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August 09, 2010

Reading Update: Masons, Comanches, and Iran

Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America Mark C. Carnes

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History S. C. Gwynne

Death to the Dictator! A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price Afsaneh Mogadam

Secret Ritual is research for da nobble. I've gotten stuck (for several years) on a key chapter about 2/3s in, where one of my main characters, Leonard, is living in a Martian mining colony (in 1899; it's an alternate history: the gold rush on Mars.) It's an all-male society (something I'll never have any experience with) and something needs to happen to send Leonard running away from the mine.

Note: Leo's gay, and my original thought was that there would be some violence around that, but it was too simplistic, and when I wrote the scene, it just didn't feel right. I don't understand what sexual dynamics would be in a 19th century, all-male, gold rush mining colony, and I suspect it'll be impossible to find any primary sources that address the topic directly. But I can't imagine that guys stuck out there with no women for miles, for months on end, wouldn't be getting down with each other ... at least some of them. So how would they work out the dynamics of such a situation?

One thing that I was thinking of focusing on was a cult the miners have developed. I thought Leo could be initiated into the cult, and have some sort of symbolic reckoning with his manhood that way, rather than addressing the sexuality issue directly. So when I saw the title of Carnes' book, I thought that would be the one for me.

And it was! The book is about fraternal organizations (Masons, Odd Fellows, etc.) and their rise during the latter half of the 19th century. Carnes sez that the main attraction of fraternal orgs in the 19th century, after they had gotten rid of the drinking and carousing that characterized them in the 18th, was the initiatory ritual. The ritual took them back to before Christianity (Christianity after the Second Great Awakening had become increasingly liberal and feminized) and (re)imposed a set of masculine values, and an emotional experience intended to appeal to men whose roles in society were changing rapidly.

So I got some good ideas about how to structure the initiation ritual (which was completely stumping me.) Now I'm reading Jolly Fellows, about male milieus in the same era, which should help me with dynamics some more. And I have a few more books to check out, too. Just a word: Secret Ritual is, for the most part, highly readable. There are some boggy requisite academic sections that twiddle with theory, but Carnes makes his way through his argument with expedition.

Empire of the Summer Moon actually helped me with da nobble too. In this alternate timeline, the U.S. has withdrawn from the Louisiana Purchase territories, and Mexico has sponsored a sort of federated Indian buffer state between its U.S. holdings in Alta California and Texas, and the new/old shape of the U.S. behind the Mississippi. (New Mexico and Texas are part of the Indian Federation, but Texas has an American contingent that won't leave, and New Mexico has a Mexican contingent that won't leave, and ... well, it gets complicated from here, and it's not a main part of the nobble.)

I was thinking earlier that the Federation would be led by Plains nations, but particularly by the Sioux (since they hold such pride of place within the American imagination,) but after reading Empire I'm thinking we can get more complex with it and have the Comanches doing their thing as well. The book makes the argument that the Comanches -- during the early to mid 19th century the best light cavalry in the world -- managed to turn back the tide of white settlement in the southern part of the plains for a couple of decades.

The book is particularly fascinated by Quanah Parker, the mixed-race child of Comanche chief Peta Nokona and Cynthia Parker, a white woman captured and adopted by Comanches as a child. Parker was wildly successful as a war chief during the last period of the Comanche "empire" on the plains, and then managed to reinvent himself  as a wildly successful assimilated reservation Indian when he saw the writing on the wall. He was an effective leader in getting his people to adapt their existing culture, but was unable to get a people raised free on the plains to adapt to sedentary farming life. Imagine, though, if the Comanches had gotten a new lease on their plains life -- at the cost of allying themselves with other plains tribes. I think maybe Quanah Parker could have managed it.

The book is an incredibly fun and interesting read, well-written as a cracking good tale, and without pulling any punches about either Indian atrocities, or Western mendacity and betrayal.

Death to the Dictator is a very engaging, and very fast, read. It's the true story (I think, can't seem to find information) of a young man who gets involved in the election campaign and subsequent protests in Tehran during the 2009 Iranian election (in which the opposition leader, expected to win, lost amid huge protests claiming fraud.) More than that, though, it's a view, from the ground, of what that historic episode was about. Not a lot of history is sketched out here, but enough to ground even the most ignorant reader (namely, me) in the context of last year's happenings. More than that, even, it's a portrait of the young adult generation of urban Iran: their attitudes, fears, concerns, blind-spots, and courage. I highly recommend this book. (Warning: he is arrested and subjected to torture and rape, so some of this might be triggering.)

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