Sunday, June 21, 2015

Martina Boone's COMPULSION

This is my second post about Martina Boone's book. My first one is about Boone's use of Gone With the Wind in her YA novel. In April of 2015, I learned about Martina Boone's Compulsion: Heirs of Watson Island. Published by Simon Pulse (which is part of Simon and Schuster) in 2014, the protagonist is a teenage girl named Barrie who moves to a plantation in South Carolina to live with her aunt Pru. The story is set in the present day, but the past is very much a part of Compulsion. 

The island where the plantation is located is haunted and the house is falling apart. Having read it, I do not recommend Compulsion. 

Notes as I read:

On page 61, Barrie is at the river. She sees a ball of fire hovering over the water. It gets dimmer and the river itself seems to be burning. The flames travel to a "shadowed figure of a man." Cupped in his hands is an ember (that is all that remains of that fire ball):
A cloak of black feathers covered his back and shoulders, and a matching feathered headdress melded into his long, dark hair.
He turned suddenly and looked at Barrie--straight into her--with eyes that were only lighter spots in a face painted with a war mask of black and red.
She blinks and he's gone, but "her heart was a drumbeat in her throat, war drums pounding, pounding a retreat" (p. 62).

Page 145: Barrie is with her cousin, Cassie, who tells her the history of the island. When the Carolina colony was being settled, the governor was gambling with Thomas Watson, a pirate. There are two other pirates gambling that night: John Colesworth and Robert Beaufort. Descendants of all three figure in Compulsion. Watson accused the governor of cheating. Later when it came time to give out land grants, the governor took revenge on Watson by giving him land on a haunted island. Barrie asks, "Haunted?" and Cassie replies:
"Yes, haunted. Thomas Watson's island was inhabited by the Fire Carrier, the ghost of a Cherokee witch who had cleared his tribal lands of malicious spirits, yunwi, and pushed them down the Santisto until they'd come to the last bit of land surrounded by water on every side. The Fire Carrier bound the yunwi there, and kept them from escaping, with fire and magic and running water."
Early on, Watson had tried many times to build a mansion on that land but overnight, whatever he'd built during the day disappeared. Another pirate, Colesworth, offered (p. 145):
"to get one of his slaves to trap the Fire Carrier and force it to make the yunwi behave."
The slave was a voodoo priest, Cassie tells Barrie (145-146):
"He trapped the Fire Carrier at midnight when the spirit came to the river to perform his magic, and he held the Fire Carrier until the witch agreed to control the yunwi and make them leave Thomas Watson alone."
Then, they made the yunwi give Watson back everything they'd taken from him. And then they trapped the Fire Carrier again and demanded that he help Beaufort win a woman's heart. That woman was already in love with Colesworth, but thanks to the Fire Carrier, Beaufort seemed to know whatever the woman wanted. Eventually, he won her over and they were to be married, but Colesworth had the voodoo priest capture the Fire Carrier one more time, hoping to get the woman back. But the Fire Carrier was tired of being used. He overwhelmed the voodoo priest and put a curse and gifts on the three men. Future Colesworth generations would be poorer and unhappier than the Watsons. That's the curse. The gifts? The Watson's would always find what they'd lost, and the Beauforts would always know how to give others what they wanted.

Barrie is a Watson. Cassie is a Colesworth. Because of the curse, she's poor and wants Barrie to use her gift of finding things to help her find the Colesworth valuables, buried by an ancestor before the Yankees burned Colesworth Place down. Barrie isn't sure she wants to help her.

That night, Barrie heads out at midnight and sees the Fire Carrier again. She sees him better this time (p. 159):
The glistening war paint on his naked chest, the feathers in his clock and headdress stirring in the breeze...
He wears that red and black mask again. He stares at her again and then walks away. This time, she sees shadows, too, and realizes they are the yunwi. And, she smells sage burning. She thinks he wants something from her.

Later when she is talking with Pru, Barrie learns that her aunt feeds the yunwi at night and that they take care of the garden. When they're outside, Barrie feels a tug from the woods. Pru tells her not to go there.

On page 273 she goes outside again at midnight. This time she's in socks. As she runs about, she gets cuts from gravel and shells on the path. She slips and cuts her palm, too. She washes the blood of her her palms in a water fountain. It seems her blood runs in ribbons through the water, and that she can see human figures in the shadows. She sees the Fire Carrier again. He points to something behind her. She looks at the top of the fountain and sees a spirit. It is a woman whose torso and legs are a column of water. Barrie asks her what she wants, and she says "You have given blood." and then "We accept the binding." As she walks back to the house she realizes the yunwi are swarming around her bloody footprints. She pulls off her socks and throws them to the yunwi, telling them to "eat up." It occurs to her that she can use those bloody socks to barter. She grabs them back up and tells the yunwi that they'll have to give back things they took from her. Turning back to the house she finds her missing things and missing screws, too, that they'd taken when making mischief in the house. She throws the socks back down to the yunwi and tells them not to break anything else, or take anything else, either, from her or anyone else. Through her blood, Barrie has power over the yunwi. 

From there, the yunwi are around her a lot but don't figure much in the story. They more or less accompany her around.

Fast forward to page 375 when Barrie's gift draws her out to the woods. With Eight, the two walk towards a particular tree that is pulling at her:
"I've heard of this tree." Eight followed her toward it. "The natives around here used to call it the Scalping Tree and hang the scalps of their enemies on it."
The tatters of Spanish moss did look eerily like scalps. Barrie shivered despite the still-warm air. "Why?"
"I don't know. I don't even know which tribe it could have been. None of them, probably. The Fire Carrier was Cherokee, but since he brought the yunwi here from somewhere else, he clearly wasn't local."
Barrie finds the spot that is pulling at her, digs, and they find a metal box that has keys that gives them access to a room, and a staircase to a tunnel. There's a pull from there, too. Barrie and Eight (and the yunwi) go down the stairs, unlock another door and find that lost treasure Cassie wanted her to find. That's not the source of the pull, though, so they go a bit further. The yunwi find the source first: two skeletons. Barrie and Eight hear something behind them and see that Cassie has followed them. She grabs the bag of treasure and takes off, locking them in that tunnel. Barrie asks the yunwi to get them out but they don't go near the door. Why? Because the door is made of iron, and iron hurts them.

Barrie and Eight decide to head on through the tunnel. The yunwi go with them. Eight says it may have been an escape route "during the Yamassee uprising" or "other Indian raids before that." When they come to a fork, they choose one and follow it. Barrie realizes the yunwi have stopped at the fork. They watch, forlornly. "[S]he was leaving them locked up here alone in the dark" (p. 398). She tells them she'll come back and let them out. That tunnel is to an iron door they can't get through. They try the other one and eventually find one that doesn't have the magical protection (things don't rot) that the others do. She gets out but runs into Ernesto (he's got tattoos all over, speaks Spanish) and Wyatt (Cassie's dad) who, it turns out are drug runners.

While tussling with them, the hour turns to midnight. She smells sage, and the Fire Carrier sees her struggling. He sends fire that causes Ernesto and Wyatt's boat of drugs to explode. She gets away, climbs out of the water and sees the Fire Carrier, up close (p. 422):
In the rushes before her, the Fire Carrier stood close enough that the war paint on his face and chest shone slick with grease. Veins stood out on his arms, and every lean muscle of his chest and stomach seemed defined and ready to spring into action. But apart from the feathers on his clock and headdress stirring in the night air, he was motionless. He watched her.
She sees that he's about her age. His eyes are sad. She wonders why he's been doing this midnight ritual of lighting the river on fire year after year. She understands he wants something from her. He heads off to the bank and she realizes she can almost see through him. Hearing splashing she's afraid it is Ernesto or Wyatt, but it is Eight. In the next (final) chapter, Wyatt is dead. Cassie and Ernesto are missing. The bodies from the tunnel are brought out (they're Luke and Twila. Luke was Barrie's great uncle and Twila was Eight's great aunt. They're part of a rather layered mystery element of the Compulsion.)

Barrie thinks about how the Fire Carrier saved her life. No mention of the yunwi. 

The end. Of this book, that is. Compulsion is the first of a trilogy.

My thoughts on the Native content of Compulsion

When we first meet the "Fire Carrier" of this story, Boone gives us things commonly (and stereotypically) associated with Indians: feathers, painted face, drums. This land was haunted before Barrie's ancestor was given this land. I may have missed it, but I don't recall reading why that land was haunted.

We know the Fire Carrier is there now, and that he's ghost-like (remember Barrie can see through him), so he's definitely haunting that land now. He, we read, is a Cherokee witch. If you look up the yunwi, you'll likely find references to Cherokee Little People. If you go to the Cherokee Nation's website, you'll find information about them. Some of what Boone tells us about the yunwi aligns with information at the website, but Boone's yunwi are cannibals. Remember? They swarmed over her bloody footprints. That doesn't fit with what I read on the Cherokee Nation site, but it does fit with some false but common ideas of Native peoples as being cannibals. It is odd, too, that Boone's yunwi can't go near iron. I don't see that on the Cherokee site, either. From what I understand, the Little People are independent, acting on their own, significant to Cherokee ways of being in, and understanding, the world. But Boone's yunwi can be controlled by... a white girl. Echoes of Indian in the Cupboard, right?!

Then there's that scalping tree... Setting aside the outlandish idea of a "scalping tree" let's look at what Eight said about that tree. He assumes it can't be associated with the Cherokees because they weren't "local" to that area. Maybe... but maybe not. The South Carolina website tells us Cherokees were in South Carolina at the time it was established as one of the 13 colonies.

In all honesty, I find the Native content of Compulsion to be inaccurate and confusing. And troubling, too.

As I read, I came across some other troubling content. Cassie is in a play. The play? Gone With the Wind. I came upon that part the day after the murders in the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. It stopped me cold. I wrote up my thoughts, then, right away. Nothing I read as I continued alleviated those concerns.

I'm also unsettled by Ernesto.

It seems to me that Boone has, unintentionally, wronged three distinct groups of people and readers in the US: American Indians, African Americans, and Latinos. What will she do in the next two books of this trilogy? In an interview, she indicates her character will grow through the series, but I've given that idea some thought and find it wanting.

I'm closing this post with a quote from Anonymous, who submitted this comment to my previous post about Compulsion:
I find the idea of a reader -- particularly a child -- having to wait to see herself humanized an inherently problematic one. Yes, it might accurately reflect the inner journey many white people take, but isn't the point that our dehumanizing views were always wrong? And therefore, why go back and re-live them? Such ruminations could definitely be appropriate in an all-white anti-racist group, in which the point is for white people to educate each other, but any child can pick up a book, and be hurt--or validated--by what's inside. Asking marginalized readers to "wait" to be validated is an example of white dominance as perpetuated by well-intentioned white folks.
Need I say that I do not recommend Compulsion?


Anonymous said...

Huh. Since not everyone knows much about European folklore and/or the modern fantasy genre and I've read quite a bit about both, I'd like to expand a bit on the context of how the yunwi have been written, if that's OK.

Not being able to go near iron is an extremely common trait of European fairies, elves, etc., and as living belief in fairies has faded, this has also been widely adopted into the fantasy genre as a supernatural trait. (Some of these European creatures are also referred to as Little People). Not being able to cross water (especially moving/running water) is another thing that many European traditions associate with fairies, ghosts, and/or devils, and there are also European cognates for the "they make mischief in the house, but if you feed them they'll help in the garden" element. (Fairies traditionally would not have been so easily controlled by Barrie, either, but I've often seen that sort of thing done in fantasy stories.)

So based on your review here, Debbie, it sounds like the yunwi are being written as standard-European-based-fantasy-fairies-with-a-twist. The "twist" being a stolen name and a made-up magic Indian backstory - maybe to explain why they're in the USA. Instead of doing actual research, the author has instead drawn mostly on stories that are comfortable and familiar to a white audience, and which will give a false impression that European traditions are more universal than they are. (It doesn't sound like they're particularly well-written fairies, either, since if she's using the can't-touch-iron trait, her creatures should not have been able to take the probably-steel screws - but that is a tiny nitpick, given that it's not part of the larger picture of oppression and misrepresentation.)

I would also note that while blood can also play a role in European stories, off the top of my head I can't think of anything resembling that swarming-the-bloody-footprint thing. That strikes me as having savage-cannibal implications, too. Gross.

missprint said...

Debbie, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. As we have discussed previously, I'm not sure what to make of the idea of one book being meant as part of a whole rather than its own entity in terms of character growth. I appreciate that Boone has a clear vision for where this series and her characters are going--as mentioned in the interview on my blog--but I still wonder if that is enough to ask readers to buy into a full series before seeing that complete growth. I'm unsure, at this point, if I will continue with the series to see what comes next for the plot or the characters.

Yvonne D said...

Yes, publishers usually support the status quo and are committed to maintaining the policies of the government. Yes, we know that the trivialization of Native religions and beliefs is an essential component of successful colonization. But geographical errors are just plain sloppy research. There are tons of maps showing that Charleston is not located on original Cherokee homelands so why would it be haunted by Cherokee spirits? Also, if one is going to mention physical characteristics, one should describe each character. Unless of course, it's clear that the book is only about one particular ethnicity and someone very different shows up. Were her characters light skinned Anglos, olive complexioned Anglos? Hmm..I'm tired of giving people excuses for their ignorance especially when they wield the power to impact young minds. Thanks for this, Debbie.