Tuesday, February 11, 2020

“The Paragon Hotel” by Lyndsay Faye – The Flood of White Demons

Locking her sights on the historical fiction genre, Lyndsay Faye has already birthed a few bestsellers, with The Paragon Hotel now joining their ranks as well.

Taking place in 1921, it introduces us to Alice James, a fresh arrival in Oregon with a bullet wound and five thousand dollars in cash.

Soon she finds her way to the titular hotel, but at the same time tensions start rising in the city with a flood Ku Klux Klan members making a home for themselves.

Lyndsay Faye Brings Back the Old Enemy

Racism certainly remains a very current and unavoidable topic in the modern world, but thankfully we have made some progress over the last century.

We're certainly not in the times of The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye, taking us to the United States of the early 1920s, when the flame of hatred was still burning bright in many places.

Specifically, the year is 1921 and we are introduced to Alice James, nicknamed “Nobody”. She arrives in Oregon with five thousand dollars in cash and a life's worth of stories fighting against the mafia in New York. Additionally, she also has a bullet wound which limits her possibilities.

It seems like her luck is finally starting to turn over the good side, as she meets a black Pullman porter who directs her to the Paragon Hotel. As it turns out, the hotel is more than its name would indicate, serving as a sanctuary for black people.

At the start, the people seem rather wary of Alice's presence in the hotel, the sole white woman. Soon it becomes rather apparent why they felt that way, as the Ku Klux Klan rolls into the town and begins to make a home for itself.

Infiltrating the news, politics and the local government, their hateful goals are only becoming easier and easier to achieve. As the threat over the Paragon Hotel is growing larger and darker, Alice sees she will have no choice but to fight alongside her new family for a future in which they can all exist... perhaps even seeing a chance to redeem her own past.

Residents of the Past in The Paragon Hotel

When it comes to historical novels, I've largely observed two main tendencies: either they sprint right off the bat and never stop, or they take time to set up the world and events which will unfold.

Personally, I always prefer the second approach, largely because history lessons require a bit of time to be absorbed and appreciated. In my opinion, The Paragon Hotel comes fairly close to doing this second approach perfectly, despite its few drawbacks.

To get this out of the way as soon as possible, my biggest complaint with this book was how long it took for the plot to pick up and really start to unfold, taking approximately half the story.

I wasn't exactly ready for this slow of an approach, so I will admit at times I felt impatient and a little worried it wouldn't really pick up. However, once the second half of the book went into full gear, I came to better appreciate the calm we were treated to before.

Much of the first half of the book is spent becoming acquainted with Alice's new entourage and the stories they carry with them. Many of them are legitimately interesting and moving in their own unique ways, and some made me wish for further elaborations.

I'm certain Faye did quite a bit of research on 1920s Oregon and its way of life, spending on many passages describing the smaller impactful details which make big stories memorable.

While the vocabulary did feel somewhat unusual and perhaps a bit complex at times, it didn't take me too long to get used to it, which added a welcome layer of immersion to my experience with the story.

The Hatred of the Present

Now turning our attention to the second distinct half of the the book, the flooding of the Ku Klux Klan and its opposition to the Paragon Hotel, we are treated with something noticeably different than what the first half gave us.

As was mentioned before, the first thing I noticed was just how much the pace had picked up and how impactful events began to progress the story towards an inevitable boiling point.

The danger which the KKK represents is never undersold and Faye did a great job at making me see the noose slowly tightening around our characters.

While they might not exactly be an unusual pick for villains, I feel Faye succeeded in making them threatening without being worthy of any respect.

Alice also makes for a fairly enjoyable protagonist to follow, and though I admit I really don't know how common or plausible it would be to find women in a similar position to hers back in those days, the author sold it rather convincingly.

Besides, I think some leeway can be extended towards the uniqueness of a main character, especially since she ended up becoming endearing in her own right.

Finally, there is another aspect of this book which I believe deserves to be mentioned, and it's the sometimes-obvious parallels to the political and social climate in the modern United States.

I won't get into too many details, but just as an example, there are some curious similarities between the Klan's political motto in the novel and the Republicans' motto in real life.

Some of these parallels are fairly on the nose, and if you happen to disagree with Faye's views on the world, some of these elements will likely be somewhat off-putting. Thankfully, they don't really dominate the novel to any extent, so they can certainly be looked past, if such is your wish.

The Final Verdict

The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye is an engaging, insightful and at times thought-provoking piece of historical fiction which manages to stand tall among its peers despite having a couple of flaws here and there.

It provides both in terms of entertainment and wisdom, so if you're looking for slower-paced historical novel dealing with 1920s racism in Oregon, then I strongly recommend you give the book a chance.

Lyndsay Faye (Author)

Lyndsay Faye

Personal site

Lyndsay Faye is an American author whose first novel, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, became a notable bestseller.

The Gods of Gotham was named the “the year's best mystery novel” by the American Library Association, in addition to which it also earned Faye a nomination for the Edgar Award.

Some of her other novels include Jane Steele, The Whole Art of Detection and The Fatal Flame.

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