Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Little Touch of Melancholy


You know how you wait and wait for something, and finally it's here, and then you go through it as slowly as you can, trying to make it last as long as possible? Well, that's where I've been the past week or so with the last of Ann Turnbull's Quaker trilogy, Seeking Eden. And as is often the case after some much-anticipated event is over, I'm suffering a little touch of melancholy, for a variety of reasons.

The first reason, of course, is because it's over. There will be no more stories about Susanna and Will or their children. That makes me sad because I love those characters and because the time period (late 17th century) is so interesting. Turnbull's books are so well-written that I felt myself drawn into the world of the book and truly invested in the character's lives. Seeking Eden seemed a little slower to get going than the other two books in the trilogy (No Shame, No Fear and Forged in the Fire), but somewhere in the middle of the book, I became so caught up in the story I finished the whole thing in one sitting. So much for my plans to make it last by drawing it out!

Another thing that makes me sad is knowing this excellent book has, as we say here in the South, a hard row to hoe to find an audience. Candlewick, the publisher that created the US editions of the other two books, declined to publish this one, even though the story takes place in Philadelphia. A quick check of Amazon's website showed Seeking Eden is not available directly through Amazon in the US; one can, however, get it through one of Amazon's associated sellers. I had to get the book through Amazon UK, which meant shipping charges were more than the price of the book (worth every penny, though). And then I see the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy as an Amazon bestseller, and I just get angry. I suppose now we're going to see a whole slew of knock-offs of that book (which is a knock-off of Twilight) on the publishers' menu for the next couple of years. It's not that I think Fifty Shades of Grey shouldn't be published; if people want to read it, fine. But it really does make me angry and sad that high-quality, substantive books like Seeking Eden are squeezed out of the marketplace and become less and less available for people like me who have zero interest in Fifty Shades of Grey and its progeny.

Finally, I have to admit that one of my first reactions immediately after finishing Seeking Eden was a sense of   depression (sort of) because I realize my own writing just doesn't measure up. One of the things I appreciate about the story is how smoothly Turnbull balances so many different elements. There is the family story of 16-year-old Josiah's conflict with his parents, particularly his father (did Turnbull have spy cams on our 16-year-old son? ha ha). There is the love story between Jos and Kate. There is a wealth of historical information, ranging from details about the persecution of Quakers in the New World as well as the old, the early years of Philadelphia, apprenticeships, the slave trade, slave auctions, and slavery, including the fact that Quakers at that time owned slaves. Then there is the overarching moral conflict Jos faces - should he break his contract with his master in order to follow a higher law? And that's not everything - the book is so rich and so jam-packed with good stuff. Yet it maintains the flow of a good story, building up to a point where I felt tense with nervousness about what would happen.

I hope I'm being too hard on myself, but I definitely had that sinking feeling that my own story was a lightweight, fluffy little love story compared to Seeking Eden. Nothing's wrong with fluffy little love stories, but my goal for writing is to go beyond that. I want to write things that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I want my stories to say something important about humanity. (Gosh, that sounds pretentious...but maybe you know what I mean.) Of course, I must remind myself, I've written one book and Ann Turnbull has written many. Maybe I can get there someday.

But I'll never get there if I don't find a way to work writing time into my daily schedule. I thought summer vacation would free me from the grind of teaching and grading - no, it's only replaced the grind of teaching with a different grind. If I'm going to write, I'm going to have to forcibly grab some time and guard it selfishly, which won't be easy and which the family probably won't understand. Another reason to feel melancholy....

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Getting Old Sucks

In about six weeks, I'm going to be hitting the age 50 milestone. This post is not whining about that. I actually am not especially bothered by the idea of being 50; despite the inconvenience of things like reading glasses and that nagging 10 pounds that won't go away and possible hearing aids (bad, bad heredity, unfortunately), I don't feel too much different than I did at age 30.

However, a couple of things I've read recently have made me think about what is (probably) coming down the line in my life - not in the next year, maybe not even in the next 10 years, but eventually, if I live long enough. Those two converging works are The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks and an unpublished memoir manuscript I am reading for the sister of a friend.

I certainly didn't go into reading The Notebook expecting to start thinking about aging. To be honest, I wanted to read it as "market research" to give me an idea of what kind of romantic books (beyond "romance novels") are popular with readers. (And to keep being honest, I didn't particularly care for this book. If you are interested, there will be a brief explanation of why at the end of this post.)

Not to give away any plot points, but The Notebook is a story within a story, about the same people at two different points in their lives. One story is about the rekindling of their teen romance when they are in their late 20s/early 30s; the other is about their lives now that they are living in a senior care facility of some kind. Allie, the woman in the story, has Alzheimer's disease to the point that she rarely recognizes her husband, Noah, the love of her life. Noah, however, remains devoted to her, and in fact, courts her so she will fall in love with him each day after forgetting him from the day before.

I'm not going to say much about the second book, since I don't have permission from the author to talk about it. It is the story of the struggles a family faced when they had to deal with their aging father's dementia by committing him to senior care against his will when he was clearly unable to take care of himself any longer but wouldn't admit it. It's a very compelling story, and I hope the author will be able to get her story out for the public to read someday in the future.

Although we don't really want to think about it, as we get older, chances are that we are going to be faced with substantial loss. For some of us, as in The Notebook, that loss may be of our most significant human relationship, either through death or to dementia. For others, it may be loss of freedom and control of our own destiny, as in the manuscript. For some, it may be both.

I was thinking after reading The Notebook how sad it would be to lose all the memories built up during the years of a relationship (which is, of course, why there was a notebook in the first place). I suppose you wouldn't really lose your own memories of the relationship if it was the partner who suffered the dementia, but it seems to me some of the value in memories is their sharedness. I think about some of the things that have happened in the 23 years I've been married, like the year we spent together in graduate school in Kansas, or building our house, or the birth of our kids. Of course, we both have our personal memories of those things, but there are certain elements that have become so intertwined that the story doesn't seem complete unless both sides are told. Even the telling of the story is often intertwined. How lonely would it be to have one piece of that story gradually disappear so that there's only a ghost of it left?

To lose one's partner to dementia would certainly be lonely, but the manuscript tells a story that is sadder, in a way. The father in the story has always been a very independent, resourceful, in-charge kind of man; as he grows older, however, he begins to do things (like get lost while driving) that are dangerous to himself and to others. His children have to wrest away from him all the trappings of independent life - his car, his house, his ability to come and go as he pleases. (Of course, this process is agonizing for them as well.) I'm not completely finished with the manuscript yet, but I know from talking to my friend that the process was very painful for all of them. Think about it; most of us are so used to being able to direct our own daily affairs that it would be incredibly frustrating to have that taken away. In some ways, it would be to lose one's very self.

I think about my grandfather who recently died. He stayed in his own home until the end and died in his own bed, which I imagine most of us would aspire to. However, I've always told people he was able to do that because his children were all close by and worked together to make it possible for him to have that life. The manuscript author pointed out something else that is necessary: the willingness to accept the help one needs. That's something her father was not willing to admit, and that's part of what made the process for him so difficult. I also now believe that's one reason Grandpa was able to do what he did. Even if it meant losing his dignity as the "father," he was willing to pay that cost to be able to stay home. I don't know that you can have both dignity AND self-determination. In all probability, you can't have either. Getting old sucks.

As I transition into my "senior years" (I actually joined AARP the other day so we could get the discounts on hotels on our recent family trip, ha ha), I'm not going to dwell on getting old. But I think it is important to do two things to get ready for what could be coming: 1) get those memories down in tangible form somewhere (like Grandma's memory book from my earlier post), and 2) develop the willingness to recognize when I need help and to be able to swallow my pride to accept it.

As promised, a brief review of The Notebook: For all the pathos of the situation, I didn't really develop any emotional connection with any of the characters. There were also a number of things Sparks did that I see over and over labeled as characteristics of weak writing: head-hopping and "telling" rather than "showing," among others. Finally, Sparks' techniques for trying to build suspense just drove me nuts. The end of the book was especially frustrating. Did Noah die, or not? 

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Thin Connection to Life 100 Years Past

Here's what we had for supper, all from our farm - sauteed collard greens, boiled new potatoes, broiled yellow squash, fresh green beans, and blueberries. I'm not trying to gloat, honest; these  veggies remind me of something I was thinking about yesterday.

We just returned from a little family vacation down in Texas. One of the unplanned stops was at the Lyndon B. Johnson State and National Park site near Johnson City. I'm glad we stopped, because there was quite a bit of historical information there (and the countryside in which the ranch is located is lovely in sort of a desolate way). But my favorite part was the Sauer-Beckman Living History Farm.

The farm is a replica of a German settler's farm from about 100 years ago, the period between 1912-1918. The exhibit includes the barn and all the outbuildings for livestock (including a hog pen with a HUGE sow and a hen house complete with three setting hens), a garden, a windmill and water tank, and the house itself, which consisted of three parts - a working/canning kitchen, the regular kitchen, and the sleeping/living area. (My husband and I had different explanations for our daughter about why the house was in three parts - he said it was so the sleeping quarters were separated from the kitchen in case the wood stove caught fire; I said it was because the kitchen would generate so much heat. I think we are both right!)

One thing I really liked about the exhibit is that we were able to walk around and look at things as we wanted to - there was not a pre-set tour with a guide giving us a canned speech. We could lift the dishcloth over the sourdough starter and peek in on it, we could touch the pieces of harness hanging in the tack room in the barn, we could look inside the outhouse (a two-holer. I can't imagine why anyone would want a two-hole outhouse, ha ha). There was a woman dressed in period costume at the exhibit, but she seemed to be there more as a resource to answer any questions; other than greeting us pleasantly, she didn't say anything to us, just kept working with the beets she obviously had pulled from the garden earlier in the day.

As you can imagine, this was absolute heaven for a writer of historical fiction set on a frontier farm! I could have stayed for hours, no lie, looking at every tool in the barn and every dish in both kitchens. But I had to be considerate of the rest of the family, who are not quite as into this as I am.

As I walked around the grounds, I began to realize that while this was history, some of it was also simply living for me. Except for the fact that I'm using electricity rather than firewood as a heat source, I'm still doing a lot of food preservation, just like the matron of the farm would have been doing 100 years ago. With only a few exceptions, most of what I "put up" for winter comes from our own garden. We have only a couple of hens, not a whole lot, but we do get eggs from them most days. I also still have memories of "helping" (as much as a kid can do) on hog butchering day, with the big cast iron washtub rendering down lard. I also remember the bowls of fresh milk sitting out on the cabinets at my grandparents' house waiting for cream to rise to the top, I'm lucky to have those memories; in the coming years of my life, there are going to be fewer and fewer people who will have seen those kinds of things.

Of course, there are a lot of differences between the few things I do and the daily life of a farmer's wife 100 years ago. I am spoiled by the convenience and safety of pasteurized milk and by the softness of store-bought bread. But something as simple as having a meal filled with vegetables that my husband and I planted and harvested, cleaned and cooked, helps me feel there's still something of a connection with those hard-working people in the past, small as it may be.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

First in the Hearts of His Countrymen

As I've grown older, I've really come to recognize how inadequate history classes in school are. I'm not trying to be snarky; it's just that history is so "thick" and filled with so many details there is absolutely no way a person can learn much more than the basics of names, dates, and places. That's one reason I like to tackle some historical nonfiction once in a while to go along with my favored diet of historical fiction. My latest was Joseph Ellis' biography of George Washington, His Excellency.

Shortly after beginning this book, I realized I knew very little about George Washington. Sure, I knew he was the commander in chief for the Continental Army and the first constitutional president of the United States. I'd heard the story about how he thwarted the mutiny of the Newburgh Conspiracy by using his spectacles and a sentimental reference to his advancing age. But I didn't have much of an understanding of the amazing human being that was behind all those accomplishments. While Ellis' biography isn't as focused on George Washington the human being as say, The Unexpected George Washingtion: His Private Life by Harlow Giles Unger, Ellis does give some analysis of Washington's psychology. (I borrowed both of these books from a friend and while I'd like to read the Unger book, it took me 2 1/2 months - YES - to read the Ellis book. I'm ready to get back to some fiction! And I want to return the books to the friend. Maybe I'll get to Unger some time in the future.)

I'm not going to go into everything I found interesting about Washington's life (although I had no idea he was a smallpox survivor and how that played a strategic role in the American Revolution). To keep this post short and sweet, I'll just focus on two things that gave me new respect for Washington: his planned solution to the problem of frontier settlement and Indian rights to the land, and his determination to somehow, eventually free his slaves.

Probably because I am working on a story which is centered around the conflict over land between the Cherokee and white settlers, I paid special attention to the section of the book that talked about Washington's plans as president to deal with the Indians. Ellis points out Washington firmly believed the nation's future lay in expanding into the interior of the continent, which meant there had to be some policy for dealing with the peoples who were already there. Unlike many officials (especially Andrew Jackson later), Washington respected the Indians as "familiar and formidable adversaries fighting for their own independence; in effect, behaving pretty much as he would do in their place." That view led him to come up with a policy of creating Indian "homelands" that would house the tribes as foreign nations with which the United States would interact just as they would with the nations of Europe. Washington was apparently opposed to confiscation of Indian lands, which he believed would "stain the character of the nation." Unfortunately, early on, the state of Georgia ignored Washington's Treaty of New York with the Creek Nation and sold more than 15 million acres that would have been the Creek homeland to a land speculating company. As Ellis pointed out, "Eventually Washington was forced to acknowledge his vision...could not be enforced." He may have had a magnanimous attitude toward Native Americans, but not enough people shared his view - or too many were too greedy for land to care.

I also found it interesting to follow Ellis' discussion of how Washington gradually moved from oblivious slave owner (oblivious to the rights of slaves, that is) to a man who freed his slaves in his will. Ellis spends considerable time discussing the development of Washington's moral stance on slavery; although Washington came to see slavery as in contrast with the democratic principles he fought for in the revolution, he was still constrained by his vision of economic security. Part of the problem was that he didn't have full control of all the slaves; more than half of his slaves actually belonged to the dowry that came with Martha on their marriage and he couldn't free them without paying their value to the estate (which he obviously wasn't willing to do). Part of the problem was also that Washington felt strongly the new nation couldn't survive the political battles that would break out if he as president made moves to eliminate slavery. Ellis notes how complicated the slavery question was for Washington, who had a strong commitment to avoid breaking up slave families by selling slaves and who continued to support all the slaves even when it didn't work economically for Mount Vernon. I suppose we could condemn Washington's position on slavery by saying he waited until he was dead and would no longer need their services to give his slaves their freedom. However, I look  at it this way - Washington was the only one of the slave-owning Founding Fathers who actually did anything about slavery, even if it came after his death. And his will didn't simply throw the slaves as free blacks out into the world; Washington allotted funds to provide care for the older or sick slaves for the remainder of their lives, and he called for the younger slaves to be taught to read and to do some kind of trade before being freed completely at age 25. And he was serious about it; his will included the following statement: "see that this clause respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place without evasion, neglect or delay."

Even though it took me a long time to read the book, it was not because the book was boring or poorly-written. I thought it hit a good balance between giving an overview of the many significant events of Washington's life and of the motivations and personality of the man who lived those events. I'm glad I read it, and I'm glad to have more flesh put on the paper cutout figure of Washington that I had from studying American history in school.