Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she’s struggling to conceal her power, and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town’s oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.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).
In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.
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
“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.”That’s promptly followed up by this:
“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.
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??
3. Accepting PoC
That Exceptional, Didn’t-Really-Believe-In-It-Racist thing not doing the trick for you? Well, that’s a shame. But hey, look, here is a nice woman of color character to tell you that it’s all really ok! Check it out!
“One story in particular. It was a simple story, really, a love story.” She smiled sadly. “Your mother was a great romantic, Ethan.”It’s GODDAMN ROMANTIC AND SAD AND TRAGIC, GODDAMMIT. THESE ARE BEAUTIFUL RACISTS, EMPATHIZE WITH THEM! LOOK HOW ROMANTIC MARIAN (a woman of color) FINDS IT! SHE’S NOT MAD! She thinks that slave-owning mistress of Greenbriar was goddamn beautiful! She ~reverently closes her eyes~ at the ~poetry~ of her Confederate soldier lover’s letters. SURELY THAT GRANTS YOU PERMISSION, YOUNG READER, TO FIND THESE CHARACTERS SYMPATHETIC! Not only that, but we get the implicit approval from Ethan’s mom, and she was a “progressive, feminist vegetarian”! She even had a black BFF! Surely these two smart, educated women wouldn’t find this story romantic if it were problematic in the least! Romanticize away, children~~!
I locked eyes with Lena. We both knew what Marian was about to say.
“Interestingly enough for you two, this love story involves both a Wate and a Duchannes. A Confederate soldier, and a beautiful mistress of Greenbrier.”
“They’re desperately in love, but they’re too different.” She scanned the letter. “‘A Species Apart,’ he calls them. 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.”
Marian closed her eyes, reciting:
“I might as well be a monkey as a man, for all the good it does me at Greenbrier. Though merely Mortal, my heart breaks with such pain at the thought of spending the rest of my life without you, Genevieve.”
It was like poetry, like something I imagined Lena would write.
Marian opened her eyes again. “As if he were Atlas carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
“It’s all so sad,” said Lena, looking at me.
“They were in love. There was a war. I hate to tell you, but it ends badly, or so it seems.” Marian finished her tea.
By the way, Marian is described thusly:
Marian smiled at both of us. She shoved half her pile of books into my arms, and half into Lena’s. When she smiled, she looked like she could have been on the cover of a magazine. She had white teeth and beautiful brown skin, and she looked more like a model than a librarian. She was that pretty and exotic-looking, a mix of so many bloodlines it was like looking at the history of the South itself, people from the West Indies, the Sugar Islands, England, Scotland, even America, all intermingling until it would take a whole forest of family trees to chart the course.Jesus Christ, Beautiful Creatures. Two PoC characters in this enormous cast, and one is a Mystical Other Mammy, and the other is the exotified librarian in the service of the all-white Casters.
Just an FYI – Mystical Other Mammy figures who live in the fucking swamp and exist solely to cook, clean, and make mystical charms to ward off evil for their white fucking employers DO NOT MAKE WELL-ROUNDED CHARACTERS OF COLOR. Even putting aside all of the Confederate bullshit, I’m genuinely appalled that this book isn’t infamous purely for its treatment and portrayal of Amma.
That’s bad and you should seriously fucking feel bad.
2. Everyone Else is Worse
There were only two kinds of people in our town. “The stupid and the stuck,” my father had affectionately classified our neighbors. “The ones who are bound to stay or too dumb to go. Everyone else finds a way out.” There was no question which one he was, but I’d never had the courage to ask why. My father was a writer, and we lived in Gatlin, South Carolina, because the Wates always had, since my great-great-great-great-granddad, Ellis Wate, fought and died on the other side of the Santee River during the Civil War.That’s how Beautiful Creatures opens, in an attempt, I suspect, to reassure you that you’re not reading a book about redneck hillbilly Cletus, but his educated older brother, oh, let’s say Ethan. Look, Ethan can’t help where he grew up or who he’s related to, but he would like to assure you that he himself is progressive, intelligent, and open-minded. It’s everyone else who’s batshit racist.
Only folks down here didn’t call it the Civil War. Everyone under the age of sixty called it the War Between the States, while everyone over sixty called it the War of Northern Aggression, as if somehow the North had baited the South into war over a bad bale of cotton. Everyone, that is, except my family. We called it the Civil War.
Just another reason I couldn’t wait to get out of here.
I mention this because it’s one of the ways that Beautiful Creatures sets Ethan and Lena’s families above scrutiny, and makes their opinions and characters seem more trustworthy: they make everyone else a fucking cartoon character. If the rest of the people in the town are members of the Daughters of the Confederacy, or relish re-enacting the Civil War battle in which the South fended off the Northern army, or take pride in “only collection states of the Confed’racy”, or are irrationally superstitious and treat Lena like crap, then surely the rest of the cast looks better by comparison, right?
I also think it’s perhaps telling that we don’t see any bigotry directed at Amma or Marian, our two women of color; their lives aren’t important, okay, and might remind us of unpleasant realities that we’re supposed to be ignoring, the CIVIL WAR DIDN’T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH RACE!!! Instead, the sole focus of the town’s paranoia, suspicion, and active persecution, is the beautiful young lilly-white Lena. It’s just SO HARD being a well-off teenage white girl in the south, okay?
It’s also worth mentioning that the tragic event that Ethan, Lena, and the reader keep witnessing between Confederate!Ethan and Genevieve takes place while the Northern army burns several plantations to the ground, with women and children inside. Genevieve’s family included. LOOK THE UNION SOLDIERS ARE DOUCHEBAGS TOO! ~SHADES OF GRAY~, AMIRITE?
4. Was it REALLY that Bad?
So while there was a lot of attention paid to justifying Confederate!Ethan as a character, there wasn’t as much paid to Genevieve. I suppose the idea is that it’s probably enough for her to be a young woman, and how much resposibility could you give to a teenager for benefiting from oppression, stop being so unreasonable, etc. However, Genevieve’s flashbacks feature another character pretty heavily, an old woman named Ivy. It’s never directly stated that Ivy is her slave, but she is certainly a woman of color, as well as Genevieve’s maid, so I’m like 99.99999% certain they weren’t paying her.
Ivy doesn’t do much but play Mystical Other (which makes sense given that she’s Amma’s ancestor -_-), warning Genevieve against using dark magic, being “superstitious” and “fearful”, and generally freaking out, which puts her on the wrong end of Genevieve’s condescending assyness. But…even amid the chaos and burning, she stays by Genevieve’s side. She weeps for Genevieve’s burning family, presumably her “owners”. Her family ends up staying being tied to the Duchannes and Casters, “cleaning up their family’s messes”, as Amma puts it, ultimately becoming a line of live-in housekeepers for the Wates. Then there’s this brief flashback featuring Ivy that bugged the shit out of me.
A young woman with caramel-colored skin, hanging clothes on a wash line, humming quietly, the breeze lifting the sheets into the wind. The woman turns toward a grand white Federal-style house and calls out, “Genevieve! Evangeline!”No, not a lot, but…really? The one glimpse we have of the life of a woman of color who is most likely a slave…is her humming in the evening breeze, hanging laundry and watching children? Yeah, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the little bit of life we’re allowed to see from Genevieve’s slave is one that could be described as “pleasant”, or that Ivy is portrayed as being so loyal to Gen. It’s like the book is implying, “HURDHURDUR WELL THAT DOESN’T LOOK SO BAD, RIGHT? AND LOOK IVY DOESN’T SEEM TO HATE HER, MAYBE GENEVIEVE’S FAMILY WASN’T ONE OF THOSE “BAD” SLAVE-OWNING FAMILIES DURDURRDURRR.”
Also, she’s caramel-colored. ALWAYS.
So look, I know the easy answer to all this is to say that race and slavery are outside the scope of the story, that it’s just a stupid romance for teenagers, but that’s really not acceptable in this situation, okay? In fact, it’s pretty fucking bullshit. It’s the Civil War – race and slavery are always in the scope of the story. You cannot set something in one of the worst periods of our nation’s history and completely ignore what made it that way. It’s erasure. It’s disrespectful, and disingenuous, damn near sociopathically harmful to trivialize or ignore or cover up the nasty side of a historical setting for the sake of some pretty Gone With the Wind bullshit. Especially in a medium targeted towards a younger, more impressionable demographic.
Seriously, we have enough problems with racism and ignorance in this country, we really do not need a generation of kids running around thinking the antebellum South was a fairy land of tragic heroines and sprawling mansions. We’ve got steampunk for that kind of shit.
Soo ahhh, this review turned out pretty long. Please come back tomorrow for “Beautiful Creatures Review, Part Two! Your Mom Was a Feminist?!?“, and stay tuned for our podcast review of the movie, which will probably be posted some time next week!