Gold and Judgement: John Ruskin’s King of Golden River and Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl

Dear Reader:

Some of you may have noticed that I trumpeted reading “one book a month” in April in my last post. I could fix my error on my website, but not on your emailed posts… Argh. Probably everyone figured out I mean “one book a day” in April.

503) King of Golden River by John Ruskin, 1900 (hard copy, Ariel Booklets)

This is another of the books that my grandmother gave me. It is a little booklet containing Ruskin’s story, written much earlier in the 19th Century. I was re-reading it.

It is a fable of three brothers living in the Treasure Valley on the Golden River: two bad (Schwartz, of course – “black” in German -and Hans), and one good (Gluck).

Hans and Schwartz work Gluck nearly to death on their farm, rarely feeding him and subjecting him to never ending expectations and beatings. Gluck being Gluck, he takes this all in stride (rarely than launching into a homicidal rage as he might in the 21st Century). One day he is visited by a tiny old man who is wet and cold and begging to share the brothers’ fire and have a bit of the lovely roast cooking on the fire. Although he fears for his life, Gluck takes him in and gives him the bit of roast that his brothers promised him.

When Hans and Schwartz return, they are furious and turn the man out – but he, in turn, becomes a tornado-like creature promising to come again once more. He does and, in punishment, he withdraws all the winds and rain from the valley that had formerly made it so fertile. The brothers and their neighbors starve.

One day Gluck melts down his last beloved possession to sell as gold, releasing the King of the Golden River who had been imprisoned in the gold. He tells Gluck how to gain great riches. Of course, this gain will only be won after great strife and danger. The rest of the story describes the classic type of tale where the bad are arrogant and punished and the good and brave are tested and pass.

It is a lovely little book. One of the things I enjoyed about it is Ruskin’s language, common for the time, but not so much now, for instance even the chapter titles are ornate: “Chapter II. Of the proceedings of the three brothers after the visit of the south-west wind, esquire; and how little Gluck had an interview with the king of the Golden River.” The book includes lovely little line drawings and carvings at the beginning of the chapters. I could easily imagine reading it to young children who would be thrilled and chilled at the adventures of Gluck and his nasty brothers.

172) Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano (kindle copy for Feminist Classics challenge)

I bought this book to participate in the Feminist Classic Challenge. But I didn’t think I would find it all that interesting. I loved it – as evidenced by the email I just sent Julia (the author) that I’ll excerpt here:

“I’m a straight cisexual woman with tomboy tendencies and feminist sensibilities. I’ve known several transgendered/transsexual students and friends, one very well.

I loved Whipping Girl. I didn’t expect to – I guess I didn’t expect, based on your title, that the topic would engage me at full book length. But it definitely did.

First, you are brilliant – I’m an academic and I read a fair amount of intense scientific writing. But I don’t know when I’ve encountered a writer who so effectively and logically argues through the issues. Your thinking simply amazed me.

Second, I loved hearing the POV of a trans woman on rudeness, feminism, and discrimination. Your writing gave me a much deeper understanding of the challenges trans men and women face. It also helped me to understand myself and feminism better.

And lastly, reading your book made a lot of sense out my own experiences having a close, transitioning trans woman friend and living in a small community. While she mostly experienced support, I also personally witnessed unbelievably heinous behavior and surprisingly unsupportive reactions, including from very liberal people whom I respect on every other issue.

Finally, as a writer myself, I know what writing well takes – I can write to an acceptable level, I can push beyond that to an exceptional level, but that takes a lot of work and it is a rare situation where I’m motivated to push that hard.

I know that you poured tremendous time and passion into Whipping Girl – I bet you kept going back again and again and editing and reworking and improving. I imagine it took years of very, very hard work. Because it is one of the most intelligent books I’ve read in a long time.”

Some terms – cisexual (as used in the book and other places) means that your body’s gender and your mind’s gender are the same – they are congruent. To be transgendered or transsexual (and different people who identify as trans seem to prefer different terms and use them somewhat differently) can mean that you experience dissonance between the gender in your mind and your body’s biological sex.

Julia is a trans woman. Meaning that she was born biologically male, but in her mind, she was female, and eventually she transitioned into being and living as a woman. Whipping Girl explains what this means very clearly – better than I understood it after having a best friend of many years who is a trans woman.

As I said, Julia is absolutely brilliant – I was amazed at how beautifully crafted her book is and how logically-constructed her writing is. One of the things I will always remember is this question she asks people who don’t understand transsexuality: “If someone offered you 10 million dollars to live the rest of your life as the other gender that you are not, would you take it?”

I thought about this a lot. Retirement isn’t that far away, that much money would set me up for the rest of my life. So, of course yes.

But then I thought about how I would feel having to live as a man. I’m nobody’s idea of a “girly-girl” and I never have been. I love camping, sweatshirts, the smell of a wood fire on my clothes, and fishing is great fun (but I hate eating the fish). Heels, nail polish, and purses make me feel like a transvestite.

But as I really thought about having to live as a man all my life, all I could think was how I’d always be saying, but you know, I’m not REALLY a man – I’m REALLY a woman. And I could tap into the rage I’d feel being put in this position. Ultimately, her example made me realize that I would never be able to live with myself, no matter how much money I got. And that’s how someone who is living as a gender other than the one their mind tells them feels – every day. Except, in many ways, they have little choice in the matter.

Julia has a website here – she’s a really interesting woman and I’m glad I encountered her book.

A little bit of summer…

My tree peony – happily still cranking out gorgeous blooms!




    1. The List | A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books
    2. Gender Focus Reads: Whipping Girl by Julia Serano | Gender Focus – A Canadian Feminist Blog

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google photo

    You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: