Sunday, March 29, 2009

Nicholas Syrett

Nicholas L. Syrett is an assistant professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and author of the newly released The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Let me say, first off, that I’m flattered to be asked what I’m reading in such a forum, in part because I think of myself most of the time as a historian and professor and not so much as a writer, so it’s nice to be included in the ranks of the writers. More than any of the three, however – and for a much longer time – I have been a reader, and I love to talk about books.

A good friend of mine, the writer Malena Watrous – whose first novel, If You Follow Me, comes out next winter, and who would love to answer the very question you’ve just asked me, because we ask each other this very question every time we speak – was just filling out a questionnaire about her favorite books for the back pages of her book and posed all the same questions to me. It was daunting. Your question – what I am reading now, as opposed to what my favorite books of all time happen to be – comes with significantly less pressure. And after that long-winded introduction, let me answer it:

David Ebershoff’s The 19th Wife combines a fictionalized memoir of Ann Eliza Young, Brigham Young’s infamous nineteenth wife (who herself wrote such a memoir called Wife #19) with the story of a gay teenager expelled from his polygamous Mormon off-shoot community who finds out that his mother (herself a nineteenth wife) is accused of murdering his father. I started out being more intrigued by the contemporary plot line and ended up switching my preference. Regardless, I read all 500 pages in 48 hours. It was addictive. Ebershoff is adept at moving back and forth between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries; his research on women, gender, marriage, and Mormons is great; and he writes about faith and Mormonism in ways that are sympathetic, questioning, but never condemning. I’ve already leant it two people, given it to one, and recommended it to many others.

I assigned Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and in Freedom for a class I’m teaching on the history of slavery in America and just finished it. It is the story of Shoe Boots, a Cherokee warrior, who, in the late eighteenth century, bought a slave named Doll. Shoe Boots and Doll had five children and lived together as husband and wife; Ties That Bind recounts the complicated lives that Doll and her children led in slavery and in freedom. More than that, however, it is the story of the many Afro-Cherokees born of such unions as a result of Cherokee slaveholding, their lives before and after removal to Indian Territory, and their ambiguous place in the Cherokee Nation. Starting with limited sources, Miles successfully uses what she is able to find about Shoe Boots, Doll, and their children to present a narrative that is both about them and about many others like them: micro-history at its best.

Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell), The Birthday Present. Ruth Rendell, whether publishing under her own name or as Barbara Vine, can do no wrong. Period. The Vine novels, like this one, tend to be less murder mysteries and more what publishers call “psychological thrillers.” In Vine’s case this means that the reader generally knows who the murderer is at the outset or there is no murder at all, but rather an accident, a suicide, or a long-hidden secret. Vine then takes the reader on a journey to see how her characters’ actions have led to the horror. What I love about Rendell is not just that her stories are meticulously plotted, or that her characters are perfectly detailed (and sometimes ridiculously funny), or that her observations about life and human beings are so spot-on, though all of these things are also true, but that she is brilliant at describing just how mundane, how everyday, how banal real wickedness can be. She makes evil identifiable as human in ways I rarely encounter in novels. And that’s because she is not a “mystery novelist” or a “crime novelist,” she’s just a fantastic (and remarkably prolific) novelist.

I have just begun Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. I have read her earlier work, Relations of Rescue, and her essay on miscegenation court cases and the making of race, published in the Journal of American History in 1996, is standard reading in women’s and gender (and African-American) history reading lists. This book looks at miscegenation law from the Civil War through the twentieth century and explores not just black-white marriages but also prohibitions against intermarriage between whites and Asians and Native Americans. She makes the case that miscegenation law was crucial to the establishment and maintenance of white supremacy. I like that she – with a host of others of late – have been using marriage as a lens to look at other issues, taking marriage seriously as not just the union of two people who (might) love each other, but as a tool of social control and disenfranchisement.
Read more about The Company He Keeps.

Learn more about Nicholas Syrett's teaching and scholarship at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue