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Two Fine Anti-War Novels: Sand Queen & People of the Whale

People of the Whale by Linda Hogan
WW Norton, $14.95 paperback

Sand Queen by Helen Benedict
Soho Press, $25.00

Libraries are such dangerous places: I was just scanning the shelves, not looking for anything particular, a few months ago, when People of the Whale slid into my hand. I knew the Pulitzer-nominated Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s work, of course, but somehow had lacked the courage to pick it up when it came out. Another day, a couple of months later, there was Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen sitting on the New Arrivals shelf.

Both are incredibly strong anti-war novels. Both tell the tales of young people who, on impulse, sign up for the US military. Thomas Witka Just finds himself transported from his far northern Native American to the jungles of Viet Nam. In pre-9/11 universe, nice Catholic girl Kate Brady, signs up to prove herself to her sheriff father, to her fiance, and most of all, to herself, and then suddenly finds herself in the midst of the Iraqi desert war, where the ideals of bringing honor to her family and democracy to the Middle East have nothing to do with her new reality.

In Sand Queen, Benedict gives us three tales: Kate’s as she tries to be the best she can be amidst the increasingly insane war, Naema Jassim’s, a student living near the military base, who is trying to find out what the Americans have done with her father and brother, and glimpses of a horribly damaged, post-deployment Kate, struggling to hold any part of her mind and soul together. Benedict, the author of The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq, also gives us the story the military’s brutality toward its women soldiers, and the insanity of the war itself. It’s a book I’d to any young woman — or young man — even thinking about enlisting in the military in these times. For the rest of us, it’s a necessary education and a chillingly accurate look at this particular war. I could barely put it down until I finished it.

It took me several weeks to read the much complex People of the Whale. I had to keep putting it down, saving it for times when I could give it my full attention, when I could ride the many layers, absorb absolute poetry of the writing — and be willing hear the stories Hogan tells:

The stories of two young people, growing up in a remote fishing-based native community, of their parents, and grandparents and others who came before them, of the moment when the just-married Thomas and his buddies, on impulse (and on alcohol), sign up for that distant war in Viet Nam, of the war itself, as Thomas makes his way, of his MIA years living quietly, and with some peace, in a remote fishing and rice-growing village, of Ruth’s life, raising their son and fishing in the first village Thomas left behind, of Thomas’ impossible years in San Francisco after he is “rescued” from his Vietnamese village, of his years back in his original village, and the lives of the son Ruth raises and of his daughter, Lin, who travels from Viet Nam to find a different man than the father she remembers. Hogan gives us a profound look at that war, at it’s impact on the lives America’s most native sons and daughters, and at the breadth of the damage done.

There are no easy heroes in this book, but many, including both Ruth and Lin, who will continue to live with me for a long time to come. Even more compelling than Hogan’s Power.

* Lesbian content: One of Kate’s two female buddies is, to everyone’s understanding, a dyke. She is sexually harassed and brutalized even more than Kate is. Of the three women in her unit, only Kate is still surviving, and just barely, by the end of the book.

Would you repeat that (again)?

There’s not much in Queer Lit Land that’s inclusive of hearing loss. So, just to remind myself that one can be both queer and hard-of-hearing, I keep a copy of Alyson Press’ 1993 anthology, Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader on my reading stand. I think it was one of the last books published by Sasha Alyson, before the press was sold, and sold again, and sold again, alas.
But I’m not deaf, nor am I Deaf (culturally deaf). I have what they call “moderate” (What did you say?) hearing loss. It’s an amazingly common problem, but you wouldn’t know it to read our lit.

So I was thrilled to find Mean Little deaf Queer, Terry Galloway’s memoir about growing up in the fifties and sixties with fluctuating hearing loss, about making it through school (and not), about her theatre career, and, well, about growing up a dyke in the midst of it all. It’s fierce and wonderful and powerful on all fronts and is my go-to book for validating the anger that goes with hearing loss. I wish that everyone in the queer community would read it. It was published in 2009 and I’ve been eagerly awaiting a sequel. No luck yet, but I did see Galloway’s animated short film, The Performance of Drowning, at the gay film festival this year, a hilarious (and autobiographical and much too short) tale of the extremes a little queer girl will go to land in the arms of disabled-kid summer camp’s most beautiful swimming instructress.
I’m not the only one who liked it:

“This is a damn fine piece of work which is unbelievably powerful….true and passionate and fearless and funny as hell when it is not heartbreaking. I expect this book to charm the hell out of great numbers of people, piss off a few, and give hope to many more.” –Dorothy Allison. 

“Not your mother’s triumph-of-the-human-spirit memoir….. She’s also caustic, depraved, utterly disinhibited, and somehow sweetly bubbly, a beguiling raconteuse who periodically leaps onto the dinner table and stabs you with her fork.”–Alison Bechdel

More recently I found Brian Selznick’s brilliant Wonder Struck, a tale in text and illustration about two children, two generations apart, who experience their hearing loss differently, in their respective times. Ben’s tale of running away to New York to find his father is told in words; Rose’s story of running away (to New York) find her beautiful actress mother is told in pictures — the way she views the world. There’s no overt queer content (though I’d make a wager on young Ben’s future), but it’s richly informed by the author’s own outsider-queer worldview, and that works just fine for me. Writer and illustrator Selznick won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Only $29.95 for 600+ pages. If you ever indulge in YA or late-grades lit, go for it!

But back on  the adult side, lacking lesbian lit that deals with hearing loss, at the moment I’m making do with the straight male protagonist in David Lodges’ deaf sentence, in which a recently retired linguistics professor, one Desmond Bates, runs smack into all of the frustrations (and isolation) of increasing hearing loss and more than a few critical misunderstandings when he can’t quite make out someone’s words. Spot on accurate on the travails of hearing loss and hilariously funny if you’ve ever found yourself in any of these situations. And even if you haven’t. Published in the USA by Penguin.

Mean Little deaf Queer
Terry Galloway
Beacon Press
$16, paperback

Brian Selznick
$29.95 cloth
Published Fall 2011, so a paperback edition may be out soon.

deaf sentence
David Lodges
$15, paperback



TLE’s Novel of the Year 2005

Wild DogsWild DogsWild DogsWild DogsWild Dogs is the ultimate stealth (lesbian) novel. If introducing this novel to a wider lesbian readership was the only thing I accomplished in two and a half years of publishing this rag, it would be worth it.

Let’s start with the PR — while I sympathize with the publicists’ dilemma (there’s almost nothing you can say about this rich novel without giving something away), the catalog and jacket copy make the book sound like it’s about people so sad and lonely that even their dogs won’t speak to them. I’ve spent forty years searching out good lesbian reading and I just couldn’t get past the promo until Emma Donoghue wrote, in TLE’s “Best Books of 2005” issue, “Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs — about a group of people whose dogs have run off to the woods — is a ravishingly written novel about the contrary pulls of danger and home.” I bit the bullet, ordered a copy and dove in.

Donoghue is right: This is one of those rare books you haven’t read before. Luckily I read it just in time to insist that it be added to the Lammy’s Lesbian Fiction shortlist. (Winner to be announced May 18.) So, hopefully, it will yet land in the lesbian reading community.

Humphreys explores the edge between when we think we’re wild young things cherishing freedom and independence and that awkward moment when the attraction of the domesticated life begins to frighten, or worse, when we discover we’ve already failed at settling in. She looks at how people (mostly women, but some others as well) build relationships in the context of the everyday, seemingly banal, damage all too commonly inflicted in our cultures. In the end she redefines success living in that context. That alone would make this a breakthrough novel.

But I also love the way Humphreys plays with the gender of the beloved throughout the initial sections of the book – she certainly kept me on edge for those first 50 pages. Everyone will read this section differently, depending on their own assumptions and experiences, which makes this a perfect reading group book. The relief, when it comes, is a throwaway line from the least expected quarter. Others have used this device before (Jeanette Winterson, Rebecca Brown, and June Arnold come to mind), but here it’s an aspect that leads the reader deeper into the book, not the central conceit. Humphreys holds the tension just long enough to keep it interesting.

But more fun, even than that, is her wickedly spare prose. A few seemingly backhanded sentences describe childhoods that others have spent entire novels documenting. A short riff, early in the book, on jobs and boyfriends past and on the confines and traps of each is encyclopedic in its insight. I keep expecting to come across it as a broadside somewhere.

Don’t look here for a simplistic, romantic resolution. Humphreys’ exploration of loss and betrayal and love is much more complex; her characters dream in conflicting visions, and a single, shared future won’t suffice. That’s a story that is rarely told, rarely told well, and when it is, the characters are much too rarely women. In Helen Humphreys’ Wild Dogs we get all three. Paper: June 5, $13.95, Norton, 0393328422; cloth $22.95, Norton, 0393060152.