Friday, March 29, 2013
March 29, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 5
[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that disorients, devastates, and entirely delivers.
The roundtable’s fifth presenter, Jim Donahue of SUNY Potsdam, nominated James Welch’s Fool’s Crow. If Invisible Man is a famous American novel that (I believe) few Americans have actually read, Fool’s Crow is an almost criminally unknown novel that, Jim compellingly argued, we should all read. For one thing, Jim reminded us, the novel dramatizes the events surrounding one of the most under-remembered (including, I’m ashamed to admit, by me) crucial American events: the 1870 Marias River Massacre. But even beyond such vital historical contexts, Fool’s Crow’s unique form produces two distinct and equally important effects on its readers.
I’ve written in this space about Karl Jacoby’s amazing Shadows at Dawn, and specifically about Jacoby’s multi-vocal and –perspectival structure. Welch’s novel is similarly structured, moving through sections focalized entirely through the voice, perspective, and worldview of both Blackfoot and European American characters. Yet while Jacoby’s work of nonfiction has its historian “narrator” to guide readers through those sections, Welch throws us into each perspective with no guidance—leaving non-English words untranslated, introducing specific and uncontextualized place and character names, and so on. For non-native (perhaps even non-Blackfoot) readers, the effect is profoundly disorienting, forcing us to do what Jim called the “cognitive work” of trying to understand this distinct perspective.
So on the one hand, to echo the end of yesterday’s post, Welch’s novel would fall squarely onto the “challenging” end of the spectrum. Yet on the other, as Jim argued and as I would agree, Fool’s Crow is one of the most beautifully written novels of the last few decades (and then some). And when it comes to considering works for a National Big Read, it’s difficult to overstate how important such aesthetic power could be—after all, if we want to introduce Americans to historical significance and cultural diversity we could give them Jacoby’s book (and that’d be great); but if we want to demonstrate the value and pleasure of reading itself, what it can do to us, I don’t know of any books that would hit us more than Fool’s Crow.
Final nominee tomorrow,
BenPS. Thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?