5 out of 5 stars
Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Crimson Footprints by Shewanda Pugh
Reviewed by Raymond Mathiesen
5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars
The balancing act of life…
Deena Hammond is a 24 year old architect living and working in her home town of Miami, Florida. In some ways Deena is very successful, but she comes from a poor background, and in many ways she is still inextricably tied up with those origins. Her grandmother, Emma Hammond, who brought Deena up, is constantly demanding and never satisfied. Deena’s adult brother Anthony is a small-time criminal, and her sister Lizzie, though still at school, is incorrigibly wayward and seems headed for a disaster of a life. Deena is half African-American and half white and feels that she was never really accepted by the black side of her family when they took her in as a child. In very harrowing circumstances Deena meets Takumi (Tak for short) Tanaka, the son of her world famous, distant and demanding boss Daichi Tanaka. Immediately the personal chemistry and attraction seems right, but everything else between these two people seems impossible. Deena is a mere underling. Should she even be talking to the son of the owner of the business she works for? What is more Deena’s family very much expects her to date a black man. Can these two people overcome the odds and form a friendship, or even the romance they both desire?
Shewanda Pugh’s Crimson Footprints can certainly be classified as a romance; however, it is much more than that. It is a story of class consciousness and racial division. It is about the struggle to find the right equilibrium between work and family, and it is a story about trying to ‘do the right thing’. Most of all, this novel is about balance in all things. We are all different, but we must overcome our resistances and come to the center ground if we are truly going to be a success in life.
Pugh has managed to successfully weld sweet romance with biting ‘slice of life’. Romance, especially the first phase, usually seems enjoyable, even with its ups and downs and Pugh captures the pleasant nature of first love well. Mixed in with these chapters, though, are insights into the often seedy, cruel world of the lower class. This juxtaposition works very well, jarring us, and reminding us that while life can seem pleasurable, there is always harshness, perhaps not too distant from us. There is considerable irony in the contrasts between Deena’s romance, and her striving for career success, and Lizzie’s pure-flesh ‘sexploits’ and base efforts to get ahead (for example the Ch. 7 / Ch. Ch. 8 contrast). Pugh’s phrasing, particularly at peak moments, is often excellent, lifting her prose from the mundane. In Chapter 1, for example, which describes the run down suburb of Liberty City, we read of “Torn fences that imprison rather than embellished” the houses which Deena passes. This care with words, and occasionally poetic turn of phrase, helps to mark out the book as more than the average read. There are moments of pure humor, particularly the events surrounding Takumi’s cousin Mike and his fumbling attempts to capture Deena’s attention (CH. 47 & following). There are also moments of true shock and also scenes of high drama that take us far from the average world of romance. Pugh has included occasional swearing, and sex is very openly discussed and depicted. This may offend conservative readers, but is certainly justified by the themes, characters and story line.
The book has a more unusual plot structure. Part One (Ch. 1 - 7) serves as a general introduction to the Hammond and Tanaka families, and to Deena’s work. The plot peaks early, then builds as complications follow. Part Two (Ch. 8 – 42) is a very long section covering Tak and Deena’s extended holiday road-trip across much of the U.S. Romance blooms as Deena learns to loosen up, then a series of couples are met. These couples serve to show how Tak and Deena’s love perhaps could work. The sequence comes to an unexpected close as events suddenly twist in a crisis. This Part could perhaps have been divided into two sections, though the whole sequence is certainly united by the structure of the holiday. Part Three (Ch. 43 – 64) covers the problem of the hidden nature of the romance, centering on complications during a working holiday break. The disastrous climax of the novel is reached followed by a brief sequence wrapping up circumstances with the Tanaka family. Part Four (Ch. 65 – 67) describes the complications with Emma. This section is quite brief and perhaps could have been extended a little considering Deena’s grandmother’s earlier resistance, tenacity and belligerence. The Epilogue, set some years in the future wraps up the plot lines nicely, though one question is pointedly left open.
As already indicated the main theme of Crimson Footprints is balance, or Difference/Harmony. We like people ‘like us’, but we are all individuals. What does it really mean to be ‘like me”? Is this merely a matter of externals, or are internals more important? We need to accept who people are, and where they came from, but not be bound by that. An openness in outlook and balance is needed otherwise we will be bound forever in very limited circumstances. On another level, how do we handle the conflict between work and family / social life? Is one demand more important than another? Can we neglect either? Of course there are no easy answers, though those may be the first to come to us. Life is complicated and this book explores these complications.
The family is a second important theme. Families can be both sources of pain and sources of strength, and both features can occur in the same kinfolk. Families are what make us, but at the same time are what we grow from. They can be conservatively stolid, relying heavily on tradition, or can adapt to new circumstances. We can ignore them, but we can never really escape them. Following from tradition, a family can be a basic mother, father and children, or it can be a less conventional grouping. Families are very basic to human nature and being taken in, or adopted, does not make it of less importance to us. This very contrary institution in fact dominates us. We come from families and then we make new families, or at least extend those which we have.
Another important theme in the novel is what could broadly be termed as success. We are encouraged to ‘do our best’, to ‘do good’, to ‘shine’. What is success and what are the traits that allow us to see it? Is it hard work resulting in material objects? Is it love, honesty, caring and ethics resulting in respect and attachment? Is there room for both? Millennia ago the ancient Greeks asked, “What is the good citizen?” In response they formulated the idea of “Virtue” (Ben Dupre. 50 Philosophy Ideas You Really Need To Know: Quercus, 2007, p. 96 – 99), that is, the character traits that make us wisely successful in both working life and family life, and indeed everything that we do. This idea of ‘virtue’ is central to Pugh’s novel. Deena struggles to be a ‘good person’ ethically, socially and work-wise. For her these are not separate issues, and not merely because she is in love with the boss’s son: all are tied up with who she is as a person. Of course there is success in terms of one social class’s ideals or another’s, but what is truly wise success. In the end isn’t success really related to what makes us “happy” (Ch. 20), as complex an issue as that may be?
Following from this there is also a minor theme of ‘religion verses ethics’. The Christian religion claims to be the guide for good, but surely considering the evil things that befall us for no reason we should conclude that God in some ways unfairly hates us (Ch. 2)? Indeed doesn’t hell hang over us like some permanent, inescapable damnation (Ch. 2)? Even if these things aren’t entirely correct theologically, aren’t accusation and condemnation how Christians really act? Is this really what good is all about? Equally, for so many, isn’t Buddhism in reality simply a constraining tradition full of rules about obligation (Ch. 10), rather than a source of right behavior leading to internal peace? Once again this may not be correct according to the true tenets of Buddhism, but isn’t this how it often works out in practice? If religion in practice isn’t such a good guide for ‘goodness’, what do we take as our guide? Surely we must fall back into the painful position of finding our own way, and indeed Deena must struggle to find her own position.
Deena Hammond is an interesting character who we immediately like and care about. What strikes us is her positivity in very negative circumstance and her determination to get somewhere better. Deena is a ‘Star’, without being too perfect. Despite her determination, in certain circumstances, particularly with her Grandmother, she collapses. What unites these converse character elements is the fact that she is a self-accuser. Her accusation drives her on to career success, but also holds her up in her battle with her domineering Grandmother. While she accuses herself, Deena is somewhat driven to help others, particularly her siblings. This kind of complexity does much to make Deena seem more real to the reader. She is no cardboard cut-out. Deena must learn to limit her career “expectations” (Ch. 12) and not rely so much on “reason” (Ch. 16) alone to solve problems. These are human challenges the reader can recognize and understand, even if they do not personally suffer from them.
Takumi Tanaka is in some ways the ‘perfect man’ every woman dreams about. He is “athletic” (Ch. 1), a success at both art and business (Ch. 5) and caring. His limitation is that, while he can understand Grandmother Emma all too well, he only has a limited understanding of his own father and family. Despite this the reader wonders if Tak could have had just one or two more faults to make him more human.
Grandmother Emma Hammond is an appropriate nemesis. She is a narrow minded bigot, uneducated, an immense hypocrite and appropriately venomous, though occasionally she can give way. The words “consistently hostile” (Ch. 1) certainly sum her up. Her Christianity is certainly a biting irony.
Daichi Tanaka is describe by a magazine is “Architectural God” (Ch. 3) and his behavior exhibits the kind of flaws that such adulation would certainly bring. He can be arrogant, bad tempered, rude and cold, but he is also willing to give others a chance to prove themselves, and even work to bring out the best in people. Daichi is like Deena in his determined, even driven nature, and in his concern for others, but quite different in his self-adulation. Pugh has these two character form an interesting and rich relationship, and has managed to make Daichi equally complex.
Examined from the perspective of Feminism it can easily be seen that Deena is a successful young career woman and entirely self-made. Deena’s challenge is to live up to the goals set by Betty Friedan (Cathia Jenainati. Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, 2010, p. 90 – 94) of being successful both in her job and family life, without falling into the same traps that men do (primarily flavoring career over relationships). Hatsumi, Tak’s mother, however, is by marked contrast a 1950’s woman: unloved, unhappy, trapped at home, but beautifully dressed. Even Hatsumi, however, has a certain dignity and demonstrates a mind of her own, showing how women can rise above these circumstances. Emma, for all her failings, is certainly headstrong. Lizzie has a mind of her own, but serves as representative of the ‘sex object’ so propagated by traditional media and male driven dominance. Pugh makes it more than clear that according to her this option is not to be desired. Rhonda, Deena’s aunty, is also a career woman (Ch. 4), but demonstrates the bigotry which the ‘new woman’ faces as she must “constantly field unfounded accusations that she is a lesbian” (Ch. 4) simply because she does not fit a very narrow picture of what a woman should be like.
Daichi is very representative of the 1950’s male role model, being a stranger to both his feelings and his family, and believing that his duty as a male is solely to provide income. He sees himself as the family figure head. As the story progresses, however, this position comes under increasing, condemning scrutiny. Tak, by contrast, is the twenty first century man: not New Age / Spiritual, but none the less in touch with his own feelings, and caring of others. As an artist he expresses freedom and creativity, rather than being trapped in a rigid role. Anthony Hammond, Deena’s brother, represents that large group of men who have not progressed to the standard proposed by twenty first century male Gender Studies. He is everything a man should not be, trapped in a 1950’s ‘tough rebel’ role, renamed “gasgsta” (Ch. 56) as if it were something new.
This is by far a predominantly heterosexual novel, though, LGBTIQ people are very briefly represented by Bridget, “a lesbian” (Ch. 20), who is positively depicted as a successful career woman. Two quite large families are depicted in the novel, plus other minor characters, and we wonder if more of a representation of LGBTIQ people could have been made, particularly in a book where ‘difference’ is an important theme.
The aged, who are often ignored in society, are chiefly represented by Emma Hammond, though this is clearly not a sympathetic depiction. Of course being old does not automatically make you nice or wise. The absent character of Eddie Hammond, Emma’s husband, is equally uncomplimentary, though that is not surprising as the two belong together, having chosen each other as partners. Yukiko, Tak’s grandmother, by contrast proves to have learned wisdom over the years and in an important scene gives Daichi very useful words of advice.
This is a novel very much about minorities and highlights the difficulties those who would reach beyond their group face, as well as the difficulties those of mixed racial background face. African-Americans are highlighted, as are the U.S. minority of Japanese-Americans. This is, however, not really a book about political agenda or advancement in the standard way Post-Colonial Studies thinks. We do not, for example, really hear of civil rights. The social history behind African-American food is certainly mentioned early on (Ch. 4), and we hear that this is the food of slaves who must do with left overs. Also we hear that architecture should reflect the culture of the ethnic group (e.g. Mayan farmers) and empower these local groups (Ch. 3). As has been seen, both Deena and Rhonda are successful, black career women, and Daichi is certainly successful way beyond the normal expectations. The bigotry faced by both Japanese and Negroes in the U.S. is also briefly touched on as is the difficulties of mixed race couples (Ch. 57). The difficulties of people of mixed racial origin are also mentioned (Ch. 22). In all of this, however, the emphasis is on personal coping rather than political agenda. As has been said, this is a book about ‘Virtue’, and Pugh’s aim is to demonstrate the personal attitude in the face of these circumstances is what is important. Personal action to overcome poverty, for example, is the solution, rather than simply social programs. This is illustrated by the marked contrasts between the Tanaka and Hammond families. The Tanakas, despite their problems and failings, are educational achievers, work achievers and socially successful. The Hammonds, on the other hand ignore education, choose criminal careers, and glory in social bigotry and abrasiveness. They lead lives full of failure and ineptitude and seem to glory in it. Deena and Rhonda are of course the exception. As can be seen Pugh is not pulling her punches. This is a tough message and will be unpopular with at least some, though her message is overwhelmingly one of hope.
Similar to the position on minorities, Pugh takes an unusual stand in the Capitalist / Socialist debate. The evils of poverty are openly depicted. One example is the Liberty City high school where it is virtually impossible to take driver education courses because of under-resourcing (Ch. 7). There is no doubt that people should be able to live better. But once again the primary solution is personal virtue and not government programs. Opulent wealth is not openly condemned, far from it, but it is not placed above interpersonal caring and personality characteristics of value. Monetary wealth is of value, but not if that is all you have. This is certainly in keeping with the theories of Marx (Gill Hands. Understanding Marx: Hodder Education, 2011, Ch. 6), but is hardly standard Socialism. Pure Capitalism at the expense of virtue is certainly to be denied. Anthony has his “Air Jordans” (Ch. 6) and Lizzie has her tawdry, growing personal income, but at what expense to them personally? None the less this novel is in part a celebration of the American rags to riches ideal: the self-made man/woman.
Pugh is of course aiming to write about ‘real’ people and ‘real’ life, and so the field of psychology comes into play. Psychology aims to discover truths about human nature and behaviour, and so is a useful tool and aid to fiction. Deena is primarily motivated by guilt instilled in her by her overly-critical, religious grandparents who “bullied” her relentlessly (Ch. 12), and as a result is very critical of herself (Ch. 7), though she has achieved much in her life. She is controlled by the voice of others rather than her own “decision making and self-regulation” (Michael J. Formica. Guilt is a Wasted Emotion: Psychology Today: July 25, 2008, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/enlightened-living/200807/guilt-is-wasted-emotion). She is a rigid planner (Ch. 9) locked in schemes to ensure success, so that the critical voices (now in her head) will be appeased. Of course Deena must break free of this circumstance, and that is a major plot line in the book. Also it can be noted that Deena is a “rescuer” (Andrea Matthews. The Rescuer Identity: Psychology Today: April 21, 2011, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/traversing-the-inner-terrain/201104/the-rescuer-identity), who feels that she must ‘save’ her sister and brother, but is never successful in doing so. She carries out her ‘mission’ at great expense to her own development. She tries to ‘save’ others, but has never really established her own self-worth. Once again, it is clear that Deena must overcome this issue and Pugh explores this plot line in some detail.
A name can often help to shape us into the people we are, and studying names can sometimes help the reader to understand fiction. According to David L. Gold (A Dictionary Of Surnames: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 237) the family name Hammond means “home”, with the special implications of “high [ … ] protection” and “ancestor [… ] protection”. This is certainly very ironic as Deena’s home is indeed anything other than a place of strong refuge, and her grandparents are hardly shields against the ill-will of the world.
Pugh’s novel is not heavily symbolic: however, the image of architecture hangs over the whole book. Architecture is “order in a world of chaos, sense in a world of madness” (Ch. 9). It can be something false and contrived that we impose on nature, or it can blend with the environment, as Deena wants to do with her Postmodern theories (Ch. 5). It can construct artificiality or it can deconstruct our fake ideas of life (Ch. 3). As has been noted Deena is trapped in the construction of her family and their “expectations” (Ch. 12), as well as her own, and needs to break free into her own natural being.
Shewanda Pugh’s Crimson Footprints has many aspects to it. It has the themes of difference / harmony, family and success, which are explored in some detail. Its characters tend to be complex and life-like, and are in tune with the ideas of modern psychology. The issues of racial and class division are explored in depth. The limitations of 1950’s values for both men and women are depicted, and the alternatives, as proposed by Feminism and Gender Studies, are examined. The role of money verses personal worth, as seen in the Capitalist / Socialist debate, is investigated in some detail, though Pugh chooses an individual solution, and is not bound by the constrains of either of those theories. Pugh writes well and she has created a successful novel which I am happy to rate as 5 stars out of 5.