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.
2028: The Rebellion – Prologue Plus First Five Chapters
Donald Trump won in 2020 and again in 2024. At 77 many did not believe he could be reelected but the voting machinations of the Evangelical Council held and Trump was elected again in 2028 at the age of 82. The Council formed in 1972, but was only named as an official Council to the President in 2021. You could still vote against Trump in an election, votes were still tabulated, but the vote totals reported in the media were ‘fake’ news and the electoral college math was fudged.
Most of the work done by the Evangelical Council in terms of figuring out election math and creating an extremely effective ground game was done before the 2016 election, but the numbers kept working for Trump and the Republicans.
After 2016 it became impossible for a Democrat to win. Democrats could not use the tactics developed by Republicans. They found broadcasting propaganda distasteful. People’s taste for right wing Talk Radio and Fox news made mainstream media sound staid and ‘fake’ even before President Trump ‘upped’ the drama.
Democrats believed that the founders were wise to try to keep religion out of government and did not back a theocracy, even if in name only. Given the diversity of religions practiced by those who tended to vote for Democrats there was no religious council on the left to stamp candidates with the ‘imprimatur’ of God. Democrats tended to want to speak the truth to Americans while Republicans had no qualms about saying one thing and doing another, making promises they had no intention of trying to keep.
Doug Waller headed up the Evangelical Council, whose members were pulled from at least eight influential Evangelical organizations with names like Family Research Center and American Policy Institute. The mission of these groups was to lift up white Christians as the true Americans and to fight for turning old resentments into policy, like schools that are empowered to teach Creationism, states that allowed no abortions, and an immigration policy which ruled that only people whose roots were in Europe could be admitted to the United States as potential citizens. Senators Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Kevin McCarthy were also members of the oversight body known as the Evangelical Council and they were avid Trump backers, not because they loved the man but because he had an uncanny knack for sheer political razzle-dazzle and survival of the greediest.
By 2028 Democrats were barely represented in Washington. Huge losses in 2022, 2024, and 2026 had driven the Democratic Party underground. Joe Biden, that old moderate, won the popular vote in 2020 but the strangle-hold the Republicans had on the Electoral College also held, and Trump was inaugurated, although proceedings more closely resembled a coronation, right down to the ermine tips along the lapels of a black plush jacket. Melania looked regal and annoyed in sable. It was a very cold day. They rode in a horse-drawn coach, no walking to solidify their solidarity with the common folk. Trump announced that he planned to build a more formidable White House, a virtual Trump palace to commemorate his second term mandate. It promised to be a modern Versailles. As Washington held bad memories for Trump the US Capital was being moved to Florida. Congress would remain in Washington, DC as would the rest of the government.
Trump always gets revenge on those who oppose his will. New York State, Washington State, Oregon, and California were turned into prison states
In the New York Prison State, 2028
Mo Samuels, Drew Morgan, and Hannah Finegold met at the Samuel’s farm in deepest winter. The farm slept around them, although greenhouses still had to be tended every day. The wood stove in the second barn, was giving off heat from a fire that had been well-fed since early in the day. This was a favorite meeting place in wintry Syracuse because it was easy to heat. These neighbors had been friends since childhood. They remembered the now broken United States of America, divided into the Confederated States of America and Blue States of America in the years since Trump’s reelections in 2020 and 2024 and then for life. These young adults and their parents were now rebels who had to live a private life that was separate from their public lives.
No conversation could betray the Rebellion. All BSA citizens knew that privacy did not exist. Conversation had to center around everyday life, planning to feed and clothe everyone, keep people and animals well, make sure that medical care, however primitive, was available to everyone. Survival, once New Yorkers were deprived of shipments from the ports in NYC, the ports along Lake Ontario and the clandestine aid from Canada, was absolutely the main focus of this Blue State. There were other Blue States, lined up along the West Coast. Coordinating rebel strategies took ingenuity and courage. Rebels when caught were tortured and killed, to reinforce the ruthlessness of the CSA under the Trumps. Some people just simply disappeared.
Mo tapped his watch and started pulling on his insulated work boots which required tender-loving care because they probably could not be replaced any time soon. The other two also reluctantly stepped away from the stove and began to pull on puffy Thrift store coats and scarves and their own boots. They banked the fire and opened the barn door on to gently falling snow, a scene of deceptive beauty, given how dangerous cold could be to warm-blooded humans. They moved to the big barn to saddle the horses shared by their families and set off for the Center.
At the Center there would be a potluck supper today, early since the days were short. The families would gather to eat and make plans for spring planting. Plumbers or people with repair skills would connect with those who needed their services. After dinner there might be a game or karaoke.
But every citizen who was a member of the Rebellion knew that this Center, established on the campus of what was once Syracuse University, had expansive underground and very modern secret facilities well-guarded by the Rebellion forces who swore that they would make America whole again.
Mo, Drew, and Hannah were junior members of the Resistance, but age did not determine membership. In fact, the computer skills of these young people who had lived in the old America and who now lived in the new America were often superior to those of their seniors who did not grow up basically suckled on the internet. Of course, the internet was used by the CSA for surveillance so internet use by the Rebellion was not straightforward. And although for the most part Silicon Valley on the West Coast was controlled by the Confederated States (Red States) some of those fabled geniuses pretended to serve the CSA while actually aiding the Rebels. They had used their skills to create an internet that was not accessible from the World Wide Web, which only answered to the codes the Rebels used. But this separate internet left traces that would cause suspicion if heavily used so the youngest rebels used chat rooms on old school internet games and coded language to communicate with the remnants of the USA.
After dinner these three young Resistance members once again donned their outdoor winter gear and headed out of the Center. But they did not go home or even back to the small barn at the Samuel’s farm. They went to see the horses and then, if you were watching them, they just disappeared leaving only their horses fed for the night. Inside the stables was an elevator that carried the trio down into the bowels below the old university to the computer center, to the futuristic, clean room corridors of one of the New York State Rebellion headquarters. They hung up the puffy coats, set aside the boots to dry and manned their computers. It was four hours earlier in California, Washington State and Seattle but even if it was the middle of the night someone would be there to communicate with. Now Mo became Samwise, Drew became Whaler, and Hannah became Goldie as they joined the West Coast crew in the game. Beast was the head of the California group which had five young people all well-known from the games they played with the New Yorkers.
There were rebels stranded in the CSA who had to live according to Red State rules even more carefully than the Rebels. They had to bury their true natures deep, but they played an essential role as scouts. The Rebels could talk to the scouts in the games, a tactic that had worked so far. What would XM6 have to say tonight? But XM6 never came online. He did leave a coded message, however. “We got trouble,” was the gist of it. They sent out the search code, “Marco.” No one said “Polo.”
Beast sent to Wizard (Mo’s father) a code 404, the code for a document that was not found. Even in the command center verbal conversation was discouraged. It was hard to know if the CSA would be alerted or if a Red State Spy had bugged the center. “Check the list?” Samwise asked on the chat screen. “List, game over,” Wizard sent. “TO (time out), then, we wait,” Beast confirmed. The rebels stayed in the game and idly chatted but all the while they silently wondered how much the scout string had been compromised. Were they arrested? Were they dead?
To the Trump family, who now ruled in the Red States (the Confederated States of America – deliberately derivative), New York, California, Washington and Oregon were all prison states, although they refused to see themselves that way. These supposed prisoners saw themselves as the Blue States of America, the Underground, the Resistance, dedicated to restoring the Republic; the United States of America. They also saw themselves as Patriots, although the designation had been coopted by the right-wing.
Donald J. Trump, the patriarch was too old to govern, but not to rule. Now in his 80’s he was treated by those around him as a King, a Lord, and he considered the CSA to belong to him as his branded kingdom. He still ranted and raged, but not very often as excesses sent him to his sickbed for days or weeks at a time. So, for the most part, the Confederated States of America were governed by a surprisingly domineering Melania, and by Ivanka, Jared, Don Jr., Eric, and Baron. The House of Representatives had been disbanded and the Senate was powerless, a rubber stamp. The Trumps and the Senators considered themselves Patriots, although any connection to America’s founders had been broken as the Constitution was reinterpreted and finally rewritten in a Constitutional Convention of Red States in 2023.
The CSA had a few very simple priorities as a nation-state. Everyone not in government must work, except married women. There are no safety nets for anyone (except the Trumps, the millionaires and the billionaires). The CSA is a Christian nation, all schools are church schools, no other religious observances (including head scarves) are allowed, everyone must attend a Baptist Church every Sunday unless there is a medical reason. The CSA is a nation where white citizens of European extraction are the ruling class; regardless of how many minorities live in the CSA they cannot hold office and they cannot vote. They must work for whatever wage their employer wishes to pay.
If you don’t work you don’t eat. If your employer doesn’t pay enough to feed you then you must work a second job, or a third job. There are no entitlements. There is no health care. Charities teach first aid and how to care for contagious family members. There are no sick days. You must stay home if you are too sick to work, but you will not be paid. Trump’s Troops, loosely organized or well-organized militias, kept an eye on state and local officials. Follow Trump rules or die. Militias cannot take over homes of white citizens or loot from them, but in all other cases all bets are off.
Since there is no immigration white females marry or face discrimination, and they are expected to have babies – one baby after another. Big white families are lifted up as icons of patriotism. Minority communities tend to be truer communities with people helping each other out with childcare, food, and medical care. There tends to be more spontaneity and warmth in minority communities but also life is a daily struggle and downtime is scarce. Contraception is free and so is abortion in minority neighborhoods. Reproduction is discouraged. Minorities can work in white households but otherwise separation is mandated; equal is never a goal. Anyone can have a small business but only whites can buy from white businesses and vice versa. Segregation is back, shameless and blatant.
Scouts were citizens of the CSA who were appalled by the Trump family and their Conservative allies but elected to stay in place and feed information to the Rebellion. Some scouts were white and some weren’t. Some scouts were Rebels who the Underground sent back into the CSA because they volunteered and had useful skills. Anyone in the Resistance might be sent in to scout for a while and then get smuggled back out. The Resistance wanted to know the numbers and locations of the various militia groups, what regular army and police forces were loyal to the Trumps and what weapons they were stockpiling. They would use these numbers in their plans to “reunite” the states, meaning restore America to its legal boundaries. Civil War was brewing, but the Rebels were not quite ready for insurrection.
California Prison State
Hector Chavez is Beast. He’s the leader of a group of five young Californians who have been longtime friends like their counterparts in NY. Hector is a computer beast because he grew up in the small Silicon Valley town of Davis, California. Silicon Valley is not part of the California prison state – it is a protectorate of the CSA. Kids in Silicon Valley grew up dreaming of becoming the new Steve Jobs, or even Zuckerberg. Hector was a coding genius and he could build his own computer from parts. But he still had to abide by the rules of the Rebellion which meant the Rebel-band (R-band) offshoot of the web could only be used sparingly. He communicated in the games just like every young resistance person did.
Duran Estavez is Hector’s best friend but all five of these young members of the Rebellion went to public school together. When their school became a private theological academy, they were homeschooled with the help of materials provided by the Underground. They had no modern underground headquarters like the one in NYS. They met in hidden rooms behind the wine cellar at the Yang vineyards, rooms that were essentially SCIF’s, made invisible to Red State ‘prison guards’ by some very advanced computer skills, learned when many of the Underground Resistance were employed by Apple or Google. Duran’s screen name is Condor.
Joe and China Yang, brother and sister, more friends from public school days and from sports activities, were members of this young resistance ‘cell’. Their family had been in California for many years, even, perhaps, more than a century. Joe called himself Chink on the internet. As a brother-sister pair they were very close, only a year apart in age. They worked in the family business daily now that they were done with formal schooling. China Yang was studying medicine in the Underground University – a long process since the Underground had to lay low at times. The medicine she was learning was strong on facts and anatomy, short on practice with modern medical technology. Screen name – Doc227
Joanna Harvey, the last member of this group, reads as white-suburban-middle-class as anyone you could find in a prison state. She could easily pass for any Red Stator, but she would certainly have to keep her passion for equal rights hidden. She was hoping to be sent in as a scout. In any operation she could be a ‘surface dweller’ because she fit in demographically, but her Californian mannerisms and accent needed work. She had a very good, very fake Apple employee ID that might explain her habitual California girl persona. Joanna was a dancer, but most of all she was a painter and a good one. She knew her way around computers and especially knew the graphics programs where others might not excel. Once a woman in the CSA married and had a child, she was no longer welcome in a career. Joanna, as a young single, could apply for jobs and expect to be hired. She could also expect a lot of perhaps unwelcome attentions from men in the workplace since the CSA was a male dominated society. And she had better not get pregnant because abortion was a criminal offense. Screen name – Picasso101
California is never buried in snow and the Yang family owns a vineyard which supplies wine to elite members of the CSA, funneling some money back into the business, helping Davis families survive, and contributing to the privately managed investment account belonging to clandestine members of the BSA. No puffy coats here, not quite such a survivalist vibe, but it is more difficult to hide what you are doing when it is always so easy to get around.
People need a valid reason to go into a SCIF, even if the building is not labeled as such. The building itself must be bigger than the safe room and it must have a purpose so that it is expected that residents will go there. The other SCIF in Davis is disguised as an arts center. Residents can join a band there, or a dance group, or take art classes, or just work in any of the studios. The entrance to the SCIF is hidden away and you need a code to enter this room which is where the computers are kept and where you can go to take classes from the Underground University. Some of the SCIF premises, as mentioned before, are actually underground behind the wine cellar at the Yang vineyard.
When Chavez (Beast) got the message at the same time that NY did, the other four members of his group were not in the game. Before he left the “Pit” as this computer node was affectionately known, he left a message for the others. ‘Polo missing,’ it said. Joanna wandered in from an art class at the art center and saw the message. She also saw that there had been no other messages after the TO, but she checked into the game with NY anyway and played along in case they were being surveilled. ‘It’s very hard to learn to keep all your activism a secret, to mention it to no one, to not often even get a chance to have a conversation with her closest friends that wasn’t coded,’ Joanna mused after she died for the third time and the screen said game over. The screen invited her to play again and she said yes. ‘What could have happened out there in the CSA?’ she thought as she twisted a long strand of perfectly straight blonde hair. She noticed it was almost 4:30. She had to go home to help with dinner. Picasso101 AFK she typed, swished that long blonde hair over her shoulder and exited the Pit. But she would have a hard time waiting until she would be able to go back online again to hear about any updates.
Washington State Prison, 2028
Washington State is another of the blue states that Trump liked to focus some of his vengeful energy against. It was one of the first states to have cases of the novel coronavirus but fortunately did not get dragged into the PPE/ventilator wars with Washington, DC. They had the virus under control by the time it became clear that hospitals would not have enough protection for doctors, nurses and staff when the virus peaked. So, Washington State did not have to beg the federal government or hear the message that states would have to find their own resources.
But Amazon and Microsoft were both located in Washington State and Trump both lusted after and threatened to break up any large tech companies whose profits gave them too much social media presence and too much power. Trump, of course loved successful businesses and courted CEO’s but when a business crossed over into media and negative comments were allowed to stand, the unfairness of it all overcame his admiration.
Still when the prison states were declared there were those rich tech companies strung out like jewels along the West Coast, more enticing than even gold plumbing or the reception hall of the Saudi Kings. Trump made sure to stay connected to all the key tech industries and they were not considered part of the prison states which made them part of the CSA, subject to CSA control and surveillance. The tech companies were no longer free. They had to act as Trump toadies or die. Clearly the tech companies had every reason to take on an invisible role within the Resistance.
Trump also took over the ports of San Francisco and Seattle and all of the goods bought from and sold to Asia and beyond. Once again businessmen had to become farmers and the entire quality of life became more primitive. Washington State lost a century of modern growth and style in just the 8 years since it became an unofficial and then an official prison state. This was more or less true for all the Blue States on Trump’s enemies list. Vancouver offered some assistance to the Underground but the Canadian government ostensibly was staying out of below-the-border chaos.
With all the cheap minority labor and no unions to object Elon Musk, now a Trump fan, hired thousands of minority workers to build a high speed hyperloop train that ran between San Francisco and Colorado and Seattle and Colorado. It was a joint public-private project and it happened because Trump wanted it to happen. How did Musk conquer the Rockies? It was achieved in the manner of the Intercontinental Railroad without any worker protections and with many disabled or dead workers. Always good for a nation to have an expendable non-white population group, something nations have believed since civilization began. Now goods and people were zoomed right out of or into California and Washington State in a quick hurry. If you were a prisoner you did not want to be aboard that train. It did not bode well for your future.
Chantel Maxim was actually named Maxima Chan Zuckerberg. She happened to be in Washington State staying with her Aunt Donna who had fled California at her brother’s strong urging. Chantel was a charmer with her dark curls and dimples. But Chantel was only thirteen years old; too young to be a member of the Underground. However, the girl could code and she was practically born knowing computer social messaging, gaming, and marketing. Her father had invented a private messaging site for family only with an encryption code that no one else had tipped to yet. Although Chantel could not be sent into the CSA she was allowed to enter the large secret Underground rooms that the Rebellion used under Amazon. She loved old tech the best and knew all the old school games. Screen name: Max75
Since Chantel was so young she was always accompanied by her bodyguard, who did not look like a bodyguard and was only 17, not much older than Chantel. Paul Spaulding and Chantel were a great pair. They went everywhere together always deep in conversation, but at such a low level of volume that it was difficult to overhear them.
Paul’s parents worked at Microsoft but were fired and sent out into the prison state to find new jobs because of left-leaning accounts they had designed and their work with Democratic politics. So, they learned to tend their own garden, as did most residents of Washington State. Fortunately, everything in Washington, especially near Seattle, practically grew itself. Fishing was also still an accepted prison industry and so there was plenty of fish to eat. Spaulding was a handsome young black man, muscular and fit, who also grew up attached to a computer. The youth part of this cell was small but very talented. Spaulding liked Superman: Screen name Clark 1113
Where is XM6?
Games favored by the Rebellion included Pac Man, Space Invaders, All the Mario’s but especially Super Mario Brothers and Super Mario World, Frogger, Zork, Donkey Kong, Myst, the Sims, Oregon Trail, Tetris, Civilization II, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half Life 2. Thank goodness for their connections to the wizards of tech. At the moment they were playing Civilization II. Chantel refused to leave the game until a message came through from XM6. Eventually the word ‘safe’ appeared in the chat. A while later someone started a biology discussion in which they used the combo ‘cell compromised.’ Then came ‘tell mom I will see her soon.’
There was a silent celebration in the NY Underground, in the Pit, and deep under Amazon, arms raised, dancing, hugging. People checked out of the game according to a prearranged order, a few rebels at a time, and went carefully home.
Since Henry Samuels, a senior organizer and Mo’s father, was in the game with the younger members in the NY center he was already aware of what the Scout network passed along. Actually, the resistance, the Rebellion, was pretty much done with the scouting stage. It was time for action. Actually, the Rebellion was always unsure what to call itself because the name Patriots was already taken by the enemies of everything the Republic stood for. So, they called themselves the Rebellion, the Resistance, the Rebels, any name you wished to use (except Patriots) for those who wanted to put an end to this Trump-branded, twisted, white supremacist, fake theocratic version of America, reunite the nation, restore the original US Constitution, and toughen it up so that authoritarianism would find it more difficult to take root in America.
“We give you a Republic, if you can keep it,” said the founders. Well we blew that. Could we reboot the Republic – (The United States of America 2.0)? Henry thought again it was definitely time to be done with the scout stage. The Rebellion had the counts, they knew the rates of production, they could predict what the CSA had available. The problem was that what they had available was formidable. Reminiscent of Star Wars, ‘how could a rag tag band of rebels’ hope to beat the Red States when Blue State rebels were far outnumbered. The CSA had the unpredictable Trump Troops, made up of police, the military, and home-grown militias to overcome – and these Red States also had nukes and the nuclear codes (would they use them?).
It was time to find a way to get the leaders of the Rebellion together and come up with a plan to break out of these prison states and free the ‘liberals’ so hated by all those who loved the Trumps. There had been much speculation about how a prolonged planning session could take place safely. Was there any way to meet secretly in person? Did any of their connections with technology geeks who were under the thumb of the CSA but also were members of the resistance have programs like the old Zoom program for video conferencing that could not be hacked, perhaps by the same hacker/s who compromised the Scout cell. Although private encrypted conversations had taken place, no actual plan had been decided upon. Henry knew that it was time for the BSA to take some risks. But which risks would offer the best chances for success with the fewest casualties?
“Well isn’t that the dilemma of every leader since the beginning of time,” Henry thought. He had been a professor and was now a farmer. How had this fallen to him? But he had taken control as the CSA clamped down on NY and turned it into this prison state. He had been proactively aware of Trump’s hostility and he had planned, along with a compliant university administration, the Center and the underground command center that was accomplished without fanfare or stacks of paperwork. By taking charge of the survival of Syracuse residents he had become the leader of the NYS Rebellion by default. But he had help. There were other New Yorkers who had agreed to accept his leadership and who served under him as a second tier of leadership. And there were leaders on the West Coast too who would have to be consulted.
The Rebellion tried not to use leaders who were too well known because their movements were watched too closely. They also liked to include some younger members because of their talents with technology and because they were not so fearful of innovation. Henry Samuels represented Syracuse, NY and he did not take his son Mo along with him. Someone had to stay at home to cover for him and take care of the family business. Hannah could not really hide her Jewish roots and she would be at risk of discrimination and hate speech and even violence so she stayed protected in the community. That left ‘Whaler’ Drew Morgan to be included in the leadership council meeting. Drew was never an academic although he loved to read; he was a natural engineer and a practical problem solver. And he did not really have any ambition to be a leader, which made him even more valuable. He had a reputation for being silent, but fierce when action was called for.
Three people represented Albany, two each from Rochester and Buffalo, one from Watertown, one from Binghamton. That put the delegation from NY at nine. California was sending the ‘Beast’ Hector Chavez, the lovely and intelligent mom of Joe and China Yang, the owner of the Yang vineyards, Lily Yang, along with eight others, so the California delegation had ten members. Washington State could not send Chantel, of course but they sent two ex-Amazon department heads.
Oregon, which no one had heard much about sent the father of twin boys who worked the computers in the Oregon underground, which was not literally underground. On the surface the Oxford boys seemed like a pair of hipster doofuses. They knew all the newest social media news and slang. They loved rap music and especially early rap and they knew the words: Tupac and Nas were their boys. But they lived in a state where Intel was made and they were also computer geeks, much admired for their programming skills and their grasp of early computer games and software. The rebels had often found it helpful to hide out in the past.
Their dad John Oxford would be included in the meetings and so would his sons, Theo ‘Heart00’ Oxford and Nathan ‘Dog832’ Oxford. There were misgivings about these last two, but under those ditzy exteriors were some very inventive minds. That made a ‘war’ council that consisted of twenty-four members from widely separated geographic areas in four prison states. Just figuring out how to meet, either in person or online was a thorny problem requiring careful thought. If they were caught it would take out some of their best leaders and tip off an already paranoid CSA that there was, indeed, an organized resistance movement.
Before Henry Samuels could decide how his council would meet the hacked scouts started rolling back into their home states through the underground, which was only sometimes actually underground, but the Rebellion was not opposed to the use of sewers and drainage pipes when times were dry and the infrastructure was big enough. The scouts would have to be debriefed and that would have to take precedence. Initial messages from the scouts, however cryptic, suggested that there was information that could help the council with their action plans.
The Rebellion did have access to a Global Satellite that was not supposed to be online yet, but friends of the rebels with skills had activated that GSAT. The Rebellion could send longer messages in Morse Code or even double-coded with Morse Code plus a short-term code pad.
What the scouts reported was an undercurrent of deep unrest in the Confederated States of America among two groups: women and minorities. Some women did not mind being good little submissive wives and mothers, but many women had held responsible and interesting, perhaps even powerful positions, before the formation of the CSA. However, women had no access to guns and they were often pretty closely monitored because men knew they were not all committed to submission, or to motherhood for the purpose of repopulating the white race. From past experience though, it is clear that women do not always require lethal weapons to wreak havoc.
Minorities were now faced with institutionalized segregation, geographic confinement, and forced low-wage employment, and were policed by Trump Troops, militia members, who had none of the discipline of regular military troops. Most minorities worked in white households or yards, but they could not own cars. ID’s were recorded when they boarded shuttles and again when they returned home.
So, good news and bad news from the ‘scouts:’ the Rebellion was horribly outnumbered and out gunned. It had proven impossible to plumb the loyalty of the police, the military or the Trump Troops who seemed to present a solid Red obstacle to either peaceful or violent change. The scouts were unable to guess if any of the enforcers would switch teams in the event of actual attacks by the rebels. But small forces with human rights as their platform also had succeeded against enormous odds many times before. Or was that only in fiction? Henry Samuels had to believe it had some basis in reality.
The scouts saved what they learned in interviews with people living in the CSA whenever they could get someone to speak with them. Scouts sent their notes through the GSAT feed in Morse Code, using their personal code pad and the notes were recorded automatically in the rebel centers. There were no names attached, just codes.
CM12 tells us about Anna living in Atlanta. She says, “I am a mom of five and a Christian and I was always Pro-life, so I should be a happy woman, but I sort of resent being turned into a baby factory, although I love my kids. I am convinced that whites should not become a minority group in America so I see the need to boost the birth rate. But I find myself bored. I am not valued as a thinking person. I have a fairly supportive husband who is good to all of us and even helps with dishes once in a while. He used to walk the floor with the babies patting them and talking to them. But I am more than happy with five children and I don’t like being pushed to have more. And Chuck works for long hours. I guess this isn’t how I thought my life would turn out.”
FM89 talked to Harvey in Florida and also to Brenda. Harvey is a 30-year-old black man living in Sanford, Florida and Brenda is a Hispanic-Cuban mixed-race woman living in the Miami ghetto. Harvey is a gardener who works for two well-to-do white families. He likes his job because his employers know almost nothing about plants so they leave him alone as long as he shows up on time and never leaves early. He is also allowed a truck with this job and does not have to rely on public transit or have to walk to his job as many other of his neighbors do. He had earned a degree in liberal arts and had begun law school but could not afford to move near a black college. Black migration involved getting a pass and was expensive. A black person could not attend a white university. He would only be allowed to practice law within the minority community and only if the case involved only minority persons. He learned to garden and minded his own business. He was in love but there were penalties to face if minority relationships produced children. There were few children’s voices to be heard around Sanford.
Brenda tells FM89 that she used to love America and think Miami was the best place on Earth. Miami was hot; so colorful, so full of love and fun, music and good food. But America now turned a hostile face to Hispanics, Cubans and all mixed-race minorities. Jobs were tiring and paid low wages. No one smiled these days or sang. There were penalties if you had a child – birth control was free and mandatory. Even to move was practically impossible. Where could you go? The same rules governed minorities all over the Confederated States of America. People even whispered about escaping back to Cuba or to South America. The streets were flooded with water after every rainstorm and the minority community was given the parts of Miami that flooded most. Houses had to have a second floor and everyone had to live upstairs away from dampness, mold and mildew. Brenda hated her life these days and longed to change it.
UM4 interviewed Tracy in Idaho. She’s single and white so she is allowed to work until she is 25. Then she must marry or she will be assigned a husband. But Idaho is an oil and gas state and the men are typical American men who exhibit male herd traits such as spewing sexual innuendo, even invading personal space with ogling and random touching – copping a feel if they get a chance. It you let some of these guys get you alone rape is a real possibility. Tracy was shocked at how small women’s lives were in the CSA, how few rights women had and how little there was to look forward to. She hoped to fall in love or attract a promising husband but there were few options. There were lots of men, but hardly any good men in the energy business. Find an engineer she was advised by her fellow female workers. Tracy hoped she was pretty enough to find one soon.
GM12 – subject of interview – Alex, is a black man, 40 years old living in an inner-city black neighborhood in Atlanta. Before Georgia in the USA became Georgia in the CSA Alex owned a very popular BBQ restaurant. He was allowed to keep his business but he could only serve the minority community. “Living as a black person in the CSA is terrifying,” says Alex, “You never feel safe. People get killed and terrorized every day. Do not ever relax your vigilance. I lived in Atlanta all my life and loved it, but I cannot love this Atlanta. Fortunately, I already had two sons before Atlanta entered childless apartheid. They are my company and the source of my greatest fears.”
PM88 interviews Cass in Illinois. Cass is a white woman in her 70’s and she’s a COVID19 widow. She has to work and since she has no special skills she is working in a factory on a production line. There is no such thing as Social Security or Medicare or even Medicaid in the CSA. If you can move you are expected to work. She and her husband had a house and there was some insurance money, but her husband was in the ICU for a long time and the government seized the money to pay for his medical care. She had a small nest egg but not enough to live on for long. It often helped her make ends meet. She liked the people she worked with but had to live in the dormitory space provided by the company and privacy did not come with the territory. Cass would have liked her coworkers better if she didn’t have to live with them. Long gone were the plans she and her husband had for an interesting retirement, perhaps spent traveling. She did not have any political leanings at all, although her husband loved Donald Trump, but she used to be proud to be an American and she didn’t feel that way anymore.
GM12 who covers Georgia and South Carolina gets to interview Ellen living in Charleston. Ellen is a tiny thin woman, very well-dressed, watching a pair of girls play in the local park. She looks exhausted and unhappy and there is the tail end of a black eye if GM12 is not mistaken. She says one of the girls opened a door and it hit her in the face but clearly she is a battered wife. It makes sense that a society that places no value on women and gives men almost unlimited power is bound to give domestic violence free rein. Ellen would not offer any honest appraisal of life in the CSA and the interviewer would not ask her to. She was too frightened to speak about anything beyond empty pleasantries. Nothing GM12 could do about Ellen right now.
LM10 interviewed Trey in a minority town in Louisiana near New Orleans. Trey made sure that they were alone and kept checking that every few minutes. The family next door to him, friends of his, had been terrorized by the KKK which supposedly did not exist just the night before and he did not want to attract any attention. His friend Lester was taken away. It was rumored that Mei Lin was pregnant. Someone else came by the next day to take Mei Lin away. Ten minutes was all that Trey was willing to give.
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 21st 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.
Daniel Silva has written and published the twentieth book in the series that features Gabriel Allon, the green-eyed, clear-headed, master of intelligence work and art restoration, The Order. Lucky me. I like these cerebral mystery-thrillers that manage to seek out and find bad actors, and also unravel what is revealed in the aftermath of Jewish genocide in World War II. Silva shines a light on anti-Semitism and although we tend to think that it was limited to Germany, Silva uses his fiction to show how much cooperation Hitler found all over Europe. There were collaborators who cheated Jewish people by offering fake documents in exchange for money, paintings, jewels, and who never delivered. When the Jews were transported to the camps the scammers adopted their possessions as their own, displayed them, probably insured them, although they could not prove their provenance.
In this case we learn more about the ways that many European Catholics not only failed to protect the Jews, but actually collaborated with Hitler in exterminating them. At the heart of the book are the questions of whether the Jews killed Jesus, whether that explains anti-Semitism, and an exploration of the validity of the gospels.
Gabriel is the head of Israeli Intelligence. He is married to a beautiful Venetian Jewish woman and they have young twin boys. Chiara, Gabriel’s wife, finally books a vacation in Venice with a promise of a painting restoration. She knows how to tempt her husband. Then Pope Pietro Lucchesi dies. What does Israeli intelligence have to do with the Vatican? Well, it happens that Gabriel knows the Pope personally and saved his life once before. The Pope’s secretary, Luigi Donati and Gabriel have found that they work very well together. They also agree that the Pope did not die of natural causes. He was murdered. They have to move quickly to find the guilty party before the Cardinals lock themselves away in the Conclave to name a new Pope.
A shadowy Catholic organization which has been mentioned in other Silva books adds menace to this tale. What is the connection between the fate of the Jews and the Order of Saint Helena? Is there an actual Gospel of Pontius Pilate? The ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book gives the facts that are known to be true and these facts provide some authenticity to the events offered up as fiction. The Order is classic Daniel Silva and partners him with his team who we have come to know and care about.
Lily King’s novel, Writers and Lovers is the kind of book that is so readable that it’s over before you are quite ready for it to be over. Usually books that we can’t put down are mysteries or thrillers, but this book is not in either of those genres. I suppose it would be classified as literary, but it is not at all obscure. Casey’s life is not in a good place. Her mom just died. They had a blip in their mother-daughter relationship but it got mended and they became very close. She is trying to finish writing a novel and yet she wants to cancel her appointment at a writer’s camp in Rhode Island because her grief is not the best mood for writing. And indeed, she gets almost nothing done but she does have a sexy romp with another writer, Lucas, which ends badly.
We find her, after her days at writer’s camp living in the garage of a friend of her brother, in what is so shabby and small it can hardly be called an apartment. Casey does not want to sell out. She does not want to take a job just for money because then she won’t have any time to write. But her college loans are weighing on her and we all know those lenders do not leave you alone. She is working as a waitress at Iris, a restaurant that King describes so perfectly that we know exactly where it fits in our restaurant schema; at the high end. King also brings all of the other wait staff, owners, chefs to life with deft character sketches that don’t require too much detail because we already know these people in a sense. Some of Casey’s fellow employees are miserable and some are warm and see work as a cooperative venture.
Casey’s friend Muriel is also a writer and she can see the grief and the debt weighing down on Casey’s mind. She takes her to a party where a writer named Oscar is set up in the kitchen for a book signing. She has another writer on her mind, named Silas who left town after they had one date – hard not to take that personally. She doesn’t pay attention to Oscar but he pursues her and shows up at Iris with his two lovable sons. His wife, the boy’s mom, died and he is past the main stages of his grief, looking for a new wife and a new mom for his boys. Here is another trap for Casey. First of all she doesn’t really want to be a wife and a mom, she wants to be a writer. Can she be both? But she is half in love with those two little boys. Second, Oscar is older than she is and is already a published writer with a pretty hefty ego. Is Oscar likely to be happy if she also becomes a successful published writer. And then there is that other interesting weirdo, Silas. He is back in her life and yet just as skittish. Will Casey Peabody have a nervous breakdown now that her landlord tells her the garage property is up for sale and the new chef turns mean. Quelle dilemma.
I see that I made this sound like some kind of romance novel, which it really isn’t. That’s because I’m not as good a writer as Lily King. Maybe I enjoyed this novel so much because I am currently trying to write a novel of my own. Still, worthwhile if the story line is of interest to you.
Something freaky happened while I was reading Delia Owen’s book Where the Crawdads Sing. I experienced a small invasion of fireflies in my house. When I turned off my lights at night the flashing lights began, like little twinkle lights, except with a bug attached. Now Kya, the “Marsh Girl” in Owen’s book may have found comfort in a few little fireflies, she may have looked them up in her books and learned all about them, but I didn’t like the idea that they might cozy up to me while I slept so I kept catching them in plastic containers and taking them out to the porch and setting them free. What I learned about fireflies in this novel made them far less romantic, but Kya would excuse them because that is just nature. It’s about survival and reproduction of the species.
Where the Crawdads Sing is a book that requires you to suspend your disbelief, but it is also a book of beautiful images and natural lessons. Kya is born into a family with parents and children, although some of the children are quite a bit older than she is. Her father drinks and yells and slaps and punches, anyone who gets near him but especially his wife. Kya is only six when her mother leaves her, when she walks off in her alligator high heels, carrying a small suitcase, tossing a white scarf over her shoulder. Kya looks every day for years for her mother to return. Her closest sibling, brother Jodie, also leaves. He tells her that it is too dangerous for him to stay and he has to go. That leaves Kya with that abusive father. But Kya is a child of the marsh land and the swamps. They entertain her, teach her and hide her. She simply hides in the marshes when things get scary.
Kya had heard all about the potential horrors of foster care. She tries school for one day and then cannot bring herself to go back. The town sees the father and little daughter as trash and they do not really want to be involved. Kya’s dad stops drinking for a while and they fish together and motor around the marshes in his small boat but eventually he starts drinking and gambling and once again gets abusive. Eventually, when Kya is only ten, he also leaves and doesn’t come back. She barely survives but she uses the gifts from the sea.
What the beaches and marshes of the South Carolina lowlands come to mean to Kya, the deep loneliness she feels, that she sees herself as unlovable among humans but an accepted part of the beaches and marshes and swamps and clearings that she comes to know and love, eventually offers her some ways out of poverty and solitude. She meets two men, Tate, who shares her love of the lowlands and who teaches her to read, who brings her books and her first kiss. The second man is of the town and if Kya was not so lonely she would not have been involved with him.
I avoided reading this book for quite a while because I guess I am not very enamored of crawdads, but it was a compelling story, whether believable or not. Delia Owens leaves you with some things to think about, and if you finish it you will see why it was freaky to have those fireflies visit while I was reading Kya’s story.
Photo – From a Google Image Search – The Bibliofile
The title of The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel is more symbolic than actual, although the book abounds with expensive houses and hotels full of glass walls, and images of light on glass, and reflections in glass, water like glass, and even two cryptic examples of acid writing on glass. Despite all the reflected sunlight, and the sunlit exteriors viewed through shaded interiors we get the feeling that this will be a dark tale. The sunlight simply covers over the crimes little and big that all human lives seems to collect. The glass suggests a transparency which does not exist. It is as if you tried to look through the glass from the outside, but the inside was so dim in the bright sunlight that all you could see was your reflection.
Paul is the first character we meet. Although he certainly wanders along underneath the main narrative, his is also an iconic modern story. Paul’s sister, Vincent, I know strange name for a girl, but that is her name, does not know her brother well and is warned by her mother that he has a difficult life and she should stay away from him. However, Paul is adrift and Vincent is his only anchor so he makes sure that his path sometimes crosses hers. Paul wants to be a musician but he is in college studying math. He is barely surviving and then things get even worse when he goes to a Goth bar to hear the group Baltica and buys a bad batch of Ecstasy. He hands it off to the band, not realizing that it is a messed up batch and Charlie Wu dies of a heart attack. Talk about a life-haunting event. And why did it have to happen to a guy from the back of beyond in Canada who already had a tenuous grasp on life skills. Paul becomes a heroin addict.
Vincent, who once engraved with an acid pen on her window the mysterious phrase ‘Sweep me Up,” does get swept up by billionaire John Alkaitis when she is working as a bartender at an exclusive hotel near her hometown of Caiette. Vincent also drifts along through life, although she is not very old. She has the habit of filming scenes from nature, especially of water for five minute segments of time but this does not seem to be leading her to any career or art form. It’s just something she does. Paul, actually Vincent’s half-brother, also is working at the hotel and he is accused of etching the sentence ‘Why don’t you swallow broken glass’. It’s an odd echo of his sister’s behavior and we even think that Vincent may have done this. It’s a mystery that isn’t solved until much later so I will leave it there.
This is not really the story of Paul and Vincent although they begin the story and end it. The fact that Paul keeps stealing parts of Vincent’s life and slowly killing himself with drugs will have you wondering about the reason these two are even in this story. They are sort of two innocents destroyed by the evils of modern life. But John Alkaitis does not seem evil. He’s very good to Vincent and he has style and wealth. He’s a sympathetic figure as he lost his first wife to cancer. Vincent is too young for him but she doesn’t question him or try to control him in any way. She is just a pretty, cheerful and self-contained presence. But John Alkaitis is a financial wizard who seems to use magic to produce investment returns that are consistently high. How does he do it?
The book is well-written, full of evocative images. It begins with a flashforward to the end which you may not even process unless you go back and read the beginning again. The beginning did not draw me in but I stayed with it and became quite enamored of the book. It’s not easy to pluck a story out of the news and make it fresh, with a decided literary flair.
Camino Winds takes us back to Camino Island just in time to greet a direct hit by a Category 4-5 hurricane named Leo. John Grisham takes us to revisit Bruce Cable at his very popular bookstore when Mercer Mann is scheduled to do a reading and book signing for her new novel, named Tessa after her grandmother. Bruce Cable is an enthusiastic fan of Mercer and he is an enthusiastic fan of all novelists, although he likes literary fiction best. The island has attracted a small, oddball group of writers who enjoy each other’s company and are happy to be strong-armed into attending the book signings Cable sponsors. His bookstore is a popular stop on publishers’ marketing circuits.
Mercer is with her new beau Thomas, also a writer, but they have to evacuate the island before the book signing can ever take place. Mercer’s grandmother’s cottage may not be able to survive a direct hit by such a strong storm. Bruce moves all his first floor books to the upper floors in the bookstore and decides to stay put in his Victorian home, beautifully decorated by his wife Noelle, an antiques dealer. Noelle is off on a buying trip. Nick, a young student working part time in the bookstore hangs with Bruce through the storm and the aftermath. Bruce has a generator.
The storm is a doozey and there is plenty of damage but it is to the north of where Cable lives, closer to the big hotels. And indeed, the electricity does get taken out by the storm. But one of Cable’s writer friends fares far worse in the storm. When they go to check on him they find him folded over a stone wall in his back yard, dead. At first they think he was hit by flying debris, but young Nick, lover of mystery books, offers good reasons to believe this is actually a murder.
Nelson is an author who has just finished a new book, although he has not yet sent it to a publisher. At first no one except the reader of Camino Winds thinks there is a connection between the manuscript and Nelson’s untimely demise. But we, John Grisham‘s readers knew it. We were right, sure enough there is a connection and it makes for another edge-of-your-seat story, even with a little edge of menace. Watch out or you will be pulling another all-nighter.
I decided to go for a bit of lighter summer reading and I know John Grisham well and so I knew if I chose his book Camino Island that I was likely to find what I was looking for. The book begins in a library at Princeton University, always a good sign for me when a book begins in a library. In this case four thieves decide to take on a nearly impossible heist of five original Fitzgerald manuscripts from a very well-protected vault. Pulling off the theft required plenty of advanced planning and ingenuity and the end result was both successful and not successful. The books ended up in the shady end of the rare books trade.
In a parallel story, which we know will eventually connect back to this theft, we meet a young author Mercer Mann (great author name) who has just lost her job teaching at a university due to the economy. She had published one book which was well-accepted by critics but did not really sell because of inadequate marketing. She had spent many summers on Camino Island with her grandmother Tessa, protecting endangered sea turtles, enjoying her grandmother’s company, and learning to love the ocean and the beach. When her grandmother, who had gone sailing, was found drowned after a storm, Mercer stayed away from the beach house she loved because she could not face knowing her grandmother would no longer be there. But it has been several years and Mercer is without a job and finding it difficult to write her second novel.
Enter Elaine, chic insurance investigator looking for those missing Fitzgerald manuscripts and running out of time. When she offers Mercer much more than a year’s salary to spy on the local bookseller, Bruce Cable, and then ups the ante by offering to pay off Mercer’s burdensome student loans, Mercer takes on this task despite her gut feeling that this is a very bad idea and that she is unsuited to the task.
John Grisham is skilled at grabbing us with his prose and his timing and keeping us engrossed in a story until we risk losing sleep over the matter. He has not lost his touch. He also knows how to make imperfect people likeable enough that we make allowances. This book doesn’t attempt to meet any goals that inspire global equality or cooperation; it exist strictly to entertain, and it does that very well. The book has suspense and questionable choices, but it also offers warmth and charm.
Perihelion’s network has been taken over by alien remnants and so has its engine, draped in organic alien remnants, so the ship kidnaps SecUnit, our SecUnit, the surgically altered, Murderbot who figured out how to turn off its own governing module. The problem is that SecUnit is not alone. Amena the somewhat annoying teenaged daughter of his new friends from Preservation is with him when he gets kidnapped. Fortunately the bot who usually controls Perihelion, the one our antisocial SecUnit calls Art, works with and understands teenaged humans and Amena is more grounded than she seems. This is the way Network Effects by Martha Wells, her fifth Murderbot book begins. From that point on the action is nonstop.
We are not at all sure why we like a SecUnit with an attitude, but he has become recognizable to us because of certain little foibles like his addiction to space movies which are basically space soap operas. SecUnit has taught Art to share his taste in movies. Whenever either can free up a small amount of his/her coded brain, which is a network in control of many things at once, you can bet there is movie running in the background with a title like Mainstream Defenders Orion or World Hoppers.
Clearly our SecUnit is also becoming more an augmented human than a murderbot. Murderbots are incapable of empathy or social anxiety. They are built to be stone cold murderers. Even before SecUnit turned off its own governor module it had far too many moral issues with the orders it was being given to be an efficient murderbot. When a murderbot doesn’t behave it gets shut down and reconfigured by whatever corporation or other entity owns it. Since they are very expensive they are usually owned by only the wealthiest companies and bonded out for specific jobs. Our SecUnit became his own “person” very early in his career. Here’s the old artificial intelligence question about whether or not machines can learn. And what about a machine that is a mix of machine parts and organics? SecUnit is quite lovable and handy to have around, but isn’t it possible that might not always be the case with an ungoverned murderbot. (Random, but valuable thought, not answered in this novel.)
We also get a enormous dose of animosity towards the role of corporations in exploring and developing planets. Martha Wells does not seem to believe that rapacious corporate entities are going to be any less greedy and profit-oriented out in space than they are on earth, but the repercussions could be very deadly. And sometimes they might be deadly on purpose. Entertain yourself sometime with Network Effect or one of the other Murderbot Diaries. If you don’t like them it may be because you are not addicted to space soap operas like me and the other bots.