Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Made in Hero-The War for Soap by Betty Hugh

Made in Hero ~ The War for Soap ($14.00 U.S.A.) (Clay Dog Books) by Betty Hugh

Review by Pam Rosenblatt

Betty Hugh’s Made in Hero ~ The War for Soap puts truth in the old favorite adage,

“You can’t tell a book by its cover.” Hugh has drawn a plain yet inviting cover with a pen or pencil drawing of a man and a mountainous scene on white background. Upon looking at the cover, the reader probably wonders who the man is, why he is on the cover, and where he and the mountain scene are located? These are pretty simple questions. Once the reader starts reading Hugh’s novel, he realizes this is no ordinary modern book. It’s a creative and imaginative story that is a challenge to complete. Made in Hero ~ The War for Soap is a really complicated read that is best understood if you have a background in Homer’s Iliad1 and Sophocles’ Antigone2 before you read the book. In fact, it’s such a different type of book that, at the end of its 178 pages, the narrator says, “And I am still unsure whether Hero is the crime mystery disguised as epic tragedy, or the epic tragedy masquerading as crime mystery.” (p. 178).

To help us get a handle on the book, I thought I’d use the narrator who is separate from the protagonist in the story but, at the same time, the same character and referred to as “I” or “J. R. Teheda”.3 The narrator is storyteller; the protagonist is the character of the storyteller; the narrator/protagonist is not the novel’s author, Betty Hugh. To prove this last point, perhaps, Hugh makes the narrator/protagonist a man, not a woman.

The narrator tells the reader stories about people found in “Hero” which “at the beginning, was a transient and mute idea” and is “Today…a nation within a city, a modern Troy under siege.” (p. 2) As protagonist, the narrator gives the reader the point of view of “Teheda”, a war journalist working in Hero at the request of his friend and mentor nicknamed “Pea Nut” who is the “Editor-in-Chief of the Heroaen bureau” of The Chronicle. (p. 7) Through the “I”, the first person pronoun, which begins the “Prologue” of Hugh’s Made in Hero ~ The War for Soap, Hugh has spun a story in journalistic style, not poetic style like that found in Homer’s The Iliad. Hugh begins her crime mystery with a down-to-earth, descriptive yet factual paragraph:

HILLSIDE, Hero ― I sit in my rented room with the lights out;

nothing running but the fans. They make the noise of electric

bellows, heaving in mechanical rhythm to no particular beat.

Three of them are pointed at my head from different angles,

their irate forces tangling in a whirlwind. But they offer no

relief. The heat, packing its sour sweet odor, throbs to its own

pulse, and drives me to wonder if was all an accident that my

writing of the war had turned into the story of a corpse. (p. 1)

Hugh has drawn the reader into the book with the simple, ordinary statement of “I sit in my rented room…” The reader can visualize the narrator, or “I”, inside a room sitting. But then Hugh twists the sentence a bit making it unusual, or unexpected. The narrator isn’t sitting in the room in light but “with the lights out”. Who would sit in a room rented or not “with the lights out” instead of on, unless the person is going to rest or perhaps wants to save money? The only electric things on are “the fans” that “make the noise of electric bellows, heaving in mechanical rhythm to no particular beat.” While the reader realizes the room is in darkness, he can almost hear the ruckus of “the fans”. Hugh has carried the reader into Made in Hero ~ The War for Soap through articulate description, though the images conjure up “irate forces tangling in a whirlwind.” The journey already is rather unpleasant like “The heat, packing its sour sweet odor” that “throbs to its own pulse”. This novel’s opening paragraph is loaded with images that are not pleasant. The narrator summarizes the situation saying, “my writing of the war had turned into the story of a corpse” Something large and broad gets minimized “into the story of a corpse”. The reader knows the words on the pages that follow aren’t your typical everyday newspaper readings. And the reader has already begun the wonder about the significance of the “corpse”.

Who is the corpse then, and why is he significant? The corpse was a man nicknamed “Commander”, and the unburied dead body turns out to be the real reason why Teheda returned to Hero:

FROM THE OUTSET, I understood that I’d come back

to investigate the death of the Commander, the circumstances

precipitating it, as well as the events which immediately followed

― increasingly referred to as GU-2 (rebellions here have a way

of recycling themselves). But I realized, and only after a period

of catastrophic reflection, that my real purpose was to tell the

story of his life. I did not foresee how much this purpose was to

become my obsession, until something odd happened one evening

while stepping over the city’s crumbling cobble pavements. Crunching

underfoot, they recalled to me that Heroaens have a saying “If the

stones could speak, what story would they be telling?” It occurred

to me that the Commander’s life was none other than the story of

the stones. (p. 11)

Through reputation, the Commander “was a martyr, a champion of the cause, defender of the people. From others, [Teheda] heard he was a victim of the system”. (p. 11) And for these reasons, the Commander’s death and situation caught Teheda’s interest.

Considered a hero, the Commander achieved his notoriety as a rebel militant active in The Great Uprising. What was The Great Uprising (GU)? The narrator explains:

….Over seven years in duration, GU would surge over the borders

of at least three nations, and rip through the economies of countless

others. It had magnificent range. In short, GU would destabilize

The Empire nearly to the point of collapse (some of its instigators

anointed themselves the “New Barbarians”). More remarkable,

however, was that GU had fomented in the seemingly insignificant

streets of Hero―a locale The Empire had largely considered a remote,

forsaken outpost. (p. 9)

The narrator has the protagonist “I”, or “Teheda”, think it was his mission to figure out the war in more minute terms:

Over time, too, I’d come to realize that my responsibility

was greater than it initially appeared. It involved no mere

examination of the current revolt, but rather the attempt to

it in terms of the larger war the reading public is all but

sick of. And there lies my dejection. Even for myself,

the war grows tiresome. I have been writing it too long

the recent violence strikes me simply as an echo of that

large interminable conflict. (p. 11)

Teheda takes on the heroic responsibility of making sure the Commander is buried:

Yet my job remained the sorting of the one: the burial of the

body if an outlaw. I understand now that this crime, in its

simplicity, was the true beginning, not the ending, to the

story. And yet, it was a beginning that hurled me nowhere

but into the past. That is the place where time becomes

inverted, and must be turned, like a bloodstained garment,

inside out…. (p. 13)

Through the use of creative imagination and description and imagery, Hugh

has begun to create a composite of Teheda, a war journalist who is searching

for the truth behind the death of a militant, the Commander. At the beginning of

the novel, the characters aren’t well developed. Hugh introduces Teheda and Pea Nut

and Dusty, the Chronicle’s Chief International Desk Editor. Unlike Pea Nut and

Dusty, Teheda is looking for change, not the same path a journalist takes where “[His]

sole purpose is to record the truth.” (p. 12) Teheda is looking for excitement. And his

request is filled while discovering that the body of the Commander has been stolen.

Upon discovering this fact, the protagonist “I”, or “Teheda”, begins a journey throughout

Hero to recover the body. Along the way, he meets several hero figures: Hektor, the rebel militant hero who has been captured and put in prison; Antigone, a complex character with whom the hero Teheda falls in love with; and Antigone’s sister, Sophi, the woman whom Teheda really loves, who is introduced to Teheda through Hektor and shows Teheda key sites on the journey to locating the Commander’s body.

The Commander, Hektor, Antigone, and Sophi all have heroic qualities, but it’s Teheda, the narrator and protagonist in the novel, with whom the reader can relate to most and achieves the status of a mythical hero by the novel’s conclusion.4

In Made In Hero ~ The War for Soap, Hugh makes many references to what a hero is. Teheda asks Hektor outright, “Do you consider yourself a hero?” when he first meets the militant for an interview in the Hero Prison. Hektor just gave the following response:

After thinking it over, [Hektor] replied in a mild scowl,

‘What do you think?’

‘You strike me as a man of quiet courage,’ I ventured,

‘and generally grumpy outlook.’

This, too, provoked a sputter of laughter.” (p. 26)

Through the use of wit and dialogue, Hugh has put humor into a tense situation. She has Hektor explain what being a hero is all about in a later chapter of the book. The

narrator tells the reader what a martyr is in Hero:

Men long for honor in places they can least find it. At the

gym, they carved a pocket where it was possible to shut out the war.

‘In there, what matters most is the contest,” Hektor explained. ‘Boxing

is all about grace―of heart, of mind, of body. In the fight, we give our

best, and afterwards, embrace. We forgive.” (p. 97)

Unlike Hektor, Teheda isn’t graceful but he did do the best journalistic job he could, by the end of Made In Hero ~ The War for Soap. He has all the qualities of a modern day hero: he finds a story with a mission; he has a love affair with Sophi5; he saves his former lover, Antigone, from possible death6; he has a traumatic experience that affects his outlook on life in Hero7; he keeps searching for his identity outside of being a war journalist8; and he searches for the truth.

Made in Hero ~ The War for Soap is based on Greek myths, especially Homer’s The Iliad, an epic filled with characters who are gods or human often with divine ancestors, are courageous and strong, and praised for their heroic endeavors and in good standing with the gods.9

Hugh’s Made In Hero ~ The War for Soap is a fine effort at creating modern day everyday martyrs for the literary world. Hugh has written a novel that makes the reader imagine and think about today’s society, its citizens, and its heroes. Made In Hero ~ The War for Soap is well worth your time spent reading.

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