Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

22-year-old army veteran Atticus Turner has just recently returned home from the Korean War, and is traveling from Florida to Chicago after receiving an urgent message from his father, Montrose. While driving north, Atticus consults The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a map created by his uncle George that lists the restaurants, hotels, and gas stations that will serve African Americans across the United States. The trunk of his car is filled with paperback copies of Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, and Atticus has read widely across the genre; some of his favourite authors include Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Ron Hubbard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. P. Lovecraft. His reading falls into mainly white-authored genres, causing discord between him and his father. For example, when Atticus reads Edgar Rice Burroughs, who writes about a protagonist named John Carter - a U.S solider turned Martian warlord - Montrose comments, "A Confederate officer?...That's the hero?...Ex-Confederate? What's that, like an ex-Nazi? The man fought for slavery. You don't get to put an 'ex-' in front of that!" 

The opening pages contextualize the United States in 1950s, and what it means to be a black man in Jim Crow America. When a police sheriff pulls Atticus over and rifles through his books, spilling the paperbacks out onto the road, this violation of privacy prefaces the horrors of being a black man in American in the 1950s. Later, Atticus encounters much worse. 

When Atticus gets to Chicago, however, his father isn't there. He's in Ardham, Massachusetts (which is very similar to Arkham, where many of Lovecraft's monsters are located), and Atticus sets off with his uncle George and his childhood friend Letitia to find him. Lovecraft Country is told through a series of episodes, each of which focuses on a character from Atticus's family: a focus on Atticus begins the novel, followed by a focus on Atticus's father Montrose, his uncle George, his friend Letitia, Letitia's sister Ruby, and George's wife Hippolyta, and their son Horace. The episodes are supernatural in nature: Atticus learns that his heritage connects him to a secret society to which he might just be the key; Letitia buys a haunted house; Hippolyta wanders into a portal that takes her to another planet, one that guarded by a creature called Scylla. 

Lovecraft Country is an incredible look at racism in the United States, merged with the uncanniness of sci-fi and fantasy.  It's a rich and compelling read and one of the most surprising books I've read in 2016. 

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