In Brief

04.14.14

This Week’s Hot Reads: April 14, 2014

A 15th century slave’s monologue, a sheepherder’s confrontation with mysterious violence, and a clear-eyed look at the Mormon Church’s fraught origins.

The Expedition to the Baobab Tree
By Wilma Stockenström

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‘The Expedition to the Baobab Tree’ by Wilma Stockenström. 129 pp. Archipelago Books. $18 paperback. ()

Every few years, a book comes along that I read only a few pages at a time, lingering over exceptionally well-crafted prose. In 2012, Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, a searing monologue delivered by Jesus’s mother as you’ve never before encountered her, was one such novel. Now another monologue, also spoken by a woman who has experienced more than most can fathom, has left me entranced and devastated. Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree, printed in Afrikaans in 1981 and followed by a virtuosic 1983 English translation by Noble laureate J.M. Coetzee, has received little to no attention in America. But thanks to Archipelago Books, which consistently introduces English readers to lesser-known though seminal titles, a new edition will hopefully change all that. At the very least, this slim work (not a novella, as that category seemingly exists just to diminish the importance of short literature of quality) should be on every postcolonial studies reading list.

Told from the perspective of a 15th-century female slave, the text details her initial capture, her relationships with multiple owners, how she was destined never to know her grown children, the expedition with her last master that led them away from a coastal city and into the interior, and ultimately the circumstances propelling her, alone, into a hollow within a baobab tree. While these events are critical, what requires the most attention is the manner of her narration. Having left a world in which she was subjugated by the rituals and systems of categorization codified by others, always acted upon and never allowed to act for herself (except when “reign[ing] over [her] dreamtime”), she now demands self-determination. By collapsing the distinction between dreams and reality, inventing her own naming system, and rejecting the linear conception of time, she creates narrative conventions that are hers alone. What results is almost fable-like and mythological. But in actuality, the novel contains ample material that points to a real and specific time and place. The frequently hallucinatory and fantastical prose-poetry, while inventive, is not merely a linguistic flourish; it is a political statement, the fierce rejection of “Western,” specifically patriarchal, practices of reading the world.

“[A]cknowledge me, as a human being, and nothing more than a human being. That is all I am.” Do acknowledge her. But only on her terms.

All the Birds, Singing
By Evie Wyld

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‘All the Birds, Singing’ by Evie Wyld. 231 pp. Pantheon Books. $24.95. ()

“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” Stark and visceral, with words almost chewy, this opening line introduces us to a brutal story in which humans are seen as the animals we are. Its pages are saturated with violence and the sights, sounds, and smells of death: a kangaroo injured by a speeding car is subsequently bludgeoned with a crowbar; a pigeon’s last breath comes as a hand accidentally crushes its lungs; a bird on fire soars into the sky. And then there is the slaughtering of sheep, some killed purposefully and others at the hand of an unknown “beast.”

Jake Whyte, an Australian woman who raises sheep on an island off the coast of England, is haunted and hunted by this mysterious force. Such conditions are nothing new for her though; she has spent the majority of her life in a combative stance, whether against schoolgirls calling her “homo” or a john from her days at a prostitute who essentially keeps her as his prisoner. We learn about her past in Australia in every other chapter, each one taking us further back in time to a definitive, and catastrophic, event in her youth. The other half of the book, chronicling her life in England, pushes forward toward encountering what might be lurking in the nearby forest.

While Wyld tackles a variety of difficult themes—memory and trauma chief among them—with considerable care, the primary narrative concerning a woman grappling with pain, guilt, and questions of belonging ultimately suffers from too much attention on tone and a structural decision that fails. I detect mere hints of what she might be trying to accomplish with this contrapuntal form, but as with novels like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, instituting such innovations often creates unnecessarily complicated narratives that overshadow an author’s more considerable talents. Wyld displays a fierce command of language, which makes it a great pity that this novel, so often concerned with the tearing of flesh, fails to resonate much beneath its own surface.

American Crucifixion
By Alex Beam

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‘American Crucifixion’ by Alex Beam. 352 pp. PublicAffairs. $26.99 ()

In 1844, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, and his brother Hyrum were murdered by an angry mob that stormed their Carthage, Illinois jail cell. The members of this Mormon-hating group were never legally punished, and soon after the event, the Saints (as Mormons refer to themselves) living in their “theodemocracy” of Nauvoo, Illinois were essentially expelled from the state. Having been forced out of multiple settlements while enduring constant public criticism, the early Mormons were no strangers to hardship, with one institution after another denying them the rights granted to all Americans by the Constitution. So in a mass exodus that would prove monumental to their still-maturing mythology, they crossed the Mississippi for the Utah Territory with hope for freedom from persecution.

These points, rather than the predominantly biased vitriol that has for more than 150 years dominated commentary on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are what Alex Beam highlights in his evenhanded and fast-paced history of the Mormon Church’s beginnings. Focusing on the days surrounding the perversion of justice that took place in Carthage, Beam makes every effort to contextualize Joseph Smith in American history. Most importantly, he observes that the Second Great Awakening saw many claim the role of “prophet”—Smith was just the most successful. And contrary to popular belief, polygamy was not an exclusively Mormon concept. While Smith’s argument for plural marriage was uniquely situated in his overarching theology that “Mormonism was a restoration of the original church of Jesus Christ, and of the Old Testament prophets,” John Humphrey Noyes’s Oneida colony would soon introduce its own system of “complex marriage.”

That being said, the Mormons were not entirely innocent victims of violence. The militarism of Nauvoo’s citizens and the intolerance of dissenting opinion practiced by many senior Church members (most notably Brigham Young) undeniably contributed to the antagonism against them. “A most jolly and human prophet,” Smith could easily be deemed a lustful megalomaniac, but this does not excuse coldblooded murder. In certain ways akin to Muslims today who are unjustly vilified largely out of ignorance of Islam and its history, the first Mormons experienced many gross injustices. And while Beam never sugarcoats his analysis of this tumultuous time, he gives us a story that too few have cared to hear.