Wednesday 28 September 2022

#bookreview: Stranger Back Home | EL Haines

Stranger Back HomeStranger Back Home by E.L. Haines

I honestly don't know what to think of Stranger Back Home.

If Sparrow were a real person, he'd be the type of person that I'd actively start avoiding within an hour of meeting him: an arrogant, insufferable, know-it-all. But since he's a fictional character and there were many positive reviews, I figured I'd give him a chance and read his story in small doses.


Sparrow receives a text message from his half-brother, who lives in the magical world of Telleron which is populated by elves, gnomes, halflings, dragons, kobolds, and all sorts of other magical beings/races. He leaves America and goes back home to DragonsMouth to sort out his father's will and his inheritance. Between fighting off bandits and tax auditors, causing general mayhem, and attempting to solve the inheritance problem, Sparrow transplants American racial sensitivities based on skin colour into his interactions with Telleron society, confusing everyone, ignoring actual racial tensions between species, and making himself out to be a complete racist arse, when "really, he's not!"

Spoiler: really, he is. But oh hey, maybe he experienced character growth, or maybe it was all a con! Who knows?

On the whole, the story was quite entertaining, though the main narrative kept segueing into backstory narratives, infodumps, and side comments which is not something I'm particularly fond of, not to mention the use of footnotes which were in some ways rather Pratchett-esque.

Based on Haines' *wink wink nudge nudge* comments, it feels like he's trying to point out how some people can be oversensitive towards issues of race and the language surrounding it. Some of these still feel relevant, including using the terms "boy" and "Master", but others are over-the-top non-issues like the very general terms "black market" and "blacksmith" that Sparrow, for some obscure reason, completely misunderstood. And obviously, because Sparrow cannot read a room to save his life despite being a storyteller, he makes issues of things that no one else but him cares about, including assuming that the economic & power disparities in Telleron are the same as in America (i.e. based on skin colour instead of species).

A key to the plot also involves the use of blackface, where Sparrow has to confront the fact that while blackface is incredibly offensive in modern America, it's a cultural, normal way of life to a subgroup of gnomes in Telleron. And that maybe him donning a kobold disguise to gain information and the way he interacts with them may be more racist than he initially thought.

I suppose you can read Stranger Back Home as an allegory to how issues around race, skin colour, and culture vary around the world - and therefore cannot just be assumed without knowing the true history and tensions of that specific society. What offends some may not offend others. This holds true in real life as well. It does well in unmasking Sparrow's actual unwitting racism towards the other races in Telleron and makes him face up to the realities of hate based on your race (or in this case, species) and the way that he treats the kobolds.

Yet, at the same time, it also glosses over the complexity, breadth, and width of race relations (including disparate impact based on various factors) in real-world societies by "proving" how untrue it is in this fictional one. This undermines the realities of unconscious biases and systemic problems that people are still experiencing and trying to correct by implying that it's only racism if there is "real harm", which I suppose refers to physical and/or actual economic harm, as opposed to "perceived harm".

I can only conclude that as a white person, Haines has never experienced microaggressions and does not understand what it means and how it affects a person. Or he has a really thick skin and embodies the adage "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." He further disparages such "perceived harm" by having Colburn, the dark-skinned coach driver, deliver a long monologue about being "flattered that someone like [Sparrow] would want to imitate me" and how "everyone should share cultures" (no one is saying we shouldn't) and to not let people "who can't see beyond their petty insults and imaginary offenses dictate your life".

It really gives me the feel of "the lady doth protest too much, methinks".

As I said at the start, this is a confusing one. YMMV.

Note: I received a digital review copy of this book from the author. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

View all my reviews

1 comment: