Rainbows, Fireweed, and Blues

It had been just long enough since the last time I had read For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf that I had forgotten what Ntozake Shange does to the reader at the end until it was almost upon me – then, like it always does, the moment punched me deep in the gut.

I remember now that I always feel as though the wind has been knocked out of me when I get to the end of her choreopoem. And yet, her Lady in Red and Lady in Green and Lady in Blue and all the others find a way to survive anyway, and “move to the end of their own rainbows.” A triumph in the midst of deep anguish, every time.

I finished another book located in a very different world this week – Mildred Walker’s Fireweed, a gentle story of newly married teenagers living in a mill town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the early years of the Depression. The mill town reminded me of the prairie life that Willa Cather described, peopled with Scandinavian immigrant families, no longer fighting a wild land, but settled in quiet village life.

Celie, the protagonist, is the prettiest girl in town and dreams of living in Chicago or Detroit and escaping the simple, stupid life around her. You are perhaps not shocked to learn that her dreams are derailed by marriage and children, but Walker imbues her “anyman” heroine with poignancy that isn’t too precious or overbearing for the story. Everyday people quietly put dreams aside all the time, and Walker captures that common human drama in a way that I sympathized with Celie, and hurt for her.

Walker also cannily understood the extremes of energy and loneliness that very young wives and mothers experience. I read the introduction after finishing the book, and Annick Smith noticed this too – she doesn’t describe Celie as bipolar or manic depressive, but that’s almost what it sounds like to a modern reader.

One moment Celie is enthusiastically staying up all night to match her new husband’s shift and doing all the housework and cooking, and almost immediately after she’s almost catatonic with loneliness with her new baby, overwhelmed by feelings of betrayal that her husband doesn’t share her need to escape their hometown.

Fireweed is sometimes hopelessly old fashioned in places – characters exclaim “Gee!” a lot – and certainly there’s a naivete to the characters that makes the book feel dated in a way that other Depression era novels (like the great Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio From the Thirties) are not. But I found myself charmed by it too.

It may be an old fashioned book and the characters may seem out of touch in many ways, but their desires and worries are not as far from ours as you would think, and I found myself entranced by the world Walker created in the hardwood forests of the U.P.

In fact, I enjoyed Fireweed enough that I found myself wandering onto the University of Nebraska Press’ website this week and then found myself purchasing a biography of Walker written by her daughter, who’s also a writer. Seeing that Walker was both an alum and a professor of my alma mater, Wells College, I figured that this would be a worthwhile investment!

I’m diving now into a book that came in the mail over a month ago that I’ve been excited to finally own – Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. After years of hoping it would appear in a used bookstore somewhere, I had to bite the bullet, pay up (a pretty hefty amount for a copy that still had some damage to it) and purchase a used copy on Amazon.

I’m 50 pages in and already I’m sorry that this book is so scarce and so difficult to get into people’s hands. It should be the kind of book that students can easily obtain, that colleges can stock in their bookstore, that anyone can stumble onto at the Barnes and Noble. I still have about 250 pages to go, but once I’m finished, my copy is available for borrowing at Lorraine’s Unofficial Lending Library for anyone in the tri-state area!

Speaking of rare books, a friend sent me a podcast this week that has sent me down the rabbit hole of collecting rare and antiquarian feminist books…I’m not sure how my wallet is going to feel about this latest development. More about that this weekend!

2 thoughts on “Rainbows, Fireweed, and Blues

  1. Michael

    I’ve also been searching for Stone Butch Blues in used bookstores for years, haha. Glad you’re finally having the chance to read it! I’ve read such good things about Feinberg’s writing, in the work of others.

    Liked by 1 person

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