The Scarlet Pimpernel

Zounds! Zooks! And maybe even a few Egads! Although I may be flashing back to Clarence Day in Life with Father. These exclamations are just one of the many things that make The Scarlet Pimpernel so adorably charming. Who knew that cozy mysteries came in a vintage version? And thank you, Baroness Orczy, for taking only five weeks to transform your well-received play into a novel that reads like it was written in only five weeks.

“This can’t be a vintage cozy mystery,” you protest. “It’s about the Reign of Terror in France.” Yes, well, gentle reader, this version is about the more swashbuckling side of those dark days in the history of France. It features a thinly veiled hero, a beauty in need of rescue, and a villain who rubs his hands in malicious glee all the while laughing, “Bwa-ha-ha-ha!” At least that’s what I heard in my head every time Chauvelin rubbed his hands together. Which he did with annoying frequency. For a more realistic, yet still fictional, rendering of the Reign of Terror, I suggest A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Let’s also not forget to thank the Baroness for failing to consult her thesaurus for alternative adjectives when describing her three main characters. By the end of the novel, if you don’t know that Sir Percy Blakeney is inane, Lady Marguerite Blakeney is the most fêted woman in London, and Chauvelin is sarcastic, then you haven’t been paying attention. Then there is the gorgeous gorgeousness of life for the Blakeneys even though (SPOILER ALERT) they’re going through a bit of marital discord at the moment. In her defense, the Baroness did come from writing plays to novels, and perhaps she forgot that the repetitive adjectives worked better as onstage direction rather than actual words one has to read over and over and over.

Let’s take a closer look at Baroness Orczy’s hero, Marguerite Blakeney. “Wait—Marguerite is the lady in need of rescue. She couldn’t possibly be the hero of this story,” you again protest. Yes, well, since we’re all pretending we don’t know Sir Percy is the Scarlet Pimpernel, you must admit the majority of the story is told from Marguerite’s point of view. This small detail is a pleasant surprise as the reader is treated to a transformation in Marguerite’s character. And then Lady Blakeney ruins the ride by falling back in love with her husband and needing rescue herself thus shining the last few moments of glory on Sir Percy AKA the Scarlet Pimpernel. Way to dissapoint the feminists, Baroness.

I would have thought an inane man who kept an extra set of sumptuous clothing on his yacht into which he could change after performing astounding feats of derring-do to thwart a sarcastic villain would gladly have shared the heroic limelight with his fêted wife. As for Sir Percy’s alternate identity, it’s easy to see why he chose the Scarlet Pimpernel over the Red Ninny or the Crimson Fop. Those last two certainly wouldn’t make a damsel in distress tremble with desire.

The brilliant naming schemes don’t end there, dear reader. The worst is given to Mr. Jellyband whose name is so painfully, so obviously not a real name but rather a representation of his jovial character that I’m a titch surprised we weren’t further inflicted with Sir Manly Gorgeousbod, Lady Beauty Misunderstood, and Baddy Badguy. But really, the novel is so stinking precious than one simply cannot help but laugh aloud. To hate it would be like hating kittens, puppies, and babies.

Wilberforce

Morgan Wilberforce is a boy in trouble in the coming-of-age novel that bears his name, Wilberforce. His story is set in England in the 1920s at a time when the effects of the war are still fresh on everyone’s mind. The reader is thrown into the action along with Morgan as he wakes up from a suicidal tackle during a game of rugby. From there one journeys with him as he navigates life at St. Stephen’s Academy, complicated relationships, and devastating situations made so by Morgan’s involvement. Pay attention to the dark shadow of a clue delivered at the beginning of the novel as well as those tossed throughout the following pages. H. S. Cross handled these details in such a way that the reader never feels as if he/she is constantly trying to catch up.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve read several novels about all-boy schools in England, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the seamy underside of life at such a school included what Morgan referred to as ‘mucking about.’ The details were only implied, but the subject almost put me off from finishing the book. I’m glad I stayed with it because the situation plays into the larger issue of what Morgan is truly dealing with.

The last one-third of the novel slowed to a pace that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, could have tanked the whole book. Then Cross broke the rule of introducing a character late in the story (one of several rules she broke brilliantly, so I still complain about the way writing is being taught!), and she added the unexpected layer of—what shall I call it?—religion. And yet, while the Bishop (said late character) represents Anglo-Catholicism, there is nothing religious about his approach to helping ‘sort out’ Morgan Wilberforce. Cross didn’t make the story about religion but rather delivered a heavy dose of compassion, so when Morgan finally experiences a breakthrough, it is genuine. It is also surprisingly swift, occurs at the brink of Morgan’s sanity and the edge of the novel’s conclusion, and is satisfyingly realistic.

One will never see this novel in the inspirational section of any library or bookstore. I’m not sure it should be by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t conform to the type of books usually shelved there. What I loved about Wilberforce is that it didn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life, didn’t glorify them for shock appeal either, but it included an element that undeniably dealt with redemption. I must admit, I didn’t see it coming. For this reason, I’m looking forward to reading more by H. S. Cross.

Hot Potato

As sweet and satisfying as any dessert, Mother Arlene’s sweet potatoes are always a hit at church potluck dinners, funeral dinners, and most especially at the Mother’s Day Feast hosted by the Baptist church. The recipe has been in Mother Arlene’s family for generations, and while she will gladly share it with anyone who asks, there is something extra special about the dish when prepared by Mother Arlene herself. That something extra is love, and it’s the ingredient Shirley Tedesco needs on the particular Mother’s Day she and her family spend with their best friends, the Roberts family, at their church.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind when creating the above-mentioned scene. The deep, rich flavor of these potatoes makes them a welcome addition to any dinner table, but don’t wait until Thanksgiving to enjoy them. Mother Arlene’s sweet potatoes will add spice to your middle-of-the-week menu and make you glad you tried them.

PS – Don’t be shocked by Mother Arlene’s inclusion of bourbon in her recipe. This Godly, graceful woman is no fool when it comes to using this classic, American spirit in moderation as a flavoring for her famous sweet potatoes just like her mother taught her. “Oh, honey—it’ll be our little secret,” she will say as she presses the recipe into your palm.

Mother Arlene’s Sweet Potatoes

5 large sweet potatoes

8 T unsalted butter

½ t sea salt

1 t ground cinnamon

½ t ground nutmeg

¼ t ground clove

¼ t ground ginger

Dash of allspice

¾ c sugar (I used raw)

½ c dark brown sugar

1 T vanilla

2 T bourbon

Preheat the oven to 350° F.

Wash the sweet potatoes and peel them. Remove any bad spots with a paring knife. Cut the sweet potatoes into slices about a half-inch thick and place them in a large bowl.

Place the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the butter is melted, stir in the sugars, spices, vanilla, and bourbon. Keep over the heat until the sugars are melted.

Pour the syrup mixture over the sweet potatoes and stir to coat them thoroughly. Transfer the potatoes to a 9 x 13 glass baking dish taking care to scrape all the syrup mixture from the bowl into the baking dish.

Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake the potatoes for 30 minutes. Remove the baking dish from the oven and carefully baste the sweet potatoes with the syrup mixture. Replace the foil on the baking dish and return it to the oven for another 15 – 20 minutes or until a small knife penetrates a potato slice with ease.

Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and allow them to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Enjoy!

War and Peace

One of the first things I noticed that people do when they discover you are reading War & Peace is to inquire which version it is. This seems to be a very important question because everyone has a favorite translation, and it would take the cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to blast them out of the stronghold of their opinion on which version is best. Having only read the Pevear and Volokhonsky (henceforth P & V), I must admit that I am not, at this time, qualified to give an opinion on the superiority of one translation over another. I am, however, going to give my opinion on the novel as a whole.

This was my first experience with Tolstoy, and I went into the reading with certain expectations. Perhaps those expectations, which were rather high, diminished the novel for me. I was excited at the prospect of reading a classic Russian author for the first time (an event which had been put off for over a year due to the relocation of the classic literature book group I attend), and even more thrilled to be reading the P & V translation per the recommendation of the book group facilitator. The P & V, if not the newest then at least among the newest Russian to English translations, had been hailed by one article in particular as trumping all that came before.

I’ve read many articles and blog posts since purchasing my P & V copy, and if they’re not touting the reasons why the translation they’ve put forward is best, they’re at least pointing out the best qualities of most of the versions out there. I’m tempted to read the Garnett, Maude, and Briggs translations, but after that I’ll call it quits. I liked War and Peace, but I did not love it.

Somewhere along the way I assumed that a work written by a Russian author would be marvelously passionate, full of brilliant prose, and replete with vivid description. I expected the author of said work to be akin to a male, Russian Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. That was not the case.

War and Peace was, as a friend described, an easy, accessible read, and while reading it, my attention remained focused on the story. However, as soon as I set it down to read another, more engaging book, War and Peace became easily forgettable. That did not mean I couldn’t pick it right back up where I left off, but there was no revisiting interesting portions, mulling over well-written passages, or enthusiastically detailing the novel over coffee with a friend. I told only a few people that I was reading the novel and did not comment on it unless a guest happened to notice it on my reading stack. In short, it was often bland to the point of boring.

I laughed aloud at several portions of the story and wondered if Tolstoy was writing a parody of Russian aristocracy. That would have been unexpected and interesting. As I progressed and continued to be underwhelmed, I pondered whether or not P & V’s translation was too literal, and if that was what rendered the story flat and the main characters dull. There was a small reprieve during the middle section where Tolstoy shined a little more light on his characters, but by then it became clear that he could not decide between writing a military history or historical fiction. It appears he chose to do both. The passages did not blend at all. They were patched together haphazardly not unlike when one used a Band-Aid when what he really needed was a sturdy piece of tape. The Band-Aid will hold but not very well.

For this reason, the fictional accounts succumbed to his overbearing and oft-repeated opinion that he alone knew exactly why the war transpired as it did. By the last third of the book, Tolstoy’s belief that more than any French or Russian historian he alone had it right, combined with the war itself, became its own character. As the book neared its conclusion, I gave up any hope that the predictable storylines would end with any satisfaction. In that respect, I was not disappointed.

Any interesting tidbit of writing was bestowed upon the peripheral characters such as Dolokhov, Kuragin, Denisov, Marya Demetrievna, and Mademoiselle Bourienne. Their dialog and actions roused interest in the story, and all too often they were discarded the moment their purpose had been served. For example, I truly thought Pierre would be the character to evoke a response in me. He was, after all, the illegitimate son who inherits everything right out from under those who believe they are more deserving. He should have been the scoundrel, the rogue, the one to upset Natasha and Andrei’s engagement. But no, that was Dolokhov who, although a villain, became the character I loved to hate whereas Pierre bumbled his way through his marriage, the war, and the story in general.

I know there are many people who love War and Peace—who believe it is one of the best works ever written—and to them I say, “God bless you.” I’m truly happy for these people. Unfortunately, many who adore War and Peace cannot say the same when they find out one does not absolutely love it as much as they.

I own two more books by Tolstoy which I do plan on reading. I’ll not allow one mediocre book to entirely sway my opinion against a writer nor will I let it keep me from reading other Russian authors. As with any book I read that has been called a classic, finding out exactly why the book earned this label is always of interest to me. In the case of War and Peace, I wondered if the strength of Tolstoy’s reputation as a writer carried the book into literary prestige.

Although I did not fall in love with War and Peace, I would not discourage anyone from reading it. This review is my opinion, and whether or not you agree with me is irrelevant. What is important is that you decide for yourself which books you will read, and then formulate your own opinion of them.

Cue the Comfort

The great thing about comfort foods is that they are incredibly simple and extremely delicious. With that being said, it never hurts to play with a basic recipe to ramp up the flavors and increase the appeal. The ladies at the Baptist church where the Tedescos spent Mother’s Day in 1978 certainly knew this.

In my novel, The Tedescos, Joe took Shirley, Grandma Josephine, and the kids to the church where their best friends, Smiley and Charlene Roberts, attended. Since it was Mother’s Day, the men had to do all the cooking and serving, but you can be sure it was under the direction of the ladies who wanted to guarantee that their best recipes turned out right.

One of the side dishes featured was classic macaroni and cheese. What the ladies at the Baptist church knew was that good food didn’t have to be fancy; it just had to taste like a little piece of Heaven. I imagine the following recipe is something like what these excellent cooks would have been proud to set out on the food table, perhaps with a bit of a flourish. It’s the type of comfort food that will have guests coming back for seconds and thirds.

Macaroni and Cheese as featured in the Ladies Auxiliary Cookbook

1 – 1 lb. box of elbow macaroni

½ c (1 stick) unsalted butter

½ c all-purpose flour

4 c whole milk

3 – 8 oz. blocks* of cheese, shredded

1 t salt

½ – 1 t black pepper (I used a coarse grind)

1 t dry mustard

10 – 12 slices of provolone cheese

Parmesan cheese

Cook the macaroni al dente according to package instructions. Drain thoroughly as macaroni holds a lot of water in the crook of the elbow. While the macaroni is draining, use the hot pot you cooked it in to melt the butter over a low heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth. Cook for one minute over a low heat and do not let it burn. Slowly add the milk, whisking thoroughly, and cook for another minute over medium heat.

Preheat your oven to 400° during the next part.

Add the cheese by handfuls, stirring after each addition. Continue cooking until the cheese melts and becomes stringy. Not all the cheese may melt, but this is acceptable. The liquid portion of the mixture will still thicken quite nicely.

Add the drained macaroni to the mixture and stir to coat. Carefully pour the mixture into a 9 x 13 glass baking dish. (Do not panic if it seems soupy. The extra liquid will be absorbed and make the macaroni and cheese creamy.) Top with the provolone slices and liberally sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Bake at 400° for 25 minutes or until the cheese on the top browns and bubbles. Let the macaroni and cheese sit for ten minutes before serving.

Toasted cheesy deliciousness!

*Side note:  I start with blocks of cheese over pre-shredded because it’s creamier. The pre-shredded stuff always seems dry to me. Also, I suspect the quantity isn’t exactly what the packaging says. You’ll want at least six cups of cheese, however, I’ve found that a little more never hurts which is another reason I prefer blocks of cheese. When choosing cheeses, I like to include at least one orange cheese to make it look like traditional, American macaroni and cheese.

Can She Bake a Cherry Pie, Charming Billy?

First place in the church pie bake off is in Shirley Tedesco’s sights. Ever since she joined as a newly-wed wife, her goal has been to reach the coveted spot held for far too long by fellow contestant, Claudia Romero. A sour cherry rhubarb pie is Shirley’s first third-place win, and Claudia can feel the younger woman breathing down her neck as she inches closer with every delicious baked creation.

I included cherry pie in my novel, The Tedescos, because it’s been a favorite since childhood. As delicious as sweet cherry pie is, there is just something—how can I describe it—more old-fashioned tasting about a sour cherry pie. The inclusion of rhubarb, traditionally featured alone or in combination with strawberries, makes Shirley’s pie a titch more special. Then there is the addition of a few ingredients even Claudia can’t discern.

Sour cherries were more readily available when I was younger. These days I have to travel a bit to find them, but they are worth it. Their too-short season of availability makes them even more desirable. If you can pick and pit your own, do so. However, fresh, pitted sour cherries can be purchased from farmer’s markets. I’ve heard good things about particular brands of jarred sour cherries in syrup, but I’ll let you do your own research and taste testing. Buying frozen sour cherries is an absolute last resort. I will say, though, that if you freeze sour cherries yourself, you’ll have better luck with them because the delicate fruit won’t be bashed about during transport and the defrosting process can take place slowly in your refrigerator.

Pre-picked and pitted sour cherries come in juice. Measure out four cups to a bag (enough for a ten-inch pie), and freeze them. Take care to evenly distribute the juice and don’t stack the bags on top of each other or place them where other frozen items will be stacked.

Rhubarb is easier to find in grocery stores and can be frozen until used. Neither the amount of red on the stalks nor the width has any bearing on the flavor. Wash the stalks, trim the ends, pat them dry, and cut into half-inch pieces. Lay the cut rhubarb in a single layer on a baking sheet with edges, freeze them for a couple of hours, and transfer the frozen pieces to a large plastic bag that can be sealed. Return them to the freezer immediately.

Because I freeze fruits and vegetables in amounts for one pie, the following recipe makes two pies because I’m combining sour cherries and rhubarb. Don’t be overwhelmed by the quantity, though. The pies will get eaten, and if you’re feeling guilty about consuming too much pie, you can always give one away or cut the recipe in half.

One last note: this recipe uses fresh sour cherries that came in their own juice. If you use cherries you picked, you’ll need to cook them with a little water, store bought cherry juice, or liquid from cherries you juiced yourself to soften them and bring out their natural juices.

Shirley Tedesco’s Sour Cherry Rhubarb Pie

For the Crust:

4 c all-purpose flour

2 t sea salt

4 sticks cold, unsalted butter, cut into ½ inch pieces

Ice water

Sift the flour and salt into a bowl. Work butter into the flour/salt mixture until it resembles coarse meal. A pastry blender or two knives is recommended, but you can work quickly with your hands so the mixture stays cool. Add ice water a little at a time, forming a dough ball with your hands. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate while preparing the filling. Preheat your oven to 375° while the dough is chilling.

For the Filling:

4 c sour cherries, with their juice

4 c rhubarb, cut into half-inch pieces

3 c sugar (I used raw)

4 T kirsch

⅛ t mace

1 t sea salt

4 T butter

6 – 9 T corn starch

In a large pot over a medium heat, add the sour cherries with juice, rhubarb, and sugar. Stir gently to incorporate the sugar but not break apart the fruit/veg. When the sugar is melted and the mixture begins to steam lightly, add the kirsch, mace, butter, and salt. Stir gently.

Start with six tablespoons of cornstarch in a bowl and ladle hot liquid from the pot into the bowl until there is equal dry to wet. Stir the corn starch and juice until thoroughly blended, and then slowly pour it back into the pot. I pour the mixture into a particularly juicy area and whisk quickly to incorporate. Gently stir through the mixture and increase the heat to medium high to thicken the juice. Only use the remaining three tablespoons if your sour cherries and rhubarb are particularly juicy. Keep a close eye on the mixture so the bottom doesn’t burn. When the sour cherries and rhubarb are thickened, set them aside to cool.

Assembling the pie:

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide it into quarters. Return the other three to the refrigerator while working. Roll one quarter into a circle to cover the bottom of a ten-inch pie plate. Place the dough in the bottom of the pie plate and trim the edges to fit. Remove and roll another quarter for the bottom of the second pie and trim the edges.

Divide the sour cherry/rhubarb mixture between the bottom crusts by ladling it in. Remove and roll another quarter of dough for a top crust. Place it over the filling and tuck the edges of the top crust beneath the bottom crust. Crimp the edges between your fingers or seal them with the tines of a fork. Do the same with the last dough quarter for the second pie.

Place the pies on the middle rack of the oven with a baking sheet on the rack below to catch any drips. Bake the pies for 45 minutes, and then check them. You may need to keep baking in ten-minute increments until the crusts are golden brown. Allow the pies to rest for fifteen minutes to set up. Serve with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Enjoy!

Order in the Court

One of my favorite peripheral characters in my novel, The Tedescos, is Officer Ted Conley. Lieutenant Conley first makes a casual appearance in a chapter where I mention him as a friend who is visiting Joe Tedesco’s bowling alley. Ted and Joe are high school football buddies who stayed in touch after graduation.

It’s probably because I grew up around cops—my dad served twenty five years as a police officer—that I subconsciously chose the profession. But then I realized how handy it was to have a cop on the scene especially with a family like the Tedescos whose escapades sometimes require the compassionate arm of the law. For this reason, Officer Ted Conley makes several more appearances in my novel as both friend and policeman.

I didn’t pin down exactly where the Tedescos live right off the bat because I want my readers to relate to them as members of their own family and/or as friends. Really, where they live isn’t as important as what goes on between them. But I mention their locale every now and then as well as drop in clues.

One such hint came from my own memories of visiting my dad at work. The police station where my dad worked is located next to the courthouse, and in front of the courthouse are two amazing lion sculptures. They are the stuff of childhood fantasy, and more than once I imagined them coming alive. They made such an impression on me as a kid that is seemed natural to have Officer Conley waiting in front of one of the lion statues to be picked up by Joe for poker night.

While the history of the courthouse is quite interesting, this blog post focuses on the lions. After the original courthouse was demolished in 1905, a new one was completed in 1908. The new building was designed in the Second Renaissance Revival style of architecture and included two male statues and two lion statues.

The two seated males, one with a scroll and the other with a sheathed sword, represent law and justice. The two carved male lions are symbols of the law’s majesty and are sculpted of Salem Limestone (commercially known as Indiana Limestone). The lions, mirror images of each other, flank the courthouse sidewalk with one facing northwest and the other facing southwest. The lions rest on their hind legs with their front legs outstretched and mouths open slightly to reveal their teeth. The pair has impressively large manes, and their tails curl around and up to rest on their backs. They are placed on limestone plinths which set on mortared sandstone bases.

The lion sculptures cost $1,160 in 1908 which, according to an inflation calculator, would be $32,127.49 in 2017. In order to position the lions without cracking the stone base blocks, large blocks of ice were placed between the lions and the stone bases. As the ice slowly melted, the lions gently came to rest on their stone bases.

The only information I could find about the sculptor was a snippet by someone commenting on another website. Supposedly, August Blepp, a master stonecutter, is responsible for the carved lions guarding the courthouse. I shall continue to search for any details regarding the sculptor and update this post as needed.

Perhaps you noticed that I still have not mentioned the location of the lions or the county in which they and the courthouse reside. I enjoy a little mystery, and I’d rather these details be revealed within my published novel. Until then, I’ve provided a picture clue of one of the lions.

Happy hunting!

Southern Fried Solution

Joe Tedesco has a big heart, and he can see that his wife, Shirley, could use some cheering up for Mother’s Day. So, he pulls out all the stops when planning Shirley’s Mother’s Day celebration. Joe also has a big appetite, and the lure of a home-cooked meal is more than he can ignore. This is why the Tedesco Family will be attending church with their friends, Smiley and Charlene Roberts, on Mother’s Day. The Baptist church where Smiley and Charlene are members is hosting a meal in honor of mothers, and the dishes the men will prepare are the recipes their wives and mothers use. For Joe, this translates into culinary heaven. But really, the day is all about Shirley.

The following recipe is the one I had in mind for the above-mentioned scene in my novel, The Tedescos. This recipe is a meal unto itself, but when paired with other Southern favorites, then Joe is right in believing it’s ecstasy for the taste buds.

Southern Fried Cabbage

6 – 10 bacon slices

4 T butter

1 medium sweet onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 large head of cabbage, sliced or chopped

2 T Worchester sauce

3 T apple cider vinegar

2 T brown –OR– raw sugar

½ t hot Hungarian paprika –OR– ½ t Cajun seasoning

Sea salt

Black pepper (I used quad-colored peppercorns)

1 t crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Side Note: I used an 8-oz. package of Applegate uncured turkey bacon for this recipe which produced less fat. You will need to increase the butter to 6 T to take the place of the bacon drippings should you choose to do the same.

Slice or chop cabbage, taking care to remove any ribs and the core, and set aside.

Stack the bacon slices and cut them into strips across the width. In a large skillet over medium heat, sauté the bacon until brown and crisp. Set the cooked bacon aside and reserve 2 T of drippings.

Add the butter to the reserved bacon drippings in the skillet. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion turns translucent. Add the Worchester sauce, apple cider vinegar, and sugar. Stir gently and allow the onions to caramelize slowly and the liquid to thicken as it cooks off. Return the bacon to the skillet and stir gently.

Add the cabbage and season with salt, pepper, and hot Hungarian paprika ­–OR– Cajun seasoning. Cover and allow the cabbage to cook down about half way. When the cabbage has begun to wilt, stir the mixture. Return the cover to the skillet and continue cooking until the cabbage is tender.

Remove the lid from the skillet to allow the excess liquid to cook off. Stir gently to coat the cabbage and keep it from burning. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes if using. Transfer to a serving bowl and enjoy!

Mockingbird Calling

As a teenager, there are so many things that one doesn’t appreciate. My ninth grade Honors English teacher assigned the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, as part of our reading for the year, and we didn’t question it. I wondered who this man, Harper Lee, was and what sort of book this dead man had written. While my teacher, Mrs. Kraft, quickly corrected our wrong assumption about Harper Lee’s gender, she didn’t mention that the authoress was still alive. It was a small oversight, and being teenagers, we were either too disinterested or too lazy to care. I ended up loving the book so much that I read it a couple more times throughout my life.

Fast forward to the release of Go Set a Watchman. By then I was writing and seeking publication, and if there is one thing I’ve learned as a writer it’s that I would never want my first draft of anything published for the entire world to read. The idea was horrifying, and since I had heard that Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee’s first draft, I refused to read it in honor of her. Still, the point I made at the beginning of this post didn’t hit home with me.

It wasn’t until I read Charles J. Shields’s Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee that one particular fact become apparent. Harper Lee had still been alive in 1984 when I read her iconic novel for the first time. At least this time I had a better understanding of who she was and how much of herself and her life she had written into her novel.

I’ll provide you with my impressions of Nelle Harper Lee rather than bore you with facts. At first I wasn’t sure I liked this brash person who didn’t seem to recognize or understand boundaries in other people’s lives. In situations where most people would be embarrassed by such behavior, it appeared that Nelle didn’t have the good sense to be ashamed. What I thought of as her complete lack of social skills made me wonder if she was autistic, and I absolutely do not say that as a thoughtless insult. On the contrary, Nelle’s haphazard navigation of life touched my mother’s heart, and I wondered if she had anyone who truly understood her.

Adding to my concern was Nelle’s mother’s mental illness, and I wondered if the lack of maternal guidance toward her late-in-life daughter also affected the formation of Nelle’s personality. Alice Lee, the oldest sibling, and A. C. Lee, Nelle’s father, certainly filled any void in her life. According to Shields’s account, they presented a resilient style of parenting that I don’t believe the sensitive artist within Nelle was strong enough to withstand. Support for her chosen career came reluctantly, and only after her success with To Kill a Mockingbird did they come on board.

Then the pendulum would swing in the other direction, and a soft, caring Nelle appeared. She was still outspoken but also attentive to other people often to her own detriment. Her close friend, Truman Capote, benefited the most from this side of Nelle. He took advantage of her gentle nature when he employed her as his “assistant researchist” during the writing of In Cold Blood. A bare mention that had to be shared with Capote’s lover was all Nelle received for the extensive work she did. Along with Capote badmouthing Nelle on several occasions and his obvious envy of her success, it’s no wonder their relationship became strained.

I believe the pressure to live up to the success of To Kill a Mockingbird overwhelmed Nelle. I also believe that as much as she wanted to be a writer, she only had one novel in her, and this is absolutely fine. She could have been quite happy for years writing articles for newspapers or short stories for magazines, and if the idea for a novel came along, she could have penned it free from the burden of living up to her prior achievement. But the public and her family wanted more. The public wanted another book they could sink their teeth into, and for some reason I never truly understood, her family wanted her back home in Alabama at least six months out of the year. The tug of war on Nelle, both internally and externally, did little to encourage her writing. A second novel never came to light, and after ten years the bloom of her success from To Kill a Mockingbird had faded.

For the remainder of her life, Nelle viciously guarded her novel and characters, not so much as allowing a cookbook named after Calpurnia to be published. She basked in the waning glow of her novel, occasionally enjoying a resurgence of celebrity with anniversaries of the novel or when someone wrote an article about her or her famous book. Otherwise, she led a reclusive life to the degree that no one could ever convince me she wanted or approved the publication of Go Set a Watchman.

So do I have a clearer picture of Harper Lee? Actually, without her memoirs or at least a book of her personal correspondence, I’m left with more questions. I would have loved to speak with her, to wrestle her out of her insecurities, or at least understand where she was coming from. I believe we could have been friends.

– – – – –

The copy of Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee that I read was published prior to Nelle Harper Lee’s death. I do not know how the revised and updated copy reads, or whether it supplies further insight into the authoress or the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Quite frankly, I enjoy the mystique surrounding this simple woman, and I don’t feel as if I need to know more.

God Gives Us Teenagers Because He Loves Us

I have a theory. I’ve been sitting on it for about six years, keeping it to myself as I mulled it over and tested it. I experience it in daily life especially when interacting with my teenager. It goes like this: I ask Joshua to do something, and he responds with “Oh joy, oh rapture” to let me know that he is not going to enjoy what I’ve asked him to do. I already knew that what I requested of him wasn’t meant to produce pleasure, but nevertheless, it needs to be done. A voice in my head whispers, “Kind of like I told you (insert request here) needs to be done.”

Another example is when Joshua asks me for something, and the answer is no.  I usually follow up with a tactfully pointed out, “Why would I spend money on (insert desired objection) when you don’t appreciate what I’ve already given you?” And the gentle voice in my heart says, “Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”

Then there are the times when I give Joshua instructions for completing a task, and he does it wrong because he doesn’t listen and/or doesn’t care about the outcome. It takes him twice as long to finish (insert task here) and often things end up broken. I say, “Why didn’t you do it the way I told you the first time?” and the loving but firm voice speaking to my will sighs, “Exactly, beloved.”

My theory: God gives us teenagers to let us know what it’s like for Him when dealing with us. If I hadn’t heard His voice every single time I corrected Joshua, I would never have come to this conclusion. And because I’m the adult, the parent, the smart one who has lived more than twice as long as my child, I have it all together and nailed it the first time, right? Wrong.

I’ve grumbled, complained, whined, begged, pleaded, made deals, and sulked my way through life just like a teenager. God—being the great parent that He is—never backed down. Discipline and guidance came my way whether I wanted it or not. The lessons flowed from God to me to Josh, and still I didn’t catch on.

Until one day last week when I had a moment of brilliant insight. I had been moping because I received my first rejection notice concerning the novel I’m currently querying. Instead up getting right back up in the saddle and sending out another query, I sat in a chair at the kitchen table and sulked. It was a most unproductive day until my teenager came home. While Joshua may be a sluggard when it comes to picking up the dirty socks on his bedroom floor, he’s a drill sergeant when it comes to my writing.

“How many queries did you send out?” he asked. No “Hello, Mother, how are you? It sure is wonderful to see you.”

“None,” I replied.

“Get up.”

“What?”

“Get over to the laptop and send out a query letter.”

“I don’t want to.”

Without further comment, Joshua pulled out the chair with me in it, used a karate hold on me that put my arm behind my back, and led me to the computer at the other end of the table. Before you become upset thinking that he hurt me, please be assured that we laughed throughout the whole process. No bullying was involved as my son strong-armed me out of the doldrums and into positive energies. It worked.

Here’s the key: I knew better than to resist the karate hold because it was a real one he learned on his way to becoming a red belt. It didn’t hurt at all when Joshua helped me from the chair and gave the instruction to get back to work. If I had pushed or leaned in any direction against the hold, it would have been painful, and that’s when it hit me. God’s instructions only hurt when I resist them.

Finally, I’ve learned my lesson. Will I always apply it to my life perfectly? Probably not, but that doesn’t let me off the hook from trying. Just as I expect Joshua to strive for new levels of maturity in his life so, too, am I expected to stop behaving like a child, grow up, and pass the lesson forward.

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