Summer beach books are usually light, enjoyable, and often as forgettable as a strawberry Twissler®. The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller is a cut above the usual beach book. This might be Heller’s first novel, but she has props from a career writing for HBO and for TV. A novel is a different beast than a screen play, but it’s not a distant reach. Heller’s characters are strong, especially the women, but even some of the men stand the test of reader approval also.
Wallace, an indifferent mother, a beautiful woman, after her husband divorces her, spends too much time needing the attention of other men, and trying to force relationships that are not close or rewarding enough, to suffice. When she finally gives up on looking for love she becomes the matriarch with enough feisty character to become a better grandparent than she was a parent. Still, however much you might appreciate her wit and beauty, you wouldn’t want to leave your children alone with Wallace for too long. She’s too self-absorbed.
The Paper Palace is the name of the Cape Cod summer house that has been in the family for decades. It was built when times were economically tough, so it is not necessarily glamorous. There is a Big House with kitchen, living room, porch, pantry and bathroom. There is an outdoor shower and several ticky-tacky cottages just for sleeping. It’s a place that you learn to love through familiarity and longevity. The camp faces a pond, with a narrow wood beyond, and at the end of the wood is the ocean. The wildlife the family encounters are more pond and woods creatures than ocean dwellers. Of course, the family makes many visits to more accessible beaches on the Cape.
Leo is the most recent of Wallace’s husbands. He’s a jazz musician and is gone a lot. Leo and Wallace fight frequently. He has two children by another marriage, but his daughter stays with the mom. Wallace’s family adds Chuck. To Wallace and Leo, Chuck is a socially awkward, poorly adjusted boy who will grow out of his difficulties; to Wallace’s daughters, Elle and Anna, he is a creepy and guilty secret they keep because they can’t bear to break up Wallace and Leo.
Secrets have consequences and these secrets fall far more on Elle than on Anna, because Anna goes away to boarding school. And yet, even as a young girl, Elle has far better taste in men than her mother ever had. Both Jonas and Peter love her. Would she have married Jonas if they didn’t share a terrible guilt of their own, and if Chuck wasn’t involved in the whole mess?
The story and the characters are enough to hold your interest, but Heller uses her words to bring us to camp with her. Through Wallace and Elle, she takes us through the earthy and the sublime, the earthy being her witty and profane conversations, the sublime being the way she describes nature and the close connections having a lifetime of Cape Cod summers offer those who are lucky enough to have such a legacy.
Even if Oprah had not chosen Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents for her book club this book was destined to become a classic about caste and the role it has played in Hitler’s Nazi Germany, that it still plays in India, and the role it plays in America. We don’t often call the racism we practice against African Americans a caste system, but Wilkerson feels that something that began with enslavement of humans from the African continent has become set in the kind of same kind of stone as the caste system in India. Further she believes that America’s treatment of African Americans after slavery informed the definition of Aryans as the only people with genetics pure enough to remain in the new Germany under the Nazi regime. She has done her due diligence and backs her contentions up with plenty of anecdotes and quotes from those who wrote to preserve the system, and those who wrote to end it.
Pg. 32 “In the winter of 1959, after leading the Montgomery bus boycott that arose from the arrest of Rosa Parks and before the trials and triumphs to come, Martin Luther King, Jr., and his wife, Coretta, landed in India, in the city then known as Bombay, to visit the land of Mohandas Gandhi, the father of nonviolent protest. They were covered with garlands upon arrival, and King told reporters, “To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim.”
“One afternoon, King and his wife journeyed to the southern tip of the country, to the city of Trivandrum in the state of Kerala and visited with high school students whose families had been Untouchables. The principal made the introduction.
‘Young people,’ he said, ‘I would like to present to you a fellow untouchable from the United States of America.’
King was floored. He had not expected that term to be applied to him. He was, in fact, put off by it at first. He had flown in from another continent, had dined with the prime minister. He did not see the connection, did not see what the Indian caste system had to do directly with him, did not immediately see why the lowest-caste people in India would view him, an American Negro, and a distinguished visitor, as low-caste like themselves, see him as one of them. ‘For a moment,’ he wrote, ‘I was a bit shocked and peeved that I would be referred to as an untouchable.’
Then he began to think about the reality of the lives of the people he was fighting for—20 million people, consigned to the lowest rank in America for centuries,’ still smothering in an airtight cage of poverty,’ quarantined in isolated ghettos, exiled in their own country.
And he said to himself, ‘Yes, I am an untouchable, and every Negro in the United States of America is an untouchable.’”
Again, using the author’s own words,
Pg. 85 “On this day, June 5, 1934, they were there to debate a legal framework for an Aryan nation, to turn ideology into law, and were now anxious to discuss the findings of their research into how other countries protected racial purity from the taint of the disfavored. They sat down for a closed-door session in the Reich capital that day and considered it serious enough to bring a stenographer to record the proceedings and produce a transcript. As they settled into their chairs to hash out what would eventually become the Nuremberg Laws, the first topic on the agenda was the United States and what they could learn from it.
The man chairing the meeting, Franz Gürtner, the Reich minister of justice, introduced a memorandum in the opening minutes, detailing the ministry’s investigation into how the United States managed its marginalized groups and guarded its ruling white citizenry. The seventeen legal scholars and functionaries went back and forth over American purity laws governing intermarriage and immigration. In debating ‘how to institutionalize racism in the Third Reich,’ wrote Yale legal historian James Q. Whitman, ‘they began by asking how Americans did it.’”
Pg. 88 “By the time that Hitler rose to power, the United States ‘was not just a country with racism,’ Whitman, the Yale legal scholar, wrote. ‘It was the leading racist jurisdiction—so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration.’ The Nazis recognized the parallels even if many Americans did not.”
This might shock you, but Wilkerson offers evidence that the American treatment of African Americans did serve as a model for the Nazi exclusion and genocide of Jews, Gypsies, and others not considered pure enough to live in an Aryan nation. It is unclear whether we can shame Americans who fight to keep African Americans as the lowest caste in America and the scapegoats in everyday disputes. The rest of us, sadly, have no trouble believing that America has even more to shoulder in terms of blame and greater reasons to offer at the very least, apologies; and perhaps to seriously consider reparations. And Wilkerson is not done. She goes on to discuss the eight pillars of caste and to discuss each in some detail with plenty of pertinent details, anecdotes and quotes from scholars. More examples and descriptions of actual events bring us right up to Charlottesville and now.
Pg. 324 “’Trump was ushered into office by whites concerned about their status,” Jardina writes, “and his political priorities are plainly aimed at both protecting the racial hierarchy and at strengthening its boundaries.’ These are people who feel ‘that the rug is being pulled out from under them—that the benefits they have enjoyed because of their race, their group’s advantages, and their status atop the racial hierarchy are all in jeopardy.”
About the social safety net
Pg. 348 “There are thriving, prosperous nations where people do not have to sell their Nobel Prizes to get medical care, where families don’t go broke taking care of elderly loved ones, where children exceed the educational achievements of American children, where drug addicts are in treatment rather than in prison, where perhaps the greatest measure of human success—happiness and a long life—exists in greater measure because they value their shared commonality.”
Pg. 349 “The majority of America’s peer nations have some form of free or low-cost healthcare coverage. The writer Jonathan Chait noted America’s singular indifference, unique among developed nations, towards helping all of its citizens. He connected this hard-heartedness to the hierarchy that arose from slavery. He found that even conservatives in other wealthy nations are more compassionate than many Americans.
‘Few industrialized economies provide as stingy aid to the poor as the United States,’ he observed in New York magazine in 2014. ‘In none of them is the principle of universal health insurance even contested by a major conservative party. Conservatives have long celebrated America’s unique strand of statism as the product of religiosity, or the tradition of English liberty, or the searing experience of the tea tax. But the factor that stands above all the rest is slavery.’
A caste system builds rivalry and distrust and lack of empathy toward one’s fellows. The result is that the United States, for all its wealth and innovation, lags in major indicators of quality of life among the leading countries in the world.”
Whether or not you accept Wilkerson’s theory that African Americans’ position in America represents an actual place at the bottom of a “caste system,” the damage our racism does to our American democracy/republic and to human beings who were brought to this country to be slaves is incontestable. We must redress the harms we have done if we are ever to claim a spot among leading nations on this planet; a spot untarnished by a “big lie” that we truly believe that “all men are created equal.”
Although this book follows all the structures of any good scholarly text, it is quite readable and should be on every reader’s list. Great addition to the genre and will most likely become a reference for other writers on the subject.