Tuesday, May 19, 2015

When We Read, We Look for Ourselves in the Words

When we read, we look for ourselves in the words. If we are unable or uninspired to find ourselves there, the words remain meaningless to us. The stories they convey become “throwaway” experiences, never to revisit our minds, never to summon our memories. But if we “become” the old man in Hemingway’s sea; if we “are” Daisy to Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, then literature “is” who we are, or at least, points to whom we might have been, or can be—it is the indelible yardstick against which we measure ourselves. Author Francis Hamit’s “Shenandoah Spy,” a novel of historical fiction based on the true story of Belle Boyd, a legendary female spy for the Confederacy during America’s Civil War, was one of those stories that metamorphosed into a subjective experience for me, and to such an extent that it was surprising to me—surprising and satisfying. Let me tell you why.
                Although I often read and write about history, the Civil War of the United States is not high on my list of subjects; not because it isn’t fascinating in its own right, but rather that it holds less weight for me than other histories such as that of America’s native people, the Great Depression, and World War II. My interest in “Shenandoah Spy,” however was sparked by a social media interchange with its author, an informed and shrewd interchange on his part in response to a posting I submitted on Facebook on the 35th anniversary of the Kent State Shootings in protest against the Vietnam War. I looked him up and discovered that he has an extensive background in military intelligence and espionage, a résumé I thought he might put to good use in the stories about which he writes. I ordered the book because of its “first-born” chronology in his body of work rather than its subject. But somewhere deep inside me, I also wanted to be “swayed” by a good Civil War story; I wanted to be brought into the fold. Hamit did not disappoint me on that point in “Shenandoah Spy.”
                How is it that in 2015, a reader in the senior years of her life (me) can be transported to a time a century-and-a-half ago and relate to a heroine of only seventeen-years-of-age (Belle Boyd)? The answer is found in Hamit’s presentation of Belle Boyd’s story. He makes room for the reader in the words. He writes with such intimacy and immediacy that it invites the reader to wonder how he/she would have behaved in Boyd’s stead. The reader suffers Boyd’s vulnerabilities; staggers in her exploits; quakes in her boots. And just as importantly for me, this author instilled in me a desire to pay closer attention to this era of my country’s history.   
                Despite my delight in “Shenandoah Spy,” conversely, an aspect of it niggles at my consciousness. Given that it takes place during, and in response to, the “slave-era” of America’s story, a supporting cast of African Americans is to be expected. There can be no such story absent that body of humanity. Hamit isn’t shy about offering a view of the Civil War as one less about “freeing the slaves” and more about other factors, though. The following conversation between characters Brodhead and Strother in the book illustrates this point: ‘“Not for freeing the slaves?” [asks Broadhead]. Strother had to think about it. “In time, on some abstract level, I might be, but this isn’t the way I’d choose to do it. Most people in the South don’t own slaves. They’ve been seduced into this thing by radical elements that wanted to break up the country, and seized upon the activities of the Abolitionists as an excuse.” “And those Abolitionists have stirred up the war fever on this side. Radicals on both sides have pushed this war into being. It could have been prevented.” Brodhead gestured with his hands as if to illustrate the futility of it all. Strother nodded. “The rich and privileged wanted a war and the rest of us will pay for it.”’

                In an excerpt further on in the story, Strother states. ‘“…Most Negroes [in the south] ain’t that displeased with their lot in life. ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was a masterful load of horse manure when it came to representing the usual situation. You don’t abuse slaves, any more than you would a horse or a cow. It’s not good business and people frown on it. House servants especially have an easy life. They become a part of the family.”’ In that vein, Belle Boyd submits that the Yankees “…exaggerate the colored folks capacity and desire for freedom – those that want it find a way to buy themselves free.”’ Her personal slave Eliza is depicted as one such happy “servant.” Not only does Eliza aid and abet Boyd willingly in her daily life and her spying missions, she is depicted as a personal “friend” rather than as a slave of her mistress. Of course, Hamit puts forth the then self-serving point of view of southerners in his treatise. Following Solomon Northrup’s true story of cruelty suffered at the hands of a slave-owner in “Twelve Years a Slave” that found light in recent times, the portrayal of the master/slave relationship in “Shenandoah Spy” is difficult to reconcile. I suppose, as in any other human enterprise, the minutiae of America’s Civil War ranged every possibility available at the time. Many of those fine points are to be found in “Shenandoah Spy.” It is good reading.

Linda Lee Greene’s novel “Guardians and Other Angels” is at http://goo.gl/imUwKO. Her novel “Jesus Gandhi Oma Mae Adams,” co-authored with Debra Shiveley Welch, is at http://amzn.to/VazHFG. Her artwork is on view online at www.gallery-llgreene.com. Her Twitter handle is @LLGreeneAuthor.        

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

When Spirit Moves, We'd Best Follow

In a few weeks, I will bring to a close my daily stint as a “Granny Nanny” to my grandsons Alixander and Noah. Two years ago, I retired from my position with a local interior design firm, rented out my home, and moved in with my daughter Elizabeth and the boys, then fourteen and eight, to help out as much as possible. This occurred as a result of the death of Elizabeth’s husband Mark.
          As the smoldering days of summer are at their peak this year, I will relocate once more. I will leave my daughter’s condo in neuvo-posh Powell, Ohio and return to my house in an elderly and modest neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio—on a good traffic day, only a forty-minute drive apart, but light-years distant in benchmarks used in the United States to gauge the quality of life available in them. For instance, while Powell boasts some of the best schools around, like most school systems in large cities across the nation, Columbus City Schools cripple along. In my youth, Powell was farmland, stretching north of Columbus as far as the eye could see, but which now comprises broad avenues of sprawling, multi-storied homes and “executive” condos essentially, all of which have Beemers, Benzes, Volvos and their equivalents parked in garages nearly as large as the whole of my little house in Columbus. Sans make-up, to which I’ve grown allergic, and minus a Juviderm pout, and sporting a post-menopausal JLo booty, and even though my roots need touched-up and I drive a Kia Soul rather than a vehicle standard for the area, now and then, and risking sensory overload, I insert myself into the blonde and boy-hipped female fray of Powell and do the dodge-‘em-grocery-carts thing at the Kroger Superstore. When absolutely necessary, I also flash a credit card in the feathered-out establishments along Sawmill Boulevard, one of the region’s de rigueur shopping areas. But despite my pluck, there is no way around the fact that for the long haul, I do not belong in Powell. I am just no good at “keeping up appearances,” which is a requirement here. My daughter is a natural at it. She was born chic. Her soul requires it. My soul, on the other hand, while deeply proud and accepting of Elizabeth’s innate elegance and grace, compels me toward a plainer and simpler way of being.
        And so, in August, I will return to my humble home in Columbus. My portion of Universal Spirit, which has been there all along, hiding in nooks and crannies invisible to its tenants, will greet me at the door, and let out a sigh of contentment. “Oh, let’s unpack those boxes and put the furniture back in place,” it will exclaim happily. While Spirit has been stirring all of this within my soul, it has been busy inside of Elizabeth’s, too. Independent to her core since the day of her birth, she is ready and eager to take up her life on her own again; to expand into the rooms I occupy now, and to set up her office and workout space; to convert the family room into a hangout for my grandsons and their friends. There is another element to this crowded mix. My son Frank also moved in with us a year ago. A long-time resident of New Jersey, Frank was one of the thousands of victims of Hurricane Sandy, from a financial standpoint that is, and had to come home. He will move into my house with me for a year or so, time he will likely need to completely re-establish himself here.  
        It is a universal truth that life wastes nothing, and although my Spirit yearns for a place of my own other than Powell, there was, and continues to be until the day a truck pulls up to my daughter’s condo door to haul me away, additional purposes, beyond the obvious, for my being here. This is far more than my “Granny Nanny” story. This two-year-block-of-time has been a veritable laboratory for Spirit; each of the five human beings subject to it have been individual Petrie dishes of experimentation for it—Petrie dishes of flagrant emotions; of bruised and bolstered egos; of tested and strengthened integrities; of shattered illusions; of acquired wisdom; of gained respect; of acceptance; of renewed commitments, of love. But among all of the subjects of this particular curriculum that Spirit had/has in mind, I think that forgiveness was/is its paramount goal. I do not care how exemplary our performances as parents, and I fell short in too many primary ways in that regard, there always exists fallout among parents and their children, especially their grown children. But Spirit grabbed each of us by our shoulders and guided us firmly, carefully, lovingly around one another, and ultimately toward one another. We prevailed! We came out of this human trial better persons, one and all!
        Like the lingering effects of a summer lover left behind, the memories of my two-year sojourn in Powell will become indelible pages in my book of life, for it was here that my daughter, my grandsons, my son, and I reconnected; it was here that our family bond was forged anew. Yes, I feel free to go my own way again because the time is right for all of us to do so. But more than that, I can go because I feel forgiven by my children, at last. Not all of us are given such an opportunity, and I am grateful for it!

Linda Lee Greene is the best-selling author of the true-life novel GUARDIANS AND OTHER ANGELS http://goo.gl/imUwKO, and the co-author with Debra Shiveley Welch of the suspense novel JESUS GANDHI OMA MAE ADAMS http://amzn.to/VazHFG. Linda’s artwork is on view at www.gallery-llgreene.com. Linda’s Twitter handle is @LLGreeneAuthor. Her Amazon Author’s Page is at https://www.amazon.com/author/lindaleegreene, and follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/#!/LindaLeeGreeneAuthor, as well as on her Goodreads page at http://www.goodreads.com/LindaLeeGreeneAuthor