion of survivors (Line 175). Darky Gardiner’s tragic story in Narrow Road is modeled in part on the story of Mickie Hallam, who died at twenty-six on the Line. When a Japanese truck gets stuck in the mud during the Speedo, men are called out in the middle of a rainy night to free it: Mickie (Line 166–67) and Gardiner (135) work with other men to dig it out. Exhausted the next day, Gardiner recalls the fish swimming in a tank in Nikitaris’s fish shop in Hobart; he thinks of them as POWs and resolves to free them after the war (198). When he is dying, Mickie Hallam asks his mates to liberate the fish in a similar fish shop (Line 167). In both fiction and reality, the men’s mates do free the fish after the war. Both Darky and Mickie are sergeants in charge of a work gang of starving, seriously ill men commanded to work double shifts during the Speedo, and both are held responsible when several members of their gang hide in the jungle to rest. Both are beaten to death as a lesson to the other POWs. Mickie Hallam dies after an extended, brutal beating with bamboo clubs (Line 2–3).8 Gardiner’s beating follows the same pattern, detailed over ten pages in Flanagan’s novel (212–22). Gardiner suffers an even worse death, though it too has origins in The



Line; he stumbles from the hospital to the trench latrine, where he drowns (222–23). The same death happened to Rightio Burton, who falls into a latrine and drowns (Line 162). Close parallels emerge between Dorrigo Evans and the Australian war hero and doctor on the Line, Weary Dunlop.9 Both are called “the Big Fella” by other POWs (37; Line 110). The name signals the men’s respect for them and also refers to their height; Evans is six foot three (165) and Dunlop is about six foot six (Wells). Both have ulcerated legs (215; Line 157). Each of them signals spirited resistance by wearing an officer’s cap that Richard Flanagan describes as “raffishly angled” (153) and Arch Flanagan as “jauntily askew” (Line 157). Both have read literature and recite poetry. Both love Tennyson and know “Ulysses” by heart, relating their own sense of isolation and yearning to the poem (9–12, Line 121). Both Dunlop and Evans tax the officers in the POW camp to fund food and drugs for the sick; both cajole the officers to work on projects supporting community health (Line 141; 37). Both battle with the Japanese commanders every day over how many of the sick and disabled men must be sent to work. Arch Flanagan underscores the devotion to the men demonstrated daily by Dunlop and his assistant, Major Corlette, as they argue for sending fewer men to work on the Line (Line 156). In Narrow Road, Richard Flanagan devotes an intense chapter to one day’s haggling over the lives of dying men. As Martin Flanagan describes Weary Dunlop’s life after the war in The Line, Dorrigo’s life follows it in close parallel.10 Dunlop was engaged before the war to a woman of established social standing, but the lengthy separation and the legacy of war traumas create doubts. After the war, Martin Flanagan writes, Dunlop returned home to Melbourne to a woman “he only half recognized. It was his fiancé” (Line 149). Though he practiced medicine after the war in Melbourne, Dunlop was not respected as a successful surgeon (Line 176). He remained married but had affairs and seemed inattentive to his children (Line 177). Dorrigo Evans follows this pattern closely, returning to marry Ella without enthusiasm. He is not a distinguished surgeon, a faithful husband, or a loving father. In creating Narrow Road, Richard Flanagan also consulted Dunlop’s War Diaries, published in 1986. A number of suggestive details link the two books, most especially Dunlop’s concern for the sick and suffering men in his group. Names link the two books: the Lizard in War Diaries (“a proper little bastard” according to Dunlop, Diaries 217) becomes the Goanna in Narrow Road. Both texts refer to the jungle trail called the



Line as the Via Dolorosa (Diaries 309, 175). Dunlop includes a letter from the commander of the POW camp, a Colonel Nakamura (Diaries 297); the central Japanese figure in Narrow Road has the same name. Classically educated, Dunlop writes that the cholera area evokes Dante’s inferno (Diaries 301); approaching the cholera area, Evans thinks, “Dante’s first circle” (175). Dunlop receives a letter from his fiancé Helen, written thirteen months earlier; busy with cholera cases, he reads it later in the day (Diaries 302). Evans receives a rare letter from his fiancé Ella and saves it until later (155). On a hard day, Dunlop sees an unexpected flower: “I suddenly saw a bright crimson flower” in the undergrowth (Diaries 290). At the end of the novel’s day of deaths, Evans also finds a crimson flower (334). Echoes like these show that Richard Flanagan absorbed material he read and strove for fidelity of affective detail in representing war experiences. Like all writers of historical fiction, Flanagan interprets history through the narrative he creates about characters’ experience during a worldwide crisis. His use of source material raises the question common to all historical fiction: What does he make of his material, and how does the novel interpret historical accounts through its representation? Theorists established important ground for answering this question in the latter half of the twentieth century when they dismissed the naive assumption that history is “what really happened” while fiction is invented stories, by definition “untrue” and therefore valueless. As early as the 1960s, Hayden White pointed out the textual nature of history, emphasizing its status as a narrative in language; history is the set of stories told about events, rather than a singular objective reality outside the realm of narrative. Fiction need not be “untrue,” either; it often interprets “true” events. The “nonfiction” stories in memoirs and histories that chronicle the building of the Death Railway do not exhaust it, nor do they pronounce a final and reliable word about it. Richard Flanagan did not simply “transcribe” the “nonfiction” stories he came across, either; he did not recreate the story of Arch Flanagan’s war or of Weary Dunlop’s. He wrote instead an original fiction about devastating state exceptionalisms that intersected in the war and produced the Death Railway, as well as memorable connections among the POWs. His original vision of the historical events places Dorrigo Evans and Darky Gardiner in contrasting roles at the center of the novel. Evans has an exalted sense of his own destiny and importance, together with a passive fatalism that leads him to assign responsibility for events to an



indifferent cosmos. Conditioned to humility by his biracial status in a racist society, Gardiner adopts an ethical and responsible relation to his community and acts to support the group. The novel sets these two protagonists in a wartime landscape ruled over by a racist and destructive Japanese exceptionalism, which justifies violence and legitimates exceptions to international law and human rights. After the war, however, Evans agrees to represent Australian exceptionalism, taking on a fictitious role as war hero and savior. Through the course of a long life, Evans gives up on things that matter to him and surrenders hope and choice. His repeated, fatalistic mantra, “The world is. It just is,” dismisses his own power to improve conditions, remedy injustices, and learn from failures. In contrast to Evans, Gardiner takes responsibility for his actions, enacts hope, and maintains commitments to the others around him. In the camp, many of the POWs build a community characterized by mutual support, respect for human dignity, and generosity. While the community of POWs consists of Australians, the novel does not favor Australian nationalism over Japanese or imply that all Australians endorse or belong to an effective and sustaining community. The extreme hardships of the camp create circumstances in which kinship arises among men on the edge of death, and the novel finds a model of positive community among them.

Exceptional States and Communities of the Doomed State exceptionalism played a crucial, empowering role in Japan’s attacks on other nations and entry into World War II. As Japan suffered through the economic depression of the 1930s, historian Eri Hotta writes, many Japanese came to attach “excessive, metaphysical significance to Japan’s nationalism, notching it up to the level of ultranationalism. The veneration of the emperor, who was regarded as a living god and the benevolent patriarch of Japan’s family-state, played a central role in this intensification of Japanese nationalism” (Hotta 16). Young military officers, Hotta adds, were “especially susceptible to this brand of aggressive nationalism because it gave them a key role” (Hotta 17). Flanagan’s novel portrays Japanese soldiers who are fervently committed to their Emperor, military and social structures, and the imperial Japanese nation-state, all of which require unquestioning obedience. Nakamura, a young mid-ranked officer, feels immense pride in serving “a national and imperial destiny” and fulfilling the Emperor’s wishes (70). For him, identification with an exceptional Japanese identity creates meaning in the middle of chaos and gives value



to his efforts “to impose Japanese order and Japanese meaning” on the incoherent jungle (71). Like Nakamura, Colonel Kota believes that the exceptional Japanese spirit provides an enduring core of strength, while the POWs are lazy and spiritless (87). While the Japanese are driven by their identification with the emperor and the state, Flanagan presents the Australians who enlist in the war as fringe elements and outsiders, rather than the representatives of the state. The POWs have volunteered for economic rather than patriotic reasons, and they do not speak for or practice Australian patriotism. Indeed, they represent what any version of national identity in Australia would exclude, particularly in their class status at the margins of the economy, the state, and the law. Irreverent about abstractions like God and country, somewhat rebellious and definitely disrespectful of hierarchies, they do not resemble the heroes of the traditional war narrative; they do not fight a nationalist war. Flanagan characterizes the men as products of diverse origins and occupations prior to the war. He defines their commonality as survivors of the Great War and the depression that followed, calling Dorrigo Evans “not typical of Australia” and the others similarly “volunteers from the fringes, slums and shadowlands of their vast country” (154). Listing their occupations before the war, he calls some “desk jockeys,” “bank clerks and teachers”; but more are physical laborers, men who have shot kangaroos or trapped dingos, driven or sheared sheep, or worked on the wharfs loading and unloading ships. The group includes “chancers, larrikins, yobs, tray men, crims, boofheads and tough bastards” (154). They have come from the edges, not the metropolitan and social centers of Australian culture. Their parents suffered in and after World War I, and their fathers are either dead or damaged; these men do not grow up with traditional models of masculinity. Their mothers learned to survive on the hope for better days ahead, a lesson the young POWs cling to in the camp. When the depression leaves up to 30% of Australian men unemployed, families receive inadequate welfare support; the young men accept any job providing an income. Inevitably, some of the men have survived on the edges of custom and law: the chancers, yobs, and boofheads are young risk-takers, somewhere between immature, inappropriate, and criminal. Any Australian national loyalties they brought to war disappear in the POW camp, as starvation, disease, and beatings reduce them to exhausted shadows. While their Japanese captors take on the grand aspirations of their exceptional state, the POWs become almost-naked stateless men fighting to stay alive:



suddenly Australia meant little against lice and hunger and beri-beri, against thieving and beatings and yet ever more slave labour. Australia was shrinking and shriveling, a grain of rice was so much bigger now than a continent. (39)

Their stateless fragility and visible precarity enable the Japanese captors to forget what Butler calls “the equal value of lives” (Butler xxx) and to inflict sustained violence on the POWs. But in the POW camp, the disappearance of hierarchical distinctions of class, race, education, and social standing actually expands their potential for horizontal bonds with each other in a community dedicated to survival. Clinging to hope under conditions that level all differences, the men come together with an “irreducible minimum: a belief in each other” and an unshakeable bond that unites them as “one, now and forever” (155). Examples of immediate and unthinking support between men abound through the day: Lizard Brancussi takes Gardiner’s sledgehammer when he falls because the men are “a single organism” dedicated to group survival (173). Climbing ladders as they walk three miles to the line, men pass up tools and haul up the weak and sick, demonstrating the strength of their communal bonds (168). The strongest men walk slowly to stay with their weaker comrades, “helping, holding, never giving up” (175). Their mutual support keeps their hope and humanity alive; treated as objects by the Japanese, they treat each other as men. Darky Gardiner epitomizes these communal values. Although his community is powerless to save him from the beating that kills him, he is its gravitational center. Throughout the day of death narrated in section 3, he demonstrates a generosity that extends beyond hearty Australian mateship in its humility and unassuming selflessness. He begins the day by feeding Tiny, his workmate, half of a precious egg and rice ball, and he stays with Tiny as the dying man crawls toward the morning roll-call. Darky’s commitment to Tiny reflects a broadly shared faith in community: as a group often characterized with the anonymous pronoun “they,” they refuse to abandon each other because it would mean abandoning themselves (142). Gardiner enacts a resistant, self-aware, and ironic hope throughout the war. Earlier, in Syria, he sings as they travel through landscapes of broken houses and corpses, and he offers ironic odds on his own death. Resilient always, Gardiner is called the “Black Prince” for his uncanny ability to produce food and cigarettes through local barter (28); even on the Line, he trades, forages, and steals goods. He looks for hope and consoles



himself with his ability to find small good things in any situation (136). Beaten in the head with a rifle butt by the Goanna/Choi Sang-min, Gardiner is dizzy, starving, and exhausted early on the day of death; but he carries rope for one struggling POW, tries to do his best for the gang he leads, and strategizes about how to help his men survive each day (169). When he finds a group of men taking the day off, he warns them they will be flogged and urges them to support their community. Each crew has a production target, and in their absence others will be forced to complete their work; he points out that their rest is not fair to the others (191). He empathizes with all creatures; he pities a monkey shivering in the monsoon rain and fish trapped in a tank, waiting to be cooked in a Hobart fish shop (171, 174). His refusal to give up hope leads him to beg for help even as he is being beaten to death; he cries out for help to Australian POWs who are helpless before the Japanese (213). Even at the point of his death, he refuses to accept defeat: “No! No!” (222). Gardiner maintains a commitment to others through the end of his life. As the day begins, he suffers dizziness, sharp pain from a tropical ulcer on his leg, and diarrhea; he does not make it to the benjo or latrine before his bowels empty. With cholera on the loose and his community’s health at stake, Gardiner rebukes himself because he has endangered the sick and emaciated men in his unit (144). He reflects that one must keep commitments and attend to details, and he vows that he will not give up on getting to the benjo; indeed, “he would get there” (144). His death in the benjo at the end of the day is both a tragic irony and a victory; though brutally beaten and semi-conscious, he keeps his pledge to himself and his commitment to the other men. His determination to live, and to live responsibly with and for others, expresses optimism and faith in himself, in life, and in his community. Gardiner’s values and commitments draw others to him and create a communal spirit; the men around him respond with affection, respect, and loyalty. Liked and admired by everyone except Rooster MacNeice, he often takes a central role. His death unites them in a future extending after the war: “forever after, there could be no I or me, only we and us” (223). When survivors gather after the war, a mention of Gardiner leads to laughter and singing, as the men fulfill his wish by freeing the fish from Nikitaris’s fish shop (250). They return to apologize and offer to pay, but the old Greek Mr. Nikitaris instead understands their loss of a mate in the same war that killed his son. He feeds them late in the night as the men sit and talk, shadowed by Gardiner’s spirit; they feel right in the place and good



in their lives (253). While the men do not remain in touch through their later years, their wish to honor Gardiner’s life has helped them recall the pre-war years, when they felt optimistic, safe, “and not yet undone” (253). Years later, Dorrigo Evans will reflect on qualities that made Gardiner a compelling figure: “Some inner cohesion—integrity” and an innocent commitment to truth (17). The humble Gardiner, who does not see himself as heroic or destined for any special role (169), acts out of values and commitments that shame Evans. Years after the war ends, Evans learns that Gardiner is his nephew, the son of his brother Tom and Ruth Maguire, an Aboriginal woman (304) married to the same Jackie Maguire whose crying in the kitchen over her departure forms one of Evans’s earliest memories (3). Evans has missed his chance to acknowledge this kinship, as he missed the chance to know his nephew during their shared captivity. He also sacrifices his opportunity on the day of death to stop the deadly beating. In a futile effort to save Jack Rainbow, dying of gangrene that has reached his hip after two progressive amputations of the leg, Evans attempts a third amputation, despite Rainbow’s pain and his orderly’s multiple objections. Another orderly runs in with the news that Gardiner has been taken from the hospital to be beaten because men from his group are missing; only Evans can stop the beating, he urges (206). Evans refuses twice (206) and goes on with the doomed surgery, which culminates in Rainbow’s death. In this prolonged effort, a quixotic indulgence of his own aspirations as a daring surgeon, Evans ignores the urgency of Gardiner’s situation; he arrives too late, and the violent beating leaves Gardiner mortally damaged. If the Japanese choose Gardiner for the brutal punishment because their own racism makes him appear expendable, and if Evans chooses to try to save Rainbow instead of Gardiner because of the racial difference between the two men, these choices are not spoken aloud. When critic Victoria Reeve suggests that Evans “stands for white settler society, and Darky Gardiner […] represents Indigenous Australians” (9), she points toward the complex racial issues in Gardiner’s beating and Evans’s failure to intervene forcefully to stop it. Even while he wears the mantle of the exceptional Australian hero, Evans feels like a sham and an impersonator through most of his life (255); the fragmentation and dispersion that characterize his story reflect his temperamental indecisiveness. In the war, he has performed a role as the noble and self-sacrificing “Big Fella” (37). After the war, Australian media define him as a war hero, representing exceptional national strength in the face of the Death Railway tragedy; he admits that he shared the war hero’s



experiences, but denies any relation to that hero (14). While he represents the POWs to Australia, he realizes that he lacks the communal spirit that bonded and the integrity that characterized them; he is divided, duplicitous, and occasionally shocked by his own ability to lie, manipulate, and deceive (15). More damaging, he is a fatalist even before the war (10) and therefore passive before choices. He isolates himself and limits himself to sham connections with both men and women. He marries Ella without love or hope, seemingly for the entry she provides to an upper class he scorns; then he hollows out the marriage with numerous affairs, beginning a month after the honeymoon. He imagines himself governed by an amorphous external force that has condemned him to isolation and justified his repeated adulteries; his loneliness leads him to exploit a long series of women (300). Despite his public honors, he sees himself as a failure. Evans understands that he has failed at love, but he does not perceive his own responsibility for that failure because, in his passivity, he ignores choices even as he makes them and disavows his own agency. He believes that Amy Mulvaney, married to his uncle Keith, is the one true love of his life, and that his ongoing infidelities to Ella constitute a substitute fidelity to Amy (301). From the start, his attraction to Amy derives more from her interest in him, her clarity and decisiveness, than from his own feelings and agency. At twenty-seven, he has no self-knowledge (108), but Amy seems to project a self onto him. At their first meeting, he is drawn by her interest in and attraction to him (52). Evans wavers between desire and fear; true to his deep-seated fatalism, he responds to Amy’s initiatives and waits for his life to be arranged by an external force: the affair happens to them, leaving them no choice or agency. Moreover, the world itself is indifferent, irrational, and unkind (108). He develops a mantra, first heard from his mother and repeated by him several times in the novel, to articulate his worldview: “The world is. It just is” (4, 156, 157, 280). Passive, pessimistic, helpless, and hopeless despite his arrogance, he can only drift and wait to see how the world will position him. As the passionate affair between them develops, Amy questions him sharply, pushing him to define himself and take a position; he evades and avoids answering. He neither makes nor asks for a commitment, relinquishing any future (12–13). In their last exchange before he leaves for war, she tells him that he should go back to Ella; he makes no coherent reply but recognizes his own relief (124–25). Evading Amy’s questions, he speaks in non-committal fragments that suggest paralyzed indecision. At one point he describes a potential future in which he will come back for



her (125), but this hypothetical future lingers as an abstract possibility rather than becoming a plan or a proposal. Evans will yearn for the lost illusion of love with Amy throughout the rest of his life, but at the time he remains frozen, passive, unsure, and seemingly muzzled by his own impotence before the external forces that will decide his future. When he returns from the war, he never looks for Amy or for evidence confirming Ella’s story that she died; he does not try to visit her grave. He sees her on the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1967; she is wearing the pearl necklace he bought for her a quarter century earlier and holding two young girls’ hands (308–9).11 He faces a critical decision; he watches her closely, resolves to speak to her, and “expected that in that transcendent light she would now welcome him into her arms and her life” (309, my italics). In this critical moment, he relinquishes agency again and disavows his freedom to act; she needs to make the connection because he cannot. When she passes without speaking and disappears, he rationalizes and retreats to passive fatalism before external forces, resigning himself to a kind of darkness (309). In his most distinctive and characteristic move, he dismisses human agency itself as a way to rationalize his own failure to decide or to act: “Was there ever a choice?” (309). He can only mourn for himself, understanding that he is lost and isolated, alone in all of his connections with other people, and empty of hope. While Darky Gardiner never gives up on himself or his community, Dorrigo Evans abandons both and becomes a man without light, hope, or future. Evans functions as an active, even swashbuckling hero in one seemingly extraneous incident told near the end of the novel: he saves his wife and three children from near-certain death in a raging bushfire (321–22). A policeman at a roadblock tries to stop him, but Evans breaks through in a borrowed car, miraculously finds his wife and children amid thick smoke and flames, and drives them back to safety through burning debris, falling trees, fences, and shattering windows. The episode concludes with Ella realizing that her husband remains an unknown mystery, while the three young children absorb the peculiar bond that defines their parents (322). In this act, Evans displays the physical courage expected of the war hero, the savior and symbol of Australian masculine bravery. Ironically, even as he hugs Ella after the escape, the children realize that their father is showing more affection to their mother than they have seen in all their lives (319). He has saved a family he will continue to fail to value and nurture. Yet more ironically, this triumphant family moment occurs on the next day after Amy has declined, on the bridge, to welcome him back into her life,



suggesting that Evans’s heroic rescue has more to do with his own needs than his attachment to his family. While Evans’s life and Flanagan’s novel certainly show the long-term disabling impact of traumatic war experiences, the novel also explores how some survive war with their humanity and hope intact. The novel presents Evans with one example in his conversation with Jack Rainbow’s widow. She asks him three times whether he believes in love, but he never answers; he does not tell her, either, about the disastrous surgery that ended Rainbow’s life. She explains that love is not “given” but “made,” a product of deliberate choices, commitments, and actions (276). With the metaphor of a note resounding in a room, finding a fit that resonates and puts differences together to make more of each and something new between them, Mrs. Rainbow describes her union with Jack. Evans comments later that the Rainbows were a couple in ways he had never experienced (279). Evans gives up, three times, on his chance to “make” something with Amy; he does not try to make anything with Ella. Instead, he treats her with indifference and cruelty, yielding sadness that pervades their marriage and their home (298–99). With both women, as well as the others with whom he has affairs, he yearns for a connection that he has sabotaged beforehand through choices he disavows even as he makes them. Evans’s passivity enables the state to make him a symbol of qualities he does not possess. Empty himself, he agrees to serve as a screen on which the nation can project its wish, years after the war, to redeem the suffering of the POWs with the image of a tall, successful survivor who looks like white Australia. His hollow moment of connection with other prisoners comes when he agrees “to carry the mantle” for their suffering (14). In accepting a role as the heroic symbol for a successful war, Evans provides support for the narrative logic of exceptionalism that created the camp and vented its fury on Darky Gardiner. Late in his life, Evans talks with a journalist who asks him why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed (16). Evans defends the second, seemingly gratuitous use of the atom bomb despite his knowledge of war and suffering; he uses his celebrity to support the exceptionalist nature of Western heroism against what he presents as the simplified “monsters” of the East. He not only performs the role of war hero, but supports the exceptionalist attitudes that make war inevitable. The haunted Evans who carries a hollowed self after the war has its parallel in Nakamura, the Japanese commander who disavows his war crimes as he tries to reinvent himself as a good man. Both men rationalize



their failures and evade responsibility for their decisions. Nakamura experiences guilt for his actions during the war; after it ends, he changes his name and adopts a persona of gentle kindliness with his wife and daughters, but he does not forget. While Nakamura blames the Japanese Emperor for his actions and Evans blames the fates, both off-load their responsibility onto larger, metaphysical forces, and both become experts at rationalization. While both men experience trauma in the war, their own failures and violations haunt them far more than the remembered witnessing of violent deaths. Both relive the same day of Gardiner’s death, and both struggle to rationalize their joint failures to prevent it. Among uncountable losses, it stands out as the significant wrongful event that exposes their responsibility and their failure. Flanagan focuses on Nakamura’s repeated alternations between guilt and disavowal. Desperate to survive in post-war Japan, Nakamura murders a boy, steals money and clothes, and buys new identity papers. He spends the rest of his life struggling to construct an acceptable version of his wartime actions and particularly Gardiner’s murder. Scattered through the fourth and fifth sections of the novel, his vacillations testify to his awareness that he has committed egregious wrongs, which he combats with repeated disavowals of his guilt. When he hears about Japan’s appalling (and historically true) torture of prisoners, including vivisection, at Manchukuo, Nakamura exonerates the Japanese as “victims” of the war they pursued (268). He tries to perform as a good man while repressing memories of deaths he caused; he remembers only “extenuating circumstances” (269–70). Still, he has a nagging sense of a natural moral order in the human world, and he is haunted like Evans with a sense that he has failed himself (293). His bewilderment reflects and camouflages his failure to confront his guilt. Nakamura’s vacillations and denials of responsibility comment clearly on Evans’s, despite the obvious differences between their positions during the war. Nearing death from a progressive cancer, Nakamura struggles to maintain faith in his own goodness (294). His memory turns to Gardiner’s murderous beating, during which he had offered Evans some extra quinine to assuage his guilt for refusing to stop it. Swallowed in memories of the dying POWs in the camp, Nakamura finally understands that their imminent deaths “would have been no more welcomed by those who inhabited those awful bodies than his own would soon be welcomed by his” (395). In this belated recognition, Nakamura sees more than the suffering and deaths of the POWs: he sees their humanity before death and



knows it as just like his own. As Butler puts it, “the life of the one is bound to the life of the other, and […] certain obligations emerge from this most basic social condition” (Butler xxx). More pity than guilt or responsibility, and more pity for himself than for the POWs, the recognition does not lead Nakamura to understanding. His wife forwards his self-vindicating death poem a few months later (296). In attending closely to Nakamura and setting his later years beside Evans’s, Flanagan exposes parallels between these former opponents and highlights the exceptionalist attitudes that cross national boundaries; he does not simply blame the Japanese, though they are shown to be violent and cruel to the POWs. The novel aims to be anti-war and anti-­ exceptionalist, but not anti-Japanese; Flanagan titles his novel in honor of Japan’s rich cultural heritage. Named for Matsuo Basho’s haibun (haiku-­ sequence) of his journey on foot in 1689 to the northern part of Japan, the novel invokes “Japan’s greatest poet, as familiar a name in Japan as Shakespeare is in the West. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is on the curriculum of every school” (Downer 3). Flanagan explains in interviews that he sees Basho, and Japanese literature more broadly, as expressing the best aspects of Japanese culture, while the railway expressed one of the worst (Mullan).

At War with Narrative Form Traditional histories of war, like traditional war novels and romances set during wartime, tend to be coherent narratives with a clear beginning, a detailed and suspenseful middle, and a definitive and redemptive end. In telling the story of war, most accounts are chronological, orderly, and binary; they sort friend from foe, good from bad, hero from villain, winner from loser. Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle (1954) demonstrates many of these qualities. It draws on John Coast’s Railroad of Death (1946), the first published memoir by a survivor, as well as Boulle’s experiences in the French Resistance in Burma, China, and French Indochina.12 Boulle’s novel caricatures the leader of a group of POWs coerced to build one of the bridges on the Death Railway. Boulle makes the group British and represents their leader, Colonel Nicholson, as an arrogant nationalist who decides to collaborate with the Japanese on his own terms; a “military snob” (Boulle 4), he will take over the project and draw on his British skill and ingenuity to produce a solid bridge. Loyal and cheerful POWs create a successful bridge, designed to help the Japanese war effort. Luckily for



the Allies, however, other British officers use skill and ingenuity to plant explosives, and while they do not destroy the bridge in the novel (as they do in the film), the first train loses its engine and some coaches. Both the novel (1954) and the film, “Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), make only oblique reference to the starvation, disease, and deaths that occurred during the construction of the Death Railway. In the film, wellfed and -clothed POWs whistle while they march to work. In both novel and film, British soldiers triumph over the Japanese, while Colonel Nicholson dies; in Boulle’s novel, one British soldier kills him and another terms this closure for the novel, “The only proper action” (Boulle 207). Boulle’s novel illustrates the conventional uses of war in fiction. It follows a linear chronology and concludes by affirming the “proper” end of the action as a part of the right outcome of the war. Inevitable human losses are justified and rendered acceptable, sometimes to the person who will die (Shears, Joyce, and Nicholson) and sometimes to the survivors and inheritors of the war. War may include pain and loss, or bad leadership in the case of Boulle, but the war takes place within a larger historical progress narrative. The narrative’s objective is to provide consolation, in accord with the teleological hope for redemption that underlies Western thought; the “solution” to a traumatic loss lies in perceiving it as necessary to a long-term, large-scale gain. The text provides such a gain: a demonstration of British superiority to the Japanese and assurances that the right side has won the war. Flanagan’s novel differs in fundamental ways, especially in its rejection of a consoling progress narrative. It constructs hope in the middle of tragedy and loss, but it demonstrates the fragility of hope. Under the most barbaric and inhumane conditions, characters support each other and share humor, food, and encouragement; the bonds among them model a strong and life-affirming community. The model does not transition into peacetime, however, for the men in Evans’s and Gardiner’s unit. In fact, the novel suggests that trauma and hardship create the bonded community, which disappears from the lives of the POWs who survive the war; their lives, families, jobs, and locations scattered across Australia dissolve the connections among them. Rather than a progressive line, moving through causal stages toward a logical conclusion, the novel substitutes an image of random energies creating and dissolving connections: “flying particles” that spin at random, “bouncing into each other and heading off” (50). Introduced when Evans first meets Amy, the image describes his vision of dust motes tumbling in beams of light (48), returns when he reads Ella’s



letter telling him that Amy died (155), and again after Amy passes him on the bridge without speaking (309). While it serves as a metaphor for the incomplete connection between Evans and Amy, the image also describes the randomness of events, connections, and outcomes in the novel. Instead of linear time leading to meaningful progress, Narrow Road watches energetic fragments of created and dissolved connections. Linearity appears in the Line through the jungle made by the Death Railroad, but it does not survive (227). Flanagan abandons the linear and causally connected chronology that structures traditional war novels. In five large sections, the novel tells two episodes in order: events on the day of death in section three are told in order, but with dislocating jumps of focus among several central characters in different places; and events on the evening of Dorrigo Evans’s final accident are told in order, but scattered across sections one, two, and five. In effect, the disruptions and jumps undermine any sense of stable chronology in these two episodes, and other parts of the novel are even more fragmented and non-­ chronological. Gardiner, Amy, and Nakamura, the abiding presences in Evans’s memory, appear throughout the novel. The story of his love affair with Amy appears in section one: first they chat while lying in bed in chapter 4 (9); he will ship out in three days in chapter 5 (13); but he meets her for the first time pages later (50) and evokes her through the crimson flower on the novel’s last page (334). Gardiner’s pointless death (14) precedes his appearance in Evans’s unit in Syria (25) and his life in the camp (135); his relation as Evans’s nephew emerges only years later (306) and accounts for Evans’s early memory of Jackie Maguire crying (3). Flanagan’s structure reflects and reinforces Evans’s sense of passive helplessness throughout the events in his life; more broadly, it effectively depicts the lasting estrangement of a wartime world without order, logic, or causality. Flanagan’s choice to focus on a single fragmented day in the war, placed in the central panel of the novel with recurrent references to it before and after, highlights the pointlessness and the seeming endlessness of the suffering. Comprising almost a third of the novel, the day of death haunts all of the characters who survive it and shapes their awareness of history as catastrophic accident, “a muddy story of chaos only” (227). Randomness in the succession of events and irrationality in the situation effectively represent chaos: seemingly uncaused beatings, the accidental odds on who will live or die, and the cosmic absurdity of starving men using primitive tools to build a railway through a jungle. While the Line is actually built to completion, none of the participants—not even Nakamura



or other Japanese soldiers—experiences the process as a linear and orderly, or in Boulle’s term, “proper” action. The Line later disappears; “nothing remained” (227). While the novel’s disrupted chronology suggests the accidents of time, its perspective amplifies the importance and value of community. The novel uses a third-person perspective that most often follows individual characters with a third-limited view, interspersed with occasional moments of true omniscience. A first-person perspective, in contrast, offers ideal opportunities for the progress toward mature selfhood that characterizes a Bildungsroman; Margaret Atwood uses first-person in Cat’s Eye, a fiction about Canadian girlhood in the aftermath of World War II.  Her artist-­ narrator, Elaine Risley, produces suggestive and successful paintings out of her semi-repressed memories of her girlfriends’ torment. Elaine’s recovery of her history during the course of her narrative produces a new understanding of past and present and completes the portrait of the artist. With a community portrait as his goal, Flanagan’s novel instead requires the third person to portray the group that struggles through their imprisonment and suffering. To represent a communal experience, the novel focuses its attention on the group of men as well as Gardiner and Evans. Flanagan uses an inclusive and empathetic narrative perspective to create a large and diverse cast of characters. Narrow Road represents a community: it includes major and minor characters Evans and Gardiner, Nakamura and the Goanna/Choi Sang-min, Amy and Ella, Tomokawa and Kota, Keith Mulvaney and Tom Evans, Jimmy Bigelow and Rooster MacNeice, Tiny Middleton and Sheephead Morton, Chum Fahey and Bonox Baker, Jack Rainbow and Gallipoli von Kessler, Lizard Brancussi and Rabbit Hendricks, among several others. Far from representing the company of Australian POWs as an idealized set of comrades, Flanagan foregrounds at least three important characters who isolate themselves from the others in an invented superiority. Colonel Rexroth, an Australian who wants to be understood as English, pretends to an imaginary class distinction and aspires to create a cemetery reserved for officers. The able giant Tiny Middleton refuses out of pride to slow down his work and ignores the harm his productivity brings to the other POWs. Rooster MacNeice disdains the other POWs and isolates himself. He regards Gardiner as “dirty” and “like most half-castes not to be trusted”; a comprehensive racist, “He hated chinks, nips and slopes, and, being a fair-­ minded man, he also hated poms and yanks” (146). Rooster’s racism contributes to Gardiner’s death: dismissing him as too weak to report the



group of POWs resting in secret, Rooster refuses Gardiner’s order to join the workers on the Line. Nicknamed for his arrogant cockiness, Rooster demonstrates Flanagan’s decision not to represent all Australians as good mates and innocent victims of the Japanese. At the same time, Rooster and these other characters demonstrate the human costs for those who choose to withdraw from community. The Korean Choi Sang-min, called the Goanna in the POW camp, shows a similar complexity in Flanagan’s portrayal of the captors and guards in the camp. Japanese Colonel Kota expresses contempt for him (211) and Nakamura feels disdain for all “Useless Koreans” (216). A brutal but essentially confused participant in and scapegoat for war crimes, Choi Sang-min is executed for beating Gardiner to death. Ironically, he trades with Gardiner and does not dislike him; the brutal beating arises from accidental embarrassments to Kota and Nakamura, who save face in the punishment. Choi Sang-min is survived by Japanese war criminals who evade execution, including Nakamura, Kota, and Tomokawa. After the war, a Japanese doctor comments that executions were highly selective, that the hanged “were unlucky or unimportant. Or Korean” (268). Historically accurate, this observation reflects the racist nature of post-war prosecutions. Flanagan draws on the case of a Korean prison guard, Lee Hak-Rae, prosecuted at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials in 1947.13 Complicating notions of culpability and evil, he represents Choi Sang-min as both villain and victim, an uneducated peasant beaten regularly as a youth until he signs up to work as a guard for a paltry salary he never receives. Like many historical novels, Narrow Road portrays a group; like other contemporary historical novels I analyze in this book, Narrow Road also portrays a memorable community forged in extreme conditions. In Flanagan’s novel, the community that forms among the men on the Line constitutes a vital response to the overwhelming losses they experience. The creation of human community takes on meaning in the camp from the prevailing Japanese assertion that the men are bare and expendable animal life. Treated with contempt because they have first failed to win and then failed to commit suicide, the POWs are dehumanized; Nakamura sees them as “machines in service of the Emperor” (72). Japanese captors and Korean guards effectively strip the prisoners of humanity by starving, degrading, beating, and insulting them. Nearly naked, emaciated, sick, and ulcerated, owning nothing except a “dixie” to hold watery rice for breakfast and a rice ball for lunch, the POWs look like the “poor bare



forked animal” Lear calls “the thing itself” or “unaccommodated man.” In the face of brutalizing mistreatment, the POWs assert humanity and dignity precisely by respecting these qualities in each other; they recognize a shared precarity that makes them equal. They appeal to, invoke, and create an order beyond the animal self when they share, joke, help, and support each other; beyond physical survival, they demonstrate human generosity and responsibility for the community. When they have the energy early in their captivity, they put on theatrical performances to keep humor, memory, and sanity alive; they share books, memories, and stories.14 Few of them believe in any god, but they believe in each other and in their community. Examples abound: Tiny Middleton gives half his breakfast to Gardiner, who has shared his own food earlier; Jimmy Bigelow plays his bugle at every funeral through a mouth shredded by pellagra; Sheephead Morton gently cleans Gardiner’s dead body. Insisting on the dignity and value of men, these acts reject the Japanese version of POW identities and offer visible resistance to the purpose and processes of the camp by seemingly powerless inmates. While Dorrigo Evans responds to the community’s need for selfless heroism by sending “his” piece of steak to be shared by the sick men in the hospital, he recognizes that his heroism constitutes a passive acceptance of a role created by others. After the war, Australian need creates a heroism to which he assents, despite his reluctance. States need war heroes for much the same reason that traditional war novels supply them: they ennoble war itself and make acceptable pointless suffering and death. In this way, they function not only to heal the wounds of the last war and to justify its human costs, but also to reinforce the exceptionalist logics that enable the next war. The satirized Colonel Rexroth poses as an imperial hero, affirming “the order and discipline that is the very lifeblood of the Empire” (36). While he dismisses Rexroth’s pretentious and phony English exceptionalism, Dorrigo Evans nonetheless finds himself endorsing the same binary logic of good and evil peoples (“monsters,” 16) that the Japanese have used to devalue the Koreans, Australians, English, and others. In playing the exceptional Australian hero, Evans becomes the novel’s aimless anti-hero, perpetually confused and disappointed by his own failures. While the nation chooses Dorrigo Evans, a tall white doctor married into a socially respected family, to venerate as the representative of an exceptional Australian identity, the novel by Richard Flanagan makes a different choice. Narrow Road does not presume to represent an Australian



national character, but it does honor the historically invisible Darky Gardiner, who commits himself to his community in acts of hope, respect, responsibility, and unsentimental generosity. More importantly, the novel represents a community of men who live and die, trying to help each other survive the day; it follows many of them after the war. The novel presents war, not as a test or triumph of a national character, and certainly not as a vindication of individual masculine courage, but as a catastrophe that falls on the humble. It devotes its most poetic language to the community that is both the vehicle for survival and the reason survival matters; it helps the humble retain their humanity and makes endurance worth the effort: “courage, survival, love—all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in them all or they died and every man with them” (142). On the precarious edge between life and death, amid historical wreckage that could extinguish hope, the suffering men create a community protecting and affirming values that give meaning to human life.

Notes 1. See Boggett for analysis of the romusha and their exploitation. 2. In a review for the Japan Times, Pulvers objects that the Japanese characters “do not rise far above the caricature of fanatic Emperor worship.” 3. Responding to Hofmann’s review, Grayling (Chair of the Man Booker Prize committee for 2014) writes, “one would fail a first-year for missing the point so completely.” 4. His full name is used only once, near the end of the novel, when Dorrigo’s brother Tom tells him his son was adopted by the Gardiners and named Frank (306). 5. Flanagan’s acknowledgments in the Australian edition of the novel list Dunlop’s and Fagan’s memoirs; the acknowledgments do not appear in the U.S. edition. See Lever. 6. In the text of The Line, material written by Martin appears in italics, while that written by Arch is not. I distinguish here between their authorship on that basis. 7. Fagan, quoted in The Line, is forced to choose 100 men “to march another 100  miles into the unknown”; instead of cursing him, “they came and wished me good luck. And I found it necessary to walk into the jungle and weep a while” (Line 162). Dorrigo Evans has the same experience (325–30). See Winstanley for Dr. Fagan’s postwar writing about his experiences as a POW.



8. Dunlop records the brutal beating on June 22 and Hallam’s death on June 26, 1943: “he was slain by these Nipponese sadists more certainly than if they had shot him” (Diaries 288). 9. Named Ernest Edward Dunlop, he acquired the nickname based on a pun: Dunlop made tires, and “Weary” suggests “tired.” 10. Martin Flanagan came to know Weary Dunlop and some of his colleagues after the war, in part through his quest to understand his father’s experience. Arch Flanagan did not know Dunlop well, and Dunlop does not mention Flanagan in his War Diaries. 11. Flanagan says in interviews that a Latvian man had a similar experience after World War II; his wife was said to have died in the war, and after searching for her for two years the man gave up and moved to Australia. He later encountered her holding two children’s hands and faced a decision whether or not to speak. See Mullan. 12. Coast was “riled with Boulle’s crude fictionalization of the POW experience” (Coast xxiv). Others were critical of his representation of the unit led by Colonel Philip Toosey, a leader far more careful and effective than the fictional Nicholson. 13. Kwon details the case as an example of the unfair proceedings against Korean prison guards. Lee was sentenced to death by hanging, but the sentence was commuted to twenty years’ imprisonment. 14. Introducing Coast’s memoir of his time in a POW camp, Noszlopy writes that “an ad hoc but vibrant cultural life in several of the campus helped to save sanity and lives”; there were “universities” in which “POWs gave lectures on a wide range of subjects” and formed friendships “based on mutual respect and trust” (xviii).

References Akbar, Arifa. 2014. Man Booker Prize Winner Richard Flanagan: ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North Was a Novel I Never Wanted to Write’. The Independent. 16 October. Accessed 20 Aug 2015. Boggett, David. Notes on the Thai-Burma Railway; Part II: Asian Romusha; The Silenced Voices of History. wp-content/uploads/kiyo/pdf-data/no20/david.pdf. Accessed 19 Aug 2017. Boulle, Pierre. 1954. The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Trans. Xan Fielding, 2007. New York: Ballantine. Butler, Judith. 2010. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? 2009. New York: Verso. Coast, John. 1946. Railroad of Death. Newcastle upon Tyne: Myrmidon, 2014.



Downer, Lesley. 1989. On the Narrow Road: Journey into a Lost Japan. New York: Summit. Dunlop, E.E. 1986. The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-­ Thailand Railway 1942–1945. Australia: Penguin. Flanagan, Richard. 2014. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. New York: Knopf. Flanagan, Arch, and Martin. 2005. The Line: A Man’s Experience; a Son’s Quest to Understand. Camberwell: One Day Hill Press. Gorra, Michael. 2014. Bridge to Nowhere. New York Times. http://www.nytimes. com/2014/08/31/books/review/richard-flanagans-narrow-road-to-thedeep-north.html?_r=0. Accessed 20 Aug 2017. Grayling, Anthony. 2015. Letters. London Review of Books, 37. http://www.lrb. Accessed 20 Aug 2017. Hofmann, Michael. 2014. Is His Name Alwyn? London Review of Books, 36. Accessed 20 Aug 2017. Hotta, Eri. 2013. Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy. New York: Knopf, 2013. Lever, Susan. 2013. Heroes, Certainly. Sydney Review of Books. Accessed 19 Aug 2017. McGrath, Patrick. 2014. Richard Flanagan in Conversation with Patrick McGrath. Knopf Doubleday. watch?v=r2GptonFXQM. Accessed 19 Aug 2017. Mullan, John. 2015. Guardian Live Event: Book Club with Richard Flanagan. The Guardian. 6 November. audio/2015/nov/06/podcast-guardian-live-richard-flanagan. Accessed 20 Aug 2017. Noszlopy, Laura. 2014. Introduction. In Railroad of Death, ed. John Coast. Newcastle upon Tyne: Myrmidon, 1946. Pulvers, Roger. 2013. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Japan Times. 9 November. book-reviews/the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north/#.VdXcm1NViko. Accessed 20 Aug 2017. Reeve, Victoria. 2016. Wandering in Intersectional Time: Subjectivity and Identity in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Text 34: 1–18. The Hon O-Gon Kwon. 2011. Forgotten Victims, Forgotten Defendants. In Beyond Victor’s Justice? The Tokyo War Crimes Trial Revisited, ed. Yuki Tanaka, Tim McCormack, and Gerry Simpson, 227–239. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff. Winstanley, Lt. Col. Peter. 1946. Kevin James Fagan. Prisoners of War of the Japanese 1942–1945. Accessed 18 Aug 2017.


Racism and Communities Beyond Race: Toni Morrison, Home and God Help the Child

Toni Morrison has written about individuals in relation to communities throughout her writing career, in eleven historical novels as well as essays and interviews. She focuses on African American communities in novels like The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Paradise, Love, and Home, and on relationships between Black and white communities in novels like Tar Baby, A Mercy, and God Help the Child. Her novels place all of these communities in the polarizing context of American exceptionalism, which generates what she calls the “wholly racialized society” of the U.S. (Playing, 12–13). Compromising its core myths, the U.S. “redeemer nation” violated its own founding principles when it endorsed slavery; later, it relied on fantasy ideals and the disavowal of actual practices as it allotted to African Americans a segregated sub-citizenship. While Puritan myths of America’s origin invoked pernicious separations between elect and damned, white and Black, the nation-state evolving from those binaries has continued to confront African Americans, Morrison writes, with a “racist house” designed to bar them from home and community (“Home,” 5). Morrison probes the importance of race to the American sense of an exceptional identity in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. She argues that American writers have summoned a unique “American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire” to enable the state fantasy of an exceptional America (38). The representation of the Black Other enabled white America to construct itself as privileged, powerful, and free: © The Author(s) 2020 S. Strehle, Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community,




Africanism is the vehicle by which the American self knows itself as not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less, but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny. (52)

In Morrison’s view, the white vision of an exceptional American identity relies on “the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment” (48), making slavery and historical practices of racist oppression important platforms for the state of exception. The ongoing exclusion of African Americans—and others, including Native Americans—from full citizenship has long functioned to unify white imperial America, according to Amy Kaplan; Sarah Josepha Hale’s fiction in the 1850s, Kaplan writes, suggested ways to “set apart nonwhites within the national domain” through Thanksgiving rituals that police “the domestic sphere by making Black people, whether free or enslaved, foreign to the domestic nation and homeless within America’s expanding borders” (36). Morrison’s fictional Black communities grapple with their estranged status within exceptional America. American exceptionalism relies on a “racialized Other,” as Donald E.  Pease writes: “what galvanized U.S. citizens’ shared sense of Americanness throughout the nineteenth century was the state’s production of a racialized Other” who represented “the subracial, subhuman, subindividual with access to nothing but the negation that underpinned the power of the exception” (2010, 67). Indeed, Pease argues in parallel to Morrison that the racialized Other performs a vital function in constituting the exceptional (white) American: “The American exceptionalism(s) engendered throughout U.S. history gave rise to two heterogeneous but co-constituting figures: the citizen-subject, who was empowered to speak the discourse and participate in the enactment of its rule; and subjugated and racialized Others, who lacked representation within the discourse but who were subjected to its rules” (2010, 67). For Morrison’s African American characters, the results often include isolation and a yearning for community; for many of her Black communities, they include a pre-­ ordained inability to create safe and welcoming “race-specific yet nonracist” homes in America (“Home,” 5). Local communities play a vital role in Morrison’s fiction, freighted with the hope that they can provide what the nation withholds. In Morrison’s first nine novels, however, communities fail spectacularly at critical moments to be places of understanding and acceptance, let alone support



and nurturance; they demonstrate their importance through their costly failures. In Beloved, Baby Suggs turns fresh-picked blackberries into a feast for all to celebrate Sethe’s arrival in free Ohio with her baby. But the next day, the community is envious, angry, and silent when Schoolteacher arrives to reclaim his “property,” leading to Beloved’s death, Baby Suggs’ withdrawal into despair, and Sethe’s isolation.1 In The Bluest Eye, Pecola Breedlove endures neglect, abuse, rape, and madness, while the collective narrator accepts responsibility on behalf of Lorain, Ohio: “we had failed her” (158). Medallion, Ohio, misses every opportunity to appreciate the unconventional freedom Sula represents; Eloe, Florida, seems like the very maw of hell to Jadine. Paradise traces the utopian experiment to create a race-free home in Ruby, an all-Black town that would finally fulfill the American promise of liberty and justice “for all”; but Ruby becomes closed and private, hostile to outsiders and stifling to women and children. Its Black founders are called “displaced representations of early American exceptionalism” by John Duvall (144) for their pride in an inverse racial purity. The novel’s opening signals the cost of this idealistic community’s failure: “They shoot the white girl first” (Paradise, 2). A Mercy represents a diverse multi-racial community on the Vaark farm that “had carved companionship out of isolation” (156); but bonds fray, community is lost, and slavery lies ahead for Florens, Lina, and Sorrow. In light of the patterns of failed cohesion, misjudgment, dispersal, and loss in the first nine novels, community takes on a surprisingly positive power in Morrison’s last two novels, Home (2012) and God Help the Child (2015). Like the earlier novels, these two represent African Americans’ struggle for self-acceptance and community within an exceptionalist U.S. culture. Home traces the American journey of Korean War veteran Frank Money in the 1950s, and God Help the Child traces the quest-­ journey of cosmetics designer Bride (born Lula Ann Bridewell) through a contemporary California rife with predators and abused children. In both novels, isolated and hurt Black characters recall moments of crisis when they encountered white America’s toxic racism and received its message of rejection. Each of the protagonists has failed at relationships; parenting has failed both of them. Frank bears traumatic scars from the war, in which he killed a young Korean girl and held his closest friends as they died. Bride has been haunted by her mother’s abiding rejection of her “midnight Black” color; to win her mother’s approval, she has lied in court and sent an innocent teacher to prison. Both protagonists mature, confront



the past, and accept themselves, as many of Morrison’s earlier protagonists have done. Marking a significant change from the previous novels, however, communities in both novels help the protagonists heal; these communities play a transformative role. While the American landscape remains a racist “wreck,” the Black protagonists in these novels find islands of welcome “outside the race house” (“Home,” 10) in small-town rural communities that affirm African Americans’ worthiness and enable physical and emotional healing. Frank Money and his sister Cee travel home to the community of Lotus, Georgia, where Cee recovers from medical experimentation by a racist Atlanta doctor and Frank confronts his guilt as a soldier in Korea. In Lotus, a small Black community twenty miles south of Atlanta, the Moneys reclaim and renew the house that was their childhood home. Bride’s journey in God Help the Child moves in the opposite direction, away from a job and a condo that have insulated her in superficial luxury, to Whiskey, a small logging village in Northern California where race loses some of its potent damaging force. In a place characterized as enacting “mild anarchy,” characters’ race appears not to matter; only “Midnight Black” Bride (3), “bone-white” Rain (83), and “golden” Black Booker (37) are specifically raced. Relationships cross and ignore race; both Bride and Booker find the potential for growth in an accepting community. Recalling Morrison’s characterization of ancestors as “timeless people whose relationships to the characters are benevolent, instructive, and protective,” wise elders Ethel Fordham and Queen Olive serve as guides and healers.2 But the communities themselves stand out in these two fictional worlds as positive alternatives to the American exceptionalist state. All of Morrison’s novels are historical, in the sense that they develop characters’ identities, challenges, and understandings in relation to their history in a “wholly racialized society.” Morrison’s trilogy addresses histories of slavery (Beloved), the Harlem Renaissance and the jazz age (Jazz), and the legacies of reconstruction extending to the 1970s (Paradise). A Mercy returns to the origins of racialized slavery in the American colonies before independence, and Home takes place in the segregated U.S. of the 1950s. Of Morrison’s eleven novels, only two take place in periods contemporaneous with their appearance: Tar Baby in an unidentified year near its publication (1981); God Help the Child in another year close to its appearance (2015). In reading God Help the Child as a historical novel, I will show how Morrison foregrounds racialized histories that shape Black Americans, as she does in all of her fiction; she also refers to specific



U.S. histories of the abuse and murder of Black children. Despite its contemporary setting, God Help functions as a historical novel, recollecting how the racist exceptionalism in American culture authorizes both general damage to and violent abuse of African American children. Toni Morrison’s sustained engagement with history appears in her novels as well as essays and interviews.3 Reading Morrison as a historical novelist brings the political dimension of her fiction to the foreground and highlights her critique of the absence of social justice for African Americans in the U.S. Part 1 of this chapter explores her use of historical references to racist exceptionalisms in Home and God Help the Child. Part 2 develops the claim that each of these novels represents community attitudes and values that serve as models; in different ways, each community welcomes strangers rather than rejecting them. Whiskey’s acceptance is particularly surprising in God Help the Child, because Bride is unknown, but the welcome remains noteworthy in Home’s Lotus, where the Moneys return scarred by trauma. Part 3 explores the inclusive narrative form in these two novels, including dialogic exchange in Home and the use of insightful and understanding third-person limited points of view in God Help. The form of these novels endorses the same values represented in their content; Morrison’s sympathetic understanding extends to those who have been exiled and makes them part of an inclusive community.

Morrison and Histories of Racism in America Morrison’s work has always focused on the historical experiences of African Americans in the “wholly racialized society that is the United States” (Playing, xii). Morrison attends closely to the political and human values expressed in fiction, while she represents and addresses the public community around her. She writes, If anything I do, in the way of writing novels (or whatever I write) isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything. I am not interested in indulging myself in some private, closed exercise of my imagination that fulfills only the obligation of my personal dreams—which is to say yes, the work must be political. (What Moves at the Margin, 64)4

To address the experience of African Americans, the work must be grounded in a political understanding of the racist wreckage in American life and history. Her political vision makes Toni Morrison a historical



novelist; her representation of wounded African Americans finding support in and by broadly inclusive communities places her among the writers creating historical fiction “after the wreck.” Stephen Best offers an important critique of Morrison’s historical representations in Beloved and A Mercy, arguing that she inspires an “affective history” project in the former novel and acknowledges its “limits and ultimate impossibility” in the latter (473). Best identifies his goal as clearing “some space for a Black politics not animated by a sense of collective condition or solidarity” (454), by “extending the queer acknowledgment of nonrelationality between the past and the present to the racial case” (455). In Beloved, Best argues, Morrison joins others including Ian Baucomb and Saidia Hartman to focus on a melancholic immersion in the continuity of the present with the slave past. With A Mercy, published twenty years later in 2008, Best finds that the slave past “falls away” and the novel’s form “undoes a crucial aspect of the historical ethics” brought about by Morrison’s earlier novel. While I do not find in A Mercy the “standoffishness” (468) or “marked ungeniality” (471) that Best perceives, he justly concludes that, focusing on “a moment before slavery coupled with race with determined results,” the novel shows “that the logic of racial slavery does not fully describe or cannot capture racial injustice in the present” (474). With this insight, Best identifies what I understand to be Morrison’s abiding focus, which was never primarily on slavery; rather, from the beginning, she has written about the damage done by racism. A Mercy explores the historical moment when slavery becomes raced in the colonies as “the chosen people,” American exceptionalists who assume that God is white, focus their objectifying racism on the young Black protagonist. In Morrison’s fiction, characters are haunted less by the specific wound of an enslaved racial past than by the abiding legacy of American racism, grounded in and expressing American exceptionalism, both thriving in the present. Her novels sometimes depict slavery, but always depict racism and the wreckage it creates in Black lives. History has engaged Morrison and shaped her interests and goals throughout her career. As an editor at Random House in the 1960s and 1970s, Morrison worked on The Black Book, a history in artifacts of 300 years of Black life in the U.S. The book includes materials that formed the basis for the trilogy Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise:5 the story of Margaret Garner, the photograph of a dead young woman, shot by her lover, that became the basis for Jazz, and newspaper warnings to newly freed slaves to “come prepared or not at all.” In writing A Mercy, Morrison drew on



historical sources to develop the early American setting, the atmosphere in seventeenth-century England, and the practice of indentured servitude.6 As I have shown elsewhere, she also places A Mercy in researched historical contexts that include Bacon’s rebellion of 1676, the Salem witch trials of 1692, and the smallpox-infected blankets given to Native Americans in 1693. Her last book of nonfiction, The Origin of Others, based on a series of lectures at Harvard in 2016, references historical moments of wreckage: in 1851, a physician’s racist essay about “the Negro Race” (4–5); an eighteenth-­century Englishman’s diary record of raping his slaves (6–9); laws enforcing slavery in Virginia (47); the violence inflicted on returned World War II veteran Isaac Woodard in 1946 (59–60); and the story of twelve African Americans lynched in the twentieth century (61–63). A reading writer committed to telling the stories of African Americans, Morrison makes use of historical sources as she creates novels about trauma, injustice, and survival. Her fiction explores the destruction of individuals and communities when exceptionalism divides Americans into citizen and Other, legal inhabitant and racialized alien. In writing Home, Morrison invokes the history of the U.S. in the 1950s, when Blacks served in an integrated Army in Korea but returned home to a dangerously segregated state; when Black travelers needed a reference guide for places friendly to African Americans (22–23); when eugenics practices targeted Black women like Cee for involuntary sterilization (129); when Black men like Crawford were beaten to death if they refused to leave town (10); when Black women like Lily were denied the right to live in some parts of the city (73); when a Black son could be forced by white men to fight his father to the death (139); and when an eight-year-­ old boy with a cap pistol could be shot by a policeman (31). Some of these racist practices ended with the Jim Crow era, like the Negro Motorist Green Book copied out for Frank by Reverend Maynard; some continue in the twenty-first century, like the shooting of Black children.7 Most of Home’s African American characters, major and minor, experience overt racism ranging from white-only restrooms (23) and segregated train cars (24) to a riot when a Black man and his wife try to buy coffee from a segregated shop (25). Morrison has called the 1950s “a decade of outrageous political and ethnic persecution,” linking McCarthy-era political repression with segregation (What Moves, 175). While “people think of it as a kind of a Golden Age,” it was “a violent time for African Americans” and “we forgot McCarthy, anti-communist horror. We forgot that there was a war



that we didn’t call a war” (Brown).8 Morrison wanted to “take the skin or the scab off our view of the fifties” in Home (Boone). Morrison’s reference to McCarthy-era persecution, loyalty oaths, and punishments for those accused of communist sympathies reflects her awareness that the same logic sustaining racial divisions into (white) citizen and Others worked in the 1950s to divide conservative citizens from Communist Others. In Home, she refers to dramatist and screenwriter, Albert Maltz, when Lily remembers government agents shutting down a play they regard as too radical. Lily worked for a theater where “The Morrison Case” “by somebody named Albert Maltz” was briefly rehearsed (72). Maltz was one of the Hollywood Ten, jailed in 1950 and later blacklisted for his Communist sympathies; his career never recovered. He wrote The Morrison Case in 1952 to protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); according to drama critic Albert Wertheim, the unpublished play stages a protest by Pete Morrison, blacklisted from the Brooklyn Navy Yard because of his interest in Communist organizations and his reading of books considered “leftist.” Based on “an official transcript of a hearing” in the historical case, the play was never performed (Wertheim 215).9 This brief reference to the McCarthy-era policing of culture reflects Morrison’s awareness that America constructed its Others along several dimensions, including politics and ideas as well as race; leftist intellectuals often advocated for community-building inclusiveness that threatened American exceptionalist beliefs and was stifled with rigorous repression. The novel invokes eugenics and misogyny through the racist gynecologist Dr. Beau Scott, whose experiments almost kill Cee and leave her sterile. Dr. Beau has three books on his office shelf: Out of the Night, by Nobel laureate Hermann J.  Muller (1935); The Passing of the Great Race, by Madison Grant (1916); and Heredity, Race and Society, by Leslie Clarence Dunn and Theodosius Dobzhansky (1946). The three books express uneven racist assumptions: Grant’s book claims greatness for the Nordic race, with all other races threatening its rightful ascendancy;10 Muller’s argues that great men, most of them white, should donate sperm to fertilize thousands of women;11 Dunn and Dobzhansky dismiss the idea of “pure races,” diminish race from an essential characteristic to a question of genetic frequency, and suggest that the mixing of races is potentially helpful to the species.12 Regardless of the differences among his books, Dr. Beau relies on a white racist eugenics to justify his experiments, including the work he does with poor women, many of them Black, who sometimes



wind up hospitalized or dying as a result of his work (64–65). Seeking personal fame as a scientist while advancing racist ends, Dr. Beau creates his own medicines, performs abortions on society women, and constructs instruments that will enable him to penetrate farther into the womb, “Improving the speculum” (113).13 Cee develops an infection and a raging fever, both untreated; he may not intend to sterilize or kill her, but her survival is clearly unimportant to him. The books on his shelf suggest that Dr. Beau experiments on women he regards as expendable and whose sterilization he regards as socially desirable.14 The setting for God Help the Child is contemporary: Lula Ann Bridewell was born “in the nineties” (6) and is twenty-three now (27); a birth in 1991 would place the novel’s action in 2014, when Morrison wrote the novel.15 The novel makes reference to two historical episodes, both known to Morrison; in one, African American children were murdered by a serial killer, and in the other, child abuse against African American children was alleged. Both episodes are appropriate to this novel about multiple forms of child abuse and the lasting damage done to children by abuse and neglect. More important, each history reflects on the ways American exceptionalism defines Black Americans as expendable Others who are neither represented within the law nor accorded full rights in the state. Both expose deep schisms in a national community where white exceptionalism has enabled systemic racism. The earlier episode is the “Atlanta Child Murders” of 1979 through 1981: twenty-nine young African Americans were murdered and a thirtieth disappeared but was never found. Of these, twenty-four were children between seven and seventeen-years-old; another six were young adults, between twenty-one and twenty-eight. Most were asphyxiated, though several were bludgeoned to death; most were boys, and many were sexually abused or mutilated by the killer. The police and the FBI appeared unhelpful to the Black community; they seemed determined to slow the investigation, deny the emerging recognition of a serial killer, and instead pursue suspicions of the families of the missing boys. Finally, they arrested a twenty-three-year-old Black man, Wayne Williams, who stopped his car near a bridge and possibly threw something into the river; two days later, they found a victim’s body downstream. At trial, Williams was convicted of murdering two adults, though no evidence connected him to any of the child murders and only circumstantial evidence suggested he had killed the adults. Sentenced to serve two consecutive life terms, Williams maintains his innocence from prison, and some speculate that the Ku Klux Klan



may have been involved in the murders, many of them now attributed without evidence or trial to Williams.16 Toni Morrison read extensively about this case when she edited Toni Cade Bambara’s last novel, Those Bones Are Not My Child, published posthumously in 1999 by Pantheon. Morrison called the novel, written over 12 years and originally almost 800 pages long, Bambara’s “magnum opus.”17 Working for Random House, Morrison had edited Bambara’s stories (Gorilla, My Love, 1972)18 and become friends with her; in an interview, she describes Bambara dropping by her house in Queens with a bag of groceries and cooking dinner. By 1995, when Bambara died of cancer, Morrison had left Random House and given up editing; in producing a condensed 676-page version of Those Bones Are Not My Child, she honored a respected friend. Bambara’s novel follows an Atlanta family whose teenaged son disappears during the murders; it observes frantic worry in the Black community, indifferent police, and political tensions racking the city. Bambara did extensive research for the novel, accounting for the massive length of the draft. While Morrison alters some details in her own novel and does not place the murders explicitly in Atlanta, she invokes this history in a central section of God Help the Child that nods to Bambara’s text. Booker Starbern’s brother goes missing, and the police “searched the Starberns’ house—as though the anxious parents might be at fault”; when they find no evidence that the parents killed their son, “they dropped it. Another little Black boy gone. So?” (113–14). Adam’s body is discovered months later, and six years later a serial killer is charged with murdering six boys (118). Some details echo the Atlanta murders, where boys’ bodies were found partially naked or re-dressed in clothing not their own, and where the killer may have used a dog to lure victims to his vehicle.19 In a novel about the lasting effects of childhood abuse and trauma, Morrison emphasizes the costs to the family, and to Booker especially, of a loss rendered acceptable to the larger community: “So?” More troubling to some followers of the case was the seeming relief, throughout Atlanta law-enforcement, when African American Wayne Williams was arrested and convicted for the murders, though Klan involvement continues to seem likely to some observers.20 Morrison refers to another historical case in God Help the Child: the 1993 Head Start Molestation Case in Lorain, Ohio. Following a decade of public outrage across the U.S. over child sex abuse in day-care, a mother brought her four-year-old daughter to a hospital in Lorain, claiming that the girl had been molested with a stick after the Head Start bus driver took



her to the house of a man named “Joseph.” The hospital found the girl unharmed and the girl denied the abuse, but the mother—who had a prior conviction for distributing cocaine—recruited other parents whose children rode the same bus to support her story. The bus odometer confirmed that driver Nancy Smith, a single mother of four children, had driven her normal route (with a bus aide present at all times), and attendance records showed that all children on the bus had been present at Head Start for the full day. But the mother told local TV news a sensational story about child sex abuse and a cover-up, and two ambitious prosecutors decided to find “Joseph.” They located an uneducated Black man named Joseph Allen with a prior conviction for child sex abuse, the result of false charges by the child’s mother when he broke off their relationship, he says (Chatelle and Horowitz). Ten children were asked to identify “Joseph” from photos and a live line-up; most did not pick out Joseph Allen, and those that did were heavily coached, directed, or even pinched by their parents.21 Joseph Allen and Nancy Smith, who had never met each other, were convicted of child sex abuse in 1994; she was sentenced to 30 to 94 years, and Joseph to five consecutive life sentences, more than Atlanta convicted killer Wayne Williams. Both were released in 2009, on a clerical error; Smith remains free (but not exonerated) after serving fifteen years. Joseph Allen was returned to prison to spend another ten years.22 Morrison’s awareness of the case in her hometown appears in the novel. As a child, Bride provides false witness in the conviction of Sofia Huxley for child sex abuse; Bride does not claim to have been abused but to have seen Sofia participate in the abuse of others in the kindergarten building next to her school (46). Like Nancy Smith, Sofia is released after serving fifteen years in prison. Both women were friendly with children, careful, and well liked; Bride remembers Sofia as “gentle, funny, even, and kind” (48). In both cases, parental approval and encouragement play major roles in their children’s testimony; Bride’s mother Sweetness is “proud as a peacock” when her daughter testifies: “I was so proud of her, we walked the streets hand in hand. It’s not often you see a little Black girl take down some evil whites” (42). Bride later confesses that Sofia was innocent, and she lied in order to win her mother’s approval (153); the children in the Lorain Ohio case may also have lied (or been persuaded to believe and defend a lie) for similar reasons. The racial implications of the two cases differ; while Sofia Huxley has an unnamed white husband (one of the “evil whites” in prison), Nancy Smith was alone, requiring officials to find a plausible man to prosecute. In this instance, the historical wreckage



continues: a racially mixed group of Lorain pre-schoolers was led to identify and blame a Black man for abuse that appears likely never to have happened. In the novel, Sweetness speaks for the parents’ need to avenge lifetimes of racist evil, inflicted on generations of Black children, by invoking the law—which defended Black children for once, but only, ironically, in Ohio history because the prosecutors found a plausible Black man to blame.

Exceptionalism and Community in Home and God Help the Child Morrison’s characters often experience self-canceling isolation and yearn for a sustaining and supportive community. Her women characters dwell in interior thought, much of it directed with dismay or yearning at the community from which they feel estranged; they consider their social world, the reasons for their exile, and possible ways to reconnect. Pat Best, for example, realizes in isolation that Ruby’s patriarchs fear women in Paradise, while Soane wonders in silence why her husband won’t help their neighbors. Jadine reflects on her multiple alienations from Eloe, Paris, and Isle des Chevaliers in Tar Baby. Stuck in babyhood, Beloved yearns for “the join” that connects her to Sethe (Beloved, 213). Sorrow remembers “tangled strings” connecting the women on the Vaark farm, but “Now they were cut. Each woman embargoed herself” (A Mercy, 133). In Morrison’s first nine novels, isolated witnesses become aware of their loneliness and exile. In Home and God Help the Child isolation is equally damaging; however, protagonists in these novels accomplish successful connections with communities that are safe, supportive, and accepting of them. These two novels affirm the positive and necessary force of an inclusive community in helping to heal African Americans who have been wounded by racism. In Home, the state of exception announces its ominous power at the outset when white men bury a Black body in a hole, dug in advance to underscore the premeditated nature of the murder. Hiding in the grass, Frank and Cee wait hours before moving because they understand their vulnerability within a system whose laws allow whites to kill Blacks with impunity. For Cee and other young women, the lesson of the event is passive submission and the need for masculine protection, because non-­ resistance sometimes holds off the violence—or directs it to rape rather than murder. For Frank, the event demonstrates the power of masculinity



as violence and violation, an admiration for the “brutal” horses that bite and kick each other as they “stood like men” to fight each other for possession of the mares (5). He has seen an opposition framed in simple binaries: one can use violence to control and claim; or one can succumb and be buried. Frank identifies with the horses, missing the direct parallel between their brutality and that of the men who “whack” the vulnerable Black foot into the grave (4). Both child protagonists will carry the lessons of this event into disastrous young adulthoods: Cee submits to the charms of Principal, who uses her to get a car, and to Dr. Beau, who uses her for his research. Frank carries his vision of beautiful brutality to Korea, where an Army uniform puts him in the position of an American defender of the exceptionalist American state. When a starving Korean girl offers to trade sex for food, he responds with pre-programmed violence: rejecting both the child’s seeming abject depravity and his own desire, he shoots her. He has made her into the enemy Other of the American Army, a debauched alien Korean. But he has also recognized her as a familiar; her search for food reminds him of his own childhood with Cee, stealing peaches off the ground, and he notes that she is “left-handed, like me” (92–93).23 His identification with her reveals his awareness, however troubled, of their parallel positions as alien and undefended Others, subject to violence and murder by the exceptionalist state whose uniform he wears. They are both expendable, and so are Frank’s homeboys Mike and Stuff, who are turned into “meat” as they die violent deaths (99). When Frank learns, late in the novel, that the horses have been sold for meat to the slaughterhouse (140), his initial misunderstanding comes clear: the brutal masculinity he has idealized actually feeds and fuels (and is wasted by) the exceptionalist state. The state relies on the Western/American trope of the isolated competitive masculine individual, conquering the land and subduing others to his will. As a mode of masculinity, it can only betray African American men, who can in turn only betray the African American women who relate to them.24 Frank’s journey home from the Korean War leads him away from associations of beauty with brutality and of masculinity with violent conquest; he returns with Ycidra to a community that heals both protagonists. The Black community of Lotus is among the most positive and supportive places in all of Morrison’s fiction. It functions outside the race house in part because it is an all-Black community, able to provide the “feeling of safety and goodwill” among people who do not “degrade or destroy you” (Home, 118). To this point the novel has portrayed bleak landscapes



devoid of color, but flowers in Lotus introduce “Crimson, purple, pink and China blue,” and trees are a “deep, deep green” (117).25 Women sing at the clotheslines; men and boys play music in the bed of a truck. Cee is healed by the community of women whose values merit close attention: “There was no excess in their gardens because they shared everything. There was no trash or garbage in their homes because they had a use for everything. They took responsibility for their lives and for whatever, whoever else needed them” (123). They expect relatively little of others and much of themselves, including constant effort and work directed at the tasks of the day: “peeling, shucking, sorting, sewing, mending, washing, or nursing” (123). The women have endured sickness, loss, injustice, hard labor, and meanness; in response, they practice realistic adulthood, responsibility to themselves and others, and care for those in the community. Working together, they heal the infection that leaves Cee sterile; they advise her to take responsibility for her own freedom and accomplish what goodness she can (126). They accept her with warmth and hope despite her previous failures, which they urge her to recognize; she has been too passive and dependent, and she needs to save and protect herself (126). Cee responds with new independence, even from Frank, and with new self-respect. Like his sister, Frank also rejoins a community in Lotus. As a bored and restless teenager, he has found this community dull, judgmental, and lonely (16); he found no entertainment, no hope, and no reason to stay (83). Even then, however, he formed sustaining bonds with Mike and Stuff, friends from childhood onward who shared the same experiences and supported each other without question (98). Changed by the devastating loss of these friends in Korea and by his travels across segregated America, Frank finds a different Lotus, “both fresh and ancient, safe and demanding,” signaled by lush gardens and good Black people including women who save Cee’s life (132). Frank finds a group of older men, veterans like himself, who parallel in their wisdom and kindness the women of Lotus. They drink soda, play chess or whist, tease each other, and remember; Frank hears from them the story behind the Black body at the novel’s beginning. Jerome has been forced to kill his father in a fight staged for the entertainment of white men. While the white men bury his father’s body, men in the African American community collect money and clothing for Jerome and lead him out of town on a mule, before the sheriff can blame him for the murder and arrest him. Though the narrator does not explicitly praise these men’s values, they parallel the women’s: the men



have seen death and suffering and expect little from the world, less from white men, and nothing from the law. They help when they can; they understand and pity those who are victims. The novel has anticipated Frank’s return to a welcoming Black community by narrating his encounters with several helpful strangers on his journey through a dangerously racist nation. He remains a raced Other to most of the white men he meets, though one police officer respects his service medal (36). But the African Americans—and some characters deliberately not identified by race—treat him with respect and help him on his way. With few exceptions, they support his journey and give him information, encouragement, or funds. A chatty orderly named Crane tells him the exit door is never locked (8); Reverend John Locke and his wife feed him and give him galoshes and money (16–17); Jessie Maynard gives him a coat and funds for the train (22). He receives help, whiskey, and information from C.  Taylor, lodging, fellowship, and breakfast from Billy Watson. When he is beaten and robbed in Atlanta by a group of boys, a passing Samaritan offers help and gives him a few dollars (107). Sarah Williams, who urged him to come, prevents Dr. Beau from phoning the police and enables Frank to rescue Cee (111). Their collective support for Frank makes the journey possible, while frequent reminders of the threatening racist context recall its unlikelihood. Frank’s return “home” celebrates the Black community of the U.S., in and beyond Lotus Georgia. While Home considers the lives of African Americans in the segregated exceptionalist state of the 1950s, God Help the Child explores the impact of that state on Black lives about sixty years later. Amid ongoing racism in America, some light-skinned Blacks have expanded their opportunities by “passing,” as Nella Larsen’s novel called it. A response to crippling “colorism” or prejudice against Black skin, some African Americans draw on “skin privileges,” or the preference accorded to lighter skins.26 God Help the Child begins inside the consciousness of a light-skinned mother who demands to be called “Sweetness” rather than “Mama” so strangers will not think the dark-skinned daughter is hers. Bride’s skin appears “Sudanese” to her mother, who claims a family history of skin privilege that enabled her grandmother to pass as white and break off all contact with her darker children (3). Sweetness’s mother was light enough so she was allowed to shop in the department store (4). Sweetness’s husband, a porter, is light too; when he meets his newborn daughter for the first time, he says, “What the hell is this?” (5). Sweetness herself refuses to nurse the dark-skinned baby and later avoids touching the child. But in rejecting her



daughter, Sweetness reproduces the racism that made Black people the Others of the American exceptionalist state. The novel explores the impact of racism and colorism in dividing people of color and preventing effective community among them. Even family bonds fail when mothers like Sweetness and her grandmother reject their children, effectively replicating the failures of the state. Bride joins a large group of characters in Morrison’s fiction who are damaged by failed or absent parenting, including Pecola, Michael Street, Beloved, Seneca, Pallas, Heed, Christine, Florens, Frank, and Cee, among others. Morrison has commented powerfully in non-fiction essays about the importance of children: nothing, nothing, not us, nothing is more important than our children. And if our children don’t think they are important to us, if they don’t think they are important to themselves, if they don’t think they are important to the world, it’s because we have not told them. We have not told them that they are our immortality. (What Moves, 169)

Part of her remarks at Howard University in 1995, Morrison’s comment reflects both the value and the fragility of children. While her fiction demonstrates that children can survive bad parenting, it also suggests that abusive and neglectful parents of every race are far too common. Black parents have special challenges in a racist culture: like the Starberns in God Help, they may teach children self-respect, responsibility, and the power to shape productive lives, but the children grow up in a culture where some Americans are bent on denying those teachings. When Morrison creates Black parents who pass on the traumatic legacies of the American exceptionalist state, as Sweetness does in God Help, blame is not the point, nor do the novels blame Sethe, Cholly, or Frank and Cee’s parents who labor all day. Her latest novel instead exposes the divisive and damaging impact on the Black community, Black families, and Black children of assumptions about race in the state of exception.27 Raised by a mother who reduces her to unacceptable skin, Bride learns to live on the surface; this leads to stunted and shallow relationships, compounded by her failure to understand hidden motives and complex perspectives. She chooses a career in cosmetics, cultivates personal glamor, buys name-brands, and focuses on looking successful and happy; in reality, she is isolated and lonely. Untutored in human relationships, Bride misreads almost everyone. For example, Brooklyn steals her position in the



cosmetics company and tries to seduce Booker; but Bride misses the woman’s selfishness and calls her “the one person I can trust” (22). Bride fails to imagine or understand Sofia Huxley’s violent reaction to her visit when Huxley is released from prison. When hirsute Steve arrives to rescue Bride from her wrecked car, she fears rape or murder (84); she asks all-natural Evelyn for nail polish (56). She does not know Booker’s history, his occupation or hobbies, his family or intellectual interests; she thinks she helps him by failing to ask questions that would open a deeper connection. As a result, she does not know Booker, as Queen observes (146). The product of Sweetness’ teaching, Bride has limited her contacts to skin and surfaces, and she has fallen in love with Booker without getting to know him. At the same time, Bride is not simply superficial, as some reviewers and critics imply;28 she is also quick, perceptive, observant, and analytical. While these intangible strengths enable the growth she achieves, she is not aware of them; she does not recognize depth and complexity in herself any more than in others. She agrees with Booker that “You not the woman I want” (8), but does not know why she carries such abiding self-­disapproval. Like many who were traumatized as children, she lives in flight from deep emotions, especially those recalling the child’s vulnerability, and seeks the safety of casual and superficial relationships that leave her unsatisfied; she does not know why she wakes up with Phil. Her complexity emerges most clearly in what she avoids, signals of the damage she carries. She avoids Sweetness but never wonders why. She cheerfully wishes Sofia a happy new life but fails to apologize for her own shameful testimony or to explain it to Sofia. She wants “an honest conversation” with Brooklyn but refrains from telling her the truth (45). She is pregnant from the book’s first pages, but allows herself to realize it only at the end; in the meantime, a magical regression to childhood enables her to delay understanding why she has no menstrual periods. At the same time, she has moments of impressively acute perception. In a restaurant, she sees that the chef tries “to make a bland fish thrilling” (44); at a bus stop, she sees an old man eating Cheerios, looking at each piece like “a choice grape” presented to him “by groundskeepers to the throne” (15). She knows her boyfriends have been “typecast”; she realizes that one of them brought her home to “terrorize” his white family (36–37). She has a sophisticated awareness that Booker has made her feel “colonized somehow” (78), suggesting her realization that she used him to abdicate her own responsibility for making constructive choices about her life. To make Bride worthy of the gifts she receives, Morrison sees in her strengths of which Bride is unaware.



Having indulged in passive self-pity through Part I of the novel, Bride makes a move to “look to herself” in Part II, when she leaves home to find Booker. A first transformative experience occurs when she spends six weeks in Whiskey with Evelyn, Steve, and Rain, who help her recover from a broken ankle and the wounds of the “race house” she has inhabited. In their fifties and probably white (Steve’s hair is blond, Evelyn’s chestnut, 84, 86), they accept racial difference as one aspect of biological identity, but they do not see race as defining or important; they never refer to their own color or ethnicity. They do not pretend that skin color is invisible, but they act as though it has no bearing on relationships or values. When Rain asks Evelyn why Bride’s skin is so Black, Evelyn delivers a non-judgmental reply, ascribing neither meaning nor value to skin color: “For the same reason yours is so white” and adds, “Born that way” (85). The portrayal of these characters’ relationship to race suggests Morrison’s continuing engagement with ideas she raised in her essay, “Home”: she wonders how “to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?” (“Home”, 5). In writing the novel Paradise, she continues, “I want to inhabit, walk around, a site clear of racist detritus, a place where race both matters and is rendered impotent” (“Home”, 9). Taking Bride in and helping her recover, Evelyn and Steve create an American location “outside the race house,” which seems to reflect the culture and values of the surrounding Whiskey Township. Though they do not articulate their earth-friendly, community-­ supportive values, Evelyn and Steve base their lives on the same values as the Lotus women: there is no excess and no waste in their house, no electricity or indoor plumbing, no appliances or consumer goods, no fast food or modern conveniences. They work hard and live on what they create themselves with an industrious round of chores closely resembling those of the Lotus women: “gardening, cleaning, cooking, weaving, mowing grass, chopping wood, canning” (98). In what appears to be a successful attempt to live off the grid and on the land, they take responsibility for their own lives and happiness. At the same time, they accept quick and generous responsibility to and for anyone who needs them. Bride realizes that they have helped her without counting the costs or demanding explanation, providing care that is strangely blame-free and non-judgmental (90). In a similar way they have taken in Rain, after the six-year-old was prostituted and thrown away by her mother; they accept her right to choose her own name (Rain or Raisin), as they accept her previous life without making negative judgments of the girl and without demanding details.



Bride heals both physically and emotionally during her stay in Whiskey, much as Cee and Frank do in Lotus. Her relationship to Rain generates her transformation from wounded child to nurturing and protective adult, one who can take responsibility for herself and others; she becomes capable of membership in a community through the process. During her stay with Evelyn and Steve, Bride abandons cosmetic products and glamor; flat-chested, she is the same size as Rain, whose jeans now fit Bride perfectly (93). In the shape of a sympathetic equal, Bride asks Rain direct questions and hears a detailed account of Rain’s sexual abuse by her mother’s regular clients (101). Rain tells of living homeless on the streets, isolated because others could turn her in or hurt her (103). During this conversation, Bride transitions from a child enmeshed in her own abuse to a maternal comforter and guide. She leads Rain “gently” to a stone where they can sit together; she encourages the child, taking Rain’s hand and touching her knee (102). While Rain talks, a doe and her fawn stand watching, signaling a protective and responsible adulthood the twenty-­ three-­year-old Bride will demonstrate in her contact with the (perhaps now) eight-year-old child. Rain’s abusive mother puts Sweetness’s neglectful detachment in a new context (Sweetness “never threw her out,” 101). Bride relinquishes the self-pity that has kept her immature and shallow in the face of the “tough little girl” who does not ask for pity (103). In the aftermath of their conversation, Bride protects Rain when aggressive boys fire buckshot at the girl (105). In these acts she becomes the responsible elder who will risk herself to save the young. Bride ceases to be isolated; the “little Black girl” who has carried the poison of American racism, passed on by her damaged mother and reinforced at school, pities and cares for a little white girl who has endured other appalling poisons. Bride admires Rain’s strength; the conversation brings the “midnight Black” and the “bone-white” girls close. Bride thinks of their bond as a “companionship” of equals, in which race plays no part (103); Rain thinks of Bride as “a sister” (105). The friendship makes race irrelevant and creates empathy, while it teaches both friends Morrison’s understanding of color: “In God Help the Child, color is both a curse and a blessing, a hammer and a golden ring. Although neither, the hammer nor the ring, helped make the character a sympathetic human being. Only caring unselfishly for somebody else would accomplish true maturity” (Origin, 51). Made possible by the attitudes and values in the Whiskey home of Evelyn and Steve, the relationship prepares Bride to



accept the pregnancy she has concealed from herself and to confront Booker. While her connection with Rain enables Bride to become a protective adult, her sympathy and respect for Queen Olive lead her to a more generous understanding of parental failures. Having blamed Sweetness for (blame-worthy) selfishness, Bride needs to avoid the undertow of her childhood’s sad loneliness by claiming the right and accepting the responsibility to parent differently. When she meets Booker’s aunt Queen, a wise elder who has lost her own children, Bride sees that young parents struggle with their own lives in a racist and exceptionalist state. Queen’s children were “snatched” away by ex-husbands or abandoned by her as she married other men (159, 169). Queen feels particular guilt for losing Hannah, who blames her mother for refusing to believe that her father sexually abused her (170). Bride and Queen both understand the refusal as a tragic failure in a culture filled with child sexual abuse, but Bride also insists to Booker that “Queen loves her children” (170). A new, more complex understanding of Sweetness becomes possible; together with blame, Bride can also feel pity for all that her mother has lost. Like the women of Lotus and many of Morrison’s strong women, Queen demonstrates a model of gender identity that rejects passivity and the hope for rescue. Queen’s energetic industry appears in her home-­ cooked meal, her created fabric arts, and her orderly, comfortable home (145). Her generosity emerges as she feeds Bride, spurs her to confront Booker, and criticizes Booker for using his brother Adam’s death as an excuse to withdraw from life. Although Queen has made her own mistakes, she serves in parallel to Ethel Fordham as the critically honest elder who tells hard truths to the young. A realist, she expects Booker and Bride to make mistakes as they continue to struggle with the legacies of their painful pasts (God Help 158) much as Ethel tells Cee that she might run away again (Home 125). Like the author who imagines these wise elders, Queen and Ethel continue to hope—and more importantly to act, encouraging the young to make better choices and stories with happier endings. The final section of the novel celebrates an inclusive community where Black and white people live together under conditions that foster maturity and understanding. The place itself, Whiskey, California, is not on a map; it is a “haphazard village minus streetlights,” not unlike Lotus with its fifty houses (159). TV sets are old, music comes from radios, and residents do not demand information from each other. Booker appreciates “the mild anarchy of the place, its indifference to its residents” (159); just as Evelyn



and Steve do not ask where Bride is going, the Whiskey-ites accept others’ unspecified identities and plans. For all of the residents foregrounded in the novel, indifference does not mean detachment or lack of sympathy; instead, it identifies a very high level of consent to difference. The town contains truckers and motorcyclists, the jobless, the elderly, children, nurses, doctors, loggers, and people of different races; it may contain racism, but none is visible in the novel. Whiskey is not utopian: Queen dies after a fire in her house. But in this community, Bride has demanded of Booker that he respect her (154); having run away often in his life, Booker accepts the challenge of Bride and calls their unborn baby “ours” (174). Although Sweetness gets the last, self-focused, and half-cynical word, “God help the child” (178), the novel has brought Booker and Bride together in a community where their child has a chance to grow up “outside the race house.”29

Inclusive Forms and Communities of Story Morrison’s last two novels support the idea of community with artistic and formal choices to include multiple voices, to marginalize racial identifiers, and to demonstrate the importance of the collective with plots that follow isolated protagonists to transformative connections with others. The two novels link their African American protagonists’ guilty secrets, injustices they have committed but disavowed and tried to forget, to lifelong experiences of racist exceptionalism in America. Both protagonists undertake quest-journeys that lead them out of the “race house,” and both find ways to make amends. Both novels are told in chronological order; however, the narrative drama in both relies on the recovery of a secret history, complementing a forward movement through space and time with the recovery of a buried past. Both novels alternate between first- and third-person limited perspectives, using the contrasts between the two to achieve an inclusive, situated omniscience that does not totalize: the narrator knows each but not all. Both novels represent the perspectives of characters who could be seen as minor (Lily, Lenore, and Sarah; Brooklyn, Sofia, and Rain) as well as those of the protagonists; they include narrow, selfish characters like Lenore and Sweetness, and they sketch the histories that stunted these characters. Short novels that some reviewers compared unfavorably with Morrison’s earlier fiction,30 they have a similar compression and follow similar trajectories toward nurturing and supportive communities—both of them located on the outer fringes of exceptionalist America.



In the segregated 1950s of Home, a nurturing Black community and dialogue with the author provide safe spaces where Frank Money can confront his past. The most distinctive aspect of narrative form in Home is the dialogue between character and author. Eight of seventeen chapters are narrated by Frank in the first person to “you” who is “set on telling my story” (5), and these italicized chapters alternate with third-person limited sections narrating Frank’s journey, Cee’s history, Lily’s resolve, Lenore’s frustration, and the arrival of Frank and Cee in Lotus. Morrison calls the narrative dialogue “my great discovery”: “he and I are in this relationship. He learns about himself. And he learns with the aid of community” (Shea). Frank resists his author, challenges and disagrees with her; “I don’t think you know much about love. Or me” (69), he objects.31 The third-person narrator neither replies nor changes the sympathetic, insightful attention she brings to each character and event. Once Frank arrives in Lotus, however, he understands that his author is part of the community that has helped him: he confesses his secret, not to a friend in Lotus, but to “you”: “I lied to you and I lied to me.” He admits to “you” what he hid from himself, that it was he who shot the Korean girl (133). For Frank, receiving the narrator/author’s account plays an enabling role: first, she sets his painful story in a historical context and understands his shameful murder as an expression of the American exceptionalist position he took on with the Army uniform. She historicizes his acquisition of a view of masculinity as brutality from white men who force father and son to fight to the death. Without excusing him, she recounts his struggle to confront and take responsibility for his action. In her sympathetic representation of Frank’s journey through an America with no interest in his story and no respect for him, she describes a man determined to rise to the moral challenge of the “hook” of guilt deep in his chest. In his final section, he reveals an altered view of beauty, not as horses fighting each other for possession of mares, but of a tree, wounded in the middle “But alive and well” (147). The dialogue between Frank and his author functions in parallel to the conversation between the old woman and the young people in Morrison’s Nobel Lecture, which begins in conflict but ends in collaboration: “How lovely it is, this thing we have done—together” (What Moves, 207). In Home, the restored community of Lotus, reflected in the sympathetic community of character and author, creates a “race-specific” home “outside the race house” where Frank can reconnect. In the recent California landscape of God Help the Child, Bride finds a community of welcoming strangers, people of various races who live



together without apparent racism. In this novel, too, a narrative perspective combining first-person and third-person limited plays a significant role: it reveals distances between characters who fail to communicate and commonalities among characters who share parallel histories. This novel of four parts begins with four isolated women narrating nine separate stories and perceptions in Part I; Sweetness, Brooklyn, and Sofia reflect on their lives and connections with Bride, but have no contact with each other. The stories are not told or shared, but recalled in private, while the first-person perspectives underscore the self-enclosed detachment of each woman. Each of them has secrets; when Bride interacts with the others she withholds more information than she shares. Part I of the novel establishes separations, as each woman struggles with an isolation reflected in her unvoiced first person. The rest of the novel takes up the inclusive, sympathetic, insightful third-person limited perspective that is Morrison’s hallmark narration. Not a form of omniscience because it situates knowledge in a series of single viewpoints, it includes different and even conflicting views—a community of perspectives, in other words. In Part II, third-person limited narration relays the perspectives of Bride and Rain, complemented by two first-person sections from Sofia and Rain. In Part III, third-person narration represents Booker’s views of his childhood, his loss of Adam and retreat from the family he blames, and his idealization of Bride as “Galatea”—the milk-white marble statue brought to life by her artist-­ creator. Along with compassion for his loss of a beloved brother, this part develops Booker as limited in ways parallel to Bride: isolated, self-pitying, shallow in his relationships to others, and attracted to an idealized partner rather than a complex one. While she wants a hero to save and colonize her, he wants a muse of his own creation rather than a person he must work to understand. In Part IV, the third-person narrator enters the perspectives of Booker, Bride, and Queen, as the lovers come together in a family and community. First-person sections from perennial isolates Sweetness and Brooklyn stand in contrast to the connections emerging between Bride and Booker. Black and white characters share the novel and the foreground; both are characterized as emerging with mixed generosity and selfishness from the challenges of exceptionalist America. Home and God Help the Child achieve happy endings, unusual in Morrison’s fiction, in the sense that each protagonist achieves the object of the quest: Frank rescues Cee and regains the Lotus community; Bride finds Booker and a community in Whiskey. Both look forward to ongoing



lives with those they love, and in promising ways both acknowledge past failures and achieve a more responsible maturity. Like other contemporary historical novels, however, these fictions conclude without neutralizing their portraits of the wreckage their protagonists confront. Home concludes with Cee’s invitation, “Come on, brother. Let’s go home” (147). The novel reminds us that the house is not theirs, but rented “for a few months” (120) with all the cash they have; Frank may be forced to work in the cotton fields he hates (84). The novel does not pretend to interpret Frank’s successful journey as a victory over or even accommodation with the racial injustice it has observed in the U.S.; segregation, medical experimentation, and oppression continue at the novel’s end to deny Black people a “home” in America. At best Frank has found a safe retreat, with work to do until his next migration; the novel leaves vivid uncertainty around its last word, “home.” God Help the Child concludes with hope, as Bride and Booker envision a race-free home for their unborn baby, to be born into safety: “Immune to evil or illness, protected from kidnap, beatings, rape, racism” (175). But every character in the novel has suffered child abuse or racism and often both; the U.S. depicted in the novel suggests no plausible basis for the young couple’s wish. The child will be born African American, whatever shade its skin; it will be born in a nation that has depended “on a fabricated brew of darkness” (Playing, 38) to construct a privileged exceptional identity as white. Outside of Whiskey, Morrison reminds readers, child abuse and racist oppression thrive in the nation. In this novel the aged, disappointed Sweetness has the last cynical word, warning that a harsh reality will disillusion the parents and leave the baby defenseless (178). While these two novels conclude with optimism, they do not leave the historical world of exceptionalist America, with its ongoing devaluations of and threats to African American lives. Against these challenges, Morrison holds some faith in the power of community to sustain and support. In her Nobel Lecture, she envisions author and readers as a community creating stories together, responding to the need for better connections than the toxic “fiction of nationhood” (What Moves, 204–05). The exchange of words creates both the story and the connection; in fact, the communal need, articulated as a plea, becomes a fiction in which a wagonload of slaves is warmed, fed, connected, and consoled. In Morrison’s last novels, African Americans struggling against the brutalities of the exceptionalist state can create shelter in alternative communities. Lotus makes possible



the recovery of hidden truths and extended families, while Whiskey’s open, anarchic community promises safe depths beneath limiting surfaces and a welcoming space for new life.

Notes 1. This same community returns to help near the end of the novel, but its reappearance does not compensate for all that has been lost. 2. I quote from Morrison’s essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” (reprinted in What Moves), 62. 3. Important approaches to Morrison’s later fiction as historical and political include Darda (Morrison “has always worked to reanimate counterhistories” 80); Karavanta (Morrison “counterwrites the history of a negative community” 724); Anderson (Morrison “uses the metaphor of the ghost to assert the presence of African American history” 145); Hostetler (“the dead girl as an accessory to articulating a silenced past in Morrison’s fiction” 33); and Lye (Home explores “the historicity of different racism” 6). 4. Morrison defends representational art in her 2016 Norton Lectures, clearly disagreeing when she writes that “Art gesturing toward representation has, in some exalted quarters, become literally beneath contempt” (Origin, 37). 5. See Denard (xvii–xix) for information about Morrison’s contributions as in-­house editor and reviewer of The Black Book. 6. Morrison reveals information about her reading in interviews with Smallwood and Norris; see my 2013 essay for details about her use of historical material in A Mercy. 7. Tamir Rice was shot and killed in 2014, two years after Home was published. 8. Valerie Smith points out that African Americans “romanticize this period as a time when Black communities were more unified both socially and politically” (132). 9. On Maltz, see also Thomas 201–02. 10. Grant’s book has been reprinted several times in recent years (2012, 2016, 2017). All three eugenics books on Dr. Beau’s shelf are currently available. 11. Muller names as examples of great men Lenin, Newton, Leonardo, Pasteur, Beethoven, Omar Khayyam, Pushkin, Sun Yat Sen, Marx, and Darwin. Reilly writes that “Muller was one of very few scientists who made clear their abhorrence of the racist attitudes that permeated eugenic thought” (114). 12. See Girling’s review of the book in The Eugenics Review. According to Reilly, Dunn and Dobzhansky “unequivocally rejected involuntary sterilization” in the book (126). 13. See Wyatt (158–59) for a discussion of Sims and the invention of the speculum. Sims experimented on Black slave women between 1845 and 1849, performing surgery without anesthesia.



14. Involuntary sterilization was legalized in Georgia in 1937 and reached its highest numbers between 1950 and 1960, targeting primarily the mentally and physically disabled; see Kaelber. 15. The novel appeared on April 21, 2015. 16. See Keating and Cooper for information regarding Klan involvement. In the Epilogue to Those Bones Are Not My Child, Bambara writes that “the informant tipped his contact that a Klan family he’d infiltrated had bragged of their involvement in the child killings” (668). 17. Morrison wrote praise for Bambara’s “magnum opus about the child murders in Atlanta,” adding that “Editing her posthumous work is a gift she has given me. I will miss her forever” (2008b, 88, 89). Reviewing Those Bones Are Not My Child, Birkerts writes that Morrison worked to condense the manuscript. 18. See Wall on Morrison’s experience as an editor, including her work with Bambara. 19. See God Help 114, 119; see Keating and Cooper or “Atlanta Child Murders” for parallel details. Dog hairs and cloth fibers were important evidence in the conviction of Wayne Williams for the Atlanta murders. 20. See Keating and Cooper; see Lindsey and Albright, “Atlanta Monster” podcast. 21. See the Ohio Innocence Project’s Petition for Clemency, 16–17, for scholarly and legal analysis of the mistakes in police interviews with the children. 22. The Ohio Innocence Project and the National Center for Reason and Justice are working to secure Joseph Allen’s release and exoneration for both Allen and Smith. 23. Wyatt believes that the Korean girl “strongly recalls Cee” and thus evokes “Frank’s repressed fantasy of having sex with his little sister” (150). I see her, instead, as a reminder of Frank’s own status as America’s Other. 24. Mayberry concludes that “conflicts between African American men and women result not from sexual disease but from cultural dis-ease” 14. 25. Morrison withheld color from the novel until the protagonists return to Lotus in order to emphasize the beauty and peace of the return home (Boone). 26. Morrison comments on “racial self-loathing” in The Bluest Eye, “racial superiority” in Paradise, and “the triumphalism and deception that colorism fosters” in God Help the Child (Origin, 14–15). 27. Morrison says of skin color, “It’s socially constructed, it’s culturally enforced and it has some advantages for certain people. […] But this is really skin privilege—the ranking of color in terms of its closeness to white people or white-skinned people and its devaluation according to how dark one is” (Gross). 28. See Wyatt 179 and Hoby.



29. Martín-Salván seems to miss the alternative nature of the Whiskey community, as well as Bride’s demand for respect, when she writes that the novel’s ending “seems to reinforce patriarchal articulations of womanhood and motherhood” (621). 30. See, for example, reviews by Churchwell, Daniel, and Ulin. 31. Jan Furman reads “you” as another voice within Frank; “that the voices are not in accord suggests Frank’s unresolved psychic conflict” (150). In my reading, “you” as author establishes the communal quality of their dialogue.

References Anderson, Melanie R. 2013. Spectrality in the Novels of Toni Morrison. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. Bambara, Toni Cade. 1999. Those Bones Are Not My Child. New York: Vintage. Best, Stephen. 2012. On Failing to Make the Past Present. Modern Language Quarterly 73 (3): 453–474. Birkerts, Sven. 2000. “Death in Atlanta.” Review of Those Bones Are Not My Child, by Toni Cade Bambara. New York Times. books/00/01/02/reviews/000102.02birkert.html. Accessed 12 Feb 2018. Boone, Torrence. 2013. Toni Morrison: Home Talks at Google. Talks at Google. Accessed 10 Feb 2018. Brown, Jeffrey. 2012. In Toni Morrison’s Home, Soldier Fights War, Racism. PBS Newshour. Accessed 05 Feb 2018. Chatelle, Bob, and Emily Horowitz. 2012. The Plight of Joseph Allen. National Center for Reason and Justice. Accessed 15 Feb 2018. Churchwell, Sarah. 2012. Home by Toni Morrison  – Review. The Guardian. Accessed 11 Dec 2017. Daniel, Lucy. 2012. Home by Toni Morrison: Review. The Telegraph. https:// Accessed 19 Dec 2017. Darda, Joseph. 2015. The Literary Afterlife of the Korean War. American Literature 87 (1): 79–105. Denard, Carolyn C. 2008. Introduction. In What Moves at the Margin, ed. Carolyn C. Denard. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Duvall, John N. 2000. The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity and Postmodern Blackness. New York: Palgrave. Furman. 2014. Toni Morrison’s Fiction: Revised and Expanded Edition. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press. January.



Girling, F.K. 1949. “Heredity and Race.” Review of Heredity, Race, and Society. The Eugenics Review 40 (4): 215–216. articles/PMC2986575/?page=1. Accessed 12 Feb 2018. Gross, Terry. 2015. ‘I Regret Everything’: Toni Morrison Looks Back on Her Personal Life. NPR. https://www.npr. org/2015/04/20/400394947/i-regret-everything-toni-morrison-looksback-on-her-personal-life. Accessed 3 Feb 2018. Hoby, Hermione. 2015. Toni Morrison: ‘I’m Writing for Black People … I Don’t Have to Apologise’. The Guardian. books/2015/apr/25/toni-morrison-books-interview-god-help-the-child. Accessed 17 Dec 2017. Hostetler, Ann. 2014. Resurrecting the Dead Girl: Modernism and the Problem of History in Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise. In Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, ed. Adrienne Lanier Seward and Justine Tally, 33–41. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Kaelber, Lutz. Eugenics: Compulsory Sterilization in 50 American States. http:// Accessed 18 Dec 2017. Kaplan, Amy. 2002. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S.  Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Karavanta, Mina. 2012. Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and the Counterwriting of Negative Communities: A Postnational Novel. Modern Fiction Studies 58 (4): 723–746. Keating, Robert, and Barry Michael Cooper. 2015. Atlanta Child Murders: SPIN’s 1986 Feature, ‘A Question of Justice’. Accessed 13 Feb 2018. Lindsey, Payne, and Donald Albright. 2018. “Atlanta Monster” Podcast. https:// Accessed 12 Feb 2018. Lye, Colleen. 2013. When the Past Is Past. Public Books. Accessed 14 Dec 2017. Martín-Salván, Paula. 2018. The Secret of Bride’s Body in Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child. Critique 59 (5): 609–623. Mayberry, Susan Neal. 2007. Can’t I Love What I Criticize? The Masculine and Morrison. Athens: University of Georgia Press. Morrison, Toni. 1970. The Bluest Eye. New York: Pocket. ———. 1987. Beloved. New York: Knopf. ———. 1992. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage. ———. 1997. Home. In The House that Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain, ed. Wahneema Lubiano, 3–15. New York: Pantheon. ———. 1998. Paradise. New York: Knopf. ———. 2008a. A Mercy. New York: Knopf.



———. 2008b. What Moves at the Margin. Ed. Carolyn C.  Denard. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ———. 2012. Home. New York: Knopf. ———. 2015. God Help the Child. New York: Knopf. ———. 2017. The Origin of Others. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Norris, Michele. 2008. Toni Morrison Finds ‘A Mercy’ in Servitude. Interview with Toni Morrison. NPR. php?storyId=96118766. Accessed 29 Jun 2010. Ohio Innocence Project. 2012. Petition of Nancy Smith for Clemency. http:// CLEMENCY.pdf. Accessed 17 Dec 2017. Pease, Donald E. 2010. American Studies after American Exceptionalism? Toward a Comparative Analysis of Imperial State Exceptionalisms. In Globalizing American Studies, ed. Brian T.  Edwards and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, 47–83. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Reilly, Philip R. 1991. The Surgical Solution: A History of Involuntary Sterilization in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. Shea, Lisa. 2012. Toni Morrison on Home. Elle. books/interviews/a14216/toni-morrison-on-home-655249/. Accessed 2 Mar 2018. Smallwood, Christine. 2008. Back Talk: Toni Morrison. Interview with Toni Morrison. The Nation: 37. Smith, Valerie. 2012. Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. Thomas, Valorie. 2014. ‘A Kind of Restoration’: Psychogeographies of Healing in Toni Morrison’s Home. In Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, ed. Adrienne Lanier Seward and Justine Tally, 194–204. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Ulin, David L. 2012. Review: ‘Home’ by Toni Morrison Feels Distant. Los Angeles Times. Accessed 19 Dec 2017. Wall, Cheryl A. 2007. Toni Morrison, Editor and Teacher. In The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison, ed. Justine Tally, 139–148. New York: Cambridge University Press. Wertheim, Albert. 1982. The McCarthy Era and the American Theatre. Theatre Journal 34 (2): 211–222. Wyatt, Jean. 2017. Love and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison’s Later Novels. Athens: University of Georgia Press.


Indian Schools and Kinship Communities: Louise Erdrich, LaRose

Racist American exceptionalism haunts the characters in Louise Erdrich’s fifteenth novel, LaRose (2016). Like all of Erdrich’s fiction, the novel attends in complex ways to contemporary Native American, European American, and mixed-race figures struggling with the traumatic legacies of U.S. dispossessions of Native people. Native Americans have many reasons to recognize their condition “after the wreck”: they are the colonized subjects of an exceptionalist state that has tried in multiple ways to exterminate them and erase their identities. Some 12 million indigenous people, living in 700 cultural units on the North American continent, were subjected to various forms of “systematic extermination” by European colonizers (Baker 317–18). Donald Pease writes that the broadly accepted fantasy of American exceptionalism enabled U.S. citizens to “experience what was exceptional about their U.S. national identity as the disavowal of U.S. imperialism at home and abroad” (2009, 21), but Native Americans have faced imperial violence in every phase of U.S. history since first contact. David Stannard reports that Europeans routinely slaughtered Native women and children, following a practice that was “flatly and intentionally genocidal” (119). David Baker observes “openly racist official policies of genocide” (319); Howard Zinn dryly notes that “Indian Removal, as it has been politely called, cleared the land for white occupancy” (125). Sustained and deliberate attempts to erase them lead John Carlos Rowe to call Native Americans “the repressed contents of an imperial cultural consciousness” (2004, 197).1 © The Author(s) 2020 S. Strehle, Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community,




In LaRose, Erdrich writes about the theft of children from Native communities, severing connections among families and tribes whose values are organized in a clan system of extended and networked relationships. In Indian country, the impact of stolen children extends beyond the nuclear family to dim the future of the whole tribe. Erdrich explores in this novel the history of systematic and sustained efforts by the exceptionalist state to remove children from Indian tribes in order to re-educate them: government-­funded Indian schools were intended to teach American individualism, hard work, self-discipline, capitalism, and the abject status of Natives. The children were denied contact with their families and tribes and forbidden to speak their Native language. Their estrangement from kin and clan was designed to transform them into a reliably useful under-­ class in America, servants to American farmers and homemakers, docile accepters of American claims to what had been Indian land, and isolated individuals estranged from the support of the Indian community. Through educational colonization, the schools tried to wreck Native cultures and Native self-esteem, paving the way for the Vanishing Indian. Erdrich’s novel approaches the intergenerational trauma of Indian boarding schools through five generations of characters named LaRose.2 As the fourth LaRose says to her revenant mother, LaRose the third, “the history of LaRose is tied up in those schools” (134). Erdrich had referred to Indian boarding schools in her first fourteen novels, but as critic Miriam Schacht observes, in the earlier novels the schools “most frequently function as safe havens for children who face uncertain situations at home, which elides their historical role in breaking up Native communities” (63). Schacht traces multiple references to the Indian schools in eight of Erdrich’s novels and her poem, “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways,” and concludes that Erdrich had not yet represented the systemic trauma inflicted on Native families, communities, and children by the Indian schools. In LaRose, however, Erdrich confronts the crippling history of these schools, from their origins in settler colonialism to their lingering impact on contemporary Native lives. The novel places the schools in the context of an ongoing colonial project designed to erase the identities and affiliations of tribal children and thus to perform what Eric Cheyfitz and Shari Huhndorf call “genocide by other means” (267). Indian boarding schools existed to enforce disavowal—of tribal history, kinship, land rights, and their own individual dignity—by Indian children. From a historical perspective, indigenous Americans were, with slaves,



precisely what had to be disavowed by the exceptionalist myth of an American national destiny. As William Spanos writes, when settlers followed what they understood as God’s plan for an ideal nation, they swept aside “Indians who roam but do not inhabit the terra nullius that is the Promised Land” (5). Conquest, land-thefts, treaty violations, wars, and systematic attempts to exterminate Native Americans followed, in parallel with slavery, reconstruction, and the ongoing oppression of African Americans, all requiring special disavowals by U.S. citizens. Pease analyzes the workings of disavowal in support of the American fantasy: “The state fantasy of exceptionalism thereby introduced the disavowal of imperialism as the unacknowledged mediator in between the state’s policies and the practicable life worlds of U.S. citizens” (2009, 23). A citizen interpellated to become a “protector and guardian of the political order” was required to disavow the imperial cruelties visited on slaves, immigrants, and Native Americans (Pease 2009, 31). Denied subjecthood within the state, Indians were reduced to internal “specters of the foreign,” as Amy Kaplan writes (50), to be colonized by the imperial nation. More insidiously, Indians were also required by the state to disavow their own culture in order to guarantee submission to a political order that would disenfranchise them. To accomplish this mission, Indian boarding schools removed generations of Native children from their tribes and families, disciplined them into imitation white children whose mimicry could only always fail, colonized them into mock citizenship without rights, and schooled them in disavowal. Despite sustained efforts to erase it, Indian culture survives as a set of collective counter-practices within the U.S. state. Its survival rests on a clan or kinship system in which extended family and tribe share responsibilities, trade the use of goods and lands, and operate as a collective. Eric Cheyfitz explains that members of kin-ordered societies existed “predominantly in terms of reciprocal relations rather than as opposed entities” (1991, 54); they mystified English settlers in the seventeenth century: Their conceptions of personhood did not include a notion of the individual, as it was emerging in England in an inseparable relationship with the institution of property. And their commitments to the communal, based as they were in the dynamic of extended kinship, were in practice radically egalitarian when compared to the class structure within which the European notion of the communal had developed. (1991, 212)



Eric Wolf, an anthropologist who studies Native kinship systems, observes their understanding of power based in consensus rather than in established political hierarchies: “The kin-ordered mode inhibits the institutionalization of political power, resting essentially upon the management of consensus among clusters of participants” (99). Historian William Cronon contrasts Native practices of usufruct, in which land is used “as an ecological cornucopia” rather than possessed “as a tradable commodity” (67); he adds that “even in the case of personal goods, there was little sense either of accumulation or of exclusive use. Goods were owned because they were useful, and if they ceased to be so, or were needed by someone else, they could easily be given away” (61). European understandings of person, property, and relationships differ sharply from those sustaining Native kinship systems. While Native cultures changed after colonial conquest, versions of kinship communities remain, in part because they help Natives survive. Native scholars and theorists identify community as a defining value for Native people. For Jace Weaver, it is “the highest value to Native peoples, and fidelity to it is a primary responsibility” (37). Community’s importance “permeates every aspect of Native life” (40), including literature; Weaver writes that “the single thing that most defines Indian literatures relates to this sense of community and commitment to it” (43). Weaver coins the term “communitism,” conjoining community and activism, for Native literature with political commitments and stakes (43). Creating what Gerald Vizenor calls “survivance,” Native people emphasize their relation to broad communities including animals and the earth itself. They live in and through relationships to the tribe and the collective; rather than competition, collaboration and sharing form their understanding and heritage. Cheyfitz and Huhndorf contrast U.S. federal Indian law, a paternalistic mock-kinship, with Native clan systems “premised on reciprocal obligation and respect” (275). Enrique Lima emphasizes mutuality, arguing that Erdrich’s novel Love Medicine “poses mutuality as the condition that defines the relationship between Anishinaabe individuals” (318); Erdrich demonstrates “that they are a community that must be considered as a collective” (325). While community is important everywhere in the wreckage of state exceptionalisms, it has unique primary significance for Indian culture in the U.S. One crucial function of the Indian schools was to disrupt the functioning of communal solidarity among Indian children and to convert them to



a capitalist appreciation of private property—ironically including the land taken from their ancestors and families. Writing about legal maneuvers to seize Indians land, Cheyfitz observes the inherent opposition between Indian kinship economies and capitalist acquisition: Indian kinship economies, which, I want to make clear, I understand not as precapitalist but as anticapitalistic, constitute a powerful and continuing critique of the waste of an expansive, acquisitive capitalism that Marshall’s United States with half a continent left to conquer could not afford to entertain. The loss in social vision was and is incalculable. (1993, 118; emphasis in original)

In kinship economies, Cheyfitz writes, property is held in common and therefore undefined: “because there is no notion of individuality […] there, traditionally, is no notion of property” (1993, 112). An expanding U.S. state required the legal rejection of communal relations to property, Cheyfitz implies; the “half a continent left to conquer” was inhabited by Indians who would need proper schooling in competitive capitalism. The boarding schools were therefore designed to teach Indian children individual self-making, together with competition, the virtue of hard labor, and respect for privately held (white) property. But the schools could not erase the prior teachings of family and tribe: for many Native children, especially those who retained connections to their kin, the boarding schools did not extinguish an affiliation with kinship and communal systems. In LaRose, the kinship collective takes several forms, visible in an extended family linked across generations. Signaled by the repeated name passed through five generations, kinship sustains LaRose children through the boarding schools, enables them to preserve self-respect, and energizes them with a legacy of traditional knowledge and power. The clan system demonstrates its vitality in the novel when the fifth and latest LaRose, a shared child, averts both suicide and murder and unifies two families. I will return to the powerful practices of the novel’s kinship collective in part 2 of this chapter and develop its implications for the novel’s form in part 3. The first section places the loss of Indian boarding schools in historical context and analyzes Erdrich’s use of historical sources to represent the Ojibwa clan in LaRose.



Histories of Lost Children Indian boarding schools appear in historical glimpses in LaRose, much of which takes place between 1999 and 2003. The earliest LaRose is sent to a Presbyterian school for Indians in Michigan (145); LaRose 2 attends Carlisle in Pennsylvania; LaRose 3 remembers the disciplinary bells and the skimmed “blue milk” at Fort Totten in North Dakota. LaRose 4 attends an unnamed Indian boarding school in the upper midwest, possibly Pipestone or Morris, both in Minnesota. After a brief marriage to Billy Peace, the messianic cult leader of Plague of Doves, she returns with her daughter Emmaline to the same school to teach Landreaux Iron and Romeo Puyat, both abandoned by their parents and sent to the school as young children.3 Throughout LaRose, characters remember these schools as sites of suffering and death, where children die of tuberculosis and funerals are common (201). Fed meager diets of bread and oatmeal, children are disciplined for speaking up (LaRose 3 is locked in a basement storage room for “sassing,” 134), and punished severely for speaking their Native language (LaRose 2 was told that her lips would be sewed shut if she spoke Anishinaabe, 200). Children labor almost half of each day to clean the schools and create products for sale, earning profits to supplement the salaries of the staff. LaRose 2 recalls learning the art of “menial labor—how to use a mangle, starch, an iron” and working long days in scorching heat (200). These school strategies prepare Native children for adult lives laboring in subordinate positions for the exceptional Americans who have taken their land. Historians’ accounts support Erdrich’s depiction of the racism and colonialism of the Indian boarding schools. Mission schools, both Catholic and Protestant, dominated the first phase of Indian education, aiming to convert Natives to Christianity. In Jacqueline Fear-Segal’s analysis, these schools reinforced imperialism: “Papal bulls,” she writes, “gave Christian validation from the highest authority to European expansion, Native dispossession, and the sovereignty of invaders over indigenous populations” (68). Protestant missionary societies similarly aimed, writes Michael Coleman, at “the extirpation of tribal cultures and the transformation of Indian children into near-copies of white children” (40). The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, was the original model for twenty-five Indian boarding schools empowered to remove Native children from the influence of their kin and estrange the children from their Native cultures. Pratt believed that Indian children



could be “civilized” and “absorbed” into national life only by erasing all ties to Indian identity; his famous public line, quoted in LaRose, was “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” (Pratt 266, Erdrich 201). To achieve this goal, each child lost an Indian name and gained a new, Anglo-American one. The school placed children from the same tribe or family in different classes and dormitories so they could not speak with or support each other. Stripping their Indian identity and replacing it with a uniformly American one, Carlisle cut children’s hair, clothed them in identical uniforms (originally surplus army clothing left over from the Civil War, Pratt 237), housed them in barracks, and regulated their days in five-minute intervals with the ringing of bells. Convinced that lengthy separation from their families and hard labor would end “savagery among the Indians in this country,” Pratt developed the summer “Outing” to prevent children from going home to their tribes; instead, boys were sent to farms and girls worked as domestic laborers (Pratt 259).4 In some cases, connections between Native parents and children were entirely broken through long separations. Indian children were schooled in race, racism, and the value of whiteness. In an education steeped in American exceptionalist tropes, LaRose 2 learns that her people are “savages” at the bottom of the racial hierarchy (200). At Carlisle, Pratt dressed Indian children in white clothes, shoes, and hairstyles, while photographers enhanced the whiteness of their skin. Fear-Segal analyzes the photographs of Indian children, carefully staged to suggest that the schools could actually bleach out Indian-ness: “J.  N. Choate’s ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs cleverly demonstrated that a Carlisle education brought not just crisp clothes, short hair, and a manly gaze but also whiter skin. Through the careful use of front lighting and white powder, this local photographer became skillful at presenting a subtle message of racial bleaching that was evident in his photographs of groups as well as those of individuals” (163–64). These widely publicized photographs helped to persuade government funding agencies and even some Native parents of the value of the schools. Stripping children of their names, kin, clothes, voices, and histories, the Indian schools turned children into the Others of the exceptionalist American state, or what Georgio Agamben calls homo sacer or bare life: “Bare life remains included in politics in the form of the exception, that is, as something that is included solely through an exclusion” (Agamben 11). While teaching them their place at the bottom of the U.S. racial hierarchy, the schools prepared Indian students for exclusion from political and human rights. The school functioned in parallel to what Agamben calls



“the camp”: “the pure, absolute, and impassable biopolitical space” (Agamben 123) in which “human beings could be so completely deprived of their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime” (Agamben 171).5 Native children died in the schools of smallpox and tuberculosis; 192 children are buried at Carlisle (Landis 185). Some, like Ernest White Thunder, died by suicide (LaRose 201); refused permission to leave Carlisle, this thirteen-year-old starved himself to death after two months at the school (Fear-Segal 245). Inevitably, some children suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse in the schools, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs rarely investigated or removed abusive adults.6 Far from developing literate citizens,7 the schools actually perfected methods for producing subalterns and servants schooled to obey white capitalist masters. As history demonstrated, graduates of these schools would be perennially under-employed in the twentieth-century economy. While the schools aimed to convert young Natives into imitation white children, their most abiding lessons convinced Native children that they had no right to citizenship and power in exceptional America. The disavowal of Native rights constitutes the reason for the schools and explains their “success” in the public view: they taught original inhabitants to accept marginal status on a continent once theirs. Beyond their physical transformation into darker versions of American children, they were disciplined to submit to the white paternal state that would always repudiate them. The schools thus required a psychological transformation as well, a genuine disavowal of the children’s own cultural identity, so Indian children would accept foreclosed status in the U. S. state. The schools thus trained Indian students, AIM member Phyllis Young writes, to “see themselves and their nations through the eyes of their colonizers” (quoted by Noriega 387). Preparing them to accept a future of reservation-camps and urban-poverty-camps and prison-camps, the schools taught Indian children to internalize discrimination against themselves. Osage activist George Tinker sums up the losses: “one in every two Native youngsters in North America for five successive generations” was sent to a boarding school, and “about half did not survive” the massive death rates at the schools (xvii). Those who graduated carried with them what Tinker calls a “ubiquitous ‘residential school syndrome’—a complex and intractable blend of devastated self-concept and self-esteem, psychic numbness, chronic anxiety, insecurity and depression” (xix). Many children who survived the boarding schools were traumatized by experiences



of abuse, helplessness, and degradation; they lived “after the wreck.” Their lives were defined in parallel to what Christina Sharpe calls “the wake” or persisting traumatic aftermath of slavery for African Americans: “As we go about wake work, we must think through containment, regulation, punishment, capture, and captivity” (Sharpe 21).8 LaRose begins with the fatal shooting of a five-year-old part-Native child.9 Though Dusty Ravich’s death is accidental—the boy returns in ghostly form to tell his friend LaRose Iron that he died “on accident”— Erdrich chooses this moment deliberately to mark the beginning of a novel about lost Native and mixed-race children who pay the price for racist American exceptionalism. Dusty serves as the first child-victim in a novel about generations of lost and damaged Native children, abused in the boarding schools as preparation for lives of exile in America. Failed by parents who collapse in cycles of addiction, poverty, and despair, Native children in LaRose endure sexual violation by non-Native men, as in Erdrich’s previous novel The Round House (2012), and vigilante violence, as in The Plague of Doves (2008). Generations of children in LaRose are sent to Indian boarding schools, including LaRose 1, 2, 3, and 4; Landreaux Iron, Emmaline Peace, and Romeo Puyat. Of the five large divisions in the novel, two take place partly in the boarding schools and represent their impact. References to boarding school experiences occur throughout the novel as memories haunt Native characters. Among the characters living in the five-year present time of the novel, many bear traces of what Romeo Puyat calls intergenerational trauma caused directly by the boarding school experience—none more than Romeo and his son Hollis. Hollis plans to join the National Guard, arguing that the U.S. “has been good to me,” giving Natives their own schools and casinos (214). Outraged, Romeo reminds his son that “they savaged our culture” and stole Native land (214). Romeo has inherited his own share of trauma from parents he doesn’t remember, who abandoned him at four or five on the reservation; Romeo was assumed to be Indian because he was “burned, bruised, starved, thought mentally deficient” when he arrived (156). Physically damaged in a fall when he and Landreaux run away from an Indian boarding school, Romeo becomes a bitter, vengeful adult who abandons his own son Hollis. Hollis accepts his abandonment because, since Romeo experienced the widely recognized trauma of boarding school, little can be expected from him (215). Hollis endures years of neglect and poverty before Romeo gives him away to Landreaux and Emmaline (48). His fractured family illustrates the passing on of



trauma, as parents fail their children through addiction, poverty, and depression, accelerated by the cyclical despair of Native American Others in an exceptional America. In this conversation Hollis, a graduate of an on-reservation BIA school who believes that his country has been good to Natives, also illustrates what Winfried Fluck memorably names the “Romance with America” characterizing some versions of American Studies.10 The novel’s focus on boarding school trauma explains Erdrich’s creation of the five generations of LaRose characters and her emphasis on the story of LaRose 1, interwoven through much of the novel alongside stories of present-day characters. In 1839, an eleven-year-old Native girl named Mirage, later called LaRose, is sold for rum to the fur trader Mackinnon by her mother Mink, drunk and addicted. Her father tries to buy the child back from Mackinnon (who has “pig-mad red eyes, red sprouts of dandered hair, wormish lips, pitchy teeth,” 99), but the arrogant trader has begun raping her and refuses to sell; her father kills her mother. Mackinnon’s innocent seventeen-year-old clerk, Wolfred, perceives the abuse of the girl and helps her poison the trader. The two flee as Mackinnon’s head swells, turns purple, and leaves the body behind (119). Propelled by the tongue or paddling ears, the implacable and determined head pursues Wolfred and LaRose through the wilderness, seeking revenge directed not at the European-American Wolfred but at the Native girl. Years later, after she has attended an Indian boarding school and contracted tuberculosis, after she has married Wolfred and given birth to four children, Mackinnon’s head returns to sink its “pig tusks” into her dying body (196). The story of the first LaRose locates the wreckage that impacts this Ojibwa family in the fur trade, an imperial capitalist venture in which Europeans exploited the skills of northern plains Indians, who trapped, skinned, and preserved furs. For the furs Natives produced, traders paid them in guns and cheap, addictive rum, leading to family catastrophes like Mink’s drunken sale of her child. The guns were most likely produced in Birmingham, England, as objects of trade for African slaves;11 the rum was produced as a byproduct of sugarcane harvested by African slaves in the Caribbean. Fur traders also brought new diseases that spread widely among Natives who had no immunity. Portrayed in Erdrich’s novel as an early moment of European contact with northern plains Indians, the fur trade advanced a global system of imperial “wreckage,” exploiting unpaid labor by Europe’s Others to extract and deplete local natural resources.



Wealthy Europeans gain both profits and comforts: expensive furs keep them warm, while animals are slaughtered and Indian tribes decimated on the North American continent.12 A wide reader and dedicated researcher in the history of the Ojibwa and Cree tribes, Erdrich refers in the novel to one historical source she consulted for LaRose when a character names George Nelson (52). Nelson entered the fur trade at fifteen and wrote a journal about his experiences in 1802–03; it was edited by Ojibwa cultural historians and published in 2002 by Minnesota Historical Society Press. A vivid writer with a keen eye for detail, George Nelson serves as a partial model for the first LaRose’s eventual husband, though his brother Wolfred Nelson contributes his name. In his journal, Nelson pays sympathetic attention to the Native people, including their self-destructive violence under the influence of the traders’ rum. He observes several groups of drunken Indians with dismay during his first year as a trader, including “a chap about my own age, [who] fell upon his Mother & beat her, striking with his fist & kicking her in the face & body! How I was astonished!” (Nelson 51). Elsewhere, he comments on an Indian “who got his nose bit off last night in a Drunken frolic by an old rascally indian” (sic; Nelson 99). He observes injustice in the traders’ habit of stealing furs without payment to the Indians and comments, “Our trade is often pillage” (Nelson 104). Nelson spent over twenty years in the fur trade, during which he became fluent in Ojibwa; after a brief marriage to a tribal chief’s daughter at fifteen, he married at twenty-one a woman of the Ojibwa Loon clan, with whom he had eight children. His sympathetic interest in Native customs extends to observing grief and death customs: “children […] go into the woods & bewail their departed friends in quiet & solitude, fasting the whole day” (Nelson 61). Erdrich may have Nelson’s comments on bereavement in mind when LaRose 5 fasts in the woods overnight at the place where Dusty died and has a vision of twenty spirits, including LaRose 1 and 2, with Dusty among them (Erdrich 208–11).13 Beyond the rich historical detail he provides about Native people in the early nineteenth century, George Nelson also writes about the historical myths and legends of the Cree and Ojibwa people; together with cultural anthropologists’ interviews, his writing helps provide background for the trickster-elders who appear throughout Erdrich’s fiction, Nanapush and Mooshum. In addition to the journals of 1802–04, he also wrote a surviving letter-journal of 1823, recording religious stories of the Cree and Ojibwa. Addressed to his father, the sixty-page manuscript was published



as The Orders of the Dreamed in 1988, also by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. This historical text records myths and legends narrated orally to Nelson by Ojibwa people; tales of Wı̄sahkēcāhk and Nēnapoš provide an early source for the wise elders and creative trickster-­transformers who appear in many of Erdrich’s novels. In scholarly material providing context, editors Jennifer Brown and Robert Brightman compile multiple accounts of the cosmogonic or origin stories of the Cree and Ojibwa that parallel and supplement Nelson’s version; elements from some of these appear in a story Ignatia Thunder tells LaRose 5 late in the novel.14 Ignatia Thunder’s origin story closely resembles narratives collected in the late nineteenth century: a beautiful Native wife leaves home when her husband goes out to hunt; she knocks on a tree and calls forth her lover, a giant snake. The husband discovers the affair, chops the snake into a soup, confronts and beheads his wife, and rises into the sky. The woman’s severed head opens its eyes and follows her two boys, begging her children not to leave her behind (Erdrich 292). Assisted by magic spells their father has left them, the two boys flee their scary mother, who falls into a river and becomes a sturgeon fish. The younger boy becomes a wolf, and the older becomes a creator/trickster/transformer with several names, including Wishketchahk and Nanabozo. Both foolish and wise, he “made the first people, Anishinaabeg,” according to Ignatia Thunder (Erdrich 293). Young LaRose 5 compares this origin story to the Catholic one: “So our Mary is a rolling head,” and Ignatia responds, “A vicious rolling head” (Erdrich 293). For the Ojibwa, by implication, salvation comes neither from divine nor maternal intercession, but from the quick wit and transformative abilities of the collective people. As Ignatia tells the story, the flight from the rolling head becomes a metaphor for Native resiliency in the face of traumatic wreckage. Explaining to LaRose the value of each moment of life, Ignatia suggests that Native people have always been surrounded by hardships, including parental failures and absences, hard times, and vicious pursuers (Erdrich 294). For those who have encountered the wry wit and life-embracing humor of Erdrich’s Nanapush, the children’s escape also underscores the importance of creativity, irony, and storytelling in Native survivance. The narrative of LaRose 1 emphasizes the greed and malevolence of Mackinnon, the novel’s original rapacious capitalist who cannot be killed or exorcized.15 His “pig-mad red eyes” (99) and “pig tusks” (196) signify the greed of the colonial tradesman who makes a fortune by exploiting Native people. He claims to own both the girl, purchased with rum, and



his clerk Wolfred, ordered from New Hampshire. As they flee after poisoning him, Mackinnon’s gigantic head echoes the severed mother’s head, calling out to them, “My children! Why are you leaving me?” (119). In claiming as his own “children” the Native girl he has stolen and raped and the young clerk he has used, Mackinnon anticipates the Indian boarding schools that will claim and objectify Native children. His transformation into an implacable rolling head, following LaRose 1 throughout her life to punish her, provides an apt metaphor for the recurring traumatic memories that haunt survivors of the Indian boarding schools. The head also speaks to the relationship between an arrogant and possessive American culture committed to its own exceptionalist narrative and the Native people whose existence undermines that narrative, not least with their protests against ongoing cultural genocide. Mackinnon and the beheaded mother pursue their children in the form of ominous, rolling, obsessively driven heads. Both narratives anticipate and explain the figure from the Indian boarding schools, called Bowl Head for her haircut, who disciplines all Native children and pursues those who run away. When nine-year-old Landreaux Iron arrives at an Indian boarding school, Bowl Head explains the punishments that follow serious infractions like running away: shame dresses, shaved heads, and sidewalk scrubbing (155–56). Bowl Head makes clear her essential dislike for all things Indian; she expresses contempt for what she sees as Landreaux’s Indian-ness and is rumored to have allowed another boy to drown (170).16 When Romeo and Landreaux run away, she pursues relentlessly, and Landreaux thinks of her as an elemental force determined “to pursue them to the end of time” (173). She takes on a supernatural and frightening power, like the detached heads of Mackinnon and the original mother: in a movie theater, her teeth light up and her hair rises from her head (176). In the police station where Bowl Head reclaims him, she appears “supernatural” and he concludes that “she was the spirit of the boarding schools” (181). As the spirit of the boarding schools, Bowl Head serves as a disciplinary force compelling “bad” Indian children to imitate “good” white children. Determined to control their lives, she measures their infractions as closely as she clips the hair around her bowl; her standards are inflexible and absolute. She represents the nation and its laws when she steps ironically into a maternal role, bearing an overt contempt for “her” infantilized Indian children. She requires Indian children to disavow themselves: to wear powder and white clothing, to imitate white customs and behaviors, to



repress all that makes them Native. But like the nation, she hoards a complacent knowledge of their exclusion from the state’s exceptionalist promise, symbolized in her own white hair and white power. Invoking Nurse Ratched and the Terminator in her intense determination to control and eliminate, Bowl Head feigns benevolent paternalism in parallel to the U.S. state, but she approaches Indian children as a figure of what Cheyfitz and Huhndorf call “ongoing colonial power enacted through violence” (272).

The Kinship Community Given the power and longevity of the forces aiming to exterminate Indians and to school survivors in disavowal, the strength of Indian cultures that remain on the American continent could not have been predicted. In resistance events like the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline project, Indigenous people take significant risks to defend common lands, tribal rights, and human health. Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein writes about an Indigenous group battling multinational extraction: I suddenly understood what this actually meant: some of the most marginalized people in my country—many of them […] survivors of the intergenerational trauma of abusive residential schools—are taking on some of the wealthiest and most powerful forces on the planet. Their heroic battles are not just their people’s best chance of a healthy future; […] they could very well be the best chance for the rest of us to continue enjoying a climate that is hospitable to human life. (379)

Grounded in the will to defend communal well-being and stewardship of the earth over capitalist profit, the Indians’ protest on behalf of “their people” extends the kinship community to a continent-wide group including “the rest of us.” As LaRose begins, the capitalist economy has failed the backwater town of Pluto, North Dakota. Landreaux Iron shoots at the buck he has watched all summer, not for sport but for meat to feed his five children; he works as a part-time home health care aide, his wife Emmaline works at a crisis school, and both drive old cars. Teenaged daughters Josette and Snow work in low-paid after-school jobs (42). Peter Ravich has “a big farm cobbled together out of what used to be Indian allotments” (3) but does not thrive. Uneasy about Y2K, he fills a storage room with goods, charged on



his credit card, to secure his family against the collapse he anticipates as 2000 begins. Then he discovers that he can’t afford what he has bought and must work additional hours to pay the minimum interest charges on his card (44). Around them, Pluto is full of poor people who have been left out of the American dream. There is only one psychologist in the hundred-mile area with an always-packed calendar; desperate herself under the weight of Native crises she encounters, she uses tranquilizers and vodka to manage (83). The site of Erdrich’s previous two novels as well as LaRose, Pluto is “a raw little place” with small struggling stores, a gas station, and a “new Bank of the West” (77). The bank symbolizes a capitalist promise that has ironically failed Pluto. While capitalism has not fulfilled its promise in this small farming community, it exercises more influence than the kinship collective; kin are neither thriving nor forgiving at the novel’s start. The native families in the novel struggle “after the wreck” of the reservations and the Indian schools, which have shaped most of the adult characters central to the novel. The neighboring Iron and Ravich families are related but not close: half-sisters Emmaline and Nola, raised separately by different mothers, have always disliked each other. Landreaux and Peter hunt and fish together but do not know each other well; Peter has little understanding of Landreaux’s tribal culture (22). Dusty’s accidental death triggers rage, followed by months of silence, refusal to answer the door, and mistrust. Immediately after the death, both Ravich parents and ten-year-old Maggie Ravich yearn for revenge: Nola would like Peter to murder Landreaux (4), Peter envisions bringing his axe down on Landreaux’s head (76), and Maggie, infuriated when LaRose plays with Dusty’s toys, wants to hurt LaRose (15). From their side, the Irons dislike Nola’s obsessive control and seeming meanness; they find Maggie hard and Peter vengeful. Romeo Puyat is driven by an epic, decades-long lust for revenge against Landreaux after their escape together from the Indian boarding school. A near caricature of the revenge motive who sees life as a bad revenge movie (322), Romeo blames Landreaux for every disappointment in his life. Late in the novel, he tells Peter that Landreaux could have saved Dusty if he had called for help, and Peter makes an active attempt to kill Landreaux; he fails only because LaRose has emptied his gun. The quest for revenge, payback, or even scores, emphasized repeatedly in the novel, demonstrates the logic of the capitalist system in parallel to retributive justice. An avenging state or individual is repaid in kind for what has been taken away, an eye for an eye or an execution for a murder. The system assumes that a just punishment



reflects or is directly proportional to the crime, a fitting purchase of restitution. When the Iron family brings five-year-old LaRose to the Raviches, the act transforms everyone in both families, recovers Native clan or kinship values where capitalism has failed, and opens the potential for forgiveness. Demonstrating restorative rather than retributive justice, this act extends family ties, acknowledges the painful loss, and meliorates it with a gift of collaborative parenting. Read in Cheyfitz’s terms, the Irons’ declaration to the Raviches, “Our son will be your son now” (16), transmutes the capitalist logic of “mine” into “yours” and “all of ours.” Five-year-old LaRose lives for months with the Raviches, then alternates between the two families after Peter Ravich realizes how much the boy misses the Irons; concerned for LaRose, he argues that the two families should share him (76). At some moments members of both families want to make LaRose their own, but LaRose himself accepts the logic of the extended kinship family and refuses. His experience in the collective transforms him into a careful child with loyalties to both sides of what he makes into a single extended family. Collaborative parenting of this kind is not unusual in Indian cultures, where tribal connections lead on occasion to relatives other than parents raising children. Traditional Indian cultures, Louise Erdrich says in an interview, accepted a fluid extended family resulting in unofficial adoptions, co-parenting, and shared responsibility for children: “This has always been a part of Native life, this ability to hand over a child to a sister, or to someone else, to raise for a while if you’re having trouble. […] In my own family, my grandmother routinely adopted children for a period of time. […] And my mother, too—my parents also cared for other kids.” This fluidity, she said, was misunderstood by Western social workers, who also took advantage of it, adopting Indian children out of the tribe, out of the community. (Hertzel)

Assuming that collaborative parenting reflected indifferent or failed parents, rather than trust in the strength of the tribal collective, Western social workers used this misinterpretation to move Native children away from their culture.17 But tribal customs continue to make collaborative parenting as normal—and as healthy—as shared land, shared food, and collaborative efforts to help tribal members through hard times. In the kinship community, children belong where they are; rather than familial or



parental possessions, they are welcome to develop multiple affiliations with relatives who help them become capable adults. In the novel, for example, Emmaline and Landreaux accept Hollis, dropped off with them as a child, and raise him as a member of their family. He has two families: he is both Puyat and Iron. The sharing of goods predates the sharing of LaRose, but the goods do not transform either giver or receiver; the shared child changes both families in widening circles of kinship and acceptance. Before he takes the shot, Landreaux plans to share the deer with Peter Ravich (3); the men habitually share what they catch. As close neighbors, the Iron and Ravich families have always traded with and helped each other, sharing rides to town and children’s clothing (3). A different kind of sharing occurs when LaRose arrives, beginning on the first night with Maggie. Ten years old and deeply troubled by her mother Nola’s nagging, Maggie first rejects LaRose, then pities his misery, and eases her own grief as she warms and comforts him. Perhaps the most altered character in the novel, Maggie changes because LaRose loves and supports her. She sees him as kin: “her treasure” and “hers to love” (263). By the third year after Dusty’s death, the children call each other brother and sister. The expansion of kinship across families, enabled by LaRose’s acceptance of a position uniting the two, forges significant bonds among all six children and transforms both families. Maggie punishes a bully who hurts LaRose, and she shares with him her fears about Nola’s suicidal impulses. Josette and Snow adopt Maggie and confess that they feel secondary to LaRose in their mother’s love, just as she does (259). Maggie adopts the Irons, asking to switch schools so she can attend the BIA school with her brother and sisters. LaRose allows his sisters to paint egg white on his face, shares Maggie’s concern for Nola, and tries to punish boys who have groped Maggie. In one of the novel’s funniest scenes, Josette and Snow counsel Maggie to use birth control. Even the neighborhood dog, a homeless rusty brown mongrel, alternates between the Irons and the Raviches, eats at both houses, tames cleanliness-obsessed Nola into allowing him on the couch, commiserates with Peter, talks to LaRose, and thrives on the benefits of a shared extended family. From hostility and silence in the aftermath of Dusty’s death, the two families become kin, appropriately gathered in a party at the novel’s conclusion. The party celebrating Hollis’s graduation from high school is created by the group of Ravich and Iron children, who have helped all four parents to recover.



The volleyball team acts as a metaphor for the clan system that helps all of the characters in LaRose. A team sport, volleyball relies on players using different skills to serve, set, and spike the ball. The coach at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school emphasizes the power of kinship for his team: he recommends “team mind meld,” where players summon the strength of the entire team to support their own actions (307). He encourages players to invoke the power of their history as Native Americans, calling them “a family, sisters, warriors” who can restore honor to their people (304). While sport of various kinds, including virtual sport, occupies a prominent place in the American capitalist economy, the high school girls’ volleyball team in the novel serves instead as a vehicle for cultural pride when the Native girls beat their arrogant non-Native opponents. Maggie plays successfully with her teammates and wins their respect with her unique diving skills. When the team beats their rivals from Pluto, the innocuous “kills” of the volleyball contrast ironically with the somber “shock and awe” killing in Iraq that is reported on television soon after. Clearly, young LaRose has remarkable gifts of perception, empathy, and diplomacy for a child. With Maggie’s coaching, he learns to perform the son that Nola wants: he calls her Mother, eats her cakes, and listens to her repeated readings of Dusty’s favorite children’s book. He doesn’t know why, but he instinctively edits what he says, limiting himself to agreement and acceptance with Nola. A year after the death, the Iron children believe that LaRose has “saved both families” (148). Landreaux continues to suffer from guilt and grief, but LaRose helps him understand when he relays a dream in which Dusty followed the dog into the woods and was shot “on accident” (151). Three years after the death, eight-year-old LaRose becomes “effective”; he learns from his birth family, from the Ravich family, and from the ghostly presence of his ancestors, who teach him how to rely on spirit helpers (208, 227). He removes the bullets from Peter’s gun in secret, “his small capable boy hands” preventing catastrophe and “saving both his fathers” (342). LaRose extends kinship through time, using his knowledge of tribal culture to connect with “the old ones,” his LaRose ancestors and other deceased members of his extended tribal family. He follows Ojibwa and Cree customs when he fasts and spends a night in the woods, pouring water on the ground and singing before he sleeps; in the morning, a group of twenty “transparent” Indians and “maybe Indians” arrive, including LaRose 1 and 2 and Dusty (210). Rather than fear, he feels “intense comfort” and ease; he offers Dusty a treasured role in the game they’ve played



together. At the novel’s end, he invites the old ones to the party for Hollis, and he perceives their “sympathy and curiosity” as they move around “in a dance of ordinary joy” (371). They know and watch the living, fully engaged with ongoing events in the lives of their extended kin. LaRose encourages Dusty to get some cake and sees that only Nola and the dog are aware of Dusty’s presence. In this final scene, LaRose fulfills the promise of his lineage and his name; he attends the living and the dead together and perceives the ongoing connectedness of tribe, friends, family, and kin.

Kinship and Form LaRose anticipates the young protagonist’s arrival at a chosen kinship with the use of an omniscient perspective that attaches its sympathetic attention to characters’ private thoughts and feelings. The narrator takes a position both interested and insightful, but neither all-seeing nor controlling; she does not offer visionary pronouncements from above the unfolding events, nor does she hint at any superior knowledge of what will happen next. She demonstrates empathic insight, paying close attention to characters’ inner states: from the opening sequence after the death, in which Nola wants revenge (5), Landreaux wishes he had died (9), Emmaline understands him (10), and Maggie is confused (15), the narrator watches several characters closely and describes their emotions and reflections with empathetic understanding. She witnesses battles between them and notices the tensions and disagreements that characterize interactions among family members; she observes growing attractions between characters too, including Josette and Hollis, Emmaline and Father Travis, Maggie and Waylon. Her interested attention takes in characters who are troubled and conniving, like Romeo, as well as characters with integrity, like Father Travis; she places them in relation to the cultural and historical contexts that have shaped them, extending sympathetic interest to each one. Erdrich’s choice of a multiple inward-looking omniscience places characters in relationship and represents a collective rather than an individual. Indeed, the focus on multiple central figures rather than a single individual is both common throughout Erdrich’s fiction and one of its most distinctive formal features. Where she uses first-person or third-person limited narration, she contrasts different perspectives; where she uses omniscience, she explores multiple characters. Instead of an omniscient narrator who watches from above and sees everything from a detached perspective, she is in the midst, attentive to the experiences of the characters; this narrator



does not position herself as a surveilling authority but instead as a sympathetic and understanding part of the kinship collaborative. In LaRose, she sees into the experience and through the perspective of almost every character, including minor characters like the dog (120). Rather than producing a single protagonist through a Bildungsroman narrative, Erdrich’s approach in LaRose develops a complex network of connected characters who move progressively into a community. The collective gathering at the novel’s end reflects the importance of connectedness in the narrative, which has led to that result with narrative strategies emphasizing the community as a kind of chorus. Storytelling, too, occurs as a communal effort; in telling LaRose the sacred story of the origins of the people, for example, Ignatia and Malvern alternate, contradict, and question each other and respond in different ways to LaRose’s comments and questions. All three characters participate in a discussion of the “moral of the story” at its end (293); when Ignatia dies, Malvern and LaRose hold her hands and help her begin her journey to the afterlife (294). Instead of a moment of separation for the isolated individual, even death becomes an occasion for community. The narrator thus represents characters from a perspective inside the kinship community, making the novel an effective immersion in the values and vision attained by some characters at the end. Forbidden by the Indian boarding schools, a kinship orientation to tribe and history explains one’s place in the world through relationships and commonalities, resting on a communal rather than individual sense of belonging. Kinship, including the heritage from mother and tribe, enables each LaRose to survive the Indian schools. Kinship and its implications are the novel’s final and largest discoveries, appropriately unveiled at a party that constitutes a gathering of the clan. Characters discover themselves through the network of their relationships, even those they ignored or took for granted. Observing Maggie respond to Waylon, for example, Nola sees young desire: “I see, thought Nola. I know” (366). Romeo, the novel’s most isolated character, enters a parental relationship with his son Hollis as the novel ends, giving him funds for college and the name of Hollis’s mother; through this acknowledged kinship, Romeo feels rooted for the first time (370). Even the “old ones” appear together at the end, curious and sympathetic about their living kin—not sure what they’ll do next, not judgmental, but interested, careful, and hopeful. Watching all of his kin, both living and spectral, young LaRose takes a similar position of empathic omniscience, and while he is still a child of eight, he has forged powerful connections



with his kin and gained a sympathetic insight much like the one that has characterized the narrative all along. The novel supports the value and appropriateness of its omniscient perspective with reflections on kinds of knowledge, schooling, and learning. The early LaRose characters choose to attend Indian boarding schools in order to combine forms of knowledge; they want to keep their tribal knowledge alive and pass it to their children, but each young LaRose chooses to know what the schools teach as well. Sections on Native knowledge include “how to” skills relating to nature, spirit, and healing: “how to find guardian spirits in each place they walked, how to heal people with songs, with plants” (198). The novel represents tribal knowledge, passed along by kin, as including and connecting intuitive, spiritual, natural, and philosophical ideas and skills; on the other hand, it represents school-­ based knowledge as factual, chronological, historical study highly colored by Western biases and passed down in the disciplinary structures of government schools. The sections on knowledge taught by the Indian schools emphasize understanding of the Western culture that has colonized Indians and, perhaps more important, strategies for surviving interactions with it. LaRose learns about wars fought by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Americans; she learns “to survive on bread and water” and “to supplement her diet by stealing from the surrounding farms” (200). The LaRose characters choose as much omniscience as they can gather by combining knowledges from both the tribe and the state school. While omniscience traditionally accompanies a narrative that is “historical” in a conventional sense, Erdrich’s novel invokes history for different purposes. History does not function as a stabilizing origin in the novel, but rather as accident: the shooting death of Dusty Ravich cannot be made purposeful or meaningful, however Romeo’s invented story attempts to reconstruct it as a TV plot. The novel invents a historical chain of LaRose characters, again founded on accident; the rum-addicted mother and the depraved fur trader act on impulse rather than conscious design, sending the Native girl to live at the trading post where she will flee with Wolfred. The earliest LaRose is herself part of a dimly glimpsed narrative that includes her parents’ catastrophic losses, including her father’s murder of his once-beautiful wife. The tribe itself does not begin with a deliberate act of creation; according to the story of Anishinaabe origins narrated by Ignatia and Malvern, the tribe emerges from sexual passion, betrayal, and revenge. Hardly a singular purposeful origin that forecasts and explains, the story suggests that powerful internal forces drive people in the absence



of a conscious purpose or external design. Such an understanding calls for just the empathic and intuitive omniscience the novel has assumed, looking at thoughts and feelings from a kindred position in the midst and in the moment, rather than from a Zeus-like position above the action, watching long-term historical purposes and patterns. Just as origins are murky and accidental in the novel, endings are hardly triumphant and never conclusive. The end of the novel resolves one minor plot-strand: the first LaRose’s bones have disappeared, exhibited by a doctor after she died of tuberculosis, but her ghost reveals at the end that the bones will soon be returned. As a resolution, the news does not answer the questions the novel has asked. The Irons remain deeply scarred by troubles common in contemporary Native American lives, starting with the Indian boarding schools and extending to addictions with which Landreaux continues to struggle. They have not resolved all of the problems generated by the accidental shooting of Dusty, and they have not confronted Emmaline’s infidelity. Father Travis has been replaced by a new priest and remains unsure of his future. Josette and Hollis appear strongly attracted, but he has committed to enroll in the National Guard.18 Nola and Peter Ravich have recovered to some extent, but Peter lives with the unsettling knowledge that he shot twice to kill Landreaux. The Iraq war goes pointlessly forward. LaRose has become a capable eight-year-old, but his future is opaque. The novel neither resolves current situations nor forecasts characters’ futures; it represents Native lives as an ongoing struggle in an exceptionalist America. The novel’s commitment to inclusiveness and its vision of the characters as a Native kinship collective, gathered in tangled relationships, explain its choice to tell plural inter-connected parts of stories rather than a single, linear, chronological plot. Creating a version of the kinship community in its narrative structure, LaRose juxtaposes pieces of multiple stories that coalesce in a mosaic picture of two families, a town, a set of characters who attend Indian boarding schools, and a heritage of characters with the same name. Pieces appear in the midst of other stories; fragments of the story of LaRose 1 appear scattered, in mostly chronological order, between pages 12 and 207. Part 2 of the novel (“Take it All”) moves back in time to explore nine-year-old Landreaux’s arrival at the Indian boarding school, his later escape with Romeo, and their eventual capture by Bowl Head in Minneapolis. Part 3 (“Wolfred and LaRose”) moves still further back to continue the story of LaRose 1 and Wolfred, as they marry and have children after her boarding school experience.



Throughout the novel, textual gaps with a small insignia mark shifts of time, place, and character, while textual gaps without the insignia identify a temporal shift. Some sections of text have italicized titles like “Material of Time” (270–73); within this short section, one gap with insignia separates Nola at work from Nola at home listening to LaRose play with Dusty’s ghost, and a gap without insignia marks the next morning when Nola wakes up feeling “righted” and “unalone” and burns the green chair, symbol of her suicidal impulses (272). Frequent breaks in the text allow the omniscient narrator to remain inclusive, juxtaposing glimpses of ten major characters and ten minor ones through the five-year period after Dusty’s death. No character follows a linear path or a staged recovery process, but collectively and in relation with each other, they move toward community. Five generations of LaRose characters do not fulfill the expectation in some generational novels of a final iteration that will complete the blocked epiphanic promise of their previous relatives. Such a promise appears and reaches such a fulfillment in García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, where generations of Buendía family members with recurring names culminate in the long-predicted child with the tail of a pig. In Erdrich’s novel, LaRose 5 is neither a culmination nor a departure; while he has remarkable insight and understanding, he is characterized as a normal child in most ways. Presented as the latest member of a family bearing the same given name, he shares with the other LaRoses an ability to fly “above the earth” (291), although his understandings do not occur through magical oversight but rather sympathetic insight. He has effectively saved his families from greater losses that threatened them after Dusty’s death, but Erdrich’s novel places his actions within a family dynamics of watching and listening rather than in a supernatural realm of Native sorcery. LaRose 5 accepts and values his community of “old ones” including the earlier LaRoses, but he does not finish their story or even his own. Rather than completing a tradition, he suggests continuities and communities that open up into the future. The novel takes place in Erdrich’s wide and continuous “ocean of story,” itself a model of pluralism and interconnectedness. The characters in her novels form a community; names and genealogies overlap, so characters’ stories emerge in relationship.19 For example, Romeo Puyat is related to Pauline Puyat, who appears in Tracks and Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse; both Puyats perceive themselves as isolates, though the novels represent them as entangled in relationships with other



characters. Marn Wolde from The Plague of Doves is the mother of Nola Ravich, and the Morrissey and Wildstrand boys who grope Maggie are descendants of the lynch-mob leaders in The Plague of Doves. The LaRose characters have continuities of wisdom and power, while the rusty and insightful brown dog that watches the Irons and Raviches is descended from the trading post dog that accompanies LaRose 1 and Wolfred as they flee Mackinnon (127). The implications extend beyond inter-related families in the small communities of Argus and Pluto, located on opposite sides of the North Dakota reservation, to suggest an inexhaustible web of connected stories—many of them serving as witness to the U.S. drive to erase Native culture.20 Rather than a single character or family, Erdrich’s novels focus on communities and dramatize the vitality of the collective. A portrait of a Native community bound together in multiple complex relationships, Erdrich’s LaRose demonstrates the power of Indian kinship in the narrative of a shared child whose attentive sympathy helps four parents and five siblings to recover from a tragedy, told in a form that witnesses from inside the kinship collective. Early in the novel, both of LaRose’s families want to claim him as a property to which they might establish title; Landreaux, for example, dreads the moment Peter Ravich might propose formal adoption, Nola refuses to answer the door to his other mother, and Emmaline believes she can put an end to the sharing and bring him home. Both families would like sole claim on the child. By the end, however, LaRose himself has chosen kinship in an intuitive return to the old ways. To recall Eric Cheyfitz’s significant analysis of the Supreme Court ruling in Johnson v. M’Intosh, Western capitalism based its theft of Indian lands on Western beliefs about property: “This ‘history of America’ is, of course, generated by the same ‘principles’ that it ‘proves’: the principles of Western law, which are, precisely, those of property with its foundation in the notion of title” (1993, 111). The Marshall Court perceived in the Indian kinship economy “a truly threatening opposition,” one that “questions the ethics and the efficiency of the dominant economic/social system” and mounts “a powerful and continuing critique of the waste of an expansive, acquisitive capitalism” (Cheyfitz 1993, 117–18). The Indian boarding schools taught Indian children to accept subservient places in a capitalist economy, serving those who acquired title to Indian lands through Western law. Schooled in disavowal of their rights, their heritage, and their value, Native children were wrested away from kinship and taught to respect property, especially white American property. But the kinship community remains a living force among Erdrich’s Native



Americans, even those emerging from the wreckage of the boarding schools. In LaRose, kinship keeps generations alive, connected, and resistant; it leads to transformational forms of community and power in a novel that should rank among Erdrich’s most important.

Notes 1. In an essay on the “political unconscious” in Erdrich’s novels, Rowe writes that they “should not be understood as good objects of postcolonial study, but as postcolonial studies in their own rights” (2011, 184). 2. Romeo Puyat refers to several forms of “intergenerational trauma” when he uses this term (Erdrich 2016, 214). 3. These two schools in Minnesota appear likely because Romeo and Landreaux run to Minneapolis where Landreaux’s parents said they would live. 4. Writing about the Santee Normal Training School, Fear-Segal writes “Boys and girls were housed separately and followed a curriculum that matched American society’s gender expectations” (83). 5. For Pease, the figure of the homo sacer can be understood as an “already foreclosed non-position” (the excepted) individual inhabits in the process of “self-regulation before the internalization of an alternative” (2011, 29). The Indian boarding schools required versions of self-estrangement from students who were condemned to live in such a foreclosed non-position. 6. See, for example, Churchill 60–68. 7. According to Fear-Segal, the schools delivered “no more than a basic primary education” (175). 8. Sharpe writes about Blackness and the wake of slavery, finding after-echoes of the slave ship in “the prison, the camp, and the school”; her understanding of trauma speaks to the experience of Indians after boarding school. 9. Dusty’s grandfather and Nola’s father is Billy Peace, the messianic cult leader of Plague of Doves. Nola does not identify with her Native heritage, so Dusty has been raised without connection to it; but after his death, he appears with the tribal “old ones.” 10. Fluck writes that American Studies “was constituted by a romance with America, with the myths and symbols of American exceptionalism, which were then, in a second stage, submitted to ever more radical forms of disenchantment” (87). Pease also refers to “Americanists’ romance with America,” sustained by exceptionalism (Pease 2011, 27). 11. See the Unsworth chapter for a discussion of these Birmingham guns. 12. Solow writes that, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, “slavery transformed the Atlantic into a complex trading area uniting North and



South America, Europe, and Africa through the movement of men and women, goods, and capital” (1). 13. A closer parallel appears in Nelson (1988), describing a young person’s ability to connect with ancestors by sleeping in the woods on a bed of grass; see pp. 34–35. 14. The legend of the boy’s flight from the mother’s severed head is omitted by Nelson, but listed in Brown and Brightman’s editorial essay, 129–33; it appears as the first of several motifs in the Cree Wı̄sahkēcāhk cycle. The story was collected by cultural anthropologists as early as 1897. A similar story appears in There There (2018), by Tommy Orange; he describes it as “an old Cheyenne story about a rolling head” that “wanted more. More of anything. More of everything” (6–7). 15. Mackinnon may be modeled on and named after Nelson’s superior, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, knighted in 1802 for achieving the first crossing of the North American continent. Mackenzie made large profits in the fur trade, but Nelson held him responsible for limiting his own “wretched” career, in part because Mackenzie blamed George for marrying an Ojibwa woman (Nelson 2002, 11). 16. Rumors say Bowl Head allowed a Native student to drown on a school trip rather than trying to save him (163). 17. Recent attempts to repeal the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 would remove Native children from their tribes and place them with non-Native families. 18. In an email to Kurup, Erdrich writes that service in the U.S. military has attracted disproportionately large numbers of young Native people for economic reasons, adding that historically, the boarding schools helped: “Native people were trained into the military—many reported that going into the military felt comfortable. They had been living with bells and discipline all of their lives” (Kurup 15). 19. See Beidler and Barton for a dictionary of characters and families, with complex and sometimes contradictory representations of their lineages. See Parker and Kaiser for a related reading of nonlinear connections in Love Medicine. 20. The Night Watchman (2020) portrays the government’s efforts to terminate tribal nations in the 1950s, leading to the loss of federal recognition for 113 tribal nations and the seizure of 1.4 million acres of tribal land; Erdrich’s grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, helped resist termination for the Turtle Mountain tribe.



References Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Baker, David V. 2007. American Indian Executions in Historical Context. Criminal Justice Studies 20 (4): 315–373. Beidler, Peter G., and Gay Barton. 2006. A Reader’s Guide to the Novels of Louise Erdrich: Revised and Expanded Edition. Columbia: University of Missouri Press. Cheyfitz, Eric. 1991. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan. Expanded ed., 1997. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ———. 1993. Savage Law: The Plot Against American Indians in Johnson and Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh and The Pioneers. In Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Amy Kaplan and Donald E. Pease, 109–128. Durham: Duke University Press. Cheyfitz, Eric, and Shari M.  Huhndorf. 2017. Genocide by Other Means: US Federal Indian Law and Violence against Native Women in Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. In New Directions in Law and Literature, ed. Elizabeth S. Anker and Bernadette Meyler, 264–278. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Churchill, Ward. 2004. Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools. San Francisco: City Lights. Coleman, Michael C. 1993. American Indian Children at School, 1850–1930. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Cronon, William. 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang. Erdrich, Louise. 2008. The Plague of Doves. New York: HarperCollins. ———. 2012. The Round House. New York: HarperCollins. ———. 2016. LaRose. New York: HarperCollins. ———. 2020. The Night Watchman. New York: Harper Collins. Fear-Segal, Jacqueline. 2007. White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Fluck, Winfried. 2009. Romance with America? Essays on Culture, Literature, and American Studies. Ed. Laura Bieger and Johannes Voelz. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag. Hertzel, Laurie. 2016. Minneapolis Author Louise Erdrich Finds Writing Humor is the ‘Hardest Thing’. Review of LaRose. StarTribune. Accessed 26 July 2016. Kaplan, Amy. 2002. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S.  Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Klein, Naomi. 2014. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.



Kurup, Seema. 2016. Understanding Louise Erdrich. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. Landis, Barbara. 2016. Death at Carlisle: Naming the Unknowns in the Cemetery. In Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Indigenous Histories, Memories, and Reclamations, ed. Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Susan D. Rose, 185–197. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Lima, Enrique. 2016. Individual Protagonists, Literary Communities, and the Collective Rights of Tribal Nations in Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. Modern Fiction Studies 62 (2): 307–329. Nelson, George. 1988. “The Orders of the Dreamed:” George Nelson on Cree and Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823. Ed. Jennifer S.  H. Brown and Robert Brightman. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. ———. 2002. In My First Years in the Fur Trade: The Journals of 1802–1804, ed. Laura Peers and Theresa Schenck. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press. Noriega, Jorge. 1992. American Indian Education in the United States: Indoctrination for Subordination to Colonialism. In The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance, ed. M.  Annette Jaimes, 371–402. Boston: South End Press. Orange, Tommy. 2018. There, There. New York: Vintage. Parker, Sarah, and Wilson Kaiser. 2017. Native American Literature and L’Écriture Féminine: The Case of Louise Erdrich. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 36 (1): 151–173. Pease, Donald E. 2009. The New American Exceptionalism. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press. ———. 2011. Introduction: Re-Mapping the Transnational Turn. In Re-Framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies, ed. Winfried Fluck, Donald E. Pease, and John Carlos Rowe, 1–46. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press. Pratt, Richard Henry. 1964. Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867–1904. Ed. Robert M.  Utley. New Haven: Yale University Press. Rowe, John Carlos. 2004. Buried Alive: The Native American Political Unconscious in Louise Erdrich’s Fiction. Postcolonial Studies 7 (2): 197–210. ———. 2011. Afterlives of Modernism: Liberalism, Transnationalism, and Political Critique. Hanover: Dartmouth College Press. Schacht, Miriam. 2015. Games of Silence: Indian Boarding Schools in Louise Erdrich’s Novels. Studies in American Indian Literatures 27 (2): 62–79. Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press. Solow, Barbara L. 1991. Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Spanos, William V. 2013. Shock & Awe: American Exceptionalism and the Imperatives of the Spectacle in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press. Stannard, David E. 1992. American Holocaust. New York: Oxford University Press. Tinker, George E. 2004. Tracing a Contour of Colonialism: American Indians and the Trajectory of Educational Colonialism. Preface. In Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools, ed. Ward Churchill. San Francisco: City Lights. Weaver, Jace. 1997. That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community. New York: Oxford University Press. Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press. Zinn, Howard. 2001 (1980). A People’s History of the United States, 1492–Present. New York: HarperCollins.


Disavowed Others and Ghostly Communities: George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

In discriminating between empowered citizens and subjected Others, American exceptionalism divided the nation for decades before the Civil War brought the question of slavery to a catastrophic head. Slaves had been present from the early days of colonial settlement, imported with imperial exceptionalist wreckage; they were legally held in fifteen southern states in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Fierce disagreements between abolitionists and slave-owners, North and South, culminated in the U.S. Civil War (1861–65), in which over 620,000 people died. Both sides claimed to represent an exceptional national identity and purpose; both sides held racist views of Black people. In George Saunders’s novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (2017a), segregation, divisiveness, and estrangement reveal the damaging traces of U.S. exceptionalism on trapped souls, caught in a “bardo” or interim time between two phases of existence: a limbo of sorts for Tibetan Buddhists between birth and death, death and reincarnation.1 The ghost characters practice extreme forms of disavowal as they cling to the exceptional identities and rights promised to them by the American state. Denying that they are dead and forgetting the “servants” in their houses, they repeat personal narratives of frustration and estrangement to each other across impossible divides. They forget the ghosts of African American slaves, who are with their stories of abuse and oppression immured in a common grave outside the cemetery fence. Winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2017, Saunders’s historical novel depicts an unusual group of ghost-protagonists trapped in states of © The Author(s) 2020 S. Strehle, Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community,




grieving stasis, awaiting deliverance, while the President and the nation itself hang motionless on the outcomes of the Civil War. The novel takes place on a single night, gathering wider stakes as connections and conversations expand. Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son Willie, who died on February 20, 1862, has just been interred in a crypt in Oak Hill Cemetery on the 24th; rather than going “on” to the next state, he feels compelled to wait. Sunk in grief over the loss of his favorite son and the first large-scale deaths of Union soldiers in the war, President Lincoln feels desolate; he is tempted to call a halt to the war and the killing. Disparate in class, age, life experience, and date of death, the ghosts resent failures of fulfillment in their own past lives, some due to bad luck and bad decisions, but many due to their isolation as both living citizens and plaintive phantoms. Cheated of satisfaction and trapped in singular personal histories, the fifty-plus speaking ghosts disavow their own deaths and refuse to go “on”; instead, they go back each night to the same narratives of the wounded self. The novel’s resolution will enable some of the ghosts, together with Lincoln, to go forward; achieved through empathic connection with others, the move onward requires a compassionate understanding that all humans suffer and a resolution to help others, “to lighten the load” (303). Lincoln leaves the bardo of his own grief by recognizing the universality of loss and pain and by accepting what Roberto Esposito identifies as the debt of obligation to the community of sufferers, the original human community “that constitutes us and makes us destitute in our mortal finiteness” (Esposito 8). Lincoln feels compelled to give what help he can, in part because his position makes him responsible to a grieving national community; he rejects the temptations of personal depression in order to fulfill his commitments to the nation (304). While his personal grief has enclosed and isolated Lincoln, his encounter with the multitude of suffering ghosts immerses him in what Esposito calls the reciprocity or mutuality that binds the munus of people together (Esposito 5). His immersion in the same self-enclosure that limits and traps the ghosts recedes as the ghosts’ influence helps Lincoln become “less rigidly himself,” more aware of others, and increasingly powerful (305). He creates the possibility for national community, the novel implies, when his compassion expands to include everyone and leaves social divisions behind, following the logic of the Jeffersonian assertion that all men are created equal, a founding principle of the nation Lincoln struggles to preserve.



Lincoln in the Bardo takes its departure from history: Willie’s death was devastating for Lincoln, who visited the crypt “on several occasions” to mourn and hold his son, as newspaper accounts reported at the time. Saunders heard the story from his wife’s cousin in the 1990s and saw “a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years” (2017b). He read obsessively to get both specific details about Willie, the party held while he was ill, the funeral, and, more broadly, an understanding of Lincoln. Saunders uses historical material in the novel in the form of fragments quoted from dozens of sources, both real and invented; the historical sections occupy a quarter, or twenty-seven of the one hundred eight chapters, of the novel. Saunders tells an interviewer that “a book of all ghosts needed a spine of factuality” and he found it more successful to quote sources directly than to try to rewrite or summarize (Domestico). The result is a radically different kind of historical novel; the presentation of “authoritative” sources in the form of brief fragments deconstructs both the authority of the sources and their claim to produce a coherent history of past events. Their relation to each other is inconsistent: sources sometimes amplify and echo each other (e.g. 181–82); at other times they contradict and undermine each other (e.g. 196–201). They do not address battles, speeches, cabinet intrigue, or public events typically at the foreground of Civil War histories. Instead, many of the quotes chosen by Saunders focus on the responses of the private family enduring the loss of a beloved son. Sections describe the reception given by the Lincolns on February 5, 1862, while Willie was ill; Mary Lincoln’s grief; the embalming and funeral; and critical public views of President Lincoln. While the historical sections provide a “spine of factuality,” it turns out to be a rubbery and flexible spine, with invented sources, internal disagreements, and unreliable views. Part 1 of this chapter explores Saunders’s use of historical sources and his interpretation of history in the novel. In Saunders’s novel, coalition and community not only constitute the reward achieved after the wreckage, but also the vehicle through which reward and renewal are achieved. As I will show in part 2 of this chapter, the ghosts’ pity for the newly dead child Willie, combined with guilt over their failure to help an earlier child-ghost (Elise Traynor) leads them to act. When Lincoln comes to visit his son, the ghosts work together in an effort to persuade Willie that he must go “on”; then they try to move Willie and his father into connection so the boy will accept the death they themselves continue to disavow. These efforts occupy the last two-thirds



of the novel and involve one or more of the ghosts “entering” a living person to change their understanding or action—and in the process undergoing change themselves through the empathic exchange. As Saunders explains in an essay, the ghosts’ combined actions “resulted, in the end, in a broad, cooperative pattern that seemed to be arguing for what I’d call a viral theory of goodness” (2017b). Achievable only through a communal effort built on sympathy for the child, the ghosts’ action accomplishes the impossible; they enable Willie to liberate himself, help Lincoln understand the end of slavery as a necessary stake in the war, and in the process find themselves expanded, restored, and ready to move “on.” Part 2 of the chapter identifies the damaging traces of American exceptionalism in the novel and the ghosts’ collaboration with both Lincolns in a redemptive form of community. An unusual historical novel in its form, Lincoln in the Bardo tells multiple stories in fragments and seems chaotically disjunctive. No omniscient narrator guides readers through the historical and ghost-spoken sections or explains their juxtaposition. The brief quotations from historical sources claim to offer accurate reports on the events and people in Lincoln’s life, but dramatic contradictions among them undermine their objectivity and reliability. The historical sections do not appear in linear order: the loaned tomb where Willie Lincoln is buried is reported by sources in section eight (24), while the embalming of the boy’s body before burial is described by other sources in section eighty-eight (287–89). Supplementing the mosaic depiction of the Lincoln family at the time of Willie’s death, the ghosts’ interactions with each other and Willie appear in chronological order, interrupted by recursive accounts of the ghosts’ own frustrations, failures, and regrets. Beside the death of a child, the ghosts provide a contrast in tone and plausibility that seems, at first, like comic relief. Hans Vollman, killed by a falling beam before he can consummate his marriage to a much younger woman, carries an enormous erection through the afterlife. Roger Bevins III, a gay man with a keen aesthetic sense who committed suicide, grows “extra eyes and noses and hands,” Willie Lincoln reports, “Hands feeling the eyes Noses smelling the hands” (27).2 Indeed, the characterization of the ghosts injects comic farce into a narrative of personal and national tragedy, focused on the deaths of young men. As I will show in part 3 of this chapter, Saunders expands the capacious genre of historical fiction in a direction appropriately signaled by the comedy, which turns out to be far more integral to the novel’s unified vision than it first appears. Saunders tells Zadie Smith in an interview, “every work of art should be a



work of extravagant hope”; Lincoln in the Bardo introduces the hope that vast differences—between living and dead, Black and white—can be crossed through empathy. The apparent disjunctions in the text achieve a resolution that justifies the novel’s hope.

Histories of Civil War Saunders did a prodigious amount of reading and research about Lincoln during the twenty years while he thought about the book and the four years while he wrote it. “I have two, maybe three hundred books on Lincoln in my study,” Saunders tells Ron Charles in an interview, “and I always pick up more in a bookstore.” The novel includes brief quotations from a very large number of sources, identified by author and title. Their breadth in focus, time-period, relation to the Lincolns, sophistication, and tone conveys the impression of broad public inclusion, as if the voices of America crowd into the text with all their passionate disagreements about slavery and the Civil War. Almost all of the quotes are brief: some are sentence fragments, some one sentence; a few are brief paragraphs. The sources range from established scholars, including highly regarded biographers of Lincoln (Daniel Mark Epstein, Kunhardt and Kunhardt, Ruth Painter Randall), to humble unnamed letter-writers (“How miny more ded do you attend to make sir?” 154) to newspaper editorials (the Allentown “Field-Gazette” and the Cleveland “Truth-Sentinel,” 234). While many of the sources are well known, Saunders invented others, sprinkling fictional sources among the real ones. He created fictional sources from the 1860s White House and their quotations (Stone Hilyard, e.g., who quotes from a fictional group including Sophie Lenox, maid; D.  Strumphort, butler; and Paul Riles, guard, 54, 180). He also uses material written by historical figures from the Lincoln White House: Elizabeth Keckley (sometimes spelled Keckly) was a biracial seamstress, formerly enslaved, who wrote about her experiences as dressmaker for Mary Lincoln and later close friend and supporter of the family (e.g. quoted on 48–50). Some observers’ quotations are sympathetic to the Lincolns, but many are critical: “The Presdt is an idiot,” George McClellan is quoted as believing (232). While the historical sources provide some necessary facts, the quotations are carefully chosen or created to support the novel’s belief in the liberating power of empathy. Supplementing reports of events, many of the quotations focus on the emotions felt by the Lincolns or by others



around them, often in prose designed to elicit sympathy or condemnation. Section LXXIII of the novel, for example, contains seventeen brief quotes contrasting the lavish reception downstairs with Willie’s advancing illness upstairs on February 5, 1862. The chapter begins with a quote from historian Daniel Epstein: “Blame and Guilt are the furies” haunting those whose children die (240). The complete sentence appears in Epstein’s book The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage (2008), followed by Epstein’s listing of the potential sources of the Salmonella bacteria that are literally responsible for Willie’s death: the Potomac River water piped into the White House; a marsh behind it; a barracks on the White House grounds where soldiers had experienced typhoid epidemics; General McClellan, whose house Willie and Tad had visited while he had typhoid fever (Epstein 370). Bacteria and exposure are factually responsible for Willie’s illness, but the Epstein quote selected by Saunders emphasizes instead the feelings of guilt suffered by his parents, haunted by furies.3 Other historical sources cited in this same brief chapter also heighten the emotional stakes: “blotted with anguish”; “the boy’s feverish mind”; “the hooded figure”; “suffering horribly upstairs” (240–42). While their emotive language may reflect common usage at the time, Saunders’s selection and combination of these passages elicit sympathy for the dying child—a sympathy the ghosts will share. Saunders’s research focused on Abraham Lincoln; while the novel takes place in a narrow period during February 1862, its interest and attention extend beyond the specific events of that time, including Willie’s death, to the changes in Lincoln that led him to abolish slavery in the U.S. In an interview with Sam Lipsyte, Saunders answers a question about Lincoln: “do we know if he really changed some of his personal racist beliefs?” Saunders replies, I think he did. He came very far in four years. By the end of his life, I think, he supported the vote for African Americans and was leaning heavily towards the forty-acres-and-a-mule idea. In the early debates with Douglas, he dismisses the idea of intermarriage, but by the end he was in a different place. […] the more I studied him, the more I came to love him and think of him as this incredible spiritual being. (Lipsyte)

While Saunders also says “I didn’t really write ‘him’” (Lipsyte), the novel draws on historical research to characterize Lincoln as its sympathetic central figure. Despite their seeming stasis, ghosts including Willie Lincoln



undergo significant changes in the novel; but the novel’s dramatic focus rests on the living president, who determines on the night represented in the novel to pursue and win the war despite its human costs. He resolves to preserve a national union that has failed, so far, to live up to its own ideals. The historical Lincoln did not believe that America had fulfilled its promises; he did not see himself as the leader of an exceptional state. Against claims, dating back to the Puritans, that Americans are God’s “chosen people,” Lincoln surprisingly calls them “his almost chosen people”: “I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.”4 Assuming that Americans are not fully favored by an Almighty who finds them lacking, Lincoln points to the “great struggle” of the Civil War and its source in slavery. Lincoln’s “object” in 1861, when he made this remark, was restoring the union rather than ending slavery; but in the next three years he became convinced that the union would not survive unless slavery was abolished. He had objected to slavery on moral grounds all his life; he wrote to Kentucky leaders in 1864, “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel” (quoted in White, 619). Biographers including Jerrold Packard confirm his longstanding opposition: Slavery repulsed Lincoln from the time he came into his young manhood. The squalor of slave life and the misery of the trafficking in human beings that he saw […] gave him an early and a lifelong animosity to what was beyond argument the preeminent evil ever committed in the nation’s life. (Packard 127)

Packard adds that Lincoln had an “extraordinary, nearly unparalleled ability to articulate the magnitude of slavery’s injustice and how that injustice proved the hypocrisy of America’s noisily expressed claim of national virtue” (Packard 127). For Abraham Lincoln, slavery gave the lie to American exceptionalism while it betrayed the ideals promised by the Declaration of Independence. At the same time, racism was common in both the slaveholding south and the abolitionist north. As Packard describes the “nearly universal attitude” of Americans in the antebellum period, “the animus” of whites against Blacks “is almost impossible to overstate” (Packard 128).



Abolitionists opposed the ownership of human beings, he writes, but did not believe in racial equality: “racial prejudice was profoundly ingrained and nearly universal in Lincoln’s white America” as it had been “reinforced over countless generations by almost every cultural structure of Western society” (128). Saunders’s novel references the widespread prejudice held by northern troops, fighting for the union but not for Black freedom, in a fictitious entry from a New York soldier: “We did not & will not Agree to fite for the Neygar, for whom we do not give a wit” (234). Although he knew soldiers opposed the plan, Lincoln accepted advice to arm Black soldiers and moved, writes biographer Ronald White, “from hesitant consent to eager advocacy of Black soldiers” (543). Lincoln authorized the recruitment and arming of Black soldiers at the end of 1862 and released the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863; though it freed only those Blacks held as slaves in secessionist states, it opened broader possibilities when it declared their emancipation “an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution” (Lincoln 1862). Arguments that Lincoln changed in his views of African Americans, made by respected Lincoln scholars, support Saunders’s view that Lincoln changed significantly during the four years of the Civil War. In The Radical and the Republican (2007), a book on Lincoln and Frederick Douglass praised as “astute and polished” (McPherson), James Oakes writes: Everyone knows that as the war years passed Abraham Lincoln grew in wisdom and judgment. More than that, Lincoln was radicalized by the war. He eventually took the radical position on emancipation, the radical position on Black troops, and in the end he moved toward a radical position on equal rights. […] Lincoln even began to awaken from his lifelong insensitivity to racial injustice. (xviii)5

Oakes argues that Lincoln’s views converged with those of radical Black reformer Douglass in concluding that slavery must end. Aware that many Americans clung to a belief in white racial superiority, Oakes claims, Lincoln made carefully hedged public statements designed to move the question of equality off the table; he aimed to forge support first for the containment and then the abolition of slavery (Oakes 119). Oakes presents a closely reasoned case for seeing Lincoln as an effective political actor who achieved goals aligned with Douglass’s; Douglass himself eventually concluded that “Lincoln was a man utterly lacking in racial prejudice” (Oakes 128).



In his novel, Saunders creates a version of Lincoln carefully aligned with historical evidence and, however positive his feelings about the sixteenth president, short of hagiography. Two of the ghosts who have entered Lincoln’s consciousness narrate his meditation on the stakes of the Civil War; these go beyond “mere Union” to deeper questions of “How should men live?” (307). Lincoln recalls the sense of beauty and bounty he has himself experienced in the nation: all of that bounty, was for everyone, for everyone to use, seemingly put here to teach a man to be free, to teach that a man could be free, that any man, any free white man, could come from as low a place as he had. (308)

Only in the seventh phrase of this expansive meditation does Lincoln remember that “a man” who can access bounty must be white and free. Once he does remember it, he does not think about Black men, but instead about his own experience of class oppression by rich and arrogant “king-­ types,” whose scorn he felt as a child (308). He believes that freedom and opportunities to “rise,” which he has experienced, lie at the heart of the national experiment and must be fought for, lest “king-types” dismiss the democratic experiment by concluding, “The rabble cannot manage itself.” He resolves to lead and help the rabble to manage (308). The “rabble” must include Black people, since opposition to aristocratic rule would include all those who have been oppressed by race as well as class; but Saunders’s Lincoln does not become conscious in this passage of the linkages between class and race or of the differential oppressions of Black people. Saunders foreshadows but does not show Lincoln’s growth in compassion specifically for Black Americans. As Lincoln leaves the cemetery, the ghost of former slave Thomas Havens enters his body and feels “a kinship” that makes him “comfortable” (311). Havens describes Lincoln as “An opening book,” enlarged by his sorrow and by his encounter with the ghosts (312). The group of ghosts, Black and white, has recently “mass-­ inhabited” Lincoln, and their experience has informed and changed him, given him a new understanding of injustice and sympathy for Black slaves. Havens rides out of the cemetery with Lincoln, intending to help the President broaden his understanding of and sympathy for Black people’s suffering in America. His description of a man with “traces” of an “aversion” (312) he has come to examine and erode rings true to the versions of Lincoln advanced by historians and biographers. Sorrow and pity for



the sufferings of others enable him to see the broader implications of the values, including freedom and equality, he has long held and articulated.

Exceptional Citizens in a Communal Bardo As Saunders imagines it, Lincoln’s inclination to forget the exclusion of African Americans from the bounty, freedom, and opportunities of life in the U.S. reflects the effective operations of American exceptionalism on and in the consciousness of U.S. citizens. As Donald Pease writes, the fantasy of American exceptionalism enables and even requires citizens to identify with the ideal nation most especially at sites like slavery where it makes exceptions to its own laws and ideals: “Rather than protesting against the state’s abrogation of its rules, U.S. citizens fantasized themselves as the sovereign power that had suspended the law in the name of securing the nation” (2009, 33). Citizens who identify with the nation have adopted “the psychosocial structures that permitted them to ignore the state’s exceptions” (2009, 12); they “identify with the state’s power to declare itself an exception to its own rules” (2009, 15–16). In 1862, the exceptionalist state fantasy led citizens not simply to overlook the state’s exceptions to the principles it had set forth in the Declaration of Independence, but actively to refuse to see the relationship between their own freedom and the enslavement of African Americans. Fully interpellated in the American exceptionalist fantasy, the white ghosts in Oak Hill Cemetery have so effectively disavowed the African American ghosts and the injustice of their enslavement that they never think of the group buried in a common pit outside the fence enclosing their privileged graves.6 Saunders peoples the cemetery with American exceptionalist dead to expose exceptionalism as a form of arrogant selfishness. In a nation, as in its people, exceptionalism expands a sense of privilege, a belief in one’s own righteousness, and a readiness to appropriate power over others, while it shrinks sympathy and virtually eliminates charity. The exceptionalist ghosts believe they were owed better and more than they got. They have shrunk and contracted into themselves, frozen into concentrated versions of resentment for fulfillments they deserved and didn’t receive. Their resentments, like their awareness more generally, have been reduced to the personal: a lover who preferred another, a marriage unconsummated, a reputation diminished, and a disappointing husband. Their lives of privilege in a nation promising bounty, beauty, freedom, and the opportunity to rise belong to a progress narrative that culminates in fulfillment, and



they determine to stay in the bardo until they get their just rewards. They endlessly repeat the same stories about the undeserved personal frustration that brought them to the bardo; they hear these tales so often they can recite each other’s narratives and supply missing words for each other (e.g. 75, 216). While they know the narratives, these isolates do not know each other or connect in any meaningful way in the atomized bardo. Saunders’s exceptionalist ghosts are detached from each other, frozen in time and place, and reduced to personal complaints and grievances. Summing up in a metaphor the state of an exceptionalist populace, these isolated Americans are not only shrunken but also dead. The ghosts are also masters of disavowal. Most obviously, they disavow their own deaths as they await a return to life for the rewards they were promised. Hans Vollman was struck in the head by a beam, placed in a “sick-box,” and carried to Oak Hill in a “sick-cart” to complete his recovery underground (5). Roger Bevins III despairs over his “predilection” and the loss of his lover Gilbert; he slits his wrists but changes his mind and crawls to the kitchen “where I remain” waiting “to be discovered” and “revived” (25–27). Since they are out of time, the ghosts also deny all possible change and assume that their lives, properties, and former dramas wait unchanged for their return; they avoid learning from new arrivals anything about the historical world that would alter their expectations. More importantly, the ghosts disavow the state’s exceptions to its own principles and ideals in that historical world. They ignore slavery, an active presence during their lives and common throughout the District of Columbia and surrounding areas.7 While the three primary ghost narrators do not recall owning, interacting with, or seeing slaves, Bevins’s family had multiple “servants” (26), Vollman admits he spoke “perfunctorily” to his servants (3), and both, like the Reverend, enjoyed prosperous lives in an economy based on slavery; still, they repress all thought of Black people living and dead, including their ghost neighbors across the fence. The privileged white ghosts in the Oak Hill Cemetery know there are Black people (and one poor white couple, the Barons) buried in a mass grave outside the fence; many object vehemently when the “Damnable savages” enter Oak Hill to tell their stories (213). The slaves’ stories of brutal abuse, rape, dehumanization, and injustice contrast sharply with the stories of pleasures denied to the white ghosts and expose their most significant disavowal: they have participated in and profited from the nation’s violent oppression of these Black people while denying their complicity and responsibility. They have looked away from the historical and political



systems that empowered white Americans like themselves at the expense of America’s Others. Yet the ghosts in the foreground of Saunders’s novel are not malevolent, nor are they overtly racist. They appear to be comic characters, trapped in exaggerated and distorted versions of the preoccupations they brought to the bardo; Vollman and Bevins bear grotesque physical signs, comic in both senses, of love and longing rather than hate or anger. In the segregated bardo of the white cemetery, they have simply forgotten and erased the Others, as if their bardo were an ahistorical, race-free playground in which to re-play fate’s personal slights. While the novel may seem at first to endorse such a light comic reading of the afterlife, Saunders finds more serious and significant stakes in this historical novel about the Civil War: the invisible Black Others are present, just out of sight, from the beginning. In an essay for The New Yorker about Trump supporters published in 2016, Saunders writes that Americans have always been divided in their thinking about their Others: “From the beginning, America has been of two minds about the Other. One mind says, Be suspicious of it, dominate it, deport it, exploit it, enslave it, kill it as needed. The other mind denies that there can be any such thing as the Other, in the face of the claim that all are created equal” (2016). The Other ghosts recall the claim of equality as they find their way into the Oak Hill cemetery, into Lincoln, and into the novel. The first mind, or “kill it as needed,” expresses American exceptionalism in its most overt and racist form; Lieutenant Cecil Stone demonstrates a virulent version of these attitudes, yet they also appear among some of his white ghost-colleagues. He prides himself on the violence with which he would “Seize” a Black slave woman (“SHARD-LASS”) and rape her, while her “SHARD-MAN” would be distressed and humiliated (82). With violent punishments and threats, he brags, he “converted SHARD to Ally, & made them Foes to one another” (83). Sowing division and discord among his slaves, he controlled them with threats and weapons (83). Stone exercises the same violent coercion against the Black ghosts who enter Oak Hill, leading a group of white male ghosts to push the Blacks back toward the fence (222). Impervious to any event that would lead him to go “on,” Stone claims the right and power to become ghost-­ manager in the cemetery (319). His beliefs are racist and appalling: he thinks slave women dress to seduce white men (93), slave men lack human emotion (320), and all slaves shirk their assigned work (320). Arrogant and offensive as Stone is, he reflects in more overt form the racism of a



group of white ghosts in Oak Hill. When the Black ghosts enter, many do not approve, insisting that the “Black beasts” go back where they came from (212–13). Other ghosts, like the three central characters Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend Thomas, simply forget about the people who were enslaved and repress the shameful awareness of slavery. The Americans in the bardo display several sins, faults, and failures of moral judgment or action; while the bardo is not purgatory, the ghosts have failed in some significant way, as reflected in their inability to go “on.” The primary failure underlying all of the individual variations demonstrated by the ghosts is a failure of empathy—a refusal to accept responsibility to and for others in the community. Both the greatest value in Saunders’s universe and the quality most devalued by exceptionalist Americans, empathy requires a perception of one’s connection to others and a feeling of accountability; joining others in community entails what Esposito calls a sense of duty or obligation.8 Empathy summons collaboration and service, where exceptionalism implies privilege and power, detachment and command. The exceptionalist ghosts have failed in empathy: they have disavowed connection, refused responsibility, ignored the other, and shrunk into smaller and pettier versions of themselves. Mrs. Abigail Blass demonstrates the pusillanimous or small-souled mixture of shrunken stature and petty concerns; she is “tiny (smaller than a baby)” (81). She spends her nights gathering a meager hoard of twigs and pebbles which she jealously guards as her own possessions, reflecting in a puny register the more common exceptionalist drive to own the earth. Betsy and Eddie Baron recall careless lives in which they drank and partied, ignored and lost their children (84–85). Failing in empathy with other living beings, hunter Trevor Williams has killed a great many animals; they lie in a pile before him, and he must now hold each one lovingly (127). The aptly named Mr. Papers has shrunk to a “cringing gray supine line” (134). Percival Collier owns four homes and occupies his time worrying ceaselessly about his material possessions, fearing thievery from an unworthy Other (129). These and other characters are caught in trivial possessions and pleasures, estranged from others and cut off from community. One of the novel’s three central ghost characters, the Reverend Everly Thomas, articulates the logic of self-preservation by which the ghosts protect themselves and refuse the duty or obligation to others that constitutes community. Willie Lincoln’s arrival poses a crisis for Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins, who witnessed the capture of Elise Traynor; she died at fourteen and was ensnared in a carapace that binds her to the fence in



manifestations of increasingly violent bitterness and rage. Children, they explain to Willie Lincoln, are meant to go on quickly, rather than waiting (31). Yet the Reverend argues against any real effort to free Willie, arguing that they must concentrate on themselves and reserve the energy required to “abide.” “We must conserve our strength,” he urges; self-preservation is more important than helping others (123). This same self-protective logic is later voiced by the Three Bachelors, immature young men who evade responsibilities of any kind. They are the only bardo-dwellers who fly above the earth, suggesting their detachment; the hats they drop reflect their empty heads. Asked to help save Willie from entrapment in the bardo, they refuse because becoming involved “might Threaten our very Freedom” (261). While the Reverend Thomas later changes his mind and takes action to help Willie,9 the Bachelors cling to self-interest to the end. The carapace demons illustrate an exaggerated form of this same self-­ interest, while they also show how it shrinks, rigidifies, and strangles the self that manufactures its own exceptions even as it victimizes others. The hard carapace that grows around Willie is comprised of tiny, shrunken people: “Thousands of writhing tiny bodies, none bigger than a mustard seed, twisting miniscule faces up at us” (267). These demonic people, who work in concert but not in community, may as the Reverend suggests be in hell, but they say there are worse places. They have massacred soldiers, killed babies, poisoned loved ones, and sexually abused children (267). Their most grievous wrong, however, occurs when they disavow responsibility for their actions, blaming fate or destiny for their own violent assaults on communal bonds (270). They had no freedom to choose, they argue, but were instead led by the conditions of their lives into crimes for which they are unfairly condemned; they could not have been or done anything other (270). The carapace people, who insist that “Rules are rules” as they work to chain children in the bardo (269), believe that they themselves have been judged unfairly and deserved an exception. They demonstrate the same violent exceptional logic that fuels Lieutenant Stone’s battle against the SHARDS. Given the static quality of life in the bardo, with the ghosts’ denial of time and change, Saunders must introduce an external force in order to create a narrative; Willie Lincoln’s arrival stuns the ghosts and re-starts historical time. The ghosts have almost persuaded young Willie to go “on” when his father’s arrival in the graveyard and pledge to return convince the boy to stay. The carapace demons begin to trap him, and the ghosts perceive a second encounter with his father as Willie’s only chance



at freedom. Vollman and Bevins pity the handsome boy on his arrival (29), but their sympathy turns to determined action only when they enter and experience Lincoln at the end of the first half of the novel. Changes escalate dramatically in the novel with the fictive assumption or donnée that the ghosts can enter a living person, experience their thoughts and feelings, and transmit their own concerns, leaving traces of the exchange in both ghosts and living beings; they can also enter or encounter each other in the same way. Saunders sees this fictive transfer as similar to the real-world practice of empathy, a concept he invokes frequently in talking about the novel in interviews. When Aidan Ryan comments that his stories challenge readers to “Empathise with me,” Saunders replies, “Sure, yes. I think this is what all fiction does, really, or tries to do—encourages us to step out of ourselves and into someone else, temporarily. Which, in my view, is de facto a moral experience” (Ryan).10 Trapped in ever-narrowing selves infected by arrogant American exceptionalism, the ghosts in Lincoln in the Bardo have never encountered each other this way or even imagined the possibility. Their empathy for Willie leads them to step out of themselves and into Lincoln, which puts them in intimate contact with each other as well. Major changes follow when they enter other ghosts and encounter the Black ghosts’ experiences of oppression and pain. Lincoln’s arrival enlarges the ghosts’ empathy, and they convert it into a force for liberation. Attracted by Lincoln’s visit to his son, the African American ghosts enter the cemetery at the same time a crowd of white ghosts gathers to witness the moment when he holds his son (205). While Lincoln doesn’t hear their accounts, the life stories of these slaves are indeed transformative. They provide a larger, tragic context of stolen human lives and freedoms, against which the stories of the white ghosts shrink to minor personal disappointments. Elson Farwell recalls the dehumanization of plantation life and the punishments of a cruel overseer and owners who ignored him (216); Thomas Havens remembers the condescending claims of his owners and how few moments of freedom he enjoyed; Litzie Wright cannot speak, but Mrs. Francis Hodge tells her story of multiple rapes and violent victimization; Mrs. Hodge has worked so hard her hands and feet are nubs. Litzie’s story of being the helpless recipient of white cruelty stands for the use and abuse that has damaged them all in different ways (222). The Black ghosts’ stories contain grief and anger that eclipses the personal frustrations in the white ghosts’ stories. The three protagonist ghosts enter and merge with Lincoln and the Black ghosts several times during the second half of the novel,11 and each



time the stakes expand and the changes grow exponentially. The novel occurs during a single night, with re-entries caused by the increasing urgency of Willie’s changing circumstances. Vollman and Bevins enter Lincoln after he leaves Willie’s crypt; they want him to return to tell his son to go “on.” The African American ghosts arrive and tell their stories of suffering; they remain and become part of the group. Hans Vollman enters Lincoln alone to delay his departure from the area, while Bevins is trying to free Willie from the carapace. A large community of ghosts, both Black and white, then enters Lincoln outside the crypt to try to make him return, but they are unsuccessful and Lincoln moves to the chapel in the cemetery. The fourth entry in the chapel is Willie’s alone; he learns from his father that he is both loved and dead, and he goes “on.” As Lincoln leaves the chapel and the cemetery, the whole group enters him again; they experience his new sympathy for the suffering of all and his resolve to win the war. One Black ghost, Thomas Havens, accompanies Lincoln out of the cemetery at the end of the novel, hoping to help him understand the experiences of Black slaves, so his sadness can include theirs (311–12). The ghosts’ sympathy for Willie motivates the first three encounters, which lead to increasing empathy with Lincoln and each other. Lincoln’s characteristics transform them: they are enlarged by the experience of knowing a man driven by a sense of ethical responsibility to others and to the larger national community. The ghosts’ increasing understanding of Lincoln and their expanding sympathy for each other lead them into an empathetic community that unites and then liberates them. Their first entry into Lincoln surprises Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins: they rediscover the pleasures of encountering another person, they learn of historical changes, and they experience awe over the moral scale of Lincoln’s consciousness. As the ghosts sit together in the same position Lincoln has taken, cross-legged on the grass (146), they enter and characterize Lincoln’s spacious being: “Vast. Windswept. New. Sad” (147). Witnessing his grief for Willie and his hope that the boy has reached a place of hope (158), Vollman and Bevins join hands and urge Lincoln to return to the crypt. Not only do they succeed in moving the living man, the experience is “an astonishment” for the two ghosts (171), who see each other’s lives and feel each other’s desires for the first time; they will remain inter-connected forever, thinks Vollman (173). They also encounter historical change, discovering that Lincoln is president, that the nation is at war with itself, and that gaslights and telegraphs have been invented. Given their longing to return to unchanged lives, the passage of time



implied in these changes presents a challenge the ghosts ignore for the moment. They also witness Lincoln’s moral honesty with himself, in sharp contrast with their own long-practiced disavowals. Lincoln faces his child’s death squarely and reflects that life is a “marvel,” murder a “sin,” and then, suddenly, that he has caused the recent deaths of perhaps 3000 young men in battles early in the war. In a moment of instinctive empathy, he knows that other parents are suffering the losses of their children, just as he is; if one child’s death is so painful, perhaps he should end the war, leaving the divisions in the nation unresolved. But he can’t; his only option is to struggle against the crippling effects of his own sorrow and go forward (158). In this passage, Lincoln fights debilitating depression and accepts responsibility to act constructively as president; he feels an obligation to the nation, even as he confronts his own heavy responsibility for the painful losses the war entails. Hans Vollman merges alone into Lincoln in the crypt, where Lincoln opens the coffin again and forces himself to look closely at Willie’s body and accept the boy’s death. Lincoln realizes that many regard his presidency as a failure (231); quotations from historical sources demonstrate that he is reviled and rejected (232–35). He summons comfort in thinking that, at least, he is not to blame for Willie’s death, but then realizes he has been blamed, as material from historical sources confirms (236–42). Lincoln looks squarely at the process of his own disavowal, urging himself to fight against his temptation to deny hard truths; he forces himself to look closely at his son’s dead body (245). In an inner dialogue, he wrestles against the naming of death but forces himself to clarity: the son he loves is gone, and what he holds is biological “Meat” (246). While the ghosts cling resolutely to the belief in permanence and disavow their deaths, Lincoln acknowledges that death and loss are real; he summons a brutal recognition, made painful by his love for this son. In the third encounter, several ghosts enter Lincoln and experience connection with each other and collaboration. They regain purpose and value, while they experience with delighted surprise the re-awakening of community; they had forgotten the pleasures of working in concert with others in their former lives. They receive “glimpses” of Lincoln’s mind, but no directly reported thoughts; instead, the transformative magic in this encounter occurs as a result of their union with each other. Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend Thomas describe the group-entry in staccato fragments: “Becoming multiply conjoined—” “Shrinking down as



necessary—” (251). Twenty-four named ghosts enter, including the group of African American ghosts. Led by Vollman, they all urge Lincoln to stop; they experience union in a communal “mass-mind” directed at changing Lincoln’s movement, and it frees them from the self-protective drive that normally isolates each of them in a singular past (254). In their previous lives, they now remember, they treasured friends, helped and worked with others, gave and received support from their communities. Finding themselves enlarged and vitalized by connections with each other, they recover past forms of health. Vollman’s erection disappears and his clothing returns; Bevins loses the multiplicity of sense organs. The raped slave Litzie regains her voice and abused slave Mrs. Hodge has restored hands and feet (258–59). While these transformations do not effectively stop Lincoln, the novel suggests throughout that the living respond to the dead and vice versa; as a result, Lincoln does not leave the cemetery as he had intended but goes to the chapel, where Willie finds him. Willie enters his father in the chapel and emerges with the same conviction his father has articulated, that life follows a natural order; doing the right thing leads to acceptance, bounty, and freedom. He begins by asking whether to stay or go; his father, after all, promised during his first visit to return and implicitly asked Willie to remain. Listening to his father, Willie hears enduring love and grief, but also the awareness Lincoln forced himself to confront, that Willie’s body is dead. After his initial distress, Willie emerges from his father and confronts the ghosts with their own disavowals: “You are not sick,” he tells them; “Everyone, we are dead!” (296). He argues for going “on”—because they can’t go back, because the bardo has nothing for them, and because the natural order means they should go on (299). His father’s son to the end, he voices a sense of responsibility, ethical duty, and right action and urges others to follow his lead to the right next place and condition. After he goes “on,” Willie/not Willie speaks from a place of freedom where he has suffered no loss and where he returns “To such beauty” (301). In the final entry into Lincoln’s consciousness, the group of ghosts perceives his resolve to win the war, despite the suffering and death he will cause by pursuing rather than ending it in a compromise that would leave slavery intact in the southern states. He meditates on the stakes of the war, which he sees as the survival of the values that he will name seven months later at Gettysburg. Our fathers, he will say there, brought forth “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The Civil War tests those ideals; liberty and equality for



all men are the war’s stakes. At Gettysburg, Lincoln will urge his listeners to resolve “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (Lincoln 1863). Has he understood that “the people” include slaves, African Americans who were excluded from and betrayed by the nation’s first false claim to a “birth of freedom”? Saunders implies that he has. His own suffering has made Lincoln aware that death, loss, and sorrow are universal human experiences, while his “inhabitation” by the ghosts has widened his experience. He thinks of the obligation shared by all living beings to recognize and alleviate suffering; since everyone suffers, any careful being and any President needs to help and sympathize with others who have been “wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood” (303). Willie has experienced an identical perception of universal suffering during an early encounter with a group of the ghosts: “All had been wronged Neglected Overlooked Misunderstood” (82). The duplication implies that Lincoln and Willie have “heard” each other and the ghostly visitors, as the ghosts have heard and been changed by both Lincolns. He has “received” the suffering of the slaves, including the multiply raped Litzie Wright and the worked-to-death Mrs. Francis Hodge, as they co-­inhabited him. As he leaves Oak Hill Cemetery, Thomas Havens rides inside him, conveying the specific suffering of Black slaves and urging him to help (312). Lincoln’s receptivity to these voices follows directly from his empathy with those who suffer. Vollman and Bevins have “heard” Lincoln, too; they summarize and speak for him as he leaves the chapel, understanding his voice and values. They trade insights and observations, allied and collaborating with each other, both inside his consciousness and outside him: His sympathy extended to all in this instant […] He was leaving here broken, awed, humbled, diminished. […] Reduced, ruined, remade. (304–05)

Changed by their inhabitation of Lincoln, the two ghosts can articulate his widespread, division-crossing sympathy because they have experienced it through and with him; they are also deeply sympathetic for him. They have found themselves enlarged beyond the personal and limited past as a result of their encounter with a man defined by his empathy and his sense of obligation to the larger community. In response, they abandon the



disavowals that have restricted them, Bevins helping a more-reluctant Vollman to confront and accept his wife’s remarriage (328). Both apologize to Elise Traynor for their previous failure and then help her to escape the carapace (334). These final, definitive actions demonstrate their sense of responsibility to others in the community; they have adopted Lincoln’s ethics as they go “on.”

Form: Genres, Fragments, and Permeable Borders One of the most unusual qualities of Lincoln in the Bardo is its combination of a wide range of tones and genres, some of them seemingly incompatible: it joins somber tragedy, farcical caricature, satiric critique, and comedy. Tragedy is immediately visible: while all of the ghosts have had lives cut short too soon, Willie’s death at eleven devastates his parents and appears to be the “wreck” that generates the novel. His father’s grief threatens to destroy the president’s resolve to continue fighting a Civil War where thousands of boys will die; it flattens Willie’s mother and leaves Willie himself confused and sad. The real “wreck” is of course slavery, the betrayal of the “truths we hold self-evident” in the Declaration of Independence: “that all men are created equal” and endowed with the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Saunders’s novel reflects on the tragic wrong of slavery, repressed in the national consciousness in parallel to the ghosts’ “forgetting” of their neighbors outside the fence. Can a novel about the death of a child against a landscape of slavery be anything but tragic? Saunders says yes; the ghosts who inhabit the bardo belong to the absurd, exaggerated, improbable world of farce. Willie describes Bevins with multiple eyes watching in several directions and many “sniffing” noses; Vollman appears “Quite naked Member swollen to the size of” (28).12 The novel includes several farcical moments and Monty-Python-like skits, a race or chase scene, and moments when Willie’s spirit is pushed through a stone roof and tossed through the walls into a chapel. Satire adds its own distinctive comic tone, edged with biting criticism; Saunders satirizes the racist Lieutenant Cecil Stone, exaggerating his ignorant selfishness and condemning him to an endless personal Civil War. The novel makes these different tones and genres work effectively together because it takes a fundamentally comic view of life, which enables it to include tragedy in a comic form. Lincoln in the Bardo recapitulates Dante’s Divine Comedy in a single volume, ranging from the purgatory of the bardo to a hell peopled by carapace demons; Willie’s final message



from beyond conveys a vision of heaven where all is allowed, light and flying are abundant, and there is both departure and return (301). In the midst of familial and national tragedy, the child’s death actually liberates, as the encounters with Willie and Abraham Lincoln expand, heal, and free Vollman, Bevins, the Reverend, and dozens more. The cosmos in which these events occur is open to liberty and justice, however short individuals fall; people can change, find each other, and (re)discover the enabling obligations that bind them to a human community. Going “on” is a “matter-­light-blooming phenomenon,” something like an explosion that turns the bodily self into disembodied flowering brightness. There is a reassuring “on” to go to, rather than a dark “off” of extinction. In a world of “never too late,” people can change and grow; even the dead may continue the journey toward enlightenment. Nations, too, can change course with the right leadership, to overcome egregious wrongs and inequities, to curtail their damaging exceptionalisms. Short fragments from several disjunct sources constitute the narrative and the distinctive formal feature of Lincoln in the Bardo. They make the novel appear to be even more unconventional than it is; it looks like a collage of unrelated quotations, both historical and fictional, from both known living published writers and unknown dead ghost-narrators, to be assembled into coherence by the reader. Some voices speak only once, some like Mr. Papers are barely coherent, and the Reverend calls the result “cacophony” at one point (205). The historical quotations are not assembled into a single linear narrative, but instead appear out of chronological order and voice contradictory interpretations. In fact, the novel presents a more coherent narrative than its fragmented surface and ghost protagonists suggest. As Saunders tells Ron Charles in an interview, the novel may disorient at first, but readers “learn how to read it” as they make their way through the first ten or fifteen pages (Charles). Saunders minimizes the differences by presenting each statement in a similar way, without quotation marks (whether or not it is a direct quote from an external source), followed by an attribution. This strategy evens out the surface of the novel and creates an equivalence among the voices of historical people on the scene, like seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, those analyzing events later, like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, invented historical sources, like maid Sophie Lenox, and invented ghosts, like Hans Vollman and Thomas Havens. The absence of omniscience helps to decentralize narrative authority and, by implication, confer it on the voices in the text—read in the audio edition by an unusually large cast of 166 (Charles). The novel



becomes a large chorus of admissible voices, without preferences imposed from above on the basis of speakers’ class, race, gender, age, literacy, relation to the events narrated, or “reality.” In a novel dedicated to inclusive empathy for all, this egalitarian and inclusive narrative strategy appropriately reflects and advances the novel’s vision. Two main kinds of speakers appear in the novel: those presented as historically real and those presented as fictional or ghostly. The apparent distinctions between the “real” and the “ghostly” speakers, together with the assumption that the “real” speakers have privileged knowledge, dissolve as the novel proceeds. While the historical sources seem reliable at first, in chapter V eleven witnesses and reporters provide eleven different accounts of the color and aspect of the moon on the night of February 5, 1862; the discovery that some of these “real” sources and citations are invented by Saunders further undermines their credibility. The fictional ghostly speakers, in contrast, appear to be limited and unreliable as the novel begins, fixated on their own personal stories; but they gain credibility when they narrate a plausible account of the true historical event that generated the novel, Abraham Lincoln’s visit to the cemetery to hold the body of his son Willie. Both real and ghostly speakers interpret what they see and select details to enliven their version of events, and both imagine the Lincolns’ emotional response to their son’s death. Both demonstrate empathy in their reflections on the pain of the loss. Margaret Leech, for example, won a Pulitzer Prize in history for Reveille in Washington, 1860–1865 (1941); Saunders quotes her reflection on the suffering that follows the party, when social triumph “must have been blotted with anguish” (240). The ghosts report what happens when Lincoln holds Willie’s body, while the ghost-Willie watches “in an apparent agony of frustration” as his father sobs and rocks the dead body (59). In their joint narration, Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend Thomas watch the interactions between father and son, disavowing the death of what they call the “sick-form” while witnessing love and grief. The ghosts have privileged access to parts of the story unavailable to the historical reporters, and their different perspectives make both kinds of speakers meaningful. Saunders gives each of his three central ghost characters a distinctive voice and perspective in the first part of the novel; Vollman, Bevins, and the Reverend have distinctive preoccupations, hobby-horses they rode from the world of the living, which shape their attention and way of speaking. Saunders draws on these differences for comic characterization as the



novel begins, emphasizing the unfinished business on their last day that distinguishes Vollman and Bevins. Vollman, interrupted by death on the day he was to have first sexual relations with his beautiful young bride, cannot accept the finality of death or the pointlessness of his ongoing erection; he rigorously polices, forbids, and prevents mention of words like corpse, grave, and coffin. He hesitates when he comes to a concept he must disavow: “I took to my— A sort of sick-box was judged” (5). Bevins changes his mind midway through suicide, as he thinks about the “vast sensual paradise” of life on earth; he waxes rhapsodic and gains multiple sense organs as he recalls the pleasures of the senses. Earth, he thinks, is a “lovingly stocked” with beautiful things to be listed and treasured in sensual detail (26). The Reverend, older than the others and shaped by a frightening vision of Christian judgment in which he is condemned to hell, often invokes the Bible with concepts like the separation of wheat from chaff (103). Judgmental, smug, and occasionally hypocritical, he rejects the profane Barons, using French to place himself in a class above them; the Barons speaking to Willie Lincoln was “not quite comme il faut” (87). As the narrative evolves, Saunders gradually erases the distinctions among the three voices as they collaborate to help Willie escape from the bardo. The three narrate later parts of the story interchangeably, Bevins ignoring the senses, Vollman ceasing to hesitate and euphemize, the Reverend substituting sympathy for judgment. When Lincoln returns to the crypt a second time, they tell the story together, their voices interchangeable and their attention focused on the two Lincolns rather than themselves (202). Sounding like a single observer, the three ghosts describe their collective actions to free Willie from the carapace, during which the Reverend sacrifices himself for the boy; Bevins and Vollman narrate together the Reverend’s transformation and then Willie’s, often using the pronoun “we” to reflect their unity. When Lincoln leaves the chapel for the last time, “briefly, we knew him” (302). Unlike the earlier sequences, when Lincoln’s thoughts appear in italics, this time Vollman and Bevins summarize and speak for Lincoln, as though they co-inhabit him and he them, giving them the power to voice his thoughts. They alternate, using interchangeable diction: At the core of each lay suffering […] We must try to see one another in this way. (304)



The “we” has expanded to include Lincoln together with Bevins and Vollman, and beyond that the suffering participants in the Civil War, the readers of the novel, and even the human community of all those living and dead. The plural pronoun signals a community unified by empathy, by debt and obligation to the others who suffer, rather than by privilege. This communal pronoun appears again in the very last sentence of the novel. Thomas Havens, who died a slave, rides out of the cemetery inhabiting Lincoln and his patient horse, newly empowered to claim a place in America: “And we rode forward into the night” (343). The novel ends, then, with a famous American president and a former Black slave, now deceased, journeying together to the White House. Their potential for empathy with each other, however intuitive, demonstrates the novel’s comic vision while it suggests the saving value of community after the wreck. Theirs is not a community of like experiences or identities, but instead a communion of those who feel a duty or obligation to the larger community beyond. Lincoln carries a responsibility to the nation and its suffering people; Havens feels a parallel duty to show Lincoln the collective suffering of Black Americans in order to bring change to the nation. Their ability to encounter each other through empathy provides both the metaphor and the vehicle for the transformative power of community in Lincoln in the Bardo.

Notes 1. Saunders comments in interviews that he grew up Catholic and has been a student of Buddhism for over a decade (e.g. see Smith). His fictional bardo bears traces of both a purgatorial judgment for previous crimes (a hunter is compelled to devote loving attention to the mountain of animals he has slain) and a Buddhist transitional state between existences. 2. Willie’s sections are unpunctuated, with wide separations between phrases and frequent unfinished sentences. 3. Epstein also mentions Lincoln’s preoccupation with the war and Mary Lincoln’s “obsession” with “lavish soirees” as sources of blame (370). 4. Lincoln, “Address to the New Jersey Senate at Trenton, New Jersey,” February 21, 1861; cited in Shenk, 198. 5. Shenk writes that on April 4, 1865, Lincoln spoke to a crowd on the White House lawn advocating suffrage for educated Blacks and those who had fought for the Union; an outraged John Wilkes Booth heard that speech and killed Lincoln that night (208).



6. Moore writes about exceptionalism in two of Saunders’s stories, showing that his “critique of exceptionalism” emerges in “the ideological fantasies he sees as central to his characters’ identity formation and inner life” while the stories “dramatize the failures of American exceptionalism” (60). The ghosts have similarly internalized the fantasies and disavowed the failures. 7. Compensated emancipation became law in the District of Columbia on April 16, 1862, just before Willie died; over 3000 slaves were freed. 8. See the extended discussion of Esposito and community in the introduction. 9. Overcoming his fear, the Reverend blows apart the carapace holding Willie and himself when he goes “on,” enabling Vollman and Bevins to rescue Willie (275–77). 10. Saunders sees empathy as “a space the reader and writer agree to participate in together, within the playing field of a work of prose”; he adds that “the real love or empathy in a work of fiction is not only writer loving character, but also writer loving reader—manifesting respect in each line and so on” (Ryan). 11. Willie enters his own corpse, held by his father, early in the novel; he can hear Lincoln’s thoughts, which focus on whether holding his son’s body is wrong or weak (61–62). Lincoln concludes that it will help him “do my duty” and is therefore acceptable. 12. While Willie’s early observations are fragmentary impressions, conveying both close attention to details and confusion about their meaning, his final speech to the ghosts consists of complete and punctuated sentences (295–98).

References Charles, Ron. 2017. Online Interview with George Saunders. Washington Post. 20 February. Accessed 15 Aug 2018. Domestico, Anthony. 2017. A Kindly Presence of Mind. Commonweal Magazine. 10 July. Accessed 15 Aug 2018. Epstein, Daniel Mark. 2008. The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. New  York: Ballantine. Leech, Margaret. 1941. Reveille in Washington, 1860–1865. New  York: Harper & Brothers. Lincoln, Abraham. 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation. U.  S. Government National Archives. emancipation-proclamation/transcript.html. Accessed 10 Aug 2018.



———. 1863. The Gettysburg Address. Abraham Lincoln Online. http://www. Accessed 20 Aug 2018. Lipsyte, Sam. 2017. George Saunders Interview. Bomb Magazine. 15 March. Accessed 20 Aug2018. McPherson, James M. 2007. “What Did He Really Think about Race?” Review of The Radical and the Republican by James Oakes. The New York Review of Books. Accessed 18 Aug 2018. Moore, Gillian Elizabeth. 2017. ‘Hope that, in Future, All Is well’: American Exceptionalism and Hopes for Resistance in Two Stories by George Saunders. In George Saunders, Critical Essays, ed. Philip Coleman and Steve Gronert Ellerhoff, 59–75. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. Oakes, James. 2007. The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. New York: Norton. Packard, Jerrold M. 2005. The Lincolns in the White House. New  York: St. Martin’s P. Pease, Donald E. 2009. The New American Exceptionalism. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. Ryan, Aidan. 2016. Interview with George Saunders. The White Review. http:// Accessed 18 Aug 2018. Saunders, George. 2016. Who Are All These Trump Supporters? The New Yorker. 11 and 16 July. george-saunders-goes-to-trump-rallies. Accessed 25 Aug 2018. ———. 2017a. Lincoln in the Bardo. New York: Random House. ———. 2017b. What Writers Really Do When They Write. The Guardian. Accessed 20 Aug 2018. Shenk, Joshua Wolf. 2005. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Smith, Zadie. 2017. George Saunders Interview. Interview Magazine. https:// Accessed 22 Aug 2018. White, Ronald C., Jr. 2009. A. Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Random House.


Global Fictions of Wreckage and Unsheltered Communities

Historical fictions focus on the public arena: the state, the land, the people, the commons; some contemporary writers perceive the commons under threat and therefore create historical fictions of wreckage. These fictions represent emergency conditions, including war, racist genocide, and state-sanctioned violence arising from national and imperial exceptionalisms all over the world. As fictions, they portray lingering damages, including the failure of community and the exile of Others, on individual lives. Among dozens of contemporary historical novels, literary in their approach to historical periods and events, a number depict leaders asserting their own exceptional rights and destiny as they exercise power. Other novels focus on families and multitudes wrestling with questions of value and responsibility amid pressing questions of survival. The common threads in these fictions of wreckage include powerful figures proclaiming an exceptional identity while advancing their personal fortunes; anxious figures yearning for connection and sometimes finding new forms of community; and implicit parallels and linkages between the cultural climate of the narrated past and the present, so the fictional history addresses ongoing and current issues. To sketch the extent and richness of this kind of fiction, this chapter briefly analyzes novels of wreckage from nations around the world, with attention to their representations of exceptionalism and community. To demonstrate the unlimited expansive potential of the genre, the chapter concludes with a short analysis of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (2018). © The Author(s) 2020 S. Strehle, Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community,




Representing the damage done by exceptionalist leaders and nations, some historical novels “after the wreck” represent tyrannical sovereigns who discipline or silence dissenting subjects. Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, for example, raised brutal dictatorship and state violence to extraordinary levels; he ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Trujillo killed thousands of people at home and abroad; he ordered the genocidal killings of some 35,000 Haitians living in the D. R., as well as the murders of three Dominican Mirabal sisters who led a resistance movement. He reached into New York and Cuba to kill Spanish citizens and planted a bomb in a Venezuelan motorcade in an attempt to assassinate President Rómulo Betancourt. Nicknamed “the goat” for his predatory sexuality, he claimed sexual access to all the women and girls of his country, including young daughters of the men in his cabinet. Several historical novels “after the wreck” have been written about his legendary brutality: Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994, the murder of the Mirabals); Edwidge Danticat, The Farming of Bones (1998, the genocidal killing of Haitians); Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat (2000, Trujillo’s brutal rule and death); and Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007, the legacies of Trujillo’s reign in the lives of Dominicans). These novels reflect the climate of fear Trujillo created in the Dominican Republic. Rita Dove’s poem “Parsley” sums up his sense of entitlement; Díaz’s Oscar Wao reveals the cult of hypermasculinity he instantiated and its damaging impact on Dominican men. While all four novelists depict Trujillo’s multiple violations of human rights and international law, Trujillo himself remains in the background in three of the four novels; only Llosa represents the dictator directly, imagining the last day of his life in 1961 together with his rage against opponents, his pleasure in his power to kill, and his racist and sexist contempt for the citizens of his country. Llosa’s detailed portrait of Trujillo aims to represent an exceptionalist attitude that remains dangerous to the present day; the novel constitutes a warning as well as a memorial to those like Urania Cabral whose lives are blighted by his violence. Llosa details the psychology of tyranny, its compulsive drive for control, its self-­ aggrandizement and degradation of others, and its requirement of obsequious service and passive obedience. Llosa’s aging Trujillo grounds his loathing for others in a ferocious will to expunge what he loathes in himself, the dark skin inherited from his Haitian maternal ancestors. Obsessive, angry, and violent, Llosa’s Trujillo defines himself by what he would exterminate.



Memorable tyrants based on historical figures appear in other contemporary historical novels, and like Llosa’s Trujillo they claim exceptional privilege, express racist contempt, and delight in murder. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985) represents the historical gang led by John Glanton in the paid slaughter of Apaches in Mexico. In addition to Glanton, McCarthy’s most improbable figure, the tall, hairless albino Judge Holden, is also based on a historical figure of the same name.1 The Judge is an unusually literate and articulate exceptionalist, proclaiming his wish to be “suzerain of the earth” and allowing nothing to occur “save by my dispensation” (198–99). He aspires to entire knowledge as a means of total control and uses his power primarily to erase and destroy, denying his “consent” to the existence of anything Other: “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent” (198). Performing absolute exceptionalist power, and he murders Natives, horses, children, puppies, a dancing bear, and finally “the kid,” the novel’s protagonist. For Judge Holden, all men are driven by a brutal will to conquer and efface all Other life. He therefore condemns “the kid” as flawed “in the fabric of your heart”: “You alone reserved in your soul some corner of clemency for the heathen” (299). The Judge faults the kid for perceiving human reality in the heathen Other. Sensing in the kid both emotional and moral instincts, as well as yearning for a collective or community, the Judge takes particular pleasure in extinguishing the kid and his respect for human life. Invented as well as actual historical figures like Trujillo and Holden appear in historical novels to personify and demonstrate exceptionalist attitudes. Nathan Price occupies such a role in Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible (1998), claiming to speak for God as he tries to convert Congolese villagers to his own dark version of Christianity. Nathan is a complete exceptionalist, bringing a conviction of American cultural, technological, and intellectual superiority to his work in the Congo; he understands the world in simplistic binary terms and claims absolute authority on behalf of himself and his distorted faith. Kingsolver makes a political point in characterizing him: Nathan represents the American nation that conspired in 1960 to overthrow the first popularly elected leader of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, leading to the thirty-six year despotic kleptocracy of Joseph Mobutu. Kingsolver wrote the novel, she explains, to engage political questions of responsibility: This story came from a long-term fascination with politics and culpability, and my belief that what happened to the Congo in 1961 is one of the most



important political parables of a century. […] I’m keen to look at history, and study truth in all its facets. I think this is one of the ways novelists can earn our keep, morally speaking. (Web site)

I have developed elsewhere the claim that Nathan stands for historical American actors in the Congo and for the exceptionalist attitudes that led a powerful nation to overrule another’s election and try to murder its President.2 A ship’s captain chasing his own exceptional destiny dominates his crew in Andrea Barrett’s historical novel, The Voyage of the Narwhal (1998). Zeke Voorhees sets off on a polar voyage in 1855 to find traces of the lost Franklin expedition, but his real goal is personal fame; he hopes to put his name on the map. In the Arctic, Zeke captures a Native woman and her son; he takes them back to Maryland to exhibit as curiosities. From the communal perspective of the Natives, Zeke’s drive to accomplish his individual will at the expense of the tribe appears grotesque: “He saw himself as a singular being, a delusion they’d found laughable and terrifying all at once. When he strutted around, it was as if one of the fingers of that hand had torn itself loose” (319). Zeke’s cousin Erasmus Wells, the scientific naturalist on the voyage, wants to study nature and learn about the world. While Zeke glories in his own singularity, Erasmus watches others and yearns for a perspective free from the limitations of his own “single pair of eyes. I wish I could show it as if through a fan of eyes […] so the whole picture might appear and not just my version of it” (26–27). With his desire to inhabit a group perspective, Erasmus anticipates the viewpoint of the Native people in a novel structured itself through the communal perspective of “a fan of eyes.” Like tyrannical leaders, common people can find within themselves a brutal will to dehumanize and abuse those perceived as Other—or those whose land and property they want to claim. Stories of colonial settlement in what empire termed “terra nullius” or empty land may therefore chronicle the evolution of those who have lived as subaltern servants into exceptionalist “masters.” Australian Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River (2005) traces the emergence of a will to own, accompanied by a willingness to kill, in transported convict William Thornhill, a figure based on Grenville’s own settler-ancestor Solomon Wiseman.3 When he finds a beautiful point of land on the Hawkesbury River, Thornhill responds with an unshakeable drive to own it, despite learning that it is shared and prized by an Aboriginal community. Tensions escalate when some of the



Aboriginal people pick the Thornhills’s ripened corn; fear and the desire to establish sole possession lead Thornhill to join a group of settlers in slaughtering the Aboriginals. Having been victimized himself by economic conditions in England and nearly hanged, Thornhill makes exceptions to all the rules guiding his life (as well as the laws governing England and its Australian colony) when he kills the Aboriginal neighbors who have prior claim to “his” land. In another novel of colonial settlement, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (2008), a similarly unlikely landholder acquires slaves, invests in the sugar economy of the West Indies, and builds a grand house as a monument to himself. As I have shown elsewhere, Jacob Vaark disdains the D’Ortegas’s corrupt wealth gained through slavery, but readily agrees to make exceptions for himself by investing in Caribbean slavery at a distance; he becomes a prototype of the American exceptionalist.4 Historical novels “after the wreck” also follow suffering multitudes in crisis events. Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones (1998) represents crowds of Haitians fleeing Trujillo’s genocidal efforts to eradicate them in 1937; ironically, dark-skinned Dominicans and Dominicans with Haitian lovers join in fleeing Trujillo’s forces and suffer the same terror as Haitians. The novel sketches historical interconnections between the two peoples who share a single island, where economic hardships and less arable land have led Haitians to migrate to the D. R. to work. Affiliations between Haitians and Dominicans characterize relationships at the start, including an apparent bond between Haitian protagonist Amabelle and her Dominican “sister” Valencia, but attachments dissolve when Trujillo’s army begins to capture and murder Haitians. During the massacre, terrified strangers help each other to reach the “Massacre River” dividing the two nations; the solidarity among them extends afterward through their attempts to tell their stories. Another historical novel about multitudes suffering in times of cultural upheaval, Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) follows an extended Chinese family from Mao Zedong’s rise in the 1940s, through the exceptionalist regime driving the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, to the brutal suppression of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. The novel highlights the losses incurred by gifted musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory; the novel suggests even larger losses for the culture that silences their art. Similarly focused on losses of national community, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love (2010) follow dozens of characters through devastating civil



violence, attending to civilians caught and struggling within it. Adichie’s novel takes place before, during, and after the civil war in which Igbo people attempted to secede, creating a Biafran nation separate from Nigeria (1967–70), while Forna’s begins in the devastated aftermath of a long civil war in Sierra Leone (1991–2002). Both novels represent historical conflicts founded in nationalist exceptionalism, with racial, tribal, religious, and class distinctions providing a basis for murder and mutilation. Both trace the insidious transition of those Forna calls “complicit in the death of a nation” (Mosuro) from feigned solidarity with an abstract community, through betrayals leading to the rape and murder of defenseless civilians, to guilt-ridden isolation in the aftermath. Though the novels, like the wars, have different stakes, both Adichie and Forna tell their stories through three observers, some of whom experience partnership with communities dedicated to preserving humanity under extreme conditions: in Half of a Yellow Sun, among camps of displaced people sharing want and the hope of survival; in The Memory of Love, among doctors trying to help survivors heal from physical and emotional trauma. In related historical civil war novels, What the Body Remembers (1999), by Shauna Singh Baldwin, narrates the partition of India in 1947 and its violent impact on the Sikh community, and Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994) represents the Colombo riots of 1984 in which majority Sinhalese seize power and many Tamil people die. These two South Asian novels trace exceptionalism’s production of inflamed enmities between people who are part of the same land and history. Drawing distinctions of value based on religion, tribe, gender, sexuality, and culture, state exceptionalism draws its brutal energy from resentments: of Sikh and Tamil wealth, of their prominence in civil service and government jobs, and of what is perceived as their favored status under British colonial rule. In both partition India and Sri Lanka, genocidal killings occurred with sanction from, if not overt support by, the postcolonial governments in power. In Colombo, voter registration lists distributed to Sinhalese mobs enabled the systematic destruction of Tamil property and the murder of Tamil families. Shyam Selvadurai locates his coming-of-age novel during these events, which drove his family and thousands of other Tamils to emigrate; protagonist Arjie chooses exile when he acquires self-knowledge as a gay man in a culture enforcing heterosexuality and a Tamil in a state ruled by exceptionalist Sinhalese. In the Punjab, where Sikhism is the most widely practiced religion, genocidal violence following partition targeted South Asian men and women of every religion, but their identifiable turbans and



nationally minoritized status made Sikh men particularly vulnerable in the division of national lands between Hindus and Muslims. Regarded as valueless and expendable by all three religions, Baldwin’s women suffer rape as well as murder, sometimes by their own kin. Baldwin writes about the trauma suffered by women during partition: During the Partition it is estimated that 75,000–100,000 women were raped and abducted on both sides of the border. […] Instances abound in which Hindu, Sikh and Muslim women jumped (or were encouraged to jump) to their death down village wells to uphold the family honour. Sikh, Hindu and Muslim men sometimes killed women and children in their families to protect them from conversion and falling into the hands of other men. (“Studying”)

For Baldwin and other writers of historical fiction “after the wreck,” a novel can both recall trauma and affirm responsibility to a community. Historical novelists write about those who dissent and those who fall victim; they illuminate the courage of those who resist exceptionalist regimes and chronicle generations of suffering. In Canadian Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage (2005), a young Buddhist prisoner in Burma/ Myanmar serves a twenty-year sentence in solitary confinement for singing protest songs against an exceptionalist dictatorship. In Filipino-Chinese-­ Australian Arlene J. Chai’s novel Eating Fire and Drinking Water (1996), a journalist uncovers the brutal torture of a student leader who protests against a Marcos-like exceptionalist regime. The family of Abu Jaafar the bookbinder struggles for survival as exceptionalist Catholic rulers expel all Muslims and Jews from Spain in 1492, in Egyptian Radwa Ashour’s Grenada (1994; translated 2003). In Korean American Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017), exceptionalist Japanese belittle, abuse, and manipulate Koreans, not only in Japan but also in Korea. Moroccan American Laila Lalami tells the story of the first Black explorer of America in The Moor’s Account (2014); Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico, participates in a sixteenth-century Spanish expedition to Florida, where he outlasts and outwits the exceptionalist conquistadors who regard him as a slave. These and other contemporary historical novels represent exceptionalist powers and their systemic abuse of political, cultural, religious, and racial Others. Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (2018) connects exceptionalist agendas in two eras about fourteen decades apart, drawing parallels between two similarly divided periods in American life. The novel alternates



chapters between 2015–16, when an unnamed Presidential candidate nicknamed “the Bullhorn” claims that he could shoot anyone with impunity (347), and 1875–76, when real estate developer Charles Landis, founder of Vineland, New Jersey, shoots newspaper editor Uri Carruth and enters the first successful plea of “temporary insanity” in American legal history. Beyond portraits of two leaders who legitimize “personal greed as the principal religion of our country” (354), the novel develops intricate echoes and doublings between the two plots, both centered on characters struggling with troubled families, economic hardships, and a decaying house at the same address. The house at the corner of Sixth and Plum in Vineland figures the nation at large; it is riven like the House of Usher in both 1875 and 2015. Founded with utopian hopes and promises, Vineland itself stands for the failed American exceptional state. The city of Vineland reflects the wreckage of exceptionalist power. Demanding to be “emperor of the realm” (195), Landis profits from his supposedly egalitarian town; he “lures” immigrant families to Vineland with promises of “land for almost nothing” but then forecloses once they have cleared the land (127). He claims to open schools to children of all races, but makes it impossible for “Italian and freedmen’s children” to attend (127). He enacts strict temperance laws but keeps a private bar to loosen the purse-strings of investors. Mayor, police chief, and “autocratic editor” of the newspaper (126), Landis reveals himself as a “vengeful despot” (343) when Carruth challenges his authority and exposes his manipulative dishonesty. While Mary Treat, another historical figure from 1875 and a naturalist who corresponded with Darwin, urges protagonist Thatcher Greenwood to lead his students away from authority, “to see evidence for themselves” (205), Landis appropriates divine authority for personal ends as he exercises “man’s supremacy over the earth” (276). Earth appears to be an inexhaustible planet for man’s extractive use: “This world is ours!” thunders Landis’s ally Cutler (334). By 2015, the same exceptionalist logic and practices have borne grim fruit. Following the neoliberal faith in an infinitely expanding economy, Zeke has over $100,000 in educational debt, no income, and no job; his partner’s suicide leaves a closet full of designer clothes and Dusty, a newborn infant whose grandparents must raise him. Grandfather Iano has lost a tenured position at a failed college and with it his house and his health insurance. Grandmother Willa, one of the novel’s protagonists, inherits a falling house in Vineland; Iano’s father Nick, racist and dying without health insurance, moves in too. Zeke’s sister Tig, short for Antigone and



one of the novel’s heroines, points to the larger crisis of climate change: “The permafrost is melting. Millions of acres of it” (411). These middle-­ class characters feel that capitalist  America has betrayed its promise to shield or “except” them from hardship: their children will not have more, institutions have failed them, and lives of hard work have not left them secure or sheltered. Communities offer positive alternatives in both strands of the plot, as characters find joy in partners and friends rather than enclosed shelters and hoarded things. Mary Treat creates community with other scientific naturalists through her correspondence with Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, working to develop new ways of understanding plants, animals, and the way species interact and evolve. Selections from Mary’s correspondence with Darwin reveal a relationship of equals, sharing their findings and questions about evolution (86). For Mary, creatures are another valued community; Thatcher’s dogs visit often, and she shares her parlor with tarantulas. As she and Thatcher become friends, she coaches him to give up the shelter of traditional ideas: “Without shelter, we stand in daylight” (90). She helps him leave the sham security of his falling house and his failing marriage, the collection of things and social expectations that have restricted his vision without providing solace. Thatcher will join a team of naturalists collecting plants in the West, with Mary as correspondent and eventual partner. Like Mary, Tig speaks for renouncing material possessions and traditional shelters in favor of communities and partners. She believes in alliances: “Friends will probably count more than money, because wanting too much stuff is going to be toxic” (414). Her life has “always brimmed with comrades and boyfriends” (50); in Vineland, she meets people and learns about the city, gets a job in a local restaurant, and makes friends with the Puerto Rican family next door. While her parents failed to give their children “any long-term community” (411), she will raise Dusty in Vineland, where her contacts help to recycle Nick’s medical supplies and dig up the yard to plant a community vegetable garden. Tig praises low expectations, recycling and reusing, home-grown and home-made, small and efficient. Tig models the view that real happiness is created rather than bought; watching her lead the neighbors in tai chi, Willa thinks, “These beautiful children seemed capable of generating contentment out of thin air” (55). Unsheltered demonstrates contemporary historical fiction’s expansive potential to reflect on pressing current issues, set in provocative



connection with an instructive past. An exhausted and rapidly warming planet, a neoliberal economy rewarding only 1%, ongoing racist oppression of people of color, a devastating global pandemic, and massive losses of jobs and income: life in 2020 has rapidly outstripped the crisis points in Kingsolver’s novel. But her critical diagnosis remains pertinent; we are called to change. Kingsolver’s strategic juxtaposition of current and past crises suggests that individuals and social systems have faced previous paradigm shifts requiring foundational changes. Darwin’s work led to a broader understanding of nature and the human place in it: the world was no longer simply ours, but instead an ecological system shared with a community of beings and life-forms. A similar paradigm shift now may bring greater attention to and care for the commons; communal action and responsibility may take priority over the quest for individual gain. Contemporary historical fiction “after the wreck” speaks for the commons and for the value of community. While the novels represent violent moments of historical upheaval that expose national exceptionalisms and abuses of power, they also imagine and portray better forms of social life. When they chronicle the lingering impact of violence in societies burdened by self-propagating wreckage, they also imply alternatives, even if only in the dreams and wishes of the suffering. Remembering histories that need to be noticed and mourned, protested, exposed, and understood, writers of contemporary historical fiction issue summons, designed to call a community together—indeed, to create a community of witness and obligation. Representing communities in which people acknowledge responsibility for each other and the larger social body, contemporary historical fictions recall the power of the commons and plant seeds of hope for the future.

Notes 1. See John Sepich for McCarthy’s historical references, including his use of the historical Judge Holden. 2. See Strehle (2008). 3. See Grenville (2006) for the story of her ancestor and of the creation of the novel. 4. See Strehle (2013).



References Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. 2006. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Knopf. Baldwin, Shauna Singh. 1999. What the Body Remembers. New  York: Random House. ———. 2016. Studying What the Body Remembers. Interview with Ben Patchsea. Interview-BenPatchsea-WhatTheBodyRemembers.html. Accessed 28 Feb 2019. Barrett, Andrea. 1998. The Voyage of the Narwhal. New York: Norton. Danticat, Edwidge. 1998. The Farming of Bones. New York: Soho Press. Forna, Aminatta. 2010. The Memory of Love. New York: Atlantic Monthly/Grove. Grenville, Kate. 2005. The Secret River. Sydney, AU: Text Publishing. ———. 2006. Searching for The Secret River. Edinburgh: Canongate. Kingsolver, Barbara. 1998. The Poisonwood Bible. New York: Harper Collins. ———. 2018. Unsheltered. New York: Harper Collins. ———. Website. Accessed 16 Feb 2019. Llosa, Mario Vargas. 2000. The Feast of the Goat. Trans. Edith Grossman. 2001. New York: Picador. McCarthy, Cormac. 1985. Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. New York: Vintage, 1992. Mosuro, Bola. 2011. Aminatta Forna Discusses Her Book The Memory of Love on BBC WS Africa. YouTube. zHq8RcywX0M. Accessed 26 Feb 2019. Selvadurai, Shyam. 1994. Funny Boy. New York: Harper Collins. Sepich, John Emil. 1999. ‘What Kind of Indians Was Them?’ Some Historical Sources in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. In Perspectives on Cormac McCarthy, ed. Edwin T.  Arnold and Dianne C.  Luce, 123–143. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Strehle, Susan. 2008. Chosen People: American Exceptionalism in Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Critique 49 (4): 413–428. ———. 2013. ‘I Am a Thing Apart’: Toni Morrison, A Mercy, and American Exceptionalism. Critique 54 (2): 109–123. Thien, Madeleine. 2016. Do Not Say We Have Nothing. New York: Norton.


A Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, 12, 193–194 African Americans, 21, 103–127, 170–172, 177, 178 Agamben, Georgio, 7, 56, 139, 140 Anderson, Benedict, 12, 22n6 Anderson, Perry, 27–31 Atlanta Child Murders, 111, 112 Atwood, Margaret, 97 B Baldwin, Shauna Singh, 194–195 Bambara, Toni Cade, 112, 128n16, 128n17, 128n18 Barrett, Andrea, 192 Baucom, Ian, 51, 56, 108 Berlatsky, Eric, 34–35 Best, Stephen, 108 Bogues, Anthony, 7, 9, 10 Boulle, Pierre, 94, 95, 101n12

Boxall, Peter, 32 Brantly, Susan C., 35, 61 Butler, Judith, 78, 79, 87, 94 C Capitalism, 49, 51–53, 137, 142, 197 and poverty, 70, 146–147 and trade, 60–61, 64–65 Cheyfitz, Eric, 7, 135, 137, 156–157 and Shari Huhndorf, 134, 136, 146 Children, 118 abused, in Morrison, 105, 106, 112–114, 119–122, 126 abused, in Saunders, 176 shared biracial, in Unsworth, 60, 62 stolen Native, in Erdrich, 134, 137–141 Chronology, see Time Coast, John, 94, 101n12

 Note: Page numbers followed by ‘n’ refer to notes.


© The Author(s) 2020 S. Strehle, Contemporary Historical Fiction, Exceptionalism and Community,




Community, 12–22, 26 counter-communities in fiction, 5, 44, 47 of effort and interpretation, 16, 17 in Erdrich, 135–160 and exceptionalism, 3–5 in Flanagan, 85–88, 97–100 implicating others in, 15–16 in Morrison, 106, 115–118, 120–123 as obligation, 15 as public and communicative, 14 in Saunders, 165–166, 176–177, 185 in Unsworth, 48–52, 59–66, 71 Contemporary historical fiction, 26, 31, 32 critical approaches to, 32–36 global, 189–198 Corlett, William, 15–16 Cronon, William, 136 D Dalley, Hamish, 35 Danticat, Edwidge, 12, 193 De Groot, Jerome, 33, 34 Delanty, Gerard, 14 Dunlop, E. E. “Weary,” 81, 83, 84, 100n5, 101n8, 101n9, 101n10 E Elias, Amy, 44n4, 61 Epstein, Daniel, 167–168, 186n3 Erdrich, Louise, 12, 21 Characters, LaRose; Bowl Head, 145–146; Dusty, 141; Ignatia, 143–144; Iron and Ravich families, 146–149; LaRose 5, 148–151; Mirage/ LaRose 1, 142, 144, 145; Romeo, 141–142

interview, 158n18 Works; LaRose, 133–157; Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, 155; The Night Watchman, 158n20; The Plague of Doves, 141, 155–156, 157n9; The Round House, 141; Tracks, 155 Esposito, Roberto, 15, 164 and Bird, 22n8 Exceptionalism, 2–12 American, 6, 8, 12, 103–105, 135, 166, 172–174 Australian, 92 British, 48 demonstrated by characters, 42–43, 85–86, 92, 94, 144–146, 172–174, 197 and disavowal, 7, 163 and empire, 9 and gender, 10–11 Japanese, 85 and Native Americans, 133–135 and racism, 103, 108–109, 118, 123–126, 163 as sacred hunger, 51 Shantee, 63–64 and slavery, 56, 163, 172 and war, 77, 80, 85–86, 92, 94 F Fagan, Kevin, 81, 100n5, 100n7 See also Winstanley, Lt. Col. Peter Fear-Segal, Jacqueline, 138–140, 157n4, 157n7 Flanagan, Arch, 79, 81–84, 100n6 Flanagan, Martin, 79, 81–84, 100n6 Flanagan, Richard, 21, 77–100 Characters, Narrow Road to the Deep North; Amy Mulvaney, 90–92; Dorrigo Evans, 80, 81,


84–85, 89–93; Frank “Darky” Gardiner, 80, 81, 84–85, 87–89; Jack Rainbow, 89, 92; Nakamura, 92–94 interviews, 79, 81, 101n11 reviews, 80, 100n2, 100n3 Fluck, Winfried, 7, 142, 157n10 Form in contemporary historical fiction, 20–22, 31, 32 in critical approaches, 32–36 in Erdrich, 151–157 in Flanagan, 81, 94–100 in Morrison, 107, 108, 123–127 in Saunders, 166–167, 182–186 in Unsworth, 53, 66–71 Forna, Aminatta, 193–194 Forter, Greg, 49–51, 62 G García Márquez, Gabriel, 155 Gender, 10–11, 18 in Unsworth, 58, 60 See also Women Ghosh, Amitav, 40–44 Goldberg, David Theo, 13 Grenville, Kate, 192–193 Grewal, Inderpal, 13–14 H Historical fiction, 21, 25–44, 106–107 and the commons, 6, 26, 27 critical approaches to, 27–36 global, 189–195 of recovery and wreckage, 36–44 Historical research, 19, 36–37, 41, 47 Erdrich and, 138–146 Flanagan and, 82–84 Morrison and, 107–114 Saunders and, 165, 167–172 Unsworth and, 53–56


Human rights capitalism and violations, 56–57 exceptionalism and violations, 2, 6, 26, 32, 51, 63 Hannah Arendt on, 9 war and violations, 77, 85 Hutcheon, Linda, 27, 30, 31 I Indian boarding schools, 137–141 J Jameson, Fredric, 27–30 K Kaplan, Amy, 7, 10–11, 104, 134–135 Kingsolver, Barbara, 12, 191–192, 195–198 Klein, Naomi, 146 Knapp, Peggy, 50, 55–56, 63 L Lambert, Raphaël, 52, 62, 63 Lee, Min Jin, 195 Lima, Enrique, 136 Lincoln, Abraham, 163–186 writings, 168, 170, 180–181, 186n4 Llosa, Mario Vargas, 190, 191 Lukács, Georg, 27–30, 51 M Maltz, Albert, 110 Mantel, Hilary, 36–40, 42, 43, 53 Marxism and historical fiction, 27–30 McCarthy, Cormac, 191 McClintock, Anne, 10–11



Metafiction and historical fiction, 27, 30–31 Michael, Magali Cornier, 17 Moretti, Franco, 44n1, 51 Morrison, Toni, 20, 21, 103–127 Characters, God Help the Child; Booker, 119, 120, 122–123; Bride, 111, 118–123; Queen, 122, 123; Rain, 120–122; Sofia, 113–114; Sweetness, 114, 123; Whiskey, 122 Characters, Home; Cee, 110–111, 114–116; Dr. Beau, 110, 111; Frank, 114–117; Lotus, 122 critics on, 126, 127n3 historical references in, 107–114 nonfiction; “Home,” 105–107, 120, 124; The Origins of Others, 109, 127n4, 128n26; Playing in the Dark, 103–104, 107; What Moves at the Margin, 107, 118, 124, 126, 127n2 reviews, 129n30 Mullan, John, 81, 94, 101n11 Mulroy, Kevin, 51, 72n2 Mulvey, Christopher, 50, 61, 72n11 N Narrative perspective in Erdrich, 151–155 in Flanagan, 97–98 in Morrison, 123–125 in Saunders, 184 in Unsworth, 66–69 Nationalism and exceptionalism, 3–5, 36, 51 used to manage citizens, 10 in war, 84–87 Native Americans, 12, 133–157 Nelson, George, 143–144, 158n13, 158n14, 158n15 New Americanists, 6–12

O Oakes, James, 170 Olster, Stacey, 32, 45n5 Orange, Tommy, 158n14 Other excluded and targeted, 4–6, 11, 12, 26, 33, 174, 192–193 in Ghosh, 43–44 Indians as, 142 racialized, 8–9, 103, 104, 110, 118 in war, 77 See also Subaltern P Packard, Jerrold, 169 Pease, Donald E., 6–9, 172 and disavowal, 133–135 and homo sacer, 157n5 and racialized Other, 104 Popular historical fiction, 25–26 Pratt, Richard Henry, 138–139 R Racism, 13, 19, 89 in Morrison, 103–127 and skin privileges, 117 and slavery, 174–175 Rediker, Marcus, 53–54, 64, 72n6 Reeve, Victoria, 89 Robinson, Alan, 33, 44n2 Rowe, John Carlos, 7, 133, 157n1 S Said, Edward W., on affiliation, 18 on counter-communities, 16 on nationalism and exile, 3–5 on US imperialism and identity, 22n3, 22n7


Saunders, George, 21, 163–186 Characters, Lincoln in the Bardo; Elise Traynor, 175, 182; Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins, 173–182; Reverend Thomas, 175–176; Stone, 174–175, 182; Thomas Havens, 171–172, 186; Willie Lincoln, 180 interviews, 167, 168, 177, 186n1, 187n10 Schacht, Miriam, 134 Selvadurai, Shyam, 194–195 Slavery and exceptionalism, 49, 56, 104 and racism, 108 repressed, in Saunders, 163, 170, 182 in Unsworth, 47–71 and wealth, 57 Smiley, Jane, 12 Spanos, William V., 7, 10, 135 Stannard, David, 133 Stoler, Ann Laura, 9 Subaltern in Ghosh, 36, 41, 43 in Unsworth, 48 See also Other T Thien, Madeleine, 193 Time, 31 in Erdrich, 154–155 in Flanagan, 95–97 in Morrison, 123 in Saunders, 176, 183 in Unsworth, 69 Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, 11, 12 U Unsworth, Barry, 20, 21, 47–71 Characters, Sacred Hunger; Delblanc, 59, 60; Erasmus


Kemp, 56–57, 66–68; Kireku, 60–65; Matthew Paris, 61, 66–68; Saul Thurso, 57–58, 68; William Kemp, 54–55 critics on, 49–52 on political fiction, 47 Works; The Quality of Mercy, 72n4; Sacred Hunger, 47–71; Stone Virgin, 53; Sugar and Rum, 53 V Violence, 2 against POWs, 85, 87, 94 against slaves, 174–175 against women, 59, 69 and exceptionalism, 10–12 masculinity as, 114, 115 in security state, 14 Vizenor, Gerald, 136 W Weaver, Jace, 136 White, Hayden, 30, 84 White, Ronald, 170 Winstanley, Lt. Col. Peter, 100n7 Wolf, Eric, 135–136 Women in Baldwin, 194, 195 in Ghosh, 42 in Morrison, 110–111, 114–116, 120, 122 in Saunders, 177 in Unsworth, 48–49, 60 See also Gender Wyatt, Jean, 127n13, 128n23, 128n28 Z Zinn, Howard, 133 Zong case, 22n1, 53, 56