The Steep and Thorny Way by Cat Winters is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” set in Prohibition-era rural Oregon featuring a biracial female protagonist named Hanalee. After her father’s scandalous murder two years previously, Hanalee became the only African-American in her hometown of Elston. With the rising prominence of the Klu Klux Klan and a haunting on the road where her father was hit by a car, Hanalee has to reexamine her own self-worth as she is thrust into situation after situation teeming with lies, secrets, hatred, violence, bigotry, and prejudice.
The arrival of the KKK in 1921 (Winters, 2016, p. 107) and their hatred and prejudice were not new to Hanalee. Indeed, she and her mother and father had been subjected to it before Hanalee was even conceived because “’there might be something unnatural about your father and me [Hanalee’s mother] having children together’” (p. 95). But, Hanalee had friends and family who loved her and supported her, like Fleur and Fleur’s brother, Laurence, who taught Hanalee how to shoot a pistol for protection and told her, “’Don’t ever let them hurt you, Hanalee. Don’t ever let them make you feel small’” (p. 108). Her father also instilled in Hanalee self-worth: “’Just lift your head and show them who you are deep inside. Look them in the eye and smile, and the kind ones will see that brown is a beautiful color’” (p. 174).
Hanalee never folds to the KKK and her neighbors’ hatred; she only lets them see her smile and promises to make changes to the societal norms of Elston. Even after she’s kidnapped and taken to a lynching tree, bound with rope, called cruel names, scared for her life, and is forced to grapple with friends’ betrayals, she never acts with hatred or violence. Despite knowing how to fire a pistol and having one secreted away when Hanalee is kidnapped, she doesn’t shoot anyone. She refuses to react to violence with violence. Instead, Hanalee proves her ingenuity. She fires the gun, and the bullet whistles right past fellow victim Joe, causing him to faint and appear dead. The pandemonium halts the KKK’s “necktie party”, and the sheriff removes his white hood to arrest Hanalee for “murdering” Joe.
Hanalee refuses to “become like one of them” (Winters, 2016, p. 203). She knows that her dream of leaving Elston, becoming a lawyer, and “com[ing] back with the tools to fight these high-and-mighty bigots” is a “difficult path”, but her life is a difficult path, and she refuses to live it within the confines of other people’s decisions concerning who “’can live and breathe –and breed’” (p. 242-243). She protests their prejudices based on the color of her skin and Joe’s sexuality that attempt to oppress them into sub-par lives. In fact, their bigotry encourages her and Joe to survive and thrive: “’become better educated than them– make more money than them– love people more fiercely than they could ever dream of loving’” (p. 269). Hanalee lives out her high self-worth by snubbing their violence and only reacting with love. And Hanalee’s commitment to love those who hate her started the de-escalation of KKK influence in Elston as Joe’s father leads the “community to take a stand against the Klan” (p. 305).
The Steep and Thorny Way is an excellent mirrortext for those who are on the receiving end of prejudice, hatred, and bigotry. From Hanalee, these readers learn that it is extremely difficult to not act with vengeance and retaliation. Instead, Hanalee depicts how to love others when you don’t feel loved and how to “be the bigger person”. While the story revolves mostly around racial prejudice, it also illustrates homophobia through the horrors Joe also experiences. It is, however, when Joe and Hanalee become a team that they are able to right the wrongs in Elston. They both understand what it is like to be an “outsider” (Winters, 2016, p. 163). And, as such, they illustrate that we are stronger together than separate. We shouldn’t allow labels to divide us, but we should stand together to create a thriving world of smiles, nonviolence, and fierce loving.
Winters, C. (2016). The steep and thorny way. New York City: Amulet Books.