Monday, March 12, 2012

"The Boiling Season"

Christopher Hebert graduated from Antioch College, where he also worked at the Antioch Review. He has spent time in Guatemala, taught in Mexico, and worked as a research assistant to the author Susan Cheever. He earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and was awarded its prestigious Hopwood Award for Fiction. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his son and wife, the novelist Margaret Lazarus Dean.

Hebert applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, The Boiling Season, and reported the following:
Page 69 makes for a tough introduction to my main protagonist, Alexandre. He’s a young man from the slums of a turbulent Caribbean island. His dream, which is just being realized at this point in the book, is to escape his past, in which he sees only poverty and ignorance and violence. A few pages earlier he is hired by Mme Freeman, a wealthy American businesswoman, to act as caretaker of a derelict estate she’s purchased in the remote hills outside the capital. Derelict or not, the estate represents for Alexandre the place of peace and tranquility and beauty that he’s been searching for.

Page 69 consists of a conversation between Alexandre and his new employer as they drive through the countryside to their new estate. Alexandre, not the most reliable of narrators, spends the ride caught up in shame over what he sees. In his desperation to distance himself from it, he ends up projecting his own prejudices onto Mme Freeman. As an outsider to his world, she’s completely baffled by his apparent cold-heartedness.

If you read only this page, you wouldn’t leave it with many warm and fuzzy feelings toward Alexandre. But he’s a complicated guy living in a difficult place.

The excerpt:
[How] must all of this look like to her? I wondered. What must she think of us? And I felt shame, sitting there, watching the peasants outside my window. Everything about their struggle for survival seemed to me a manifestation of their deadly ignorance. How could you help not looking down on these people when you knew a world where none of this existed?

After several minutes, in an effort to ease her discomfort, I said, “It’s a disgrace.”

My voice appeared to shake Madame from whatever thoughts were preoccupying her.

“It makes me wish I could do something,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “But what can you do with people like these?”

“Surely they can be helped?”

“Of course,” I said. “But they must help themselves, too.”

“Are there schools?”

“Yes,” I said. “But not all the children go. How can you expect to improve your life if you don’t go to school?”

“Why don’t they go?”

“Their parents don’t think it important enough. They save no money.”

“School isn’t free?”

“Of course not. Everyone pays.”

“What if you can’t afford it?”

“One must find a way,” I said. “My father did. It’s the most important thing.”

She continued to look out the window, seemingly deep in thought. And then she turned to me with a puzzled expression. “I’m surprised you don’t have more compassion. These are your people, after all.”

“My people?” I said. Could she really not see the differences between them and me? I stammered on for a moment, but I saw no way to correct her without giving offense. All I shared with such ignorant people was an island. I did not see how the accident of my birth in this time and place compelled me toward loyalty with others simply because they shared the same fate.
Learn more about the book and author at Christopher Hebert's website.

--Marshal Zeringue