Apr 14, 2009

The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Tom Spanbauer

Set in the town of Excellent, Idaho in the late nineteenth century, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon tells the story of Duivichi-un-Dua (or Shed). Shed, whose nickname comes from what he and his clients do out in the shed at night, is a bisexual boy whose mother was Native American and whose father was white. When he was only thirteen, he was brutally raped by a man who then went on to murder his mother. After that, he was brought up by Ida Richilieu, mayor and brothel owner, who treats him kindly but also puts him to work.

One day, Shed decides to go find his mother’s people, so that he can discover what his Native name mean and make sense of a part of himself he feels disconnected from. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with a green-eyed cowboy, Dellwood Barker. The only problem is that this man just might be Shed’s long lost father.

There’s so much I want to say about The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon. It took me about fifty pages to get used to Shed’s unique voice and to the novel’s dreamlike feel, but I think that says more about my reading mood last week than it does about the book itself. And once I properly got into it, I really got into it. The last third of the story or so just ripped out my heart and stomped on it. Repeatedly. The story is ominous from the very beginning–all along you know it will be about loss and tragedy and that things will not end well. But when it happened, it still killed me.

The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is about race, gender, sexuality and identity. It’s about love, family and loss. It’s about stories, why we need them, and what they say about us. And it’s about violence, intolerance and prejudice. In Excellent, Idaho everyone is suspicious of everyone else. Ida Richilieu is white, but because she’s Jewish she is rejected by, and rejects, the town’s Mormon population. Shed, being a “half-breed” and bisexual, is an outcast in every possible way. And things get even more complicated when the Wisdom Brothers, a travelling band of black singers, all of them ex-slaves, come to town.

You can imagine where this is going, I'm sure. It’s easy to see from the very beginning, and yet the horrible things that happen lose none of their emotional impact because they’re predictable. They’re actually even more tragic because they’re predictable. We know that things like these happened, and that they happened again and again. That's what makes them so tragic.

Despite my occasional doubts about the term, I think I’ll have to describe The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon as magic realism. The book is realistic fiction except when it’s not, and it’s speculative but only ever-so-slightly. Besides, I think that fans of books such as Pedro P├íramo are likely to enjoy this.

I was very interested in how the book incorporates the concept of Two-spirit or Berdache, which I’d come across before in Tomson Highway’s work. It has to do with Shed’s bisexuality, but not exclusively. More than about sexuality, it’s about having a fluid gender identity, and that’s something I’m very interested in. “Berdache” is now considered a pejorative term, but The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon uses it, possibly because the book was published in 1991, or possibly deliberately, since Shed is raised in a white community.

Tom Spanbauer is known for creating the concept of “dangerous writing”, which is defined as follows in this interview:
Dangerous writing means putting a piece of yourself in a work, going to the “sore spot,” and discussing taboo topics, particularly sex and violence. It means writing for yourself, a concept that in the literary world was thought to make you go broke. It means exposing yourself to the tiger, not physically, but mentally.
His workshops on writing have influenced authors such as Chuck Palahniuk and Amy Hempel. It’s easy to see how The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is deliberately transgressive, but the book’s strong language, violence and shocking bits never felt gratuitous to me. Each and every scene had emotional resonance.

Above all, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is a daring, beautiful and immensely sad book.

Notable passages:
Wasn’t til I lost them all, that I heard the story I had forever needed to hear, and I found out things weren’t the way I thought they were, which meant: what I was doing wasn’t what I thought I was doing, and me, in the end, who I thought I was, wasn’t at all who I was.
Wasn’t til I lost them all that things being how they were or not being how they were didn’t matter. As Ida always said, best stories are the true stories, and, truth is, no matter what, we were always a family—better than any Mormon family—Dellwood Barker, Ida Richilieu, Alma Hatch, and me.
A family.

“Smoke and wind and fire are all things you can feel but can’t touch. Memories and dreams are like that too. They’re what this world is made up of. There’s really only a very short time that we get hair and teeth and put on red cloth and have bones and skin and look out eyes. Not for long. Some folks longer than others. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to be the one who tells the story: how the eyes have seen, the hair has blown, the caress the skin felt, how the bones have ached.
“What the human heart is like,” he said.

“What happened to the Indian people is the same as if a giant wind had come along and threw us around for years and years. Killed almost everybody, this giant wind, then left the rest for dead. When the living, like your mother, went back to their homes, they couldn’t find their homes, or the hills or the valleys where their homes used to be. Indian people got thrown around so much, got so used to misery and dying, that they started to forget things like why were they living. ‘Why do we live?’ ‘Why do we live?’ they went around asking each other. But nobody could remember.”
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Experiments in Reading

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  1. I'm sort of speechless here. This sounds like one incredibly special book. For so many reasons. I loved the passages you shared. Though I admit I had to read the first one twice to get the flow of it. The last one left me with tears in my eyes. I want to read this so very, very much.

  2. A family friend of ours is always telling us about books that sound incredibly tragic (like this one!), and as she finishes describing the incredibly tragic plot, and we are all staring at her in horror because we can't imagine any more misery fitting into any one book, she says, "It's all about redemption." Which takes in my mother every time, but I have discovered that her tragic books are not all about redemption.

    All this to ask - is there redemption at the end of this book? It sounds good but so, so sad!

  3. Thank you for such a wonderful review! I agree with Debi that it sounds like a really special book. Come visit me....I have something for you =)

  4. I hadn't heard of this, but it sounds interesting. I'll keep it in mind.

  5. I think I'm starting to see why you get so many points for Bad Blogger with this review... ^-~ (Not that I'm about to complain! My wishlist, my TBR list and my wallet may disagree, though.)

    That sounds like an absolutely fabulous book. And one I'll mention to a friend of mine. It sounds like something she might be interested in.

  6. Any writer whose had influence on Hempel and Palahniuk must be read! Both write in ways that tear you apart if you look beneath the words, and this book looks like it will do the same. The last passage you included was intense.

  7. Amazing review again, Nymeth!

    And I also have to tell you how awesome you are for passing along that tutorial on top commentators. You seriously made my day! (And by the way, you're one of my top commentators, lol!)

  8. Wow. That sounds like a whopper of a book. Even the summary of the plot broke my heart. I'm not sure if I can handle something this intense, but it's definitely on my radar now. Great review!

  9. I get the impression that this book will really upset me, yet I am desperate to read it. Where do you find these unusual books from?

  10. That sounds like a powerful, thought provoking books and I like books like that sometimes.

  11. Whoa. That sounds so heavy! I did my MA in Native American literature, so I'm a bit intrigued by this story.

  12. Debi: the cadence of the book takes some getting used to, but once I got into it I really enjoyed the writing. It's an amazing book.

    Jenny: Well, it's not entirely hopeless. I know you don't mind knowing the ending of things so I'll tell you, but to everyone else: spoilers ahoy! Basically, everyone Shed cares about dies. Some of them in horrible ways. BUT he survives, and someone has kids and he's left with them to raise, so there's at least that. Also, something I really should have mentioned and which makes the book easier to handle emotionally: there's humour. It doesn't make the bad things go away, but it helps.

    Kristina, thank you again! You made my day :D

    Charley, I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up :)

    Shanra: lol :P I hope your friend enjoys it.

    Joanne: I haven't read Hempel or Palahniuk yet, but yes, very well put. This definitely is a book that tears you apart.

    Melissa, that's what blogging friends are for :D I see you also added a recent comments widget - I loved mine to bits, but I had to get rid of it because it caused my blog to be flagged as spam :( Basically, what happens is that google can't tell apart the direct links to your posts and the direct links to the comments that show up on the widget, so it assumes you have lots of duplicate content and therefore are a spam blog. But I had it for a while and it only gave me trouble recently, so maybe you'll be luckier than I was.

    J.S. Peyton: It's definitely intense. But something I should have mentioned is that it has lots of humour too, which makes things easier to handle.

    Scrap Girl: This time I remember: this was recommended to me on a message board years and years ago. The person said it was heartbreaking, but also beautiful. It took me a while to get a hold of a copy, but I'm glad I finally did!

    Bermudaonion: So do I, and this is definitely one of those.

    msmbecky: That sounds fascinating! I took a single class in First Nations literature and I really loved it. I learned so much.

  13. I'm curious about how you came across this book..I never heard of it before!
    I love the title, and the concept of fluid sexuality, which reminds me I have to read The left hand of darkness one of these days!!
    This was sounds unforgettable but so heartbreaking!

  14. I requested this one a long time ago from Bookmooch and it was a fail :( The owner's account was closed after I waited for months for it to be shipped. Now I'm even more upset that I missed it :( Must get a hold of it!

  15. I hadn't heard of this before now but it sounds like I should have. What an amazing review!

  16. Nymeth, you always read all the interesting books which I've missed or not known and you know, I love the feeling of looking up these books during my trips to the bookstores!!

    I like the title of this book so yes, I'll have to check out this book soon. ;)

  17. oh my goodness. I must put this on my list to read... SOON. I love your review and this sounds so moving and intricate and special.

  18. I had to come back and tell you one more thing. I'm reading Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist and it's awesome at only 50 pages in...I was going to recommend it to you, then I happened to look at the back cover and realized that I HAD to recommend it to you. One quote says "It's easy to compare Lindqvist to Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman" and another quote says "Absolutely chilling. Vampires at their Anne Ricean best." Need I say more? :p Sorry for being a pusher and being off topic...off I go now....*ducksandruns*

  19. geez lol.. you and chris feed each others obsession! hahahaha..

  20. Valentina: It was recommended to me on a bookish forum where I used to go before I discovered blogging...it was a long time ago, actually. And you know what? Ursula Le Guin was actually inspired by a paper on the Two-Spirit to write The Left Hand of Darkness!

    Chris: Aw, that's too bad! I hope another copy comes along soon. I'm happy someone other than me and that random person on a forum long ago has heard of it, though :P This deserves to be read. Also, don't duck and run! I really appreciate the recommendation. I hadn't heard of the book before, so I looked it up and discovered this: "The title refers to the Morrissey song "Let the Right One Slip In"". WANT!!!!!!!

    Sam, thank you! It seems that the book isn't very well-known, which is really a pity!

    Melody: isn't the title lovely?

    Miss D: I really thought it was. I hope you enjoy it.

    Deslily: lol, it's what we're here for :P

  21. excellent review as always, it does sound like a great read. very unique.

  22. Nymeth- This is an absolutely wonderful review. I read the book five or six years ago and you have inspired me to read it again, someday, if I ever get through the humungous pile of books I alread have to read:)

  23. Yep, There's a Morrissey quote in the front of the first chapter :D

  24. You did a great job on this review. I know a few people whom this would appeal to. Thanks for the review!

  25. This sounds like an extraordinary book. Although it is gut wrenching, I think that it would be a very interesting read. I put this one one my list. Thanks for the great review.

  26. Naida, I hope you enjoy it if you pick it up.

    Gavin: The more I get to know you the more I love your taste! I bet I'll be re-reading this someday too.

    Chris: I SO want it! It just might have to be included in my next order.

    Ladytink, thank you so much!

    Zibilee: It was gut wrenching :( But also beautiful.

  27. The passages that you chose were moving...the family one..loved it. This sounds like such an interesting book with so many themes and issues running through it. You always do such a beautiful job of conveying your thoughts and feelings with your reviews. Makes me feel that I should read this book.

  28. I really enjoyed reading the passages you put up, thanks. This defnitely (again) sounds like something that I would enjoy, will be keeping a beady eye out for a copy.

  29. Oh my, I read this book recently and it did exactly as you said. It ripped my heart out and trampled it! I've never read such an amazing novel, and I am attempting to read it again, though honestly I don't know if I'll be able to re-read the third section! I'm just glad to see that more than just myself have read this master peice. Shed's voice throught the entire story is so touching and personal, and I love it. I swear, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon is absolutely my favorite book.

  30. I am trying to face the last part of the book but I know it will be hard
    anyway just a wonderfull book..


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