There are no female characters in “The Wind in the Willows,” and male friendship is exalted above all other forms of human interaction.
— Gary Kamiya
I was asked by a friend to review James Howard Kunstler’s third novel in the World Made by Hand series, with a focus on his portrayal of women in post-collapse America. Other reviewers have capably covered A History of the Future from other angles (see, for example, here and here). Considering that many women criticized Mr. Kunstler’s take after the first book came out, I was curious to see how (or whether) his thinking and attitudes evolved.
There are four new major characters appearing in the book, two men and two women. They are as follows:
- Daniel Earle, son of Robert Earle, returned from seeing the world
- Andrew Pendergast, 37, successful prepper and Renaissance Man
- Loving Morrow, 51, prominent southern leader
- Mandy Stokes, who goes berserk, kills her son and husband at the beginning of the book, and whose confinement and disposition weave the narratives together
Daniel’s long travelogue occupies much of the book. He comes across, at age 20, as mature, very resourceful and adaptable, hardy, strong, sober, sensible, and loyal.
Andrew is perhaps the only endearing character to have emerged so far in Union Grove (I have not read the second book). He saw the writing on the wall, invested wisely, gathered up supplies, skills and lovely old china before the crash, and thrives in this new world where good tools and locally useful competencies are what matters. He is the model resilient city-culture escapee and all-round decent person.
President Loving Morrow holds her breakaway republic in thrall with the help of religious gibberish, southern bonhomie, and revival of rabid racism. She is the come-to-life “cornpone Nazi,” a personage whose eventual emergence to American leadership Mr. Kunstler has been forecasting for a number of years, and seems to be modeled after Dolly Parton. Say… didn’t the feisty Miss Dolly star in a film that featured an alliance of three uppity women taking their piggish male chauvinist, lying creep of a boss down a few pegs? Praise her!
Mandy, 32, commits horrible murders while her mind is deranged by illness; she is frequently referred to thereafter as “poor girl” or just “girl.” It may be of interest that she got her master’s in Women’s Studies, the epitome of uselessness, just before the crash. Even though she and her husband succeed in getting out of the city to a friend’s farm, she manages to unravel her life anyway, and pathos is her only discernible virtue.
As the curtain rises on the larger post-collapse new order, in the American northeast, women have been silenced and somehow forced to retreat to that old Prussian/Nazi ideal, Kinder-Küche-Kirche. On the Great Lakes, the feds barely hang on. In the south, racists have gone rampant.
Women continue to play no political, commercial or other notable roles in the community of Union Grove. Men are in charge, and the book moves, by and large, from one male-dominated scene to another. Women are deferential, quiet and soft-spoken, flutter in and out, and their endowments are duly oggled. Their voices mostly come through shadowy, unreal, unimportant to the scenes where the real action is. This is the world of women as helpmeets, not partners. That, and the huge contrast between the new slate of characters above tells a lot about the author’s agenda and the resentments he may be burdened by and/or caters to.
Mr. Kunstler is not the only doomer to have gone awry, from a woman’s point of view. I watched with dismay last year as the otherwise perspicacious and witty Mr. Orlov unraveled into vindictive misogyny following — gasp! — some criticism from women after his 2013 Age of Limits presentation. To this day he holds grudges, censors women on his blog, and throws poisoned darts. The shocks I sustained by the first World Made by Hand and the Orlov spectacle pushed me to reflect on the reasons many of us lean toward the collapsitarian worldview. The soul-sickness engendered by modernity and the longing to see this increasingly fast-forward horror to end, even to our personal detriment, certainly informs my own life. Perhaps as a consequence, I drink deep and often from the well of nostalgia for bygone days when life made more sense and when the natural world was still relatively whole. But I’ve been forced to conclude that this same nostalgia plays into the hands of bigots of all stripes who want to see their old-fashioned privileges restored. It’s depressing to see Mr. Kunstler come down hard on one kind of bigotry while promoting another.
He has argued that these, er, changes, in the status of women are inevitable, given the logic of post-collapse world. I am not much of a fan of “historical inevitability.” JHK seems unable or unwilling to distinguish between gender-based division of work (much of which does make sense, and is supported by anthropological data), and gender-based power imbalance and domination. He does say, though, that he realizes people don’t give up political gains without a fight. Why then doesn’t he weave that fight into his trilogy? In what way was this massive shift accomplished in less than a generation? And surely it would be remembered and retold by those who survived the aftermath of the Great Unraveling — if anybody listened to the women, that is.
One of the problems addressed in this particular series of events is the threat of waning legal knowledge in the community, and the unlikelihood of replacing the aging former lawyers with new blood fresh from law school. I tried to imagine what this gentlemen’s club that runs Union Grove would have done if a woman lawyer turned up, living in the vicinity. Would they: a) pretend she did not exist, b) try to wink, wink, nudge, nudge her into irrelevance, c) discredit her credentials, or d) tell her, falsely, that her expertise was not needed? Does anyone see an honorable and sane option here?
Is Mr. Kunstler so lacking in imagination that the best he can do is foresee a society run by “good ol’ boys,” a society of masters and servants, squires and farmhands, and women put in their place, as some have suggested? Not likely. My best guess is that his main fan base consists of male doomers, luddite dreamers, anti-modernists, preppers, and prepper wannabes who fantasize about being real players in the post-collapse world, and who — to one extent or another — wear the cloak of gender-relations enlightenment but lightly on their shoulders. If so, then Mr. Kunstler is not likely to change his mind no matter how many people criticize, or how ably, the logic behind the world he created. His income depends on his not understanding.
I won’t be revisiting Union Grove any time soon. I will be looking forward to someone conjuring up a vivid and believable post-collapse world that sings to women as well as to men who are repelled by paternalistic, neo-feudalist reveries. It could make all the difference to the future whose history we are writing with our lives. In any case, with rewilded Senecas already sighted just over the horizon in this particular world made by hand, can it be more than a generation hence when a new Iroquois Confederacy rises and shows the denizens of upstate New York a thing or two about equitable self-governance?