Janice Holt Giles–A Writer Needing to be rediscovered

See the source imageAt least a half dozen times in my life, I have read a book that was either a current best seller or was by a current best selling author. I am not opposed to reading best sellers, but neither am I drawn to a book because it is ranked #1 on the fiction or non-fiction list. I recognize lots of name of authors who are pouring out one top selling book after another, but I have little experience in reading them.
Maybe this is akin to my love of country roads, meaning those winding, twisting, tree and farm land lines roads that don’t show up on most maps and don’t lead to anywhere other than someone’s old homeplace.  Maybe it is akin to a love that I developed in my early youth where I embraced not only country music, which few or none of my classmates liked, but I embraced what was even then (the late 1960’s) the older, outdated, less noticed country music.  Even now, I rarely encounter anyone who remembers Moon Mulligan or Hawkshaw Hawkins.
It was also in my youth that I encountered a Kentucky writer by the name of Jesse Stuart.  I read Hie to the Hunters in my 9th grade year and have never recovered from a love of life with the Sparks family.  In fact, I have often “taught” that book to my junior high students, and the reading would be followed up by Jud Sparks Day where we would dress and, even better, eat like folks did in that book.  One Jesse Stuart book led to another and another.  For a long season in life, I assumed he was long forgotten, but discovered that both the University of Kentucky Press and the Jesse Stuart Foundation were busy keeping his books in print.
Without making the Kentucky connection, I stumbled upon and read a book titled A Little Better Than Plumb: A Biography of a House.
This is an account of how authors Janet Holt Giles and Henry Giles went about finding logs and lumber from old barns, log cabins, and other neglected structures in the hills of Kentucky.  From a wide assembly of such materials they constructed a log house nestled near a stream where they were able to enjoy a life of writing and contemplation.
Having once lived in a log house that I had built on a hill in a wooded tract of ten acres, the book was largely nostalgic for me.  I have never gotten over the loss of that home, that time in life, and the hopes and dreams I had there. (Family growth and school necessitated leaving that place.)
Among other things, I learned to my satisfaction that farming and raising your own hogs and chickens is not a grand thing to do.  On a more positive note, I learned that Janice Holt Giles had written quite a few novels.
Learning that she had written quite a few novels, I have looked around here and there for her books. These are not books one readily finds on the shelves of the local book franchises.  And keeping my eyes open as I go about to different used book sources, I have not seen her books very often either.  Then I received two books by Mrs. Giles from the University of Kentucky Press.They don’t often show up where I am looking. Thankfully, the University of Kentucky Press is keeping this Kentucky author’s books in print.
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The Believers is a great story that includes some real insights into frontier life in Kentucky, the Scots-Irish Calvinism/Presbyterianism of the rural folk, the bits and pieces of classical education some were privileged to have, and the effects of the more unusual offshoots of the Second Great Awakening.
Under men like James McGready in Kentucky and Asahel Nettleton back in the east, the Second Great Awakening was used to revive churches and reach the lost. But there were far more unusual and unorthodox and American-grown offshoots from the revival movement. In the book, there is some mention that Pastor Rankin, the circuit riding Presbyterian, had aligned himself with the New Lights. Things go down from there because he manages to persuade the Richard and Rebecca Cooper to move to the county in Kentucky where things were happening.
Very clearly, the religious emotionalism and fervor of the frontier revival created shock waves among the faithful.  The more traditional Christian churches were viewed as less spiritual, and the church members’ salvation was questioned unless they were experiencing some of the physical manifestations of the revivalists.
In time, Shaker missionaries show up and families start joining the Shaker Movement and adhering to the teachings of Mother Ann Lee.  Shakers are a religious oddity and curiosity among most Americans today.  People tour the old Shaker communities.  The song “Simple Gifts” is often remembered and enjoyed.  One would be prone to think that they were a short-lived, but generally pleasant religious community that existed in a utopian society for a time and then disappeared.  As brought out in the novel, there were plenty of good-hearted and honest folk in the Shaker community, but the community as a whole was tyrannical and controlling of both thought and actions.
In the story, Rebecca is the central character and narrator. (Her mother, Hannah Fowler is the subject of a prequel to this book titled Hannah Fowler.) Rebecca loves her husband dearly, and they both are devastated by the loss of two stillborn babies. Richard decides it is a judgment of God, so he abandons home and farm and takes his wife to join first a more “moderate” religious group. Then he is convinced that the Shaker way is the right way.

The key conflict now arises: Shakers don’t believe in marriage. Married couples are separated when they join the group. (Profound Thought: Maybe this is why this group failed to survive.)

Rebecca’s life in the Shaker community comprises the bulk of the story. She is a dutiful woman, mislead, but not suppressed in mind and spirit. This is truly the conflict of someone who wants to do what is right and traditional (as in obeying her husband), but is conflicted by what that involves.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers. I must admit that as a Christian of Presbyterian and Reformed persuasion. I kept wanting to step into the book and bring “chapter and verse” to those both oppressed by and indulging in Shaker beliefs.

My question is this: Why isn’t this woman’s books, especially this novel, out there in more places? I cannot wait for my wife and hopefully for my daughters to read it. It ranks up there with books like Wuthering Heights, Gone With the Wind, and others where strong women fight to survive.

This book will not be, Lord willing, my only Janice Holt Giles novel to read. The one next on the list for me is Run Me a River.  

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A Tale of Two Cities–Part 1–Dickens and Augustine

 

 

Reading through and teaching A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens has only increased my love of the book and the author.  Below is the first of two posts from the old blog that I posted back in the year 2010.

Better novels than A Tale of Two Cities, it can be argued, have been written. But one would be hard pressed to find a better beginning to a novel than “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” This opening sentence starts a series of contrasts of social classes, societal conditions, and human choices that will guide the novel through to the end. Dickens did not always write with a great deal of theological discernment, yet he penned one of the most powerful Christian stories ever in this novel. His Tale of Two Cities reflects certain ideas that can be found in a key prequel to his work. I don’t know if Dickens had much personal knowledge of that prequel, and it was not a major influence in Victorian England, but Augustine’s City of God sets forth the same contrasts as Dickens’ novel.

To keep reading (and why would you not want to read more?)….click here.

 

Overdue Book Reviews, #2 Heaven and Hell

“Teacher, I didn’t exactly finish the book.”  I have endured that excuse from miserable underlings for years.  The unbending rule of my classroom, borrowed from some scholastic environment of yesteryear, is “Learn or depart.  A third alternative is to be flogged.”  Floggings and canings are regular occurences in my classroom.  Many are the times when a student has to stand because sitting is uncomfortable due to the recent administration of violent instruction upon the hinder parts.

Actually, none of the above is true, except the part of hearing excuses from students for not getting assignments done.  They don’t always realize it, but I truly understand.  With the necessity of checking everyone’s FaceBook status, upgrading their own status, listening to and downloading music, watching movies, texting endlessly, tweeting and eating, shopping and bopping, who has time to plod through a tome.  Besides, reading makes you sleepy.  Or what if, horror of horrors, an assigned reading bores the student.  Quick, administer the Detergent novel series—the students are bored.

All of that paragraph is true except for using the Detergent series to cure an outbreak of literary boredom.

“Of the making of many books, there is no end,” said Solomon on the occasion of perusing his Wish List on Amazon.  I read books; I reread books; I study books; but I also scan books, survey books, and glance at books.  I review books as a part-time job.  It pays well, if you think of pay as something other than money.  It is a free service to the blog reading community.  It is a sharing of a gift and experience.

All of this is to say that I am going to comment upon a book I have not read.  About a year ago, I received a review copy of Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetric Tradition by Louis Markos.   I have scanned the book, read portions, and eagerly thumbed through it.  But since it did not directly fit into last year’s teaching schedule, it did not get the needed cover to cover read.  But I highly treasure and recommend the book.  There were two reasons for my endorsement–the title and the author.

First the title:  Heaven and Hell…Visions of the Afterlife…the Western Poetic Tradition.  Point blank, we must say, there is no understanding of literature without an understanding of theology, primarily Christian theology.  Agrarian poet, novelist, literary critic Robert Penn Warren told his students, “Read the Bibles and mark them well. I mean the King James Version.”  To start naming the literary works that borrow from, build upon, allude to, use and misuse the Bible is synonomous with listing the books in the canon of literature.

Markos includes chapters on Dante (actually 9 chapters), John Milton (2 chapters), John Bunyan and John Donne (who share a chapter), William Blake and C. S. Lewis (one chapter each).  He also has seven chapters on pre-Christian Greeks and Romans.  But they too “borrowed from” Christian theology.

This theological bent is not just toward old and ancient epics.  William Faulkner’s books are suffused with Biblical imagery and Christian references, as well as Christian characters.  John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath builds it theme upon Biblical motifs.  Hemingway’s title The Sun Also Rises is from Ecclesiastes.

Every work of fiction is a commentary upon some book, passage, or teaching of the Bible.

Continuing with the title, every piece of literature deals with some vision of Heaven and/or Hell and some sense of the afterlife.  Even the most cynical, skeptical, Nihilistic, atheistic piece of fiction opens up a discussion of the afterlife.  Maybe the door is one that closes and the theme is that all is meaningless.  Maybe there is No Exit (to borrow from Satre) or maybe we are Waiting for Godot (to borrow from Beckett).  To say that “this is all there is” is to posit a view of the afterlife and how we should view such.  The fact that the novel ends, but is expected to still be living in the mind of the reader is the testimony to an afterlife.  The book, any piece of fiction, roadmaps to somewhere, even if that somewhere is nowhere.

Along with that, Heaven and Hell imply justice, rewards, a reckoning, hope, fear, triumph, defeat, and meaning.  The author may believe that the only heaven we can find is here on earth.  Maybe heaven in some literary experiences is “I and Thou, here and now, Wow.”  Maybe they think, like the speaker in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” who consoled his lover in a time when faith had receded.  That momentary love experience was the only solace:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain….
From this, you can surmise, I hope, that this book is on target.  To again recap what is covered, the topics, works, and authors include the following:
Hebrew and Greek Visions of the Underworld
Homer’s Odyssey
Plato
Virgil’s Aeneid
Dante’s Divine Comedy, which consists of three parts–Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso
John Milton’s Paradise Lost
John Bunyan  (author of Pilgrim’s Progress)
John Donne (poet)
William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (and I confess to finding William Blake an enigma)
C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce
What a great college course that would be.  What a good list of books and authors to plunge into.  Certainly, literature students should be grounded on these works.  But what about pastors and theologians?  I am convinced that pastors, theologians, doctors, lawyers, accountants, politicians, moms at home, scientists, and zoo keepers all need to be grounded in literature.
But the Ancient Tome of Wisdom asks, “How shall they learn without a teacher?”  Enter the author Louis Markos.  (You can find his blog here.) Dr. Markos is a professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University.   He is a Christian and a scholar, a literary teacher and a theological guide.  He has written several books on literature.  My favorite is From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics.  That is a book I often use when teaching ancient literature.  I have also enjoyed listening to Dr. Markos lecturing on C. S. Lewis from the Great Courses lecture series.  He has also written several books on C. S. Lewis, along with books on Tolkien, literature in general, Romantic poets, Tennyson, and Christian apologetics.   (I admit poverty in lacking several of his books.)
There are both elements of renaissance and reformation going on in our world.    Certainly, one can look at the news and world events and conclude that these are “the worst of times.”  (Historical ignorance reinforces that hasty conclusion.)  But it is the world of pagan thought, rebellion against God, immorality, governmental overreach, materialism and poverty, and more than engulfs us.  But we can rejoice in the collapse of those kingdoms in the sand.  God is building His kingdom.  Certainly and centrally, He raises up churches, pastors, Christian men and women, and Christian families.  But Christ died for, redeemed, and rose from the dead for all of creation.  Salvation is not just personal and otherworldly.  It is cultural and cosmic.
There is notable progress among Christians in the field of philosophy.  There are plenty of names in other academic areas, but literature is a vast field of opportunity for both Christian scholars and students.
So, God is teaching us literature.  In the not so distant past, it was the Fugitive Poets, the cultural Agrarians, the literary New Critics who opened the door to rediscovering the world of fictive and imaginative thought.  In more recent times, it was such literary giants as Mel Bradford, Cleanth Brooks, Louise Cowan (retired, but still teaching), and Leland Ryken (also retired, but still instructing).  Currently, it is teachers like Louis Markos.

Dr. Markos, surrounded by a books and Raphael’s classic painting The School of Athens.

The Great American Novel and the Late Unpleasantness

Walker Percy once told his friend, Shelby Foote, that he was writing the American Iliad.  He was referring to Foote’s monumental three volume history of the Civil War, titled simply The Civil War.  Foote’s incredible narrative style wove its way through hundreds of battles, across miles and miles of the country, and across four years of war, twenty years of writing, and a couple of pages of text.  But Foote’s Civil War was not the American Iliad, nor are any of the many, many powerful histories of that war.

Some of the greatest books on the War Between the States, a name I prefer over Civil War, have been fiction.  Of course, we have to begin by understanding that fiction at its best is not fictional.  Rather, it is true.  Or at least, fiction has a way of getting to the truth that is quite revealing of the human situation.  Fiction can probe in areas and make pronouncements that non-fiction can only envy.  When the historian or biographer probes the subconscious, the underlying motive, the subjective, it often reveals more about the author than the subject.

Much could be said about Civil War fiction.  I know because tonight I picked up a book out of the study that I have not read from in years.  There was a time when my obsession with the War itself morphed into an obsession with Southern literature.  I am not a person with hobbies, only obsessions.  I see them altered through the years, but never completely overcome, thankfully.

The book is Classics of Civil War Fictionedited by David Madden and Peggy Bach.  It was published by University Press of Mississippi, one of my favorite university presses.  This book consists of more than a dozen selections and essays.  Without listing the books in this book, I will just say that I have only read a few of the selections they highlight and several of them are totally unfamiliar to me.  But, the book has a great nearly 20 page introduction to the subject and a interesting list of bibliography containing novels, stories, poems, and plays from 1852 to 1949.  As the editors point out, a surprisingly small amount of literary criticism and attention has been devoted to Civil War fiction.

My current interest in the topic stems from recent reading assignments inflicted upon my poor captives in junior high American history and high school Humanities:  The American Story.  I will, in my usual fashion, list books that I have read and liked and comment with what I hope is lucid brevity.

1.  The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.

Take care that you don’t read The Killer Angels as a historical narrative.  It does a great job of capturing the history of the battle of Gettysburg and many of the key historical figures, but this novel only incidentally covers the visible, outward war.  It is the internal conflicts that propels this book along.  The Killer Angels very closely follows many of the patterns of Homer’s Iliad.  And, whereas the chief battle in The Iliad centers around when “first there stood in division of conflict” Achilles and Agamemnon, in this novel, the conflict is between Generals Longstreet and Lee.  I love this novel and have taught through it several times, and I also argue with it at many points.  I also think the movie, titled Gettyburg, although lacking the internal depth of the book, was well done.

Michael Shaara’s son, Jeff, wrote both a prequel and sequel to The Killer Angels.  The prequel was titled Gods and Generals and it covers the earlier years of the war prior to Gettysburg in 1863.  The sequel, The Last Full Measure, covers the closing years of the war.  I enjoyed reading both of these books, but did not find the fictional element as strongly convincing as the elder Shaara’s book.  Jeff Shaara has gone on to write an incredible number of fictionalized histories of American wars.

2.  Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt.

  

I read this book last December for the first time.  I also used it in class for the first time.  It is written for young readers and is a marvelous story.  This is really a fun read.  Set in southern Illinois and focused on a young boy named Jethro who witnesses the coming of the war.  His brothers and teacher and mentor all go off to war.  One brother joins the Confederate Army, while the others side with the north.  As the war progresses, Jethro learns of the battles and rising and falling of military leaders.  This book is a good teaching tool about the war, but also a really good story.

3.  Nashville 1864  by Madison Jones

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I read Nashville 1864 by Madison Jones at least 10 years ago.  This is another novel featuring a young boy, who in this case witnesses the disastrous Battle of Nashville, Tennessee.  The novel is a short one, but I remember really liking it.  Madison Jones is a Southern author I really need to read more of.

4.  Shiloh by Shelby Foote

If I have trouble remembering the previous book, I have even more remembering this book.  Shelby Foote was an accomplished Southern writer with the voice and manners and style of a true Southern gentleman.  He was also a friend to William Faulkner.  This is another short novel and it is set in the disastrous battle of Shiloh in 1862.  One should generally expect a dire and dreary tone to books by Southerners about the War.

5.  Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Reading Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier in December of 1997 was my first and only experience of reading a best seller while it was on the charts.  This is a beautiful and lyrical book.  In so many ways, it is a recasting of Homer’s Odyssey.  A Confederate soldier, who is disillusioned with the war, begins his long journey home across Virginia.  Meanwhile, his fiance undergoes a transformation as she learns how to farm, grow and store food, and survive.  Both main characters are learning the world around them through their experiences.  I have never recovered from the heartbreak this book gave me.

6.  The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

Of course, Crane’s novel is a classic.  Although some have identified the battle in the book as the northern defeat at Chancellorsville, the book leaves the exact details vague.  The ever amazing fact is that Crane had never witnessed war.  This book blows the whole theory that writers should stick to what they actually know.  The story is powerful, but the novel can easily be read too lightly.  This is not a story of courage, honor, and valiant young men in battle.  It is a study of the emotional and psychological impact of war and life experiences.  It could have been set in any time, any war, but it does reflect some of the story of the Civil War.

7.  The Fathers by Alan Tate

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Alan Tate was a master poet, a brilliant literary critic and essayist, an Agrarian, a Fugitive Poet, a pivotal figure among the New Critics, a literary professor, and in this one case, a novelist.  This book is rarely noticed, but was highly acclaimed.  For a true sense of the Southerness of Alan Tate, one would do well to read his biographies of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

8.  Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

Somewhere around 1997, I read a used paperback copy of Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.  This kind of alternative history, fantasy-type reading, is not my forte.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book.  It involves a time machine that enables some South Africans to go back in time and aid the Confederacy with modern weaponry.  This is fun and one could wish for such changes in history on occasion.

9.  The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

I cannot say much about this book because I just started reading it.  Last summer, we had a wonderful short trip to Franklin, Tennessee (one of the greatest places in the world).  We visited the historic Carnton Plantation which was converted into a hospital during the awful battle of Franklin.  Dark stains are still on the floor where surgeries were performed.  Near the house is a cemetary containing quite a few remains of Southern soldiers.  This story, the first novel of Franklin author Robert Hicks, is centered around that story.

10.  None Shall Look Back by Caroline Gordon

Caroline Gordon was an outstanding Southern author and she was the wife of Alan Tate (for a time).  This book, None Shall Look Back, is absolutely one of the best novels I ever read.  It is deeply Southern.  Ms. Gordon writes about war with the skill of a Homer or Douglas Southall Freeman, and she writes of love and romance like Jane Austen.  This book contains both war and love.  I never knew of Gordon until some years after I finished college.  What a loss.

11.  The Unvanquished by William Faulkner

This is, without question, my favorite novel on the War Between the States and my favorite Faulkner work.  I have read the book around 10 times and cannot wait to get started on it soon with the Humanities Class.  I think it gives a powerful view of the struggles on the homefront, the terrors of the war in a local region, and the Reconstruction period.  In my late blog of yesteryear, I discussed the novel and Faulkner HERE and I have the text of a paper I once wrote and read at a literary gathering in Dallas which is about The Unvanquished, which can be found HERE.  Various other Faulkner works deal directly or indirectly with the War Between the States and its aftermath.  There is no understanding of Faulkner’s world apart from the War.  Two major works that deal with that war are Absalom, Absalom, a novel, and “Mountain Victory,” a short story.

The book pictured below, Reading Faulkner: The Unvanquished, is part of an incredibly helpful series of books published by the University Press of Mississippi, which explain and comment on Faulkner’s Southern language and literary twists and turns.

There are lots more fictional works on the war.  I know that I have left off the defining piece of both Southern fiction and cinematography, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  Alas, although I have watched the movie several times and liked it (all except for the first watching back when I was in 8th grade), I have not read the book.  But I will try soon to remedy that moral failing.

The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come

 

Believe me. I really tried to specialize at different points in my career as a student, teacher, and reader. Admittedly, I should have completed a doctoral dissertation years ago on some topic like “Remnants of Mercantile Economic Thought in Jackson’s Veto of the Bank Bill.” But the problem was, and is, that I am too easily distracted, too often drawn away, too quickly ready to jump into something else.


For a long period of my life, I studied ante-bellum America and the War Between the States with a great deal of intensity and focus. I have rows of sagging bookshelves filled with accounts of battles, biographies of generals, and studies of various and sundry topics related to the war that divided America from 1861 to 1865.

Besides the books, I was a re-enactor for a short time. I served in the Third Arkansas re-enactment group and took part in a re-enactment battle or two. I collected Civil War era clothes, a gun and a sword, pictures, actual bullets, and all sorts of items related to the war. For a time, everyone who gave me a gift, gave me some sort of Civil War item. I received Civil War maps, a beautiful set of plates features Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, a Robert E. Lee stein, a Civil War chessboard, and books, often the coffee table variety. Every trip my family took involved, as much as possible, a visit to a battlefield or to a Southern plantation. My wife and I had a deal: For every battlefield visit, we would visit an antique store.

My wife recently asked why I tapered off on these interests, on what was an obsession. There are several reasons.

First, it is my nature. I get overwhelmingly consumed in something and then begin reading, studying, talking, and thinking about it non-stop. At some point, the energy and devotion peaks and I almost become normal. Almost normal, that is, until the next obsession takes command.

Second, in my school, I began the Humanities program. Classical Christian education as a whole redirected my thinking, and then the Humanities program necessitated some radical shifts in my labors. I had, almost against my will, to read Homer, Herodotus, and Virgil for Ancient World Humanities. I had, in spite of the difficulties, to read Eusebius, Augustine, Chaucer, Dante, and Mallory for the Medieval World Humanities. I was more willing to tackle Luther and Calvin, Dickens and Hugo, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky for the Modern World class. But those authors carried me far from the battlefields of the American War Between the States.
The fourth part of the Humanities Program is the American Story. But since the whole program is book dominated, it was necessary to focus lots of attention on the books and time periods other than the 1860s.

Third, the whole field of Civil War studies is full. The room is crowded. A person can hardly keep up with all the newly published books on the battle of Gettysburg, much less the whole range of Civil War studies.

Fourth, Southern apologetics wore me out. I was initially drawn into the story of the War because of a growing awareness that the issues were not simply that of a freedom-motivated North seeking to liberate a slavery-dominated Southern culture dominated by the key players in Gone With the Wind. Books like I’ll Take My Stand by Twelve Southerners and The Southern Tradition at Bay by Richard Weaver alerted me to the more profound social, political, and cultural dimensions of the war. Theologians such as James Henley Thornwell and Robert Lewis Dabney alerted me to the theological angles to the war. Political thinkers such as Eugene Genovese helped me to see the complexities of the war.
So, I defended the South. I took my stand, waved the Stars and Bars, and cited the sources. If the South were a Lost Cause, so were many of the causes I stood for.
There is no simple “the North was right and righteous and the South was wicked” or “the North waged a Unitarian statist war against the freedom loving Christian South” scenario. There is much to defend about the old South, the Confederacy, and the South that survived. But it too was a flawed society, and the South remains so.
I gave a series of talks once at a conference. The first was titled “The Tragedy of the South’s Having Gone to War” and the second was titled “The Blessings of Southern Defeat.” These talks were no stab in the back to my heritage and the land of my birth. The South lost, and lost badly, a war that it should not have fought, but God graciously has blessed the South through the defeat. Those two talks gave a closure around what I had been seeking in my studies of all things Southern.


Fifth, studies of the Southern War for Independence led me into studies of Southern literature. The obsessive mode took over again. Blame the Agrarians, those twelve essayists who wrote I’ll Take My Stand. After reading their book carefully, I began collecting and reading everything they wrote and everything that had been written about them. So the poetry of Ransom, Tate, Warren, and Davidson captured me. The novels of Warren, Caroline Gordon, and Madison Jones pulled me in. The essays of Davidson, the literary criticism of Cleanth Brooks, and the literary sons and daughters of the Agrarian, Fugitive Poets, New Critics movements engulfed me.
And all Southern literature leads quickly to Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. So the war faded, the book collecting changed courses, and the interest level cooled.
But it was never a jilted romance. Rather, it was the old dilemma of world’s enough and time. Time itself while moving in a linear fashion to an appointed end also moves in cycles. The time came to return to studies of America before the War Between the States.

Still in print–more than 1,000,000 sales.

Two books directly and two books indirectly prompted the return. The first was a novel, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox, Jr. My old paperback copy notes that over a million copies of this book has been sold. My old paperback copy, purchased at K-Mart back in 1974, cost $1.25. By and large, this novel is a forgotten book.

I read it in high school and, to the best of my recollection, enjoyed it. Perhaps I enjoyed it less on this reading, but understood it more. This is a story set in the politically divided state of Kentucky. It focuses on the social divisions as well. Mountain folk are pitted against the landed gentry. Even slaves despise the lowliness of the mountain people.

When the war begins, some of the characters in the book side with the North, others with the South. The key character Chad Bufford fits the beloved American pattern of the rags-to-riches story. Through pluck, strength, and Providence, he goes from being a poor, orphaned, and hopeless mountain boy to being taken in by a benefactor who was a long-lost distant kinsman.

Fox created a Dickens-like cast of characters that appear and re-appear in all sorts of incidences and coincidences. For whatever reasons, I often struggled to remember who the different characters were.
No wonder, however, that this novel, first published in 1898, should have sold a million plus copies. It presents a Gone With the Wind-type of American memory of the war. The divisions the war created extended into states, communities, and families, both in Kentucky and throughout much of the nation. The young man, Chad Bufford, is the hero-type that Americans loved. He is a type of Natty Bumpo, a type of cowboy, an unlikely hero who triumphs over the odds. Then there is romance, with the delicacy of a Victorian mindset. There is danger, conflict, pursuit and capture sequences, and historical circumstances. Being an older novel written by a Southern author (Fox was a Virginian), there are enough politically incorrect notions and words to ban John Fox, Jr. from almost any and every reading list in our time.

Novels give us angles on reality. They nurture some myths we want to believe. I can readily see why I would have liked this book in 1974. Every young boy would wish to be Chad Bufford, or Spiderman, or a sports hero. The novel reveals something of what people wanted to read and already thought in 1898. The pain of the War Between the States was repeatedly assuaged by novels that sought for a healing reconciliation. It is intriguing that this novel is so strongly Southern in its flavor and perspective, but Chad Bufford joins the Union army. Finally, the novelist was wise enough and American enough to know that sweet happy endings aren’t sweet or happy. The quest for life in America was not to be found in the attainments of the plantation-owning Southern gentlemen or in the simple pleasures of the mountain folk. And even those who were on the winning side of the War Between the States still lost much in the war, even if they retained their own lives.

Two readings–33 Years Apart

The 1974 paperback edition of I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven.

It was the spring of 1980. I was well into the last months of my first real year of teaching school. In August of 1979, after having filled out numerous job applications, and having a degree, but no teaching certificate, I got a teaching job.

Avery School, some 15 or so miles to the west of my home town of DeKalb, Texas, needed another teacher. Being hired last and being hired to fill in some schedule gaps, I had an unusual patchwork of classes. I taught 2 remedial reading classes (with no training in that area), a 7th grade math class (an equally great surprise), a journalism class (chaotic, to say the least), and fifth and sixth grade physical education (after all, I had a history degree). And the job was in Avery!

For all those reasons that just happen to seep into one’s mind, I always looked upon Avery as a cultural backwater. That was from comparing it to DeKalb!  Avery seemed more rural, more locked in the past, less educated, more separated from the modern world. I pictured it as barely past horse and buggy days, as a place for the one-room school house, a well with a rope and bucket out front and an outhouse out back, and living in the past glorious age when it was the Tomato Capitol of East Texas.

There is no rational accounting for such provincial snobbery. We always wonder about those who are separated from us or different from us. How do they function or live or think? Do they have feelings like us, that is, like real people? So Avery was something of a mission field, and Avery was a job.
A lot of educating occurred during that year, and as is the case with all first year teachers, it was the teacher who got the education—over and over again. It was, after a few initial stresses, a fun year, a very memorable year, and a defining year. I have had no on-going contact with the students and families of that community, but I have never forgotten them. I should add, that my family roots are in Avery. My father grew up there, and when I worked there, people still remembered my grandfather, his vast strawberry fields, and his work ethic. The superintendent said to me, “I worked for your grandfather. He was an old man who enjoyed working young boys to death.” It was a compliment, and it still leaves me wishing I had known (as in, experienced) that part of my grandfather’s manner.

Roaming around the school library, I picked up a copy of a book called I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. The book was published in Canada in 1967, but was not published in the U. S. until 1973. It became a best seller, which has usually been a turn-off for me. But it was a small book of some 159 pages, so I read it. And I loved it.

The short novel paralleled my own life, slightly. The story is about a young Anglican priest who is sent to minister to a tribe of Indians in a remote village in British Columbia. Through his experiences of getting to know these people, listening to their talk, seeing their customs, sharing their losses, fearing their fears, and loving them, he learns much. His bishop sent him there because, although trained and schooled for the ministry, he had so much to learn. Also, he did not have much time. (This part of the story, thankfully, was not a point of similarity for me.) The young priest was suffering from an unnamed disease and had only a couple of years to live. So, living fully was what mattered.

Becoming a part of a community, getting to know people, seeing the lives and pains and gifts and weaknesses of my students, and embracing a life calling were all a part of my Avery experience. The sadness of the book resonated with a sadness I felt, especially, when a better job took me away from the community.

I loved the book in 1980 and always felt a pang of remembrance of the way the book and the experience were meshed in my life. In October of 1983, I picked up a used paperback copy of the book at a library sale for 25 cents. In various moves, it was shuffled here and there and finally was placed in a box of trade paperbacks that don’t command shelf space.

A few weeks back, I picked the book up again. Old cheap trade paperbacks are great for carrying along. They are my Kindle. I take such books in the car while running errands (lest I get caught with time and no reading material). I started reading I Heard the Owl Call My Name for the second time—in 33 years.

This is a short book, but for me, it was not a fast read. Usually, I read a chapter or two at night (after starting it on my town-errand runs). The book is slow, but not dull. It is more lyrically paced than plot driven. At times, it is even confusing to keep the characters in mind and to see what is happening. All the while I reread the book, I wondered how the young teacher/reading experience of 1980 would translate into this phase of my life.

Upon completing the book, I wonder why it took so many years for me to return to the village. Books don’t change, but we do. The book was good then and is good now. It speaks to different seasons of life, but it still speaks. To some degree, I read it more now as a pastor identifying with the joys and travails of a flock. I saw more of the inevitability of change. I felt more for the old in the village who lamented their loss of a way of life. And I felt more for the young in the village who saw and needed the larger world beyond their distant outpost.

I saw seasons, weather, and nature. All those things that are in view from the window where I write, but are only glanced at in my busyness about business. There is a close connection between what this book says and what the Agrarians said.

Looking back is not going back. But looking back is not forgetting either. We are all sent to some outpost for a short time because we have so much to learn. And later, even 33 years later, we learn it again in a different way.

A movie was also made from the book, and I would like to watch it.

 

 

So Brave, Young, and Handsome

There is much to be said for reading plans, programs, and lists.  And there is something to be said for chance.  That is, some wonderful reads are the result of a book that one stumbles across, opens curiously, and enjoys immensely. 

A powerful and spiritual novel: Peace Like a River.

I chanced upon the novel Peace Like a River by Leif Enger some few years ago. My first thought was that the book was a western, and I don’t tend to read westerns. But it was like new, hardback with the dust jacket,  and really cheap ($2).  One weekend, I was ailing and weary and needing an easy read. So I picked the book up and hardly put it down until it was finished. 

Peace Like a River was a compelling and lyrically beautiful read. It was also a Christian novel, but not the type you find in the Christian bookstore with Amish people on the cover. The faith was portrayed with depth and in unexpected ways.  

My discovery of Enger and his notable book came several years after his book been published. As usual, I was behind the times. Only slowly did I realize that the book had been a best seller and that the author had successfully reached a wide audience.

After I finished Peace Like a River, I began telling others about the book and also looking to see what else Enger had written. As it happened, his second novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome, had already made its way to the bargain shelves. (Note: I have very little money for books.) So, I picked up Enger’s second novel. Then I shelved it for several years. Somewhere along the way, I heard someone say, in passing, that Enger’s second novel was not nearly as good as his first. So, on the shelf it stood, waiting.

Over the past couple of years, I began reading more and more recent fiction (meaning, writers who published books after Faulkner and O’Connor died in the early 60s), and discovered the great writings of Bret Lott, Pat Conroy, Charles Portis, Louis Auchinloss, Anne Tyler, Tom Wolfe, and Marilynn Robinson. I had some really enjoyable reads and some that left me with questions. (One such question is, John Updike?) I realize that one cannot appraise an author very accurately with one read, but the reader has to start with one book.

I am not sure why, but a few weeks ago, I pulled So Brave, Young, and Handsome off the shelf  and starting reading. I think it was due again to the weekend-wearies, to that desire to read without challenge or effort. None of the other books I started had magnetic draws, so I thought, “Why not?” That is a fairly profound reason for reading a book.

So B, Y, and H is a fairly short book (less than 300 pages) with incredibly short chapters. At the end of a school year, with Chaucer and other Medieval studies beckoning, with Quintillian and Abraham Kuyper, and with a dangerously high stack of theological heavy weights, a short book with short chapters sounded good.

So B, Y, and H is a good read, a fun book, a light story that is well written. It may not match Peace Like a River, but it is a good book. It is the story of a writer, named Monte Becker, who published one successful book, but who has not been able to complete anything else in years.

Then an adventure comes along in the form of a man named Glendon, whose shady past and winsome personality favorably affects Becker and his family. Becker then leaves with Glendon who goes in search of his ex-wife in order to seek a reconciliation with his past.

A man on a journey, a man on a journey with a companion, a man on a journey with danger and adventure, a man who discovers his life story while on a journey: This encompasses whole shelves of great literature from The Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn and more. Add to that, the theme of redemption. No, this is not Flannery O’Connor or Les Miserables, but neither are most books.

Enger achieves what every writer–published, unpublished, would-be, could-be—would like to achieve: A good story, well written.  I hope he gets his next book out soon.