Fall 1991, Volume 8.2
The Iron House Reviewed by Anand A. Yang
Dancing on the Rim of the World Reviewed by Kathleen M. Herndon
Bones Reviewed by Nancy Cambria
Best of the West 3: New Short Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri Reviewed by Judy Elsley
The Sleeping Beauty Reviewed by Susan E. Gunter
Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture Reviewed by Gary Dohrer
Night Soil Reviewed by Eugene England
Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in Modern India Reviewed by Mark S. LeTourneau
The Iron House: A Memoir of the Chinese Democracy Movement and the Tiananmen Massacre by Michael J. Duke. Layton, Utah: Gibbs-Smith, 1990, 160pp., $7.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Anand A. Yang, Department of History, University of Utah
This Memoir is an engaging and forthright "eyewitness" account of "six-four"—and the events leading up to it—as the Tiananmen Square tragedy of June 4, 1989, is termed in Chinese. Based largely on the personal experiences of Michael J. Duke, a professor of Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia, it chronicles what he saw, read, heard, and felt from the time he arrived in China on May 18 to when he left hurriedly on June 7.
Although in China to pursue a literary project, Duke, conversant in the language and with prior residence in the country (he had been there before in 1986-87), quickly found himself drawn into the vortex of the "Democracy Movement." As a result, his research and his personal experiences became grist for an informative Memoir regarding the tumultuous events of that Bei-jing spring: he marched alongside a million other people in the mammoth demonstration of May 23; he tuned in to the Student Broadcast Station; he recorded slogans, posters and cartoons; and he taped conversations in a host of different situations. Furthermore, he had the advantage of writing retrospectively, a perspective that enabled him to add details and insights drawn from other sources. Thus, the personal narrative—much of the book is in the form of a day-by-day reckoning of events—is spliced together with materials that have largely appeared in Chinese-language newspapers and journals—materials generated by other participants and observers. Moreover, this account also looks at the Democracy Movement through the wider frame of twentieth-century Chinese history, a view that places the events of 1989 in the larger context of China's long march toward democratic values and institutions.
However, as with any eyewitness account of a complex set of events (whether perceived through the eyes of a participant or an observer, a native or an outsider), this work has all the strengths of an "I was there" testimony as well as the limitations of, to use Clifford Geertz's words, a "There presence in a Here text." In part, the problem is that the author of this "Here" text was not always present at the scene of the event. Certainly, he was not at the venue of the Massacre after June 2 (few nonactivists and foreigners were), when the military unleashed its orgy of terror. Chapters 7 and 8 entitled "On the Avenue of Blood" and "Under the Gate of Hell," recounting the hours leading up to Bloody Sunday (June 4), are therefore gleaned from "eyewitness reports on Beida [Peking University] loudspeakers, interviews . . . and a number of published accounts . . . translated from Chinese" (90).
Because this is a retrospective account, I wish the author had been more forthcoming throughout the book in identifying how much of his narrative was directed and shaped by personal observations and how much by external sources. For instance, when he writes of catching up or keeping up with events by viewing foreign television broadcasts available in Beijing's first-class hotels or by reading foreign newspapers, does such information color his assessment of his own experiences and observations?
Like many other recently issued works on the events of June 1989 in China written from "within," this book too is significant as documentation and as documentary representing a major historical moment. Nor does it differ much from other such accounts in its conclusion that the "Tiananmen Massacre was a deliberately planned and executed slaughter of unarmed citizens by a political regime that considered them its enemies" (116). But its representations, like the photographs accompanying the text, although evocative, have a static quality to them. The book often lacks the range and thoroughness that can only be obtained from a more complete and composite record reflecting multiple perspectives and greater historical depth. Indeed, the record will be incomplete for some time to come because of the campaign of repression and disinformation launched by the regime in the wake of the bloodbath, and because only a handful of survivors until now have stepped forward to tell their tale. Nevertheless, the story needs to be told, and Duke, a foreign scholar caught up in "six-four," has drawn on his expertise to share his unique experiences regarding events we should never forget.
Dancing on the Rim of the World: An Anthology of Contemporary Northwest Native American Writing, ed. Andrea Lerner. Tucson, AZ: Sun Tracks and University of Arizona Press, 1990, xix + 266 pp., $37.50 (cloth), $15.95 (paper).
Reviewed by Kathleen M. Herndon, Department of English, Weber State University
Dancing on the Rim of the World makes me feel at home. When Jim Barnes writes of Crater Lake and Grand Ronde, Oregon, I remember visits I made there with my parents. His "burn" is the Tillamook Burn, a vast acreage of forest fire devastation that was still scarred and barren during my childhood. As a native Oregonian, I made immediate connections with other place-names in this anthology: The Dalles Dam, Maryhill, the Stonehenge replica, and Celilo. But even though I knew the places in the poems and stories, I did not know the emotions or the literature which expressed them.
It is not surprising that Andrea Lerner "found disconcerting the notion that the American Indian was a vanishing relic, particularly in a region that boasts a healthy community of Native Americans." During her years at Oregon State University, Lerner realized her students regarded American Indians through the filter of tragedy, surrender and lost vitality. They knew of Chief Joseph's famous surrender speech, but they did not know that Native Americans from Northwest Tribes (or living in the Northwest) were actively writing about Indian and non-Indian subjects. Such a view cheated her students, and other readers of contemporary literature, of the richness and vigor that does indeed exist among Northwest American writers. Lerner's anthology grew out of her desire to gather the work of both well-known and emerging Northwest American Indian writers: those who currently live and work in the region, those who come from the region, and those who, by living in the Northwest, formed an attachment to the region. She found these writers in publications of colleges and universities, in community college creative writing classes, in literary societies, and in tribal organizations.
Dancing on the Rim of the World takes its title from a line in "Dancer" by Earle Thompson, one of the thirty-four authors represented in this book: "Again, Coyote begins dancing on the rim of the world/ And the angle of geese shifts on the evening skyline." Coyote, the Trickster of Indian legend, has the ability to change his appearance, fool other animals, and confound humans. But he is only one of the traditional images which emerge from the poetry and short stories in this collection. Mary Tallmountain personifies the King Salmon in "Gaal*Comes Upriver," a poem about the annual spawning journey. "The Man Who Shot Ravens: Three Views" by Maxine Franklin tells of the killing of ravens and the subsequent tribulations faced by the shooter. Another theme explores truthfully the intricacies of family ties and cultural customs. The father in Duane Niatum's "Son, This is What I can Tell You" does not have all the answers for his son, "only the bald eagle/ and salmon, forest and sea can call you back,/ only nature carves the totem of the spine's/ four-knots." He offers his son the observations of his experience and the comfort of nature. King Kuka writes of the ancestral memory of old men, expressed in dreams, in "To the Old Men Then and Now." Jo Whitehorse Cochran also reflects on ancestral heritage when she writes in "From My Grandmother": "You were talking to my blood/ in those years before my memory/ was awake."
It is comforting to view familial love and ethnic customs from a nostalgic perspective, to long for what used to be and to cherish the old tales, the traditional images, the peacefulness of a remembered and romanticized past. But Lerner has no interest in perpetuating the work of these authors through a soft-focus filter. She has gathered work from writers of various perspectives and philosophies: gentle and harsh; comforting and disturbing; archetypal and iconoclastic. In their introduction to the collection, Elizabeth Woody and Gloria Bird suggest, "Non-Indians may find themselves uncomfortable facing the cultural suppression, disease, political repression, and dispossession that we have endured and often write about."
Dancing on the Rim of the World is a volume of considerable richness and vitality. The contributors speak not only in traditional voices, remembering their cultural past, but also in contemporary voices, expressing the frustrations, realities, hypocrisies, and the joys and loves of their lives; indeed in the lives of all of us. They make me want to talk to them, to learn more about their work; I want to include their work in my own literature classes. I want to make sure my students learn their literature as well as their place-names.
Bones by Franklin Fisher. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990, 245pp., $17.95 (cloth).
Reviewed by Nancy Cambria, Writer, Syracuse, NY
The first chapter of Franklin Fisher's Bones acts as a lens through which to view the rest of the novel. Three brief instances from protagonist Lorin Hood's childhood serve to demonstrate the secular realms of the artist interacting with the rigid teachings of his Mormon faith: First, Lorin steals pea pods from a neighbor's Victory garden and suffers from the realization that things lost—a pea fallen from the pod and left unseen in the underbrush—can never be recovered in his lifetime; next, Lorin draws an image from a dream—"something small and old that scuttled away, laughing like a hinge." When his mother discovers the drawing, she interprets it as evidence of sexual deviance and tearfully warns him never to masturbate—people can go insane from it; finally, we see Lorin at his own baptism. While underneath the water, he envisions that flourishing Victory garden. Yet in the garden with him is a creature "with eyes like spoons." The creature suddenly disappears, and Lorin is quickly scooped out of the grass by people who have burst into the garden.
It is evident, by the very placement of these incidents so early in the novel, that the chapter is meant to represent "something" about Lorin's character. Such symbolism could be interpreted ad infinitum in this review. Yet, what is significant here is the chapter's effect on the reader. When we encounter an adult Lorin in the chapters that follow, we must see his actions primarily as a product of those representative childhood experiences. As a "Bohemian painter in Los Angeles, as a failed Mormon missionary in Michigan haunted by his own spiritual and primitive artistic visions, and finally as a painter returned to Los Angeles (driven to succeed in his art), Lorin Hood is a character whose ideas of faith exist tentatively within an imaginative and sensual sensibility. Abstract notions of guilt, art, and faith play on the reader's idea of what is to unfold in the novel. We know from an early stage that we are to watch Lorin reconcile these three motivations by novel's end.
Such an opening device can be problematic. Readers are so quickly informed of the "idea" of the novel that plot and character development may suffer from more abstract concerns. Given our awareness of the character's main conflicts and motivations, our engagement with the text becomes sometimes secondary to a pre-established sense of Mr. Fisher's intention, rather than to Lorin Hood's experiences. Though we witness Lorin's coming of age as an artist and his journey through guilt, spirituality, and artistic discovery, we already have an idea of the novel as a portrait of the artist—a portrait that sometimes comes at the expense of plot and character development. It is no surprise that the pea pods which begin the book must eventually reappear as a subject on one of Lorin's canvases. When this painting is eventually revealed to us in the final chapter, we see it not as a natural result of character, plot, and language, but as a product of authorial intentions.
This effect is not helped by the succession of quick chapters that piece Bones together into a whole. Each chapter presents Lorin's odyssey through a series of short instances that are connected to the novel only by the passage of time and a reader's implicit understanding of the novel's main intentions. Often chapters will cut from one scene to another—from party to coffeehouse, to palette, to moments of surreal visions—so as to give impressions rather than a smooth telling of the plot. And, just as in chapter one, we often infer that these instances are meant to represent or essentialize the journey of the artist, rather than portray it.
However, this disjointed, skeletal structure could have been more serious a problem. Though the overall structure of Bones is uneven, the narrative within each chapter is striking. There is a rewarding cohesion between idea and character in the moment-to-moment instances that build the novel.
Fisher creates a third-person narrator who is highly attuned to Lorin's vision of the world. This narrator tells the story in a manner that synthesizes Lorin's sense of the spiritual, the sensual, and even the profane into an intensive, erotic, and bold language. In one memorable instance, Lorin envisions one of the many prophetic spirits he encounters in the novel. Yet, that very image, so imaginatively conceived via Lorin's artistic consciousness, so filled with vaporous light and considerations of "spatial distortions," and so clearly representative of Mormon prophecy, is at the same time equated with Lorin's guilt over a recent act of fellatio. That a passage can syntactically fuse the contradictory notions of sexuality and spirituality is a testament to Mr. Fisher's stylistic talent. That he can so believably tie this language to character without the least sense of exploitation or sensationalism is a further tribute to the power of his writing. Mr. Fisher controls this language and point of view superbly, so readers receive an unexpected insight into the Mormon culture through a rhetoric that one could call a language of transgression. Within passages of Bones, the rigid concerns of faith are often defamiliarized by Lorin's unavoidable artistic and sensual relationship to his world.
Bones is Franklin Fisher's first novel. And though it at times suffers from a structure that does not entirely cohere, it possesses a truly unique language and style. Readers are given a view of the Mormon culture, spirituality, and the artist that will simultaneously shock and delight. As his writing matures and he is better able to negotiate the demands of novelistic form, Mr. Fisher's future work will surely continue to merit serious attention.
Best of the West 3: New Short Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri, eds. James and Denise Thomas. Salt Lake City: Gibbs-Smith, 1990, 219 pp., $9.95, paper.
Reviewed by Judy Elsley, Department of English, Weber State University
Editors Denise and James Thomas have culled the best offerings of last year's literary journals for this volume of 16 short stories, their third annual volume to date. Each story is set in the context of the West, a geography determined by the editors as "the wide side of the Missouri." The Thomases take particular delight in selecting stories from what they call "the little magazines," although one story was originally published in The New Yorker.
These stories are as various as the West itself. The collection includes such diverse tales as a poignant account of a mother suffering from Alzheimer's disease ("What Lasts"), to a divorced Flamenco dancer in Santa Fe ("Crease"); from an account of a day in the life of an overworked truck driver ("Let the Babies Keep Their Hearts"), to an Indian woman's sexual encounter in a bar on the Duck Creek Reservation ("Crazy River").
What the stories have in common is not only their Western setting, but the craftsmanship of the writing. These authors know their business. Every line is in place, each story told with tight and careful precision. They do, indeed, represent the best writing coming out of the West in the late 1980s.
They also share a common theme, reflecting the times we live in more fully than any deliberate intention on the part of the editors. Many of the stories focus on a search of one kind or another. In some cases, the search takes the form of a physical journey, as for example in "Hole in the Day" in which a husband and father of four children pursues his wife across South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana after she has abandoned the family. The story "The Man Who Might Have Been My Father" focuses on a young boy's cross-country trip with his mother, from New York to Idaho in a cranky old car.
But most of the searches are internal: a grasping for meaning triggered by external circumstances in a chaotic and perplexing world. Two young boys wake after a heavy night of drinking to find a dead baby lying near them ("Stolen Child"). What are they to do with this corpse, and how can they incorporate knowledge of it into their world view? A couple find temporary meaning for their lives through an illicit affair ("Motel"), a relationship which crashes as disastrously as the vehicle they are driving.
A problematic world is compounded by irresolvable problems. In "Honey," for example, an aging Nicaraguan woman visits her daughter in Albuquerque as she is about to give birth to her first child, only to discover her daughter is part of a complex, dysfunctional American family. The story exposes, without resolution, an impossible family dynamic and incompatible cultural differences. A father takes his dissident daughter on a visit to his mother's home in Tucson to reform her in "Desert Places." But the daughter changes not a whit while the father falls apart.
The stories focus on the complexities of life in the eighties: marriages that don't quite work, divorces that do; children bruised by their parents' mar-riages and divorces; sexual encounters that entail as much trouble as pleasure; the diseases of contemporary society. These are not happy stories, and the only humor is the wry irony of difficult living. Although the West is the context for each story, most of them share a concern not so much for the geographical country as the inner landscape of the human condition.
Much as I enjoyed and admired these stories, I felt the absence of the leavening effect of more humor, and I missed a sense of the physical West. Many of the stories could just as well have been set east of the Missouri. There was very little of the actual land, the West that creeps into the marrow of one's bones and courses through one's bloodstream, so evident, for example, in the work of Edward Abbey.
This collection of short stories offers a view through a particular window on the imaginative life in the Western United States in the nineteen-eighties. That difficult and complex life may reflect contemporary issues and concerns, but it amounts to a rather grim picture overall.
The Sleeping Beauty by Hayden Carruth. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1990, 144 pp., $10.00.
Reviewed by Susan E. Gunter, Chair, English Department, Westminster College of Salt Lake City
This revised edition of Hayden Carruth's epic poem, The Sleeping Beauty, first published in 1982, still represents a brilliant poetic mosaic of Western cultural-literary history—or should I say "herstory"? Carruth combines fairy tales, myth, history and literature in one hundred and twenty-five cantos all clustered about the tale of the Sleeping Beauty.
The only major revision in this new edition involves the addition of an extra canto, canto 112, fifteen lines rhymed like the others. This new canto delineates the horrors of AIDS, another "h" (HIV) word that Carruth adds to other words that structure various cantos in the original version (such as history, her, hero, Hermes, husband, and Hayden). Thematically, the new canto mirrors the others, which in many instances detail apocalyptic horrors in Western history: wars, environmental destruction, mental instabilities, the failure of love as a redemptive force. In fact, a mutation of love itself causes this deadly virus, threatening the sexual order that Carruth sees at the heart of human existence:
The breakdown of nature? Was
Sexual order from which rose
Everything you know or make or see
So insubstantial, fallen
Like a house of cards now, jumbled, crazy,
Useless? (lines 6-12)
In the canto's final line, the narrator warns "you and everyone standing there on the brink" of the impending annihilation.
The only other revisions in this second edition are minor ones. In canto number 34, "North is the way" becomes "North means the way." In canto number 41, Carruth changes "he dreams of pain" to "he considers pain." The "eighteen head" (of cattle) in canto number 103 become "twenty head," and canto number 123's "wolves" shift to "glorious wolves." A few revisions involve simply changes in italicized words, adding or deleting italics from single words in several cantos.
Carruth preserves the simple, lovely diction of the original version and the sense that each canto is a jazz variation, a genuine "song" reflecting its name. He begins as before, with a creation myth, "out of nothing," in the first cantos. The making of the poem itself is a subtext throughout; although the poet insists in canto number 2 that this poem is ". . . made slowly by no one," yet the final canto proudly proclaims the poet's name: "My name is Hayden and I have made this song." I find in this edition a clearly male voice, a voice that almost overemphasizes woman's sexuality as the ground of our being. A number of the cantos detail the brutal rape of women, a rape subtly linked, in various cantos, to the destruction of the wilderness in a rural New England that is becoming rapidly urbanized.
The epic as a whole concerns the mythos of our loss of transcendent reality. Only the voice of the poet and the promise of the Sleeping Beauty hold in abeyance the universal faces of destruction. Yet the sheer clarity and loveliness of that voice promise that somehow redemption may at least be possible.
Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture by Richard Handler and Daniel Segal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990, 168 pp., $22.95 (cloth).
Reviewed by Gary Dohrer, Department of English, Weber State University
In establishing Jane Austen's credentials as an ethnographer, a participant observer studying an intact culture, Handler and Segal contrast her literary role as anthropologist with more familiar roles attributed to her by literary critics who usually see her from two very different perspectives, both of which explore the relationship of Jane Austen and the social order she has depicted in her novels. Handler and Segal remark that conservative critics view her as a defender and admirer of her own society which she chronicled. In contrast, others view her as a reformer, seeking to identify and remove corruption from the society to which she was committed. Handler and Segal point out that these antithetical readings rely on an image of a well-ordered society which the critics locate in the past and long for in the present. Other critics, however, discuss Austen as a subversive who, through her wit and use of irony, assaults the traditions of that highly structured society.
Handler and Segal describe an Austen who never presupposes nor accepts this static structure and order. She views societal rules not as determinative but as fictive, generated by the behaviors, questions and observations of the people within the society. To illustrate the concept of this relationship between Austen's characters and the rules of society, Handler and Segal turn to the world of marriage and describe marital principles Austen's characters use. Handler and Segal further argue that social rules do not exert control over social choices characters make, nor do they insure the maintenance and perpetuation of the social order. Social rules do, however, give value to and justify choices characters make for primarily practical reasons.
To investigate what Handler and Segal describe as Austen's vision "against any and all notions of a naturally grounded social order, whether a conservative vision of the nature of tradition or a radical vision of a utopian future," they make a four-part analysis of Austen's novels. First, they group all her characters to establish distinctions, categories, and conceptual associations the characters commonly understand and, as a group, share. Second, Handler and Segal analyze the various characters' behaviors and compare them to those characters' ideals and cultural premises, focusing primarily on status and rank in relation to various courtship and marriage behaviors. Third, they look at the histories of the heroines and their eventual spouses, arguing that the presentation of their stories does not support the conventional acceptance of the social order; rather, it presents the social norms and rules as a means for communicating values. It is through this communication, argue Handler and Segal, that Austen comments on and displaces conventional etiquette and propriety. Finally, they examine what they describe as metacommentary, self-conscious narration by the characters, offering the reader yet more evidence of the communicative function courtship and marriage traditions and conventions play in the behavior of the characters of Austen's novels.
Through this four-part analysis, Handler and Segal make a strong case for a fresh approach to reading Austen. They describe Austen as an ethnographer, one whose characters illustrate and bring under scrutiny the social norms by which the characters give value to their own decisions.
Handler and Segal also discuss an interesting problem this kind of analysis presents. Many social scientists question the validity of using fictional texts as either a source of data for (or a model) of ethnographic analysis. Handler and Segal, however, argue that Austen's novels provide both the data and the analysis of that data. They defend this position by arguing that Austen's narrative modes communicate cultural realities and social concerns as effectively as the rhetoric of the social science writers of her time, who had a vested interest in portraying their own viewpoints.
By focusing on Jane Austen as a writer whose fictional work transcended the traditional boundaries of fiction to provide anthropologists both data and analysis of a culture, Handler and Segal not only envision a "novel" view of Jane Austen, but also offer a new approach to understanding text, an approach that views some fiction writers as ethnographers, a perspective worth considering with other writers of fiction and their texts.
Night Soil by Levi S. Peterson. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1990, 192 pp., $14.95 (hardbound).
Reviewed by Eugene England, Dept. of English, Brigham Young University
In Levi Peterson, Western literature and Mormon literature finally have their Flannery O'Connor. I say finally because the human experience of the American West long ago produced a literary soil as rich in tragedy and guilt as O'Connor's South and, particularly in Mormonism, fostered religious exaltation and crisis as potentially fruitful for stories as did O'Connor's Catholicism mixed with Protestant fundamentalism.
Peterson has been the first to explore and exploit such Western and Mormon resources with anything like O'Connor's skill and religious passion, and in some ways, at least for me, he has improved on his teacher. He certainly has learned from O'Connor (and perhaps from other Southern writers) the power of "grotesques"—the physically or spiritually wounded and marginalized humans who paradoxically can be made to touch the very center of experience and feeling. Night Soil has at least one such maimed character in each of the seven stories, from a spinster who pays the newsboy to let her hold him on her lap to a one-legged backslider who sees a redemptive vision in a beer bottle.
Peterson has O'Connor's strenuous (and sometimes exasperating, even fear-inducing) focus on the big questions of salvation: Why do humans sin—defy God, act contrary to what they believe is right, wound and kill what they love—and what, given their cussedness, can be done about it? And he has her marvelously compelling tone—composed of convincing vernacular speech, illuminating detail, and steady, undergirding humor.
But where O'Connor's religious crises and (usually) failures are harrowing, spiritually tough, Peterson's are (mostly) tender and often successful. And his humor is less horrifying, less intended, it seems, to cut and then sear as to contribute to the long, slow, backsliding, miraculous process of healing that all his stories now seem to hold out as possible.
"The Newsboy" is disarmingly simple. A paperboy, "a small, sweet-faced, knobby-jointed kid of eleven," makes his rounds on an old mare through a Mormon village on VJ day in 1945. It is a kind of pilgrim's progress, and Albert meets a full range of the grotesque denizens of Vanity Fair (and better places) and experiences a full range of responses, from quick kindness to man and beast and spinster to sexual fantasy, to fearful snitching on a rival, to unexpected fulfillment of his dreams of love and an innocent hope for an end to death.
Peterson has created a new species of Western tale in "The Third Nephite," one that Neal Chandler has continued with "The Last Nephite" in Benediction (U of Utah P, 1989). The main staple of Mormon folklore, the stories about crucial aid from apostles of Jesus Christ from ancient America left alive on earth for that purpose, is turned on its head when one of them appears as a Peterson grotesque, an ill-favored backslider—but all the more effective, and believable, therefore, in saving Otis Wadby from the seductions, including polygamy, of a Mormon fundamentalist.
"Petroglyphs" and "The Goats of Timpanogos," though for me the least moving of the stories, develop an increasingly important Peterson theme, imagining the female as a healer. From the omniscient viewpoint, we see two remarkably different women take on two extremely different male sinners and successfully use superficially different techniques but quite similar inventiveness, patience, and courage.
"Sunswath" extends this theme and method a unique step further: Peterson is one of a very few male writers to take on a woman's voice and convincingly involve us, from the inside, in her imagined life and vocation —in this case her efforts to save her suffering, mournfully atheist, and suicidal husband. This story is, for me, Peterson's most innovative, most fearsomely funny (closer to O'Connor), and most painful to read: Lora reflects, "Mormons think God is married—Father and Mother God. Our Mother in heaven isn't active. We aren't supposed to pray to her, so I do." Later, after studying Catholicism and adding its practices to her Mormon ones in a desperate bid for help, she reflects on St. Therese, for whom hardships were "a gift that helped mortify the flesh," and prays for Harlan: "Mother in heaven, I said, don't let me let him die; I can't accept that much mortification of the flesh." And finally she offers everything, as his priest, to save him.
"A Wayne County Romance" contains Peterson's scene that is perhaps most imitative of O'Connor (the hero, Wallace, ineptly using a crane to lower the gargantuan coffin of a 543-pound woman into the "bomb crater" dug for it). But the story is most unlike O'Connor in the way the heroine, Zelva, through her healthy sexuality, common-sense dismissal of their minor youthful sins, and uncommonly unconditional love, saves Wallace from serious sin. "Night Soil" uses the O'Connor grotesque most directly (Pickett also goes on a kind of pilgrim's progress—from poolhall to outhouse to house of fornication to grave of his lost leg), but again it is unusual in the hope engendered by the final beer-bottle vision of the crucifixion: "He looked again and he saw Jesus with a bloody forehead. He put down the bottle and wept, 'Lord, don't forget old Pickett.'"
I think Peterson means his readers to imagine Christ responding, as he did to the similar plea of the thief on the cross beside him, "Thou shalt be with me in paradise." And that is the theme of all these remarkably new, thoroughly Western and also thoroughly Mormon, stories: Everything honest (and seen honestly) and with love, even night soil, is redeemable, holy—in fact, perhaps especially night soil, because it is so unavoidably honest and without pride.
Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in Modern India by Ainslee T. Embree. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, xii, 143 pp., $17.95 (cloth)
Reviewed by Mark S. LeTourneau, Department of English, Weber State University
The thesis of this collection of essays by a Columbia historian is that "the tensions generated by competing visions of the just society, grounded in religion, have been determining factors in the social and political life of India throughout the twentieth century" (x-xi). The syncretistic vision of liberal Hindus, as articulated by Gandhi and Nehru, is of a pluralistic society which maintains its national identity by affirming all religions as valid paths to ultimate reality. But the vision of Indian Muslims and Sikhs is exclusivistic and, for the former, theocratic, vigorously asserting the primacy of divine over civil law. In Embree's pessimistic view, the effort to accommodate these conflicting utopias in a pluralistic democracy has not been successful, judging by its consequences: violence by extremists (legitimized by religious belief) against the Hindu majority; political discourse "corrupted" by being articulated in religious, usually Hindu, vocabulary; and confusion of the right of individual religious liberty with the right of religious minorities to exemption from civil statutes, a situation that compromises the government's commitment to the secular ideal of equality under the law.
The six essays in this book, originally published between 1968 and 1980 and updated here, show Embree to be a judicious and meticulous analyst of both history and contemporary politics in India, and an original thinker who qualifies and sometimes challenges mainstream scholarly consensus. The first four chapters examine the complex of centrifugal and centripetal forces energizing the clashing aspirations of religious and nationalistic ideologies. Chapter 1, "Religion, Nationalism, and Conflict," argues that conflict between religion and nationalism is almost inevitable because their functions in Indian political life overlap extensively. Chapter 2, "The Question of Hindu Tolerance," argues that the supposed capacity of Hinduism to assimilate other belief systems is an illusion; Hindu thought "encapsulates but does not synthesize" (26) foreign ideologies, remaining unchanged by them. Chapter 3, "The Politics of Religion," succinctly separates the spectra of Hindu and Muslim perceptions of one another and of the modernist program of national unity, social justice, political democracy, and secularism. Chapter 4, "Religious Pluralism, National Integration, and Scholarship," argues (not altogether convincingly) for the paradox that "[India's] pattern of national integration may arise out of forces that in Western models may be divisive, but in the Indian context are integrative" (74). The last two chapters are in essence case studies of religious tensions that attracted widespread attention in the Indian and world press, repectively. Chapter 5, "Muslims in a Secular Society," analyzes the celebrated Shah Bano divorce case and the Babri mosque dispute; Chapter 6, "A Sikh Challenge to a Secular State," reviews events leading up to the storming in 1986 by government troops of the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in Sikhism.
Embree's thesis implies that his book should be judged by how well analysis of religious belief illuminates the dynamics of sectarian tensions in India. In discussing Sikhism, Embree faults analyses which ignore the role of Sikhism in political conflict (115-17). Such criticism is cogent in light of his careful sociological analysis of the correspondences between religion and nationalism (7-14) and the distinction he draws between religion as a system of thought or personal devotion, on the one hand, and as the ground of communal identity on the other (3-4, 45). The latter distinction, combined with lucid reportage, makes compelling and unsettling the ramifications of the Shah Bano case for weakening the always precarious commitment to secularism. In supporting his thesis, then, Embree is eminently successful.
But the book is somewhat less successful in clarifying two important conceptual distinctions. One distinction is that between assimilation and encapsulation of Islam into Hindu society. The contrast is subtle and intermittently elusive—and would have been more illuminating had its implications for Muslim-Hindu coexistence been concretely illustrated, either with examples or by comparison with an analogous situation in another time or place. Such comparisons occur in other areas throughout the book and are quite helpful for nonspecialist readers. The other distinction needing elucidation is that between Western and Indian understandings of secularism. In the West, secularism is "a life lived without religious faith"; in India, it is the stance adopted by the national government, a belief that all religions are to be equally honored because all are true (86-87). While the Hindu rationale appended to the Indian definition clearly distinguishes it from the Western one, the two do not seem commensurate in that the Western position describes an individual ethos rather than a political principle. In an earlier chapter Embree differentiates the prohibition against establishing a state religion in Western democracies from the Indian policy of treating all religions impartially. Again, the conceptual distinction drawn here is clear, but tension exists between a policy of impartiality and one of paying religions equal honor. Moreover, impartiality does not seem distinctive to Indian polity; it is just as necessary in an American setting, particularly given the vitality and increasing diversity of religions in this country.
Other than not clearly making these two conceptual distinctions, Embree has written an otherwise incisive analysis. The book is also a delight to read: Professor Embree's prose is lucid, seamless, and graceful. It will appeal to specialists and nonspecialists alike.