Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Harper Torch
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture
Publisher’s Blurb: Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming — a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path.
“This isn’t about what this is,” said Mr. Nancy. “It’s about what people think it is. It’s all imaginary anyway. That’s why it’s important. People only fight over imaginary things.” (p. 427)
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods has a simple premise. The old gods are dying as people forget them and create new ones. As simple as that may sound, the story is rich and complex, exploring the relationship of people to their gods, and of the gods to their people.
Shadow Moon gets out of jail early to take care of his wife’s affairs after she and his best friend die in a car accident. We later find out they were having an affair. Shadow accepts this news numbly and spends the rest of the story allowing events to move him along.
On the plane home, he meets the persistent Mr. Wednesday, a somewhat shabby old man who keeps offering Shadow a job. When Shadow finally accepts, he’s told that he’s expected to just do whatever Mr. Wednesday tells him to do.
Mr. Wednesday, later revealed as Odin, is recruiting the old gods to a final battle with the new gods (Media, Technology, Drugs, etc.). One of those meetings is with Mad Sweeney, an Irish leprechaun. Mad Sweeney teaches Shadow how to retrieve gold coins from thin air. It is one of these coins which Shadow places in his wife’s coffin as she is buried. The coin brings Laura to life, and she follows Shadow on his adventures, offering a Greek chorus commentary along the way.
The final battle occurs when Shadow Moon offers himself as sacrifice after Wednesday is killed. Shadow is hung from the Tree of Life (Yggdrasil) for nine days and nights. During the tasks Shadow performs on his vigil, he learns that Mr. Wednesday and his former cell mate Low-Key Lyesmith (Odin’s son, Loki) have been playing a long two-man con meant to generate an all out battle between gods so the old gods would die in Odin’s name, making him powerful once again.
Shadow returns to the battlefield, explaining this to the gods, who all disappear.
And yes, of course, I have oversimplified the story. American Gods is nearly 600 pages long. In preparing for this review, I visited many websites which go into the story, the characters, the symbolism, etc. more deeply than I do.
I’ve been interested in ancient religions for quite some time. Finding authors who give the gods a different spin is really entertaining. Richard Kadrey does it to great effect in his Sandman Slim series. Kevin Hearne with his Iron Druid Chronicles. American Gods is top of the heap for me.
Having read it twice, and expecting to read it many more times, the surprises of the familiar never stopped. And as with all good stories, I just followed along. Or, as Shadow Moon says,
I feel like I’m in a world with its own sense of logic. Its own rules. Like when you’re in a dream, and you know there are rules you mustn’t break. Even if you don’t know what they mean. I’m just going along with it …” (p. 90)
It’s not necessary to be familiar with all the gods to enjoy this story. There were many I didn’t know, like the Slavic god Czernobog and his relatives the Zorya Sisters, the story never faltered. Mr. Wednesday was up to something and he was involving everyone he ever once knew.
The concept of people creating their gods and bringing them from their home land to a new land is intriguing. It seems obvious to me now. Even the Christians did it. But we often overlook the diversity of the United States, missing the stories of so many who have come in the hope of a better life.
Of course we brought our gods with us. The gods are the familiar, the tether which we hold on to as we try to make sense of the unfamiliar surrounding us. This idea shouldn’t be new, nor should it be shocking.
If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors, after all …
Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world. (p. 508)
Neil Gaiman uses this idea in American Gods, to illustrate how each of us has a story, and it’s often different from our neighbor’s story. New gods shove their way in, pushing the old gods aside. This is one of the most fascinating themes in the book. How does your god differ from mine? Is mine a new god, or an old one? And have I morphed mine into something different in order to survive the times in which I live?
This is the beauty of Gaiman’s work. He touches on these ideas in all his books. And American Gods focuses on it with charm and wit.