Welcome to the fifth 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, we begin Part II of the novel with Christmas on the road with Wednesday. 'Tis the season for a lecture on grifting over turkey and cranberry sauce, with a little seduction of the innocent on the side—then Shadow’s off to idyllic Lakeside to stay out of trouble. Or at least, that was the plan...
Part Two: My Ainsel; Chapter 9:
Spending Christmas on the road, Wednesday regales Shadow with a dissertation on various grifts, while simultaneously seducing their young waitress. Presenting Shadow with a wallet and a new identity, Wednesday puts him on the bus to Lakeside. During the trip, Shadow has another dream/vision of the Buffalo Man, asks how to help Laura and finds himself crushed and heaved up through the earth until he finally sees the sky. He wakes and arrives in Lakeside as Mike Ainsel, catching a ride to his new home with a kindly old soul named Hinzelmann. In the meantime, Samantha Black Crow is questioned by Mister Town and Mister Road about her encounter with Shadow; sass and sarcasm win the day.
So this is Christmas…I wonder if all Wednesday’s references to the holiday (calling it “our Lord’s natal day,” for example) are simply tongue-in-cheek or whether they qualify as sour grapes, the reaction of an ancient god watching a relative newcomer get all the adulation, tacky though some of it might be. And yet I like the sense that Christmas makes even Odin feel a bit alone and maybe even vulnerable, in need of another blonde conquest – but also almost affectionate, in his brusque way, squeezing Shadow’s shoulder and paraphrasing Julian of Norwich, “All is well, and all is well, and all shall be well.” I don’t quite know what to make of the old war god quoting the most optimistic of Catholic mystics, but that’s about as close to paternal and reassuring as Wednesday gets. Leave it to the holidays to produce some weird family moments, even with these two.
The momentary vision that Shadow has of Wednesday as a lonely wanderer, an eternal outsider who can never experience the simple pleasures of humanity is certainly striking, but especially because it seems to mirror the similar glimpse we get of Laura toward the very end of the chapter. Like Wednesday, she’s also out in the cold, peeking through windows: pressed against the glass outside her mother’s house, straining to see the family gathered together inside. In both instances, immortality seems like more of a curse than a blessing – both the god and the dead woman are alone and alienated from the living.
Shadow’s dream/vision of the Buffalo Man and the fire that speaks starts him off on his quest to help Laura, as he offers himself to the earth and goes through a sort of rebirth. After he’s been pushed above-ground and sees the stars, the voice of the flame tells him, “Soon they will fall and the star people will meet the earth people. There will be heroes among them, and men who will slay monsters and bring knowledge, but none of them will be gods. This is a poor place for gods.” (220). Last week, in the comments, the question was raised as to why Shadow, a half-god, was chosen by the Buffalo Man, considering that his loyalties might lie with the old gods and his father.
Reading these chapters again, I wonder if he is not so much chosen as already connected to the land; since the question of his race is never settled, there is certainly room to read him as having Native American blood (even if one assumes that his mother’s sickle-cell anemia codes her as being of African descent). In my mind, the recurring conversations in which people try to guess his race makes me think that he could conceivably be a mix of many races and ethnicities on his mother’s side. In conjunction with this possibility, I also think we need to consider the question of how Shadow fits in, in the hierarchy of gods and monsters and heroes…but more about that when we pick up with the star people in Chapter 11.
You know, there’s a small thrill that you get when one of your favorite authors happens to use your name in a book, and you think, “Great! This can only turn out well!” Then a few chapters later…not so much. Poor little distant fictional cousin Alison….
Wednesday really loves to eat, doesn't he? Gaiman always makes a point in these scenes of how Wednesday eats everything with relish, no matter how unimpressive or unappetizing it is. It could be meant to play into his persona as a wandering grifter, having to wait between meals on occasion, and certainly needing to enjoy food no matter where it comes from – the showman's “feast or famine” mentality. On the other hand, when you subside on human sacrifices and are then forced not to, maybe you need more food than usual. Maybe it doesn't taste like much of anything, so you pretend it all tastes good. Which, as Bridget mentioned above, could be another similarity between Laura and Wednesday.
I started thinking about demigods as I was reading these chapters, about the myths that explore those figures and how their relationships to their parents are usually never smooth ones. Of course, one of the first names that comes to mind is Herakles (known as the Latin-ized “Hercules” to most, but that name actually makes no sense, and I have an old professor who would die a little on the inside if I used it, so you get his original, sensical Greek name). Herakles who also loses his wife (and children) to the machinations of a god, if we are going with the idea that Wednesday and Low Key had something to do with Laura's demise. Who has to do all sorts of labors to make up for his bad deeds. Fun connections, though probably more archetypal than intentional there. Greek demigods are usually raised by human mothers, so Shadow is in pretty good company, but apart from that, it seems as though all bets are off. And then, of course, that's why Shadow's such a big guy – demigods are always bigger and tougher than anyone, it's part of their special half-god power set.
Interestingly though, demigods are not a ubiquitous group across cultures; in fact, and they're mostly Greek and Indian (though in Indian myths, demigods are often humans who become gods rather than humans with one divine parent). By that token, it's fascinating that America is getting a demigod of its own, and how Shadow's status as one continues to play into the story.
So... Hinzelmann's car, which Shadow makes note that a gangster would have been proud to drive in the 1920s. It seems an apt connection to make, when we consider Hinzelmann's role for Lakeside. Perfect towns are always terrifying because anyone who has ever watched an episode of The Twilight Zone knows they are never what they seem, and sure enough, we find out later about Hinzelmann and the children “sacrificed” for him. The mafia ran a similar gambit – you paid your dues, they kept your street safe. Every good Chicagoan knows that for a time, Chicago elections were some of the most corrupt in the United States... until the government stepped in and asked Al Capone and his boys to patrol the voting booths. Word was, that was the first time Chicago had an honest election in years. Connecting Hinzelmann to gangsters via his car subtly plants that idea until his true nature is revealed.
Part Two: My Ainsel; Chapter 10:
More dark dreams for Shadow; the next morning his attempt to walk into Lakeside nearly ends in disaster, but police chief Chad Mulligan rescues him from the cold. Mulligan takes him into town for breakfast, supplies, and an introduction to the local color; Shadow acquires a new car and meets the neighbors. Wednesday arrives and whisks him off to Las Vegas for some face time with a mysterious god that Shadow can never quite remember (though they’ve met before). Shadow asks Wednesday about helping Laura, but she is beyond his reach; Wednesday drops Shadow back in Lakeside with a passing mention of eagle stones and a stern admonition to stay out of trouble.
The chapter starts with Shadow’s disturbing dream of a child raised in darkness and violently sacrificed; of course, we later find out that this is the origin of Hinzelmann as an ancient tribal god in the Black Forest. I can’t help but contrast this with the Christmas narrative traditionally celebrated and referenced throughout the last chapter, down to the mention of “The Little Drummer Boy.” In a sense, the happy holiday stories about the Baby Jesus seems to completely contrast with this older, darker religion, but of course, the whole point of Christ being born was his eventual sacrifice (and let’s not even get into the Slaughter of the Innocents, which directly followed the first Noel, according to the New Testament). Like the image of Odin as an alienated, unhappy wanderer in the last chapter, more and more the novel seems to be underscoring the idea that divinity is not all it’s cracked up to be – rooted in trauma and a problematic dependence on humanity, with whom the gods themselves don’t have the best relationship.
Regarding Chad Mulligan: The first couple of times I read American Gods, the name “Mulligan” automatically made me think of James Joyce and stew, but then John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar made its way onto my radar; it’s still on my insanely long To Read list, but the “Context” chapters in the book include quotations from a fictional sociologist named Chad C. Mulligan. If you’ve read the book, maybe you can fill us in on whether or not this is a likely connection, but given Gaiman’s familiarity with British New Wave SF and the fact that Lakeside’s Chad Mulligan provides much of our understanding of the town and its residents, I think it’s a good bet that the reference is intentional. Moreover, Mulligan appears immediately after Shadow thinks, “This was not simply cold: this was science fiction” (233); maybe his entrance is a sly way of signaling that Lakeside is actually a dystopia, like the world of Brunner’s novel, in spite of its idyllic appearance.
I think Gaiman does a good job of introducing the townfolk themselves in just a few lines each; besides Chad and Hinzelmann, we meet Mabel, Missy Gunther and Marguerite (Margie) Olsen – as usual, Shadow seems to connect well with strong maternal types (although clearly Margie Olsen is more focused on protecting her remaining child than opening up to some stranger). I also love that when we meet Margie and her son, he’s watching the Disney version of Hercules, which obviously ties back into our discussion of demigods (and father/son issues), but more on that in this week’s Mix Tape.
I enjoy the Vegas interlude in this chapter both as a change of pace (from uber-folksy
Mayberry Lakeside to the neon fantasy land of Las Vegas, a surreal simulacrum of a city), and because it raises some interesting mysteries that are never solved within the novel. Mainly, of course, who the hell is the Unremembered God? I’ve read some interesting theories, most of which are collected here, with candidates including Agni, Hades, Mercury, and Manannán mac Lyr. I don’t currently have a favorite, although I’m further intrigued by Odin’s half of the conversation, especially “She’s not been seen in over 200 years.” Who is “she”?! I feel like there should be enough clues to put together a good guess, but I’m still lost…and I kind of enjoy that the mystery remains unsolved.
Finally, I’m never sure how to interpret Wednesday’s urgent, ritualistic recitation of his charms, and the moment of frailty that follows – is he saddened by his inability to help his son, having grown fond of him over the last several weeks? Does his sadness have more to do with facing the limits of his own powers, and admitting that he doesn’t even understand why Laura is only slightly dead? Is it all a part of his con? The moment itself seems genuine enough, but even knowing how events unfold, I’m unclear on how to read Wednesday’s response to Shadow, or even Shadow’s sense that this moment could have been a turning point if he had simply reached out to comfort the old man….
The book seems keen on reminding us, with the rites of the Black Forest god, and the invoking of Christmas's origins, and the bitter, awful cold of Lakeside, that these winter holidays and rituals were never particularly cheerful up until recently. They were rooted in prayer, in a desperate attempt to survive the winter cold and the lack of resources. The winter is a time when celebrating is a luxury, and when we do, it's in an attempt to keep out the cold. Christmas comes halfway through this desolate period during the year's cycle and these days it tries to keep our spirits high by filling us full of eggnog and littering us with presents. It's no wonder that Hinzelmann's sacrifice is supposed to come right as winter breaks; religious rituals are heavily tied to the seasons, to harvests and the world's renewal, and the darkest rituals must surely come at the darkest times.
We find Hinzelmann telling stories, the same way that Mr. Nancy does, the same way Wednesday does, and it does well to remind us all that so many godly narratives were and have been oratory traditions. These were more than religion, they were the stories people told at home and around fires. In fact, there is much argument to be made that a loss of that oral tradition in many places across the world is what has killed these gods in the first place. (So many of the interludes involve characters who heard of the gods from tales passed down by family members.) No wonder they are keen on preserving the tradition of storytelling. It's where their power comes from.
Yet again, Shadow finds himself getting into his fake persona, and creating himself a person who he likes. He puts these people in his mind's eye, finds that he knows them, enjoys being them and the sense of belonging that they allow him, even if its only temporary. Also, Hinzelmann's comment about the television having something to do with the kids who vanish always tickles me, though that might be awful... but come on. He's basically blaming another god on the disappearance, and I can't help but think that he knows it.
The one thing about the forgotten god that always sticks with me is the mention of the “body in the bog” taste of his whiskey, which seems so precise to me that it can't be random. That puts me in mind of the bog people that archaeologists have found across Northern Europe, and while some believe that they were executed, many also believe they were sacrificed to Germanic pagan gods. Which means that this man and Wednesday might be a bit related. If that were the case, the goddess that the forgotten god asks Wednesday about could be Nerthus, who Tacitus describes in his work, Germania. Nerthus would make sense to bring up practically – if Wednesday is trying to get him geared up for war, the god might be inclined to ask about Nerthus, who was capable of stopping men from going to war. Perhaps he is trying to find a way around the fight.
Part Two: My Ainsel; Chapter 11:
Settling in, in Lakeside, Shadow hangs out with Hinzelmann, buys some raffle tickets and some books at the local library; Chad Mulligan fills us in on Marguerite Olsen’s unfortunate backstory. Napping, Shadow picks up his dream-quest among the star people, climbing a tower of skulls to meet the thunderbirds…but is interrupted by a call from a furious Wednesday. The next day, in San Francisco, Wednesday strong-arms the goddess Easter into joining his cause. Back in Lakeside, Shadow is questioned about the disappearance of Alison McGovern and joins the (unsuccessful) search party. Interlude: Coming to America, 1778; explores the unspeakable horrors of slavery through the experiences of Wututu and her twin brother Agasu.
I love the little detail that Hinzelmann spends his time making hand-tied trout flies: “colorful fakes of life…each with a hook hidden inside it” (page 258). It’s such a perfect metaphor for Hinzelmann himself and plays into the recurring theme of the gods as fakes or frauds in their relationships with humanity: Wednesday the grifter, Bilquis the Sunset Strip prostitute, Zorya Vechernyaya, working as a fortune teller because she “tell(s) the best lies,” and so on. The old gods in America tend to get by showing people what they want and then taking what they need – not always in a sinister way, but in a way that generally involves a manipulative imitation of life on the part of the deities.
Just a side note, but when Hinzelmann tells Shadow about surviving the winters back in the olden days, I couldn’t stop thinking about Wisconsin Death Trip. I saw the film with the director, James Marsh, when I was in college, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Marsh’s docudrama is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lesy which documents real life instances of madness, suicide, and crime in late nineteenth century rural Wisconsin, and it’s impossible for me to read about Lakeside without comparing it to the book and movie. I highly recommend both, if you’re interested in getting a glimpse of the darker side of Midwestern history.
Picking up with Shadow’s dream/vision of thunderbirds and the tower of skulls, I’m leaning more and more toward thinking of him as a descendant of the star children and the earth children, and possibly as a hero. It’s interesting that within the dream, he knows that “[i]f he returned to his tribe without a thunderbird’s feather he would be disgraced, he would never be a man” (268). Then he tells Easter that the thousands and thousands of skulls he climbed had been his own, representing previous lives.
Is it possible that Wednesday was able to impregnate Shadow’s mother, in spite of mostly “firing blanks,” because she already possessed some spark of ancient power or knowledge, ancestry passed down not from divine beings but from the race of heroes who first inhabited the land we now know as America? Why else would he have a sense memory of being part of a tribe and knowledge of their customs? Not that dream-logic is ever reliable, but it’s clear that these are more than dreams, and that Shadow’s experiences are known to gods on both sides of the coming battle, which means that they are truly happening in some version of “reality.”
Speaking of different categories of immortals/supernatural beings, as much as I like Easter, the best part of the San Francisco trip is the little sideways nod to Delirium – or else, a very Delirium-esque young homeless girl with her dog. If it is Delirium, I wonder why Wednesday or Easter don’t recognize her as one of the Endless? Or maybe they’re just content to let her be…I don’t suppose she’d be much help to either of them, but I love that Shadow gives her money for dog food. I’m sure Barnabas appreciated it.
There’s so much to say about the Wututu interlude, it almost deserves its own post (and this one is already running long); I think the way it’s introduced (ostensibly by Mr. Ibis) with a meditation on the way the human mind deals with inhumanity—the systemic horrors inflicted by one group of people on another, the individual stories that get lost in crimes so large and intensely painful that we block them out, insulate ourselves emotionally—is an extremely effective way of setting up her story, making the reader appreciate the painful details without losing sight of the fact that this Wututu and Agasu are just two among millions of people of people who were bought and sold and tortured, and destroyed in millions of different ways.
In terms of the larger narrative, it is also a story of how old gods become devalued and corrupted in the New World, passing from a true believer and faithful practitioner like Mama Zouzou to a self-interested opportunist like Marie Laveau, who goes through the motions but has no interest in or understanding of the powers that she is calling upon. She co-opts their power and puts them to work for her own commercial gain and increased social status: in Mama Zouzou’s America, even the gods are a commodity.
A thought to add to the theory of Shadow being descended from the
“star people” or race of heroes who first inhabited America: in Chapter Nine he dreams of being pushed up by the land, which was already noted by Bridget as having clear connections to a labor scene. In essence you could literally interpret that to mean Shadow is birthed by the land, by America itself. It puts him in the perfect position to be our hero, America's hero, but his parentage alone proves the great contradiction of American identity: even if we have actual roots in the land (even if Shadow's mother is descended from the earliest American peoples) we still have ties to places outside this vast landscape (Wednesday and Norse ancestry). It makes Shadow's journey, his choice by the end of the novel to travel the world (which continues in the novella “Monarch of the Glen”), a journey that is utterly American in every sense. Americans do often have a divided sense of belonging – to their own very young culture and to the places their families came from before them.
As for potential-Delirium surfacing here, the Endless are an interesting fit for this narrative universe. They certainly are a part of it (in fact, all of Gaiman's fiction arguably occupies the same universe, no matter how far apart the stories may seem in time and place), as we see them come back later; I'm pretty positive that there's a shoutout to Death in the final battle. But it does make me wonder if most of the gods don't prefer to ignore the Endless, for one reason or another.
So what about “true believers” and their affect on gods and vice versa? We have an interesting interlude to examine a theme that I feel crops up more and more lately in fiction: the power of faith, or more specifically, how powerful faith is as a motivating force. As the world at large seems to grow more cynical where faith is concerned, we find in fiction how powerful the act of faith can be, and how the lack of it makes people less powerful. And of course, the lack of it also makes the gods less powerful, reducing them to what we would commonly view as the dregs of humanity. In that way, the lack of any faith at all hurts everyone involved with the process. And this idea does crop up elsewhere, though not so literally. Weirdly, the first instance that comes to my mind is how it is used in Joss Whedon's Serenity – the comments made by Shepherd Book about the Operative, how he will be harder for the Serenity crew to defeat because he is a “believer.” The idea of faith as a power that you can practically measure, the way you could number an army or the judge quality of a weapon, adds an interesting dimension to the story.
It isn't that I think Gaiman is endorsing zealotry of any kind, but I do believe that this book might be a way of putting his own beliefs down on paper, the sort of “believing” that Sam talks about further along in the book. (He has stated that her little monologue is about the closest he can get to explaining his own personal beliefs.) Though specific religious views are not advocated in American Gods, I feel as though Gaiman might be advocating faith in general throughout the story, belief in the sublime and indescribable. Something that can fuel and drive us, a sense of wonder that should never diminish, even if we stop believing in gods.
The Wututu interlude does deserve its own post, but I will say that I agree with Bridget on how affective its set up is – as a child in school, whenever we were taught about horrific times in human history (the slave trade, the Holocaust) we were practically always given individuals stories to read, the biographies or accounts of specific people. It has a profound impact, without overwhelming the reader to that point of numbness.
Please join us as we sort through these theories and talk these chapters through a bit further in the comments, and don’t forget to check out this week’s American Gods Mix Tape, which covers a particularly odd and eclectic mix of songs from the last five chapters. Next week, we’ll be back to covering two chapters as we go Behind the Scenes with Shadow and Wednesday and things start to fall apart in Lakeside in Chapters 12 and 13....
Bridget McGovern is the non-fiction editor of Tor.com. She’s had an incredibly weird mix of Tom Waits, Christmas carols, Elvis, and Iggy Pop stuck in her head all week, thanks to these chapters.