Several weeks (or was it months?) ago, NewSouth Books made the announcement that they would release a version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the N word replaced by "slave." I wrote about my experience being interviewed by WISN about this development. My thoughts were that the book is in public domain, it's mostly for schools, and I suspected there were other abridged and edited versions out there. Now if we were not allowed to sell the original, unexpurgated version, that would be a big deal and a soapbox cause. Really, I am more obsessed with the copyright extensions so that public domain stops at 1923; one day I'll blog about that more fully. Did you know that a corporation that creates something gets 25 to 50 more years of protection than an individual, according to this site?
But most of my booksellers (as well as most people I corresponded with) saw my point, but disagreed with me. To them, taking out the N word, changed the meaning of the work, diluting its power. "Slave" certainly has horrible connotations, but they are different connotations. The enduring legacy of racism goes well beyond the freeing of the slaves during the Civil War*. And that's why it was so interesting to read what turned out to be a rebuttal of my argument in the wonderful new novel by Nina Revoyr, Wingshooters.
Set in 1974, the story is told by young Michelle "Mikey" LeBeau, a half-Japanese girl who was abandoned by her parents into the care of her grandparents. Deerhorn, Wiscsonsin is a small town outsdie of Wausau that really hasn't dealt with a nonwhite person in some time. (Native Americans don't come up in the book--I'm not sure how they would have fit in.) Mikey is ostracized by most of the town, her bully fully realized in Jeannie, a neighborhood girl filled who spews the hatred that the others are too polite to say, particularly as Mikey is under the protection of her beloved grandfather Charlie.
Now Charlie wasn't happy about the marriage, and certainly didn't welcome Mikey's mom. But he's really come to care about Mikey, particularly as they've bonded over the great outdoors in general and Charlie's retired hunting dog Brett in particular.
So Charlie overlooks her color difference because she's kin but more than that, because he's forced to see Mikey as a person. The town doesn't bother, but they don't make Mikey's life a living hell...too much.
And then the Garretts come to town. Betty is recruited by a clinic that has expanded on the town's outskirts. Her husband Joe is a substitute teacher, who finds work at Mikey's school. The town is outraged. This is about the time that Boston was in the midst of its busing riots. Even the local Catholic priest gets into the act, using this tension to recruit kids to the Catholic school. And nobody is more hateful than the local gun store owner, Earl Watson. Whereas some folks play it close to the vest, his hatred is palpable. It's the liberal use of the N word that brings home the hatred to the reader. You really can't beat around the bush here, or the novel would lose some its power.
You know that if Earl wasn't there, the town might have come to accept the Garretts. But that's what they say about mobs--there are few people who have a strong feeling about right or wrong, and most of us folks are in the middle, ready to be swayed.
Let's just say that Earl has other issues, that bring his simmering to a head. The problem? Earl is Charlie's closest friend. And now Charlie, who is simply predisposed to dislike people who are different, has some tough decisions to make. He sees the contradictions in his actons.
It's a beautifully written story, and we're already selling copies. We've had the inevitable comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I've heard Snow Falling on Cedars as well. The enthusiasm for this small press title also recalls to me Montana 1948 by Milwaukee's own Larry Watson. More recently, I can see comparisons to Hillary Jordan's Mudbound.
I can't believe that this wouldn't have won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize, but Revoyr didn't need to be published by Algonquin, as she's found a wonderful partner in Akashic. They did a spectacular job on the package. Love the jacket image. Love the French flaps and rough-cut edge. Love that there's no step back or die-cut in the cover. Love that the paper is thick enough that I can't see both sides at the same time. And I LOVE the typeface size. Great job!
Wingshooters wouldn't pack the power it has without liberal use of the N word.
Admittedly, I sometimes like a little more gray in the moral universe--there's a lot of earnestness here. That said, this tale is told best in a black-and-white way, so more power to it! We've already got two great reads on the book--Boswellian Sharon praised Wingshooters as "a complex and moving story." But that's nothing compared to the enthusiasm at Next Chapter in Mequon. They have been singing the praises of this book for months, champions in the old Schwartz style. Revoyr will be appearing at Next Chapter on her upcoming tour; I'll try to update this post when I have a date.**
So touché to Nina Revoyr (who has published three other books with Akashic that I'm now eager to check out--Southland, The Necessary Hunger, and The Age of Dreaming). 230 pages seems like a bit of overkill just to counterpoint me, but it turns out you wrote a teriffic novel too, so that makes it worth it.
*And "slave" means different things in different cultures. Not so much with the N word. That's why I think I wasn't surprised that the two children's versions I saw of Huck Finn that used the N word turned out to be from British publishers.
**And must also give props to our rep, John Mesjak, who has been advocating for Wingshooters for what seems like a year. Read more about his picks and other publishing-iana in his My 3 Books blog.