Welcome to the sixth installment of our ongoing American Gods Reread, a rambling literary road trip through Neil Gaiman’s Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning novel (soon to be an HBO series). Each week we’ll be following the adventures and misadventures of Shadow Moon and his employer, the enigmatic Mr. Wednesday, through a landscape both familiar and deeply strange. Please be aware that there will be spoilers in the post and comments.
This week, a road trip in a Winnebago takes an odd turn, and Shadow navigates a series of surprise reunions with women from his past...for the most part, they don't go very well. Plus, an episode of Cheers turns deadly....
Part Two: My Ainsel; Chapter 12:
Hurtling through the Badlands in a used Winnebago, Shadow and Wednesday find themselves hounded by the opposition, led by Mister Town. Forced to go “behind the scenes” in order to escape, Shadow finds himself being led through reality’s bizarre backstage area, bypassing the spook show and surfacing at a nearby Lakota reservation. Whiskey Jack and John Chapman turn Wednesday down, but have some advice for Shadow. Suddenly finding himself in the midst of February doldrums, Shadow hangs around Lakeside and accompanies Wednesday on visits to various deities in different parts of the country (with varying levels of success). Laura shows up in Lakeside with some harsh truths for her husband. Interlude 1: A war has already begun, raging unseen as minor deities fall, one by one; Bilquis falls prey to the Technical Boy. Interlude 2: Margie Olsen calls up her half-sister Sammy, who decides to come for a visit. Interlude 3: Laura applies for a job.
I’ve always found the behind-the-scenes adventure one of the more memorable parts of the novel, but I also don’t have much of a read on it, admittedly: I’ve always wondered what the bones and the flames signify, for instance. Touching one of the bones lands Shadow in Mister Town’s mind, so are humans represented by bones, or are the bones just a portal to the nearest human…? If anyone has a theory about how backstage works, I’m all ears.
Also, why can’t Mr. World pull strings to get access to the Reservation? Wednesday doesn’t seem to have a problem just waltzing onto Lakota land, but the opposition doesn’t have an in? Or is possible that Mr. World chooses not to pursue, as part of the larger conspiracy?
I’ll admit that I’d never encountered Wisakedjak before reading this book, and still don’t know as much about him as I’d like. I know that he’s a trickster god, sacred to the Cree and other Algonquin tribes, but he while he seems to be identified with the fox in this chapter (by his own story and by Harry Bluejay), that doesn’t seem to be part of his usual legend. The Lakota woman who gives our protagonists a ride mentions that she knows Whiskey Jack as Inktomi, also a trickster god. Interestingly, Inktomi was a spider god, similar to Anansi, known for defeating much larger adverseries through his wit and cunning….
Apple Johnny, or Johnny Appleseed, I know a little better: a Massachusetts–born pioneer and Swedenborgian missionary, Chapman became a legend in his own time before he died in 1845. The historical Chapman was certainly well-regarded by the Native Americans he came into contact with, welcomed by tribes that were generally considered hostile to white settlers. He admired their way of life, and was regarded as being touched by the sacred, so that part of the characterization here rings true. I’m not so sure about the mentions of Chapman’s Choctaw wife, since the real life Chapman never married and seemed to have some issues with women in general.
The reference to Chapman going “a mite crazy” after his wife’s death, which Wednesday echoes later seems oddly specific. It made me think of the mountain man Liver-Eating Johnson, who went a mite homicidal after his wife, a Native American, was killed by the Crow. Johnson went on a 12-year murderous vendetta against the Crow, eating the liver of each man he killed, events which were later adapted into the film Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford. Not that I think Gaiman meant for the two to be linked, but the wife (and the thus the craziness that followed her death) just don’t seem to fit any of the accounts I’ve ever read or heard of Johnny Appleseed, even though these references seem intended to link him to Shadow, who also recently lost his wife. Curious….
In any case, Gaiman seems to be having a good time with the character, from his hatred of Paul Bunyan to the fact that he tried getting the reservation’s Catholic priest to read Swedenborg, to his penchant for modern whole food stores. I also liked the fact that Harry Bluejay grabs a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land out of his car, since Heinlein also wrote Farmer in the Sky, of course, which features a character named Johnny Appleseed.
More importantly, the connection that Shadow makes with Whiskey Jack helps lend credence to the theory that Shadow is connected to the Native American tradition as well as to the Old Gods. He knows about the thunderbirds as well as the buffalo man, and tells Shadow, “When you find your tribe, come back and see me.” (312).
As for the rest of the chapter, I’ve already mentioned Laura’s conversation with Shadow, and the sense that he’s not really living, but merely existing, going along with the flow, moved about by larger forces. It’s interesting that she tells him that this sense preceded her death – up to this point, it’s possible to chalk his passivity up to trauma and emotional numbness over her death (or her betrayal), but Laura makes it clear that Shadow has always seemed to her like a “big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world”
In terms of the gods Shadow and Wednesday visit during February, I know that people have theorized that the woman in Rhode Island who won’t let her face be seen is a Gorgon, which makes a certain amount of sense if the contents of her fridge are meant to feed the snakes writhing around on her head, I guess? The tattooed woman at the club in Seattle could possibly be one of Morrigan, one of whom shows up later on Lookout Mountain. I have no idea who the Albanians in Dallas are supposed to represent, but the five Japanese women in boulder are most likely (almost definitely) kitsune, fox spirits (which also feature in The Sandman: The Dream Hunters).
While we’re on the topic of mystery gods, I’m not clear on the identity or import of some of the casualties of the divine Cold War described in the beginning of Interlude #1. Salim, Terry the Troll, even the nine anchorites mentioned seem self-explanatory, but the trucker in Denver, the lobster tank in Atlanta, the crypt in Key West, and the UPS truck in Idaho don’t have any specific resonance for me. I mean...why a lobster tank?!
Finally, I’m always sorry to see Bilquis go, especially to such a violent, sordid end. In previous readings I’d never noted the detail that she’d recently started navigating the internet, placing personal ads on adult websites. I’m assuming this is what brings the Technical Boy to her street corner, with his rehearsed lines and psychotic theatricality. There’s something especially disturbing (yet poetic) about her last moments alone, whispering the Song of Songs to herself, reflecting back on a time when sex was treated as something sacred – contrasted with the Technical Boy’s off-key butchering of Madonna lyrics, but more on that this week’s Mix Tape post.
The first glimpse of backstage always makes me think of Haleakala on the island of Maui. That volcanic rock really is dangerous – I had an arrowhead made of obsidian as a kid that my parents were always very wary to let me play with:
Paul Bunyan. It's weird because last week, not thinking of how he was mentioned in the book, I turned to someone and said, “What the heck did Paul Bunyan even do?” And she said, “Um, he was really big. And he had that blue ox.” I went to a mini-golf course once in the midwest that had a giant papermaché likeness of Paul and Babe. It's sort of a shame that it didn't make it into this book because it sounds exactly like the sort of place Wednesday might like to go for some father-son bonding. Of course, it's not entirely true that Bunyan was an ad invention, but the logging ads were what made the character popular and created most of the elements people associate with the figure, such as Babe. Not sure that Johnny Appleseed can talk, considering that most kids these days know him through the Disney cartoon.
Is it possible that Wednesday's ability to get to Lakota land is maybe because he is welcome there initially? (Everyone claims Wednesday is welcome nowhere, but we've yet to run into anyone who won't at least hear him out before turning him away.) I do wonder, though, if maybe the jurisdiction has something to do with how pervasive the new gods can be on land so old, land that does not seem to have moved with the times; even the woman who drives Shadow, Johnny and Wednesday to see Harry Bluejay makes the comment that the roads are not kept, that the area does not get any money from casinos the way they might down south. So nevermind technology, it doesn't look like the gods of credit cards or freeways have much sway there either.
If the complaint to be made about Shadow's character is his passiveness, then the section with Laura seems like an effort to address that. But what exactly are we meant to take from it? Is Shadow, being half a god (and perhaps half something else), incapable of experiencing the world the way other humans do without the benefit of some kind of trial, a forging of some sort? It's funny that we hear this from Laura now, as I would indentify this chapter as the place where Shadow's personality seems to peek through more than it ever has before; he states his opinions frequently, he tells the truth about how he feels, he is becoming more and more present. Could this whole novel about a fight between old and new gods, and American legacy, truly be one long opening myth: The Creation of Shadow Moon? As the main character, he pieces himself together so slowly, has to be birthed by the earth and taught by gods. Perhaps that is really what we're witnessing, and the backdrop of war is meant to move us far less than Shadow's personal discovery of who he is.
I was waiting for this bit in the interlude – we find out that Salim is killed in the first gasps of the war. It doesn't seem likely to me that he was intentionally left to his death—the jinn's motivation to return to his homeland looks like the guiding factor in his departure—but my real question is about the nature of their exchange. Was exchanging their identities an actual exchange, something identifiable that makes the other gods believe that Salim actually is a jinn now? If that is possible, then can people become gods? I wonder about this universe's rules for that sort of thing because there are myths of people who do exactly that, and also rulers who believed that they were mortal incarnations of gods. So was Akhenaten truly the sun god in human form and so forth? We hear directly afterward that Sheba was a living god at some point, so... maybe.
Also, are we certain that all of the gods being killed during this passage are old gods? I would love it if smashing the seafood tank was an attempt to kill the god of Fine Dining, or something. The UPS driver could be the god of Snail Mail, which at the time this book was written could have still been a new(er) god, since email hadn't quite taken over in the capacity it has today. I mean, he was killed by an Amtrak train... would trains be new or old god set? I honestly can't decide. They're still around, sure, but they're without a doubt one of the worst ways to travel the country now. No more lovely dining and sleep cars.
The comment that Technical Kid makes after murdering Bilquis is interesting, perhaps even more so these days: “You fucking madonnas. All you fucking madonnas.” Of course, he is referring to Madonna the pop star whose lyrics he is mangling, but also madonnas in the religious sense. When you take a look at Silicon Valley and the recent “brogramming” phase it has entered, the desire to keep the software development and coding side of technology purely male, it should perhaps come as no surprise that the god of Technology has zero respect for madonnas, or the female aspects of belief.
Part Two: My Ainsel; Chapter 13:
An invitation to dinner at Marguerite Olsen’s results in Shadow reuniting with Sam Black Crow, but a trip to the local pub ends in a less pleasant run-in with a hysterical Audrey Burton. Taken into custody and booked for violating his parole, Shadow is contacted by the opposition as an episode of Cheers turns into a snuff film. He watches Wednesday’s assassination, helpless, before being bailed out by Nancy and Czernobog. Interlude: Coming to America, 14,000 B.C.; Atsula the one-armed Siberian shaman helps to save her people from disaster, but is punished for her faithlessness.
Okay, a brief word about “kissing cousins” – I’m not sure why Gaiman felt the need to make Chad Mulligan and Audrey Burton related, but I’ve always found it a little bit weird that Mabel (and presumable the rest of Lakewood) finds their relationship to be closer to “adorable” than “creepy.” I’m distantly related to plenty of lovely people, but would I ever think about dating any of them? Absolutely not. I’d like to cast the net a little (read: A LOT) further out in the gene pool. The whole kissing cousins thing just seems really, really outdated to me. End rant.
As in the last chapter, Wednesday seems particularly depressed in his conversation with Shadow. As usual, we’re forced to question whether it’s an act, or if he’s genuinely worn out and miserable. Presumably, he knows what will happen to him in a few hours in Kansas City, so it’s possible that he’s trying to bind Shadow more closely to him by eliciting pity, setting the stage for Shadow to agree to hold his vigil. Or perhaps he’s genuinely just exhausted and feeling forgotten. His comments about Thor seem genuine enough, as much as I dislike Gaiman’s version of his fate. (Philadelphia’s my hometown, and while I wasn’t around in 1932, it can’t have been that bad! Now I can only think of Thor as the anti-W.C. Fields).
When Shadow finally makes it over to Marguerite’s, Leon is watching another video, and—as with the earlier peek at Disney’s Hercules—I have to wonder whether the clip of The Wizard of Oz described is a coincidence or just a clever bit of meta-commentary on Gaiman’s part. Dorothy, we’re told, is still in Kansas, and a page earlier, we learned that Wednesday is meeting the opposition in Kansas City (which Kansas City isn’t specified, but after his death, Czernobog, Nancy and Shadow also head to Kansas to pick up his body, so it’s a good bet that the connection is intentional). Professor Marvel is described as an “old fraud” (which is exactly how Easter greeted Wednesday in Chapter 13), and the parallels here resonate: Professor Marvel is a kindly fraud who pretends to read Dorothy’s mind, but he also appears later as Oz the Great and Powerful…until the curtain is drawn back and reveals that the Wizard is really just the man pulling the strings behind the scenes, much like Odin/Wednesday, with his multiple, complex cons. In the meantime, Dorothy is about to be swept up by “the twister-wind that would tear her away from her life.” The coming storm…sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Moving on to Sam Black Crow’s recitation of beliefs, which has come up at several points already (in terms of Sam’s connection to Atsula, the one-armed Siberian shaman, and her belief in the Beatles and Elvis and other pop culture deities). It’s such a great passage, obviously, and one of the high points of the novel, but what struck me most this time were Sam’s references to aliens and extraterrestrial life, stars older than the universe itself, and her statement that “mankind’s destiny lies in the stars.” And once Shadow has confessed his current situation, she replies that it’s easier to believe in aliens than in gods (350). Is it possible that this all ties back somehow into the star people, falling to earth, potential ancestors for both Sam and Shadow? I wonder if Sam, with her unusual capacity for belief, has unconsciously tapped into a vein of esoteric or ancient knowledge, a sense that there are answers that lie in the stars themselves? Or does that just sound crazy…?
I wonder how much we’re supposed to read into the fact that Wednesday is assassinated in a Masonic hall? I’m not familiar enough with Freemasonry to give an in-depth interpretation, but I do know that the Masons trace their origins back to the story of Hiram the Builder, who was assassinated while building the Temple of Solomon. Apparently, Hiram is often linked to Baldur, who serves as an equivalent in Norse mythology, and Odin’s grief at his loss is seen as identical to that of Solomon. I’ve also read about competition, historically, between “Antient” and “Modern” lodges, so that might play into the choice of meeting place between the Old and New gods. In a more obvious sense, what better place for a clandestine meeting between mysterious and powerful forces?
I’m also curious about Wednesday’s code name, “Mister Cargo”…by definition, “cargo” smacks of money and exchange, something transported in order to make a profit. Is it a bleak joke, playing off of the eventual transfer of his corpse, as a means of bringing the war to a boil? Once Wednesday becomes actual cargo, he and Loki are one step closer to their aim – not commercial gain, but the power that comes from death and chaos, on which they feed. Or maybe not – any other ideas?
Finally, with the interlude featuring Atsula, we get a glimpse of America before even the Buffalo Man, as she and the other tribal leaders channel their mammoth god, Nunyunnini, in order to decide the future of their people. I’m assuming that the disaster they escape from (blinding bright light, deafening noise in the west) was a volcanic event, and that the tribe migrates across Beringia before settling in their new eastern land – I think that matches up with the events described in the book, at least.
The most interesting detail about this Paleolithic vignette is Atsula’s epiphany/blasphemy: “Gods are great…but the heart is greater. For it is from our hearts they come, and to our hearts they shall return.” (370). In a way, this concept sums up the entire novel, and yet it’s not the whole story…as Sam (who may well be the distant reincarnation of Atsula’s spirit) suggests, belief (in the irrational, the untrue, the absurd) serves a purpose of its own.
I love that once it's clear to Wednesday that Shadow has accepted the situation exactly as it is, that Shadow understands that he's dealing with gods in an entirely literal sense, he changes his language with him completely. Where he had spent the first few hundreds pages telling Shadow that it was best not to think of these things, now it's all “herding gods” this and “my kind” that. Also, it's really fun to go through Sam's list of beliefs and see how many of them you believe in too. Candy definitely tasted better when I was a kid.
Weird aside; after Bridget's point about Wednesday's connection to the Professor Marvel/the Wizard, I recasted the movie and ended up with Shadow=Dorothy, Sam=Scarecrow, Mr. Nancy=Tin Man, Czernobog=Cowardly Lion, Laura=Glinda, and then my brain started shorting out.
The scene in the bar with Audrey is one of the primary places in the book that strikes me as having a cinematic quality to it, from her screams to everyone's immediate head turning to Sam kissing Shadow in front of a good portion of the town to make sure they know who she's rooting for. It's another developmental step for Shadow, another moment that humanizes him, even if Sam isn't kissing him because she's attracted to him. It's also a classically heroic moment, as though Shadow is accepting Sam's favor and allowing it to carry him through the following horrible situation.
One of the things that I always find interesting about this jailbreak is that it's unclear whether Shadow recognizes who they are before they leave off their disguises (as much as you can call outright changing your appearance a disguise). This could be because Shadow is not big reactor to things. It's true that the narrative only gives it away right at the end, but part of me likes to think that Shadow suspects who is leading him off, if only because it makes him a part of the con, in a way.
In thinking about Mister Cargo as Wednesday's name, I can't help but wonder whether Wednesday was permitted to choose the code name for himself or it was chosen for him, which would significantly change its meaning in this context. If the new gods chose that code name, then that implies their view of Wednesday in the proceedings and may be showing their hand a bit on what they intend for him. As Bridget pointed out, it's always hard to tell how much Wednesday is ever letting on to the truth, but my preferred view of characters who are so morally ambiguous is that they can't be playing everyone all the time. Perhaps Wednesday isn't even aware where the game ends and his true emotions begin, but it seems likely to me that some of that sadness that comes through when he's talking to Shadow is genuine. Faking someone out that way always works best when it isn't a total lie, after all. In which case there is still something depressing about seeing Wednesday cornered, even if it is all part of the plan. He is willing to fall so very low to win, and that is what actually makes him dangerous.
My read on the Masonic setting for Wednesday's death was always a bit of a toss up; there are so many conspiracy theories surrounding Freemasonry, particularly in their links to government throughout history, and the many organizations they infiltrate or control. It's a clever shout out to the “spook” element that we get from the new gods with their limos and black suits, considering that they operate the way you'd expect a creepy shadow organization to run — at alternating times, the new gods remind me of both the mafia and of weird X-Files-esque government shenanigans. At the same time, there is a lot of debate over when the Freemasons began, with some people believing that a form of their group has always been around, dating even back to Ancient Egypt. (I knew a historian who made a pretty good case for it once, if you'd believe it.) I like the idea that perhaps the new gods think they're meeting Wednesday on neutral ground when, in fact, they're playing right into old magic.
That’s all for this week, as we say “Adios” to Mike Ainsel and move on to Part III next week. Once again, we’ll be covering three chapters (14, 15, and 16) in our next post, but in the meantime, don’t forget to check out the latest in our American Gods Mix Tape, and please join us in the comments as we sort through all this ungodly (yet divine—see what we did there?) drama...
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She grew up on a street called Dorothy Drive with a cat named “Toto,” and might have been a little obsessed with The Wizard of Oz as a kid.