Ginger’s Narcissistic One-Body Book Club Presents: Woman, not "Woman"…

[I read lots of books. Sometimes I feel like talking about them.]

I’m currently waiting (eagerly!) for the latest book by Deborah Coates, Strange Country (due out on May 27). It’s the third book she’s written about a character who I’ve really come to adore, Hallie Michaels (the first two books are Wide Open and Deep Down).

[Note: I read the end of a new book first, so spoilers have no power over me. If you can’t stand ’em, don’t read any further.]

There are two things that keep me coming back to these stories and this character:
1. Coates herself is a farm kid who grew up to do a broad range of things (farmhand, writer, IT professional), and she currently lives right here in Iowa. These books are set in rural South Dakota and Iowa, and Coates does a really terrific job, I think, of capturing the country and the local culture. Her writing is spare and clear and a bit dry, much like the region itself, and there’s obviously a real love in her work for the wide-open spaces and the people who live in them. Even the supernatural elements of these books are addressed in a sort of matter-of-fact way, the kind of “it’s a big deal, and it’s scary and weird, and I just have to deal with it” that fits the place and the attitude of the people really well. It would be a bit lazy to compare what Coates does here to Twin Peaks, but in a way the comparison is reasonable; while her South Dakota isn’t as plainly surreal as Lynch’s Pacific Northwest, the environment itself does the job of being both commonplace and otherworldly in much the same way. It’s a sort of dry fantasy, simply expressed — Coates’ language is direct and uncomplicated (and often surprisingly witty), and she never veers into purple Lovecraftian* territory, even when it would suit the subject matter. Ghosts, Death personified, black dogs, reapers, weather-control via blood sacrifice — it’s all presented just as it is, and the characters just have to deal.
2. The way Coates writes Hallie (Hallie’s is the POV from which we view all of the events in these books) is a breath of fresh air. Hallie Michaels is all of the following things: a young woman, a farm kid, an army veteran (Afghanistan), and a hard-headed, practical, sometimes taciturn rural Midwesterner who joined the army because she wanted to see the world. All of these things (and more) inform her experience.

Notice what I did not say in that description. We have no idea how long her legs are. We have no idea what her hair or her eyes look like, or her breasts, or her ass — and none of that matters to us, because it matters so little to her. Hallie is never an object in these books (even for herself). Is there romance in these books? Sure! But from Hallie’s pragmatic point of view, there is relatively little emotional drama in it — or rather, there is no stereotypical or unnecessary emotional drama in it. The relationship she has with Boyd is emotionally difficult sometimes, but the way Coates writes it, there is a kind of open clear-headedness even in the complicated bits. Hallie is an adult, and she reacts to her own feelings and the feelings of others like an adult. She’s not always right, and she’s not always smart, but she is consistent. Her military experience is revealed not in combat badassery (although she’s got the skills) or in some lazy girl-who-digs-guns-and-has-tattoos kind of thing (none of that here!), but in her certainty of her own competence. She has been under fire, and she knows how to handle it, even when the fire gets extra-supernaturally freaky.

It’s also worth noting that these books pass the Bechdel Test without even trying. Hallie has a number of female friends (notably Brett), and her interactions with them are complex in ways that go far beyond the stock “best girlfriends” nonsense. These women, too, are products of the same rural background and practical attitude that Hallie demonstrates. They are not all exactly like Hallie, of course, but they are rich characters. Hallie’s (deceased) sister Dell is a marvelous example of the kind of easy-going, tough rural femininity that seems normal to Coates’ characters (and becomes normal for her readers).

I don’t mean to say that Hallie’s perfect, or that she’s never afraid or confused — only that the internal voice that Coates gives her is the internal voice of a grown woman who knows enough of her own way that she needn’t be reduced to teenage nonsense. She is fully and obviously a woman, but there are no parodic “feminine” moments for her. Nor are there bizarre attempts to make her more tough by making her superheroically “masculine”. Hallie isn’t Buffy**, and that makes a huge difference. She is not coming of age. Sex isn’t a source of anxiety or awkwardness for her. Hallie is refreshingly matter-of-fact about her desires, her feelings, her fears, and her needs. Like Buffy, Hallie has died at least once. Unlike Buffy, Hallie, taciturn midwesterner that she is…deals with it.

As Hallie’s written, one cannot imagine her taking anyone other than Boyd seriously as a romantic interest — primarily because his basic mode for interacting with her is, at every turn, to let her choose what she’s going to do, and doing his own thing for his own reasons. A woman like Hallie could hardly be expected to respect someone who tried to dictate her behavior, and Boyd usually doesn’t. He’s good at making room between them, and the resulting relationship (while obviously not perfect, and still growing and changing) is mature without being dull or over-thought. There’s no Twilight nonsense here — these people are complex adults who make and take responsibility for their own behavior. Do they struggle? Sure! But their struggles are rooted in respect, and in their own needs and drives as distinct human beings with their own histories and desires. It’s not easy, but it’s great reading. Are there difficulties between Hallie and Boyd? Sure, although the script (interestingly) is flipped — he is the one who wants a deeper commitment, and she is the one who isn’t sure she wants to stick around (there’s a lot of world yet to see, after all).

I find myself loving the autonomy of this woman. It’s enlightening and incredibly pleasant to read a book with a female protagonist who is written as a person and not as this mysterious culturally conditioned thing called “woman.”*** One of the reasons I loathe (for example) The Da Vinci Code is the way Brown writes his main female character; it’s as if he’s never encountered women except by reputation, and is imagining the way they must be (mysterious, alien, emotional creatures…). Coates just writes Hallie as a person; Brown writes Sophie as a “woman,” and it’s incredibly annoying.

It should be obvious that I am really, really looking forward to Strange Country. 

*Mind you, this isn’t meant to be a criticism of Lovecraft — I love that stuff, as bizarre and overwrought and wildly baroque as it is (indeed, that’s why I love it). That style, however, really wouldn’t fit the world or the characters that Coates has created.

**I love me some Buffy, but the older I get, the more often I want to be grown up rather than growing up in my experience of fictional worlds.

***I do not mean to imply that Hallie is not written as a woman. She obviously is. What is not going on, however, is the usual lazy concatenation of feminine stereotypes (“woman”) that some writers use instead of, you know, actually developing a freakin’ character. Yah, yah, women are so mysterious, no one ever understands them…what utter bullshit. No adult human being should think such ridiculous things. One reason why I couldn’t finish Jordan’s Wheel of Time books is precisely because of this kind of lazy characterization. Well, that, and I got bored. There. I said it. Booooored. No amount of love for Brandon Sanderson (who I think, on the whole, tends to do much better with characters than Jordan ever did) could make me pick that up again to finish it.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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