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Archive for September, 2011

Book Review: “American Lightning” by Howard Blum

American Lightning by Howard Blum

"American Lightning" by Howard Blum

Blum’s “American Lightning” is a work of popular history, in the vein of Simon Winchester or Erik Larson, but Blum’s book is neither as readable or entertaining as those he’s trying to imitate. Blum attempts to weave together three threads: Billy Burns investigating the bombing of the Los Angeles Time’s building, the contemporary life of Clarence Darrow, who will represent the bombers at their trial, and the early film career of D.W. Griffith.

The Burns sections make up a good, procedure detective story, rather like an episode of Law & Order. Burns and his operatives collect clues, interview witnesses, tail suspects, and finally get their men (probably). The stage is set for a showdown between capital and labor, embodied in the trial of the bombers. Unfortunately for future novelistic-historians, the trial ends with a whimper, and so does the book.

This is only a third of the book, though. The other two stories have interesting moments, but are disconnected from the whole. Clarence Darrow defends the bombers at their trial, but the book spends far too much time on his complicated professional and personal life in the years before the trial, which is unnecessary to understand the main tale. Similarly, the story of D. W. Griffith and early Hollywood has interesting moments, but it even more disconnected from the main thread of the “plot.” As far as I can tell, the only points of connection between Griffith and Burns are (1) that they briefly collaborated once on a different case and (2) that the labor unions, aiming for sympathy for the bombers, who are connected with organized labor, made their own film. Their propaganda piece was inspired by Griffith’s idea that “movies could be polemical” (apparently an idea that he invented, according to Blum), but Griffith was not involved in the film that was made about the bombers.

Omitting the stories of Griffith and Darrow would have made for a shorter, tighter book. The main “plot” is fascinating (almost more by what didn’t happen and what could have happened), but “American Lightning” is overlong, over-stuffed, and too disconnected to be a leading example of the “popular history” genre.

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Reviews

Book Review: “Georgia Curiosities” by William Schemmel

Georgia Curiosities by William Schemmel

"Georgia Curiosities" by William Schemmel

I’ve probably read twenty books in the “Weird Georgia” genre. They are all more or less the same: collections of odd people, places, and historical events from Georgia’s past. A little Civil War, some ghost stories, some historical markers, some birthplaces of famous people. Half for tourists on the road, half armchair traveler’s guide.

A lot of the stories in this book are found in other books as well, but I think “Georgia Curiosities” does a very good job collecting a large representative sample of diverse stories and places to visit. Most of the highlights from other similar books are present here, and I was surprised that “Georgia Curiosities” actually had a few unique stories and places to share. It was worth reading just for its dozen or so new curiosities.

The writing is, like all book in the genre, adequate. Sometimes, it comes across as too glib or trying too hard to be funny or clever. But it doesn’t get in the way of the stories or locations.

If you’re only going to read one book in the genre, you could do worse than “Georgia Curiosities.”

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Posted in Reviews

Book Review: “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

"Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson

I don’t normally read quiet historical books about aging rural preachers in Iowa writing to their young children. None of the themes — intergenerational conflicts, small-town religion and morals, racial politics, or even the landscape of Iowa — are interesting to me. But I loved Gilead.

Gilead is a very quiet book. It’s not brash, dramatic, or exciting, but it is still compelling. The narrator is exceedingly pleasant and friendly, though not ingratiating, which makes his one prejudice seem both irrational and intriguing. His insights are thoughtful without being preachy (which is a trick for a book about a preacher), and thought the epistolary / “letters to my child who can’t read them” format could be grating, Robinson succeeds at avoiding the treacly traps.

I was a little disappointed at the end; the final reveal seemed a bit anti-climactic, perhaps a little too moral and too neat, without room for moral ambiguity. But for a quiet book that does not trade or highs or lows, the ending was probably fitting.

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Posted in Reviews

Book Review: “Atlantic” by Simon Winchester

Atlantic by Simon Winchester

"Atlantic" by Simon Winchester

The best Winchester books read like great novels: they are character-driven, with surprising plot turns, and unfold linearly, like a good story. “Atlantic” is none of these things, and yet it is still an enjoyable read. Winchester’s vague structure framework groups broad themes together: economic activity, exploration, geology, military conflict, politics, and more. He begins with the formation of the world and continues through the modern day, aiming to cover most areas of human interaction with the Atlantic, so he earns one star at least for the Titanic-sized ambition.

Many of Winchester’s stories and themes are familiar from other history and pop-history books: the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic, the Middle Passage of slavery, the Falkland Islands conflict, the early Portuguese navigators, cod fishing, global warming. At times, the stories go pretty far inland, and some are weighed down by over-long descriptive passages of the grayness of the sea.

Some of his claims are, as others have said, a bit of a stretch: I found his hinting that the Atlantic Ocean was responsible for parliamentary government (because Iceland had the first one) to seem particularly far-fetched.

However, in the final tally, stitching together all these stories in one book, which does move fairly quickly from topic to topic, is entertaining enough, and good panorama of human activity on the Atlantic Ocean.

In reading Winchester’s latest, I was reminded of Bill Bryson’s latest, “At Home.” Like Bryson’s book, “Atlantic” is bound together by a loose framework, switches stories, and feels disconnected. Yet almost every anecdote is entertaining: some personal, some ancient, some modern, some vast, some small.

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Posted in Reviews

Book Review: “Let’s Play White” by Chesya Burke

Lets Play White by Chesya Burke

Let's Play White by Chesya Burke

Children with eerie powers. Powerful women, some with command of hoodoo. Blood. Dead babies. These are the recurring elements in Chesya Burke’s “Let’s Play White.” I had heard these stories described “horror”, but I think “macabre magical realism” might be a better description. The stories are not pleasant, but many are quite powerful.

Several of her stories are non-genre stories with an eerie twist. “Walter and the Three-Legged King” is a social-economic story that happens to feature a talking rat in a key role. “I Make People Do Bad Things” is a gangland-style tale of whore houses and numbers games, and a little girl’s eerie powers are the most powerful weapon. “Chocolate Park” is a story of drugs, prostitution, and revenge that’s enacted by hoodoo.

Violence is very present in all of Burke’s stories here — even very depraved violence — but the violence is not particularly graphic. She doesn’t linger over the depravity, but she doesn’t shy from it. I wouldn’t recommend reading all the stories in one sitting, as I did: the violence loses its effectiveness from repetition.

Burke’s stories at times make use of African (and African-American) folklore, and her characters are usually black, but the plots don’t turn on race. Because the book was framed with quotes from Dunbar and DuBois, I thought that race was going to play a larger role. Even the title, “Let’s Play White,” announces some kind of racial opposition or masquerade that I just didn’t feel was terribly present in the stories. I don’t see this as a positive or negative; there is room for literature that confronts racial issues, and there is room for literature that has black folklore and black characters without becoming all about race. I feel that Burke’s collection belongs to the latter.

A few of her stories fall short for me. “CUE: Change,” a lighter zombie story, feels out-of-place. “The Room Where Ben Disappeared” feels like a Victorian ghost story, but without weight. “The Light of Cree” is too short to make much of an impact. And “Purse” (also very short) feels like a bad student writing exercise. That’s four of the eleven stories, but the bulk of the page count is in the remaining seven, which I think are more successful.

Burke is at her best when she gives herself time to develop full characters. “Walter and the Three-Legged King” does this quickly and economically; “I Make People Do Bad Things” and “The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason” are longer. This last story is the standout of the collection — it visits all her recurring themes (children with eerie powers, powerful women, dead babies, and violence), but does so against a backdrop of real character progression and a well-realized setting.

Written by timwestover

September 23rd, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Posted in Reviews

A Spectacle

This was a short I wrote back in college. I present it more or less unchanged, because I am partial to singing trees. There’s one at the University of California, San Diego, and there’s one in Auraria, too.

A Spectacle

It’s sixty years now since I’ve worked at the bakery, so it’s been at least that long since the singing tree was run out of town by an angry mob hurling fruit and fire. I was still a young man, only an apprentice, and my fingers didn’t have the touch for making the perfect pie, croissant, fritter, doughnut, cruller, or even simple pierogie. I was so poor then, just like they say in the proverb: poor as a baker’s dough boy. When I left the bakery and got a fruit stall, I could take in over fifty zlotys at the market on a good day. The money’s one reason I decided to give up on the baking—that, and I had no talent. I made maybe 50 groshes a week as an apprentice, ten measly groshes for each day I spent cracking eggs, pouring milk, sweating at the oven. What a sight I must have been!

But at least one girl didn’t mind that I was always finding clumps of flour behind my ears—my darling Greta. On Thursdays I would take her to a picture show, and it was always my groshes that bought the tickets (this is how she saved up her money, I’ve come to realize—by making me pay!). Her favorite fellow was that singer-actor Dasha Pavlovski, and we saw all of his films, even the one with the elephant and the ice skates. Greta was a serving girl at a restaurant, and ours was the typical love story—a poor baker’s apprentice and a serving girl find happiness in each other’s arms, but I had a nagging sensation that if Dasha had ever come to town, he could have stolen away my Greta with a sigh and a few flat notes.

It turns out he did almost come to town once. It was late March, and I left the shop after noon, sticky with butter and eggs. As I was walking home, I took a detour down Vronski Prospect, where the theaters put up their posters. If I had missed the latest Pavlovski film, Greta would’ve killed me. So I always kept my eyes open.

There was a crowd around one of the posters, and I pushed up to the front. Huge green letters jumped out at me: “One Night Only: The Amazing Fabulous Dasha Pavlovski!” I ran to Greta’s restaurant and found her rushing around with drinks.

“Greta,” I said, out of breath. “Greta, he’s coming here!”

“Who?” she said, not even turning to look at me. “Who are you talking about?”

“Dasha Pavlovski! He’s coming to town! One night only!”

The four mugs in Greta’s arms fell to the floor and shattered. A shower of beer leapt upwards and outwards and sparkled in the firelight, but no sparkling beer cascade could match the twinkling in Greta’s eyes. She looked at me with such tenderness and affection, her mouth cracked into a radiant smile, and she flung her arms towards me.

“Oooooooooooooooo, Dasha!” she squealed, and gave me such a tight bearhug that my eyes watered.

Is now a good time to mention that I couldn’t stand Dasha Pavlovski? I’d seen every movie that he’d ever been in, even the one with the elephant and the whistling broom. He had this stupid grin that I found repulsive. And his voice was terrible, I think. He did this thing with his hat that’s very annoying, and he couldn’t act worth a single grosho. Give me an American show any day.

“Ooooooooooooooo, we must go, we must, we must, we must!”

I shuddered at having to sit through several hours of Pavlovski in person, but there was no way out of this mess or out of Greta’s embrace. On the life of our firstborn, I swore to Greta that I would go the next morning as soon as the box office opened to buy the best tickets I could. As I stuffed my hands back into my pockets on the cold walk home, I thought of how my fingers would be warmed by the hands of my darling as she sweated in glee at the show—that is, if she wasn’t wildly applauding every minute for some seductive clearing of the throat or tip of the hat.

#

I knew there’d be a crowd at the box office, so I arrived before sunrise, but there was already a line. A hushed whispering of men ran up and down the impatient column: “I can’t believe it’s costing me five zlotys to take the missus to see some singing buffoon!”

My heart froze in my chest. Five zlotys? I barely had two, especially since two weeks ago Greta and I had gone for the double feature and then split a mushroom pie afterwards (all on my bill, of course). I don’t like mushrooms. They’re grey, and no food should be grey. Good foods are green or red or yellow or maybe brown, but not grey. The chatter of the cold men around me confirmed my fears: tickets were each two and a half zlotys. I pulled all the coins out of my pocket, but I didn’t even have enough for one ticket. Glumly, I got out of line and watched as the long column snaked forwards and dissipated into grumbling individuals, muttering “Five zlotys, five zlotys.”

They could mutter because they had the five zlotys, and their girls weren’t going to break them when they got home.

#

“Greta!” I cried.

Greta didn’t slacken her grip on my arm. “What, you miserable weasel?”

“Greta, I have a plan!”

Greta did slacken her grip on my arm, but only a little bit.

“We can sneak in.”

“Sneak in? Isn’t that dishonest?”

“Well, yes, but it’s Dasha Pavlovski.”

Greta promptly turned to a quivering jelly. I returned my sore arm to a more comfortable position. “What’s your plan?” she said.

“Cousin Mikhail has a friend who works at the theatre. He can let us in.”

“But we won’t have seats. The show’s sold out, and the ushers won’t let us through without a ticket.”

#

“But we won’t have seats. The show’s sold out, and the ushers won’t let us through without a ticket,” I explained to Cousin Mikhail’s friend.

“Is she skinny?” said the friend.

“Who?”

“Your lady friend,” he said.

“Why? And how do you know I have a lady friend?”

“Only ladies want to go see Dasha. I haven’t seen a guy yet who cared. Did you see that film with the elephant and the whistling broom? Awful, right? But the ladies could overlook that, because there was Dasha. And the guys overlooked it, because there were their lady friends. Circle of life, see. So, is your lady skinny?”

“No, not really,” I said.

“Is she fat?”

“Look, why are you asking?”

“Answer me. Is she fat?”

“I don’t know. She’s not fat. I mean, she’s not really fat.”

“Is she this fat?” he said, holding his arms apart at about the width of a wine barrel.

“No, not that fat.”

“Is she claustrophobic?”

#

“I’m not doing that,” said Greta, not loosening her grip on my arm.

“Honey, honey, I already gave him two zlotys, and he’s got the watch my papa left me as a guarantee on the rest. We can’t back out. It’s the only way.”

“The only way?” she said, sniffing.

“The only way,” I said.

“Well, if I have to sneak in to the sold-out theatre and crawl through an air vent to get above the stage and risk my good name and sense of decency and that’s the only way to see Dasha Pavlovski, then I’ll do it!” She thrust her arms out in a gesture of victory, letting me go. I ran off to wrap up my very sore arm.

#

The night of the show, Greta and I dressed up in our very best. We met Cousin Mikhail’s friend at the side entrance, and he showed us to the air vent that was at the top of a iron stairwell. Greta was, in person, perhaps a teeny tiny bit larger than I had remembered, and getting her into the vent was more difficult than I’d thought. In fairness, I must say that I was no stranger to the baker’s treats, and the passage wasn’t especially comfortable for me either.

Once inside, I realized that Cousin Mikhail’s friend had taken advantage of many devoted husbands and boyfriends, since the air vent was filled with sneezing fans of Dasha Pavlovski. There was a general moaning mixed with curse words and snippets of angry conversation.

“I feel sick,” I heard a voice say near me. I didn’t recognize at first that it was Greta.

“I’m sorry, dear, but maybe when you hear Dasha, you’ll feel better.”

“I feel really sick. I think I’m going to throw up,” said a voice that wasn’t Greta’s, but this voice did sound quite ill, and it was very close to me.

We waited in the vent for what seemed like an eternity. Greta and I had wiggled our way to a grating that allowed us to peek down onto the stage. Our view was not the best, but Greta seemed excited enough, even though her eyes were puffy and watery from the dust. I gave her my handkerchief.

Below us began a roar, and the sound grew louder and louder. There were stompings of feet, clappings of hands, and then a well-dressed man strode out onto the stage. The curtains hadn’t yet opened, and the lights were on.

“Is that him?” I whispered, confused.

“I can’b really bell,” mumbled Greta. I could barely understand her. “I can’b see bery well.”

“Would it help if I scooted over?” I asked.

Greta sneezed. “No, nob really.”

“Ladies and gentlemen!” cried the voice from far beneath us. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a great announcement!” The speaker stood at the edge of the stage, and I could hear something shaky in his voice. I didn’t know if he was nervous or excited. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he said for a third time. “I am at once the bearer of bad news and of extraordinary news. The bad news is that Dasha Pavlovski will not be appearing this evening.” Here, a great groan issued from the assembled masses. The air vent contracted in one great brow of woe, and Greta stopped breathing (maybe this was from a dust allergy, but a quick blow to her back, and she gasped, and seemed to be fine). “Ladies and gentlemen, please, please! We have something far more exciting for you tonight! A true marvel! The eighth wonder of the world! A vision beyond your imagination! A treat for the eyes and ears, an awakening to the beauties of our universe! A clarion call from the heavenly spheres, a spectacle to touch your mind, your heart, and your soul! I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are no tricks or ‘special effects’ in the marvelous wonder you are about to witness. Please welcome, a truly splendid sight directly from the pages of antiquity! The Arabs in their great tales have sung of such marvels as you are about to witness on stage right now! Please welcome the wondrous, the spectacular Singing Tree!”

The announcer began to clap wildly, but he was alone. After a moment, he stopped and hurried off the stage. A squeaking sound of moving curtains rattled in the silent hall and wafted up as high as us desperate people in the air vent.

“Whab’s goinb onb?” whispered Greta.

“I don’t know…” I began, but then I saw it. It was a tree on stage, perhaps ten meters tall. There wasn’t any soil or a pot—the tree’s roots skittered across the stage in a skillful, graceful way, and the tree pulled itself up to the spotlight. The branches dipped low to the ground, and then the tree straightened up again. I heard a cough come from below, as if the tree were clearing its throat. Then, it began to sing in a syrupy tenor:

A story of sweet love I
Tell, dear my friends!
And should words fail, I’m sorry but
Shan’t make amends.
See a young boy, with his heart filled with
Much love (what else?).
In’is head (rash it was) he hears naught
But wedding bells.
When his eyes oft glances to
A girl (fair dame!),
His heart beats like a metronome.
(Has he no shame?)
But there’s one, oh yes, there’s one so
Bee-you-tee-full
And glad ‘n lively, and to not love her
He’d be a fool.
The groom—baker; the bride—bar maid.
(I’ve heard it all before.)
And all’s well, and all’re happy, yes.
(Ord’ner’y bore!)
But strife! the wife takes delight in
A singer man.
And doom! the groom follows suit, and
Goes for whom’e can…
Oh! can it be a little bit
Of jealousy?
A fight, a tiff, and argument:
This’s prophecy!

At this point, I heard a woman’s battle cry, and a large, red, half-eaten tomato sailed through the air. I saw the explosion of gooey red seeds before I heard the satisfying squelch. Honestly, though, the song wasn’t the most hideous thing I’d ever heard. In fact, the tree wasn’t half-bad for an evergreen. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a fan. In the papers a week later, I read an editorial which argued that the tree had a wonderful voice, but that critic must have attended the performance of a different singing tree. But it was a damn sight better than seeing Dasha Pavlovski’s twinkling blue eyes and listening to his cursed crooning.

The first fruit opened the way to a full volley. Tomatoes, cabbages, apples, lemons, rhubarb, asparagus, grapes, mangos, oranges—anything in reach the crowd began to throw at the performer, who tried to bravely finish a few more stanzas, but its voice was cracking.

Can weather they the trial that’s
Unexpected?
No, they whine, and so split ways, just
As suspected!

“Let’s chop it down!” cried one angry voice from nearby.

“No, let’s burn it!” cried another, angrier voice. This was Greta’s.

“Yes, burn it!” echoed the very ill voice.

“Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!” was the chant picked up by the sooty mob in the vent, and the crowd below, momentarily confused by the many voices coming from overhead, quickly joined in. “Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!”

The singing tree at last let its voice die on the wind and let out a whimper. It rustled its branches in apprehension and began dragging itself off stage, throwing root over root in a most ingenious manner. But someone had already set a bundle of papers alight, and others around the flame held out pieces of chair, stage, carpet—anything that could burn. The tree, confused and panicked, began pulling even faster until it was entirely backstage. Greta pushed her way out of the air vent, down the stairs, and into theatre proper, and I followed her. We joined the torch-brandishing mob flooded out of the doors and began searching for the tree.

“Over here!” someone shouted, and the mob turned onto Vronski Prospect. The tree wasn’t far ahead of us, but we didn’t seem to be gaining on it. I’ve never seen a tree move so fast. The tree led the mob through the marketplace, and though the vendors’ stalls were closed, there was plenty of rotten fruit in the gutters. Blackish shapes flew through the night air and squelched against the trunk of the fleeing tree with an icky, sticky noise. The black smoke rising from the mob’s torches made me cough and certainly didn’t help Greta’s condition, but everyone continued to nurse the flames, nurse their revenge against the singing tree.

“Greeeeeeeeta!” I whined. “Do we have to do this?”

“Be quiet and keep running!”

By the time the tree and mob had reached the edge of town, most of the torches had died, and the tree was far ahead of even the best runners. I was very out of breath and had been begging Greta that we slow down, and as we reached the last houses on Vronski Prospect, she slowed to a walk, then stopped. The mob slowed, grumbled, and broke apart, the lust for justice beaten by weariness. Greta refused to hold my hand, so we just stood there, watching the tree scamper into the distance.

Greta shook her fist defiantly in air. “And stay out, you bum!”

#

“And that was the closest I came to seeing Dasha Pavlovski in person, thank goodness.”

“Grandpa, you tell that story too much!” said little Mateko. “Grandma Greta doesn’t like it.”

Anja chimed in, “Yeah, don’t tell us that boring one! Tell us the one about the elephant and the whistling broom!”

Written by timwestover

September 21st, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Posted in Short Stories

Our Ghosts

This is a little piece that isn’t quite a short story, but more of a mish-mash of various local lore and ghost stories. – Tim

The new library on Rosebud Street couldn’t be opened to the public without its own ghost. In the 90’s, the city council built several libraries around town that didn’t have ghosts, following the general tide of the times away from the old superstitions. Those libraries were filled with rainbow colors, comfy chairs, little stuffed animals, smiling faces—all to attract visitors, as if a library was a cafe or coffee shop!

But the city council later regretted its errors. The visitors to those libraries complained that something important was missing: the cold finger that draws itself along one’s neck when one steps into the stacks, the mist of silence that veils the periodicals. Such feelings turn a book-filled room into a real library. At great expense, the city council rid itself of the rainbow colors and comfy chairs and tried to install in their place appropriate ghosts, but the atmosphere was never quite right. The shadows that should have played in the dark corners weren’t dark enough, and the footsteps that should have paced the empty corridors could hardly be heard.

Hoping to avoid another catastrophe, the city council hired me. I had been among the most vocal of the concerns citizens when the ghosts were omitted from the earlier libraries, and I knew the ghosts of our town better than anyone else. Only I could interview the various candidates and choose the most fitting for the new library on Rosebud Street. It was not only a matter of equipment, which I possessed—the tape recorders, magnetometers, and time-lapse cameras—but a matter of acclimation and expertise. I could keep my wits and therefore approach the task with the necessary dispassion.

The ghosts of our little American town are nothing like the ghost of the Old World. Our eldest spirits are from the 19th century. Compared to the dwellers among the English stones or German forests, 19th century ghosts are only children. It’s true that once, in the slice of land that our town now occupied, there were Native Americans with ten thousand years’ ancestral spirits, but the first settlers drove away the natives and the ghosts, expelling them to the mountains or to the western reservations. None of the old ghosts stayed behind, or if they did, they didn’t survive into the modern age. Anywhere they could have installed themselves was plowed down into cotton. This is a great misfortune; our little town could use more diversity to shake off our provincial prejudices.

More than half of our town’s ghosts are soldiers killed during the Civil War. They sit on their gravestones in the Old Cemetery and gamble on dice, or they complain about the hard tack and pine tea, or they play idle music on harmonicas and cheese hoop banjos. The ghostly soldiers rarely leave their earthly encampment, but they vigorously defend it against invaders. Once, a drunk wandered from the Hail Mary sports bar into the Old Cemetery. He had a mind to turn over some tombstones as a amusement. That, of course, was an aggression not to be tolerated, and the ghostly soldiers conspired to turn over a tombstone onto the drunk himself. It was a little menhir, a spire six feet tall that commemorated a particularly noble horse (who, I have discovered, is only partially buried in our town; his tail is here, but his limbs and head and other horseflesh is ten miles up the river). The toppled monument pinned the drunk’s leg against the cold earth, and the pitiable fellow spent the night crying out as the ghostly soldiers bounced long-rotted sunflower seeds off his wriggling form. None of the nearby inhabitants paid attention to the drunk’s pleas—they were accustomed to the generally debauched atmosphere among the soldiers in the Old Cemetery and gave the noises no special mind.

For my search for the Rosebud Library ghost, I set up a little office next to the historic courthouse and sent announcements along the usual spiritual channels. Applicants were requested to arrive during twilight hours for interviews. I was a little too old to make it to the witching hour, straight midnight, without falling asleep.

The first to visit was the ghost of Edward Owens, who lives in the abandoned train station in the valley. Edward was ten years old in 1885, when he put a fat metal screw on the railroad tracks. He wanted the train to flatten it; it would be a novelty. He’d seen others put out pennies on the tracks, but Edward did not have a penny to spare. The five o’clock express to Atlanta rushed past, and the fat screw became snarled in the wheel works. Sparks jumped forth and brakes engaged, but the momentum of the rear cars was too great. The train crumpled against itself, and the cars jumped the tracks. Six passengers and three cows died. A grain storehouse and two water towers were destroyed. The rail line was closed for ten days, postponing the delivery of tobacco, gravy, and beer that were the lifeblood of the local economy. For all this death and delay, and because Edward could never hope to repay what was lost, he was hanged outside of the train station. The gallows were normally built outside the courthouse, but this was a special occasion. As is customary, it was not the accidentally killed passengers that had their spirits imprinted on the land where the rusted smears of tracks are still visible. Instead, it was the little boy, suffering his own catastrophe of sudden guilt and untimely violence, whose spirit remained.

I decided that Edward Owens was not a good candidate for a library ghost; the simple fact was, he couldn’t read, and that seemed to be a poor thematic and moral lesson.

The next interviewee was Molly Maltbie, whose husband was a famous drinker in the Eagle Tavern on Pike Street. The tavern opened in 1911 against the objections of the local temperance committee; the local workers and farmers made it a great success. Every night Maltbie spent his strength, time, and money in the Eagle, consuming legendary quantities of beer and of a homebrew that was also renowned for its efficacy in removing paint. When the Eagle Tavern, later transformed into the Eagle Pool Hall, was renovated to become the Hail Mary sports bar, the new owners stripped away 70’s-era vinyl and found hash marks on the original woodwork that seemed to recount a particular liquor contest from almost a hundred years before. One storm-wracked night, while Maltbie was at the tavern, his wife could not longer be restrained. She made her famed March on the Eagle, carrying a hook and a broom. She opened the tavern doors with her boot; lightning illuminated the wrath on her face. “With this broom, I’ll give this place such a cleaning!” she cried, breaking every bottle and glass, upending tables, splintering the great mirror above the bar, shredding the indecent pictures, and defending herself against the counter-attacks of the clientele. In truth, after her assault, the tavern was much less clean, by the traditional use of the word. She placed her hook beneath the collar of her husband’s shirt and dragged him into the street, through mud puddles and thorn bushes, until they reached their beloved and peaceful home. On stormy nights, one can still see her white form making the March up Pike Street, and from the Hail Mary, there will be incidents where waitresses accidentally upend pint glasses of lite draft.

But after a long conversation with Molly, I decided that she, also, was not the right candidate for the library. She died as an old woman and was not very attractive—a round, plump woman with a mustache and big ears. That sort of ghost would not be approved by the public, who would want someone more beautiful. Her spirit-forming event, too, was a loud and raucous one, which would be unbecoming in a library atmosphere. And finally, I will admit to a personal bias. The ghost tours that I lead, commencing in September and running three times weekly until the first week in November, would be much less rich without the story of Molly Maltbie. I needed her at her current station; she was a necessary, punchy, up-beat figure in a litany of ghosts that would otherwise be too maudlin.

Next was Mike Callums, who occupied a place at the one-time Rhodes Hotel. Mike trained as a boxer and in 1933 won a high title at a regional championship. He returned to our town as a hero, and a grand spectacle was mounted for him in the courthouse square. The party burned long into the night, and as the women and children wandered homeward and the evening became heavy and boastful, Mike offered to face any challenger. He bested thirteen, but the fourteenth was the wheel man at Watson’s Mill, and his work had imbued the sinews of his arms with more strength than any boxer’s training. Already worn and battered, Mike Callums could not beat him. Immediately, the air of the place changed. The cheers and shouts stopped, and the high title lost its worth. Mike’s fiery temper was snuffed out. That same night, the Rhodes Hotel burned, and Mike Callums died.

I decided that he, too, was inappropriate for the library ghost. He was an angry and tormented spirit. At the Rhodes Hotel (rebuilt in the 80‘s and now hosting lawyers’ offices and a sub-par Italian restaurant), he terrified visitors with cries, blows, and hurled furniture. I was afraid that he would be insufficiently subtle for a library. The fire that had killed him had also left him with certain grievous wounds that could not be cured in a bloodless body. His face would be more fitting for a horror movie or nightmare than a glimpse reflection in the windows behind the circulation desk.

But when almost every hope for a suitable candidate was lost, Amelia Bloom arrived in my office. Her blue eyes, perpetually half-filled with tears, blinked below her wide-brimmed hat. Amelia was born and raised in a large white house, set back aways from the main street of our town, and her family was well-respected. Her pleasant face ornamented Fourth of July Parades, and she sang sweetly and harmoniously in the choir. Every young man in town wanted to be her beau, and there was more mourning than celebrating when she announced her engagement to Jack Thompson, a handsome and clever calvary officer. Their days were happy and bright, but, alas, too short! Heartrending was the hour that he was called up to the great campaigns of the Civil Wars. From the moment of his departure, Amelia stood sentry at the window of her family’s house. But after two years, three years, her young face was lined with hopelessness. Passers-by saw her at the window and thought her a ghost, though she was not yet dead. After her passing, her demeanor and appearance changed little, except that she was somewhat more flighty and transparent. I was surprised that she was willing to surrender her watch and take up a place at the library, but even ghosts, I suppose, can get bored.

A more ideal candidate for the job I could not hope to find. Amelia was young and beautiful and therefore certain to be more popular and inspirational than the ghost of an old woman. She was intelligent and literate, but not a dusty professor that would sink into the books and forget that her chief role was to interact with the visitors. She died in a quiet but pure and pitiable way—heartbreak. She was not a crazy or savage ghost who would freeze the blood of steely-nerved adults, but she would give to the library the essential and delicately perceptible aura of something strange.

The city council immediately approved my recommendation, and on the day before the ribbon cutting for the Rosebud Street library, I introduced her to her new home. The books stood in neat rows, like soldiers in file. Amelia comments on this in a sad voice. I suggested that she could shuffle the books a little, put them in a slight disorder. It would be best if she rearranged them only subtly—put volume H after F, and M after T, so that her presence should be eerie and not overt. She should leave books open to random pages; visitors would find for themselves some significance in the revealed text and credit Amelia with clairvoyance. On stormy days, it would be her job to flicker the lights haphazardly. If a piece of paper were left on a table, she should decorate it with curious symbols and invented words; it was unimportant if these words have any sense behind them.

Amelia nodded her understanding. Happily, she didn’t ask why a ghost was required to do these things, because I didn’t have a ready response. It was the behavior demanded by visitors. It fit with the ghosts of film and literature and campfire stories. It is odd, I think, that they expect such conduct from ghosts, because in my experience ghosts are neither random or capricious. They stalk the same places for centuries and remain fixed on the same obsessions. There are some so regular that one can set his watch to their moans and wails.

In front of a crowd on Rosebud Street, the city council cut the red ribbon and turned the golden key. And when the visitors entered the library, they felt a cold finger run down their necks, and they felt the mists of silence wrap their ears and hearts. The memories of those warm, modern libraries were lost, and everyone recognized that the Rosebud Street library, properly provisioned with a ghost, was good and correct.

But Amelia was even more clever than I had anticipated. For several weeks, she fulfilled her role as a library ghost splendidly. She rearranged and opened the books at random, she flickered the lights, she scrawled words and symbols. But at night, when the visitors were away, Amelia read. Strange conduct for a ghost! They are not much for entertainment or self-improvement. She read everything that the Rosebud Street library offered on the Civil War. First, she read the basic histories, then the historical annals of our town, which held the records of enlisted and casualties —the list of ghosts. After she had finished these, she left requests that the library should send away to other institutions for further documents: maps, collected letters, battle plans, lists of burials at battlefield and prison camps. The librarians obeyed; perhaps they felt it their duty to serve a client, supernatural or otherwise, or perhaps they didn’t want to anger a ghost.

Then one day, when I entered the library, no cold finger ran along my neck, and sneezes and snoring and whispers dispelled the mists of silence. Amelia had left behind a letter addressed to me. In her refined antebellum hand, she wrote: “I’ve gone to Jack. He’s waiting on his tombstone in Virginia. I won’t let him wait at the window for all his life after death.”

What could I do? Sometimes, ghosts are not like books, whose stories are fixed to the page.

Written by timwestover

September 18th, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Posted in Short Stories

Tagged with

A Few Appalachian Snake Tales

Dwellers of the north Georgia mountains have to contend with an array of poisonous snakes, including rattlesnakes and copperheads, but their folktales contain even more perilous serpents…

The coach whip snake’s mechanism of killing is to fascinate its victims with its hypnotic powers and then tickle them to death. So say the optimists; tellers of darker tales say the coach whip snake operates more like its namesake. It attached itself to its victim by putting its head down the victim’s throat, which has the added advantage of silencing any cries for help, then lashing the victim with its thin, whip-like body, like a coach driver lashing his horses, until its victim expires.

The hoop snake overcomes a snake’s typical absence of vehicular speed by tucking its tail into its mouth, forming a wheel out of its body, and then rolling downhill at great speeds towards its victims.

Snakes have powerful poisons, too. Once, a man’s walking cane was bitten by a snake, and the cane swelled up so much from the venom that the man sold it to a saw mill, which made ten miles of railroad ties out of it. When the rain came and washed out the poison, the ties shrank back down, with disastrous consequences for the railroad tracks. But the enterprising man collected the shrunken splinters and sold them for toothpicks.

Another poisonous serpent bit a watermelon on the vine; the watermelon swelled and burst, causing a flood of watermelon juice through the valley. Only those who clung to the seeds survived.

The easiest way to get rid of snakes, of course, is to get a second snake of equal size and strength. The two snakes will get into a fight, and each will start to swallow the other, starting with the tail. And as each snake keeps swallowing, working its way forward — suddenly, they’ll both be gone! They’ve swallowed each other up.

Most of these snake tales come from A Treasury of Georgia Folklore, collected by Killion and Waller.

Written by timwestover

September 17th, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Posted in folklore

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Hungarians in Georgia

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In the 1880’s, the population of Georgia couldn’t be called diverse, especially in comparison to the proliferation of ethnic groups now found in Atlanta and environs. But the 1880’s did see the arrival of a Hungarian colony in Haralson county, which is west of Atlanta, halfway to the Alabama line, at the very edge of the Appalachians.

Haralson county entrepreneurs of the 1880’s wants to encourage Georgia’s native wine-making industry. They invited Hungarian immigrants (some arriving from Pennsylvania and other US locations, other emigrating directly from Georgia). I don’t know why Hungarian immigrants specifically were invited, but I suppose virtually any ethic group would have more experience with wine making than Georgia mountaineers.

Hungarian Vineyard in Haralson County, GA

The Hungarian colony established a Catholic church, built houses, worked vineyards, lived, and buried their dead in the Georgia clay. The swift end of the community, though, was Prohibition, which destroyed the local industry in an instant. The Hungarian residents scattered away, many to coal mining regions, where work could still be found.

Budapest Cemetery, Waco, GA

Budapest Cemetery, Waco, GA

The only traces of the Hungarian community that can be found now are a historical marker and the Budapest cemetery near the I-20 town of Waco, GA.

Hungarian Colony Historical Marker

Hungarian Colony Historical Marker

Because diversity and immigration are so much in the news today, and because opinions are so vitriolic among many “native” Georgians, I find these stories about earlier immigrants very interesting. In their day, the Hungarians were mistrusted by “native” Georgians (who had arrived after expelling the Cherokees in 1820s and 1830s) because of differences in language, religion, industry, and other customs. Prohibition was partially motivated by a desire to strike a blow at certain ethnic groups that had cultural history associated with alcohol — I’m sure many Georgians at the time were happy to see the “foreigners” leave. Now, I think few Georgians would be bothered by a wine-making Hungarian colony (in fact, Atlantans would probably take quaint drives out into the country to sample their products), but other ethnic groups make them rage and fume.

Someday, every human will have the freedom to live where he or she chooses. Ideally, immigration should be a formality — pay for a little paperwork, then pack your bags — for any citizen to move to any country. Fortunately, I think this is the trend of human history. Generation after generation, each tribe opens up a little bit.

Sources:

http://magyarnews.org/news.php?viewStory=379

http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~gahchs/stories/Budapest.html

http://www.dvhh.org/dta/usa/tallapoosa-budapest-GA/cemetery.htm

Written by timwestover

September 16th, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Posted in folklore

Drapetomania

Are your slaves rebellious or continually trying to escape? Can’t seem to get them to settle down and honor their masters and mistresses like the Fifth Commandment says? They may be suffering from drapetomania. Any slave that wants to escape must be mentally ill, and drapetomania’s one and only symptom in slaves is the desire to escape.

Drapetomania can also affect slave masters, too. In the master, the illness manifests as weakness of discipline, sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Thus, a good whipping solves two cases of drapetomania: the slave is cured by being whipped, and the master is cured by doing the whipping.

These are the sorts of things that happen when religion, politics, and science get together. The influences of one poison the others. Bad politics and bad interpretations of religion make for bad science, institutionalized racism, and another shameful item in 19th (and 20th and 21st) century race relations.

I’ve just finished Dunaway’s Slavery in the American Mountain South. If her conclusions can be trusted (I’ve already noted a few errors), then most slaves who went missing from their owners weren’t attempting to escape. More often, they were temporarily missing, to visit spouses, children, and other relatives from whom they’d be separated, or to go courting or participate in religious services. These slaves had every intention of returning — not, of course, because they enjoyed their captivity, but because permanently escaping would separate them from other relatives or expose them to retribution.

To the patrollers and other slave catchers, temporarily missing was just as bad as trying to permanently escape. But a little literacy could help slaves combat these patrollers. I’d thought that restrictions placed on education and literacy among slaves was meant to prevent slaves from communicating / coordinating and being exposed to notions of freedom (perhaps abolitionist tracts or the actual Bible). But there was another motive as well. The poor whites who staffed the slave-catching patrols were themselves illiterate; if they were presented with a leave pass or excuse letter by a slave, the patrollers often couldn’t tell if it was legitimate or a forgery. If slaves could easily generate these documents, escape (whether temporary or permanent) would have been easier. Many slaves did use forged papers (prepared by a literate slave or sympathetic white ally) to aid their escape.

Written by timwestover

September 3rd, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Posted in folklore

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