The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett – Book

From a Google Image Search – Vanity Fair

Twin girls born in a town that isn’t even on any map, black girls with skin so light who, in any fair world, would not have to worry about how society would classify them are at the center of this story – twin girls who see their father dragged from home and lynched in the middle of a traumatic night. This is the world that Brit Bennett describes in The Vanishing Half. It is a world where skin color is an issue and not just with white people but also with black folks. Desiree and Stella find their small eerily segregated town, confining. They graduate from high school and run away to the big city. Desiree is the twin with the inclination to wander, but Stella is the one who disappears.

Good characters and an interesting concept introduce us to a world most of us cannot inhabit. Even to talk about the issues presented in this novel makes it far too easy to stray from political correctness. Before slavery was there a skin color hierarchy? When we acknowledge that skin color is used as a kind of class indicator even among black folks does that indicate that the superficial judgments of slave owners were passed on to their human “property”? These are things I can perceive but cannot pass judgment on. But Bennett gives us a peek behind the curtain.

This is not a heavy tome full of academic discussions of these matters. This is basically the story of a family and the traumas that determine their futures. It is a story of separation and a sort of reconciliation. It is a story of secrets kept and finally half revealed. But behind the story is that undertow that makes us think deeper thoughts. Interestingly, it is a wanderer who becomes the glue in this family of woman who were robbed of their father/husband. I wouldn’t mind having my own Mr. Early.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – Book

From a Google Image Search = Goodreads

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell has gotten a lot of buzz and it made this reader curious enough to open the covers and enjoy Maggie’s novel. O’Farrell takes us back to Shakespearean England. She noticed a record in a local parish that recorded the death of a child named Hamnet Shakespeare. The tale she embroiders is as possible as any tale of Shakespeare’s homelife about which very little is known.

Agnes attracts the attention of a barely adult William while he is tutoring Latin at a local sheep farm to pay a debt owed by his father, a glove maker. She goes into the woods most days with a falcon (kestrel) on her gloved hand. She is a bit older than William but she is a conundrum he wants to solve. When that kestrel flies off to hunt and then returns from these wild adventures to the hand of Agnes, William imagines that she is a singular woman with a will of her own and powers that set her apart from other village women. 

Agnes is able to read people’s lives, but she lives long enough to learn that what she reads may be cryptic and misleading. William and Agnes have three children, one girl, Suzanna and then twins, Judith and Hamnet. Judith is tiny and is often afflicted with health problems. Hamnet is a strong and smart boy. But when the plague comes to Stratford the outcome surprises Agnes and breaks the hearts of both Agnes and William. 

I think what comes across most powerfully in this invented history is the depiction of a mother’s grief and what it does to a family and a marriage. Although Agnes is not a witch, she has supernatural talents and a knowledge of plants as medicines. How much of Agnes’ character is based in fact and how much is created by the author could be determined by finding out what is known about Shakespeare’s wife, who we know as Anne. The idea that Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, may have been inspired by family tragedy is a possibility that would be difficult to prove, but it makes for a good book, even if you have to suspend some disbelief.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson – Book

This is a book but also politics – From a Google Image Search – Entertainment Weekly

In order to profit from The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson you must get through the first chapter – the catalyst for all that follows. Frank May is the only survivor of an extreme heat wave event that kills 20 million people, an entire village, in India. We don’t even learn his name until much later in the book. There are reasons.

Robinson skips around a lot which helps move this fictional/nonfiction book, full of what could be very dry science, along. India, in reaction to that enormous heat wave tragedy tries to recreate the ashy clouds of the Pinatubo volcanic eruption which blocked the sun for almost two years. The strategy India settles on of creating a layer of  a reflective substance (several are under consideration) which would reflect some sunlight back into space thus cooling the earth’s atmosphere temporarily is an actual tactic being considered by climate scientists. The Children of Kali, also in India, decide to go ‘dark’ and use more violent strategies.

In order to make the billionaires listen up and force these greedy souls to give up fossil fuels, massively effective plans will be required. The Ministry of the Future, a UN project headed by Mary Murphy from Zurich, Switzerland, never openly supports violent action. But Mary’s Assistant Chair, Badim, has no such compunctions and he has Mary’s permission to head a ‘dark’ arm of the agency. It is so ‘dark’ that even as the book ends we have no clues about the tactics used by Badim’s group, but you might want to learn about Pebble Mobs.

Mary Murphy’s machinations are not secret at all. Through the Ministry, Robinson’s book offers up one idea after another – the state of the art ideas, the far out ideas and ideas unpalatable to many – that could be used to lower the temperature raised by global warming and for sequestering the carbon dioxide (carbon) that is to blame. A story that is basically a climate textbook is made readable by making it a personal story with characters who interest us, and by flashing around the globe. We might be in India in one short chapter, or in China, or at a committee meeting, or experiencing the kidnapping of Mary Murphy, or in Antarctica, or Russia, or in the Alps, or San Francisco, along the new wildlife corridors, presenting an audacious financial plan to the world’s central banks. It’s a whirlwind for the most part, belying how slow actual change may be, but it’s exciting and it makes the reader believe that we could do this; we could save the planet.

The Ministry for the Future is a fiesta of climate ideas. If it gets a bit Kumbaya near the end, after all our recent coronavirus isolation, some communal esprit might be welcome. Mary Murphy’s mantra is “lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win.” We might need to stop losing and use some of Robinson’s pirated ideas if we want to have any hope of winning. Every person on the planet should read this book.

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari – Book

From a Google Image Search – Penguin Books Australia

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari begins by lifting us up as humans and ends with our obsolescence as a species. Harari argues that we humans have almost conquered poverty and disease and that our newest goals will no longer be humanistic ones such as individuality and progress and success. He says, “In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods. Not just because these are divine qualities, but because in order to overcome old age and misery humans will first have to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum.” (pg. 43) He talks about the ‘new peace’ brought about by the existence of nuclear warfare which threatened man’s actual existence. The implications are so dire that powerful nations have backed off from all-out war. Humanism has replaced the Industrial Age and now even humanism is being replaced by a quest for immortality and happiness.

Harari believes that humans were once just one more animal living as hunter-gatherers like all of the other animals. He bemoans how far we have wandered from our natural state and he does this by making it clear that the way we treat the animals who provide our food is unacceptable. He talks about the cages pigs are placed in where they can barely turn around, and he describes how they are impregnated again and again but not allowed to raise their babies. His descriptions of our food industries’ inhumane way of treating animals, such as chickens, pigs and cows, ignores the science which tells us that animals experience psychological and physical agonies from our treatment of them. It sets the reader to imagining ways that we could change this dynamic, treat our animals as biological entities, or perhaps even become vegetarians. Harari is, of course, right that treating living entities like parts on an assembly line belies what science has taught us about our biological similarities.

Then Harari predicts that we are entering a new religious era. Mr. Harari believes that all of our religions are myths; myths that allowed humans to live together in ever larger groups (caves, villages, towns, cities, nations). He believes we now worship data and he names this new religion “Dataism.” According to Harari we are trying to create the Internet-of-all-Things (the Singularity). But, he warns, if we are able to do that we may create artificial intelligence that will make humans obsolete, unnecessary. His predictions about what our love of data could do to us reminds me of that old saying, “don’t ask for what you want because you might get it.” 

Harari’s Dataism also reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s last book “The Fall” in which the world actually does end up empty of all humans when they choose to be stored as data after they die. Eventually there is no one left alive to reproduce and humans no longer have a biological presence, although there is an afterlife of sorts. Artificial intelligence (AI) will be a trending topic of discussion for some time. Can we look far enough ahead as we see the ramifications of our passion for information and data to understand if what we are doing will threaten our very existence? Human pride in accomplishing our objectives makes it difficult to step back despite apprehending the outcomes. Will the Internet-of-all -Things become like the nuclear bomb. Once we go there we will suddenly understand David Foster Wallace’s dedication of being a Luddite. Back away and live; succeed and become extinct. Is Homo Deus too far out? Perhaps not.

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen -Book

From a Google Image Search – The New York Times

How does a character who relocates wild critters who have wandered too close to a human turn out to be a person of rare and admirable character? That describes Angie Anderson, the main character in Carl Hiaasen’s new book, Squeeze Me. Perhaps Angie stands out because most of the characters in Hiaasen’s book are caricatures. Hiaasen, a Florida author, is famous for creating both mayhem and humor that is recognizably Floridian. He loves Florida but he also sees that it is a wacky place and he mines it for his satirical prose. He knows how to tell good stories.

This time we find ourselves at Casa Bellicosa, a thin disguise for the winter White House. You can probably guess who has the code name Mastodon, and by association, who has the code name Mockingbird. There are secret service men and women all over the place. Mastodon and Mockingbird are getting it on, but not with each other. We also have the Potussies (POTUS + Pussies) a gaggle of old socialite club members who idolize Mastodon.

When one the Potussies disappears the wealthy ladies are sad to lose one of their own but they are also worried that there will be a scandal for their beloved POTUS. Assumptions are made which lead to the arrest of Diego, an illegal immigrant and college graduate who just found his way back to the US where he went to college. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mastodon is only too happy to whip up his cult to harass the young man in his cell in the local jail, and to even get cult members arrested so they can try to kill Diego. Sentiments are running high and Diego is in despair.

Angie Anderson has a good idea of what happened to Kiki Fitzsimmons, but the proof keeps escaping from her clutches even though the proof is dead. It’s a romp that feeds into a certain political viewpoint which may or may not be yours. If it is you will surely enjoy Hiaasen’s book, Squeeze Me. I don’t want to give away the yucky parts so this is all I can tell you. If you subscribe to the opposite political viewpoint buy the book anyway. You can always burn it on behalf of the president you love. Support writers.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari – Book

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari is right up my alley, in my wheelhouse, or any other cliché that means Mr. Harari and I like to think about the same things. We like to think about earth and mankind’s place on earth. We like to think about human societies or cultures if you prefer, how they developed, how we got to this particular overcrowded, possibly existential state we currently find ourselves in, and if and how we can find our way back from the precipice. He begins at the beginning when there are two species of humanoids on the planet at the same time, Neanderthals and homo sapiens.

Humans began as just another species of animals. They had the same needs for food and shelter, communal cooperation and reproduction. There are no other animal species that we know of that left drawings on caves though, and that may be the key difference that started the entire chain of human history. In our early days we did nothing that disturbed the natural balance of the planet. We hunted and gathered but animals and plants were plentiful and all living things flourished or experienced hardships together. If life became difficult in one location people simply moved to a new location. Life was ‘a moveable feast’. 

Harari explains that people usually think that it was agriculture that changed the human equation. Of course it did. But, he reasons, what really separated people from other animals was the human facility with storytelling. Animals didn’t name constellations or make up families of capricious gods. But once humans did create these ‘stories’ which Harari calls ‘myths’ humans who shared the same myths began to join together in communities. They could not have done this without learning how to plant seeds and keep a stable food supply nearby. At first these myths might be small and local and they varied from place to place. People fought wars over them. One myth got absorbed into another.

The point at which readers may have difficulty accepting Harari’s ‘myth’ thesis is when we get to modern religions: Christianity, Judaism, Muslims, Buddhism, Hinduism. Whether monotheistic or polytheistic, all of these religions, to Harari, are myths. They are myths that separate us and keep us apart, set back a global future we can hardly avoid unless some disaster drastically lowers the human population or some other life-changing event occurs. Will we ever give up our myths or adopt one worldwide myth?

Yuval shows how far we have gotten from the balance of nature into which mankind was born. So many animals are extinct. Men and women no longer collect in caves and live off the land without radically changing the planet. He discusses the role of imperialism and capitalism, the economic idea of perpetual growth which occupies the thinking of so many of us. Can the exponential growth of the Industrial Revolution continue? Can Capitalism get reined in enough to restore some of the natural balance we need. This is not a book about climate change. This is a book that suggests that we “left the garden” when we built towns and cities and empires and our moves have thrown the planet out of balance. Harari explores economics and even the way we treat cattle and chickens. (We really do need to find a new way to treat our food. We know that this is inhumane because it makes no nod to the equal circumstances in which we all began and it weighs on our spirits.) He discusses globalization and the future of mankind but tells us he will offer more in a second book.

In all, it is a sprawling book and it inspires thoughts while immersed in the author’s ideas and long after. It’s a book I will remember, and I go to sleep some nights going over what Harari had to say, some of which is hard to take, but for the most part is not anything we haven’t heard in the corners of our culture where such things are contemplated. Exercise that brain with thoughtful books and perhaps you will solve the riddle of civilization at the same time. Or we will go to space, take our myths with us and do the whole thing all over again because it’s a pattern we like, or we can’t change, or our myths are now too imbedded and we are too committed.

Inland Intrigue by Michael Hughes – Book

From a Google Image Search – Goodreads

Michael Hughes sent me a note asking me to read his novel Inland Intrigue so I did. I had never heard of the Inland Empire, a rather ostentatious name given to a not so ostentatious section of southern California, apparently to help market the area. The story takes place in the Inland Empire town of Riverside and all around the Inland Empire in 2006 and 2012. Tyler and his dad are on the way to the funeral of Bill Higgins, a man who was a friend of his father, a lawyer who worked for a bank called CalCoast that was into subprime housing loans. He died in a car accident. On the way David suggests that Tyler get involved with the Republican Party someday. Six years later Tyler Conway is home from college and staying with mom Linda and dad David at the upscale family home with pool and hot tub. Tyler is at loose ends about what to do with his summer so he decides to do as his Dad suggested. He gets involved in the local Republican election campaign. 

Political campaigns are not exactly hotbeds of activity during the summer months but Tyler’s dad puts him in touch with the Vice Chair of Riverside County Republican Party, Seamus O’Malley. Madison, Tyler’s sister is the only Democrat in the family and she gets some heat as she comes back from Boston to work in a program called Housing Helpers which is supposed to assist those who were hurt when the housing bubble burst. Tyler figures the program is a scam. He is also not sure that his dad’s friend Bill died from natural causes. If he is doing detective work it is the lowest key detective work I have ever experienced, but he does get some answers.

Hughes spends a lot of time describing Tyler’s days which are almost as boring serving the party as they would be if he just stayed home all summer. Is the Groundhog Day pace of the book purposeful, as it really does describe political campaigning several months out from an election, or is it a flaw in plotting? Do we really want to pull into the driveway in Riverside day after day in either the Mercedes Benz E320 or the Land Cruiser and jump in the pool and then the hot tub, or take a nap and heat up a pot pie. I kept reading. I didn’t quit. Perhaps because, often enough, a day would bring one new piece of the puzzle, or one new character to catch my interest. Weekends we often went to dinner with Linda and David and Tyler where conversation seemed scarce. I also had problems with the unusual uses of the word “but” in Tyler’s thoughts and conversations. Is this a regionalism? Is it just bad grammar? Just when it started to bother me the odd usage stopped.

Highways are complex in California and knowing which ones you will take and where your exits are is very important. Is it important to include every detail of each time the ‘Benz’ or the ‘Cruiser’ hit the road? You will have to judge for yourself. However, if you need to know how to get anywhere in the Inland Empire or the route to Tyler’s sister’s place, or to a weekend convention or a photo shoot, Tyler is as good as a GPS. He tells you every highway to take, every exit and even surface street directions if necessary, and he describes the neighborhoods he is passing by. I would consider these kinds of details superfluous as they were not part of the plot, but another reader might appreciate knowing exactly where they were at all times, and it might be a California thing. 

It is not easy to write books, even fiction books, so I give Hughes credit for a book that hangs together and has all the necessary elements of a story. Is it an exciting story? Is it great storytelling? I will leave that to other readers to decide. But there was intrigue of a sort and it was uncovered. I had some trouble with Tyler’s reactions to what he discovered. You will have to judge for yourself. Keep writing Michael Hughes. You’re off to a good start. And that’s how writers get better.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – Book

From a Google Image Search – The British Library

Given all the recent interest in a book that was required reading when I was in school, and the new TV series based on the book (which I have not seen), rereading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley seemed in order. It was shocking to find how little I remembered about the book so, good plan. The book is actually a philosophical exploration of the underpinnings of societies and it projects us into a mechanized future with universal happiness as its goal. I’m experiencing this as a sort of a mash-up because I am also reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari at the same time. Harari suggests that the only difference between homo sapiens and other animals is our ability to tell stories, our facility for generating myths that allows us to exist in collective groups greater than the 150 members of the largest groups that prevailed in previous ages. This reverberates with what Huxley writes about in Brave New World in 1931. 

In the society Huxley creates, the god who is at the mythical core is Henry Ford and the model is the assembly line which was the object of both admiration and consternation among various groups. It allowed the production of all those Model A cars and Model T’s that offered the freedom of the open road and seemingly conquered the matters of distance and time. Rather than turning out one vehicle at a time the assembly line could produce dozens in a day or hundreds in a year and the production rates kept improving. So what if you applied the idea of the assembly line to human reproduction. Rather than the whole messy and often tragic process of biological birth, what if birth could be mechanized, removed from the nuclear family and moved into a factory setting. You could even produce different castes of humans depending on the way you controlled the birth environment and later the mental development. Huxley used Greek letters to indicate these castes: Alphas as the highest, Epsilons as the lowest.

We begin our tour of the “World’s State” at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre. The motto of the State is “Community, Identity, Stability.” Because of the Bokanovsky Process it is possible to create infinite numbers of twins by causing branching in fertilized eggs. These groups of identical twins work very well together without pesky disagreements, and in addition to their genetic content they are mentally conditioned or programmed to enjoy their group identity and their slot in society, however high or low. Alphas and even Betas are individuals and are not ‘twinned’. Epsilons are slated for menial labor. Alphas are, within limits, thinkers.

Sexuality is key to the goals and order of this society. Toddlers are encouraged to engage in sexual play. Many groups are sterile. During naptimes subliminal conditioning is broadcast as nursery rhymes and songs that are treasured in adulthood even as they control the behaviors of the various groups. Alphas and Betas cannot reproduce but they can have as many sexual partners as they wish, although pair bonds are frowned upon. If you live in this Brave New World and you find yourself in any way troubled or unhappy there is a drug for that. Soma will restore your happiness and send you tripping off into musical, light and sexual sensations that make you happy once again, and if that doesn’t work you can really zone out, take lots of soma and take a soma holiday.

An Alpha, rumored to have experienced a chemical imbalance in his birth bottle, promises to take Lenina, a female conditioned to enjoy sexual encounters, to an area that has stayed ‘savage’. There we meet Linda, who was what Lenina is now, but was left for dead by a previous Alpha who toured the same area. Linda was pregnant and was forced to do the very thing she was conditioned to despise. She had to give birth and have the feelings that mothers have. But she had also been taught to perceive of motherhood as a relic of the past, as an unacceptable role for women. It leaves procreation to chance. This combination of biological imperative and conditioned loathing is not a recipe for good parenting. We also meet her son John who does not biologically fit into this tribe in which he has been born. This tribe worships two gods; they worship Jesus and a tribal god. John has been raised with this religious conditioning. His mother acts promiscuously within the tribe and is shunned because of it. That is part of her conditioning, as is her willingness to take the mescalin and peyote available to her as a soma substitute. John is torn. He loves his mother and he loathes her sinful behaviors and the way it spills over into the tribes’ perceptions of him.

So what happens when our Alpha takes Linda and John back to the World’s Society, the Brave New World? What happens when myths collide? This is exactly the point where Sapiens and Brave New World collide, although they were written decades apart. You can probably make some guesses about what happens but this is a book that should be read and pondered as you question societies and what you believe they should be like.

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore – Book

From a Google Image Search – The Oklahoman

Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore, set in the Permian Basin town of Odessa and the oil fields that spring from it and surround it is a modern story whose themes are those recurring modern themes: male dominance and white supremacy. But this story is told by women; women who deal with a hardscrabble existence and men who are, for the most part absent. The men have not deserted them, they are working on the oil rigs and the horizontal drill sites because these jobs pay well and give hope, mostly unfounded, that the family will stockpile enough money to buy their way to a better life. It may work out for some people but tragedy stalks oil work and the climate is killer, made worse by blowing dust and methane flares. The billions of stars visible in the night skies, away from the flares, may be the only compensation Wetmore’s. characters tell us.

“We lose the men when they try to beat the trains and their pickup trucks stall on the tracks, or they get drunk and accidentally shoot themselves, or they get drunk and climb the water tower and fall ten stories to their deaths. During cutting season, when they stumble in the chute and a bull calf roars and kicks them in the heart. On fishing trips when they drown in the lake or fall asleep at the wheel on the drive home. Pile-up on the interstate, shooting at the Dixie Motel, hydrogen sulfide leak outside Gardendale.”

Gloria is 14. She is looking for excitement so she does something that she knows her mother (who she loves) will disapprove of. She allows herself to be enticed into the passenger seat of a pickup truck by an older, but handsome-in-a-beat-up-sort-of-way, man. She wakes up on the ground next to the truck somewhere out in the oil fields, raped and beaten, and lucky to be alive. That man, Dale Strickland is still asleep in the truck as she carefully sets out to find someone who can help her. It is clear that this man could kill her if he awakens and finds her. She has no shoes, we’re not even sure if she is wearing clothing. She cuts her feet on the hard caliche rock and she stops herself from falling and staying there to die by holding on to barbed wire. 

When she appears on Mary Rose’s front porch, the only home in this barren land, Mary Rose is at first reluctant to answer the door. She has a young daughter and she is seven months pregnant. Of course even when she does open the door she almost wishes she didn’t. Close behind Gloria who is wounded and traumatized, the pickup truck carrying Dale Strickland turns onto her property. Mary Rose has a gun but is not sure if it is loaded. Dale Strickland knows he is in trouble and he knows how to intimidate. Robert, Mary Rose’s husband is out with his cattle, nowhere nearby. If the ambulance and the police had not arrived (called by the daughter) who can tell what horrors might have happened at that isolated house full of females.

Mary Rose’s husband always wanted her to move in to town to wait for the birth of the baby. She did not want to give up their ranch. Now it is Mary Rose who insists on a place in town and Robert who doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that she is having nightmares, that she is afraid that Strickland will come back to hurt or kill her daughter and her. She is planning to testify, to stand up for Gloria in court. There is pushback. Gloria’s last name is Ramirez. Dale Strickland grew up in small town America. He is white, a high school football player. His community writes lots of letters on his behalf and offers character references which show that they are out of touch with this incarnation of Dale Strickland, a mean meth head. Who is likely to win in court?

Mary Rose waits for her court appearance in town, on Larkspur Lane, where she eventually meets her neighbors. These women are such well-drawn characters that we feel like we live with them on Larkspur Lane – Suzanne Ledbetter, Corrine Shepard, and Debra Ann, the young girl that Ginny left behind when she lit out for places unknown. It is a world of casseroles and cigarettes, drinks and target practice, women who can’t decide if it is worthwhile to go on or just give up. Debra Ann is an abandoned child and also possibly headed for trouble.

Gloria changes her name to Glory because she can no longer stand the sound of Gloria. She slowly recovers but she has to do this without her mother, Alma, who is taken away by immigration. Her Uncle Victor takes her to a motel where they can disappear. A kind woman Glory meets in the pool at the motel finally gives her the empathy she requires. Mary Rose is getting threatening phone calls day and night to try to scare her into reconsidering her decision to testify. Elizabeth Wetmore evokes the despair of life in the Permian Basin in western Texas, she creates these women who struggle to live in what basically seems like hell on earth. There are glimmers of hope. I guess you can tell that I really loved this book. She calls this book Valentine.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins – Book

From a Google Image Search – penguin.co.uk

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins drops us in the middle of the issues of white supremacy and male dominance. It’s the beginning of the 19 th century but slavery still exists in America and, as in this case, on the sugar cane plantations in Jamaica. The owner of the plantation that is the focus of Collin’s story. John Langton, is from London, a transplant, a scientist, a gentleman farmer (who knows little about farming). We meet Frances as a child being trained as a house-slave. There are plenty of secrets on this plantation – probably on any plantation that keeps people in slavery. Slavery is a nasty business and it taints those who practice it. 

John Langton marries Bella who did not get what she bargained for. Not all gentlemen from rich families are wealthy. It depends on their order of birth. To wreak vengeance on Langton, Bella does something forbidden. She teaches Frannie to read. Phibbah, an older house-slave, warns Frances that white women married to gentlemen tend to be very bored and that she should steer clear of any personal relationship with them. But for Frannie learning to read and getting spoiled is just too enticing and she is too young to understand how Miss-Bella is using Frannie to get her husband’s attention, or to punish him. 

Bella’s husband is a sort of scientist making the most common mistake that is made by scientists. He has his theory already formulated and now is just trying to bend the evidence to back it up. It is his contention that black minds are inferior to white minds unless there has been “racial mixing.” We’re talking about the 1800’s here, but there are still people in the 21 st century who make this argument. John Langton takes vengeance on his wife by using Frances (who can read and write very well) to help him with his scientific work. His lab is in the coach house on the property. He measures and compares the capacity of skulls, and then explores other even less savory arenas. Secrets, secrets, secrets. His book is called Crania.

When the coach house burns down, John Langton’s debts are called in and he loses the plantation. The only thing he still owns is Frannie who he takes to London with him and offers her as a paid servant in the house of a rival scientist, George Benham. George Benham is not against slavery (although it is illegal in England). His theses is that owners should treat their human property better. In the house of George Benham Frances meets the bored wife of Benham, Meg. But this time Frannie is a grown woman. Oh, if only she had listened to Phibbah. The book explores both the dangers faced by women in a male dominated, wealth (or class) dominated society, and the complexities of slavery for house-slaves who we normally think of as escaping the worst of slavery. Frannie may be a kind of “my fair lady” character but there is little fairness in her life’s trajectory, which for the most part she has very little control over. I haven’t given away any secrets. This is not perfect writing, but pretty close.