Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fiction Meets Real Life

In addition to "doing" Christmas yesterday, I saw a movie and finished a book.  Both reminded me of real life stories, which in turn influenced my reactions to the fiction.

Avatar (in 3D):  Glorious movie to watch; well worth it for the vision of an alien planet that doesn't look like the Gobi Desert masquerading as the moon.  (The bioluminescence is extraordinary and reminds me of Longwood Gardens Holiday Lights display.)  The plot, basically, is aliens (in this case humans) invade a planet solely to mine a rare and valuable mineral.  The indigenous people (in this case the Na'Vi) are explained as being hostile and deadly.  By the end of the film, the perspective has shifted, and it's the humans who seem hostile and deadly.

Here's what this all reminded me of:  Henry (the ex) and I formulated a plan early in our marriage to see all 50 states.  He's English, and the notion that there were 50 states, each large enough to have its own discrete identity, intrigued him.  New England was easy, as was the rest of the Eastern Seaboard and the Eastern mountain states like Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia.  Sometimes we'd do four states in a single trip, sometimes only one.  One of the last trips we took was to North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming.  In many ways, the Dakotas trip was the most revelatory to me, as an American.

I'd learned about Westward Expansion in school, of course, as the conflicts between the Plains Indians (the term "Native Americans" came later, and I gather that's been replaced now by "First Nations Peoples") and Anglo-Europeans.  Fundamentally, "we" (the aliens; the invaders) believed it was possible to own property.  Even the tribes that were settled (e.g., the Mandan tribe, settled for almost 300 years near the Missouri River outside Bismarck, N.D.) had very flexible notions of ownership.  Other tribes were nomadic, so they treated the land as something no one could own -- a notion that was fundamentally at odds with the Anglo-American common law of property (dating back to 1066, when William the Conqueror took over most of England and established the feudal system which allowed for land ownership rights).  These two approaches -- that the land can be owned such that others may be excluded from it versus all people have an equal right to be on and use the land -- are not compatible.  Someone had to win.

Henry and I visited Fort Laramie in Wyoming, just across the border from Nebraska.  One display had letters from army personnel to their families back East.  Some correspondence betrayed the writer's bigotry toward the Indians; other letters showed real appreciation for their indigenous cultures.  At the same time, some actions by the Apache and other tribes were extraordinarily cruel, beyond any sense of decency.  There are no right answers; no one was perfect; all we know is land ownership prevailed.

As an Easterner born and bred (I've now lived in four different states in the Northeast for my entire life, not counting two 9-month stretches in Tucson, Arizona for grad school), it was stunning to imagine the hardship of the families moving west, and the tragedy of Indian tribes losing their way of life.  Mount Rushmore was interesting; the ongoing creation of Crazy Horse in the Black Hills made me cry.  (If you don't know this story, it's a great one:  He was defeated by the Army and taken prisoner.  Some snotty lieutenant said to him, "Where are your lands now?" and Crazy Horse pointed.  "My lands are where my dead lie buried.")

Well, Avatar revisits the same sort of conflict.  It's simplistic, but effective.  Basically, in the movie the human invaders have the opportunity to appreciate the unique culture of the Na'Vi.  If you want to know how that idea goes over, go see the film.  You won't be sorry.

I finished The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie last night.  Jennifer Ashley is new to me, and I appreciate that I'm still playing catch up with some of the more notable books of 2009.  I also gather that although it's not stated explicitly in the book, readers are meant to think that maybe Ian Mackenzie has Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning version of autism.  Or not.  As Hans Asperger didn't give his name to the condition until 1944, it's a little hard to say.

My reaction was that I, as a reader, didn't even need to get to that degree of specificity.  I have an older brother who has some of the milder symptoms of Asperger's.  (Chances are he didn't, or doesn't, have autism.)  But my brother's experiences as a child suggested to me how a child could end up so deeply distressed that his behavior can be defined as "mad."

My brother (I'll call him Reeves) was slow to walk and talk.  My dad was on the faculty of the Yale Law School at the time, so my parents had access to a panoply of medical and psychological testing. 
Reeves was tested for deafness; nothing.  So my mother just worked around Reeves's oddities.  And sure enough, when he was ready, he spoke in complete sentences and walked across the room.  No faltering "dada" syllables for him, nor any baby steps. 

Eventually, my parents enrolled Reeves in the faculty daycare center, which was run in conjunction with a world famous early childhood development center at the university.  My mother carefully explained that Reeves was a bit of a handful, determined to do things his way.  The director looked dubious; clearly my mother was not raising Reeves correctly.  They (the day care center staff) would take care of this!  One day my mother got there early to pick Reeves up.  It was "circle time" and all the other pre-schoolers were obediently sitting in a circle while a book was read to them.  Reeves, however, was in a corner of the room, with his back to the rest of the kids, and surrounded by all his favorite toys.

My mother turned to a staff member, as if to say, "What's up with this?"  The staff person looked sheepish.  "We find it easier to let him do what he wants."  My mother felt vindicated.

I hadn't been born then, so I only know this story as one in the pantheon of family anecdotes.  But it made me think, as I read Ashley's book, that all a young Ian Mackenzie had to be was "different."  His differences would not have been dealt with very well, and then to witness what he witnessed (which I won't specify) -- well, things could go down hill pretty quickly.

I read someone's comment (and now have no idea where, or whose it was) that no one with Asperger's would be "healed" just by having good sex with the heroine.  Leaving aside that she does rather more for Ian than just schtup him and that he's hardly completely healed by the end of the book, I found myself thinking that the power of love (not carnal love, but the love of acceptance and empathy) is greater than one can imagine.  Someday I'll tell my story of mental illness and the power of love, but for now I'll just say that I enjoyed The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie.


  1. I also enjoyed 'The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie'. It's one of the best historical romances I read this year.

  2. Sarah -- Have you read anything else by her? I was thinking of checking out her backlist.


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