Walk on Earth a Stranger: Stranger in a Good Way

My library offers a summer reading program, with different incentives for each age group. This was my brother’s first year in the teen group, where, after reading four books, he could select one book from the library’s prize stash to keep. And this year (now that I’m finally in the adult group and can no longer pick a book) they had ARCs on the shelves. And one of the ARCs was Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, one of my favorite authors. I begged my brother to pick that book for me. Like a loving little sibling, he did.

And like a true little brother, he wouldn’t let me touch it, holding it just out of reach at all times.

He finally gave it to me last Sunday for my birthday, and, naturally, I read it soon after.

That was probably the longest backstory for a book review, but it had to be told. In any case, here are my thoughts on the YA novel.


Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: This book is very different from Carson’s Fire and Thorns series. That’s not a bad thing; it just took me a few chapters to adjust to Carson using words like “blast” and “witchy.” The novel takes place during the California Gold Rush. The protagonist, 15-year-old Leah Westfall, calls herself “witchy” because she can sense gold around her. In the time of the California Gold Rush, this is an incredibly useful talent. It should be no surprise, then, that anyone who finds out about her powers would want to use them for their own gain. So when someone takes everything away from her and attempts to control her, Leah dresses like a man and runs off to California on her own. As anyone who’s played Oregon Trail knows, Leah encounters quite a few setbacks on her journey.

One of the things I loved about the Fire and Thorns series was the unusual protagonist. While Leah Westfall is by no means usual for her time (what kind of girl can hunt and muck the stables in 1849?), she is a familiar character. The situation and fantastical elements Carson surrounds Leah in, though, are new and intriguing. No book about Western America in the 1800s has interested me as much as this one. In fact, I can’t say I’ve heard of many books at all on the subject, and certainly not any YA novels. Walk on Earth a Stranger is one of a kind in its setting and audience.

Leah may be a familiar character, but the rest of the cast are not. Jefferson, Leah’s friend from home who sets off for California shortly before her, is unpopular at school because his mother is Native American. His father is an abusive alcoholic. The Joyner family, whom Leah works for on much of the journey, is the mid-1800s version of a “white picket fence” family, but each member of the family (except Olive, who remains out of the spotlight) becomes increasingly complex as the book progresses. Reverend Lowrey is an obnoxiously religious Presbyterian pastor. The Illinois College Men are “confirmed bachelors.” The Hoffmans are German immigrants. James Boisclair is a wealthy, free African American.

The plot is a little slow, but I imagine that fits the time well. The trip to California was not a fast one. Still, the novel is indisputably faster than another book about Southerners moving to California in hope of finding wealth. Regardless of the pacing, I consider this book a page-turner.

The fantastical element of the story–Leah’s “gold-witching”–is not as central to the story as I expected. It set the plot in motion, but it doesn’t play as large a role as Elisa’s magic in Girl of Fire and Thorns. Leah’s talent does help her find others several times in the story, but I think there could be a bigger buildup of tension to her secret being revealed. My favorite kind of plot is one in which the main character keeps a secret from everyone else for so long, the reader might melt if they don’t reveal the secret soon. That might be an exaggeration, but I didn’t feel anything close to melting when Leah reveals her secret to one of the main characters. I’m glad the focus remains on history rather than fantasy, though, as I was able to learn much about the time and setting through this novel.

Recommendation: I can’t think of a way to recommend this book other than to say who might not enjoy it.

I don’t think everyone who loved Girl of Fire and Thorns will love this book. It’s for a different audience, certainly.

I also don’t believe super conservative families will enjoy the book’s take on religion. Though, truthfully, I’m from a more conservative background and I find the novel honest in this aspect. In a time where much of the church encouraged slavery and white male supremacy, I find Leah’s attitude toward Christianity completely understandable.

I also wouldn’t say this book is just for people who love the old west; Carson does well explaining the setting in an interesting way, so people unfamiliar with the historical context might enjoy it, too.

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Focus on the Lyrics Friday: Over the Love

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

Today marks the 90th anniversary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To celebrate, today’s song is Florence + The Machine’s “Over the Love” from the 2013 film adaptation. The song plays softly for a short time during (surprise, surprise) a party scene. Outside the movie, though, the song is much more powerful and the lyrics shine like the green light.


Lyrics

Ever since I was a child,
I’ve turned it over in my mind.
I sang by that piano, tore my yellow dress and,
Cried and cried and cried.

And I don’t wanna see what I’ve seen,
To undo what has been done.
Turn off all the lights,
Let the morning come.

Now there’s green light in my eyes,
And my lover on my mind.
And I’ll sing from the piano, tear my yellow dress and,
Cry and cry and cry,
Over the love of you.

On this champagne, drunken hope,
Against the current, all alone,
Everybody, see, I love him.

‘Cause it’s a feeling that you get,
When the afternoon is set,
On a bridge into the city.

And I don’t wanna see what I’ve seen,
To undo what has been done.
Turn off all the lights,
Let the morning come.

Now there’s green light in my eyes,
And my lover on my mind.
And I’ll sing from the piano, tear my yellow dress and,
Cry and cry and cry.

‘Cause you’re a hard soul to save,
With an ocean in the way,
But I’ll get around it,
I’ll get around it.

‘Cause you’re a hard soul to save,
With an ocean in the way,
But I’ll get around it.

Now there’s green light in my eyes,
And my lover on my mind.
And I’ll sing from that piano, tear my yellow dress and,
Cry and cry and cry and,
Over the love of you.

Cry and cry and cry and,
Over the love of you.

Cry and cry and cry and,
(I can see the green light),
(I can see it in your eyes).

[The song goes on to repeat variations of these last lines for a while and it’s beautiful.]

Analysis

“Over the Love” is from Daisy Buchanan’s perspective. There will be many references to Gatsby in this post, so if you’re not familiar with the story and don’t want it spoiled, I suggest leaving the page here. It’s been over a year since I’ve read the story, so if I get anything wrong, please correct me.

1) “Ever since I was a child, / I’ve turned it over in my mind. / I sang by that piano, tore my yellow dress and, / Cried and cried and cried.”

When Daisy was younger, she and Gatsby were lovers. I believe the “it” which she’s turned over in her mind is “the love” referenced in the title. Two girls in yellow dresses attend Gatsby’s first party, which is (if I remember correctly) when this song is played in the film. I think the reference to a yellow dress does more than just pay homage to the unnamed characters; rather, I believe it’s a nod to the symbolism of the color yellow. Throughout the book, yellow represents false wealth, as it is a fake gold. In tearing her yellow dress in this song, Daisy tears herself away from false wealth (which I feel represents Gatsby, the personification of new money). This would also explain why she cries.

2) “And I don’t wanna see what I’ve seen, / To undo what has been done. / Turn off all the lights, / Let the morning come.”

The speaker wishes she could “undo” something, though it is unclear whether she means she wishes she didn’t have a history with Gatsby or she wishes she hadn’t married. Personally, I think it’s the latter. The concept of turning off all the lights and letting the morning come is reminiscent of new beginnings. In essence, the singer wishes she could start over.

3) “Now there’s green light in my eyes, / And my lover on my mind. / And I’ll sing from the piano, tear my yellow dress and, / Cry and cry and cry, / Over the love of you.”

The “green light” is the light of Daisy’s house Gatsby sees from his backyard. The light symbolizes Gatsby’s hopes and dreams, particularly in association with Daisy and “green,” or money. It is the one thing in the darkness he reaches towards. On a broader level, the green light represents the American dream. Since I interpret the song from Daisy’s perspective, the “green light in my eyes” shows she sees the same dream Gatsby does, but the light seems to blind her rather than illuminate the world around her. Gatsby is also the “lover” of whom she thinks. The singer also reveals here that she’s crying “over the love of you.” This could be interpreted two ways; either Daisy cries to get over her love of Gatsby or she cries for her love of Gatsby. Knowing Daisy, I tend to agree with the first.

4) “On this champagne, drunken hope, / Against the current, all alone, / Everybody, see, I love him.”

Despite taking place during the prohibition, alcohol played a prominent role in the 1920s. I interpret this to mean the speaker only has hope when drunk. It’s hopeless to think she could be with Gatsby. The individual who fights “the current, all alone” is not named. It could be Gatsby, fighting the realists for a taste of illusion. It could also be Daisy, unsure of what exactly she wants, isolated by her situation. I think it’s interesting that someone could feel “all alone” in an atmosphere filled with elaborate parties, but that’s really how the novel paints Gatsby–isolated, even when surrounded. The “him” the speaker says she loves could either be a sarcastic comment about her husband or a genuine comment about Gatsby. I think that she would say “you” if she meant Gatsby, but I could be wrong. All in all, this passage is fairly ambiguous.

5) “‘Cause it’s a feeling that you get, / When the afternoon is set, / On a bridge into the city.”

Again, I think the “it” refers to love. Love is a feeling you get in the evening on a bridge into the city. The bridge mentioned is the Queensboro Bridge, which connects New York City to Manhattan. At one point, the novel actually remarks, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.” I think these lines refer to that quote.

6) “‘Cause you’re a hard soul to save, / With an ocean in the way, / But I’ll get around it, / I’ll get around it.”

I believe the “you” refers to Gatsby again. Gatsby’s “soul” is buried deep in his fantasies of what could be. The “ocean in the way” refers to both the literal body of water separating the east and west eggs of Manhattan and the metaphorical obstacle of living in reality versus living in an illusion. It could also be a reference to the obstacle of Daisy’s marriage. She says she’ll find away “around” this obstacle, but we know by the end that she doesn’t.

7) “I can see the green light, / I can see it in your eyes.”

Not only does the Daisy of this song “see the green light,” but she sees it reflected “in your [Gatsby’s] eyes.” She recognizes how set Gatsby is on achieving his dream and how she responds to that is unresolved by the end of the song.

Overall, I think this song is about more than just Daisy’s perspective in The Great Gatsby. It’s about the tragedy of hoping when it’s hopeless. It’s about a love that part of you knows will never come into fruition. It’s about the green light and the yellow dress and everything that’s fake, everything that deceives us. It’s a raw, hauntingly beautiful song–as hauntingly beautiful as the book itself.

Focus on the Lyrics Friday: Gold

Much as I dislike repeating artists for this column (with the exception of Bastille), it must be done. Imagine Dragons released their new CD, Smoke + Mirrors, Tuesday, February 17. Like everything else they touch, it’s musical gold.

One of my favorite tracks from the album is “Gold,” which in addition to sounding completely unlike anything else I’ve heard (a mix of gospel, whistles, a strange hiccuping noise, and rock) has some interesting lyrics.


Lyrics

First comes the blessing of all that you’ve dreamed,
But then comes the curses of diamonds and rings.
Only at first did it have its appeal, but now you can’t tell the false from the real.
Who can you trust
(Who can you trust)

When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold, gold.
When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold

Statues and empires are all at your hands,
Water to wine and the finest of sands.
When all that you have’s turning stale and its cold,
Oh you’ll no longer fear when your heart’s turned to gold.
Who can you trust
(Who can you trust)

When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold, gold.
When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold

I’m dying to feel again,
Oh anything at all,
But oh I feel nothin’, nothin’, nothin’, nothin’

When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold, gold.
When everything, everything, everything you touch turns to gold, gold

Analysis

At it’s core, the song is based on the Greek myth of King Midas, who wished for the power to turn what he touched into gold. Midas’ wish turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing, since he accidentally turned his food and his daughter into gold.

In the song, Imagine Dragons uses this myth to build on the idea of fame and the wealth that comes with it.

1) “First comes the blessing of all that you’ve dreamed, / But then comes the curses of diamonds and rings. / Only at first did it have its appeal, but now you can’t tell the false from the real. / Who can you trust (Who can you trust)”

In Midas’ case, the “blessing of all that [he’s] dreamed” is his wish to turn what he touches into gold, which only appealed “at first.” In the real-world application, many “dream” of being blessed with fame and wealth. Imagine Dragons, now at a position of fame and fortune, attest that the “diamonds and rings” become “curses” in the same way Midas’ ability became a curse, separating him from those he loved. Fame and fortune may have “appeal” at first, but once achieved, it’s hard to distinguish those who are genuine from those who are “false,” leaving the famous struggling to figure out who to “trust.”

2) “Statues and empires are all at your hands, / Water to wine and the finest of sands. / When all that you have’s turning stale and its cold, / Oh you’ll no longer fear when your heart’s turned to gold. / Who can you trust (Who can you trust)”

Statues, empires, water, wine, sands–all that’s listed here seems desirable, but none of it involves a personal relationship, which is what Midas really wanted in the end (at least, he wanted to restore his relationship with his daughter–we’ll generalize it for the song’s sake). Statues are just echos of things that live. Having “empires…at your hands” implies a position of glory, but what’s the point of holding power over so many people if your position depends on people seeing you as superior and untouchable? Turning “water to wine” is a biblical allusion to Jesus’ first miracle during his ministry in which he turned water into wine at a wedding. It’s a powerful allusion for this song because it parallels Midas’ ability to turn what he touches into gold. The line could also be interpreted as having everything from “water to wine,” which would fit into the list of desirable things that don’t involve personal relationships. “The finest of sands” could symbolize having lots of time, since sand measures time in hourglasses and having lots of time isn’t much good if you don’t have someone to spend it with.

The lyrics go on to say when all these material items turn “stale” (when you no longer take pleasure in them) and when “it’s cold” (when you feel like you’ve reached your end), you’ll welcome the transformation of your heart into gold. I can see why people may interpret this transformation as an individual accepting this infectious need for materialism and giving in to the worldly people around him, but I don’t think that fits the rest of the song. Rather, I think the transformation of the heart into gold signifies the heart becoming hollow and the individual becoming numb to his own emotions.

3) “I’m dying to feel again, / Oh anything at all, / But oh I feel nothin’, nothin’, nothin’, nothin'”

These lines fit the idea that the transformation of the heart into gold symbolizes the individual’s numbness to his own emotions. Also, the phrase “dying to feel” is ironic in a fairly depressing way.

I almost didn’t include these last lines for close reading, since I didn’t think they presented anything new, but then I noticed the switch of pronouns. Where the rest of the song talks about “you” being cursed with fame and fortune, these lines use the pronoun “I.” And BOOM–just like that Imagine Dragons makes their song a million times more personal. Now I understand the raw, cacophonous sound of the instruments and vocals as a complement to the speaker’s own discontent.

I don’t like all the songs on Imagine Dragons’ new album, but I must give them credit where credit is due–the band managed to create a completely new sound in many of their tracks, and their lyrics extend beyond the usual simply expressed subject matter of other artists. I also love their collaboration with surrealist artist Tim Cantor; artists should support other artists more often, regardless of field or genre.

All things Imagine Dragon aside, I’m happy to announce I’ve already decided which song to analyze next week! Here’s a BIG hint: Disney will release “Big Hero 6” for home video next Tuesday and I adore one of the songs from the film’s soundtrack.