Providence and the Unlikely Scholars

While scrolling through the (Im)Possibilities blog this past week, I came across a blog written for the Steve Prince class that had underlying connections to our course. In Claire Corbeaux’s recent blog post, “Providence and the Baby Dolls,” she discusses the concept of providence and how it relates to Kim Vaz-Deville’s book, Walking Raddy and society at large. While this post doesn’t directly relate to our class, I found that the central theme of “providence” connects to the material we’ve been working with, especially in terms of Victor La Valle’s novel, The Big Machine.   

As Claire begins to write, she notes that her class’s guest speaker, Dr. Cope, explained providence in relation to the Puritans. According to Claire’s post, the Puritans defined providence as “God’s control over the universe and its happenings as well as the lives of individual beings.” After reading this sentence, I realized that providence has developed as a theme in LaValle’s novel.  

Throughout The Big Machine so far, there are underlying tones of religion, or a higher entity of some sorts, and that higher entity’s control over the unlikely scholars. While main character, Ricky Rice, has not explicitly stated his belief in a higher institution, the back cover of the book and the other unlikely scholar’s experiences point to this idea of providence. On the back cover of the book, the summary describes the unlikely scholars as, “Former addicts and petty criminals, all of whom had at some point in their wasted lives heard what may have been the voice of God.” After reading this summary, some questions develop in my mind. Did God or some higher entity lead the unlikely scholars to Vermont? Are they researching at the library because this “voice” led them there?   

In staying with the course’s syllabus, our class has been introduced to Euphnia’s encounter with a higher entity. Euphinia opens up and admits her story to the other unlikely scholars, even though it deals with her participation in identity theft. Euphinia explains that after stealing a couple’s identity, that couple tracked her down and dumped her in a desert. Euphinia came close to dying in the desert but was saved. She explains the painful experience stating, “No cars. I found tire tracks and tried to follow them but pretty soon I couldn’t see straight.” (LaValle, 78) In fact, Euphinia spends so much time in the desert that she ends up seeing her dead son, Trevor Lee, who’s death she feels at fault for. Euphinia continues telling her story saying, “I put my mouth to Trevor Lee’s ear and I made a promise. As soon as I did, all those birds stopped singing. They flew right away. Their wigs sounded like a thunder cloud. Seconds later, a heavy rain started. And that’s what saved my life.” (LaValle, 79) While Euphinia could’ve ended up dead, she was saved by a random rainstorm. This instance hints at divine intervention. Just as Euphinia makes a promise to her dead child, and just as she is about to die, the skies open and provide Euphinia with water, or more importantly, a second attempt at life. Related to the concept of providence, it’s as if a higher entity controlled the universe, the happenings of that day, and Euphinia at this moment of her life. Providence, or fate, is a central theme in the lives of the unlikely scholars, including Euphinia’s.    

After considering The Big Machine in terms of providence, a course epigraph came to mind. Dionne Brand’s quote, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice” connects to being able to see more when you look at something from a new perspective. After re-reading this passage on Euphinia’s struggle and probable encounter with a higher-entity, one word in particular jumped out at me. Just as Euphinia made a “promise” to her dead child, Ricky Rice also promised something to someone or some higher entity in 2002. The note Ricky Rice receives at the very beginning of the novel reads, “You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it.” (LaValle, 8) The repetition of the word “promise” in Euphinia’s story and the note Ricky Rice receives about Cedar Rapids could connect the scholars. Since Euphinia’s promise links to the concept of providence, perhaps Rice’s does as well. By noticing the repetition of the word “promise,” I was able to draw larger connections within the novel and add more to this theme of providence.  

Later in the novel, Rice is called up to the Dean. After putting Rice through a test of crawling through the dark, the Dean explains that Rice has been chosen by “The Voice.” This mysterious, anonymous, and powerful voice conveys the presence of a higher entity, and perhaps one that controls Rice’s fate. The Dean says, “The Voice will communicate as directly as it ever did to Mr. Washburn. A new commandment. A new reward.” (LaValle, 97) Additionally, the Deans talk with Rice goes on to validate that the “promise” that Ricky Rice made earlier, in 2002, does have to do something with a higher power. The Dean states, “The Voice heard your promise. I know this. Now it’s giving you the chance to be brave. Look up.” (LaValle, 97) Based off this sentence, it appears that this voice is controlling Rice, his decisions, and his world. Rice has been trusting this likely divine presence since he received the note in Utica, New York.   

Since we are still at the beginning stages of this book, there is a lot that can still occur. Rice, along with the other unlikely scholars, seems to have made promises to a higher entity of some sort. Like the Puritan’s view of providence, this force seems to control great portions of their lives. I am excited to see where these promises lead the unlikely scholars and where this book goes next, even if that’s already pre-determined

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