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Monday, July 28, 2014

Literary Detours: Ernest Hebert's "A Little More than Kin" (Re-Read)

"A Little More than Kin" by Ernest Hebert is one of those novels that stays with you.  I first read this novel back in 1993 after I found it on a discount rack for $1.00.  It was (and it remains to this day) one of the greatest literary buys of my life.  I devoured the novel over Spring Break of that year and even went as far as trying to contact Ernest Hebert to express my gratitude for his work.  I savored this book like it was ripe fruit and enjoyed every angle of it.  I even took the book with me to Japan the summer of 1994 and re-read it a little over a year the first read (I hadn't touched it again since).

What is still clear to me now as it was then was how little I knew (and still know) about the Darby Series and about Ernest Hebert's work overall.  "A Little More than Kin" is the second in a series called the Darby Series, which include "The Dogs of March" (Hebert's debut) and "The Passions of Estelle Jordan."  I read the series out of order, and surprisingly felt no ill-effects for it.  Not only do the books stand on their own, but even in the case of chapters the reader can appreciate how any of them can actually be published as stand-alone short stories.  I believe that is the masterful genius of Ernest Hebert.  He gives us the pieces to put together and doesn't go cheap on detail and connectivity.  It is truly a work of art to see how characters and events flow from one book or chapter to another.  Technically speaking, that is one of the greatest talents of a master storyteller.  Ernest Hebert is such a master, a true American master writer and probably the best known kept secret in American letters.  I say this not because he's not widely known, but just like many other literary fiction writers he's not a household name that rolls off the tongue of housewives book clubs.  He's in good company, I might add, since many of my other favorites (like Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami) fall in the same category.

The story centers around the Jordan clan, a family of social misfits that claim roots to the New Hampshire backwoods.  Ollie Jordan and his idiot son, Willow are the protagonists of "A Little More than Kin," and they share the stage with the town's dramatis personae in a way that is charming, entertaining and "addictively" readable.  Ollie has been evicted from the land he occupied, his shacks bulldozed to the ground.  While the Jordan family is not known as setting permanent roots anywhere, Ollie suffers as his world is rocked and his stability shattered.  His wife, Helen, had (according to Ollie) been seduced by the Welfare Department, and his fear is that the government agency was now after Willow.  He fears they might try to "teach" Willow and "destroy" him by doing so.  Ollie Jordan believes his son just needs time, that in due time Willow would blossom out of a cocoon and exercise his genius.  As a result, Ollie takes to the woods with Willow.  Spread across the narrative are characters as alive as the reader himself.  The people of Keene, New Hampshire are picturesque without being typical, honest, not stereotyped and given a natural opportunity to come about in the story and find their own way into it.  This is the masterful stroke of technique in fiction.  Very few writers know how to allow characters to ebb and flow into a narrative like Ernest Hebert does.  It is truly magnificent how the pieces simply link and flow together.

The only negative criticism is that of Ollie Jordan's many philosophical meanderings.  I am not saying that a character that is uneducated, prone to emotional impulse and dependent on instinct more than brains cannot have his or her philosophical moments, but Ollie's epiphanies are kilometric in length, and, as a result, they take away credibility from Ollie's nature.  There are far too many of these, long renderings of Ollie's thoughts that turn into pedantic ramblings of existential inquiry.  In this scene, Ollie is inside a Catholic church, and while I can see the function behind having the character ask questions about his surroundings, it is the lengthy philosophical tertulia that does the damage:  "He touched the Christ carefully, discovering something unusual on his head.  At first it seemed like some simple hat such as cousin Toby Constant had worn before they sent him to Pleasant Street in Concord.  But after testing the hat with the tips of his fingers, Ollie determined that it was made of something like barbed wire strung tightly around the skull, an instrument of torture.  He pondered this evil.  These Romans, they like to hurt the head.  So did the Welfare Department.  However, there was a difference.  The Romans only wanted to dish out some pain, probably just for the drooly fun of it.  The Welfare Department wanted you as stove wood to keep stoked the fire in their own private corner of hell.  They made hats so pretty you would want to put them on, and they put things in those hats--devices--which removed information from the mind, planted ideas and clouded memories.  He figured that Christ had pulled a fast one on the Romans, getting himself killed all spectacularlike, knowing his death would serve as a kick in the ass for his followers, that for him to die was to live forever through them."  It goes on for a while, and Ollie's perceptions are not too off track with the real story of Christianity.  A few paragraphs down, Ollie's meandering continues: "Another question that popped into Ollie's head was whether the Romans finished the crosses with anything, some kind of varnish or stain, or whether they left the wood raw.  Certainly, they would have to season the crosses because a green cross of any wood would be too heavy to carry.  That raised some interesting questions.  Was a cross used only once, perhaps buried with the man who had been hung on it?  Or was a cross used over and over again until it just wore out?  The latter idea excited Ollie.  He could imagine nothing grander to look at than a cross that had been up and down countless of hills, laid across the backs of countless Christs, the wood aged by the sun, stained with blood, sweat, tears and dirt.  If such a cross could know, it would know everything.  No wonder these Christians hung their imitation crosses everywhere.  The cross was a story of a human pain revealed in the beauty of wood.  The Romans must have put fellows in charge of the crosses--crosskeepers--men who picked the wood right from the tree, cut it down, shaped it, dried the wood so it did not split or check, and then fashioned two pieces in a cross with wooden dowels and glue.  Course now and then a fellow would cheat, as workmen will out of anger or boredom or laziness, and join the pieces with mahaunchous bolt.  The crosskeepers would store his crosses in barns when not in use, keeping them away from moisture so the rot wouldn't get to them.  Later, when the crosses were retired from active duty, the crosskeeper would buy his old crosses at auction from the state, or maybe steal them if he could, cut them up and make them into coffee tables, selling them to the rich who lived down-country, or whatever they called down-country in those days.  He bet those crosses lived long lives, longer than the poor bastards who were hung upon them."  

Inasmuch as the seemingly countless passages like this one represents the meanderings of a "simple-minded" character then much of the narrative works; nevertheless, I am inclined to point out (not without a little pain) that passages like this one are far too many in the novel.  They are correctly constructed behind the idea that Ollie simply lets his mind wanders (bold for emphasis in the quoted passage) but the reveries of the mind are far too many within the novel.  I am reminded of the television detective from the 1970s series "Columbo" whose constant line was "And one more thing..."

"A Little More than Kin" is simply a classic of American literature, unknown but crafted like the widely accepted classics of the canon.  It is truly a shame that this novel (along its Darby companions) do not list right up there with Mark Twain's work as illustrative of "the other America."

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Monday, July 07, 2014

Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

"Washington's Crossing," one in the series "Pivotal Moments in American History," by David Hackett Fischer is a book I've had in my possession for a long, long time.  I've included this title on my reading list for the year several times, but I never got around it.  As always, I have deep regrets for putting it off so long.  

My relationship to this "pivotal moment in American history" is a passionate one.  While teaching high school American history and literature, I used George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and his attack on Trenton as the launching pad to what I hoped was a year-long study into what it means to be an American from a more traditional angle.  I recognize that in the age of political correctness and historical revisionism such an approach doesn't meet with the approval of academic higher-ups, but my students were very appreciative (as opposed to my colleagues who were prone to dismiss every single thing the Founding Fathers did because, after all, "they were white males of privilege and slaveholders and land-owners and how terrible it is that we hold these people up in admiration").  It is worrisome to see how some positions of liberalism seem naturally prone to dismiss everything that does not meet their approval, and even more worrisome the fact that they do so with a wave of their liberal wand and not with solidly constructed arguments; often all they have to do is throw out an ad hominem which they use as a "cure all."  If you disagree, you must be a racist as well.  But that's an argument for another day.

David Hackett Fischer dismisses a great deal of those myths present in many American history books.  What's most impressive about Fischer's research for this book is the abundance of "Appendices" detailing all sorts of relevant statistical proof.  He creates a nice balance between straight historical fact and hero worship.  I confess being a fanatic about George Washington history and anything related to the man to the point of reading 12 different biographies on this central figure.  The great difficulty among these biographies is two-fold: 1) the hero worshipping can become a false caricature however likable or loved by the reader, and 2) historical facts can become obsessed with details that offer little to the narrative, pedantic and dry.  Fischer's strength is in portraying Washington (and the rest of the Founding Fathers) as deeply committed men.  In reading this volume, it became apparent to me that it is not difficult to render these men in narrative accurately--if one sticks to the facts, the facts and their actions speak decisively for themselves.  For example, Fischer explains:

"Much of this creed was about honor: not 'primal honor,' not the honor of a duel, not a hair-trigger revenge against insult, or a pride of aggressive masculinity.  This was honor as an emblem of virtue.  These gentlemen of the Northern Neck lived for honor in that sense.  The only fear that George Washington ever acknowledged in his life was a fear that his actions would 'reflect eternal dishonour upon me.'  A major part of this code of honor was an idea of courage.  The men around young George Washington assumed that a gentleman would act with physical courage in the face of danger, pain, suffering, and death.  They gave equal weight to moral courage in adversity, prosperity, trial, and temptation.  For them, a vital part of leadership was the ability to persist in what one believed to be the right way.  This form of courage was an idea of moral stamina, which Washington held all his life.  Stamina in turn was about the strength and endurance as both a moral and a physical idea."  

I don't see how anything negative could be constructed out of ideas like these.  I suspect that the current trend is to throw away these values for the "sophistication" offered by the textbook ideas and utopian values of today's intellectuals.  It is difficult for someone who has never risked their lives for their beliefs to understand that, to comprehend the amount of character strength it requires to give it all up for a principle.  This is something we learned early in the U.S. Marines, to live and be part of a cause greater than one's self.  My previous criticism of the liberal tendency to dismiss all of American history as nonsense, as fueled by racial/social and gender-based injustice is based primarily on my experience in both camps--first in combat and then in the ivory towers of academia, where I was "scratched off" as well-intended but not "visionary" enough.  Yes, I'm a bit bitter.  Academia today is nothing but an echo chamber where only the sound of one hand clapping is heard.

"Washington's Crossing" offers something new about the historical narrative format.  Alongside the appendices and copious notes, Fischer's detail accounts of troop movements, maps and general illustrations completes the book quite nicely.  The "enemy" is not portrayed with excessive negativity but rather shows both Hessians and British as facing many of the same hardships as the Americans.  The "myth" presented by the A&E television movie "The Crossing" (you can watch the entire movie at that link) is cleared up by Fischer.  It is true that the American army was in dismal condition.  It is also true that without crossing the river, the Cause would have been lost completely.  What Fischer does instead of over-romanticizing is present the facts and let them speak for themselves; that is to say, all of those things were true enough, but offering the other-side of the proverbial coin (in an accurate depiction of the Hessians at Trenton) serves up a more complete picture.  For example, the Hessians were in a much better position, but they were also suffering from a great number of hardships.  The American militia had been relentless.  They attacked and attacked in touch-and-go tactics and kept the Hessians on their toes to the point of exhaustion.  As the winter descended and the season turned sour, both Hessians and British made a number of tactical blunders that allowed American militia to operate at will.  American militia gets its due recognition in the annals of American history, but not as entirely as Fischer offers in his book.  Most of these American irregulars were under the command of self-sufficient men who were in constant contact with General Washington while at the same time allowed to act when they saw the opportunity.  The British and Germans suffered from the opposite.  Colonel Rall, the Hessian commander at Trenton arrogantly dismissed Washington as defeated and unable to mount an attack of any circumstance.  The peppering of the American militia made the Hessian commander think that anything stirring across the river was nothing more than militia badgering his foraging parties.

The details of the actual crossing of the Delaware River, and the excruciating details of the time-table is a very engaging reading, but Fischer does one better.  If the writer's main responsibility is to present the facts as clearly as possible, the by-product of this should be keeping the reader engaged.  How does a writer keep his "line" on track, the proverbial "zone" steady enough to keep the reader engaged without sacrificing objectivity?  I suppose that is a great mystery, but a mystery that Fischer manages with witchy ability.

What is even less known is the second battle for Trenton.  Perhaps the romantic mythologizing over the many accounts have blurred the line between the "highlighted" facts and the "forgotten" facts.  The second battle for Trenton occurred when the British decide to send General Cornwallis to take back the town.  In his arrogance, Cornwallis decides on a frontal attack, full force, and play right into Washington's tactic of making the British pay dearly while at the same time retreating.  There was no particular reason for Washington to hold the town (or any town) because that would have made him a sitting duck to superior forces.  When the devastating results of the second battle for Trenton reached the British high command, it was clear that the so-called superior military force (and its leadership) has been "out-generalled" by a fumbling Virginia farmer-gentleman.  A week or so later, when all was said and done at Princeton, and another American victory took hold of the public's imagination, the fate of the British and Hessians in the colonies was sealed.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and I wish I could reveal more of its magic but I am fearful to "give it all away."  The vast amount of statistical information, correspondence, maps and other visual plates help the reader immerse himself into a story that shaped the course of human events.  David Hackett Fischer presents this story as a comprehensive archive of not just American history but also a portfolio into the psyche of men (men on both sides) willing to give their lives for their ideals, willing to sacrifice their lives and fortunes and uphold their sacred honor.  To classify "Washington's Crossing" as a triumph is no hyperbole, but certainly an understatement.

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