Saturday, July 20, 2013

Enemy Books: Her Father's Daughter

Part of a series: "I thought it would be nice to begin featuring books which I cannot stand for whichever reason. (...) But the main point of an Enemy Books series is to invite readers to leave a comment to describe the beauties which they find in the work. (Even if the Enemy Book blog post in question is months old.)" — "suggestions for a next enemy book" are also welcome. But while the idea is generally for kinder readers to point out the good sides of the book in the comments beneath, perhaps that is not possible this time! Edit: What is the most awful book you have encountered?

This time the 'enemy book' is not a notably familiar one, but Her Father's Daughter (by Gene Stratton-Porter) is sensationally awful and bears the distinction of instantly coming to mind when I think about the worst book I have ever read.

Its young heroes cast in an early gung-ho, conventional Hardy Boys/Bobbsey Twins tradition, its plot outrageous, its events absurd, the most distinctively horrid element in it is still its author's hatred of the Japanese.

Set in California, it is about a fatherless young American woman, Linda Strong, who realizes that there is Something Wrong about a Japanese pupil in her friend Donald Whiting's high school senior class. The classmate is, in fact, a middle-aged man pretending to be an 18-year-old so that he may spy on his country of residence. I was going to write more about her racial theory but it's so upsetting that I'd rather not. Aside from these semipolitical threads in her work, the author's ideas on human psychology and nouveau riches and other phenomena are generally strange, so there is a great deal of bemusement to go around.


Completeness of Ordeal: Could not finish, at first. But I skimmed through all of it for this post, and it's corking reading if done ironically.
Birthdate of Enmity: ca. 2008.
Likelihood That Enmity Is Justified: on sociopolitical grounds, 100%


Evidence, Pro-Enmity:
[Linda:] "There is nothing in California I am afraid of except a Jap, and I am afraid of them, not potentially, not on account of what all of us know they are planning in the backs of their heads for the future, but right here and now, personally and physically. Don't antagonize Oka Sayye. Don't be too precipitate about what you're trying to do. Try to make it appear that you're developing ideas for the interest and edification of the whole class. Don't incur his personal enmity. Use tact."

[Donald:] "You think I am afraid of that little jiu-jitsu?" he scoffed. "I can lick him with one hand."

[Donald:] I stepped over to his demonstration to point out where I thought his reasoning was wrong. I got closer to the Jap than I had ever been before; and by gracious, Linda! scattered, but nevertheless still there, and visible, I saw a sprinkling of gray hairs just in front of and over his ears. It caught me unawares, and before I knew what I was doing, before the professor and the assembled classroom I blurted it out: 'Say, Oka Sayye, how old are you?' If the Jap had had any way of killing me, I believe he would have done it. There was a look in his eyes that was what I would call deadly. It was only a flash and then, very courteously, putting me in the wrong, of course, he remarked that he was 'almost ninekleen'; and it struck me from his look and the way he said it that it was a lie. If he truly was the average age of the rest of the class there was nothing for him to be angry about. Then I did take a deliberate survey. From the settled solidity of his frame and the shape of his hands and the skin of his face and the set of his eyes in his head, I couldn't see that much youth. I'll bet he's thirty if he's a day, and I shouldn't be a bit surprised if he has graduated at the most worthwhile university in Japan, before he ever came to this country to get his English for nothing."

Linda was watching a sea swallow now, and slowly her lean fingers were gathering handfuls of sand and sifting them into a little pyramid she was heaping beside her. Again almost under her breath she spoke.

"Donald, do you really believe that?" she asked. "Is it possible that mature Jap men are coming here and entering our schools and availing themselves of the benefits that the taxpayers of California provide for their children?"
Another character, Peter Morrison, reads aloud an article he has written:
presently, as the theme engrossed him, he forgot the vision of Linda interesting herself in his homemaking, and saw instead a vision of his country threatened on one side by the red menace of the Bolshevik, on the other by the yellow menace of the Jap, and yet on another by the treachery of the Mexican and the slowly uprising might of the black man, and presently he was thundering his best-considered arguments at Linda until she imperceptibly drew back from him on the packing case, and with parted lips and wide eyes she listened in utter absorption. She gazed at a transformed Peter with aroused eyes and a white light of patriotism on his forehead, and a conception even keener than anything that the war had brought her young soul was burning in her heart of what a man means when he tries to express his feeling concerning the land of his birth. Presently, without realizing what she was doing, she reached for her pad and pencils and rapidly began sketching a stretch of peaceful countryside over which a coming storm of gigantic proportions was gathering. Fired by Peter's article, the touch of genius in Linda's soul became creative and she fashioned huge storm clouds wind driven, that floated in such a manner as to bring the merest suggestion of menacing faces, black faces, yellow faces, brown faces, and under the flash of lightning, just at the obscuring of the sun, a huge, evil, leering red face. She swept a stroke across her sheet and below this she began again, sketching the same stretch of country she had pictured above, strolling in cultivated fields, dotting it with white cities, connecting it with smooth roadways, sweeping the sky with giant planes. At one side, winging in from the glow of morning, she drew in the strong-winged flight of a flock of sea swallows, peacefully homing toward the far-distant ocean. She was utterly unaware when Peter stopped reading. Absorbed, she bent over her work. When she had finished she looked up.

Gene Stratton-Porter is an early 20th century American writer whose other books at Project Gutenberg I found very sentimental but nice, and the dignity of a New York Review of Books article dedicated to her works ("Capitalist Pastorale," in which Her Father's Daughter is found "atrocious") was granted her in 2009. For this book, however, she does not even have the excuse of the Pearl Harbor bombings to mitigate her nonsensical views of Japanese people, because the attacks took place two decades after the novel's publication in 1921. It is especially difficult to read it now when one thinks of the Japanese internment camps after Pearl Harbor; and it reflects badly on her time, because I think it isn't fair to assume that she wasn't influenced by her contemporaries.


The Antidote

A musical, which might appear on Broadway this year or the next after its debut in San Diego (2012), dedicated to commemorating the internment camps.
On February 19th, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal and relocation of all Japanese Americans from the West Coast. Thousands of families, like George Takei's, were forced from their homes and sent, sometimes hundreds of miles away, to live in barricaded camps behind walls of barbed wire. This often "overlooked" injustice forever changed the lives of over 120,000 people.

Allegiance is an epic story of love, war and heroism set during the Japanese American internment. It tells of the Omura family in the weeks and years following Pearl Harbor, as they are relocated from their home in Salinas, California to the Heart Mountain internment camp in the wastelands of Wyoming. It seeks to shine a bright light on such a dark chapter of America's history.
From the musical's fundraising page at Indiegogo.


"Capitalist Pastorale by Janet Malcolm" [New York Review of Books]
The article.
"Her Father's Daughter, by Gene Stratton-Porter" [Project Gutenberg]
"Allegiance the Musical" [Indiegogo] (More information can be found, for instance, on its Facebook page.]

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