Vintage Treasures: Andre Norton’s Velvet Shadows
My home is pretty cool. There are teetering piles of unread books everywhere, ready to topple like late August sunflowers. And if I only had time to review a few, it might be even cooler.
Fortunately, I’m not the only one who lives here. Occasionally, the other inhabitants find something that catches their eye, and when I see that happen I grab a notepad and try and coerce some comments out of them. It’s not the perfect family dynamic, but at least it’s something we do together.
I don’t get to choose what my family reads, obviously, so these reviews-by-proxy tend to be an odd lot (the last one was The House of Dead Maids, which I discovered my daughter enjoying a while back). Last weekend, I noticed my wife had casually picked up a copy of Andre Norton’s Velvet Shadows. I debated for a second before grabbing my notepad. Andre Norton, vintage paperback, gothic romance… Well, close enough to Black Gate territory for our purposes.
What follows is a raw transcript of our conversation, which she agreed to have published here only after I promised not to use her real name on the Internet. Not everyone has a taste for fame, I guess.
John O’Neill: Well, how was it?
Unidentified Reviewer #1: It was terrible.
JO: Okay that’s a little more, uh… concise than our usual reviews. What else you can tell us?
It’s a dumb book.
Well, what can you tell us about the plot?
It’s kinda complicated really, but… Seriously? Are you writing down everything I’m saying?
That’s how this works. Please continue.
That’s ridiculous. Okay. This woman is hired to accompany another woman, who is presented as the half-sister of a Mister Sauvage, who owns all these estates near San Francisco. The woman is hired to keep the sister from some guy — who don’t know who he is. And then… long and short, the half-sister is not a half-sister at all. She’s married to this biracial voodoo priest. And this is all a plot to get control of Mr. Sauvage’s estate.
Of course. It’s a plot about voodoo that’s way over the top. A lot of racial stereotyping. I didn’t like it.
You read the whole thing?
I read the whole thing.
Because I always do. I don’t usually leave books unfinished. And I was kind of curious to see how outlandish it got… And it got pretty out there.
Like, science fiction out there?
No. Like voodoo out there. There’s no SF in here at all.
Right. But is it supernatural?
You lost me. So, voodoo magic? That sounds supernatural to me.
No. Just a ritual that gets carried away.
Alrighty. Would you read another Andre Norton gothic —
I didn’t even finish the question.
I wouldn’t read another Andre Norton novel. Because of the racial stereotyping. I mean, really bad. Good thing you have all those other Andre Norton novels lying around, because I’m not going to touch them.
It was written in 1977 — well, at least, it was first published in 1977. Seriously? Like the 70s, we’re talking like this? No.
Just the way any character who was not white was described. The way it’s worded is 19th Century racist. Not 20th Century, 19th Century. All those stereotypes are there.
Where is it set?
San Francisco. Which I also found annoying.
Why is that?
Because I grew up near there.
Were the characters intriguing, at least?
No. The characters are annoying, mostly because of the racial descriptions. Any person of color was sullen, sly, over-sexualized. The usual.
What about the ending?
Irritating. The main character was annoying, and I did not really care if it ended well for her. It’s not your typical romance at all.
Yeah, doesn’t sound like it. You haven’t even mentioned a love interest!
Well, it’s Mr. Sauvage, of course. And the hired chaperone.
Gotcha. Last question. Do you expect Velvet Shadows would have worked better if it were set on an alien planet, or included space ships?
Would it have worked better as science fiction, you mean? I have no idea. But I don’t think so. The racial stereotyping would have still mucked it up.
There you have it. Thanks to Unidentified Reviewer #1 for the insight into a neglected gothic classic.
Velvet Shadows was published in paperback in 1977 by Fawcett, and reprinted May 2012 in digital format. It is 238 pages; the digital version is $3.99.
Our recent Andre Norton coverage includes:
Three Against the Witch World
Year of the Unicorn
Warlock of the Witch World
All the Covers of Galactic Derelict
Kirkus Looks at Andre Norton’s Young Adult Novels
The Last Planet
Andre Norton, Michael Moorcock and Appendix N: Advanced Readings in D&D
Star Soldiers and Other Free Kindle Books at Amazon.com
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.
Your wife is funny 🙂
The book may have been written in the 1970s and I realize it’s a gothic romance, but in what specific time period did the story take place? The “stereotyping” may just have been the way people spoke and thought in the time period in which the story takes place. If it were to have been written with 1970s sensibilities the dialogue and character descriptions would have seemed woefully wrong for that period.
Would Unidentified Reviewer #1 voice the same objections to Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer…and if so would she have sworn never to read any other Twain?
The wonders of Norton’s Witch World novels and stories are now denied U. R. #1, which is unfortunate indeed.
The characters in Huck Finn are stereotypes…at first. It’s in getting to know the deeper characters as the story moves along that traditional preconceptions about race that re initially presented are challenged.
My guess is that didn’t happen in the Andre Norton book.
> The “stereotyping” may just have been the way people spoke and thought in the time period in which the story takes place.
Way to stick up for Andre Norton, buddy.
I read your comment to Unidentified Reviewer #1, and she proceeded to mock me cruelly. Something about reading Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and other gothic romance novelists, and being able to tell the difference between period dialog and naked stereotyping.
Then she said something about the language of white privilege, Lacanian psychoanalysis and textual theory, until I felt stupid and shut up.
This is why I don’t argue books with my wife. She has two more Master’s degrees than me.
> The wonders of Norton’s Witch World novels and stories are now denied U. R. #1
Good try, but she said she’ll get over it.
> My guess is that didn’t happen in the Andre Norton book.
I think you’re on the right track. All I know is, the next book I give to my wife had better be an improvement.
A comparative analysis is in order, methinks. If evidence of other character stereotyping (of whatever species or races) is rife in other Norton books, then the wife can make her point. On the other hand, she may be making a cardinal mistake of the naive reader: assuming the fictions of the author represent the author’s own personal views. A good test might be to have her read some of the Witch world books for evidence to support her theory–drawn but from a single statistical example, a single data point–from which very little can be logically drawn.
Unless, of course, she prefers to work from emotion rather than logic or intellectual analysis, in which case all bets are off and so much for X-number of M.A. degrees. 🙂
> A comparative analysis is in order, methinks.
Great! Then you can do a comparative analysis, because my wife doesn’t think so.
She suggests that if you’re unconvinced, and you’ve already read those other Norton novels, the simplest solution might be for you to read VELVET SHADOWS and explain to us how all the racist sterotyping, isn’t really.
The question isn’t whether there is racial stereotyping in the book, but if your wife thinks Norton is a racist because of it and therefore refuses to read her other books.
The “racial stereotyping” could still be just the author doing her job of capturing the injustices of that time period, pure and simple.
Since there has never been a claim or even a whisper of a claim (by readers or critics) of racial stereotyping in any other of Norton’s books, the evidence would seem to indicate that this is perhaps unique to this book. The question them becomes, Why did the author do this? What point was she perhaps trying to make?
But alas, when someone has already made up their mind (regardless of the facts or an attempt at critical analysis) then there’s little one can do. And here I thought a college education taught one how to think critically. Silly me. 🙂
You and Alice have a good one, John. weekends are always much too short.
Alice never said anything about Norton being a racist, just that this book was thick with racial stereotyping.
I dunno — the simple solution seems to be for you, the Norton specialist, to pick up a copy of VELVET SHADOWS and examine the evidence. That’s what a college education taught Alice and me.
Unless, of course, you prefer to work from emotion rather than logic or intellectual analysis, in which case all bets are off.
Alas, if you’ve already made up your mind (regardless of the facts or an attempt at critical analysis) then there’s little we can do. And here we thought a college education taught you how to think critically. Silly us.
The weekend is shaping up pretty well for us. Any good football you’ve got your eye on?
Sounds to me as if U. R. #1 didn’t enjoy Velvet Shadows enough to pursue other books like Norton. I’m a big time fan of Mary Stewart and somewhat of Victoria Holt who I considered to be a more inferior writer since her novels were more predictable. Although Stewart’s heroine’s were strong for that era, frankly sometimes I was a little impatient with the ways they put themselves in danger. I can understand UR’s feelings of repugnance for the racist attitudes she found in the book. Especially if she didn’t enjoy the writing enough to pursue whether it was a commonality in all his book.
As you know, John, I’m a huge Robert E. Howard fan and in some of his stories and poetry, racist remarks appear. Every time I read something like that I cringed. But the analysis that I did of his poetry showed that by 1930s Texas standards, REH was not a racist and in fact could have been severely beaten or worse had the KKK known about some of the attitudes in his unpublished poetry. All of this is in “Robert E. Howard and the Issue of Racism: The African and African-American Poems” It appeared on Damon Sasser’s Two-Gun Raconteur website in five parts. Here is the link to the first part if she should care to follow up on it. Links to parts 2-5 appear at the end of this one:
That post was one of the most difficult things I’ve written. What was done to people of color in this country in the name of religion, science and government was horrifying. Sometimes as I read through the research, tears would start and I’d have to walk away for awhile. But those suffering from such abuse could not walk away. Even now as those images come back, I can still feel that pain.
As for the prejudice that seems to linger in people even today, it seems so obvious to me that if you take away a person’s skin, underneath there is no way to tell what color it is. Why so much emphasis is placed on those few millimeters of the outer layer of human cells compared to the whole body, much less the inner character, is beyond me.
Kudos to UR for sticking up for what she believes in. I admire that a lot.
> I’m a big time fan of Mary Stewart and somewhat of Victoria Holt who I considered to be a more inferior writer
Thanks for the comments. I passed them along to Alice (along with the link), and said to tell you she definitely agrees: Stewart is the better writer!
>Alice never said anything about Norton being a racist, just that this book was thick with racial stereotyping.<
Then I can't help but wonder why she won't even consider reading any other of Andre Norton's fine fantasies. If she thought that one book was dumb or whatever, then why take it out on the entire canon of work by that author, when there is no evidence whatsoever that it exists elsewhere?
This is what puzzles me and led me to believe she thought Andre was racist on the basis of one book's stereotyping–which could be explained in any number of ways, that's all.
> Then I can’t help but wonder why she won’t even consider reading any other of Andre Norton’s fine fantasies.
Oh, that’s easy. Because she hated VELVET SHADOWS, and when she discovers a book she dislikes, she’s in no hurry to read another one by the same author.
> If she thought that one book was dumb or whatever, then why take it out on the entire canon of work by that author
Uh, she hasn’t? As I mentioned above (twice) she just said she disliked VELVET SHADOWS. End of story. There’s no value judgement on any of Norton’s other books.
What puzzles me is that, while you ARE a Norton fan, you’ve avoided every suggestion that you read VELVET SHADOWS — instead trying to put forward the emotional and irrational argument that since you see no evidence of stereotyping in Norton’s other books, it’s impossible there could be any in VELVET SHADOWS.
The obvious answer seems to be for you to examine the evidence yourself, before you try to convince Alice it isn’t there. But maybe that’s just a college thing.
>What puzzles me is that, while you ARE a Norton fan, you’ve avoided every suggestion that you read VELVET SHADOWS — instead trying to put forward the emotional and irrational argument that since you see no evidence of stereotyping in Norton’s other books, it’s impossible there could be any in VELVET SHADOWS<
Never said any of that. Show me where I said any of that. I said that not only I, but other reviewers, readers, and critics down through the decades have never claimed Norton wrote any racial stereotypes, and therefore it might behoove the reader spotting such in VELVET SHADOWS to perhaps merely ask Why they appear in this book. Go back and read what I wrote and please try to refrain from misquoting me or just making these things up. It's hard enough to discuss things online as it is without being deliberately misquoted, or being attributed with statements never made.
And Alice said in the interview: "I wouldn’t read another Andre Norton novel." That seems pretty much a decision based on her value judgment of VELVET SHADOWS, and does show she's taking it out on the author's canon of work because of one book.
And again, there's no reason for me to read VS, because I've never argued that there wasn't racial stereotyping in it–only the possible _reason_ for it, for which I have gotten no answer, as Alice seems unwilling to offer any, offering only her emotional reaction which has led her to swear off reading any other Norton books–which I see as irrational. With this approach to her reading there will be very few authors who wouldn't in some way offend her sensibilities in some way or other in one story or another. To cut them off as she appears to have done Andre Norton seems like a rather narrow point of view when it comes to the joys of literature. Of course, if she reads only those authors she knows will reinforce her private world view without upsetting her, then that's her choice and more power to her. To each his own.
I appreciate you trying to open up Alice’s literary horizons a bit by trying to get her to read more Andre Norton. Lord knows I’ve been trying to get her to read more fantasy for years — with no success. We got lucky when she picked up VELVET SHADOWS, but I don’t think we should sit around and wait for lightning to strike twice. 🙂
> With this approach to her reading there will be very few authors who wouldn’t in some way offend her sensibilities
Nice try, but nope. She reads more widely than anybody else I know (and believe me, I know a lot of readers). She gives every writer a chance, too — she finishes every book, long after the point I would have given up.
> And again, there’s no reason for me to read VS, because I’ve never argued that there wasn’t racial stereotyping in it
Okay, not sure I follow you.
So you accept that there’s offensive racial stereotyping in VELVET SHADOWS. And then you say “there will be very few authors who wouldn’t in some way offend her sensibilities.”
Are you saying that racial stereotyping just doesn’t bother you, and that readers should be okay with it?
Again, not trying to put words in your mouth here. Just trying to figure out your argument.
I never argued that there wasn’t racial stereotyping in the book, John, because that was never the point. By _today’s_ standards a _lot_ of books either written in the past or set in the past have what is now considered to be racial stereotyping. My question was always Did Norton capture the time/place accurately by employing these stereotypes, and if so for what purpose?
All I seemed to get from Alice (implicitly) was that it didn’t matter, that because it was there was enough for her. And then that she would never read any other Norton book again (an explicit statement).
Of course racial stereotyping bothers me if it occurs in a story written today and set in today. Unless the author were making a specific point by doing so, to point up how wrong it is, for instance. It all depends on context and intent. If an author racial stereotypes because it’s clear he wants to put down a certain race then it’s dead wrong, unless perhaps he’s showing us what a despicable character someone is by painting him as a racist.
But Alice gave us no context for the way Norton portrayed certain characters in VS to which Alice objected. Maybe…just _maybe_, the stereotyped characters were meant to be of the cardboard sort because they weren’t central to the main point of the story, i.e. there was no need to flesh them out for story purposes. We don’t know because Alice never seemed to care to give any of this any critical thought. It _appeared_ she just knee-jerked an emotional response from she automatically assumed was racial stereotyping without giving any thought beyond the surface of the characterizations? We just don’t know because she wouldn’t say.
There are other issues with which Alice may feel strongly about in the fiction she reads, besides racial stereotyping. Is she offended by half-naked, buxom wimmin wielding swords in S&S stories for instance? Or does she like more currently PC type wimmin in her S&S? If, say, she dislikes some story of REH’s with the buxom, half-naked girl sort in it, would she be swearing off ALL of REH?
Maybe she’s anti-military/war too. If she read Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS would she then forswear reading any other RAH, even STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which is the exact opposite?
See what I mean? What if I happened to read a story in BG and thought it disgusting, then decided never to read BG again…because of one story? Same general principle.
Life is finite, even when it’s long. The number of books you can read in your finite years is finite, too. When you find a book that Doesn’t Do It For You, there’s nothing wrong with protecting your reading time and devoting it to authors you know can, or to future new finds. Once you’re out of college, unless you are by trade a teacher, the Eat Your Peas phase of your reading life can be over.
> Maybe…just _maybe_, the stereotyped characters were meant to be of the cardboard sort because
> they weren’t central to the main point of the story… It _appeared_ she just knee-jerked an emotional response from she automatically
> assumed was racial stereotyping without giving any thought beyond the surface of the characterizations?
> We just don’t know because she wouldn’t say.
Very true. And since you steadfastly refuse to examine the book and find out for yourself, I guess we’ll never know.
> What if I happened to read a story in BG and thought it disgusting, then decided never
> to read BG again… because of one story? Same general principle.
Dave, I don’t want to seem unreasonable here, but that happens all the time. Authors (and magazines) usually get one shot to win an audience, and that’s it. There’s a tremendous amount of quality material out there competing for our entertainment dollar, and it’s the rare reader indeed who will come back after a bad experience.
And if a reader found blatant racial stereotyping in a BLACK GATE story and swore off the magazine, that would be my own damn fault.
Telling a reader they need to try all 14 other issues of BLACK GATE before they can judge the magazine would be rather arrogant and stupid of me, don’t you think?
That doesn’t happen. You have to win readers with every issue, and you put your reputation on the line with every one. Believe me.