Adolescence: a Theme in Powerful Novels

Adolescence: a Theme in Powerful Novels

What does a book published in 2002 by Alice McDermott have to do with a new release by Margot Livesey? The answer: they reveal the strong and vivid seeds of adulthood in their adolescent characters.

Alice McDermott captured my attention with her short but amazing novel, THAT NIGHT. Published in 1987, McDermott explores suburbia of post WWII where life should be perfect, where parents have created families and a culture that cannot be challenged. But when it is, when a “guy” who doesn’t meet the picture of a future husband is determined to have a family’s daughter, we read this:

That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried get limp in their hands.”  We can picture that era, the leather jackets, the sideburns. But the passion translates into any age.

In a CHILD OF MY HEART, published in 2000, McDermott’s the main character, Theresa, is on the cusp of change, wavering between the security of childhood and the lure of the life that adults lead, and of course, sex. The novel begins with Theresa’s voice:

“I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist. There was also, for a while, a litter of wild rabbits…They were wet and blind,…so small it was difficult to know if their bodies moved with the beating of their hearts or the rise of their breaths.”

And maybe it was difficult for Theresa to know where her developing body, her own beating heart’s growth might take her. She watched these children on the seashore in summer. People bare their skin. Children do too, and she is there to protect them. Because later in the novel, when Theresa finds herself enthrall to an older man, she tells us: “You could reimagine, rename things all you wanted, but it was flesh somehow, that would not relent.”

Adolescence is definitely that period in life where you are torn between the rubric of home and the lure of any place, activity, person—who is not a metaphor for family, rules and order. It’s a vivid, surprising time. No wonder talented authors take advantage of it.

Thus, I fell in love with the writing of Margot Livesey when first reading EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE. The tale begins on the day of Eva’s birth, which is also the day of her mother’s death. But over time, some companions that Eva cannot see, arrive to protect and guide her. Eva reflects: “…but my loneliness was like the slow gas bubbling up from the pond in the woods, poisoning even the sweetest of days. How could I turn away those two who wanted to be my friends when no one else did?’‘ The novel is the story of the choices Eva makes and how the “companions” guide her in those choices. It is a beautiful story. 

Livesey’s latest novel, THE BOY IN THE FIELD, once again probes the whims, fevers and worries of adolescence. It also casts a darker cloud over what can be a tempestuous time in life.

Reviews promise: (thanks to Jenny Rosenstrach in the NYT)   In the broadest sense, Margot Livesey’s …“The Boy in the Field” is a whodunit. Who attacked this boy in the middle of the day and left him for dead in a field? What would have happened if three unsuspecting siblings walking home from school hadn’t caught a glimpse of his red sock from the road? Why this boy?

Three sibling, Mathew, Zoe and Duncan come upon the above scene. They do what they can: one stays with the boy, one waves down a car on the road to call for help. One wanders the scene. Their gestures are open and fearless. Their gestures are the seeds to their growing. But what they do not know, and what Livesey probes in this fascinating story, is that seeing the “boy in the field” will change all of their lives. That change will even spread to their parents, the mother a solicitor (this is England) and their father who works a forge.

“You’re going to be all right,” Zoe said.

The boy gave a small sigh. His lips moved. The sigh became a word.

Each of them caught it. No more words followed.

But that was all it took for these three children’s lives to become attached to change. 

Ava DuVernay Talks to Barack Obama about A PROMISED LAND

Ava DuVernay Talks to Barack Obama about A PROMISED LAND

Our 44th president, Barack Obama, recently spoke with Ava DuVernay about the publication of his book A PROMISED LAND. The first of two volumes.

This event was part of the Virtual Community Book Club sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

Ava DuVernay grew up in Long Beach, CA. Her production of the film A Wrinkle in Time highlighted her being the first Black woman to direct a live-action film. She created the Netflix drama series WHEN THEY SEE US, based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case, when five young black men were accused of rape. The series was nominated for an Emmy and won the Critics’ Choice TV award for best series.

When the discussion began, DuVernay mentioned that she had always appreciated Barack Obama using his honest response I don’t know, when he didn’t have a definitive answer to a question from a news person or anyone interviewing him. This was a great start to their discussion.

DuVernay: What is the most important best step in overcoming our current problems? (note I have shortened some of Obama’s answers, but have not changed his message.)

Obama: In the book, I was tracing the deep-rooted divisions in our society, which came to the fore and maybe were even exacerbated by my election: the fault line of race and the fault line around equal opportunity and class. To me, as a writer and a human, you don’t completely overcome our differences. We are a complicated democracy, there are always going to be clashes of idea, notions of what comprises the good life and how we should organize ourselves in government.

But we can work to see each other’s humanity, understand that we are all deserving of dignity and respect. We can try to resolve those differences.

When I ran in Iowa, there were few Black people, but still we were able to bring together young Black followers, Jews, Asians and whites. We listened to them, eager to know what they needed. We formed bonds and trust in Iowa. It is all part of listening, understanding others.

DuVernay: Tell us about your loss when your first ran for a position in Illinois.

Obama: I can still feel the disappointment, and I asked myself: Why am I doing this? I might have to put aside this dream for something else. A valuable lesson is what you have control over, WHAT YOU DO. But of course, there are lots of variables. I try to be tough on myself if I’ve been lazy or inconsiderate. Things that I can control. And you learn. The sun still comes up. Then I ran for US Senate and it helped when I told myself not to be concerned if I didn’t win. The cause is larger than my success.

DuVernay: Any thoughts on marriage, leadership?

Obama: (laughs) Clean up after yourself. Leadership. How do we learn? Challenge your own assumptions. Understand what your mission is. Reflect on what this is about. Because your decisions are about what your first principles are.

DuVernay: When you were president, how did you deal with difficult problems on your desk:

  1. Know your first principles. 
  2. Have people smarter than you working for you. Remember that you don’t have to be seen as the most important person. 
  3. Your junior staff know a great deal; you are the facilitator. TAKE YOUR EGO OUT OF IT.
  4. And yes, be accountable. Get rid of people who don’t follow those rules, who take ideas of others as their own. There are those who often do that to women.

What would you like to be remembered for?  

Obama: The Paris Climate Accord. To fight Climate change. (then he offered some opinions on this process) Getting elected. Is this about doing what I think is best and long term for the country? Is my goal to get activists off my back or try to solve problems? KNOW YOU FIRST PRINCIPLES. You are going to make decisions that are sub-optimal. Nothing arrives on your desk with the perfect answer.

Then later, a young woman named Grace, calls in, asks Obama specifics about the Paris Accords. 

Obama: Legacy in the context of the presidency–its hard to get distance or perspective. How will this all play out? It might take 20 years. The Paris Accords. You had to take specific actions to reduce Greenhouse gases. It was a big lift, a big achievement. We got China to partner. Then India, even though they stressed that they didn’t cause the problem of greenhouse gases. But we were able to set up the structure. Then my successor pulls out. We are the one county…but it didn’t fall apart. Cities and states continued to adhere to the goals. Car companies followed the rules.

DuVernay: What is something else you would like to be remembered for? 

Obama: It’s hard to gauge. I modeled our leadership that whatever mistakes we made, we showed it was possible for someone elected president to do so without scandal and with a message of inclusion–a government that operates with integrity. Because so many of our problems occur when we don’t have trust in the people in power.

Think about what happened on January 6th, the riots that threatened Congress. We have gone outside the process entirely of whoever gets the most votes. If we set aside those norms, that my tribe will do whatever it takes to overcome the norms, then we will have a hard time coming together, a hard time learning how to listen to each other’s stories.

THANKs to Ava DuVernay and President Obama 

My Comment: I do want to read A PROMISED LAND. I applaud DuVernay for her questions and President Obama for his answers. They give us a look into the book’s content. And President Obama is already working on a second book, continuing this important discussion of his years as POTUS. 

FINAL NOTE: In this first book, he talks about Pastor Moss, an older Black pastor who encouraged Obama when people were saying he couldn’t win. He was being told that he should drop out. The cause belonged to the Clintons. It was likely someone would shoot him. But Pastor Moss lined it up this way: the beginning struggle for Black people in America was the Moses stage. Obama was now leading the Joshua stage. He was bringing all of us closer to A PROMISED LAND. 

 

A VERY Early Encounter with Diversity

 

An VERY Early Encounter with Diversity

The Rosebud Landscape with Horses

While raising my children, I found time to write. No longer working OUTSIDE my home, I would get up early, write before my beauties had arisen. During that time, I started a memoir of my own life. Though my age did not require that decision, my mother was a treasure of memory, information. I needed to mine that knowledge sooner than later. Below is an excerpt from 10055 Wood Street, my memoir. It emphasizes how isolated we were from diversity, from people of color. How singular life was. Thank God for my mother’s open heart, for books, and for travel to the crowded streets of downtown Chicago where the real and true world was growing.

NOTE: In the memoir, SHE is my mother, who became a widow with three children in her early 30’s.

*   *   *

She needs help and so weeks after my father dies, there are borders. Our first is Jenny Mae, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota, who we first meet when she comes out of my bedroom wearing a terrycloth bathrobe. My brothers and I are in the upstairs hallway, the oldest, John, who at his young age knows a little about much, reveals right away that he is disappointed. He was expecting Jenny Mae to appear in feathers and he tells her so. She smiles, a beautiful quiet smile. He explains that he reads, that he has seen Indians on television, and doesn’t she at least have a headdress?

Jenny will live with us for about four years, her major duty being to help take care of the youngest, Bill. He is only three months. 

It was not uncommon in our neighborhood for families to have young Indian women from the Pine Ridge and Rose Bud Reservations working for them. I only learn much later that it’s a mixed blessing for these women, because in that time period, they are paid very little. Sadly, even rather “enlightened” families are eager to take advantage. As she becomes more comfortable with us, Jenny tells my mother that the family she previously worked for had her doing laundry, cooking and cleaning their entire home. And for this she was paid only fifteen dollars a month. Deciding she was done, Jenny packed her things, boarded a train to Ohio to visit her brother, a doctor with a wife and eight children.

But when my father dies, a good friend of our family, Jay Adler, arranges for Jenny to come back to Chicago and work for us. Jay has promised better wages. Yes, my mother will pay Jenny $15.00 a week.

Jenny folds Bill’s laundry, changes him, gives him a bottle, walks him in his buggy. Bill is as blonde as a shot of sunshine, Jenny as dusky as twilight. When people stop, admire her baby, they can’t help but remark that the baby’s father must be blonde. Jenny only smiles and says yes, he is.

But still angry at losing my father, and still very shy—it takes me a while. But when I am more comfortable, I let her hold me, and she talks to me about my dreams. We imagine. We build towers, castles and rose gardens. We make the princes come riding on their horses. Jenny is in her early twenties. Later, I will learn more about Indian reservations, her large family, their poverty, her eagerness to help herself, help her family.

The castles Jenny creates are real to me. The sound of her quivering voice forces these towers to break through piles of clouds. And though I am child and would not know—Jenny’s own dreams are rocky, like the hills of South Dakota.

Lovely and kind Jenny Mae is also intelligent and capable. Later she will leave us, use her long, graceful fingers to become a skilled dental hygienist. She will move to San Diego where she believes her dusky skin will be more accepted. There she will marry a man, Ken from Kentucky. They will have two children, a boy and a girl. But he will drink, call her names, leave her. Jenny will work hard to support her two children, take a bus and a train to come back and visit us, later die in her early fifties.

Back in Chicago, we will get this news, and my mother, always considerate and loving, will try to hold on to the threads of Jenny’s life, keeping in touch with her son and her daughter.

Post Script: We lived in a small community south of Chicago. It was through an acquaintance of my mother’s, a restaurant owner who had lots of “business dealings” going on, that we were able to invite Jenny into our home. Looking back, I smile. The restaurant business can be a tough one. His restaurant was bombed in the 60’s. But during all of this questionable stuff, this man had a large heart. He did much to help Native Americans.

Background Information from the Internet: About the Sicangu Sioux. Rosebud Reservation is home to Sicangu Sioux, one of the seven tribes of the Lakota nation. The Lakota were traditionally the ultimate representative of the Plains Indian culture, with organized bands, dependence on the buffalo for food, clothing, etc. and emphasis on warring and raiding.

Lakota, Dakota and Nakota speakers make up the Siouan language family, which inhabited over 100 million acres of what is now Minnesota, parts of Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century…The Lakota acquired horses around 1740 and shortly thereafter crossed the Missouri River. They arrived in the Black Hills area around 1775, and at about the same time they divided into seven tribes, one of which was the Sicangu. 

History of the Reservation. Under terms of the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1868, the Lakota were placed on one large reservation that encompassed parts of North and South Dakota and four other states. After defeating the Indian tribes in the Plains Wars of the 1870s, the United States confiscated 7.7 million acres of the Sioux’s sacred Black Hills and created several smaller reservations. The Sicangu were assigned to live on the Rosebud Reservation.

For the rest of her life, my mother did what she could to fund organizations that supported our Native American Communities.

 

Some of The Amazing People I Have Met

Some of The Amazing People I Have Met

We meet many people during our lives. There is often the iconic story of the teacher, doctor, employer who teaches, employs and cares for a young man or woman who goes on to become known in the world: the scientist who creates the polio vaccine; the political activist who becomes a state senator and then president of the United States; the gardener who loves plants and then becomes known for his gardening advice. The writer who wins the Pulitzer.

Every one of you has someone you worked with, met or taught—someone who has gone on to do great things. Maybe that person is you!

Today I’m sharing some of the amazing people I have met who still inspire me to this day.

THE BEGINNING

Born, raised, and completing my education in Chicago—there are hundreds of people during that time in my life who had great influence on me, who loved and encouraged me. Certainly, every member of my loving family. 

BUT WHAT PATHWAY TO TAKE

My biology teacher at Mundelein College saw something in me, called me into her office to underline that I should NOT major in English, become a teacher. I should immediately switch to the sciences, go into medicine. I didn’t listen.

But after teaching high school English at BLOOM TOWNSHIP HIGH SCHOOL (I loved my students) and having my children, I became fascinated with medicine and followed her advice, became a nurse. I worked in the maternity unit at MERCY HOSPITAL in Chicago, assisting pregnant women of all ages and backgrounds. Like teaching, this position opened my vision of life, stressed the importance of understanding all persons in our society.

LIVING IN IOWA EQUALS POLITICS

Then a few years later my husband accepted employment in Des Moines, Iowa—another adventure. Des Moines is the state capital, and because of Iowa’s first in the nation caucus, it is always the center of political activity. My husband and I couldn’t help but become more involved in politics. When HILLARY CLINTON ran, we were sitting in the Drake Dinner at 5:00 in the morning, watching her prepare for interviews on all major stations. We were friends with DR. ANDY McGUIRE, who ran for governor of Iowa, who has been head of the Iowa Democratic party and will always have political blood running in her veins. Through Andy, we met Hillary that morning, and I asked her how she did it all. She teared up. And for those reading who remember a similar episode, this was way before New Hampshire.

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA won the caucuses and I was able to shake his hand during a meet and greet in Des Moines. That’s a huge memory for me. But that event was also fortuitous, as the woman standing next to me was an RN at the Polk County Health Department in Des Moines. I had recently lost the amazing work I had done for Meredith Corporation in Des Moines—(think Better Homes & Gardens, Midwest Living, Country Home and many other amazing magazines), because the Meredith Books group had shut down. (Thanks to Terri Fredrickson who guided me through the years I proofread for her.) So I interviewed at the health department and was hired JUST AT THE TIME, — H1N1 was surging.

But because of my work at MEREDITH BOOKS, I had met JAMES WAGENVROOD, a writer from New York City, who became my mentor and dear friend. We actually wrote a book together that you would not think would be in my wheelhouse, MIANI INK, MARKED FOR GREATNESS. 

I also met and toured the garden of ELVIN McDONALD, gardener, writer, and lovely person. You might be familiar with his: A GARDEN MAKES A HOUSE A HOME. 

BOOK SIGNINGS 

The Des Moines Library (newly built in the re-emerging city center with a roof that originally was covered in grass, a salute to the green movement) hosted authors and there I met ELIZABETH BERG. She shook my hand and said I needed to get my novels out of the drawers where they were sitting. I’m still working on that project. She was charming, of course.  

THE IOWA WRTERS’ WORKSHOP

And speaking of writing, Iowa is the home of the University of Iowa, in Iowa City, famous for its creative writing program: The Iowa Writers’ Workshop. An easy drive down Route 80 and you’re there!

So get jealous now: I and twenty other writers spent a weekend with Pulitzer Prize winning ELIZABETH STROUT, known for her novels OLIVE KITTERIDGE, OLIVE AGAIN, AMY And ISABELLE, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON (and more). I’ve read ALL her work and encourage you to do so.

There were more wonderful teachers at Iowa: my friend and helpmate SUSAN CHEHAK who helped and encouraged me to publish my collection of short stories: A MOTHER’S TIME CAPSULE.

ONE FINAL and FUN STORY

Through Andy McGuire we met many people in Democratic politics: Governor Vilsack, former Vice President Mondale, Governor of Vermont Howard Dean—but the most memorable was meeting NANCY PELOSI.     

We were in Andy’s inviting house for a fundraiser for a House Representative. I was sitting in the back of the room. I have often found myself in the back of rooms, but when someone is speaking, I go back to my grade-school days—I look right at the speaker, focus on what she or he is saying. When Nancy finished, she became surrounded by people. My husband and I got up quietly and walked into the dining room. I was sure I had seen some chocolate cupcakes along with other goodies set out on Andy’s dining room table.

But then someone was tapping me on the back. I turned. It was Nancy Pelosi. She said, “I came over to meet you.”

Okay! Why? I guess Andy had suggested that she do so. As we chatted, John asked her, as only John would, “What is the most important thing in your life going on right now?” He was waiting for a political response, but Nancy answered: “My grandchildren.” We loved that.

The bottom line in sharing all of this with you is that I have been blessed. The people I have met in person and the people I continue to meet online and now in my new but old home of Chicago, are all important to me in so many ways. So thank you….AND, ANYONE READING THIS–YOU ARE ALL AMAZING, Beth 

Photo Credit   Citizenship Creations Stock.

HAMNET A Novel of the Plague

HAMNET A Novel of the Plague

WHY READ THIS NOVEL

Maggie O’Farrell could not have known that our spinning globe would be plagued by a virus starting in late 2019. It takes months, maybe years to research a novel like HAMNET, a novel that takes place in the 1500s. But how fortuitous, as her finished work bears the subtitle, A Novel of the Plague, and was published in July 2020.

This book is an artistic treasure,  a moving story, and I am reviewing it for you today, and urging you to read it.

O’Farrell dedicates the book TO WILL, which is her husband’s name, but she might also be dedicating this lyrical novel to William Shakespeare.

At the very beginning of the book, O’Farrell provides us with the following Historical Note:

In the 1580’s, a couple living on Henley Street, Stratford (this is Stratford upon Avon in England), had three children: Susanna, then Hamnet and Judith, who were twins. The boy, Hamnet, died in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the father wrote a play called Hamlet.

O’Farrell also quotes a source to let us know that: Hamnet and Hamlet are in fact the same name, entirely interchangeable in Stratford records in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

WHAT YOU WILL DISCOVER:

Shakespeare’s Family: We first meet the young boy Hamnet, his twin sister, Judith and older sister Susanna. Their father has already left to work in London and they have stayed behind, are living with their mother and paternal grandparents in a house in Stratford. Throughout the novel, their mother is referred to as Agnes, not Anne, because as the author explains: “…she was named by her father, Richard Hathaway, in his will, as “Agnes”—and thus O’Farrell chose to use that name.

All these choices help O’Farrell create a story that we wander into without pre-conceived notions. Those choices and her luminous prose cause you to sometimes find yourself lingering in a garden of words, other times reading as fast as you can because someone is dying and you are filled with hope that something can be done to stop that death.   

But even though this story is set way back in time, you are reading a tale that touches you within our modern age. People are people with their sorrows, loves and deaths. Thus, O’Farrell concludes the wedding ceremony that unites the brilliant future playwright with his chosen bride:

“They bow their heads in unison and the priest places linen over them, to protect them from demons, from the devil, from all that is bad and undesirable in the world.”

Agnes is in many ways considered a healer, a midwife, with the plants and roots that she grows.

“She fills the soil with chamomile and marigold, with hyssop and sage, borage and angelica, with wormwort and feverfew. She installs seven skeps at the furthest edge of the garden: on warm July days it is possible to hear the restless rumble of the bees from the house.”

THE PRESENCE OF THE PLAGUE 

In the middle of the novel, O’Farrell creates a startling chapter. It begins: “For the pestilence to reach Warwickshire, England in the summer of 1596, two events need to occur in the lives of two separate people, and then these people need to meet.”

Having done much research, O’Farrell goes on to present us with a glassmaker on the island of Murano in Venice who wants to get orders of his beads delivered to the town where the Shakespeare family lives. She then creates a cabin boy who leaves his ship while in dock, encounters a monkey and brings it on shipboard. That monkey encounters a rat etc.etc. Weaving this tale from port to port, underlines how the plague spread, until the beads from Venice are delivered to the Shakespeare home.

THE CONNECTION TO SHAKESPEARE’S PLAY 

As you read, you will discover, that it is the boy Hamnet, the stronger twin, who dies when the plague reaches Stratford. The following is a passage that you might well remember when folding your child’s laundry. It might make you consider the task a privilege, not a chore.

As the fabric runs through her fingers, as she puts each seam together, as she flaps out the creases in the air, her body remembers this task. It takes her back to the before. Folding his clothes, tending to them, breathing in his scent, she can almost persuade herself that he is still here, just about to get dressed, that he will walk through the door at any moment, asking, Where are my stockings, where is my shirt?

In her own life, O’Farrell is not unfamiliar with the threat of death having a child who can easily go into anaphylaxis. Writers take those terrifying experiences and create with them.

AND SO DID WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE 

Though this beautiful, compelling novel focusses on Agnes and her sorrow, it reveals that family loss also touches the great playwright.

...he finds himself looking out, every evening, over the watching crowd, in search of a particular face, a boy with a slightly crooked smile and a perpetually surprised expression; he scans the audience…because he cannot fathom that his son could just have gone; he must be somewhere; all he has to do is find him.

O’Farrell concludes, that the loss of a child can move so strongly within one’s soul and one’s body, that creation–whether it’s a garden or one of the greatest plays ever written–is the only way to power grief, to live with it. Thus the ghost in Hamlet says these final words” Remember me.” In reading HAMNET, you will find much to remember. 

Folktales, Real and Imagined

Folktales, Real and Imagined

I loved fairy tales when I was growing up. We had a collection that my mother read to us, though she was careful to choose the ones that wouldn’t scare us. But the true fairy tales were scary and I am sure each one of us can look back and find various tropes or events in these often wild tales that might have made it hard to fall asleep after one was read to us.

Of course there was Little Red Riding Hood, which research has pointed out has elements of a rape story, the red cape, the nasty wolf, the deep dark forest–and that the young girl went off the path to pick flowers. But why did her mother send her alone to Grandma’s house?

In Against Our Will, Susan Brownmiller supports the idea that this fairy tale is a description of rape.  However, many revisionist retellings choose to focus on empowerment, and depict Little Red Riding Hood or the grandmother successfully defending herself against the wolf. Which version did you encounter while growing up?

Maybe it was comforting to think that a thicket of roses could surround a castle and thus protect Sleeping Beauty. But I never wanted to be her, and I was sure I would never have touched that spindle, let alone hung out with the old crone up in the tower. (Fairly tales are always hard on women. Witches, crones. Evil queens. Sex again. The heroines are all virgins.)

I did have a favorite–I was in love with Snow White–her Disney-dark hair, her cape, and the elves were pretty cool. My mother was far from wicked, so the  Wicked Queen didn’t bother me much. AND I WAS ALWAYS INTO PRINCE CHARMING.

In an older post, I wrote about trying on Snow White’s costume as an adult, at Disneyland:

But as I stood looking at myself in the mirror, I wasn’t Snow White. The really powerful part was the memory, …that kid buried inside me would have leapt for joy if such a costume had been offered to her. But she did okay without it. I wore a white cotton dishtowel tied around my neck. It fell not so gracefully over my corduroys, tee-shirt, and saddle shoes. And in my mind I was dealing with the Wicked Queen and hanging out with the Seven Dwarfs. The image in the mirror was different then. The image was filtered through my amazing childhood imagination.

EXPOSURE TO READING: THINKING THINGS THROUGH  

But forgive me, okay, if I spent some time immersed in fairy tales. At least there were books in my house and I was reading, using my imagination. There have been comedy routines about fairy tales, that the women were passive, that all they needed was to snare the prince and spend all his money. IF YOU REMEMBER THE ROUTINE, please let me know. I can’t find it. But I did find this: THE PASSIVE LADIES OF DISNEY. 

HOW TO STOP A TORNADO  Folk tales??? This is a must read…

Maybe it’s only me, but I grew up hearing some things that were basically unbelievable. Not that I was a know-it-all, but my mother was real in her approach to life and danger.

But what about an approaching tornado in Chicago? The sky turning green, the trees bending? That did happen, though we were not carried away like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. But how do you deal with these frightening things?

A kind African American woman once told me she had a cure for tornadoes. “You just run outside with a butcher knife and slice at that old tornado.” Wow.

And that stayed with me for years. Especially living through some scares in Iowa. But when Google came along, I looked it up. More than once. NOTHING, until this past week, there it was:  

The cloud my father saw was enough to get his attention. It was what we would call today a “wall” cloud. It easily could have spawned tornadoes.

My father yelled to my grandma through the kitchen window where she was washing dishes. She looked up at the cloud from the window, then turned off the water, dried her hands and calmly walked to the door.

She was carrying the biggest butcher knife she owned.

Grandma moved to an open space and got down on her knees. It was beginning to rain at this point. She pointed that butcher knife straight up to the sky and said some words. My father said they sounded like they were from a different language, and perhaps they were.

Then, in an instant, she brought the knife slashing to the ground.

My father looked down at her then he looked up at the cloud where the most astonishing thing was happening.

The cloud was splitting right over them and not just a tiny amount, either, but a full-blown cut. No tornadoes came at them that day; they didn’t even get more than a few sprinkles of rain.

Until the day he died, my father insisted my grandma used that butcher knife to “cut” the clouds.

Thanks for reading. And please share any family “tales” or “myths” — they define us. We are story tellers. 

Nada Meeks   FINE ART AMERICA.

Waiting for the Night Song

Waiting for the Night Song

Truth hides in fissures and hollows, in broken places and empty parts. It can be buried, crushed, or burnt, but the truth will always rise.

These opening lines of Julie Carrick Dalton’s first novel promises the reader much, as she delivers a story that fulfills those promises. It’s a novel that takes you places that might be in your memory… the stolen yellow rowboat, the meandering lake. The two young girls in that rowboat picking blueberries, trying to discover things about a boy high up on a cliff. It’s a world where your best childhood dreams of danger, disobeying and taking risks come to life on the page.

In its opening, Waiting for the Night Song brings the reader to the mountains of New Hampshire where Cadence Kessler: Outlaw Entomologist, better known as Cadie, is examining the flora and fauna near Mount Steady. She is searching for evidence that a black beetle is killing the trees on the mountain side, thus creating combustible kindling in the already parched region—the areas future condemned to forest fires.

“The pea-sized creatures were killing off trees, leaving them as kindling in the parched woodlands. She stroked the delicate destruction with her finger. The beetles’ telltale blue fungus, the color of the autumn sky before sunset, stained the wood. The color meant death to the pine.” And thus we fall under the spell of Dalton’s writing, for in many ways this is a novel that is true to science, Dalton, a writer, an advocate for the environment has definitely done her homework.

The meat of the novel’s plot begins when Cadie gets a text from her closest and dearest friend, Daniela, her partner in the yellow rowboat, the vessel for all her secrets and longings. The text reads: They are questioning my dad.

Cadie must climb down her mountain, rush to help her oldest friend as this is Cadie, loyal, competent, eager for adventure, but holding within her a childhood secret she hopes she will never have to face.

At the novel’s beginning, we see the future Outlaw Entomologist being formed by the push and pull of her choices: should she follow rules or ignore them; should she push ahead with all her dreams and imagined plans or pull back. Rarely sharing exploits with her parents, she is the girl-hero, steady and sure of her choices, charging ahead with her big heart and her often impetuous decisions. She actually hits a bear with her car, and is still able to arrive on time to an important meeting about the black beetle. In real life, maybe. 

Cadie is a female Huck Finn, an eternal friend with a huge heart and eager mind who pulls you in. She’s a rule follower, her own rules —risking much to discover things about that boy at the top of the cliff; what his story is; and—after being pulled into a task she doesn’t want to be a part of, an eternal secret keeper: who will never reveal to anyone about burying the body. Cadie is young, scared. She keeps her mouth shut, hoping she can spare the lives and the futures of others.

As the story builds, Carrick Dalton not only brings the reader into the world of environmental worries, global warming, but also the world of undocumented workers—another reason Carrick Dalton has created this character: Cadie again being, the Outlaw Entomologist. 

But she is also the epitome of the best friend, she and Daniela creating the Poachers Code, an eternal bond that sets the stage for more adventures to come.  

1. Keep one foot in the water. 2. Never take all the blueberries. 3.Don’t kill bugs. 4. No witnesses. 5. Be kind to people who eat our berries. 6. No evidence. 7. Don’t throw a rock if you can’t see the target. 8. Lake water heals anything. 9. No matches in the woods. 10. Never tell.

If you think this is child stuff, it is, but it is also the platform for future events that will challenge lives, friendships and the trust we place in one another. The beauty of the Poachers Code is that Carrick Dalton’s story, her unwinding plot, tests and advances every aspect of the code. Grown-up Cadie falls in love with Garret, the boy at the top of the cliff, requiring that everything she believes about him will be tested. So will the plot, as it careens into one challenge after another, some attempts to tidy all story lines feeling forced and overwritten.

But the true beauty of the story lies in the friendships of Cadie and Daniela–and the author even tells us that Cadie carries a copy of Huck Finn in her backpack, where she sometimes presses leaves she has gathered. Yes! Those passages are the beating heart of the novel, allowing us to wander through the childhood of the two girls. Yes there has to be danger and dramas, even Huck Finn dealt with that. But as a story teller, this is where Carrick Dalton’s talent lies–probably emanating from her own experiences on lakes and mountains, her love of nature and the secrets that it holds. The challenge of writing about the future of our forests and that of undocumented peoples in our country is a big one. This novel has focussed on aspects of both, requiring story lines that twist and turn, at one point, causing Cadie to become super-human, dealing with a ripped leg, then getting stitches with no pain meds, but that’s okay, because Cadie is immediately off to save someone else. 

The heart of this novel is its portrayal of a friendship, one that began in a yellow rowboat, two young girls off to pick blueberries in a place that must be theirs, as life is wide open, the sun is shining and when you have a Huck Finn heart, everything is an adventure. The novel might wish for every reader a friendship like that of Cadie and Daniela–I had one. I hope you did too. 

Thanks to Net Galley for a preview of this novel. And thanks to Julie. I had the privilege of reading part of her novel very early in its development. Thanks, Writer Friend. 

 

We’ve Tried To Create Rainbows Before…

We've Tried To Create Rainbows Before...

We’ve tried to create rainbows before. But the powers that be are the powers that stomp out such ideas and their prejudices are still raging. In some sectors. Like the attack on the Capitol.

But there are also those who find other ways. But they take time, and they take being aware. And we are all guilty of not being aware.

Then there are headlines like this one: A GRIM PAST WE’RE STILL LIVING WITH.

This two weeks ago in the Chicago Tribune. Yes, we are still living with it. And it’s quietly personal to me.

FRED HAMPTON AND MARK CLARK 

A piece, by Michael Philipps in the Chicago Tribune, refers to another film coming out concerning the deaths of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

Phillips calls this new film a “leap and a bound ahead of the recent Netflix production ‘Trial of the Chicago Seven’”. He even calls the first film a speechifying fraud. (Wow, Aaron Sorkin must not be happy about that, as he wrote the script for the first film.) 

But where am I going with this…The new film is “Judas and the Black Messiah.” It deals with the death of Fred Hampton and also focuses on the FBI informant William O’Neal, a one time petty thief, who using his prejudice as a motor, became head of Hampton’s Black Panther security. Thus he could provide intelligence as to where Hampton was staying that led to the FBI breaking into Hampton’s apartment and killing him.

The article provides the history: “On December 6, 1969, 14 plainclothes CPD officers fired more than 90 times on Hampton and other Black Panther Party members. Two died, first Mark Clark, who was on guard that night, then Hampton.”

ME and LACY M. 

Searching Google, the day of the murder was a Saturday. So I am uncertain what day the Pep Rally was to be held the following week at Bloom Township High School.

I was a freshman English teacher, wet behind the ears. I mean I was innocent to a fault, though I had done my student teaching in an integrated Chicago school, one of the finest—Lane Tech. I was openhearted and eager, doing my best with my students. But I was truly inexperienced.

Each morning, students wandered into my third floor classroom for Home Room. This was a time for announcements over the PA system and for students to hand in signed report cards—general things, not related to their individual classes.

Lacy M. (will never forget his full name, but for privacy concerns won’t include it here) sat five seats back in the first row, by the door. He was tall, Black, quiet. That morning I don’t remember if I noticed the Black glove he was wearing on his left hand.

The assistant principal came on the PA for announcements which included reminding all students that the Pep Rally would be held in the gym at second hour. I don’t remember if that was my preparation period, meaning I didn’t meet with students, or if my second class arrived and we then immediately made our way to the large gymnasium on the first floor of the building.

AND THEN…

What I do remember and will never forget, it that Lacy M. walked over to my desk at the end of homeroom period, leaned over and said, “Don’t go to the Pep Rally.” That was all he said, and then he left.

Truly, Lacy hardly knew me. I mean, it was December. He had been in my classroom for maybe 20 minutes each morning, since September. I wasn’t his teacher. I was just some young woman trying to teach English to high school juniors. I did have three preparations (teacher talk for 3 different presentations to be given each day) so I was busy. I don’t remember how I responded to Lacy. But he was looking out for me. 

The second hour Pep Rally went as planned until the very end when Black students moved down from the bleachers and began throwing anything that wasn’t nailed down.

THE RIOT

It’s all vague in my memory, because we had two of these episodes during my teaching years, and they flow together. They were definitely riots, because chairs and desks were thrown, windows were broken, I was told to go into a classroom that wasn’t mine, where students were huddled. Another time the principal grabbed a student who was coming into the library to do me harm. I was okay. I had to give a deposition.

WE DID OUR BEST, BUT WAS IT ENOUGH ?

I write this, because it’s so clear as to why these events were happening. But to enable students to still go to class, and keep things calm, the school went to a split schedule—half the students attending from 8-noon; the other half from 1-5. There were police on campus. We got through it, made it work. Things calmed down. Curriculum was changed. I mean, these were good things. We needed to dust off some of our old ways. Stop teaching plays or novels that as another student once told me “Has nothin to do with my life.” And that changed. A combination of the classics and new authors of color provide a diversified and immediate curriculum that students WANT to take part in.

FINAL THOUGHTS 

In a recent interview in TIME MAGAZINE Inaugural Poet Amanda Gorman talked to Michelle Obama. Gorman: Poetry and language are often at the heartbeat of movement for change. If we look to Black Lives Matter protests, you see banners that say: THEY BURIED US, BUT THEY DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE SEEDS.

I still wonder about Lacy M, and how his life proceeded. He did good by me.

For more information: Judas and the Black Messiah 3 and ½ stars. A Grim Past We’re Still Living With by Michael Phillips  Chicago Tribune, Feb. 7, 2021

Artwork: WESTWAYS Spring 2021

THE KINDEST LIE

THE KINDEST LIE

The Kindest Lie is written with love, yet you feel the undertow of sorrow and regret. Amazing.

 

 

It’s Black History month and Nancy Johnson’s debut novel, THE KINDEST LIE, has just hit bookstores, gifting us with an evocative and emotional story.

Ruth Tuttle inhabits an unsettled world before and after Obama, a world of struggle and success–a world where family love is sometimes misguided and often based on secrets. An engineering degree from Yale has transported Ruth from the small Indiana town of Ganton, where she was raised, to the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. The novel begins on a special night–Ruth and her husband Xavier have gathered friends to await the results of the 2007 presidential election. When Obama wins, there is joy in the room, the future now seemingly boundless.

“Her whole life, Ruth hadn’t dared to believe this could happen, and she almost forgot to breathe. A picture of the little house in Ganton came to mind…Mama at the kitchen table counting money on the first of the month. Papa’s body quivering underneath his plant uniform as he tried to walk straight in the early days of his illness…To get here, to this moment. To this man with the funny name. To this day in history.”

But their joy that night sparks in Xavier an amazing idea: if they had a child, now it might be possible for that child to become president. Ruth immediatly pushes back, asking: “Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself?” knowing if this is truly what Xavier wants, her life will change, she being forced to face her past in Ganton, to remember Ronald Atkins.

They met in high school, Atkins, a white football player, Ruth’s mouth becoming dry, just speaking his name. A story, eleven years past its due date, Johnson writes: “Ruth thought back to when she was seventeen, with Mama and her brother Eli looking down on her half-naked body in the bed, their faces tight with worry, urging her to push.”

And then in those powerful moments of Obama winning, Ruth surrounded by her successful husband, her smart and successful Black friends, she questions if she has truly ever left Ganton, left Mama, the grandmother who raised her after Ruth’s own mother left, seeking drugs, shrugging off responsibility, knowing that Mama would step up, would always be there rescuing family, even naming Ruth and her brother Eli.

Johnson writes: Ruth: one syllable, old school and biblical. A name that Ruth’s grandmother said would at least get her to the interview.

But though smart, farsighted and an indomitable Black woman, Mama cannot protect Ruth from every aspect of life, from Ronald Atkins, from the physical power of teenage sex, when this white football player tells a young innocent Black girl, “I see you,” Ruth becoming fired with desire because, “Everyone saw him.”

But as the “little knot of unripe fruit” grew, “everything felt like walking on the edge of a cliff.” Johnson knows how to fill in the background, these two burdened lovers dancing to “killing me softly” which in retrospect is exactly what Ronald Atkins did to Ruth. 

Johnson has created in Ruth, a character who epitomizes a woman who has found a new pathway and turned away from her past. But when that past rises, Ruth must know everything, make Mama tell her: who she gave her son to, where he is now living, how his life has been without her. Back in Ganton, a town suffering from a dying economy of closed plants, workers out of work, Ruth comes face to face with the poverty affecting people of all colors and stations. Searching for her son, she encounters a white boy of a similar age, named Midnight, encounters the loss, anger and futility that can affect children, no matter what color they are.  

Johnson has created real people, brought us into their kitchens to watch them cook wonderful foods, into a beauty salon to hear of their joys and sorrows, their complaints concerning how to raise a child, keep a business going. Though it’s the holidays, there is poverty at Christmas, at New Years, where weather holds people inside to once again find joy in friendship and the lights of a small Christmas tree. Johnson’s real people. We see it all, their weaknesses and strengths. We experience their honesty and their hidden lies, not only in reference to their own lives–where they live, how they live, how they struggle–but also in how they reveal their pride in Ruth and what she has accomplished. As Eli, her brother reminds her, “Nope, one baby don’t put you at ho status…” Certainly KIND and also honest.

 

Joan Didion and Me…

Joan Didion and Me...

 

I faithfully read Time Magazine and the last page interview. This week Lucy Feldman interviewed writer & journalist Joan Didion. I became a fan when Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking after her husband died. I then read essay collections and other works—she a word crafter, convinced of her own ideas. Ms. Didion is now in her 90s. Maybe that’s why her answers were, well, terse. Could I do any better? Here are a few attempts.

How are you feeling in these trying times?

Joan: I feel fine. Slightly bored, but fine.

Beth: I’m eager to get my hair cut, see my grandchildren. But I’ll follow the rules no matter what.

You once said that an experience with vertigo and nausea you had in 1968 was an appropriate response to what was happening in that period. What’s an appropriate response for 2020?

Joan: Vertigo and nausea sound right.

Beth: Quiet rage, but a gradual feeling of relief when the year finally ended ie on Jan. 20th.

You wrote two defining books on grief, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. What would you say to the millions who have lost loved ones this year?

Joan: I don’t know. I don’t know that there is anything to say.

Beth: These are difficult times and loss cuts deeply. Mourning loved ones is necessary and you have a right to go through all the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But I would hope that those who have lost someone have a partner to talk to—either in person or regularly through the phone or video chat. We need each other.

Do you have hope?

Joan: Hope for what? Not particularly, no.

Beth: Of course. I don’t think you can get out of bed missing someone or mourning someone or looking at a time when you can’t do the things you love and not have a glimmer of hope—we all have to have hope.

Which feels more like home: New York or California?

Joan: Both.

Beth: I would have to alter the question to Chicago or California. After recently living in the latter for seven years, yet having been born and raised in Chicago, I would have to say I have come HOME. But there is always adjustment. Today, we have over ten inches of snow. So you could say that does require an adjustment, but I made my first snowball in seven years! This snow is “GREAT FOR PACKING!”

What do you make of the old adage, write what you know?

Joan: I don’t make anything of it.

Beth: It’s a great stepping off place, especially writing fiction. You have to KNOW something about the PLACE in the story. People mirror where they live: neighbors, public places like schools, churches. I don’t think I could write about NYC, but I can write about Chicago.

Do you ever reread your past writing? If so, what do you think?

Joan: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I think something is well done, sometimes I think, Woops.

Beth: Ditto.

Is there anything you wish to achieve that you have not?

Joan: Figuring out how to work my television.

Beth: Ditto.

What are you looking most forward to in 2021?

Joan: An Easter party, if it can be given.

Beth: Everything—getting the vaccine, shopping, trips to be with my family. Blessings.

PS These are not all the questions Joan was asked, but the ones I felt pertinent to my post. Thanks for reading.