Andrea Reads America: Illinois

Andrea Reads America Illinois book map
Andrea Reads America: Illinois

Illinois is home to Chicago — the biggest city in the midwest. When researching Illinois, it was tricky deciding among the many novels set in The Windy City: The Jungle, The Adventures of Augie March, Maud Martha. Unlike my usual trouble of trying to find one non-caucasion author, I was excited to see the diversty inherent in Chicago-based literature — African American men and women authors; Hispanic men and women authors — and I ultimately settled on Native Son and The House on Mango Street from Chicago.

But Chicago is not the only place in Illinois. Like every state, Illinois is also home to  small towns, and to agriculture: to endless rows of corn. In addition to the books set in Chicago, I chose a couple of small town novels to get a feel for other parts of the state: Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Book of Ruth. The write-up below is for The Book of Ruth, but if you enjoy Ray Bradbury, and want another glimpse of small town Illinois, I recommend Something Wicked This Way Comes as well.

Native Son book cover by Richard WrightNovel: Native Son
Author: Richard Wright, moved to Chicago at 19
Setting: 1930s southside Chicago, IL
Categories: Literary fiction, African American Literature

Set in Chicago, Illinois in the 1930s, Native Son is not a sugar-coated tale. It is a tale of a black man trapped by rules that pin him down, pen him in, force him to live in a certain (rat-infested) part of the city, make him only have certain kinds of (subservient) jobs, instill fear in him in every interaction in the wold of whites, and kill his ambitions (to be a pilot) because in the world he lives in, he will never realize those dreams.

Native Son is the story of crime and criminals, and specifically, the crimes of Bigger Thomas, who, because he is a black man, is deemed a criminal before he commits his first crime.

In Native Son, Bigger Thomas is not a hero. He is not likable. He commits atrocious acts, knowingly, and without remorse. But what’s fascinating about Native Son is the psychology of those crimes. As Wright writes in the powerful courtroom scene, when Bigger is on trial for the murder and rape of a white woman,

Do men regret when they kill in war? Does the personality of a soldier coming at you over the top of a trench matter? No! You kill to keep from being killed!

The genius in Native Son is Wright’s ability to get us inside the mind and emotions of a poor black man who turns to crime because it is the only way he can truly be liberated — it is the only way he has control over his own life. Bigger is not admirable. The reader is not on his side. But he represents something bigger (ha!): what happens to humans when they are not free.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros book cover Novel: The House on Mango Street
Author: Sandra Cisneros, born Chicago, IL
Setting: Chicago, IL
Categories: Vignettes, Hispanic Literature

The House on Mango Street is a small book where every word has impact. Set in the Latino district in Chicago in the 1950s, Mango is a series of vignettes from the life of Esperanza, who comes of age in the book. Cisneros is a poet, and her artistry with words is a gift to anyone who reads this novella. Her language is colorful, moving, and engages all the sense, as in the half-page chapter called “Hairs”:

But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.

Cisnero’s prose jumps off the page, and the plot happens underneath them. The novel begins when Esperanza is a young girl, pedaling bicycles with her friends or piling in a neighbor’s cousin’s shiny yellow Cadillac with 12 other kids, riding around the block several times. It progresses through watching a friend, Sally, mature, and the ugliness that happens to Sally with boys, with Sally’s father, and with Sally’s 8th grade marriage to an abusive man who keeps her locked inside.

The House on Mango Street progresses through ugliness in Esperanza’s own life, to her deep desire to escape, and ultimately to her writing to remember the friends and neighbors she left behind. The result is beautiful.

The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton book cover Novel: The Book of Ruth
Author: Jane Hamilton, raised Oak Park, IL
Setting: Northern Illinois
Categories: Literary Fiction

In The Book of Ruth, we move away from Chicago and into small town northern Illinois. The setting seems to be the 1970s, but really, the story is timeless. Hamilton depicts the life of a down and out, common, poor girl, Ruth: a girl with a mean mother and without a role model to help her rise up from her poverty-stricken situation.

Despite self-talk of stupidy, Ruth, who is our narrator, writes eloquently. She devours audio-books, especially Dicknes, when she keeps her blind neighbor company, yet she fails all her subjects in school. She is low and without guidance, and as a result lives the only life she feels she is capable of living: working at the town dry cleaner, finding her glory on the bowling team, and marrying a toothless man she fell in love with when she found him drinking beer, lounging in an inner tube in the middle of the lake.

Ruth is an innocent, and a bad life happens to her. This book could be set anywhere — the corn and the winters put it in Illinois — and it is a story of how difficult it is to break out of what we are born into. Ruth manages to maintain a raw hope, and innocent love, in the face of a life that would break most of us.

Andrea Reads America: Arizona

Andrea Reads America Arizona book map
Andrea Reads America: Arizona

As a coastal person, I was uncomfortable reading Arizona. The dry cracked land, the absence of emerald-green, and the silence where dripping should be were disorienting to me. I think my soul might dry up and blow away if I were to move to the desert. But where I feel withered and desolate, the people who are native to the land find magic – the sky is so big that shamans walk among the stars, and the first summer rain is significant enough to signal the beginning of a new year.

Aside from The Bean Trees, the books I chose for Arizona were challenging for me. I don’t know if the landscape made my mouth too dry, or if the books I chose weren’t my kinds of books, or (and this is my hunch) if it’s because I read them in winter, when I would normally curl up with The Shipping News and cold snowy books, but I found myself wishing for something else, a different kind of place. A place of blues and greens, not of reds and browns. I will say, though, that what Arizona lacks in water, it makes up for in characters. The three books I selected from Arizona were filled with scrappy, no-nonsense folks for whom parched land, prickly plants, and flash floods cultivated a toughness that I don’t have, but I admire.

They also cultivated in me a hunger for Tex Mex food.

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls book coverNovel: Half Broke Horses
Author: Jeannette Walls, born Phoenix, AZ
Setting: 1920s through 40s Arizona
Categories: Historical fiction

Half Broke Horses, set in Texas and Arizona, is a true life novel of Lily Casey Smith, author Jeannette Walls’s sassy, swaggering pioneer grandma. Fans of Walls’s memoir The Glass Castle will appreciate going deeper into the Walls family history with Half Broke Horses, which takes us back to the beginning, when Walls’s grandmother, Lily, broke horses on her family ranch as a girl, and as a young teen rode 500 miles, alone, on her horse, Patches, from Texas to Arizona to take a teaching job in the 1920s. Walls calls this a novel because it was necessary that she fill in details and recreate dialogue, but the voice and wild events, like Lily’s grand entrance in her ranch town’s premier of Gone With the Wind, to which she wore a dress she made from curtains, are authentic and amusing. Lily is spunky and resourceful, a pioneer woman, and I loved her sass:

“Don’t you ‘little lady’ me,” I said. “I break horses. I brand steers. I run a ranch with a couple dozen crazy cowboys on it, and I can beat them all in poker. I’ll be damned if some nincompoop is going to stand there and tell that I don’t have what it takes to fly that dinky heap of tin.” (Lily Casey Smith to a flight instructor who pooh-poohed her when she wanted to take flying lessons from him)

Half Broke Horses is filled with great lines like this, some that characterize Lily, as the one above, and others that characterize the land and the varmints who called it home:

As I sat by my little fire at night, the coyotes howled just like they always had, and the huge moon turned the desert silver.

Arizona, with its wide open spaces and no one peering over your shoulder, had always been a haven for folks who didn’t like the law or other busybodies to know what they were up to.

I didn’t think this was as compelling as The Glass Castle, but I appreciated Walls’s ability to paint the Arizona landscape, and sear me with the desert suns’ heat, and show me a woman with sand, whose grit ensured her survival in an unforgiving place.

La Maravilla by Alfredo Vea, Jr book coverNovel: La Maravilla
Author: Alfredo Véa, Jr., born 1952 near Phoenix, Arizona
Setting: 1950s-1960s, outside of Phoenix, AZ
Categories: Native American Fiction, Hispanic Fiction

Set in the late 1950s and early 1960s beyond the fizzled out end of Buckeye Road – beyond where  asphalt turns to dirt after Buckeye Road has left Phoenix – La Maravilla is a novel of the displaced fringes who congregate along this sandy road in the Arizona desert: negritos and indios, prostitutes and transvestites, Arkies and Okies, and Beto, a young boy who lives with his Mexican healer grandmother and his Yaqui Indian grandfather. Beto’s mother has abandoned him there in her quest for a shiny, new, dust-free life in California. Beto’s home at the end of Buckeye Road and his Mestizo-Yaqui-Filipino-American heritage reflect the author’s own background: Alfredo Véa, Jr., an American author with Mexican, Native American, and Filipino heritage grew up with his grandparents in the Buckeye barrio outside of Phoenix, just as Beto does.

Peppered with Spanish and Yaqui phrases; brimming with frijoles, burritos, and an elaborate Mexican fiesta complete with sixty pounds of pork and beef that simmered all morning “with fifty cloves of garlic, ten chopped onions, cups of crushed comino and a handful of cilantro;” and populated with a Catholic Mexican curandera (healer), the Mighty Clouds of Joy Negro Church, and Huichol, Yaqui, and Tarahumara Indians who go out into the desert to fly on spirit journeys, and eat peyote, and initiate Beto into these ways as part of his manhood ceremony, La Maravilla serves a rich, flavorful, satisfying banquete of Arizona culture:

The woman in black looked up into the high, endless sky. The skin of the hand that shaded her eyes was browned and softened by the tannins of her life.

Neither Manuel nor Josephina was the same person in their different languages.

The Arkies were kind of like Mexicans, the boy felt; they could suffer and do hard work and they always fed everybody’s kids.

Ghosts are like tumbleweeds. No one pays attention to the plant when it’s green. No one even knows what it’s called. But when it’s dead it receives a name and people who see the weeds rolling across open fields are suddenly stricken with loneliness.

I wish I could mourn for him like those crazy Mexicanos. The bake death and eat it. They roll it in sugar and put it on sticks for the children to lick at.

I admit that there were long portions of the book that dragged for me; I admit that were I not reading this for my Andrea Reads America project, I might have abandoned the book; and I admit there were many times when I wondered where Véa was going with this, and why he inserted this scene and that character. I’m still not sure I know, and I think the book could have been distilled for more potency, but like many books that I’m not sure I like when I’m struggling through them, my mind has returned many times to La Maravilla. I loved Véa’s use of Latino and Yaqui words, how they gave the narrative an authentic feel for being among the characters. Like Two Old Women, the other book I’ve read so far by a Native American author (Alaska), La Maravilla is filled with wisdom, spirituality, and a deep respect for elders, family and sticking together as a community.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver book coverNovel: The Bean Trees
Author: Barbara Kingsolver, lived 20 years of adult life in Tucson, AZ
Setting: late 1970s Tucson, Arizona
Categories: Fiction, American Fiction

Set in 1970s Tucson, Arizona, The Bean Trees is the story of Taylor Greer, a plucky, lovable twenty-something who drives away from her rural, dead-end Kentucky home town in her ’55 Volkswagen bug with “no windows to speak of, and no back seat and no starter.” She leaves Pittman County, where folks “had kids just about as fast as they could fall down the well and drown,” and heads west where, at a pit stop somewhere in Oklahoma, a small Cherokee child is deposited in the front seat of her car by a native woman – the child’s aunt – who tells Taylor to the child away from here. The old woman will not take no for an answer as she turns and walks away to face the child’s father – and abuser.

Like so many of Kingsolver’s works, The Bean Trees is a gratifyingly readable book; I think I finished it in three or four nights. Filled with funny Kentucky colloquialisms and the dry desert air of Tucson, The Bean Trees can feel light in its page-turning readability, but flowing beneath that lively tone are undercurrents of weighty issues. True to form, Kingsolver weaves in the strong pulse of nature,

At three o’clock in the afternoon all the cicadas stopped buzzing at once. They left such an emptiness in the air it hurt your ears. Around four o’clock we heard thunder.

If you looked closely you could see that in some places the rain didn’t make it all the way to the ground. Three-quarters of the way down from the sky it just vanished into the dry air.

Everything alive had thorns.

and heart wrenching themes of social justice:

Mrs. Parsons muttered that she thought this was a disgrace. “Before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America… They ought to stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs.

When people run for their lives they frequently neglect to bring along their file cabinets of evidence.

Set in a border state and dealing with issues of immigration and human cooperation, The Bean Trees is a story of friendship, and heart, and symbiosis. It is a story of plants and people thriving in poor soil and thorny country, not because they are tough, or better adapted, or because they are strong enough to do it alone. They survive because they open themselves to being helped, and to helping each other out.

For Further Reading in Arizona

Books that have been recommended to me but I have not yet read:
Concrete Desert by Jon Talton
Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko
Mojave Crossing by Louis L’Amour
Goats by Mark Jude Poirier
Bisbee/17 by Robert Houston
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea (nonfiction)
Crossers by Philip Caputo

This was originally published January 20, 2014 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.

I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at