Addressing what Slickrock Paradox does not
I’m one of those authors who always reads his reviews. I don’t get a tonne of them: five or ten for each of the six books I’ve published so far, so it’s not an onerous commitment. Two of every three reviews I’ve received since starting to publish books in 2006 has been positive, and as Meatloaf crooned, that ain’t bad. I like the ego-massage of reading good reviews, and knowing that my intention as an author is hitting the mark, and I take heart when a reviewer points out where I could improve either the content or the style of a book. I’m new to this, and committed to learning as much as I can about the craft of penning novels and non-fiction alike.
The recent review of The Slickrock Paradox in Briarpatch Magazine hit on a third topic: what I apparently missed completely in penning the novel.
In The Slickrock Paradox Silas Pearson is looking for his wife Penelope de Silva in the searing heat of the American desert. De Silva went missing three-and-a-half years before while working on a clandestine conservation project in the canyon country of Utah and Arizona that centred on the writing of Edward Abbey, the iconic and controversial desert rat who penned The Monkey Wrench Gang and other books.
The reviewer, Yukata Dirks, seemed to enjoy the central mystery of the book, and has very nice things to say about how I portray the landscape of the Canyonlands, but points out:
“Unfortunately, Legault never addresses Abbey’s reprehensible racism. In 1963, Abbey wrote: “I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals.” Just as insidious were Abbey’s racist, colonial ideas about Indigenous peoples and their relationship to the land he fervently defended. Midway through The Monkey Wrench Gang, the gang destroys a coal train and plants false leads around the site to point the blame at Red Power radicals. Indigenous people don’t have a place in Abbey’s narrative of eco-resistance, even if it is their traditional lands that are being destroyed.”
I can’t say I’m shocked by this feedback. Edward Abbey was a controversial figure in American literature and the life of the American West in many ways. In addition to being racist, he was misogynistic, crass, anti-social and at times bordered on abusive. He had five wives and it’s probably fair to say that the first four were happy with being left in the rear view mirror as he carved his path through life. He fathered five kids. He was a complex writer and a complex person, and just like the rest of us had plenty of demons to grabble with, more than a few created by his own hand.
I consider racism reprehensible and unjustifiable. If I were writing a book of literary criticism, or a critical biography of the man, it would be shameful not to mention these character flaws while praising his prose and his depth of feeling for life. But I’m not. The Slickrock Paradox is a mystery novel that is centred on Abbey’s nature writing. My protagonist, himself a critic of literature, openly states his distaste for Abbey’s writing; he prefers Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner and Cormac McCarthy (all of whom I love). It was a bone of contention between Silas and his missing wife.
Briarpatch goes on to criticise my portrayal of the American Indian in the book:
“Sadly, although Legault’s plot turns on the discovery of the ruins of a Pueblo gathering place by a young Hopi woman, The Slickrock Paradox suffers from a similar, though less crass, erasure. Despite his realistic portrayal of the political and economic landscape of the Southwest, the role of Native Americans in the defence of their land and water rights goes unmentioned, and Legault’s few Indigenous characters are treated as objects more than actors: victim, grieving sibling, spiritual Elder.”
It’s true that there are no American Indians among the leading characters of this book. It’s not a book about tribal water rights or the efforts of the Navajo or Hopi to defend their traditional lands. Characters like Darla Wisechild, the sister of one of the deceased in the book, are much like other supporting characters in the novel; they help carry the plot. In a book of 85,000 words there isn’t time to create in-depth portraits of every person that appears and still maintain a fast pace with lots of suspense. These characters are foils for Silas’s investigation. The fact that so much of that investigation involves the discovery of Ancient Pueblo ruins, artifacts and mythology merely reflects the reality that life in the Southwest today is an overlay of an ancient culture that has existed there for ten-thousand years and there is no place you can turn without confronting that.
In my 2008 novel The Darkening Archipelago Archie Ravenwing, a “Northern Salish” elder is a complex and flawed leading character fighting salmon farming on traditional First Nations territory in BC’s Broughton Archipelago. Every book can’t be about everything.
All of this reminds me of the curious moment when, after publishing Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership, that I read a review that criticised my portrayal of the Tao te Ching for not including a discussion about Taoist sexuality. Really? I tried to imagine about how I could have shoe-horned a discussion of ancient sexual energy into the book between chapters on strategy, fundraising and leadership styles. I recall thinking at the time that 1) my book was about leadership and activism, and not about sex; and 2) that sometimes reviews are a good way for the reviewer to make a tangential point only peripherally related to the topic at hand.
I used Edward Abbey’s writings as a centre-piece for The Slickrock Paradox’s mysteries because I love his passionate description of the landscape and because of his iconic stature among the canon of western literature. It doesn’t mean I endorse everything about the man, or his life, or even every word that he has written.
All of that said, every review I read gives me something to think about, and I’ll certainly been considering this feedback while penning the second book in the series, Black Sun Descending, due out from Touchwood Editions in 2014.
Have your say. Should Edward Abbey’s racism necessarily be part of any discussion of his writing? Or can we accept that he was a good nature writer and a passionate man without investigating his other character flaws?
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