Friday, February 21, 2014

Western classics that bend gender: The Great God Bird, True Grit, and The Luck of Roaring Camp

In James McBride's THE GREAT GOD BIRD, which won the 2013 National Book Award, Henry is a slave boy doing errands in his father's barbership, owned by their hard working master. It's 1857, a contentious time in the West between Slavers and Free Staters. Henry's adventures begin, when the Abolitionist John Brown rises up from his father's barber chair with a rifle. His target isn't Henry's father but his master. But, as happens with the best of intentions, Henry's father dies, collateral damage.

Brown has freed Henry, which means he gets to join the freedom fighters, a ragtag "army" who live on the land. It's chance that Brown mistakes Henry for a girl, and gives him a dress. It's just odd that he hands him a linty old onion. When Henry eats the disgusting thing, figuring he's supposed to, he has no idea he's eaten Brown's good luck charm. Known as the "onion" after that, he becomes its replacement.

Once in a dress, Henry's quick to realize the practical advantages. In his frontier, a black male is both valuable property and perpetually endangered by his inhuman status. Rebellious slaves are literally fed to the hogs. But who takes account of a poor slave girl? She's worthless, a girl and a servant, yet as Henrietta, the Onion, experiences less hardship than the men. She doesn't have to lift heavy things. She gets food and bed, if available, and, in John Brown's camp, she's the carrier of the higher virtues of civilization, as well as a noble example of the Black Race.

Of course, the Onion's reality is that she wants to be safe, have food and as much comfort as she can get. And though she knows the Old Man is "off his biscuit," a crazy religious fanatic, she can't help admiring someone so dedicated to a cause not his own. As Onion sees it, most of the slaves are looking after themselves, they don't want to fight Brown's war, when survival is so tenuous. She marvels at Brown's expectations but then states that most white men just see what they want to see. This is why she thinks Brown is able to deceive himself that she's a girl, when it's obvious, at least to most of the Black folk she meets, that Onion is a boy and maybe a "sissie."

Freedom is not what it's cracked up to be. With Brown, Onion is always hungry, and ducks violent gun battles. She believes she did better, when she was captured by a rebel and given to a brothel, where she lived as a maid. Though Onion talks of wanting to sneak off north and live as a free male, her female identity allows her to escape rebels, slave-owners and certain punishment. She's usually glad when Brown's sons rescue her and return her to their camp. And though she keeps wanting the crazy Old Man to see through her ruse, she's glad to be useful to his cause, as spy, go-between, fundraiser, watchdog.

Her disguise allows her to see through the poses of Frederick Douglas, though Harriet Tubman sees through Onion's and yet respects her as a person. It isn't until the end of the book, in Onion's 14th year, that she gets a sense of herself beyond the roles she plays. As the fate of  Harper's Ferry closes in on Brown's crusade to Free the Slaves, she has a transcendent moment. She understands the Old Man saw her all along.

I found The Great God Bird to be true to the history it depicts and 2013. Explorations of gender, identity, and moral imperative are major preoccupations of our time. TRUE GRIT does the same thing for 1968, when it was written by Charles Portis. Mattie Ross, an independent, strong-willed "spinster" recounts the adventures of her 14 year old self in the frontier of 1873. She's a female child, who has to impersonate a strong adult male to catch the drifter, who robbed and killed her father. In this brutal unpredictable man ruled frontier, she must be two steps ahead of  those that would take advantage of her youth and sex.

She's tough enough to best an unscrupulous horse trader, and hire the most violent U.S. Marshall she can find. She wants Rooster, because he has "true grit." Though he tries to ditch her, she keeps coming back until together they track her father's killer to the infamous "Lucky" Ned Pepper gang. A Texas Ranger, LeBoeuf interjects himself into their mission, since he is also after the drifter. Mattie insists on equality. She suffers the same physical hardships, displays the same desperate all-out courage, and wins the admiration of Rooster and eventually the Ranger.When Mattie finally finds her quarry, it almost costs her her life. She gets her reward, but retribution/justice proves a more elusive goal.

This could be a parable for 1968. When TRUE GRIT was written, feminism was barely begun. "Coeds" were as unusual as women who made a living outside of the secretarial pool. What a great time to write a character like Mattie Ross. The dangers of her frontier are less from the elements than the brutality of the life created by men. And her motive is not just revenge but to make her family whole. To do this, and perhaps get the needed reward money, she must be as tough as any man. But Mattie Ross has a sense of justice like a frontier Diana and both Rooster and the Ranger, are awed by her strength. Grown up, she becomes a banker whose money is power. Men are inspired to court her, but she chooses to live her life without one. Mattie's independence is iconic.    

Though the GREAT GOD BIRD and TRUE GRIT are set in about the same historic time, the frontiers they depict have distinctly different elements. Yet they both seem descended from Bret Harte's THE LUCK OF ROARING CAMP, written in 1862 about "gold rush" roughnecks of 1850 in an all male mining town. The "feminine side" of these hardscrabble men comes out after the death of Sal, a Cherokee prostitute, in childbirth. The men call her son "Luck." Stumpy, a notorious bigamist becomes a nursemaid. The hardened Kentuck is so touched, when the baby grips his finger, he washes daily. The town is painted white, spruced up, they pool funds to buy only the best baby clothes. Yet in this brutal frontier, anything can happen and does, but it's caused by nature not man. The dirty rough drunken brutality of these men is skin-deep. It's nothing compared with the devastating flood that costs Kentuck his life, while trying to save the Luck. Nature in this classic is more random and volatile than the emotions of human beings.

The Luck of Roaring Camp has been called sentimental. If life was brutal and short on the frontier, Harte celebrated what was human and of worth, even in the roughest men. When the story was first published, there was outrage that he would portray a prostitute in a positive light. Her death, giving birth as the lone female in a mining camp, was considered shocking. Too bad the tender feelings of these gold miners toward the infant was condescended to in more cynical times. Time for Hollywood to redo that one.

S.W.