The Albino Album by Chavisa Woods

Where to begin with Chavisa Woods’s full-length epic novel, The Albino Album? I’ll give you the skeleton of this novel, as there are so many secondary themes I could go on about for days. The novel opens in a poor, rural area of, I believe, Illinois. A little girl with a name too hard to pronounce is with her single mother and aunt, both of whom are named after countries, as are all their brothers. The single mother has a gentleman caller who deals in rare albino animals, including the albino tiger in a cage attached to his truck outside. Because the girl is good at puzzles, she somehow gets the cage unlocked and the tiger proceeds to eat her mother. She then spends years in a mental health hospital thinking herself a tiger before being released to her grandmother, a grandmother who is relieved when our sixteen-year-old main character runs away.

From there, we get a wild, unbelievable, hilarious novel that reminds me, in a way, of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins but with the wackiness of Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon. First, the main character is adopted/the lover of a lesbian truck driver from Russian named Helen. Then, she is the confidant and girlfriend of a Pakistani punk plotting to blow up Monsanto named Jules. She meets up with the albino dealer’s relative, who says her inheritance is an albino horse named . . . Aryan. With Jules and a group of Catholic Workers, she travels in a performing troupe, learning to juggle on Aryan’s back. After, ahem, some “explosive” action with Jules, our main character heads to New Orleans where she meets Idrissa, an intersex person who identifies as male, and leads a normative life compared to our main character, who, after several years is still wearing combat boots and a black tutu. Living as a vagabond means the main character meets loads of interesting people, letting us peek into their world, too, and it’s always entertaining.

Some side stories that don’t add much to the main plot, but are a fantastic detour in terms of entertainment, include the main character’s cousin Cindy, who gets into a fight with some children about why she won’t take their box of free kittens. She has several pet birds! After her refusal, the kids leave one kitten on her porch in the middle of the night, so she returns it. The next night there are two kittens. Then an all-out cat war that gets the human society and the kids’ nearly-dead granny involved concludes Cindy’s section.

We also meet Gabriel, a boy in New York City whose mother is a drug addict. But he survives because he is an angel. Well, he wears a tinfoil halo and some fake wings all day every day, but he’s sure he’s an angel. Sure, angels embarrass their brothers and get beat up at school, but his belief does not waver.

My favorite section (and Nick’s, too, as this was a book I read aloud to him) was when Idrissa contacts the main character’s uncles to help him locate Aryan, who has been stolen and then sold several times over. Because she’s distraught that she cannot locate Aryan, and because Idrissa has called her unintelligent trash, the main character heads to New York City. Realizing his mistake, Idrissa is going to find the main character and find her horse and reunite them grand gesture of love and apologies. After locating Aryan, his plan is to buy the horse, but these patriotic conservative uncles believe they shouldn’t pay for Aryan and plan a heist. As I mentioned, the family are named after countries, so you get descriptions like, “Vietnam flipped a large piece of meat into his mouth and banged his lips around it as he went on.” Or, when the brothers are arguing, you get Brazil’s menacing, “I’m just saying, people who live in glass houses should watch their mouths, cause I’ll break your face.”

This is not a politically correct novel at all. Chavisa Woods appears to draw on her own background in rural Illinois with a highly religious family in which she did not fit as a goth/punk lesbian. Thus, many of her characters have a similarly conservative background, which would likely include the uncles: ” ‘I met myself a Jew. First Jew I ever met. Well, that I know of. He had one of those Yammahaws. Guess I wouldn’t have known he was a Jew if he didn’t have that thing on his head.’ ” Although in general what the uncle says is offensive, he also comes from a homogeneous place where he wouldn’t encounter people unlike himself. Rather than pronouncing “Idrissa,” the uncles simply call him “Africa” — and Idrissa is thankful they don’t call him “Mali” (like Molly), his home country. Honestly, I was comfortable with rude characters because such people exist around us, and if we don’t hear them out, we can’t share our stories with them, either.

I mentioned that The Albino Album has several themes. Woods covers what intelligence is and who is smart, sex and power, terrorism, Native American culture, performance and art, gender and sexuality . . . There is so much that goes around and spins and dances and comes back together, and I loved it. Yet, I must confess that Nick was sooooo disappointed in the ending. I argued vehemently that the ending made sense in the context of both the book and pop culture story arcs twisted bizarrely.

*Note: this book is available through the publisher without limitations on which app you use to read it. You can re-download the book without paying again if you lose it or wish to put it on a different app. Thank you to Seven Stories Press for being cool like that!

26 comments

  1. This sounds like an absolutely wild ride, and I am now curious about many things here (like that controversial ending, for one!). I also like what you say about rude/offensive characters having their place. Tbh I don’t often enjoy reading such characters, but it can make a story feel more realistic to include characters who are flawed and/or ignorant, and I definitely think that can be done in a way that doesn’t condone those sorts of comments, in which case they bother me less. It’s really a pet peeve of mine actually when readers rate or review a book negatively for including offensive content when that’s done intentionally to make a worthwhile point, and does not necessarily reflect on the author’s personal beliefs or behavior. Novels are not utopias- if they were, they’d be boring.

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    • I do think novels that are too politically correct don’t represent reality, but I’m also not looking for a flaming racist to balance things out. People say stupid crap all the time that make them sound ignorant, despite their because intentions. Case in point, I had a blind woman call the library yesterday and tell me she has a hard time calling phone numbers with a zero. I said, “If you look at your phone you can feel the bottom row of buttons. The zero should be the one in the middle of that row.” SMH. She called me out on it, too.

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      • Ah, that’s too bad! Yes, even those who mean well can misspeak or find gaps in their knowledge, and it does seem more realistic for novels to acknowledge that. I do like books that feel true to life, but I agree, I don’t go seeking out the flaming racist characters just for my reading to feel truer to life- there is something to be said for a certain degree of utopianism in reading after all, I guess!

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  2. This sounds ambitious and ‘alternative’. I’m interested that it was a novel you read to Nick. Lots of experimental fiction I’d have to see it myself to follow it. Perhaps you should read something for LibriVox so we can all hear how you sound.

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    • I would agree that the characters are alternative, though the writing style is not. I went through an alternative/experimental writing program and am not interested in such books anymore. However, alternative plot lines? Yes, please. We’ve started another alternative book called Ultra by Olivia Hill. It’s self-published, so there are some errors, but the storyline is great and loads of fun to read.

      Can anyone put something on LibriVox?

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  3. I’ve been curious about this one because I loved Woods’ non-fiction so much. This kind of sounds like what I might have expected but even more of a wild ride! That’s an interesting thought about “offensive” characters; I find I don’t mind things like that as much when it’s clear the author is mirroring real life rather than just playing it for laughs.

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    • I think Woods is great about showing characters from all walks of life and making them not only believable, but someone you care about, even if they are misguided in their thinking. All eight of those uncles were a big patriotic trip, but they also cared, and I cared about them. It was a fun ride. I think you would like this book. The more I get to know you, the more years I read your reviews, the more I realize that your reading tastes are quite varied. The Albino Album might suit you just fine.

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  4. This sounds like a real romp through peoples and places, I like the sound of it being incredibly diverse in terms of sexualities and genders but then featuring realistically rude folk, too. Although it’s probably not for me. Bits of the description reminded me of Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve”, although when I tried to re-read that, it was too icky for me these days!

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  5. This sounds like quite the mix! I like your point about it featuring rude or extremely non-PC characters, because that’s reality and if we expect people to listen to us, we need to hear them out as well.

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    • I felt only the tiniest bit guilty that the “good ol’ boy” uncles were my favorite characters, too. They were so full of heart but funny yet worrisome, and I think Woods was masterful with her writing of them.

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      • Your description of them kind of reminds me of my granddad, who loved learning about other countries and people from other cultures (and travelled to places like Egypt and Turkey, pretty impressive for a farmhand who left school at twelve!) but would never have used PC words to talk about those places and people – yet with no intention or awareness of being rude or offensive.

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        • Your granddad would probably make me guffaw and then I would feel bad that I did, kind of like the time I heard a joke from Chris Rock. He said white Americans will book a vacation in Africa, debark from the plan, peer around, and say, “Look at all the minorities.”

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