social deformities of the thumb | 2019.09.24

Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Tom Robbins | Review

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues_Robbins, Tom

Original Publication: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt [1976]

Genre: Adventure Fiction

Pages: 365

Formats: Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

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This was my first exposure to Tom Robbins, and I found his writing to be absolutely hilarious in the best ways. Amidst all the ruckus character descriptions and philosophical debates about life, love, death, individualism, and religion interlaced with all that sloppy and explicit sex, sex, sex, I was struck mostly by this book’s apparent attempt to advocate for the feminist perspective. This surprised me, perhaps wrongly-so, because Robbins is (as far as I can tell) a male author. As a result, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop from the feminist foot (or the glove from the thumb . . . oh dear) that this book continuously seemed to push forward. Well, I guess I should perhaps give Robbins a hardy, although somewhat-still suspect, “Alrighty then, friend!”

The novel’s main character, Sissy Hankshaw, is a young, bisexual woman born with magnificently enormous thumbs. The nickname “Thumbelina” litters the pages now and again in a joking, and yet, somehow, complimentary way. The compliment of this nickname came across, from my perspective, in how the book’s plot again and again referenced Sissy’s personal love of her physical oddity even in the face of society’s repeated rejection of her thumbs as a deformity to be pitied, gawked at, and ultimately solved. The quandary this poses within Sissy’s internal dialogue is the first hint that something greater than just a funny, tall tale is going on in this book. (The overwhelming beauty of the rest of Sissy’s person is a troublesome point, however, and one which I’ll address later in this review. I appreciated what Dayna Troisi had to say about this aspect of the novel in her review.)

Sissy argues at one point, and pretty early in the novel at that, “we can live with nature’s experiments, and if they aren’t too vile, turn them to our advantage.” She accepts herself just as her mother’s cervix introduced her to the universe, without need for shame. Sissy continues in the aforementioned section of the text to comment also that she feels sorry for those who have to suffer the “deformities” imposed by society and its constant need for adherence to the norm, because “social deformity is sneaky and invisible,” making “people into monsters or mice.”

I loved this reference to Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, where the main character of that story is turned into a monster-murderer because society is baffled about how to return his embrace of deep and unrequited love. Instead, the society around him becomes bent on the only justice they know how to exact.

While Lennie Small didn’t have the advantage of anyone to teach him how to steer his powerful being toward more life-giving actions, Sissy is her own advocate, arguing stubbornly throughout Even Cowgirls that she is not disabled in any sense and that she, therefore, does not need to be “fixed.”

She wavers in her resolve on this topic toward the book’s climax, as we all do from time to time.

The climax of the novel runs concurrently with extensive descriptions of an almost-lost gaggle of whooping cranes. Whooping cranes? Really? What is happening here, Robbins?

The idea is this: The whooping cranes of the Western Hemisphere have mysteriously disappeared. The cranes’ absence has caused national distress, with conservationists and environmentalists spurring on the nation’s grief. Finally, the cranes are found, as the last of their species have settled quite contentedly at the cowgirl ranch that features a now-and-then center of the narrative’s stage. We learn that the cowgirls have unwittingly drugged the cranes into staying at the ranch so that they have abandoned their natural migratory patterns. If the cranes continue on at the ranch, they will die because they will miss their chance to escape the all-too-cold winters they are not built to inhabit long-term in that part of the United States.

Reading this portion of the novel, it hit me what (perhaps) Robbins was getting at. The cranes are a metaphor for Sissy’s thumbs, of course! And more-largely, their predicament represents society’s constant need to control everything in its maniacal reach. Suddenly, the cranes’ interjection into the novel’s larger story makes perfect sense when held up to our all-thumbs lady of wonder, Sissy Hankshaw. Her sudden waffling on the subject of whether she desperately needs to just fit in already, even if this means rejecting her natural and very unique state of being, takes on a new light.

For myself, fitting in at the expense of staying true to one’s personal reality and personal need is not worth that kind of ultimate sacrifice.

While Robbins does a good job of exemplifying this conundrum, I was sad to realize that the conclusion of Robbins’s novel gives itself over to putting Sissy in the tired and overly traditional position of a mother-eve characterization. It is even implied that she ultimately becomes subject to continuous impregnation by the males around her (suggestions of Robbins being included is this turned my head full ‘round in the last pages, to be sure). Despite Robbins’s predicating Sissy’s power on her being subjugated to the masculine seeds around her, I found Sissy’s ability to repopulate the world with large-thumbed peoples who taste sweetness where all the other philosophers of our species have tasted only bitterness and disgust to be an interesting idea.

My latching onto this aspect of the book is probably driven by my personal need for a change in what society categorizes as “objectively this or that.” I applaud Robbins’s attempt to elevate perspectives outside the norms of society in this novel, and so, in that respect, I found it to be a refreshing food-for-thought dish of words and storytelling.

Do I wish Sissy had been more relatable in all the other aspects of her physical being besides her thundering thumbs, those thumbs that exemplified the unique power of an individual existence? Well, sure! But this is because I think the pedestal that society continuously makes out of physical “womanly” beauty is not the measure women want to hang our very individual hats on. While physical blow-you-away beauty is not completely un-relatable to the condition of womanhood, most women still want value to be assigned beyond their physical appearance, thank you very fucking much. No matter the scale, the beauty-measure becomes in this way just another hindrance, a kind of disability all its own. Hence my hesitant “alrighty then, friend” initial reaction.

I would like to say, on the other hand (or thumb?) that this book has so many nuggets of introspection regarding religion and society’s herd instincts (strangled root to that one, I know). Truly, Robbins excelled most, I felt, in this book by his promotion of the idea that it takes true courage to see real-life beyond the mantras that are constantly bombarding our consciousness (the objective this and that, so to speak). His philosopher-character states boldly that it doesn’t take true courage to just follow societal masters blindly, but that “the brave and liberating thing to do is to embrace experience and tolerate the master” of societal group-think. And what could be more experiential than the true stories of the unique individual? All in all, I was satisfied to think that I’ll likely come back to this book to re-explore these ideas later in my life as I gather more of my own (hopefully) very unique and individual experiences.

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