A REVIEW IN PARTS! AND ALSO A MOVIE REVIEW PODCAST DOWN THERE SOMEWHERE.
PART ONE: WHAT WAS THE CIVIL WAR ABOUT, AGAIN?
I think my biggest problem with this book can be summed up by the fact that we don't see the word "slavery" until page 288 (out of my 390-page e-version).
With most books that would be a total non sequitur, I know, but this is Beautiful Creatures. This is a book that revels in its Southern Gothic - in the plantations and the history and the characters' descendancy. This is the book whose backstory and plot are grounded in events that occurred during the Civil War. Numerous flashbacks set during the period are integrated into the story, and it prominently features not only a Confederate soldier, but a plantation owner's daughter.
...aaaand yet we don't even see the word "slavery" for almost three hundred pages. In a throw-away line that has nothing to do with the actual plot. So in reality, the practice of treating human beings as though they were property, which was, you know, kind of a thing in the South at that time, is addressed never. It's not even mentioned. In a book involving a Confederate soldier and a plantation owner's daughter.
If it's not already apparently, let me explain why that's a problem.
So, look. Antebellum Southerner characters, whether based on real people or just totally pulled out of your ass, come with baggage. Regardless of whether or not they ever wielded a whip, these characters would have benefited from, and been complicit in, the institution of slavery. You can't hand-wave that away. The Civil War was a real thing. Slavery was a real thing. Both of these things still affect people's lives today. They are kind of a big deal.
The thing is, if you're going to ground your story and characters in a time and place where SLAVERY would be a factor, you cannot deal with this ~moral quandary~ by COMPLETELY IGNORING ITS EXISTENCE. Not only is that problematic in almost innumerable ways, but it's insulting. It's insulting not only to the people who suffered, and continue to suffer, from the effect that period in time had on the formation of our culture, but also to your audience's fucking intelligence. We KNOW what the Civil War was over, you aren't going to get away with anything by being coy about it.
Yet Beautiful Creatures doesn't seem to agree. It is more than willing to ignore, and thus minimize, a culture of oppression and violence against African-American people for the much more important goal of romanticizing both the setting and a relationship between - what else? - Confederate white people.
That is a fundamental problem.
The most alternately laughable and insidious thing about the situation the book has put itself in is that it comes up with about a bajillion ways to try and make this focus and relationship palatable. Like, it's not enough to just have the plantations and Confederate soldiers and shit, no, you have to find that shit APPEALING, DAMMIT. Cue a laundry list of narrative tricks designed to counter any instinctive - and warranted, imo - revulsion on the part of the reader.
1. The Exceptional Racist
So our protagonist is Ethan Wate. He is the descendent of Ethan Carter Wate, the guy who fell in love with a Duchannes witch Caster woman the first time, and got this whole Cursed-family-of-witches ball rolling back during the Civil War. We don't know much about him to start with, but one of the first snippets of information we get is that he is Ethan's great-great &etc uncle, whom present-day Ethan never knew about because he was removed from the Carter family tree. Whhhhhhhhhy, you ask?
"On account a him bein' a deserter." [...] "Deserters. The Confederates who ran out on Gen'ral Lee durin' the War." I must have looked confused because Aunt Prue felt compelled to elaborate. "There were two kinds a Confederate soldiers durin' the War. The ones who supported the cause of Confed'racy and the ones whose families made them enlist." [...]
"By 1865, Lee’s army was beaten, starvin', and outnumbered. Some say the Rebels were losin' faith, so they up and left. Deserted their regiments. Ethan Carter Wate was one of 'em. He was a deserter." All three of them lowered their heads as if the shame was just too much for them.
That's promptly followed up by this:
But knowing my parents' sensibilities, my mom had probably been proud of Ethan Carter Wate. I was pretty proud, too.
Ah yeah, that soothing "deserter" balm to soothe that "Confederate romance" burn. But okay, fine, I'll bite. He deserted. Hurrah. I wouldn't go so far as to be "proud" of him - because hi, hello, yes, not only did he still serve, but he was also still a white guy in the South during the Civil War, and I'm pretty sure Ethan's family owned a plantation? They were at least landowners, given modern!Ethan's home is called "Wate's Landing", so either way - complicity, motherfucker, do you know it? Modern!Ethan may not be able to help who his ancestors were, but "pride" is not the appropriate emotion here. Sorry, no, that trick's not going to work.
At any rate, he deserted. Care to follow up?
"Her family is trying to keep them apart, and he's gone to enlist, even though he doesn't believe in the war, in the hope that fighting for the South will win him the approval of her family."
OH OKAY I SEE HAHA. It's okay if he fights to continue the enslavement of an entire race of people, as long as he was doing it for ~LOVE~. THAT DOESN'T MAKE HIM A BAD PERSON AT ALL NO REALLY GAIS, IT'S NOT LIKE HE REALLY BELIEVES IN SLAVERY, HE'S JUST KILLING PEOPLE FOR IT! That's TOTALLY DIFFERENT AND ALSO OKAY.
"I deserted, Genevieve. I couldn't fight one more day for somethin' I didn't believe in. Not after what I've seen. Most a the boys fightin' with me didn't even realize what this war is about - that they’re just spillin' their blood over cotton."
AH JUST COULDN'T DO IT, GENEVIEVE. AH COULD ONLY KILL OTHERS FOR THE RIGHT TO ENSLAVE BLACK PEOPLE FOR SO LONG. AH JUST HIT MAH LIMIT. What gets me most is that last line, thought - "the boys fightin' with me didn't even realize what this war was about". Also, "cotton". RIGHT. So pray tell, what could justify one's willingness to go to war over their right to enslave another race? What did those boys think they were fighting for? Are you really, REALLY trying to garner sympathy for the poor, misunderstood, ignorant Confederate Army? REALLY?
And "cotton". Just in case you guys were wondering what the war was over. It certainly wasn't that "S"-word, that's for sure, none of that going on here. "~FORGET THE PEOPLE I AM FIGHTING TO OPPRESS~." Look, I get the broader context, that the war was over cotton in the sense that slaves were a cheap source of labor, but no. Fuck you. That is intentionally deceptively re-framing the argument to avoid using ~the S-word~, so that we won't remember that this FUCK just spent months fighting for his side's right to enslave black people.
Also, note that Ethan never actually *says* what it is he doesn't believe in. Just that he doesn't. SO THERE. The moral of the story is that Ethan isn't like those people! He just fought for them! IT'S OKAY FOR HIM TO BE A ROMANTIC FIGURE, OKAY??
CONTINUE PART ONE at You're Killing Me
PART TWO: Your Mother Was a Feminist?!?
PART THREE: Also There is Some Sort of Plot
ALSO, MOVIE REVIEW PODCAST