The Unsurprising Disappointment of “Godless”

For a brief moment–actually for one minute, fifty-two seconds–I was excited about the Netflix series Godless. The trailer is a stunner.

A western town run by the women who lost their menfolk in a mining accident. Merritt Wever (from the twitchy Nurse Jackie) and Michelle Dockery (from the British show that everyone but me was so wild about) as complicated, headstrong women who are very handy with weapons. They need to be, because something even worse is about to happen to their town.

 

After watching the trailer, I couldn’t wait until the series dropped so I could find out what happened in that small mining town of La Belle.

Opening the first episode: men. Not a backstory of the husbands, fathers, and brothers who died in the accident, but the real focus of writer and director Scott Frank’s story–the ruthless, deeply flawed, yet somehow still relatable villain Frank Griffin (wonderfully acted by Jeff Daniels) being hunted down by good guy sheriff and grieving widower Bill McNue (wonderfully acted by Scoot McNairy).

Image result for godless netflix

Griffin is in a lather because a member of his posse, Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell, who delivers a fine acting job, too), has gone rogue by going good. Goode doesn’t want to be part of the outlaw gang anymore, but to Griffin it isn’t a gang. It’s family. He took Goode in when he was a little boy and raised him right to rob and kill. Griffin doesn’t want his family broken up, so he tracks down Goode, destroying everything and everyone who gets in his way. McNue tries to minimize the damage and bring Griffin to justice.

So that whole bit about women running their own town–it’s backdrop. It’s window dressing for the story Scott Frank wants to tell. And it’s a tired, tired story.

The deeply flawed bad guy with his own (twisted) version of family. That’s already been done in The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, and Mad Men.* And before that in The Godfather. A version of the good guy sheriff shows up in every western. Yes, McNue is dealing with losing his eyesight as well as grieving for his wife, but John Wayne’s character in The Shootist coped with terminal cancer.

Godless‘s most interesting characters–the women–are glossed over. Wever’s Mary Agnes, once happily married to a man, is now besotted by the town prostitute turned schoolteacher. Two fascinating characters right there; three if you add the German immigrant painter who ran away from her husband and who also spends a lot of time with the schoolteacher.

Image result for godless mary agnes and callie

The intriguing possibilities for Dockery’s Alice Fletcher–twice widowed, living on an isolated ranch with her Native American mother-in-law and her son–get reduced to the standard love interest. Guess where Roy Goode ends up after fleeing Griffin’s gang? Guess who Sheriff McNue secretly loves?

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In the end, I wasn’t surprised that I was disappointed in Godless. Movies and television are still dominated by men. They aren’t interested in telling women’s stories. Even when those stories are right in front of them.**

The unsurprising disappointment of Godless is one reason why more women writers, directors, and producers are needed for movies and television series. Maybe they would see the possibilities.

*Yes, I consider Don Draper a villain. More than anything, I would like to have that entire Mad Men series re-edited to highlight Joan’s and Peggy’s story lines. Now that would be something unique.

**I love westerns, and I’d be up for a second series of Godless if it really was about the women.

 

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Reading History of the Hidden Corners

It’s that time of year for the deluge of “best” book lists.

Image result for piles of booksLitHub photo (2015)

Many of these lists separate fiction and nonfiction. (In a few weeks I’ll be posting my own fiction favorites here.) Smithsonian.com, however, compiles a list of history books! This year it includes a few of the “big men” biographies (Richard Nixon, Ulysses S. Grant, Muhammad Ali) that remain so popular with many readers. But is also includes several that illuminate hidden corners of history.

Marjorie Spruill’s Divided We Stand is about the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston that provoked a counter-conference organized by Phyllis Schlafly. Anyone interested in women’s rights issues should read this book.

Preview thumbnail for 'Divided We Stand: The Battle Over Women's Rights and Family Values That Polarized American Politics

In The Jersey Brothers, Sally Mott Freeman delves into her own family history to tell the story of the Pacific theater in World War II. While there are lots of books about World War II, I think the Pacific is still a neglected area.

Preview thumbnail for 'The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family's Quest to Bring Him Home

And of course, Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann’s gripping tale of the murder of Osage Indians in the 1920s is on many “best” lists, and deservedly so.

Preview thumbnail for 'Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

If you’ve missed these 2017 books, take some time over the holidays to get caught up on your reading. (Hint: put them on your holiday gift wish list and/or buy them as gifts for the favorite people in your life.)

 

 

December 7, 1941

Gladys Slaughter Savary, an American woman living in Manila, the capital city of the Philippine Islands, had not even been to bed when Pearl Harbor was bombed. That Sunday night (Manila is on the other side of the International Dateline), she invited some friends to her Restaurant de Paris for dinner, a celebration of the promotion of a British naval officer she knew. After their meal, they headed over to the Jai Alai Club to watch a match–a “great weakness” of Gladys’s. Then they stopped at a nightclub before moving on to the Manila Hotel for drinks on the pavilion. Gladys and her friends concluded their evening at an all-night gambling den where they played roulette until dawn. When they finally dropped her at home, the newly-promoted British admiral said, “Kids, that’s the last fun we’ll have together for a long, long time.”

Image result for Jai Alai club manila 1930s Jai Alai Club, Manila

It was too late–or too early–for Gladys to go to sleep. As it was, she would have just enough time to shower, change, and eat a bit of breakfast before venturing out to the market to purchase the day’s food for the restaurant. When her servant Nick brought her morning coffee and the newspaper, he said, “Honolulu’s bombed. What’ll we do now?”

Image result for honolulu dec. 7, 1941KCBX-FM photo

Gladys’s first response was as a businesswoman. The restaurant would be busy, she predicted, because people were always hungry. She told Nick they would do their shopping as usual. “War or no war, we have to eat,” Gladys wrote in her diary. “I bought everything in large quantities. Nobody can know what’ll happen.”

During the ensuing days, as bombs fell on Manila and utilities stuttered on and off, Gladys worried about how long she would be able to keep the Restaurant de Paris going. It also did not take her long to realize that other people needed help, and the restaurant came in handy for meeting some of those needs. Gladys fed the American and Filipino soldiers who patrolled her neighborhood. “I haven’t time to do canteen work or roll bandages,” she jotted in her diary on December 16th, “so I have a private canteen for the lads. When they go on duty they get coffee and pastry here, and when they finish duty I hand them out something a bit stronger. Both seem to be appreciated, bless them.”

Image result for manila dec. 8, 1941

The United States was at war with Japan. Gladys Savary and thousands of other Americans were trapped in the Philippines. It was true, no one could know what would happen. For more than three years, Gladys struggled to survive in enemy-occupied territory, risking her own safety and freedom to subvert the Japanese and help those in need.

The rest of her story can be found in Angels of the Underground: The American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II.

 

 

Nonfiction Recommendation: Goat Castle

If you’re a fan of true crime stories, don’t miss this wonderful historical one by Karen Cox, Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Goat Castle

According to the University of North Carolina Press website, the book tells this story:

In 1932, the city of Natchez, Mississippi, reckoned with an unexpected influx of journalists and tourists as the lurid story of a local murder was splashed across headlines nationwide. Two eccentrics, Richard Dana and Octavia Dockery—known in the press as the “Wild Man” and the “Goat Woman”—enlisted an African American man named George Pearls to rob their reclusive neighbor, Jennie Merrill, at her estate. During the attempted robbery, Merrill was shot and killed. The crime drew national coverage when it came to light that Dana and Dockery, the alleged murderers, shared their huge, decaying antebellum mansion with their goats and other livestock, which prompted journalists to call the estate “Goat Castle.” Pearls was killed by an Arkansas policeman in an unrelated incident before he could face trial. However, as was all too typical in the Jim Crow South, the white community demanded “justice,” and an innocent black woman named Emily Burns was ultimately sent to prison for the murder of Merrill. Dana and Dockery not only avoided punishment but also lived to profit from the notoriety of the murder by opening their derelict home to tourists.

Karen’s southern Gothic story has even earned a blurb from John Grisham: “Goat Castle is a highly entertaining story about a long-forgotten murder. It is also a reminder of the racism and intolerance found in southern history and of how difficult change has been. It’s a terrific read.”

Karen stopped by the Nonfiction Fans Facebook discussion group to talk about Goat Castle and her writing process. Take a look there for more fascinating tidbits about the book.

And if you’re already thinking about holiday gift giving, you should put Goat Castle at the top of your book-buying list.