Wow. I really was disappointed by this book, and was surprised by my own reaction, which was very different from most of my GR friends.
There were many...moreWow. I really was disappointed by this book, and was surprised by my own reaction, which was very different from most of my GR friends.
There were many reasons why I wasn't moved, either emotionally or intellectually, by Llewellyn's novel. To begin with, I knew, of course, that he wasn't really Welsh; that he committed a fraud (and I don't think I'm being too harsh here) by insisting all his life that he was born in Wales, and was raised in Wales and only educated in England. Other readers, of course, can--and do--view the children of immigrants as having a special insight into the culture of the parents which can be a satisfactory substitute for direct knowledge. I don't myself; perhaps it is because I am the child and grandchild of immigrants, and I am acutely aware of how much I really don't grasp. I don't know if I would have been so acutely conscious of how second- hand most of the information that Llewelyn was passing on; I would like to think so. As it was, only the music and the food (the bits of culture that the immigrant can most easily pass on to the child) felt authentic to me. (Yes, I would like to sample some brandy broth!) That--and the descriptions, towards the end, of the house being slowly suffocated in slag. That felt real, too. But no, I am sorry, so much of the book seemed self-conscious and rather false to me; a Mrs Miniver tinged "A Million Little Pieces".
That sounds tough, I know, and I think another reason I'm being so critical is that I'm judging this book, naturally enough, by the books I've read just before this one. I've been doing an around the world book challenge, and I've been trying to read my books in geographic order. Well, most authors would suffer in comparison with Dylan Thomas (a true poet who makes Llewelyn's sing-songy efforts look rather flat); or Flaubert, whose cool and precise description of exactly what effects arsenic has on the body horrified me, (whereas Llewelyn's descriptions of the starving miners seem blurred and cliched, and left me completely unmoved.) Maybe it's unfair to compare this author to two of the masters of world literature, but I also read The Book of Ebenezer le Page and Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show: A Novel of Ireland during the same time period. When Edwards told me the type of tomatoes that would grow best on Guernsey, I knew I could trust him; when Frank Delaney would stop his tale and explain the mores of 1930's rural Ireland, I had faith that he was telling me the truth, as much as anyone can be trusted to resurrect the thought patterns of a vanished time.
Historical fiction, which I love, is a tricky thing. There's always a filter of the writer's time period, always, always, no matter how much the author tries to rid themselves of their own mind-set. With "How Green is My Valley", I was always conscious that there were two filters; my own, and Llewellyn's 1930 sensibilities. Again, if I thought this book really excellent, I could accept that, and I would find Llewellyn's world outlook, influenced by the imminent outbreak of WWII, interesting in its own right. But the figures are so trite, all stiff-yet-trembling-upper lip. The Mary-Sue sister-in- law that Huw, the protagonist, is in love with, with laughter always in her eyes. The fiery brother. The stalwart father. The mother who is so proud of her cooking. They are all figures out of a John Ford movie--which indeed he did film, as soon as possible--and which, weirdly, I could NOT get out of my head, even though I've never seen that particular Ford picture. Up and down the mountain the mountain they were going, singing always. I felt constantly manipulated; and yes, it is the author's job to manipulate the reader, but you've got to trust the author, you've got to feel that you are in good hands. And I didn't. Not for a moment.
One of the things that really bothered me was the emphasis on fighting. Yes, it was a tough time, and there was very little law, apparently, in that era and place; that wasn't the problem for me. It was quite obvious, too, that LLewellyn got a real thrill out of writing those scenes; there is a nasty boxing match is particular that is described in great detail, though it is completely extraneous to the course of the novel. What bugged me was that Huw's not-taking-anything-from-anybody's stance was never explored, but glorified. OK; that's fine, too, but let's be honest here: Huw's pugnacious attitude, which caused him to (view spoiler)[ be thrown out of school right before he was to take entrance exams (hide spoiler)] and (view spoiler)[ had him arrested when he beat up someone who was making "remarks" about his sister (hide spoiler)] and (view spoiler)[ had him fired from every job he ever held (hide spoiler)] circumscribed, if not actually blighted his life. You're kidding yourself if you think that (view spoiler)[ ending up as a collier or a woodworker--and what was that BS about not accepting that bread-and-butter-work of making coffins? Please. (hide spoiler)] was the best outcome for Huw, especially since in reality the effects of having a bone-shattering accident would have lingered throughout his life. It's easy to put the proudly self-sufficient working-by-the-sweat-of-his-brow honest laboring man on a pedestal, if you don't actually have to DO the work. Like Llewellyn.
I can't say that I was particularly thrilled by the audio book format. It wasn't bad, but I've listened to two audio books set in Wales this year; neither of the first-person narration was done by someone from the country. This would never be seen as acceptable for a book set in Scotland or Ireland nowadays. Why is it OK to fake a Welsh accent? It seems more than a bit of a slight to the culture.
I was wavering between two and three stars, until I came across the passage, describing Huw's first kiss:
"The softness of her mouth was a glory of surprise, and cool, not even warm, with an easiness of moisture, and the tip of her tongue making play in idle strolling, lazily, and yet full of life, and her weight lying heavily upon me, her hair falling about our faces, shutting out the light, and all other smells save that of her, that was the perfume of the broad, sweet lands of the living flesh, that rose from her, and covered her about and followed her as she walked."
Fraudulent author; all right. Cardboard characters; OK. A macho glorification of violence; go right ahead. But bad sex writing--well, there are some things that I just can't accept.
**spoiler alert** Sometimes a book makes such an error that the reader stops dead in his tracks. I'm not talking about nit-picking a small detail so t...more**spoiler alert** Sometimes a book makes such an error that the reader stops dead in his tracks. I'm not talking about nit-picking a small detail so that the reader can be accused of being pedantic. (In the early years of our marriage my husband would lean over to me in movie theaters and whisper that that guys in war movies were wearing uniforms that were a little out of date but I finally broke him of that habit). No, I'm talking about making a totally dumb factual mistake, like having a regency heroine taking a casual stroll to Windsor Castle when the author really meant Buckingham Palace, or misunderstanding a character's world point of view so fundamentally that the reader literally jerks his head from the pages, and even if he does manage to continue the book he never really trusts the author again. I once had a friend fling "Pet Cemetery" aside; no vet, she said, would be against sterilizing dogs and cats, and since she worked as a veterinary assistant she knew what she was talking about, and had no interest in reading a book whose protagonist was so far-fetched. Alan Brennert makes such an error in Moloka'i, only his misstep is even more egregious than Stephen King's since it is an important, though not central part of the plot.
In the beginning, I liked the book well enough. I lived in Hawai'i for some years. I know how deeply skeptical (to put it mildly) people born in the islands view haole mainlanders coming in and writing about their homeland, but I was willing to give it a try. Besides, what did I know about turn of the century O'ahu since I had never lived there, and one brief visit to Molokai and occasional chats about the island with an acquaintance who had grown up there certainly didn't make me an expert. It was a choice for my book group, too, so I thought I'd better get going.
Young Rachel develops leprosy in turn of the century O'ahu and is eventually sent to the colony at Kalaupapa. The description of the symptoms of the disease, and the long bureaucratic process that banishes her to the other island, make for interesting reading. The novel traces the course of her life, and as sometimes happens in this sort of historical novel which covers a long period of time, the author crams in a lot of laboriously-researched events and details that don't quite fit, and it may also be for that reason that the book had a certain emotional distance. I never felt that close to the main character. OK, a great many historical novelists fall into this trap; it's understandable that you want to share all that hard work.
It was at this point the author makes his big mistake.(view spoiler)[ Rachel and her husband have a baby, and they are forced to send the baby away. The little girl is adopted by a Japanese couple and they move to California. Eventually she and her new family are put into the internment camp at Manzanar.
It.Could.Never.Have.Happened. Not in a million years. Not today, and certainly not almost a hundred years ago. No issei peasant family would have adopted a child---especially a girl(!) that was a hapa (or as the Japanese say, hafu) girl from an unknown, "unclean" bloodline. It would have been out of the question. It simply is not possible. When I told my husband about this plot twist he looked bewildered and said "Was the family really Christian, or something? But even so...."
You see, my husband and I have lived in Japan, and one of the organizations I belonged to has sponsored an orphanage since the end of WWII. The children grow up there; almost none of them leave in "outside" adoptions. It is NOT a Japanese custom (or indeed an Asian custom) to adopt outside the family. Bloodlines are very important. And the idea of a non-Christian man with three boys agreeing to take in a strange girl just because his wife wanted a daughter was just so deeply wrong that I set the book aside and wondered if I should continue. I am sorry not to be PC, but these are the facts and the author should have known something about Japanese culture. It would have taken two minutes of research.
But no, the author was bound and determined to shoe-horn Manzanar into the plot, just so that he could make a heavy-handed parallel of the two internments, so he shoved it in, with no regards as to what actually could have happened. (hide spoiler)] Shaken, I continued (after all it was a book group choice) but my confidence in the author was gone. I kept wondering... what other facts had Brennert twisted and contrived to suit his purposes? What would a kama'aina reader think of this book? Was the Hawaiian viewpoint misrepresented as well and I wasn't close enough to see it? What else had I missed? Should an outsider even attempt to write about a fundamentally foreign culture? It really made me aware of all the manipulative tricks the author had used; I could barely keep my mind on the last part of the novel.
Now, some readers just read for the fun of reading about an exotic land and they might say I am just being fussy, and that it is OK, or not really important that he misrepresented another culture's mindset. But people, we read historical fiction to learn about other times and cultures. What's the point if the author holds up a mirror instead of a window, and pretends otherwise? It's just a cheat. Brennert's mistake bothered me. It really did. Because when an author breaks faith with his reader...well, what else is left?
Post Script Nov 7th:
I've made some strongly worded criticisms calling Brennert to task for a key implausability in his story, which are concealed in the spoiler. For those who are curious, or who need more convincing, please check the comments, where I've linked to half a dozen articles supporting my views. Any discussion on how important the truth is in historical fiction is welcome (with the caveat that comments along the line of oh-it-is-just-fiction-so-anything goes will not be viewed as a seriously debatable position); disputing the claims from sources such as the L.A. Times/Japan Times/Time Magazine/The Department of State/The American Embassy in Japan/ The BBC/ The Seattle Times/Reuters in favor of personal stories not really relevant to the main topic, or opinions based more on wishful Western feelings rather than facts will not be responded to. Thanks!