The Warrior Life: Society and Culture in the Warrior Cats Books

Recently, I have been reading—obsessively, some might say—books from the Warriors series by Erin Hunter (https://warriorcats.com/books). These books, which feature a group of cats living in the wild, are classified as juvenile fiction (target ages 8–12), but I find nothing juvenile about the writing, the characters, or the plots. The books were first recommended to me by members of the TinyKittens Unite group on Facebook—followers of the feral cat rescue group TinyKittens, based in Fort Langley B.C., Canada (https://www.tinykittens.com/). If you are the sort of person who would enjoy reading adventure/fantasy stories in which all of the characters are cats, I strongly recommend them to you.

88552b08-de91-4d20-b1c2-0f5ec5bb0c85

I an not going to discuss the stories here, nor the characters, except as necessary to examine the society in which the stories are set, its culture and customs. Forget the clichés about “herding cats”; though these are, anatomically, our familiar domestic cats, they are highly organized and disciplined. They have language (of course), a complex society (similar to the way I imagine a paleolithic hunter-gatherer clan may have been organized), and a religion.

The society in the warrior cats’ world is highly structured. Every cat has a specific role to play. At the opening of the first story arc (“The Prophecies Begin”), there are four warrior clans: Thunder, Wind, River, and Shadow. Each clan typically has around 20–30 members. Although the cats are said to live in the forest, each clan lives and hunts in its own preferred topography: Thunder in deciduous forest, Wind on open moorland, River beside or in the river (their camp is on an island, they swim and catch fish), and Shadow in coniferous forest and adjoining marshland.

The Warrior Code

Clan life is governed by the Warrior Code, a set of rules handed down from the current cats’ ancestors. I’m not going to publish the whole code here—significant parts of it concern protocols and rituals, some of which I will discuss later. If you’re interested, you can read the complete code here: https://warriors.fandom.com/wiki/The_warrior_code

I will concentrate on the elements of the code that represent the moral core of clan life:

  • Defend your Clan, even with your life. You may have friendships with cats from other Clans, but your loyalty must remain to your Clan, as one day you may meet them in battle.
  • Do not hunt or trespass on another Clan’s territory.
  • Elders, queens, sick or injured cats and kits must be fed before apprentices and warriors. Unless they have permission, apprentices may not eat until they have hunted to feed the elders.
  • Prey is killed only to be eaten. Give thanks to StarClan for its life.
  • An honorable warrior does not need to kill other cats to win their battles, unless they are outside the warrior code or if it is necessary for self-defense.
  • Each Clan has the right to be proud and independent, but in times of trouble they must forget their boundaries and fight side by side to protect the four. Each Clan must help the others so that no Clan will fall.

Taken together, what do these rules tell us about clan life? Loyalty to the clan comes first; the clan and its survival is more important than any individual cat. Loyalty goes two ways: it is the duty of the clan to protect and support all of its members, from the youngest kit to the most decrepit elder, the stronger caring for the weaker. It is a kind of cradle-to-grave welfare state. (There is no dole for able-bodied adult cats. Any cat who refused to hunt, or who hunted only for themself and not for the clan, would probably be banished, but I have seen no instance of this aberrant behavior in any of the books I have read.) “Feed the clan before you feed yourself” is an oft-repeated maxim of clan life. Marx’s slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would not be out of place in a Warrior Cat clan. Beyond the individual clan, respect: respect for the prey that sustains their lives, respect for the other clans, and respect for a worthy opponent in battle.

Social Roles

The first story arc focuses on ThunderClan, but all clans have the same internal structure, which is based mainly on age and experience. In order of increasing age, clan cats are either Kits, Apprentices, Warriors, or Elders. In addition to these four general classes, there are three cats with special powers and responsibilities: the Leader, the Deputy, and the Medicine Cat.

Kits, from birth to six moons of age (the cats recon time in moons and seasons) live in the nursery, where they are cared for by their mothers (“Queens”). When they reach the age of six moons, kits become apprentices. Each apprentice is assigned a mentor—an experienced warrior—who teaches the apprentice hunting and fighting skills and the Warrior Code. Apprentices also have duties in the camp, such as feeding the elders and replacing their bedding. There is no fixed duration to apprenticeship; it ends when the mentor judges that the apprentice has mastered the necessary skills and understands the Warrior Code, and the leader approves the decision. The cats spend most of their adult lives as Warriors: hunting for prey, guarding the camp and the clan’s borders, and, when necessary, fighting rival clans or intruders. Cats who have grown too old or infirm to hunt and fight become Elders. They are honored by the clan for their service and fed and cared for by their younger clanmates.

The function of the leader is obvious: he or she is the chief executive of the clan and is ultimately responsible for all decisions affecting the clan as a whole. This includes apprenticing kits and assigning their mentors, confirming new warriors, and momentous decisions involving war and peace. Cats may sometimes be dissatisfied with a leader’s decisions, but ultimately, they must obey. “The leader’s word is The Warrior Code.” A leader is granted nine temporal lives by StarClan (see below), which are to be used in service to the clan. On becoming leader, the new leader chooses a deputy, The deputy is responsible for much of the day-to-day operations of the clan, such as organizing hunting and boundary patrols. On the death of the leader, the deputy succeeds to the leadership.

The medicine cat treats illnesses and injuries, mainly using herbal remedies. In addition, the medicine cat receives dreams and visions from StarClan and can also interpret dreams received by other cats. Like the leader, the medicine cat must be confirmed by StarClan. Only the medicine cat can openly challenge the leader’s decisions, on the grounds that they are not in keeping with the will of StarClan. To some extent, the medicine cat’s position is outside clan rivalries. Medicine cats from different clans readily share knowledge, and the medicine cats from all four clans meet at every half moon to “share tongues” (the cats’ term for mutual grooming) with StarClan in a sacred space. Medicine cats are celibate, regarding all cats in the clan as their kits. This, as you can imagine, sometimes leads to problems.

StarClan

The Warrior Cats look to StarClan (aka “The Warrior Ancestors”) for guidance. StarClan are not “gods” in that they did not create the world or the cats in it (except in the sense that we are all creations of our ancestors), and they do not control events on earth. They know and see many things that living cats cannot, but they are not omniscient. They are not the ancestors of all cats, just of the four warrior clans. Other cats look to other ancestors. StarClan communicates with the cats through dreams, visions, and omens. Dreams from StarClan come primarily to leaders and medicine cats, though StarClan may choose to send dreams and omens to any cat. Prophecies from StarClan, like most oracular messages, tend to be cryptic; for example, “Only fire can save the clan”; “Three, kin of your kin, will hold the power of the stars in their paws”; “A dying warrior will show the way.” Medicine cats have a special relationship with StarClan. Many clan rituals invoke the power or approval of StarClan. Cats often use prayer-like expressions, such as “May StarClan light your path,” or “StarClan, save us!” StarClan is visible to earthly cats in the form of the Silver Pelt (the Milky Way). Most deceased warrior cats join StarClan, but a few, who are guilty of serious crimes such as murder or treason, find themselves in the Dark Forest, aka the Place of No Stars.

Names

Naming conventions follow the roles described above. Kits are named by their parents. Each kit has a first name element with the suffix “kit.” The cat retains the first name element throughout their life. When a kit becomes an apprentice, their name suffix changes to “paw.” And when an apprentice graduates to full warrior status, the suffix changes again, perhaps to something referring to the cat’s appearance or character, or a reference to some natural feature. (Warrior-name suffixes are given by the leader.) Thus, we have progressions such as BrackenKit → BrackenPaw → BrackenFur or SandKit → SandPaw → SandStorm. There may or may not be a name change when a warrior retires and becomes an elder. The only other name change is when a cat becomes a leader. All leaders and only leaders have the suffix “star.”

The Camp

Each clan has a camp, located near the center of its territory, where the cats live communally. The structure of the camp also follows the social structure of the clan: there is a nursery, as mentioned previously, for mothers and young kits, an apprentice den, a warriors’ den, and an elders’ den. The leader and the medicine cat have private dens. The latter also serves as a clinic where cats with serious illnesses or injuries can be watched and treated around the clock. There is also usually a feature such as a rock, ledge, or tree, from which the leader can address the clan. Another important feature is the Fresh Kill Pile, where hunters deposit their prey for the clan to share.

Gender and Sexuality

The warrior clans have achieved nearly perfect gender equality. Young toms and she-cats receive exactly the same apprentice training and, when they graduate to full warrior status, have the same duties and responsibilities. Female warriors hunt for prey, patrol the boundaries, and fight in battles, just as males do. She cats can be deputies, leaders, or medicine cats. There is no glass ceiling. The only exception is that females who are pregnant or caring for kits (referred to as “queens”) are exempt from warrior duties until their kits reach the age of six moons and are apprenticed.

Unsurprisingly for a series of books targeted at tweens, there are no explicit mentions of cat sex in the series. Pairs of cats become mates, and kits are born, but the details remain off stage. Unlike the cats we know, the female clan cats somehow control their fertility. No she cat in the warrior clans bears her first litter at the age of six months and continues bearing three or four litters per year until she dies of exhaustion at the age of four or five years. There is no instance of males fighting over a female in heat. Fathers commonly take a paternal interest in their kits. Cat romances, as depicted in the books, are the one aspect of the stories that seem targeted to young readers. Cat romances often seem modeled on middle-school relationships.

Ritual

Important events in the lives of clan cats are marked by ritual. Changes in status—from kit to apprentice or apprentice to warrior—require the performance of the correct ceremonies. Newly minted warriors swear an oath to protect the clan, at the cost of their own lives if necessary. Then they keep silent vigil through the night, like medieval knights, guarding the camp while others sleep. When a cat dies, their campmates share tongues with them for the last time, then keep vigil through the night. At dawn, the elders carry the body from the camp for burial. At the full moon, cats from all clans meet on neutral ground under truce to share news and discuss matters of mutual interest. The most powerful ritual of all, to my mind, and the most moving, is the one in which StarClan confirms a new clan leader and invests them with their nine lives. The selected cat goes to the moonstone to share tongues with StarClan. In the ensuing vision, the starry cats descend from the heavens, and nine cats who have special significance to the leader each endow them with a life, dedicated to a specific purpose.

Leadership

The quality of life in a clan depends much on the quality of its leader. Many plot threads in the series focus on the difference between good and bad leadership. The central plot thread in the first story arc is the rise of the cat who eventually becomes known as Firestar, from kittypet (the clan cats’ term for a domestic cat—clan cats’ attitudes toward kittypets ranges from pity to contempt), to apprentice, to warrior, to deputy, and finally to leader of ThunderClan. Firestar, though not infallible, is the prime example of good leadership. He is conscientious; he makes decisions based on the needs and welfare of the whole clan, not out of any need for self aggrandizement. He is diplomatic. For him, going to war with other clans is a last resort. He prefers that the clans cooperate to solve their shared challenges, rather than battle over territory. He is compassionate. He will help any cat in need, whatever their allegiance. This doesn’t mean that he is soft or weak. If the safety of his clan is threatened, he will lead his warriors in battle. He has few equals in courage, fighting skill, or tactical skill. When an outside enemy threatens all the clans, it is Firestar who leads the united clans in battle and prevails. Firestar repeatedly says that what counts in a good clan warrior is loyalty, not blood. The distinction between clanborn and non-clanborn cats is not emphasized the way mudblood/half-blood/pure-blood distinction is in the Harry Potter books, but it does arise occasionally. The future Firestar was himself born a kittypet, and received a good deal of grief about it from fellow apprentices in his early days in ThunderClan, but proved himself the equal of any clanborn warrior.

In the first story arc, a number of bad leaders are contrasted with Firestar’s example of good leadership. I will single out one: Brokenstar of ShadowClan. Brokenstar has only one desire: to increase the strength of his clan so that he can capture other clans’ territory. He justifies this as working in the best interests of his clanmates, but he is driven by pure lust for power. He drives WindClan from their territory, but gains little advantage from this act. WindClan lives on open moorland—its warriors are lean, fast rabbit hunters. ShadowClan cats, from the dark pine forest, are unable to hunt successfully on WindClan’s territory. He reserves food for his elite warriors, starving his elders (a clear violation of the code). He apprentices kits at three moons, rather the canonical six, hoping to increase his force of warriors. When some kits die as a result, he shirks responsibility, saying they were weak and probably would have died anyway. He also steals kits from another clan for the same purpose. Ultimately, he is overthrown by a combination of his own clanmates and a ThunderClan patrol. He and his circle of elite warriors are driven from the clan and become rogues.

Sources of Conflict

One can’t have interesting stories without conflict. Conflicts between clans are generally over territory, and that means territory for hunting prey to feed the clan. One of the rules of the Warrior Code, as mentioned above, is “do not hunt or trespass on another clan’s territory.” The borders of the clans’ territories were set in the distant past, beyond the memories of any living cat. (Clan cats in the first story arc know nothing about their early history, though there is a separate series of books called “Dawn of the Clans” which details their origins.) Clan patrols check the borders and reset border scent markers daily. (How this is done is never described, but one assumes the cats are spraying urine on trees, rocks, and so on.) Each clan has a distinct scent. When prey is plentiful, there is no need to trespass, but in the season of bareleaf (winter) or in other situations when starvation threatens the clan, even the best cat may be tempted to cross borders in search of prey. Any cat caught hunting on another clan’s territory would be lucky to get away with a serious beating. Repeated or organized trespasses are likely to result in clan warfare.

The other main cause of inter-clan conflict is aggressive leadership, as in the case of Brokenstar, described above. As is the case with humans, there are cats who lust for power. There are cats who believe that the greatest glory of a warrior is victory in battle and domination of enemies, cats who believe that it is better to solve problems through combat than through talk. When such a cat rises to power in a clan, trouble for other clans is bound to follow.

In addition to conflicts between the clans, there are conflicts with cats outside the clan system, especially those termed “rogues.” A rogue is any cat that is neither a clan member nor a kittypet. They may be strays or ferals from the “twoleg place” (human habitation) or they may be exiles who were banished from the clans for their crimes. Lone rogues don’t pose much a problem, but their presence on clan territory is not tolerated. Rogues sometimes form bands that may attack clan cats or steal prey, like bandit gangs. These gangs don’t have the status of clans—“they have no code.” Other animals that threaten the safety of cats include foxes, badgers, and dogs. Dogs are especially difficult to deal with because they hunt in packs. In the books, dogs are consistently portrayed as brutal and stupid. Sometimes the greatest threat of all, and one beyond the means of clan cats to combat, is posed by us, the twolegs.

Of course, there are also conflicts between individual cats within the clan. As with humans, cats have different personalities (“felinealities”?), which sometimes clash. Some cats get along, others don’t. But these clashes seldom result in open violence (it would be a huge spoiler to tell you about instances when they do). Clanmates are forbidden from fighting—the clan wants all of its warrior fit and healthy. Allowing them to injure one another in fights would not serve the interests of the clan.

Conclusions

What can we, or the young readers to whom the series is targeted, learn from the warrior cats’ society? For all its virtues, the warrior cat society is probably not one that most of us would want to live in, though, as I said before, it may be quite similar to the way our Paleolithic ancestors lived. Most of us would probably not enjoy living under the dictatorship of a divinely ordained leader, however benevolent. And there are too few choices of life paths to appeal to modern humans. For all their differences from our familiar “kittypets,” the warrior cats are still cats. Their main occupations must still be catching prey, bearing and raising kits, and staying safe from larger predators. They are not going to learn to make fire, or invent the wheel or agriculture. (In the “Dawn of the Clans” series, some cats invent the lever, but that invention seems never to have caught on, and they didn’t go on to invent any others of the simple machines.) Nevertheless, the warrior cat clans have many values that we can admire, including loyalty, caring for all members of the community, and respect for the natural world. These are all things that our current world could do with more of.

Posted in Cats, Literature | Leave a comment

An Open Letter to Secretary of the Interior Zinke re the Bears Ears National Monument

Dear Secretary Zinke:

I have read the text of the Antiquities Act of 1906, and it contains no provision for the review you have undertaken, so I regard the entire process as having questionable legitimacy at best. This review has been undertaken strictly for political purposes, at the behest of a small clique of anti–public lands extremists in the Utah congressional delegation and state government, including representatives Bishop and Chaffetz, senators Hatch and Lee, and Governor Herbert. Their goal is to turn over our public lands to the states and, ultimately, open them up for private exploitation. Their agenda is not shared by the majority of the citizens of Utah, and still less by Americans as a whole.

The opponents of the Bears Ears National Monument (hereafter, BENM) have promoted a number of false narratives, which are enumerated below. These are easily refuted by anyone willing to acquaint themselves with the facts of the matter.

1. The monument proclamation was a “land grab.” Only federally administered public lands (typically administered by the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management) can be included in a national monument proclamation. The lands included in the BENM were and still are managed by the BLM; only their administrative status has changed. No land was taken from any private person or the state of Utah.

2. Local Native Americans do not support the monument. Six of seven Navajo chapter houses (local government units) in the Utah portion of the Navajo Reservation voted in favor of the monument, as did the Navajo tribal government as a whole and the governments of the four other tribes in the Bears Ears Coalition. The San Juan County Commission presents a handful of local natives, such as County Commissioner Rebecca Benally, who oppose the monument, but these people are not representatives of the tribe, nor are their views representative of tribal opinion. No population has a unanimous opinion on any significant issue, but a large majority of natives supports the BENM.

3. The tribes were acting as a front for national environmental organizations and had been bought off. As someone actively involved as a volunteer organizer and lobbyist for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), I can personally refute this claim. We were actively promoting a different monument proposal for Southern Utah (Greater Canyonlands) when the Bears Ears monument was first proposed by Utah Diné Bikéyah, a native nonprofit group whose name means “people’s sacred lands.” SUWA, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other members of the Greater Canyonlands Coalition dropped our own proposal and decided to support the Bears Ears proposal because it was compatible with our goals of public lands protection, but Utah Diné Bikéyah and the other tribes comprising the Bears Ears Coalition led the way and were responsible for shaping the monument proposal and now have a key role in managing the monument.

4. Local people should have the primary say in whether lands should receive monument status. These lands belong to all of the people of the United States. San Juan County Utah has a population of approximately 15,250, of which 47% are Native Americans, who predominately support the monument. So, assuming that all of the “white” population of the county opposes the BENM (probably not the case), this argument asserts that the wishes of about 8100 people, or 0.000025% of the US population, should be given precedence in a matter that concerns us all. I’m not sure exactly what to call this argument, but it is the opposite of democracy. A part of this argument is that local people know the land best and can best judge how to protect it. Experience has proved this false, both in the case of the Bears Ears and Utah in general. Local people in San Juan county have a long history of “collecting” Indian artifacts on public lands (aka grave robbing or pot hunting), and of driving ATVs over archaeological sites. It is these local people, among others, from whom the land needs protection. Further, four of Utah’s “mighty five” national parks, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Arches, began as national monuments. In every case, these were initially opposed by local interests, who could see no better uses for these lands than cattle grazing, timber cutting, and mining. Fortunately, various US presidents of both parties had the tool of the Antiquities Act on hand to use where national interests differed from the narrow economic interests of a handful of ranchers and miners.

Casting aside all of these false narratives, what remains? President Obama used his legitimate authority under the Antiquities Act to protect just the sort of resources that Teddy Roosevelt had in mind when he first proposed the act. He was forced to act because Congress was unwilling or unable to do so. Leave the monument alone and in time it will join Utah’s “mighty five” parks as a driver of the local economy.

Secretary Zinke, you have characterized yourself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” where public lands are concerned. Ask yourself, “what would TR do?”

Posted in Environment, Politics, Southwest | Leave a comment

Public Lands: You Can’t “Take Back” What Was Never Yours (Part 1)

We have heard a lot of talk lately from a variety of people, ranging from the Bundys and their cohorts in Oregon to the state legislatures of western states, about “taking back” public lands from the Federal Government. This premise is fundamentally flawed because, as I shall show, the western public lands never belonged either to the states or to private individuals. Native Americans might reasonably propose to “take back” their lands, which they occupied for thousands of years before the arrival of European colonists. Here in New Mexico, heirs of Spanish and Mexican land grants might make a claim to lands that their ancestors were illegally deprived of. But neither Anglo ranchers like the Bundys nor western state governments have any logical or legal grounds for making such claims.

The western states where the anti-federal land management movement has arisen share one common factor: they were all obtained by treaty from foreign powers, either under the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain (1846), or the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican–American War (1848). Hence, all of these lands were initially under the control of the Federal government. Over time, they were first organized as territories, still administered by the federal government, then eventually admitted as states. In the meantime, congress devised various means for private individuals to settle and acquire title to land within the territories, such as the homestead acts, timber act, 1872 mining law, and the like. Although more than 270 million acres of public land was transferred to private individuals via the Homestead Acts, much of the land in the western territories remained unsettled and ungranted at the time of the respective territories’ admission to the union as states—the land was just too hot and dry, too high and cold, or too rocky to be suitable for farming. Hence, much of the land in the western states remained in federal hands at the time of statehood. In the enabling acts admitting the respective western states to the union, congress explicitly required that those lands remain in federal hands. The following language from the 1910 Enabling Act for New Mexico is typical:

…that the people inhabiting said proposed state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated and ungranted public lands lying within the boundaries thereof…

Via the strictly constitutional means of legislation passed by congress, signed by the president, and accepted by the newly admitted states, the federal government retained control of such lands as were already in its possession at the time of the respective states’ admission to the union. No unconstitutional “land grab” ever took place. Nothing could be clearer. Having retained the ownership of these lands, congress has the constitutional power to manage them (Article Four, section 3, clause 2):

The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

Although one may legitimately debate how such lands should be managed and for whose benefit, there is no plausible constitutional argument for prohibiting the federal government from managing these land via laws, regulations, and agencies that it has created for that purpose. Still less is there any legal justification for anyone else, be it state legislatures or bands of armed citizens, to take over the management of such lands except as authorized by congress and the president.

Posted in Environment, Politics, Southwest | Leave a comment

In Which I Praise Daniel Pinkwater

Daniel Pinkwater is a genius—admittedly a frequently misused word but, in this case, entirely appropriate.

DP, looking Pensive (courtesy DP)

DP, looking pensive (courtesy DP)

Pinkwater is a prolific author of what are ostensibly children’s books. His books, now numbering around 200, span the range from picture books to chapter books for beginning readers to young adult (YA) novels, and also include a few titles aimed explicitly at adults.

Some may be familiar with Pinkwater from his appearances on National Public Radio. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he did regular commentaries on All Things Considered, later published in two volumes: Fish Whistle (1989) and Chicago Days / Hoboken Nights (1992). He still occasionally reviews children’s books on Weekend Edition Saturday. Pinkwater’s radio commentaries are sprinkled with his wry, often deadpan humor and bizarre imagination, but if you only know his short radio pieces, you have not been exposed to even a tenth part of his genius.

It is Pinkwater’s young adult work that I wish to praise here. Pinkwater’s YA books are a comic blend of fantasy, science fiction, and surrealism, grounded in his own youthful experiences. Recently, I read Pinkwater’s four most recent YA novels: The Neddiad, The Yggyssey, Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, and Bushman Lives. These four books are linked by a series of overlapping characters and situations and have connections with many of his earlier works. They are also, I’m pleased to report, comparable to his best earlier YA books, such as Lizard Music, Borgle, and the Snarkout Boys series.

The Neddiad (2007) is set in the late 1940s. Young Nedward Wentworthstein (Pinkwater has a habit of tacking “-stein” onto goyishe names like Wentworth—perhaps as a sort of reverse Ellis-Island process) and his family travel from Chicago to Hollywood on the Superchief because Neddie and his father want to eat at the Brown Derby (“the Hat”). During a stop in Albuquerque, Neddie visits the Indian Building, a tourist attraction/museum next to the railroad station, where an alleged shaman named Melvin gives him a carved stone turtle fetish, advising him to take care of it and not let anyone take it away from him. It will probably not surprise the reader to learn that someone soon tries to do just that. Neddie gets off the train again in Flagstaff, Arizona, but fails to get back on in time, and so is forced to put up for the night at the Monte Vista Hotel, where he meets a ghost (Billy the Phantom Bellboy), in addition to swashbuckling movie actor Aaron Finn and his son Seamus. Neddie completes his trip to California with the Finns and Billy in Aaron Finn’s Packard convertible, with stops at the Grand Canyon and the Scorched Lizard Café.

Arriving in Los Angeles, they find Neddie’s family ensconced in the Hermione Hotel, a relic of the silent movie era. (My wife, who grew up in Hollywood, thinks the Hermione is based on the Trianon http://goo.gl/maps/5WJra). The Hermione is filled with ghosts. It is also the home of young Yggdrasil Birnbaum (call her Iggy at your peril), daughter of golden-age cowboy actor Captain Buffalo Birnbaum. Iggy is a tough, resourceful, streetwise girl who has a passkey to all of the rooms in the Hermione, many of which have been sealed up since the 1920s. We soon learn that Neddie’s turtle fetish has great power and that its keeper may be called upon save the world from some nameless catastrophe. It is no spoiler to tell you that Neddie does, indeed, save the world with the help of his friends and the sacred turtle (it says so on the book’s cover) but how and from what he saves it, I hope you will read for yourself.

In the Yggyssey (2009), Iggy Birnbaum takes center stage. It seems that the ghosts that inhabit the Hermione Hotel and greater Hollywood have been disappearing. Iggy sets out to discover where the ghosts have been going and follow them. Following the lead of her best friend, a ghost rabbit named Chase, Iggy, accompanied by Neddie and Seamus Finn, takes a trip down an elevator to another existential plane. There, in New Yapyap City, they meet Big Audrey, a girl with cat’s whiskers. Audrey lives with her guardian, Uncle Father Palabra (“Your uncle is your father?” “He’s my uncle and he’s a retired monk.”) Audrey joins the others on a quest with two purposes: to find the ghosts, who are attending a supernatural wingding at the Devil’s Shoestring in Old New Hackensack (not in New Jersey), and to free the region from the oppressive rule of “Uncle”. The quest achieved, Big Audrey joins Iggy, Neddy, and Seamus on their return to our own existential plane.

In Adventures of a Cat Whiskered Girl (2010), Big Audrey, wanting to see more of her new existential plane, leaves her friends in Hollywood and catches a ride east with Marlon Brando. Brando talks incessantly, plays bongo drums while driving, and lives exclusively on health foods, punctuated by occasional whole chocolate cakes. Audrey, tired of Brando’s antics, bails in Poughkeepsie, where she gets a job at the local UFO bookstore. She soon befriends two temporary inmates of the local insane asylum, Professor Professor Tag (he’s a professor—of classical accountancy—and his name is Professor) and Molly the Dwerg (Dwergs are a dwarfish race that live in the Catskill Mountains and are best known for slipping a mickey to Rip Van Winkle).

Audrey, Molly, and the professor discover a deserted Dutch-colonial-era house called Spookhuizen or the Vliegende-Schotel mansion, which is regularly visited by unidentified flying fuzzballs (they come on Wednesday evenings to get apple fritters). The house itself has the curious property of moving about and seemingly slipping in and out of existence. Seeking further information about the house and its visitors, they visit the local wise woman, Chicken Nancy, who is 114 years old and the daughter of a slave (slavery, we learn, was not abolished in New York until 1827). Chicken Nancy shows them a portrait of Elizabeth Van Vreemdeling, a former resident of Spookhuizen who vanished more than a century earlier. She is a dead ringer for Audrey, cat whiskers included. Is Audrey the missing Elizabeth or her doppelganger? What are the flying fuzzballs? These are the mysteries that Audrey and Molly must solve, with the aid of an undersized giant named Harold, a clan of Hudson River Trolls, and the Wolluf, the most powerful and frightening supernatural being in the valley (“and that’s without half trying”).

Bushman Lives (2012) is set in the Chicago of Pinkwater’s youth, the scene of many of his earlier YA novels. Longtime Pinkwater readers will recognize it as the model for “Bacongburg” in the Snarkout Boys series and “Hogboro” in Lizard Music. The central characters in Bushman Lives are two teenage boys, Harold Knishke and Geets Hildebrand. Bushman is a famous gorilla who lived the Chicago Zoo, and died in 1951, before the opening of the story (at least according to conventional belief), but he lives on in spirit for Harold and Geets, who toast him with Guinness and bananas.

After being fired by his flute teacher for being a hopelessly untalented musician, Harold wanders the streets and stumbles upon the Art Institute of Chicago. A girl on the steps advises him to go inside and look at de Kooning’s Excavation, which he does. As she predicts, it does things to him. Back on the streets, a series of coincidences leads Harold to a life drawing class. Harold comes to believe that he might want to be an artist. While sketching on the lakefront, he meets a short woman with a huge dog—it’s Molly the Dwerg and the Wolluf (“He didn’t always look like this, like a dog. It just amuses him to do so.”). Molly introduces Harold to Victor (another character who long-time Pinkwater fans may recognize). Victor is the caretaker of a strange house that is much larger inside than outside. Later, Molly finds Harold a mentor, a crusty older artist named Golyat Thornapple. In the course of the story, Harold learns many important lessons about art, artists, and the art world, not all of them happy ones, both from Thornapple and from his own experiences.

Meanwhile, Harold’s friend Geets enlists in the Navy but is discharged because of his proclivity for climbing buildings on the Naval training base. He goes camping in the dunes along the lakeshore, where he meets some unusually robust and tranquil people, who advise him to pursue a career as a spoon bender. Eventually, Harold and Geets reconnect, and set out on “a voyage of great adventure.” Again, Pinkwater fans will probably recognize the destination of this voyage, as well as some of their fellow passengers, but I hope Pinkwater will give as an account of the voyage in a future volume.

Posted in Literature, Pinkwater, Young Adult Fantasy | Leave a comment

Edwin Corle: an Appreciation

Edwin Corle (1906–1956) was a moderately successful American author of both fiction and nonfiction. He never wrote a best seller, none of his work entered the academic cannon, and today he is largely forgotten. He is also one of my favorite fiction writers.

Edwin Corle, c. 1947, from the dust jacket of Three Ways to Mecca

Corle’s books, whether fiction or nonfiction, are set mainly in the desert regions of the American west, and this is why I first became aware of his work. I first encountered Corle’s writing when I was twelve years old, though I had probably seen his name previously in my collection of back issues of Desert Magazine. During a family vacation in Yosemite, I discovered a book titled Death Valley and the Creek Called Furnace (1962) which combined Corle’s prose with Ansel Adams’s photographs of the valley. Being a complete Death Valley fanatic, I had to have it. Corle’s contribution to the volume was actually a chapter excerpted from his Desert Country (1941). His accounts of people and events in the valley’s early history are highly colored and emphasize comedy rather than tragedy; strict historians could find many faults with his versions of events, but it was the sort of writing about the desert that appealed to my twelve-year-old sensibilities. This book is still in print, probably because of the Adams photographs, and can be ordered from Amazon. (I don’t care that much for Adams’s black and white photographs of Death Valley—he somehow manages to make the desert look cold.)

Some years later, in my late teens, my thoughts turned again to Corle; why, I no longer recall. Fortunately, I discovered that the public library in Whittier, California, where I grew up, had a complete or nearly complete collection of Corle’s novels, and I eventually read them all. Later, in the 1980’s, when I finally had a job that provided some disposable income, I collected, reread, and again enjoyed Corle’s seven novels and his collection of short stories, Mojave. I have reread most of them one or more times since.

The best known and most successful of Corle’s novels, and the only one that is still in print, in a 1971 edition, is Fig Tree John (Liveright, 1935), which is loosely based on the life of a well known and rather eccentric Indian who lived and grew figs at a spring by the western shore of the Salton Sea in Southern California in the early twentieth century. The real Fig Tree was a Desert Cahuilla named Juanito Razon, but Corle made his fictional Indian a renegade Apache with a violent past, a grudge against all whites, and a violent end. Many of those who remembered the historical Fig Tree were upset by Corle’s fictionalization. A comparison of fictional and historical characters can be found in Peter G. Beidler’s Fig Tree John: An Indian in Fact and Fiction (1977, University of Arizona Press).

My favorites among Corle’s novels are Burro Alley and Three Ways to Mecca. The two books are connected by a central character, John Lackland, a vagabond philosopher who struggles to understand the nature of time, space, and the ego. Lackland is, to a significant extent, the person I wanted to be in my late teens and early twenties. Burro Alley (Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1938) is set in Santa Fe, my current home, in 1937. It describes a twelve-hour period, from 5PM to 5AM, in which characters from diverse backgrounds meet and interact in the blocks surrounding the Plaza. The cast includes Floriano, the town drunk; Amador Vigil, a gay male prostitute; Mrs. Tulsa, the alcoholic floozy wife of an oil-rich Oklahoma Indian; Max the Mauler, a prizefighter and killer on the lam; the aforementioned John Lackland, who is hitchhiking to the west coast to catch a freighter to India; and a bunch of New York “swells”—artists, collectors, musicians—staying at the upscale “La Paloma” hotel; in a addition to a host of other visitors and locals. The center of the action is Cielo Azul (Blue Heaven) a little cantina located on Burro Alley, a one-block street just west of the Plaza, where people allegedly tethered their burros in the nineteenth century. The burros are long gone, except for a statue at the corner of San Francisco street, and there are no dive bars. The area around Santa Fe’s plaza is the high rent district today, filled with museums, galleries, and restaurants. To find a dive like Cielo Azul, you’d have to head out to Airport Road.

The burro and I; Burro Alley and San Francisco Street, Santa Fe

Three Ways to Mecca (Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1947) is both a prequel and a sequel to Burro Alley: a central section set in Paris in 1930 is bracketed by two outer sections set in Southern California in the 1946. In the Parisian section, Oliver Walling, an American college student and would-be writer, is befriended and mentored by an older American expat, John Lackland, already embarked on his studies of space and time. In the California sections, Walling, now a successful author (modeled, in some respects, on Corle himself), deals with the stresses of his professional and personal life by purchasing and wearing a dog suit. Also in the mix are crooked literary agents, a Czech film director, and a wealthy widow who is being courted by a Viennese psychiatrist and a Theosophist bishop, both of whom are eager get their hands on her money to further their own ambitions. Both the bishop and the psychiatrist claim that they can cure Walling’s problems and thus relieve him of his need to wear the dog suit, though Walling is happy in his suit and feels no need to be cured. Enter John Lackland, who sorts out matters in short order, both for the widow and for Walling, explaining his theory of the “three ways to Mecca,” meaning paths to personal fulfillment.

What brought Corle to mind this week is that I recently purchased a copy of the 1953 paperback edition of Burro Alley as a gift for a friend. As you can see from the lurid cover, the publisher of this cheap mass-market paperback has repackaged Corle’s novel as a piece of noir-ish pulp fiction. Anyone who bought the book based on its cover would have been deeply disappointed—there’s no explicit sex and only a little violence at the end.

Cover of the 1953 paperback edition of Burro Alley

Corle is not a great stylist—he tells his stories in a straightforward way in plain language. The author he most reminds me of, in terms of style, content, and attitude among his contemporaries, is Steinbeck. Occasionally, his prose may be a bit clunky. But he tells entertaining stories and populates them with interesting, often compelling, characters, and that, rather than linguistic virtuosity, is what I want from a novel. If your tastes are similar to mine, you should look him up. Most of his books are available on Amazon at reasonable prices, and you may find at least his more popular titles in your local library.

Other Books by Edwin Corle:

Fiction

  • Mojave, a Book of Stories (Liveright, 1934)
  • People on the Earth (Random House, 1937)
  • Solitaire (E.P. Dutton, 1940)
  • Coarse Gold (E.P. Dutton, 1942)
  • In Winter Light (Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1949)
  • Billy the Kid (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1953)

Nonfiction

  • Desert Country (Duell, Sloan, & Pierce, 1941)
  • Listen, Bright Angel (Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1946)
  • John Studebaker, an American Dream (E.P. Dutton, 1948)
  • The Royal Highway (El Camino Real) (Bobbs-Merrill, 1949)
  • The Gila, River of the West(Rinehart & Company, 1951)
Posted in Literature, Southwest | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

How Radio Free Oz Saved Me from Mormonism

As some of my old friends are aware, I converted my family to Mormonism when I was ten years old, in 1960. I’ll explain the how and why of that some other time, but for the current story, it is sufficient to know that, in 1966, at the age of 15–16, I was still an active and believing (or, at least, non-questioning) Mormon, attending high school in Whittier, California.
Around that time, I started listening to KPFK, the Pacifica station in Southern California, inadvertently taking the first steps on the road to perdition. At first, it was just Les Claypool’s folk music show on Friday evenings. Next, I started listening to Elliot Mintz’s Looking In, which was call-in show aimed at teens, discussing such topics as the war in Vietnam, peace demonstrations, pot smoking, pop music, etc. (Mintz latter became a Hollywood publicist, representing clients such John and Yoko, and, more recently, Paris Hilton. If you have seen the documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, he is the strange-looking man with slicked-back blond hair, unnaturally orange skin, and hyper-white teeth; back then, however, he was just another Jewish hippie boy.) After Looking In, at 11PM, there was something called Radio Free Oz. It is difficult to describe exactly what Radio Free Oz was or what effect in had on this naïve teenager in the suburbs. There was a fellow named Peter Bergman with a deep voice, and slow, mellow speech, who sounded like the guru of all gurus, reciting the iChing, talking about Hopi prophecies and the Amsterdam Provos, and other obscure political and philosophical topics, interspersed with selections from some of the more far out rock and folk music of the day. I remember particularly a reading of Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision (a piece of complete bunk, by the way), that was utterly entrancing. Eventually, Bergman and his friends began performing little skits on the show, giving birth to the The Firesign Theatre.
A listing from the KPFK Folio (the station’s program guide) for one installment said the following:

THE WAY OF THE FOOL: This final Path is the Scintillating Intelligence because it is the essence of that curtain which is placed close to the order of the disposition, and this is a special dignity given to it that it might be able to stand before the Face of the Cause of Causes.

Heady if baffling words for a teenager from Whittier with artistic aspirations.
How did all of this affect my Mormonism? Did exposure to all of these very un-Mormon subjects and ideas undermine my faith? I suppose they did, ultimately, but there was a more immediate and concrete effect. High school–aged Mormons were (and, I suppose, still are) expected attend an hour of religious instruction (called “Seminary”) every morning before school. There, one learned about the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the life and prophecies of Joseph Smith, and church doctrine in general. One was also reminded that one was among the chosen people, “The Saints,” and therefore set apart from the gentile teens with whom one attended school. I have never been a morning person, but I endured this, mostly uncomplaining, through my freshman and sophomore years, but in my junior year, when I started listening to Oz, a conflict arose: I could stay up until midnight, secretly listening to RFO and other strangeness on KPFK, or I could get up at 6AM to attend seminary before school. I could not do both for long, and, in the end, Oz (and, perhaps, elemental sloth) won out over religion.
Other un-Mormon activities followed rapidly: Going to Hollywood to see bands perform in clubs on the Sunset Strip, reading the LA Free Press and San Francisco Oracle, attending the love-ins in Griffith and Elysian Parks, hanging out on Fairfax Avenue and, finally, dancing with Vito Paulekas’s troop of freaks. But Oz was a crucial factor, in that it first caused me to reject a demand that the church made upon me, and I found that I was able to do so without guilt, anxiety, or apprehension for my spiritual future.

Posted in 1960s, Culture, Mormonism, Religion | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

An Open Letter to Democrats

I am one of those independent voters who are talked about so much in our political news and commentary. I have never been a registered member of either of the two major parties, since neither consistently represents my interests and beliefs. Nevertheless, I have typically voted for Democratic candidates over the years, as they come nearer to my views—though often not very near—than Republicans. Lately, however, as they debate issues surrounding deficit reduction and budget priorities, I am having a difficult time understanding what it is that Democrats in congress and in the Whitehouse stand for. (What the Republicans stand for is all too clear.)
Although they now cry out for deficit reduction, Republicans have worked to create the current deficit ever since the first Regan administration, by cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans and engaging in unnecessary wars. Their goal has been and remains to transfer wealth and power to their true constituency, large corporations and the small class of people that run them and reap most of their profits. Their ultimate goal is to return the U.S. to the robber-baron laissez-faire capitalism of the late nineteenth century. They have made great progress toward this objective—the distribution of wealth in this country is more unequal today than at any time since before the great depression. But the Republicans are not yet satisfied. They are closing in for the kill: reduce social security, eliminate Medicare, abolish the federal minimum wage, defund the EPA, OSHA, higher education, public broadcasting, and so on. Why? Because we have to reduce the deficit, stupid. Republican talk about deficit reduction is a smokescreen to conceal their real goal, which is to eliminate any and all government programs that interfere with the power of the interests that they serve. The power of the federal government, though often a clumsy and unwieldy tool, is the only available counterbalance to corporate power. Hence, it must be reduced or eliminated.
When Democrats allow the Republicans to set the terms of the debate, arguing about which social programs and regulatory agencies should be cut and by how much, rather than addressing the more fundamental issues of how and why this huge deficit was created, they have lost the battle without firing a shot. It is time for Democrats to stand up and speak the truth about the Republicans’ goals. If they lack the courage to do so, of what use are they?
Some Democrats, including the president, persist in the delusion that they can “compromise” with Republicans. The Republicans do not compromise: they want total victory regardless of the cost, and Democrats seem willing to give it to them. Why? We don’t need another so-called compromise, like the one that extended the Bush-era tax cuts. If the goal is to reduce the deficit—and I’m not at all sure that this should be our highest priority at present—then let’s start taxing the people who have amassed the great bulk of America’s wealth. And I mean really tax them, by restoring the marginal income tax rate to what it was before tax cuts became the first article of faith for Republicans.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | 3 Comments

By Train in Italy (and Elsewhere)

During a recent trip, my wife, Marina, and I took an eight-day train excursion around Northern Italy—mainly in Lombardy and the Veneto. Starting in Varese, the nearest station to Marina’s hometown of Arcisate, we traveled to Bergamo, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Venice, and Ravenna, before returning to Varese via Milan. Such a trip would be impossible in most parts of the US, but in Italy it is both practical and affordable to travel from almost any midsized city to any other by train. Tickets ranged from around €8 to €28 per person, depending on the distance traveled and the class of the train. This compared quite favorably to the cost of renting a car and paying for gas at around USD 8.50 per gallon, plus it eliminated concerns about parking or navigating on Italian streets and highways. We never made reservations—we simply went to the station in the city where we were staying, went to the ticket counter, and asked for the next train to the next city on our itinerary, bought our tickets, and went. (It helped that Marina is fluent in Italian, but I suspect any tourist could learn enough Italian to master the ticket buying process.) Typically, the wait for the next train was less than an hour, and it was never more than an hour and a half. Almost every train station includes a bar/café where one can sip an amaro or cappuccino and read while waiting. The trains are quite punctual in both their arrivals and departures. Some trains are slow locals that stop at every small town along the route, other are fast expresses that connect major cities, and the level of comfort varied considerably, though never beyond our limits of tolerance.
Passenger trains in Italy are operated by a government-owned corporation, Trenitalia, which, in turn, is controlled by a larger, state-owned holding company, Ferrovie dello Stato. This indicates that the Italian people, like most Western Europeans, are crushed under the heel of a repressive socialist state. We freedom-loving Americans, on the other hand, require a “market-based” solution to our transportation needs, and hence must drive almost anywhere we wish to go in our private cars. Those who can’t afford a car or the fuel to run it had best stay home. Of course we have a state-sponsored passenger rail service, Amtrak, but it is habitually underfunded and regularly threatened with complete abolition by congress.
As it happens, we have a government supported commuter rail line here in Northern New Mexico—the Railrunner—which runs from Santa Fe to Belen, south of Albuquerque. Although we travel from Santa Fe to Albuquerque weekly for music rehearsals, we cannot take the train, because the last northbound train leaves Albuquerque at 7:40PM—the schedule seems to have been devised for state workers who commute from Albuquerque to the capital in Santa Fe. And as far as getting anywhere outside the Rio Grande corridor between Santa Fe and Belen, forget it. I suppose one could connect at Albuquerque with the once daily Amtrak trains between Los Angeles and Chicago, but that’s it. For any other destination in the West, at least as far as rail travel is concerned, you can’t get there from here.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

About the Title…

I once remarked to my wife, on the matter of organizing and shelving books, that “all categories are elastic.” This expression has become a bit of shibboleth with us, and I have adopted it as the title for this blog because I intend to write about whatever I may find of interest on any given day, without regard to whether it falls into any convenient category. For the most part, I expect to be writing about music, books, history, politics, and foreign affairs, in no particular order.

I wrote the words above about two years ago, when I started this blog on the WordPress.com site. I always intended to move Elastic Categories to my own website when I got it built, but that took much longer than I planned, as is so often the case. However, I’ve finally installed WP on my site, so I am resurrecting this blog and I hope to post to it more frequently than I did in the past, other demands on my time permitting.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 1 Comment