Meredith Sue Willis's
The Almost Heaven White-Water Outfitters and Book Club is a group of avid readers reluctant to tackle any real West Virginia rapids but eager to dive headlong into the written word, especially words about West Virginia or Appalachia. Periodically, we join via email to discuss our latest choice. As we do, we'll offer our comments, provide a rating, and hope you'll enjoy the ride. In the raft are June Langford Berkley, Charles Lloyd, Eddy Pendarvis, Carter Taylor Seaton, and Phyllis Wilson Moore. Tyler Chadwell and Terry W. McNemar join us occasionally. Each member is from West Virginia and several are authors in their own right.
by Jayne Anne Phillips
(as discussed by members of the
Almost Heaven White-Water Outfitters and Book Club)
(An electronic book club discussed Jayne Anne Phillips' Lark and Termite this summer. Take a look at what they had to say. Names have been changed for creative expression!)
Liz: A friend told me reading this book was like swimming underwater, and I think that is apt. I don't like fiction with multiple narrators and don't care for magical realism.
Jem: I like the triple narratives. One story told from different perspectives has always captured me.
Beebee: Some motifs I see in the book are— Tunnels. Dark. Damp. Places of shelter. Habitat of ghosts.
Liz: Do tunnels represent the secrets?
Jem: The parentage of Lark is at first a secret, as is the sexual play of Lark and Solly and the affair of Charlie and Nonie and the ownership of the Florida house. A final secret is the flood "accident" with Gladdy.
Liz: Motifs—Water - its destructive and healing powers, and its ability to wash away the past (sins?); communication in all sorts of forms - touch, instinct, movements - especially between those who can't communicate with words, like the Korean girl and Bobby or Lark and Termite; the tug of relationships and the power they have to hold us sometimes against our will. The symbols of the tunnels and water are really strong in my mind.
Jem: The flood destroyed and revealed and made possible new beginnings.
Stevie: Related to ghosts is the mention of smoke, mist, veils, even the faint "blue ribbon" of plastic that Termite loves so much. And, yes, language— the failure of words and the importance of communicating. Linked to this motif is the commonality of the human condition of mortality and how war separates us from the realization of that common bond that should make us cling to and care for each other.
July: Silence and the unspoken dominate and emphasize the urgency of what IS spoken. I think this may come from Phillips' Scottish-Irish ancestry, in which it is dangerous to say what may be formed into event or truth...the immutability of what is put out there..."Sticks and stones are hard on bones; aimed with angry art, words can sting like anything but silence breaks the heart" (if I recall Dickinson half correctly).
Jem: This is not a motif but the cloth dripped in bloody water and offered to quench Robert's thirst called to my mind Jesus on the cross and the vinegar offered him. The color white also strikes me—the white stag (it appears to glow white), the white-haired and pale Mr. Stamble, and the white clothes in Korea may be symbolic.
Mac: On the question of motifs . . . Phillips replays the long gone parents in subtle nuances through the children and especially through Termite in flurries of sensory descriptive . . . also termites are something of a parasite and how many other characters surrounding Lark could be considered parasites . . . several I think . . . how many of these people are "sucking the life" from this girl?
July: Perhaps the destructive allusion to what kills us is the unspoken but known? the unuttered we know but withhold? the fear of what we can't express... how it governs us, haunts us? burrows at our core and begs to be noticed, but we misunderstand?
Jem: If there is a hero in the story, is it Lark? The white stag (it appears to glow white) and the white Stambles and the white clothes in Korea may be symbolic.
Liz: Lark does seem to be the heroine, and Termite is a positive figure but he is holding Lark back from a fuller life, isn't he?
Stevie: I also see Lark as the hero of the book. She does escape at last, as Lola hoped she would by naming her "Lark" so she could rise and fly away,
Liz: I've changed my mind on one subject: the hero. I think the real hero is Nonie. She's the glue that holds the family together, despite her sister's deceit, and Charlie's unfaithfulness. She's willing to take on raising both Lark and Termite while holding down a job, juggling Charlie and his mother's arguments, and his shaky business. That's heroism. Even Charlie gets good marks for providing for Lark in the end.
Jem: Maybe, thinking in terms of folklore, Nonie's the old crone; Lark's the maiden; and Termite's the innocent.
Stevie: Nonie has to be considered almost as important as Lark and Termite, even though she's not named in the title. She seems like a middle-ground figure, somewhere between the aspiring nature of Lark and the accepting nature of Termite.
Jem: Is the cat meant to be Lola reincarnated? How is the cat summoned? Is the orange cat meant to represent a watchful Lola? The ragged feral orange cat seems to only be interested in Termite. Lola's nickname was "Lola, the cat" and she had red hair. Does Mr. Stamble exist?
Cole: The orange, ragged cat with the high interest in Termite might be considered a spirit companion in folklore. The stag and other two deer on the island seem to be straight out of folklore too. The stag appears to glow in the light but only goes halfway across the river and turns back. Mr. Stamble may be seen as a counterpart or familiar standing in for the corporal.
Jem: I still don't know who brought the smaller wheelchair.
Whitewater rating for Lark and Termite: Class 4 – medium waves, maybe rocks, maybe a considerable drop, sharp maneuvers may be needed.
by Mary Lee Settle
(as discussed by members of the
Almost Heaven White-Water Outfitters and Book Club)
Recently the Almost Heaven White-Water Outfitters and Book Club read Mary Lee Settle’s O Beulah Land. The discussion covered several topics: the motifs and themes in the book, its characters, and language, Settle’s writing style, and how the novel explores her search for the beginning of freedom in America.
Dedication and epigraph
The dedication reads: To Christopher For Albion and Beulah. The epigraph is a quote from The Great Gatsby, which is partially repeated here: “…his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it…So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”
Christopher is her son; Albion is the British Isles (archaic name probably based on the white rocks of the White Cliffs of Dover) and Beulah is the new world or USA. By dedicating the novel to Christopher, Albion, and Beulah we think she tied her son to England and America. He had spent part of his youth in England and part in Beulah. Given her search into the past to understand our future, the epigraph fit perfectly. I like the way Settle used Hannah to open the book, providing a tie back to England and then using her to introduce us to Jeremiah, in the new world.
Themes, motifs, and how it explores her search for the beginnings of freedom in America
That’s why the book is so important. That is, it makes clear the way England, in particular “emptied out” two types of citizens: young, rebellious adventuresome aristocrats and its rough, and sometimes, merely under privileged characters, dispatching them to the new world. Here, they fought it out in an equally fierce land, and ironically made use of the “underlings,” the Native Americans, dispatching them as they found need to claim economic dominion, not unlike the system they had suffered in the British Isles. Then, again, like our forbearers, we have layered this primitive behavior over and made ourselves proud of our “noble” beginnings, rewriting history as necessary to cover up our less-than-high-minded behavior.
Some readers find it interesting to do a little research into the author's history. One reader reported that Settle refused to let her family forget their less than pristine heritage. She was a rebel and objected to her mother’s attempts to “pretty up” the family background. Her mother was the illegitimate child of one of the wealthiest men in the Kanawha Valley, and a divorcee before divorces were common. The couple finally married when Settle’s mother was a toddler, but his family and his social elite friends ostracized his “lower class” bride.
That’s what makes this story both archetypal somewhat autobiographical. Her family does descend from one of the English kings. Jonathan Lacey is the name she gives the character in the novel. The land Jonathan describes is between Malden and Charleston, and it is what became her own family’s land around Cedar Grove.
While the characters are certainly not one-dimensional, we don’t get very deep into any of them. They seem somewhat archetypal as well:
Hannah - the disadvantaged prostitute with a heart of gold
Jeremiah – a fundamentalist
Squire Raglan - the corrupt Englishman
Jonathan Lacey - the hardy, aristocratic pioneer who wants to build a good life for his children
Doggo Cutwright - the newcomer who wants to escape the English gentry and is willing to go beyond the boundaries to do so.
Sally Lacey – the air-headed woman of leisure, stuck in the past with dreams of recreating it in the future
Sarah and Zeke – the next generation Americans. Sarah, a descendant of aristocrats, and Zeke, son of a former London whore, end up as essential parts of the equation to found the dynasty.
Hannah was, to one reader, a brave and tragic figure. Her life in the London slums didn't improve in any significant way when she made it here to the Promised Land. Like Moses, she never quite made it to the land of milk and honey. The biblical Jeremiah suffered as did Settle's. He and Hannah had heroic qualities and a measure of happiness. Some readers felt too many characters were introduced too quickly, and not deeply enough. They also wished she’d chosen names with more variety than several starting with J – Jonathan, Jarcey, Jeremiah.
One reader saw the land–the setting–as the main character. She spends more ink describing and developing our understanding of it than she does on any other character. Her feelings aren’t toward the characters as individuals, but about their relationship with the places they’re in and how they create new relationships based on the character of the place. Settle’s characters saw the Promised Land as Moses did…in the unobtainable distance. They never got there. Toward the end, when Hannah and Jeremiah were running from the Indians, I couldn’t help thinking her message was: Try as you might; freedom eludes.
Despite all current admonitions to writers to avoid writing in dialect, Settle does so, and, for the most part, quite effectively. For her, it was important to use the language that was contemporary with the time of the novel. There are a few places where one reader thought it called too much attention to itself, however. The language is almost Elizabethan English, which often sounds like a foreign tongue when spoken. Some folks in West Virginia still use remnants of it: “piney” instead of “peony” when naming the flower; “Levisa” instead of “Louisa,” and the frequent use of the familiar “honey,” when speaking to a woman.
Whitewater rating for O Beulah Land: Class 3 – tough going at the outset, beautiful scenery, but with some treacherous rapids. Keep your oars in the water and pull hard. You’ll be rewarded at the end.
by Davis Grubb
(as discussed by members of the
Almost Heaven White-Water Outfitters and Book Club)
Our raft guide for this rafting adventure was Moundsville, West Virginia's, Davis Grubb, author of several novels and short story collections and a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction for his novel The Night of the Hunter. On this trip, we set out to experience his novel The Voices of Glory (1962).
We attempt to describe our reading experience by comparing it to a white water rafting trip on the New River in West Virginia. In case you don't white water, a Class I section of the river is a calm stretch, while a Class VI stretch is the upper limits of a navigable experience and might even be dangerous. There are grades in between, but Class VI is as wild as it gets... Read more here.
The turgid prose in this novel resulted in our subjective decision to label it a Class I read-- not an exciting experience.
Grubb liked to experiment with style and plot, and Voices is a story told by a chorus of 28 speakers. Many are greedy despicable characters. The rest are saintly. Of the 28, ten speak from their graves on Glory Hill. Greed is a key element.
The novel revolves around the trial of a public health nurse accused of practicing medicine without a license. The poor people of the town know she is a victim of the local good- old- boy network and rally in her defense. They speak out regarding her concern for them and her fight against illness, poor sanitation, and the resulting needless deaths.
Death comes to Glory in the guise of a traveling salesman (then called a drummer) dressed in black. He arrives in town after a coal mine disaster, an accident or epidemic, or during an operation. He is willing to bargain and make deals with the town's physicians, some of whom obviously enjoy his visits. His sample case of wares holds quick death, slow death, easy death, difficult death, etc. He is not visible to all residents but sometimes is seen by an individual near death as well as by the astute and alert. His presence adds a touch of magic realism.
Sometimes we felt as if our raft was caught in a whirlpool of repetition and overwritten characters. At other times we felt we got an accurate view of an industrial Appalachian region during the 1930s. Grubb included all classes, most religious groups, and many ethnic groups. He also incorporated a wide range of characters: cross dressers; prostitutes; unchristian like ministers; greedy physicians; steel mill workers, coal miners; convicts; physician educated in Paris; politicians; newspaper editors; bankers; musicians, housekeepers, teachers.
Grubb used foreshadowing to bring the novel full circle from an interesting opening to an unexpected ending involving both music and art. Overall, he experiments with Freudian characterizations, complex personalities, and sly innuendoes to give the novel unique twist and turns. Dedications are interesting, and this novel is dedicated to Grubb's psychiatrist and his mother. Eventually Stephen King dedicated his novel Cycle of the Werewolf, "To Davis Grubb and all the voices of glory." Apparently Stephen King found the novel a keeper.
Additional comment from one of the members:
We every one ended up totally immersed in the work and each of us tried to quit the reading at least once. My mental images: those remaining on board refusing to allow anyone to exit the raft. We dragged, pushed and shoved and it was so worth it. I think I'm learning to surrender to the writing styles of authors. Grubb does a fantastic job of including WV history and WW I history into this novel. We readers suggest you link the VOCIES OF GLORY review to the website info on the inspiration for the novel, Miss Francina McMahon. She was taken to court for practicing medicine without a license and found not guilty. She was a friend of Grubb's mother and Grubb's mother worked for the Dept. of Welfare. Her real "crime" was fighting for pasteurized milk, immunizations for children, treatment of TB, safe drinking water; safe housing for he poor, prison reforms, etc. Click here: Miss Francina McMahon, Pioneer Nurses of West Virginia http://www.lindapages.com/nurses/nurse-mcmahon.htm It is really difficult to adequately review this novel. In its layers are many complexities but the surface is smooth.
June Berkeley: More on Grubb
I do believe that Grubb redeems himself a bit by that final chapter with Martha's voice. Between her and the good doctor, he struggles to put a some hope onto the human race. Of course Martha's style of speaking/writing is too elevated at times but there are instances where one has to believe he has heard in "real life" someone unlettered talk in a brilliant manner without benefit of much reading but with the gift of retaining what has been heard or absorbed by experience. I must claim such experiences: listening to someone who possesses a singular gift of composing language orally with such power that it shames the ordinary. Martha embodies hopeful perseverance and goodness and a probing intellect that wants to understand the world, very much like a part of Grubb himself: only a mind and spirit struggling to reconcile the mysterious mix behaviors of human nature can be a writer, so Grubb has to have had the ability to think tenderly and even optimistically. He may be more like the good doctor, an upper class intellect who suffers from insight and expectation; even the good doctor raged against the perversity and meanness of mankind. (I love his rage room, his retiring to chambers to have a fit of verbal righteousness.)
Of course the doctor used his energy to minister to the health of Glory and environs but perhaps Grubb thought to offer ministry by writing to illuminate circumstance, the dramatize our being in the world.
Further evidence that Grubb puts himself into this chapter is suggested by the Grubb biography (thank you, Dear Phyllis for the account of the way the long-suffering man imposed himself on long-suffering relatives.) ; this life story surely begs for a dramatization on film.
The good doctor casually and gladly took in whoever needed lodging and so did Martha. They would have put Grubb up in an instant. He could have had the cobbler of his choice as long as he wanted to lodge there. Grubb created a home for himself in that chapter. (He also had hospitality from that Angel Meadow bunch , they who would have taken him in, but I think his taste and sensibilities which developed from a once-prosperous family origin and his experiences in New York and Philadelphia would have prevented his accepting their crowded and unsanitary lodgings) Writers "step out in space and make a world, " as James Weldon Johnston put it, because the one we have is not enough....so Grubb indulges himself to a home in this final chapter.
The adoption of j...Matthew Mark John Turk fixes this firmly in mind and gives us a mother who never fails us. Incidentally, there's a lot of thumb sucking going on among children...some longing for the breast, I suppose.
( But he cleverly keeps the raging tone of the book intact by bringing in that philistine niece who destroys everything important and burns the Suzannes. (what a great description and one in just the right voice, too) ("great bustling big neck of a woman).
Regarding the Suzannes, I must observe that it is too clever....I myself did not catch on at first. I think Grubb may have been a little too precious and superior as an author here....enjoying the locals ' ignorance of the art world--an ailment no doubt rampant in Glory. Quit a triumphant action to cement our view about the blindness of those in power. Human and artistic goodness generally consigned to the bonfire.
This chapter gives me one of the best comments on the ambiguity of life, the mixture of evil and goodness, inattention and effort, insight and ignorance.....
I like the summing up on page 450, the doctor's recitation about how he has loved his life: "I'd never have loved any of it with such a fury if it were all so dull and simple as that: the matter of a naked yes or no, good or bad, all love or hate, and life or death hopeless certainty. Best of all, he recognizes that he is not unique in this view, that this acceptance of ambiguity is what binds us all together. "who is totally heartless here in Glory?" "...the drumming of its heartbeat wild with life" certainly penetrates the story.
"...the wild , queer choir in the church of each one's flesh." After so much bitterness, this final section redeems somewhat the extremely negative cast of characters' lives throughout. Somehow I accept this turn and perhaps this is because the choices we make about the way we view the world varies so much--same events, different viewpoints and perceptions. It just takes a certain spirit to fight on and the doctor and Martha have it. Interesting, though, that they are comfortable and well fed. That helps. Grubb's skill in giving us this more reasonable pair, folks who can feel at one time so down and out and then rise again. Martha does sound naturally bright and not stilted (he finally got her voice right) when she sits with the little abandoned child, feeling in herself "...so hopelessly the queer, contrary , self -battling doubleness of things , and when I turned again and looked again at the blanched and blushless face of the child and heard his slow hard breath, I felt so certain that any moment he would wink out like a dear, little broken lamp that I sank played-out in the rocking chair, heartsick and blood boiling mad at life and death alike." And then a few hours later facing death, she gathers strength ....and isn't it right that she leaves Glory. Enough of that. Tally Vengeance left too. Seems familiar, that motif in all our writers. Pancake included. " Leaving you; the hardest thing I'll ever do."
What did you think of Vergil coming to play his trombone --to let her know he was alive and well?--and moving on ? And she had the strength not to go see him. Not a suitable match after all and going our separate ways isn't always so bad.
Finally I like the way they repeat the notion that life is not, as Liv Ullman put it in CHANGING, "NOT HAPPINESS ONLY; BUT THERE ARE MOMENTS WHEN ALL THE WORLD IS SINGING."
And finally, information about
Miss Francina McMahon, Pioneer Nurses of West Virginia
the real life model for Grubb's character.
She was taken to court for practicing medicine without a license and found not guilty. She was a friend of Grubb's mother and Grubb's mother worked for the Dept. of Welfare. Her real "crime" was fighting for pasteurized milk, immunizations for children, treatment of TB, safe drinking water; safe housing for he poor, prison reforms, etc.
by Meredith Sue Willis
(as discussed by members of the
Almost Heaven White-Water Outfitters and Book Club)
Sam: I'm glad I read Oradell at Sea again. I liked it the first time and liked it even better this time. The heroine, Oradell Greengold, from West Fork, West Virginia (you can't get much more "West, by gosh, Virginia" than that) is an old woman, who because of being an orphan and poor is left to her own devices early in life. Her amorous adventures and misadventures started early and are continuing when we meet her as an old woman aboard the cruise ship, The Golden Argonaut.
Scout: I looked up the meaning of Oradell. Here’s what one web site said:
- Your name of Oradell has given you a desire for self-expression and for positions that allow contact with people, free from the restrictions and monotony into which you are often drawn.
- Although you desire to be spontaneous and natural, you are often drawn into technical and methodical lines of endeavor and the practical aspects of life.
Sam: That’s perfect for Oradell! She’s a dreamer and a down-to-earth realist.
July: I think I met Oradell on a Carnival Cruise! She was the one wearing that three inch rhinestone JESUS pin, holding forth a table about her young lover...the one who broke her rib, "accidentally" during a vigorous afternoon.
Sam: Oradell had so many bad things happen in her youth, but she's never self-pitying except in excusing herself for some little moral slips that she knows she's committed.
Scout: As a teen mother she abandoned her baby. That’s not a little moral slip. But when you think about it, Oradell would be termed a victim of pedophilia by today's standards. She was also physically abused and a "sex trade" victim (Lance's father). But she also ran into some really good people in her town, like The Pierce family and Grace Howard. Willis is brave to use an aging or aged protagonist, don't you think? How can we establish Oradell's approximate age? She experienced part of WW II and Elvis but was pre-unions. A guess?
Sam: I read Oradell as being a teenager in the union organizing days, but not pre-union. She says she was born "Early enough to cheer our boys in World War II, but late enough to enjoy Elvis" gives lots of leeway! I think of her as in her late sixties.
Scout: The woman in James’ Portrait of a Lady fails at doing what Oradell does. Both want to experience life as complete woman making their own decisions. Oradell is strong, independent, willing to take risks, dislikes unfairness, and fights for the underdog. She lives her own life and encourages others to do the same.
Sam: To me, this novel is a comic novel.
Scout: There is humor in Oradell. I'm not sure I'd call it a comic novel. You don’t see it as “fluff,” do you? It doesn’t require the reader to piece things together as much as some serious novels do.
Sam: I meant comic in the sense that some of Lee Smith’s novels and stories. They deal with serious issues, but don’t dwell on the tragic elements. In fact, the characters’ high spirits and the author’s comedy make the novels a tribute to stoicism.
July: Since escape from or abandonment of the hill country is so often a theme /concern of writers from Appalachia and in particular West Virginia, I think Willis has been able to construct a setting that shows how West Virginia resilience, tenacity, cleverness and self-sufficiency live in us even when we are transported out of the region. As was said of our astronauts and other (happens they were all men) modern-day high performers in the outer world,”You can't take the country out of the boy...." The modesty and casual air exemplified by the space boys and pilots seems to have impressed and even puzzled many who admire them in the "outer world" I guess they were So and So at Sky, as Oradell was at Sea.....still the same. She never let anything defeat her. She never lost her sense of self. She used what she found wherever it presented itself and even if temporarily defeated, forged on to a new adventure. I think this quality is the ONE that separates those who defy the stereotype and those who do indeed sit on the porch, idle in the rockers, and amble out to the privies. Oradell was a doer, and she seemed to have no shame.
Sam: One thing that struck me was the symbol of the jaeger, a bird of prey, which appears somewhere not far from the beginning of the book and also at the end. Willis uses this name for one of the flying beasts in her science fiction novel, A City Built of Starships. I love this image because of the connection with West-Virginia-born Chuck Yeager, the first pilot to fly at the speed of sound! Oradell reminds me of a mockingbird--they're daring, and, according to one of my friends, will go up against any bird. Although she has some jaeger in her, I don't think it's a lot, just enough to take advantage of the few opportunities that came her way, poor as they were.
July: People like Oradell and Tracy, the teenage girl on the cruise, and the cabin boys are scrappers; and there is empathy and sympathy for them. Willis' book has this authentic blend of people who struggle against odds but don't become bitter and mean-spirited toward others.
Scout: I'm planning to spend my final months on some cruise ship. I've never had a bedbath and times a wasting.
White Water Class 2: “Some rough water, maybe some rocks, small drops, might require maneuvering.” Bring your friends. Oradell at Sea’s just a short raft ride, and a delightfully daring one.
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