Wow! If you want a good look at race relations in the 1930s, this is your book. It takes place in the Sabine River bottoms–which occupy several hundred miles along the border between Louisiana and Texas, south of Shreveport to just north of the Gulf of Mexico. Somewhere I read that the Sabine also marks “the border between the Old South and the new Southwest.” If so, then perhaps the characters can be divided that way as well.
I am reading my way across the USA–5 or so books from each state, with an emphasis on those where the setting is another character, or where we learn something about the geography, history, and/or people of that state. We are currently in Texas.
I’ve written before about “showing vs telling” as a writing technique. In general, it’s better if you can find a way for your characters to “show” what they are thinking or how they feel, rather than “telling” your readers explicitly. This book is an unusual mixture of showing and telling. I’ve never read anything by Joe R Lansdale before, so I can’t compare this to his other works. In this book, however, Lansdale is much more specific in explaining his characters’ thoughts and feelings and opinions than I would usually like or think wise. Surprisingly, though, it works, and, I think, may even be appropriate.
In The Bottoms, the main character, Harry, is eleven years old. Many of the explanations Lansdale gives are directed at Harry by other characters–which makes them appropriate. And they don’t explain everything–there are several times when the adults make sexual innuendos that he doesn’t pick up on (although he picks up on plenty). But what Lansdale does explain–to Harry and thereby to us–is the complexities of race relations. He explains the implications of various things said in front of Harry–whether by Klan members, regular (white) folks, more open-minded (white) folks, or “colored” folks (true to its 1930s setting, Lansdale uses “colored” as the least offensive racial descriptor. And he doesn’t shy from talking about ingrained prejudices and the need to constantly work to be aware of and overcome them.
“Bottom line is, I ain’t so pure, Harry. I didn’t do a thing to help Donald.” “Daddy, wasn’t nothing you could do.” “I like to think that’s the truth. But I ain’t never been the same since. I don’t hate no one because of their color if I can help myself. Sometimes bad things wash back on me, but I try, Harry. I try. … He’d been more protected had I left him alone. I think I partly arrested him ’cause he’s colored and had that white woman’s purse. Part of me, not a good part, was bothered by that. Him havin’ that white woman’s purse and him bein’ colored. Even if he did find it. “Joe R Lansdale in The Bottoms
This is not, in any way, to suggest that this book is aimed at a younger audience, or that Lansdale talks down to the reader. This is a powerful, hard-hitting, at times gut-wrenching book. There’s a lynching, that Harry and his father witness and are powerless to stop–and Harry’s father suffers from depression as a result of it. There is a great deal of racism and misogyny in the book. And a string of murders, carried out in a ritualistic way involving rape and degradation, targeting prostitutes (initially, at least).
There are also some wonderful characters who somehow manage to restore faith in humankind, despite the dark storyline–including several strong, capable women.
Women drove cars back then, but it wasn’t real popular among men folks down in the bottoms, especially if the woman was older, and therefore figured to be more dignified. Driving was considered masculine, like smoking, cussing, chewing, and fighting. Grandma did a little of all of those. She and my grandfather had been one heck of a couple, and now that he was dead and gone, and Grandma was nearing seventy, I assumed she’d be calmer and older-looking. Joe R Lansdale in The Bottoms
As for setting, the Sabine River bottoms are wonderfully written.
[These days] the river is there, but the swamps it made have been drained. Alligators have gone away or been killed off. The birds are not as plentiful, and there is something sad about seeing them glide over concrete surfaces, casting their tiny shadows. All the wildlife you see is desperate. Possums and coons in garbage cans. Squirrels being fed from feeders. Befuddled deer standing next to the highway or eating corn put out by hunters. What was once the bottoms is hot sunlight on cement and no mystery. Seasons are not as defined. One month, save for the temperature or the weather, is not too unlike the next. Back then it was different. And that time of year, fall, was my favorite. Warm days, cool nights. Dark woods and a churning river. Leaves of many colors. The moon bright and gold. Joe R Lansdale in The Bottoms
Fishing is an ongoing theme, with many of the key white characters learning to fish or make bait from several of the key black characters. Of course, being set along a river makes fishing a natural pastime. But with the time setting being during the Depression, fishing to supplement food supplies was a necessity for most.
Lansdale also seems to be pointing out that sharing this simple pastime with people who are different leads to seeing them as more like you and therefore humanizing them. At one point, Harry’s father invites a Klan member to sit and eat a piece of cake with the family, an act which results in a feeling of commonality and in the man assuring them that the Klan won’t bother them again.
As my reading progressed, I kept going back to a quote I saw somewhere that said the Sabine River was the border between the Old South and the new Southwest. At some point I began to wonder if there was meant to be a symbolic difference between the people who lived on one side of the river (in Texas) and those who lived on the other side (presumably in Louisiana).
It’s made clear that Harry and his family live in East Texas. Grandma, in particular, mentions repeatedly the things she loves about East Texas.
I had to get back to East Texas. They ain’t got no trees up there near Amarillo.” “No trees?” Tom asked. “They call some of ’em trees, but they’re more like bushes. And they ain’t got the rivers and the creeks like we got down here. Ain’t got the critters we got. And it’s harder to make you somethin’ to eat. Can’t grow nothin’.” … I figured I didn’t want to get that far from Texas. I want to die in Texas. East Texas anyway. … Here the earth’s held down by trees and roots and kept damp by creeks, rivers, and a high-up waterline. ’Cause of that, I wanted to be here. Joe R Lansdale in The Bottoms
She also fits the “larger than life” stereotype of Texans, although as a woman in 1933, she’s unique in her independence.
But no-one is ever mentioned specifically as coming from or living in Louisiana–in fact, the word “Louisiana” does not appear even once in the book. So, if there is meant to be a difference, it is not explicit. But Harry, his parents, and his Grandma, are among the few characters who are outspoken in favor of racial equality. I suspect that they live on the Texas side of the border/river, while certain of the Klan members of Marvel Creek live on the other side, but I could be wrong about that–I actually hope Lansdale isn’t making that division symbolic and trying to say that Texans are, as a whole, less prejudiced than people from Louisiana.
I mentioned on the main Texas page my concern that racism is not only directed at African Americans, and my hope that these books address that as well. Lansdale does allude to this, but in a way that isn’t terribly complementary. The character mentioned above who was in the Klan–Grandma says she thinks his name is Jewish, but Harry says he attends the Baptist Church just like everyone else. As Grandma gets to know the man, it is revealed that he is Jewish, but has hidden that by joining the Klan and by attending Baptist Church services.
The idea of a Jewish person hiding their cultural identity to protect themselves from discrimination is addressed here, but only subtly, and the main issue that’s brought up is fear. While this is the most extensive example, there are several instances where fear trumps courage, especially in times of crisis. Multiple times in the book, black people facing discrimination–or even a Klan mob–plead with whites they know to help them, but very few of those whites actually have the courage to try to help. Those who do are punished.
Overall, I was very impressed by The Bottoms and by Lansdale’s writing, and I’m interested in reading more of his work. His Hap and Leonard series includes one that also takes place in Marvel Creek: Jackrabbit Smile, which I may take a look at. This one was a really good look at race relations, and the setting was wonderfully written–a great addition to our reading challenge books for Texas.
UPDATE: Since writing, I’ve also read Savage Season by Joe R Lansdale, which is also set in Marvel Creek around 1980. It’s the first of Lansdale’s popular Hap and Leonard series, but although Leonard is black, I’d have to say that there’s much more about race in The Bottoms than in Savage Season. I am doing Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder challenge, and one of the items is to read a mystery where the victim is not female. I would say Savage Season meets that challenge, where obviously The Bottoms fits with the more stereotypical murder mystery with female victims–especially sexualized female victims.