The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

Have you ever read a book so good that you wanted to rush through it because you couldn’t wait to see how it ended only to stop the last three to five pages before the end because you suspected that it was about to finish on a heartbreaking, bittersweet note?  I have a feeling The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is going to haunt me for some time, but that’s all right because while I’ve read many good books lately, it’s been a while since I had one that stayed with me as this book did.

I suppose the reason this book affected me is that I couldn’t help looking at it from the romantic’s perspective.  The story is quite surreal, not fantasy and not science fiction, but written in such a way that I could completely suspend belief about what took place to the point that the story totally engrossed me.  Not to mention that Thomas Mullen is a natural born storyteller.

Mr. Mullen seamlessly weaves history from the Great Depression and the 1920s and ‘30s into his novel.  He also intersperses the stories with mention of famous gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barker Gang.  One can’t help getting caught up in daring bank robberies, wild police chases, the brokenness of the Hoovervilles, and the tenacity of the G-Men.

But then Mr. Mullen blurs the lines ever so slightly when these gangsters, along with his own fictional Firefly Brothers, earn legions of fans across the country for sticking it to the banks that foreclosed on property of poor, struggling farmers.  True, their craft was an art, but they were also murderers living high on the hog whose charity extended to them first and their families second.  Past that, most of what they did was pure myth.

So how does one separate fact from fiction, truth from lies, and good from evil when the intimidating fingers of governmental control was more than implied in this somewhat prophetic tale?  Factor in the development of what became the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, and it was like I read headlines from today regarding the American government and the NSA.  Perhaps we really are doomed to repeat history when we forget it.

And if you think I’m exaggerating the prophetic nature of the story, consider the following passage:

Part of the Bureau’s job, the Director had always explained, was to dictate reality—to investigate reality, fully understand it, and then, under the aegis of Mr. Hoover’s vigilant public persona, explain that reality to a public cowed by the depression and frightened by stories of gangsters and increasing lawlessness.  It was the Bureau’s job to reassure people that these shockingly hard times were merely speed bumps along the shared path to prosperity, and not a sign that the nation was spiraling into anarchy and madness.

I believe today we call that fake news.  What struck me about this passage was that even if J. Edgar Hoover never said these exact words or acted this way, even in 2010 when the novel was published, Mr. Mullen had understanding of where America was headed.  No doubt based on where we had already been.

At first I thought the novel promoted a lack of hope and something to believe in, but with further reading, I realized it toggled between this and hoping against hope to believe in the impossible as a means of survival.  Such amazing insight into the human condition and an unexpected source of inspiration from a novel is rare.  Another pleasant surprise was the concept of forgiveness, for others and for self, subtly entwined into the tale.

Long before I finished reading, I realized I was experiencing what I could only call a Literary Stockholm Syndrome in which I wanted the bad guys to succeed in their struggle against failure (whether real or perceived), to reconnect with their true loves, and escape.  I mentally pleaded with them to find their women and just disappear.  Nothing they were doing would actually work in the end, it was no longer about seeking justice, and they would most likely end up dead.

I’ve mentioned before how I wished an author would have finished a novel on a clearer, more positive note or would consider writing a sequel to undo the heartbreak and let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a happy ending took place (Is It Ever Too Late?).  I mulled these thoughts over again at the end of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers.  Until Thomas Mullen tells me otherwise, I’ll wish for the impossible and believe in a favorable outcome.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

I recently read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  If you follow me on Goodreads and you’ve read the book, you might think I’m rather rigid in my assessment of the memoir.  I’ve read other fiction and non-fiction accounts of the Great Depression in America as well as extremely poor people in Ireland, Appalachia, and other such places, and I must say that for a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes did not strike me as exceptional in any way.

I’m not sure why the book is titled as it is when the story is predominantly about McCourt’s experiences as a child.  His parents’ courtship and marriage prior to his arrival was necessary to set the stage for what the entire family would endure due to his father’s alcoholism and eventual abandonment, but again, the bulk of what one reads focuses on young Frank.

The prose is pleasant (riddled with Irish slang, sayings, and swear words galore), but nothing poetic or beautifully descriptive.  Sometimes dialog is properly placed between quotes and employs commas, periods, or question marks where necessary, and other times it’s buried in long paragraphs of run-on sentences.

One saving grace from all the depressing tales McCourt relays is the hilarity of the situations he’s writing about.  The thing is, the humor is derived from circumstances that are simultaneously horrific.  Yet the reader has to laugh because the truth is almost unbelievable.  Sadly, some of these dreadful circumstances include the way adults in the story treat McCourt, his siblings, and friends.

It’s unacceptable when adults express the depth of frustration, prejudice, and ignorance-born hatred toward each other that McCourt conveys, but children should never have to suffer at this level.  Educators, employers, priests, nuns, relatives, and hospital administration inflict verbal and physical damage on par with child abuse.  It’s a wonder any child living in these conditions turned out normal.

Near the end of the book, Angela McCourt finally takes the self-sacrificing initiative to do something for her children’s welfare.  Prior to that she tolerates her alcoholic husband’s actions to the extreme detriment of her family by keeping her abuser front and center in her life.  Perhaps it was the era in which the story takes place, perhaps it’s that divorce still carried the stigma of shame back then, perhaps it’s that Angela suffered from some type of battered-woman syndrome (hers being in the form of neglect beyond all reason), but because she refused to rid their lives of her worthless husband’s presence, they underwent shame to an equal degree anyhow.

There comes a point in the book when, in my opinion, McCourt rushes through years thirteen to nineteen because to tell it in any more detail would read as more of the same depressing ground already covered over and over and over.  Things turn around for young Frank ever so slightly; he hops a boat to America, end of story.

I’d like to say that Angela’s Ashes is one of those books that just shouldn’t be missed, but I can’t.  I’m not sorry I read it, but if asked whether or not it is a worthy read, I’ll probably shrug my shoulders, suggest the reader try it, and make up his or her own mind.

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

One of the most interesting and disturbing eras I researched for my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, was the Great Depression.  Of all the details I studied, I found those affecting farmers to be the most heartbreaking.  This is probably because my protagonist, Dr. John Welles, came from a farming family.  The Welleses survived, but they did not come out unscathed.

Before the stock market crash in October of 1929, farmers were already experiencing hard times.  One contributing factor was the forty percent drop in prices between 1920 and 1921 as the overseas market disappeared.  World War I had led to a time of prosperity for farmers as war-torn European nations needed produce grown in America.  This need led to a remarkable increase in agricultural production, income, and purchasing power.  The profits farmers made were reinvested in more land and machinery.

Once the war ended and the European markets no longer needed American food products, prices and profits plummeted.  The price crop supports that existed at the beginning of World War I guaranteeing farmers minimum prices on certain crops disappeared in 1921 when President Harding announced their end.  Further exacerbating the problem was President Coolidge’s increase in taxes on imports, which decreased foreign trade for America and removed more of the farmers’ markets.  Many farmers lost their new land investments to foreclosure and/or experienced bankruptcy.

The construction of new homes, usually an indicator of economic strength, declined from 1926 to 1929.  It is not surprising that no one paid attention to this warning sign especially since the crisis in the farming community, the truest measure of economic success or failure, was already in trouble.  When added to the faith people placed in the stock market and the endless purchases made on credit, it is no wonder America experienced the Great Depression.

As I watched videos of farmers dumping milk into ditches on the side of the road and apples into piles left to rot, I knew in my heart that even if it meant their downfall, John’s stepmother, Collie Mercer Welles, wouldn’t let anyone go hungry.  The character I created in Collie wouldn’t and couldn’t justify throwing food away when people around her were starving.  Greed in that form simply did not exist in her.  She may not have had the means to transport food, but anyone who made his or her way to the Welles farm would not be turned away empty-handed.

Farm protestors attempt to block roads leading to markets.

Unfortunately, many in the farming communities did not share the opinions and morals of my fictional character, Collie.  The withholding and destruction of food was one of the most hideous consequences of the Great Depression.  Desperation hit farmers when the expense of producing crops exceeded what they could make selling them.  Groups known as Farm Holiday Associations were formed to stop selling crops until prices were forced higher.  They operated under the motto, “Neither buy nor sell and let taxes go to hell.”

While in my heart I believe the Welles family would have risen above such actions, I wonder if they would have found resistance in their own community to helping those who were starving.  It wasn’t uncommon for farmers who bucked these types of associations to find their efforts met with violence from a pitchfork in the tires of their vehicles to standoffs between deputies meant to protect food convoys and farmers armed with guns.

The stock market crash of 1929 will probably always be the most well-known contributing factor to the Great Depression.  Billions of dollars were lost literally overnight by 1.5 million Americans who were involved with the market enough to actually have a broker.  However, 40 million people living on farms had already been enduring hardships since 1919, and it is these people who would be hit the hardest again, particularly on the Great Plains, during the aftermath of the crash.  The farmers knew what those living in the cities and banking on the stock market had yet to learn:  the Great Depression was already upon them.

The title for my blog post came from a Depression Era song, the details of which you can read about here:  “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and listen to the Bing Crosby version here:  “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Enjoy other interesting Depression Era history on Prohibition (I’ll Drink to That), speakeasies (Welcome to the Apple Crate), and moonshine (By the Light of the Silvery Moon).

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