Friday, September 18, 2015

A Good Fight'll Help Us Get Through the Winter

I've begun reading another novel by Ruth Moore, whose The Walk Down Main Street I liked so much.  Speak to the Winds, originally published in 1956, takes its time getting started.  I'm only a hundred pages in (out of 300 or so), and I'm not sure yet where the story is headed, but I'm still glad to be back in Moore's world.

The book is set on rocky Chin Island off the coast of Maine, which was colonized in the early 1800s by a couple of stonecutters.  Their business flourished against all expectations, given the lack of a harbor and other features that would have made their job easier; but if such features had been present, someone else probably would have beaten them to the place.  By the end of the century hundreds of people lived and worked there:
Schooners hauling granite down the coast had crews who might be Yankee, or Greek or Negro or Portuguese.  Some stayed, brought families, or married on the island.  The children had strange combinations of names: Eliseo MacGimsey, Nikolaides Pumlow -- not strange at all when it was shortened, as it soon was, to Nick [12].
Eventually the decline of the stone industry and the deaths of the founders whose vision had made Chin Island work led to an exodus of most of the population.  By the time the novel properly opens, the island's economy is sustained mainly by "summer people."  The main character is Elbridge Gilman, the grandson of one of the founders, who keeps reflecting critically not only on his neighbors' foibles, but on his own.

Speak to the Wind is also a philosophical novel, with reflections on common sense and human nature.  Some of the summer people have decided to live on Chin Island all year round, notably Miss Roxinda Greenwood and her elderly mother.  Even after eighteen years, the Greenwoods are still "foreigners."
Elbridge grinned a little to himself, thinking of this anomaly.  Except for [his wife] Jess, Miss Greenwood was the best cook he ever saw in his life -- maybe, with some things, she was even a little better than Jess.  She could put a brown on a pair of chickens or a turkey that a man would fairly leave home for.  At her Christmas and Easter parties, the ladies had a chance to sample this cooking and they liked it, judging by the way they stuffed it down.  But let the subject come up at any time, and the thought was automatic -- someone would be sure to express it, too -- the summer people were helpless, they didn't know how to wash or clean or any of those things that really capable people knew how to do.  Like anything said over and over often enough, people would believe it, no matter how much proof to the contrary stared them in the face.  Like still thinking of Miss Roxinda as summer people, an outsider.  You did, and she was, and would be, if she stayed forever [60-1].
Moore also touches on religion:
In those days of mighty trees, no one thought it remarkable that these planks [for the church pews] should be an inch-and-a-half thick, fourteen feet long and twenty-five and thirty-five inches wide, all clear pine.  They were, merely, what was practical.  They did not have to be joined to make the seat wide enough or the back high; they wouldn't sag under the weight of a tall man, his substantial wife, and eight or nine children.  They were probably the most uncomfortable seats ever devised anywhere, the planks at stiff right angles to each other.

"But people went to church not to be comfortable but to hear the good rewarded and the sinners fry," said [Grandfather Robert] MacKechnie.

The walls were whitewashed between the tall, narrow windows, which were clear glass below the meeting rails and arched at the top, with small, colored, leaded panes.  The pulpit was a tall box, like a coffin, of black walnut; and behind it, two Sundays in the month, oftener if he could get over from the mainland and spare the time, the Reverent Archie Snow gave forth a remarkably blazing brand of hell-fire and brimstone.  It was said of him that when he really himself go, his breath would light the kerosene lamps across the church under the gallery [14].
This led me to reflect on the widespread fantasy that hellfire religion was in some way imposed by unscrupulous priests in order to control We the People. That may be true sometimes, but it seems to me, looking at the history of religion, that many people want theirs to be harsh, unforgiving, and punitive.  (Many people who reject religion are also harsh, unforgiving, and punitive, but that's another issue.)  The least flexible believers especially enjoy forcing their mores on their fellows, and the priests are their creatures, the product rather than the source of the harhsness.  Reactionary religion doesn't come from nowhere: people invent it, embrace it, and impose it on their children when they can.  The fanatical streak of Christianity that swept the Roman Empire, for example, was not imposed by the imperium; the Christians who promulgated it had no political power and no cultural prestige, and they continued to enact holy violence even after Christianity had been recognized as the official religion of the Empire.  Their version of Christianity survived and spread because it appealed to significant numbers of people.  Dismissing them as dupes, while surely comforting to many liberals and non-believers, doesn't explain anything.

Moore also explores deep questions of identity, as when Elbridge Gilman's partner Eliseo MacGimsey frets over the necessity of killing his pig Uncle Sylvester.  "They went through this every year.  Liseo liked a pig, personally.  After he'd raised one, he had trouble bringing himself to kill it" (65).  Elbridge, who's already done with his butchering for the year, offers to do the job for his friend.  Then he goes farther:
"How'd it be if you and I was to swap pigs, anyway?  Elbridge asked.  "Let Uncle Sylvester hang till Jess can't tell the difference in the meat, then I'll harness up the team and we'll shift pigs.  Our folks'll eat Uncle Sylvester, seeing we haven't got any sentiment about him, and you folks eat mine.  No difference in pigs to me, Liseo" [67]
Liseo agrees, though he's nervous about being found out and being made fun of if the switch is found out.

So, like, who are we really? What's the difference between one pig and another, one man and another?  Are we alike or are we different?  Mary Midgley, who likes to draw on literary examples for her philosophical writing, should read some Ruth Moore; she's deep.  And fun.