Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Wonder of Words

This entry will be only loosely related to reading.
Yesterday in class, I had one of those serendipitious "teaching moments" arise. We were going through an analysis of an argument about U.S. policy toward Israel, when one of the students said, "What does 'boon' mean?" Ever eager to show off my vocabulary skills (ha ha), I defined it for him as a "gift, or a windfall." He responded, "So why didn't the guy just say 'gift'?"

What a wonderful opportunity to talk about the writer's most valuable tool! We discussed how the choice of a particular word influences the image the writer projects to his/her audience, and also how language choices allow us to be more precise in conveying our exact meaning. As one young woman in the class pointed out, there is a difference between being "scared" or "afraid" (I added "fearful," "anxious," and "terrified"). Although that little side discussion meant we didn't get as much done during that class period as I had planned to, I think it was very productive, both in terms of just what they learned about vocabulary AND in terms of what language can do for them in an argument. So, I can ease my guilt that the day wasn't wasted!

They all looked at me like I was either pulling their legs or purely nutty when I told them the best gift I got last Christmas was a dictionary. I'm serious, though! I enjoy poring through it, looking at word meanings and word origins, synonyms and proper usage. One feature I was especially pleased with in the version my husband gave me was the effort to give a date for the word. The entry for a word will include the date when the word (or at least its first definition) first appeared in a dictionary. That has been very helpful to me in editing my little historical novel. There were several times when I found that a word I'd used didn't exist (or at least wasn't in common usage) until maybe decades after my story is supposed to take place. Call me obsessed if you must, but that kind of detail matters to me - I went back and changed the words to something that was more historically accurate. Sometime maybe I'll write a post about what I learned from that experience; words that entered the dictionary during a particular time period seem to reflect the general mindset of the period (which suddenly sounds quite obvious, but really isn't as simple as it sounds).

I think I'm going to offer my students an extra-credit assignment about vocabulary. Maybe I can be the matchmaker who leads them to their own love affair with words...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What's a "Strong" Woman, Anyway?

It's funny how themes in current events and themes in my reading will sometimes wind themselves together. There's been so much talk in the news lately about "strong" women and feminism and the "glass ceiling" since John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. It just so happens that I've recently finished reading books with what could safely be described as "strong" women. In two cases, I would agree wholeheartedly; in the last case, I would describe the female protagonist as a bully, just another pit bull with lipstick.

The three books in question are Hannah Fowler by Janice Holt Giles, Bella at Midnight by Diane Stanley, and Boone's Lick by Larry McMurtry. The only thing all three books have in common is a female protagonist who faces an overwhelmingly difficult situation. Hannah is kidnapped by maurading Indians, but manages to escape and make her way home, despite the fact that she's several months pregnant. Bella discovers a plot to start a war that will lead to the death of her best friend from childhood, and she sets off alone to the neighboring enemy country to warn him and to try to avert the war. Mary Margaret (in Boone's Lick) takes a wagonload of children across the American West to track down her wayward husband, braving flooded rivers, Indian attacks, and cold weather. No doubt about it -- all three of these characters had to be physically strong and mentally tough to get through the challenges they faced.

So, your question probably is....who's the bully? It's Mary Margaret. I suppose McMurtry gave her characteristics that are supposed to prove how "strong" she is. She's stubborn to the point of being obnoxious. She's single-minded and unrelenting in her pursuit of finding her husband, even if it means dragging her kids across the northern Great Plains in early winter. She's bossy, even hateful at times, to Seth, her husband's brother, who has stayed with her all these years while her husband is off starting several other families with Indian women. She belittles him, she contradicts him, she won't even let him drive the wagon. Perhaps McMurtry wants us to see her as "strong," but I see her as mean-spirited and selfish -- a bully, or a pit bull in lipstick.

Mary Margaret looks even worse when compared to Hannah and Bella. While Mary Margaret bullies Seth, Bella forgives Prince Julian for ignoring her -- his best friend -- when he sees her (a common peasant) while he's out on the town with his highborn friends, an act that hurts her deeply. Her love for him motivates her to carry out a plan to save his life that puts her in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable -- and possibly dangerous -- position, even though she believes she's nothing to him. And while Mary Margaret is driven to find her husband so she can finally get control of his role in her life, Hannah is driven to travel miles of rough territory without rest by her love for Tice (her husband) and her baby Janie. At one point, Hannah wants to get a drink from a creek, but she recognizes that if she gets off the horse she stole from the Indians, she would never be able to get back on in her weak condition. So she does without water until she gets back to a neighbor's house. Now, that's strength -- to deny yourself what you want immediately, and maybe need desperately, for the long-term good of others and yourself. Of course, both Hannah and Bella benefit from their sacrifices as well, but the way they are written makes it clear that for both characters, self-interest takes a back seat.

I guess what has me bothered by all this is that I'm afraid a "strong woman" is going to be narrowly defined in the Mary Margaret/"pit bull with lipstick" mode. I'm afraid we aren't going to value the type of strength Hannah and Bella show, because it sometimes looks like weakness. But what kind of world are we going to have if everyone is a Mary Margaret?