Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Review

by Kent Haruf
I loved this book’s humanity, its characters, and the author’s craft.
This is a story about kindness and decency triumphing over selfishness and cruelty.  This is not a story about characters placed in exceptional situations like in wars or battles but about ordinary people with real-life difficulties exhibiting attributes or defects of character with which readers readily identify. 
Plainsong takes place in a small-town rural Colorado community probably in the 1960s.  Tom Guthrie is an American history teacher with eight and nine-year-old sons to raise.  He and his mentally ill wife are estranged.  Victoria Roubideaux is a pregnant seventeen-year-old high school student whose mother has banished her from their house.  Harold and Raymond McPheron are two aged bachelor cow farmers who are asked by Maggie Jones, a sympathetic teacher at the high school, to take Victoria in.  Russell Beckman is a selfish, nasty, indolent student in one of Guthrie’s classes.  He and his vicious parents cause Guthrie considerable grief.  Complicating Victoria’s life is the young man who has gotten her pregnant.  Over the course of nine months the lives of these characters change, for better or worse, realistically, inexorably.
Kent Haruf writes beautifully.  He places his characters in particular situations and, using third-person narration, tells their stories revealing only their conversations and their actions.  He rarely interjects their thoughts.  We, the readers, are left to hear and witness and judge these characters as we do actual people.  Part of the appeal of this book is the not-immediately-knowing and, consequently, the craving to know why specific characters are in the situations we find them in so that we can project what they might do to rectify them.
I especially enjoyed the author’s terse dialogue and frequent use of sensory detail.  You will read no empty dialogue here.  What each character says is to the point and fits.  Haruf has an excellent eye for sensory detail.  He makes use of it without being ostentatious.  What he uses goes beyond what we writers more often than not just make up.  Here is an example:
“Guthrie ordered a beer and Monroe drew it and set it down in front of him.  He wiped at a spot on the polished wood but it was something in the grain of the wood itself.”
The setting of the novel is as authentic as the characters and their conflicts.  The school has the feel that I knew as a public school teacher.  The activities of the McPheron brothers working their cow farm were detailed and instructive. 
If you are looking for affirmation that goodness can overcome the meanness of life, if you care about people, you will enjoy this book.    


"Lowell, the Redcoats!" Pages 195-196


wo men walked rapidly across the damp grass of Lexington Common, the smaller man, as if to leave one set of footprints, stepping fastidiously in the wake of the bulky man with the thick hands. Neither man exhibited concern about the tolling of the tower bell or the beating of the company drum or the haste of militiamen crossing the Bedford road. Neither by hesitancy nor surreptitious glance did they acknowledge the two dozen women, handful of children, and five old men clustered in front of John Buckman’s stable.

     Both men had accompanied Samuel Adams and John Hancock to the home of Woburn’s recently deceased preacher. The first night of Hancock's residency at Reverend Jonas Clarke’s house John Lowell, Hancock’s secretary, had stored the wealthy merchant’s traveling trunk in a private room of John Buckman’s tavern. Underneath articles of clothing and personal effects lay treasonous letters. Upon arriving at Woburn, Hancock had ordered that the trunk be removed.

     Lowell and his companion climbed now the tavern’s stairs. Stopping at the first room on the second floor, the secretary pulled out of his coat pocket a long key. Turning it, he opened the chamber door. Looking over Lowell’s right shoulder, Paul Revere spied beneath the curtained window the rectangular trunk. Bending his knees, Lowell grasped one handle. Revere, facing the wall, beginning his stoop, looked out the window.

     Down the slope of the Menotomy road, headed toward the tavern, advanced the King’s infantry!

     Revere noticed the brass buttons, gold lace, whitened leather baldrics, and soiled white leggings. He identified Major John Pitcairn, the profane, devout, fiery, amiable Scotsman with whom he had occasionally exchanged pleasantries. He recognized riding beside Pitcairn the pugnacious major who three hours ago had threatened to scatter his brains.

     “Lowell, the Redcoats!” he cried.

     Ten seconds later they were stomping down the stairs, Lowell, straining at the high end of the trunk, Revere, carrying most of its weight, treading backwards. Out the front door and then past the back of the stable they labored. Feeling the Bedford road beneath his shoes, faced backward, Revere witnessed east of the Meeting House the bravura of red uniforms. Ahead of the dash of color rode Pitcairn, flanked by six or seven officers, each astride a large “plow horse.” Parallel to the Bedford road, Captain Parker’s militiamen had formed a long line.

     Into and behind the company he and Lowell staggered.

     “Let the troops pass by,” Revere heard Captain Parker say, “and don't molest them without they begin first!”

     Going between the blacksmith shop and Jonathan Harrington’s house, Revere and Lowell returned to the road. Straining to keep the bottom edge of the trunk above his knees, striking his heels on the road’s surface, hearing Lowell’s arduous grunts, Revere issued rapid, lip-separating puffs.

     The renting sound of detonated gunpowder halted them, caused them to drop the trunk.

     Staring through interfering tree limbs, Revere saw lines of soldiers and billowing smoke. A second explosion blasted. The soldiers charged.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Traitor -- Living Dangerously

Dr. Joseph Warren and Paul Revere knew before the Battles of Lexington and Concord that British Military Governor/Commanding General Thomas Gage had been receiving damaging information about their activities from somebody very familiar with their operations. Their acknowledgment of this first appears in “Crossing the River” when Revere told Dr. Warren that General Gage was preparing to send a military force to Concord to destroy stockpiled munitions.

[Warren:] “'You will have to warn Adams and Hancock. At once.'

Revere recrossed his legs, stared.

'And the Concord militia. Although your ride to warn them a week ago has given them immediate cause to remove their stores.'

'I'd thought to leave tomorrow, early.'

'But not through the gate!' Warren shook his head. 'They know you rode to Portsmouth! Their spy has told them. I am certain!'"

Because Gage’s army had to pass through Lexington to reach Concord, Sam Adams and John Hancock, for several weeks house guests of the town’s Reverend Jonas Clarke, risked arrest. Revere left Boston shortly after 11 p.m., April 18, to carry out Warren’s instructions. Rowed across Boston’s Back Bay to Charlestown, Revere met briefly with that town’s military leader, Colonel James Conant, and Richard Devens, a member of the illegal Provincial Congress. Earlier, traveling from Menotomy to Charlestown, Devens had been stopped by a group of British officers seeking, they claimed, the whereabouts of a nearby tavern. Asked specifically about “Clark’s tavern,” Devens had recognized what they circuitously wanted to obtain, where Reverend Clarke lived. In my book, reacting to what Devens tells him, Revere sees the handiwork of General Gage’s spy.

“'You should know, Revere, that I was detained by British officers along the Menotomy road!'

Revere squinted.

'I encountered them at dusk. Five or six officers. Several servants -- sergeants, I presume -- accompanying them. They demanded I direct them to ‘Clark's tavern’!'

It took Revere a moment to comprehend Devens’s statement.

He wondered how much more the General knew. Gage’s spy continued to do them damage."

General Gage’s informant was Dr. Benjamin Church, an important member of the Provincial Congress’s Committee of Safety. I identify him as such once, 80 pages into “Crossing the River,” during a scene in which Gage agonizes over whether he should act on his plan to dispatch 700 soldiers during the cover of night to Concord.

“The contents of this most recent letter, dated April 13, authored by his spy, Doctor Benjamin Church -- an important member of the Congress's Committee of Safety -- was especially important!

Take action within the next several days! his informant had advised. When it serves your purpose! Sam Adams and his cronies want confrontation. Defeat their designs when their Congress least expects it!"

Church appears in person in a scene in my last chapter. Admitted to Joseph Warren’s Cambridge residence, Revere finds his good friend and Church discussing the previous day’s fighting. Revere dislikes Church. Church insults him. Believing that Church is a valuable asset to the patriotic cause, Revere chooses to say nothing. Concerned about the safety of his wife and family, Revere decides to steal into Boston that night to see them.

Revere’s biographer Esther Forbes tells us that during his brief visit, Revere asked his wife to collect money owed to him by customers. The next evening he was back in Cambridge talking with Warren and Church. Suddenly, Church volunteered to go overtly into Boston.

Amazed, Warren declared, according to Revere’s account: “They will hang you if they catch you.” Church persisted. Warren eventually told him: “If you are determined, let us make some business for you.” Warren wanted Church to bring back medicine for “their and our wounded officers.”

Revere asked Church to bring back the money that Rachel had thus far collected. Two days later, a Sunday, Revere saw Church again at Warren’s Cambridge residence. “After he had told the committee how things were, I took him aside and inquired particularly how they treated him. He said, that as soon as he got to their lines, on Boston Neck, they made him a prisoner, and carried him to General Gage, where he was examined, and then he was sent to Gould's barracks, and was not suffered to go home but once.” He declared that he had not been allowed to visit Revere's wife.

Fool's Gold

Hoping that she had access to a source of gold equal to that of Spain in South America, Queen Elizabeth authorized a third voyage, financed by investors of the Company of Cathy, to Baffin Island.  Martin Frobisher would lead 15 ships, 300 Cornish miners, and 100 colonists to Frobisher Bay and the Countess of Warwick’s Island (Kodlunarn Island today) in Arctic North America. 

They would start a colony.  Prefabricated barracks and 18 months of provisions were to be transported. Large quantities of ore would be mined and stockpiled during the winter.  The colonists would trade commercially with the Inuit.  Their permanent presence and activity would support Elizabeth’s claim of territorial ownership.

The fleet left Plymouth May 31, 1578.  Sailing by way of the English Channel, it reached the south of Greenland, where Frobisher and a boatload of men landed briefly June 20.  Frobisher sighted the foreland of Frobisher Bay July 2. Stormy weather and dangerous ice-sea conditions forced the ships to maneuver about Hudson Strait (previously undiscovered) and the mouth of Frobisher Strait for nearly a month.  Ice sank the barque Dennis, carrying half of the colony’s lumber.  A ship returned to England.  The remaining ships rendezvoused eventually at the Countess of Warwick's Island.  Much of the expedition’s supplies had been lost or spoiled.  That included beer, considered an important food staple.  Frobisher and his officers decided not to found the colony. 

The expedition’s miners quarried and loaded more than 1,100 tons of rock from several hastily opened mines, two of them on the Countess of Warwick's Island, where Frobisher’s headquarters, assayer shops, and tool repair huts were located.

Groups of Inuit appeared distantly, wary of the English but curious about the mining activity. This time Frobisher was unable to seize and transport a human curiosity for his countrymen’s and Queen’s entertainment.

Officer George Best wrote about the voyagers’ preparations for leaving.

"We buryed the timber of our pretended forte, with manye barrels of meale, pease, griste, and sundrie other good things, which was of the prouision of those whych should inhabit, if occasion serued....Also here we sowed pease, corne, and other graine, to proue the fruitfulnesse of the soyle against the next yeare."

A small stone house was built at the summit of the Countess of Warwick’s Island as an experiment to see how English buildings survived Arctic winters and to encourage the Inuit to engage in future, peaceful trade.  Hung for the house’s walls were mirrors, bells, whistles, toy figures, and other items of human interest.  Bread was baked for the Inuit to taste.

All ships but the Emanuel -- wrecked on the west coast of Ireland – returned to England, the first week of October.  The precious ore was taken to a specially constructed smelting plant at Powder Mill Lane in Dartford, where assayers declared it to be fool’s gold – iron pyrite.  

Much of the previous assays of the ore had been conducted by two men: Baptista Agnello, a Venetian, and Burchard Kranich, a German mining expert.  Both men had cheated, perhaps to ensure future employment.  Kranich died before Frobisher’s return.  Agnello confessed that he had placed real gold into the smelting furnace to “coax nature.”  Kranich had added several gold coins.  Much of the Arctic ore would be used later to repair roads in the county of Kent. 

Many of the expedition’s investors went bankrupt.  A promoter was jailed.  His reputation ruined, Frobisher returned to piracy.  Subordinate to Francis Drake, he raided Spanish settlements in the Caribbean.  Eventually, he gave Queen Elizabeth 60,000 pounds worth of gold to attempt to win back her favor.

The Inuit valued the furnishings of the cottage, the remains of other buildings, and what the English had buried. A blacksmith's anvil was used for generations as the object of a weightlifting contest.  Metal objects, ceramics, stove tiles, roofing tiles, and wood were widely traded.  English oak meant to be used to house the planned colony had been buried in one of the mines on the Countess of Warwick's Island.  Seven years later, more than 200 kilometers further north along the Baffin Island coast, the English explorer John Davis found an Inuit sled built partially from sawed boards of English oak.  English materials continue to be discovered in Inuit archaeological sites.
For three centuries the Inuit preserved information about Frobisher's expeditions.  In 1861 the American journalist Charles Francis Hall traveled to the Arctic aboard a whaling ship to learn the fate of the Sir John Franklin Expedition, which had disappeared in the Central Arctic during the 1840s. Baffin Island Inuit told Hall about Kodlunarn (White Men's) Island, where local Inuit were still collecting fragments of red tile left by a party of white men long ago.  Hall connected these findings with the Frobisher voyages.  Taken to the island by Inuit guides, he found the two large mining trenches, the remains of the stone cottage at the summit of the island, and a scattering of other material.

Martin Frobisher’s voyages were a prelude to Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s disastrous attempt to found a colony in Maine and Sir Walter Raleigh’s ambitious attempts immediately thereafter in North Carolina.  Next month: Humphrey Gilbert’s hubris and demise.