Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: Resurrection in the Blues
Special thanks to University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Ms. for making this available thrUntil You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: Resurrection in the Blues
Special thanks to University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Ms. for making this available through netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
Six members of the L.S. Earll family were brutally murdered in Calcasieu Parrish, Louisiana, in February, 1902. On August 14, 1903, Albert Edwin Batson was executed in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the Court Seat for the Parrish. He was twenty-two years old. He was hung from the gallows. He shouted "Goodbye" as the trapdoor opened beneath him. Sheriff John Perkins pulled the lever. It was his first time to execute a man. The knot wasn't quite right. The fall didn't snap Batson's neck. He dangled, twisted, and choked. It took him twenty minutes to die.
Albert Edwin Batson, 1881-1903
It was easier to hang a man in 1903. Quicker, too. Batson had been the handy man on the Earll place. They were rice farmers who had moved to Louisiana from Michigan to live a wealthier life. And they had. L.S. Earll had banked $700.00 from his rice harvest. L.S. had his own home on the farm he shared with his wife and three of his children. His son, Ward, lived in his own home located a short distance away. Both L.S. and Ward had a goodly amount of livestock on the place, too.
Batson was tried twice and convicted twice. Sentenced to death twice. He had two lawyers appointed to represent him. Well known lawyers. Of course, criminal law wasn't their specialty. They were better at drawing up a deed, a contract, or drafting a will. They did a good job, though. They got their young client's case reversed on appeal after the first conviction on an evidentiary ruling. They launched a review by the Pardon Board to have their client's sentence commuted to life in prison after the second conviction. Two out of three members of the review committee thought the evidence was too flimsy to hang a man. But the third member was from Calcasieu Parrish. His people thought a hanging was due. His opinion carried the day with the Governor and Albert swung. Until he was dead, dead, dead.
It was a sensational two trials. The murders were ghoulish. Gory. Bloody. Six members of one family wiped out. Bludgeoned. Blasted with a shotgun. Throats slashed ear to ear. The trials brought reporters from around the country.
As always, once somebody swings, life goes on. People forget. Everybody seems to have forgotten Batson. In 1910 a fire burned down most of Lake Charles, including the Courthouse, taking whatever records of Batson's cases had ever existed. Nobody knows what happened to the records at the appellate level. They were just gone.
But cases like Batson's have a way of coming back. In the 1930s, the WPA had projects all over America, putting people to work. The Lomax brothers were in Louisiana collecting folksongs. Their collected works are in the Library of Congress today. In 1934 they met Stavin' Chain, the performing name for a blues musician, Wilson Jones, a black man with a black string band. Those bands don't exist much anymore. The Lomax brothers recorded a number of songs played and sung by them. One was the Batson Ballad. It had thirty-five verses. The refrain was, "Mama, I didn't done the crime."
Just as people forgot about Albert Edwin Batson, folks seem to have forgotten about the Lomax brothers and Stavin' Chain, and the Batson Ballad. Strange, though. These things have a way of coming back.
In 2008, an Englishman interested in American Folksongs, contacted Danielle Miller a librarian at the Genealogical and Historical Library for Calcasieu Parrish in Lake Charles wanting to know more about the Batson Ballad. Miller started digging. She found enough information to discover the song was based on a real event. She dug further and found enough information to make her wonder about the ballad's refrain. What if Batson "didn't done the crime?"
At the time of Batson's trials there were no rules on jury selection in a capital murder case. No limits. The District Attorney could pack twelve men on a jury who were committed to hanging a man on circumstantial evidence alone. That didn't cease to be the case until the United States Supreme Court rendered its opinion in Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510 (1968). 1968? Yep.
Now, don't go thinking that this is a book for lawyers because I put up that fancy dancin' legal citation up there. This is a bone chilling read. It will appeal to lovers of historical fiction as well as non-fiction. This is one that will make the short hairs stand up at the back of your neck. Poor Albert Edwin Batson. Two juries couldn't see past their own noses. The sentencing judge screamed out "Until you are dead, dead, dead," at his first pronouncement. The second time, perhaps having been a bit more circumspect in watching the flimsy evidence unfold, that's the reason spectators had to lean forward to hear him whisper the same words.
In the end, the outcome was the same for Batson. He was truly dead, dead, dead. Funny thing. The sheriff that hung him? He said that young man never looked like a killer to him. You know? He just may have been right. It's enough to make you think about your opinion on capital punishment. Even a grizzled old retired career prosecutor. Like me.
READ THIS BOOK.
Wilson Jones, "Stavin' Chain", 1934
Listen to Stavin' Chain sing the Batson Ballad. For those curious, a stavin' chain is a tool used to bind the staves of a barrel together until the metal band is applied to hold the pieces together.
The universally applied rule for the use of circumstantial evidence is that it is perfectly admissible as long as it points to the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt. If it is explainable by any other reasonable hypothesis, it is the jury's duty to acquit. One Earll son survived the blood bath on the Earll farm. Fred Earll claimed he lived in Iowa. No existing record indicates a person by that name was a resident of Iowa at the time the six members of the Earll family were killed. Just food for thought. ...more
Blanche on the Lam, Barbary Neely, First Ed., St. Martin's Press, New York, New York, 1992
Barbara Neely, Social Activist, and Author, born 1941, Lebanon, Pennsylvania
Still hoping to find an employer willing to pay for a full service domestic instead of the bunch of so-called genteel Southern white women for whom she currently did day work. Most of them seemed to think she ought to be delighted to swab their toilets and trash cans for a pittance."
Blanche White, a savvy and independent black woman finds herself in Farleigh, North Carolina, living with her mother and the two children she had promised her sister, Valerie, dying of breast cancer, she would raise and see to their well being. It's not an easy life.
This is not the life Blanche had planned for herself. She never intended on marrying. Children weren't in the picture. A practical woman, she knew her services as a full time domestic were valuable. Up north, in New York, she had earned a good living. But that was before her sister died and she made a promise she was committed to keep.
About Farleigh, North Carolina. I didn't find it on the North Carolina map. Perhaps Ms. Neely changed the location to protect the guilty. However, other North Carolina locations are bantered about without concern. For Neely's purposes, the name suffices, establishing Blanche the domestic, a resident of the South, whose importance is of little note to the white citizens of the community, authoritarian, social or otherwise.
Farleigh was still a country town, for all its pretensions. The folks who lived here and had money, even the really wealthy ones, thought they were still living slavery days, when a black woman was greateful for the chance to work indoors. Even at the going rate in Farleigh she'd found no black people in town who could afford her--not that working for black people ensured good treatment, sad to say.
Things really turn sour for Blanche when she's arrested on warrants for bad checks. Checks she wrote for groceries to support her niece and nephew, counting on her employers making good on her payday. However her employers decided to take a powder, uhm, vacation, to Topsail Beach, or some other likely vacation spot.
Blanche ends up before a Judge who got up on the wrong side of the bed, mistakenly reads her record, and becomes indignant to find her before the Court a fourth time. Thirty days in jail, plus restitution. It crosses one's mind how anyone makes restitution while incarcerated.
Blanche panics. Away from her children, yes, she's come to look on them as her own, for thirty days? The County's liable to come calling and her children will be in the State Foster Care system. At the first opportunity when a brouhaha breaks out in the courtroom, Blanche goes on the lam.
That's when things get interesting. Blanche was scheduled to take a placement through an employment service. What better way to go into hiding working for wealthy white folks. And Blanche only thought she was in trouble.
One Cranberry Way. A week long job. Time to figure out how to handle this check problem. Get a lawyer. That's what she should have done.
The occupants of One Cranberry Way are the Carter family. Aunt Emmaline is the family matriarch. Who would have thought it? She parlayed a $50,000.00 inheritance from her late husband into a fortune in the stock market. Do we need a reminder that money is the root of many evils?
Niece Grace's parents are dead. She's a likely heir upon Emmaline's death. She is married to Everett, a villain from the point of being introduced into the cast of characters. Grace is his second wife. His first was murdered. Having a cast iron alibi, Everett, reaps the benefit of wife One's legacy. But that money is gone.
The other likely heir is Mumsfield, cousin to Grace. Mumsfield is the most sympathetic character in the novel. With a diagnosis of Mosaic Mongolism, Mumsfield functions quiet highly. Derided constantly by Everett, Mumsfield is drawn to Blanche who treats him kindly.
Blanche intuitively recognizes that Everett and Grace mean to gain Aunt Emmaline's estate. If appointed Mumsfield's guardians, Emmaline's fortune is at their disposal.
Blanche and Mumsfield share a kind of invisibility in the Carter household. A black domestic and an adolescent deemed incapable of understanding the manipulations of Aunt Emmaline going on underneath their noses are things that Everett and Grace are confident will not be unraveled before the money is safely in their hands.
However, events take a turn toward violence. Everett and the Sheriff apparently are at odds of serious import to one another. Blanche overhears a sharp interchange between the two. The following morning, the radio news carries the story that the Sheriff committed suicide the previous night, driving his car over O'man's bluff.
Old Nate, the long time Carter gardener, drops by the kitchen to talk to Blanche over a cup of coffee.
"Hear about the Sheriff?" He asked her without a 'Hello' or 'How are you?' He didn't even wait for Blanche to answer. 'Shame, ain't it?' he added. But the huge grin that turned his face intho that of a much younger, more carefree man didn't match his words. It was probably events like the sheriff's death that got her slave ancestors a reputation for being happy, childlike, and able to grin in the face of the worst disaster. She could just see some old slaver trying to find a reason why the slaves did a jig when the overseer died.
But Blanche knows there are things better ignored.
It would be better to forget about the sheriff's visits, his conversations with Everett, and the limousine rolling silently down the drive that shouldn't be a problem. She had plenty of experience not seeing what went on in her customer's homes, like black eyes, specks of white powder left on silver backed mirrors, cufflinks with the wrong initials under the bed, and prescriptions for herpes. She was particularly good at not seeing anything that might be dangerous or illegal. But as good as she was at being blind, there were certain things she couldn't overlook.
However, the sheriff is only the first to go. The body count increases. Will Blanche herself leave her job safely? And what about Mumsfield? Who's to take care of him. Or will she "be murdered over some white people's shit that didn't have a damned thing to do with him?" It would be easier to skip town and head to Boston, lose herself back up North. Send for the kids when it was safe. But things just happen to fast.
Neely knows how to spin a yarn. This is not your conventional mystery. Rather, Neely relies on building characterization of the main players in this tale of a family divided by its greed for the family fortune. The dialog is sharp. Blanche is a refreshingly savvy investigator, though a reluctant one. Interwoven into a well plotted story is a starkly honest portrayal of black anger in the face of a heritage of white oppression.
It's no spoiler that Blanche survives. This is the beginning of a series. Neely's debut drew the attention it deserved. The Agatha Award for Best First Novel, 1992. The Andrew Award for Best First Novel, 1993. And the Macavity Award for Best First Novel, 1993.
The novel's ending may leave some readers conflicted. Be warned. I won't reveal anything more than to quote the old saw, "Two wrongs don't make a right." I leave it to the reader to determine how the conclusion of this novel strikes them.Blanche on the Lam: A Blanche White Mystery
To state there is no racial divide in our country would be specious at best. Neely clearly establishes the suspicion with which the races warily eye one another. There's an infinite degree of sadness that this divide seemingly has no end.
This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends This is the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.
-T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, 1925
Emily St. John Mandel, born 1979, Comox Canada
Station Eleven, First Ed., Pan Macmillan, London, UK, 2014
The night civilization collapsed Arthur Leander missed it. He was performing in his final role as King Lear on stage in Toronto, Canada. During the performance he clutched his chest, collapsed, and died. He was only fifty-one. A paramedic in the audience, Jeevan Chaudhary, attempts to perform CPR to no avail.
On stage is eight year old Kirsten Raymonde, an actress playing one of Lear's three daughters as a child. Leander had questioned what children were doing in a production of Lear earlier. Kirsten liked Arthur. He had given her two comic books. Chapters One and Two of Station Eleven. She will keep them with her always.
The Collapse is just hours away. A flight from the Georgian Republic is scheduled to land at Toronto International. The passengers carry the Georgian Flu strain. The incubation period is incredibly quick. By the time their plane touches ground, all will be taken to a Toronto Emergency Room.
An Emergency Room physician calls Jeevan Chaudhary, warning him to get out of the city. The incubation period is two to three hours. Nothing will stop this flu. Already medical staff are falling ill.
“Jeevan was crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness that Hua was describing was going to be the divide between a before and an after, a line drawn through his life.b>
The Georgian Flu is an efficient killer. The mortality rate is 96.6%. Attempts to evacuate are futile. The world as we know it ceases to exist.
First the televised news broadcasts end. Sometimes there's a blank station signal. At others, static. No radio stations can be received. Cell phones no longer operate. The internet is gone.
It's the truly inconsequential things that are noticed first.
“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”
But the longer the collapse the more tenuous life becomes. A young girl runs screaming through an airport terminal asking anyone for Effexor. She is in withdrawal.
“No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite.”
After three years, any fuel not used has become stale. No engine will crank. Lines of empty useless vehicles line the highways.
There is no Canada, no United States. There are no borders, no boundaries. In places there are no laws. No mercy. It is difficult to determine whether people are human or feral beasts.
Civilization exists in isolated pockets. Little conclaves of people along the shores of the great lakes. Along these shores travels three caravans of musicians and actors. They comprise "The Traveling Symphony." Their personal identities are not so important as their positions in the symphony. They are known as the Conductor, the Clarinet, the Tuba, the Second Guitar. It is twenty years after the collapse. Among the players is Kirsten Raymonde, on stage when Arthur Leander collapsed and died of a heart attack. She still carries the Station Eleven Comic Books.
“All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.”
The Symphony toured those little pockets of civilization performing Shakespeare one evening and musical concerts on the next. It was those things the survivors of the collapse appreciated. The towns' reception of the Symphony was good for its members, too.
“SOMETIMES THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night.”
It is at this point that Emily St. John Mandel creates something marvelous by departing from the typical post-apocalyptic milieu. That is precisely what disappoints some readers of this novel. For this is no typical post-apocalyptic novel. Mandel takes us much deeper into questions of human nature and questions of responsibility, the consequences of our acts and our failure to act. Some of what we take for granted as a normal part of today's society is enough to make you squirm. Did I really do that? Maybe I should have? See clearly, Lear.
Intertwined with the story of the Collapse Mandel leads us through the life of Arthur Leander from his days in Toronto as a student actor when he became friends with free-spirited Clark, who wore his head half shaved, the other half died in some outrageous color. Clark was openly, happily gay. And Arthur freely danced with him in Toronto bars.
We watch Arthur's climb to fame as an actor. He marries Miranda, a girl from his home town in Western Canada. She is involved in an abusive relationship with an artist, Pablo, who has sold paintings for big money. However, the money is gone and so is Pablo's muse. Miranda becomes Arthur's rescue. Miranda, too, is an artist. Their marriage seems the perfect match. Arthur's roles grow more and more prestigious. Miranda is engaged in a graphic arts project, a novel, Station Eleven. Miranda shuns the spotlight in which Arthur is required to shine. Their lives do not belong to them. Arthur is pursued by the paparazzi, one of whom happens to be Jeevan Chaudray.
Miranda and Arthur's marriage calls to mind the ancient myth of Hero and Leander. Although Miranda is no Hero, she paints one. And, for this purpose, we shall call Arthur Leander. Leander in the beginning gladly swam the Hellespont to be with Miranda. However, this Leander finds Hero no longer holds her lamp aloft for him and he looks elsewhere. It is a sad commentary on marriage. One repeated all too often these days.
Arthur will leave Miranda for Carol, whose beauty as an actress is renowned in Hollywood. They will have a child, Tyler.
Arthur's eye will stray to a third wife, with Carol taking son Tyler to Israel, where Arthur seldom sees him.
When Arthur takes the stage for his final performance as King Lear, the third marriage has failed and he's involved in a dalliance with the young child wrangler attending to Kirsten and her two child co-stars.
During the course of the years Miranda completes the first two chapters of Station Eleven. She gives two sets of her work to Arthur. Arthur has decided he has too many possessions. He's in the process of giving things away. Ironically one set goes to Kirsten, the other to Tyler. Each will cling to those copies. But each will interpret them far differently.
Not only does Arthur Leander play Lear, a mad King who needs to see more clearly, he is a modern Leander who attempted to swim the Hellespont once too often. As Christopher Marlowe wrote:
Some swore he was a maid in man's attire, For in his looks were all that men desire, A pleasant smiling cheek, a speaking eye, A brow for love to banquet royally; And such as knew he was a man, would say, "Leander, thou art made for amorous play. Why art thou not in love, and loved of all? Though thou be fair, yet be not thine own thrall."
Hero and Leander, 1598
Miranda is informed of Leander's death while she is on assignment half way across the world, before the lines go dead. Old friend Clark and second wife Carol end up in an airport in Severn City. We follow Jeevan through his struggle to survive. Tyler is with Mother Carol in that airport. Kirsten and the Symphony are headed to Severn City. Their lives will diverge, converge, and intermingle throughout the course of the novel. Their connection with one another becomes a mystery set in a post-apolyptic background. Who lives? Who dies? Intriguing? Absolutely.
Within any post-apocalyptic novel, one expects the strong to overcome the weak. Mandel does not depart from this part of the formula. As the Symphony comes to St. Deborah by the Sea, on the shores of one of the great lakes, they encounter a town overtaken by a religious cult led by "The Prophet." This fanatic believes that he and his followers have been saved for a purpose. Any who do not follow him are a part of darkness, unworthy of being saved. When the Symphony departs the town, they unknowingly carry with them a stowaway, a young girl named Aubrey, underage, whom the Prophet has claimed as another wife.
What the Prophet perceives as the Symphony's kidnapping of his bride leads to a climactic chase and confrontation between good and evil.
Station Eleven is a must read. Rightly chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award, this novel is the most engaging read I've encountered in 2014. Five Stars. Unquestionably.
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an en
Silent Night in No Man's Land: Christmas, 1914
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an end to war I dreamed I saw a mighty room The room was filled with men And the paper they were signing said They'd never fight again
And when the papers all were signed And a million copies made They all joined hands and bowed their heads And grateful prayers were prayed And the people in the streets below Were dancing round and round And guns and swords and uniforms Were scattered on the ground
Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before I dreamed the world had all agreed To put an end to war
Ed McCurdy, 1950
Christmas Day, Flanders, 1914
Where have all the flowers gone? Long time passing Where have all the flowers gone? Long time ago-Pete Seger, 1955
There are no poppies blooming in Flanders' fields. It is winter. The ground has been churned to mud. Perhaps the last time anyone saw the poppies bloom was before the great war began in August, before the leave began to turn. When there were still trees.
Where have all the soldiers gone? Long time passing Where have all the soldiers gone?
It is nearing Christmas, 1914. Since the great war began a million soldiers have died. When will they ever learn? The generals, the Field Marshalls. Once again, the deadly efficiency of new weapons has overcome the outmoded tactics of previous wars. The soldiers on the front lines pay the price. Generals and Field Marshalls die in bed. It does not seem they ever learn. They do not pay the price.
I am seventeen. About to graduate High School. We have our Senior Banquet. I wear a blue blazer, pink shirt, white trousers, white bucks. I am thin, too thin, perhaps. The class song is "Those were the days." Mary Hopkins voice hauntingly floats over us all. We all sing with her.
Once upon a time there was a tavern Where we used to raise a glass or two Remember how we laughed away the hours And dreamed of all the great things we would do
Those were the days my friend We thought they'd never end We'd sing and dance forever and a day We'd live the life we choose We'd fight and never lose For we were young and sure to have our way. La la la la...
I thought I would do great things. I would become a history professor. I had scholarships to the University of Alabama. If I didn't get drafted and sent to Vietnam.
We didn't think much about it. It hadn't touched us much. Jennifer's brother was shot down, flying a Phantom F-4. We didn't know why she went screaming down the halls when the principal called her out of class till later.
That business about the tavern. I had sneaked some Strawberry Hill out in the country. Didn't smoke. Had a 1963 Olds Rocket 88 with a big back seat. Never got past second base. But it was sweet. Someday. Maybe, if I didn't get shipped home in a box. We did have student deferments.
What if they gave a war and nobody came? Why then the war would come to you!-Bertolt Brecht, 1930
Although Weintraub is a historian down to his toes, he has written a moving account of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Weintraub leaves the reader reeling with a series of evolving and ever more powerful emotions as he unveils this riveting history. The truce comes alive through the words of those who were there. The truce lives in the letters and diaries of Englishmen, Scots, Germans.
This is a tale of sadness and hope. The men who recount these strange days in the midst of war are able to recognize the humanity in one another that exists no matter one's language, origin, or government. It is all the more amazing because it occurred almost sua sponte, as the result of the actions of the men in the trenches, of their own volition, something that sent shudders up the ranks of authority to the centers of their governments.
Christmas Eve, 1914
The Garwhal Rifles, a Regiment of Indian troops, noticed a line of lights appearing atop the German trenches across from them. They were the candles on Christmas trees. Earlier one of their number had written home, "It is more than horror, it is the end of the world." Though they did not have Christmas trees, the Indians thought the lights reminiscent of their Diwali, the "Festival of Lights." Strange, but there was a peacefulness about it all. In their Diwali, it was a time of forgiveness, new beginnings, and a time for the exchanging of gifts. For a short time, they would see all this happen.
"Thus, Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time...I told them we didn't want to shoot on the Second Day of Christmas, either."--from the diary of Kurt Zemisch, 134th Saxons
"I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck."
Signs appeared above the trenches on both sides of the lines. "Merry Christmas." Carols were sung. Troops poured out of the trenches and met in No Man's Land. They shook hands. Exchanged souvenirs, gifts, newspapers. The rain that had turned everything to mire had stopped. It turned cold and clear. There was a hard freeze. War took a holiday.
Christmas Day, 1914
It continued the next day. Christmas day. In different ways. Some units helped one another bury their dead. In other areas, men continued to mingle freely, exchanging gifts. There were seemingly incredible small world moments, an Englishman recognizing his former German barber who had been called home to serve the Fatherland. Regimental histories recorded soccer matches occurring in No Man's Land.
Footers, English and German, play the game
Boxing Day, The Second Day of Christmas, 1914
The truce remained in full force, though the upper echelons were beginning to rumble.
"Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o'clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a 'dug-out' (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by the Princess Mary. In the pipe is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Haha, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands. Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write. Marvellous, isn't it?"-Private Henry Williamson, Age 19, London Rifle Brigade
German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment and British soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment meet in no man's land, December 26, Boxing Day, 1914
Letters, uncensored at the time, were sent home. The letters were forwarded to newspapers where they were reprinted. The Christmas truce became public news.
Might the "Truce" be the beginning of the end of the war? It might have been. But, as we know, it was not. Strict orders were passed down from the highest command of all powers that any form of fraternization would be strictly disciplined. Any soldier found in possession of material belonging to another power was subject to punishment.
Not all soldiers and officers at the front during the Christmas truce of 1914 approved of it. No one should be surprised that the young Adolph Hitler did not. Hitler, a Corporal, had been awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class by Kaiser Wilhelm personally. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the occasion as the happiest day in his life. Regarding the "Truce," Hitler said, "Such a thing should not happen in wartime. Have you no German sense of honor left at all?"
By New Year's, 1915, the Christmas truce was effectively over. It would continue until November 11, 1918. The death toll of combatants was four-thousand-six-hundred per day.
August 31, 1970
Well, come on generals, let's move fast; Your big chance has come at last. Now you can go out and get those reds 'Cause the only good commie is the one that's dead And you know that peace can only be won When we've blown 'em all to kingdom come-Country Joe McDonald, 1965
I turned eighteen on August 31, after I graduated from high school. My grandfather told me we had somewhere to go that morning. "Where," I asked. We were having coffee at the kitchen table. He shook his pack of Camel unfiltereds in my direction. His signal he had something to say. I took the cigarette that popped out the end of the pack, pecked an end of it on the placemat to pack the tobacco down and lit it with my Zippo.
"Well, Son, first we're gonna get you a haircut."
"I've been working. All summer. Like you wanted."
"Yes, you have. Stuck it out. All the men say you worked hard."
"So, what's up?" I knew what was up.
"You get your draft card today. Not going down there like a hippie."
It was the only fight we ever had. I got my hair cut. Got my draft card. Was always opposed to the war. My hair grew back and over my collar. I joined the Student Mobilization Committee. There's a yellowing photograph of me on the cover of the college paper on the steps of the old Student Union during a protest. I'm with Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A curious mix, some thought. But I was never against the soldiers.
As to the Class of Seventy, in due time, the war began to touch it. The lonely ones. The outcasts. The guys on the top row at the pep rallies. The ones on the smoking court. The fellows that didn't give a flip about their grades that took the vocational courses because they never planned to go to college. No deferments for them. First to go. Their names are on the wall in D.C. and on the monument downtown in front of the Courthouse.
Me? I was a fortunate son. Even though I was no Senator's son. I did not become a history professor, but a lawyer. I remain a student of history.
When will we ever learn? Probably never. But we can hope.
Why not Five Stars?
It's a beautiful read. One that will haunt the reader, linger in the memory long after the final page is turned. BUT...Weintraub engages in a lengthy chapter, "What if?" This chapter dulls the impact of the narrative that precedes it. It is an exercise in alternative history. What if a peace had been reached as a result of the Christmas Truce? While such exercises can fuel many a speculative conversation, we can hypothesize from now till death do us part. Would a Germany reaching a peace that left it in substantially all of the territory it occupied have prevented the Third Reich? We'll simply never know. The acts of those who were participants in the Christmas Truce should not be diminished by an anticlimactic exercise in speculation.
So....4.5 Stars. Highly recommended.
For a Magnificent Film about the Christmas Truce, I highly recommend "Joyeux Noel" which my wife and I watch each year.
Gatsby Among the Locusts: Stewart O'Nan's Novel of Fitzgerald in Hollywood
A copy of this novel was provided by Viking Adult through Netgalley in exchaGatsby Among the Locusts: Stewart O'Nan's Novel of Fitzgerald in Hollywood
A copy of this novel was provided by Viking Adult through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This novel will be published January 13, 2015.
"There are no second acts in American lives," F.Scott Fitzgerald, found among his notes to his last, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon.
Stewart O'Nan has written a compelling novel of the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his years in Hollywood. Told in a series of episodes, both in the days of the "Golden Age of Hollywood" and in flashbacks of Fitzgerald's memories of his life during the Jazz Age with his Southern beauty, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, O'nan captures the portrait of a man who recognizes the passage of an era, whose literary works no longer hold the public's interest. Fitzgerald knows he is a man past his days of creativity. His marriage to Zelda is shattered by her madness. Years of hospitalization in the best private hospitals have bankrupted him. Their daughter, Scottie is due a proper education. Only the best prep school will do. The tuition is beyond his financial capability.
Fitzgerald is living beyond his financial means, drawing advances on stories unwritten. The novel promised to Max Perkins is a year past due, soon two years past due. Long time agent Harold Ober has not lost faith. He has become Fitzgerald's banker, loaning him money to keep him afloat. It is Ober who finds a slot for Fitzgerald at MGM Studios in Hollywood. It could be Fitzgerald's salvation or his undoing.
Fitzgerald knows that everyone is gambling on his staying sober. His alcoholism is at the root of his problems. Gin is at the root of his weakness. Seagram's. That's his brand.
Hollywood is at it's peak of creating the American dream. Fitzgerald's old friend Irving Thalberg is dead. L.B. Mayer has taken the helm and Fitzgerald joins a crew of elite writers who have hired on out west beneath the iconic Hollywood sign. Aldous Huxley has amazed with his script for "Pride and Prejudice." And Fitzgerald finds himself among many of the members of the Algonquin Round Table. Dottie Parker wistfully attempts to draw him into a tryst for old time's sake. But Fitzgerald resists, riddled with guilt, thinking of his long lost Zelda, back in Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.
Even the Round Table moved west for "Ars Gratia Artis," they thought.
Fitzgerald is lured by his Algonquin pals to join them in the Garden of Allah, a hotel surrounded by a number of Villas. Here are Dorothy Parker and her husband of convenience whose sexuality lures him elsewhere than Dorothy's bed. There's S.J. Perelman, a host of others. Humphrey Bogart and girlfriend "Mayo" are intriguing companions. Surprisingly, Bogart finds Fitzgerald a swell fellow. Bogie's a literate man. He especially appreciates "Gatsby." However, the gang at the Garden are a great temptation to Scott. The booze flows freely during the parties around the pool. Sticking to Cokes is tough. Being on the wagon when nobody else is, well--that's a constant challenge.
The Garden of Allah, 8152 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, California
The studio is generous. Fitzgerald has a six month contract. The weekly checks finally begin to build up a balance in the bank account. Creditable projects come his way. However, Fitzgerald learns that this new Hollywood is a fickle thing. Projects that are spun with initial glowing press releases die quickly on the vine. They won't sell to the public. Fitzgerald draws paychecks for projects never completed.
Enter a beautiful young woman, Sheila Graham. Fitzgerald is fascinated. She bears a striking resemblance to the young Zelda. He wonders why no one can see that resemblance but him.
Sheila Graham, Fitzgerald's lost Zelda
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, Yes, I can see the resemblance.
What ensues is an intense and complex love story. Graham is an enigma. Engaged to the Marquis of Donegal, Fitzgerald is curious why Graham continues to show interest in him. Her true history emerges in bed. Lots of skeletons rattle in Hollywood. She was born Lily Shiel, a child of the London slums, raised as a star of the burlesque stage in London, exhibiting her body to men who paid to see it. She had married an officer, John Graham, returning from the Great War. She said he was unable to consummate the marriage. She broke the engagement to the Marquis, terrified her past would be revealed.
She kept Fitzgerald at a distance. Especially as his failures as a screenwriter grew. His attempts at sobriety failed. She insisted on his taking "the Cure," an arduous, painful process. She moved him from "The Garden," first to Malibu, then to Encino, both "West of Sunset" Boulevard, the location of the Garden.
Scott's trips to visit Zelda also wore on the relationship. Scott was constantly riddled with guilt. Yet, they always returned to one another. Both had an irresistible carnal appetite for the other.
During his romance with Sheila, Scott continued to keep his promises to Zelda to spend vacations with her and to ensure visits to Zelda from their daughter Scottie. The relationship between Zelda and Scottie was a tempestuous one. Zelda, at times, was merciless in her criticism of Scottie, her appearance, lack of grace, and her resemblance to Scott as opposed to Zelda. Naturally, Scottie grew to where she attempted to avoid any visits with her mother. Scott mediated between the two of them, acting as the great appeaser, negotiating with each of them, assuring each of them that both loved one another. Scott introduced Scottie to Sheila. The two got along famously. Nor did Scottie condemn her father for seeking another relationship.
Fitzgerald was put on "Three Comrades" drawn from the novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It would be his only screen credit. Ernest Hemingway emerges to encourage Fitzgerald to use the film to warn the world to the growing danger of fascism. Fitzgerald's treatment is masterful, including shots of Hitler's diatribes, marching Nazis, flags and drums bearing swastikas. However, Mayer, has those scenes shot again, removing all overt scenes of Nazism removed from the picture at the insistence of a German cultural attache. Hooray for Hollywood.
O'Nan depicts Fitzgerald's spiraling Hollywood decline in unflinching, spare, lean prose. A contract unrenewed. Days as a freelance scriptwriter. Fitzgerald moved from project to project. Fitzgerald, uncredited, punching up dialogue for Vivien Leigh on Selznick's "Gone With the Wind." It is the last hurrah.
Yet, perhaps, Fitzgerald, banished from the Hollywood lot, is finally Fitzgerald's redemption as a writer. These are the days of the Pat Hobby stories, the stories of a drunk screenwriter in Hollywood. The days of the essays that become "The Crackup." And, finally, "The Love of the Last Tycoon." True. Bernice was long past bobbing her hair. Fitzgerald finally recognized that. He was a writer on the return, recognizing, finally, the Jazz Age was over. As always, one wonders what might have been. O'Nan helps us explore that question.
O'Nan captures not only the decline of an iconic American writer, but the decline of world civilization into the conflagration of the Second World War. As with O'Nan's other novels I have read, this is the work of an accomplished writer who immerses the reader in the lives and times of another era with the skill of a master. O'Nan is an author whose each work should be anticipated with the sense of excitement and new discovery. He never disappoints. West of Sunset is O'Nan's fifteenth novel. Highly recommended. ...more
The Cockroaches of Staymore, First Ed., Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, New York, 1989
Donald Harington, December 22, 1935-November 7, 2009
All God's critters got a place in the choir Some sing low and some sing higher, Some sing out loud on a telephone wire, Some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they've got now--
Bill Staines, 1966
Cockroaches of Staymore is my third visit to Staymore, Arkansas. With each visit, I have been sad to leave it. I have wished that I could Stay More, as its inhabitants are known to implore you to do. not that they genuinely mean it. It's a recognized courtesy in that little community, a compliment you pay to the value you attach to the members of your community and your guests to it. If you stop and think about it, not many of us have that attitude towards our company these days. We don't say it, but our silent thought is, "When the Hell, ya'll gonna get home? Time's a wastin'. The wife's not too sleepy. The supper's done. I might just get lucky tonight. Too bad, buddy, if it's not in your stars tonight. Well, ever dog has his day. Too damn bad if this ain't yours." But we keep that to ourselves. Humans have a way of reading our unsent signals though. The way we cut our eyes, look at our watch. Cut the volume up a little on the TV. Mutter a little something about needing to get an early start on tomorrow's day. And before you know it, the party's over.
But in Staymore, well, in Staymore, things just move at a little slower pace. It's nice. Folks just never make you feel like you're being hurried along. That's nice. Don't you think?
I discovered Staymore, Arkansas, and its creator Donald Harington as a result of reading an issue of Oxford American Magazine, the Journal of Fine Southern Writing. Harington was recognized as the winner of the Oxford American's first Lifetime Achievement Award for Southern Literature in 2006. Oxford American and its fine staff have frequently put remarkable works in my hands. I owe it to them for connecting me to Donald Harington.
My first visit was what I believed to be the first Staymore novel, Lightning Bug. I knew immediately I had fallen into the hands of a master author who held me spellbound, the creator of a world in which I longed for, to live in, to escape to, to never leave. My review is here. Lightning Bug.
I quickly realized that it was easy to establish the order in which the "Staymore" novels were published. Almost simultaneously I discovered that the plots of the dozen or so tales do not flow chronologically from a historical perspective. If you've not ventured into Harington Country before, I'd actually recommend you start with The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks. For here are the origins of the very founding of the town, its early history, and its earliest residents. For background on Staymore, here's my review. Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks.
When William nominated Cockroaches of Staymore, my immediate reaction was Trail Members visiting Staymore for the first time would possibly think Mr. Harington had taken a trip with Carlos Castaneda or Timothy Leary. In the most benevolent light, first time Harington readers would view him as a man whose cheese had slid from his biscuit. I am ever indebted to my good friend Jeffrey Keeten who acquainted me with this expression. It has frequent application. I appropriate it with proper attribution--of course.
After all, this is a book about cockroaches. Or, as these critters are referred to--roosterroaches. "Cock" has such negative connotations in polite society, roach society, that is. Though, sex is a very naturally received fact of life among them, both male and female. And the intricacies of the courtship are quite...intricate, shall we say? Ah, pheromones do make things much less complicated. Much more natural. Shall we say spontaneous? Among us human kind, spontaneity can be such a squelching factor in these days and times. How does your calendar look tonight? Not good. Is tomorrow good for you? Uhm...We have dinner with the .... then. OH.
Of course, I lived through what I'm told was a sexual revolution completely oblivious of one having taken place. Late bloomer. Well, you can't go home again. So it goes.
And we silly humans. Has anyone figured out why Man and Woman are in separate bath tubs in those Cialis ads? Oh. And those little blue, purple, and yellow pills that the ads tell all us guys over forty that we probably need? The average act of roosterroach coitus takes three hours. Uhm...and males roosterroaches have three, uhm...you know. And they don't have to go to the emergency room if those thingies are uhm...inflated in excess of three hours. Don't anybody get titillated out there.
But this is what we're talking about people! Would you read a book about these?
American cockroach, Periplaneta americana, one of the oldest life forms on earth. They have been with us forever.
Be honest. You have a flyswatter in your home. Right? There's that can of RAID under the kitchen sink. You've laughed at the RAID commercials. You like your Orkin Man. You are not an organic gardener. Bugs make your tomatoes ugly. You believe in better living through chemistry. Down at the lawn and garden center you are known as "Ortho Man." You know that's you. You think Donald Harington's a Nutcase!
But, my friends, for you are all my friends, I must disabuse you of your preconceived notions, your biases, your prejudices. You are wrong.
This is something, I know, not easily accepted. So, we will take this in little steps. Consider it an exercise in gentle desensitization.
First, think of that little photograph above and think of those two insects being in love. Betrothed to one another. They're singing a little song.
Oh, we don't know what's coming tomorrow Maybe it's trouble and sorrow But we'll travel the road Sharing our load side by side
There now. Think about it. Now, we're going to take a little break to let all of you think about this. Actually, I'm being threatened with my life by the Queen and Cousin Kathleen, who is much like the Queen. Together they are they who must be obeyed. And we shall continue this upon my return to FREEDOM!
Having sung, "Let my people go" numerous times, only to be ignored or given baleful stares, I am free. Cousin Kathleen is busily packing. Her flight out leaves this afternoon. I do hate to see her go. Really, I wish she would stay more. I have told her so. She has replied in kind that the Queen and I should just fly back to Dallas with her and stay there a spell. We finally wound the discussion down with the general agreement that we would do this again real soon. That's true Staymoron style.
So, back to Harington's highly original and inventive Cockroaches of Staymore. These critters, you will discover, are quite like us humans. Actually, Harington probably used them as an example to us, pointing out just how foolish we men and women can be.
The world of the roosterroaches in inexorably intertwined with that of the humans of Staymore. And the roosterroaches have taken on the class structure of Staymoron society. Each of the little critters is a familiar of the former human residents of Staymore.
At the high end of roosterroach world are the Ingledews, just as it was in the human society of Staymore. It was the Ingledews that founded the town after all. And all the other former residents of Staymore have their roosterroach doppelgangers.
However, things are not as they once were in Staymore. The town, once teeming with its citizens is now abandoned except for the presence of two humans. One is a man, an outsider, Larry Brace, living in "Holy House" as it is known to roosterroach society as encouraged by Brother Chid Tichborne, the Reverend Frockroach who preaches the Gospel of Joshua H. Chrustus, Son of Man. Man is no less than Larry Brace.
It's only natural that the roosterroaches worship Man. For it is on the refuse of Man on which the roosterroaches survive. Religion can get right complicated. Brace's house is Holy house because he, uhm...drinks alcohol. A lot of it. And when he is far gone in his liquor, when he sees a roosterroach skittling across the floor to what they call the cooking room, he pulls out a revolver and lets off a round or two. So, Man's House is Holey because Larry has shot it full of holes. In the process, Larry's wild stray rounds may blast away an unfortunate roosterroach. Tichbourne explains that the departed has "gone West," been "Raptured," and gone to live at the Right Hand of Man.
Frankly, Brace has become a rather undependable "Lord." Tichbourne thinks of changing worship from that of Man to that of Woman. The other human residing in Staymore is Sharon, the granddaughter of Latha, former Postmistress of Staymore, owner and operator of the town's General Store, and the heroine of Lightning Bug. Sharon lives in Latha's former residence which she shares unknowingly with the Ingledew roosterroaches. The Old Squire has a cabinet in the kitchen, where the best victuals in Staymore are to be found. His son, Sam, has taken up quarters in an eight day clock overlooking Sharon's bed. Sharon's home is known to the roosterroaches as "Parthenon."
Sam Ingledew is an exceptional roosterroach. Consider him as a non-Chrustian, an Existentialist. Sam refers to himself as Gregor Samsa. Ring a bell? For all his self perceptions, Sam has managed to fall in love with Sharon and wonders what it might be like to make love with her. That would be quite a metamorphosis. To linger over Sharon's face as she sleeps, he has lived in the clock too long. The chimes of the clock have made him deaf. Once again, Harington inserts a bit of himself into his own novel. Harington lost his hearing almost completely at the age of twelve. He has previously appeared as such characters as "Dawny" in Lightning Bug where he was hopelessy in love with Latha.
Leda and the Swan, Giovanni Rapiti: Stranger Metamorphoses have happened. Right?
The pickings for roosterroaches in Holey House are becoming slim. Man has become an unpredictable provider. Frockroach Tichbourne develops a scheme to convince lowly Jake Dingletoon that he is in fact an Ingledew, entitled to claim kin to the Old Squire and Sam Ingledew. If Tichborne can insert Dingletoon into Parthenon, generous, but slow witted Jake will open Parthenon to all the roosterroaches of Staymore.
Harington artfully interweaves the roosterroaches' lives with those of Larry and Sharon. Roosterroach society is divided when Frockroach Tichborne decides to worship Woman instead of Man. And Tichborne will stop nothing short of "INSECTICIDE" to put his plans to take over Parthenon in place.
Two worlds, insect and human, begin to swirl out of control. When Larry shoots himself in his gitalong-er-leg, can the roosterroaches save him? Can they get word to Sharon?
Did you ever think an IBM Selectric Typewriter could be a thing of value?
What's a white mouse doing in Staymore?
Oh...and for all you doubters in Joshua Crust--read Cockroaches of Staymore to learn about the biggest and baddest of all roosterroaches, the Mockroach. He'll put you in mind of Uncle Screwtape. You know. The Uncle who wrote all those letters to his nephew.
While I was quite melancholy at the beginning of this quirky novel to find Staymore abandoned by the human characters I had come to love, I became enchanted by the world Harington created in the society of the roosterroaches. The little critters are more like us than any of us would care to admit. And Harington uses them to point out all the foibles, weaknesses, strengths, and the best of what it is to be human.
Cockroaches of Staymore could easily turn out to be my favorite of Harington's Staymore novels. This is a brillianty sharp work of humor and satire that skewers class structure, religion, politics--you name it. However, it's too early to tell this novel will be my favorite visit to Staymore. I have nine more journeys to make to that magical place. Harington has written the most original anthropomorphic work since Aesop's Fables
1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
--Ecclesiastes, 3:1-8, Revised English Bible
Wendell Berry: Poet, Novelist, Essayist. Born August 5, 1934,Henry County, Kentucky
Nathan Coulter, First Edition, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, Ma., 1960.
I have long loved the poetry of Wendell Berry. His The Peace of Wild Things is among my favorite poems. The man has a way with words that reveals his love of the land, the ways of nature, and his desire to preserve it. Here is his poem.
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Those are fine words. But for all the poems I've read by this man, I have never read his fiction. Until now. I have discovered something else to love about Wendell Berry. Those are his stories of his fictional place, the Port William Community. The sheer joy of this is I have seven novels, thirty-eight short stories and seventeen poems telling the story of this wondrous place and the people who live there. It is a community. Or, as some of its residents refer to it, a membership. It is a place that one belongs to. You and all the others that live there are part of something, helping one another along the way from birth to crossing over.
Nathan Coulter: A Novel is the first Port William novel. It is the story of the Coulter family told through the eyes of young Nathan. This is Berry's developing theme of man's connection to the land, its sustenance of him, and his responsibility to preserve the land.
“Grandpa’s farm had belonged to our people ever since there had been a farm in that place, or people to own a farm. Grandpa’s father had left it to Grandpa and his other sons and daughters. But Grandpa had borrowed money and bought their shares. He had to have it whole hog or none, root hog or die, or he wouldn’t have it at all.”
Nathan's father is no different than his grandfather. He, too must have his land, even though he must pay for it, over time. A long time.
“He said that when we finally did get the farm paid for we could tell everybody to go to hell. That was what he lived for, to own his farm without having to say please or thank you to a living soul.”
Then there is Nathan's Uncle Burley, no farmer. Far from it. But he is no less tied to the land, hunting and fishing, captivated by the beauty of it all.
“Uncle Burley said hills always looked blue when you were far away from them. That was a pretty color for hills; the little houses and barns and fields looked so neat and quiet tucked against them. It made you want to be close to them. But he said that when you got close they were like the hills you’d left, and when you looked back your own hills were blue and you wanted to go back again. He said he reckoned a man could wear himself out going back and forth.”
I identify with Berry's rendering of the Port William Membership. I am a mixture of town and country. More town than country, as I was born in a middling size southern city, the product of a will of the wisp father who abandoned my mother and me when I was an infant. My mother thought eloping to Columbus, Mississippi, where the age for marriage without parental consent was younger than in Alabama, was a good idea at the time.
So I came to be raised in the home of my grandparents, just as young Nathan Coulter and his sibling Brother were. However I was and remained an only child. My mother chose never to remarry. Once burned, twice shy.
My grandfather was Robert Haywood McConnell, born in 1908 in Union Hill, Alabama. My grandmother was Mason Ovilea Beasley McConnell, born in 1909, in Salem, Alabama. Both communities, not even townships, were in the outskirts of Limestone County. The County Seat was Athens, Alabama. A high and mighty name for a small town.
As the Coulters were one of the principal families of the Port William area, so were the McConnells and the Beasleys in that upstate region of Alabama. Between those two burgeoning clans, who began tied to the land as farmers, they branched out into other professions over the successive years. The McConnells produced preachers, storekeepers, morticians, a judge here and there and physicians. The Beasleys produced storekeepers, business men, bankers, a sensitive florist who kept a huge portrait of Elvis over his bed. Everyone acknowledged he was sweet but a little bit funny. There was a circuit court clerk, too. She was married to a man named Homer Price. They had twins they named Sheila and Shaniqua. I was in love with both of them, though they did not give me the time of day. Rather they stared solemnly into one another's eyes. It was easier than looking into the mirror.
And there was the Beasley who made it big in chicken farming. Canned whole chickens. It's called Sweet Sue Chicken. The stuff's sold everywhere. He ended up raising race horses. We hit one of them that got loose on a Sunday morning. That horse ignored the stop sign at the intersection. Papa was flying our 1967 Buick Wildcat as he was wont to do. Stood up on the brake. The Wildcat nosed down and just lifted that horse right up on the hood. I was in the passenger's seat. Nothing looks bigger than a horse's ass sliding into your face straight up the sleek hood of a 1967 Buick Wildcat. The horse did not come through the windshield. But slid off. Disappeared for a bit. Then the steed raised his head and craned his neck around and looked at Papa and me through the windshield. Puzzled.
The point of this is that in Limestone County, between the Beasleys and the McConnells, they birthed you, sold you your groceries, your seed, your farming implements, married you, baptized you, doctored you, judged you, managed your money, buried you if the doctoring didn't take, kept the records of everything on file down at the court house and put the flowers in the funeral home that ended up withering at the burial site. Your neighbors probably brought you a chicken casserole made out of good old Sweet Sue Chicken, too. It was a community and a membership.
As a youngster, I was pretty befuddled by all of this. I was especially confused by who was who and how everybody was connected to whom and how. Over time all the pieces began to come together. I had a particular fondness for my Grandfather's mother, Mama Ora. She lived in a simple clapboard sided house with a dogtrot running through the center of it. During my visits there I learned my appreciation for the land in the country, the country life, the independent way Mama Ora lived and how my Grandfather came alive with his stories of growing up in Union Hill.
Mama Ora's egg custard pie was smooth as cream. It was rich with butter and eggs pulled from beneath the setting hens. No running water. It came from the well just a few yards from the house. Water was never clearer or colder than that drawn from the well and sipped from the tin dipper hung from a post in the well house. Summers never seemed hot at Mama Ora's. A box fan sat in the bedroom window pulling air through the screen door facing the dogtrot and blowing it out the window. You napped on handmade patchwork crazy quilts of indeterminate design. If the weather turned off stormy, the roll of distant thunder was a lullaby, nothing to be alarmed over. The leaves would whisper, then rustle, then shake as they waved in the stiffening wind. The house was a sanctuary of calm. Throughout it all was the sonorous ticking of a clock, an eight day wonder, with soft but authoritative Westminster chimes. No indoor plumbing. A damned mean rooster that waited for you to sit down in the outhouse. He would wait in ambuscade and peck your jewels or worse. Mama Ora would snatch your slingshot if you took it after her prize rooster. He wasn't going to be Sunday dinner.
Perhaps you have concluded I sprang from affluence in Northern Alabama. But my Grandfather was a poor relation. His father, who might have been influential, died young, making my Grandfather the man of the house at a very young age. He made it through high school. Was an excellent student. However, he helped tend the crops that went on the table fresh in season and that were canned for the winter. He hunted for squirrel and rabbits. Those were the main meats. Chicken was a delicacy. Hams were few and far between. The cow was for milk for younger sister Gladys.
He was given a job at McConnell Brothers Funeral Home after graduation from high school. It was a family favor. He learned the trade. Never cared for it. The explosion of a road work truck carrying dynamite was the end of it. By the time he finished picking up the pieces of the crew sitting around that dynamite, he was done.
Haywood they called him. He was handsome. He met Ovilea at Beasley's Drug Store. She was the baby of the Beasley family. She thought he was silly. But he grew on her. Her Daddy had died. Her mother had died. She lived with her oldest brother, Brother Charley, the Banker in a huge house over on East Pryor Street.
They married in a fence corner out in the country. A country preacher officiated. Brother Charley and his wife were not in attendance. Nor were any other Beasleys.
And, thus began my Grandfather's long life of professions. Insurance salesman. Storekeeper. Plumber. Steamfitter. Shipbuilder. Union Organizer. Union Business Agent. Politician. An arguer of Labor cases before the National Labor Relations Board against batteries of Attorneys. He never lost. A self educated man. A charitable man. Shot at. Called a Communist because he was labor. Successfully negotiated contracts satisfactory to Union Members and Management alike.
Who taught me how to plant pole beans, squash, okra, peas, tomatoes, butter beans. Peppers. Sweet. Hot. Eating thin curling pods of hot peppers until the beads of sweat popped out on your forehead, saying, "Eat it like a man," while the tears streamed down his face, as he laughed. The man I thought would never die, but did.
But before he died, the times we had. How he walked me along the bank of Sugar Creek where he used to put drinks to keep them cold. How to bark a squirrel flattened out along the top of a tree limb. Walking along the Elk River where his horse pulled him through the current as he hung to its tail and he learned to swim. The identity of trees. Snakes. The ones to worry about. The ones not to fear at all. All the birds. The smoothness of a Buckeye and how to keep it in your pocket, not for luck, but for the feel of it, the touch of it that took you back into the woods and out of a stressful situation when you'd rather holler.
So, yes. I identify with Port William. I know Nathan Coulter. I have been Nathan Coulter. No matter how old I may get, I will not forget Salem, Union Hill, Athens, or any Beasleys or McConnells. Especially Papa.
“Grandpa had owned his land and worked on it and taken his pride from it for so long that we knew him, and he knew himself, in the same way that we knew the spring. His life couldn’t be divided from the days he’d spent at work in his fields. Daddy had told us we didn’t know what the country would look like without him at work in the middle of it; and that was as true of Grandpa as it was of Daddy. We wouldn’t recognize the country when he was dead.”
No, Nathan, that's not right. You will recognize it. The land remains. It abides. You're just waiting your turn. Just like I am. Someone else will come along by and by.
Patrick Modiano's Novellas of Memory and Things Past
Note: My thanks to Yale University Press which made this translation of Modiano's Suspended SentPatrick Modiano's Novellas of Memory and Things Past
Note: My thanks to Yale University Press which made this translation of Modiano's Suspended Sentences: Three Novellas available through Netgalley. This publication, ISBN 9780300198058, became available for purchase on November 11, 2014 and is available for a purchase price of $16.00. The edition is published in paperback. Translation is by Mark Polizotti.
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”― Marcel Proust
Modiano, the first novel, 1968, age twenty-three
I wondered if those members of the Yale University Press involved in the publication of this collection of three novellas by Patrick Modiano had a remarkable sense of prescience. For the Nobel Committee announced on October 9, 2014, that Modiano was awarded the Nobel for Literature...
"for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation".
Modiano, Nobel Winner, 2014, age sixty-nine
Peter Englund the permanent Secretary to the Nobel Committee freely admitted that Modiano was not well known outside of France. However, Modiano is the author of nearly thirty books, most of which have been translated into European languages. Before winning the Nobel, Modiano had been recognized by Germany for his first novel "La Place de l'étoile" published in 1968 about a Jewish collaborator during World War II as one of the great Post Holocaust Novels in 2010. He received the Prix Goncourt in 1978, Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française in 1972, the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France for his lifetime achievement in 2010, and the 2012 Austrian State Prize for European Literature.
Yet, few of Modiano's works are available in English. The Nobel Committee's announcement had many Americans and English scratching their heads wondering just who Patrick Modiano was. I certainly was. The name flickered somewhere in my memory, but I could not place it. Over the days following the Nobel announcement, Modiano and his world began to emerge. Then his name and his image clicked with me. The film "Lucien, Lacombe," directed by Louis Malle with the screenplay co-authored by Modiano. Dealing with a young member of the French Gestapo, it was a portrait of Occupied France, a theme to which Modiano returns to time and again. The screenplay is available in English. See: Lucien Lacombe, New York, Viking, 1975.
The haunting film from 1974 captures the division of Occupied France, a theme evident in "Suspended Sentences
The three novellas were written over a five year period. However, in the French Omnibus edition, Modiano wrote in his introduction that these books
"form a single work...I thought I'd written them discontinuously, in successive bouts of forgetfulness, but often the same faces, the same names, the same places, the same sentences recur from one to the other."
Clearly, these novellas are highly autobiographical in nature. Modiano does not deny this, although, he maintains that the characters are "fictionally autobiographical." By implication, for this reader, Modiano's statement is one on the nature of memory, for memory is internal to the keeper of memory. It is unique to the owner of the memory. And while those people may be remembered by many, each person's perception of the person remembered may be completely different. But what is real? How accurate is memory? Or is perception reality?
Afterimage "Chien de printemps," Dog of Spring, (1993) The story of a photographer, Jansen, who had meticulously recorded a Paris that no longer existed, a city changed by new construction, a photographer who had taken portraits of people long gone, some dead. Jansen had been a student of Robert Capa. Capa, the famous war photographer, on the beaches at Normandy, who photographed France's Indochina war, dying May 25, 1954, when he stepped on a Viet Minh landmine.
The story is told by an anonymous narrator, easily enough supposed to be Modiano. He tells us he met Jansen in 1964 when he was only nineteen, which would have been Modiano's age. How easily memory is triggered. He is writing this story in 1992, having found a picture Jansen had taken of him and his girl friend in the spring of 1964. But, "[t]he memory of Jansen pursued me all afternoon and would follow me forever: Jansen would remain someone I'd barely had time to know."
Curiously, Jansen and, shall we say Modiano, had gone to Jansen's studio after meeting. Modiano perused Jansen's huge collection of photographs. On the walls were portraits of a younger Jansen and a smiling Capa. There was a portrait of a beautiful woman, Colette Laurent, gone now. Jansen had no catalog of his many photographs. The young man took it upon himself to catalog them, because it was a photographic history of a past that must be preserved. Jansen took to calling his young pupil his scribe. He identified each individual in each photograph. Yet, Jansen will disappear leaving the young Scribe with only a catalog of photographs that no longer exist, memories that cannot be grasped, people that cannot be known, for they are Jansen's alone. This is a signature theme of Modiano to introduce us to those whose personalities cannot be grasped. There is a vague detachment, and the uncomfortable fact that life is not as certain as we might like it to be.
Suspended SentencesRemise de peine (1988)
"After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.”― James Agee, A Death in the Family
This novella most strongly represents Modiano's central themes of memory and the Occupation of France, for me. What makes it most intriguing is that Modiano sorts through his childhood memories of living with his brother in the care of Annie and her associates with whom his mother, an actress, has left them while she is on tour in a stage production.
The hero of this novella is Patoche, a diminutive of Patrick. His brother is unnamed. Patoche illustrates how the memories of childhood may shine with crystalline brilliance in the knowledge of names, faces, and places. However, the significance of the people that surround a child, and their connections to one another have no meaning to a child without explanation. Memory still leaves questions which can never be answered and may haunt us through our lives.
It is tempting to us Modiano's autobiography, Un pedigree, written in 2005, as a reader's guide to these novellas, especially Suspended Sentences. For there are so many things in Modiano's life that emerge in the pages of Patoche's memories that seemingly occurred in real life.
The woman, Annie, in whose care Patoche is left, was really Suzanne Bouqueran. Frede, Annie's close friend, is the nickname of Suzanne Baule' who ran a nightclub. Could it be that Annie and her compatriots who come and go, seemingly without reason, are members of the Carlingue, a gang of collaorateurs during the Occupation? Here they are the Rue Lauriston gang.
The Carlingue, "French Gestapo," Convicted and Condemned following the Liberation
Patoche and his brother are sometimes visited by their father. He is frequently accompanied by a number of business associates. There is an indication that he had once been a dealer in wines and liquors by the truckload. Father speaks of a chateau, now in ruins, to which he takes the boys to tour. The property had been seized by the United States Army as the product of illegal gains. Father tells the boys to keep an eye on the place because the Marquis who had owned the Chateau would return one day, although he and his wife had fled France at the end of the War. Another member of the Carlingue? There is no definite answer. Some questions have no answers. With memory comes mystery.
Modiano plays with the reader as a cat does a mouse. Patoche takes us forward in time to his twenties when he meets Jean D., who used to come to Annie's home when Patoche was ten. Jean D. has done time in prison--seven years. Jean and Patoche speak of the old days. Patoche tells him he is writing his first book.
Patoche reveals that during the War his father had been arrested as a Jew. However his father was released through the efforts of a man named Eddie Pagnon. Why was his father arrested? His father will not tell him.
The answer must lie with Pagnon. But Patoche cannot talk to him. He was a member of the Rue Lauriston Gang, condemned and shot. Only his childhood memories may lead him to a garage he remembers, a garage that Annie drove to when he rode along with her. Why did she give him a cigarette case? Where did she go? Where did everyone go? Where did his brother go? Why was the house where he had lived empty one day?
Oh, Annie, how kind you were to me, Patoche. Perhaps I loved you a little bit. I remember how you looked, the smell of your hair, the softness of your shoulder, the blouse you wore with the skirt, the wide belt cinching your waist, I liked you best that way. Not in the tight pants, the boots, the cowboy jacket.
Brothers Rudy and Patrick Modiano. Rudy died of Leukemia at the age of ten in 1957. His death is just a whisper in Suspended Sentences
Round like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon Like a carousel that's turning running rings around the moon Like a clock whose hands are sweeping past the minutes of its face And the world is like an apple whirling silently in space Like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind--Alan and Marilyn Bergman, 1968
Ruined Flowers Fleurs de ruine (1991)
"I reached Rue d'Ulm. It was deserted. Though I kept telling myself that there was nothing unusual about that on a Sunday evening in this studious provincial neighborhood, I wondered whether I was still in Paris. In front of me, the dome of the Pantheon It frightened me to be there alone, at the foot of that funereal monument in the moonlight and I veered off into Rue Lhomond."
April 24, 1933
A young married couple commits suicide for no apparent reason.
It's a strange story that occurred that night in the building at number 26 rue des Fosse's-Saint-Jacques, near the Pantheon, in the home of Mr. and MMe. T.
What possible connection can there be here? Ah. Our narrator from the present has acquired a copy of the police report of the 1933 suicide. He is tracing their same route of that evening in 1933. But why?
As he follows in the doomed couple's footsteps, our present day narrator thinks back to having lived in the Montparnasse Quarter in 1965 with Jacqueline. Before he went to Vienna. How our memories dart through our minds, a chain reaction of events, but smoothly, a stream of consciousness. Private. Our own. No one else's. No one knows what we are thinking.
He recalls his neighbor. A veteran of the Algerian War. Not quite truthful. Something a little false about a textile concern.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Following the route of that long dead couple, memories of his former neighbor twirling around inside his mind. Duvelz. That was his name. Insisted that he and Jacqueline come around and meet this woman. The face opening the door. A woman with a scar on her cheek.
Things go rather squirrely. Duvelz introduces the woman. Our man can't remember her name. She and Duvelz were even engaged once, but she had to go marry someone else. Oh, her husband's out of town. They can all go out together. Or not. Duvelz strokes the scar on the woman's cheek. He opens her blouse and fondles her breast. Casually, "We were in a serious auto accident a while back."
Are you not spellbound? Can you stop reading? I could not. Where do the dots connect? Do they connect? Is this Modiano seeking out mystery for the sake of mystery? Sometimes he looks for it where there is none. He will tell you so.
Ruined Flowers is a series of spiraling puzzles that links the Paris of today to a Paris that was, some of which has vanished forever. Those memories which appear to be linked with reality perhaps are those that haunt us the most.
This is a solid FOUR star read. Highly recommended. These novellas served me well as an entrance to the world of Patrick Modiano. They should do the same for any reader.
Larry Brown, July 9, 1951 – November 24, 2004, Oxford, Mississippi
Fay, First Ed., Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2000
I have one of those first editions of Fay. But it's not signed. I kept meaning to get over to Oxford, Mississippi, to meet Larry Brown. Actually, I had several first editions by the time Fay came out. I figured I had plenty of time. After all, Brown was a young man. So was I. I was stunned when he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-three.
It was a wake up call of sorts. I was one year behind Brown. I was fifty-two when he checked out. I was still walking the court room floors as if I owned them, trying the hard cases, burning the candle at both ends. While I noted as did Edna St. Vincent Millay that blazing candle indeed made a lovely light, I was also conscious of the fact that all candles eventually burn out.
With Larry Brown's death I began to make an effort not to find an excuse to skip a book signing. And now I'm sixty-two. My health could be better. I joke about my key to immortality being a stack of unfinished books. Wouldn't it be pretty to think so.
With Larry Brown, I'll have to be content with the writing he left us. The interviews he gave. A wonderful documentary, The Rough South of Larry Brown. I think I would have liked Larry Brown, sitting down and talking with him. He understood people, brought them alive on the page, the good ones and the bad ones. That is so evident in Fay.
I got a feelin' called the blues, oh Lord Since my baby said goodbye Lord I don't know what I'll do All I do is sit and sigh, oh Lord
That last long day she said goodbye Well lord I thought I would cry She'll do me, she'll do you She's got that kind of lovin'
Lord I love to hear her when she calls me sweet da-a-addy Such a beautiful dream I hate to think it's all over I've lost my heart it seems
I've grown so used to you somehow Well I'm nobody's sugar daddy now And I'm lo-o-onesome I got the lovesick blues -- Cliff Friend and Irving Mills(1922)
Fay came out of the hills north of Oxford, Mississippi, raised poor. She grew up hard, with a Daddy who led her mother and her other siblings from place to place. She's followed the migrant workers. Lost one brother to death. One was so sick Daddy traded him for a car. There's got to be a better life. Fay's heard there's a beach down on the coast. When Daddy expressed an interest in her no Daddy ought to have it's time to start walking. With two dollars stuffed in her bra, her pack of cigarettes in a purse slung over her shoulder, Fay is looking for that better life.
She's a natural beauty with a body that makes men turn and stare. That first night trudging down the road, some boys in a pickup offer her a ride. They seem nice enough. They have beer and they're going to fry catfish. Well, of course, one or more of them's got designs on Fay, but with all the booze, the dope, and an obliging woman on the premises, Fay makes it through the night in a maidenly way, but gets an eyeful of the obliging older woman satisfying two young men at the same time. Fay feels a shudder somewhere deep inside, never knowing that something like that was possible.
It's time to keep on walking. Fay meets Sam, a State Trooper, who takes her home with him. Sam lives in a cabin with his wife Amy. It's a loveless marriage. A lot of marriages don't survive the loss of a child. Sam and Amy lost their daughter Karen four years before, killed in a car wreck. Sam had the misfortune to be dispatched to work that wreck, found his daughter dead in a crumpled car, not a mark on her, but with a broken neck. That's hard on a man. It's hard on Amy who has become an alcoholic.
Fay becomes their second daughter. She's seventeen. Amy buys her clothes. Fay lives in Karen's room. Sam loves to take her fishing. Fay's good at it. "I wish I had a Daddy like you," Fay tells him.
But this fairy tale can't last. Amy is killed in a wreck. Soon after the funeral Fay and Sam become lovers. Bottom line, Fay is a natural at sex. And she enjoys it. Sam is bothered at their age difference, but, DAMN, he can't stop. If only he had the presence of mind to have worn a rubber that first time. But no.
Now, Sam and Fay being a couple upsets Alesandra, the beautiful woman Sam was having an affair with before Fay came into the picture. Alesandra has a temper. Alesandra also has a gun. While Sam is away, Alesandra is going to kill Fay. Fay kills Alesandra in self defense and leaves Sam's home, which leaves Sam in a lot of trouble with law enforcement.
And Sam has a bad case of the lovesick blues.
Hitching rides with truck drivers, Fay ends up in Biloxi, that beach at the coast. She finds herself at a dive called the Love Cage, a strip club where she meets Aaron Forrest the bouncer. She also meets Reena, a down on her luck stripper, who offers her a place to stay. Of course, Fay will end up with Aaron who starts out as a caring and protective man. The Love Cage covers up a lot of ugly secrets. Drugs. Prostitution. Pornography. Aaron is in the thick of all of it. He wants to keep Fay away from the business, out of Biloxi, over at his mother's place in Pass Christian.
Fay is a natural at sex. Oh. Had I already mentioned that? Aaron has it bad. Aaron has a jealous streak. If Fay were to leave him, Aaron would have a bad case of the lovesick blues.
Fay misses Sam. Things are going to get very complicated.
Larry Brown puts the reader through the ringer. This is an outstanding read. The dialogue crackles. The sense of place is so strong you can smell the pines of Northern Mississippi, and the salty breeze of the Gulf. Brown's scenes of violence explode, leaving the reader shuddering and the victims whimpering. This is a country noir thriller with overtones of ironic black comedy. Why not five stars? At five hundred pages, as magic as some of the prose was, the story didn't merit quite the length of the telling. A SOLID 4 STAR READ. Highly recommended.