Drums, by James Boyd

As one begins this 1925 novel, one immediately becomes immersed in the world of the 1770s, just before the American Revolution. And one also becomes exposed to that world of more traditional literature that reigned until the 1920s. It was usually a world of rich description and little forward movement. Far different from what is soon to evolve, in which human beings drive the action, in which the story must move on.

Here, the initial effort is to create the world of rural North Carolina in the months before the Revolution. What concerns the people of that era? What are their lives like? What are their homes like, their fields, their clothes, their food? So much detail has been researched by this author to enable him to recreate that world of 150 years earlier. So much that it is clear the author wants his readers to experience that world—before he wants them to identify with his main character, the teenager Johnny Fraser, an insecure boy who respects his father and mother and is unaware as yet of the challengers of the adult world beyond the limits of the family farm.

But soon the novel will introduce both him and the reader to that adult world, beginning with rural North Carolina where the British administer that colony but where some of the local people are unhappy with the new taxes and their own lack of political control. And where tension rises as word reaches them about a rebellion in the North.

Much of the novel focuses on the youthful Johnny. His parents send him away from their farm to a local seaport, Edenton, where a preacher, Dr, Clapton, educates him in Latin and prepares him to be a true gentleman, not a farmer like themselves. There, Johnny meets more worldly people, and another kind of education begins. He meets and is impressed by Captain Tennant, the British officer who represents the King and administers the colony, although he is confused by Tennant’s sassy daughter Eve. He meets the worldly and friendly Captain Flood, who transports him to and from his family farm. He meets the distinguished Sir Nathaniel, who raises horses and organizes cockfights, and is impressed by him, as well as by the wealthy and pretentious Wylie Jones. He also meets the Merrillees, and is fascinated by, but confused by, their beautiful daughter Sally.

The character of Johnny ends up being elusive, much as was the political thinking of that era in North Carolina. Throughout the novel, in fact, Johnny is analyzing the faults of others, as well as doubting himself and his own faults. He also sees people’s good qualities, and he strives to adapt many of those for himself. But he is confused by the various attitudes he observes among his fellow North Carolinians when word first arrives of the unrest and then the military action in the North. For they reveal mixed feelings about whether one should be loyal to the King, or whether one should strive to be free of England.

Johnny has even greater difficulty, however, is in reacting on a more personal level to the attitudes shown by young women, particularly Eve Tennant and Sally Merrillee. Note, however, that there is no discussion here of the status or the freedom of their black slaves. Indeed, the care given here is that the dialects of the Negroes be as accurate as possible—along with the spoken language found in the rural South or in the formal clubs of London. Any discussion of the rights of slaves does not arise, not until nearly a century later, and then only in the North.

Meanwhile, when news of dissension does spread southward, Johnny’s family sends him to England, both to enable him to avoid making a choice in the potential conflict, as well as to preserve some family investments abroad. And that London world is richly drawn as well, from its social scene to its political scene, as well as from its pubs to its clubs. Once again one marvels at the brilliance with which that far different world is captured. For Boyd again captures the details, in order to bring that distant European reality to life—a sedate and peaceful life for Johnny, which is soon disrupted by battle scenes. These are aboard an American warship under the captaincy of John Paul Jones. For Johnny has at last chosen sides in the American rebellion. And, following a brief interval in Brest, France, Johnny rejoins Jones and his crew on a newly refurbished Bonhomme Richard, which encounters a British warship and overwhelms it in a famous battle.

Whereupon, a wounded Johnny returns to North Carolina to heal, and to witness the arrival of the Revolution in the houses and taverns back home. And we realize that this novel is not so much a portrait of Johnny Fraser as it is a portrait of the Revolution seen through the eyes of Johnny Fraser. He has been less the hero of our novel than the vehicle with which we watch a cross section of society experience this dramatic period in American history. The novel itself is not dramatic, even as the events themselves range from mundane on one level to truly dramatic on another. In fact, we do not even identify with Johnny, even as we see that world through his eyes. And, at the end, when we do see in him a final maturity, there is also an open-ended conclusion about how his life will continue, especially a love life that has until now been unfulfilled.

This novel has been called “the best novel of the American Revolution ever written.” And I would not argue. Well, I loved the smaller scale April Morning by Hoard Fast, but not least because it was about the Battle of Concord and Lexington, near where I grew up. And, in fact, to support Drums’ pedigree is a later decision by Scribner’s to bring out a special edition with illustrations by N. C. Wyeth.

The title, Drums, refers to the drums of war. Before he leaves for England, a youthful Johnny encounters an old Indian who explains that the drumming he hears is that of nearby Indians who have heard reports of rebellion in the colony, and their reaction to the rumors is to send out a message, as they have long done when their own tribes prepare for battle. Boyd also recalls this incident in the last lines of the novel, when Johnny, hailing a distant soldier, “raised his stiff arm in the Indians salutation….[and] the distant figure lifted a long black rifle against the sky.” It is a final touch of the artistry that went into this novel. (March, 2019)

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

This 2014 work is an unusual novel, almost not a novel, just a searching portrait, though one beautifully crafted. But then it introduces its story, the story of the Swain family, and turns itself into a still unique but marvelous novel, marvelous because, not least, it makes a beautiful connection between life and literature.

“We are our stories,” the books narrator Ruth Swain announces at the beginning. “We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only now live in the telling.” Ruth is a bedridden teenager trying to bring her father back to life through his books. And she refers to many of his 3,958 books as she does this. “I’ve read all the usuals, Austen, Bronte, Eliot, Hardy, but Dickens is like this different country where the people are brighter, more vivid, more comic, more tragic, and in their company you feel the world is richer, more fantastic than you imagined. But right now I’m reading RLS. He’s my new favorite. I like writers who were sick.” And Robert Louis Stevenson was, like her, an invalid.

Faha, the town in Ireland where Ruth lives, lies on the banks of the Shannon, another character in her story—not least because it is a source of salmon. And fishing, a pastime of her grandfather, was passed on to her through her father, Virgil Swain. Indeed, with her memory of her father highlighted by his effort to be a poet, she suggests a poem created is like a fish caught. “A poem is a precarious thing,” she writes, “It is almost never landed clean and whole in one go. Virgil had a phrase, one bite, that’s all. But he wouldn’t let it go, and as poetry is basically where seeing meets sound, he said the phrase aloud…and found in repetition was solace of a kind.”

But before telling that story, she must tell how her English family moved to Ireland, about the town of Faha, the life of a farming community, the details of the house they lived in, and then about Virgil’s courtship of her mother Mary, and the birth of herself and her twin brother Aeney. And, finally, about the Swain family curse, the Philosophy of Impossible Standard, that one must always strive for perfection, even if it will never be attained.

We are now at the halfway point of the novel—and nothing has happened. There is no story. All is past. All is mood. And not just a literary mood, but the long Irish failure through history, the Swain family failures, and now the failure of Virgil to cultivate his farm, with its rocky terrain, and the constant rain that blocks out an invigorating sun. And yet, the reader perseveres, because the telling, the language, has been beautiful. And as Ruth finally warns us: “This, Dear Reader, is a river narrative. My chosen style is The Meander.” And later: “I’m not writing a book, I’m writing a river.”

We persevere because we are entertained by Ruth’s astringent style, such as describing her grandfather’s marital status in Ireland. He has sired three daughters, and not yet his son Virgil, and has becomes bitter toward his wife. “But in those days once you were wedded you were in Holy Deadlock, and in Ireland the priests had decided that once a man entered a woman there was No Way Out. The vagina was this deadly mysterious wrestler that could get you in a headlock, well, metaphorically-speaking, and then, boys, you were rightly stuck. That Will Teach You, was Number One sermon at the time. Number Two was Offer It Up.”

What Ruth believes in, and author Williams believes in, is books and literature. This novel is filled with the books that Virgil has bought and read, and that his daughter Ruth wishes to read to understand him—and to recreate him for us. This dedication becomes truly real when she refers to the title, edition, and publisher of each book she cites. But more significant is that she recalls certain passages that apply to her own life or to that of her family.

Thus, she felt a humming when her father read to her. “He just made this low thrum. John Banville would know the word for it, I don’t. I only know the feeling, and that was comforting. I lay in his lap and he read and we sailed off elsewhere. Dad and I went up the Mississippi, to Yoknapatawpha County, through the thick yellow fog that hung over the Thames or in through those dense steamy banana plantations all the way to Macondo.”

But there are tart references also. Following “Amen to him,” on the death of a despised ancestor, she suggests a counter-balancing “Awomen.” Or: “Look at Edith Wharton, she’s Henry James in a dress.” And then there are human insights, like when Virgil returns from his honeymoon to move in with his wife’s family: “Dad moved in with the baffled deepsea shyness of a character just arriving in a story already underway.” Or: “In a single moment the two of them shared a look that said those things in silent mother-daughter language, that would take a hundred books and more years to tell.” Or: “We tell stories to heal the pain of living.” And: “The fact is grief doesn’t know we invented time. Grief has its own tide and comes and goes in waves.”

These final lines come toward the end, when Ruth concentrates on Virgil, whose passion for reading has led him to pursuing poetry. But he is up against the Impossible Standard. Will he break the family curse, and allow himself to succeed? The final pages become truly beautiful, as Ruth imagines her father alive in the afterlife of her own book, this story she is telling.

“If I’m alive this is my book, and my father lives now in the afterlife that is a book….And my book will be a river…and be called History of the Rain, so that his book did not and does not perish, and you will know my book exists because of him…You will know that I have found him in his books, in the covers his hands held, in the pages they turned, in the paper and the print, but also in the worlds those books contained, where now I have been and you have too. You will know the story goes from the past to the present and into the future, and like a river flows.”

They cannot avoid the river Shannon that flows along the banks of the Swain’s farm, nor the rain that falls continually in Ireland. From clouds to rain to the river and back into the clouds. It is a natural cycle, not unlike the literary cycle from life to books to reading and then back to another’s life. Or: from life to death to eternity, and then back to living again through one’s books that survive. Ruth herself suggests this when she writes of “a river flowing ever onward between writers,” as she seeks to recreate her father’s life in order to understand him, and then present him to us. (August, 2017)

The Keepers of the House, by Shirley Ann Grau

This is another novel that has sat on my shelves for a while. Grau was recognized a half century ago as an important writer, but has lately been forgotten. After a recent note revived my interest in this 1964 novel, I opened its covers. And was immediately enthralled.

It brought back memories of Faulkner. The style was different, much smoother, but it was concerned with family, with generations and ancestors, and with the culture of the South.

This is the story of the Howland family. We learn early on that their history is being recalled by Abigail, and she says that it is about her grandfather, about Margaret, and about herself. (It is also about their life in the changing farmhouse of the title.)

The work begins as a series of portraits, complete in themselves. We read, first, of grandfather William’s courtship, marriage, and widowhood, then of the beautifully portrayed family celebration of the marriage of his daughter Abigail, and then of his sojourn into the swamp to win a bet that he can find an illegal still. He journeys in a boat, and it is a particularly evocative portrayal of man confronting nature, reminiscent of Faulkner.

On this journey, William encounters Margaret, a poor black woman, and we then read of her lonely upbringing before and after her own grandmother dies. Again, there is a moving portrait, this time of her family’s encounter with death. This is followed by additional sensitive writing, as Margaret encounters the plant life around her, as well as the insect and animal life. Finally, she meets Howland and goes to work for him. She is seventeen, and we are unprepared for what happens next. But are we unprepared because Grau was reluctant to write about the sex that soon looms between them, or because writers wrote about this less often in the sixties?

Grau then skips a generation, and the longest narrative is given to Abigail, the granddaughter of Howland, a Howland who has already impregnated Margaret five times. Three generations are joined, and we are up to the present. But the next 30 to 40 pages are disappointing. Abigail has no internal life and develops no relationships. Not with her grandfather, not with Margaret, not with Margaret’s children, not with Nature. Her mother, a shadowy figure, abruptly dies off stage. Abigail has a crush on a high school boy, but he never appears. There is no story, only anecdote, no connections, no interest, until Abigail reaches college and both loses her virginity and meets her future husband. (Is it irony, or just planned coincidence, that her own marriage will encounter the same fate as that of her mother?)

However, as the anecdotal approach continues, we sense, between the lines, that her new husband John’s political ambition and his attitude toward Negroes may lead to marital tension. One speculates that the novel’s earlier coverage of family events had interest because they featured only the highlights of those events, and, as related by Abigail, were given a certain perspective. Whereas, the routine of Abigail bearing children, supporting her husband, and running a home, are simply sequential events, and lack any perspective, much less any tension.

Emotion and perspective finally do enter, however, with two deaths. First, that of Grandfather Howland, and then of Margaret. In each case, it is how the family reacts rather than any description of the death or the service to follow. This is particularly true in the case of Margaret, as we anticipate that the South’s attitude toward Negroes may at last become significant.

And finally, the chickens do come home to roost—with two bits of melodrama that really do not fit the tone of the novel. The first concerns the town’s revenge on the dead Howland for having married a Negro woman. And the second is his daughter Abigail’s revenge on the town. Both scenes are well drawn, but one senses the author wanting to conclude her novel with an emotional punch. I even wondered if she had planned those scenes, especially the first, from the beginning. But I decided not, or hoped not, for it would make the rest too calculated.

To sum up, this begins as a beautifully written novel, a beautifully felt novel whose perspective fades when Howland’s daughter, Abigail, takes over as narrator of her own story. Then it becomes a routinely plotted young woman’s life, until the past catches up with the present—a catching up that I think is too arbitrary. And which ends up betraying the hand of the author, who uses an election “scandal” to instigate this tale of retribution.

As I recall, I became aware of Grau following reviews of her previous novel, The House on Coliseum Street, which is about a New Orleans family. I purchased this book as a remainder, but cannot recall whether I did so because it had won the Pulitzer Prize. (I have to believe it won, in part, because of its racial theme. For that committee likes novels that capture a bit of the American scene.)

So reading this work has been a rewarding literary experience, and acquainted me with a truly literate American author. But, like many, I would also label her as a Southern writer, even though she derides that label. One has to, I believe, because she captures so well the Southern culture.

Which was her mission here as a novelist. To portray through one Southern family the complications that arise from whites and Negroes being so tied together, and yet so separate. It is a social contradiction that easily disrupts, as here, the family life of both races. But for me, the author’s mission interferes with her novel’s literary value. Which ends up being driven more by plot, the election scandal and the barn-burning scene, than by character.

Yes, Abigail is a strong character at the end, but in the final scene, with her laughter and her crying, the author seems to lose control over her. Or has Abigail been undone by her own actions? Has she become as vengeful, as corrupted, as the prejudiced townspeople around her?

Reading more Grau would be interesting, but her work is not at the top of my list. (November, 2014)