Pavel’s Perspective in the Captivating Chernobyl Miniseries

Just recently, the venerable George R.R. Martin remarked that “I am working in a very different medium than David and Dan” when explaining why the ending he intends to write will differ from the final seasons of Game of Thrones. Now none of us are holding our breath waiting for the next entry in A Song of Ice and Fire, but Martin’s statement begs an interesting question: are authors better off not imagining their works as a televised program? The question may seem trivial but considering how often authors are exhorted to make mental movies of their work, I think it is worth pondering. Personally, I am inclined to say that it’s probably a good mental exercise for authors but it’s very important to remember that what works in television does not always work in literature and vice versa. For proof of this, we need only consider the miniseries Chernobyl.

In literature, recurring characters usually need to have some sort of backstory to hold the reader’s interest. Of course, there are exceptions but if we are going to spend time in a person’s head, we usually like to know what makes that person tick. When it comes to television, we don’t need to know nearly as much about a character because we can see how they feel and that provides an understanding of its own. Pavel, a young man conscripted into containment efforts in Chernobyl, is a great example of this.

Pavel being confronted by a superior for being negligent in his duties

His name is used sparingly in the show and even though he appears in multiple scenes, I could not remember his name without looking it up online. That did nothing, however, to prevent me from enjoying his storyline. Despite knowing little about the character in terms of his backstory or his interest, I still felt as if I understood a great deal about his character. After all, I could see how he felt when he was offered a drink by his new bunkmates, when he is informed that he has been ordered to shoot the dogs exposed to radiation, when he has to decide if he has the fortitude to kill a litter of puppies, and that helps a great deal with knowing how he feels.

According to the show runners, key information about Pavel was deliberately withheld from the audience so that he could serve as a symbol of the many individuals conscripted into containment efforts. Such sparse character development can work in television but is much harder to pull off in literature. There are practical reasons related to dialogue attribution and POV jumping but one reason stands out above all the rest: television requires less engagement from consumers. This is not to suggest less creativity or effort goes into the making of television—one need only consult the credits list for a movie to know just how much talent goes into the production of a televised event. But so long as Stranger Things is easy to binge and finishing Moby Dick is hard, I think characters like Pavel will work well on the screen but not so well on the page.

Perhaps I am wrong though. My TBR list grows longer by the day and I might revise my opinion on the matter once I make more progress on that front. For now, I am inclined to agree with George R.R. Martin that television is a very different medium and I would encourage everyone interested in good television to watch the miniseries Chernobyl. If the explosion in visits to the Exclusion Zone and the show’s stellar ratings are any indication, there’s a very good chance the show will be remembered as the best drama of 2018.  

Respect and history

Towards the end of my time in Ghana, I went to visit the Elmina slave castle with my CIEE group. It was an extremely moving experience and one that I will remember for a long time. Part of the reason it was so moving was the knowledge that my family had been taken as part of the Atlantic slave trade but judging by the expressions of the other students who had joined for the CIEE excursion, it was a poignant experience regardless of heritage. Nonetheless, it was an experience marred by my interactions with some of the locals. Before I could even enter the museum, I came across a Ghanaian man named Isaac Boston. Like most Ghanaians living in Cape Coast, he had an extremely Anglo name and had no trouble communicating with me in English. Before I even had the chance to say a few words to him, he had offered me a seashell with a note urging me to “have a good trip at Elmina Castle.”

I found it off-putting to say the least but that wasn’t even the worst of it. Isaac then had the temerity to ask me if I would be willing to give him a few cedi. He was quick to explain the seashell was completely free but added that tossing a few cedi his way would be a nice way of showing my appreciation for the seashell. His smile was so warm and his request so earnest that it was difficult to be angry with him, but the experience left a bad taste in my mouth all the same. Unfortunately, things did not get better once we entered the castle.

The tour guide seemed to have little to no respect for the trauma associated with the Elmina slave castle and saw nothing at all wrong about taking us to a gift shop immediately after taking us to the Female Slave Dungeon where women would be abused and tortured for being disobedient. Perhaps it could have made sense if the gift shop was a place we visited after finishing the tour of Elmina, or at least had the knowledge that our money would go to some NGO like End Slavery Now, but it was a stop planned for the middle of the tour and absolutely no explanation was provided as to where our money would go.

From what I have read online, the Ghanaian man who led us around Elmina was not especially callous in his attitude toward the trauma of the Atlantic slave trade. If anything, his attitude was pretty typical. As far as many of the locals are concerned, the slave trade didn’t effect them. After all, they still live in Ghana so their lineage was “uninterrupted” so to speak.

What’s great about historical fiction is it can help coax the callous out of their comfort zones but, ultimately, the door swings both ways. Sometimes historical fiction can take the sharp edges off a tragedy, whether it’s using war and colonialism as the backdrop for an erotica series like Jennings did with his Aztec series or intentionally promoting a very distorted version of history like Mitchell did with Gone With the Wind. Historical novelists have a duty to be respectful of history and I think the same holds true for individuals that visit historic sites.

Chances are we have all been that “disrespectful tourist” at some point, either because we lacked for a basic understanding of the history behind a place or because we just really wanted a nice souvenir to take home. Nonetheless, I hope we can all realize that certain places are not meant for smiling selfies and some stories aren’t supposed to be light-hearted. Now that summer is pretty much in full swing, I think this is important for all of us to remember the importance of respect for history since many of us will use this time to write, to vacation, or to read. No matter how one chooses to spend this summer, I hope we can all learn a lesson from Isaac Boston. Otherwise, we run the risk of being an irreverent seashell and not understanding why nobody seems to like what that represents.

Coming of the Storm and the Value of Narrative Experimentation

Coming of the Storm is not exactly a typical historical novel. Set in pre-Columbian North America, the Gears’ create a world where human beings can converse with spiritual entities and gods can intervene in earthly matters. I tend to avoid all things supernatural in my writing and while I don’t avoid it in literature per se, I do think it can be distracting in a historical novel. War God: Nights of the Witch is one example of this but I am sure there are many. Nonetheless, the Gears’ thread the needle very well in Coming of the Storm and incorporate supernatural elements into the story in a way that does not distract from the larger narrative. If anything, the narrative experimentation makes Coming of the Storm all the more memorable.

The protagonist of the novel, Black Shell, has a deep respect for the power of the gods but that respect is tempered by bitterness. Black Shell used to be an upstanding member of the Chicaza tribe, known to many as the Chickasaw today, but he had to abandon that life at the behest of the Horned Serpent. Rejected by his family and his friends, he wanders from town to town with five pack dogs and a vast assortment of trade goods. Years of trading have honed his skills as a merchant and bring Pearl Hand, his eventual wife, into his life but also earns him the enmity of powerful chiefs like Irriparacoxi.

Confident in his ability to strike a bargain with anyone, Black Shell is determined to meet with the mysterious people known as the Kristianos. He knows next to nothing about them, though he has heard they speak a tongue none to known of his countrymen and have deathly pale skin, but Pearl Hand has serious reservation about meeting with the Kristianos. Moved by her pleas, Black Shell agrees to not meet with them and to simply watch them from afar instead. As it turns out, the precaution matters little as Black Shell is caught spying on the Kristianos and forced into slavery.

Thanks to Pearl Hand, Black Shell is able to escape captivity and is tempted to flee for the safety of the interior. His spirit dreams, however, give him pause and force him to consider the future that will result should de Soto establish a secure foothold. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Horned Serpent tells Black Shell why it is important to rally defenders for the fight against the Spanish, explaining that “if de Soto survives, his stories will be told across the ocean. Others will see our land for what it is: rich in soils, forests, and game. They will not come for gold, Black Shell. They will come to conquer our world.” Not only does this do a great job of establishing the dramatic stakes of the story, I think it does a great job of alluding to the environmental destruction wrought by the colonial powers in North America. The rich soils have been squandered, the forests destroyed, and the game hunted to extinction.

Moreover, the destruction was not just limited to the environment. The colonial forays of “the mighty peoples on a choking land, longing to bring their ways here” led to the deaths of millions all throughout the Americas. Needless to say, this had profound social consequences for the region and the world. Often overlooked, however, are the theological consequences and the spirit dreams do a great job of reminding readers of the cultural erasure that happened as a result of European colonization. No scene does this better than the conversation between Water Panther, Snapping Turtle, and Black Shell. Black Shell struggles to understand how an immortal Spirit Being like Water Panther could ever experience fear, prompting Snapping Turtle to ask “Do you see images of the Piasas, the Horned Serpent, Eagle Man, or the Hero Twins on the Kristiano armor?” Black Shell does not and tells Snapping Turtle that he sees only “their cross of wood” on their armor. The chapter ends with Snapping Turtle asking Black Shell what will happen if de Soto and his cohorts triumph, “if they should convert all people to their cross… if no one believes in the Water Panther anymore.” It’s a powerful question and I imagine it will force many readers to think more critically about the European settling of the Americas.   

I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in North American history or anyone who likes historical novels with a dash of supernatural wonder.

The book is available on Amazon and can be requested in most libraries.

Beyond the Trappings of Traditional War Fiction: a review of Zoe Saadia’s Beyond the Great River

Beyond the Great River is a historical novel that takes place in the Great Lakes region during pre-Columbian times. I have spent little time in this part of the world and know little about the history of this region but I still found it quite easy to enjoy this novel. Military conflict, as is often the case in historical fiction, plays a large role in the story but, unlike many other war novels, Beyond the Great River does not build toward a pitched battle. In some respects, it may not even be appropriate to think of Beyond the Great River as a war novel. After all, the invading force in the book constitute barely 20 warriors and the village being invaded is not especially large. Moreover, there is little examination of battle tactics and no great general who we are supposed to root for in the story. Whether it is to be considered a war novel or an examination of a long-ago skirmish, Beyond the Great River has quite a bit to say about military conflict and human nature.

War has long been thought of as a young man’s calling and most historical novels are told exclusively from this perspective. However, Beyond the Great River chooses a different tack and we see the conflict mainly through the eyes of Kentika, a young girl who happened to spot the invading force as she was out exploring the forest. Desperate to save her home, Kentika rushes back to her village to inform her elders of what she saw. As it turns out, this ends up being a costly mistake. Not only do her elders initially dismiss her account, but she ends up leading the invaders back to her village because they are able to follow her fresh tracks. It’s a great example of how good intentions don’t always lead to good results and how defeat can often be brought about by very wise decisions.

Some readers will certainly find this counter-intuitive. We are used to thinking about defeat as a culmination of bad choices, whether it’s Hitler’s decision to invade Russia or Napoleon’s decision to invade Spain. What makes Beyond the Great River such an interesting read to me is that it ponders the alternative: how battle often punishes the people who make smart decisions.

Moreover, the reader is also encourage to wonder about war itself. Might is right has been the norm for most of human history and Saadia’s depiction of the Ontario region during the time of the Great Law of Peace leaves little doubt this mentality was endemic even then. Saadia’s intent is probably not to insinuate that the Great Law of Peace was some sort of farce, a great many scholars think the Great Law of Peace and the Iroquois Confederacy played a large role in the democratization of colonial societies in North America as well as Western Europe, but it should encourage introspection on the part of readers. Semantics often color our approach to history, whether it’s how we think of Alexander the Great or Shingas the Terrible, and I appreciate how Beyond the Great River encourages readers to think of how much different history can be when we incorporate the perspective of marginalized peoples as well as powerful societies.

Kentika’s attempt to inform her village of the danger posed by the foreign warriors is just one example of this. All throughout the story, logical and understandable decisions often backfire horribly and the reader is forced to wonder how much of victory depends not on genius strategy but dumb luck.

All in all, Beyond the Great Rivers is a brisk read and a great start to an interesting trilogy about pre-Columbian North America. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys stories with a strong female protagonist and to readers interested in learning more about early American history.

This novel is available on Amazon in the Kindle store and in paperback.

Tom Cleary’s Clearly Great Character Arc in The Knick

The Knick is one of my favorite shows for a variety of reasons. I love the acting, the writing, but I love the directing most of all. Helmed by Steven Soderbergh, the Knick was once described by a critic as “the best show you are not watching.” For this week’s essay, I will focus on Tom Cleary’s character arc in the first two seasons of the Knick and how it functions on a narrative level.

When we are first introduced to Tom Cleary, he is waiting in the ambulance bay with his co-worker, cracking dark jokes about the untimely death of the chief surgeon. He works as a paramedic, in practice this often means he is just transporting fresh corpses to the hospital for grisly medical experiments, and seems to take a perverse pleasure in his work. Nonetheless, Chris Sullivan—the same actor who played Taserface in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Benny Hammond in Stranger Things—portrays the character with impressive nuance and I imagine most audiences will understand well how Tom Cleary fits into the cultural milieu of New York at the turn of the 20th century. So inured is he towards violence that he sees nothing wrong asking Sister Harriet, in the almost immediate aftermath of a terrible accident, if nuns often break their vows on account of sexual curiosity. Much to his surprise, she responds by letting him know that “we get curious but then they show us a photograph of your sorry face and we all run right back into the arms of God.” Perhaps to add insult to injury, she also notes that “your ugly mug’s responsible for more girls staying virgins than the chastity belt.”

Cleary takes it all in stride and continues to trade barbs with Sister Harriet during their semi-regular interactions at the Knick hospital. By complete accident, he discovers that Sister Harriet secretly provides abortions to women of all walks of life and derisively refers to her as baby-killer from then on. However, after seeing a woman bleed out after a botched abortion, he changes tack and agrees to help her.

This decision engenders a great deal of risk since abortion is still illegal at this time but Cleary manages to evade the law. Sister Harriet, however, is not so lucky and season 2 begins with her awaiting trial. Cleary fears for her well being and dedicates himself to her legal defense with almost singular obsession. So desperate is Cleary to help her that he even pilfers medical supplies from the hospital in order to help pay for her bail as well as her defense lawyer. He succeeds in getting her the necessary money, though not without some terrible collateral damage, but life outside of prison isn’t much better for Sister Harriet as she ends up in the “care” of some truly awful people. Despite having little in the way of savings, Cleary sends money every week to Sister Harriet, only to discover that the money he has been sending has been getting filched. When it becomes clear that Sister Harriet will suffer terribly if the case proceeds to trial, Cleary even resorts to extortion to ensure that the well-off women who benefitted from Sister Harriet’s medical assistance will come to her aid. His unflagging support proves crucial as Sister Harriet is excommunicated from the church once others discovers that she has helped terminate numerous pregnancies.

Cleary’s actions are often brutish, a prime example being when he knocks a gun-wielding assailant unconscious, but they are understandable also. By the end of season 2, he is one of the most sympathetic characters in all the show and I think a great many audience members feel bad for him when Sister Harriet rejects his proposal. Cleary is nothing if not persistent though and when he visits confessional in his penultimate scene, he confesses to the priest that he intends to marry a woman essentially disowned by the church. Had Cleary’s character arc followed the expected path, this scene could have helped build up more good will for the character. Instead, Soderberg yanks the narrative rug out from underneath the audience and reveals that we never should have rooted for Cleary in the first place.

For most of season 2, the audience is led to believe Sister Harriet was caught simply because her luck ran out. As it turns out, she wasn’t caught so much as she was betrayed. The cops didn’t just discover that she was carrying out illegal abortions—they were informed by Cleary. Moreover, he informs them for the worst possible reason: he wants her willingness to provide abortions to become common knowledge. He knows that a sister would never be allowed to marry but he also knows that Harriet’s fellow sisters equate abortion with murder. Just as he expected, she is unceremoniously expelled from the church after being arrested, even Sister Harriet’s surrogate mother disowns her, and she never discovers his duplicity. As a result, the scene in which she agrees to marry him, the final scene for Sister Harriet and Tom Cleary, is all the more haunting.

Some might find this character arc frustrating—viewers who believed Cleary was a good person or viewers who wanted him to face some kind of reckoning—but I think that’s exactly what makes it work so well on a narrative level. Besides being a great example of the Kuleshov effect, Cleary’s character arc gives viewers some profound questions to ponder. Does the priest who took Cleary’s confession have a moral obligation to share the truth with Sister Harriet, even though it would violate his vows? What if Cleary is never seized by guilt and keeps his duplicity secret from Sister Harriet for decades? What if Sister Harriet never discovers his duplicity at all? They are tough questions to answer and I think Knick fans will ponder them whenever they reflect on the character of Tom Cleary.

Thee first and second season of this show are available on Amazon and can be requested at most libraries.

Review of Pride of Carthage

As far as I know, there aren’t a lot of studies concerning the subject matter of historical novels published in English. If I had to guess, I would say the majority of historical novels deal with either the Roman Empire or WWII. Considering how many books are written on these subjects and how much I read historical fiction, some might assume that I have read a great many novels featuring characters with Latin names or events that took place somewhere between 1933 and 1945. Such an assumption, however, would be wrong. Partially because so much has already been written about these epochs and partially because we learn a great deal about both in school, I used to avoid historical novels dedicated to these topics. I decided to break that rule when I read David Anthony Durham’s Pride of Carthage and I am glad that I did.

While a great many novels have been written about the Second Punic War, Pride of Carthage is one of the few novels I know that is told almost entirely from the perspective of Carthaginian characters. This does offer some advantages in terms of brand differentiation but there is one big downside to telling the story from this point of view: the Carthaginians were the invaders. Generally speaking, the people who initiate wars of aggression are not very sympathetic characters. Whether the story takes place in Winterfell or pre-Columbian North America, creating sympathetic characters is key to capturing reader interest so telling the story from the Carthaginian perspective poses some obvious difficulties.

Durham confronts the challenge with impressive grace and portrays Hannibal Barca in a way that helps readers understand his intelligence and his motivations. Considering Hannibal’s reputation as a genius military strategist, a great many writers probably would have been tempted to use the first chapter to showcase his knowledge of battle tactics. Durham, however, chooses a different tack and uses the first chapter to showcase Hannibal’s genius as a military commander. The scene is not very long but does a great job of showing how Hannibal was able to win the loyalty of common soldiers and why so many soldiers were willing to follow him into such perilous straits.

When it comes to understanding the motivations of this long-dead general, no scene does this better than Imilce’s private conversation with Hannibal. Imilce, his first wife and his ardent supporter, pushes him to explain why he is so keen on war with Rome. His initial answers are rather milquetoast—glory, justice, freedom, and vengeance—and could have come from the likes of Hirohito or Bolivar. The scene gets truly interesting when Imilce presses Hannibal and he confesses he is motivated more by marital pride than martial pride. He promises his wife that “in two years you will be able to look from the balcony of this [room] or any other place you choose and know that all the Mediterranean world is yours to shape. How many men can say that to their wives and mean it?”

This explanation differs markedly from his more public proclamations—at one point in the book, he explains that Carthage needs to take the offense against Rome because Rome will become the undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean otherwise, a rather prescient observation undoubtedly informed by Durham’s knowledge of the Punic wars—but this private admission is the one that truly stands out. To think that something so simple and pure as striving to give a significant other something no one else has can lead to something so ugly as war is both fascinating and horrifying.

Considering the book is about Hannibal Barca, no reader should be surprised that large-scale battles play a large role in the story. Personally, I like the descriptions of the Fabian campaign, the Battle of Cannae, and the Battle of Zama best but the answer will probably differ from reader to reader. To be fair, there are probably some readers who won’t enjoy these scenes at all but the political intrigue and the narrative arcs are more than enough to carry the story along. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Mediterranean history, albeit mainly from the African perspective as opposed to the European perspective, or to anyone interested in military fiction.

The novel is available on Amazon and in most libraries.

Review of Apocalypto film

I first saw Apocalypto in high school and enjoyed my first viewing immensely. I had little to go off when it came to assessing the accuracy of the movie but I found the actions sequences very entertaining and enjoyed the fast-paced, straightforward narrative. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about Mesoamerican history and I understand much better the problematic elements of the movie. The movie suggests the post-Classic Mayans carried out human sacrifice on a scale completely incongruous with the academic consensus and that people who lived in the hinterland had yet to transition to an agricultural lifestyle but did have to worry about getting raided by distant city-states. In reality, the Mayan people had been practicing agriculture for centuries by this point and warfare was carried out by major polities against other polities, not tiny villages buried deep in the jungle. For that matter, the idea that villagers would practice a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and maintain no connection to any sort of major metropolis contradicts a great deal of what we know about the Yucatan Peninsula in the early 1500s. As someone who takes a great interest in history, especially history related to the European colonization of the Americas, these inaccuracies are troubling to say the least.

Nonetheless, when it comes to assessing the quality of the movie, it is important to note that Apocalypto is a rather unique movie. After all, the box office is not exactly overwhelmed with movies set in pre-colonial North America, let alone movies filmed entirely in maya t’aan. I don’t think this should make audiences necessarily forgiving of the many inaccuracies included in the film but I think it does put them in context. At the end of the day, movie studios are profit-seeking organizations and the movie was intended for a general audience, not academics that specialize in Post-Classic Mayan history. To be fair, the many inaccuracies of Apocalypto could be attributable to shoddy scholarship but I think it stands to reason that some can be attributed to studio executives believing it would be alright to compromise the historicity of the movie for the sake of narrative cohesion.

I think it is also important to note that the movie does not claim to be based on a true story. This simple proclamation can generate understandable interest from audiences and helped power the financial success of movies like 12 Years a Slave and Apollo 13. If promotional material for the movie had featured language like this, the movie’s casual approach to history would be far more troubling in my opinion. Putting aside matters of historical accuracy, Apocalypto has many standout scenes. The scene where the village gathers to hear the story about the hole in Man has to be one of the better parables put to film and contains some incredibly rich symbolism. Audiences more interested in action than lengthy parables will also find plenty to enjoy in Apocalypto. The second half of the movie functions largely as an extended chase sequence but, owing to careful build-up beforehand and thoughtful pacing, never feels tiring. Some of the scenes in the movie are disturbingly bloody but even movie-viewers who tend to avoid the macabre will be able to appreciate the stunning photography in the movie.

Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Apocalypto. The movie took an approach to history too casual for my tastes but I appreciate that the movie explores a time and place largely ignored in film. Additionally, I appreciate that the movie worked well on a narrative level and that it gave performers from traditionally under-represented groups the chance to showcase their talents for a wide audience. I would not suggest the movie to anyone looking for an accurate depiction of life in pre-Hispanic Mexico but I think movie-viewers who enjoy straightforward stories and long chase sequences can find a lot to enjoy in Apocalypto.