The Stories We Hide

The Story

Everyone has secrets they want to keep.
Keeping secrets is harder when you live in a small town.
Small towns are the original spots where everyone knows your name.  They also know your parents, your siblings, and whether you went to reform school or college.  But they have secrets they want to keep too. Sometimes, this can make small-town society seem like an insulated conspiracy of silence.
Until curiosity or a stranger shows up, that is.
This is the premise of Annie Barrows’s 2015 novel, The Truth According to Us. Set in the fictional town of Macedonia, West Virginia in 1938, The Truth According to Us is almost an experiment in human psychology.  What happens when a couple of curious souls look at decades of mythology and lies?
One mind belongs to Layla Beck, the WPA writer commissioned to transcribe Macedonia’s history; the other to twelve-year-old Willa Romeyn. Presented with conflicting reports, Layla has to decide what deserves to see print, the truth or a glossed over fiction. Was the town’s founder a hero or tyrant? Was their legendary preacher a charismatic saint or sexual predator?  Layla’s present and future become tied up with Macedonia’s history.  To Willa, it’s the way to demystify her family’s past.
Where does Father go when he vanishes for weeks at a time? Why does he leave his kids with Aunt Jottie?  Why doesn’t Aunt Jottie have a family and kids of her own?  At the age of twelve, Willa’s beginning to notice how the people she loves the most avoid certain topics of conversation.  In fact, sometimes they lie.  With the Macedonian virtue of ferocious devotion, Willa decides to unearth the facts and learns that truth can come at a terrible cost, even while it sets you free.

The Truth Behind the Story

On a side-note, The Truth According to Us highlights an obscure bit of history, The Federal Writers Project. I know the notion of a federal program subsidizing writers may give some people indigestion, but it was a good idea at the time.  For meager wages, writers documented histories of places and individuals that usually wouldn’t get covered: guides were written about every state in the union, and the oral histories of former slaves were transcribed. Valuable information that would have been lost altogether was saved by this work, and it trained more than a few writers that went on to literary glory including Conrad Aiken, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and John Steinbeck. Today, our culture still enjoys the benefits of what that agency did more than eighty years ago. Not bad for a short-term, New-Deal program.
But this is background.  The Truth According to Us is what happens when a fresh light is shed on a mythology created by resentment and shame. Passions heat up faster than the dog days of summer. It’s perfect for an August read.

Redeemed by the South

Strangers to the South take a look at this place and react in one of two ways: either they loathe it or love it.  Either they see nothing but the region’s excesses and sins and complain endlessly about both (“Oh God, it’s so hot! And what happened here! I couldn’t live in this place.), or they fall in love with the South, history, Kudzu and all.  Southerners understand both reactions because they tend to fall into the same camps, except the South is a part of their identity.  Still, love it or hate it, few people can claim they were rescued by the American South.  The exception is one dear, troubled, fictional child. Ladies and gentlemen, meet CeeCee Honeycutt, a girl who really needs saving.
Today, Cee Cee would be called an abandoned child, but they didn’t talk like that in the 60’s, when she was young.  If her father is rarely home, well, he travels for his job.  And CeeCee’s mom is…well, let’s say a bit odd. To CeeCee’s schoolmates and the citizens of their Ohio town, Camille Honeycutt is a bona fide loony, with her flamboyant behavior and fashion sense. To CeeCee, she’s mom, by turns loving and frightening, the grown-up Cee Cee looks after. Still, no one steps in to help until the Happy Cow Ice Cream truck accidentally runs over CeeCee’s mom. The funeral brings Tallulah Caldwell, a stranger who says she’s a great-aunt and invites CeeCee to move in with her in Savannah, Georgia.
These days, Savannah is probably best known as the setting of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a hothouse for eccentrics and oddballs in the 1980’s.  The Savannah of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is 20 years younger, still quirky but suitable for its younger audience. Here is a world of lush gardens, storied houses, garrulous neighbors, and sweet tea; a place where living is an art to be appreciated and savored.  Burdened by conflicted memories and thoughts of her parents, CeeCee begins her childhood over again at 12 and learns about life and friendship from the women of Savannah, white and black.  CeeCee’s Savannah is neither heaven nor hell, but a place redolent, flavorsome and alive.
Like the South, CeeCee has a conflicted past that sometimes threatens to overwhelm a good heart. But the love and acceptance of friends can move mountains, they say.  They can save an old house, or a child’s future, or even a life. That’s redemption, wherever you are in the world, folks. And on summer mornings as beautiful as this, redemption is a miracle that seems possible.

Victorian Tale/Modern Mind

I’ll admit I’ve been on a Brontë kick this summer; heat tends to drive me toward stories about simmering characters in cooler climes, a sure recipe for a Brontë book.  But, for all of my repeated readings of Charlotte Brontë‘s prose and my disaffection for sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights, I never bothered to read the work of Anne Brontë.  Now, I want to bang on the front doors of all my English teachers and yell, “Why didn’t you assign her books to your courses?  What were you thinking?” Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall may be the surprise sensation of my summer reading.
 
It seems the book has always defied expectations. Published when English Women had no right to vote, own property or even have custody of their children, it’s a challenge to that “civilized” society.  It dealt with issues like addiction and adultery so realistically it was a literary sensation when it was first published. It was so controversial, that sister Charlotte tried at one point to suppress the book’s being reprinted.
The story’s subtitle could be “the mysterious new girl in town, ” and it’s told by Gilbert Markham, a young, rather satisfied, gentleman farmer whose family has “always” been part of the community.  He sees the same old friends all the time and visits the same old places with them. His mom doesn’t like his girlfriend, but that’s nothing new. Life, for Gilbert, is just a bit boring. Then strangers move into Wildfell Hall.
Everyone’s curious about the new tenants, a Mrs. Graham, and her little boy and everyone wants to know more about them. But Mrs. Graham doesn’t like to socialize.  She stays away from parties and turns down so many invitations that many people she’s anti-social. When Mrs. Graham’s in a group, she voices strong-minded opinions on subjects like alcohol and education for girls. Gilbert’s intrigued. Between his mom, his sister and the females of the village, he’s used to flattery and flirtation from women, two things Mrs. Graham won’t give him. The more he learns about her, the more he wants to know and the harder she pushes him away.   Eventually, Gilbert learns his new neighbor is hiding from her charismatic bad-boy of a husband, a man who wants to introduce her and his young son to every degrading vice in the book. It’s a complicated story, told in Victorian Language, but it reads like a modern page-turner.
 
There’s something in the urgent voice of Mrs. Graham that compels you through most of the story. You can see why she married the wrong man and how initially she tried to make the marriage work.  You understand how hard and necessary it was for her to shut the door against him and how frail is her hope of freedom.  Even when she stops speaking and Gilbert again takes up the story, Mrs. Graham’s voice is the one you remember.

About the Author-

 

Anne Bronte

It’s astounding to realize this is only Anne Brontë’s second book and her last one at that.  She died at 29, the year after  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was published. More strident than Charlotte and less moody than Emily, she is the realist of that intense family: Wildfell Hall is no romantic spot like Thornfield or Wuthering Heights, it’s a big old house that sorely needs maintenance.  And, instead of vengeance or spiritual transcendence, Anne’s characters want and demand justice, a call that resonates today.  Perhaps that’s why, after almost 200 years, Anne seems the most “relevant” Brontë.  She wasn’t just the youngest Brontë sister.  She was the most modern female in the bunch.

The Obsessive Story of the Obsessed Bronte

My obsessions don’t make me a better person.  They eat up too much time and energy and can turn me into an absolute bore but, they are part of me.  I find an interesting subject and suddenly I have to know everything about it.  That’s the mark of an obsessive and, as I say, it has its downfalls.  But sometimes that drive yields obscure treasures.
Obsession is one reason I love Daphne Du Maurier’s stories. Two of her most famous works, (Rebecca and My Cousin, Rachel) are about the mania of being haunted by a subject.  And, according to at least one biography, the Du Maurier had a literary obsession that I share: the Bronte family. Trust me, this makes sense.

The Unforgettable Bronte Siblings

The Bronte sisters are a fascinating subject, whether you are studying literature or history. Three adult sisters, with minimal resources, strove to support themselves as writers, when the publishing world of publishing was pretty much closed to women. The sisters created poems and novels that often dealt with obsession. The novels become best-sellers and then literary classics, studied and loved ever since.  The Bronte girls all attained incredible literary success but Ms. Du Maurier didn’t want to write about them.  Instead, she chose to write about the great failure of this talented family: their brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte.  Story-wise, this makes sense too.
The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is a look at the then-forgotten brother of three literary geniuses (genii?) and figure out why he failed. By all accounts, it should have been the other way around. Young Branwell, with his imagination and brains, led his sisters in games of imaginary world-building,  He should have been the Bronte writer the world remembers.  With his superior education and opportunities, he should have, at least, been able to support himself. Instead, Branwell ruined every chance that he got and lived off his father or his sisters.  In the end, Branwell’s talent and gifts were outweighed by his flaws: an overwhelming ego, little self-discipline, and a destructive addiction to alcohol. Still, he’s an interesting failure and a brilliant psychological study, perfect for Du Maurier’s mind.
Perhaps Branwell’s disastrous luck was contagious because The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte did not sell well, even though it was written by a popular author. After publication, it was rarely read.  But, like Branwell, if his biography is a failure, it’s an interesting one.  It’s the story of a man who had a gifted but uncontrollable mind.  In other words, it’s one obsessive writing about another.

Betrayed by Your Closest Friend

The Swans

He called them his swans.
It’s the story literary freaks, pop culture geeks and gossip mavens all know. The story of a covey of fascinating young women who were known for being beautiful; graceful as swans. Beauty made them famous and envied and rich but it didn’t make them happy, Instead, Beauty made them insecure and lonely.  They wanted friends who’d value them instead of their looks or the powerful men they had married. Then one day, this flock of sad, lovely, women befriended an unusual man,  An odd, little man, who liked but didn’t lust after them. A clever talker of a man who cheered them up with the juicy gossip, whenever they were blue.  The strange storyteller listened to each woman when she talked. and told each woman he adored her.  And, because he was gay and understanding and fun, the women showered him with gifts and friendship.  They even shared their deepest secrets with him.
Secrets he wrote down.

The Story

This is the setup for The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the story of a fascinating literary scandal.  It stars some of the original American taste-makers of the mid-20th century like Babe Paley, and Slim Keith, and Truman Capote, the man they befriended. When he was a young, semi-successful writer, these women and many of their friends each found Capote to be a kindred spirit. He made them laugh and praised not only their faces and forms (referring to them collectively as “swans”) but their intelligence, taste, and souls.  In turn, they supported him during the lean years and celebrated with him as they all found success.  Then, when he was desperate for one more book, he published their nastiest secrets with just enough fiction on top to turn their humiliating memories into a guessing game for the reading public.  At least one woman included in the story killed herself the day that she got a printed copy. The rest of the women ended the friendship.   And was Capote surprised by their reaction?
Oddly enough, he was.

The Summary

In one sense, The Swans of Fifth Avenue tells the story of how friendship is made and destroyed.  It captures a bit of America in the center of the 20th century.  Like Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Swans is an amalgamation of research and imagination now known as the “non-fiction novel” But mostly, it’s an old-fashioned, gossipy fun book to read, perfect for the summer.
 
Capote, I think, would have loved being the star of this story. His swans, I believe, would not.
 

 

Murder Takes a Hike

Summer is here in all but fact, the season when most people take vacations.  If you grew up in the United States, the odds are that your vacation history includes one or more of our National Parks.  That’s great! The National Park system is a great idea: beautiful spaces owned by and open to the public. The only problem, for the addicted reader, is you can’t look at the natural beauty while you’re reading a book. I mean, as much as I adore the outdoors, I start jonesing for a good story to read, even when I’m face to face with the Grand Canyon or El Capitan. Of course, the second my face turns to the book, I feel guilty about ignoring Nature.  I can’t enjoy both together.

At least I thought so until my friend, Edna, introduced me to the Anna Pigeon mystery series by Nevada Barr.  Why are those books the solution? Because Anna Pigeon is a Park Ranger and each of her adventures occurs in a National Park.   Let’s start out with the first book in the series, the award-winning Track of the Cat.  It’s set in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a spot my folks dragged me to when I was small.  It’s a beautiful, barren, desert kind of place, full of antiquities and cactus.  That’s the world the tourists see.  To Anna Pigeon, Park Ranger and heroine of the series, the park is so much more.

Of course, she sees the land and its animals: beautiful, terrifying, vulnerable and dangerous.  She also sees the Park’s human visitors. There are the ill-prepared, day-tripping tourists and permanent neighbors who have their own agendas for Park land. Anna also sees the word of Park Service employees many of whom work for a pittance in order to keep the land and its visitors safe.  When another Ranger is found dead, it becomes Anna’s mission to bring the responsible party to justice.

Like all good literary detectives, Anna is at least as complex as the victims and perpetrators she pursues and that’s why I’m continuing with the series.  Thanks to Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta and Val McDermid’s Carol Jordan and Tony Hill, I’ve started expecting fictional detectives to fight City Hall and their own personal demons while they track down a killer.  On this score, Nevada Barr and Anna Pigeon don’t disappoint.

So, get out the map and decide which vacation spot you’ll visit this year.  Remember to pack your camera, bug repellent, and a big enough water canteen.   And, if you’re visiting a National Park, be nice to the Rangers, especially if they catch you reading an Anna Pigeon mystery. Park Rangers need fans too.

 

The Deep End of the Deep South: The Help

 

I was 25 when I married and moved from the plains to Mississippi. It was like diving in the deep end of Southern Culture.  I traded wide, far, horizons for close, verdant landscapes; dry heat for humidity; corn for okra.  I also fell headlong, into beliefs and traditions that weren’t my own. For example, one of my first neighbors was a kind old lady, who continually delighted and frustrated me. She insisted on calling me Mrs. Golden but demanded I only use her first name. And, even though she knew more about the place where we lived, she deferred to me in every question. Now I had been raised to recognize the authority of older, more-experienced, ladies, especially when using their names, but my neighbor’s education was different.  She had been taught skin color establishes who is in charge I was fair while she was dark.  Because we’d been taught differently, my neighbor and I spent most of our afternoons trying to outdo each other in courtesy. It’s sad but our mutual efforts to show each other respect became one more wall that kept us apart.
My memories of those sweltering afternoons of frustration all came flooding back when I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.  Although this story takes place in the 60’s, it reminds me of the place I met 25 years later.

The Book

Stockett’s Jackson, Mississippi is like a never-ending high school in some ways. Just like high school, the popular ones measure power by who they exclude. They create rules to undermine and isolate anyone they view as competition. Blacks were cut off from whites; singles from marrieds; boys from girls, and “well-born” people from “trash.”  Meandering through this miasma is Skeeter, a girl whose height and ambition exclude her from the group. More than anything, Skeeter wants to be a published author and, since the Civil Rights unrest is in the news, she decides to write about the least powerful groups in Jackson; the black women who work in white households.  That decision and the resulting book overturns Jackson, Mississippi and the lives of each soul in The Help.

The Help has received a lot of well-deserved praise for capturing the tenor of that tumultuous period, but it is the humanity of the characters that I like. All of the central characters of The Help are female and ensnared by the rules and expectations of their society. This trap infuriates some and enrages many, but they all suffer pressure. Because of these strictures, the women all become creatures of want, some chasing the love, and power they think will make them happy or fighting to survive. Still, The Help isn’t just about what happens to people in an awful situation.  It’s about how they survive even in the worst of times.

Of course, Southern culture has changed a great deal since the 1960’s.  It’s changed since I moved here.  But a few old discredited beliefs still hang on in some corners, breaking hearts and causing terrible damage. Until these die out completely, the South’s tragic history will remain the elephant in the room, trapping well-meaning people in the corners and blocking them from any way to move forward.

Name It and Claim It: Summer Sisters

If you went to camp as a kid, did you wonder what the counselors did in the evenings? Speaking for myself, that’s when I learned to play Name it and Claim It. Are you familiar with the game? One person sings a few lines from a song, and if you can either join in singing or identify who made the song famous, you win. Sort of. See, knowing the song was usually a sign of how old you were and, although most of the staff were all still in college, advanced age wasn’t an honor we were all that anxious to grab. I haven’t played the game in years. Yet, Name It and Claim It was the first thing that came to mind as I read Judy Blume’s Summer Sisters: A Novel.  In so many ways, it’s a Gen-Xer’s version of We Didn’t Start the Fire.


In a way, this is entirely appropriate, since Judy Blume was the writer for many Gen-X women at an early point in their lives. Her Middle Grade and Young Adult stories steered many of them through the horrible, hormonal adolescent years until they grounded safely into adulthood.  That’s no small task, and many grown women remember Blume because of the help she gave them as girls.  And memory is the central theme of Summer Sisters.


These are Victoria “Vix” Leonard’s memories of her friendship with Caitlin Somers.  At first meeting, these two girls should have little in common.  Victoria, growing up in a working-class family, is familiar with siblings and debt.  Caitlin, the only child of affluent, divorced parents, knows the joys and sorrows of travel and non-stop relocation.  What they share is a sense of loneliness that is relieved when they become friends.  The effects of that relationship change the trajectory of both their lives.
Blume tracks the changes of her characters’ young lives through the popular songs and news stories they follow, a move that first endears and then dates her story.  When  Vix says in the first chapter that she dreams of being the bewitching “Dancing Queen” when she sings along with the record, it tells us a lot, both about the story’s setting and what occupies this child’s imagination.  Unfortunately, nearly every chapter follows with some pop culture marker until the reference feels obligatory.  By the time Vix mentions the padded shoulders in her first business suit, I wanted to shout, “Yes, I get it! We’re in the 80’s!” 
Blume does a better job of capturing Martha’s Vinyard, that off-beat, island of eccentrics, hard-working islanders, summer tourists, and money.  A Summer day at the Vinyard is something to be experienced, with its ambiance of light, color, and joy and you get the suggestion of that in this fire-fly narrative, as well as how much harder life is for year-round residents.  But, what she does nail is the intensity and durability of certain adolescent friendships.  Adult friends like the people we became; first friends loved the people we were becoming.  That makes them worth remembering and writing about, for the rest of our lives.

Because Everybody Loves a Good Fight

A lot of people spent the last eight Sunday Nights watching Ryan Murphy’s TV series, Feud, and I think I know why.  First, it was a quality product: well-written, acted, edited and produced. It was also an intriguing story about well-known people in a fascinating industry.  My mom, with her collection of books on the Golden Age of Hollywood, would have raved about this series, either praising or vilifying it to High Heaven.  But, mostly I think the title explained why people tuned in Sunday after Sunday and can’t wait for the next season: everyone loves to watch a good fight, and the nastier it gets, the better.  In case you are experiencing Feud-withdrawal, and you like a battle of wits, may I suggest Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels?  Trust me, when it comes to insecurity and ugly behavior in public, writers are pugilists with words.
Take one of my favorite battles in the book, the one between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. You could argue these two, like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, might have made better allies than enemies. As creative writers, political liberals, and women succeeding in fields still dominated by men they would have profited from mutual support.  Unfortunately, they also shared twin faults: neither responded well to criticism and both liked to get in the last verbal slam.  So, Lillian dismissed Mary’s negative review of her script by saying the opinion of a mere “Lady magazine writer” wasn’t worthy of her respect.  Now, Mary wasn’t a girl to let something like that go so when she was on TV, said Lillian, was an overrated, has-been and, “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and,’ and ‘the.’  To Lillian, whose reputation at the time was based on her memoirs, those were fighting words. Lillian sued Mary the TV show, the station, and its host for every dime they had. Never mind that, since these gals were both past their peak of popularity, no one was really listening, or that Mary didn’t have enough money to make the litigation cost-effective. Never mind that a lawsuit could (and did) ultimately cause Lillian more damage than Mary’s original, catty remark.  Ms. Hellman stuck to the fight for years, while her health and reputation sank like the Titanic. Only dying allowed her lawyers to drop the suit.  And, McCarthy complained afterward that Lillian’s death kept her from winning outright in court.  Talk about your sore winner!
There are other wonderful tales of Writers Behaving Badly, like Truman Capote’s shot across the bow to Gore Vidal (“So, how does it feel to be an enfent terrible?) and Theodore Dreiser slapping Sinclair Lewis, but I’ll leave those for you to peruse.  In the meantime, before you get into your own war of words, remember, fights are only truly fun to those outside of the line of fire.  And writers know all the mean words.

Revelations about Revolutions

For the last two years, popular culture has been increasingly influenced by the musical, Hamilton. First, at the Public, then the Richard Rodgers Theatres in New York and now on its first national tour, Hamilton has garnered more acclaim, and awards than any show in recent memory (I think the last show to pick up the Pulitzer, as well as the Tony and the Grammy for Best Musical was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).  Nevertheless, this polished, game-changing production did not appear, full-blown overnight. Hamilton had a long, slow, evolutionary journey, and the story its creation is almost as fascinating and complex as the subject, itself. Thanks to its composer, Linn-Manuel Miranda, and columnist/critic Jeremy McCarter, we have an insight into that creative journey through the book, Hamilton, the Revolution.  Reading it doesn’t leave you thinking (ala The Grateful Dead), “What a long, strange, trip it’s been.”  It reminds us how good minds, and generous natures, can create works of genius.
Take one feature of this revolutionary musical, its employment of Hip Hop and Rap. These were chosen, not just because the composer knew and loved the mediums but because he knew they were the best modes to use for this musical.  As McCarter points out, before the American Revolution was a battle of weapons, it was a battle of words and ideas with essayists like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson leading the attack.  To recapture the feeling of those verbal Molotov Cocktails and set them to music would require a text-heavy medium, something Hamilton’s composer well understood. Add this to the edgy, street-wise intelligence omnipresent in Rap and Hip Hop, and you have a revolutionary form of music to tell a revolutionary story.  Like some genius concepts, we only see in hindsight, how obvious this is.  
However, as gifted as Mr. Miranda is, his creative partners should not be slighted.  When I first saw the images of the musical’s set, I assumed it was a “bare bones” stage. All you see, if you Google these, (Sorry, I don’t own any I can add) are roughed in brick walls, wooden catwalks, some ropes and a pair of movable staircases.  It turns out this was an intentional choice the set designer came up with through research.  He learned early colonists built their first shelters with materials and techniques borrowed from ship-building.  Consequently, the first act’s set suggests a site still underway and under construction.  By moving a few walls and removing the ropes during intermission, the second act set lets us know we’re at a New World, both bigger and a little more settled.  
The reader learns every choice in the Hamilton production was intentional, including costumes, casting, and props.  There were debates, and disagreements, and mistakes on the way as well as a ton of revision.  The personal lives of the cast and production team often align with the musical, sometimes in heartbreaking ways.  Through it all, the composer and his creative team focus on each moment of the show, making it stronger, swifter and more focused.  If nothing else, Hamilton the Revolution reminds theatre-goers that plays and musicals aren’t the static dramatic pieces we know so well.  Those are simply the final, evolutionary results.  There is a world of story and song behind each one that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
So, before you put the soundtrack of Hamilton back into rotation or start the Herculean labor necessary to get tickets, open a copy of Hamilton, the Revolution and get to know the story behind this show.  Sondheim and Lapine wrote that “Art isn’t Easy”.  This book shows that Art is still worth the work.
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