Protests in Fiction Show Societal Friction

Invisible ManThere have been countless protests around the world in recent weeks against the evils of racism and police brutality. Many of the admirable participants have been young people of all colors, providing hope for a future where…Black Lives Matter.

Protests also happen in books — often nonfiction ones, but novels, too. Think about it enough, and a person can remember rallies, marches, strikes, and other actions in a number of novels — along with nasty pushback by cops, the military, politicians, and the owner class.

In American literature, memorable protest actions include the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man rousing a crowd to confront cops evicting an elderly black couple in New York City. Later, that narrator speaks at rallies on behalf of the “Brotherhood” group. And further on in the 1952 novel, riots break out in Harlem over grievances African-Americans face in the U.S. — grievances that in many cases haven’t gone away nearly seven decades later.

There’s also William Styron’s historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, about the man who led the real-life 1831 rebellion against the moral travesty of American slavery.

Moving to another country, the French mining strike that’s the centerpiece of Germinal helps make Emile Zola’s novel as dramatic — and heartbreaking — as can be.

Also heartbreaking is the Colombian army’s mass-murder of striking workers in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The horrific event, like the real-life “Banana Massacre” of 1928 it was based on, was virtually wiped out of the history books. Also the case with a white mob’s slightly earlier 1921 massacre of African-American residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” neighborhood.

Then there’s the fruit workers’ strike in In Dubious Battle, one of the few John Steinbeck novels I haven’t read (yet). And an Oregon loggers’ strike plays a prominent role in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion.

In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, one secondary character (Joshua Chalfens) becomes an animal-rights activist.

Protesters are not always admirable. For instance, doomed revolutionary Udayan Mitra of India is not the nicest or most responsible guy in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, though he’s certainly brave like most people who oppose “the powers that be.” Another part-problematic guy is Sonny, a courageous anti-apartheid activist who cheats on his wife in My Son’s Story by Nadine Gordimer. Sonny’s more-principled family also joins the fight against the oppressive white South African regime.

I’m now on the eighth of Diana Gabaldon’s eight Outlander novels as my pandemic reading marathon continues (most of the books are over 1,000 pages). The 1770s section of the series partly focuses on one of history’s ultimate protests: the thirteen colonies’ successful uprising against monarchical British rule that was commemorated yesterday, July 4th. Of course, the resulting United States became a democracy mainly for monied white males while African-Americans and Native-Americans were treated horribly and women had few rights…

Novels you’d like to mention that include protesters and protest scenes?

Here’s “March March,” a new song by The Chicks — formerly The Dixie Chicks.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a new Township Council sworn in after an election that saw many votes not counted — is here.

50 thoughts on “Protests in Fiction Show Societal Friction

  1. Joseph Conrad’s “Under Western Skies” describes a most forceful Russian protest, which was punctuated by a well-tossed bomb under a general’s carriage, thrown by a treacherous revolutionary. The revolutionary’s treachery was not limited to his friend or his cause or even the old regime, but he ends better than he began,under delicate care, though weakened in new ways.

    Turgenev’s “Rudin” is a novella featuring a youngish man who we see mostly as a teacher on a Russian noble’s estate, restless and unsettled and eventually wandering off after breaking hearts, but who seems in the last scene, to have found himself at last in a great crowd, storming a police barricade in Paris.

    When protest outgrows itself, from time to time comes revolution, and below is a paragraph from Joseph Roth’s “Flight Without End”:

    “Every night he visited The Red Square. The Red Square was silent, all the gates were closed, the sentries at the entrances to the Kremlin stood like wooden figures in their black coats, Lenin’s mausoleum was black; up on the roof the red flag licked the sky, illuminated from below. Here was the only place where one still felt the Revolution, and midnight the only time when one dared to feel it.”

    “Up on the roof the red flag licked the sky, illuminated from below.” Reads to me like futility.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Dave,
    Great post, Dave! Les Mis jumped to mind as well. A short-lived protest which left a big scar. But the story, none-the-less, pushed me into a personal protest. 1970’s, an almost bankrupt NYC decided to close the fire house in my neighborhood. We protested. We won. A big check mark in the column for little people with big voices! The courage of people who fight injustice always inspires. Your post is a great reminder of all the literature that tells these stories of courage, tenacity and hope for a better world. I live in that hope.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, ceilwarren! Eloquent, inspiring comment.

      So great that your and your neighbors’ protest saved the firehouse in your neighborhood!

      “Les Miserables” is an excellent, relevant addition to the discussion. I appreciate you mentioning it.

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    • Thank you, catonthedovrefell!

      I read Charlotte Bronte’s “Shirley” many years ago and also didn’t enjoy it as much I hoped after having loved “Jane Eyre.” I thought her “Villette” was somewhere in between — good not great.

      I never read or saw “V for Vendetta,” but any dystopian story indeed doesn’t feel too extreme these days. 🙂 😦

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  3. Hi Dave,

    I know I’ve mentioned it a few times in recent months, but the obvious book that came to mind was Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. When I first read it, I thought it was kind of over the top. I know that Thomas based the book on real events and real racism and real anger, but it seemed that the whole book was always just a little bit ready to explode. Having said that, early on in the book, the main character is given the ‘talk’ by her parents. Surprisingly (to me anyway), the talk doesn’t have anything to do with sex or drugs or trouble at school. The talk is about what black people should do when they’re stopped by the police. Again, I wondered if that was a little exaggerated. Surely not ALL black people are just waiting to be harassed. Surely it doesn’t happen enough that parents start preparing their teenage kids. And of course it made me realise how naïve and unaware and lucky I am. And then it absolutely made sense that that kind of systemic racism would lead to protests and riots. I don’t want to say too much being that M.B. has just started, but Angie Thomas does a great job at pulling the reader into this crazy and chaotic world.

    Sorry, Dave. I know your post is about protests and not racism, but sadly, the two go hand in hand, so I’m not really off topic am I?

    Liked by 1 person

    • P.S. I forgot to say how impressed I am at how quickly you’ve made it through the Outlander series! I only read the first two and they’re not my cup of tea, but I’m glad you’re enjoying them. Especially in these times when there’s not much else to enjoy ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Susan! Definitely on topic, because protests and racism indeed go hand in hand.

        The “talk” that “The Hate U Give” (on my to-read list!) includes is well-known in the U.S., where racist white cops are notorious for harassing and sometimes killing innocent young black men. 😦

        I’m enjoying the “Outlander” series so much that it hasn’t been a hardship at all plowing through so many pages. Doing that will be one of my fond memories of a time that will not be remembered fondly in many other respects.

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    • Hi again, Dave.

      I feel like I might have left a few sentences out of my original comment. Maybe I implied enough that people could read between the lines, but in case I didn’t…

      While The Hate U Give seemed somewhat exaggerated when I read it, I was absolutely heartbroken to see it come to life a few months later. Suddenly it seemed more than possible that all black people are just waiting to be harrassed, especially by the police. Suddenly protesting and rioting seemed like obvious reactions to such long lived systemic racism. I should point out that there’s a lot of warmth and hope in Angie Thomas’ novel, but with the murder of George Floyd and the worldwide reaction to it, suddenly the novel become the opposite of exaggerated.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, Susan! Yes, events can happen which make us look at certain novels in a different way.

        In the U.S., police violence against young black men (and sometimes young black women and black people of any age) has of course been going on forever. But smartphone videos — and the posting of those videos on social media, YouTube, media websites, etc. — has helped bring things out in a visceral, can’t-be-denied way.

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  4. A very timely literary topic! Sounds like you’ve made it a good ways through the Outlander series, I bet that does keep you pretty busy for quarantine reading. I’ve been away from my reading for awhile so I’m having trouble jogging particular memories loose for novels with protests, but I certainly come across it in a lot of my historical reads. For instance, I’m currently reading Dorris Kearns Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time” about the home front leading up to and during WWII. She picked a perfect title, I’ll just say that haha! I also just started reading the Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I’m still early in so the protests haven’t started yet, but I know they’re coming!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! I hope you’re enjoying/enjoyed your vacation time!

      I’ve been busy reading the “Outlander” novel since March, I think. 🙂 More than 8,000 pages, and the end is in sight — about 700 pages more in the 8th and final (so far) book. I’ve heard that Diana Gabaldon plans two more.

      I guess the brave World War I women spies in Kate Quinn’s excellent “The Alice Network” that you recommended were protesters in their way — secretive ones, of course.

      Doris Kearns Goodwin is an excellent historian, and “No Ordinary Time” is indeed a perfect title!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. “Invisible Man” was a great novel, and it made a huge impression on me when I read it back in my college days. I was also quite enamored of “The Armies of the Night,” a non-fiction novel by Norman Mailer about the March on the Pentagon in October of 1967. It was published in 1968, at the time I was becoming involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement.

    The most important protest event for me was attending the Moratorium to End the Vietnam War in October 1969 in Washington DC. I was a junior at the University of Texas at Austin. I and other like-minded students rode in a school bus the approximately 1500 miles from Austin to DC — definitely not the most comfortable means of travel! 🙂 Two days there and two days back, only one at the protest (we spent the night before sleeping on the floor of a pastor’s rectory). My most vivid memory of the event was, strangely enough, an older, black cop who was among those monitoring the traffic in and out of a federal building where we were looking for a restroom. He came up to me and said, “Little girl, please go home; all we want to do is go home to be with our families.” He was so sweet and I felt just a tad guilty. The other thing I remember clearly is being near the Justice Building and getting tear-gassed, though not horribly because of being just a bit too far away. We took refuge in a cheap restaurant with our eyes red and watery. Not fun! But I’m very glad I was there for such an important moment in history.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      I also read “Invisible Man” in college or soon after, and it made a big impression on me, too. I hardly ever reread books these days, but that one would be among those well worth another look.

      I wasn’t a fan of Norman Mailer as a person, but was impressed with another of his nonfiction books: “Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968.”

      Very interesting recollections of your going to that important 1969 protest! The long bus ride, the police officer, the tear-gassing… Vivid memories. Protests like that helped eventually end a not-needed war, and thus saved some lives.

      I attended many protests in my 20s and 30s — including the huge anti-nuclear march in New York City in 1982 and the also-large 1983 gathering in Washington, DC, to mark the 20th anniversary of the iconic 1963 event there featuring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Haven’t had quite the energy to attend as many protests in the 1990s and later, as I got older and became a parent, but I try to do other things (write, donate, etc.). 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Another amusing moment was my guy friend who went along with me on the bus asked me, “What would your parents say if they knew what you were doing right now?” I had to laugh and tell him that they knew and my dad had sent me the money to pay for it! My dear parents made it impossible for me to be the rebel I sort of wanted to be! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ha, Kat Lit! So nice to have supportive parents, even though it cut down on your rebel quotient. 🙂 When I took part in protests, my mother was not pleased (the few times she knew I was at a protest; after a while I stopped telling her 🙂 ).

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          • One more reminiscence and I’ll go back to reading another mystery novel (I’ve tended to do both quite a lot during the stay-at-home period). Shortly after returning from DC, UT-Austin had its own moratorium day of protest on campus. My dad had The National Observer newspaper delivered to our home in Minneapolis and there was a long front-page article about it, and my parents were able to pick me out in the fourth row of a fairly close-up crowd photo. He got a big kick out of it and sent me a clipping, which I still have today. Only about 1/3 of my face was showing, but I guess parents always know their kids. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • Great anecdote, Kat Lit! Yes, parents can spot their kids. 🙂 And wonderful that you still have the clipping!

              Nice that you’re doing mystery-novel reading these days — I know it’s a genre you love.

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    • I though you looked familiar! I too was milling about at the Moratorium March on DC in October 1969,having come in by car from Wisconsin with college chums. I remember mostly a particularly gruesome display by a group of other young people in the crowd who had covered themselves in what looked like blood so as to illustrate the horrors of the war, or possibly all wars, including future ones. Also the endless lines of police we walked by on the way to the Mall. Never saw so many before or since, unblinking and staring off, block after block after block.

      As the afternoon wore on, a radical Black young man at the microphone attempted to stir the crowd into shouting ‘Fuck Richard Nixon!’, We were literally withing shouting distance of the White House, and I was among the happy few who joined in, but Nixon was not home.

      On the way back some kids crammed in a sports car sped passed us at a good rate of speed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. About 20 minutes later, we saw the sports car upside down on the shoulder, the highway patrol already on scene.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great that you were at that protest, jhNY! Very interesting memories. That kind of police-presence overkill is almost never seen at demonstrations by potentially-more-violent right-wingers. I wonder why? (Asking rhetorically; I know why.)

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  6. I love that your blog helps add to my TBR list! Nothing came to mind specifically relating to your timely theme of protests, but it set me on a quest where I found this novel which looks wonderful. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016) I can’t wait to read it! Your theme is mostly covered by non-fiction, but I’m searching the internet for novels about the Molly McGuires (I did find a couple) and the Wounded Knee Siege of 1973.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mary Jo!

      I just googled “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,” and that novel does look REALLY good. Glad you mentioned it; I hadn’t been familiar with it. Now on my list for when I resume my local library borrowing — now available via online order and then curbside pickup — in a few weeks. (I still can’t bring myself to go the eBook route given how much time I already spend on my laptop and phone screens. 🙂 )

      Yes, there are probably countless nonfiction books about protests or that refer to protests — including the two subjects you cited. Almost always a very interesting topic.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The Broadway musical “Cabaret” was based on the play “I Am A Camera” which was based on the 1939 book Goodbye to Berlin. The works themselves serve as a form of protest of the atrocities already happening which resulted in the torture and death of over 6 million human beings.

    The movie “Casablanca” is based on the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. A protest does indeed take place in “Rick’s” in the form of competing songs. The movie takes place in December, 1941. I assume it was before December 7.

    The movie “Life Is Beautiful” is partially inspired by the book “In The End, I Beat Hitler”. I don’t specifically remember protests taking place, but again the work itself is a heartbreaking protest against the Hitlers and “wannabe” Hitlers of the world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, lulabelle!

      Great mentions of those productions and their origins! I didn’t know a lot of that information. Sometimes very popular, “mainstream” entertainment has protest elements and/or origins, which is a good thing.

      The 1930s and World War II years were indeed a time of huge protest, and huge pushback, before fascism was (mostly) defeated. (Partly a personal thing in my wife’s family, as her father as a young man engaged in a very brave, dangerous form of protest by being one of the Americans volunteering to fight in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.)

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is fascinating, Dave! That brings to mind “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”. The movie was based on a play and a novel of the same name. The title character was very vocal about her political affiliations, so much so that she influenced one of her gullible students into joining the Spanish Civil War where she was killed. Words matter!!! I wish our idiot in chief would just keep his mouth shut. His “Trumpeteers” follow his lead!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, lulabelle! Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” novel was fascinating and depressing, with various layers. (And, yes, it had various adaptations.)

          I totally agree that words matter, and that Trump’s sick, bigoted, disruptive, untrue words are an absolute plague on this country. 😦

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      • I had an second cousin, now deceased, who married the beautiful daughter of Spanish anarchists very active, even explosively, in the Spanish Civil War, who emigrated to Mexico after. My father and his cousin went around the streets of Manhattan soliciting funds for the Lincoln Brigade, as did my upstairs neighbor Larry’s mother, of all odd coincidences. It turns out for years people who had raised money and interest in that conflict met here in NY, had speakers, and printed up their own newsletter. My neighbor showed me a few.

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        • Wow, jhNY — our families/extended families have a Spanish Civil War connection of sorts! My wife still gets mailings from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, and we attended an ALBA event in Manhattan 10-15 years ago. Harry Belafonte was one of the speakers.

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    • Englishman and pal of Auden and Spender Christopher Isherwood wrote the semi-autobiographical “Goodbye to Berlin”, should readers be interested to dig up the book– it’s a pretty wonderful bit of prose, shedding light by way of connected episodes on a dark and terrible place and period of time, though within there were charmers.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I remember,on a personal note,my impromptu decision to take train into NYC,walk over to UN area and jump into the Women’s March: January 2017,a protest against the presidency of the divider in chief,miscreant,clown that is DT.

    It was an incredibly empowering experience that I will never forget. It was peaceful,unifying and necessary to be a part of a time in history that will go down as a time we elected the most vile, the supremely worst man to the highest office in our land.

    We need healthy outlets to express our anger. Most current protests have stayed on message,but I feel its disrespectful to use graffiti, damage buildings as some are doing.

    Also to protest on busy highways, at night, having to close down thoroughfares, can cause concerns on safety.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Michele!

      I agree that protesting can be so important — as was the case for you and many others in January 2017. It was obvious back then that the Trump presidency would be a disaster, and it became even worse than imagined — now with his no-longer-even-partly-hidden-white-supremacist views and with his awful response to the pandemic that has greatly increased the number of lives lost.

      I also agree that the vast majority of 2020 protesters have been peaceful and stayed on message. And when that has not been the case…it’s good to remember that the U.S. was partly founded on protest that wasn’t “legal” per se — the “looting” of the Boston Tea Party, for example.

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  9. Oh, my goodness! I just finished writing a review of a novel not fifteen minutes ago that includes protesters and protest scenes: The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint by Keith Madsen. I also compared one of its themes to The Confessions of Nat Turner! The timing couldn’t have been better for me to read your post.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Wow, Liz — that’s quite a coincidence! I guess protest is in the air these days!

      Your mention of “The Sons and Daughters of Toussaint” reminds me that I read an historical novel seven or eight years ago that included Toussaint Louverture as a character — “All Souls’ Rising” by Madison Smartt Bell. I thought it was an okay, not great book.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. An excellent post, as always David. Books allow us to explore different perspectives, which help us to grow and progress in wisdom and compassion. Your reminded me of a biography of Nelson Mandela that I read in 2012. These were my thoughts: I never thought of Nelson Mandela as young. Indeed, many still identify him as the benevolent, grandfatherly man who saved the world from apartheid. Young Mandela: The Revolutionary Years by David James Smith, gave me an entirely new perspective and a keen awareness of the sacrifices made during those tumultuous years. David James Smith chronicles Nelson Mandela’s life from his birth on July 18, 1918 in the Transkei until the Rivonia Trial of 1963 -1964. Nelson Mandela was charismatic, handsome, a brilliant communicator, and a serious activist. He was at his peak – intellectual courage fused with physical strength, a dynamic combination. Elegantly dressed in the most expensive suits, he was the quintessential revolutionary ready to accept any risk in pursuit of his dream: “an Africa which is in peace with itself.” Nelson Mandela inspired a perilously divided nation to turn away from racism and accept the possibility of working together. He once said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” Many thanks for another thoughtful and insightful post.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you for the kind words and great/eloquent/informative comment, Clanmother! Sounds like an excellent biography — which you described exceedingly well.

      Nelson Mandela was indeed a humane, amazing, courageous, revolutionary man who is seen as older in the mind’s eye of many because of course he got most of his media exposure in the West after he was released from prison and headed the South African government.

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