A Culture in Trouble

“The book is about what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

–J.D. Vance


I get where Vance is coming from. He realizes there is a certain amount of victimization in the attitude of the community he grew up in. Vance has the unique perspective of someone who is both a primary witness and a detached observer.

These communities sprang up around industrial centers, thrived, settled, and stubbornly resisted their atrophy. And certainly Vance is right about the unworthy way his people have dealt with the loss of prosperity. Many of them who fell down decided not to get up. Vance is harsh when he says that is not the kind of people their fathers and grandfathers were.

I think Vance realizes something that isn’t apparent to outsiders, that his people will only get up for a fight. And so he doesn’t pull his punches. He lays the blame squarely on their shoulders, because he wants them mad. He wants them mad enough to get up and raise their fists. They fought their way into the earth for coal and steel, and he wants them to fight their way out.

Their is a profound pride to tight-knit communities. Some might say these people should simply pack up and move wherever they can find economic security. But it means severing ties that go back several generations. There is a very real fear that if they leave behind their community, they will also leave behind their identity. Deep down that is what they love most, rich or poor, rain or shine: their history.


To Be Or Not To Be Cora


Would I kill to gain freedom? It’s easy to say yes from the safety of my computer desk. There’s likely a breaking point for us all, a set of conditions that once met, would trigger violent flashback. These conditions are different for everyone, obviously. But since it’s all hypothetical, I absolutely would. Who didn’t cheer when Tarantino’s Django went on a murderous rampage against his oppressors? It was brutal but righteous, and the aggressors deserved what they got.

But let’s be realistic, most people in a situation like Cora’s from The Underground Railroad would simply go with the flow, and probably wouldn’t be dreaming of freedom so much as wishing to be left alone. Most people find it difficult to uproot their lives to somewhere without a support system, entirely dependent on the charity of others. It simply isn’t feasible. Add to that an element of mortal danger, and it’s rather demotivating.

Tangentially, the word freedom is often misused. We use it in place of the word liberty, and the two have very different meanings. To use an example: If one were placed in a jail cell, they have the liberty to do anything within the confines of that cell. Dance, scream, beat one’s head against the wall…

Conversely, freedom is one’s ability to exercise(or not) their given liberties. A prisoner has lost the liberty to drive down the highway, but they are free to dream about the trip. They can take our liberties, but they can’t take our freedom.

The Drive Behind: All the Light We Cannot See

On one hand, Doerr’s novel is all about its powerless characters being swept along by the tide of WWII. Readers are not privy to the lives of Germany’s leaders, or France’s government. Instead we see Werner’s orphanage, and Marie-Laure’s museum, and their story is what they can hold onto as the landscape is torn apart.

On the other hand, the plot drives everything. There would be no story without the war, and the characters’ lives would not warrant recounting.

There is one example that stands out:

“In the absolute blackness, his vision is webbed with a thousand traveling wisps of red and blue. Flames? Phantoms? They lick along the floor, then rise to the ceiling, glowing strangely, serenely. “Are we dead?” he shouts into the dark. “Have we died?””

This moment is filled with suspense, and yet it ends when most authors would linger. To paraphrase Doerr: If a character pulls out a gun and shoots someone, that’s surprise. If a character pulls out a gun and leaves it on the table through the meal, that’s suspense. When you know what’s going to happen, it creates tension.

The above quote seems to fail in that regard, and easily makes the argument that the novel is plot driven. We know Werner doesn’t die because Doerr doesn’t stick around to solve the mystery.

The plot must move forward, even when the characters are terrified.


Living in Nazi Germany?

Old Poster

Living in an ideologically oppressive society:

I’m not going to compare Nazi Germany to modern-day America. It’s offensive to even imply that our civilization remotely resembles that one. You can dislike our politics, you can dislike our president, but we get to vote on these things, and we’ve yet to see state-sanctioned genocide. There’s this mindset that things are the worst they’ve ever been, and the U.S. is unraveling as we speak. You know why this idea is floating around? Because it sells papers. We live in a culture where if you’re not part of the offended, you’re one of the offensive. Welcome to free speech. The right to get angry about anything, alongside the right to do nothing about our culture’s problems. “Don’t give that homeless guy a nickel, he’ll probably spend it on booze.” You know you’ve heard that one.

The fact is, 99% of us would probably go along with whatever screwed-up ideology our Gov’t came up with, had we lived in Nazi Germany. The alternative would be becoming an enemy of the state. In Doerr’s novel, the only reason Werner wasn’t killed was because he kept his mouth shut, and because he was useful to those in power.