When you are a child, you notice all sorts of things that you can’t articulate until you are older. Do you remember, at school and church and around the neighborhood, encountering boys and girls who seemed particularly eager (too eager) to be liked and included, and who therefore (not from any other defect, real or supposed) were largely excluded?
People who write about books—and movies and music and so on—must be wary, when they are most eager to spread the word, not to communicate such neediness. That can be difficult when your subject is an extraordinary book that’s gone mostly unnoticed in the month and a half since its publication.
“Well,” you might say, “in the midst of a pandemic, not to mention other national convulsions, isn’t that simply to be expected?” To which I would say, first, that plenty of book-talk has (blessedly) been going on nonetheless, and second, that oddly enough this particular book could have been written precisely for such a moment as ours.
The book in question is Diane Glancy’s Island of the Innocent: A Consideration of the Book of Job. The title comes from Job 22: 29-30, as rendered in the KJV (the only version, Glancy tells us, in which that phrase appears): “When men are cast down, then you shall say, There is a lifting up, and he shall save the humble person. He shall deliver the island of the innocent: and it is delivered by the pureness of your hands.” After quoting the same passage from the RSV (where it is much stripped down), Glancy writes,
I like the wobbliness of translations. The instability of something there when viewed in a certain way, and not there when viewed in another. I like the other uncertainties. . . . And where is the island of the innocent?
The page I’ve been quoting from is opposite the copyright page, several pages before page one. If you find it a bit off-putting, you won’t enjoy the book; if you find it enticing, you probably will. On another such page before the book proper begins, Glancy tells us that as she meditated on Job, “Other times and places bled into the story. Among the first to disrupt the text were Indians and the history of America. Feathers appeared over the edge of a hill. The feathers were in headdresses. The headdresses were on heads.” So this book has a visionary quality—in some respects, Glancy writes as a seer, but one who is very down-to-earth. One of the poems or unclassifiable “texts” that make up this book (for, as I’ve said elsewhere, Glancy is a shape-shifter, writing fiction and plays and essays but also often genre-crossing books such as this one) is titled “Clarification for the Knitting and Fabric-Arts Club of Uz.”
Glancy herself is Native American, the daughter of a Cherokee father and a mother of German ancestry. She is also a Christian, of a variety often dismissively described as “conservative.” You should judge for yourself what precisely that entails in her case. “The Indians were foreign to the story of Job, as far as it had been understood,” she writes. “But—if ever there was trial and suffering, 6,000 years didn’t matter.” I’m grateful to Turtle Point Press for publishing this wonderfully idiosyncratic book—and doing so in such elegant form.
Let us suppose that you get the book and read it yourself, finishing it with a desire for more of Glancy’s work. There is a lot of it: a feast. Her best-selling book is Pushing the Bear: A Novel of the Trail of Tears, and it will certainly repay your attention. But let me mention a couple of others that you might not as readily be pointed to. One is her 1999 novella The Closets of Heaven, the protagonist of which is Dorcas, mentioned very briefly in the New Testament. (Glancy has written many books that flesh out untold stories of women; in Island of the Innocent, we hear from Job’s wife, to whom Glancy gives a name). Another is a recent collection of poems, The Book of Bearings, which you can read about here. And finally, if you want a critical introduction to her work, check out The Salt Companion to Diane Glancy, edited by James Mackay, in which I have an essay. Happy reading.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.