Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Heart of a Poet

Time, place and eternity meet in Indigo Field

By Stephen E. Smith

On this sunny late-March afternoon, Marjorie Hudson occupies rarefied space: She’s standing in the footprints of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Wolfe, reading from her beautifully wrought first novel, Indigo Field, at the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities. Her bright eyes (they might be blue or green; the afternoon light plays tricks) stare out from a shock of white hair (she’s accurately penned the description, “white-blonde hair,” for a character in her novel), and she’s smiling the smile of one who’s realized her dream via pure, implacable determination. In the words of Keats, she’s surprised everyone, including herself, with “a fine excess,” writing that strikes the reader almost as a remembrance. Now all she has to do is sell her masterwork. The literary world needs to know about Indigo Field, and readers need to snatch it off bookstore shelves or download it online.

Hudson is a Midwesterner who settled in North Carolina by way of a lengthy sojourn in Washington, D.C., where she worked for a nature magazine that kept her indoors much of the time.  “We all worked such long hours, we hardly got to go outside,” she says. “All it took for me to jump ship was a visit to a friend (in North Carolina), a rainbow over a farmhouse, and I was hooked. My days were full of freelance writing assignments, sunbathing in the yard, gardening and pond swimming. Whippoorwills chanted outside my window, a sound I’d never heard before. When frogs took over the pond one night in a massive mating ritual, it was better than any nature documentary.”

Thus Indigo Field evolved into a decidedly Southern novel featuring Southern characters immersed in a regional history that emphasizes a strong sense of place. Even so, there’s no forced, ersatz Southernisms in her dialogue, no Hollywood “y’alls,” and, thank God, there’s not a subhuman Faulknerian Snopes in sight. Her characters speak authentically, and they never propagate a phony gesture. Somehow she’s acquired the ability to absorb the Southern landscape she’s adopted as home.

She came by this invaluable knowledge by happening into the perfect job. “One of the many freelance jobs I took to pay the rent was copy-editing novels at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill,” she says. “I had never read much Southern lit before, and reading the novels of Clyde Edgerton and Jill McCorkle, and the stories of Lee Abbott and Larry Brown was like going to grad school. How a novel all fit together was fascinating. How a short story was constructed was beautiful. And the language! I was learning the rhythms of speech and turns of phrase from my neighbors, my new husband and these stories. I turned to my computer and started a story of my own.”

Hudson’s prose style is clear and concise, and she preserves a delicate balance of empathy for characters who come alive with startling authenticity. Her leapfrogging plot turns sustain the story’s energy and propel the reader ever forward. The Regal House Publishing promotional material provides an accurate precis. “In this novel of moral reckoning, the unjust outcome of a murder trial, and the chance accident that follows, result in a feud that raises the spirits of the dead, forcing enemies to become allies in order to survive.”

Good enough. But the novel’s beauty is more than fancy footwork, deft plotting and the able handling of points of view. Hudson writes with the heart of a poet. Her prose has been worked on (in the best sense) to get rid of that worked-on feeling. Take this transitional passage from Chapter 49: “This great wind rode the eye of a rogue hurricane and spun out lightning and whirlwinds like warriors of a great army. These warriors flattened all they touched, and chose what they touched with care. They touched the new homes of wealthy people and left the old derelict homes of Poolesville, the farmhouses of widows, the trailer parks of the destitute, damaged but still standing. The wind brought lightning strikes so pervasive that many small fires lit rooftops, tall trees and last year’s broomsedge in Indigo Field. . . . This wind skipped from high spot to high spot, so that places that had been raised up were laid low, and places that were low and humble remained intact.”

The writing of Indigo Field took up almost 30 years of Hudson’s life — with time out to write and publish an acclaimed short story collection, Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, and a history/travelogue, Searching for Virginia Dare. “I had 450 pages (of the novel) by 1998, but I didn’t know how to end it and I knew it needed revision.” She set Indigo Field aside, finished a different novel, sent it out, got discouraged, went to graduate school, and all the while the novel kept getting longer and longer. Hudson recalls: “I kept adding layers of things I was fascinated with: parrot colonies, Nike missile sites, archeology. As it got longer and longer, unbeknown to me, New York’s acceptable novel length had gotten shorter and shorter. It was roundly rejected.” So Hudson turned to a small press, Regal House Publishing in Raleigh. Regal reminded her of Algonquin in the old days: “Small, feisty, locally owned. I even knew one of the editors,” she says. “I submitted my 50 pages. They asked for the rest. I got the call a couple of months later. I was still revising. Cutting mostly. I had a whole new version by the time Jaynie called and said ‘Yes.’”

Indigo Field was chosen to be part of Regal’s “Sour Mash Series,” a selection of books centered on the American South’s sense of place and history. Hudson was in the place described by Flannery O’Connor: “The Southern writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.” After living in North Carolina for almost 40 years, Hudson is a Southern writer, and she’s pretty proud of that.

She’s come a distance, a far piece, to stand before an audience at the Weymouth Center — and all the other audiences she’ll be entertaining in the months to come. She has a novel to sell. It’s demanding work, but Marjorie Hudson is surely up to the task.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

The Great Escape

Silver Alert is a bewitching joyride

By Anne Blythe

Lee Smith, a treasure of the North Carolina literary world, takes you on an unusual journey in her newest novel, Silver Alert. She’s predictably funny in her typically marvelous, unpredictable way. Her characters are beguilingly quirky. Yet amid all the humor and occasional madness in this tale about an octogenarian’s “one last joyride,” Smith plunges her readers into the depths of tough topics such as aging, sex trafficking, emotional abuse, poverty and wealth.

There are two protagonists. One is Herb Atlas, a curmudgeonly but ever so lovable retiree on his third marriage who we meet in his lovely — and very pink — Key West home. In his golden years now, Herb is perpetually mining for the gold he really didn’t know he had in his youth as he does his best to care for his once lively, artistic, adventurous and beautiful wife, Susan. He longs for the fancy and fast cars of his earlier years, alluring courtships and an escape from the dementia that has relegated Susan to a rattan chair by the bay window, where she remains lost in her own world.

The other central character, Dee Dee, or Renee, or whatever name the victimized but optimistic woman from Appalachia decides to use, is a young pedicurist fleeing hard-knock days. She is whip-smart, resourceful and endearing. Her parents died when she was a child. She bounced from household-to-household, man-to-man, lives in a bread-shaped trailer with a pink roof and fends for herself in a world in which those she encountered rarely had her best interest at heart.

Dee Dee is running from her past with hopes of a brighter future. Herb wants little to do with his future and yearns for the past. Their paths converge in Key West, a place with celebrated sunsets and a seize-the-day vibe.

Key West is a character in the novel, too. Smith takes her readers down Duval Street and its offshoots, into shops, cafes, Laundromats, and the nooks and crannies where people come to remake themselves, start anew or sometimes disappear.

Herb is in his home at 108 Washington Street, “a primo address,” as Smith describes it, wearing red-and-black plaid pajama pants, lime green crocs and a Hawaiian shirt covering his considerable gut, when he opens the door, and his life, to Dee Dee.

Using Renee, instead of her real name, Dee Dee has come to give Susan a pedicure. “She looks like a kid, with those wide brown eyes beneath the blond bangs, her high, shiny ponytail swinging as she steps forward in her white, white tennis shoes,” Herb thinks to himself. He gives her an earful as he walks her back to his wife’s quarters. Susan’s daughter, Maribeth, “the hippy one,” as Herb calls her, and her partner Pat DeVine, “the bossy one,” who arranged the appointment, have come down to help care for his wife.

Herb is unenthusiastic. “I never asked them, you understand. I don’t need them, this is a classy operation. But this Pat, you can’t tell her no, you can’t tell her nothing.”

Dee Dee, dressed in jeans, a pink tunic and carrying a big bag of nail polishes, clippers and salon tools, is not just a pedicurist, it turns out. She has a knack for dealing with Susan. The “crazy whisperer,” as Herb dubs her, can make his Susan laugh, smile and even seem happy with colorful markers, a tablet and easel from the Walmart children’s section. For hours at a time, Susan sits in the garden in front of her easel, using only one color on each sheet of paper, drawing “crazy art.”

The makeshift art corner delights Herb as he tries to ignore the signs of aging thrust at him — the living wills, the health care power of attorney, confounding medical forms and that humiliating clock he had to draw for the nurse, showing the hands set at 7:15, to assess his mental acuity. Then there’s his constant urge to pee — “Old age is all about urine, who knew?” Smith writes.

Smith takes on some of the difficult topics of aging as she introduces her readers to the cast of adult children in Susan and Herb’s world. She shows the push and pull, and the sometimes painful juxtaposition, as children take on the difficult roles of being parents for their parents.

Smith craftily explores the wealth dichotomy so prominent in Key West as readers follow Dee Dee, whose hardscrabble beginnings have left her with few nickels to scrape together. Her travels take her from the trailer park where drug trafficking sometimes pays the rent to the affluence of the Atlas house and the “tree house,” where she has a romance with a well-to-do graduate student taking a break from his scripted life to live like a Bohemian and write poetry.

Herb and Dee Dee go about their business for much of the first half of the book at a pace that — like a child chomping at the bit to grow up — is not always as swift as desired.

Then Herb and Susan’s family stages an intervention and they can see their dreams unraveling. As the adult children talk about moving Herb into an assisted living facility in Del Ray with Susan, he fishes keys to his Porsche from his secret hiding place in a shoe and sets off with Dee Dee on a madcap adventure.

Herb’s last joyride is a joy for readers, as well. Even though there are cringing moments as the pair starts out along the streets of Key West, then on the highways north, eventually headed to Disney World, it’s difficult not to cheer them on.

Silver Alert will make you squirm over the wistfulness of aging, but it will leave you with a big smile from getting to know characters who worm their way into your heart.  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Courage and Candor

Daniel Wallace’s thought-provoking memoir

By Stephen E. Smith

If you read the promo material for Daniel Wallace’s new memoir, This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew, you’ll assume the message is straightforward: Hero worship is an exercise in disillusion. But the “hero” in Wallace’s memoir isn’t a hero in the accepted sense (the sociological definition for “significant other” is a more accurate term); and the message, although essential and timely, is predictably ambiguous.

Wallace is the author of the bestselling novel, Big Fish, and six other much-praised works of fiction, and the qualities evident in his earlier works are perfectly transferable to his first foray into nonfiction. He crafts a compelling narrative that pulls the reader headlong into a story whose energy never wanes. He’s thoughtful and thought-provoking. He makes sense of the past in order to free the reader to face the future, and he writes with courage and candor.

Wallace introduces his hero, his future brother-in-law, William Nealy, in a scene where he happens upon Nealy attempting a perilous leap from the rooftop of the family home into a swimming pool 25 feet below. Nealy takes flight, plunges into the water, climbs out and repeats the jump over and over. “It was pretty magnificent,” Wallace writes. “It wasn’t some unformed idea I had about masculinity or manliness in him that I was drawn to; I wasn’t into that, then or now. It was just the wildness, the derring-do, his willingness to take flight — literally — into the unknown, an openness to experience and chance that so far in my short life had not been previously modeled to me by anyone.” Wallace admits that he didn’t need to emulate Nealy’s behavior but that he learned “. . . how to become the me I wanted,” and that he would think of that day — he was 12 at the time — as the moment he was born again.

The first third of Wallace’s memoir is a biography of Nealy’s short life: his need for constant adrenalin highs, his success as a cartoonist and writer, his marriage to Wallace’s sister, their loving but troubled relationship, and how Nealy’s example encouraged Wallace to become something other than a cliché — not a writer, but someone “demonstrably unique, amusing,” someone living on the fringes.

Following Nealy’s example Wallace threw himself into several unsatisfying pursuits, eventually settling on the writing of fiction — the telling of quirky tales in which nothing is as it seems — that led to the success of Big Fish.

The Nealys settled near Chapel Hill, where they purchased a large tract of wooded land and William built a house, wrote books and produced cartoons and maps about the challenges of outdoor life. In the context of contemporary existence — the use of drugs and alcohol notwithstanding —  it all seemed idyllic, skewed perfection in a humdrum world that was constantly encroaching. But that encroachment became all-consuming when a close mutual friend, Edgar Hitchcock, a drug dealer whom Wallace characterizes as “the kindest man I have ever met,  so smart, funny and loving,” a dealer who confesses that “selling drugs is the final frontier,” is murdered.

The second part of the memoir centers on the mystery surrounding Hitchcock’s death. Nealy became obsessed with finding the man who murdered his friend, and the road led almost immediately to a likely suspect. Relying on simple intuition, Nealy was able to identify the culprit when he first shook his hand. “It was a notion that would be lodged into the marrow of his very being and would not be dislodged, not ever, not for as long as he lived.”

For purposes of the memoir, the suspect’s name is Stanley, a personable enough acquaintance whom Nealy “befriended” in an attempt to discover the truth surrounding Hitchcock’s murder. When Hitchcock’s body was discovered five months after his disappearance, Stanley began to subtly reveal his culpability.

It’s a long and tangled tale that leads to Stanley’s indictment and his eventual release because of convoluted legal circumstances that hindered prosecution. Nealy was powerless to avenge his friend’s murder, and his continuing obsession with the unpunished culprit damaged his marriage to Wallace’s sister. For one of the few times in his adult life, Nealy found himself powerless to influence events. His need to control the uncontrollable becomes apparent in a brief journal entry: “My whole life has been a struggle against the world to preserve my ‘being’ and it’s put me in dire conflict with the people I love . . . I MUST NOT LET THEM SEE WHO I REALLY AM!”

Nealy committed suicide in his early 40s, Wallace’s sister died in 2011, and Wallace inherited their ashes and Nealy’s journals, leaving him to piece together the events that led to his friend’s tragic end. The journal entries aren’t particularly revealing, but one laconic passage exposes the source of Nealy’s recklessness. Nealy’s hero, a Scoutmaster, sexually assaulted him while at summer camp. Nothing more is revealed about the encounter — and what more needs to be said? A physical dissociation from oneself is the inevitable outcome of such a traumatic event and might explain Nealy’s reckless behavior.

Wallace is left to manage his grief and grapple with the psychological pain suffered when the person upon whom he modeled his life proved himself fallible. He eventually comes to what he believes is a satisfactory understanding of William Nealy’s life and death, but that solution isn’t simple or straightforward. There are no easy answers — and the conundrum remains: What becomes of us when our significant other stumbles? “Can we ever know why we are who we are,” he writes, “the recipe that makes us the unique, bewildering, beautiful and sometimes insane creatures we end up becoming?”

Wallace doesn’t shy from the final truth: There are many ways to die — murder, suicide, illness — and he’s philosophical about the state in which we find ourselves: “. . .  there appear to be no safe places left in the world, on our streets or in our hearts.” How true are those simple words?

This Isn’t Going to End Well is not an easy or uplifting read, but it is a memoir borne of intense experience and introspection, which is the only available panacea for what troubles us. Suicide is a perilous subject for the writer and the reader, but Wallace acknowledges that contemplating the taking of one’s life is the most damaging secret a person can have. The “Author’s Note” lists The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Hitting the High Notes

A debut novel delivers a musical thriller

By Anne Blythe

Brendan Slocumb’s literary debut, The Violin Conspiracy has been billed as a mystery, a musical thriller that takes readers across continents on a page-turning hunt for a valuable Stradivarius violin. While the story is suspenseful enough, the whodunnit is not much of a mind-boggler in the end. The true hair-raiser revealed in this coming-of-age story is the institutional racism that persists in the classical music world and the talented musicians of color these stubborn customs threaten to mute.

Slocumb is familiar with the story. He grew up in Fayetteville, received a degree in music education from the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and has performed in symphonies, where he typically is one of few Black men playing a violin.

Only 1.8 percent of musicians performing in classical symphonies are Black, Slocumb writes in an author’s note attached to the end of the novel. Only 12 percent are people of color.

“Music is for everyone,” Slocumb writes. “It’s not — or at least shouldn’t be — an elite aristocratic club that you need a membership card to appreciate: it’s a language, it’s a means of connecting us that’s beyond color, beyond race, beyond the shape of your face or the size of your stock portfolio.

“Musicians of color, however, are severely underrepresented in the classical music world — and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this book.”

Readers are plunged into the story of Rayquan “Ray” McMillan, Slocumb’s protagonist, in a New York hotel room “the morning of the worst most earth-shattering day” of his life.

The aspiring violinist orders scrambled eggs, juice and coffee from room service for him and his girlfriend. Lost in thought in the shower, he ponders the fingering of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto, the piece he plans to play almost a month later at an international competition. When he prepares to leave New York on a flight home to Charlotte, he discovers that inside the case that typically holds his nearly priceless violin — a Stradivarius his grandmother (unaware of its immense worth) had given to him as her grandfather’s old fiddle — was a white Chuck Taylor shoe with a ransom note on a sheet of paper folded in thirds.




Not only does the note launch an international investigation into the whereabouts of the violin, it serves as the instrument to delve back into Ray’s boyhood and the school music classes that changed the trajectory of his life.

Like Slocumb, Ray grew up in North Carolina in a family that expected him to “get a real paying job” instead of taking a path toward a classical music career in a world where few people looked like him. Instead of encouraging her son to follow his dreams, Ray’s mother told him to “stop with that noise,” take the GED and get a job at Popeyes so he could help with the family expenses.

Ray meets a music teacher who becomes a mentor who pushes him beyond such confining expectations and encourages him to join a world where he would be the quintessential underdog, an endearing and hardworking protagonist who is easy for readers to rally behind.

Ray’s grandmother, Nora, recognizes his affinity for music and pulls out an old “fiddle” from her closet for him to practice on in the summer, when the school rentals were not available. It had belonged to her grandfather, a former enslaved man, who had a musical gift, too.

That “fiddle,” spruced up and revealed for what it was, quickly drew interest from extended family members who were more interested in its value than in Ray — until he became a rising star in the classical music world and a bit of a media darling able to coax a better living than they had imagined from its strings. Not only does his own family seek to share in the value of the instrument, Ray has to fend off claims of ownership from the family that had enslaved his great-great-grandfather. None of them appreciates the questioning they face when Ray’s dilemma casts suspicion on them all.

As Ray frets over the whereabouts of his kidnapped violin, leaving most of the investigation to law enforcement and an insurance agent, he also has to continue practicing for the international Tchaikovsky competition. His musical talent transcends the bow and strings in his hands. Even without his prized hand-me-down, the unlikely competitor is a real contender, one who will not be held back by ransom notes and side dramas.

Through a cast of characters, some better developed than others, readers learn about the jockeying of musicians in the classical world, vying for bragging rights that come with lucrative invitations to perform solos and lead prestigious symphonies. Ray describes the difficulties that a Black artist — especially one from humble roots without exclusive connections from famous conservatories — faces as he pursues his passion.

“You work twice as hard,” Slocumb writes. “Even three times. For the rest of your life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. Some people will always see you as less than they are. So you have to be twice as good as them.”

Ray didn’t need his PopPop’s instrument on the international stage. Though the kidnapped Stradivarius remained missing during the competition, his talent shone brightly. As opportunities from around the world came his way, he got the clue that helped him — not the team of investigators he’d relied on — discover who slipped the sneaker into the violin case.

There’s a crescendo when Ray opens a door, testing his theory about who made off with the family heirloom. “PopPop’s fiddle — his own most prized Stradivarius violin — grinned up at him unharmed,” Slocum writes. “Perfect.”

In the end, without totally spoiling the whodunnit, it really doesn’t matter where the violin is throughout the pages of Slocumb’s mystery. Its presence and absence string together a tale that will strike a chord.   OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Omnivorous Reader

Finding Dylan

A riddle wrapped in a rhyme

By Stephen E. Smith

At 3 o’clock on an August afternoon in 1965, I climbed into a VW bug with two high school buds and blasted up the 200-plus miles of interstate to New York’s Greenwich Village. We‘d been listening to “Like a Rolling Stone” that summer, and we were determined to find Bob Dylan. We were confident he’d be hanging out in the Village, and as we milled about on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, I asked a bohemian passerby where Dylan was performing. He laughed in my face. “Good luck finding that guy,” he said.

Like most of my generation, I’ve been half-heartedly looking for Dylan ever since.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Who is Bob Dylan, and why have we been talking about him for the last six decades? I’ve listened to most of his recordings, watched Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home multiple times and read books by and about Dylan. I’ve even seen him in concert. Now there’s a new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, supposedly penned by the man himself, and the search continues.

Since Dylan is credited as the author, The Philosophy of Modern Song is an instant bestseller and there are reviews galore in magazines, newspapers, and online that will tell you exactly what you want to hear about the enigmatic songwriter’s literary efforts. But before committing myself to read all 350 pages, I had to be convinced that it was written by Dylan. After all, the guy has been known to mess with us. There were accusations that he borrowed lines in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech from Melville and a brouhaha about autopen-signed copies of the new book. So I plowed through the first five chapters, reread parts of Dylan’s Chronicles and watched the Scorsese film, paying attention to Dylan’s language patterns. And, yeah, what’s written in the book sounds like Dylan. His name is on the dust jacket. I trust Simon & Schuster. Dylan wrote the book.

Here’s what you need to know. First, there’s not an iota of philosophy in The Philosophy of Modern Song. If you’re looking for philosophical thought, pick up a copy of The Essential Kierkegaard. Dylan is all about pop music, and in this latest offering, he’s simply chosen songs about which he’s passionate and written semi-expository/semi-poetic essays (I use the terms “essay” and “poetic” loosely) to accompany the songs. He’s no great shakes as a prose stylist, but he makes up for his lack of finesse with unbridled enthusiasm. He’s fervent about the songs he likes (or loves) and he tells the reader why in a torrent of bewildering but compelling prose. 

Dylan has chosen more than 60 popular songs, and in chapters ranging in length from a few hundred to 3,000 words, he lauds the composers, singers and musicians who created the recordings. It’s impossible to identify a dominant musical style in Dylan’s selection — pop, rock, country, R&B, folk, jazz, soul, rockabilly, gospel, etc. — all are represented. And there’s a mishmash of performers — Bing Crosby, The Fugs, Elvis Presley, Perry Como, Webb Pierce, Tommy Edwards, Vic Damone, Dean Martin, Little Walter, Ernie K-Doe, Charlie Poole, Ricky Nelson. He is, as pop-culture aficionados are wont to say, all over the musical map.

Dylan’s essays follow no discernable pattern. He’s occasionally analytical but more often gushes torrents of expressionistic prose that imperturbable readers are left to interpret. Uncle Dave Mason’s enchanting “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy,” originally released as a single almost a century ago, is typical of Dylan’s approach to explicating a song.

“In this song your self-identities are interlocked, every one of you is a dead ringer for the other. You’re the Dalai Lama, the Black Monk and the Thief of Baghdad all rolled into one, and the whole world is your city. You’re prowling and shoplifting, going down the East End, back where you came from, to the wilderness and brush — back to Chinatown and Little Italy — saddlebags full of barley and cornbread, rosemary and ivy, and sides of bacon in your pocket. You’re unmuzzled and unleashed, nightwalkin’ up the crooked way, the Royal Road, stealing turkey legs and anything sweet and spicy, roaming through the tobacco fields like Robin Hood, broiling and braising everything in sight.”

Occasionally, Dylan steps from behind his curtain of words and lapses into playfully preposterous insights. He claims Marty Robbins’ classic “El Paso” is a song about genocide; he attacks the divorce business; and lauds Nudie Suits and the supernatural powers of blue suede shoes.

When explicating Waylon Jennings’ “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” he dredges up a piece of history as a metaphor: “. . . and the individual peculiarities of the human condition are sliced as thin as a serving of potato during the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s. Which some people will, no doubt, also view as politically incorrect caricature even though the potato was a cheap staple of the Irish population and was decimated by a fungus that destroyed half the crop in 1845.”

This didactic passage isn’t necessary — anyone who reads Dylan is probably familiar with the Irish Potato Famine — but Dylan can’t abandon his clever illustration and goes on to mix the metaphor with drugs, rabbit meat and buckshot: “People try different ways to insulate themselves as their nerves are rubbed raw — there are various mood-altering substances, some self-prescribed, others classified by the government and only available by prescription. None of these are precise — they are more akin to buckshot than to a sniper’s bullet.”

In the final analysis, we should simply step back and consider Dylan’s jumbled Kerouac-ish prose as one might behold Picasso’s Guernica, not so much as individual lines of text but as a holistic composition, an attempt to transfer emotion and energy without the encumbrance of form.

Even if you’re not a Bob Dylan fan — and there are a lot of you out there — you can make The Philosophy of Modern Song an entertaining and enlightening read. Here’s what you should do. Make sure your smart speaker has a subscription to a streaming music service such as Spotify, Amazon Music, Apple Music, etc., then kick back in your easy chair and start reading Dylan’s chapter on Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City.” Call up the song on your speaker. Read along to the music. Dylan’s wry, incongruous humor will impregnate your cerebrum.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

The Omnivorous Reader

Cozy Up

A mellow mystery on the Outer Banks

By Anne Blythe

Smile Beach may be a fictional spot on the imaginary Cattail Island, but in Smile Beach Murder, cozy mystery writer Alicia Bessette captures the real spirit of the Outer Banks, where the residents have a strong and often quirky sense of self-reliance and, at the same time, a profound need for community.

That connection is built around such places as the MotherVine Bookshop, Meek’s hardware store, the Cattail Crier office, the old lighthouse and inside the island natives’ homes, where the “inlanders” are referred to as dingbatters.

“Cattail Island is known for its beaches,” Bessette writes in the voice of her narrator. “The eastside ones evoke the covers of summer escape novels — windswept dunes sloping in fine sands, and beyond, the vast Atlantic. The westside beaches, including Smile Beach, feature the shallow, gentle waves of the Pamlico Sound. Unless of course there’s a storm.”

Callie Padgett, the protagonist, is a 38-year-old reporter freshly laid off from the Charlotte Times caught up in a storm of her own who has returned home to live with her uncle while she searches for another journalism job. She quickly gets swept up in a mystery when Eva Meeks, a beguiling eccentric whose family owns the local hardware store, is found lifeless at the base of the Cattail Lighthouse. Local police and others quickly label the death a suicide.

Callie is not convinced and begins her own sleuthing as a reporter hungry for a good story. We soon learn that Callie’s mother was found dead at the bottom of the same lighthouse 26 years earlier, an incident that prompted her to flee the island as soon as she was old enough.

Now she is back.

The feelings she has tried to bury for so many years resurface in a mystery about coming home, finding roots and finally getting to a place where they bring pride and allow for reinvention of oneself.

Cozy mysteries are a sub-genre of crime fiction that leave out the violence, darkness and sex that often accompany more hard-boiled whodunits. Always fast-paced, and sometimes lighthearted, they put readers in working detective mode trying to solve the pending conundrum alongside the protagonist.

In Smile Beach Murder, the launch of the Outer Banks Bookshop Mystery series, Callie vows to Summer, the 12-year-old daughter of Eva Meeks, that she will leave no clue unturned as she explores old haunts and new twists in this summertime narrative.

Bessette, a former newspaper reporter, poet and pianist who moved to the Outer Banks with her husband and fellow author Matthew Quick, gives a nod to mystery writers such as Mary Higgins Clark by having her protagonist work at the MotherVine Bookshop. The poetry and music come out in Bessette’s writing.

When Callie bangs on the door of a papered-up old storefront not far from the MotherVine, and encounters Toby Dodge, a former physical education teacher who moved to the island to open the Cattail Family Martial Arts School, Bessette writes: “His voice was musical, like if an upright bass could speak.” Elsewhere she writes, “Outside dusk leaked from the sky, pewter dripping into apricot . . . “

Bessette captures the sense of the Outer Banks from the very beginning of the book. “This barrier island, nine miles long, is shaped like a cattail, whip thin except for the wide part, three miles across,” she writes. “The wide part’s where most of the dwellings are, bungalow-style rental cottages and modest cedar-shake stilt homes. The southern end of Cattail Island curves slightly westward, allowing a glimpse of the lighthouse even from where I sit in the Elder Tree.”

Whether we’re with Callie on the thick and all-knowing Spanish-moss-draped branches of the Elder Tree or on madcap adventures and treasure hunts, we smell the maritime forests, peer into the waters below the rickety fishing pier and get to know Cattail Island’s cast of flawed but lovable characters.

It’s easy to embrace Uncle Hudson, Ronnie and Antoinette, the bookstore owner — all members of a group that had adventures together in the Old Farts Van, a vehicle Hudson fixed up himself when he was a young surfer. Tin Man, the bookstore cat, is Insta-famous with a delightful Instagram account the whole town seems to follow.

We cheer Callie on as she climbs over the sharp, iron-speared gate to dig into the story that Pearleen, the wealthy woman in the mansion beyond the gate, and her dutiful nephew Whitman have kept to themselves for years. Indeed, she leads us to a big breakthrough — a reveal that truly is a surprise ending.

There are times when Callie breaks into buildings and ignores boundaries that typically would not be crossed by journalists. Then again, without her making quick assumptions, pushing boundaries and beating the police to the answer of whether the Cattail Lighthouse is cursed, we would lose access to an alluring mystery that keeps us hunting for answers to the very end.  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

The Omnivorous Reader

Follow the Money

Ben Franklin’s blueprint for America

By Stephen E. Smith

How is it possible that Ken Burns’ recent four-hour Ben Franklin documentary received ho-hum reviews? Have PBS devotees grown too familiar with Burns’ still-life voiceover production style? Maybe. But the lackluster reviews are more likely the fault of the kite-flying, bifocaled purveyor of the bon mot, old Ben Franklin himself. He’s every American’s everyman, the most human of our Founding Fathers.

We grew up learning about Franklin, and most of us believe we know what needs to be known about the archetypal American Renaissance man. Historian Michael Meyer’s Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet: The Favorite Founder’s Divisive Death, Enduring Afterlife, and Blueprint for American Prosperity is a timely reminder that there is still much to learn about the influence Franklin continues to wield in 21st century America.

When he died in 1790 at the age of 84, Franklin was not universally mourned by his countrymen. Meyer reminds readers that George Washington and the Congress refused to acknowledge attempts by the French to express their condolences at Franklin’s passing, and John Adams had little good to say about his former diplomatic partner. Among his later detractors were Mark Twain, who wrote that Franklin “early prostituted his talents to the invention of maxims and aphorisms calculated to inflict suffering upon the rising generation of all subsequent ages”, and D.H. Lawrence reveled in revising and ridiculing Franklin’s 13 virtues.

Meyer’s primary focus is on the influence of Franklin’s last will and testament. William, Franklin’s first-born son who had sided with the British during the Revolution, was left worthless property and ephemera, and his daughter and grandchildren received gifts commensurate with the esteem in which he held them. But it was his “Codicil to Last Will and Testament,” a wordy but straightforward document, that morphed into a hydra-headed legal instrument that would vex administrators, the courts and politicians who attempted to oversee and control its ongoing disbursements.

Franklin established endowments for the cities of Philadelphia and Boston. “Having myself been bred to a manual art, printing, in my native town,” Franklin dictated, “and afterwards assisted to set up my business in Philadelphia by kind loans of money from two friends there, which was the foundation of my fortune, and of all the utility in life that may be ascribed to me, I wish to be useful even after my death, if possible, in forming and advancing other young men . . . .”

Franklin left each city £1,000, or about $133,000 in today’s dollars. The funds were intended to provide small loans to manual and industrial workers — cobblers, coopers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, etc. — to be repaid at 5 percent interest over a 10-year period. In addition to offering a helping hand for the socioeconomic class employed in manual labor, the funds’ underlying intention was to promote good citizenship. (“I have considered, that, among artisans, good apprentices are most likely to make good citizens,” Franklin wrote.) If the principal from the bequests were properly administered, the initial investment should have yielded billions in today’s dollars, making Franklin our first billionaire philanthropist.

So, what became of Franklin’s fortune, and where did his generosity lead us? Meyer follows the money, providing a decade-by-decade accounting of the funds’ expenditures while factoring in economic trends, poor oversight by fund managers, legal squabbles, political infighting, and losses incurred during national recessions and depressions.

All of which sounds incredibly boring. But be assured there’s nothing tedious about Meyer’s chronicle. What emerges is a lively and thoroughly researched social history of the country viewed through our evolving economic affluence and the increasingly litigious nature of American society.   

The early ledgers read much like a personalized history of the country: “Turning the musty pages of each loan agreement can feel like reading an old swashbuckling story,” Meyer writes, “bringing the same sense of relief when the last line reveals that a character has made it through. Three cheers for the cabinetmaker Christopher Pigeon, who repaid his debt on time. And a compassionate wag of the head for Paul Revere’s son-in-law, one of only two Boston defaulters.”

Unfortunately, there was skullduggery aplenty in the management and disbursement of Franklin’s gifts. In 1838, Philadelphia’s Franklin Legacy treasurer John Thomason purchased Philadelphia Gas Works stock with Franklin’s bequest, thus impeding the money’s growth and transforming the fund into a tool of corruption and patronage. In 1890, Franklin’s descendants were so aggrieved they felt compelled to file a suit claiming that his bequests should revert to their control.

Boston did not suffer a similar level of financial chicanery. In 1827, William Minot, who administered the fund for 50 years, deposited much of Franklin’s principal into Nathaniel Bowditch’s Massachusetts Hospital Life Insurance Company to acquire interest, thus enabling Boston’s fund balance to surpass Philadelphia’s for the first time. Beantown never trailed again.

In the final analysis, Franklin’s bequests accomplished very little of their original intent. In the days before central banking, loans were difficult to administer in an equitable manner, and many of the later loans suffered default or were not repaid on time. By 1882, Philadelphia had only about $10,000 left in its fund. Franklin had failed to factor in even a single default, and he had no way of foretelling the emergence of liberal credit terms and the growing availability of loans charging less than 5 percent interest. In 1994, the entirety of Boston’s Franklin fund went to the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. The Philadelphia Foundation continues to manage its Franklin Trust Funds for its original purpose.

At this moment of intense political division and national soul searching, Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet is a timely reminder that we remain a generous people, and that philanthropy lives on in the hearts of ordinary Americans. The popularity of GoFundMe pages is the latest manifestation of our desire to help those in need, an example of the civic-mindedness exercised by the “good citizens” Franklin hoped to encourage. OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

Omnivorous Reader

Generational Trials and Trauma

Can the genetic past also be prologue?

By Stephen E. Smith

Is it possible to predict and thereby alter an individual’s spiritual destiny by analyzing emotional frailties that are inherited genetically from long-forgotten ancestors? That’s the question at the heart of Jamie Ford’s novel The Many Daughters of Afong Moy.

Afong Moy was the first known Chinese woman to immigrate to the United States. In 1834, she arrived in New York City and was exhibited as “The Chinese Lady.” Americans, most of whom had never seen a person of Asian heritage, had immense interest in her language, her clothing, and her 4-inch bound feet. She toured widely in the United States, appearing on stages in major cities on the East Coast. She met President Andrew Jackson and was employed for a time by P.T. Barnum. But her popularity waned in the 1840s, and there’s no record of Moy after the 1850s. She was, however, the first Asian woman that many Americans had seen in the flesh, and her appearances influenced perceptions of Chinese women and culture long after her disappearance from the American theatrical scene.

Ford fleshes out the unknown details of Moy’s life, and although there’s no evidence that she had children, her fictional descendants and their trials and traumas are the subject of his novel. Their stories, especially their emotional sufferings, are explained by using the theory of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, which is, simply stated, the transmission of epigenetic information through the germline — a theory which will, for most readers, immediately beg the question: Do the emotions we feel influence our genes and those of our descendants?

Online sites explicating transgenerational epigenetic inheritance abound, but Ford offers his own simplified explanation in his Author’s Note (which conveniently relieves him of having to craft an awkward explanation in the text of the narrative): “Take a moment and think about your own family, their joys and calamities,” Ford writes. “Do you see similarities? Do you see patterns of repetition? Rhythms of good and bad decision making? Cycles of struggle and triumph?”

It’s a tenuous thread upon which to base a novel. While the inheritance of epigenetic characteristics may occur in plants and even in lab mice, the extent to which it occurs in humans remains unclear, and readers are likely to harbor doubts as to the theory’s validity. Might not the transgenerational theory be an attempt to escape our problems in the present by blaming them on distant ancestors? What could be easier than attributing our personal troubles to the dead? And how far into the past might this psychological necrophilia extend?

Nevertheless, Ford has crafted an intriguing novel that’s contingent on the reader’s acceptance of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, a term which surely sounds impressive and therefore has enough intellectual import to entice the curious. If the novel is a protracted exercise in illustrating by use of example, there are interesting stories to be told, and Ford does a workmanlike job of telling those stories.

He explores the lives of six generations of the Moy family — Afong Moy, Lai King Moy, Fei-jin “Faye” Moy, Zoe Moy, “Greta” Moy and Dorothy MoyAnnabel — and although each character is adequately developed and the narratives interestingly interrelated, the two primary storylines involve Afong and her mid-21st century descendant Dorothy, Washington state’s former poet laureate, who is channeling dissociative episodes that are affecting her mental health.

The novel opens with Faye Moy, a nurse working with the Flying Tigers in China in 1942, who unsuccessfully attempts to save the life of a wounded pilot. After his death, she examines his personal belongings, which include a pocket watch with a newspaper article that features a photo of her — a photo she’s never seen and has no memory of having been taken. On the back of the newspaper article are written the words “FIND ME.”

Moving forward from that intriguing clue, the narrative jumps to 2045 and Dorothy’s life in Seattle, where the city is besieged by the adverse consequences of climate change. The world of the future, for better or worse, manifests itself all around her, as when a computer-generated elevator voice chats with her: “Good morning, Ms. Moy. You’re up awfully early. Might I offer you direction to a nice coffee shop or patisserie? I could summon a car for you”; or when Dorothy recalls her doctor’s explanation of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, “How each generation is built upon the genetic ruins of the past. That our lives are merely biological waypoints. We’re not individual flowers, annuals that bloom and then die. We’re perennials.”

And so it goes with Afong’s “daughters”: in 1927 Zoe Moy is a student in England at a school run as a pure democracy; Lai King Moy is quarantined in San Francisco in 1892 during a plague epidemic and a great fire; Greta Moy is a contemporary tech executive who creates a multi-million-dollar dating app, etc. These narrative transpositions culminate when Dorothy overcomes her psychological inheritance via a plot twist that borders on science fiction/fantasy.

If this seems confusing, well, it is, and readers will be required to focus their full attention on a plotline that is crowded with characters and frustrating complexities. When the episodic storylines finally come together, readers who have bought into the transgenerational epigenetic inheritance theory will likely experience a sense of completion. Skeptical readers might well feel they’re the victims of a 350-page shaggy dog story.

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy will be in bookstores in June.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.

Omnivorous Reader

Writing on the Edge

Short stories that stick

By Anne Blythe

Joanna Pearson, a psychiatrist in the Chapel Hill area, describes herself as a “lapsed poet” on the jacket of her new short story collection, titled Now You Know It All.

Yet, in the 11 stories that plumb the depths of the hearts and minds of a variety of flawed but intriguing characters, it’s clear that Pearson’s poetic touch is not on hiatus. The author deftly describes settings, backstories and eerie omens as the narrators of her mini-mysteries move toward precipices that will forever change their lives.

These stories can be dark, tempting readers to turn their eyes away from characters whose hard-living and messy circumstances have pushed them to a point where they struggle mentally with what is and isn’t real.

It’s difficult to read about James, the foster child (also known as the Devil Boy), the therapist Miss Beth Ann and her boyfriend in “The Films of Roman Polanski” and not be disquieted by the troubling, manipulative behavior on display in that story. In “Mr. Forble,” you might get creeped out as you read about the disturbed 13-year-old boy who tries to sic the miscreant from an internet hoax on his birthday party guests.

Other characters we meet in Now You Know It All include two sisters at their grandmother’s rural Burke County home who hear about a boy tied up in the barn next door; a pregnant woman in her 40s reliving a previous brutal bout of postpartum depression; and a waitress/bartender wooed away from her small Southern town by a socialite eerily similar to Ghislaine Maxwell.

Pearson builds compassion for her storytellers as they teeter toward their ominous misfortunes, while hooking readers with her descriptive writing.

“There were ruins and fountains and a fury of beeping horns,” Pearson writes in “Rome,” the opener of the book. “Naked putti lounging fatly in marble. Gorgeous long-armed women in skirts and strappy sandals, and young men hanging out of their cars in mirrored glasses. Old men in storefronts arranged cheeses and sausages tenderly, as if they were tucking in sleeping infants while chattering tour groups trailed guides holding red umbrellas, and honeymooners licked perfect gelatos.”

That’s how we meet Lindsay, an American college student exploring Rome with her friend Paul. They’re sick of each other, and as it is with each story in the collection, Pearson does not seduce her readers with an ordinary tale about a young couple exploring their feelings for each other as they travel together in a foreign land. Expect the unexpected.

“We were finally seeing all the things — beautiful, famous things we’d waited all our young lives to see — but we couldn’t appreciate any of it any longer,” Lindsay said.

Then comes the plot twist.

After an unanticipated night of romance with Paul — and him spending the next day worrying about it — Lindsay sets out on her own for a day trip to the Tivoli ruins, leaving her traveling partner alone in bed in the hostel. Along the way she meets the Gooleys, a “seemingly wholesome family” of five blonde-haired girls, a Pentecostal father and mother who she believed to be pregnant.

Not only does Lindsay come to realize the “wholesomeness” of the family she was touring the ruins with might be more of the “slippery quality” that sometimes accompanies such carefully crafted images, she also questions who she really is.

Pearson’s stories rarely conclude with a cleancut resolution to the many mysteries posed, leaving a sense of uneasiness that gives a nod toward the tumult of our times.

In “The Field Glasses,” Pearson opens with the line: “For weeks my sister Clara had been warning me that there was something in the woods that wanted to eat the children.”

And she closes it with: “There was another call, a different animal this time, joining in mournfully with the first, their voices rising in a strange duet, and I determined it must be two dogs, something wounded and wild in their voices. Through the dark of the trees, I imagined or heard the crack of branches. Something hungry out there. I waited for a figure — my sister, a deer, some other animal — to emerge.”

That’s it. The end of the story. In Pearson’s world, the uncertainty lingers, leaving readers to long ponder not only what’s lurking in the woods but what truly lurks in the minds of the narrators. She shows us how the power of suggestion and expectation can shape her characters’ narratives, as well as our own.

We never really know everything they’re thinking or how what’s roiling below the surface is going to lead to new discoveries.

Pearson’s stories might be short, but they have a long-lasting impression while craftily making you think about life’s mysteries.  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

Omnivorous Reader

Balancing the Scales

Justice among disparate
peoples in Colonial America

By Stephen E. Smith

Humorist Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye is credited with saying: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Readers of popular history who tough their way through 464 pages of Nicole Eustace’s Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America will likely be left with the notion that what they’ve read is more profound than entertaining.

“Covered with Night” is an Iroquois expression describing the state of grief or mourning inspired, in this instance, by the 1722 murder of a Native American man who lived near Conestoga, Pennsylvania, a small community north of the Maryland-Pennsylvania border. Details of the fatal encounter are straightforward and commonplace: English merchants John and Edmund Cartlidge were bargaining with Sawantaeny, a Seneca hunter and fur trader, when an overindulgence in alcohol, probably by all parties concerned, led to a disagreement. Sawantaeny went for his rifle, but John Cartlidge disarmed him and bashed in the Seneca’s skull.

“My friends have killed me,” were Sawantaeny’s last words.

Such incidents, terrible though they may be, are not an uncommon aspect of human interaction, but in the early 1700s, a period in America’s past that is strangely deficient from the history we’ve been taught (we learn about the Lost Colony, Jamestown, Plymouth and mysteriously we jump to the Boston Harbor Tea Party), such a death had far-reaching ramifications for the Native American and Colonial communities. Covered with Night explores the causes and consequences of the Cartlidges’ ill-advised assault on Sawantaeny, while illuminating the fundamental flaws in the relationships that existed between the Native American and Colonial cultures.

Eustace’s complex treatise was made possible by the meticulously documented speeches of a Native man called “Captain Civility,” who reacted to the death of Sawantaeny by attempting to strengthen the tenuous bonds that existed between the competing cultures, and Eustace was able to draw on earlier studies by 20th century ethnographers and on postmodern analyses on social and criminal justice. If all of this sounds complicated, it is.

Investigations of Sawantaeny’s murder by Native American leaders and Colonial officials initiated a debate about the very nature of justice and its cultural context. Colonial authorities were fearful that the murder might bring on a full-scale war, endangering the white population and disrupting trade. The crisis was serious enough that news of it reached the British Board of Trade in England, resulting in a region-wide treaty conference that produced an obscure document signed at Albany in 1722 between members of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and representatives from the colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. It remains the oldest recognized treaty in the history of the United States. Much more than a simple diplomatic instrument, the treaty records a foundational American debate over the nature of justice.

Avoiding conflict with their Indigenous neighbors was the foremost concern of the Colonial authorities, and they held the Cartlidge brothers in irons pending their execution — which is exactly what the Native Americans hoped to avoid. Pennsylvania Gov. William Keith was dismayed to learn that sending the Cartlidges to the gallows was counter to the Native American notion of justice. Native diplomats Satcheechoe and Taquatarensaly asked that the Cartlidges be released from prison and from the threat of execution. They preferred that Keith journey to meet with the leaders of the Five Nations to “cover the dead” by offering reparations and performing mourning rituals that addressed their grief — all of which ran counter to Colonial assumptions about what constitutes civilized retribution.

The Iroquois weren’t “savages,” as characterized by the Colonial authorities. They were possessed of a humanity that tied them to the land and their communities, and they saw the murder as an opportunity to establish stronger and more lasting bonds with their Colonial neighbors. They wanted their collective grief assuaged emotionally and accounted for economically.

“Colonists were so unprepared for Native offers of clemency, a total inversion of their expectations, that they made little deliberate note of the philosophy that informed Native policy,” Eustace writes. “Indigenous ideals entered the record made at Albany almost inadvertently, the by-product of colonial desires to document the land and trade agreements that would further Pennsylvania’s prosperity and security. Still, colonists dutifully wrote down the speeches that Captain Civility and other Native speakers made to them. And in the process, they preserved Indigenous ideas on crime and punishment, violation and reconciliation.” Negotiations were complicated by barriers of language and dialect. Various Native American tongues had to be translated from one Indigenous speaker to another until the words evolved into a concept that could be realized in standard English.

If Eustace’s explication of events is occasionally academic, it’s also thought-provoking, requiring patience and commitment on the part of the reader. Attempts to energize the narrative by using present tense, and a somewhat awkward fictional attribution of motivations to characters whose true emotions are unknowable, only serve to lengthen and diminish the story: “Seated at his table, William Keith warms the bottom of a stick of vermilion sealing wax,” she writes. “He feels the heat but will take care not to burn his fingers. In a quiet room, a dollop of wax makes a soft splotch as it hits paper, round and red as a drop of blood. Keith lets the wax cool a moment from liquid to paste, then presses smartly with his seal to emboss the wax with an intricate pattern of scrolls.”

Eustace also includes detailed descriptions — furniture, dwellings, the travails of daily living, concepts surrounding indentured servitude and slavery — that enhance the reader’s knowledge of an otherwise obscure period in our history. But her primary contribution is the reclamation of alternative concepts of crime, punishment and the mitigation of grief that are no longer components of contemporary life. OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards.