Books & Film Notes – Week 3
Spring 2015 Books & Film Class
Topic – From Kate Chopin to Swamp People
Held Wednesdays through February 11 at UL Lafayette
Instructor: Dr. Mary Ann Wilson
Notes will be updated each Friday through February 13; comment to join in the discussion.
We continued our discussion of Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers on Wednesday. Many people who weren’t impressed with the first part of the book — or main character Famie — came around in the second half. A lot of that was due to Saxon’s talent as a storyteller. We discussed the strategies he uses throughout the book, such as transitioning from a third person objective point of view to that of one specific character, dialect for comic relief and exposition to help fill in gaps for the reader.
If you remember from last week’s notes, Saxon lived on site at Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches Parish on and off while he was working on the book, so he had years to observe the people he was writing about. Much of the book deals with Famie’s obsession with whiteness and the psychology of how race affects almost every decision she makes. Even though she has a distinguished Creole bloodline of her own, Famie desperately wants to be white and makes some questionable choices to get a foothold in that world.
Famie is portrayed as a victim in the first half of the novel but begins to redeem herself and become more of a compelling character toward the middle and end. She is only 35 years old, but as Aunt Dicey points out “‘Tain’t only clocks an’ calendars that make yo’ ole.”
We discussed whether it’s a weakness of the book that the reader doesn’t get more explanation as to why Famie is so obsessed with being white. It’s something that could be speculated about for a long time. Did many Creoles feel this way about their color or is it just an observation of Saxon’s that some of them did? The answer is we just don’t know.
A couple other themes/interpretations that came up were:
- Several chapters read as stand-alone short stories and probably were. Did this help the novel or make reading from chapter to chapter feel choppy?
- You could make a connection between Fanny’s fixation on her blue-eyed, red-haired son and Zoraide’s tragic clinging to the representation of her baby in Kate Chopin’s story “La Belle Zoraide.”
- A Wikipedia entry on Saxon based on a 1991 biography of him suggests he was born while his mother was traveling away from home and that his parents may have been unmarried. It says he never met his father and was evasive about his past. Did Saxon feel a connection to his character Joel, who also never knew his own father and rejected his past?
- Does Famie’s scene with Joel’s father on the beach harken to the Demeter and Persephone myth, so that once Famie gets a taste of the forbidden fruit that is sexual desire she keeps going back?
- In the end, blacks are portrayed as the best group in the caste system as they accept Famie into their world and rejoice at Easter Sunday Mass.
Famie ends up with Henry even though he is black and the other Creoles view her as a traitor. But a passage where he’s described as wearing a white muslin mask makes you wonder. What did Famie really see when she looked at him? She has a moment where she’s suddenly proud and tucks a sprig of red quince flowers in her hair, holds her head high and walks through the gate. Does white turn to black in the end?
Even when she realizes that Joel doesn’t want her and she’ll be stuck at Cane River, Famie feels no bitterness because “this strange, narrow-eyed white man was not her boy. This man was a stranger.” At the end, Saxon uses a powerful church scene to convey redemption. Famie accompanies Henry to sunrise Mass in what is a beautiful scene of singing about acceptance, peace and coming home.
The final chapter ends with Flossie snapping a picture of Famie and Henry like she’s an onlooker at a parade. One person compared the ending to Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea in which a party of tourists leer at the backbone of the great fish. If there is an equal comparison, that means Saxon was ahead of his time by 15 years.
Children of Strangers certainly isn’t talked about and appreciated to the extent any of Heminway’s works are, but it deserves a place in the canon of Louisiana literature and in the ongoing story of the Cane River Creoles.
Next week’s reading: Rebecca Wells’ Little Altars Everywhere