The Carnegie shortlist: The Middle of Nowhere and Buffalo Soldier

This year’s Carnegie has been short on drama so here is some drama: will our heroine finish blogging about the books in time? More importantly, will she care?

Probably not, to be honest.

 

Geraldine McCaughrean, The Middle of Nowhere

Comity is the daughter of a telegraph operator on an isolated station in the Australian outback, her only friend an Aboriginal boy named Fred. When the book opens her mother has just died (of a snakebite), and her father Herbert is falling apart from grief. Things rapidly get very, very bad–as Herbert is less and less able to cope his new assistant, Quartz Hogg, gains more and more power and Comity, Herbert and Fred are increasingly isolated.

The first part of The Middle of Nowhere makes for a really effective horror story; the isolation, the slowly building tension, the sheer evil of Hogg, who manages to be racist, sexually predatory and violent. You can see how beautifully this would work on film. The tension is broken, however, when Comity and Fred run away into the wilderness, but then Fred nearly dies, they meet some “Ghans” (Muslim immigrants who are not from Afghanistan), before eventually coming home to even more horror than they left.

I feel like there are two good books in The Middle of Nowhere. One’s that first horror story, the second, tonally completely different, is the last section of the book, in which a terrified Comity is trying to protect her father and almost causes a war. One of the people present for this discussion said there was something a bit Frances Hardinge about this part of the plot, the image of this child in her father’s office sending these messages out into the world, and I can see that–and children struggling to protect people they love is a thing I am (like most people?) susceptible to.

The problem, for me, is the rest of the book outside these two sections (and some of the parts of it inside them as well). It’s slack, in parts, and a bit toothless. Its treatment of race is often infuriatingly simplistic: good white people, like Comity and her parents, are not racist; bad white people, like drunk sexual predator Hogg, are. Comity’s afraid of the “ghans” because she doesn’t know anything about them, but then she learns. The warring people of colour have to ally immediately to stop the Europeans from killing them all (okay, that one’s probably accurate). Between this and some of the functions to which the text puts Fred, I rolled my eyes several times. I wish we’d had either of the books this one could have been; and I wish the genuinely great moments (the dried-up prehistoric sea!) had been built on.

Also: rarely has such a good first line of a book been so let down by its second line.

 

Tanya Landman, Buffalo Soldier:

I was dreading this one. Last year’s book about race and American history did not go well, shall we say– indeed, nothing about last year’s list suggested that nuanced discussion of race was one of the criteria the judges were applying.

So it was a massive relief that this turned out to be much better than I’d expected (caveating this with my lack of expertise in American history). Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, it’s the story of a young black woman, Charley, who pretends to be a man and joins the army, originally for want of anywhere else to go. Plantation life is not glamorised but nor is what “freedom” is available to these characters after the war, and Landman gives as much time to the minor depressing realities (the necessity of a lot of walking, the continued existence of bodily functions–it shouldn’t be this refreshing to have a character menstruate) as she does to the major ones–for obvious reasons this is not a cheerful book. But the camaraderie between Charley and the other soldiers occasionally lightens things a bit (until they die, of course). Most importantly, Charley’s not magically tolerant in the way that Comity’s family, above, seems to be–she begins the book prejudiced against Native Americans and has that prejudice repeatedly challenged and (this is important) repeatedly fails to learn and get past it. But up to a point we see that process and the gradual reframing of thoughts it requires, and it feels realistic and fair to the character as well as real, historical people. And then Charley meets a young Apache man named Jim and falls in love.

 

[Rough, confused thoughts ahead]

I’ve spent a lot of time ranting with a friend recently about political agency in fictional characters. Katniss just wants to protect the people she loves and she’s swept up unwittingly in a revolution that she has to learn to navigate and that’s fine, but we’re never offered characters who begin from a position of having a broader morality-based politics–unless you count the fanatics who are willing to kill whoever stands in the way of the bigger cause. What I mean, and I don’t wish to put the responsibility for this on children’s literature when it feels like something that’s missing across the board, is that I don’t see models for collective morality that aren’t based in a purely personal relationship. Comity is prejudiced against the “ghans” and learns better, but she’s helped along the way by Moosa being helpful and pretty and fluent in English; Charley might eventually have overcome her prejudice on purely intellectual/moral grounds but is saved the necessity of this by Jim’s being really attractive.

And perhaps it’s unfair to criticise these books for not doing things they’re clearly not trying to do, but I want something more than “we should be nice to people who are not like us because they are more like us than we think, and/or sexy”. What would it mean to come up against the limits of our present capability for empathy, to face people or problems genuinely outside those limits, how do we behave morally then? It’s a question that feels very current to me (in part because I’ve kept turning to Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities this year, but it’s related, I think, to this post by Kate Schapira [and Niall Harrison raises a similar question in a soon-to-be-published review]), but it’s also one that seems like it ought to be central to the history of racism, so that historical fiction might legitimately be a space for exploring it. Neither of these two particular works of historical fiction provides such a space–I don’t think McCaughrean’s book particularly wants to, but Buffalo Soldier comes frustratingly close. It’s not a useful metric by which to judge either book, though, probably.

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