Who’s Your Baby Daddy?: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Rosemary's Baby_bc

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

What do you when you discover your baby daddy is the Prince of Darkness? This is not Rosemary Woodhouse’s quandary at the beginning of Ira Levin’s novel. There is a sense that Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse live in a glass house. They–mostly Rosemary–look out onto the world with the wide-eyed wonder of little children, their noses pressed to the glass. Guy seems jaded, brooding, and sensitive–all the hallmarks of a deep insecurity that is eating away at him. He is an actor seeking fame and fortune. Rosemary believes in him–she rattles off his productions with pride. It is obvious that something is eating away at him, but he masks it with sarcasm and faux enthusiasm.

When their number is up on the waiting list for the Bramford, Rosemary convinces Guy get out of the lease they’ve just signed for another apartment. They had been waiting on the Bramford for a long time. In that way of his, Guy is a convincing poser which will be the undoing of their family. He comes up with a convincing excuse to be let out of the lease. That’s the thing about Guy–the attributes Rosemary delights in, charm, wit, humor will be used to bamboozle her. Guy is a fitting name for Rosemary’s husband. Aside from his temperamental nature and deception, he lacks depth. This could be intentional on the part of the Levin. I tried to pinpoint the exact moment when Guy decides to offer up his wife as a surrogate for Satan’s baby in exchange for “getting so much in return.”  It is difficult. Once I realized he was in on the deception, it made sense. Guy is consumed with want without self-sacrifice or effort. Rosemary on the other hand is very sacrificial and self-doubting exacerbated by a lack of friends and family in close proximity who want nothing from her. She is estranged from her family because she married a non-Catholic Protestant. Her one close friend, Hutch, tries to warn them against moving into the Bram because of its nefarious history. His later attempts to warn Rosemary about the danger that surrounds her results in his untimely death. By the time girlfriends of hers try to intervene she is sucked further into obscurity–all but forced to stay at home.

Upon moving into the Bram, Rosemary and Guy meet and are immediately smothered by their neighbors–an elderly couple who live in a larger apartment unit adjoining their smaller apartment. Roman and Minnie Castevet take them under their wing. Rosemary and Guy indulge their constant invitations and bulldozing out of pity almost. This attention brings benefits–whatever they need, the Castevets just happen to know a friend or have access to it. Old age is surely the perfect disguise in this case along with Minnie Castevet’s eccentricities. Soon it is revealed that more people are in cahoots with the Castevets. Rosemary’s doctor orders her not to read books or listen to others’ advice about pregnancy, which is laughable and nonsensical as professional advice. Rosemary, like the reader, is skeptical but her desire to ensure the health of her unborn child quiets her suspicions for a while. Sometimes she searches for answers to her quandaries and other times she castigates herself:

“You’re going to have your baby in four days, Idiot Girl…So you’re all tense and nutty and you’ve  built up a whole lunatic persecution thing out of a bunch of completely unrelated coincidences. There are no real witches. There are no real spells…See, Idiot Girl? It all falls apart when you pick at it.”

But she never stops questioning the many inconsistencies and strange occurrences. I screamed at the pages several times when Rosemary seemed to deliberately ignore the clues. Recently I watched Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Levin’s work and NBC’s mini-series remake of the film. The older version follows the book more closely than the recent one.

Rosemary’s Baby is suspenseful and just plain creepy. It casts evil and Satan in ways that are familiar.  For me, Satan is not the biggest evildoer in this work, thought. He is outdone by her husband, that Guy, who gives her body over to be used without her knowledge or permission.

Molly Bannaky by Alice McGill

Molly Bannaky by Alice McGill

mollybannaky_bcIn 18th century England, Molly Walsh is dairy maid accused of stealing milk from the lord of the manor. Molly is not the culprit. The obstinate cow she milks each morning kicks over the frothy pail most mornings. The harsh lord turns 17 year old Molly over to the authorities to face the penalty–certain death–she escapes because of a loophole in the law. Her ability to read the Bible prevents her from being executed for her “theft,” but recompense must be made. Molly’s sentence is seven years of labor in the New World where her American story begins.

Exhibiting true grit, determination, and sheer will–all the qualities of a frontier person–Molly forges a life for herself in this new land after working off her debt using the mule and the parcel of land given to newly freed debtors. In need of assistance to work her land, she navigates the peculiar institution–slavery–that provides human labor for purchase. Uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the act of buying a person, Molly does choose to purchase the African male whom she notices as a “tall, regal man who dared to look into the eyes of every bidder.” Instead of owner/slave, Molly and Bannaky develop a friendship, allowed during a time before slavery becomes an entrenched institution. It is Molly’s intention to set him free after the work is done. They later marry and start a family in a community that accepts their union. Molly Walsh becomes Molly Bannaky.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that their oldest daughter had a son with her husband–an African man– whom she names Benjamin Banneker, the famous scientist and mathematician. This puts Molly’s story into perspective.  She and Bannaky pass down their determination and persistence to their grandson. This story is so uniquely American.

Illustrator Chris Soenpiet is just as much the storyteller as author Alice McGill. His visually stunning depictions of Molly’s journey brings the story alive.  The detailed drawings are historically authentic–the tobacco leaves, the livestock. On first sight, the cover is arresting–Molly’s visage–communicating that she has a complex and multifaceted story to tell.

This book is a great choice for a lesson on the differences between indentured servitude and slavery in North America.


Coming On Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson

Coming on Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson

Age Range: 5 – 8 years
Grade Level: Kindergarten – 3 (suggested, but a great picture book well into 5th grade)
Paperback: 32 pages
Publisher: Puffin

Coming on Home Soon_bc

Ada Ruth struggles with the sadness brought on by her mother’s departure to Chicago where jobs are rumored to be available for black women. Times are doubly hard for these three generations—Ada Ruth, her mother and grandmother—struggling to subsist under one roof during World War II. Ada Ruth finds a semblance of comfort in her grandmother’s arms and a stray black kitten that grandma grudgingly agrees to let stay.

Woodson uses dialogue masterfully to convey the feelings and emotions of the characters. By the second page, the reader already has a clear sense of the strong bond between mother and daughter as well as the pain the separation will bring. Woodson uses italics to demonstrate dialogue instead of quotation marks. The italics provide extra emphasis that quotation marks lack and a sense that the words are more poetry than dialogue. Woodson’s use of vocabulary, e.g., clabber milk, lye soap, brings an authenticity to the story that makes it believable. The narrative has a certain timeless quality. I imagine readers relating to this sort of story across different time periods and ethnicities. The illustrations balance the story perfectly. The watercolors bring softness, while the choice of dark color and shadows convey the scarcity of resources. The art shows both barrenness and abundance. The illustrator pays close attention to detail, taking care that every part of the house is true to the 1940s. The author and illustrator have created a work with the elements of high quality literature. As the reader, I am drawn into the story, eager to see if Ada Ruth and her mother will be reunited. Even though the grandmother is in the role of nurturer and comforter, I get the sense that she is suffering too. Her efforts to comfort Ada Ruth bring solace to her as well. This mirrors the way Ada Ruth’s caretaking of the kitten helps her cope with the separation. These two parallel story elements  brings insightful depth to the story. Students with parents or relatives who live far from home due to war, divorce, etc., could relate to this story. Teachers could use this work as a literature integration with a social studies lesson on World War II.


Book Review: Fledging by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Grand Central Publishing: a division of Hachette Book Group, 2005

fledgling Octavia Butler

He raised a hand to stop me, then dropped the hand to his side. “What are you then?” he whispered. And I said the only thing I could: “I don’t know.” I drew back, held his face between my hands, liking him, glad that I had found him. “Help me find out.”

And thus the journey begins for Shori Matthews. By all outward appearances–something that is at once of great and little importance in the cosmology of Butler’s masterful work–Shori has the size of a young black girl of no more than 10 or 11. In this first person narrative, by Shori’s own description, the reader learns that she is distinctly other. Her body and mind has undergone a massive trauma, rendering her wounded and devoid of the memory of her trauma, who she is, or where she belongs. She feasts on the meat of animals to regain strength and then the blood of humans for daily nourishment. She encounters Wright, a twentysomething white male, who happens upon her bloody and battered on the road one night. Intent on saving this child–he thinks–Wright becomes ‘her first’. The first (since the amnesia induced trauma) one she binds to her in the symbiotic relationship humans share with with the Ina, an otherworldly community of vampirelike creatures who have walked the earth for thousands of years. With Wright’s sanguine succor and safety, Shori discovers that she is under attack because of the genetic experiments her eldermothers and elderfathers participated in to breed a stronger less vulnerable Ina–one that can exist when the sun shines–one with black skin inducing melanin. Shori is relearning everything: who she is, how to survive, how to love, and how to exist in a world in which some want her blotted out because of her black skin. Ironically, this ‘detriment’ is what gives her an advantage no other Ina has. It makes her a day walker, stronger, strategic, and crafty.

Fledging includes all the elements of compelling science fiction and any good story: suspense, romance, throughly delineated cosmogony for its creatures, interesting characters…and there’s sex too (though not a prerequisite for compelling science fiction or any good story…a bit helps though).

“He started to leave, then turned back, frowning. “Ordinary sun exposure burns your skin even though you’re black?” “I’m…” I stopped. I had been about to protest that I was brown, not black, but before I could speak, I understood what he meant.”

Shori learns the most about her existential being from others at first. She is actually 53 human years old–the Ina live hundreds of years but age very slowly. She is black by outward appearances in all the socially constructed ways set up by humans. As many (me at least) African Americans can attest, you don’t know you’re ‘black’ until your told by someone who is not. Then you learn that it is more than a color–it holds so many layered facets that are put upon you like a script where there is only one black role–one black way of being. Shori learns about the irrational nature of this ‘othering’  when the identity of those plotting to annihilate her is revealed.

“She’s with you, and you’re going to keep her with you. As far as she’s concerned, she’s died and gone to heaven. People keep falling in love with you, Shori–men, women, old, young–it doesn’t seem to matter.”

Butler’s work includes a veritable open love fest! Happily, I could read it and enjoy it without judgery…yes judgery (forming opinions and conclusions about the rightness of something based on my own experiences/beliefs)! I’ve had this book for a couple of years. It seems that I read it when I was ready for it…after writing my own work that explores sexuality in unbounded iterations.

Shori is an Ina female, but she is free to love whom she chooses regardless of gender. It is more about the serendipity of the connection and a mixture of other factors that determine the attraction, e.g. scent. When Shori bites a human her saliva elicits an intensely pleasurable experience within the human–the bitee will obey her every command. This is where the symbiosis begins–a bit of pleasure for a bit of blood. In the cases where Shori simply needs a meal, she tells the human to forget about her–to remember her as a dream–else they would search and search for her like an addict searches for another fix. If she bites them repeatedly, they become bound to her in a permanent symbiotic relationship–the human lives for hundreds of years disease and aging free. Binding to Shori comes at a price. The Ina needs multiple partners to keep them alive so any hopes of being in a sort of Edward/Bella (i.e. monogamous) paring are dashed. This seems to be offset by the symbiont’s (name for a human who has paired with an Ina) freedom to take on other partners–only human–within or outside the ‘harem’ as Wright (her first) calls it in a fit of anger at the arrangement. The symbionts can have careers or children with other humans if they choose. The love smorgasbord is not central to the plot, but it is fodder for a great discussion amongst a book club. I love a great discussion. The polyamory seems to work in the context of the Ina community as the Ina must give their symbionts the freedom to leaveseemingly laughable after being bitten–up to a certain point. Theodora, one of Shori’s symbiont’s, summed it up well when reflecting on the new life she chooses among Shori’s community, “I’ve moved to Mars…Now I’ve got to learn how to be a good Martian.”

As a reader, I can see how easy it would be to fall in love with Shori. She wields all this power, but chooses not to lord it over others. She is as fascinated with her symbionts’ want of her as they are with wanting her. One of my favorite quotes from the book is an exchange between Theodora and Shori:

“Why?” I asked her. I had no idea what she would say. She blinked at me, looked surprised, hurt.

“Why do you want me?”…You have a particularly good scent,” I said. “I mean, not only do you smell healthy, you smell…open, wanting, alone…

She frowned. “Do you mean that I smelled lonely?”

“I think so, yes, longing, needing…”

“I didn’t imagine that loneliness had a scent.”

I highly recommend Fledgling. Many readers are tired of the vampire meme, but this novel offers something different and refreshing. This is an intoxicating read. There is something for everybody! With the plethora of multi-book publications, I would bare my neck to read more about Shori and her symbionts after the dust settled. Butler is deceased, but she has left many other novels for me to sink my teeth into!