Wednesday, 19 March 2014

And miles to go before I sleep - Review of Almost Heaven: Travels thought the Backwoods of America

I have been travelling across North America for the past month or so - down around the South and then up and out to the West.

Well. Imaginatively speaking I have. I've been reading Almost Heaven: Travels through the Backwoods of America by journalist Martin Fletcher.

As a child I was fascinated by the USA and absolutely desperate to live there.  I stumbled across some stories a while ago that I'd written in Primary School which I'd set in the States.  Upon re-reading them I found had no idea where the places I named actually were. To be honest I assumed I'd made them up but some quick googling showed my childhood geography of the USA to be accurate, if not a little obscure.

As an adult I've travelled to North America a few times. Despite fears that my childhood crush may have been misplaced my visits have never been anything but awesome and awe-inspiring.  Right now I'm too poor and too busy with my studies to even contemplate making any transatlantic journeys so a bit of armchair travelling with Fletcher seemed like a reasonable substitute.

As the title suggests Fletcher is captivated by the more obscure and geographically remote places in the US.  He tells of Appalachian snake handlers who believe they live or die in their handling of venomous snakes by the will of god; he hangs out with a Cajun fur trapper and visits an alligator farm in Louisiana.  He goes to Texarkana - a town that straddles the Texas-Arkansas border and therefore, amusingly, has to have two of everything - two mayors, two councils, two police forces, two fire services, two court systems...

He tells of American communities that I'd never heard of before such as the Gullahs in South Carolina - descendants of freed slaves who bought land just after the Civil War and are still singing songs that can be traced back to a village in Sierra Leone. He meets Melungeons, a community of people who may be descended from original 16th century Portuguese settlers and visits towns like Muenster in Texas where German is still the first language for many of the older inhabitants.

I think for any traveller there is a sense that once you've been to a place a part of you belongs to it; you have a sense of connection that comes from having walked the roads and spent time with the people there. I know this is how I feel about the USA and in some senses I guess I looked to the book to confirm my belief about the America I have experienced and loved.

And Fletcher doesn't disappoint.  He tells tales of America and Americans that I recognise, of people and places that are impressive in their ingenuity and their eccentricity.  He does not however refrain from also showing the less flattering side of American society.

Threaded throughout the book is commentary and discussion about racism. Fletcher visits 'The World's Only Ku Klux Klan museum' and 'Redneck Shop' in South Carolina. He finds that Greene County in Alabama is 'in practical terms, as segregated now as it was in the 1950s. Blacks and whites live side by side but seldom mix.'  He meets Clarence Bradley who was wrongfully arrested and tried for the rape of a white girl in 1980. Fletcher describes the affair as the closest thing to a 'legal lynching' and believes it 'reveals the darkness that still lurks behind the peaceful and pleasant facades of some small American towns'.

Fletcher ends his journey near as damn-it in Idaho which is the childhood home of one of my very best friends and a place I've visited on a couple of occasions.  I saved the chapter because I wanted to savour going back there in my mind. The Idaho I am most familiar with, that I would most call home-from-home is a place of hippies and off-griders, people who are independent spirits and Fletcher does deliver some of that in this chapter.

However what I always forget about Idaho is that it is also home to the Church of Jesus Christ Christian and its political arm the Aryan Nations.  This penultimate chapter then was not necessarily the comforting read I was hoping for.

Fletcher undertook his journey in 1997 which is on the one hand a long time ago.  Recently we've been reminded in the UK of the institutional racism inherent in our police system that was uncovered by the Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993.  But I can remember 1997.  I can remember 1993. It all seems too recent for such out-dated and out-moded views to have persisted even then.

As perhaps all great journeys tend to do, Almost Heaven challenged my view of a place that I am fond of and feel connected to and reminded me that none of us, wherever we are in the world, can rest easy in the belief that bigotry is a thing of the past. Whilst at times the roads we travel may feel almost heaven, the truth is that we are, sadly, still very far from any kind of equitable Eden.

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