Scorched Earth

Every once in a while you suddenly discover in your search through secondhand books an absolute gem, a book that stands out from the rest with its sparkling prose and hidden depths. Scorched Earth by David L Robins (Orion 2002) is one such gem.

The basic storyline is of a white woman, Clare, and her black husband, Elijah, whose mixed race baby, Nora Carol, dies shortly after birth. The white woman’s grandmother, Rosy Epps,  arranges with Pastor Thomas Derby for the child to be buried in her family plot in the graveyard of Victory Baptist Church where Epps is a deacon. The burial takes place, but when the other deacons find out they hold a meeting and refuse permission for the burial on the grounds of the child being mixed race. The child is then disinterred the following morning and transferred to the black cemetery up the road. That night the white church is burnt down and the man arrested for the arson is the baby’s father, Elijah, who declares his innocence.  What follows  is an intricately plotted, insightful and moving story, a legal case that reveals hosts of hidden prejudices and secrets that ignite rage and hatred.

What I love about the novel is that it spoke to me about identity and classification, about where and to whom people belong. I am a white grandmother of a blended family with a mixed race grandson so the issue is quite close to my heart, particularly in these troubling times. The novel raises issues about what it is to be ‘family’ or ‘community’, what part history, tradition and inheritance play in our psyche, and gets us to question, who are ‘our people’? And all this it does  in exquisite prose that delights me, captivating me right from  the opening chapter:

The place where they lie making the child is beautiful. They lie on a bed of ferns, which like a cushion of feathers, tickles them. Only a few strides off the old dirt road, they are beneath a tall red oak, thick as a chimney, bearded with gray bark: the tree is a gentle old presence.

If they were to stand on that spot they could see the fields. South lie forty acres of beans, leafy and ripe for harvest machinery resting now after church this Sunday afternoon. High pines and turning sugar maples make this field a green leafy loch where every breeze riffles. North of the road, beyond barbed wire and honeysuckle, is a cleared pasture for the cows, which are out of sight behind hills that rise and roll down, suggesting by their smooth undulation the couple lying under the oak.

He is a black man, blacker than everything, blacker than the soil of the road, everything but the crows. His name is Elijah, named by his mother for the loudest of the Hebrew prophets, though he has not grown into a loud man. He is silent as his skin, as the dark of a well.

Beneath him, wrapping him like roots seeking water, is his wife, Clare. Her green eyes closed behind white, blue-veined lids. Waist-length blond hair spreads over ferns and under her back. She kisses him and their tongues twine.

A band of starlings crisscrosses the field. The ebon birds strike something invisible at the center of the field and disperse, to clot again and circle some more, somewhat aimlessly. Clare and Elijah, tangled together, white and black, are absolutes, the presence and absence of all colors at once, sharing a smooth, perfect motion.

When Clare falls for Elijah, colour is no longer an issue:

She will remember this moment when Elijah’s blackness became not something missing from what she was but a remarkable presence not bound or described by color. She opens her mouth in a moment of shame, fleeting like a pinprick, fast and sharp, for ever having felt whatever ugliness it was she had just said goodbye to.

The couple are asked to sit on a Diversity committee at the paper mill where they both work but as Elijah says ‘This is y’all’s problem’ and Clare refuses to be used – ‘I’m sorry, but we’re not your damn role models’. However, in the aftermath of the tragedy of Nora Carol tensions escalate and soon both Clare and Elijah feel the effects of the problems others have with their relationship.

At the meeting of church deacons the Pastor is urging them to exercise compassion and leave the dead child where she is, but the response he gets is:

I like Elijah, by God I do, and I feel awful for what’s happened to him. But that don’t mean I want to buried with him or his kin. That poor baby ought to be laid to rest in a place surrounded by her own people, and that place isn’t here, it’s up the road.

And so begins a course of actions that divide a community, entrench latent prejudices where nothing and no-one will ever be the same, not even the reader.

As it says in the epigram for the novel:

The line separating good and evil 

passes not through states,

nor between classes,

nor between parties either,

But right through the human heart.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn

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All The Light We Cannot See

I’m getting overwhelm from all the political news and my disappointment in the human race. So coming across a book that transports and delights me enough to block all that out is a rare, and fortuitous, find indeed. It sat on my bookcase for a while, borrowed from a friend, until I picked it up last weekend. Usually I can devour a book in a few days but I haven’t got very far with this one, about a quarter of the way through the story, because I’m savouring the words so much. I want to spend time with them, read them aloud, then read them again.

Written by Anthony Doerr the novel is set in France and Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Its main characters are a blind French girl who learns to navigate her town with the help of a miniature replica made by her father, and a German orphan who is destined for work in the mines until it’s discovered he can mend broken radios. As the novel, and the war, progress, their paths draw ever closer together. But it is the radiancy of  prose that grips me as much as the plot.

It opens on 7 August 1944 with:

At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.

The tide climbs. The moon hangs small and yellow and gibbous. On the rooftops of beachfront hotels to the east, and in the gardens behind them, a half-dozen American artillery units drop incendiary rounds into the mouths of mortars.”

Then:

“They cross the Channel at midnight. There are twelve and they are named for songs: Stardust and Stormy Weather and In the Mood and Pistol-Packin’ Mama. The sea glides far below, spattered by the countless chevrons of whitecaps. Soon enough, the navigators can discern the low moonlit lumps of islands ranged along the horizon.

France.

Intercoms crackle. Deliberately, almost lazily, the bombers shed altitude. Threads of light ascend from anti-air emplacements up and down the coast. Dark, ruined ships appear, scuttled or destroyed, one with its bow shorn away, a second flickering as it burns. On an outermost island, panicked sheep run zig-zagging between rocks.

Inside each airplane, a bombardier peers through an aiming window and counts to twenty. Four five six seven. To the bombardiers, the walled city on its granite headland, drawing ever closer, looks like an unholy tooth, something black and dangerous, a final abscess to be lanced away.”

Each short chapter alternates between French  and German perspectives and sections alternate between the past and the present of the tale. Neither the girl nor the boy fit in with their people or surroundings, and the war, as beautifully written as it is,  is still war and its stark realities don’t escape us.

If you love exquisite writing that transforms the ephemera of daily existence in a story much more than a conventional war tale, you’ll love this novel. It was the Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015 and is well deserved of that title.

“This jewel of a story is put together like a vintage timepiece…Doerr’s writing and imagery are stunning. It’s been a while since a novel had me under its spell in this fashion” Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone.

I second that.

 

 

 

Slavery

I’m looking forward to watching the new adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family that is being aired on TV soon. So when I was checking this day in history I found it interesting that on 6 Feb 1820 the first organized immigration of freed slaves to Africa from the United States departed New York harbour on a journey to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in West Africa. This was largely the work of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 by Robert Finley, to return freed American slaves to Africa after abolition.

Roots tells the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent and sold into slavery in the US, and later follows his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley. Boosted by the popular TV adaptation in 1977 it spent months on The New York Times Best Sellers List, including 22 weeks in the top spot. However, it was not without its own controversy. Haley was accused of plagiarism and after a trial and out-of-court settlement Haley admitted that some passages had been copied from Harold Courlander’s work, The African, which was published nine years earlier.

Plagiarism is serious offence as writers hold their intellectual property dear. However, it’s worth noting that “Edward Kosner, reviewing the volume Alex Haley by Robert J. Norrell, said that Haley “could have avoided all the grief if he and his publishers had simply labeled the book [Roots] what it was—a historical novel valid in its essential narrative but informed by the imagination”. Wikipedia

Yet despite all its controversy it remains a powerful piece of work considered to be one of the most important U.S. works of the 20th century and has greatly influenced the interest in genealogy and appreciation for African American history.

A slave is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as :

  1. a person who is the legal property of another and is bound to absolute obedience
  2. a drudge; a person working very hard
  3. a helpless victim of some dominating influence
  4. a machine, or part of one, directly controlled by another

It’s appalling that we still have them today in all these forms, and I think the most common in the western world is the slave to dominating influences.

Published on this day in 1937 was another influential book, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The story of the bond between two itinerant workers, slaves to the dominating influence of  the American Depression, disappointed in the American Dream, who drift from place to place to find work.

“Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place. They come to a ranch an’ work up a stake and then they go inta town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they’re poundin’ their tail on some other ranch. They ain’t got nothing to look ahead to.” (1.113)

The American Dream, the national ethos of the US, is rooted in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” First defined by James Truslow Adams in 1931 the American Dream promises “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. Yet the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Depression saw that Dream slowly turn to dust, like the dust bowls of the mid-west, and her people blown about like tumbleweed.

But Lennie and George still have their dreams:

Lennie watched him with wide eyes, and old Candy watched him too. Lennie said softly, “We could live offa the fatta the lan’.”

“Sure,” said George. “All kin’s a vegetables in the garden, and if we want a little whisky we can sell a few eggs or something, or some milk. We’d jus’ live there. We’d belong there. There wouldn’t be no more runnin’ round the country and gettin’ fed by a Jap cook. No, sir, we’d have our own place where we belonged and not sleep in no bunk house.” (3.202-203)

Everyone needs dreams to escape from the drudgery of life, particularly when you’re poor and other people/systems/laws/attitudes seem in control of your life. We’re hearing a lot of talk of ‘Make America Great Again’ which is feeding the dreams of many people disillusioned  by years of being unheard/ignored. But dreams at the expense of others become castles built on sand. They eventually collapse. And if we’re lucky, a boat will come to take us back home, back to our roots.

 

 

“Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine….”

This traditional song was recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. My first encounter with it was back in 1967, sung by John Renbourne, but in 1969 it was recorded by Nina Simone and her version became the definitive one for me. The song tells of a spiritual struggle, with reading the Bible as the path to salvation, or, rather, the failure to read it leading to damnation.

“Blind Willie Johnson recorded the song in a time when illiteracy was common in the rural South. Blinded as a young child, Johnson was singing this song as a warning to those who had learned to read, but concerned themselves too much with earthly matters, but Johnson tries to point the way to salvation. He admits to having fault, and he blames himself for not taking advantage of the skill he has, reading, and saving himself. The context of this song is strictly religious. It is a melancholy expression of his spirit, as the blues style echoes the depths of his guilt and his struggle.” Wikipedia

The context of this song may be strictly religious, but my interpretation is: ‘Appreciate your gifts and take responsibility for your actions’. Something that seems to get blurred in today’s blame culture. Being a lover of words I know the difference between ‘blame’ and ‘responsibility’ but recently had to examine those differences in the context of domestic abuse when reading ‘A Suitable Lie’ by Michael Malone.

This novel reverses the traditional view and places the man on the receiving end of an abusive relationship. It charts the escalation of abuse and explores the emotions involved, the attitudes of the victim, police, family and friends of the victim, questioning what it is to be a man and what it means to stay.

Domestic abuse will affect 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men in their lifetime. It leads to, on average, two women being murdered each week and 30 men per year. It accounts for 16% of all violent crime, but it is still the violent crime least likely to be reported to the police,  has more repeat victims than any other and leaving the relationship does not automatically mean that the abuse will stop and the victims will then be safe. People experiencing abuse don’t accept what is happening to them but they may try to cope with it, avoid it, understand it or try to fix it. They may minimise what is happening, blame themselves, feeling ashamed, embarrassed and alone. (Source: http://www.lwa.org)

I found reading the novel very disturbing. I have stayed in relationships far longer than was healthy and whilst I’ve never experienced the level of violence portrayed in the novel, I’ve experienced the same gamut of feelings the victim does. In no way did I ‘blame’ the victim, thinking he brought it on himself, but like an ex-smoker who has an evangelical purge on smokers, I wanted to shout at him.

Emotional entanglements are difficult to cope with, especially if we use love as an excuse for fear. Fear of retaliations, of being alone, seeming a failure, letting people down, abandoning someone with mental health problems etc. We are not to blame for the first act of violence perpetrated upon us but we do have to take some responsibility for staying, for our fears, for seeking help.

Staying is a choice, just as leaving is. What informs those choices has so much to do with life experience, levels of self-worth, support available and awareness. There is much needed to be done with societal attitudes, law enforcement, funding for refuges (the novel raises the issue – where do male victims go?), availability of counselling etc. But if the purpose of art is to reflect Truth, then this novel goes a long way to raise questions about the truth of domestic violence in today’s society.

 

Alter ego

I’m currently re-reading Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. For those unfamiliar with the work, Persig is driving across America on a motorbike with his son, Chris, and a couple of friends, calling in at places that hold resonances for him. He is accompanied by a ghost, Phaedrus, who turns out to be his alter ego. As the story unfolds fragments from Phaedrus’ memory and writings surface. Phaedrus was Persig as a young man who strove to align what he called “classical” and “romantic” methods of thought and tried to define ‘Quality’. The struggle drove him to depression, a nervous breakdown, hospitalization and electric shock treatment.

He was insane. And when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come to it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way.

This journey is not just a physical and metaphorical one, it is also a journey into the heart of philosophy and rational thought, and into the mind of the man who struggled to make sense of it.

To the Persig riding the motorcycle, Phaedrus is a ghost, someone who haunts his thoughts and dreams, someone he wants to bury forever. But in order to do so he has to return to the places where it all happened, to look at things with new eyes and to understand where it all went wrong. It’s a compelling read, even for someone like me who’s one of the “romantic” school, who sees things emotionally rather than rationally. It is also beautifully written.

The gibbous moon comes up from the horizon beyond the pines, and by its slow, patient arc across the sky I measure hour after hour of semi-sleep. Too much fatigue. The moon and strange dreams and sounds of mosquitos and odd fragments of memory become jumbled and mixed in an unreal landscape in which the moon is shining and yet there is a bank of fog and I am riding a horse and Chris is with me and the horse jumps over a small stream that runs through the sand toward the ocean somewhere beyond. And then that is broken… And then it reappears.

When I picked this book up again last week all I could remember about it was that it was a story of a journey and parts of it looked at why you need to understand and keep the workings of machines well serviced. Nothing about philosophy. I remembered I’d loved the writing style and that he had explained things that made sense at the time but my brain hadn’t retained any. Inside the front cover is a note from the writer that includes this:

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called ‘yourself’.

It was time to read it again.

Like Persig, I have a Phaedrus. My alter ego doesn’t have a name but she pops up at times to undermine me, telling me I’m not good enough, of course I’ll never be a success and why do I think anyone is remotely interested in anything I have to say? She’s been my companion for years, a shadow dogging my steps. Peter Pan lost his shadow and was searching for it to stitch back on, but I’m trying to find a way to do the opposite, to cut her off and leave her in a drawer. Permanently. Yet I have tremendous compassion for her and therein lies a problem. How do you eliminate something that has been part of who you are? She’s born of other people’s qualitative judgements so perhaps Persig’s book will help peel away any acceptance of those judgements because they are just someone else’s ideas and the quality or worth of a person doesn’t adhere to any agreed universal definition. We’ll see.

Phaedrus had once called metaphysics “the high country of the mind”–an analogy to the high country of mountain climbing. It takes a lot of effort to get there and more effort when you arrive, but unless you can make the journey you are confined to one valley of thought all your life.

Men

I need a man. Well, several actually. It’s not what you think, although sex every now and again would be nice if I could remember what to do. No, I need a man because I’m running out of males to draw upon for characters in my novels. Not that I take someone and immortalize them in print; I like to take traits, gestures, habits, speech etc and shape them into a character and I’ve used up all the ones I’m familiar with.

I started my first novel 12 years ago and had a bank of male friends and work colleagues to draw upon. My second novel, started 4 years ago was set in Nepal at the time I was working there for VSO so I had a lot of characters from work and the community to draw upon. This new novel is set in Scotland today and I’ve realized as I try to create my characters that since moving to Scotland 10 years ago I’ve met very few men. And if you take away the alcoholics and drug users I used to work with, the number is even less. I’m experiencing a retirement in splendid isolation when it comes to males. The clubs and groups I joined are predominantly female and of those who are married or in relationships I’ve never met their men apart from casual introductions. So why is this now a problem?

I suppose it’s because my interactions and understandings are going stale; I’m lacking contact with flesh and blood and don’t really know what to do about it. I can hardly ask friends if I can ‘borrow’ their blokes, or ask the workmen who do various jobs for me what their emotional weaknesses are. Most of the guys I used to know, apart from the gay ones, took a long time before they opened up and discussed their feelings and I if don’t have the contact, I can hardly have the time to cultivate relationships.

I guess I’ll just have to live a virtual life through books and the internet.

Pride

They say it comes before a fall and in biblical terms that’s right. Pride, the Original Sin, (not sex as a lot of people believe), came before the Fall, which was the loss of God’s grace and ultimately the casting out of heaven for Lucifer and his rogue angels, and casting out of paradise for the humans. There are lessons in there for everyone, and yet I’ve always been drawn to the heroic in people; those who stand up against all the odds and fail.

When studying for my first degree I fell in love with Macbeth and Milton’s Satan. There’s just something about Macbeth at the end, when he realizes he’s been had by the witches and that all his efforts to avoid the prophesies have just made it come true. Birnham Wood is coming to Dunsinane. He knows he’s going to lose but he doesn’t run away or try to hide. He buckles himself up in his armour and proclaims “I’ll die with harness on my back.” Then, when he finally faces Malcolm, he tells Malcolm he doesn’t want to fight because he’s “too steeped in the blood of thine already”. Believing he can’t be killed by anyone born of a woman, he doesn’t want to kill Malcolm. And we all know what happens then. But it’s the ‘hero’ of the battlefield, the one who the men and Duncan adored, that seems to shine again in his last moments. Not the fatally flawed over-reacher whose ambition leads him down the path to his own destruction.

And who can read Satan’s blank verse and not swoon at his beauty and sensuous majesty? As the poem progresses he becomes more and more tarnished and corrupted, less attractive, more in keeping with an accepted view of him. But in the beginning he’s ‘the brightest star in heaven’ and even God is in love with him. It is obviously Milton’s vision and portrayal of him we fall in love with, and his jealous sense of betrayal, like that of Macbeth, is one I understand only too well. Of course, these are literary constructs, but the fact that I can identify so closely with the characters and have soft spots for them show how powerful good literature is. Like Stephen King said:

            ‘Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie’

But there’s a subtle difference between having pride and being proud, which I associate with arrogance. I don’t like arrogant people who have turned their pride into narcissism, believing themselves better than others, but I do admire someone who takes pride in achievements, theirs as well as others’. I’m proud of my children and have no problem with someone else being a proud parent, unless pride in their offspring creates problems where the children are reared like demi-gods and believe they are owed something by the universe and treat others at best with indifference, at worst, badly.

Self-confidence cannot thrive without some kind of self-belief and pride in oneself, but over-confidence and a belief that you are able to do things you can’t can also have devastating effects. I once had to employ a youth worker who conned people at his interview into believing he was the perfect person for the job. I disagreed with their choice but was a lone voice. What we didn’t find out till later was that his girlfriend, who was a careers officer, had filled in all his forms and created his portfolio. He was dyslexic, disorganized, unable to work to deadlines or manage his workload, but when his mistakes were pointed out he played the disability/bullying card. The problem than became mine and it took a year to get rid of him.

I know the problem is basically one about honesty, but it’s also about him believing he could do the job when clearly he couldn’t and his arrogance when discrepancies were pointed out to him. Had he owned his disability right from the start I could have put support systems in place to help him adjust to the demands of the job. Instead, not only did he neglect to do the job for which he was being paid, he also mucked up all the admin systems that took an age to sort out after he’d gone. And he still believed he’d done a good job and had done us all a big favour by deigning to work for us in the first place.

So where am I going with this? Well, I’ve been ill again for the last couple of days. Nothing serious, but enough to stop me being able to do anything other than sleep or lie on the settee watching TV. One of the things that happens when I stop ‘doing’ is that the other ‘stuff’ surfaces. All that unresolved muck that lies in the bottom of the barrel and never really gets a good clean out. I’ve been quite emotional, so my tear ducts have had a good sluicing, but I’ve also had to look at the issue of my aloneness.

I pride myself in being resourceful and resilient, that I live alone through choice and that I’ve done such a good job with raising my children that they don’t need me anymore. Now all that may be true, but it’s quite an arrogant stance to take, which denies my need for others. Because there is no-one there I have to deal with my illnesses alone and I do, most of the time. Because my romantic relationships have failed I’ve chosen to live alone and I’m still alone because I’ve not met anyone who’s made me want to change my mind. Being ill in a foreign country where you don’t know anyone and can’t speak the language isn’t a pleasant experience. But because it’s happened to me on numerous occasions I know what to do and get on with it. Which I think is how I live my life – I just get on with it. There’s no point in regretting anything or wanting what I don’t have, so I make the most of what I do have, resolve not to make the same mistakes and move on. And take a perverse sense of pride in being able to so.

Sometimes, in my dark times, when it’s all too hard and I feel I’ve nothing else to fight with to get out of the blackness, pride is what has got me through. I remember all the people I love who will be affected by my demise and who I feel I will have let down. That’s when I pull myself up by my bootlaces and seek help. I used to think that asking for help was being weak but I’ve learnt

‘If you can’t change your situation, change your attitude’

Pride can still be a stumbling block for me, but I do believe that if life deals you a dodgy hand you have three choices – carry on with the game even though you risk losing everything, stick, or fold. Pride has always made me carry on with the game because sticking and playing safe is not an achievement, nor is folding and throwing in the cards. Life may not be all about achievement, but at those times you feel worthless, it’s something to hang on to and be proud of. And sometimes pride is all I’ve got to keep me breathing, to get me through to the next day.

And save me from that long fall.