On Growing Up, Summer and Secrets

Adolescent friendships are unique: The close friends we make as children almost become part of our family, watched over equally by supervising parents, teased or ignored by resident siblings.  Glad to be included, they become part of the whole and accept conditions without thought or judgement.  On the other hand, our adult friends find us as self-sufficient beings, with loosened family ties.  Only the friends of our adolescent years perceive the context of our family’s past and the adults we will become. More observant than young children, they witness the stresses in these families they know and, being teenagers, they sometimes judge, although they rarely blab about what they learn.  Self-conscious and plagued by hormones, most teenagers prefer to keep secrets.

These are the undercurrent themes of Bittersweet, Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s new novel about identity and lies.  Mabel Dagmar is her narrator, a working-class girl dependent on  scholarships for her college education and the opposite of her roommate Genevra Winslow, the assured descendent of a wealthy, Eastern family.  To Mabel, the Winslows exist in rarefied existence of Ivy League schools, named summer cottages and the kind of confidence that only comes from generations of independent wealth and she joins Ginevra for a summer vacation at the family compound with the envy of an outsider.  

Mabel’s search for her own identity follows two patterns many teenagers follow.  First, she rejects the choices her own parents made and then she tries to absorb the values of someone else, in this case, the exalted, entitled Winslows.  Although these attractive people appear to collectively exemplify the virtues of New England wealth (including one or two eccentric relations) Mabel sees, as the summer lengthens, that coils of subterfuge and lies bind these people together as surely as money, blood and tradition.  Then she sees how those coils reach out and destroy other people.  Eventually Mabel must choose what kind of adult she will become, which set of values she will embrace.

In some ways, Bittersweet follows the classical pattern of a Gothic story: a young woman in an isolated, romanticized setting discovers some big, bad secrets and a big, bad adversary.  Yet, this is no Jane Eyre.  For one thing, Mabel lacks Miss Eyre’s spiritual convictions and is burdened with secrets of her own so she has to rely on different weapons to overcome the adversaries and makes more fallible choices.  However, the stronger difference is the setting and this highlights the new writer’s skill.  Instead of the moors or a brooding castle, Bittersweet is set in a summering Vermont wood that is half camp and half family estate.  It is Ms. Beverly-Whittemore’s prose that shows evil can shine in the summer sun and stalk victims through twilight and fireflies.

Bless those with faith in the innocence of summer,  They should have life in abundance and look elsewhere for stories. Bittersweet speaks for witnesses and adolescent friends and those who know  the power of secrets.

My thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy of this novel.  LLG

The Lessons of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler

Every adult who was once a kid reader has some books tucked away in his/her soul.  These stories are usually hidden quite well but they still guide the adult.  The history professor won’t talk about the book of ghost stories that got his attention in grade school but it stimulated his first interest in the past.  The attorney may speak of hornbooks and precedents instead of the copy of Katie John that stayed with her through fourth grade but the fictional heroine is still there.  And the old woman dozing in nursing home’s day room listens as child read about Pooh and Piglet and reacquaints herself with the citizens of Hundred Acre Wood who led her to a lifetime of reading.  The books we love as children incorporate themselves into our being and we carry their ideas with us through life.  I realized that today when I found an old friend, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  Decades had lapsed since I last read the story but I wasn’t just seeing something familiar.  I found the lessons I’ve been living by for years.

A little background:  Claudia Kincaid makes the ultra-sensible decision to run away from home, in order to get a little justice.  Well, it makes sense when you’re the sixth-grade, always-responsible, eldest child  in a family of six and your future looks like more of the same.  She picks out a sensible hideaway (The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art) and sensible goal (stay gone till her parents appreciate her) but her best decision is to recruit her little brother, Jamie as her accomplice and financier.  This complimentary pair move into the museum, taking advantage of the artifacts and amenities in the building after closing time and joining the perpetual school tours during daylight hours.  The book is, among other things, a siren song to New York and I’ll bet many an out-of-towner has put the MoMA on their itinerary because of the role it plays in this book.  Still, the best part of Frankweiler doesn’t come from the museum or its mystery or even Claudia and Jamie.  Tucked away in the story are the observations of Mrs. Frankweiler as she follows the kids on their trip.

According to Mrs. Frankweiler, [becoming] part of a team is something that happens invisibly, and she’s right.   Real teams aren’t created by a coach or a director; they come through a mutual decision of the members.   My own sister and I co-existed for years, loving and hating each other as siblings but no one would have called us teammates.  Then our Dad died and we got each other through not one, but two separate funerals.  Somewhere during that awful time, we learned to rely on and like each other and we’ve been a team ever since.  I just wish Daddy had lived to see it.

Frankweiler is a big believer in internalizing experience.  She says some people spend so much time and energy documenting a pleasurable vacation that they miss the vacation they’re having.  Somewhere along the way, I folded that belief into my chromosomes.  Yes, I have some photos of trips.  But my best memories, the ones I think of when the words, “Vail”, “Camp”, “Family” or “Beach” come to mind, were never photographed.  Those come from the times I lived completely in the moment, implanting the memories in my brain, if not my camera.  I don’t need photos to remember the Atlantic’s spray on my face or the sun on my arms near St. Petersburg or the eternal green of summer camp.  The details I want to remember are there, gorgeous and rich, and once they’re gone, no photo could bring them back.

Frankweiler also says we need days when we learn and days when we absorb what we learn.  If not, we become trashcans of meaningless facts.  This may sound a bit new-agey but the wisdom here is sound.  We go through life bombarded with information these days and not all of it is accurate.  Periodically, we need to sit down and sort it all out: we figure out what works and what doesn’t and how it all relates to us.  It’s this process that allows us to make connections and gain a greater understanding of our world.  That work can’t be done while we are harvesting data, we need time to think as well.  And, as humans, we need time for rest and sleep.  Even as kids, we need time to just be.

Mrs. Frankweiler, or her creator (E. L. Konigsburg) believed that, “Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place, but there is always a little corner that keeps flapping around.”    I hope the woman and the character enjoyed a lot of that flapping in life.  They certainly gave a large measure to others and they taught me some lovely ideas.  I’ve held on to those ever since. 

There’s a story that needs to be told

Me, I’m a fool for history.  Show me a place where something really happened and tell me the story so I can see it in my mind and I’ll be your friend forever, even if the story is sad.  So much has happened where I live that I’ve always got plenty to read but there’s one bit of regional history that I haven’t found captured in books.  It’s time someone wrote about the Rhythm Club Fire.

It happened seventy-five years ago today, in Natchez, Mississippi.  Natchez was a medium-sized county seat then of about fifteen thousand people, sixty percent of whom were African-American.  Because this was during the cruel and moronic Jim Crow period, the town was effectively split along racial lines and white and black people co-existed with a minimum of interaction.  The divide was so deep, I’ll bet that almost half of Natchez had no idea their town was known as a place for great music.

A few years before, a group of African-American entrepreneurs (self named, The Money-Wasters Social Club) had turned a long narrow building in the business section of town into a nightspot called The Rhythm Club.  The place may not have looked like much from the outside with its tin walls and shuttered windows and the interior decorations consisted of Spanish Moss draped from the rafters, but people didn’t go there to look.   This was the era of swing music and the Money-Wasters made the Rhythm Club a regular stop for black dance-bands touring the South.   The Rhythm Club became the local place to go to hear music, cut loose and have fun, until April 23, 1940.

That night, the Rhythm club was stuffed with people, despite the sixty-five cent admission: Walter Barnes, a gifted musician and band leader was there with his orchestra and seven hundred or so people, including some music students and their teachers, had found their way through the front door entrance to the dance hall in back so they could hear the great band play.  Then around eleven thirty, a spark by the hamburger stand and only exit caught that dry, Spanish Moss draped through the rafters.  Now dry plants are potential fuel already but this stuff had been sprayed with a petroleum based insecticide so it was essentially a match waiting to be struck.  The flames started shooting across the ceiling, people began to scream and run but the fire was between them and the exits.  Walter Barnes and his orchestra tried to calm the crowd with music, but they were trapped in with that inferno.  Over 200 people died in that fifteen minute fire, including the bandleader, Walter Barnes.

The aftermath was horrendous.  The local hospital and the black undertakers are overrun with victims and some of the burned are sent home without treatment.  At least 60 of the dead couldn’t be identified and were buried in an unmarked, mass grave outside of town.  The newspapers arrived, along with the Red Cross but there isn’t a lot of follow up.  And all of this leads to questions.

How did the town of Natchez deal with this hideous tragedy?  Were the lost and injured remembered by all or was the event seen only through the the filter of segregation?   What happened to the black power structure of Natchez after that night took so many of its members?  What treatment was available or recommended for someone with serious burns at that time?  How did the injured recover?  Did they recover?  How do you go on living after coming through something like that?

A small museum, a handful of websites and one or two films talk about the tragedy but I haven’t located any books that research this subject in-depth.  Creating one would be a job for a historian who can devote years to the project but it’s a subject well worth chasing.  If reading books about disaster has taught me anything, it’s taught me these stories are so much more than about how people died; they’re about how people lived, what they cared about and why they should be remembered.  I hope somebody writes about Rhythm Club Fire because I want to read that book.

To Breathe the Air of Books

I have a condition I think of as “The Book Bug.”  Whenever I approach a large collection of books  or I get my hands on a new one, my pulse jumps, my heartbeat quickens and I seem to get  a slight fever.  I’ve had the condition for decades.  It hit me as a kid whenever Scholastic Books distributed their lists of new paperbacks and I was allowed to purchase two. (My attempts to increase the order provided early lessons in negotiation and the Bug returned when the books were delivered.)  The air around books is rarefied to me and I’ve been known to get a book rush when I enter a big library, a good book store or a list of new book reviews.  I’ll probably need a defibrillator if I ever visit the Library of Congress.  Up till now, I’ve assumed I’m the only one with this silly malady and I’ve been too embarrassed to admit it. Thanks to My Reading Life, I now know it’s a condition I share with the writer, Pat Conroy.

Conroy is, of course, one of the novelists whose stories are a combination of  imagination and autobiography and he is the first to admit that.  He is also a reader with a world-class addiction to literature. It started with his mother, an autodidact who saw reading as a means of escape as well as self-improvement; she read constantly to her children.  Their family library was started with  a selection of cast-offs, lucky garage-sale finds and the children’s school reading lists but the Conroy kids became readers of note.  Pat described his own head rush when, as a young man, he found a place in Atlanta called “The Old New York Book Shop”. The owner became a friend who sometimes  let Pat mind the store.  Behind the counter, Conroy read the store’s stock, gobbling up all the great books he couldn’t yet afford to buy.
Not all readers feel the need to write but most writers (Conroy included) start out as dedicated readers.  I believe the metamorphosis happens when a reader finds the stories or books that cleave to and over-charge his or her soul.  The charge builds up until the passive reader is ignited into someone who must transmit his or her own tales and follow the writers that outlined the way. Conroy’s conversion began with the novels of Thomas Wolfe and it’s easy to see the attraction.  A lonely, word-loving boy of the South found the story of another lonely Southern boy written in lyrical prose.  The identification was immediate, surrender complete and another reader picked up the pen.
In the end, any writer worthy of ink retains an addiction to reading but their craft brings a new appreciation of the art.  Books can take you anywhere, teach you anything and bring you home for tea but those who have created their own books grasp more of the artistry in the creation.   Maybe that’s why Mr. Conroy appreciates all the stories that sustain his life as a reader.  Or maybe he’s just suffering from The Book Bug.

On a personal note, this is my 100th post.  For those who follow this page, thank you.  My gratitude is deep.

A Sabbatical on Duma Key

It’s easy to get lost in a good book.  Not every book has this power but some stories can pull you in like the undertow and as long as the book continues, your consciousness is split between your familiar world and the narrative of the story, where you live fully and completely in its pages.  I love getting sucked into a story but, between you and me, it’s painful when it happens because I always finish these books with a sense of bereavement.  The consciousness I’ve been tuned into since the early pages slips away with the ending and leaves me back in this existence, a bit breathless and diminished by the loss.  It takes a while to get used to this life again.  So, be warned if you pick up a copy of Duma Key: despite the loss, evil and horror in its pages, you won’t want this story to end.

It’s the confession of Edgar Freemantle, a man learning some Americans have more than one act in their lives.  The first act of his ended when a work accident stole his arm, the ability to communicate and, in the end, his marriage.  Stuck and unhappy, Edgar decides to spend a year in the warmer world of Florida, “land of the newly wed and nearly dead” and either create a new life for himself or a suicide plan that his daughters won’t detect.  Nothing surprises him more when Florida begins to deliver the recovery he needs with Duma Key’s relatively undeveloped blocks of beachfront, a good friend and a developing gift for drawing.  Unfortunately, every gift has its price.

There was a point in my life when I never expected to praise Duma’s author, Stephen King, but that time has long since passed.  The caricatures of villains that populated Christine and Carrie left long ago and his novels are filled with pacing and focus.  The pop-culture jokes and references still exist along with lyrical passages and meditations on the nature of loss, recovery and the creative life.  Most of all, there is an emotional honestly in Edgar Freemantle’s story that makes him one of King’s most likeable imperfect heroes.  Freemantle is never so warm-hearted that the reader can’t see his relentless drive and how it alienated his ex-wife.  On the other hand, Pam is never so negative that you wonder why he wanted her in the first place. Duma Key is, among other things, the story of when a good relationship between decent people goes bad, a far more interesting (and subtle) subject than the cliche of an abusive marriage.  In Duma Key, most of the damage is created by decent people through a series of unconscious choices, turning a thriller into a tragedy.  It is eloquent in regret and grief.

But those are the emotions of survivors and Duma shows that life goes on, whether we like it or not.  Past war, past sorrow, past the death of their nearest and dearest, survivors continue on with their scars and knowledge of the past.  Like the readers of an “undertow” book they emerge on the far shore of experience, breathless and uncertain about what happens next.  And the readers turn the last page and blink in the remembered sunlight, their faces still turned toward the sea.