Month in Review

What I read in August 2020

All the books I read this month in some way touched on the formation and tensions of the United States, and the way people travel through it physically. This was partially on purpose, as I decided to read Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement and The West this month in the hopes that it would in some way augment or speak with Alice Isn’t Dead, a story about women very much on the move. Sing, Unburied, Sing was a book I wasn’t expecting to match the themes of the other two, but it also deals with movement through the United States, and how fraught it can be based on the legacies of the country’s formation.

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Virginia Scharff’s “Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the West,” Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” and Joseph Fink’s “Alice Isn’t Dead” laid out on a yellow, brown, green, and red carpet. The cover of “Twenty Thousand Roads” is a painting of two women in a yellow car, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” shows a black bird against a red background, and “Alice Isn’t Dead” is a split red an black cover with a large yellow sun, a black truck, and a mirrored white skull on it.

The warm color schemes of the covers also themed nicely with one another, which I was very pleased about in a simple way.

Alice Isn’t Dead by Joseph Fink – A woman trucks across America in search of her wife, who definitely isn’t dead. On the way she discovers¬† and fights back against the monsters and conspiracies that haunt the roadways of America.

I love the podcast, and bought the book version at a Q and A session Joseph Fink did in Seattle. The book is great, remaining very true to the podcast while being a fast and gripping read. I think in shifting from podcast to book, Keisha becomes slightly more distant, but the world opens up a little more. In Part 1, Chapter 5 of the Podcast, “Signs & Wonders,” the names on the billboard remain only names because Keisha doesn’t know them so can’t tell their stories. In the matching chapter, we get a larger description of the life and death of one of the people with their names on the billboard, as well as some details on a few others (I would have honestly loved whole chapters on each murdered person with a name billboard). In Part 1, Chapter 9: Go Home Again, when Keisha returns home, its implied that her nameless neighbors are murdered by the Thistle Men, but in the corresponding chapter, her neighbors are given names and their murders made horrifyingly explicit. These changes expand and humanize the world around Keisha as she fights to save it, but I think also lose some of the intimacy with Keisha the podcast gives.

The book also streamlines the narrative, meaning we lose some of the less connected podcast episodes in translation, which all happened to be my favorites. Part 1, Chapter 2: Alice, with the town of Charlatan stuck in a loop of its own destruction is fantastic. Part 1, Chapter 4: The Factory by The Sea with the factory that a man is born and dies in, aging faster than Keisha as she makes a delivery haunts me still. Both get smushed down to a reference in a single paragraph. However, the trade off is that I think the organizing scenes near the end of the book where Keisha’s gathers her allies together and starts a grassroots movement have more room to breath than they did in the podcast, so its not necessarily a bad trade-off to loose some of the spookier disconnected episodes, but get more time with the story’s climax.

Absolutely would recommend both this book and the original podcast, but I would also recommend starting with the podcast first as I think its the better version of the narrative, even though the book does make some great expansions to the source material.

Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement and The West by Virginia Scharff – I did do the thing you’re not supposed to do, and judged this book by the cover at first (the golf clubs really tripped me up). I assumed it would be about wealthy socialite women and what cars enabled them to do in the U.S. Kind of interesting, but I was a little worried at how limited that history and focus might be. However, I was foolish in assuming this, as this book is very holistic, and the lives of the women presented are very diverse.

The first chapter is on Sacajawea or Bird Woman, her date of death, her range of travel, how the stories of multiple women risk being collapsed into one, and the battle between American history and indigenous history. Chapter 6 discusses Jo Ann Robinson and her part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and her motivations for moving from the South to the West later in life. I though the chapter “The Hearth of Darkness: Susan Magoffin” was simply stunning. In this chapter, Scharff also pushes back against the violence done by a biographer and editor of Susan Magoffin’s diary, Stella M. Drumm, who in seeking to “commemorate the march of American conquest” footnoted and edited Susan Magoffin to the margins of her own story, more interested in the important men Magoffin met and the ideal of Manifest Destiny. Scharff approaches each of the women holistically; she does not shy away from detailing the hypocrisy of some, or the colonialist violence upheld or forwarded by others. However, she also treats all of them with empathy in detailing their struggles and celebrates their successes.

I was delighted to find the last chapter was about Scharff’s own experience living in a community in Colorado that I’ve driven through numerous times. Her descriptions of the Front Range were familiar and intimate, circling a celebration of mobility and a damnation of a building style that forces mobility and reliance on cars to uphold an imagined perfect community. The book ends with a call to continue moving as the women throughout the preceding chapters did, towards a better place. Love it when a history book makes me cry.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – A significant portion of this book is a road trip, as a mother takes her two estranged children to pick up her husband who has been released from prison. A ghost comes back from the prison with them, trying to get the end of his story from the young boy Jojo. Most of the story takes place on the road between home and the prison, interspersed by flashbacks. The prison sits like a rotten pit in the heart of the story, and the heart of American, with multiple characters trapped at various times in it. Black boys imprisoned by an America seeking to reassert the violence and control of slavery. An America stolen from original inhabitants, and the landscape physical changed to perpetuate systems of violence and oppression, from the structures of penal institutions, to the winding violence of roadways. Jojo’s white father in prison for drug charges, while the white man who killed his uncle skate around any sort of justice for the murder. Police violence stalks the roadways of America, waiting to prey on Black Americans. Ghosts sit in trees like birds, reeling from the violence. And a brother tries to protect his sister. And a dead boy tries to find his ending. And a mother waits to forgive her daughter.

I read this book in one sitting.

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