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Entries in Arkansas (2)


American Gods: Shadow in Prison

Unfolding the Map

My decision to start blogging and mapping American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, is sort of an experiment.  It is my first foray into mapping a novel, and there will be places that the characters go that I'm not going to be able to follow on a map.  However, this novel is about a man's journey, and like most journeys he not only travels on physical plane but also on the emotional and spiritual plane as well.  In this case, the spiritual plane truly lives.  I have started the map, the single point you see, at a state prison in Arkansas, and I'm going to be doing some guessing at a couple of places that Gaiman makes up, like Eagle Point, Indiana.  So it goes.  I'm journeying with Shadow, and I hope you enjoy the journey too.

Book Quote

The best thing - in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing - about being in prison was a feeling of relief.  The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom.  He didn't worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him.  He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.

American Gods: Chapter 1

Shadow in Prison, Part 1

Every so often I have moaned and bewailed my life.  Why can't things go my way?  Why wasn't my childhood perfect?  Why does everything seem to go against me?  Sometimes I had these little outbursts against the universe even though my own choices had brought me to that low point.  During my little pity parties, I had forgotten that at least I had the opportunity to keep struggling against life, and that I still had the freedom to make those little mistakes that seemed to make my life so difficult.

It wasn't until my wife and I started mentoring women newly released from prison that I learned that my little troubles didn't mean anything compared to others.  The women I helped mentor had come from worse backgrounds than I did.  By "worse" I mean that they were victims of terrible physical and sexual abuse.  Their crimes were usually related to drug abuse and alcohol.  They also often were mothers, further complicating issues when we tried to help reintegrate them into normal life.  One woman we mentored had an ex-husband who had tried to have her killed, and was still trying to track her down.

I've only visited prisons, and fortunately have never had to live in one.  Prison is its own society.  Some convicted criminals find prison an opportunity for power, and prison gangs provide the vehicle for them to become powerbrokers in an enclosed system.  Some find religion, and prison provides a way to explore their lives and give themselves in their brokenness over to a higher power.  Some find it a respite from the streets, and if they have been there long enough or enough times, they have learned the system and how to integrate into it.  Prisoners also face many of the same problems that they might face outside, but concentrated because it's a closed system.  Addictions, predators, abusers (in the form of fellow prisoners but also in the form of sadistic prison officials).  Life is hell for them, whether it is on the outside or the inside, and if a prisoner is going to make the most of the scraps of opportunity they have, they must have a lot of inner strength and be able to selectively use a host of personal skills to navigate this unforgiving world.

Musical Interlude

I found this song by Joan Baez for our musical interlude, which tells three different stories of three people in prison.


Shadow in prison, Part 2

In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Shadow is in prison at the beginning of the book.  He is determined to do his time, limit his contact with anyone, and get released.  His only friend is a fellow convict named Low-Key, who gives him a contraband coin that Shadow uses to practice tricks and illusions.  We'll learn more about Low-Key later.  We don't know much, if anything, about the offense that landed Shadow in prison, nor do we know his real name.  Like his chosen moniker, he wants to remain quiet and unobtrusive.  He plans then to go home to his wife, Laura, get a job and never do anything that would risk a return to prison.

Most people who are in prison, except for the most hardened criminals and those who are there for the rest of their lives, have similar dreams.  They plan to get out and stay out, and live a normal life.  Unfortunately, there are traps all over.  My wife and I, once a month, join a small group of people and bring dinner down to a halfway house in Albuquerque where we live.  The men in the halfway house are all transitioning out of prison.  They live in the house, try to find jobs, and try to get themselves on the right track.  Unfortunately, the whiff of prison never leaves them, and makes getting back to normal difficult if not impossible.  They must always disclose their offenses when applying for jobs and applying for rental housing, which severely limits what's available to them.  They may have lost all of their identification, and therefore must spend hours filling out tedious forms and working their way through the bureaucracy.  They must report to a parole or probation officer regularly, and that officer has full discretion to determine that they are in violation and send them back to prison on a moment's notice.

The jobs they are able to get are often minimum wage jobs, even if they happen to have more advanced training.  The housing that they are able to get is often located in the worst neighborhoods.  Of course, this puts them right back into the very environments that they have been trying to escape.  Or perhaps they are released back into dysfunctional support systems.  It takes one turn of fate, such as a tragedy or accident, or a series of bad days filled with job rejections and hours of tedium in faceless and uncompromising bureaucratic rule, regulations and red tape, or a troublesome character from that bad former life coming back into contact, to send them back on a spiral into the habits and actions that got them into prison in the first place.

We'll see the same thing happen to Shadow.  An unexpected tragedy occurs, and his plans to return to normalcy are dashed.  This tragedy, the death of his wife just days before he is to be released from prison, means his life will never be the same.  Will this tragedy bring him on a circle that leads him back around to prison?

As I mentioned above, sometimes people find themselves in prison.  For Shadow, this tragedy is the opening act of a sort of passion play that will challenge everything he knows about himself.  It will be a journey that not only takes him all ove the map, but to places beyond the map.  Like Odysseus of Greek legend, he will come face-to-face with himself, despite the pulls of mythology old and new.  Shadow will also redefine himself in the process.

If you want to know more about the US prison system and the challenges for ex-convicts

Atlantic Monthly: When They Get Out
Federal Bureau of Prisons
Human Rights Watch World Report 2013: US and prisons
New York Times: After Prison, a Bill to be Paid
Wikipedia: Incarceration in the United States

Next up: Little Rock, Arkansas



Blue Highways: Camas, Washington

Unfolding the Map

William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is beginning to head east, but stops for an Arkansas Traveler moment with a farmer near Camas, Washington.  What does that mean?  Think of it like a mid-1800s version of the Abbott and Costello Who's On First.  There's a little more to such moments than just comedy, sit back, laugh and enjoy the show.  Oh, and take a look where Camas is located on the map.

Book Quote

"In Vancouver I lost the highway, found it again, and drove east on state 14 to follow the Columbia upriver until it made the great turn north....I breathed a fresh odor of something like human excrement.  Near Camas I stopped where a farmer had pulled his tractor to the field edge to reload a planter.  'What's that terrible smell?' I said.

"'What smell?'

"'Like raw sewage.'

"'That's the Crown-Zellerbach papermill.'

"'How do you stand to work in it?'

"'I don't work there.'"

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 7


Downtown Camas, Washington. Photo by Triddle and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Camas, Washington

The passage above, where LHM asks the farmer what smells, reads almost like an Arkansas Traveler joke.  If you have never seen or heard an Arkansas Traveler joke, the format goes something like this:

Traveler:  Hey farmer, where does this road go?

Farmer:  As long as I've been here it ain't gone nowhere.

Upon first reading of the Arkansas Traveler jokes, the farmer comes across as an uneducated hick.  And some might see the Arkansas Traveler jokes as equating rural America with backwardness and a lack of education - a place full of dumb bumpkins.  In fact, Arkansas itself made the Arkansas Traveler it's official state song from the 40s into the 60s, and it is now classified as the official state historical song.  What the Arkansas Traveler really does is highlight tensions between people on opposite sides of the American cultural spectrum.

In the typical telling of the jokes, and in the song The Arkansas Traveler, the traveler keeps asking the farmer questions and keeps getting answers that seem evasive.  The traveler gets annoyed, but never quite gets the straight answer he wants.  He wants to know where the road ends up.  Of course, the farmer, perhaps uneducated but also very clear, literal and to the point, is in his mind telling the traveler exactly what is, not what the traveler wants.  Therefore, in the farmer's mind, the road has been there as long as he has.  It is still there and as far as he can tell, it isn't going anywhere soon.

The Arkansas Traveler has been traced back to as early as the 1840s as a fiddle tune and a popular skit performed by traveling comedy troupes.  The tune is the same tune that many of us teach our children to this day - "I'm bringing home a baby bumblebee.  Won't my mommy be so proud of me!  Yes I'm bringing home a baby bumblebee.  Ouch, it stung me!"  The skit, according to the website Not Even Past, looked something like this:

The skit portrayed a traveler (usually from the city or the East) coming across a squatter in rural Arkansas.  As the squatter repeatedly saws the first strain of the tune on his fiddle, the two engage in pun-riddled banter.  “Where does this road go?” the traveler asks.  “It don’t go nowhere.  Stays right where it is,” comes the reply.  Tension grows as the traveler’s questions become more antagonistic and the squatter continues to dissemble.  It is finally eased when the traveler grabs the fiddle and finishes the tune that the squatter had started.  Laughter ensues, and the squatter welcomes the traveler to stay the night.

From Sounds of the Past by Karl Hagstrom Miller

The University of California at Santa Barbara's Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project has a copy of the Arkansas Traveler skit on an Edison Gold Moulded [Cylinder] Record issued sometime between 1889 and 1912.  The performer listed is Len Spencer, and you can hear it here.  There are other versions of the recording, with variations in the jokes.

One can read these types of jokes as a commentary on many different things.  For those who want to look down on a rural life and see the inhabitants of a rural area in stereotype, these jokes can serve as a way to promote the superiority of the educated urbanite.  For those who trumpet the virtues of a simple, back-to-the-land existence and elevate the "salt of the earth" farmer and his plain-spun homey wisdom, such jokes show how out of touch high-falutin city-dwellers are.  Some might read class into the exchange between farmer and traveler, with a wealthy traveler looking down his nose at a poor farmer and the farmer taking the opportunity to poke fun at the rich traveler a little.  A more middle ground on this issue might be that people in both lifestyles don't communicate well and can't understand each other.

LHM, faced with the plain answer of the farmer, responds with a simple "fair enough."  However, it's clear that the farmer, living with with the smell of the paper mill every day of his life, simply takes it for granted. It has become part of his landscape, just as the dirt and the plants he grows and the farmhouse he lives in is part of his daily reality.  Chances are he hasn't even thought of the smell until LHM asks him about it.  Therefore, there is a disconnect when LHM asks him how he can stand to work surrounded by such a smell, and he responds by telling LHM that he doesn't work in the paper mill, thus signifying that he doesn't work in it.

I think overall, however, the jokes reveal even more about what was going on in America.  At the time, rural America was made up of more small farms, but there was tension between the urban, industrial centers and the rural farming communities.  We see the same types of tensions today in developing countries, for that's what the United States was in the 1800s, a developing country.  Add to those tensions the political battles between the industrial and urban North and the agricultural and pastoral South.  One might be able to read many of those types of tensions into the Arkansas Traveler.  This was at the beginning of a great shift that has come with industrialization.  Making a living at farming is difficult, and one or two bad years could bankrupt a farm.  Where would a farmer go if he couldn't farm?  He would end up in the slums and ghettoes of big cities and trying to find a job in the factories.  Farmers may have been the salt of the earth, the backbone of the United States, once, but then they found themselves competing with new immigrants such as Italians and Irish now.

LHM's twist on the joke is that all of the elements are right there in front of our noses.  The industrial Crown-Zellerbach (now Georgia-Pacific) paper mill, the rural farmer, and LHM all come together near Camas, Washington.  LHM is clearly not a wealthy traveler, but he is a traveler nonetheless and unfamiliar with the ways of the region that he is in.  He may be asking an innocent question, but he has no idea what suspicions, resentments.  He has no idea what the farmer thinks of him.  Remember, LHM at one point was looked upon suspiciously by a man and his wife traveling in an RV.  At best, the farmer is poking fun at LHM.  Most likely, though, the farmer thought his question a silly one, and answered accordingly.

Musical Interlude

I wrote that there is a song about The Arkansas Traveler.  I really wanted to find a modern version by Michelle Shocked from her Arkansas Traveler album, but I couldn't locate one.  However, I did locate a version by Archie Lee in the Florida Department of State's Florida Memory Project.  He touches upon a lot of the Arkansas Traveler jokes in the song.  It's very enjoyable, and shows that this particular and long-lasting version of the urban-rural divide stays alive and well even in the 21st century!

Arkansas Traveler by Archie Lee.

If you want to know more about Camas

Camas-Washougal Post-Record (newspaper)
Center for Columbia River History: Camas Community Exhibit
City of Camas
Wikipedia: Camas

Next up:  Skamania, Washington