A Book with Something to Say: The House of the Scorpion

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of joyless books. They’ve been excellent, thought provoking reads, but they’ve left me a bit saddened and appalled over what humans can do to other humans. Not to mention what humans can do to everything else. I’m not sure how this trend came about, but after my current read I am picking up something fluffy. Very fluffy.

In the midst of these reads, I happened to finish Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; therein, she mentions that women writers, since that is the focus of the essay, should not strive to write a book that speaks to those who criticise women writers. On page 73 of my version*, and in other parts, Woolf notes that the stories that speak to something more than the story the writer is trying to tell are not nearly as grand as “pure” novels. When writers try to write about something specific, like the treatment of women by men, they lose the art of storytelling.

My Woolf comments may seem like a random aside, but I’ve encountered these thoughts in recent years. On the one side, there are writers who refuse to admit that they have a social responsibility when it comes to their work. On the other side, there are readers who think books about social issues are boring. There’s even an entirely different set of people who think fiction can’t teach them anything.

I call bull on all of them. There are numerous writers who handle major issues adeptly and integrate them into their stories so that some readers don’t even know they’re being educated.

This brings me to Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion. This is a book geared towards the 9-12 crowd. It’s a coming of age story about Matteo Alacrán who we meet when he’s three years old and leave when he’s fifteen. It’s a futuristic, science fiction tale. It’s a horrific depiction of human selfishness and cruelty. And it also happens to be a book about sociopolitical, ethical, and scientific issues that were in serious debate at the time of its writing (2002), specifically cloning, pollution, immigration, and the treatment of migrant workers.

Compared to other books that try to teach, which can be extremely heavy handed, Farmer weaves these issues into her story seamlessly. I recently finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, which concerns itself in large part with the issue of global warming. However, the problem came up so often in such a not-so-subtle fashion that I couldn’t help rolling my eyes towards the end. For me, the difference was learning about these sociopolitical issues through Matt’s eyes and ignorance versus having a narrator say it to me repeatedly.

The fact that Farmer writes for kids likely influenced her treatment of the lessons she was trying to impart. There’s a reason people told kids fairy tales to keep them safe. Kids are much better at intuiting the lessons of a story that entertains them than listening to repeated lectures.

As someone interested in science, I usually enjoy stories about cloning. It hit me reading The House of the Scorpion that every book, regardless of genre, that I’ve read that contains clones sees them treated horribly by the rest of humanity. I was young when Dolly the sheep hit the scene and I have no idea what the general response to her existence was. Personally, I have a pretty strong grasp of science, especially genetics, so the idea of cloning doesn’t bother me one bit. I might be an oddity.

In regards to immigration and the treatment of migrant workers, it saddens me that the future Farmer depicts is extremely relevant now fifteen years after her story was published. Anyone who does not believe slave labour exists in this world, or even on our continent, is grossly mistaken.

Overall, as a reader, Farmer’s novel has given me a new appreciation for books that say something. As a writer, I feel educated about dealing with heavy topics now that I’ve read books that handle it well and not-so-well. I highly recommend The House of the Scorpion, but fair warning: It is a difficult read. The pages fly by, but the horror depicted is hard to digest in big chunks.

What’s the last book about a serious topic you enjoyed or felt changed your outlook on something?

 

*Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Annotated by Susan Gubar. Harcourt: NY, 2005.

Point of View: N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season Will Change Your Reading Life

There are so many things in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season that will change your life as a reader and a writer and a human that I can’t touch on them all. I just don’t have the time and space. So I’ve decided to touch on the story’s point of view.

I’ve shared my opinions on point of view extensively on both blogs. I have strong opinions, mainly that different points of view should not be mixed in the same story. It’s a major pet peeve of mine both as a reader and a writer. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to your book, novella, or short story you stick with the narrative style, tense, and point of view you started with. There are no takebacks.

Writers who mix things up always make me feel like they’re simply trying to get unstuck, which doesn’t make for compelling or convincing reading.

I’ve read books where one character is in first person and then another character is thrown in and their view point is written in third person. Usually this is done because the story needed extra information that the main character couldn’t provide with her limited point of view and the writer couldn’t think of a different solution.

I’ve read books in series where all of sudden in the third and/or final book, the author realizes they’re stuck, the story arc can’t go further the way they started, so they have to throw in a new narrator. Yeah, Allegiant, I’m talking to you. No, Veronica Roth is not the only guilty author out there, but I was particularly upset with Allegiant, so it has to feel my wrath.

The Fifth Season swung out unexpectedly and toppled me off my Perch of Judgement.

The story is written from three different points of view: Essun’s, Syenite’s, and Damaya’s. There’s a purpose to each choice because they show different aspects of the complex world Jemisin has created. Essun, in her 40s, shows us the dangers and consequences of hiding what you are in a world that hates your kind. Syenite, in her early 20s, shows us what it means to follow the rules and dictates of an order that will control everything about you and destroy you if it can’t. Then Damaya, only 8, shows us what it means to be discovered as the other and the painful lessons the world will use to break your spirit.

That doesn’t sound too different from your average coming of age story despite the separate narrators, right? Well, Essun’s story is written in second person. Syenite’s is in close third person. Damaya’s is also in close third person, though I feel there is greater distance with her narration. Perhaps because I’m closer to Syenite’s age.

At first I was a bit shaken as a reader. I haven’t read much, if anything, written in second person. And I’ve never been exposed to second person point of view for such a long piece. Mixed with the third person parts, I should have been outraged as a reader.

I waited to be. And I waited. And then I was hooked.

Jemisin’s skill as a writer so pulled me in to each character’s story that I couldn’t help but be enthralled. I was too excited to pick up different threads and try to figure out where all of them lead. I was floored and I was schooled. I have never encountered a writer with enough skill to leave me satisfied with mixed points of view.

One of the keys was her consistency. Each point of view was given nearly equal time to the end. And the second person narration didn’t change into anything else. Plus, the story starts out in second person, in the prologue, and I think that was a genius choice. That the narrative jarring didn’t happen after a third person narrator started things off was important because I don’t know that a lot of readers have been exposed to second person point of view. So moving to the strange from the familiar would have been a bad choice.

Besides, Jemisin can write. She just can. Her words are magic.

If you haven’t read or heard of The Fifth Season, you should remedy that. Before the third book in the trilogy comes out this summer.

I still have strong opinions about point of view and I don’t think it should be messed with lightly. But if you know what your aim is, and it reflects not only the structure of your story but your characters and world perfectly too, do it. I will be much more willing to fiddle with my points of view in the future now that I’ve seen it done effectively. And I will give stories more of a chance when point of view is altered –but the author needs to sell it, and not do it simply because they’ve backed themselves into a corner.

Forethought. Forethought and purpose are everything.

 

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