Friday, February 5, 2016

Review
"Snow Falling on Cedars"
by David Guterson
 
 
Its setting the fictitious San Piedro Island (one of the San Juan Islands between Victoria, Canada, and Bellingham, Washington), “Snow Falling on Cedars” begins in 1954 with the start of the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American gill-net fisherman accused of killing Carl Heine, another gill-net fisherman, at sea at night in dense fog.  The novel goes repeatedly back in time as early as the mid-1930s to present back-stories of its main characters.  Readers are given ample cause to identify with them.  Ultimately, taking sides during the course of the trial, the reader hopes that justice, not human fear and prejudice, will prevail.
 
The author, David Guterson, is outstanding in portraying character.  He is meticulous in revealing physical habits and appearance and psychological characteristics.  He exceeds most writers in his ability to humanize his characters.
 
This is true even of minor characters.  I appreciated greatly such diligence.  The county coroner, Horace Whaley, who appears in only one chapter, is a good example.  
 
Horace was by inclination a private man, nearing fifty now, with a sprawling port-wine stain on the left side of his forehead that he often fingered unconsciously.  In appearance he was tidy and meticulous, storklike and slender … and wore his starched trousers high on his narrow waist and his scant hair slicked from right to left with pomade.  Horace Whaley’s eyes bulged—his thyroid gland was overactive—and swam, too, behind his spectacles.  Something attenuated, a nervous caution, suggested itself in all his movements.
 
Horace had served as a medical officer for twenty months in the Pacific theater and had suffered in that period from sleep deprivation and from a generalized and perpetual tropical malaise that had rendered him, in his own mind, ineffective,  Wounded men in his care had died, they died while in his sleepless daze Horace was responsible for them,  In his head these men and their bloody wounds mingled into one recurring dream.
 
Four characters are especially important in this story.
 
Ishmael Chambers, owner and editor of the local newspaper, has more than a professional interest in the outcome of the trial.  He and the defendant’s wife, Hatsue (Imada) Miyamoto, grew up in close proximity of each other.  They were classmates.  During the summer they worked near each other picking strawberries.  They spent time together looking for sand crabs.  Childhood friends, they became more than friends after puberty.  Ishmael fell deeply in love with her.  Despite the cultural training she had received that forbad having a romantic relationship with any male not Japanese, she returned his affection.  Her sense of guilt in deceiving her mother and a growing sense that committing herself to him was wrong precedes the removal of all Japanese-Americans on the island to the Japanese internment camp Manzanar in early 1942.  From the camp Hatsue writes Ishmael that their relationship has ended.  Ishamel takes the rejection hard.  He is wounded at Okinawa; his left arm is amputated.  After the war he succeeds his father as owner and editor of the town newspaper.  Hatsue has married Kabuo Miyamoto and is the mother of children. 
 
… the anger about her had finished gradually bleeding out of him and had slowly dried up and blown away.  Nothing had replaced it, either.  … She slept in the same bed every night with Kabuo Miyamoto.  He had taught himself to forget as best he could.  The only thing left was a vague sense of waiting for Hatsue—a fantasy—to return to him.  How, exactly, this might be achieved he could not begin to imagine, but he could not keep himself from feeling that he was waiting and that these years were only an interim between other years he had passed and would pass again with Hatsue.
 
Kabuo Miyamoto is the great grandson of a samurai.  His father began training him to use the bokken, a wooden sword, before he was ten.  He became very proficient in stick-fighting.  At Manzanar he builds furniture for the Imada family.  He and Hatsue become acquainted.  Prior to Kabuo’s enlistment in the army to fight in Italy, they marry.  It is against Hatsue’s wishes.  She is not able to dissuade him.  His stated reason for enlisting is that he must prove himself to be a loyal American.  His unstated reason is that he has inherited his great grandfather’s desire to engage in battle.
 
Before the war, Kabuo’s family worked on Carl Heine’s father’s strawberry acreages.  The father, unlike most of the white population on San Piedro Island, is liberal-minded.  He hadsa high regard for the Miyamoto family.  When Kabuo’s father asks Carl Sr. if he would sell him seven acres of strawberry land, to be paid in installments, the senior Heine agrees.  His wife, Etta, a very bigoted woman, opposes.  The installments would continue until Kabuo reaches the age of eighteen, when title to the purchased land would be transferred to him.  State law forbad people born in Japan to own property.  They could not become American citizens.  Born in American, however, Kabuo would become eligible to own property upon his eighteenth birthday.  Two installments remain to be paid when all the Japanese families on the island are removed to Manzanar.  Over his wife’s objections, Carl Sr. agrees to be flexible about the delay of the final payments.  During the war he dies.  Etta sells all of Carl’s property, including the seven acres.  She returns what Kabuo’s father has paid but pockets the property’s equity.  After Kabuo returns from war, he is not able to purchase the desired acreage from the new owner.  In September 1954, the owner, now ill, gives notice that he wishes to sell his land.  Carl Jr., who wants to be a strawberry farmer, not continue to fish, makes an agreement to buy the property hours before Kabuo approaches the owner.
 
The county sheriff, Art Moran, recalls that Carl had served as a gunner on the U.S.S. Canton, which went down during the invasion of Okinawa.  He’d survived the war—other island boys hadn’t—and come home to a gill-netter’s life.  … He weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds, much of it carried in his chest and shoulders.  … He worked alone.  He was courteous but not friendly.  … Carl Heine was a good man.  He was silent, yes, and grave like his mother, but the war had a part in that, Art realized.  Carl rarely laughed, but he did not seem, to Art’s way of thinking, unhappy or dissatisfied.  When his mother, Etta, complains that Kabuo -- who had been a childhood friend and who had loaned Carl a bamboo fishing pole which Etta had demanded be returned – is staring at her evilly, Carl promises to keep an eye on Kabuo.  It is common knowledge in the community that Kabuo is angry for having been thwarted owning the seven acre property.
 
When Carl is found drowned in his gill net, suspicion is focused directly on Kabuo.  Art Moran’s investigation adds credence to that suspicion.  Kabuo is charged with first degree murder.
 
At this juncture in the novel my main purpose in continuing to read was to discover whether Kabuo was actually guilty and, guilty or not, whether the town’s prejudice toward its Japanese ancestry neighbors would deliver a guilty verdict.  The author skillfully sustained my doubt until the last chapter.
 
I was impressed with the author’s knowledge of location, gill-net fishing, autopsy of corpses, trial procedures, Japanese culture, every subject that is germane to the story.  I was as impressed with the author’s subjective narrative skills as I was his ability to characterize.  Here is what he wrote after Hatsue had told Ishmael (prior to she and her family being sent to Manzanar) that their relationship had ended.
 
When she finally did leave it was well past dusk, and she walked out of the woods and into the open with the intention of not looking back again.  But after ten steps she did so despite herself—it was too hard not to turn around.  It was in her to say good-bye forever and tell him she would never see him again, to explain to him that she’d chosen to part because in his arms she felt unwhole.  But she didn’t say it, that they had been too young, that they had not seen clearly, that they had allowed the forest and the beach to sweep them up, that all of it had been delusion all along, that she had not been who she was.  Instead, unblinking, she looked at him, unable to hurt him in the way that was demanded and in some undefined way still loving what he was, his kindness, his seriousness, the goodness in his heart.  He stood there, Ishmael, looking at her desperately, and that was the way she would remember him.  Twelve years later she would still see him this way, standing at the edge of the strawberry fields beneath the cover of the silent cedars, a handsome boy with one arm outstretched, beckoning her to come back.
 
My only criticism of the book is that I did not feel Ishmael was an entirely believable character.  Yes, his feelings of love for Hatsue and his pain and anger about losing her seemed authentic.  Not to have moved on but, instead, to have lived for twelve years in an emotional vacuum up to the beginning of the trial seemed excessive.  In the same vein his behavior during the trial seemed contrived. 
 
This is not a novel that can be read cover to cover easily.  Savor the content.  Enjoy the depth of characterization.  Appreciate the author’s craft.  Contemplate the theme: unfairness pervades life.  Accident rules “every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.”  There is much to appreciate.           

 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Thomas Nelson -- Victory at Yorktown
 
Both before and after Washington’s and Rochambeau’s arrival in Virginia, Governor Nelson sought vigorously to obtain from the citizens of his state essential food and supplies: more beef, flour, corn and vehicles of transportation specifically from the Richmond area, from the Williamsburg area, ammunition.  He still needed digging equipment, but the arrival of Admiral Barras’s Rhode Island fleet provided “many implements for siege.”
 
On September 26, one of Nelson’s agents, David Jameson, wrote of the problems that he and Nelson’s other agents were encountering.
 
“We are very sorry to inform you, that in those parts of the Country where Agents are employed to purchase provisions for the French fleet and Army, our commissaries … can procure no supplies.  The people withhold their wheat, in hope of receiving a present payment in specie.  It is absolutely necessary something should be done, or our army will be starved” (Nelson Letters 41).
 
Nelson answered that he had long foreseen the consequences of such proceedings.  He believed this was due “partially from the machinations of their [Virginia’s] agents,” receiving inadequate prices for their property and services in the past, “and partly from the desire of handling gold …” (Nelson Letters 44-45, 47).  “He conceded that part of the trouble was due to the French [who had sent their own agents out to purchase food with gold], but he attributed it also to the ‘unwillingness of the people to assist [a] government from which former treatment gives them perhaps too little reason to expect Justice’” (Evans 116).  To solve this problem Nelson authorized agents like Colonel Thomas Newton on October 3 to procure small meats and vegetables by impress if necessary, “granting certificates for what you get in this way” (Nelson Letters 50)
 
In addition to attempting to overcome the immense difficulty of providing food and military supplies, Nelson had to deal with hostile Loyalists.  In Prince Anne County, where Norfolk was located, “there was neither civil nor military law in operation and ‘murder is committed and no notice is taken of it ….’  Nelson could not do much about the Norfolk area, but he did take vigorous action in other sections of the country” (Evans 116).  On September 16, he ordered the arrest of eleven prominent Tories, including his wife’s brother, Philip Grimes, for conduct “‘which manifests Disaffection to this Government and the Interests of the United States.’”  They were taken to Richmond for trial.  Loyalists on the Eastern Shore were arrested.  “Some of the disaffected people were released prior to Yorktown on showing the proper contriteness and giving security to furnish a soldier for the war.  Even so, the Richmond jail was still crowded with Tories in December” (Evans 117).
 
Nelson’s militia also presented him problems. “Colonel James Barbour of Culpepper seized twenty-nine boxes of arms being transported from the north to the American army and distributed them to the militia of his county.”  Nelson wrote: “‘If we were to consider the Consequences of such Conduct, nothing could appear more criminal, or meriting more severe notice.’  If every county lieutenant, he continued, acted as Barbour had, there would be no arms for the army on ‘which the immediate salvation of the state depends’” (Evans 117).  In mid-September a body of Henrico County militia was ordered to patrol a section of the James River.  After one trip they quit.  “With the battle of Yorktown only days away one militia leader wrote asking that his men be discharged since they expected to serve only a fortnight ‘and some have urgent business in Richmond’” (Evans 118).  
 
While Nelson labored, Washington and Rochambeau moved their soldiers in semi-circular fashion closer to Cornwallis’s fortifications at Yorktown.  This involved digging trenches to establish parallel lines to the British fortifications.  “The first parallel was dug six hundred yards from the besieged works, beyond the range of grape, canister, and small arms.  Dirt from the excavation was thrown onto fascines [bundles of brush bound together, cut off straight at each end] in front of the parallels, forming parapets [defensive walls or elevation, as of earth or stone, raised above the main wall or rampart of a permanent fortification] while battery locations were dug out and connected to the parallels by other trenches.  Saps, or smaller trenches, were dug in zigzag paths toward the fortress, while gabions [sticks in the ground in a circle, about two feet or more in diameter, interwoven with small brush in the form of baskets set down in three or more rows with dirt thrown into them to form a breastwork] were filled and covered on the side facing the enemy.  … At three hundred yards a second parallel was dug … close enough so that the attackers could breach the fortress walls for an assault by infantry” (Ketchum 222-223).  All of the digging was done at night, out of sight of the British, after which the artillery pieces were carried or dragged to their assigned positions.
“Preparation of the parallels was no simple matter.  Twelve hundred Pennsylvania and Maryland militia were detailed to collect wicker material in the woods for making six hundred gabions.  Stakes were cut—six thousand of them—and two thousand round bundles of sticks were bound together for fascines …” (Ketchum 223).
Beginning October 1 the British artillery fired steadily every day -- on one day 351 rounds between sunup and sundown -- and continued into the night.  On October 4 two deserters reported that “Cornwallis’s army was very sickly—two thousand men were in the hospital, they estimated—while the other troops had scarcely enough ground to live on, the horses were desperately short of forage, and their shipping was ‘in a very naked state’” (Ketchum 224).   Nearly four hundred dead horses were seen floating in the river or lying on the shore near Yorktown.  Lacking forage to feed them, the British had had them shot. 
Before October 9, British soldiers had been questioning why the American and French batteries had not returned artillery fire.  The answer was simple.  They “were holding back until all their guns were in place; if they fired from each battery once it was completed, the enemy would concentrate on that one and destroy it” (Ketchum 227).  At about three o’clock in the afternoon of October 9 all of the allied artillery commenced firing.  General Washington put the match to the gun that fired the first shot. 
“The defenders could find no refuge in or out of the town.  Residents fled to the waterfront and hid in hastily built shelters on the sand cliffs, but some eighty of them were killed and others wounded—many with arms or legs severed—while their houses were destroyed.”  The following day “some thirty-six hundred shots were fired by the cannon, inflicting heavy damage on ships in the harbor, killing a great many sailors as well as soldiers, after which a number of others deserted” (Ketchum 228). 
After the October 9 firing started, “down on the American right General Nelson was asked to point out a good target toward which the artillerists could direct their fire.  Nelson indicated a large house, which he suggested was probably Cornwallis’s headquarters.  The house was his own” (Evans 119).  “Two pieces were accordingly pointed against it” (Page 151).  The first shot killed two officers, “indulging in the pleasures of the table” (Sanderson 67).  Other balls dislodged the other tenants.
Actually, Cornwallis had established his headquarters in the house of Nelson’s uncle, Secretary Nelson, the most prominent house in Yorktown.  The October 9 cannonade continued through the night and into the next day.  “At noon a flag of truce appeared on the British lines.  At first the allies hoped that Cornwallis was going to ask for terms, but they soon learned that the flag was raised to allow Secretary Nelson to leave the beleaguered village.  The old gentleman, suffering from an attack of gout, could not walk, and his two sons in the American army, Colonel William Nelson and Major John Nelson, went across and brought their father back to General Washington’s headquarters.  There the secretary recounted that the bombardment was producing great damage and had forced Cornwallis to seek refuge in a ‘grotto’ at the foot of his garden” (Evans 119).
“By October 11 the parallel directed at Cornwallis’s works was within 360 yards.  … On Sunday the 14th all the American batteries concentrated on the British strongholds—notably the Number 9 and Number 10 redoubts” (Ketchum 229, 230).  On October 16 the two redoubts were attacked (Number 10 by American soldiers commanded by Alexander Hamilton) and taken.  “Later that night the skies clouded over and it began to rain, a steady downpour that turned the trenches into a morass of mud, making the digging miserable for the fatigue parties, whose job it was to connect the captured redoubts to the second parallel and bring up howitzers to within three hundred years of the enemy’s works” (Ketchum 234).
Aware that defeat and surrender were only two or three days from transpiring, that night Cornwallis instructed Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton to “concentrate his troops at Gloucester [across the York River], prepare the artillery to accompany the British troops in an attack against Brigadier Choisy before daybreak, and have horses and wagons ready to retreat north through the countryside,” Tarleton agreed that a retreat “‘was the only expedient that now presented itself to avert the mortification of a surrender.’  … Before eleven o’clock the light infantry, most of the Guards brigade, and the 23rd Regiment, constituting the first wave of evacuees, shoved off for Gloucester.   … Cornwallis planned to accompany the second group himself, but before doing so he had to finish writing a letter to General Washington, ‘calculated to excite the humanity of that officer towards the sick, the wounded, and the detachment that would be left to capitulate.’  The first division arrived in Gloucester before midnight, and part of the second had embarked when a rain squall came up” (Ketchum 237).  The squall became a violent storm, which drove the boats down the river.  It became evident that the river could not be successfully crossed.  At 2 a.m. Cornwallis ordered all of his soldiers that had reached Gloucester to return to Yorktown. 
The allied cannonade that began at daybreak was devastating.  After observing the enemy and his works, Cornwallis sent to Washington a flag of truce.  He wrote to General Clinton of his decision emphasizing that it would be “wanton and inhuman to the last degree to sacrifice the lives of this small body of gallant soldiers, who had ever behaved with such fidelity and courage” (Ketchum 239).  Ironically, that same day General Clinton and six thousand troops set sail from New York to attempt a rescue.  Discovering that the French fleet controlled the Chesapeake, he ordered his ships and army back to New York. 
The negotiations for surrender took place in the home of Thomas Nelson’s former business partner, Augustine Moore.  On October 20 Nelson wrote the following to the Virginia delegates in the Continental Congress.
On the 17th at the Request of Lord Cornwallis Hostilities ceased, and yesterday the Garrison of York amounting to upwards of two thousand nine hundred Effectives, rank and file, marched out and grounded their arms.  Their sick are about seventeen hundred.  The Garrison of Gloucester and the men killed during the siege are computed at near two thousand, so that the whole loss sustained by the Enemy on this occasion must be between 6 and 7000 Men.  This blow, I think, must be a decisive one, it being out of the Power of G. B. to replace such a number of good troops (Evans 120).
 
 
Works cited:
 
Evans, Emory G.  Thomas Nelson of Yorktown: Revolutionary Virginian.  Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1975.  Print.
 
Ketchum, Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the Revolution.  New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2004.  Print.
 
Page, R. C. M.  Genealogy of the Page Family in Virginia.  New York: Jenkins & Thomas, 1883.  Print.
 
Publications of the Virginia Historical Society.  “Letters of Thomas Nelson.”  New Series, No. 1, 1874.  Print.
 
Sanderson, John.  Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence.  Second Edition.  Philadelphia: William Brown and Charles Peters, 1828.  V.  Print.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Character Traits
 
Having introduced Alsoomse and Wanchese as my two protagonists and presented a bit of their family history (See “Writing Alsoomse and Wanchese – First Chapter” – Dec. 13, 2015), I exhibit in chapters two and three several of their character traits.
 
Alsoomse tells a traditional Algonquian story with certain embellishments to her two 16 year old friends Nana and Odina and their young sisters Pules and Wapun, ages 11 and 12.  Alsoomse, Nana, and Odina are grinding corn kernels into flour, each girl using her family’s large stone mortar and pestle.  Pules and Wapun are cracking open walnut shells, centering each shell in the depression of a nutting stone and striking it with a flat-edged rock.  Alsoomse’s story entertains them as they prepare what is to become bread, which will supplement the day’s main meal.  Here are excerpts of Alsoomse’s story.
 
Alsoomse turned toward Pules and Wapun. Pointing toward the mainland, she said: “Long ago, but not so long ago, monsters walked this land. Windagos, giant cannibals, half human, would hide next to deer paths behind thick pine and cedar branches, waiting to snatch children! Catching two or three, the monster tied their arms and legs with vines.” Alsoomse leaned closer. “Imagine.” She paused, mesmerizing Pules with her eyes.  “Outside the cave where he lived the Windago built a great fire. Using more vines, he tied each child to a tree limb.  He placed the far end of one of the limbs on top of a high stump.  Walking around the fire holding the other end, he brought the tied-up child, a boy, over the fire where he slowly roasted him!  When he was cooked, …” She made a loud gnawing sound.
Wapun laughed.
Alsoomse shook her head, pointed her right forefinger. “Their parents, wondering where their children had gone, would go looking for them. Sometimes, if the Windagos were still hungry, they snatched the parents and roasted them, too!” Alsoomse’s face conveyed absolute gravity.
Seated behind Wapun, Nana suddenly stiffened. In two quick motions she raised her right hand and pointed. “Isn’t that … one of them behind those trees?!”
Wapun twisted about.
Nana giggled.
“Not funny.” Wapun glared. “I wasn’t afraid.”
Alsoomse pressed her pestle against her corn kernels. She smiled. “One grinding motion with each sentence,” she said. “All of you. Ready?” She watched them position their pestles over their mortars.
“The people in all the villages were miserable. Something had to be done.” She pressed down with her pestle. The others obeyed. “Fortunately, they worshiped the sun. Because the great Sun Father liked them, he decided to help them.” She pressed. Watching them, satisfied, she continued. “He changed himself into a handsome hunter, came down out of the sky, and married a beautiful woman from the North.”
Pules raised her head. “Where the Weapomeoc live?”
Alsoomse shook her head. “Much farther north.”
           
“The beautiful woman gave birth to twin boys. Handsome boys, very brave. They grew very fast; and then, suddenly, they stopped growing. They grew to be no taller than you, Wapun. But they were strong, and they were very intelligent, and were full of questions.”
           
She [the boys’ mother] said they were special. Two days later she carried out of her longhouse two bows about their height and two quivers full of arrows.” Lowering her chin, Alsoomse resumed grinding. The young girls waited, their hands, grasping their pestles, idle. A drift of smoke temporarily encircled them.
“Why?” Pules exclaimed.
“She told them that their father had left the bows and arrows for her to give to them. Then he had gone away. They were to use them when they became old enough. She went into her long house and brought out several magic rabbit sticks. ‘Take these also and use them but only if you have to,’ she told them.”
“Rabbit sticks? What are rabbit sticks?”
“Sticks covered with rabbit fur,” Alsoomse answered, straining to keep her mouth small.
“Why would anybody want to put rabbit fur on sticks?” Wapun frowned. “You are making this up.”
Alsoomse shrugged. “All I know is that the great Sun Father thought there should be fur on them. You see, there was magic in the fur. Time for two more grinds.” She bore down with her pestle, moved it in a semi-circle.
When the others had complied, she resumed. “The boys wanted to go hunting. Their mother told them to stay far away from the monster animals that could swallow them. ‘And stay away from Windagos! You are just the right size to roast!’ So …” Alsoomse raised her hands, palms up, lifted them to shoulder level. “Being boys, they thought they were all mighty, thought they could kill just about anything.”
 
That evening Granganimeo, Roanoke’s weroance, takes Wanchese aside to speak to him privately.
 
Stopping in a secluded space shrouded by thick spruce trees, close to the recently expanded burial ground, Granganimeo, arms folded across his chest, studied him.  Sensing what was about to be said, Wanchese felt the beginnings of irritation.
“It is hard for me to say this about my son.” Granganimeo rotated his head. “You must not repeat what I am about to say. It is only because Wingina and I recognize you to be strong in character, skillful in providing meat, and, we believe, brave in battle – and because you are Matunaagd’s son – that I say this to you.” Granganimeo squinted, deepened the furrows etched in his forehead. “That I place my trust in you.”
Wanchese waited.
“Tihkoosue is a disappointment. Boys his age have already learned the skills of hunting. They make their own bows and arrows. They play the hoop game, they shoot at tree stumps from different distances. Eagerly! They hunt with young braves. Tihkoosue does none of this. Yet he expects to become a weroance. He expects everything to be given to him. He must be taught otherwise.”
Wanchese shifted his weight, touched briefly his dangling tobacco sack.
“You know what I want you to do, don’t you?”
Wanchese nodded. The large turkey feather, its stem inserted in the groove at the top of his forehead, bobbed.
“It will take much of your time.” Granganimeo’s crossed forearms covered the square-shaped sheet of copper that hung from his neck.
“I know he is willful,” Wanchese answered. He felt he had the right to criticize. “He will not listen to me if he does not listen to you.”
“You have my permission to make him listen. I have seen how you reject weak character. I also know that you are fair-minded. Treat my son as he deserves.”
Wanchese stretched the corners of his mouth. “I will not be easy with him.”
 
Wanchese and Tihkoosue go hazelwood tree trunk hunting to carve out wood to make bows.  Altering Tihkoosue’s attitude and behavior is made possible by Tihkoosue’s curiosity about Wanchese’s deceased brother Kitchie, who at the age of 11 drowned attempting to navigate a canoe in the ocean.  Kitchi had been five years younger than Wanchese.
 
He [Wanchese] knelt upon the soft earth. Reaching behind his back for his skirt waistband, he secured his tobacco sack.  He removed it, untied its strings, and opened it. He poured bits of tobacco leaves into the palm of his left hand. He stood. “Tree, I thank you for giving us some of your wood. May the bows we make be strong and send our arrows fast and straight.” He sprinkled the palm’s contents judiciously around the base of the tree trunk.
Facing the boy, he said: “You must remember always to thank the trees you use and the animals you kill for their sacrifice.”
“I know that!”
Wanchese ignored the petulance. Using his knife, he commenced to cut a line approximately five feet long down the tree trunk. “This takes effort,” he said, “because of the bark. You see that I hold the knife with this deerskin hide. “
“I see that!”
“Then you know the reason.”
Tihkoosue didn’t answer.
Wanchese finished his second vertical cut.  He stood. The boy had marked half the distance of his first cut. “You are doing all right.”
“But it’s hard!”
“The hard part comes after we eat.”
Tihkoosue turned, looked at him hard. “How?”
“After we eat.  Hurry up. I am hungry.” Wanchese grinned.
Thirty minutes later the boy had finished.  Flexing the fingers of his right hand, he watched Wanchese make a fire, then build a platform of sticks over the flames to cook three moderate-sized bass he had taken from his previous day’s catch. Each was silent while they ate.
After awhile the boy asked: ”Did you do this with Kitchi?”
Wanchese felt instant pain. “Yes,” he said, tardily.
“How did he do?”
“He complained a lot.”
Wanchese remembered.
“It is hard,” Tihkoose had said. Everything is hard. It is meant to be.
“Was it a good bow?”
“Good enough for a boy his size. He was able to kill rabbits with it.”
“Did you take him hunting?”
“I did.”
“Is hunting hard?”
“Everything is hard the first time.” He paused, licked his fingers, reached with his knife for the unclaimed bass lying across two sticks extended two feet above the fire.  “It gets easier.”
They returned to the tree trunks. “Watch me while I cut the lines deeper. As deep as the distance of your little finger. “This will be hard work. Then we wedge the wood out using these pieces of deer antler and that hard rock I brought out of the canoe. The sun will be low when we finish.  You should know.”
“Did you help Kitchi?”
“Sometimes, when he asked.” Not watching him, Wanchese expected the next question. Tihkoosue didn’t speak. “He didn’t ask that much,” Wanchese answered.
 
Several days later Askook, a disagreeable distant cousin of Alsoomse and Wanchese and a brother of Granganimeo’s wife Hurit, joins Alsoomse’s group of friends, her first cousins Nootau and Sokanon, and Tihkoose while they finish their meal and hear the conclusion of Alsoomse’s story about the sun god’s two sons and an evil Windago.  Before and during Alsoomse’s story-telling Ashkook is rude to the little girls Pules and Wapun, insults the older girls Nana and Odina, and disparages Alsoomse’s story.  Alsoomse tells him that he is not welcome.  You are our cousin. Barely. You are not our friend.”  Askook continues his sarcastic insults.  He declares, finally, that Alsoomse’s two unattractive friends desire him to take them in their beds. 
 
Machk, Nana’s brother, “rose to one knee.  Wanchese gripped his right forearm.  ‘Sit. You, also,’ he said to Askook.  ‘Eat that last piece of meat.’  He pointed at the platter.  ‘It might stop you playing the fool.’
Askook angled his head, glanced sideways at Wanchese.  Smirking, he settled himself on the bare ground.  He looked again at Wanchese, whose focus was on Nana and Odina.  Alsoomse, watching closely, detected on Askook’s eyes an expression of triumph.”
 
Alsoomse’s story ends with the sun god’s two boys killing the Windago with the use of their magic rabbit sticks.  Askook speaks.
 
“Too bad Kitchi didn’t have the sun god protecting him when he took his canoe out into the great waters.” His eyes and the tilt of his head revealed satisfaction. “Too bad nobody human looked after him, either.” He glanced at Wanchese.
Alsoomse watched her brother rise to his feet. For a brief moment she was frightened for Askook. She had never seen Wanchese look like this: controlled, quietly menacing, at any moment lethal.
“Get up!”
Askook stood. He brushed the back of his rear apron.
“Follow me!” Wanchese turned, walked to the center of the village lane, faced back. Askook hadn’t moved.
“Are you a coward? Do as he says!” Alsoomse said.
Askook looked at her. “I am not a coward.”
“Then, …?”
“Come with me!” Wanchese, taking long strides, disappeared past the last longhouse.
“Do not be a woman!” Alsoomse said.
Askook’s expression reflected hate. Taking less lengthy strides, he walked past the longhouse.
Wanchese was waiting for him. “Follow me.”
“Why? Where?”
Wanchese turned about, walked ahead.
They arrived at the secluded alcove of spruce branches where Granganimeo had spoken to Wanchese about Tihkoosue.
“Well?” Askook’s eyes wavered. He pressed the heels of his hands against his hip bones.
“Mind what you say. I am very close to tearing you apart.”
“Don’t exaggerate.”
“If I lose control, I will kill you.”
They stared at each other.
“Well, …” Askook looked away.
“You wear Wingina’s four arrows inked behind your left shoulder. That is supposed to mean something. You do not show it!”
“I am as loyal to Wingina as any man.” Askook raised his chin, tightened his legs.
“They mean we are one. We protect each other. We are not each other’s enemy.” Wanchese’s eyes bored. “But you make yourself one! You insult, you accuse, you hate.”
“I tell the truth.”
“I see a man who cares only about himself.”
“I see a man who cared so much about himself that he was never here, to watch over his brother.”
Three feet apart, bodies taut, they faced each other.
Wanchese’s biceps and shoulder muscles strained to be released. “There are two things you can choose to do.” They were the same height. Askook looked at him warily. “You can be what you are supposed to be. Or you can be our enemy and be banished.”
“Not killed?” Askook mocked.
Wanchese struck him full on the right cheek with the heel of his left hand. Askook went down, instantly. He lay still for fifteen seconds, moved his upper body, briefly groaned.
“Not yet you are!”
Askook raised himself to a sitting position. A red welt was forming. “Tearing me apart will do you no good,” he muttered.
“Tell my hands and feet that.”
“You are responsible for Kitchi’s death. That is the truth!”
Wanchese crowded him. “Why does that matter to you?”
“That is for you to find out.”
“You are no cousin of mine. Your blood and my blood are not the same. You would be wise to return to Dasemunkepeuc. Determine there your fate.”
 
Character traits are best revealed by characters’ actions, not by author explication.


Monday, January 4, 2016

Review
"The Kitchen House"
by Kathleen Grissom
 
 
I had reservations about choosing this novel.  I was concerned that it might be a stereotypical cruel Southern white /beleaguered plantation slave novel.  If the book were to engage me, it had to offer something unique and it had to be exceptionally well written.  Kathleen Grissom did provide a unique twist to her story, but she began to lose me about half way through the novel.  Her story events were becoming annoyingly convoluted and implausible.  This trend continued, so much so that my empathy for certain characters was quashed by my resentment that a good story rather skillfully crafted had devolved into melodrama.
 
I enjoyed approximately the first 160 pages.  The white plantation characters seemed believable.  The owner, “the captain,” although short-sighted about certain matters, was not villainous.  His wife, Miss Martha -- who could say she was glad that nobody had been hurt when a fracas between whites and blacks had been averted even though one of the slaves had been whipped -- was also not basically inhumane.  The overseer, Rankin, was a believably sadistic bully that kept the entire slave population on edge.  The major slave characters – all sufficiently different in personality -- were laudable beings.  The author created her cast of characters well.
 
The unique aspect of the plot was the author’s placement of Lavinia McCarten, an orphaned Irish-born Caucasian child, at the center of the story.  Her parents, to be indentured to service upon their arrival in America, had died en route.  The captain of the vessel, who is the owner the plantation (Tall Oaks) where the story takes place, indentures the seven year old orphan girl to himself and places her under the care of his house and kitchen servants, who raise her as one of their own.  The story that enfolds is told mostly from Lavinia’s viewpoint.  She is a white child whose affections are not initially affected by late 18th Century Virginia White prejudice but must, as she matures, cope with its malevolent consequences.
 
Two other characters stand out.
 
Mama Mae is the foundation and soul of the slave population.  She is the most commendable character in the novel.  Early in the story Mama speaks sternly to an independent-minded young daughter. 
 
“I’m gonna tell you what happens when you say no to a white man.  I watch my own daddy get shot when he saddle up and ride out on a mule to get help for my own sick mama.  She havin’ a baby, cryin’ out for help.  I standin’ right there when that masta say to my daddy to get down from the mule.  When my daddy say, ‘No, I’s going for help,’ that old masta shoot him in the back.  That night all I know to do is keep the flies away when I watch my mama die.” 
 
We learn that the cruel masta eventually sold Mama to the Captain’s mother, Mrs. Pyke, to be a field slave.  Mama’s hard work and happenstance caused Mrs. Pyke to bring Mama up to the “big house” to feed the baby Belle, the illegitimate child of the Captain’s union with a slave woman who after Belle’s birth died of a fever. 
 
“I work for Mrs. Pyke like I don’t know what tired mean.  Nothin’ what I won’t do.  … You girls watch me close.  I act like I don’t have no mind of my own, except how to make everybody in the big house happy.  That because I mean to stay up there, and I tryin’ hard to keep you girls with me.”
 
It is Mama who gets Lavinia to emerge from the trauma of witnessing her parents’ death and burial at sea, her separation from her brother, and her placement among total strangers.   Among other kind acts, Mama makes Lavinia a rag doll like the one Lavinia has stolen from one of Mama’s children.  After Lavinia witnesses the burial of one of Mama’s grandchildren, reminded of her parents’ burial, she commences rocking.
 
“They say I rocked silently for almost two days.  … I rocked wildly as I clung to the memory of pain, to the memory of my mother.  I couldn’t release it; I would lose [the memory of] her again.”  Mama takes the rocking Lavinia into her lap and begins duplicating her rocking.  “Back and forth she rocked, bringing to the surface the festering poison of the nightmare I had been hiding.”  Lavnia tells Mama that Henry (Mama’s grandson) is “in the water,” that her mother is in the water.  Mama’s responds:
 
“Abinia, your mama is with the Lawd, just like the baby Henry.  Matter of fact, she be holdin’ baby Henry, and they playin’ together right now.  Listen, you can almost hear them laughin.’  This world is not the only home.  This world is for practice to get things right.  Times, the Lawd say, ‘Nope, that mama, that baby Henry, they too sweet to stay away from Me no more.  I brings them home.’  I know this, Abinia … Mama sayin’ there are times we got to trust the Lawd.” 
 
Thereafter, Lavinia takes Mama Mae as her mother.  This scene is a good example of the author’s best writing.
 
The second very prominent character in this book is the captain’s son Marshall.  At the novel’s beginning the captain and his wife, Miss Martha, have two children: Marshall, eleven, and Sally, four.  Soon after Lavinia’s arrival at the plantation, she encounters the two, the boy pushing his sister, seated in a swing hung from the branch of a large oak tree.  They are immediately curious about her.  She is white!  She lives with the slaves!  Later encounters reveal that Sally is a generous, open-hearted child willing to share her toys.  Marshall demonstrates learned prejudice.  As the story progresses, we discover that Marshall views Belle, Lavinia’s immediate mentor, with hatred.  First, Belle is a slave.  Second, Marshall does not know that Belle is his half-sister.  He and his mother – Miss Martha – witnessing the captain’s affection for Belle, believe that Belle is the captain’s lover.  Miss Martha, suffering from deep depression, takes laudanum.  Marshall blames Belle for his mother’s condition.
 
Later, we meet Mr. Waters, Marshall’s tutor.  We learn that Waters is sexually abusing Marshall.  The slaves know this aw well.  The captain does not.  Marshall suffers terribly from the abuse.  Eventually, he asks his father to be sent away to a school in Williamsburg.  The father refuses, believing that the boy needs to learn discipline.  At this point in the story Marshall is a sympathetic character.  The slave population view him as such.  But Marshall is developing a fierce temper.  Having been sexually abused again, he is standing near the swing with his sister when Lavinia and Mama’s twin girls (Lavinia’s playmates) come upon them.  Sally insists that Marshall push her.  He refuses and heads for the big house.  Seeing Mr. Waters watching them from the house, Sally calls to the tutor.  “‘Mr. Waters, Mr. Waters, … tell Marshall to push me on the swing.’”  Seeing Waters approach, Marshall pushes fiercely.  In response to her calls for him to stop, Marshall pushes each successive time harder.  She falls off the swing and is killed.   Waters blames Ben, one of Mama’s adult children, for the accident.  Rankin, the overseer, and several white men, savagely beat Ben.  They cut off one of his ears in an attempt to force Ben to confess.  Confronted by the captain – after Lavinia has told him what she has seen -- Waters insists that Marshall had told him the lie of whom had been at fault.
 
Waters becomes even more high-handed.  He abuses Marshall in the privy.  Lavinia sees Waters kicking him.  Marshall is in a dazed condition after Waters has left.  Lavinia runs to the Kitchen House to get help.  Mama’s husband (“Papa”) and Ben take Marshall to his room in the big house and guard the door.  Waters demands entrance.  They refuse to obey him; “‘we stayin’ here with Masta Marshall till the cap’n get home.’”  Waters leaves.  Ben goes into hiding.  Rankin, in league with Waters, looks for Ben.  Waters attempts to force himself on Mama’s eldest daughter Dory.  Ben kills him.  Waters’s body is burned, and its remains are put in the bottom of the privy.
 
While Rankin is investigating Waters’s disappearance, Marshall and Lavinia have a conversation.  Marshall wants to know why Waters’s room has been cleaned out and where the tutor has gone.  She tells him that Waters has “gone to see the debil.”  He realizes belatedly that she means the “devil.”  “‘Don’t start talking like that,’ he said.  ‘You’re not one of them.’”  He calls the slaves “stupid.”  “‘Not Belle,’ I said, ready to inform him of her reading skills.”  Marshall calls Belle “a yella whore.  … ‘Don’t trust any of them,’ he said.  ‘They’ll turn on you the minute you turn your back …  the ones closest to you.  They’ll kill you when you sleep.’”  Lavinia wants to know who had said that.  “Waters and Rankin,’ he said.  ‘It happens all the time.  They told me about plenty of slaves killing their masters.  You’ve got to learn to control them before they kill all of us.’” 
 
From this moment on, Marshall is a repugnant character.  During the captain’s time at sea, Marshall and Rankin spend considerable time together.  Rankin turns Marshall into an alcoholic.  The captain, after his return, sends Marshall to Williamsburg to live with his wife’s sister and her lawyer husband and to attend William and Mary College.  The slaves at Tall Oaks worry about the time when the captain dies and Marshall becomes their master.
 
Eventually, Miss Martha and Lavinia are taken to Williamsburg to live with Martha’s sister’s family, Lavinia to be trained to become a proper Southern lady.  It is at this juncture that I felt the author had begun using her characters as pawns to permit her, eventually, to place Lavinia, at the age of seventeen, mistress of Tall Oaks.   I felt that the events that lead to this occurrence were unacceptably contrived.  To have Lavinia become mistress, the author made her suddenly weak-willed.  Lavinia rationalizes her foolish decisions.  She finds Marshall’s attentions – despite all that she has witnessed about him during her childhood -- acceptable.  Because I no longer respected her, what happens to her after her return to Tall Oaks ceased to matter that much.  Because Lavinia no longer seemed to be a believable character, the events involving her that affected the slave population seemed, consequently, counterfeit.
 
Nevertheless, Kathleen Grissom demonstrated throughout the novel strong command of narration and dialogue.  Her characterizations, for the most part, are excellent.  Hers was an ambitious undertaking.  She should be commended for that.  Other readers may very well have a different opinion of what I found to be disappointing.