Friday, July 3, 2015

Octavia Butler and the parables (part 4; parable of the Sower)

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

Spoiler alert: If you don't yet want to know how the novel ends, don't read this post.

The end of the walled community in which Lauren lived came on July 31, 2027. Attackers drove a truck through the gate, and they looted the community, burned all the houses, and shot as many people in the community as they could. Lauren killed one of the attackers who tackled her as she fled, but she escaped with her survival pack. She returned the next day and, side-by-side with thieves and scavengers, salvaged what she could.

Lauren found two other survivors from the community, Zahra Moss and Harry Balter, and they banded together to try to survive. Zahra and Harry decided to join Lauren on her trek north to find a safer place to live and where Lauren wanted to build her new community: They decided to walk toward Oregon, following various highways. The trip was treacherous, and they had much to learn, as Lauren’s entry into her scripture Earthseed notes:
Cast on new ground
Must first perceive
That it knows nothing (165).  
As Lauren, Zahra, and Harry and travel north, they are attacked and threatened numerous times. They also begin, albeit very slowly and carefully, to trust some of their fellow travelers, and a community begins to build around them, both in quantity and quality. Lauren acts several times as a “Good Samaritan” to people in trouble or who are being attacked (e.g., 186-187), and some of the recipients of her altruism join her growing community. Perhaps this aspect of the quest for community stemmed from Butler’s own concern about the breakdown in society, part of which she called the “Reagan attitude” about other human beings but also especially among those who are dealing with extreme poverty:
I pay attention. And I care. One of the horrifying things I’m noticing is that the younger kids, especially the ones who are raised in poverty, they’re raised with a great contempt for caring. My God, look how they have to live (Francis 2010: 47).  
Lauren begins sharing some of her Earthseed verses with Zahra, Harry, and the others who join them on their journey north. She is intentionally evangelical in her approach as she plants the seeds of “Earthseed” within her fellow-travelers (note the connections to the Sower parable). As she says about Travis Douglas, one person who joined the group early: “I’d like to draw him into Earthseed. I’d like to draw them all in. They could be the beginnings of an Earthseed community” (203). Even then, Lauren had the “Destiny” (planting Earthseed on other planets) in mind, and Travis becomes her first “convert”; Zahra is her second (205). The seeds of Earthseed had finally reached fertile soil and were beginning to grow.

During the journey, Lauren also becomes friends with an older man named Taylor Bankole, who joins their group as they travel north. After Bankole’s own altruistic act in which he saves a child, Lauren and Bankole become lovers (although he was 57 and she was 18) and, eventually, full partners. Bankole agrees to let the small community of people that had gathered around Lauren settle on his family land, an isolated place in the hills on the coast near Cape Mendocino (in northern California, about 140 miles south of Oregon). It was there that Lauren would begin to build her first Earthseed Community.

And community is the main focus, as many words and actions from Lauren demonstrate in her journal. She argues that “no one should travel alone in this world” 289) and writes about a woman who had just seen her sister killed: “In spite of your loss and pain, you aren’t alone. You still have people who care about you and want you to be all right. You still have family” (277).

Lauren and the others begin to build shelters and start gardens on the land, and the book ends with another status transformation ritual that symbolizes a more cohesive and determined community with a sense of place:
So today we remembered the friends and family members we’ve lost. We spoke our individual memories and quoted Bible passages, Earthseed verses, and bits of songs and poems that were favorites of the living or the dead.
Then we buried our dead and we planted oak trees.
Afterward, we sat together and talked and ate a meal and decided to call this place Acorn (298-299).
To make clear what this transition—and the symbolic name “Acorn”—means, the narrative ends with the parable of the Sower as found in Luke 8:5-8 (AKJV).

The next post will discuss the key elements of Butler’s novel as it connects to Jesus’ parables in general and the parable of the Sower in particular.

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