Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thoughts on Stuck Rubber Baby

Howard Cruse's Stuck Rubber Baby is one of those books with a title that felt vaguely familiar to me when I saw it, but didn't remember why it felt familiar.  I pulled it from the library shelves the other day, read the blurb, and thought to myself, "Now I remember why it feels familiar."  The blurb, for once, made clear that the book is right up my alley.

And then I remembered that Ana recommended the book to me back in February, and of course I had to snatch it up and read it.

I've been reading more graphic novels recently, mostly because I have been able to go to the library more often on the weekends.  I seem incapable of reading books without pictures these days, so I'm glad that the graphic novels are working out for me.

So, Stuck Rubber Baby.  What is it about the blurb that drew me in so completely?  Let me share it with you.
Art and story combine powerfully in this lyrical tale of a young man caught in the maelstrom of the civil rights movement and the entrenched homophoia of small-town America.  Toland Polk, the son of an uneducated white carpenter, has grown up in the Southern town of Clayfield.  It is the 1960s, a time of passionate beliefs and violent emotions, and Clayfield's citizens are divided in the fight over segregation.  As Toland fights on teh side of the civil rights activists, he slowly begins to realize that he also has a more personal battle -to accept that he is gay.
While I was initially drawn into the story, I admit that I was also wary.  I don't really like viewing the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of a white male.  This is the main reason I don't want to see the movie Glory.  Why does the story seem so much easier to take from a white guy who is kind of racist and then luckily changes his ways, rather than from the perspective of the people who have suffered through the pain for years and years and years?  I guess having the white male perspective gives the possibility of a happy ending.  Like, "Yay, I'm not racist any more, so there is hope for us all."

But that's not quite what happens in this book because Toland is so completely self-absorbed.  It's not like he starts interacting more with African-Americans and realizes that they're people, too.  It's more like the Civil Rights movement gives him the opportunity to think about other people.  For example, even while in the midst of a very tense sit-in to protest the shutdown of a local park, he thinks that everyone's actions and decisions are all driven by him.  It's a fantastically warped view of the world, and it's hard to make a complete about-face from that to becoming someone who is totally open with himself and other people.

There are many strengths to this book.  One was the illustrations.  They are gritty, done in black and white with pen.  And Cruse does them really, really well - your eyes are drawn immediately to the part of the page where there is the most tension (see the dog below).  The book is not populated by beautiful, busty women and tall, muscular men.  It stars average people living in tumultuous times and the pictures and the language and the action all reflect that:

Another thing I appreciated about this book was how complicated everything was.  Cruse did not set out to write a linear story about a man learning to accept himself while teaching tolerance to others.  He wrote a story about all the starts and stops, the steps forward and backward, that we all take on our personal journeys.  What was most powerful about this to me was that it made clear just how much work it takes to make progress.  Most people are inherently lazy about the status quo.  If things are going well for them, then they have very little incentive or motivation to change.  They are indifferent, and as Elie Wiesel said,
It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person's pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.
The problem with hindsight is that everything seems inevitable.  Of course the civil rights movement happened.  Obviously, it was a success.  Clearly, it was a good idea.  But that ignores just how much EFFORT is needed to start a movement, to create a groundswell, to get people to act.  I think Toland exemplifies that.  He was not interested in the civil rights movement at all until he met A Girl.  (Sad, but true, and hey - whatever works, I guess).  And then he just wanted to hang out with her more, so he went to some civil rights meetings and, next thing you know, he's at a sit-in and fighting for civil rights like he really believes in them.

There are so many characters in this book, and Toland is not the only one whose life gets attention.  While the civil rights movement and Toland's personal struggles are central to the story, there are many other amazing characters, too.  The woman who gave up a promising career as a singer to marry the local pastor.  The old lady who refused to sit in the back of the bus long before Rosa Parks did.  The gay man who gets so angry at racists that he just can't hold it in any longer.  The woman who finally stands up to her husband, and a man who carries a heavy load of guilt for years and years.

It's many stories in one, told by imperfect people who will make so many more mistakes in their lives.  But it's so good to know that a big group of average people can make a huge difference in the world, too.


  1. "He wrote a story about all the starts and stops, the steps forward and backward, that we all take on our personal journeys. What was most powerful about this to me was that it made clear just how much work it takes to make progress."

    YES. Perfectly put. This was my favourite thing about the book. I'm so glad you read it - I knew you'd write a really insightful review, and here it is.

  2. You always read the most interesting stories

  3. The title on this one resonates with me as well, but I wasn't terribly familiar with it. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I'm tempted to ILL it today.

  4. Sounds like this book has been well-executed, avoiding the pitfalls of many other books on racism written from the white man's perspective. I will have to go look for this one.


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