A good book is hard to find. So hard, in fact, I have taken to re-reading all the good books I have read once before. I find this to be comforting in the same way watching an old movie is comforting or looking at old photo albums is comforting. And while re-reading might sound like going backwards or even just plain blah, it is anything but, it is almost revelatory.
As a person who also likes to write, I am finding that stepping back and taking the time to re-read some of those novels which moved me, inspired me and made me want to write stories myself, is also an act of discovery. I realize that what I remember about each book is the feeling it left me with. I may or may not remember the character’s names and my memory of the settings and even the plots are fuzzy, like a Monet painting. In re-reading, I am rediscovering the language and the technique of some of the twentieth century’s master story tellers.
Right now, I am re-reading Thornyhold and My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart. I suppose Mary Stewart was considered to be a middle brow novelist, yesterday’s version of chick lit, but as I re-read these books, I am discovering she was much, much more.
Here is a passage from Thornyhold:
“Now empty your mind as best you can, and look. Without hope, without fear, without memory, and without guile. Just look”
My own face, small and distorted. The running light of the river. A flash or blue, the kingfisher. A shoal of black streaks, like tadpoles, but I knew from the screaming in the sky that they were swifts, skimming the tree-tops. Another shoal, white, sailing, tilting, silent as a snow-storm; a flight of doves or pigeons, wheeling and dipping, like a cloud of snow in an old fashioned paperweight. Then crystal, grey as mist, reflecting my eyes and the crimson of my school blazer and the tiny trees behind me.
Isn’t that lovely? When I read some of the contemporary popular fiction written today (and I don’t mean literary fiction or Booker Prize winning fiction) I do not seem to find very much of this sort of careful description. It is hard to pin point exactly, hard to describe without giving multiple examples, but there seems to be almost too much clever dialogue in contemporary offerings. Witty this, witty that. Conversations carefully crafted like a romantic comedy screen play. Fun, but highly unlikely. Description is what seems to be missing in newer fiction. We have become so fast paced, we can’t stop for even a moment to observe the minute details or to simply be quiet and let an author write without having the characters talk so much.
Every critic seems to scream these days what seems to me to be an over interpretation of Henry James’ admonition to “SHOW! Don’t tell!” And yet, the first thirty-eight pages of Thornyhold are just that, telling, she is telling a story. One long flashback, a brief, yet effective summary of the main character’s life, how she arrived at the central location of the novel, which she does not even get to until chapter five. As I read along, I find myself thinking, “I wonder what a writer’s workshop would say about this? Would they criticize for lack of dialogue? Would they say, “this is a flashback, it is good information for the author to know, but the reader does not need to know any of this…it is important to get right to the story…”
Maybe, just maybe, the past is important to the present. Maybe it is permissible to spend thirty-eight pages on what happened before. After all, it is what got us here in the first place.
My story, “Her Benevolent Concern,” will appear in this anthology which will be available in October. Being a part of the evolution of an anthology is an amazing experience. After submitting my story in 2007, I was contacted by the editors of When Last on the Mountain, Carol Roan and Vicky Lettmann, in 2008. The process of getting a book ready for the publisher, the back and forth of the editing process, is an invaluable experience for a writer. I can’t thank them enough for choosing my story.
Sometime in 1898 my great-grandfather, George Ernest and his father in law, my great, great-grandfather (who everyone called Dad) purchased a tiny island on a lake in Northern Wisconsin. On the island they built a small, serviceable summer cottage. We have been traveling there each summer ever since.
Our society has, I think, lost some of it’s grounded-ness; that sort of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz kind of going home to Kansas-ness, if that makes sense. I guess you could call it the philosophy of ‘click your heels and you are there.’ People who are fortunate to have a ‘click your heels’ location to return to are more than merely fortunate, they are rich.
Now, my little family cottage is not swanky as many modern cottages are. It has been left in the swanky dust by all of the big, peeled log beauties that have sprung up all over the lake. We have bizarre plumbing arrangements, no big screen TV – actually, we do not have TV. It is furnished exactly as my great grandparents left it, complete with their collections of Dickens and selected Thackeray. This last visit, I pulled ol’ George Ernest’s copy of Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ from the bookshelf. I have seen the movie many times, but I never read the actual book and the book is wonderful. Lew Wallace, the author, did tremendous research when writing it. He was a bored general in the Middle East when he started writing it. It is worth reading for the description of the wise men and the cultural conditions of Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth. You will learn many obscure anthropological facts. Please visit the website about Lew Wallace and his ‘study’ in Crawfordsville, Indiana. I did not get there this trip, but I will next time.
Whenever life seems to be over the top, I know I can click my heels and go home again.
I know this will make for a long post, but this next bit is something I once wrote for the possible start of … something, not sure what – I think it is a mystery. Anyway, it is intended to be fictional … but I used lots of autobiographical sense memories based on this place I love.
The Indian Mounds seem smaller each year, especially now that I am a grown woman. When I was a little girl the only way to reach the mounds was by boat. We would arrive in the throaty Chris-craft my grandfather had happened upon at an estate auction, throw the anchor into the golden sandy floor of the lake and wade in. Some years the water was so cold the drop into the knee deep water took my breath away leaving me in a blue lipped state of shivering that didn’t abate until I was able climb into a warm bath when we returned to the cottage.
My grandfather always putted around a bit in search of a rock to latch on to. For some macabre reason I was always drawn to the mounds. The thought of them silently waiting haunted me from one June to the next and I couldn’t wait for the first sunny day after we arrived at the island to make the trip to the boat beach, as it was known to my family.
I remember my mother taking me by the hand, leading me along the pine needle path away from the sunny stretch of beach and the rhythmic sound of the waves rolling in from the darkest center of the lake. Here, the forest deepened and the sounds of the woods mimicked the sound of the air after a deep snowfall; an intense quiet suffused with a sense of peace. I became conscious of the muffled slap, slap of my pink flip-flops against the densely packed pine needles. I was mindful of the sun streaking through the trees in slanting rays and it reminded me of the religious cards my catholic cousins showed me picturing Jesus looking up toward the sky, thin beams of sunlight streaming from a cloud creating a heavenly aura. Maybe this is how I latched on to the idea that the mounds were a holy place requiring the same reverence reserved for church interiors and the quiet whispers accorded public libraries.
My mother wove her own version of an old legend that loosely resembled the official history of the area. She told a story about a final battle fought by the ancestors of the Ojibwa Indians who, as recently as 100 years earlier, had been the original inhabitants of the boat beach. Her voice barely above a whisper, leaning down to reach my ear as we walked along, she told how the feuding tribes finally culminated their bitter warring by burying the Tomahawk on the shores of the boat beach. My mother was a bit of a history buff and while she had read the scarce amount of scholarship which existed about the mounds, like a true story-teller she used the best bits from both the legend and the research to create a romantic portrait. In hushed tones she told me the brave warriors of the feuding tribes are together, their blood cleansed in the cool lake waters, ceremoniously layered in peace. Their numbers are recorded in the mounds rising gently from the ground, a visible mingling of souls for all eternity.
It was a fairly brutal tale to recount to a four-year old, but her descriptions of the blood running into the lake water like satin ribbons blowing in the breeze made it tantalizing romantic. All the Braves were handsome, all the women Indian princesses. In my mind, I pictured those handsome young braves lying entwined after the final battle, the tears of Indian princesses cleansing the blood from their wounds, (my mother’s description) and secretly dreamed of finding the tomahawk that had finally put an end to the brutality which lay beneath the fern covered mounds. Later in life I tried to find out the details of these Indian battles, as if by confirming them I could prove that the Tomahawk legend was true, but the great Indian battle remained shrouded in mystery with only the silent mounds providing exculpatory evidence of the grain of truth contained in the legend.
All of this was before the State cut a road in behind the forest which was the Indian’s sepulchral ground…before the campers came with the kids eager to scamper on the mounds, causing them diminish in a manner quicker than anything the previous 500 years had accomplished. This was all before the state sold the land to developers. It was before the full force of civilization arrived in the Northwoods.
I have been on vacation in the Northwoods. It was a great trip full of reading and writing. I picked up my great grandfather’s copy of Ben-Hur and can’t wait to tell all about it and the interesting extra curricular possibilities for the curious traveler. Until Saturday.