The best books are where writers write what they know (and don't) thus crossing boundaries and transcending themselves

John Keeble Author Of The Appointment: The Tale of Adaline Carson
By John Keeble

Who am I?

I'm fascinated by how a fiction writer empathizes with characters whose experience is beyond his or her own. I was raised mostly in California. My high school had a slim white majority, followed by Mexican-Americans, then by Samoans. My father was a Congregational minister. After Sunday services he gave over his church to Samoans, who had no church of their own. Treating people of differing cultures is indispensable, but as I have aged I've seen that in no way should I appropriate nonwhite experience. It's a contradiction: One cannot not appropriate the lives of others in fiction. Yet one must define oneself by empathy for them. The hard-fought solution to the contradiction is compassion.

I wrote...

The Appointment: The Tale of Adaline Carson

By John Keeble,

Book cover of The Appointment: The Tale of Adaline Carson

What is my book about?

The action of the novel takes place in the American West, but it is not a "Western." Though its central focus is the life of Adaline Carson, the half-Arapaho daughter of the frontiersman Kit Carson, it is also not a biography.  It is set in the time of the California gold rush, and is a graphic elegy for America's wide open plains, rivers, and mountains, and the people who lived in them, both for the good and ill. It is a vision of how greed, love, frontier mastery, and the doomed Native Tribes contended for control of this immensity, and how one young woman and her father were taken up in the resulting maelstrom that has become the American heritage.   

The books I picked & why

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Go Down, Moses

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of Go Down, Moses

Why this book?

A remarkable book by the classic American writer. It is a novel, yet presents itself as a collection of stories.  Faulkner explores the white history of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, but also extends himself to explore the Black characters that figure into the history whose true experience he can only have imagined. There are Lucas and Molly Beauchamp of "The Fire and the Hearth," the "Nigger" in "Pantaloon in Black," the part-Indian in "The Old People," Boon Hogganbeck in "The Bear,'" Molly again, and the doomed Samuel Beautchamp in ""Go Down Moses." The book is dedicated to a real person, Mammy, Caroline Barr, of whom Faulkner writes, "Who was born in slavery and who gave to my family a fidelity without stint or calcuation of recompense and to my childhood an immeasurable devotion and love." 


By George Eliot,

Book cover of Middlemarch

Why this book?

As was the fashion of the time, George Eliot took on a male pseudonym, replacing her true name, Mary Ann Evans. Typically she extended her subterfuge by writing about male characters whose names figured into the titles of her novels, e.g. Silas Marner, Adam Bede, Felix Holt the Radical, and Daniel Deronda. She had strong female characters, too, but it wasn't until her penultimate novel, Middlemarch, that she granted a female character, Dorothea, the center stage. There are male characters in this book, too: Dorothea's husband, the pedantic scholar, Casaubon, the physician, Lydgate, and of course the man whom Dorothea marries once Casaubon has died, Will Ladislaw. This is a historical novel, some forty years removed from its publication date. In it, Eliot regularly crosses the boundaries between female and male characters.    

Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Why this book?

This could be any one of a number of books by Black authors—Charles Wright, Ralph Ellison, James McPherson, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin.... Through such writers the experience of Black people is made available to those of us who are not Black. I've chosen Hurston's book because of the directness and rawness of her language and her use of scenes which bespeak the ability of a writer to transcend herself. Most memorable perhaps is the scene in which the abused and thrice married Janie is attempting to port her latest husband, Tea Cake, across a lake driven by wind. A bridge is fully occupied and of necessity they swim. Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog. He contracts rabies and dies.   

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

By Mark Twain,

Book cover of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Why this book?

This is the story of the character in the title, Huckleberry Finn. He is escaping home, his cruel father, and his old friendships. Part way along his journey he is joined by the Black character Jim, who is escaping his enslavement. They travel along the Mississippi. While the book has as its protagonist Huckleberry, it seems that Jim is equally if not more important. He occupies the boundary Twain crosses as the book ultimately comes to revolve around Jim. In the end, it turns out that the woman thought to be his former owner has freed him of slavery.  

Winter in the Blood

By James Welch,

Book cover of Winter in the Blood

Why this book?

Perhaps Winter In The Blood is Welch's finest novel, though I hesitate to overlook Fools Crow. Like Hurston's work, the language in Winter In The Blood is raw, simple, and to the point. In this book, Welch offers a caveat to whites when he says, "I have seen works written about Indians by whites... but only an Indian knows who he is.  If he has grown up on a reservation he will naturally write about what he knows. And hopefully he will have the toughness and fairness to present his material in a way that is not manufactured by a conventional stance.  Whites have to adopt a stance; Indians already have one."   

I love this book for its honesty generally and its gentle admonition regarding cross-cultural adventurism.

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