Thursday, October 1, 2020

The Mixed Pleasures of Rereading with New(er) Eyes

Sometimes a book—or a series of books, or a cultural shift—comes along that causes lasting change. 

 




In the past five years, I’ve been part of many conversations about cultural appropriation, creativity, and Indigenous visibility. In the past four or five months, conversations around Blackness in North America have increased in frequency and intensity.

 

It’s come to a head, recently. I’ve spent the past month reading and working through Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad. It’s been intense. I may be able to speak about the experience coherently in the future.

 

For now, I want to talk about a recent re-reading experience, of a different book.

 

+++++

 

One of my favourite Book Groups (as they’re known in the US; Canadians don’t seem to mind saying “book club”) meets electronically. It’s small, just two of us. We used to be in groups together in Colorado, before we both moved.

 

One of our books back in the day was Walking Across Egypt, by Clyde Edgerton. Set in North Carolina, it’s the story of Mattie Rigsbee, a 78-year-old widow who might be slowing down. The aging of a fairly ordinary woman doesn’t sound like the setup for a funny novel, but wackiness ensues, all right. And plenty of baking. Even the stray dog on the porch on page 1 gets leftover biscuits.

 

As you might have guessed, I recently re-read this book. Amazingly, it’s survived several rounds of bookshelf culling and an international move. I kept seeing it and thinking, “Oh, that’s funny. I can’t let go of that. I should re-read that sometime.” And so during this (insert non-clich├ęd words that encompass the craptastic nature of politics and pandemic) time, when travel is of course impossible, I took advantage of the opportunity to travel by reading this book.

 

I can see why I kept it. I can see why I found it funny—it is still, sort of. Beguilingly, charmingly, deceptively funny. Mattie is the type of woman who forgets she’s sent chair seats to be recovered, so when she sits down in her favourite rocking chair, she falls through the frame and gets trapped for several hours. At last the dogcatcher shows up and frees her, but only after he’s washed her dishes. Because wacky.

 

Mattie is also the type of woman who hears of a sixteen-year-old orphan in a reform school and feels compelled to take him a piece of her pound cake and a piece of her apple pie, all because Jesus talks about doing good “unto the least of these my brethren.” And, predictably, the stuffy leaders in her church take a dim view of her consorting with folks who aren’t perfect, when isn’t that the role of the church in the world, to do good?

 

So, yes. Charming. But. As I continued to read, I could feel myself pulling back from fully engaging with the characters. Because of Me and White Supremacy.

 

For one thing, the folks around Mattie are casually racist. I don’t care that it’s authentic to the characters in that place and that time (the 1980s). They, and the author, know better. The one character who seems to understand that racism is wrong, who is also learning about misogyny and equality, is shown to be humorless and unpleasant. (Obviously, she was my favourite character—been there.)

 

What I found most disturbing about the book is that I know Mattie Rigsbees. I know the male versions of them, too. They are devout and sweet and the salt of the earth. They wouldn’t knowingly hurt a fly. They will press coffee and pie upon you if you happen by their house at any time of day or night and invite you to tomorrow’s dinner (the noon meal, BTW) before you get out of their kitchen. They will pick up bedding plants for you if they remember you like pansies, visit you any time they hear you’re not feeling up to par, and make sure you have holiday plans. Their pickup truck is at your disposal. And they casually discuss the racial makeup, using slurs, of a regional baseball team.

 

But wait. There’s more.

 

At one point, Mattie goes upstairs to the church sanctuary from the Sunday School rooms in the basement. She knowingly bumps into young people so they’ll say hello, the way they should.

 

She knew that courteousness had started on the way out with television and integration and a man on the moon. She wished somebody would put their finger exactly on the connections so something could be done about it. And she knew the weather had been affected by those people landing on the moon. No question about it. It was all mixed in with reasons for the great decline of courtesy. In some ways she was glad it was now that she was slowing down and not forty years from now, having had to live through the decline of everything good.

 

Wait wait wait. Integration is part of the decline of society? And something must be done about it? Ah. Yes. The Mattie Rigsbees I know—well, I know who they voted for in the last US presidential election.* They do not understand how wrong they were. They do not bear guilt or embarrassment for the craptastic consequences—lives lost, not their own; livelihoods ruined, not theirs, or if theirs, not their fault—of their wilfully ignorant cowardice.

 

+++++ 

 

Back to Me and White Supremacy. As I said, intense. Because of Saad I’ve connected dots in my past. I’ve seen how I have excused the Mattie Rigsbees I know, and how those excuses have hurt innocent people, and continue to hurt them.

 

Reading Me and White Supremacy has made it impossible to re-read Walking Across Egypt and feel amused and satisfied with the characters or the story. It’s not the same kind of nausea as reading about theslave trade in The Cooking Gene, but it’s related.  

 

I’m glad the book isn’t satisfying anymore. Maybe I’m beginning to learn things. What a gift it is to have educators like Saad and others. With what generosity they have asked questions, and explained ideas and concepts, and asked readers to reflect on their lives and attitudes and comfort zones. I’ve learned and will continue to learn. And in the coming months ahead, I need to communicate clearly with the Mattie Rigsbees in my life.

 

This isn’t the first time I’ve found issues in an old favourite. Almost two years ago, in November of 2018, I wrote about re-reading Little Women. A week or so later, I linked to an excellent resource, American Indians inChildren’s Literature, a website written and managed by Dr. Debbie Reese

 

I’m keeping my copies of Little Women. I have too long a history with that book to let go of it completely—yet. But I think it’s time to pass along some of the books I’ve been hanging onto. New books come out all the time. I’m okay saying goodbye to Mattie Rigsbee. She’s taught me some perhaps unintended but valuable lessons.


Edited to add: I am not saying this to show how fabulous I am--I am in no way fabulous. I'm saying all this to show you how reading Layla Saad's incredible gift of a book can help you see your life--past, present, and future (we all hope)--with different eyes.

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* I also know how the Mattie Rigsbees of the world feel about white ranchers killing Indigenous youths—because Mattie Rigsbees do not only live in the US, they live in Canada, and I know their voting habits, too. Fortunately Canada avoided having an election this autumn.