Book review: The Steep and Thorny Way, Cat Winters

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

Hamlet is probably one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, though it’s not in strict point of fact my favourite — I’m a fan of The Tempest and Much Ado if I have my druthers. But Hamlet has become an extremely important part of the Western literary canon, and it may be one of the most frequently produced and adapted of his plays. It’s also, of course, been the subject of scores of retellings, now including The Steep and Thorny WayCat Winters’ latest, out this month. I’m not going to give you a 1:1 discussion of how the book matches up to Hamlet, because that’s boring, but I am going to tell you why you should read it — and don’t worry, I promise I’m not going to spoil you.

The text is set in 1920s Oregon, in a small town where things are slowly but steadily going horribly wrong (something, one might say, is rotten in the state of Oregon). Hanalee Denney is a biracial teen struggling to come to terms with the death of her father — whom, members of the community say, haunts the roadways and forests at night looking for justice after his untimely death. Her mother is attempting to protect her daughter, while the teen accused of killing her father in an accident has just been released from prison and is on the run. Meanwhile, Hanalee suspects her new stepfather of being responsible for the murder, and hopes she can trick him into an inadvertent admission, but she doesn’t realise how much danger she’s in.

For those who’ve read Hamlet and are familiar with the text, I will note that the book doesn’t 100 percent follow the play, which I both expect and appreciate. If I want to read Hamlet, I’ll read Hamlet. If I want to see someone play with the narrative, I’ll read a retelling or adaptation, which is what this is — the mark of an interesting story isn’t in replicating the original but in expanding on it and turning it into a bit of a thought experiment for writer and reader alike.

What does interest me about this book is the very real history it touches upon, in great detail, because Winters really did her homework as she developed this book. For those unfamiliar with Oregon’s history — a subject that’s actually been in the news a fair amount of late thanks to the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in January — the state was originally quite explicitly founded as a racist utopia by white supremacists seeking a sort of last stand to hold their ground. Women and girls like Hanalee had virtually no rights in Oregon, as did other members of the Black and biracial community. Being Black meant not being able to own property, run businesses, or marry, and in fact some racist laws in Oregon were struck down quite late in the 20th century, even if they hadn’t been enforced for decades.

In an environment where white supremacy was the order of the day, being a person of colour was extremely dangerous. So was being involved in an interracial relationship, as white partners were viewed as race traitors and/or victims, depending on their gender. Hanalee’s mother would have been considered polluted by virtue of her relationship with a Black man, with Hanalee the revolting outcome of an unnatural marriage. Her stepfather in turn would have been taking on a huge responsibility as a white man marrying a woman who had been tainted by association. This contextual information is critical for understanding what happens in the novel as the community’s racist sentiments slowly but steadily escalate and Hanalee realizes that even old friends are enemies now.

This is a story about coming of age and also about betrayal, and about watching a small community slowly tear into itself and eat itself from the inside out, with racist sentiments whipped up by outside agitators and groups that enjoy high social status. Readers might go into The Steep and Thorny Road expecting a ’20s tale of bootleggers and skulduggery, and some of those things are present, but this is a story more about racism’s brutal toll on Oregon, a state that to this day still has a very small Black population.

Racism in this country manifests in very different ways, and the legacies of explicitly racist policy — like that built into Oregon’s very founding documents — play out in both subtle and overt forms of discrimination across the US. In the 1920s, white Oregonians enjoyed considerable social privilege not just because of generations of racist attitudes but because the law reinforced their superiority, endangering girls like Hanalee and making it virtually impossible for people of colour to receive justice and fair treatment in the courts and other settings.

This book is particularly important in the context of a nation which often rags on the South for a history of slavery, racism, and discrimination. The legacies of slavery and codified racial discrimination in the North and West are often left undiscussed, with Oregon being a classic example — until very recently, many people didn’t realise the extent of the problems with Oregon in its nascent statehood, and it flew under the radar, with most assuming that it entered the union as a happy-go-lucky free state with all rights equally accorded to everyone. That wasn’t in fact the case, and it’s important to understand that, to confront our collective history as a nation, to hold the West accountable for its racist sins instead of trying to erase them — California, for example, heavily exploited workers from Mexico and discriminated against Chinese-Americans, which puts rather a tarnish on the golden state, does it not?

Image: Hamlet — oh Hamlet, Hartwig HKD, Flickr