Move Over, Old Shatterhand [Bitter Springs by Laura Stone]
Do you ever read a book that makes you realise what utter and complete rubbish you’ve read in the past?
Because as much as I liked Bitter Springs for itself, I also couldn’t read it without remembering reading Karl May’s Winnetou* when I was a teenager, reading it to my little brother, and feeling disgusted by those memories. Because they’re set in a similar time and place – I’m pretty sure that May’s fictional alter ego Old Shatterhand travelled through the Llano Estacado, that Winnetou was Mescalero like Tsá-cho in Bitter Springs – and yet, it’s an entirely different world.
I think the Carpenter Brother and I were raised well enough not to be influenced by May’s 19th-century racism and sexism, but nobody ever challenged the picture of this world of white, straight men that May (and others) paint. Not until I started seeing posts about Bitter Springs on tumblr. To quote from the author’s note:
Turns out that the straight, white cowboy whom Hollywood loves was pretty uncommon. About forty percent of cowboys were black, first of all. And straight? Sure. Sometimes. Sometimes not.
I only have the ebook for now**, but I think I might have to buy a print edition as well, purely to put it on the shelf next to Winnetou, just to imagine how Old Shatterhand – oh so morally superior because he is a good Christian and also German – would feel at having to live next to Renaldo and Hank, Mexican and Black and in love with each other.
What will I do when my as-good-as-nephew gets old enough to help himself to books from my shelves? (He’s just not allowed to not be a reader, okay?) Hide the Winnetou books? Talk to him a lot, to put Karl May’s opinions into perspective? I can hardly insist he read Bitter Springs at the same time, it’s not really a book for kids… Then again, I read some pretty explicit stuff at around the same age as I started reading in English, and it hasn’t harmed me. Why do we consider sex so much more inappropriate than violence?
Because if there’s one thing this book is not, it’s violent. I got side-tracked while writing this, reading a post on how there were far fewer guns in the Wild West than movies and (most) books would have us believe.
So, I’m learning things, and I love learning things! That is actually one of the reasons why I like the idea of reading historical fiction, but I rarely enjoy it as much as I want to. Turns out it’s not just the lack of dark lords and dragons and such things that makes it feel so bland – having characters that are not all white and straight seems to help too.
I’m still trying to figure out what made me enjoy Bitter Springs so much, what made it so hard to put it down and go to sleep or to work. Because I usually don’t do straight-up love stories. (Well, maybe in the form of fanfiction, but that’s with characters I already know and care about and want to see happy.) I suppose getting to know Renaldo in the context of his family helped – a family not without conflict, but for the most part with a lot of love for one another, and families are pretty important to me. I don’t have the time to read the book again to pinpoint at what point I started to care about Hank the same way, but I know I was utterly charmed by the way he treats horses, with such politeness. There’s never been a character in any of the books I’ve read who treats animals quite like this, not even the characters who can talk to them.
Anyway. However it happened, I quickly started to care about them, enough that I wanted them to be happy. And I could believe that they really like each other, that they have fun with each other, which is not always the case in books. And even though I had complete faith that they would get their happy ending, I couldn’t wait to get there. (At the expense of sleep and… well, I might have sneakily read a few pages during work…)
One thing I also enjoyed was the bits of Spanish thrown in here and there – it’s been fun to scrape half-remembered bits and pieces from highschool back together to understand what Renaldo is saying (and then randomly counting things in Spanish for the rest of the week.)
* Winnetou, Old Shatterhand and Karl May are names that you probably can’t escape if you grow up in a German-speaking country, even if you never read the books or watch the movies, because references to them are still quite common. I wrote about them here some years ago, and I’m surprised I had such a positive attitude towards them then.
* because the Interlude Press webshop had a sale, and they don’t ship print books internationally.