Some novels ask for a close reading. Entranced by the author’s language, intrigued by an intricate plot, and in some rare fortunate circumstances captivated by both, we slowly digest such a book, feasting on a banquet of sentences and paragraphs, lulled by the hypnotic words into a sort of trance from which we emerge blinking and stretching, temporarily discomforted by the world of commerce, home, children and spouse awaiting our return. Such novels provide not only food for thought but a five-star meal for the senses, one of those long leisurely dinners during which each dish brings its own special delights.
Then there are the novels that demand to be gulped down like hamburgers after Lent.
The Jack Reacher novels are just such fictional hamburgers, suspense stories that we wolf down like a bagful of Big Macs one after the other, wiping our napkins with satisfaction across our mouths after finishing one book but already licking our lips over the next one.
Created by Lee Child, a native of England and former television director who now lives in New York City, Jack Reacher is a big man with a special set of skills, a West Point graduate and former officer in a special unit of the Military Police who, after cutting short his army career, drifts about the American landscape looking for peace and quiet, but finding only trouble. Seeking to live life by his own lights, Reacher has given up all normal physical ties to the Army and to society at large. He has no home, no car, no insurance, no cell phone, no computer, no wife or children, no suitcase, no place to lay his head at night except the nearest cheap motel. He wears his clothes three or four days before tossing them and buying some more. In his pocket he carries cash, an old passport for identification and a toothbrush.
Casting away the accoutrements of daily living may sound like a good idea for a man who values his privacy and who marches to a different drummer, but his plans of solitude and the simple life rarely work well for Reacher. In each of Child’s novels, Reacher quickly finds himself fighting, either by circumstance or design, platoons of murderers, thieves, drug-runners, and terrorists. His enlistment in this ongoing one-man war ensnares him in the lives of others as well: the cops who join him in his fight, old friends resurrected from his past, women who often take him to their hearts and beds.
October promises the release of Worth Dying For (ISBN 0385544317, $20), the fifteenth Reacher suspense novel. While defending a woman against an abusive husband, Reacher runs into a family clan of outlaws with blood on their hands. Reacher soon finds himself not only trying to fight these men, but also becomes involved in a case concerning a missing 8-year-old girl.
Though Child gives his readers plenty of action, well-rounded characters, and a galloping prose style, he does on occasion fall flat on his face. In Killing Floor, his first Reacher novel, Child has Reacher get off a bus on a whim near a small town in Georgia. This casual decision making is characteristic of Reacher — he has no schedules to keep, no place he has to be — but a casual stroll through the town quickly embroils him in a full-blown war against men with murder on their hands and blood money in their bank accounts. While he fights against an international counterfeiting operation, he comes across the body of his murdered brother, a federal agent investigating the illegal money.
In later novels, Reacher says several times that he dislikes coincidences, yet this novel is predicated on the near-impossible premise that Reacher would stumble across his brother this way. In the other books, too, Reacher seems to make mistakes and to rely on luck as much as his skills. Some of his abilities to track his adversaries down — his ability to think like a criminal would put Sherlock Holmes to shame — seem beyond the realm of belief. Several times, for instance, he tracks people to their hotels simply by guessing which hotel, out of a score of possibilities, they might choose for a night’s lodging. Even for a man who spent over a decade in the military police — and how and why did a West Point graduate choose the military police for his branch — Reach knows a little too much about too many things — guns, locks, man-hunting, military hardware — to be completely credible as a character.
Despite these flaws, Jack Reacher and his adventures are hard to resist. Child’s keen eye for character and for the American landscape, his research into weapons, his knowledge of the armed forces and criminals, and his creation of Reacher himself, a bold man following a code of justice and honor: this grand combination makes for great reading. These novels may be hamburgers rather than pate de foie gras, but they’re some of the best burgers going.
Try one. And then try not to gulp your food.
Allen Speer will appear at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 10. He will discuss and sign his latest book, From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy, Part III (reviewed in the Smoky Mountain News in June 2010). For more information call Malaprops at 828.254.6734.
Worth Dying For by Lee Child. Delacorte Press, 2010. 400 pages.
A Postcard From The Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany by Lucy Beckett. Ignatius Press, 2009. 520 pages
World War II has long provided Americans with literary meat and drink. The combat novels of men like James Jones, Norman Mailer, and Anton Myrer remain in print; scores of espionage novels centered on the War remain popular among readers; writers as different in temperament as William Manchester and Eugene Sledge have given us memoirs that will long be read as meditations on both the war and on combat and conflict in general.
In A Postcard From The Volcano: A Novel of Pre-War Germany (Ignatius Press, 978-1-58617-269-5, $19.95), Lucy Beckett, an English teacher, author and mother of four children, has written a thick novel different from most other fictional takes on the war. Easily summarized — Beckett focuses on a group of young students, mostly Germans and Poles, who become friends in the 1920s and 1930s, and so stand witness to the rise of both Stalinism and Nazism — A Postcard From The Volcano is not so easily digested. Beckett takes us on a long, leisurely tour of battlefields — not the bloody arenas of Stalingrad, Normandy or the Blitz, but the battlefields of the mind and heart of intelligent young people who, caught up in the maelstrom of ideology and faith struggling for dominance in Europe at the time, are forced to pick sides in the growing conflict and then to live by their decisions.
What separates A Postcard From The Volcano from other books about the war is its emphasis on ideas. Beckett understands that concepts like Nazism, Communism, dialectical materialism, and even Catholicism and Protestantism do not emerge full-blown out of nowhere. These philosophies and the others she brings into discussion in her novel — the discussions among the students range from Shakespeare to Nietzsche, from Plato to St. Paul — supply the foundations for Europe’s cathedral of horrors and heroism: the Holocaust, the millions of deaths from war and aerial bombings, the brave but seemingly futile resistance to an all-powerful state by so many Germans, Poles, and Russians.
Max Ernst, Count von Hofmannswaldeu, a German from Silesia, stands at the center of Beckett’s story. Born 13 years before the end of the First World War, Max comes of age in a Germany torn by war and by the tribulations that follow in the aftermath of that war. His father, an aristocrat proud both of the Prussian military and of Germany in general, is murdered during a riot in a village near their home after the war; Max’s brother, a soldier of the Great War, joins the brutal Freikorps and eventually helps bring Hitler to power; his mother, who is Jewish, proves the cause of Max’s own fall from state approval; his mentor and tutor, Dr. Mendel, also Jewish, gives Max lessons in humanism along with Latin and Greek.
When Max goes off to the university, he befriends a group of students who will influence the direction of his life and his thinking. Strongest among these influences is Adam, a cosmopolitan free-thinker with whom Max debates religion, science and philosophy. He also falls in love with Anna Halperin, a Jewish girl who is forced by Nazism to return to Russia then to Lithuania, where she marries and has children.
These two friends and others — medical and law students — are, by the end of A Postcard From The Volcano, swept up into the rushing current of history surrounding them. Each discovers the truth of the adage: “You may not be interested in war and politics, but politics and war is very much interested in you.” Each character in Beckett’s novel must play out the conflicts of politics and war while still trying to find meaning and hope in their philosophies and various faiths.
A Postcard From The Volcano will not appeal to a wide audience of readers. Beckett gives over much of her book to conversations, long discursive discussions about ideas and political events which will undoubtedly try the patience of many visitors to the book, particularly those who are accustomed to reading today’s fast-paced novels. Even readers who enjoy the book may find themselves wishing that Beckett had opted for more action rather than so much talk, that she had added more excitement to her novel, the thuggery, street fights, and violence that marked this European era.
Such an option, however, might well have damaged the purpose behind Postcard From The Volcano. As we follow the winding trail of opinions and ponderings highlighting Beckett’s novel, we begin to discern a special purpose in her prose, the reason behind so much wind and so little lightning. Beckett seems to offer to us the subtle message that ideas are more important than actions, for it is ideas, those creations of humankind that can shape and caress the lives of a million followers, that inevitably form the matchsticks and powder of action.
Ignatius Press, which normally puts out books closely associated with Catholicism, deserves commendation for publishing A Postcard From The Volcano. Few other publishers would be willing to touch such a collection of dialogues that at first glance seem part freshman bull sessions and part a recording of conversations taken from the teachers’ lounge in the philosophy department of a prestigious university. Despite this canard, A Postcard From The Volcano and its grinding historical recreation is worth the extra effort. Its analyses will stay with loyal readers for a long time, a reminder of our past, a reflection of sorts of our present, and a possible warning about the near future.
Stephen Hunter’s I, Sniper (ISBN 978-1-4165-6515-4, $26) brings to readers once again that intrepid sniper, now old and aching from his lifetime of combat, Bob Lee Swagger. As in previous novels in this series, the government entangles itself into the retired Marine’s life, hauling him out of retirement to help track down a killer of left-wing radical leftovers from the 1960s. Swagger soon finds himself both hunter and prey as he sets about solving a string of assassinations.
The story begins when four radicals, now wealthy members of America’s elite political class, are shot to death by a skilled sniper. Retired Marine war hero Carl Hitchcock, who was a sniper himself in Vietnam, is a suspect in the shootings and, when found dead in a motel room, an apparent suicide, is blamed by most investigators for the killings. Two FBI agents, the rising star Nick Memphis and the competent Jean Chandler, find the case too neatly packaged and begin to suspect that Hitchcock was either set up or had help from accomplices. Baffled by certain aspects of the case, particularly the assassin’s expertise and some clues that he may personally have known his victims, the pair of agents calls on Swagger for help.
Like many heroes of this literary genre, Swagger is a loner. He fought in Vietnam as a sniper, and since then has tried to live out his life on his Western ranch with his wife and daughter. In Swagger, Hunter has created an American man who has his prototype in Natty Bumpo and who is the reincarnation of Daniel Boone and John Wayne, a man’s man doing, as the adage goes, “what a man’s got to do.” Never mind the aching of old wounds, the pains brought on by turning 60, the temptation to give up the chase and return to his quiet life with his wife: Swagger has a new mission to fulfill and can’t rest until the bad guys are brought to justice or to the grave.
Some parts of this thriller will either amuse or offend readers. First, reading I, Sniper is akin to a tour of a gun show. Hunter is a capable guide to this printed armory. His list of mentors at the back of the book includes such luminaries as Dr. John Matthews, founder of Sure Fire LLC, “for information on modern suppressors,” and Lew Merletti, “former Director of the U.S. Secret Service, for fast, accurate feedback on equipment and tactics.” Readers who love talking guns will no doubt enjoy the pages of this book rhapsodizing on the uses of a Mossberg shotgun or a Remington 700 bolt action. Most of the rest of us will simply brush aside these gunpowder treatises and bolt onto the next action scene.
Hunter’s choice of characters might also raise a few eyebrows or a few laughs, depending on the reader’s view of contemporary society. Joan Flanders, the first victim of the sniper, is clearly derived as a character from Jane Fonda. Hunter tells us that “her second husband had been an antiwar leader in the raging if far-off sixties, and her picture, aboard the gunner’s chair on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery, had made her instantly beloved and loathed by equal portions of her generation.” Jack Strong and Mitzi Reilly, found shot dead in Volvo on a Chicago back street, resemble radicals like William Ayers and Bernadette Dorn, making their living as professors and leading a posh life in Chicago’s Hyde Park. Mitch Greene, an Abbie Hoffman-like prankster who’d written a “lefto-tilt version of American history,” dies from the sniper’s bullet in Cleveland while signing books during a speaking engagement.
Tom Constable, former husband to Joan Flanders, owner of a major network, former owner of a major league sports team, and now a man who is primarily interested in Old West fast-draw shooting contests, is clearly modeled after Ted Turner. After Hitchcock’s suicide, Constable pushes the FBI to close his former wife’s case, claiming that he wants to avoid both the besmirching of her name and the uproar of publicity the murders have aroused. Hunter’s portrait of Constable/Turner as the fastest gun in the West, Texas Red, will amuse most readers:
“Tom never did things halfway. He was a creature of obsessions, and when he discovered a new one, whether it was sailing, radical politics, billions making, movie star courting, book writing, network starting, old movie colorizing, whatever, he hammered it with the full force of will and intelligence until it became his, he beat it into the shape he desired…He loved being Texas Red. Wild as a pony, fast, loose, beautiful, proud, dangerous, all the things that Tom himself had once aspired to be and that, even though he was a buccaneer of business, he felt he’d never really let out.”
Despite the fact that thinly-disguised public figures have become objects of assassination — think of the novel Checkpoint and the abominable movie “The Death of a President,” both focusing on murdering off George Bush — there is something about using living people as the targets for assassination that will leave many readers squeamish. Granted that Jane Fonda and Ted Turner are not among the most beloved of American icons, especially among the probable readers of Stephen Hunter’s novels, it is still unsettling to see them portrayed as they are in I, Sniper. The murder of Flanders/Fonda along with the other radicals, and the portrayal of Constable/Turner, should leave a bitter taste in the mouths of discriminating readers.
Stephen Hunter has written some fine suspense novels in his Robert Lee Swagger series. Despite its fast-paced action, however, I, Sniper is unworthy of any place among its predecessors, if for no other reason than the ill-spirited portrayal of some of its protagonists.
I, Sniper by Stephen Hunter. Simon & Schuster, 2009. 418 pages
Authors often dig into their childhood to mine for the coal and diamonds of their books. Sometimes they use the picks and shovels of fiction; Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Wolfe come most famously to mind as writers who frequently turned to the terrors and triumphs of their adolescence and early life to make their books. In our own day, Pat Conroy in The Great Santini, Maya Angelou’s In I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and Sandra Cisneros in The House On Mango Street all gained early fame from novels based on a difficult childhood.
In the last 50 years, memoirs have become a popular means of exploring childhood and family relationships. These accounts nearly always focus on the traumatic events and dysfunctional family life. Happy childhoods doubtless produce fewer sales, except in the case of humorous books like Shirley Jackson’s splendid Raising Demons. Here we have only to look at the best-seller lists of the last 20 years to come up with a few examples: the ironically titled A Childhood by Harry Crews; Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, the story of an Irish childhood awash in drink and poverty; Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It; Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors; Kaylie Jones’s Lies My Mother Never Told Me; and many more.
In Moonshiner’s Daughter (ISBN 978-0-578-05420-9, $14.95), Mary Judith Messer tells the tale of her own harsh childhood and adolescence in Haywood County. Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, a time before the War on Poverty did much to ease the suffering of the Appalachian poor, a time, too, when Alcoholics Anonymous had not yet made deep inroads into a culture of poverty whose primary form of entertainment often turned around a jug and a still, Messer faced adversity at nearly every level of her life.
First, there was the hardscrabble poverty in which she lived. Often she, her sisters, and her brother lacked even the rudiments of life: food, shoes, heat in the winter. Worse, both her mother and father, themselves products of a harsh youth, were, by any standard, terrible parents. They may have loved each other, and frequently they showed love to their children, but they also viciously beat them, terrorized them with threats, often cheated on each other in their marriage, and made costly juvenile judgments in terms of how they lived their lives.
It was not poverty, however, which destroyed their lives. Many families here in the mountains and elsewhere rise above straitened circumstances. No, it was liquor that ruled Messer‘s parents and destroyed any possibility for order and discipline in their lives. Like other Appalachian men before him, Terry Lee Long, Messer’s father, kept a still in the woods and sold moonshine to make some cash. Unfortunately, he also drank up any profit to be made from the still. In nearly every scene in which Long appears in Moonshiner’s Daughter, he is drunk, and rarely, it seemed, was he a happy or even a contented drunk. Liquor turned Terry Long mean as one of the many copperheads living on their Fine’s Creek farm, and he took his meanness out on his family, beating his wife unconscious several times and whipping the children simply out of cussedness.
Long was sent to prison on several occasions for making illegal whiskey, but his children found no respite in his absence. In what began as a rape, two neighbor boys, and then a grown man, have sexual relations with Messer’s older sister, 13-year-old Cheryl. With the father in the federal clink, the family had even less to eat and could not chop enough wood to stay warm. At one point, having taken firewood from the walls of their old barn, the children under orders of their mother then burned the barn to conceal the act from their father (For some reason, they only removed a horse from the barn; they incinerated the chickens and all the equine tack along with the barn).
Messer was eventually rescued from this ordeal through the efforts of the Queen family, who hire her as a mother’s helper at the Queen ranch in Maggie Valley. She traveled with the family to Washington and later went to New York City, where she lived with her older sister. Life there remained a struggle; both young women had trouble holding jobs, and Messer was raped by a photographer who demanded sex from her in exchange for some pictures he had made of Messer’s nephew.
Though a powerful statement, Moonshiner’s Daughter does contain some flaws. There are a number of printing and unintentional errors of grammar in the book. Even more bothersome, the book leaves readers with a number of unanswered questions. Messer never explains why, on the front cover of the book and in another picture, the faces of her siblings as children are whited out. Nor does she tell us the ultimate fate of her younger siblings. Did they too escape the sad history of their family? And why, after the photographer rapes her, does she then send her sister back to pick up the photographs? She herself tells us that the photos even today remind her of the rape. This rape also left Messer pregnant. When a male benefactor helps her find a place in a Catholic convent catering to unwed mothers while she awaits the birth of the child, Brenda Lee, whom she then gave up for adoption, Messer follows the practices of the Catholic Church, taking communion and going to confession, yet she never explains why she felt compelled to do so. It seems unlikely that only Catholic girls were assisted in this fashion, but Moonshiner’s Daughter doesn’t tell us if that this was indeed the case.
Despite these faults, Moonshiner’s Daughter gives us a slice of Appalachia from a time now vanished from these mountains. Drug abuse and alcohol continue to plague families here as elsewhere, but the grinding farm life and the moonshining have largely given way to the more general ills of modern life. Messer’s voice — direct, simple, conversational — lends a force to her writing that should attract many readers.
Moonshiner’s Daughter by Mary Judith Messer. Doing Well Now Publishers. 218 pagegs
The word is as twisted with complications and mystery as all those other household words we use every day: wife, mother, father, son, daughter, family. Home slips from our mouth easy as air, yet only in our hearts and senses can we really discern the meaning of the word. Some of us have lived in the same homes in which we were reared. Some find a home in middle age, some live in a home constructed from their memories. Some people never truly feel at home anywhere on the earth. Say the word to one man, and he will think of the small Piedmont town in which he grew up 50 years ago. Say it to another, and he will tell you that “home is where you hang your bathrobe.”
In Marilynne Robinson’s Home (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, Publishers, 2008), Glory Boughton, 38, returns to her family home in Gilead, Iowa, to care for her frail and elderly father and to recover from a failed engagement. Returning to he house in which she grew up, where her father’s greets her with open arms — ”Home to stay, Glory! Yes!” — Glory feels both a sense of relief from her ordeals and a feeling of entrapment, as if her failed plans regarding her future, to marry and begin a family of her own, have somehow thrown her back into the past. Here in the old house, birthplace to Glory, her five siblings, and their father, she assumes a routine of tasks — cleaning, gardening, cooking, visiting her father‘s best friend, John Ames — that brings order to her exterior life while she inwardly ponders the meaning and direction of her life.
Shortly after her return, Glory is joined by her brother Jack, who left Gilead and their father 20 years before. An alcoholic, unable to hold a steady job, remembered in Gilead as both a beloved child and a troublemaker, Jack has come home to try and sort out his own troubled life. Stricken with guilt over his many past failures, Jack nonetheless behaves as if he is unable to change. As the story progresses, we learn that Jack still has more questions than answers, that he is troubled by his lack of faith in God and by his inability to fit into the world — not only in Gilead, but in the world at large. He struggles, too, to connect with his father and with John Ames, both of whom are ministers in the small town.
These inward struggles, these attempts by the characters to connect with one another, lie at the heart of Home. As in Gilead, her previous novel about these same characters, Robinson’s characters engage in a dialect of the interior self that flares occasionally into conversation with friends and family. In both books, the greatest source of tension exists between John Ames and Jack, his namesake. Neither man can understand the other — Jack considers the Reverend Ames somewhat puritanical and judgmental, while John Ames views Jack, who abandoned a lover and child, as wild and irresponsible. The young man and the old maneuver around each other like a pair of wary chess players, each seeking to understand the moves and positions of the other.
In the passage below, Jack, Glory, their father, and the Reverend Ames and his wife Lila are discussing hell and salvation:
“Jack said, ‘People don’t change then.’
‘They do, if there is some other factor involved. Drink, say. Their behavior changes. I don’t know if that means their nature has changed.’
Jack smiled. ‘For a man of the cloth, you seem pretty cagey.’
Boughton said, ‘You should have seen him thirty years ago.’
‘Well, you should have been paying attention.’
Ames was becoming irritated, clearly. He said, ‘I’m not going to apologize for the fact that there are things I don’t understand. I’d be a fool if I thought there weren’t. And I’m not going to make nonsense of a mystery, just because that’s people always do when they try to talk about it. Always. And then they think the mystery itself is nonsense. Conversation of this kind is a good deal worse than useless. In my opinion.’”
In addition to her gemlike prose and her powers of description, these two books together amaze us because of how they dovetail together. Written from John Ames’ point of view, Gilead gives us a different take on Ames and on Jack than we find in Home. Though the novels may be read independently, in tandem they illustrate the ways in which we misinterpret the motives of our friends and family, the words they speak to us, the gestures of love that we all too often take as rebukes or insults.
Readers who are put off by any discussion of religious faith might find Gilead and Home tedious. Readers who want the tenets of their faith ranked and orderly as church pews may also raise objection to these books. To those, however, who want to delve deeply into the lives of fictional characters, including their ideas of God and those ongoing debates over comprehension which engage most earnest Christians, Gilead and Home provide a feast for thought.
Home by Marilynne Robinson. Strauss & Giroux, 2009. 336 pages
Although Americans are known for their wandering ways, traveling to California in Conestoga wagons, taking the train to find a place in Broadway’s spotlight, many also retain in their hearts a deep affection for a particular place. Whether that place is a Chicago parish or Mayberry RFD is immaterial. It is this beloved place to which we compare all the other cities and landscapes of our lives, this place which haunts, for better or worse, our memories, this place whose very name is a tsunami, a massive wave swamping us in a thousand names, faces, and events from a past as much imagined as it is real.
Boonville in the Yadkin Valley of Piedmont, North Carolina is my place. Though I only lived in that small town of 600 souls for less than eight years (by comparison I have lived four times as long in these mountains), it is the Boonville of my childhood which haunts my memories, which irrevocably stamped my personality. Say the word home, and the word Boonville floats up in my mind like one of those eight-ball answers.
Allen Paul Speer’s From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy: Part III (Overmountain Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-57072-329-2, $14.95) recreates the beauty and the enchantment of Boonville and the Yadkin Valley for the general reader (A caveat and a confession: Allen Speer was my friend during my Boonville adolescence, and remains a dear friend today). Comparing favorably Boonville and its environs to Tolkien’s Shire, Speer writes that “here are some of the words that best describe Yadkinians: practical, helpful, God-fearing, industrious, static, suspicious, confident, and reluctant to stir things up.”
By virtue of example rather than by such definitions, Speer also makes it clear that Yadkinians — a word of Speer’s creation, I suspect — also love storytelling. From Banner Elk to Boonville as well as the earlier two books in this trilogy — Voices From Cemetery Hill, which tells the story of Boonville’s Civil War era, and Sisters of Providence, which also tells that story from the viewpoint of the well-educated Speer women — revel in telling stories. There, for example, is the tale of the Halloween prank when a tractor was mysteriously gotten into the lobby of Boonville school (I was there, and saw it, and to this day marvel at the high school boys who pulled this one off); the stories of various Speer ancestors and townspeople; the coming of the Stammettis, owners of the Astoria Braid Mill who considerably livened up Boonville’s party life; the antics of people with nicknames like Nut, Roach, Marron, and Mouse.
Not all of From Banner Elk to Boonville is sunshine and roses. Speer shares the details of his battle against leukemia, a slow-acting lupus which he has fought for many years now. He also shows us the effect of the deaths of his grandfather and father on his spiritual and mental life. As a boy, he shared a room with his grandfather for several years, and found that after his grandfather’s death, he could no longer sleep in that room. His father, too, he deeply loved, in spite of Red’s fierce temper, and once again that death shattered him, casting him into a deep melancholy from which he took years to recover.
After college, unable to find work, Speer returned to Boonville, earned a little money painting houses, and eventually suffered a mental breakdown. His description of this psychotic episode, which he calls his “meltdown,” lies in some ways at the heart of the book as a defining, perhaps the defining, moment in Speer’s life. His crackup culminated in his attempt to walk from Boonville to Boone, some 60 miles away. He ended his journey only a few miles outside of Boonville, collapsed in a farmer’s yard. Here is a brief but harrowing account of a soul at odds with itself, and of a young man lost even in a place which had always afforded him comfort and respite.
One fine feature of this autobiography is Speer’s sense of humor, his eye for the ridiculous, the absurd, the offbeat, the unconventional. Here, for example, in telling us where he got his love for the theater, he describes a conversation he had with his Aunt Mary about her brother, Speer’s grandfather, whom Speer called Papa:
“’Did you say Papa never finished high school?’
‘No, when he stopped high school, he was still taking freshman English, but he kept on going to school so he could play baseball and be in school plays, and he was in every play they had.’
‘How many years did he go to high school?’
‘He went to high school for six years?’
“Yes, he just kept on going ‘til they encouraged him to stop.’”
Speer has organized From Banner Elk to Boonville in chapters named after the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. Given Speer’s Quaker, Presbyterian, and Baptist roots, this device seems at first ill-fitted to the narrative and may even seem strained to some readers. Those who read carefully, however, soon see that Speer is recounting here the spiritual journey of a lifetime. He offers numerous reflections on God and mortality, and uses stories and dreams to consider both the nature of God and the place of God in his own life. Readers will be delighted to find that in these ruminations, Speer’s sense of humor does not desert him.
Allen Speer, a professor at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, has given readers a grand treat of a book — an affectionate and loving memoir of a place, a time, a man, and his people.
From Banner Elk to Boonville: The Voices Trilogy: Part III by Paul Speer. Overmountain Press, 2010.
Two weeks ago, a friend and I traveled down into Central Georgia looking for Flannery O’Connor.
My friend, whom I will dub Lucky for this piece, had never heard of Flannery O’Connor nor read anything written by her. She didn’t know Hazel Motes from a hole in the ground and assured me she had never heard of A Good Man Is Hard To Find or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Lucky’s literary tastes run in a different stream, and she was strictly along for the adventure.
That circumstance notwithstanding, it was Lucky who finally summoned up the spirit of Flannery O’Connor for us. Hence the pseudonym.
We drove down out of the mountains into the rolling hills of Piedmont George to Milledgeville, where O’Connor spent the last 13 years of her short life — she died at 39 of lupus — living with her mother, Regina, on a farm outside of town. Driving from that farm, Andalusia, into town used to mean a three-mile trip through farmland and scruffy pine. Today that same piece of road is a plastic strip of motels, fast food restaurants, shopping malls and outlet stores.
At Andalusia we parked in a dirt and gravel lot behind the house. The managers of the property have retained nearly all the 500-odd acres that the O’Connors had once owned for the beef farm. Surrounded by oak, cedar and walnut trees, the outbuildings around the house were in varying states of repair. It was hot and dusty, and we didn’t trouble to walk to all these buildings, though I was fascinated to see that directly behind the house a small barn lay collapsed with an enormous old iron wash pot upside down in the wreckage. Beside the collapsed barn was the short water tower, painted white, which figures in some of O’Connor’s work. Off to one side of the yard was a coop holding three peacocks — O’Connor was famous for keeping such birds — whose sudden cries startled the air of this quiet place.
The outside of the house, with its large screened-in front porch, its various abutments, and its red and apparently freshly painted tin roof, appeared in good repair. Around one of the second floor windows buzzed a swarm of honey bees, a detail which I felt sure O’Connor would have appreciated.
Inside the house were the rooms which I had hoped would evoke in me the spirit of O’Connor’s wonderful writing. Here in the kitchen were the white sink, stove, and cabinets so prevalent in the South in the first half of the 20th century. Here was the Hot-Air Refrigerator, which Flannery had bought for her mother with the television proceeds of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” Here was a small gift shop selling O’Connor’s books as well as some tourist items: coffee cups, pens, cards. Mark Jurgensen, who was operating the shop and the tours that day, spoke for five minutes or so about O’Connor’s life at Andalusia and how she had written most of her important work here.
O’Connor’s lupus made getting around troublesome, and so she lived at the front of the house in the room that would typically be the parlor. Here, looking at the bare room with its faded carpet, its typewriter and desk, the crutches leaning against a plain dresser, the tidy single bed, the cracked and peeling paint of the walls (the foundation needs more money to make these repairs), I could almost feel her presence.
But something was still missing. It was missing when we later visited the little Flannery O’Connor museum in town. It was missing when we stood at her grave in Memory Hill Cemetery; it was missing when we took the trolley tour of Milledgeville; it was missing when we attended Mass in Sacred Heart Catholic Church, sitting just a few pews back from where Regina and Flannery had once sat.
Mostly, I realized, what was missing were O’Connor’s people, the characters of her short stories and novels. I couldn’t find them in the motels and restaurants of the strip. Our trolley tour guide, a most excellent raconteur, was a retiree from Pittsburg. Of the parishioners in the Catholic Church, only two were native Georgians (I know this statistic because the visiting priest, who hailed from Michigan, made a joke about Yankee invaders and was told of the two lone Georgians in the parish).
As we drove back toward Commerce, where we would pick up I-85, Lucky pointed out a hand-painted sign advertising “J&J Flea Market, Georgia’s Largest.” I had promised her some shopping in return for enduring my literary ambles, and so we swung down a dirt road past a pretty lake into an enormous collection of booths, more dirt roads, and shoppers and vendors.
And here they were, O‘Connor‘s people, all country people, all out to make a buck selling junk on this hot afternoon. Here were whites, blacks and Hispanics, tattooed, sweaty rednecks of all hues selling and buying used tools, old clothes, jewelry, baseball caps, lawnmowers, DVDs, watermelons and tomatoes. Here was the Flea Market Trolley, hauling folks from one bare table emporium to the next; here was the Dust-Buster, a broken-down old truck dribbling water out its rear end to keep the dirt still. Here, in short, were the people climbing first into heaven as seen by the middle-class Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation” — “whole companies of white trash ... and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”
So they’re still out there in the Georgia hills, those country people O’Connor used so often in her stories and somehow knew so well. “This place is Jerusalem to me,” a Massachusetts man said to Lucky during our walk around Andalusia. “I’ve read everything she ever wrote and everything written about her.” Well, Andalusia is no doubt Jerusalem for O‘Connor aficionados, but her characters — and some of her spirit as well — live on at J & J’s Flea Market out on Highway 441.
Most Americans are surely aware our economy is still in trouble. The downswing in the last year of the Bush administration has not yet seen an equivalent upswing. Frightened by the state of the economy, the massive public debt, and the ignorance of the current administration regarding the machinery of private enterprise, businesses across the United States have, by and large, put a hold on hiring, increasing inventories, and expanding plants.
Meanwhile, our federal government continues gobbling up resources like a bottomless wonder at an all-you-can-eat buffet. In 2009, a time of economic hardship, the federal government increased its number of employees by 25,000. This figure does not include, of course, the half-million part-time census workers hired in 2009-2010. In December 2009, USA Today reported that 19 percent of our federal employees earn salaries of $100,000 or more — and this is before overtime pay and bonuses. The federal government now sucks up 40 percent of our GDP, a level unmatched in 20th century American history except during the Second World War.
In the meantime, states like California, Connecticut, and New Jersey are facing exploding expenses — many of them caused by bloated employee pension plans — and battling potential bankruptcy while still maintaining some modicum of services to their people. Over the past year, our state governments have collectively decreased their work force by 13,000 employees. Unlike the federal government, states have to answer more directly to the people for their budgets, which largely explains this trend in cutting expenditures and employees. Many are also required by law to meet a budget.
Our own state has yet to see the light. In 2005, according to the Tax Foundation, North Carolina ranked 28th in the country in state and local taxes. These taxes included income taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, luxury taxes, fuel taxes, and more. Only four years later, the Tax Foundation placed North Carolina 20th on its list of high tax states. To leap eight places down the list in the last four years tells us that we are either spending too much or our neighbors are doing a better job at cutting back on their own expenditures.
Now let’s look at the local level. Let’s look, in fact, at the Haywood Country Public Library. Recently the Haywood County Public Library system made the news in this paper on account of budget cuts. In the last three years, the SMN reported, the library’s allotted funds have dropped more than $162,000. In response to its loss of funds, the library has restricted hours at some libraries, cut out the evening hours at the main library, reduced the materials budge, and cut out several staff positions.
Now, this is a wise and judicious response to reduced circumstances. In many places in the United States, the powers in charge would, in similar circumstances, cut only services. “You don’t want to pay higher taxes for the money to run the libraries?“ they would say. “Then we’ll cut hours and we’ll cut budgeting, but we will never cut our own workforce.” Our own local librarians, recognizing that they must make cuts, have nobly shared in those cuts by reducing positions and by working harder.
Why did our librarians tender such a response? Because they understand the times in which we live and because they are our neighbors. They know that budgets are tight, that some of their friends and relatives have lost their jobs and are having trouble finding work, that we’re all in this mess together. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.
America was never designed to be a nation top-heavy with a bureaucracy. Our founders and our ancestors were suspicious of strong central governments. The immigrants who have battled their ways to our shores these last 200 years came to make their own way in business or farming — not to find jobs with the federal government or to be supported by welfare. Americans are not a people designed to be ruled and molly-coddled by nursemaids.
Take some time this summer to prepare for the November elections. Look for candidates — Democrats, Republicans, or otherwise — who speak of spending less and of cutting budgets. Look for men and women willing to take a butcher’s blade to government budgets. These are the men and women we want in our federal and state offices. Such cuts may entail sacrifices from us as well, just as the library cuts here in our mountains did, but we must take the long view. The federal government in particular, grown waddling and porcine in this last half century, needs now to be forced onto a diet of bread and water.
It’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf. Clarion Books, 2007. 208 pages.
On May 27, 1942, resistance fighters who had parachuted into Czechoslovakia attempted to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, deputy Reichsprotector of the Nazi Germany Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the former Czechoslovakia. Heydrich, a particularly vicious advocate of racial purity and appointed to his post by Adolph Hitler, died on June 4 as a result of wounds received during the assassination attempt.
An enraged Hitler then ordered investigators to “wade through blood” until they uncovered the plot and found the assassins. Reprisals were also ordered. Accordingly, in the early morning hours of June 10, German soldiers surrounded the village of Lidice, which was regarded as anti-Nazi and friendly to partisans. Everyone in the village was rounded up; the men over the age of 16 were separated from the women and children. After the soldiers had promised the women and children that they would soon see their husbands, fathers, and brothers, they were taken away to a nearby village.
The men, 173 of them, were then shot out of hand at a nearby farm. Later, 19 more men from the village who were working in a mine were also shot. The women were sent to the concentration camp at Ravensbruck; twenty-three of the children were taken from their mothers for “Germanization;” the rest were eventually allowed to write a postcard to their families, and were then put aboard special buses and gassed.
Joan M. Wolf’s Someone Named Eva (ISBN 978-0547237664, $6.99), which is aimed at a middle-school audience, tells the story of Lidice through the eyes of a young Czech girl, Milada, whose life is spared because of her Aryan looks: blue eyes, blonde hair, and the correct facial features.
Someone Named Eva opens with Milada’s 11th birthday party. Here we are introduced to Terezie, Milada’s best friend, and to her mother and father, brother and sister, and Babichka, her beloved grandmother. We also meet Ruzha, one of Milada’s classmates, a lonely and bitter girl who will, like Milada, be taken away to the Lebensborn program.
A few weeks later, Milada and her family are wakened by soldiers pounding on their door. They are ordered to dress and leave the house. Babichka pulls Milada aside for a moment and givers her a garnet, star-shaped pin.
“She took it out of my hand and pinned it on the inside of my blouse, her hands trembling slightly. ‘You must keep this and remember,’ she whispered, bending close to my ear. ‘Remember who you are, Milada. Remember where you are from. Always.’”
Throughout the rest of her ordeal Milada carries this pin with her, usually hidden beneath her skirt, using it as a lodestone, a guide to the person she once was.
She and the other children are taken to a gymnasium in nearby Kladno, where they are divided again into different groups. Men with clipboards and white coats evaluate Milada and the other children. Several of these men finger Milada’s golden hair, look carefully at her eyes, measure the shape of her nose and forehead. Then she and Rusha are separated from the others and driven to another camp. As she enters the camp, Milada notices that the other girls, some of whom are not Czech, all have one feature in common: blonde hair.
Wolf, who interviewed several Lidice survivors of the Lebensborn program, now gives us a detailed account of what those who entered this program endured. The Nazis in command of the program give the children new names, German names, and they study German intensely for months. They are indoctrinated into Nazi ideas, taught German history, fed well, and undergo a rigorous exercise routine. Milada fights to hold onto her memory of her old self, her family, her way of life, but finds that each passing day strips away more and more of her former self. Only the garnet pin acts as a reminder of home and the girl she once was.
At the end of this training, Milada is adopted by a German family. The father of the family is the commandant of the Ravensbruck concentration camp. His wife and her daughter Elsbeth soon edge their way into Milada’s affections; she and Elsbeth take particular comfort in each other as the war comes ever closer. In describing the growth of their friendship and affection, Wolf does a fine job of showing us the ambiguities faced by Milada in the conflict between her desire to return home, to find her way back to her family, and her desire to be safe with Mutter and Elsbeth.
To say more here would be to reveal the ending of this fine book. Parents whose children read Someone Named Eva may want to read the book themselves and then discuss it (Wolf includes a brief history of Lidice at the end of the book that should help answer some questions). That discussion might focus not only on Nazism, but on the importance of our identity, our family, and our roots.
Someone Named Eva should also serve to remind us that the Nazis were not the only thugs of the twentieth century. Our young people remember Nazi atrocities because their grandfathers fought the Germans in World War II and because of the Holocaust. Too often, however, our young people, and even many adults, forget the other mass murderers of that bloodiest of centuries: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and all the lesser dictators who sent men, women, and children to early graves.
Someone Named Eva can help us to remember these butchered souls, all victims of centralized governments and collectivist ideologies. If we ever consign them to oblivion, if we gloss over the tyrannical deeds of the murderous bastards who ordered these deaths, we will find ourselves in this next century once again lurching from graveyard to graveyard, wondering all the while where we went wrong.
In Spite of Myself: A Memoir by Christopher Plummer. Knopf, 2008. 656 pages.
Like most readers, I usually have a stack of books going beside my bed and in the living room. In addition, the books in my permanent collection frequently snag my attention, sticking out their thumbs and demanding to be plucked from the shelves for yet another ride. With my instructional duties at an end, even more books — the ones assigned for fall seminars — crash and bang against one another, clamoring for attention. Reading is surely one of the great joys offered by life, yet this mob of books, replete with hitchhikers and rioters, sometimes leads to a confused mess of stories and texts, making me feel as if life has granted me half-a-dozen lives rather than one.
Here, in no particular order, are three books that chance and obligation have dropped into my lap these last two weeks.
A friend recommended Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It as a fine book for teenagers. She was right: this tautly written novel about an asteroid striking the moon and shifting its orbit, thereby causing multiple catastrophes on earth, will appeal to teens and even to adults.
The heroine, Miranda, lives in rural Pennsylvania and tells us of the enormous devastation by storms, tsunamis, and volcanoes caused by the moon’s shift. Tensions with her family and friends are recorded by Miranda as well as the simple struggle to survive. Pfeffer gives us a gripping account of the catastrophe, and most readers will declare Life As We Knew It a winner.
Pfeffer’s account does contain some flaws. Both the east and west coasts of the United States are destroyed, as is much of the coastline in the rest of the world. For months, no food supplies are available. Miranda’s mother had the foresight to go to the grocery stores the day after the disaster and stock her pantry with canned goods, yet in the middle of winter, when their situation becomes desperate and people around the country are going hungry, no one tries to break into the family home, and no one in the home ever thinks that self-defense, whether by firearm or some other weapon, might be necessary.
Pfeffer several times has the mother of the family, and Miranda as well, comment negatively about Fox News and the “president from Texas,” which would lead readers to believe that this family might have once favored gun control. Surely anyone in such a situation gifted with the foresight of this family would devise a plan for protecting themselves against marauders. Pfeffer also feels obliged to attack Christianity — Megan, Miranda’s friend, is presented as religious fanatic, and her pastor is greedy, surviving on food taken from his congregation.
In Spite of Myself: A Memoir is Christopher Plummer’s look back at his long life on stage and in the movies.
Plummer — his most famous role was as the Captain in “The Sound of Music” — has written a book several cuts above the typical Hollywood autobiography. Plummer is a fine writer — his book includes dozens of biographical sketches ranging from Peter O’Toole to Judi Dench — who has an eye for detail and discernment in regard to human nature. Plummer has been a public figure in show business for more than 60 years, and offers those readers interested in actors and directors a compendium of wonderful tales. He also gives us short sketches of the less than famous. Here, for example, he and the woman whom he calls his “one true strength,” and whom he has nicknamed Fuff, are watching a bullfight in Spain:
“One breezy Madrid afternoon, a young novilleros in his teens had been given the chance of a lifetime. What he didn’t have in technique he made up for in reckless courage. From the start, the crowd was aware that the boy was dealing with one oversized angry beast who had a nasty habit of hooking with his left horn very much like the famous bull who once took the life of the immortal Manolete. Nevertheless, the boy insisted on working so perilously close to the bull, our hearts were in out mouths. The crowd fell in love — they went wild.”
The young matador, as Plummer goes on to say, performs magnificently, but in the end is gored by the bull and nearly killed on the spot. “To this day,” Plummer says, “I do not know if the lad lived, but I have strong doubts.”
Every page of In Spite of Myself has a story to tell. Even for those readers who dislike reading about movie and stage stars, Plummer offers a buffet of literary delights.
A book which I am rereading in preparation for my tutoring duties next year, and which I haven’t read in two decades, is Annie Dillard’s magnificent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It is a wonder how we sometimes forget books from our past, but forget this one I did. Having revisited Dillard’s prose — the book which lifted her to national fame — I am amazed now that this account of her year at Tinker Creek near Grundy, Va., did not cause me to re-evaluate my life, kick over the traces, and become a biologist. On every page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard gives us both poetic musings and hard facts about the natural world surrounding her sojourn at Tinker’s Creek. Her book is more than a celebration of nature; it is, at bottom, an exploration of life itself. In Chapter 6, for example, titled “The Present,” Dillard writes
“I am really here, alive on the intricate earth under trees. But under me, directly under the weight of my body on the grass, are other creatures, just as real for whom also this moment, this tree, is ‘it.’ Take just the top inch of soil, the world squirming right under my palms. In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found ‘an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 spring tails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles and various members of 12 other forms.”
Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek was published when Dillard was 29 years old. To have written such a book of poetry, philosophy, and science in her late-20s was a remarkable achievement. It is a great book about life, faith, literature, and the mountains in which we live.