When I came up with the idea for this year’s Witch Week theme, the first book that sprang to mind was American Gods by Neil Gaiman. In its exploration of the gods and demons brought to these shores by immigrants from many lands, written by a transplanted Brit with a deep knowledge and appreciation of the many-sided fantasy genre, it seemed the perfect way to kick off our week.
Because it had been a long time since I read the book, I turned to Kristen of We Be Reading to give us a brief orientation — her recent post had sparked my interest in a reread. She did a splendid job, and if you haven’t already, I hope you might be inspired to join us on this reading journey.
For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.
An Introduction to American Gods
by Kristen of We Be Reading
I feel the need to start this post by being completely honest. Even though he’s one of my all-time favorite authors, it took me two reads of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods before I was able to appreciate its strengths and complexity and craftsmanship. Luckily, this book and I are now best friends and I’m very happy to be sharing it with you all today for Witch Week!
This is a slightly different take on the Made in America theme we’re exploring this week as this book combines many different mythologies from a range of places. In fact, if you look at Gaiman’s bibliography for this book you will see a ridiculously wide array of sources, including American Folklore, World Mythology, Encyclopedia of Gods, The Norse Myths, A Dictionary of Fairies, Cryptozoology A to Z, American Indian Myths and Legends, A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore, Voodoo in New Orleans, and Gods and Goddesses of India. (If you’ve read this book, tell me in the comments if there were fairies anywhere in it.) And why did he need such varied sources for a book called American Gods? As William Ritter put it in his novel Ghostly Echoes,
“People often feel more alone than ever when they first arrive in a new place … but we are never alone. We bring with us the spirits of our ancestors. We are haunted by their demons and protected by their deities.”
And, those deities that arrived with each immigrant started looking for ways to maintain or increase their powers and to avoid being forgotten in the new world. But they soon ended up in competition with the gods of the new place, the gods created as society and technology changed — the false gods of media and government and wealth.
In order to discover what Gaiman intended this book to be, I went back to his archived American Gods Blog, started in February 2001, before the book’s June release date. This description comes from a letter to advance copy reviewers:
“If Neverwhere was about the London underneath, this would be about the America between, and on-top-of, and around. It’s an America with strange mythic depths. Ones that can hurt you. Or kill you. Or make you mad. … It’s about the soul of America, really. What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all.”
“It’s a big fat book about America, and about a man called Shadow, and the job he is offered when he gets out of prison. It’s kind of a thriller, I suppose, if you can have mythic thrillers. I suppose it could be considered SF or fantasy or horror, depending on where you stand, and I’d not argue with anyone who considered it such.”
Because this is such a complex book, the mythology had to be seamlessly integrated to make sense. I think that it was successfully done because Gaiman believes in America as a tapestry whose culture is enriched by all those others whose fibers are woven through it. Likely, being an outsider enabled him to look in and see the fabric of American mythology from this perspective.
I have coincidentally read a couple of other books lately that also explore foreign mythologies being imported into America — the Jackaby series (William Ritter) and The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker). Neil also mentions two other books with similar foundations — The Good Fairies of New York (Martin Millar), about Scottish fairies in New York, and Votan (John James), about Odin in Germany. As Neil says on his tumblr, “American Gods was not the first ‘what if the gods were real and walk among us’ book, and it will not be the last.”
Finally, I wanted to mention the awards that this book won because it it shows the way the story defies categorization (and how well received it was, of course) — Hugo Award for Best SF/Fantasy Novel, Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel, Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and Nebula Award for Best Novel. If you enjoy any of these genres, give American Gods a try!