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Autumn

September 18, 2017
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The plot of Ali Smith’s novel Autumn is largely irrelevant; what you’ll read it for, if you read it, are the moments of connection and recognition, some as clear and bright and head-turningly beautiful as the first red leaves against a blue-sky backdrop. I’ve been seeing those this week, here and there on sugar maples; at the end of the week the autumnal equinox will be upon us.

My first moment of connection, reading Autumn, was with the main character’s, Elisabeth’s, mother, who rattles off this litany:
“I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity
I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says.
I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.”

Elisabeth’s lifelong friend Daniel is the one who all the characters know is in the autumn of his life, but her interactions and memories of him drive what plot there is towards the inevitable conclusion. Visiting Daniel after the Brexit vote in his British “care home” (we call these “nursing homes” in the US), Elisabeth
“wonders what’s going to happen to all the care assistants. She realizes she hasn’t so far encountered a single care assistant here who isn’t from somewhere else in the world. That morning on the radio she’d heard a spokesperson say, but it’s not just that we’ve been rhetorically and practically encouraging the opposite of integration for immigrants to this country. It’s that we’ve been rhetorically and practically encouraging ourselves not to integrate. We’ve been doing this as a matter of self-policing since Thatcher taught us to be selfish and not just to think but to believe that there’s no such thing as society.
Then the other spokesperson in the dialogue said, well, you would say that. Get over it. Grow up. Your time’s over, Democracy. You lost.
It is like democracy is a bottle someone can threaten to smash and do a bit of damage with. It has become a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually becoming dialogue.
It is the end of dialogue.
She tries to think when exactly it changed, how long it’s been like this without her noticing.”

It’s melancholy to see the extent to which Elisabeth feels that she’s living in an autumnal era, more than it is to see it for her mother and Daniel. For them, nearing the end of their lives, it seems more appropriate, even if painful:
“Her mother, who’d seen it several times already herself, was in tears from the start, from when the man doing the voiceover mentioned the words carved on the mace.
Wisdom. Justice. Compassion. Integrity.
It’s the word integrity, her mother said. It does it every time. I hear it and I see in my head the faces of the liars.
Elisabeth grimaced. Every morning she wakes up feeling cheated of something. The next thing she thinks about, when she does, is the number of people waking up feeling cheated of something all over the country, no matter what they voted.”

The work that the circumstances of her upbringing, her mother’s convictions and her friend Daniel’s guidance have led Elisabeth to do is investigating an artist’s attempt to “imagine if time could be kind of suspended, rather than us be suspended in it.” And this is what happens to the characters, and to the reader of this novel, while immersed in it.

At the end, however, when we become aware of the passing of time, it’s no longer early autumn, no longer the time described by Keats at the beginning of his poem “To Autumn,” when nature is still working
“To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease…”

At the end of the novel it feels like we wake up to discover that it is the end of autumn. “The trees are revealing their structures.” It is later than we thought, and how did we get here, British and American? Is it too late to plant anything hardy that might take root in a future season?

 

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The Wheel of Light

September 15, 2017

While at Hendrix, I stayed in an apartment in “Murphy House” that was set up for visiting writers, and both floors were full of books donated by authors who had come to campus, including one from the Director of the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation, Hope Coulter. Entitled The Wheel of Light, it’s a volume full of contrasts. My four favorites span its range.

The first poem that made me want to turn the page down (which I couldn’t since it wasn’t my book; I had to go find some sticky notes) is “Leaving the Museum,” which begins with:
“It’s nearly closing time, and the entrances that invited me,
door after door, decline to present themselves as exits.”
The speaker of the poem is trapped until “as in a storybook/a passageway unfolds.”
I often feel that way in museums, especially art museums (she describes Monet’s haystack, which also makes me think about The Thomas Crowne Affair). They’re like mazes, one wonder leading to the next, until you find yourself in the middle of a strange hallway with no art and no idea how you got there.

The poem I appreciated because of recent experiences is “Speed.” Before this last year, hobbling around with a cane, I didn’t appreciate the speed with which Kenyon students move. Although they’re polite enough when they think about it, if I’m not careful about making sure there’s no student within 10 feet of a doorway, they’re likely to knock me over, so unconscious are they of anyone not prepared to move at their accustomed speed. I’m like the old woman in this poem:
“And when you fall behind a car that pokes along,
you say, ‘It must be someone old,’ and when you pass,
confirm it: some old woman
who surely knows
her days are drawing short
proceeds like a queen on a flowery float,
dispensing time like petals left and right,
as if she’s got a million
hours to squander.”

There’s a poem about people being “invited…to imitate a duck” and their enthusiasm: “It was amazing how willing people were….One man had been waiting for years,/it appeared, to quack at his wife.”

The poem that struck me most–because it’s a villanelle, because it reminds me of my daughter’s fear of sharks, and because it seemed so timely, during hurricane Irma, is “Beach Song,” which I will share here in its entirety:

The thing you fear is not what does you in;
we worried over sharks, not hurricanes.
The unexpected gets you in the end.

The monsters of the deep loomed large back then,
and we missed other dangers, signs less plain.
The thing you fear is not what does you in.

Would something come and tear us limb from limb?
Although we shivered, pictured blood and pain,
imagination failed us in the end:

we scoured the surface for three-sided fins,
not noticing the skies were rearranged.
The thing you fear is not what does you in.

We warned the children, scanned the waves again,
dreading a smash of jaws that never came.
You can’t foretell what gets you in the end.

The menace wasn’t what it might have been—
a darkened cloud, a breeze that would not wane.
The thing you fear is not what does you in.
The freak disaster gets you in the end.

The obsessive quality of a villanelle works well with this subject, doesn’t it? It makes me think of the modern superstition about saying “nothing else can go wrong,” for fear something else will.

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Have you ever thought you’d hit rock bottom only to have something else happen? Did you actually say nothing else could go wrong before it. . . did?

 

That the Night Come

September 13, 2017

I was invited to speak at an event at my alma mater, Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, in celebration of the 40th birthday of the college theater, newly refurbished, the 40th anniversary of the Murphy Foundation, which brings visiting writers to campus and was now offering to bring me, and the 80th birthday of my theater professor, Dr. Rosemary Henenberg. It was an amazing weekend.

It was particularly amazing for someone who usually walks around her own campus trying to follow the advice given by a character in the movie Elizabethtown: “have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling.” I was not only one of three featured speakers flown in for the occasion at Hendrix, but I was also asked to speak to the provost about Writing Centers. It felt like finally someone cared what I thought.

The event has been planned since June, and at first I wasn’t sure if I should agree to come, since it would be only eight weeks after my knee replacement, but I really wanted to so I said yes and asked if I could pay the extra to get enough legroom for a stiff and swollen knee. Their answer was that they would pay it. I found this both generous and reassuring, and as it turned out, I got through the airports just fine. My friend Ann, now a theater professor at Hendrix, pulled up right in front of everywhere I needed to go, including picking me up and taking me back to the airport.

My speech, about humanities and the liberal arts, got laughs in all the right places and also a few I didn’t anticipate, like the startled giggles during my introduction when in the process of defining “liberal arts” by looking at what different college websites emphasize, I revealed that Kenyon’s website says that if you come here you’ll learn to “write better than your peers.” I found myself ad-libbing that yes, we are kind of snotty sometimes.

Part of the speech was about using literature as a lens on current events, and I gave the example of reading Days Without End just before hurricane Harvey hit Texas and finding this quotation applicable: “Thousands die everywhere always. The world don’t care much, it just don’t mind much. That’s what I notice about it. There is that great wailing and distress and then the pacifying waters close over everything”

My conclusion to the speech quoted from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, from which I got a line I’ve used in conversation throughout my life: “The only really safe way to eat potato salad is with your head in the refrigerator.” Literature, I said, gives us a line for any experience–something to say about potato salad or natural disaster.

I think there’s considerable urgency in defending the role of the liberal arts in today’s world, so I said that those of us who believe that liberal arts are important should make more noise about it, speak up more often, and learn to live with the tension of saying something in uncomfortable situations rather than trying to avoid disturbing anyone.

I ended with a Yeats poem that I knew by heart already when I went off to college in Arkansas, one known by its last line, “That the Night Come.” My eccentric reading of this poem is that it’s about the necessity of living in a way that involves taking risks and making mistakes, maybe even failing big:

She lived in storm and strife,
Her soul had such desire
For what proud death may bring
That it could not endure
The common good of life,
But lived as ’twere a king
That packed his marriage day
With banneret and pennon,
Trumpet and kettledrum,
And the outrageous cannon,
To bundle time away
That the night come.

The Wolf Border

September 4, 2017

The Wolf Border, by Sarah Hall, sounded like an interesting novel about the reintroduction of grey wolves in England but ended up deflecting my interest by focusing too much on the antics of the humans and too little on the wolves.

My interest began to wane early on, as I didn’t much like getting to know the main character, Rachel, who gets pregnant by a co-worker in Idaho during a drunken evening after a party and then doesn’t tell him but runs off to England to have her baby. There’s a subplot about him having a brother hooked on meth which is relevant later because Rachel’s brother turns out to be hooked on drugs. There’s a subplot about Rachel’s new boyfriend in England, an undemanding companion with a teenage daughter. There’s a subplot about Rachel’s relationship with her mother.

When we do get to hear about the wolves, a pair Rachel has named Merle and Ra, it’s sometimes only as metaphor:
“She should tell him not to worry about what can’t be changed. The past damages, the old wounds. The trick is not to limp; one has to forget one was ever limping, like Ra, whose leg has healed. One day he could simply run again, without affliction.”
Maybe I’m just irritated because this advice has not yet worked for me; I’m still limping around on the new knee.

Rachel’s pregnancy is described in excruciating detail. Even though she’s apparently healthy, there are pages about how “her abdomen aches. Her lower vertebrae feel displaced, and there’s a grinding feeling against her ligaments. Her bladder goes into overdrive….She reads, lies on the bed surrounded by a mountain of stacked pillows, or wallows in the bath….I don’t know why human gestation evolved like this, she says. If I were out there in the wild I’d get picked off in a minute.”

In contrast, we don’t even know Merle is pregnant until she’s given birth:
“They are born, blind and deaf, in the warm, fusty alcove of soil that has been lined with their mother’s fur. A few weeks later, Gregor’s motion-sensor rig catches their first foray into the world.”

When Merle and her babies escape from their enclosure, Rachel takes her baby, Charlie, with her to search for them. At one point, when Rachel knows that a farmer has shot one of the wolf cubs, she goes walking around the hill where the cub was shot and leaves her own baby on the hillside:
“She lifts Charlie out of the papoose and puts him in a deep swale of grass, facing back down the hill towards the forest….she…approaches the wolf, glancing back at Charlie….She turns to look at Charlie again and to scan the vicinity. Only the top of his head is visible, a burr of black hair in the depression. He is secluded by the grass, like a leveret inside a form….She continues towards the animal.”
At this point, I thought Charlie was toast. Even Rachel says that “for a second she expects to see Merle appear behind him, pick him up, the straps of his dungarees clasped between her teeth, and carry him off, her abandoned, beloved son.”
It doesn’t happen, however, which is more than I felt she deserved.

By the time Rachel finally figures out that her employer has released the wolves on purpose, counting on some of them, at least, making it to Scotland where the “wolves are not only economically beneficial, but environmentally curative,” it seems like even the other characters are fed up with her, too. They let her leave England and finally she boards a plane for Idaho, where she plans to introduce the almost year-old Charlie to his father.

The wolves are last seen on the way to Scotland, Merle and Ra with the surviving “three juveniles keeping pace beautifully.” It’s enough to make you wish the pace of the novel had been swifter.

Have you ever seen a large wild animal in the wild? We see lots of deer in my back yard. When Walker was in Siberia, he said he spotted bear droppings on the trail they were building, around Lake Baikal, but no actual bears.

Slavery by Another Name

August 28, 2017

When I was asked to be on a panel discussing humanities and the liberal arts at my alma mater, I was excited and a little intimidated to discover that my fellow panelists will be a Pulitzer-prize-winning author and a former dean of the college. And what could a reader like me do except find a copy of the prize-winning book? This is why I recently read Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.

Slavery by Another Name is a difficult book to read in that it describes all manner of inhumanity, but it is also so well-written that I couldn’t put it down. You know how people are always saying this or that work of history “reads like a novel”? I rarely find this to be true. This book, however, focuses on one historical character all the way through, and that gives it a bit of the suspense of a novel. We know what happens to the character, but we keep reading to find out why and how, as much as those questions can be answered.

The historical character is Green Cottenham, and his life is chosen to illustrate what happened to some of the babies born in freedom to former slaves, immediately after the Civil War ended in 1865:
“His voice, and that of millions of others, is almost entirely absent from the vast record of the era. Unlike the victims of the Jewish Holocaust, who were on the whole literate, comparatively wealthy, and positioned to record for history the horror that enveloped them, Cottenham and his peers had virtually no capacity to preserve their memories or document their destruction. The black population of the United States in 1900 was in the main destitute and illiterate. For the vast majority, no recordings, writings, images, or physical descriptions survive.”

To introduce the circumstances of Green’s life and death, the book’s focus widens a bit to a group of slave owners named Cottingham who lived in Shelby County, Alabama, and the many former slaves who called themselves by some variation of that last name. Blackmon, however, makes it clear that Shelby County is only one example of the many places in the south where black people were, virtually, re-enslaved by being sold (and often re-sold) into a gang of men used for manual labor from after the Civil War until the beginning of WWII.

Blackmon traces the origins of these sales to the Civil War, presenting as an example one of Green’s ancestors, a slave named Scipio whose skilled labor was “lent” by his master to the Shelby Iron Works during the war:
“The extraordinary value of organizing a gang of slave men to quickly accomplish an arduous manual task—such as enlarging a mine and extracting its contents, or constructing railroads through the most inhospitable frontier regions—became obvious during the manpower shortages of wartime.
Critical to the success of this form of slavery was dispensing with any pretense of the mythology of the paternalistic agrarian slave owner Labor here was more akin to a source of fuel than an extension of a slave owner’s familial circle. Even on the harshest of family-operated antebellum farms, slave masters could not help but be at least marginally moved by the births, loves, and human affections that close contact with slave families inevitably manifested.
But in the setting of industrial slavery—where only strong young males and a tiny number of female “washerwomen” and cooks were acquired, and no semblance of family interaction was possible—slaves were assets to be expended like mules and equipment.”

Blackmon counters generalizations about the years immediately following the Civil War with facts. Although “most scholars of American history have accepted that the repressive legal measures and violence of the post-Civil-War era were the result, at least in part, of the lawless behavior of freed slaves,” he points out that “the reality of crime in the era, based on the actual arrest records of many counties in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, is that true crime was almost trivial in most places.” For example, “In the Bibb County of January 1878, where African Americans still had the legal right to vote, the biggest criminal threat to the peace of the county was a band of Gypsies” and “in neighboring Shelby County, the arrest log of 1878 shows only twenty-one prisoners brought to jail for the year.”

But “all of that transformed as the value of leasing black convicts became more apparent.” By 1881, forty-five prisoners were in the Shelby County jail during the month of November, and it “stayed a busy place from then on. A month rarely passed in which there were fewer than twenty prisoners. Charges such as vagrancy, adultery, using obscene or abusive language, and obtaining goods under false pretenses suddenly became common, and were almost always filed against African Americans.”

The effect of the 1883 ruling by the Supreme Court that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 would be enforced by states, rather than the Federal government, “was to open the floodgates for laws throughout the South specifically aimed at eliminating those new rights for former slaves and their descendants.” This was followed by the defeat of the Federal Election Bill of 1892, designed to protect black voting rights in the south but called by its opponents the “Force Bill” and more laws distributing most of the tax dollars to white schools. “The effect on blacks was catastrophic. Overnight, white schools came to receive the vast majority of all funds for education.” And he shows how in Alabama and Tennessee “as labor strife surged in the early 1890s, company officials privately worked on plans to shift even more of the company’s operations to captive forced laborers.”

By 1901, thanks to restrictive voting laws and rural practices by which “town mayors, justices of the peace, notaries public, and county magistrates had authority to convene trials and convict defendants of misdemeanor offenses,” it was common practice for “the Lease,” as most southerners generically called the new system for seizing and selling African Americans,” to be used to send any black man found simply walking down the street to work in the mines or in timber and turpentine operations. This system worked so well that even the efforts of Federal judges to prosecute some of the worst offenders for “peonage” went nowhere because “tens of thousands of black workers were at labor in Alabama under contracts signed when a white man ‘confessed judgement’ for an arrested black man—paying his ‘fines’ before any prosecution commenced and receiving in return a signed contract for labor” and “thousands more African American laborers were being forced to work in mines and timber camps under similar contracts signed between county governments and the state of Alabama itself.”

One of the most horrifying revelations, for a reader (perhaps especially one who grew up in a town where, in the 1970s, the public library still didn’t have a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin) is how much “a whole new genre of fiction extolling the antebellum South and an idealized view of slavery became immensely popular” at the beginning of the twentieth century. Novels by Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page swayed popular white sentiment, along with what Blackmon calls “mistranslation” of Darwin’s ideas about evolution. By 1903, Blackmon observes, “Southerners particularly reveled at gruesome scenes of racial violence that occurred outside their region, affirming the hypocrisy of those Yankee critics who still criticized racial conditions in the former Confederacy.”

There are a veritable plethora of gruesome descriptions of torture in this book, and it’s disturbing to imagine that people who could do such things—or even watch them–existed (at one point, readers are given an awful hint about how terrible the penalties for an escape attempt from one mine must have been, in that we’re told one of the younger white mine employees committed suicide the next day). My own recent experiences–finding out about the appalling dedication speech for the statue of “Silent Sam” on the UNC campus, seeing the popularity of clickbait articles with video of a cheerleading coach forcing young girls to do “the splits,” and witnessing the presidential pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio–add to my fear that there are still people not only capable of but even enthusiastic about watching acts of cruelty.

In 1905, a new novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon fueled Ku Klux Klan violence, especially when it was turned into a stage play and began “an epic, record-breaking run of performances followed in theater halls across the South, Midwest, and Northeast.” The film version of this play, Birth of a Nation (1915) was the first full-length silent movie in America.

By 1911, “the new slavery of Alabama achieved its zenith. Three massive industrial concerns—U.S. Steel’s Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad unit, Sloss- Sheffield, and now Pratt Consolidated—competed mercilessly for forced laborers. Other industrial concerns stood ready to step in if any major player receded. The system arrived at a cynical optimum of economic harmony, knitting together the interests of capitalists, white farmers, local sheriffs and judges, and advocates of the most cruel white supremacy—all joined and served by an unrelenting pyramid of intimidation.”

The thing that makes this book so valuable, even for casual conversation fodder, is that it gives evidence and produces statistics for things that many Americans sort of know and, in some cases, have tried to deny. It points out that “slavery, real slavery, didn’t end until 1945—well into the childhoods of the black Americans who are only now reaching retirement age.”

If you’re an American who has never had to think much about your race–especially if you live in an ivory tower or in a fog (as my friends have sometimes said of me)–then you need to read this book and find out more about how racial issues from the early twentieth century still contribute to the fears and angers of the present day, from the reasons many black Americans don’t trust anyone connected with our judicial system to the controversies over “confederate” monuments erected decades after the end of the Civil War.

Days Without End

August 21, 2017

After reading a lot of praise for Sebastian Barry’s novel Days Without End, I picked it up and almost immediately found myself in a reading reverie, the kind where you read the book slowly because you’re thinking about it all the time and you don’t want it to end.

Days Without End is about two boys who sign up for the U.S. Army in the 1850’s, fighting Indians out west, and later fighting for the Union in the Civil War.

The boys meet while trying to find shelter in a rainstorm when John Cole is fourteen and the narrator, Thomas, is “maybe fifteen…I looked as young as him. But I had no idea what I looked like. Children may feel epic and large to themselves and yet be only scraps to view.”

They are looking for
“work slopping out or any of the jobs abhorrent to decent folk. We didn’t know much about adult persons. We just didn’t know hardly a thing. We were willing to do anything….We were of the opinion our share of food was there if we sought it out.”

They apply at a saloon in a town named Daggsville that has a sign saying “Clean boys wanted” and get jobs as dancers in women’s clothing. The saloon owner tells them
“there ain’t no women in Daggsville but the storeman’s wife and the stableman’s little daughter. Otherwise it’s all men here. But men without women can get to pining. It’s a sort of sadness gets into their hearts. I aim to get it out and make a few bucks in the process, yes sir, the great American way. They need only the illusion, only the illusion of the gentler sex. You’re it, if you take this employment. It’s just the dancing. No kissing, cuddling, feeling, or fumbling. Why, just the nicest, the most genteel dancing.”

And this turns out to be true. Thomas says “every night for two years we danced with them, there was never a moment of unwelcome movements. That’s a fact.” After two years, however, they had to move on because by then “we was more like boys than girls.” This is more limiting for John Cole than for Thomas, who continues to shave close and dress as a woman as circumstances require it.

After their stint as dancers, they join the army. Both boys are philosophical about what they have to do to earn their army pay. Thomas says
“I seen the cold deeds of hunger. The world got a lot of people in it, and when it comes to slaughter and famine, whether we’re to live or die, it don’t care much either way. The world got so many it don’t need to….Thousands die everywhere always. The world don’t care much, it just don’t mind much. That’s what I notice about it. There is that great wailing and distress and then the pacifying waters close over everything, old Father Time washes his hands. On he plods to the next place. It suits us well to know these things, that you may exert yourself to survive. Just surviving is the victory.”

The description and the way the story is told make it compelling. For example, early on, Thomas describes a buffalo hunt:
“it was ten thousand hooves then drumming the hard earth….then the ground rose in front of us, and there they were again, the flood of buffalo, like a big boil of black molasses in a skillet, surging up. Goddamn blackberries they were as black as….You gotta treat a buffalo like a killer, like a rattlesnake on legs, she wants to kill you before you kill her. She wants to lure you on too, and then she wants to suddenly run sideways at you, knock down your horse in full flight and then come back before Saturday and stamp you to death. You never want to fall to the ground on a buffalo hunt, if I can just instruct you in that.”

When the herd passes on, they have killed six buffalo,
“and in the next while we know we will kneel to the task of skinning and we’ll take the best meat off the bones, and lash it to our horses in huge wet slabs, and leave the enormous heads to moulder there, so noble in their aspect, so astonishing, so that God Himself might marvel at them. Our knives flashed through. Birdsong cut the best. He made a sign to tell me, laughing, this is women’s work. Strong women if so, I signed, best as I knew. This was a big joke for Birdsong. He’s roaring, Man, I guess he’s thinking, these stupid whitemen. Maybe we are. The knives opened the flesh like they were painting paintings of a new country, sheer plains of dark land, with the red rivers bursting their banks everywhere, till we were sloshing in God knows what and the dry earth was suddenly turned to noisy mud.”

Later that night,
“the men hunched around, talking with the gaiety of souls about to eat plentifully, with the empty dark country about us, and the strange fabric of frost and frozen wind falling on our shoulders, and the great black sky of stars above us like a huge tray of gems and diamonds.”

I could quote from this book forever except that I need to resist so you can read some of it yourself. The title reference, however, is worth pulling out:
“We were dancing, we were clapping backs, we were telling old stories. Men were listening with their ears cocked, till they judged when they could let loose the laughter. Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now.”

The story reminds me a little of News of the World because Thomas and John Cole informally adopt a little girl who has been displaced in the Indian wars, one who was captured after a raid and at one point claimed by the chief as his own niece:
“Winona is sure the prettiest little daughter ever man had. Goddamned beautiful black hair. Blue eyes like a mackerel’s blue back. Or a duck’s wing feathers. Sweet little face cool as a melon when you hold it in your hands and kiss her forehead. God knows what stories she seen and been part in. Savage murder for sure because we caused it. Walked through the carnage and the slaughter of her own. You could expect a child that has seen all that to wake in the night sweating and she does. Then John Cole is obliged to hold her trembling form against him and soothe her with lullabies. Well he knows only one and he does that over and over. He holds her softly and sings her the lullaby. Where he got that no man knows not even hisself.”

The other thing about this book that reminds me of News of the World is the matter-of-fact narration of atrocities by a person who has not been hardened by them:
“Why should a man help another man? No need, the world don’t care about that. World is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on….Storms kill us, and battles, and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind. Happy to breathe because we seen terror and horror and then for a while they ain’t in dominion.”

Having escaped from death in Ireland as a child, Thomas is never sure quite where he belongs. He has a “sense of two worlds rubbing up. Am I American? I don’t know.” Modern readers will see him as quintessentially American, caught up and shaped by events in this country where so many have come looking for refuge.

After the civil war, Thomas observes,
“The Sioux seem changed to me. Ain’t got no feathers in their get-ups and their hair looks cut by barbers. They got every strange scrap of whiteman’s clothes you ever saw for sale. Rags mostly….There’s a kinda look to them like we being met by tramps. No-good people. Their fathers owned everything here and we was never heard of. Now a hundred thousand Irish roam this land and Chinese fleeing from their cruel emperors and Dutch and Germans and boys born east. Poured in across the trails like a herd without an end.”

Even at the end of the book we don’t have to face an ending, as we know that Thomas made it back to Tennessee where, as he says near the beginning, “I write these words.”

There are many more memorable circumstances and characters and ideas to ponder than I have been able to mention. My recommendation to you is to read the whole book and then come back and tell me how much you enjoyed it.

The Bear and the Nightingale

August 17, 2017

I read about The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden, at Rhapsody in Books and thought it sounded like something that would interest Walker, but he wasn’t home long enough to read it between graduation and leaving for Lake Baikal. I picked it up one day to distract me while I was sitting in a chair working on bending my knee and then got absorbed in it.

It’s a Russian fairy tale about Medved, the ferocious bear spirit, and his brother Morozko or Frost, the spirit of winter and death. In this story their power is beginning to increase because a priest has urged the rural people in the heroine’s small village to stop honoring the small household spirits that formerly kept them safe from bigger evils. The heroine is named Vasilisa, and she is the daughter of Pyotr, who lives in a small village in northern Russia.

Vasya, as her family calls her, is different from other children. Her brother Kolya is a little afraid of her when he sees her retrieve a basket of fish he had caught from a local river spirit:
“’It’s not yours!’ she shouted.’Give it back!’ Kolya thought he heard an odd note in the splash of the water, as though it was making a reply. Vasya stamped her foot. ‘Now! Catch your own fish!’ A deep groan came up from the depths, as of rocks grinding together, and then the basket came flying out of nowhere to hit Vasya in the chest and knock her backward….Kolya would have liked to make for the village and leave both his basket and his peculiar sister to themselves. But he was a man and a boyar’s son, and so he stalked forward, stiff-legged, to seize his catch.”

The priest has been sent away from Moscow and ended up in Vasilisa’s village, where he tries to turn the villagers away from their old traditions:
“He knew what evil lay upon this land. It was in the sun-symbols on the nurse’s apron, in that stupid woman’s terror, in the fey, feral eyes of Pyotr’s elder daughter. The place was infested with demons: the chyerti of the old religion. These foolish, wild people worshipped God by day and the old gods in secret; they tried to walk both paths at once and made themselves base in the sight of the Father.”

As the household spirits wither, the struggle between Medved and Frost intensifies until one of the villagers who has died of cold and starvation comes back to life as an “upyr” and Vasya and her brother Alyosha have to take a stake of birch wood and put it through her mouth until “the light went out of the corpse’s open eyes.”

The nightingale turns out to be a horse named Solovey (which means nightingale) who volunteers to help Vasya work against Medved and help Death bind him again. At first it seems like their heroism will be enough. Vasya is passionate in her desire to help Morozko, and it seems like saving her village is going to be her destiny when she gives this speech:

All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

But a sacrifice from someone else is required before Medved is finally bound and Vasya can demand that the priest leave her village. She is successful in helping to save the village, which in the best fairy tale tradition means that she cannot stay there to enjoy it.

It can be difficult to sustain a fairy tale for the length of a 312-page novel, but Arden does this very well, drawing the reader in deeper as the tale goes on.

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