Book Review: Rebecca Solnit's Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West

Savage Dreams In this, her second book, Rebecca Solnit leaves a literary chronicle of her experiences in two stages of western U.S. conflict, the Nevada Test Site and Yosemite. Her prose is part historical and largely memoir, leaving a sterling impression of the battles and consequences on the western landscape and its people. With clarity, Solnit demonstrates a theme of continuity and intersection among the conflicts, land, and people she discusses, from the plight of the “downwinders” living near the test site to the erasure of native culture from the Great Basin region and Yosemite. In her book, Solnit splits her time between the Great Basin and northern California and draws her parallels with fluidity and with purpose.

In the opening section, Solnit sets her landscape with a cruise down Highway 95 and into the maw of the Nevada Test Site. Her style is literary and evocative, and she misses no insight on what it means to be a part of this larger world. She goes on to detail her time spent with the pacifist groups working for disarmament. There, Solnit encounters a striking array of activists who all see unique and personal threats issuing from the bomb. Solnit meets those who preach the ill health effects of fallout as well as environmentalists who seek to protect the rights of the landscape. Many of the players are women, including Janet Gordon, a downwinder who lost more than a few loved ones to radiation poisoning, and three repeat-activists at the site (dubbed the Princesses of Plutonium) who all go by the name Priscilla, after a particularly volatile detonation during the 1950s. Further, Solnit encounters a strong presence from the indigenous Shoshone people, who stand mired in conflict with the federal government over land use rights. All have unique ideologies behind quelling the bomb, yet all causes intersect in a global effort to achieve peace and level the playing field for all people involved in the conflict.

In examining the activists’ varying perspectives, it’s easy to see a range of motivation at play. For the Princesses and for Gordon, Solnit hints how conflict manifests in the form of the patriarchy using the bomb to assume control over the women’s bodies through the bomb’s fallout. There is also a parallel between using the landscape against its will and to its detriment, which places all interconnected systems of earth and humanity in jeopardy. Further, Solnit chronicles how Gordon recalls a 1950s test site propaganda film that sought to mollify a nation by likening a nuclear detonation to a beautiful, God-given sight, akin to a rainbow. Outraged, a now-adult Gordon rejects this manipulative message and sees it as a way of exercising power and privilege to meet terrible ends.

Solnit’s book takes issue most with land-use conflicts between the U.S. federal government and the indigenous people who involuntarily fall within its jurisdiction. The conflicts she describes show a struggle that is fundamentally a racial one but stretches wide to intersect again on the other side with feminist and environmental issues. To illustrate these, Solnit describes at length the decades-long struggle between the Dann sisters and the federal government.

The Dann sisters—Mary and Carrie, hearty Shoshone women—occupied a ranch on their people’s land, situated in the heart of government-controlled testing and mining grounds requisitioned in the latter-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Solnit describes how one day a federal agent visited the Danns’ ranch and informed them that they were trespassing on federal land that had been purchased from the Shoshone. The ranchers informed the agent that their land, in fact, fell within the Shoshone boundaries dictated in the Treaty of Ruby Valley and had never been up for sale. This event sparked a long and fierce battle between the federal government and the Danns, with the government attempting to run the Danns from their land and with the Danns standing their ground. After decades of fierce battle, another visitor arrives on the Danns’ ranch, a government agent who literally twists the arm of now-fifty-nine-year-old Carrie Dann in an effort to force her to stand down from her land and surrender her livestock to the government. In true feminist fashion, Dann stands firm and fashions an ultimatum for the agent to either produce the bill of sale from the Shoshone to the United States, or stand down and let her people be. Solnit describes Carrie Dann’s fortitude and brings all conflics full circle:

Thus two decades of legal battle came to their culmination. The federal government versus the Western Shoshone boiled down to Joe Leaf twisting Carrie Dann’s arm. I had come to Nevada because of the great apocalyptic end-of-the-world war, a war of great bombs and technologies annihilating cities or continents or species or the weather itself, and it had changed into a man bruising the wrist of a fifty-nine-year-old woman over some cows, but it was still the same war, and in this round, she had won (Solnit, 167).

Solnit goes on to describe the ill treatment of the natives in the late nineteenth century when the treaty was signed, including the rape of Shoshone women and forced cannibalism against the native people. Similar cases arise when the federal government seized control of Yosemite and snuffed out much of the native population of surrounding Mariposa County—a heavy tale discussed at length in the second portion of the book. Through this juxtaposition, Solnit shows how the past atrocities against indigenous peoples are alive and well in modern conflicts that crop up in the same places, as if nothing has been learned at all. In the Great Basin and Yosemite alike, the push is the same at the date of Solnit’s writing as it was a century or more prior: the privileged classes suppress the underprivileged (native peoples, women, and others without a voice) in a power play that transcends a variety of power structures.

In this way, the federal government’s injustice toward the Danns and other indigenous groups represents an intersection of oppression that reaches beyond pacifism and visits heavily upon feminist, environmental, and racial questions (an idea expressed at length in Rosemarie Tong’s chapter on third-wave feminism). Pacifism raises the question of why the bomb must be detonated at all. Feminism asks why a male government worker can feel justified in coercing a Shoshone woman to give up her livelihood against her will, or why the federal government can expect that a native Miwok woman practice her people’s lost crafts as a lookie-loo exhibit for white Yosemite tourists. Environmentalism asks why the Great Basin was long ago depleted of its indigenous plant and animal species in favor of the forced agricultural lifestyle of non-native white settlers, upon which the Danns are now forced to depend. Finally, race explains a keystone in the interplay of all of these ideas: the indigenous peoples, as “fourth-world” citizens, are perceived as having lesser importance than the citizens of the “first world” and must be subjugated to fit the will of the ruling class.

Solnit shows in vivid color how a host of ideas converge to trespass on the basic human rights of the Shoshone, the Miwok, and countless others as well as on the basic natural rights of the landscape. Her wayfaring memoir shines light on the complexities of what seem to be very straightforward conflicts and expose the intricacies with light and courage.

Erin Reads a Trashy Romance, pt. 2

Between December's gauntlet of holiday festivities and several stubborn bouts of illness, I finally managed to soldier through the second half of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Thoughts . . . I've mentioned before that I rarely get fired up over romance in the "classical literature" sense, and that's mainly because the books tend to be either neat, little bedtime stories that are best served with the final chapter torn out, or cautionary tales that paint doom and hurt for anyone who tries to cast off convention. In reality, we all know that the relationships we build are complex and run the gamut from despair to sheer bliss, so it hurts my pretty little head to see the romantic ideal forced into one of two extremes without showing the nuance of something so fierce and complicated. Easy storytelling has sent more than a few of the classics back into my donation pile, anyway.

Lady Chatterley's Lover was a unique read for me because it is one of the few oldish novels I've read that doesn't fall into either camp—at least not very neatly. The second half takes Connie and Oliver from casual lovers to devoted partners and elaborates on the shortfalls of industry, classism, excess, and the Machine that perpetuates it all. Some dicey stuff happens, and in the end the situation ends up as complicated as any daytime soap. To put a fine point on it, the book calls to question what we live for—what we have built our lives around—and sort of asks us to get back to what makes us human. Are you motivated by progress or by happiness? It's really a lot of little questions that add up to the bigger picture. And in the end, the plot doesn't end Jane Austen-style with everyone finding someone and riding off into the sunset. It's more of a mellifluous cliffhanger—satisfying, but far, far from resolution—just like life.

Written nearly a hundred years ago and an ocean away, this book has a hippie streak that still has a lot to say to a twenty-something career girl with a heap of bills and way too many shoes. Whether you're looking at the philosophical message or strictly the romantic arc, the book takes the whirlwind of life, love, and progress and kind of snaps it all into perspective. Are you living for what's important, or are you simply racking up the points?

And now, a purely feel-good line from Oliver's letter to Connie on the closing page: "Well, so many words, because I can't touch you. If I could sleep with my arms round you, the ink could stay in the bottle."

So with that, I finally say good night to this book, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.

Erin Reads a Trashy Romance, pt. 1

So, I swore I'd scribble an update on my most recent read once I ran across the title of the book in line. Lo, on page 150 of the Barnes and Noble 2005 edition: "And this night she was wondering who Lady Chatterley's lover was." Blaring horns! Sweeping violins! If this were a movie, my friends and I would be leaning over one another to whisper much too noisily, "They said the name of the movie!" I picked up Lady Chatterley's Lover in part because I have a thing for banned books. There's just something enticing about a story that has to be translated into a language that wasn't the author's first choice and then marketed only in more permissive foreign lands (Rajaa Alsanea's The Girls of Riyadh sweeps immediately to mind). It's hard not to get sucked in by the hype of subversive literature; like anyone else with an Area 51 fetish, I can't help but die to read about what they didn't want me to know. I don't like people choosing my reading material for me or even painting over the ugly parts to shelter me from life—it's just not my style. Besides, if you rob a book of its humanity by cleaning up what you might consider vulgar, then what do we have but just another tome about the felicity of young marriage followed by a marbled endpaper and nothing more? Totally not my style. So Lady Chatterley's Lover appealed to me (both the book and the actual hunky lover), and so far I don't regret the time I've spent in its now-uncensored pages.

Of course there's the other reason I picked up the book: it's a tad trashy. See, I have never actually finished a romance novel—no, not even Twilight. Books with romance in them are fine (see previous posts), but I find pure romance to be too neat and too unreal. The only time I allow myself to read anything with a horse or a heaving maiden on the cover is to poke fun at the dime-store prose while reading aloud in a bad cowgirl accent. It just doesn't do it for me if the story isn't there, so Lady Chatterley's Lover is the perfect excuse to read something fleshy while asserting my book snob streak. My aversion to sexy romance makes this story relatively virgin seas to me, and it's kind of cool to see what I've been deliberately missing, but in a way that doesn't force me into titles like Love is a Horseshoe or Enter the Countess. No, thank you.

I already have plenty of guff though—Lawrence can be repetitive in his storytelling and word choice, the woman's struggle is close to truth but told from a male perspective, and the conflict is a little too easy since the husband is physically unable to perform and mentally detached from his wife. It's not the novel I would have written, but since there are no glittering spines boasting my name, I'm happy to charge ahead and see what this little book can do. I'm halfway through, and so far what I'm taking from the various characters' conflicts is a universal thread that tells us it's okay to be frustrated when you're in your twenties and thirties and feel like real life has forgotten all about you. It's revealing to see what people in all times  might do with what we're experiencing today, in 2012, so I'm eager to see what unravels in the second half.

And now, some passages:

Of Mellors, the roguish keeper and namesake of the book: "What did life offer apart from the care of money? Nothing. Yet he could live alone, in the wan satisfaction of being alone, and raise pheasants to be shot ultimately by fat men after breakfast. It was futility, futility to the nth power. But why care, why bother? And he had not cared nor bothered till now, when this woman had come into his life. . . . The connection between them was growing closer. He could see the day when it would clinch up and they would have to make a life together."

And an opening passage so brilliant that I'm still kicking myself for not thinking of it first: "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up the new little habits, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen."

Pride and Prejudice: An Untimely Review

Pride and prejudiceWas I really the only ultra-prissy, doe-eyed girl to reach adulthood without picking up Jane Austen? It took me twenty-six years to take that plunge. I stalled, partly out of embarrassment for having missed out on a classic, and partly out of embarrassment for being the girl seen in public reading Jane Austen—you know, that girl. It wasn't until a roommate mistakenly left behind a copy of Pride and Prejudice that it occurred to me to quietly take to the shadows with my new book, read it carefully, and then spend the rest of my life pretending that I'd discovered it as a budding thirteen year old. Then I remembered I have a blog and no discipline for weaving labyrinthian lies about my literary past. So I decided to embrace both my childhood in front of the TV and my sudden, adult desire to see what I've been missing. I finished a week ago, and I still have a few months before twenty-seven rolls around. Not altogether shabby. Now, what I think... If I had access to a Mr. Fusion–based DeLorean time machine, I would set my time circuits to 1820 or so and give this book five stars. The writing is superb, and there's a reason why Austen's sparkling language has endured—though it's surprising that she wasn't more popular in her day. Lizzy Bennet is a vibrant thinker and independent woman who isn't afraid of many of the restrictions her society poses. She is quick to bear her opinions loudly, and she gradually becomes the type of person willing to admit when she's been a colossal idiot. She is juxtaposed against a variety of female archetypes manifest in the other players, and it's understood that Austen sees value in the heroine being someone apart from Jane Bennet, the angel in the house whose sole purpose is to appease and conform, and Lydia Bennet, the girl with the devil-may-care streak who preys on adventure at the expense of her family's reputation. Lizzy is something in between, neither demure nor guided by impulse. She is rounded and secure and remains one of my favorite ladies in literature. All of this is saying quite a bit for little, ole Lizzy, a heroine created in an age when women's suffrage was but a twinkle in John Stuart Mill's puerile eye.

What's more, the story is genuine. As I read about Lizzy and these nineteenth-century twentysomethings, I superimposed my friends and foes onto the characters with facility because the personalities and conflicts are so relatable. Take any event from the book, slap on skinny jeans and a hash tag, and you've got yourself a pretty modern story. That Bingley bitch could as easily have been a creation of Gossip Girl as old-timey literature.

That said, I regrettably do not have access to that stylish time machine I mentioned—not even one made out of an old alarm clock and a car battery—so I do have to disparage this book by two stars for its predictable marriage plot. Not that I was shocked—we've all seen that coming since we first crawled out from under a rock and heard about Bennet v. Darcy. Romance is all well and good, but as a third-waver, I experience a flash of white rage and some mild intestinal discomfort every time I read a story that wraps up conveniently into a silver-and-white package with a wedding cake on the front. I could be reading the most compelling book in the English language, but if you montage through the explosive first kiss ideal to a shot of the wedding, I check out. By the time an author finishes listing all the loose ends that a happy marriage has tied up—usually as an afterthought in a hasty, brief chapter, like a stinger in a Sousa march—I am miles away, plotting my revenge with a dive into Susan Faludi or worse . . . Andrea Dworkin.

So for the early nineteenth century, Pride and Prejudice is a great book with a lovely ending that bestows a sense of fulfillment to readers in a highly matrimonial world. And if you look at it from a literary and historical perspective, I would urge both impressionable tweens and hardscrabble feminists alike to soak in its glory with pleasure. The only thing is that in 2012, or whatever year it is now, it's hard to swallow such a neat ending. It's as if we don't need to know any more about the well sketched characters once they've passed through the marriage veil. It's tempting to imagine a Pride and Prejudice that ends on a cliffhanger, one that sees Lizzy off to a governess post to a pair of sly and inventive children in a faraway part of England, or off to America or India. On the other side, it's tempting to imagine a good ten more chapters post-marriage that detail the new social horizons that come as Lizzy faces sudden wealth and young domestic love. A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled over Pride and Prejudice fan fiction, sequels, and modern parables that might satisfy my curiosity, but I want to hear from Austen. We have come to admire her characters, maybe more than we do the truly real figures in our own lives, yet they leave us in a puff of glitter at the precise moment when things begin to get interesting.

Does humanity gravitate toward the marriage plot for want of closure and release—as this book provides—or do we go there because after all this time, we still see it as the natural order of things? And even if we want it, should we be satisfied with the implicit jab that nothing beyond that point in a woman's life is interesting enough to immortalize in literature? Should we expect more? I'm grateful I live in such a diverse literary age, and it's heartening to understand that the fictions of our deep past are alive and true two centuries later. But there's something about Happily Ever After that screams "cop out," and as much as it helps the reader to tie up the story, I much prefer a comparatively modern inventiveness and courage of plot to soft chiffon and a quiet slip out of history.