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Protected: Analysis on Russ’ Correspondence with Chip Delany and How Her Anger Influences Her Writing
Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire published in 2011 by the Aqueduct Press won the James Tiptree Jr. Award in the same year. The book is narrated by a mysterious person who never mentions his/her direct identity. The book is enriched with a dazzling but somewhat painful story about an African American woman Redwood Phipps and Seminole Irish man Aidan Wildfire Cooper who journey through life. Hairston’s voice and style help elevate the book to a higher level which doesn’t necessarily satisfy the readers at the end, but it sure leaves behind unfinished feelings about the characters and what will happen to them next.
It is quite difficult to summarize the plot without spoiling the story itself, so readers please be alert there will be some spoilers followed this book review.
The story takes place in the rich swampland in a fictional town called Peach Grove, Georgia. The book opens with Redwood Phipps’ family running away from a lynch mob which kills her mother as the result. Aidan Wildfire Cooper, a Seminole Irish boy, is the one to find the dead body and is haunted by the fact that he could not save the poor woman, even though he was only a teenager at the time. About ten years later Redwood is a now maturing woman who is coming into real magical power, “a hoodoo conjuror”, just like her mother. Aidan is a dysfunctional alcoholic with two ruined marriages due to his drunken abuse. However, together they create greater powers. Redwood captures the power of a thunderstorm, and this special power is used by Redwood throughout the book. It is clear from the narrator that Redwood and Aidan are meant for each other, to be one another’s soulmate. Though Redwood inspires Aidan to get through his alcoholism, and he inspires Redwood’s magic to get stronger, but none of them thinks love is a possibility and dares to express their real feelings towards the other partner due to the difference in races.
Eventually Redwood is assaulted and raped by a powerful white man, Jerome Williams. In defense, Redwood kills her offender with her “storm hand” by breaking his neck right when Aidan came to her aid. Buried in humiliation and pain, Redwood needs to flee town as soon as possible with Aidan’s help. Aidan feels shameful, for he was unable to prevent harm coming to someone he loves. He covers up the assault and killing by telling the town Jerome Williams fell in love with the beautiful Redwood and ran away with her to keeps the town from pursuing her Redwood.
Redwood, on the other hand, tries to recover from the painful experience and ran off to Tennessee first. She joins a traveling musical group with Eddie and Milton as a singer and eventually makes their way to Chicago. After some years and the death of most of Redwood’s family back in Georgia, Aidan takes Redwood’s little sister-Iris and journeys first to New York then joins her in Chicago. There they stay with George, Redwood’s and Iris’ older brother, who is already established with his own family and business. Redwood and Aidan finally feel more free to admit their feelings for one another, yet they are haunted by the traumas they thought they had left in back in the swampland. Redwood’s rape has led to her inability feel sexual pleasure, and Aidan is still haunted by failure and guilt from his past.
Both Redwood and Aidan join the film industry with Redwood working chorus and “African savage” parts and Aidan taking lead roles for the play “Noble Indian Savage”. Eventually they turn to the growing black middle and upper class in Chicago. At the end, both Redwood and Aidan finally admit their feelings towards each other while getting caught in a dangerous fire. Standing between the line of death and survival, they have nothing to lose but to admit their true feelings. There is no satisfying end to the story, but it must be Hairston’s intention to leave her readers’ imagination to wonder what will happen next to the couple.
Redwood and Wildfire describes the costs of racial discriminations as well as class and social boundaries such as lynching, segregation, rape, alcoholism, and the abused arson of black businesses in Chicago. Furthermore, the book shows the intensity of a love, lust, greed, struggles, betrayal, and guilt mixture presented in the characters. The novel expands its spectrum of racial tension by amplifying that the issue is much more complicated than just the surface. Aidan’s mixed-race heritage also shows problems for both the black and white communities.
The novel describes the characters’ progress as they move and journey their ways through life. Redwood moves forward in her life, trying to escape her dark past, getting herself out of the swampland, taking control to learn magic, achieving and enjoying her successes in Chicago. Moreover, the magical storm hand is a metaphor for Redwood’s character as she grows and learns to control both herself and her power to become a more mature and independent women. Aidan takes control over his alcoholism and dysfunctional life, travels to a better place where he can achieve more success in both life and love.
Dear Ms. Russ,
I would like to first express that I am a big fan of your work but more specifically your personality and style of writing. Frankly, I also sense a lot of anger and frustration in your letters and papers. I am a science major at the University of Oregon, so most (if almost not all) of papers I read are very objective and emotion-free. Most authors write short but precise description of what their work and results are, so reading some of your papers takes me by surprise. I am not used to this style of writing at all, but I love it. “Finally! Someone has emotion and passion about what she is writing,” I thought.
Why do you think it is a good idea to involve your emotions in your writing about contemporary issues? Don’t you think that objective writing and showing facts or evidence will be more convincing? The reason I express this concern is because facts and evidence are a bit easier to be compelling than emotion. I do believe that emotions sometimes make your audience a bit skeptical because they will just think that you are too angry to think straight. Once again, I study science, so it is a little challenging for me to change the way I read and think when it comes to literature versus science writing. However, I am still a big fan of yours and so glad I can write you a letter to express my admiration.
All the best,
Joanna Russ was a renowned female fiction writer who gained fame in the 1970s. She was born in February 22nd, 1937 in the Bronx. She studied and earned her bachelor’s degree with an English major at Cornell University in 1957. Joanna Russ continued her study at Yale, and she received her master’s degree in play writing and dramatic literature. She taught at State University of New York, Binghamton but was denied tenure from the school. She moved to the University of Colorado and later yet to the University of Washington, where she finally had an offer to the tenure position.
Joanna Russ was best known with her novel The Female Man, novella “Soul” that won the Hugo Award, short story “When it Changed” that won the Nebula Award, and many more critical works. Her role as a science fiction reviewer had won her a Pilgrim Award for science fiction critique. The New York Times also ranked Joanna Russ “among the small band of accomplished stylists in science fiction.”
In my humble opinion, I think Joanna Russ is an absolutely terrific writer who brings stories to life and tricks her readers’ minds. Let’s take “Soul” as an example. Readers are tricked into believing that Abbess Randegunde was a saint at the beginning of the story, but Joanna Russ skillfully transformed her character into someone else that made the readers confused and scratch their heads in frustration. Is Abbes Randegunde a saint or a demon? That is up to your own imagination, and that proves how good Joanna Russ was as a writer.
One of the reasons that has me drawn into investigating Joanna Russ was that she was so interesting when it comes to writing letters with her anger so strongly embedded in them. Her anger and frustration in her letters to James Tiptree Jr. as well as her non-fiction works such as papers about anti-pornography bring more attention from the readers and researchers. Why was she so angry and irritated in most of her work? Does it show that she was critical towards the issues/person she was writing to, or does it show that she was frustrated with her career and life? Why is pornography so important to Russ? She expressed a lot of irritation and anger that one can feel when he/she reads her paper “About Pornography”. It’s always her rage and resentment that make the letters and papers more interesting.
At this point, I’m not quite sure to what specific direction I’m heading, but Russ’ anger will definitely be my focus for this final project.
[Letters to James Tiptree Jr.] Joanna Russ papers, [Coll 261, Box 10, Folders 31-42], Special Collections & University Archive, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
[Literary Works] Joanna Russ papers, [Coll 261, Box 13, Folders 2, 4-8, 15-16], Special Collections & University Archive, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.