Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lucy Lied - a raw, savage novel set in 1870s California by M.J. Daspit

Spoiler: the Lucy of this novel is NOT in the sky with diamonds.  Although, some parts of the novel certainly read like a psychedelic trip.  A fellow Fireship Press author, M.J. Daspit offers a raw, dark gem of a novel Lucy Lied. A mysterious title and a mysterious cover.

In Monterey, California of the late 1870’s religious tent camp meetings are held cheek by jowl with lynchings.  At this intersection of the righteous and the profane, a triangle evolves linking Doctor Jason Garrett, would-be healer accustomed to putting the truth through a contortion or two, the mute Lucy Strang, and gunman Matt Clancy, eviction agent who forces settlers off railroad land yet stalwartly defends Chinese immigrants.

Under suspicion for the murder of her brutish common-law husband, Lucy is saved from the noose when Garrett falsifies medical testimony at trial.  He plans to marry the maligned redhead and cure her muteness.  But it’s whispered that Lucy has been dallying with the reviled Clancy.  The fabric of love begins to fray.

MJN: Can't beat the opening paragraph. It mentions a Negro and the Chinese. Two groups that were regarded inferior by the whites. At the end of the 19th century, some ethnic groups were even more disadvantaged that the recently liberated slaves. The Irish is the first thing that comes to mind. Hey, you have a character with a name Clancy! Would you say that in 1870s California it was better to be a ...hm... Negro than Chinese? The word Chinaman definitely sounds more neutral than Negro.

MJD: In the late 1870’s in Monterey, California, I should think the Chinese were the least popular of all the minorities.

Despite the fact that Chinese labor was crucial to the building of railroads and the expansion of agriculture in the Monterey Bay region, anti-Chinese organizations began to appear in the mid-1870’s. The Order of Caucasians and the Workingmen’s Party were formed ostensibly to save area jobs for white workers by campaigning to eliminate competition from the Chinese, also known as “Celestials.”

The Workingmen’s Party campaigned for provisions in the 1879 revision of the California State constitution that would prohibit employment of Chinese by all levels of government, ban fishing by aliens and discourage Chinese immigration into the state. In addition to competition for jobs, the Chinese practice of exhuming the bones of their dead for shipment back to China upset the white community and was allowed by county permit only after 1878.

Anti-Chinese sentiment culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a federal law that drastically reduced immigration from China.

Gunman Matt Clancy, the hero of Lucy Lied, was a friend of the Chinese and took action when confronted with bigotry toward them. When a Chinese peddler known as Chinaman Joe was accused of murdering beet farmer Flynn Talbott it was Clancy who found a more likely suspect in order to save Joe from the gallows.

MJN: The title character in the novel is a mute. The cover shows a red-haired woman with her back turned to the audience. You can't see her features. So the character is a double enigma. Not only can we not hear her voice, we also cannot see her face. Was that deliberate?

MJD: Yes, the cover captures Lucy’s essential mystery. Lucy’s muteness makes her the most powerless character in the novel because in addition to being poor, female, and possibly mentally defective, she doesn’t have voice. She depicts a more extreme form of the subjugation that most women suffered during this time—disenfranchised by law and regarded as lesser creatures than men by the medical and religious establishments. Most of the other characters regard her as little more than a dumb animal. Lucy turns her back on a comfortless world and for most of the book will not try to fight the town’s low opinion of her. Having endured the guilt and trauma resulting from domestic abuse, she has negligible self-esteem and considers the rough treatment she gets as her lot in life. The question is, will Lucy ever recover enough self-confidence to claim her share of happiness?

MJN: I find that it's the women who do and say the least who tend to create the most drama and commotion around themselves. There are not the most beautiful or the wittiest ones, but they inevitably become the focal point of some Shakespearean conflict. Clearly, "there is something about Lucy."

MJD: Well said. Lucy provokes a wide range of reactions—fear from the woman she boards with, ambition from Doc Garrett who wants to “cure” her and possess her, jealously from Doc’s mistress Sally Locke, disgust from townsfolk who feel she should have been hanged for the murder of Flynn Talbott. The fact that she doesn’t speak seems to frustrate and bring out the worst in many.

MJN: In your novel you describe some medical practices and theories that would make a modern Westerner both laugh and wince. I'm talking about phrenology, the study of the shape of the human skull as an indicator of certain moral flaws. Which one of those 1870s practices struck you as most shocking?

MJD: The medical establishment of Doc’s time regarded women as having diminished mental capacity because of their reproductive organs which drained vital energy from the brain. The term “hysteria” is a good example of this attitude. It comes from the Greek “hystera,” meaning uterus. In Doc’s time hysteria denoted a clinical condition common to women. Hysteria was synonymous with a range of ailments from depression to insanity, many with physical manifestations. In extreme cases surgery was used to “cure” conditions that were thought to have been caused by the sex organs. The medical literature of Doc’s time suggested procedures ranging from removal of ovaries to clitoridectomy.

MJN: Your style reminds me of Steinbeck and Faulkner. The same raw, eloquent candor untainted by sentimentality. Savage people during savage times. Tell us about the literary figures who shaped your style?

MJD: Thank you for your kind words comparing my style to that of Steinbeck and Faulkner. I’m sincerely flattered. Literary figures I admire, apart from the two you mention, include Annie Proulx (especially Postcards), J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country) and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita and Pnin). Oh, and I always bear in mind what Elmore Leonard said about his own style, words to the effect of, “I don’t write what people don’t read.”

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