In the eleventh chapter of American Gods, Shadow and Wednesday recruit a god belonging to a very specific version of a holiday in San Francisco, and Gaiman takes us into the world of the African slave trade. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read American Gods.
I think that we are going to build up to this storm, and then I’ll have nothing but an onslaught of chaos for the remainder of the book. The pieces really are starting to come together, but this book definitely has a slower start than probably anything I’ve read for this site. And I’m okay with that. I don’t need books with SHIT GETTING REAL every chapter, with constant-building tension, with mind-blowing revelation after revelation. Which is not a complaint about that at all, but I’m enjoying the fact that Gaiman stretches out so much, building this world alongside a very real one at the same time. That’s an interesting dynamic for a novel like this. As I’ve elaborated in past reviews, Gaiman apparently knows America better than we do??? HOW DOES HE DO THIS? Oh, right, HE’S A REALLY GOOD WRITER. But there’s an entire world stacked underneath ours, and Gaiman reveals both of them as the novel progresses.
But let’s just talk about the beautiful unintended irony of the opening of chapter eleven:
Three cold days passed. The thermometer never made it up to the zero mark, not even at midday. Shadow wondered how people had survived this weather in the days before electricity, before thermal face masks and lightweight thermal underwear, before easy travel.
SEE? I AM NOT ALONE IN THIS. Oh my god, I am totally a weather bigot. I can’t believe I wrote that whole bit about this same thing and Shadow immediately validates me. Clearly, we are on the same wavelength.
Of course, it’s an absurd notion. People live in the heat. They live in states with hurricanes and tornados or earthquakes or typhoons and in nearly every possible weather variation imaginable. Humans are a resilient species. We are stubborn, sometimes to our great disadvantage, but we find ways to do it. That’s not to ignore the fact that humans are also remarkably awful about their determination to live where they want, but a talk about imperialism is for a later day. For now, chapter eleven continues to expand on the idea of small town politics and the way in which Shadow integrates himself into life in Lakeside.
Well, sort of. There are two moments where it’s clear that Shadow is still a bit of an outsider in this chapter. The first comes at the town library. Shadow is inspired to find out what thunderbirds are and Hinzelmann directs him to the greatest place on earth. Look, I don’t care. I love libraries. All of them. Everywhere. They are magical places to me. Lately, I have been sitting for hours in different branches in Oakland and San Francisco to write these reviews and work on Mark Reads eBooks. It’s like sitting in a vat of potions! It’s so goddamn inspiring, and I find that the words pour out of me when I have all of these books at my disposal for research. (Yes, that’s right. I do love my Google, but I love research in a library. Someone send me back to school, because I miss this shit.)
Anyway, at the library, Shadow performs a coin trick for his neighbor’s son, and she reacts in a surprising way. Shadow had already met her at this point, so I was confused as to why she would treat him with such a harsh attitude. It’s not until he meets up with Chad Mulligan that he finds out that Marguerite Olsen’s other son disappeared, possibly kidnapped by her ex-husband. It’s interesting to me how much this chapter relies on this idea of small town gossip. Well…perhaps “gossip” is the wrong word. This is more like the entire town knowing each other simply by virtue of it being a small town. Chad Mulligan appears to be the only real cop in the city, so he knows Marguerite’s story rather well because of it.
For Marguerite, it adds another layer to her character and I already want to go back and read the first time we meet her in this book. I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of her, and I wonder how Shadow is going to choose to interact with her, knowing she has a complete justification for being so suspicious of her son being alone with Shadow for a few seconds in the library. At the same time, I hope her character is not defined by this tragedy, either.
There’s another dream sequence in chapter eleven that involves the strange god earth thing that we’ve seen before, and it makes me wonder if using the word “dream” is actually not accurate. (God, I love that Gaiman is making me think about something so basic as the word “dream.” ILU, SIR, BECAUSE I LOVE WORDS.) Shadow is asleep, and images float through his brain, and it seemed so obvious to me that this was a dream. But a dream is a reality in your mind, and as far as we know, that’s the only place that it exists. However, more so than ever before, it’s becoming clear that Shadow’s “dreams” are nothing like what that word defines.
I assumed two things were at work here: that Shadow dreamed about things related to his journey with Wednesday, and that some of the “forgotten” gods were merely speaking through these dreams. He had been researching thunderbirds before he fell asleep, and he dreamed about them afterwards. That happens to me often. Well, not dreaming about thunderbirds, but instead falling asleep and dreaming about whatever it was I did last before passing out. So Shadow climbs a mountain covered in bones, the fragments cutting his feet along the way (which is a really unsettling mental image to me, because I am slightly frightened by cutting my feet while barefoot), and does so until he reaches the thunderbirds.
When the dream reaches a chaotic turning point, as the thunderbirds begin to attack him, Shadow wakes up to the phone ringing.
“What the fuck,” shouted Wednesday, angrier than Shadow had ever heard him. “What the almighty fuck do you think you are playing at?”
“I was asleep,” said Shadow into the receiver, stupidly.
“What do you think is the fucking point of stashing you in a hiding place like Lakeside, if you’re going to raise such a ruckus that not even a dead man could miss it?”
What? What? How the…what the fuck is going on? Shadow isn’t really dreaming, is he? How is he able to access…whatever this is? I don’t even know what to call it anymore! Did Shadow forget to turn off his webcam in his mind and now all the gods saw him or something? I AM LOST. Clearly this means something, and something important, but I DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.
I don’t like angry Wednesday, who is furious with Shadow for pretty much the entire trip out to San Francisco, where they go to recruit someone else to their “war.” When I started American Gods, I was a tad concerned that I’d chosen a book that dealt with religion in a way that might be too similar to the His Dark Materials trilogy. I suppose that might seem silly to a lot of you. The word “gods” is in the title, but I didn’t outright assume it would have anything to do with religion. And while this book certainly has very little to do with the way religion is addressed in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, I am actually very surprised by what I do want to talk about often. It’s pleasant to be able to write about cities in the United States in a way that is affectionate and excited because…well, let’s be honest. My country’s government, social policies, and general political stance leave a lot to be desired. And that’s something that is important for me to acknowledge as someone who lives here.
Yet it is not mutually exclusive with saying that I really do like what I’ve seen and experienced here in the United States. For the most part, that is. This book is shaping up to be this surreal roadtrip throughout the states that make up this country, and I get really excited to talk about these things. Feelings? I have a lot of them. In particular, San Francisco is one of those places that I do enjoy, but I have conflicted emotions about the place. Again, Gaiman continues to pin down exactly what makes cities tick, and holy god, he knows San Francisco. Seriously! How does he do this?
But he’s right. There is no city on the planet that looks like San Francisco. I started coming here in high school and the appeal of the place, the culture, and the people I met was what planted the seed in my mind: I would live in the Bay Area one day. I came up here for shows, for protests, to visit friends, and to enjoy the food. I balked at the steep hills, adored the wooden house crammed so impossibly together like books on a shelf, snug and ordered and colorful. I loved the weather and the fact that the entire peninsula was surrounded by water. I haven’t quite figured out why I desire living close to the ocean so much, but it’s a big factor in living where I choose to live.
And with all that being said, once I moved to Oakland (which I love so much more than San Francisco), I began to see the city in a different light. I still find it beautiful. I love riding my bike up and down those impossible hills, finding niche restaurants that could not work in any other city, and getting the privilege to see a lot of great shows, movies, comedians, and other arty things that I love because why not. I chose Oakland over San Francisco for reasons of familiarity and cost. For many years, whenever I came up to the Bay, I stayed in Oakland. Plus, it’s nearly half as cheap for the same size apartment in the East Bay as the city.
My job is south of the Financial District, in an area called SoMa. (South of Market, the main street that cuts through San Francisco.) In the year or so I’ve been here, I’ve become far more accustomed to this city, and while I will always enjoy it, it’s quietly become a place that isn’t quite what I used to think it was. Traveling to SF every day on BART is like watching a parade of the most privileged and entitled assholes on the entire planet. It’s a neverending stream of awful, and most days, I try to block everything out by reading. And it’s something I never noticed until I moved here and was surrounded by it every day: San Francisco is home to some of the most entitled, egotistical people I’ve ever met.
Yes, it’s all relative to where I am, where I travel to in the city, and who I’ve chosen to be around. But there is, generally speaking, a different type of person who chooses to live here that I’ve never encountered anywhere else. It’s where my mind started wandering when Wednesday insisted that San Francisco simply wasn’t in the same country as the rest of America. From the outside view, SF is viewed as a liberal, progressive heaven. And that’s true, to an extent. Like, if I ever decide to have a boyfriend again, I know I can walk around the city and hold his hand and I’ll feel safe. I know that people are generally more lax towards marijuana use, that we have a fantastic network to support public transportation and commuting via bicycle, that being a vegan here is remarkably easy, and…well, I could keep going on and on. All these things are true.
But there’s a pervasive, insidious side to the city that bothers me and I don’t find it anywhere else. Given how “open” or “accepting” people can be, it feels like there are droves of people (most who weren’t born here, strangely) who believe that living in San Francisco alone makes them progressive, that their actions are negated by simply living in the city. And that’s a really weird thing to see! There’s this disconnect between the way people act and what they say. This is supposed to be a liberal, caring city, but SF passed a law prohibited homeless people from sleeping/sitting on sidewalks from 7am to 11pm. No, take like five seconds to think about that and your brain explodes from how goddamn absurd that is. What’s so boggling is that the law technically says any person cannot sit or lay on a sidewalk, but that’s just legal talk for saying, “Hey, homeless people, we don’t want to see you at all.”
On top of this barely-hidden classism is A WHOLE LOT OF RACISM. Blatant, unintentional, and casual…it’s all there. There is a ridiculous amount of gentrification here, and there are parts of the city where it is a quest to find a single person of color. That’s not unique to San Francisco. I admit that. But what’s so bizarre is that San Franciscans routinely are completely oblivious to how their city looks to an outsider who isn’t white.
Here’s a great example of that: I live in Oakland. My neighborhood is mostly people of color. I cannot count how many times I have told people I live here and people from the city ask me if I’m safe. Or if I’ve ever been shot at. Or saw grimaces on faces, or body language that showed disgust at the very name of my city. Once, I asked someone in the Mission district in San Francisco where a specific intersection was, and he looked like he was going to throw up on me. “Ew, why would you go down there?” The place I wanted to go? Down past Caesar Chavez, which, if you’re not familiar, is where a lot of people of color live in San Francisco.
These things do manifest themselves in other cities and that’s not what I’m trying to point out. That’s not what makes San Francisco a ~special snowflake.~ It’s a combination of the good and the bad at the same time. To say anything else would be ignoring an entire section of this city that truly isn’t like anywhere else in the United States. It’s the good food and the hatred of the poor; it’s the gorgeous hills and the lack of acknowledgment of how white supremacy still works in quiet, unseen ways; it’s the history that we see everyday and the history that we erase. San Francisco is a giant paradox, a constant contradiction, and even my feelings about this place are diametrically opposed. That is what makes this place unlike any other place in America.
Oh, and Oakland rules. Haters can obey the left-hand evacuation procedure immediately.
OKAY HEY EVERYONE, AMERICAN GODS, THIS IS AWESOME. So, Easter is a god! Well, only the Easter derived from the Eostre of the Dawn. So is this an outright confirmation that different versions of the same god exist? Is there a god for the Easter that represents bunnies and chocolate eggs? Or one for those who associate it with Jesus? (Though…wouldn’t that just be Jesus?) Oh god, I just have ~so many questions~ that ~really deserve answers~.
Did anyone else find Wednesday’s interrogation of the waitress AND his takedown of Easter to be a bit….harsh? Maybe necessary in Easter’s case, but Wednesday is kind of an asshole. Which is fine because I like characters who don’t make good decisions or who are irritating or who are complex because who doesn’t. Well, actually, a lot of people don’t like that, but we’re dealing with a god who is so inconceivably old and arrogant that it’s actually in character for him to be so…lordly. He’s presumptive, crude, and is perfectly content treating characters like this, and I’ll be damned if there’s a way he’ll change any of this over the course of the novel. But I also have to remember that he and the other gods need belief, and in large, genuine amounts, to continue to survive in America, and that at least must influence why he would be so rude to Easter, or why he tries to con the waitress out of a mere ten dollars.
What a weird sentence to type. They’re hanging out with Easter.
I had mentioned before that there are two distinct moments in this chapter that show us how Shadow is reminded that he is still an outsider in Lakeside. I don’t think it is necessarily related to the color of his skin and there’s no info or subtext at all to give me pause. He is simply the newest person in town, and he was gone for a day while helping Wednesday. In that time, Alison McGovern, the girl from the greyhound that Shadow briefly spoke to when he arrived in Lakeside, has gone missing. Even if Chad Mulligan doesn’t mean to frighten Shadow, he does for a brief moment when he asks Shadow where he was the time before. And maybe this is that subtext, that Shadow knows he’s a brown dude in a city in Wisconsin that doesn’t have a whole lot of people that look like him in it, but we’ve also gotten no real sign that this might be the case. For him, though, he knows that his identity is a lie, and he has just gotten out of prison for a violent crime. He has no desire to go back to that place.
I’m wondering if this disappearance has anything to do with a larger story in this book. We were introduced to the disappearance of Marguerite’s son in this chapter, and now someone else disappears suddenly. After a long search around town, which Shadow joins, there’s not a single clue to what happened to her. When Shadow runs into the other girl from the Greyhound bus, Sophie, she says something that’s strange to me:
“I’m leaving this fucking town,” said the girl in a sudden, choked voice. “I’m going to live with my mom in Ashland. Alison’s gone. Sandy Olsen went last year. Jo Ming the year before that. What if it’s me next year?”
“I thought Sandy Olsen was taken by his father.”
“Yes, said the girl, bitterly. “I’m sure he was. And Jo Ming went out to California, and Sarah Lindquist got lost on a trail hike and they never found her. Whatever. I want to go to Ashland.”
It could all be a coincidence. It could all not matter at all. But people disappear. Or they leave. But why would Gaiman introduce these two girls and then include them further in this story? OH GOD I COULD BE SO WRONG, BUT I AM TRYING TO GUESS HERE.
Coming to America
What I really enjoy about this entire concept is that Gaiman never does that thing where he thinks it’s totally edgy and hilarious to poke fun at religions that seem foreign and bizarre. “There was a girl, and her uncle sold her,” he begins, in this extremely lengthy story about Wututu and how she became a slave in America. None of this is to belittle her belief, to make it seem strange, or to “other” her as so many other authors might do. In fact, this entire section is a celebration of her beliefs more than anything else.
(It’s nice to finally understand why Mr. Ibis was telling stories before this. Now I get it! I UNDERSTAND SOMETHING.)
At the same time, I think it’s okay to acknowledge that I have no personal experience with any of this, that all of my knowledge about this is secondhand, that I don’t know what this is like at all. So I also don’t know if Gaiman has properly done this all the respect it deserves, but I think he does. The story is beautifully told, respects the fact that the slave trade was openly racist and destroyed lives, and also doesn’t ignore that there were people with their own lives and beliefs and agency who were slaves. BUT–and that “but” is important–I am utterly detached from this all. This story could be problematic as all hell, and I genuinely don’t know if it is.
I don’t normally do this, but I think it’s okay to just say SO I THINK THIS MIGHT BE WEIRD, and I want to sit this one out in terms of commenting on it. Instead, I am interested to know if there are any readers here who have a better knowledge of this than myself, have any experience, or anything of the sort. How does this story read to you? Do you think Gaiman did a fine job telling Wututu’s story?