Last week, I read Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr. It’s written in a “To Kill a Mockingbird” style with the narrator reflecting, as an adult, on things that had happened when she was a girl.
Michelle LeBeau, the child of a white American father and a Japanese mother, lives with her grandparents in Deerhorn, Wisconsin--a small town that had been entirely white before her arrival. Rejected and bullied, Michelle spends her time reading, avoiding fights, and roaming the countryside with her dog Brett. She idolizes her grandfather, Charlie LeBeau, an expert hunter and former minor league baseball player who is one of the town's most respected men. Charlie strongly disapproves of his son's marriage to Michelle's mother but dotes on his only grandchild. This fragile peace is threatened when the expansion of the local clinic leads to the arrival of the Garretts, a young black couple from Chicago. The Garretts' presence deeply upsets most of the residents of Deerhorn--when Mr. Garrett makes a controversial accusation against one of the town leaders, who is also Charlie LeBeau's best friend.
In books (and in life), it’s easy to hate a clear-cut villain. But most people aren’t all good or all bad. Many are like the character, Charlie, who isn’t cruel by nature, but who is set in his beliefs and who didn’t want anything to change. Was he a racist? Yes. Without a doubt. But then there was his softer side that loved his granddaughter.
I know men like Charlie, ones who would give you the shirt off their back, but who also drop the n-word like it’s nothing.
It’s hard to wrap my head around the contrast. Which is one of the reasons why reading this book was difficult. Charlie said and did some things that were awful. And, like his granddaughter wondering years later, it’s hard to pin down his exact motivations.
I wanted to hate him. At times I did. But I don’t know if it was the man I hated or the choices he made. There’s a blurry line between the two.
Along with Charlie, there was also the town, which was almost a character itself. It was 1970s Wisconsin, but there were familiar aspects to me. Like in the book, plenty of kids I went to school with would be absent on the first day of hunting season and it wasn’t a big thing.
Or it doesn’t seem like a big thing to me now. When I was a kid, a teen especially, I did my fair share of complaining about my “backward” little town. I wanted OUT. But I guess it’s one of those situations where you can pick on your siblings, but if anyone else does, you’re ready to fight. Because it’s *your* loved one, however flawed.
Reading Wingshooters reminded me of something that happened 9 years ago (coincidentally, almost to the day):
Friday March 14, 2003
The most bizarre thing happened. I went to New Market to wander around Civil War sites for my report when a man randomly stopped me on the street and asked if I was looking for anything in particular. Then he proceeded to tell me all about local history.
I know all about him now: He was born and raised in Brooklyn until 10 yrs ago when he moved down here to be with his kids and their mother; he has three kids, he served two tours in Vietnam. He thinks this area is the most racist place he’s ever encountered, even worse than the Deep South.
Several things still stand out to me about that encounter.
Firstly, he assumed I wasn’t from the area because I don’t have an accent
Secondly, he assumed I would agree with him.
I wasn’t mad when he was going on and on (for at least an hour, if I remember correctly) about the assholeness of the area; I think I was embarrassed to have someone from the outside giving such a negative perception of my home. At 24, I was still struggling with the question of, “Do I love or hate where I’m from?”
Now I realize that nothing I could have said was going to change his mind; he actually probably already had it made up before he even moved.
Were some of the things he complained about true?
Are there racists where I live?
And, sadly, there are racists everywhere. Some are that way because of hatred. Others because of fear and ignorance. Either way, those emotions are what cause people to lash out or keep them from speaking up. It’s those emotions that propel people across a certain line, one that there’s no coming back from.
That line is what is at the heart of Wingshooters. It wasn’t just a book about racism. It was about the cruelty people inflict on each other and about trying to understand how the people we love can be capable of such horrible things.