Thursday, April 28, 2016

His Family by Ernest Poole

His Family by Ernest Poole, 1917.  Won the Pulitzer in 1918.


Ernest Poole (1880-1950) was born in Chicago, graduated from Princeton in 1902 and worked as a journalist as well as a writer of novels.  He is reported to have had a brush with socialism in the early 1900's and helped Upton Sinclair do research for his socially conscious 1906 novel, The Jungle.   As a writer, Poole worked for social reform, including an end to child labor.   He wrote The Harbour in 1915 which dealt with labor unions in New York City.  In 1917 Poole wrote His Family and in 1918 it became the first novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. This work took on a theme of social reform in that much of the story deals with the “tenement” families in New York and their struggles against poverty, ignorance, disease, and unfair labor practices.  The central character is Roger Gale, a 60 year-old widower who is trying to understand and help his three adult daughters.  Roger is also trying to understand and adjust to changes in American society, especially those brought on by World War I.  In this sense, Poole wrote on a theme that was later picked up by Willa Cather in One of Ours and Edna Ferber in So Big.


Poole is trying to go beyond social reform even though his character, Roger Gale, begins with prejudice and lack of sympathy toward the poor masses and ends up, at the end of his life, accepting them as part of his larger family.  Poole is also interested in one man’s efforts to relate to his adult children, help them where possible, but also let them have their own lives, and ultimately be willing to let go in order for the children to shape their own lives.  Roger regrets years of neglecting or, at least, not being very involved in his children’s lives and then, later, wanting to see them happy.  Once they became adults he found that what he wanted for his children was not necessarily what they wanted for themselves.  He comes to question how much he ever really knew them.  Finally, Roger has to face the conclusion that he has worried enough about his family and has to try to find peace in his life rather than get what he wants and thinks is best for his daughters. The beginning of WWI in Europe in 1914 brings on economic hardships to many in the U.S., much like the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001.  Roger feels it in his newspaper clipping business and he is forced to lay off workers and take out a mortgage on his home to keep the business going and to support his family.  

Poole seems to be saying that family is of great importance in our lives- or that it can be if we choose that value.  Circumstances require that Roger take in his daughter and her children and he has to find ways to provide.  This family commitment is set against Roger’s youngest daughter’s choice to pursue wealth and pleasure without concern for her marriage or her family. His other daughter, a public school principal, goes the direction of adopting in an educational and social sense thousands of poor families in the tenements.  This daughter struggles with her social commitments as opposed to her desire to marry and have her own children.  It appears that Poole is laying out our life choices: pleasure, family commitment, or social conscience.  In the end, his educator daughter finds a way to have her own family and her large family of poor children in need of education.  His oldest daughter is totally committed to her five children and his youngest daughter chooses to pursue wealth and pleasure without family concerns. 

Roger ends his life being a happy man, at peace with how his family has turned out.  His experiences in later life have helped him appreciate his family and to accept them as they are.  He also develops an appreciation for the family of man and the countless thousands who need help from society.  Poole succeeds in making a case for social conscience and also tries to convey that this end does not have to rule out our own family and concern for the children born to us.  Seen in this light, I believe Poole had a good message for his time and for our time, as well.  In the 100 years that have passed since Poole wrote His Family, the number of poor and needy families has not decreased.  We still need to decide whether to be focused only on our own family or to see humanity as our family and to provide help, as we are able.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, 2013.
            Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014

            The Goldfinch embodies one of the good, engaging and endearing stories that I have found lacking in many of the Pulitzer Prize winning works of fiction for the past decade.  With many of the past winners, I have had to force myself to the read the novel because of my commitment to read the Pulitzer winners.  With The Goldfinch, I couldn’t put it down, thought about it when I wasn’t reading, and am still thinking about it now that I've finished the book.  The fact that it won the Prize tells me that great fiction can still have a compelling, meaningful story.  I knew this all along but it felt good to see that the Pulitzer jury for fiction and the Pulitzer board also viewed The Goldfinch as a great book, worthy of the Pulitzer Prize.  Frankly, I had begun to doubt that I could be carried away by a recent winner of the Prize.  This admission says a lot about me and my taste for a good work of fiction.  But what is wrong with a good story that carries the reader to a place and a situation where interesting characters are dealing with problems in life that a reader can relate to?  I am glad I can enjoy such a work of fiction.  My wife has a cousin who seldom enjoys a meal in a fine restaurant because there is always something wrong with the sauce, the wine, the coffee or the service.  Can such a critic ever be happy with a meal?

            The Goldfinch is a story about love, the loss of love, and the adjustments, good and bad, to the loss.  It is also a story about fate, how life sometimes gives us bad luck or even tragedy but also manages to give us some good luck along the way.  The central character, 13 year-old Theo Decker, lives in New York City with his beautiful and dearly-loved mother, Audrey.  His father, Larry, deserted them a year ago but they have a happy life without him.  Theo loses his mother in a terrorist attack in an art museum and his life is never again the same.  However, he goes on with life, sometimes wishing it would be over because of how much he misses his mother.  Theo finds a few good people along the way who give him what love and help they can provide so that his life has enough support and meaning to continue.  Theo also acquires a painting, The Goldfinch by a Dutch master named Fabritius, on the same day that his mother is taken away from him.  Without thinking clearly about it, Theo decides to keep the painting and it becomes the focus of Theo’s life and the focus of Tartt’s novel.  Theo’s mother had loved the painting since she looked at it in an art book as a young girl.  She had taken Theo to see it at a museum in New York on the day that changed his life.  The Goldfinch painting, in real life,, is still housed in a New York museum.  It helps Theo get through the loss of his mother as he clings to it to represent something of her.  The Goldfinch makes him feel that somehow his life has meaning, partly because Audrey had loved it so much. The paining is part of the good luck Theo experiences in his life but it also leads to some of his greatest challenges. 

            As I see it, The Goldfinch deals with the issue of how the people in our lives often don’t meet all of our needs but by receiving what love and support they have to offer, and putting it all together, we can make a life that can be satisfying, maybe even happy.  A poor adjustment to loss of the most important person in life could lead a person to reject all other sources of help.  But Theo accepted the help and went on living.  The day Theo lost his mother was also the day he was, by chance, introduced to Pippa, Welty, and eventually  to Hobie, people who would end up being one his sources of love and emotional support.  He also receives help from the Barbour family who end up loving Theo but not being able to show it directly after his mother’s death, when he needed it most.  Pippa is a girl he encountered on the fateful day when Audrey died and Theo loves her through the whole story.

            More ill fate enters Theo’s life when his father comes back after the death of Theo’s mother to claim his son. This father is bad news and bad luck  for Theo.  Larry and his girlfriend Xandra take Theo to live with them in the outskirts of Las Vegas where Larry is a professional gambler.  Theo suffers major culture shock due to the fact that Larry is a poor father along with being a loser and a deadbeat.  He pretty much ignores Theo and ends up in trouble for not paying gambling debts.  Without parents to care for him, in a new environment and school, Theo makes the adjustment we might expect- he finds a friend in a similar situation.  He becomes best friends with a Russian boy named Boris, who is also without a mother but has an alcoholic father  and is essentially living on his own.  They become inseparable friends and assist each other in becoming expert shoplifters and dependent on alcohol and drugs.  All this time Theo has, or thinks he has, The Goldfinch painting hidden in his room.  Fate steps in again to change Theo’s life when Larry is killed in a car crash.  Theo panics and heads out on his own so he won’t be taken in by social services in Nevada, though Boris tries to get him to stay in Las Vegas.       
            Theo gets back to New York, as a sixteen year old with no family, and is faced with having to make more adjustments to what life has dealt him.  The Goldfinch has the feeling of a Dickens novel such as David Copperfield or Great Expectations:  boy on his own, facing great challenges, having to face life and deal with difficult situations.  Donna Tartt has loaded Theo down with more than his share of bad luck and undesirable characters but also given him a number of good people who help him along the way. Hobie, an endearing character in the book, takes Theo in, gives him a home and eventually helps him end up in a career as an antiques dealer.  Unfortunately, Theo continues with some of the shady dealings and drug use he started in Las Vegas.  It becomes clear early on in The Goldfinch that Theo is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder due to what he experienced at the time of his mother’s death.  The effects of PTSD follow Theo into his early adult years and make it hard for him to settle into a stable, drug-free life.  His obsession with Pippa also makes it hard for Theo to go forward with marriage to a daughter in the Barbour family he has known for years.  Then along comes Boris, and the Goldfinch painting, back into Theo’s life and more bad luck takes him down a road he couldn’t have imagined.  Theo has to face a new set of challenges that almost prove too much for him but a will to live and cope, along with some good luck, get him through the crisis.  The Goldfinch doesn’t end with Theo neatly working out all his problems but he does emerge as a more mature and self-aware person who seems ready to get on with a better approach to life.

            It was interesting to me that the incidents in Theo’s life as a 13 year old took place roughly around the time of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001.  Many children lost their parents and were traumatized by the attack.  The story of Theo captures much of what likely played out in the lives of children and teenagers as their families and their lives were ripped apart by the attack.  And some of these young people likely went through the same kind of difficult adjustments and PTSD  that we see in Theo.  The love of art, help from good people, and a will to go on living made it possible for Theo to make it to a better place.  One can only hope that the young people affected by the 9-11 attack had the same mix of good luck and good people to help offset the bad luck in their lives.  Some critics and readers may not have liked The Goldfinch for reasons they understand.  I liked it for the reasons I have tried to share:  it touched a place in my heart that wants to see a young kid with a lot of loss and bad luck, along with PTSD, find a way to adjust to life in some effective ways, using the good things fate also gives him, to end up with a life worth living.  

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, 2012
Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2013
The Orphan Master’s Son took me over a year to get around to reading, mainly because the premise expressed on the dust jacket seemed so strange and foreign:  The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.”  North Korea has been a mystery to many of us due to how closed off from the rest of the world it is.  And I have heard very little about the lives people lead in the country other than how the people often go without sufficient food while the government spends large sums on the military and defenses.  Maybe I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn more about all of this, so I put off reading Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning novel.  And to be honest, I have not enjoyed or felt rewarded for having read many of the recent winners of the prize for fiction.  However, I admit that I got caught up in this novel and I am sorry I put off reading it for a year.  I have not written a blog post on any of the more recent Pulitzer winners because of my disappointments with the works but The Orphan Master’s Son was, for me, a rewarding read and a book I want to talk about in this blog.  Please bear in mind that I am only giving my reactions and opinions.  Your take on The Orphan Master’s Son may be different from mine and I would value hearing your views.
The Orphan Master’s Son is the story of Pak Jun Do who was the son of the orphan master at the Long Tomorrows orphanage in North Korea.  Jun Do’s mother was stolen away by the North Korean government to Pyongyang to be a singer.  That’s all he knows of her.  However, the Orphan Master sees his lost wife’s face in Jun Do and, therefore, takes out his loss and hurt by being cruel to his son.  It is Jun Do’s job to give a name to each orphan boy, usually taken from the list of honored martyrs of North Korea.  Though he is not an orphan himself, Jun Do is taken for one his whole life because he is named after a national hero and he grew up in an orphanage.  Orphans are at the lowest level of society and most of them end up in the army.  At age 14 during a severe famine, Jun Do and the other orphans at Long Tomorrows are trucked to an army base where they are trained to be tunnel fighters.  The North Korean army digs tunnels under the demilitarized zone into South Korea.  The tunnel fighters are trained to sneak into the South and kidnap people and bring them back to North Korea.  Jun Do moves on from tunnel fighter to be a kidnapper in the Navy.  His job is to go by fishing boat to the shores of Japan, sneak into the country in a small raft, grab an unsuspecting Japanese citizen, and bring the victim back to North Korea.  One of the kidnapped persons was a famous Japanese opera singer whom a North Korean Minister wanted for his own.  Jun Do was particularly good at carrying out these raids because of his knowledge of taekwondo and his ability to fight in the dark.  After a number of successful kidnappings, Jun Do is rewarded with schooling to learn English and is then assigned to a fishing boat where he has the job of monitoring English radio transmissions and reporting them to the North Korean government.
Kim Jong Il
Supreme Leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea

The story told in The Orphan Master’s Son is strange and hard to believe but it’s also compelling to read.  The events in the life of Jun Do strike me as rather implausible but the context of these events, occurring as they do in North Korea, was interesting and informative. Not knowing much about North Korea, I became fascinated by the story Johnson tells in this novel.  In preparing to write The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson travelled to North Korea in 2007 and read numerous testimonies of defectors from the country.  I believe that Johnson gives a reasonably accurate description of the bizarre dictatorship of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, over the nation of 23 million North Koreans.  This nation is believed by many to be one of the most backward and repressive countries in the world today.  Johnson drives home this point.  As I read the novel I kept trying to decide whether Johnson was giving the reader an expose’ of how things are in North Korea or a parody of North Korea and the Dear Leader.  I thought of how the movie and TV series “MASH” was a humorous parody, often exaggerated, of how it was for a U.S. Army medical unit in the Korean War.  Yet, MASH had a ring of truth that made the episodes entertaining, poignant and educational at the same time.  My opinion is that expose’ and parody both apply to The Orphan Master’s Son.  I see parody in how truth is handled in Kim Jong Il’s regime.  While the citizens are taught over loudspeakers in their homes and places of work that North Korea is the greatest, most democratic nation on earth where there is no hunger, the citizens are also warned over the loudspeaker to not start snaring song birds and gathering acorns until the proper seasons for these activities.  A central point in The Orphan Master’s Son is that the people are kept in the dark about how life is outside of North Korea.  For example, a central female character in the story, Sun Moon, asks a captured American woman about the evil imperialistic country she comes from:  “I wonder of what you must daily endure in America, having no government to protect you, no one to tell you what to do.  Is it true you’re given no ration card, that you must find food for yourself?....What plays over the American loudspeakers, when is your curfew, what is taught at your child-rearing collectives?....How does a society without a fatherly leader work?...How can a  citizen know what is best without a benevolent hand to shepherd her?”  Keeping the people so ignorant about the outside world and what North Korea is lacking compared to other countries is an effective way to maintain power and control.
Ultimately, I think The Orphan Master’s Son is a story about love.  Jun Do didn’t have the love of a mother or father, for that matter.  People in North Korea were taught to not seek and cultivate familial love but rather to feel the love of the Dear Leader and the State.  Under the surface, however, Jun Do longs for love.  Though he has never had a wife or even a girlfriend, he has the face of North Korea’s major female movie star, Sun Moon, tattooed on his chest while he is working on a fishing boat.  He has to do this so he will appear to be a fisherman since they all have their wives’ faces on their chests and Jun Do doesn’t want to be taken for a spy if their boat is captured by the U. S. Navy.  In a hard-to-believe plot twist, Jun Do is sent to Texas on a mission to recover a piece of Japanese radiation-detecting equipment that the U. S. has taken away from North Korea.  This is where the novel starts getting even more unbelievable rather than being a serious look at life in North Korea.  The mission fails and Jun Do gets thrown into a prison mine after returning to his homeland.  He manages to survive the terrible conditions and harsh treatment and eventually escapes.  Jun Do ends up being the replacement husband of Sun Moon and finally finds love.  The movie Casablanca and the actions of Rick serve as a model for Jun Do in how to make the ultimate sacrifice for his loved one and, in the process, play a good trick on the Dear Leader.  What an inventive, unique story- much better than a MASH episode.
  I have tried to not give away too much of The Orphan Master’s Son but I hope that my thoughts might create an interest in reading Johnson’s award-winning novel.  I learned a number of things about North Korea and Kim Jong Il but I was also entertained and touched by the story of The Orphan Master’s Son.  As to the accuracy of the descriptions Johnson gives of the Dear Leader and conditions in North Korea, I have become more convinced of this since reading a February 17, 2014 piece by John Heilprin of the Associated Press which reports that a United Nations panel has sent a formal warning to North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, son of Kim Jong Il, that he may be held to answer for continuing crimes against civilians of that nation.  These crimes include mass starvation, executions, torture and rape.  The U.N. investigation also found that North Korea is guilty of lifelong indoctrination of its citizens, political prison camps, and state-run abductions of North Koreans, Japanese and other nationals.  I’m impressed that Johnson describes all of the above U.N. findings in The Orphan Master’s Son.  What first struck me as hard to believe is now documented by an U.N. investigation of North Korea.  Thanks to Adam Johnson for bringing to us this look at life under the Dear Leader.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair, 1942, Won the Pulitzer Prize in 1943 

Dragon’s Teeth is the third book in a series of Lanny Budd novels by Upton Sinclair which chronicles world history from around 1914 until the beginning of the Cold War Era.  The Lanny Budd series includes the following novels: 

Sinclair used the Lanny Budd character to be an eye-witness to history and tell the story of what happened in Europe prior to World War I and on to World II.  Lanny was the illegitimate son of a Connecticut arms manufacturer, Robbie Budd, and his mother who was called “Beauty.”  She was an American beauty who had posed nude in France for some paintings before she and Robbie got together.  Robbie’s father would not let him marry Beauty because of her sketchy past, so she lived outside Cannes, France in a villa and that was where Lanny grew up.  Lanny had opportunities to travel through Europe and pick up all the languages so that he could move between the countries and cultures much like an insider.  This all sounds a bit like an old-fashioned “soap opera” but it makes a good vehicle for Sinclair to give his account of what transpired in Europe during the era. 

Dragon’s Teeth gives an account of the rise to power of Socialism, Communism and Fascism in Europe as a result of the bad way the reparations for WW I were imposed on Germany and Italy.  It begins with the 1929 stock market crash and ends in 1934 after the Nazi’s have solidified their power in Germany and Adolph Hitler has been elected Chancellor. Lanny has encounters with Mussolini and Hitler as well as many other important figures of the time. He also has Jewish friends who are beginning to see what is in store for them in Nazi Germany.  But the reader of Dragon's Teeth needs to start at the beginning of the Lanny Budd series in order to understand the characters and events that are described in the third novel. That means reading the  600- page World’s End and the equally long Between Two Worlds before launching into Dragon’s Teeth (630 pages).  For me, this meant about a year’s worth of reading.  You need to be interested in world history, Europe, World War I and II, and fighting Fascism to get through these three novels.   

Upton Sinclair does not tell this story from a neutral point of view.   He was, in fact, a devoted Socialist and social activist (some called him “muckraker”) known to many readers as the author of The Jungle in 1906.  In The Jungle he exposed the horrible conditions which surrounded the meatpacking industry in Chicago in the early 1900's and his novel actually led to improvements.  In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were made laws in the U.S.  Sinclair ran unsuccessfully for election to the U.S. Congress in 1920 and 1922 as a Socialist.  He also ran as a Democrat for governor of California in 1934 but was not elected.  He gained close to 900,000 votes which suggests that he was a viable candidate. 

With some of Sinclair’s political point-of-view in mind, it is not hard to imagine that in the Lanny Budd series, he is a strong proponent of the working class both in Europe and the U.S. Lanny comes from a wealthy, WASPISH background but also becomes very sympathetic to the poor working people around him.  In the novels, Lanny has an uncle, brother to his mother, who is an avowed Communist and he teaches Lanny a great deal about the party and its crusade to help the worker.  Lanny never joins the Communist Party but he contributes to it and to his uncle’s campaign to be elected as a Communist to the French national assembly.  It seems evident that Sinclair tried to use his influence as a writer of historical fiction to promote the social causes that he had been committed to for decades.  One interesting point from Dragon’s Teeth is that Fascism was developed as a means of opposing and stopping Communism.  The wealthy industrialists of several European nations were threatened by the workers' movement happening in the 1920’s and 1930’s so they supported the Fascist movement.  Many believed that Hitler and Mussolini could put down the Communist movement and then be controlled and used by the industrialists.  Anti-Semitism became a useful tool for the Fascists in rallying middle class workers and in eliminating many of the wealthy Jewish bankers who were blamed for much of the hardship that had befallen Europe after WW I.   

Lanny is caught between the worlds of wealth, fashion and capitalism on the one hand and the plight of the working class and also the Fascist movement that he sees clearly as a threat to world.  By 1934 Lanny has married a woman who has inherited $24 million from her father.  She is not as sympathetic toward the plight of the working class or the Jews in Europe as is Lanny.  She clearly represents the wealthy class that does not become alarmed by the rise of Fascism.  Lanny, with his “Red” leanings, is now convinced of the great evil that will come from Fascism but he wrestles with the problem of what he can do about it.  He ends up trying to rescue his Jewish friend from the Dachau concentration in Germany as Dragon’s Teeth ends.  To do this he poses as a sympathizer of the Nazi’s, makes a deal with Herman Goering, and tries to use his wealth and status as a means of bringing about the liberation of his friend.  This makes for an engaging story. 

A point to keep in mind is that Sinclair was writing the Lanny Budd series as history was unfolding.  The series was begun in 1940 and Dragon’s Teeth came out in 1942.  Sinclair seems to be trying to warn the world, as he did in The Jungle that a great evil was being perpetrated on the world and that something needed to be done about it.  The title “Dragon’s Teeth” is explained at the end of the novel.  In Greek mythology, the teeth of a dragon, planted in soil, will grow into fully armed warriors.  Sinclair was giving a warning that the events surrounding World War I and the poor way reparations were inflicted on the losers of the war in Europe was the sowing of dragon’s teeth that would lead to horrible armed conflicts for the world.  At the time of the writing of Dragon’s Teeth, Sinclair did not know that Fascism would be defeated in Europe but he was making a good effort to warn readers of what was at stake.

 I am now faced with needing to read the next Lanny Budd novel, Wide is the Gate and the seven other novels, to find out what Lanny does as he tries to save the world from the dragon’s teeth.  Though Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series of historical novels has become “old history” and rather unknown in our present time, I believe the books are worth reading for enjoyment and for education about a past time that has greatly changed the world we live in.  Are dragon’s teeth still being sown that we will have to deal with in our future?



Friday, January 25, 2013

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. 

The Stone Diaries is one of the Pulitzer winners that I have put off reading because I had a feeling that I would not like it.  Well, it turns out that my hunch was right.  I kept reading it because I have committed to myself to read all of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  And I kept thinking that something interesting or exciting was going to happen.  The book is written as a diary of Daisy Goodwill who is born to a married couple in Manitoba, Canada.  Her mother dies the day she is born.  Father doesn't know his wife is expecting a child and he is busy as a stone cutter in the local quarry, so he goes back to work.  Daisy is raised by Mrs. Flett, a kind neighbor lady who liked Daisy’s mother.  At age 11, Daisy moves to Bloomington, Indiana with her father when he takes a job in a quarry in that locale.  She marries a man, Harold Hoad, when she is a young woman and he falls out of a window in Italy on their honeymoon.  Daisy is a young  widow and  remains single until she marries Mrs. Flett’s son, Barker, and moves to Ottawa,  Ontario.  They have three children and Barker eventually dies.  Daisy becomes an expert in gardening and raising plants.  She writes several newspaper columns on gardening, is popular in Ottawa for a while, and then she gets replaced by a newspaper journalist who wants the job.  Daisy gets depressed for a while and then moves to Florida and finds some of her old friends living there.  She is a grandma but her grandchildren live far away.  And  then  Daisy gets sick and old and eventually dies.   The book ends.


On page 340 of The Stone Diaries, Shields raises the question:  "What is the story of a life?  A chronicle of fact or a skillfully wrought impression.”  I’m not sure what this means related to The Stone Diaries.  I wasn’t aware of much other than a chronicle of fact.  The impression I was left with is that the book is a story about nothing, like the TV show proposed by Jerry and George toward the end of the Seinfeld series.  But George and Jerry somehow made funny, entertaining stories based on nothing.  The Stone Diaries was about nothing without the entertainment.  But there may be another impression that I derived from reading The Stone Diaries.


After letting some time pass upon completing my reading of The Stone Diaries, perhaps the best thing I can say about the book is that it provides an example for living a life- an ordinary life of a good person. Daisy turns out to be a resilient woman who starts life without a mother, has a rather distant father, loses her first husband on the honeymoon, remarries an older man, has three children and raises them to be good people, is a popular gardening columnist until she’s replaced, gets depressed but doesn’t stay that way, moves to Florida, tries to be a good grandmother to kids who live far away, and ends up enduring several years of illness in her old age without becoming bitter.  The facts of her life allow us to form an impression of Daisy.  Maybe we need to be reminded of people who live ordinary lives well enough and endure hardships to the end- and hope that we too can be such a person.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor

Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor, 1955,
            Won Pulitzer Prize in 1956 

Andersonville is a book I remember my father, Herbert Isakson, reading in the 1950’s, soon after it was published.  I have been interested in it ever since I saw Dad reading the book but it has taken  me a while to get around to it.  I also greatly appreciate my father's example of one who read great literature.  He passed on to me a love of reading and my life has been wonderfully enriched because of reading.

 Andersonville is a historical novel of the Confederate prisoner of war camp in Anderson, Georgia.  Kantor had studied the Civil War and Andersonville for 25 years prior to writing the novel.  He states in his five-page bibliography that…” Andersonville is a work of fiction, but is presented as an accurate history of the Andersonville prison…”  I am very impressed that Kantor would devote the time and effort to learn what happened in Andersonville and then tell the story in a compelling, meaningful way. 

The  story of Andersonville prison is told from the perspective of many  individuals and families, probably fictional, who were involved as neighbors to the prison, prison adminstrators, guards, and physicians, and many of the Union prisoners.  This approach made the story of Andersonville come alive as Kantor created characters who represented what must have been the experiences of the people most affected by the prison.  There are many great books written about the Civil War including Pulitzer Prize winner The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.  Most books that I am aware of describe the battles and tell moving stories about horrible cost in human lives of the War Between the States.  However, Kantor chose to tell the story of the infamous Confederate prison in Andersonville.  At first I thought this would be a less interesting story than those told about the battles.  I was wrong in this assumption.  Andersonville tells of the tragedy that occurred after Union soldiers had been captured and sent to prison in Andersonville.  It may be that the North had prisons just as bad as Andersonville but I have not heard of those prisons.  What we do have is a carefully researched novel about conditions in Andersonville. 

Andersonville prison was built later in the war, sometime after the battle of Gettysburg.  It was built in the little town of Andersonville, close to a rail line.  The owner of the nearby plantation, Ira Claffey, is a central character in the novel and we see the prison from beginning to end through his eyes.  Ira is there to see a beautiful pine forest with a stream of fresh water running through it turned into a crude stockade surrounding about 20 acres.  He watches the trees being cut down by slave laborers who then placed the trees on end in a trench to form a 20 foot high wall.  The first prisoners arrived in February 1864 .  

 Kantor does not spare the reader the horrors that were documented in Andersonville.  The prison was designed to hold about 10,000 prisoners but by the end of the war, it held over 30,000 men in absolutely terrible conditions.  After the walls of the stockade had been put in place, nothing else was provided for the prisoners.  There were no shelters for the men except the tents they could make out of their coats or scraps of canvas.  Food given the men was minimal rations of cornbread.  No vegetables or meat were provided.  Water was not provided except for the little stream that ran through the stockade but it quickly became horribly polluted.  No toilets were provided.  Nearly all of the prisoners suffered from dysentery and scurvy.  Their teeth fell out when they tried to eat their hard cornbread after the scurvy became advanced.  If they got scratched, they often got gangrene infection and had maggots crawling through their rotting flesh.   The neighbors around the prison suffered from the stench of the open  sewer and dead bodies. 

 Kantor also does a fine job of portraying humanity at its best and its worst in Andersonville.  In one very touching section of the book, Ira Claffey organizes some of his neighbors to share their excess garden produce with the prisoners.  They haul wagon loads of vegetables to the stockade only to be turned back by order of the commander of Confederate prisons, General John Winder.  Winder castigated the townspeople for not bringing the vegetables for the Confederate prison guards and questioned their loyalty to the Southern cause due to their compassion for the Yankee prisoners.  This incident was included, in my opinion, to communicate that some in South had compassion for the prisoners while there were others who were determined to see the Yankees suffer and make their lives unbearable.  Another story symbolic of the humanity and the healing that would need to follow the war involved a young former Confederate soldier who lived nearby the prison.  He had lost one foot in battle and now hobbled around with a crude crutch, embittered by his loss.  While out hunting one day he came across an escaped Northern prisoner who was trying to steal the hawk the Reb had just shot.  The Yankee had lost one of his arms in the battle when he was captured.  To stay alive, he had escaped from Andersonville but had no means of finding shelter or food.  Rather than turn in the escaped Yankee for a reward, the Reb helped him find a place to hide and brought him food.  As the two became friends, it came out that the Yankee had worked in a shop where artificial limbs were crafted.  I will let you find out what happens between these two young casualties of the war.   I believe Kantor wanted to convey the spirit of healing and cooperation that was needed between North and South after the Civil War. 

The impression I came away with after reading Andersonville is that there were no real winners in the American Civil War.  Freeing the slaves and preserving the United States were causes that made the War worth fighting but the cost was enormous in terms of lives lost and the human suffering that resulted from the conflict.  Andersonville helped me better understand the degree of suffering inflicted on captured Northern soldiers.  Kantor conveyed that there were many among the Andersonville prison administration and guards who wanted to punish the Yankees and were not unhappy to see them die.  Toward the end of the War, when Andersonville came into being, the South was desperate for resources, both human and material.  Maybe they could not provide shelter, water and food for the prisoners but I believe conditions were worse in Andersonville than they had to be and Kantor seems to be making that point.  I am glad that I read Andersonville and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn about this unfortunate chapter of Civil War history and learn about the people who were affected so greatly by it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature the same year he received the Pulitzer Prize for Humboldt’s Gift in 1976 . He was given the Nobel Prize with the citation: “ …for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” Evidently, Bellow demonstrated his understanding of human nature and an analysis of contemporary culture in Humboldt’s Gift. Von Humboldt Fleisher wrote a series of poetic ballads in the 1930’s and became famous. A young aspiring writer from Chicago named Charlie Citrine went to New York City after graduating from the University of Wisconsin to meet and try to learn from Humboldt. Humboldt’s Gift is the story of their relationship, sometimes inseparable friends and sometimes at odds with each other. Humboldt was brilliant and wanted to create art to embody the great ideas he had in his head. Charlie wrote biographies and histories and eventually became famous for writing a play, based on the Humboldt character
that was a big hit.

In the story Charlie won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing and Humboldt was made a professor of literature at Princeton University. Human nature and contemporary culture being what they are, Bellow had Humboldt gradually become mentally ill with bipolar disorder and a good helping of paranoia such that he ended up as a bum in the streets. He even turned on his buddy Charlie Citrine, accused him of trying to rob him, having an affair with his wife, and of trying to put him away in an institution. While they were still friends, Humboldt and Charlie entertained themselves by writing a couple of movie scenarios that were farcical but never intended as art. Charlie lost track of these manuscripts after he and Humboldt parted ways.

Humboldt dies and Charlie goes on living off from the proceeds of his past successes. He is divorced from his wife and she is trying to get all the money he has left because it is assumed that
Charlie can make plenty more once he sets his mind to work again. Some of Humboldt’s Gift is the telling of Charlie and Humboldt’s relationship and their struggles at the end. The bulk of the
book is an account of Charlie’s meditations, reflections, and free associations as he goes through his problems. When faced with a difficult situation, he likes to lie down on his large comfortable
couch and meditate on some topic such as the nature of boredom. Charlie is a vehicle for Bellow to be highly intellectual and literary but, for me, his writing style was too diverting from the story I wanted to appreciate. The reader learns a great deal about Charlie’s nature and how he fits in or, rather,doesn’t fit in very well into contemporary society.

As Charlie is starting to get desperate for money, he learns that before he died Humboldt left him a legacy. He learns that his buddy Humboldt has left him the two movie scenarios they wrote together with documented proof of the two of them having created the movie ideas. Furthermore, one of the scenarios has been made into a very popular, farcical movie and there is serious interest in the second idea. Charlie ends up getting out of his financial troubles through the gift left to him by Humboldt. It was ironic that the two writers who valued art and the intellect so much would resort to writing ridiculous yet entertaining movie scenarios that would appeal to so many movie goers in contemporary society. I suppose Bellow’s message is that art is the gift to the world of the truly gifted but much of the world cannot appreciate the art and would rather be entertained by something less artistic and intellectual like the farce the two artists spun out while bored. I’m afraid that my reaction to much of Humboldt’s Gift bears out this message. I want to be entertained with a story and not bogged down with intellectual musings and meditations. Other readers may want to test the quality of their literary tastes by reading Humboldt’s Gift to see if they can appreciate true art or if they are just one of the masses who want to be entertained by a story.

It took me almost three months to plow through Humboldt’s Gift and I am glad I read it. Now I know even more fully what type of reader and connoisseur of art I am. I would probably rather go to the movie farce than read Humboldt’s ballad poems. It would be interesting to discuss Humboldt’s Gift but I have never met anyone who has read the book.