Are Names Important?

Being part of a writing group has increased my interest in the importance of names and how they fit a character–or not. Irma or Jezebel? Caleb or Timothy?

When our son Paul was about six months old, his sister Elizabeth asked me a simple question that I’ve never been able to answer. Watching her baby brother as he gazed at us and attempted his best to communicate with sweet, inarticulate coos, she asked “Mama, why do people have names that look like their faces?”

I can’t remember what I told her. I mean, really, what is the answer? Some parents name their children after movie stars, famous athletes, and characters in books. Others stick with family names while still others resort to biblical names, perhaps hoping the child will have some attributes of Peter, James, or John. My paternal grandfather’s first name was Abram, and I’ve often wondered why his mother chose that name instead of Abraham, the name God later gave him, the name that means “father of many nations.” To my knowledge, no one before or since (in the family) bears the name Abram. So why?

Back to Elizabeth’s question, although I still don’t have a  definitive answer, I know that people and their names often fit. Not always, but often. It could be because they grow into their monikers after hearing stories of ancestors from parents or teasing from others about the uniqueness of names like Arcadia and Rowan or the ordinariness of Jane or John. Do people become plain Janes and honest Abes?

In a prior post, I mentioned another story I read in Racing Home, an anthology by award-winning North Carolina writers. After reading “Namesake,” a delightful story by Anne C. Barnhill, I’ve pondered the significance of one’s moniker. Edwina, the protagonist in the story, finds herself considering “the sounds in a name, the power you call up when you declare a thing.” Yes, I thought. That’s it exactly.

Comparing herself to others, “An Edwina couldn’t be as dramatic as that. An Edwina would be a spinster and all that word implies. Nothing could grow on an Edwina, except thoughts, barbed jealousies of all the Clarissas and Juliannas that swirled across the ballroom floor while Edwina stands over the punch bowl and feigns fascination with sherbet.”

Edwina, actually Edwina Jane, likes her name and decides she must refuse a marriage proposal from Jack. How could she marry a man who called her Edie? “Any man who could sway me the way he had, who could think of me as ‘Edie’—such a man was dangerous.”

Poor Jack. For a time, Edwina had found him suitable company. In fact, upon first learning his name, “my heart pumped quickly. It was a fast name, one that promised advent true, maybe even danger. One bet and it was over—a single syllable you could spit out in anger or gasp in passion.”  But Jack’s last name was Applewhite, “a name as common as chicken feed.” Edwina’s was Carruthers.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the time and attention and thought that goes into deciding on a character’s name. Merilee or Merdedith? Dorothy or Deidre? Brett or Brian? Does it really matter? Yes. At twelve, I began spelling my name with a “y” to combat the Plain Jane connotation. Jane became Jayne, and surprisingly neither of my parents objected although I had been named after two great grandmothers.

What’s in a name? Do they define us? Do we grow into them?

 

 

Posted in anthologies, books, short stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Nothing Lasts

Lucky me. Because of a project I’ve been working on, I was forced to read several short stories in some literary journals. Okay, that’s not completely accurate. I looked at the journals to become more familiar with various style sets, fonts, and well, layouts in general. Before I realized it, I was reading the stories, thus prolonging my “education” and immensely adding to my enjoyment. Within fifteen minutes, plots and settings overtook margins and headings.

Time prohibits a discussion of every story I read, so after great deliberation, I’m spotlighting  wee bits of two. Both came from a North Carolina award winning anthology, Racing Home. Confession: while reading these stories, I realized that I might as well give up. I will never be able to write fiction like these fabulous writers. Still, I can admire the way they use words to conjure up emotions, tell universal truths, develop plots, and describe settings.

In one story, Getting What You Wish For by Kathryn Etters Lovatt, I found myself smackdab in the middle of an emergency waiting room with three people waiting to see Shelton—husband, brother-in-law, and uncle. Having been there, done that recently, I was amazed at how the writer was able to incorporate the sounds and images of such an experience. The three “sat like stones under the evening news, talking in spurts….They listened as the Coke machine on the far wall swallowed coins, listed to cups dropping, sometimes not dropping, the spray of drink in the cup or down the drain, sprinkles of ice.” Yes,I thought. That’s exactly how it is!

As they wait in the “black coffee hours of real night,” the three reminisce and tell stories, all wondering why no one has come to talk to them about the patient. Hours later, the doctor delivers some grim news, and the two sisters and teenaged Benny visit the patient who’s in a room on the fourth floor, the floor where there’s no waiting room. “Fourth floor was the nut ward, everybody in town knew that.”

Priscilla, sister-in-law to the patient, and her son leave the hospital, walking toward the car in a beautifully described scene…moon, trees, pole lights, dogwoods trying to flower…

Here’s my favorite part, the part the whole story has been leading up to, the words I’ve always known and have recently been spouting off to anyone who will listen. Benny is waiting for his mother to tell him a story and has asked for the bad news first.

“His mother leaned against the car, looking beyond the great beyond, the night written all over her face.”

“Nothing lasts,” she told him, her voice brimming with apology.

“Nothing lasts?” He stalled, committing the image of her at that moment, pale and groggy, full of secrets she would never tell, to memory. “Okay,” he said “So is that your good news, too—nothing lasts?”

Everything changes—the good and the bad and the blah. Nothing lasts. If life is good, savor it. Enjoy the red velvet cake, dance with your sweetheart(s), go ahead and cry with happiness at the sound of a flute, memorize faces and features of those you love, turn your face to the gentle breeze. If life is bad and sad, it won’t be ever thus. Sooner or later, storms pass; it’s nature’s way.

I’m decent at nonfiction and a novice, a kindergartner at conveying messages like nothing lasts in fiction. Seriously, I’m a two on a scale of ten…but I’m willing to learn. And I’m thankful to have such good models to follow. Tomorrow or Wednesday, I’ll write a little about the other writer/story referenced in the beginning.

Posted in anthologies, books, Uncategorized, writing, writing fiction | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Penelope’s Ghost

 

I’ve never been much of a fiction writer. The truth: I’ve never been a fiction writer at all.

But then something happened after I became part of a writing group. Everyone else wrote short stories, novels, poems, and music. They all had such vivid imaginations and could create characters, settings, and dialogues in their minds while driving a car or listening to a sermon. I wasn’t envious, just in awe. I wanted to be like them.

I’m learning.

Recently I’ve come to know a woman who has a ghost living in her house. She’s not “real,” at least not in the physical sense. She (Penelope) is a fictitious character created by a member of my writing group. Since the first time I was introduced to Penelope, she’s developed a likeable, realistic persona. Or should I say, my writer friend has developed it for her.

At one time, Penelope was a successful retiree who had been spooked by a ghost living upstairs in a home she’d just purchased. Since then, the location of the haunted house has changed, and I’ve met several of Penelope’s family members…and I don’t just mean that I’ve learned their names. I’ve learned about some of their quirks, looks, and history. I’ve also learned about their relationships and the often tenuous ties that bind.

Many of my writer friend’s family members have ghosts living in their houses, too—including her. It’s inevitable, she insists, when people live in old homes. Most of the invisible inhabitants are friendly, that is to say they mind their own business and don’t create havoc or scare humans. They do make noise though, mostly by moving things around. And sometimes they might create a little mischief by overturning paint cans or scaring away unwanted guests.

In critiquing the writer’s work, members asked a lot of questions and then offered suggestions about how to make her good story even better. How long had Penelope been living there? Why had the ghost just recently begun to act in such a contrary way? Was the ghost female or male? What did the ghost want? Was there some unresolved business that needed to be taken care of before it left?

Here’s something I learned early on upon joining the group. Even in fiction, facts are important. Get them straight/right. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The United States has an individualistic culture; Japan favors collectivism. Juneau, not Anchorage, is the capital of Alaska. This ghost talked, but group members agreed that was unusual. They might talk, though not in a conversational way. And they never eat. Why would they?

What? They were talking about Penelope as if she and her ghost were real. Are there ghosts? Some say a deceased person’s energy goes into environment, but so far no ghost hunting detecting devices have detected any “bodily energy” that survives after death.

When I doubted the reality of spirits or presences, my writer friend said, “Don’t tell that to my mother. This ghost lived upstairs in her house.”

“Her house? I thought this was Penelope’s house.”

Seven pairs of eyes looked at me, all communicating something vital: Penelope’s ghost and house were fictions based on facts. The writer’s mother’s ghost provided the seed for Penelope’s character and dilemma

“Ooooo, I see.” And after a moment, “How do you guys do that? How do you create people and who seem real?”

They all spoke up and offered a little something for me to mull over. Observe life. Watch others and see how they move and dress and how they interact with each other. Pick up story ideas from the newspaper—or from Facebook. In addition to reading more fiction, actually study it to discover how the author uses words to set scenes, describe people, or evoke emotions. “Got it,” I said, still amazed at their creative gifts yet feeling a little less ignorant.

This afternoon I’m thinking maybe scientists could prove the existence of ghosts, ghouls, and spirits if they had more sophisticated ghost-busting methods.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in reading, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writers, writing, writing fiction, writing groups | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Yesterday’s Sun is Set

IMG_8588

A few weeks ago, a friend asked me to share the title of a favorite novel for seven days and to nominate someone else to do the same. Fun, I thought. But then I realized the assignment wasn’t quite as much fun or as easy as I’d originally thought. How could I choose just seven? Still, I accepted his challenge and came up with a few dozen books—and then narrowed them down to seven: Ramona, The Road, Lila, Scarlet Sister Mary, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, State of Wonder, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Unless I get involved in another project, my intent is to share a little something about each book, something that makes each memorable.

Back in the 1980s, I was at a meeting with some English professors at Coastal Carolina University, and an unfamiliar term kept surfacing: DWEM. Curious about the term but not comfortable enough to admit my ignorance, I was glad when a colleague asked for me. Someone replied, “Oh, that’s our acronym for Dead White European Male (or of European heritage). We’ve come to realize that we’ve been neglectful of writers like Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and Amy Tan and a little heavy with Dickens, Hawthorne, and Steinbeck.”

It as an Aha moment for me. I had sensed a shift in literature by men and women of different ethnicities and races, and after that night I embraced the change with great anticipation. The next afternoon found me in the Conway Library browsing for non-DWEM authors, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was at the first one I found.

Although I read the fictionalized autobiography over thirty years ago, I still recall the deep sadness I felt when learning of the injustice, abandonment, racism, and sexual abuse. I no longer possess the book, but I’m 99 percent certain that this volume, the first of seven, is the one describing the indignity she and her grandmother endured when the local white dentist refused to treat little Maya for a toothache. As I recall, he said he’d rather put his hand into the mouth of a rabid dog than the mouth of a black child. T

If Caged Bird woke me up to injustice, Scarlet Sister Mary gave me a view of plantation life in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.Written by Julia Peterkin in 1928, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel  focuses on the lives of slaves on Peterkin’s plantation, especially Mary. While Peterkin was a Caucasian, her characters are not.

It’s not my intent to review the book but rather to say how masterful Peterkin is in using the dialect of the Gullah people and in portraying their emotions, wisdom, and behavior. About the dialect, here is part of a conversation between Mary and Maum Hannah, the woman who raised her. The conversation is about July, Mary’s husband who has left her and their baby, Unex, for another woman.

“Gawd laid a heavy hand on you, fo-true, gal, but you better be careful. E might knock you harder next time. Gawd is a strange Gawd. You better pray to Him instead o fretting so hard fo July. ‘Stead of looking down, you better look up. Git out and work. Sweat some evy day. It’ll help you to shed a lot o misery.”

The next day Budda Ben, Maum Hannah’s crippled son, comes to talk to Mary about the same thing and begins his message with, “I come to talk some stiff words, gal.” I loved that line right away and often use it to preface difficult conversations with my children. Stiff words–the perfect description of how to converse with someone who needs a reality check.

Mary wants to die and tells him so, but Budda Ben is hearing none of that. He tells her there “ain’ no use to be a-trying to die.We got to stay here till our time is out.”

There’s a lot more to their somewhat one-sided conversation, but here’s my favorite piece of advice from Budda Ben. He might have been a famous psychologist if the time and location had been different.

“You hold up you head, gal, an’ quit a-draggin you feet. Fo Gawd’s sake wash you face an’ wrap you hair nice an’ put on a clean dress an’ apron. Yesterday’s sun is set, Si May-e. Last year’s rain is dry. It’s better to let old sorrows sleep an’ think on what’s a-coming to-morrow. Plenty o to-morrows is ahead of you. Plenty of good to-morrows too, if you listen at what I’m a-tellin you.”

Scarlet Sister Mary is too rich and vibrant a book to do it justice in this blog. It’s a story about love, community, grief, heartache, disappointment, disillusionment, sadness, jealousy, and a myriad of other emotions. The characters are Gullah people who live on a plantation, and yet their trials and triumphs are like those of people everywhere.

Both books touched my psyche and expanded my awareness in ways that  mountains of sociological and psychological material never will. The sociocultural element is apparent in both books, and so are the strong traits of perseverance, determination, and courage.

 

Posted in books, novels, racism, Uncategorized, writers | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Little Moments

What have you been writing lately? Are you working on anything? Those are questions I hear frequently. I’m always writing something, even if it’s a gratitude list, some journal entries, a blog post, or a reply to a student’s discussion post. But then, there are times that I get more involved with something, a project that consumes my time and thinking.

In my last post I wrote about some advice shared in my writing group a couple of weeks ago. The gist of it came from Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks, and my writer friend who shared the information encouraged all of us to take moments each day and record them later. Moments can be turned into stories, or they might simply have gotten your attention because of an inherent lesson.

After hearing this advice, I ordered the book and have been jotting down key words to help me recall memories later. The author suggests creating an Excel sheet with the date and a few key words. I tried this but soon fell off the bandwagon. It’s easier for me to journal about events than to store them in Excel. The point is to get them down.

For the past week, I’ve been diligently working on a booklet (14 pages) titled Reflections. In it are seventy things I’ve learned from living almost seventy years (gulp) and many of the items on the list have a moment I’ve experienced beside them.

Here are two:

#24. Education is the ticket for a better life. This is true not only in terms of more job choices but also in exposure to ideas and people you might never have known.

As I’m writing this, I’m remembering one day a couple of decades or more ago when I stood washing my hands in a restroom at HGTC (Horry-Georgetown Technical College). One of my former students rushed in and excitedly began  to tell me that because of a new program we had begun at the college (Early Childhood Education), she was at last going to make her dream of becoming a teacher come true.

I reached behind her to grab a paper towel, and as I dried my hands, I explained that the program was a two-year one. It was a good thing, yes, but it would not quality her to be an elementary school teacher. She’d need to transfer to CCU (Coastal Carolina University) after graduation and  then take the PRAXIS to make that happen.

Her reaction was a combination of anger, distrust, and disappointment when she said, “That’s can’t be true! And if it is, I’m not doing it. That’ll take forever!” Decades later, I still remember that moment and wonder what happened to her and to others unwilling to go the distance.

#40. Suffer the children to come unto you. You can learn a lot from little ones. One evening I was dining with Paul and Amanda and their children, and as Olivia and Ethan told us about their busy day at school, three-year-old Amelia sat quietly listening. She then said she had a booboo on her tummy.

image

“Really?” I asked. In reply, she pulled up her shirt and showed me her belly button and gave me a look that dared me to call her out on it. When I asked her how it happened, she said she fell down on the ground and hurt her tummy. I can’t remember my reply, probably something like, “Oh my goodness!” I know that little children have vivid imaginations and are trying to figure things out. I also know that they too want to be noticed and included.

It’s mind boggling to consider how many moments we all have, moments that are lost forever unless we take the time to jot them down. What’s a moment you could share that occurred today?

 

 

Posted in Camden Writers, critique groups, journal writing, nonfiction, story telling, Uncategorized, writing, writing projects, writing tips | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moments

A couple of weeks ago, we stopped in a delightful little town on our way to Yellowstone National Park, Livingston, Montana. From the moment the Gate 1 Travel tour bus turned down that wide main street, I sat at attention. Everything looked so fresh, so clean and brand new. It could have been the early morning hour, or it could have been the train depot or the mountain vista. Whatever the reason, Livingston cast a spell on us, and we tumbled out of the bus, our minds set on soaking up the ambience of the area.

Following the lead of others in our merry band of travelers, we went to the Conoco station to get sandwiches and chips for a noon picnic in the park. While there, we were treated to a happy and quite animated dance by one of the employees. It was her birthday, and when her favorite tune came on the radio, she announced that since it was her birthday, it was okay to dance. What could we do except agree? Her joie de vivre set the tone for the rest of the day, and we were all smiles as we sauntered out to the sidewalk.

We saw others in our group coming out of a coffee shop with beverages, bagels, and cookies and decided we needed monster cookies for our picnic. Once inside, I passed on the oatmeal raisin cookie and opted for a Zinga bar. When I asked about the ingredients, the smiling employee slipping it into a bag laughed and said, “I really don’t know. A little bit of everything, I think—mangoes for sure.”

Once outside, we saw some youngish women wearing athleisure getting set up at a table to the right of the front door. As we walked by, they were getting themselves and their goodies situated, and their camaraderie added to our delight. Wouldn’t it be nice to have friends and a place to meet and share treats and conversation in the beautiful outdoors?

Fast forward to last Thursday’s writing group meeting.

At the meeting, a member shared some information about a book titled Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks. Since his comments were directed at something I had submitted for critique, I listened carefully and knew this information was something I could use and pass on to others. To me, the major takeaway was to take note of moments each day and record them later. Yes, I know that sounds obvious, but there’s more.

Writer, teacher, and speaker, Dicks found himself concentrating on the BIG moments of his life like getting robbed at gunpoint or having a near death experience, but he soon realized that he needed new material. He also realized that most people can’t identify with getting  robbed, but they can identify with small moments that end up being meaningful in some way.

Dicks’ advice is to take a few minutes at the end of each day and jot down at least one moment that you want to remember. Later, a moment can be developed into a story, or several such moments could be fleshed out into something larger.

Just write the moments, making sure they’re your moments. Can you see a theme emerging? A lesson?

During the critique meeting at Books on Broad, I kept noticing some women sitting outside at a table near the front door. Until my writer friend shared the “moments advice” from Matthew Dicks, my observance of the conversation between the woman had been casual, something done in a peripheral, distanced kind of way. Suddenly, the moments came together.

I don’t have to be in Livingston, Montana to enjoy meeting with friends. There are no mountain views here, but there are lots of trees and lush greenness. There are outside places to dine, too. And who knows? Passersby could actually cruise by and think What a good time those people are having.

My lesson from remembering the Livingston moment and noticing the Camden one? To paraphrase Kathy Mattea’s song, I’ve been standing knee-deep in a river dying of thirst.

Think of some recent moments in your life. Is there a theme? A lesson?

Posted in books on writing, Camden Writers, critique groups, inspiration, stories, story telling, Uncategorized, writing critiques, writing groups | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Afraid of the Dark?

One Sunday night twenty years ago, my mother and I were talking on the phone when she said, “Your father wants to talk to you. Says it’s important.”

“Sure,” I said, wondering what to expect. While many of my friends had chatty, talkative, and interactive dads, I did not. Mine was quiet, detached, and observant—very observant. He had his finger on the pulse, so to speak, of every member of the family and knew their idiosyncrasies, needs, fears, proclivities, and favorite foods. BUT, he wasn’t much of a talker.

During our Sunday night chats, always at 6:00 sharp, my mother would say, “Your father this or your father that,” when filling me in on the details of their lives, and after our conversation ended, she would convey the news from my corner of the world to him. To have him ask to speak to me that evening was rare. Nonetheless, in a couple of seconds I heard his voice saying, “Hello Honey.” My sister Ann and I were always Honey, and both of my brothers were Son.

We didn’t talk long, but the gist of the conversation was that he was concerned that I didn’t know enough about that complicated thing called life. And the closer he approached three score and ten, he thought it was well-nigh time to correct matters. Although I don’t recall him listing specific worries, I think they could all probably fit under:

  • Do you know where to go to find peace?
  • Do you know how to navigate the waters of contention, betrayal, and disillusionment?
  • Are you brave enough for whatever’s ahead for you?

It was a strange but amazing conversation, strange because we’d never talked so directly and openly about these topics and amazing because although I was caught off guard, I felt perfectly at ease. I loved responding with these words (paraphrase): “You don’t have to worry about me, Daddy. You and Mama have given all of us enough love and confidence and know-how to tackle whatever’s ahead. And no, I don’t know the answers to everything (who does, right?), but I’ve always known the importance of asking, looking, pondering, and praying.”

I don’t know whether my mini-speech satisfied him, but he handed the phone back to Mama, hopefully secure that I’d be just fine. And most of the time I am. Whenever I have doubts, experience the doldrums, or feel darkness, I know how to find the light.

A few weeks ago, I read and reviewed Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet. While there are so many positive things I could say about it, this evening I’m sharing something she wrote about children being afraid of the dark. If only it were simple enough to get them a nightlight! But it isn’t. She even admitted that she was afraid of the dark, especially when one thinks about the things darkness connotes, things like evil, cruelty, and uncertainty. She’s afraid of “the shadows of another kind of dark, the darkness of nothingness, of hate, of evil.” Are you?

How can we help children get over their fear of darkness? L’Engle asks. How can we help adults? Books can serve as candles; so can music and friendship. And although she doesn’t specially spell it out for her readers, so can love. Whether spoken in those three little words or expressed by acts of kindness, queries about health and well-being, or questions from a usually reticent father, love brings light.

How do you deal with darkness, your own or that of others? A friend who feels special compassion for children says, “You know, all little children want someone to hold their hand.” I agree. And I think adults want the same thing.

https://www.amazon.com/gp/profile/amzn1.account.AGYHMKSBOIWRHRTYZ3RVPQVBQ5LA/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_pdp?ie=UTF8

Posted in books, children, light, love, reading, Uncategorized, words | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Circle of Quiet

art artistic blank page book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Yesterday I finally got around to posting a review of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet on Amazon. A lovely book of reflections on the author’s life experiences, opinions, and beliefs, it had me at this sentence found near the beginning of the book: “Some of our children talk about going back to the garden; we can’t do that; but we can travel in the direction which will lead us to that place where we may find out who we really are.”

Yes.

And then there’s this: “Sometimes the obvious is so obscured by brilliant analysis that it gets lost.” Haven’t we all felt that after reading or listening to a particularly esoteric passage or lecture? Not as eloquent as L’Engle, my thoughts at such times are more in line with the KISS formula, Keep It Simple Sweetheart. Her writing is clear, yet profound, and I found myself thinking Yes dozens and dozens of times throughout the book.

Below is yesterday’s review.

A writer friend gave me this book with the words, “I love her voice, her story, and the way she thinks things out.” I can truthfully and enthusiastically add, “Me too!” While the author describes life in a small town and shares everyday snippets of family life, L’Engle does much, much more. Her reflections on family, child rearing, aging, marriage, religion, language, writing, God, and hubris are interesting—and universal in many ways. I say “in many ways” because women in many parts of the world probably don’t have the luxury to ponder many such topics. They’re focused on survival.

L’Engle’s musings resounded with me, for I have often thought the same thoughts and wondered the same things: What is charity? Why are children afraid of the dark? Why are adults afraid of the same thing? Is the pursuit of happiness the same thing as the pursuit of pleasure? What is the responsibility of the writer? How can one balance the precarious triangle of wife-mother-writer? What can we give a child that will stay with him (or her) when there is nothing left?

In short, this is a book that I won’t be lending to anyone or donating to a thrift shop. Because of the author’s conversational style, honesty, and wisdom, it’s one that I plan to dip into often. My copy of A Circle of Quiet is filled with margin notes and underlined passages that spoke to me. “Sometimes the adversary is the darkness that roams the earth” is one. Another is “Detachment and involvement: the artist must have both.” There are dozens of extraordinary passages. Why not read the book and find some gems for yourself?

Because of my roles in life, both past and present, many of the author’s musings affected my thinking and forced me to ponder answers to her questions. In the next couple of posts, I hope to pursue some of them, beginning with what we can give children (and others) that will stay with them when there’s nothing left.

Posted in book reviews, books, readng, Uncategorized, writing, writing life | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Dick, Jane, and Hiawatha

Last night I met someone who told me about a family history book given to her by a relative. “It was more like genealogy,” she said, “and I wish there had been some stories in it.”

“I know what you mean. Stories can make ancestors come alive for us—show us that they too had trials and challenges.”

“All I have are birth and death dates to go with names. I want to know what happened in-between,” she said.

I pondered her words and thought of the stories my siblings and I added to our family history.  Below are a few paragraphs that illustrate changes in race and gender.

“Although Brown vs. Board of Education declared separate public schools for black and white children in 1954 to be unconstitutional, life didn’t change in our separate and unequal little Southern town for another decade. My siblings and I went to school at Camden Elementary with all the other white kids in town and walked to and from school each day.

“Although the African American population in Camden was fairly large, I rarely saw a black person—not in school or church or at the movies. Not in stores or restaurants. Nowhere. Even when DuPont came to the area and changed our little community, there was a limit to what they could do, and there were still restrictions on letting the races work in the same room—at least at first.

“Each year, classes presented “chapel programs,” and other classes filed into the auditorium to watch. My most memorable was about Hiawatha, perhaps because Mama made my dress and took several pictures. She even made the headband and found a feather for it and some moccasins for my feet. In retrospect, I wonder how much she knew about the depopulation and displacement of Native Americans at that time. By midlife, she was heartbroken after learning more of their horrific mistreatment in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a book that profoundly influenced her thinking.

“Worth mentioning is how we learned to read—using Dick and Jane primers. Dick and Jane and their sister Sally belonged to a perfect nuclear family, complete with a cat and dog, Puff and Spot. Sally even had curly blondish hair like Ann. The father went to work each day, and the mother stayed home baking cookies and providing a clean, warm environment for her family.

“In the books, Dick was told such things as “Run, Dick, run,” and Jane was instructed to, “Look, Jane, look.” I loved those little books. Although I didn’t see it at the time, Dick and Jane exemplified what social scientists would describe as giving boys wings and girls roots. Dick and Jane were a lot like us. Jane and Sally even wore dresses to play in just like my sister and I did. On freezing days, we were allowed to wear pants beneath our dresses.

“It wasn’t until I was in graduate school and raising children of my own when I learned that Dick and Jane primers were being taken out of the schools since they didn’t accurately depict our changing social mores. In fact, they had been declared as both sexist and racist. At first, I thought this was erroneous, but then I began reading some of my daughters’ books, and sure enough, the times they were a’ changing.

“One morning on the way to school,  Carrie was reading aloud and stumbled over the pronunciation of a Spanish surname—Dr. Gonzalez. And get this—the doctor was a woman! Before I knew it, Judy Blume was on the scene tackling such issues as divorce, bullying, and racism in her children’s books.

“I may be overstating this, but I feel pretty safe in saying that through the early 60’s, America and its institutions such as education kept to safe subjects. I didn’t know any friends whose parents were divorced, and few mothers worked outside of the home. Those who did were primarily in five fields: teaching, nursing, childcare, secretarial, and waitressing. Some worked in mills and family businesses.”

I don’t know whether my children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews find the stories and times of their forebears as fascinating as I do, but I think including them in Our Lighted Seasons makes the history a lot less dry.

Posted in ancestry, books, Civil Rights, family histories, stories, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Love/Hate Relationship

Powerful. Compelling. Unsettling. Instructional. These and other descriptors depict my thoughts and feelings on pretty much every page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although I’d heard of Stowe’s well-known work for most of my life, I didn’t read it until this past spring. Another confession: not only did I not read this work of historical fiction until recently, it took six or seven weeks to finish it. It was simply too painful to digest more than twenty or twenty-five pages per night.

I wanted to read the novel mainly because of curiosity. What was all the fuss about? What made it a classic book? Was Uncle Tom really like the character he’s usually portrayed to be…an overly respectful and servile slave? Was the book accurate? Just how true to life could a book of about slavery written by a white woman of relative privilege be? I’d heard that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote much of the book in the midst of raising seven children. Who could do that today??? And rumor has it that she did most of the writing while sitting at her kitchen table. No Starbucks, writing retreats, or precious solitude for this incredible writer.

The action of the book traces the passage of Tom through the hands of three owners—Shelby, St. Clare, and Legree. Shelby and his wife cared about their slaves and yet seem to perceive of them as children who needed guidance. He felt no compunction when the need arose to sell Tom, thus separating him from Chloe and his children. St. Clare was a kind, affable Southern gentleman who died before finalizing an agreement to free Tom. But the third owner, Simon Legree, was a harsh, hateful, vile man who ultimately caused Tom’s death.

Although Tom’s life, including his whereabouts, acquaintances, activities, and influence, is central to the narrative, there are subplots as well. I got confused a few times and had to backtrack to remember who certain characters were, like Eliza and Topsy and George. Stowe even managed to include the helpful involvement of a Quaker community. I was amazed at how she wove the stories and plots into one continuous chronicle. How did she know so much about the human heart and psyche?

I had a love/hate relationship with this book. I loved its instructional nature, Stowe’s descriptions of settings and people, and the discourse between characters that raised ethnical issues. Without spelling out how self-centered and vapid Marie, St. Clare’s wife, was, the reader could easily discern her shallowness from Marie’s speech and her interactions with the slaves. How, I wondered, could such a person give birth to the child Eva? From conversations between St. Clare and his relative, Miss Ophelia, the reader gets drawn into questions of morality and decency.

About those descriptions of settings, after reading the one of the road leading to Legree’s plantation, I stopped reading for the night, too wimpy to read further. Stowe prefaced the chapter with to Psalm 74:20, “The dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.” Word for word, here’s Stowe’s description:

“It was a wild, forsaken road, now winding through dreary pine barrens, where the wind whispered mournfully, and now over log causeways, through long cypress swamps, the doleful trees rising out of the slimy, spongy ground, hung with long wreaths of funeral black moss, while ever and anon the loathsome form of the mocassin snake might be seen sliding among broken stumps and shattered branches that lay here and there, rotting in the water.”

Mercy.

I will never forget Tom and the race, time, and culture he represents. Though Tom died, others, including Cassy and the children with whom she was reunited, lived. We still have Simon Legrees among us in 2018. Thankfully, we also have loving souls like Eva, thoughtful ones like St. Clare, and helpful ones like the Quakers who aided in the escape of slaves.

 

Posted in book reviews, books, Uncategorized, writers, writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment