The Big Idea: Meg Elison

Ideals are a great thing, if you can afford them. In The Book of Etta, award-winning writer Meg Elison takes a look at ideals and what they cost, and who can afford to have them in a world where ideals are very dear indeed.


There comes a time in the life of every idealist when they must come to terms with real life. Many of us find ourselves in this terrifying era with unpleasant tasks ahead: conversations with racist family members on Facebook are just the beginning. Over and over we have to confront the reality that we are not on a non-stop flight, headed inevitably toward progress. A more apt metaphor would be that we are rowing arduously upstream toward progress, and many of our fellow rowers are openly wearing MAGA hats and rowing backward, or else nurturing secret misinformation and grievances and choosing not to row at all.

The Book of Etta is about an idealist. It’s about a fighter, a queer survivor who wants to kill fascists, free slaves, and give no quarter. However, Etta learns to row for progress alongside people who see progress differently, and are willing to obtain it by any means necessary.

That essential conflict is the Big Idea in The Book of Etta that I’d like to share, because it’s one that plagued me while I was writing it and plagues me still.

If you can free a slave by buying them, have you done enough good to negate your own support of the slave trade? If the women in your village are safe and cared for, but not allowed to leave or speak in your presence, are they free? If they’re better off than most, is that enough? If you venerate motherhood and treat all mothers with respect, isn’t that enough to make sure that all women choose that path? If humanity is in danger of extinction, isn’t it only fair to suppress same-sex love?

Etta’s answers to all of the above are no, no, and no. She inhabits a world of absolutes and cannot reconcile herself to compromises or to accepting what is good enough or safe enough or too important to question.

Etta meets Flora, who inhabits a world with no absolutes where each of these questions must be weighed against survival. An apprentice to a slaver herself, Flora understands the trade. A subject to fascist regimes, she makes allowances and avoids conflict as a way to keep out of trouble. Flora would rather live than insist on her principles, while Etta is ready to die on every hill she climbs.

I began as a writer, as a woman, as a person in that idealistic mode. I wanted to be the guy who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square and said no, things must not go on this way. What my public school education did not show me was the aftermath of that moment: Tank Man was dragged into the crowd by friends who knew it was better to live and fight another day than be flattened into another martyr, another statement, another idealist lost.

I had to face the idea that we need each other, that we are better off rowing together, even arrhythmically and begrudgingly, than we are on our own. We are capable of more if our friends keep us from becoming street pizza beneath fascist tanks.

Etta has to learn that, too, but for her the stakes are higher. Etta is born into a world created out of my terror and dread; a world where the tanks just keep rolling and most people row backwards and we all stop fighting the current.

But Etta’s fight never ends, and her book is just beginning.


The Book of Etta: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

11 Comments on “The Big Idea: Meg Elison”

  1. Wow, this sounds really good! And I bought (but have not yet read–you know those TBR piles!) “Book of the Unnamed Midwife.” Might be time to pull that one out and read it so I’ll be ready for “The Book of Etta.”

  2. Hi John! I have a suggestion. Can you also post pictures of the back covers, where reside the little “Annie Author lives happily in the state of Confusion with her…” blurbs ?

    I was sorry to see that Meg lives in terror and dread, and I hope her book sells well enough she can move someplace safer. Good luck, Meg!

  3. Book of the Unnamed Midwife was gripping. I was very excited to see this book show up on my Kindle this morning (I had pre-ordered the second I finished book 1) . It looks like it will be much different, and I am interested to see how the author approaches the themes she describes here.

  4. I missed the comment window for Lovecraft Country…apologies for piggy-backing on a different Big Idea post.

    The link to the pdf there went to just the cover (although my computer thought maybe it was a 31 page document); I downloaded and the file wasn’t readable. Maybe it was me.

    Also, a friend of mine, Nat Gertler at About Comics, recently reprinted the old Negro Travelers’ Green Book (two editions, 1940 and 1954). Here’s the Amazon link to the 1954 version:

  5. @Pogonip — are there really any safe places left? We all drink the water and breathe the air, and we don’t know where it’s been lately, or what it’s picked up on the way. Polly Klass lived in a safe neighborhood. I no longer believe in more than temporary safe places, myself. This book sounds like something I need to read, although it’ll be hard going.

  6. Hi M.A., no place is ever completely safe, but some are better than others. I’d venture to say it’s unlikely that John lives in terror and dread in Bradford, Ohio, but it would be very likely if he lived in South Sudan. So I’d like to see Meg make enough money to move someplace where she’ll be safe-er.

  7. P.S. You’ll notice I left some wiggle room, just in case John is attacked by the legendary Beast of Bradford. 😉

  8. Hi Pogonip, you’re very thoughtful! I’m thinking of starting a collection so Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, Steven Miller, and Kellyanne Conway can also move to a safe place. They seem awfully frightened of judges, journalists, refugees, and international students, so scared that they’re hallucinating “The Bowling Green Massacre” and “what happened on Sweden on Friday night.” I’m hoping we can help them find their “safe place.” Care to contribute? :)

    Sounds like an interesting book — I do think it’s pretty important to realize that it’s one step forward, and two steps back (e.g., women are now “hosts” to fetuses, and the Endangered Species Act is under fire.) I’ve also had to question myself about what are acceptable compromises and what are not (spoiler: anything that denies another person’s humanity is not an acceptable compromise, and don’t cut deals with Nazis.)

  9. Hi Ontogenesis, I can’t afford to contribute, worthy cause though it be. I’m heading up an expedition to prove or disprove, once and for all, the existence of the Beast of Bradford. It has not endangered anyone so far but has been blurrily photographed breaking into vehicles whose owners absentmindedly left cartons of Coke Zero in the back seat.

    Lock your car. Take your Coke.

  10. Pogonip, godspeed. I’ve been after my local beast, The Sasquatch (he or she is more into fancy coffee brew) myself.

    Back on topic: so upon realizing The Book of Etta is Book 2, I read the synopsis for The Book of the Unnamed Midwife. “When she fell asleep, the world was doomed. When she awoke, it was dead.” Damn, nice, I love post-apocalyptic fiction, bonus if it’s women-centered. So I bought that.

  11. Trolling, trolling, trolling, keep them trumpies trolling, keep them draft-dodging trumpies trolling, maga!

    Congrats to Ms. Elison on the second in her trilogy. Well done.


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