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Monday, Aug 04, 2014

The enduring influence of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’

What inspired me as I wrote my first novel

By Jim Ruland
Alice_Liddell_in_1872_(photogravure_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron) Alice Liddell in 1872
- Photo by Julia Margaret Cameron

Last week, my first novel, Forest of Fortune, was published. No, I'm not going to review my own work, but I would like to discuss two of the amazing books that inspired me. 

First, a quick summary: Forest of Fortune is the story of three haunted souls trapped at a fictional Indian casino set in San Diego's East County that may or may not be haunted. I worked at a local Indian casino for more than five years, and from my first day on the job, I knew I would use the material in a novel. Now that day has come. 

Everyone knows that Indian casinos are located on Indian reservations, but a lot of people aren't aware that these reservations are sovereign land. That means they are self-governing states with supreme authority, just like France or Mexico or any other nation. The Navajo Nation, for example, is a sovereign nation that happens to exist within the sovereignty of the United States. How does that work exactly? It's complicated.

Indian reservations are almost always in remote areas. Drop a shiny new casino with its games of chance, sensory overload and temporal distortions into the mix and you've got the makings of a great setting. In other words, Indian casinos are places where the normal rules don't apply. 

This reminded me of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which was published in 1865 by Charles Dodgson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. The story's origins can be traced back to a fantastic tale Dodgson told during a boating party to the three daughters of a family friend: Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell. Alice was memorialized forever when she was cast as the story's heroine.

This anecdote comes with a caveat: Dodgson liked to take photographs, and he took several of young Alice Liddell. Was Dodgson in love with Alice? Was his relationship with Alice inappropriate? Or are we viewing these events through the lens of 21st-century scandal-mongering? Scholars have been trying to answer these questions that for more than 150 years.

But it's another photo of Alice that got my attention. When Alice was 20 years old, she was photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron. It's a haunting image. Her hair isn't blonde like she's portrayed by Disney. In fact, her hair is very dark. Her features are blunt and somewhat androgynous-looking. She looks like someone who's been down the rabbit hole and back or, at the very least, is less than fond of having her photograph taken. It more closely resembles a photo from the American frontier than Victorian England. 

That's when I started toying with the idea of using Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a template for Forest of Fortune. Many of the characters in my novel have counterparts in Alice, which seems fitting, as many of these characters were based on people that Dodgson knew. 

As I did more research, I discovered that Dodgson suffered from a mild form a epilepsy, and his seizures took the shape of hallucinations in which things that were small appeared larger than life and vice versa. Sound familiar? I took Dodgson's afflictions and gave them to one of my characters, Alice, which is apparently what Dodgson did. 

Putting a new spin on Alice is nothing new. While writing my novel, I collected all kinds of editions of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Some were edifying, like The Annotated Alice edited by Martin Gardner, which unpacks the riddles and puns, and some were whimsical, like the version illustrated by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama or Robert Sabuda's astonishing pop-up book that's so good its often sold at museums. 

My Alice is Native American, which created considerable anxiety for me. Working on the reservation alongside tribal members alleviated some of my worries, but I didn't want to shamanize Alice by making her epilepsy-induced hallucinations seem hokey or cliché. 

A book that helped show me the way was Storyteller by Leslie Marmon Silko. Published in 1981, it seems decades ahead of its time. It's a hybrid of fiction, poetry, family photographs, ancestral tales and ancient mythology. Silko comes from the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, but her book opens with a story set in the arctic regions of the far north. The way Silko tells the story of a woman so different from her own background and experience gave me the confidence to tell Alice's story. I stopped seeing Alice as an Indian and came to understand her as a person stuck in a strange place, struggling to find her way. 

Alice's story endures not because of the controversy surrounding its author or the Disneyfication of her story, but because when she's thrown into a deeply weird situation, she handles it with dignity and grace. 

Jim Ruland’s debut novel, Forest of Fortune, will be published in August. He blogs at www.jimruland.net.




 
 
 
 
 
 
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