Friday, May 9, 2014

When Bad Is Good


With my editor Steven Bauer’s suggestions, I’m revising Westfall. Most of the time I accept whatever changes he makes to the text. In addition, he writes comments on the side, which are valuable insights into more basic issues. About 98% of the time I rewrite or cut as he suggests. For a couple of days, I’ve been thinking about this comment: 

This entire scene—Rio’s plan—is so extreme that it threatens to turn the reader quite strongly against Rio, who has been one of your heroes until now.

He’s right. The scene has the power to upset the reader’s view of Rio as a good guy. As the conflict between slave and master intensifies, Rio sacrifices innocent slaves in his fight. The scene in question concerns the sacrifice of an innocent white.

Rio is a slave who endures cruelty and degradation at the hands of a white owner. Because he's trapped on an island, there's no way to escape to the mainland. Even at that, slaveowners had the resources of the law to hunt down escapees. 

Rio fights against authority that is oppressive and destructive. But when the battleground is a peaceful plantation, what kind of war can he fight? He has no support from fellow slaves, who have been conditioned to be dependent and submissive. He can only survive by being a master of subterfuge and deception.

Rio can score victories by hitting where it hurts his enemy. His immediate enemy is the owner of Westfall Plantation, Tilmon Goodwyn, who takes great pride in his daughter. Why should Rio consider her off limits? It offends our sensibilities that the innocent daughter has to pay the price for her father’s offense.

But is the daughter innocent? Rio’s enemy is not just Tilmon Goodwyn, but every white person on the island who lives peacefully with and benefits from the governance of slaveowners. This is where the argument gets philosophical. White women and children and non-slaveowners—they’re all Rio’s enemies.

When Nat Turner killed some 60 whites in Virginia in an uprising, the state was outraged with the loss of innocent lives. The definition of innocent in this context is limited to a slaveowner’s lexicon. Any person living in Virginia, or the South for that matter, in 1831 who didn’t oppose slavery was not innocent.

That last sentence has me squirming in my seat. What would I, a white person, have believed had I lived in 1831. As blacks were conditioned to believe in their inferiority (and the means used to accomplish this is fascinating), whites were conditioned to believe in their superiority. I am afraid I would have been as unaware of my cultural blinders as the next person. 

Despite Steven’s warning, Rio is going to commit a deplorable deed at the risk of turning readers against him. If Rio loses his appeal as a good guy, I hope he’ll still be intriguing.

No comments: