Jessica Mitford vs. Ursula K Le Guin: A Deal Me In Short Story Challenge

Tales from EarthseaFor this round of the Deal Me In Short Story Challenge I drew Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella The Finder and an essay by Jessica Mitford called You-all and Non You-all: A Southern Potpourri.  

My extra challenge has been trying to find a link between the two stories selected at random, which has been fun, frustrating, and once in a while impossible.  You might think it would be impossible this time around.

The Finder is a an Earthsea Tale set in the days before the school for magic was founded on Roke.  It’s a grand high-fantasy in a very traditional sense, the story of a magically gifted boy who seeks a way to learn how to use magic while avoiding those who want to do away with magic.  It’s a hero’s journey with all of the Jungian archetypes present and accounted for.  I had a great time with it.  It’s the sort of fantasy that draws me in, takes it’s time, adding details along the way to create a fully realized world.

You-all and Non You-all: A Southern Potpourri is an account of Jessica Mitford’s trip through the southern United States in 1961, when sit-in’s were still going on and nine young people were about to start high-school in Little Rock against the will of the people.  It’s a fascinating essay that provides much insight into our nation’s history and unfortunately into our nation’s present situation.

What the two have in common is that both create a world.  Mitford’s does this accidentally.  She means to provide a portrait, but reading her fifty years later I find she has created a world.  The culture she describes is different from my own, the people speak in a different way, there are two competing groups one trying to escape the oppression of the other.  As she travels through the south she meets a wide range of characters, some friendly, some hostile.  She even faces life threatening danger when she attends a black church where Martin Luther King is to speak and is forced to remain with the congregation overnight because white racists have surrounded the building and are threatening to set it on fire.

She visits Louisville, Kentucky which has put an end to segregation where she meets with a group of “testers,” black women who spend the day going from restaurant to restaurant, where they evaluate just how welcome they are.  Afterwards, they fill out a form rating the establishment on things like “Environment” and “Attitude of Waitress and/or Manager.”  One woman complains, “The trouble is, you have to drink so much coffee before the day’s over.”

That’s a wonderful bit of journalism, and a good example of what I mean by world building.  I think it’s a fascinating bit of history, the kind that would never make it into a more formal account.  It’s also a terrific example of Mitford’s sense of humor.  Her humor is difficult to pin down, and a little easy to miss.  It’s as dry as a good martini.  You’ll usually find it at the end of a long paragraph so it’s very difficult to quote.  But this description of society in Montgomery, Alabama, is a good example:

Social gatherings in Montgomery are full of echoes of the past.  The food in private houses tends to be in the shape of things–Ice cream boats or hearts, fish-shaped aspic salads–and almost everything is creamed, not only creamed but served with cream sauce.  The fare is as mild and gentle as the ladies themselves, no bitter or pungent taste to offset the bland, no crisp  consistency to contrast with the soft.

Ms. Mitford points out in her afterward that this passage was the one her subjects objected to:

The reaction of my Montgomery hostesses to the piece, as reported by Virginia Durr, was illuminating.  She said they were not in the least disturbed by my remarks about their mindless bigotry–but were exceedingly offended by my description of the FOOD as being uniformly bland and creamy: “We didn’t have cream sauce, we had roast lamb the night she came.  She never mentioned my lettuce-and-walnut salad.”

I can’t speak for Montgomery, but as I recall my own family in St. Louis, Missouri circa 1965-1975, I’d say Ms. Mitford has it right more-or-less.

In any case, by the end of her essay the reader as a very good idea what it was like to live in the world of 1960’s southern America, at least for a white person to live there.mitford

Ms. Le Guin pulls off a similar feat in her novella The Finder.  At 150 pages she has the time it takes to create a detailed world.  Her main character, Otter, travels through much of Earthsea in search of knowledge and then in search of a place where he can safely set up a place to teach others.  Because the story details how the school at Roke, which figures so heavily in the Earthsea Trilogy, it is set many centuries before the more familiar novels.  Through this Ms. Le Guin can set into play a bit of contra-history.  Turns out it was not always the case that wizards could not marry, it was controversial at first.   In the beginning the magic of men and the magic of women was not divided the way it became by the time the Earthsea books took place.  It’s a bit like looking at the early history of the Christian church, before “traditions” became “traditions.”

Because The Finder was such a long novella, I’m counting it as book number nine in the 20 Books of Summer Reading Challenge.

3 thoughts on “Jessica Mitford vs. Ursula K Le Guin: A Deal Me In Short Story Challenge

  1. I like the connection you found with these two. I’ve never read Mitford and have only become a little familiar with her from your posts. I have some Le Guin “lying around the house” but she is yet another author who I know I should read more of but have struggled to get her to top of the batting order. Her “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was one of my most memorable reads in the (almost five years now) history of Deal Me In.

    1. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas will probably be the story that lasts if any of them do. I also recommend one called Darkness Box very highly. Mitford has been lots of fun but she’s all non-fiction. Her sister Nancy, wrote fiction. She’s also very good.

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