Working Like a Duck


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You know that old saying about how a duck works — calm and still in the visible part, but paddling like heck down below? Well, that’s how I’ve been the last couple of weeks. I’ve been quiet on this blog, on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, because I’ve been focusing on a couple of projects that have taken a lot of time and concentration.

There’s the next book, which is rounding the turn toward home at last, and I’m very excited about that. You hit a moment when things start coming together, when the plot threads that you put down months ago in earlier chapters finally start tying up, and it’s an exciting passage that makes all the groaning of earlier months feel worthwhile. Still some distance to travel, but the finish line is in view.

I’ve also been working on my presentation for the Ozarks Cultural Symposium, which is next week in West Plains. I was honored this year to be asked to be the keynote speaker. I’m hoping to live up to that honor with a talk that will also draw together a lot of the threads of thought that I have about the Ozarks, its image, and its representation in creative culture.

If you’re near the West Plains area, you should definitely come to this symposium! It’s put on every year by the branch campus of Missouri State University there, and they always draw a wonderfully diverse group of presenters from Missouri, Arkansas, and elsewhere. It’s interdisciplinary and includes creative presenters (poetry, music, fiction, etc.) as well as scholarly ones.

M.M. Bennetts Finalist Review and Interview – 9


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Princes Doom

My tour of the M.M. Bennetts Award finalists nears its completion with the shortlisted finalists. First up, David Blixt’s The Prince’s Doom. 

Imagine a world in which the 14th-century historical figures of Italy — the Della Scala family of Verona, the Doge of Venice, Petrarch, the family of Dante Alighieri, the Carrara family of Padua — interacted and lived alongside the characters of Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, Katherine and Petruchio, the Merchant of Venice, and so forth. It’s a great premise: after all, Shakespeare did use incidents from Italian history for some of his plays, and historical characters pop up in them from time to time. So why not have them coexist in a fictional universe of their own?

That’s the premise of The Prince’s Doom, and I gather of the other books in David Blixt’s “Star-Cross’d” series, of which this novel is the fourth. The book is an enjoyable literary mash-up of characters we’ve seen before, historical figures we may have heard about but known little of, and entirely new fictional characters brought in as well.

The central character is Pietro Alaghieri (to use the novel’s spelling), the heir to Dante and a knight of Verona. He has been given the task of overseeing the upbringing of Francesco (“Cesco”) Della Scala, the heir to the ambitious and formidable Cangrande Della Scala, Verona’s ruler. Cesco is brilliant, unstable, and vastly promising, so Pietro’s task is not just the obligation of a knight to his ruler, but a personal and moral challenge. Pietro is a complex, sympathetic character, and following the turns of his mind as he tries to understand and curb Cesco’s extravagant behavior makes for great reading.

I would probably have been able to follow the complicated plot of this novel better if I had read the earlier books in the series. These novels are real doorstoppers, with The Prince’s Doom coming in at just under 700 pages, so they’re the kind of books a person can burrow into and enjoy a huge cast of characters, lots of action, and an exotic setting depicted with great care. In addition to being an author, Blixt is a theatre professional known for his skill at the staging of theatrical swordfights, so as you can imagine there are plenty of rip-roaring fight scenes here to go along with the court intrigue and intricate plotting. The Shakespearean characters add a dash of familiar unfamiliarity to the story, and it’s enjoyable to see them reinvented in the mind of another.

You can learn more about David Blixt and his work on his website or his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter.

David Blixt

SW: The Prince’s Doom is nearly 700 pages with an enormous cast of characters. Was it daunting for you to undertake such an ambitious project?

DB: More daunting in hindsight. This is the fourth novel in the series, and the cast and size both grew naturally from the previous books. I had a lot to accomplish in this one, and at the same time wanted the story to have room to develop naturally. That was aided by the visit I made to Verona last year – I was allowed to see places I’d never visited before, and several spots became settings for scenes I hadn’t even imagined yet. The places determined the action, which allowed the city to be as much a character in the story as the people.

SW: I’m guessing that many of us know fourteenth-century Italy mainly through its literary representations. Your novel engages with the actual historical situation of the time, as well as bringing in figures we know from literature. How did you balance the fictional and the historical in the book? Were there particular rules you set for yourself on how much liberty you could take with actual people and events?

DB: My rule of thumb is I cannot contradict the historical record. That being said, I’m lucky there’s a lot of missing data from this period. I am allowed to fill in the gaps, and do so either with literary characters or historical ones I’ve appropriated. When possible, I like to blend the historical figures with the literary ones – Cesco is an example of that, being both historical and literary at once.

As far as liberty, I’m using the historical backdrop to tell my story. I won’t contradict history (at least, not intentionally), but why people act the way they do is open to me. Motives matter a great deal. Part of my great joy in writing historical fiction is the creative detective work of figuring out why one of my characters would have done this or that in the historical record. Sometimes the actions fit perfectly with the characters I’ve crafted. Sometimes they don’t, and those are the fun times, when I have to weave new threads and hatch new plots – political, familial, martial – to explain a seeming incongruity. It has the added benefit of making all my characters more complex.

SW: I’m particularly curious about the characters from Shakespeare that come in and out of the book. Did you find it advantageous having characters with what we might call a “past history” as characters, or did their prior characterization in Shakespeare act as a limitation on what you could do with them?

DB: Mostly advantageous, though an occasional trouble was wanting to resolve their issues, and knowing that cannot happen. At this point in the series, I’ve hit about a third of Shakespeare’s Italian plays – Shrew and Merchant are behind us, Much Ado, 2 Gents, and R&J are ahead of us. So some characters have their histories behind them, but for most their famous scenes are yet to come. So, just as I can’t contradict history, I cannot contradict Shakespeare. I very much wanted to end the Capulet/Montague feud – I love Mari and Antony, and want them to stop their nonsense. Yet as the play is still years in the future, the feud must continue to exist. But for Tybalt, Romeo, Friar Lawrence, Juliet, the Nurse, it was just pure fun to give them their early years. And of course Mercutio, whose series this is.

SW: One of the focal characters is Francesco della Scala, known as “Cesco” in the book. How much is known about the actual individual? What attracted you to him as a character?

DB: I came at him backwards. When I created the series, it started with the feud from Shakespeare. Then I delved into the history of Verona, and was astonished by Cangrande. He’s a figure deserving his own books, and so I gave them to him. Yet he reminded me of someone, too. Shakespeare’s wildest spirit, Mercutio, who is referred to in R&J as the Prince’s “kinsman” and “near ally”. So when I discovered Cangrande had a bastard son, one whose life was mostly unknown, I decided to merge them. That decision has dominated fifteen years of my life, and will continue on for some time.

As for the historical Cesco, his marriage is factual. The rest is me, a la Shakespeare.

SW: Reading The Prince’s Doom, I felt a real fascination with the city of Verona. Can you tell us a bit about Verona? What do you find interesting about that location?

DB: One of my favorite things about Verona is that it is a living city. Whereas all the ruins in Rome are only tourist attractions, the historical sites in Verona are still in use today. There are operas and concerts in the Roman arena, Cangrande’s palace is city hall, his suite of rooms the residence of the Chief of Police. Verona is not a monument to the past, but has incorporated its past into its present. And the wine in the region is marvelous.

SW: What’s next on your writing agenda?

DB: Talk about daunting. I am skimming the surface of four different novels, seeing which one takes hold. I have to edit the next volume in my series on the Roman-Jewish wars, WAIL OF THE FALLEN. I’m dabbling in an Elizabethan noir. I have a book about Hell, another about the supernatural, and I’ve just started research for the next Will & Kit book. I want all of those out of the way before I dive back into Cesco’s world. Yet I have to admit, there’s an itch, a longing, to do it now, this minute. The Star-Cross’d series is where my heart resides. These are the stories I most want to tell, and count myself lucky that I’m allowed to do so.

Favorite Ozarks People – 9


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Chief Wana Dubie

Chief Wana Dubie

I’ve never met Chief Wana Dubie, born Joseph Bickell, but I appreciate his type. The chief first caught my attention in a feature story in the Linn Unterrified Democrat in the 1990s, when he seceded from the United States and declared his property to be a reservation of the Santimaw Indian tribe, which no one had ever heard of. As you can guess from his adopted name, he is a marijuana legalization activist who served five years at Algoa for his stance, having been busted after his secession for growing 135 plants in his front yard.

The Ozarks have long been home to outcasts and eccentrics of every variety, and that’s part of what makes it such an interesting place. Wana Dubie has even had a movie made about his “war” with the Establishment, and has run for office several times, including president in 1992, Missouri House of Representatives in 2006 (receiving 556 votes, for 3rd place), and currently U.S. Senate. With a name like his, you can understand why he is playing up the “Dubie vs. Blunt” aspect of this year’s campaign. The chief maintains a Facebook page where he reports that he recently smoked his first legal marijuana, on Pike’s Peak in Colorado. The experience was not completely satisfactory; as he writes, “Pot may be legal in Colorado, but there are no hippies. It’s business as usual at the marijuana shops, big business. They were quite busy with people from all walks of life. Old people, white people, rich people and others. But you didn’t see any hippies like me. I saw only one tie dye shirt the whole time I was there!”

Odd characters may seem like the weeds in our tidy garden of life, but as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “What would the world be, once bereft / of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

Favorite Ozarks Books – 6


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WMH cover

It doesn’t feel right to classify this book as a “favorite,” as its subject is so horrifying and its treatment is so detailed that, frankly, it’s not an easy read. But White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 is definitely a book to be read and reckoned with.

The book draws on copious original sources — testimony, newspaper accounts, witness reports, court records, and more — to detail the circumstances and aftermath of lynchings in the Missouri towns of Pierce City, Joplin, and Springfield, and the Arkansas town of Harrison, to portray the life and racial situation of the time. It’s a grisly picture, one from which author Kimberly Harper does not flinch.

The story repeats itself in town after town: a crime that excites racial antagonism, public officials who are either indifferent or sympathetic to the mob, a lynching in the town square and the subsequent intimidation of the rest of the black population. In reading these accounts, what struck me was the pervading and casual racism of the time. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because I remember the Ozarks of my youth, seventy years later, as a place where racist attitudes were openly and casually expressed.

When I was young, I took the whiteness of the Ozarks for granted. It was simply a condition of the locale. But after reading White Man’s Heaven, I realize that the racial homogeneity of the Ozarks was not a natural condition, but an enforced one, in which entire towns were depopulated of their African-American population, often through violent means. The word “pogrom” comes to mind.

This book is not one to be read for pleasure, but it’s a valuable read. It was published by the University of Arkansas Press, but for some reason when I do a search on the UAP website, it comes up “not found.” It’s available elsewhere, though.

M.M. Bennetts Finalist Review and Interview – 8


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Queens Dwarf

My next installment in the parade of M.M. Bennetts Award finalists is The Queen’s Dwarf by Ella March Chase. The Queen’s Dwarf takes place in early 17th Century England, in the court of Charles I. The intrigue of the court focuses on Charles’ marriage to Henrietta-Maria of France, and the efforts of George Villiers (the duke of Buckingham) to maintain his power at court. Buckingham employs a dwarf, Jeffrey Hudson, to spy on the queen for him, but Jeffrey quickly becomes sympathetic to the queen instead.

This book was a very enjoyable read, with a large cast of characters from the lowest to the highest ranks of society. The “queen’s dwarf” of the title is based on an actual historical figure, Jeffrey Hudson, who as “Lord Minimus” was considered one of the wonders of the age and engaged in an amazing life of intrigue and adventure. Many of the incidents of the book are likewise based on incidents from the life of the real Jeffrey Hudson.

I was happy to see Hudson portrayed with sympathy and nuance as he deals with the condescension, disregard, and prejudice of those around him and tries to find the right course of action in a world filled with double-dealing. Chase captures the sensibilities of the era well, and there’s lots of action to keep the plot moving. I’ll be the first to admit that the ins and outs of the English court are not a subject that I usually find interesting; I can never keep all those dukes, earls, and whatnot straight. But this book held my interest despite my predilections. And if you are a British royalty buff, this one will fascinate you!

Here’s Ella March Chase’s website, Goodreads page, Facebook page, and a purchase link.

Ella March Chase

Ella March Chase

SW: First, congratulations on The Queen’s Dwarf! I’m wondering how you became interested in the court intrigues of this era. Have they been an interest of yours for a long time?

EMC: I fell in love with The Three Musketeers as a teenager and my love of that era began then. I also fell in love with The Three Musketeers– in fact, I’ve had King Charles Cavalier Spaniels named Aramis and D’Artagnan.  The Stuart era has always fascinated me.  There is something so romantic about the time period.  The most amazing fact I discovered was that the incident featured in the Dumas tale, in which Queen Anne’s diamond studs are stolen from the duke of Buckingham really happened!  The woman who stole the diamonds from the duke is featured in The Queen’s Dwarf.  Lucy Hay, the Countess of Carlisle was the inspiration for Milady de Winter.

SW: I was surprised to read in your afterword about how many of the characters in the book are actual historical figures. How much is known about the real Jeffrey Hudson?

EMC: A fair amount since he was so beloved by the queen.  His performances in masques and many incidents from his life at court have been recorded.  He was immortalized in poetry, plays and diaries kept during that time.  He was even captured by pirates twice and was exiled for killing a man in a duel.  Quite an amazing life!

SW: To a modern reader, the idea of having a “menagerie” of human beings around for amusement seems quite bizarre. But I gather that this was a fairly common practice. What was the role of this sort of group in a royal household?

EMC: It was common practice to employ dwarves as royal jesters– their role was to entertain their mistresses or masters. As Henrietta Maria’s fool, Jeffrey would have served in that capacity.  He would also perform in the elaborate masques the queen adored.  He once performed as a devil’s imp, driving a chariot drawn by two spaniels.  Jeffrey, and his best friend, giant Will Evans, often played roles opposite each other.  Jeffrey also would have had “the privilege of the coat”, liberties afforded a court fool.  The fool was allowed to speak of things no one else dared to in front of the monarch.  It was a position of rare emotional intimacy, between Jeffrey and the queen.  He would see her in her most vulnerable moments and be her confidant.

SW: Although many of your characters are actual figures, many others are not. How did you balance the need to stick to history with the need to create an original story?

EMC: While I try to stick close to history, and be as true to characters that actually lived as possible, my books are fiction. Creating characters to flesh the story out and move the story forward was great fun. What I found remarkable about The Queen’s Dwarf was that the most fantastical characters in the book were real.  Giant Will Evans, tiny Jeffrey, the duke of Buckingham and Lucy Hay– they seemed far more fictional than the characters I added.  I do try to blend my creations into the story so carefully that they’re hard to detect.

SW: George Villiers, the duke of Buckingham, figures prominently in this novel. What do you find interesting about this character?

EMC: What fascinated me most about Buckingham was his rise from a nobody, on the fringes of court, to the most powerful man in England, save the king. Buckingham fascinates me.  He bewitched two kings.  Rose to unimaginable heights.  Despite some despicable behavior, and acts of incompetence, he inspired great loyalty and love in his wife and King Charles.  History is populated by women who rose to great power because of their physical beauty.  Buckingham is their mirror image.  He was groomed to become King James’s favorite, but those behind his rise expected him to remain their puppet.  Instead, he seized power for himself– all because he had a beautiful face and a well-turned leg.

SW: Like many American readers, I suspect, my knowledge of British royal history is pretty thin. Do you keep an idea of your envisioned audience’s knowledge level in your mind as you write? And is there a need to “educate” your readers as you go, or do you have to trust them to figure out the history as they read?

EMC: I try to set the stage, build the framework so that people without a wide knowledge of the time period are able to follow the history. I hope to make it intriguing enough that they will want to learn more about the Stuart world. I also want to include tidbits fans of the Stuart-era will find new and exciting.

SW: What’s next for you?

EMC: I’m currently working on getting my backlist titles up as e-books.  I’m also in the middle of a novel set in Paris during World War II.

Thank you so much for this chance to talk about Jeffrey and congratulations on your own work!



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It was a good night for meteors, not great, but good enough. I saw ten in about thirty minutes’ time, and this was in the early hours between four and four-thirty. If I had gotten up earlier, conditions would have been better. By four-thirty there was a faint light in the sky and enough haze that I called it quits.

You can’t really “look” for meteors. You can only point yourself in a general direction and wait. Watching meteors is a process of emptying, of eliminating preconceptions, and opening up to whatever comes. In those respects, it’s a very satisfying activity.

I wasn’t sure if I was pointed in the right direction, but my yard has big trees in several directions and a neighbor’s security light in another, so I faced the only good sky I had available. A couple of minutes went by, with oh-shoot-I-missed-it running through my mind. Then one meteor, a little one, and my eyes adjusted. I fetched a lawn chair. Two more, the first one a real biggie. Then two more! I settled in for a good show.

Four or five minutes passed. As I waited, I became more aware. Crickets. The distant hum of traffic on I-70. A faraway dove? Maybe. A meteor! No, a jet plane, red light blinking. Another plane . . . no, this time a satellite, steady and white, moving swiftly across the dome of the sky.

Then three more meteors in quick succession, and by “quick” here I mean one a minute. We don’t think of that as quick in our daily life, but once you’ve adjusted your pace of thinking, a minute seems pretty rapid. I was reminded that meteors don’t all go in the same direction, and sometimes you only see them out of the corner of your eye.

It’s a refreshing experience to be quiet, to simply wait, to be happy with whatever comes. Sometimes the attitude of open non-expectation is the most creative of all.

The New Park


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Word comes through the news that the Missouri State Park system is creating a new park on the site of the former Camp Zoe. This is about 90 percent welcome news.

First, the good-news part. A tract of this size, this close to the Current River, is almost impossible to find. Had it been sold to a private developer, it would likely have been parceled out into speculative five-acre lots with the promise of future improvements that would likely not have occurred. Almost every county in the Ozarks has one of those would-be vacation paradises sitting undeveloped and abandoned, with a few one-acre, two-acre, or five-acre lots bought and built and the rest waiting for the inevitable tax sale. Or, it would have been developed into an exclusive private preserve, sealed off from public enjoyment for decades to come.

In addition, Sinking Creek has become one of Missouri’s few naturalized trout streams, and the odds of that creek remaining a favorable habitat for trout dramatically improve with a portion of it under state control and oversight. I don’t expect the park system to try to develop it for trout fishing, since there are already plenty of good trout parks in the state, but my point is that there will be a much closer watch on the total ecosystem in that area, which has already suffered plenty of environmental insults in the past.

Echo Bluff at the former Camp Zoe

Echo Bluff at the former Camp Zoe

Finally, there’s the economic benefit. Shannon County is a depressed area by any measure, and even the simple boost of the massive construction project alone will provide a big one-time jolt to the local economy. The ongoing benefits are impossible to measure, but they will be positive. Ask any local resident who lives near Sam A. Baker State Park, Cuivre River State Park, or Elephant Rocks State Park whether they’re glad to have them nearby. The local legislator quoted in the recent Salem News article about the park, who called it a “threat” to the “rights and the money of the taxpayers,” was spouting politicized nonsense of a special order.

But there are concerns as well. First, I’d have to say that the economic benefits are being oversold, as we also see in the Salem News article. The magical “multiplier effect” of economic benefits is a common trope of those is the public development biz, but I’ve never seen it touted at the laughable, nonsensical ratio of 26:1 before. That’s just nonsense. Leland and Crystal Payton, in their admirable book Damming the Osage, describe the sad history of economic wishful thinking as it applied to the creation of Truman Reservoir. This project doesn’t involve the kind of large-scale destruction that one did, of course, but it’s worth keeping in mind that forecasts of economic paradise are always baloney.

I’m also mildly concerned about all the talk of this park being described as appealing to the “upscale market” and other such code words for “people who spend more money than the usual state park visitor.” It’s true that state parks have to pay something back to the government for their maintenance and upkeep, but let’s not forget that a park system is a public trust, not a profit-making enterprise. A state park that chases too much after the luxury clientele that is better served by a private resort has forgotten its purpose for existence — to provide recreation for all the people, not just those who can afford it. Let’s hope the managers of this new park keep that mission in mind.

Sinking Creek in the former Camp Zoe

Sinking Creek in the former Camp Zoe

M.M. Bennetts Finalist Review and Interview – 7


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Red Hill Cover

I was unable to complete the interview for the next book by a finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award, but here’s the review. The book is The Red Hill, by David Penny. This book was a revelation to me for several reasons.

The setting is fifteenth-century Moorish Spain, in the final years before the fall of the last parcels of Islamic Spain. Thomas Berrington, an Englishman serving as physician to the Sultan of Granada (or Gharnatah as Penny spells it, following the Moorish pronunciations that would have been in use at the time), finds himself with an unexpected task – finding out who has been committing a series of gruesome murders within the walls of the Alhambra itself.

I rarely read mysteries these days, so it was a treat for me to get back into the pleasures of mystery reading – watching for clues, trying to outthink the protagonist, all the while enjoying the benefits of characterization and setting. In this book, the main character is richly characterized, with a range of secondary characters who provide good balance to his strengths and weaknesses. There’s a host of potential suspects, and the setting is rich in detail.

Several things set this book apart for me. One was the variety of characters. I have read that Moorish Spain was a remarkably diverse location, and Penny takes full advantage of that diversity, populating the novel with a wide range of characters. Of particular interest is Thomas’s partner in detection, a palace eunuch named Jorge. Penny avoids the cliché of medieval historical fiction and makes Jorge an interesting, complicated character, rather than a creature defined by his difference. The book also effectively conveys the reality of life in an absolute monarchy, where the whim of the Sultan carries the power of life and death.

The Red Hill takes a few liberties with the actual history of the era, which Penny carefully points out in his afterword. But in terms of capturing the feel of a time and place, the book does a marvelous job of conjuring up the last days of Islamic Spain, with a dandy murder mystery as the driving force of the plot.

You can learn more about David Penny on his website and order the book here.

David Penny

David Penny

On Confederates and Confederate Symbols


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The current controversy over Confederate markers and symbols has come to Columbia, in the form of the “Confederate rock” which sat in the center of the University of Missouri campus when I was an undergraduate, was quietly and unceremoniously whisked out of sight during an earlier period of racial turmoil, and wound up a few years later on the lawn of the Boone County Courthouse. Now a petition is circulating to have the rock removed.

I completely support the idea of removing the Confederate battle flag from state monuments and public areas; the flag was appropriated by racist groups in the 1950s and 1960s to become an unmistakable symbol of hatred and intimidation. (For proof, check out this image of the flag’s use during the 1957 Arkansas desegregation battle.) But the monuments and other commemorations present a more complicated issue.

Descendants of Confederate veterans defend the monuments, statues, and other such emblems as non-racist commemorations of their ancestors’ valor and sacrifice. And there is no doubt that many thousands of soldiers for the Confederacy fought for their side while having little or no sympathy for the institution of slavery. But even so, the cause of the war was slavery. The claim of “states’ rights” being the cause of the war is unpersuasive; if anything, the Southern states were angered by states in the Northeast exercising their rights by refusing to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Any doubt that slavery was not the principal cause of the war can be dispelled by reading Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone” speech, considered to be the “Confederate Declaration of Independence.”

So how to commemorate brave men who fought for an evil cause? Especially in states that participated in the rebellion? The plaque on the Confederate Rock seems bland enough: “To honor the valor and patriotism of Confederate veterans of Boone County.” But what’s patriotic about declaring war on your own country? Especially when the cause of that rebellion was the stated desire to maintain millions of Americans in subjugation? Is this something to be honored or embarrassed about?

The post-Civil War years in Missouri were characterized in Aaron Astor’s book Rebels on the Border as a time of “retroactive secession,” in which the state’s mixed association with the Confederacy was reinterpreted to reinforce ideas of white supremacy and white cultural superiority that had been unexamined on both sides during the war itself, but which then came under attack because of rising black political assertiveness. The erection of monuments does not happen free of a political context, and those monuments carry that stain today.

Confederate monuments are not like other war memorials, which commemorate occasions of national solidarity and effort. On battlefields and in cemeteries, the monuments appropriately recognize human sacrifice and bravery; on the courthouse lawn, they inappropriately fix a time of national agony as something uncomplicatedly worthy of honor. The rock belongs in a cemetery, not a place of public business.

Best Review Ever


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I try to keep my posts on this blog focused on things other than book promotion — that’s really not the point of the blog, which is more focused on offering thoughts and commentary. But once in a while I have to celebrate something about one of my books! And today is one of those days.

Jim Bencivenga, retired book critic for the Christian Science Monitor, recently wrote a review of This Old World that has me simultaneously blushing and making a resolution to work harder on the next book so that it lives up to the expectations it generates. I am grateful beyond words for this review and will do everything in my power to make the next book worthy of this praise.

Here’s a link to the original posting, and here’s the review:

“Since I did not read its predecessor, I came to This Old World, by Steve Wiegenstein, only on the terms inside its covers.

“It is a heart rendering tale in a time of personal and national trauma. Such lasting wounds. Such healed wounds. For Wiegenstein, the war that divided a nation is but background. The hopes and anguish of common people, and more pointedly aspiring women, dominate this book. Utopian hopes, racial hopes, and especially gender hopes play out. The cadenced voice, the agricultural pace of the characters’ colloquial, regional dialog, is the blood flowing through the veins of the narrative.

“The Civil War and the Ozark mountains hold near mythic status in the American experience. Wiegenstein populates these myths with flesh and blood characters literally or psychologically bathed in the blood of battle. Home, family, children – identity – are overwhelmed. He is true to the hymnal inspiration used in the title and which echoes on every page: ‘This old world is full of sorrow, full of sickness, weak and sore —If you love your neighbor truly, love will come to you the more.’

“I couldn’t help but connect the psychological and emotional moods of this narrative work with poems by William Butler Yeats. Both Yeats and Wiegenstein embed the worn and known facets of their nation’s pivotal rebellion/war as spiritual heft for the human hearts animating their writing.

“Yeats’s sentiment about humanity’s connection with God in ‘The Circus Animal’s Desertion’: ‘Now that my ladder’s gone, 
I must lie down where all the ladders start. 
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart,’ is where ‘This Old World’ begins. Things indeed fall apart in the widening gyre of the Civil War. And, much more than in Yeats, the women of ‘This Old World’ (one advantage of a novel over a poem or hymn) are given full voice to speak.

“I am convinced Charlotte Turner would more than hold her own should she sit down with Crazy Jane to lecture the Bishop. By voice, example, and especially sincere doubt, Charlotte lectures us throughout. Want to know how common folk from a proto-typical American locale not only ‘survive, but prevail,’ as Faulkner would have it? Read ‘This Old World’.”


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