I was interviewed by author Pat Wahler today here. Check it out.
Monthly Archives: September 2021
Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a beautiful example of a historical novel that sheds light on a little-known aspect of American history. Frankly, I wish publishers would look for more stories like this instead of endlessly bringing out books about the world wars.
This story focuses on two aspects of Kentucky’s history: first, the pack horse librarians who at some danger to themselves carried books and magazines into some of the poorer regions of the Kentucky hills and, second, the blue people of Kentucky, whose unusual color was caused by a recessive genetic condition and which caused them to be discriminated against in much the same way Black citizens were.
Richardson herself is a native of Kentucky, and she conveys an especially strong sense of the place and culture. Cussy Mary is a likable narrator, spunky without being overly modern. Through Cussy’s father, the story also highlights the hardships of Kentucky coal miners.
The book has a satisfying but not too saccharine ending and an epilogue that explains more about the historical background. I enjoyed the novel very much.
I’ve never posted this poem here, but today seems an appropriate day. I wrote it when my brother Keith was serving as a civilian contractor, driving trucks in Iraq, and he told me they weren’t allowed to stop when people ran in the road because of the threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Please note that what happens to the trucker in the poem is something that I imagined, not that my brother experienced. Keith died last December of COVID-19, so now for me personally, this poem relates to two of the great tragedies in our country’s recent history.
I. The Fireman
He never knows what wakes him—
the click of the furnace,
the dull scrape of a snowplow in the street,
his wife’s soft sigh—
but once awakened, he hears explosions,
the loud percussive impact of a body hitting street,
bursting in a wet and heavy instant
like a monstrous water balloon
or a dropped melon.
Like a repeating loop of newsreel,
he sees them jump from the towering pyre
and try to keep on running,
arms pumping, legs striding through the smoky sky
as they plummet to eternity.
And he who could not save them,
nor the comrades lost in the Twin Towers’ fall,
keeps faith by living with the burden of memory—
the smell of burning flesh and fuel
the acrid taste of powdered concrete—
and waits for it to crush him
so he can join the others.
II. The Trucker
The snores are loud in a tent of 40 men,
shaking him from sleep
just as the roar of jet engines
must have vibrated the tower windows
right before the impact.
Eighteen hours he drove that day,
hauling steak, detergent, and stacks of mail
to an army base near Fallujah.
As he returned,
a barefoot boy in dirty clothes,
scrambled over the gravel shoulder
and onto the single-lane highway.
The boy held out his hands before him
in the universal gesture for “Stop”
and squeezed shut his eyes.
the convoy neither slowed nor turned
but drove straight forward to avoid ambush.
His was the truck that hit the slender body,
the initial thud of impact
followed by a bump as he ran over a yielding mass,
each set of wheels encountering less and less of a barrier.
Now he lies on his cot, trying not to shudder,
and tells himself the boy would have grown to be a terrorist,
so that killing him was like squashing a baby scorpion.
Above the snores of his tent mates,
comes the high-pitched hum of an overworked heater.
And hearing its whine, he imagines
that somewhere in the desert,
a brother or uncle or cousin
wails over a broken body
and vows jihad.
Copyright: Ruth Hull Chatlien. May not be reprinted or published without the author’s written permission.
Stalin’s Door by John St. Clair is the story of a family nearly destroyed by Stalin’s Great Terror, the purge by which the dictator imprisoned or executed not only his enemies but also anyone who, in his growing paranoia, he thought might become enemies. Zhenya, the daughter of the family, is the single thread running through the tale. Her father was a rising official awarded an apartment in the House on The Embankment in Moscow, a place where the Soviet elite lived in luxury that was unimaginable to most citizens. However, life there came with the terrible price of greater scrutiny by the secret police. Historically, a very high proportion of residents were dragged off, charged with treason, tortured, and killed or imprisoned. The author has created an almost surreally Kafkaesque scenario to explain why so many residents were disappeared—to borrow a term from Argentina’s dirty war. (I did search to see if the method of spying St. Clair describes was real but without success.) The novel follows Zhenya through the arrest of her parents and down the unexpected path she takes to and through the horrific Gulag system.
This project was an ambitious undertaking for a debut novel, and to a large extent, St. Clair pulls it off. The horrors inflicted by Stalin’s regime are vividly portrayed without gratuitous descriptions of brutality. The five main characters caught up in the story are sympathetic and distinctive. The themes of the novel remind me of The Lives of Others, the brilliant 2006 German film about the Stasi. There is also a touch of magical realism used effectively to enhance the story rather than distract from it.
I have two minor quibbles. I was hoping for an author’s note to explain what was real and what was fictional invention. If St. Clair ever issues a second edition, I think he should consider adding one. The second quibble is that the language was a bit stilted for my personal taste. I suspect this was intentional to evoke both the past and the foreignness of Russian culture. I’d have preferred a lighter hand with that technique, but it wasn’t enough of an issue to slow my reading.