Facts, fiction, and truth (book review)

Sun, Rivera (2020). Winds of change: A revolution of dandelions and democracy. El Prado, NM: Rising Sun Pressworks.

First, Winds of change is the third volume in Rivera Sun’s Dandelion Insurrection trilogy. It can stand alone but, like Redwoods, it does best with the others, in a sort of narrative sequencing that brings the reader into Sun light, so to speak.

Rivera Sun’s world is the imagined inner workings of revolution in the Joan Baez sense, who noted that violent revolution is a contradiction in terms. When Sun writes of it, she furthers the study of nonviolent people power, of actual democracy, driven as much by empathy as by anger.

Sun’s young protagonists push out their competing strategic ideas.

One of the three teens at the heart of the volume says, “The American colonists didn’t ditch the monarchy by staging an insurrection in London” (p. 48).

The throughline protagonists—Charlie and Zadie—launched a campaign to create a participatory democracy, including a new Constitution (rather than more patches on the original, which, after all, had been created for the benefit of far fewer than 10 percent of the population at the time of writing it). They teamed with some youth, some coöperative democracy activists, and old comrades from the original Dandelion Insurrection to make that attempt.

“After 275 years of the representative republic, corporate dictatorship, and hierarchical domination at work and throughout their culture, people decided they didn’t just want ‘voice.’ They wanted choice. They wanted agency. They wanted self-determination” (p. 104).

While Sun isn’t pedantic, she finds places in the plot to seamlessly bring inspiration, as in one ballroom scene, as the two DI OGs help two young radicals crash an annual gala for the San Francisco überwealthy. When Charlie is gripped and taunted by the rich hostess, who mockingly assures him that the elites have always controlled the world and always will, he rises to the moment, worthy of the best of Upton Sinclair (p. 167):

“I’ve got money, guns, laws, and billionaires on my side. What have you got Charlie Rider?”

“I have the people,” he told her flatly. “And we have an endurance you can’t even imagine. We’ve turned the gears of your economy for centuries. We’ve fought your wars of profit. We’ve outlasted all your genocides and ecocides and daily grinds and starvation. Not alone, but together. We always will. And in the end, you will lose this war.”

A bit later in the story, Zadie lays awake in the dark in a sleeper berth on a Solutionary (solar and wind electric) rail line and Sun summons a poetic vision:

She let her mind drift into times to come—not the horrors of apocalypse, but the breakthroughs gleaming in the cracks of every breakdown.…She was like an ancient juniper twisted by wind and clinging to a rocky cliff. She did not begrudge the beauty of tenacity, the wisdom of rugged endurance, or the strength of resilience in her being…but she glimpses the towering height and glossy boughs of trees growing in a sheltered lee, nourished by sunlight, clean water, and fertile soil. Unencumbered by the pressures of the current reality, she would be an entirely different being. They all would.

Indeed, one might characterize Sun’s fiction as visionary, but inclusive of both end utopian goals and blocking dystopian forces in the way. She spins a yarn that draws the reader forward, presenting credible accounts of problem-solving that once again show the reading world that fiction can be truer than fact in many ways.

When Sun began writing her trilogy Obama was in the White House and a reader without a great deal of life experience or historical knowledge might have been forgiven for perceiving her dystopic forces as unrealistic. Being older and having been involved in social movements for a few decades oriented me to connect to her storytelling immediately, though I confess wondering how such a young soul could access that sight. Now, as we enter the possible era of repairs post-Trump, Sun’s narrative is contemporaneous, not in some future that readers only resonate with if they have groundtruthing-enabled credulity.

Those who are activists will enjoy and be enriched by Sun’s action scenarios, all creative, each generating a unique permutation of a Gandhian dilemma action, one in which the actionists set it up so that the next move, or lack of one, by the oppressor will be to the campaign’s advantage and the oppressor’s disadvantage. Sun is the Bobby Fischer of nonviolence imagineering, even including an exquisite action that compels a profiteering hypocritical evangelical megachurch pastor to serve the poor in a crisis.

When Sun describes the terror that inflicts itself on Zadie as she meets privately with the megachurch far right evangelical minister who starts by laying his hand on her knee, any reader who has ever felt mentally, emotionally, cognitively and even physically disabled by moments of trauma-driven terror is vibrating to Sun’s description. We are brought into the story by a ghastly empathy, something usually only available to skilled filmmakers and a handful of brilliant writers.

Part of my delight in Sun’s thick and rich description of the natural environments of various locales is that, for me, she evokes the granular and authentic environmental awareness of Ed Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams, Farley Mowat, or Sigurd Olson. When a fiction writer advocates saving the natural world, their power comes in part from bringing the reader there with them, and Sun, born and raised on a farm in the near-boreal north of Maine and now living in an Earthship in the high desert, dives deeply into those descriptions. She does so in ways that bring you there, not as a two-dimensional observer but as a participant, as an inhabitant. That difference is the quality of living fiction, telling the reader about the sensate, not just the videography of the documentarian. The ineffable result is that you the reader become transported to the scene, not merely told about it at a remove. Sun gives the reader’s mindseye depth of vision and palpable connection. I could smell the black spruce in northern Maine and the mesquite in the Southwest.

Just as her ecosystem sensory evocation brings you to a place, her societal descriptions bring you into the emotional and political intrapersonal, interpersonal, and social workings. The reader nods, smiles, frowns, and generally feels the truth of human connection.

To underscore Sun’s avoidance of pedantry, she presents problems that this reader could not imagine any solution, and yet Sun shows the best of the fiction writer, the imagination that surprises the reader. Since I hope you read this work, I will not spoil it with further examples, but I do give this a five-star rating in every category.

Although novels do not use citations or reference lists, Sun’s afterword Acknowledgements is a guide to the sources that informed her as she wrote. Ernest Hemingway wrote that a writer should leave out most of what s/he knows and that the reader will be able to see that and give far more credibility to the narrative. Reading Sun’s Acknowledgments is a guide to all readers who are prompted by Sun’s story to learn much more about what backs up Sun’s powerful tale.

What a worthy third volume in the Dandelion trilogy. We can only hope it becomes a tetralogy some fine day.

Dr. Tom H. Hastings is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University, PeaceVoice Director, and on occasion an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court. In the dim past of the Olde Millennium, he was a member of the Executive Council of the Wisconsin Institute.