There are some branches of philosophy which insist that a person’s reality, i.e. what is and is not ‘true’, is defined very much by their individual perspectives. Depending on one’s point of view, shooting a deer during hunting season for sport might be an acceptable form of recreation; or it might be the cold-blooded murder of a helpless animal. But should moral issues of right and wrong, be at the mercy of someone’s point of view? It’s scary to consider, but sometimes those who hold power don’t see evil and good in the same way the rest of us do.
I recently finished reading a book by Clayton Lindemuth called Cold Quiet Country. Set in 1970, in a small town of Bittersmith, Wyoming, the story that unfolds in this novel takes place over the length of a single day. But the events which occur on that day are the consequences of actions performed years ago in the murky past; a past which only gets murkier when told from the first-person perspective of two incredibly different characters: Sheriff Bittersmith and orphan farm hand Gale G’wain.
This book is not for the faint of heart. It deals with many intense, and for some, triggering, issues; issues which society is understandably reluctant to talk about, but which frankly need to be discussed in the open so much more than they are today. Parts of this book are written from the first person perspective of Sheriff Bittersmith, who has been sheriff of this small Wyoming town for the past forty years, and is on his last day of the job, having been voted out by the town council. As the story progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that Bittersmith is anything but a reliable narrator. His methods of keeping law and order are downright barbaric and his conduct towards women in the town absolutely criminal. As a matter of fact, he admits to fathering many children around the area, and, the audience is left to assume, that most of them were not conceived during willing intercourse – Sheriff Bittersmith is a serial and completely unapologetic rapist.
In contrast, Gale G’wain is a hardworking orphan of twenty, doing labor and other jobs as he travels from farm to farm to keep his belly full of food and himself warm at night. He has reasons for coming to the town of Bittersmith which I won’t reveal here, and aren’t revealed in the book until a good halfway through it. What Gail certainly doesn’t expect to do is fall in love with the strange, beautiful, sad daughter of the man he is working for, a sixteen year old girl named Gwen Haudesert. As an orphan, Gale has never known a family outside of the other boys in the home and Mister Sharpe, the tough but fair man who runs the orphanage and encourages Gale to be both an educated and moral man. However, morality gets harder to define for Gale after he realizes that Gwen is being sexually abused by her father almost nightly – and that most everyone knows about it, but does nothing.
Writing in the first person can be a powerful tool when used correctly, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in Lindemuth’s Cold Quiet Country. To be inside a character’s head is deeply engaging and automatically creates a sense of sympathy; after all, you’re seeing the world through their eyes, experiencing events in the way they do – the sense of camaraderie is strong; a reader wants to relate to the character whose point of view they are inhabiting. What Lindemuth has done here is turn this convention on its head and, in a sense, made the reader an accessory to the crimes being committed, both the morally just and unjust ones. There comes a point when, as a reader, you can’t help but feel horrified at yourself for the way you reacted to certain events related by the Sheriff or judgments you passed on Gale and his actions without having all the facts. This is the subtle beauty of Lindemuth’s work: in addressing crimes that are so often willfully ignored by society in such a way, the reader is forced to face head on their own complicity, by their silence, in such acts. In essence, rather than hiding behind a ‘work of fiction’, the reader becomes an active character in the events of the book through the first person narration; they are forced to come to terms with the consequences of events they would feel otherwise blameless for.
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