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Pickle Me This

October 22, 2014

What to Read in Uncertain Times

farthingIn these uncertain times (though I am unclear about which times were ever certain) with so much fear, hatred and violence in the world, what books should we turn to? Could there possibly be a book into which escape is possible, all the while the experience of reading sharpens our senses in connection to the troubled world around us?

hapennyBut in fact there are three, Jo Walton’s “Small Change” series, which begins with Farthing, then Ha’Penny and Half a Crown. We devoured them on our summer vacation this year, detective novels set in an alternate history in which Britain had declared peace which Germany in 1940 and began a slippery slide into Fascism underlined by establishment powers. Such fun absolutely, and yet they’ve never been far from my mind ever since, particularly in light of government response to terror threats in the UK and in Canada lately which has seemed eerily similar to the story Walton writes in her book.

Though this similarity  is most deliberate. Walton writes:

half-a-crown“I wrote these books during a dark time politically, when the US and the UK were invading Iraq without a Security Council resolution on a trumped up casus belli. I was brought up by my grandparents, and the defining event of their lives was WWII, it cut across them like a knife. To find a government I had voted for waging a war of aggression really rocked my expectations. If I’d been in Britain I’d have marched and protested, but I was in Canada, which kept out of that unjust war. My husband is Irish, and Ireland wasn’t doing it either. I think it was my isolation on this that went into writing these books.

I had read a lot of cosy mysteries, Tey, Sayers, Christie, Heyer, and considered the interesting fact that they were about sudden violent death and yet they were written in a way that made them safe, indeed cosy. I thought I could use this to write about fascism, and not in a closed known historical context where we’re safe and sure of the ending either.”

We live in a  good world—this is one thing I am not uncertain about. And while art is so often a mirror or a window through which we understand the world, it’s so essential that sometimes we see it from a different point of view, which Walton does so brilliantly here, reframing history in a way that helps us understand and navigate the uncertainty of right now, and strive to be better than we are.

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