I am reading books which were published or popular in 1921, as part of the research for my new book. Imagine my joy when I found that a Gene Stratton-Porter, Her Father’s Daughter, was a bestseller that year.
Imagine my dismay when the book turns out to be a proselytising tale about white supremacy. So sad. So horrible.
Now I have loved Gene Stratton-Porter for a long, long time. Anyone who has read my Princess Betony books will know I like to write about plants and trees and forests – as someone who grew up in a completely suburbanised environment, wildness attracts me, and I first found it written about (after the Brothers Grimm) in Stratton-Porter’s Girl of the Limberlost. There beautifully lyrical depictions of a wetlands is married to tough common sense and the values of hard work and egalitarianism. I admit, Rosie in The Willow Tree’s Daughter and later books owes something to The Girl and her mother.
Stratton-Porter certainly primed me to be a greenie, being one of the first to write deliberately towards environmentalist goals.
Her racism is not evident in these books, except in the invisible way we have come to accept – the characters are all white, so the issue never arises. (I am reminded of Margaret Maron, a favourite crime writer of mine, who gets letters from readers complaining that she always describes people by their colour, including white people – for example, a white middle-aged woman, a Latino middle-aged woman. Some readers think you don’t need to specify the whiteness of a character, presumably because that is the norm from which others deviate.)
I’m interested in the fact that Her Father’s Daughter is written toward the end of her life, when she had moved to the west coast of America for health reasons. Up until then she had lived in Indiana all her life until then… was this the first time she had encountered Asian people in any number?
For the weird thing is that, although she rails generally about ‘the white man’ being superior to all other colours, the focus of her racism is Japan. She is convinced (in 1921, after the Japanese have been allies in WWI!) that Japan is set on a course of War with the US. So I am wincing away from the racism, but occasionally it reads as prescience.
I was shocked by her racism because in so many other ways she presents a modern mind-set. Her female characters are strong, determined and extremely competent women, her books have an explicit feminist agenda, she is egalitarian, green and delighted by the advancements of the modern age.
I will finish reading this book because it’s for research, and it’s started me thinking about my main characters’ likely attitude to the Yellow Peril, so embedded in Australian politics of the time. But will I go back to reread Girl of the Limberlost, as I have done with pleasure in the past?
I don’t know. My genuine love of the book has been tainted, somehow. Part of me feels this is not fair to the book. That if we demand that all our authors share all our beliefs we will be limited to reading only our own books. That a book is its own thing, separate from the author, read on its own terms.
And part of me thinks: I don’t want to give a white supremacist access to the inside of my head.