Thursday, September 28

Small town II

 

Small towns are miserable places when they let the bullies take control. The bullies are unhappy and yearn for everyone to feel the same. The bullies in The River We Remember by William Kent Krueger openly despise a Japanese immigrant, Native Americans and other minorities. “People who make other people unhappy are generally pretty unhappy themselves,” one character observes. But the opposite holds true, too, that happy people spread happiness.

The characters of Jewel, Minnesota – imperfect like so many people – keep past transgressions a secret. Many of those characters walk along a quiet stretch of the Alabaster River to reflect – the setting for more than one death. That river, tinted brown by day, glows white under the moon, and for one of the narrators, the river is like an old friend. 

Lying is often only way protect privacy in small towns. Sheriff Brody Dern invents an out-of-town girlfriend to hide a long-time love affair and keep townspeople from talking. Of course, one lie is never enough, “One lie to kill another,” Brody concedes, understanding that his life is nothing but "a rickety framework of lies.”

Set in 1958, many of the male characters have returned from fighting in World War II and Korea. A young boy asks one veteran about killing and the newspaper editor tries to explain. “In the end, a soldier kills because all the circumstances of a moment drive him to it. It isn’t for freedom or God or for the people back home. It’s because he has no choice but to kill. And in that moment, he’s not thinking of it as a good thing or a bad thing…. And in all that mess , the only thing he wants is for it to end and for him to be alive to see that end.” 

Some characters lie for the same reason, to stop questions and survive never-ending scrutiny and incomprehension. 

The boy understands the man was trying to communicate a "truth that was essential … of what it was to be a man, to be a soldier,” and he responds politely. But the editor “knew he’d failed in what he’d tried desperately and sincerely to pass down to the boy.” 

Most of the imperfect characters find peace though years later they continue to ask what if and wonder why their lives constantly seemed to point in one direction over which they had little control. Some experiences influence a life forever, even for characters who leave town, as suggested by Kent Krueger's beautiful text: “Our lives and the lives of those we love merge to create a river whose current carries us forward from our beginning to our end. Because we are only one part of the whole, the river each of us remembers is different, and there are many versions of the stores we tell about the past. In all of them there is truth, and in all of them a good deal of innocent misremembering.” 

Sharing truth about past transgressions with loved ones can soften memories and reduce shame, allowing individuals to push forward and appreciate that their past is behind them.   

Monday, September 25

Small town I

 

Seven people happen to be in Lindbergh’ s Pharmacy on the evening of June 24 in the small college town of Athens, Georgia, when a would-be mass shooter with a grudge plans to strike. Former elementary teacher Tina Lamm, beloved by her students, claims that her secret to being a terrific teacher was “always remembering that, at the end of the day, they’re someone else’s problem. You do the best you can, you care of them, you try to educate them, you try to help them, but when the bell rings, you hand them off to someone else…” She treats them like “temporary amusements,” knowing “they’re ultimately on their own like the rest of us.”

The Time Has Come by Will Leitch describes a community confronting the Covid pandemic, climate change, inequality and divided politics. Tina admits she is disturbed. “How can you look around at everything and not be disturbed…. To be disturbed is to be human.”  She reflects on small-town life: “The thing about this little town is that everybody knows everybody, and if you’ve been one of those everybodies longer than people like us have been nobodies, you can get away with whatever you want.”

Tina is wrong though and the novel describes a diverse set of characters who do pull together:  the drugstore’s owner, a judge’s widow, a lawyer who is also an activist for youth, a nurse who is also an army veteran, a local contractor and his gifted son – and an aging music fan who tends bar at an Athens club.

 Only a few characters lack regrets, and some are more engaging than others.

David, the character with the least potential, has the most intriguing story. The middle-aged man has devoted his life to an Athens music club, tending bar and long recognizing that “everyone was right in his face, all of them drunk, mocking him with their perfect youth and their whole lives in front of them, constantly reminding him that everything he was doing was wrong and probably always had been.” His substance abuse prompts his wife to leave with their young daughter and that eventually prompts sobriety. “Part of recovery is understanding that, that you’re just another helpless addict like everybody else. One of the first things you have to do… was recognize that there’s nothing special about you.”

During the pandemic, David helps other addicts with an online group – and one of the most hopeless and belligerent members drives hundreds of miles seeking David’s help. David also revives and treasures his relationship with his daughter, an aspiring musician with a “clear rock-star energy that David knew all too well. That she wanted to talk to him didn’t make him feel like a good dad. Honestly? It just made him fee sort of cool.”

Jason, a contractor and proud parent to a gifted teen, is Republican and often argues with his more liberal son. He concedes that even in a small town, people can generally be unfeeling. “The hardest thing about being a parent, in Jason’s view, was that your children weren’t nearly as special, as protected, as you thought they were…. to you, they were everything. But to the rest of they world, they are just another lump of flesh – one more tick on the tote board, one more person you’re stuck behind in traffic…. If he ever lost any of them, he would crumple into a heap on the floor and never get up. But the rest of the world wouldn’t do anything. Everyone would just walk around like nothing had happened.”

Daphne, the nurse who is also army veteran, has returned to hospital work after five years in the service. The country has changed in those five years, especially with politics representing a bigger part of daily life: “when she got back, out of nowhere, people were screaming whatever their political views were in your face at every opportunity. An they were screaming at you for not screaming yours.”

People were angry, carrying concealed weapons, and “everyone was just on the edge of losing it, all the time.” Daphne is determined to do her small part to restore order in her world, “keep everything in front of her safe, if the person in her care could be better than they had been when they’d come in that room with her.” And perhaps “bring the world back to what it was before.”

The book captures the angry despair of our era with a light touch. Kindness, understanding, listening, cooperation – a rare moment of strangers coming together to achieve understanding – prevents tragedy from compounding and spiraling out of control.

Thursday, September 21

The ever-present past












In Beyond That, The Sea by Laura Spence-Ash, Londoners Reg and Millie Thompson disagree but ultimately decide to protect their daughter at the start of WWII, sending Beatrix to live with a family they do not know. The mother is less sure about this plan, sending the teen to the United States. and the couple frequently argues. Beatrix feels a distance: “I stopped being a child on the day war was declared,” she thinks. “And you both disappeared even as you stayed by my side.”  

The novel follows the connections between two families - the choices, mistakes, dreams and regrets. From all appearances, the Gregory family enjoys a comfortable life in the Boston suburbs with long summers on their own island in Maine, a home Nancy inherited from her wealthy parents. The father teaches at a private school, and the family lives on campus. Nancy always longed for a daughter and embraces Bea as her own, buying her new clothes, praising her schoolwork and anticipating every concern. There is no jealousy, and Bea gets along well with the two Gregory sons, William who is a year older and Gerald a year younger. This family relishes the guest, truly caring about her opinions, and the two boys compete for her attention. 

Maine in summer is one of the world’s gentle places with routines as steady as the waves beating against the shore. As war rages, the three children feel guilty about their good fortune, and each contributes to the war effort in small ways. Bea, the best student of all, understands her family cannot afford college. She especially feels guilty about her parents’ proximity to the war and also not missing her parents more as she falls in love with a new family and way of life that allows freedom and access to the natural world. Her guilt intensifies after her father dies in 1943, and the two boys respond in contrasting ways. Gerald asks what she thinks happens after death: “Do you believe in that stuff from church, about heaven and hell and all that? Or is it just over. Is your dad just gone?” At another point, William overhears her talking with her father in a local cemetery and, blunt like his father, retorts, “He’s not there…. He’s dead.” William, blunt and opinionated like the father with whom he clashes, long regrets his impulse to hurt. 

With war underway, the teenagers are uncertain about a benevolent God and struggle to accept religious teachings. Gerald confides he wants to believe and imagine Bea reuniting with her father. Likewise, he confides that all he wants in life is to return to the island summer after summer and be buried there. Bea understands. “To think that she could have lived her whole life and never seen this island. This place that feels like home.”

The war ends before the males are called to serve. Bea returns to London where she takes up work as a child care provider, remaining upset that her mother remarried before her return and restless about the limitations for her in Britain. She worries about William squandering potential as his letters switch from excitement over classes to parties and bars. After college, while William is in France, his father dies – severe wound for the entire Gregory family. Returning for the funeral, William takes a detour to London to visit Bea and admits that he has a pregnant finance. The two revive their romance, a feeble attempt to revive memories of idyllic childhood, and Bea’s mother arrives home early from a trip, interrupting the couple’s final hours together. During the brief encounter, Bea recognizes how neither fully understands the other’s goals or state of mind, and she muses “how difficult it is to know someone’s past.” And perhaps William could not understand because “she had let her past slip away. She had instead, become part of his world, of the Gregory world.”

Bea sees only a few hints of the William she once knew, admitting that she is at odds, too. “My favorite place? Maine. My favorite food? Your mother’s muffins. And yet here I am. This is my home…. I belong here and yet I’m in limbo, really, caught between two worlds. I can’t seem to find where I fit.” 

By his mid-thirties, Will finds himself stuck in a deadening job and a loveless marriage. He drinks to excess, wandering around beaches and dance clubs, watching others and wanting to warn them: “Enjoy this, he wanted to say. Try to stay in the moment. He wished he could be one of them, to still be in the place where everything seemed possible.” William, having lost all purpose, knows that an idyllic childhood does not guarantee happiness. 

Bea senses William’s darkness from correspondence. “He never said anything, specifically, but under and between the words, she could feel his uneasiness. Not unhappiness, per se, but a feeling that nothing was quite aligned. That the life he’d wanted, the one he’d expected, had failed to appear. It was as though that fire that had once been in his belly – his desire to be in the world – had somehow been extinguished. She wondered whether he’d ever been truly happy.”

William and the rest of the family remain a constant puzzle for Bea. “I just wanted – we all just wanted – you to be happy,” she says out loud, talking up to the blue sky.  Why is that difficult for so many people to achieve?”  

The novel’s chapters are brief – each told from the point of view of one of the parents, children or spouses but most often Bea and William – most ending with characters reaching new insight. Bea visits New York again seventeen years later, yet avoids reaching out to the Gregorys. That following Christmas, she sends gifts to the family and the clerk asks if she has family the States. “No, she starts to say and then changes her mind. Yes, she says, Yes, I do.” 

Millie, long jealous of Bea’s attachment to the Gregorys, accompanied her daughter to New York and gradually begins to understand the attraction. “There was something being there in America, that made Nancy come alive to Millie in a way she never had before. Her openness was a classic American trait, one that Millie had never quite believed. And yet here they were, all these Americans, being loud and friendly and willing to talk to you about almost anything.” Millie admits to admiring Nancy and admits that, had the tables been turned with war in the States, she could not have embraced a stranger’s child as her own. 

Millie and Bea slowly forgive each other with weekly walks in the park. “There’s something to be said for talking while walking. You don’t have to look at the person. You can keep your eyes on the path, on your shoes, on the landscape. And somehow that means that more gets said.” 

After William’s death, Bea attends his funeral and reconnects with Gerald. Nancy observes them together and thinks about how strange it must be for them without William. “Those summers in Maine, those few sweet summers when the three of them were thick as thieves. Those days that passed by far too quickly and that she can only remember snippets of now. The three of them, racing out to the dock, King following behind. Picking blueberries in the hills. Camping out in the woods. Late at night, the world quiet around them, the lights from the house reflecting in the dark sea. Oh, why can’t time be stopped in those moments. Why is it so hard to understand how fleeting it all is?” Desperate to connect with the past, she feels the “need to scramble back in time, to pull up old memories, to regret words, to re-create moments.” 

After finding love with a third husband, Millie feels secure enough to release Bea, and the newlyweds encourage Bea to attend William’s funeral. Bea confides that the Quincy house is “the place that feels like my home” and Gerald asks her to stay, to truly make it her home. Holding his hand, Bea responds, “Let’s take a walk, she says. Let’s take a walk.” 

William’s untimely death along with an incomplete tale from Bea – some might call it a lie, others would argue that the entire past need not be exposed – end the ruthless competition between two brothers. Gerald and Bea marry and repurchase the island home in Maine, presiding over another stretch of perfect summers with Nancy, their child and William’s children. It may be distressing to ponder whether we are each at our purest, our finest, during childhood. Still, this exquisite book on family relations has a happy ending, as Bea lovingly, naturally resumes the matriarch role for the next generation of Gregorys. 

Tuesday, September 12

Trust





















Yellowface by R.F. Kuang is a provocative examination of race relations and career ambitions in the publishing industry that lead to ruthless competition, lying and cheating. More outrageous than humorous, the book garners extra attention by focusing on the publishing industry. 

Athena is a successful author and her former classmate and longtime acquaintance June Hayward is not. Athena is Asian American; June is not. A few years after graduation, the two have a rare get-together when Athena suddenly chokes to death and June does little to save her. June pockets the sole draft of Athena’s latest novel, does extensive revisions and sells it as her own, adopting her mother’s maiden name. “This is what I love most about writing – it offers us endless opportunities to reinvent ourselves, and the stories we tell about ourselves.” Juniper Song becomes the “good friend” who was with Athena during her final moments. “The best way to hide a lie is in plain sight…. I’ve never made a secret of my relationship to Athena… I play up our connections. I mention her name in every interview. My grief over her death becomes a cornerstone of my origin story.” 

 A white woman writing about an obscure part of Chinese history prompts the editing team to worry “cultural authenticity” and getting “ahead of any potential blowups.” June is abrasive about questions and suggestions for a sensitivity review: “Are you saying we’ll get in trouble because I wrote this story and I’m white?” The editor responds, “Of course, anyone should be able to tell any kind of story. We’re just thinking about how to position you so that readers trust the work.” 

 The book is wildly successful and June insists she never lied. “I never pretended to be Chinese or make up life experiences that I didn’t have. It’s not fraud, what we’re doing. We’re just suggesting the right credentials, so that readers take me and my story seriously, so that nobody refuses to pick up my work because of some outdated preconceptions about who can write what. And if anyone makes assumptions, or connects the dots the wrong way, doesn’t that say far more about them than me?” June trusts no one, recalling a philosophy student whom she once dated arguing that the living owe nothing to the dead. “Especially when the dead are thieves and liars, too.” 

 The author cleverly critiques the publishing industry by speaking through a manipulative protagonist: “author efforts have nothing to do with a book’s success. Bestsellers are chosen. Nothing you do matters. You just get the enjoy the perks along the way.” Still, June finds herself missing writing before meeting Athena and making it her career: “suddenly writing is a matter of professional jealousies, obscure marketing budgets, and advances that don’t measure up to those of your peers.” Personality takes priority over content: “You, not your writing, become the product – your looks, your wit, your quippy clapbacks and factional alignments with online beefs that no one the real work [cares] about.”

The industry and readers force writers into narrow genres and roles, “And once you’re writing for the market, it doesn’t matter what stories are burning inside you. It matters what audiences want to see, and no one cares about the inner musings of a plain, straight white girl from Philly. They want new and exotic, the diverse, and if I want to stay afloat, that’s what I have to give them.” 

 Huang also relies on June to criticize ethnic authors who transmit stories that belong to ancestors. Athena once pointed out once that she was ethically troubled by telling stories lived through by her parents and grandparents, worried about “exploiting their pain for my profit” – but not enough to find her own stories: “I remain aware that I can only do this because I am the privileged, lucky generation. I have the indulgence to look back, to be a storyteller.” 

Early on while in school, June relished her friendship with Athena. “For it was so nice to know someone who understood this exact dream, who knew how mere words can become sentences can become a completed masterpiece, how that masterpiece can rocket you into a wholly unrecognizable world where you have everything – a world you wrote for yourself.” But the friendship deteriorates. While freshmen at Yale, Athena turns a confidential conversation about a sexual encounter into a short story. Years later, June observes Athena chat up an American POW from the Korean War at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History – and is blunt with her assessment. “There’s no need to dress it up. We are all vultures and some of us – and I mean Athena, here – are simply better at finding the juiciest morsels of a story, at tripping through bone and gristle to the tender bleeding heart and putting all the gore on display.” Even Athena’s former boyfriend notes, “as time went on all I could think was that she was mining me, using me as fodder.” 

Writers are so hell-bent on keeping up with publishers’ demands that many forget to live life. June frets that she lacks an original voice, capable of only presenting others’ tales. Readers turn pages in horror, waiting for her to get caught – but she is slippery and manages to reinvent herself time and time again, desperate to avoid the mundane lives of her mother and accountant sister: “Living their little and self-contained lives, with no great projects or prospects to propel them from one chapter to the next.” She later admits, “I want my words to last forever, I want to be eternal, permanent; when I’m gone, I want to leave behind a mountain of pages that scream, Juniper Song was here and she told us what was on her mind.” 

The goal is petty, echoing the publishing industry’s embrace of social media and expectations for authors to endlessly build a presence, nurturing popularity and connections with readers. As June points out, “your time in the spotlight never lasts. I’ve seen people who were massive bestsellers not even six years ago, sitting alone and forgotten at neglected signing tables while lines stretched around the corner for their younger, hotter peers…. The rest of us have to keep racing along the hamster wheel of relevance.” 

Unfortunately, social media’s ability to lift or ruin reputations, the pathetic neediness of users, has become a tired literary trope, making these chapters drag. 

In the end, June sets out to write a memoir. “I will craft, and sell, a story about how the pressures of publishing have made it impossible for white and nonwhite authors alike to succeed. About how Athena’s success was entirely manufactured, how she was only ever a token. About how my hoax – because let’s frame it as a hoax, not a theft – was really a way to expose the rotten foundations of the entire industry. About how I am the hero, in the end.” And she hopes that some reviewer might ask, What if we got it all wrong? and, What if Juniper Song is right? 

Juniper Song is a product of the publishing industry, and both have squandered all trust.

In 2014, I wrote more about the publishing industry and readers imposing rigid "purity tests" on storytelling that explores other cultures. 

Friday, September 1

Battles at home

Only the Beautiful, by Susan Meissner, begins in 1938 with Roseanne Maras, a caretaker’s daughter at a Sonoma Valley vineyard who sees colors upon hearing sounds. The condition distracts her at school, and her parents urge her to keep it a secret and eventually allow her to leave school early. Years later, she recalls “A dim memory of my father praying at my bedside when I was little…. He pleaded for a miraculous favor…. For the colors to leave his daughter. He was afraid for me. People will always distrust what they don’t understand. And what they distrust, they cannot love.”

After her parents die in an accident, the owners of the vineyard become guardians, keeping the 16-year-old on as a maid, and the family’s son remembers their childhood and her descriptions of the colors. She becomes pregnant and though she denies seeing colors, the guardians send her to a state home, where she is stripped of all possessions, including an amaryllis bulb that was a gift from the sister of her child’s father. Helen works as a governess for a family in Vienna with a disabled child and regrets her failure to recognize the depths of Nazi evils at the start of World War II and the inability to rescue her charge from the Nazis. The child dies soon afterward, and Helen devotes herself to rescuing and delivering other disabled children to Switzerland.

In California, an escape attempt by Roseanne fails, and soon after delivery, her infant is sent to an orphanage to await adoption. Roseanne is then sterilized by doctors who worry about her condition being hereditary, and she must wait until age 19 for release to a group home. Upon leaving, she softly tells the nurse, “It’s not right what you’re doing here…. I know you’re probably going to say what do I know about what is best for people, but I had to say this before I left.”

She settles in at the group home and finds work at a hotel, where she meets a neurologist who identifies her condition as synesthesia.

The narration resumes with Helen who returns to Vienna at the close of World War II and learns that the father of her young disabled charged arranged for his daughter's mercy killing to avoid experimentation and institutionalization. The father, a Nazi officer himself, argues that “Power like that can’t be stopped,” but Helen disagrees. “Of course it can…. It was stopped when the rest of the world finally said, ‘No more. But we waited too long.”

Helen returns to California and starts asking questions about Roseanne, a child she once befriended, challenging her sister-in-law, the vineyard’s owner, later the doctor who sterilized young women. “But how do you know her life was miserable…. What gives you the right to judge whose life has value and whose doesn’t as if you were–“ The doctor finishes for her: “As if I were God?” He goes onto defend himself to a woman who observed Nazi atrocities first-hand: “I’ve heard that before from people like you who haven’t seen what I’ve seen.”

The doctor refuses to divulge information about Roseanne, but his son who lived on the premises at the time and originally alerted security to the inmate's attempted escape, provides details about the placement.

Helen learns that she is the child’s biological aunt, confronting the doctor and others that, though single herself, she should have been given the chance to adopt the baby. Those involved with Roseanne's case justify their actions by suggesting that they had far more work than time. When leads result in dead ends, Helen does not give up and does find Amaryllis, Roseanne's child, later becoming an activist, speaking out at churches and civic clubs about mistreatment of the disabled including forced sterilization: “I realized I had a story to share about the disabled children of Austria, and at the end of my tale was the perfect entrĂ©e to telling people what was happening right here in California….”

A publisher invites Helen to write a book about her experience, which leads to finding Roseanne and reconnecting the small family.

The novel, like Helen's activism, demonstrates the parallels between the Nazi quest for their version of a perfect population with US medical goals of reducing disabilities through sterilization and poverty associated with young unwed mothers. The historical research is solid, and the characters' circumstances ring true. But Roseanne and Helen - sensible, practical, motivated, generally unflappable and cooperative when confronting horrific injustice and bad luck - are idealized protagonists, almost too good to be true. Such choices perhaps make the story more bearable for readers.

The novel's acknowledgement points out that more than 20,000 people were sterilized in California between 1909 and 1964, one third of all the sterilizations nationwide.

"Eugenic laws in 32 states empowered government officials in public health, social work and state institutions to render people they deemed 'unfit' infertile, explain Nicole L. Novak and Natalie Lira for The Conversation. "California led the nation in this effort at social engineering." The magazine also reports that such programs also targeted specific ethnic groups. 

Tuesday, August 8

Protection












South Boston prepares for school busing in summer 1974, the setting for Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane. The neighborhood is poor, tight and corrupt, the racism constant and overt. Protagonist Mary Pat, middle-aged and tough, finds money for cigarettes and beer, but struggles to pay the utility bills. Her first husband died and the second one left home after finding work at Harvard University’s mailroom. With access to one of the finest libraries in the world, he devours books and develops new interests. He parts by noting, “Your hate embarrasses me.” 

Mary Pat gets it, describing herself as “happiest when she’s opposed, most ecstatic when she’s been wronged.  But she also insists the neighborhood’s anger about busing is not simply about race. “She’d be just as angry if they told her she has to send her kid across the city to Revere or the North End or someplace mostly … Just another case of the rich … in their suburban castles (in their all-white towns) telling the poor people stuck in the city how things are going to be.” At times, she even surprises herself by feeling some kinship with Boston’s black residents. “As a project rat herself, Mary Pat knows all too well what happens when the suspicion that you aren’t good enough gets desperately rebuilt into the conviction that the rest of the world is wrong about you. And if they’re wrong about you, then they’re probably wrong about everything else.” She rails about inequality. “They’re poor because there’s limited amount of good luck in this world, and they’ve never been given any.... There are way more people in the world than there is luck, so you’re either in the right place at the right time at the very second luck shows up, for once and nevermore. Or you aren’t.” 

Mary Pat is not lucky. She has already lost a son to a drug overdose and frets about a pretty, gentle daughter, hoping that Jules will find a somewhat better life, if similar to Mary Pat's.  

The book begins with Mary Pat grilling the quiet teenager after the two enjoy a rare good moment shopping for school supplies. Both are restless, worried about the changes busing will bring. “Change, for those who don’t have a say in it, feels like a pretty word for death,” Mary Pat muses. “Death to what you want, death to whatever plans you’d been making, death to the life you’ve always known.” Jules wonders about not feeling the way others around her do: “You just, you know, you ever have the feeling that things are supposed to be one way but they’re not? And you don’t know why because you’ve never known like anything but what you see?” 

The conversation is their last. The daughter does not come home that night and Mary Pat storms the neighborhood with questions, impatient with platitudes offered by family and friends: “G’bless… It is what it is and Whatta ya gonna do. Phrases that provide comfort by removing the speaker’s power. Phrases that say it’s all up to someone else, you’re blameless. Blameless, sure, but powerless, too.” She reflects on her own role in her daughter’s choices. While questioning a niece, Mary Pat notices the girl is no longer aware and joyful and confident. “What takes that from them? Mary Pat wonders. Is it us?”

Mary Pat soon discovers that she did not know her daughter or the neighborhood all that well. Jules was last seen with a group of friends on a train platform where a young black man is found dead on the tracks. Mary Pat detests Jules’ boyfriend who “thinks he’s kind of smart, and the ones who are like that grow mean when the world laughs at them.”  But Jules' predicament is far worse, as the young man merely served as cover for a secret relationship with a ruthless neighborhood power-broker. 

Neighbors and friends resist Mary Pat's questions. All her life, she relied on the Southie code, neighbors watching out for one another. But she realizes the code really meant protection for the neighborhood hierarchy of corruption and the ease of casting blame on outsiders. Angry, with no one to trust, Mary Pat confronts her own racism, the insistence that “We’re not the same. We’re just not.”  Suddenly, the divisive hatred seems so pointless. “She sits there, overcome suddenly with a fresh horror of the self. Her daughter is dead. Auggie Williamson is dead, the lives of several teenagers on the platform that night are ruined, and her mind grasps with grubby desperation for ways to feel superior to them.” 

She shares her anguish and doubt with police investigator Michael “Bobby” Coyne, a recovering alcoholic. “When you’re a kid and they start in with all the lies, they never tell you they’re lies. They just tell you this is what it is. Whether they’re talking about Santa Claus or God or marriage or what you can or can’t make of yourself…. you can’t trust them…. And they tell you that’s the Way.” And a child thinks, “I want to be part of the Way. I sure don’t want to be outside the Way. I gotta live with these people my whole life.” Home is warm and the outside world is cold. “And then you dig in because now you got kids and you want them to feel warm.” Mary Pat continues, “And you spread the same lies to them, mainline them into their blood. Until they become the kinda people who can chase some poor boy into a train station and bash his head in with a rock.” 

Mary Pat blames herself, suggesting the children recognize the lies at a young age. "But you keep repeating the lies until you wear them down. That’s the worst of it – you wear them down until you scoop all the good out of their hearts and replace it with poison.” At the book's end, Coyne points to a hard reality – parents cannot protect their children. All they can do is consistently model and pass along values and methods for making decisions while keeping baser emotions in check and hateful people at a distance. “I can do what I can, teach you as much as I know. But if I’m not there when the world comes to take its bite – and even if I am – there’s no guarantee I can stop it.  I can love you. I can support you, but I can’t keep you safe.”

Small Mercies is a masterpiece, terse and compelling, from an author driven to expose racism's sources and motivations much as Mary Pat longs to understand the reasons behind the deaths of her two children.

Thursday, August 3

Resilience











A child can develop resilience despite domestic violence, neglect and abandonment, poverty and inequality.

In Hang the Moon by Jeannette Walls, Sallie Kincaid is born into a comfortable life in a small, early 20th century Virginia town that is run by her father, known as the Duke, and his sheriff brother-in-law. Soon after her mother dies, the Duke marries a woman who resents Sallie, especially after she has a son who prefers music and education to fishing, hunting, risk-taking and rough-housing.  

Tough and matter-of-fact, never bitter, Sallie adores her father and accepts that he wants a strong son to resume control of the family business – a general store that organizes county moonshine sales. After the death of her mother, the Duke's second wife, all Sallie wants is to be part of a tight family. So she respects and gets along with her half-brother, Eddie. She follows her father’s orders to mentor Eddie on toughness, and the two have a wagon accident that nearly kills him. Her father sends Sallie away to live with her mother’s sister, providing minimal support. The child assumes the move is temporary, helping her aunt scrub wash to get by. 

Education is an afterthought in the poor community, though a teacher takes a liking to the intelligent girl and relies on her to help with younger students and offering advice that Sallie remembers years later: “teachers don’t know everything, but as long as they stay a step ahead of the students, the students think they do.”

The father sends for Sallie a decade later after the stepmother’s death. Teenaged Sallie is resourceful and loyal, but the father envisions one path for girls, and that is marriage. He expects her to tutor the brother, but Eddie knows far more than she does. She takes advantage of his lessons, but also worries about his values, once asking, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, is it always smart to let everyone know it?” The boy replies, “Absolutely. Nothing is more important than the truth.”  

The father marries a third time. Eddie adores the new stepmother and a baseball player friend, and Sallie longs for a “paycheck job,” one where she showed up, worked the hours, and collected a paycheck, allowing her to send money to her struggling aunt. Sallie convinces her father to let the stepmother tutor the brother and make Sallie wheelman – collecting payments from the many land tenants. 

As an adult, Sallie learns her father kept many secrets. A black tenant is another half-brother. Her aunt resorted to prostitution after losing the wash business and is mother of half-sister/cousin, a long-time servant. Her father shot her mother after a domestic dispute.  

After the Duke’s death, the stepmother quickly remarries the baseball player and agrees that Sallie invite the maternal aunt, a “fallen woman,” into the family home. Eddie and the Duke’s sister protest, and Sadie argues for forgiveness. “People who’ve never gone without find it easy to pass judgment on those who’ve struggled.” 

The Duke’s sister and her sheriff husband take control of the business, battling with the stepmother, regarded as an outsider, for guardianship over Eddie. The aunt makes the stepmother’s life unbearable, prompting the woman to flee and Eddie to commit suicide. 

Next, an older half-sister and preacher husband take control of the family business, insisting on enforcing Prohibition rules and hiring a ruthless security officer to end moonshine production. Profits plummet and tenants become desperate, testing Sallie’s conscience as wheelman. “It’s when the boss asks you to do something you know to be wrong and you do it anyways. That sort of work whittles away at the soul.” 

The sister dies of cancer and Sallie takes control of a failing enterprise, remembering old lessons as she struggles to learn who to trust. She recalls trying to save up for a gun when leaving with her impoverished aunt and a schoolmate offering to let her help his family harvest and sell chestnuts for six cents a basket. “The frost had knocked the nuts out of the trees and the ground was thick with them. Mr. Webb told us we had to make haste, seeing as how bear, deer, boar, and people would all be fighting over these chestnuts and in a couple of days they’d be gone.“ She needs thirty-four large baskets to buy the gun, but comes up a bit short.

Sallie visits the family to collect her share, fulling expecting them to avoid payment. The quiet, stern man advises that the price of chestnuts was not what he had expected, with a blight killing off trees to the north and chestnuts in short supply. The shortage means chestnut prices went up, and he pays her seven cents per basket. “Some folks say they hate to be proved wrong, but I was never happier to be mistaken.” 

Based on such experiences – at times, the novel reads as though a series of short stories – Sallie develops her own moral code, running the illegal business but discouraging lies, corruption and long-time disputes. She is quick to forgive and move on, and that policy applies to the paternal aunt who long made life difficult for Sallie, her mother and her aunt. Sallie leads the family and tenants on producing and running moonshine into nearby Roanoke. “Outlaw. Rumrunner. Bootlegger. Blockader. I don’t for one second forget that what we are doing is illegal, but legal and illegal and right and wrong don’t always line up. Ask a former slave.” She adds: “Sometimes the so-called law is nothing but the haves telling the have-nots to stay in their place.”  

She maintains the operation doesn’t involve stealing or coercion. “Just helping out the people of Claiborne County who through no fault of their own are in an awful bind. Obey the law and starve. Or break the law and eat. Not a lot to ponder there.”  

For Sallie, family is sacred, and she realizes her father “whose approval I so craved” did not feel the same. The Duke “loved being loved, but he never truly loved anyone back. He took what he wanted from people, then once he got it, cast them aside.” 

The historical novel is bittersweet, optimistic and certainly idealistic about bootlegging and a woman running a business in the 1920s. Sallie succeeds by embracing all members of her family and community, wayward in so many ways, as long as they get along and work to love and protect the whole.