Friday, September 18, 2015
September 18, 2015: Given Days: The Future for Tulsa
[As part of this summer’s beach reading, I had the chance to revisit and engage more deeply with Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day (2008), one of the most compelling and effective recent historical novels. In this series, I’ll share a handful of histories that this fiction helps us better remember; share your nominees for great historical fictions, new or old, for a boundary-blurring crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the problem with historical happy endings, and why we still need them.
According to the ever-reliable internet, filmmaker Orson Welles once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” Whether big O actually said that or not, the sentiment certainly holds true, as reflected in and commented on by such literary texts as Anne Sexton’s poem “Cinderella” and Margaret Atwood’s short short story “Happy Endings.” But while of course most creative writers have more or less absolute authority about where they stop their stories, and thus of what kind of ending they create, those working in a genre like historical fiction have another layer of complexity to the question: no matter where a historical novelist chooses to end his or her book, after all, history continued to unfold after that point, and our knowledge of those unfolding histories might well shift the happiness (along with every other aspect) of the book’s ending.
[SPOILERS FOR GIVEN DAY FOLLOW:] This dilemma is particularly acute for the happiest ending to Lehane’s multi-faceted novel. In that ending, African American protagonist Luther Laurence returns to Tulsa, where he had left behind his pregnant wife Lila years before; not only is Luther reunited with and welcomed back by Lila, not only does he meet his son for the first time, but he also makes peace with the local criminal from whom he had been fleeing when he moved to Boston. That’s a particularly powerful scene, in which Luther has the jump on this man but chooses not to kill him, telling him he’s seen too many African Americans killed and doesn’t want to add another body to the mix; given the chance to kill Luther instead, the man returns the favor and lets him go. All of this takes place in Greenwood, the neighborhood in Tulsa that came to be known as “Black Wall Street” and that represented a space of especial possibility and promise for African Americans around the country—and the neighborhood that, less than two years after this happy ending, would be burned to the ground by a rampaging white mob, in one of the worst racial massacres in the nation’s long history of such events.
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of Lehane’s Tulsa ending to Luther’s story, in light of this historical aftermath. Certainly Lehane (whose research for The Given Day seems impeccable) must have known about the massacre, so it’s possible that he intends the juxtaposition as one more reflection of the novel’s themes of the cycle of violence and its horrific effects. (Although in that case, even a brief mention of the massacre in his afterword would help make that link more apparent for his audience, many of whom I believe will never have heard of the massacre.) But on the other hand, it’s important not to let our knowledge of history become its own self-fulfilling prophecy, to read African American lives and communities solely through a teleology of the acts of individual and communal violence that have been directed against them throughout our past (and present). To put it simply: Luther has earned his happy ending, and then some (as has Lila to be sure); since Lehane chose to stop his story here, to give this character and us this deserved happiness, then there’s something to be said for embracing and enjoying that choice on its own terms.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: historical fictions you’d highlight? Share for the weekend post, please!