Monthly Archives: May 2017
A Southern Exposure by Alice Adams
Cynthia and Harry Baird relocate to Pinehill during the prewar Depression years. They flee Connecticut to escape his low paying job, her mounting debt and dangerous flirtations. They hope to make a new life in the South where they will become rich and fall in love again. The Bairds are viewed as a cross between rich movie stars and naive Yankees, but they are welcomed into the many social circles of the town they have decided to call home.
Told from multiple points of view and punctuated with authentic dialog, A Southern Exposure allows the reader an inner view into the intimate societies that develop among the cast of characters. You’ll be on the inside track of all the gossip concerning their secret fantasies, illicit affairs, social standards, fears, betrayals, depression, alcoholism, and racial issues.
Alice Adams doesn’t back down from any of the subjects that most people want to skirt today. Rather, she tackles them head on in all their unpleasantness and delivers a brilliant work of fiction blended with history and viewed through the lens of what it truly means to be Southern.
While my protagonist, Dr. John Welles, and one of his best friends, Dr. Sam Feldman, joined the Army as civilian doctors to participate in the European Theater, his other best friend, Claude Willoughby, joined the Navy as a pilot to serve in the Pacific Theater.
In my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, Claude and his wife, Patsy, move to California after suffering a personal tragedy. Patsy spends her days volunteering in a pediatric ward to work through her grief, and Claude obtains a pilot license to keep his mind off their loss.
You’ll find previous research I used to create Claude’s experience in the blog post Straighten Up & Fly Right. Today’s post is in regards to Claude’s involvement as a World War II Navy pilot flying in the battle for the Caroline Islands.
Japanese troops occupied the Caroline Islands in 1914 during World War I. After the war, Japan received a League of Nations mandate over them. However, the League of Nations imposed restrictions on Japan between 1914 and 1933. During this time, Japan was not able to build up the Caroline Islands for military purposes. In 1933, Japan’s withdrawal from the League of Nations gave her the freedom to do just that.
Prior to the Pacific War, the atoll of Truk was built as a forward naval base. It had five airfields, several seaplane and torpedo boat bases, and repair facilities. During World War II, a radar station was also constructed. It also served as an anchorage in favor over Ulithi Atoll.
The base at Truk was destroyed in February, 1944, by American airpower in Operation Hailstone, and was cut off for the remainder of the war. The attack by the United States involved a combination of airstrikes, surface ship actions, and submarine attacks over two days. The Japanese appeared to be completely taken by surprise. Operation Hailstone is sometimes called the equivalent to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Several daylight and nighttime airstrikes against the base at Truk employed fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo aircraft in attacks on Japanese airfields, aircraft, shore installations, and ships in and around the Truk anchorage. American surface ships and submarines guarded potential exit routes from the island’s anchorage with the purpose of preventing any Japanese ships from escaping.
The Caroline Islands became part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands administered by the United States after the World War II. The Federated States of Micronesia was formed in 1986 and gained sovereignty over the Caroline Islands.
I keep stealing glances at our teenager as we sit at the laptop, and I’m trying not to snatch the mouse away or jump on the keyboard because I know I’m a faster typist. Today, our son is applying for his first job. Many of his friends are already working and driving, but we allowed Joshua to go a little longer without pursuing either. For one, he didn’t express an interest in driving like we expected him to. His father wasn’t too upset because he wasn’t looking forward to the jump in insurance rates.
For the other, we didn’t push him to get a part-time job as soon as he turned sixteen because we wanted him to focus solely on school and Boy Scouts. We wanted, and were able, to extend him the luxury of a little more time to stay young, if not little, in a world that is demanding he grow up fast.
We’ve come a long way since the days of Lightning Juice and This Mothering Stuff is Hard. Sometimes it seemed like a blur, and at other times the moments ground by painfully slow. But Josh has taken an interest in his own life lately now that Scouting is winding down and his senior year approaches. So, I sit beside this young man whose most recent goal is to grow tall enough that he can fit my head under his chin the way I did to him when he was little.
This young man with a square jaw reminiscent of his Grandfather Smith when he was a young marine. This young man who has been cutting grass on the gargantuan riding lawnmower since he was eleven and a half. This young man who cracks us both up when he types “Cuz i neds a jub” in the “Why do you want to work here?” section of the online application. This young man who started shaving the peach fuzz that quickly turned into the stubble I feel when I kiss his cheek. This young man who can play ‘Jingle Bells’ doing arm farts. This young man who wants to earn enough money this summer to put a dent in his upcoming post-high school education and pay for his car insurance.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Now the things we want for Joshua are giving way to the things he wants for himself. Of course our desires for our son will always be for his benefit, but we’ll yield to him more and more as he shows maturity. And we’ll be there for the times he doesn’t, guiding him back to the right path.
I often wonder if we did enough, laid a strong foundation for him. Only time will tell, but for right this moment, while he’s still a goofy teen, while we’re pulling our hair out when he’s sassy and driving us crazy, I’ll store up these memories for the day he heads out on his own.
It’s the oldest girl’s chore to wash the dishes. She will do so without complaint, drying and stacking them on the cupboard shelves.
“Can’t we run the dishwasher?” she asks.
“No—that thing makes too much heat, and it’s already eighty-five degrees in here,” her father replies. Disgust tinges the edge of his words, and he shakes his head at her like she’s an imbecile for even asking.
The girl’s brother and two younger siblings, a girl and a boy, wear the smiling faces of obedient, compliant children. They dash away amidst the tension their older sister has created. Their smiles have more to do with not having to wash dishes in the August heat.
And so the girl suffers alone as her family seeks shade in the darkened family room and cool beneath the ceiling fan. She’s up to her elbows in hot, sudsy water, thinking about how her father never used to speak to her in that tone when he spoke to her as a child. He developed the manner in the sixth year of his second marriage when his new wife had their first child, the little girl. It worsened when the boy was born, as if her father was obligated to speak to her this way.
She’s not paying attention, and her hands slip off a plate. It lands on the two inches of counter space between her and the sink, bouncing twice, before it shatters into a million shards. All she can think is that she didn’t know a plate could bounce.
“I’ll replace it,” the girl says, sensing her father’s wife behind her. No doubt the woman had come to criticize the girl’s work, but a more fortuitous situation presented itself.
“Don’t worry about it,” the woman says. There is no inflection in her voice, no understanding in her eyes. “It was ugly and mismatched anyhow. The last one from your grandmother’s set.”
It is not the last one, but it might as well be. There’s a saucer under a dying jade plant in the family room, chipped and stained from soil leaching out the hole in the terracotta pot. The girl will pay for the broken plate with money earned from her job as a lunch counter girl at the golf course because it’s the right thing to do.
Later, when the sun dips behind the pines in the backyard, the girl sits in a lawn chair and drinks iced tea. Her bare feet brush over the fuzzy, silver leaves of lamb’s ear she planted around the air conditioner compressor last year. She thinks to herself that she cannot remember a time when there wasn’t lamb’s ear in her life. Even at the apartment complex where she lived with her mother and brother. And she thinks that it is stupid to have whole-house air conditioning and not use it.
There was an old couple who lived on the first floor of the complex who kept lamb’s ear in planters on the concrete porch. She would slip down to visit them while her mother slept off her third-shift weariness. Her brother sat in his playpen in front of the TV turned to Sesame Street. The old man and woman knew the girl never had enough to eat, but they were also poor. They fed her ice cream floats made with Pepsi and sent her home with bouquets of lamb’s ear. Her mother spanked her when her brother ate one and got sick. Then her mother got sick, and finally her dad came to visit. She remembers him calling his new wife from the green phone hanging on the kitchen wall. His finger absently picked at the peeling, flowered wallpaper.
“Honey, the kids are going to come stay with us for a while.”
With one sentence her life changed forever. She and her brother had a new home and a new mommy who never let them forget that she sacrificed her career in banking to raise them. Then came the two new siblings who the girl tried to watch over when she wasn’t being shooed away by her father’s wife. She didn’t want her new sister and brother to eat lamb’s ear. They are old enough to know better now.
She remembers when each of those babies came home from the hospital. Everything smelled new then, like baby powder and plastic toys. Plenty of pictures exist of these events, pictures with the girl’s profile or arm just barely captured in the frame. That’s when she realized her position was oldest girl, not oldest daughter. Her brother is nowhere to be seen. In fact, except for school pictures, there are very few of the girl and her brother since the arrival of their new siblings.
The sky turns dusky, then the shade of a bruise, and when the bats swoop from the trees, the girl goes in. Her family already retired upstairs for the night without calling to her. She is old enough to get herself to bed. First, she must do a load of laundry that includes her bras and pantyhose. Her father’s wife made her wait until laundry for the rest of the family was done because no one else needed to wash their items on delicate. The girl doesn’t want her things ruined; she has to buy them herself. No matter. It is cool in the basement, and she can doze on the day bed while watching reruns of ‘80s sitcoms on the black and white TV her father keeps on his workbench.
The girl falls asleep to the rhythm of the washer and dreams about the Gibson Girls in the wallpaper behind her father’s bar. She sees herself in the bust-enhancing gowns with her hair piled elegantly on her head and a bouquet of lamb’s ear in her hand. Many suitors try to tempt her with ice cream floats, but the girl knows she is not free to accept, and so she runs away, Cinderella-style, to a waiting sinkful of dirty dishes.
Go For the Gold
Writing goals are one of the things I hear debated quite often among writers. For some reason, Stephen King is always mentioned in these conversations. Awestruck statements of, “I heard Stephen King writes a thousand words a day” always leave me a little mystified. I think to myself That’s great if it works for Stephen. Lord knows the man has enjoyed some success and maybe that has something to do with his daily writing goals. Maybe not. Because if we’re saying daily word counts are directly related to the number of books published which translates into success, then Stephen King far outstrips Harper Lee. Yet I doubt anyone would consider Harper Lee a failure.
There is a place in King’s book On Writing where he says something like you have to shovel the shit every day, meaning no matter how bad the writing is keep it up until you reach your daily word goal and edit it later. I don’t want to shovel shit. I’d rather mine for gold.
Why would I purposefully layer word after word, line after line of bad writing on top of something good, or worse on top of something else bad, just to say I’ve reached a daily word goal? I wouldn’t find that at all satisfying. Now don’t get me wrong: my work isn’t so perfect the first time around that it doesn’t need edited. It is, however, very close to my vision for a particular story because I took the time to think it through.
The other thing my method does for me is alleviate the pressure I feel when writer’s block stumps me. Again, I don’t feel the need to put anything on the page just to fulfill an arbitrary number. In doing so, I free myself to explore the rabbit trails that usually lead me to the good writing as long as I don’t force it.
So yes, there are days when my best writing amounts to a single, brilliantly written sentence, and there are days when whole chapters are completed. In either case, I count myself as successful because I’m more of a Ray Bradbury kind of writer when it comes to word counts:
Tell Me, What Were Their Names?
In my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, John and one of his best friends, Sam Feldman, go to war as civilian doctors assigned to the Army. Their motivation is the attack on Pearl Harbor, an eye-opening event in the lives of many Americans who believed we could stay neutral in regards to the war taking place in Europe and atrocities such as those that occurred during the Rape of Nanking.
For most Americans, World War II started with Congress declaring war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, for other Americans, specifically sailors in the U.S. Navy, it started in the early morning hours of October 31, 1941, with the sinking of the U.S.S. Reuben James by German Submarine U-552.
The Reuben James, a World War I Clemson-class, four-stack destroyer, was part of an escort for convoys bound for Great Britain carrying war materials from the “Arsenal of Democracy.” German U-boats (submarines) didn’t hesitate to fire on any ship in the convoy, considering them all to be fair game. For this reason, it was only a matter of time before America became involved in a “shooting war.”
The Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk while escorting convoy HX-156. The incident resulted in the loss of 115 of the 160 crewman, including all officers. Although not the first U.S. Navy ship to be torpedoed before the war, the Reuben James was the first one lost.
When news of the sinking reached America, many concerned people wrote letters to the U.S. Navy trying to determine the fate of loved ones and/or friends. Unfortunately, most of the country ignored the sinking. One person who did not was folk singer, Woody Guthrie, who wrote “Sinking of the Reuben James” immediately following the incident.
I mentioned the Reuben James in my novel in an effort to remember all who lost their lives during a dark time in history. Also, in the spirit of one tagline I came across during my research, friends don’t allow friends repeat history.
Oracle Night by Paul Auster
If you’ve never read Paul Auster, be warned that his work is always a little surreal. His novels read like a mixture of fantasy, mystery, and a ghost story. Pay attention to the details because some of them will weave their way deeply into the story and some are loose threads. The random encounters are rarely random, and even if a character seems like he hasn’t changed and/or made any kind of journey, you as the reader certainly will.
Such was my experience as I read Oracle Night. I could tell you the jacket flap details, but it would be much more fun to tell you it’s about a writer who writes a story about a man reading the work of a long dead writer who wrote about a man who has the ability to predict the future. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it’s a Paul Auster novel.
Still, don’t allow that to deter you from reading about writer Sidney Orr and his mysterious blue notebook purchased from M.R. Chang’s Paper Palace or about Sidney’s wife, Grace, and the nature of their relationship versus hers with fellow writer John Trause. Factor in Jacob, John’s drug addict son, and Nick Bowen who manages to lock himself into Ed Victory’s underground bunker (The Bureau of Historical Preservation), and Lemuel Flagg, a British lieutenant blinded in World War I who has the gift of prophecy, and you’re in the multi-layered world of Paul Auster.
Some of my thoughts as I read Oracle Night included:
Every writer’s nightmare and every writer’s dream: to write words that actually come true or at least predict the future.
What are these worlds that writers create?
Do we live in the present with the future inside us?
Are we creating futures as we write?
Is the pen truly mightier than the sword?
Such are the questions Auster’s work provokes every time I read it. I can also recommend Travels in the Scriptorium, The Book of Illusions, Augie Wren’s Christmas Story, and Man in the Dark. If you need a point of reference, readers of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind will probably enjoy Auster’s novels as long as they keep in mind that he will take it to the next level of wonderfully bizarre.