Reading Expectation and Reality

Posted: January 8, 2014 in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Criticism, Reviews
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A Reader-Response Analysis of Janet Hudgins’ Treason: The Violation of Trust
by Lynn Perretta

This week, I am reviewing a work of Historical Fiction, okay, it is really a dramatic novelization of an individual from history, but we are not going to split hairs. I know that such a work screams for a New Historian analysis, but I already had one of those when I reviewed Marcia Gates. I am sure that I’ll revisit schools of criticism, but I want don’t want to do so until I’ve gotten to explore as many of them as I can.

Besides, I do not want to give Treason a New Historian treatment. It is deserving of one. I know that when I set out on this project, I said that I was not going to talk about my opinion, that I was going to keep it strictly on the academic analysis. I have to break that rule a little bit here. This book surprised me, and that, for me, lends this book to another school of criticism: reader-response.

Now, Reader-Response criticism is not about opinion. This school of criticism, you will recall, is about the interaction of the text and the reader. In that regard, the intention of the author matters not at all. In fact, we want to pretend, in this school of criticism, that the writer does not even exist. This work just spontaneously appeared one day out of the blue, showing up on Smashwords, Amazon, and other book-selling sites. So, as you continue on with me, do not ask yourself “What did Janet intend?” or “What was Ms. Hudgins thinking about when she wrote this scene?” or “This is very detailed, how long did Ms. Hudgins have to research this?” (The answer is 8 years, by the way.) Instead consider purchasing the book for yourself, and see if you have the same thoughts that I do in reading it.

Lynn, Meet TreasonTreason, Meet Lynn
In understanding how I am approaching this novel, I need to understand my moment in time. I am an American of mixed European descent with some Native American and possible Pacific Islander influence thrown in as well. Every day I am inundated with images online about how we are the greatest country in the world, how we should not just let people into the country willy-nilly, how owning guns is the American way, and how “descent is the highest form of patriotic” (sigh). In fact, I find that this is an interesting time in American History. We are a country built on immigration, fearing immigrants. We call into question the eligibility of a man who holds an office that once men considered should be bowed to as a king.

I know, it sounds like I am approaching the story as a New Historian. I am not. I am, however, viewing the story through a New History lens. I am not, however, considering the author’s place in history as the story is written. I am instead considering my own. That is what brings us back to the Reader-Response analysis.

Treason: The Violation of Trust, follows the Palmer Dynasty from its founder William Palmer, who arrived in the new world, circa 1635, not to escape religious persecution, but to escape the pull into religious conflict. The novel follows his life as he, a widower, builds a new family and carves out a place for them. The story picks up with his descendants, following them into Canada following the forced exodus of the Acadians, tracing their activities in the American Revolution, and going with them into World War I.

Come Closer
I want to look at a section from Part Two: Chapter Two of Treason. It has been a century since Will Palmer pass on. The new Patriarch is Lewis Palmer. Immediately upon meeting him, we become sympathetic to him. He’s a man who is ”not particularly handsome at first sight, but [becomes] so as the dimension of his character develop[s]”. He talks history with his oldest son, and it is through him that we learn about what has transpired. In Chapter 2, war is on the horizon. Lines are being drawn in sand. As staunch loyalists to England, the Palmers are feeling the weight of the building tensions.

 

That evening Lewis and Rachel stayed at the table after the servants cleared it. Rachel had something to say. “I was scorned today, Mr. Palmer. Our neighbour turned his back on me without saying a word. Why?”

“I, too, have been snubbed. Just last week, Wilbur Johnson walked past me as if I were not there. We are two bodies now: the turncoats and the loyalists. They are very foolish to think they can beat the English at anything. They have no fighting force, no arsenal, and no experience. There’s nothing to worry about, woman. We are on the winning side.”

Rachel looked at Lewis then turned her gaze away and across the room. She said nothing and her silence was of more concern to Lewis than anything she could have said. She had doubted him and he was not accustomed to his wife thinking for herself.

That evening Lewis’ youngest son, Theodosius, came to his father’s study to talk. He said, “Father, England is exploiting and murdering everywhere it goes. It’s the secret that everyone refuses to say out loud but keeps safely wrapped in heroics propaganda. And you are doing it too, extolling the glory of the English Empire as the single great power and culture in the world. But, a great deal of resentment is surfacing in the colonies and creating a rift: the loyalists versus the patriots.”

Lewis lost his patience. “If you think these people will overcome the mighty armies of King George, you are a fool and you will be the laughing stock of all our relations and friends. Who will lead them, where will they get the armory? They have no money and have never fought a war. And what would happen to the colonies if we did not have England, and, in fact, it becomes our enemy? Have you thought of all these things, son, or are you dreaming like these other people?”

“No, father, I’m not dreaming. I’m sure there will be a war with England. There is a leader in George Washington, and he is gaining the sympathy of Europe.”

“So. You are on the side of the turncoats,” said Lewis, enunciating his words carefully, his forehead knit with both anger and worry creases.

“Patriots,” said Theo. “They are patriots, father.”

“Patriots? How dare they call themselves patriots. This country was founded by the English. Where would they be now if not for England? Patriots, indeed!”

Lewis lowered his voice and bitterly said, “You had better say goodbye to your mother.”

“And to you, father. Good bye.”

As Theo left the room, Lewis’ eyes misted and he looked deeply troubled but he would not acknowledge his sorrow. In a few minutes he heard Rachel sobbing and the back door closing. He knew he, and he alone, had, with a few words, completely severed all ties to his son. As well, all the girls had married either rebel supporters or men, it seemed to Lewis, with neither the courage nor the fortitude to support either side, and they were not mentioned in the house. They were not as important as the boys, of course, but it was a further indication of the family torn apart, something that had never happened in all its history. Now, there were times when Rachel and Lewis barely talked to each other. Deep in their own thoughts, they, too, were being pulled apart.

When they did talk, Rachel was articulating her feelings for the first time and it shocked Lewis. “Look what this is doing to our family. I’ll never forgive you for sending Theo away.”

“Don’t concern yourself with such matters. You don’t understand the complexities, woman. And I’m still the head of this family!”

Lewis walked away and Rachel wept.

Treason: The Violation of Trust pg 98-99 What I find most interesting in this passage is that even though we know that Lewis is on the wrong side of history, even though we watch he and his youngest son become estranged and he and his wife become more distant, we do not lose sympathy for him.

For one, he speaks the strength of his convictions. He does not consider those talking of revolution to be patriots. They are “turncoats” to him. When his son calls them “patriots” you can hear the guffaw in his voice when he responds back. For him, ostracism is not due to him being stubborn but to others being dis-loyal and foolish. How can they possibly rise up against England with no army, and what do they think will happen after? Spoiler Alert: the War of 1812.

When his youngest son leaves, and we know the two men will likely not speak again, Lewis is pained, but refuses to acknowledge it. He sees not just his youngest son leaving, but his daughters as well, all marrying rebel supporters, tearing his family asunder. When he snaps at his wife for speaking up and expressing her opinion with a statement that would have my own husband sleeping on the couch, I cannot see him as a misogynist. I see him as a man hurt by what the world has done to his legacy, a man who is holding onto what little he has left in the only way his society has taught him he can.

Wrap Up and Final Thoughts
I found Treason to be far more fascinating than I thought that it would be. I expected a very different book than what I was treated to. When I was told this would be highlighting the atrocities of the English against the Native Americans and Acadians, I expected to see those struggles. I expected to see battles with native tribesmen or men loading French colonialist onto barges to send down river. I did not expect to follow a dynasty of people who did not necessarily participate in these events, but definitely profited from them.

That I did not get what I expected delighted me. I’ve seen those other things a hundred times before. Yes, the book discusses these events and highlights them, but the focus is more the effects of these events, told in the lives of those affected. We do not follow the lives of Native American or Acadians.. Instead, we follow intimately the lives of the settlers who, on the tailwinds of many atrocities, built the America and Canada that we know today.

I will leave my analysis of the book with a final thought: this felt like a book that should be read in a History class. The text is well-researched and the book is well-written. I say this with an amusing admission: I skimmed parts of the book. I did not skim from boredom. I skimmed because I have a lot of books to read at a time, and I knew that I needed to get to different areas of the book so that I could get a full picture of what the book offered and what my impression of it was going to be for my analysis.

The reason that I mention skimming the book is because, well, I could. I was able to read sections, gain an understanding of events and my impressions of them, then skim through until key words caught my attention to slow down and do a close read. When I found these sections, I was able to easily pick up the story, only having to back up a few paragraphs to understand what was going on.

For a book like this, being put together in a way that sections can be picked up and read without feeling lost or wondering what is going on is important. It means that it could be picked up by a history teacher and assigned in sections or as a whole to students, in order to help gain an understanding of the effects of history on the people who live it. And this is a book that should be in a history class. We get a perspective of historical events that I do not often see in dramatic narratives. The Palmers are not always on the right side of history, but their stories are compelling and help to fill in a historical narrative that we are all very familiar with.

Visit Janet Hudgins on Smashwords
Purchase Treason: The Violation of Trust at Barnes & NobleSmashwords, or Amazon.

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