Sunday, October 17, 2010

Map of Ireland, Stephanie Grant

I think that white northerners, people in America living north of the Mason-Dixon line, like to convince ourselves that historically there was no real racism here, at least not like in the south.  Sure, there were a few hot spots like Detroit where race riots happened, but some of our best friends were black.  We supported abolition.  We didn't have Jim Crow laws (at least, not the kind written down).  We're the racial good guys.

The fact is, racism, while less overt, was and is just as insidious in the northern part of the US as it was in the south.  While it's true that more northerners than southerners expressed a positive opinion of desegregation and equal rights, when I came right down to it the same fear and prejudice reared it's ugly head during the 1960s and 1970s in places like Chicago and Boston.  Especially at issue was school desegregation, which resulted in the forced busing of both white and black students out of their neighborhoods and into other areas of the city to achieve racial integration.

It is Boston's struggle over school desegregation that is the focus of Stephanie Grant's novel, Map of Ireland.  The main character, Ann Ahern, is a troubled Irish girl from Southie, the neighborhood in South Boston where the Irish settled during the 1800s and early 1900s.  It is now the 1970s-the 60s are over, leaving behind some aging hippies and a country struggling to catch up with the furious pace of cultural change that it just experienced.  The year that the busing started in Boston's public schools is the same year that Mademoiselle Eugenie, a Senegalese exchange teacher, comes to teach French at Ann's school.  Ann quickly develops a crush on Mademoiselle Eugenie, but it's not her gender that concerns Ann-it's the color of her skin.  While Ann has known for a while that she is attracted only to women, her desire for Mademoiselle Eugenie brings her into contact with more Blacks than she has ever known, and forces her to confront her own prejudice, as well as the oppression and violence that poor Blacks in Boston experienced at the hands of their white neighbors during that difficult year.

Grant does with this novel what I hope other authors will do as time goes on-she has a gay main character, but the book is not about gay issues, at least not mostly.  There are many societal issues raised in the book-sexuality, class, ethnic heritage, race-but the racial issue takes centers stage, and is the driving force behind the other parts of the story.  While no one is defined by a single part of their identity, often books with gay protagonists are specifically about being gay-struggling for self-acceptance, coming out, finding love, fighting for equality.  In this novel Ann has already mostly come to terms with her sexuality, but her feelings for Mademoiselle Eugenie throw her into crisis.  While Grant never uses this term, much of what Ann struggles with is feeling like a race traitor, feeling as though she is trapped by her own ethnicity and geography, unable to see any way forward that does not mean cutting herself off from the only community she has ever known.

The other thing that Grant does quite well with this book is the authenticity of the characters.  Despite her obvious support of racial equity and understanding, her black characters are not sentimentalized.  They are portrayed neither as noble heroes or victims, but as complicated, flawed people.  While some of the whites in the book are obvious villains, for the most part they are written as people struggling to maintain control over their own lives in the face of fear of the unknown.  While it is clear where Grant's sympathies lie, the story does not ever devolve into preachiness or stereotypes, and while you might not agree with the position of any one character, you begin to see how nuanced the situation really was.  Black and white issues rarely exists in the real world, and they don't exist in this book either.  Like most of us, this book resides squarely in a shade of gray.

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