During my tenure as a student at the Waldorf School in Santa Fe, I became well acquainted with the gods. In second grade we learned about Native American beliefs, in third grade we studied the Old Testament, and by sixth grade I knew a little something about the Norse, Greek, Indian, and Egyptian gods. The title of Neil Gaiman’s book, American Gods, didn’t immediately put me in mind of what I learned ten plus years ago, but it wasn’t far into the novel before I caught on.
Shadow is on the verge of getting out of prison when he learns that his wife Laura has died. He is released three days early from his three-year sentence in order to go home and take care of the funeral arrangements. Shadow is stunned and somewhat incredulous that Laura has actually died. Very quickly, however, her death becomes the least impossible phenomena he encounters.
Soon after Shadow has left the confines of his cell, he is met by Wednesday. Wednesday enlists his services with almost no explanation and a very vague list of tasks for Shadow to complete. Believing that he has little or northing to live for now that Laura is gone, Shadow agrees to work for the mysterious Wednesday.
Laura appears in Shadow’s motel room the night he buries her. While it is clear that she is dead, her skin is cold to the touch, there is clay from the grave in her hair, she unquestionably enters his room and talks with her husband. Shadow is a particularly even-keeled guy, and though Laura’s appearance unsettles him, he manages to take it in stride.
This bodes well for him as Wednesday takes him on a journey to a number of astonishing and even impossible places.
Interspersed with Shadow’s adventures, are vignettes that depict the manner in which certain gods were carried from the old world to the new. A wanton British lass brings her beliefs across the ocean on two different voyages and African lore is passed through generations of slaves. It is due to these transportations of faith that America has the sprites and spirit of the old world.
The trouble for Wednesday, and by association for Shadow, is that these beliefs have begun to fade. They have been replaced by worship of TVs, the media, material goods. People no longer leave out a bowl of milk for their gods nor are there sacrifices in their names. Wednesday is gunning for a war between the old gods and the new.
The characters that populate American Gods are an incredible cast of oddballs, hot tempers, and seductresses. Shadow spends a prolonged amount of time in Wisconsin. Those who come to the surface in this small town are both endearing and complex. It is the only place that seems to be absent of all danger and where the reader gets to know Shadow more completely. He is a gentle man and aside from his meager assortment of coin tricks, he has very little up his sleeve. It is impossible not to want to look out for him.
Gaiman brings up interesting issues of worship and faith in this novel. I am partial to the idea of moody gods and they were abundant here. The perennial Norse trickster Loki makes an appearance as does the Indian Kali. I was surprised to find the Greeks absaent, however. Their pantheon fails to make a peep despite being infamous for their meddlings in the mortal world.
Ultimately it is Shadow’s relatively easy acceptance of what happens to him that makes the novel plausible. His tranquility in the face of all the strange events that occur after his release from prison makes the story believable. It does, however, frequently and delightfully dip into the fantastic. For worshipers of gods, fantasy, and America alike, this is a quick-paced, intriguing novel.