Book Review: Dance the Eagle to Sleep by Marge Piercy

There really is something about Marge Piercy and her writing. She literally TALKS to me. I've already talked about how much her novel Gone To Soldiers has affected me in my life (as well as the sheer amount of times I go back to it), but she has written other novels that have the same effect on me. Her prose tends to tear me apart, touches me intensely and then leaves me to think about it over and over again for days afterwards. A lot of it comes from the fact that she is able to to create story lines around (political) ideas that I completely agree with; strong characters that you relate to, love, dislike, want to be; and her powerful writing that always seems to become timeless. The ability to blend beauty and ugliness together in prose is what Piercy is insanely good at, as well as the ability to make you imagine that you are living the exact story that you are in the middle of reading.

Dance the Eagle to Sleep is Marge Piercy's first novel, originally published in 1970 and recently reissued, with a new foreword by Piercy herself. The novel is centered around four students, each from different backgrounds (Shawn the rockstar trying to avoid doing military service, Joanna the runaway, Corey the revolutionary and Billy the scientist). The story starts with the student revolt at Franklin High and continues with the development and country-wide growth of a dissident youth movement named the "Indians". Young people who are tired of being told how to live their lives, what they need to become to be a "proper adult"and what box they need to fit into. People with ideas that defy the norm and who want to live, be free and create a new type of world where there is no war and plastic pre-fab lives and boredom.
Through-out the novel the movement grows inside and outside of the cities; communes are created and the inevitable governmental crackdowns start happening. The Indians become self-sufficient and live as one large family, with natural leaders and different groups inside the family. Discussions are held every day where all members can voice thoughts and opinions and drugs are seen as a way to enlightenment as opposed to addiction, in the same way as hallucinogenics were used in certain Native American tribes. The Indians look for peace in the alternate way of living but prepare for the eventual clashes with the police and the the government. Police brutality is expected, but once the violence of the crackdowns becomes more akin to war, the family divides into those who want to go underground and those who want to fight to the bitter end.

Although an invented world, this novel is never far from the truth, and is based on the student protests in the 60's, and can easily be transplanted into the world of today, with the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement around the world. Hope, change, revolution, repression. A story of despair, of hope, of uprising and of defiance. Full of powerful images and metaphors that leave you imagining the may bes and the could have beens.

Marge Piercy's Website

Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers: my favourite book of all time

This happens once a year, at least once, sometimes multiple times: all of a sudden I will stop what I am doing and say "it's time to read Gone To Soldiers again." Then I pick it up and fall back into the words that have kept me going for so many years now. I will never ever tire of this book. It happened to me this morning, while I was making my morning tea, wondering through the haze of my mind what on earth I was going to write about today, trying to avoid the inevitable subjects of "2011 was a shitty/great/annoying/interesting year", when I just stopped in my tracks, grabbed my most recent copy of the book and read the first page. Nothing better than starting off your new year with firstly your first bender in 3 years, and then back to reality with your favourite book. The former not to be revisited for a while, the latter a lot more healthy.

The first time I read Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers was in 1991 or 1992. One of my mum's friends lent it to her, and as with any book that ever came into our household, I read it. Actually I devoured it. I've always loved historical fiction, especially dealing with WW2, and I love strong women characters that I can relate to. I also love rich, well-constructed prose, words that let you imagine the scene in your own head, help you to picture faces and expressions and leave them imprinted in your mind for a long time after you have read the last page of the book. This is how Marge Piercy writes. Gone To Soldiers will make you laugh, cry, want to hit things and finally feel like you can go out and accomplish anything that you want to, just because you can.

The novel is the story of ten different characters (men and women), interweaving, across the Atlantic and the Pacific, over the space of 5 years of war. Every character is human, and you will probably relate more to one over another, depending on how old you are when you read the book. My favourite will always be Jacqueline, feisty French Jewish girl who has to grow up and deal with the undealable. I sometimes see some of myself in her, more than in any of the other characters. Basically, Jacqueline makes me realise how much potential we have to create something from our lives, while remaining true to our hearts and beliefs. I know it sounds a little silly said like that, but you really need to read her story to understand what I mean.
There is also Bernice who breaks away from her father and runs away to fly aeroplanes; Louise who goes from writing women's stories to writing from the front lines in France via London; Daniel who deciphers code for a living; Jeff, the artist with the survival instinct, and probably the male character who I am the most attracted to; Abra who learns to live with nothing after having everything and all of the others who will touch your lives in a way that you wouldn't expect. An epic story that you can't put down. Life changing? Maybe. Just read it, the least it can do is help you learn a little more about what the regular person went through in the 40's.

I've read this book at least once a year since 1991. I've been through so many copies of it, I've given copies to my friends and it is without a doubt my favourite book of all time. Every time I read it I discover something new and somehow I find comfort in the stories, in a way I find a patch of non-moving ground that I can stand on for a moment to recollect myself.

More information on the book on Marge Piercy's website: Gone To Soldiers
More information on Marge Piercy: Biography

All of Marge Piercy's novels are excellent - once you have read this one try the others (especially Braided Lives).