The focus of the novel is a character named, Singer, who is deaf and mute. Singer has a deep friendship with another man who is also deaf and mute, Spiros Antonapoulos. During the years of their friendship, the two passed largely unnoticed in the town. It's when Antonapoulos is sent to an asylum that Singer begins to change. He paces the town at all hours. He takes all of his meals at the New York Cafe. Through a change in behavior he is now accessible to the townspeople, even though he cannot speak nor hear.
The perspective of the novel widens to include four characters, all of whom project themselves onto Singer. Each of the four characters meet with Singer on a weekly basis and empty themselves of thoughts and emotions. They talk and talk, but never engage with Singer. Singer becomes a receptacle for them and while they believe their friendship is deep, Singer finds it puzzling, because he does not understand them as intimately as they think.
Another layer to this theme is that Singer has a similar relationship with Antonapoulos, who clearly suffers from some cognitive impairment. Is Singer's relationship with Antonapoulos any different from the other four character's relationship with Singer? How can Singer be blind to this possibility? Ultimately, how well does the reader know Singer? Even though the novel is about him, it's rarely from his perspective. Just like the other characters, the reader projects onto Singer and establishes a relationship that is largely one-sided.
Carson McCullers explores what it means to be isolated through physical impairment, race, family, poverty, and political beliefs. It's an interesting technique and one that largely works. Among the four characters who are friends with Singer, none of them are able to identify with the other. They are all outcast or isolated in someway, yet are unable to find solace in one another....more
Last week, on vacation in Michigan, I heard an interview on Points North about the reprinting of Robert Traver's (John D. Voelker's) novel Laughing Whitefish. It sounded interesting on two levels. First, I love the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Second, the story of how a Native American woman sued a mining company over her father's unpaid claim sounded fascinating. Having read the novel, I can tell you it is fascinating.
Laughing Whitefish works in two ways. First, Robert Traver does an excellent job describing the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, what drew people there, and what still draws them. He also describes the relationship the state had with mining and forestry. For a state known for its natural beauty, Michigan's history is steeped in environmental destruction in pursuit of natural resources. Traver remarks on this tension. Characters have moments of regret, of asking whether their ancestors understood how the creation of the Sault locks would unlock the region and risk the beauty and wonder of the area.
The other important facet of Laughing Whitefish is how Traver describes the treatment of Native Americans, how this landmark court case was won, and the impact it had on relations between the state of Michigan and Native American tribes. It reminded me of the dismal nature with which lands were usurped and reinforced the ugliness of American expansion. It's easy to ignore this past. It's easy to look at places names and not think of their origin. It's easy for other, more recent American tragedies to take precedence. However, we must not ignore the past. We need to remember.
What detracts from this novel is the side story and use of language. The love interest between the young lawyer, William Poe, and his client, Laughing Whitefish, is obvious and poorly constructed. Also, there are times when the language feels clunky. Is this because Traver was trying to capture the language of the time or was it a lack of mechanics? It's difficult to tell. Maybe, it just seems clunky compared to how we currently speak. The other small point which detracts from the novel is how the court cases become stale. Traver makes an issue of the slowness and tediousness of the law, but from a perspective of narrative flow he could have still captured this idea without sacrificing the pace of the novel.
Overall, Laughing Whitefish is an interesting novel and a reminder of our past. It frames the rights of an individual against the interests of a corporation. In a presaged paragraph the character Cassius Wendell speaks of corporate power. Cash tells William Poe that he is
"forgetting that corporations are organized primarily for profit. The special genius of the corporation is that while it possesses a kind of immortality and can never die, it is never bothered by a heart or soul or any qualms of consience. Corporations can do—and omit to do—things that their stockholders would be horrified to do by themselves. They can do so because the responsibility is finally dispersed among so many that no one is to blame because all are. That is the great fearful power of the modern corporation."
David Guterson's, Snow Falling on Cedars, is a quiet, contemplative book that depicts both the isolated life of the San Juan Islands and the racism JaDavid Guterson's, Snow Falling on Cedars, is a quiet, contemplative book that depicts both the isolated life of the San Juan Islands and the racism Japanese immigrants experienced before and after World War II.