Family Histories: An Unseemly Belch

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

Today I offer a story of my own from the next novel in my series about the dysfunctional Crenshaw family. Those of you who have read my novels already know that Buck and Fred Crenshaw have many flaws. This passage highlights the abuse they suffered as children at the hands of their parents and gives insight into why Buck and Fred behave the way they do as adults:

Buck’s brothers and sisters sat at the supper table. Tonight, with Father away at a medical conference and the gas-lit chandelier casting a soft glow over the fine crystal in the cozy winter dining room, everyone was jolly—including Buck’s mother. The fire in the hearth warmed the faces of the children giving them rosy cheeks as they laughed at a story Fred told about school—a silly story and probably untrue.

Buck sat beside his brother watching his mother laugh while balancing a fork full of lima beans in her plump hand, her jowls shaking in good humor. The younger children’s eyes shined on Fred who, at least for this meal, kept his mother light-hearted after so many tense and silent suppers.

Buck had a nervous stomach. There was a fleeting satisfaction when he interrupted the merry mood with an unseemly belch. Yes, it had been on purpose. Buck had given it all he had though he found crude humor and bodily functions distasteful and shame-filled like the rest of his family. Yet, he’d done it. Wasn’t he always the source of tension? Wasn’t that his role after all? But why? Buck had no clear answers—but an angry compulsion nudged him to end the peace.

Margaret lunged across the table then, upsetting Fred’s plate.

Buck leaned just out of reach. “Sorry, Mama,” he said with a triumphant smile he’d suffer for—but didn’t he suffer anyway?

“Go to your room at once,” Margaret ordered.

“But Mama my stomach ached.”

Margaret raced around the table. The other children quaked as she took Buck by the ear with a painful jerk, leading him toward the cellar door off the kitchen. Buck, like a cat, held to the door frame, intensely afraid of the cellar where once Fred had seen red rat eyes peering at him as he stole a bottle of wine.

Margaret, with one good tug, got the better of him. “You ruined our nice time with your disgusting behavior, and I won’t have it!”

Buck’s hands slid along the smooth wall as he tumbled past Margaret, landing on the damp cellar floor.

Margaret raced down shouting, “You turn everything into a colossal failure—even steps!” She pulled him up to his feet. “Clumsy! How did I ever produce such a clumsy and disgusting boy?”

Buck scratched to get by her, but Margaret blocked him. She thrust him deeper into darkness, and, with arms flailing, Buck fell against a row of expensive bottles. The shelf, not meant for rough use, slipped from its brackets and sent the vintage bottles rolling and crashing to the floor.

Margaret gasped at the destruction of Graham’s collection, not seeing in the dark as the wine poured forth, the gash on Buck’s chin until a glimmer of light on the staircase lit Buck’s bloodied and expensive shirt.

“Oh!” Margaret cried. “What shall we do, Buckie?”

Buck stared at the bottles emptying the last of their precious liquid. Glass glistened on the floor as Lucretia, the house maid, descended the stairs with her lantern.

“Lord save us,” Lucretia said, her voice hollow though used to such scenes. “Ma’am, take the boy into the light before he bleeds to death.”

“He tripped, Lucretia—you believe me don’t you?” Margaret cried.

“You don’t answer to me, Maggie—only to God,” Lucretia replied, the closest time she ever came to acknowledging the abuse she’d witnessed over her many years of service. “Now go upstairs.”

Lucretia herded the other children up to their bedrooms, called the stable boy in to clean the cellar and nursed Buck as he lay upon the kitchen table, applying pressure to stop the blood at his chin.

Margaret hovered and simpered. “What will Graham say? What will he say, Lucretia?”

“Ma’am, Buck needs a doctor for stitches.”

“Yes, tomorrow,” Margaret said. “Graham will fix everything. Buck tripped. Isn’t that so, Buck?”

Lucretia with a look of uneasiness hurried from the room to fetch Buck a shirt.

Margaret came close to Buck’s throbbing face. Tears dripped from her red eyes. “You tripped, Buck, didn’t you?”

Buck said nothing until she gave him a quick, violent shake.

“Yes, Mama. I tripped!”

Lucretia ran in. “Ma’am, we need to tell Doctor Crenshaw the truth! It will set you free.”

Margaret cried into her sleeve. “Buck, I didn’t mean to hurt you. Please forgive me. I beg of you. Please . . .”

Buck waited. He enjoyed her suffering.

“Please, Buckie.”

“Mama, I’m hungry,” Buck said, though the bottom half of his face swelled.

Margaret’s face lit up. “Ice cream! Chocolate. Your favorite. Lucretia will make it right now.”

Lucretia blanched. “But it’s 9:00!”

“You’ll do it, Lucretia, won’t you? For our little man, Buck. Won’t you?”

Buck watched Lucretia’s conflicted face—the one that assured Buck of late night ice cream with his mother. And so he imagined with a belly full of sugar and cream at 3 am that he’d won. Buck had a secret against his mother—one of many. His childish mind had forgotten all about the wine—he was too young to understand its value.

The next day, Buck’s stomach was sour and his face sore. While the family entertained themselves at checkers, reading and knitting before the fire, Buck lay in bed listening for the sound of his father’s footsteps in the vestibule. Outside the sky remained overcast and threatened snow.

Just before supper the sound of sleigh bells came up the drive. Buck, bandaged around the face, raced to meet his father at the sound of the front door opening.

Graham’s shoulders slumped at the sight of his son as he set his bag on the floor. “Land sakes, Buck. What’s happened now?”

“The wine bottles cut me.”

“Wine bottles can’t do anything without help.”

Margaret flew up behind Buck, her fingers settling deep into his shoulders. “Graham, dear, I’m so sorry to have your evening spoiled so quickly but there’s been an accident, and poor Buck is very sorry.”

Graham sighed in exasperation. “Come to me, Buck.”

Buck stood still.

“Graham, our dear child got into your wine last night and tripped. He smashed up all your Madeira. I didn’t punish him—his pain is enough maybe. He may need stitches . . .”

Graham’s face went crimson. His eyes bulged. The other children, gathered at the parlor door, fled up the stairs to their bedrooms having never seen their father so angry.

“I suppose we can get new wine, dear,” Margaret said, her finger nails digging deeper into Buck’s thin shoulders. “Don’t blame our boy. He’s just so very clumsy.”

When Buck wiggled free from his mother’s grasp, wincing, Graham sensed something. This something always hung heavily though he did his best to busy his mind with medical papers and research. Tonight Graham was tired and impatient after a cold and bumpy ride in the wet fall weather. He turned to Lucretia.

The housemaid hesitated. Her eyes lingered on Buck for a long while. She crossed her strong but gentle arms tightly in front of her, wrestling with her feelings. “Sir. The boy ran down the stairs, and before I knew it the bottles were upset.”

Graham moaned as if some deep volcanic rage had let go within. He tugged the belt from around his ample waist. “Come here at once and pull your trousers down, Buck.”

“No,” Buck said. “Mama pushed me.” His father’s rage was a new and terrifying thing.

“How dare you, Buck!” Graham began. “Your mother takes care of you . . .” he continued but something in his voice gave way to doubt. He looked at Lucretia again almost pleading for an excuse to turn back as Graham was not a violent man.

Lucretia’s dark eyes relayed to Buck a deep sympathy, yet she had to consider her own son she hardly saw while tending the Crenshaw brood. “Buck tripped. He’s a clumsy boy, most times.”

Graham, refocused on his son and grabbed him. “That Madeira is worth more than . . .” He didn’t finish his sentence, but Buck understood what it was worth more than. Graham half-heartedly made to strike his son, but Lucretia cried out.

“Oh, don’t, sir!”

Margaret seeing the tide turn against her followed suit. “Buck drives me mad! He does! Always upsetting something! I’m sorry I’m not the mother I should be!”

Buck slipped from his father’s grasp, but Graham caught him by the loose-fitting shirt he wore. It slipped from Buck’s shoulder exposing ugly bruises on his bony back.

“What’s this?” Graham asked, his voice trembling. A flood of half-formed suspicions and unusual breaks of bone came to mind.

Buck sensed danger—a new danger—seeing how his father looked at his mother—his dear mother. Yes, he loved her. It was he who had upset the supper. It was he who fell against the wine. He quickly pulled his shirt close.

“What’s happening here, Margaret . . . when I’m away?” Graham asked, his voice deadened.

“Lucretia! Why didn’t you tell me about Buck’s back?” Margaret cried, pulling Buck close against her bosom. “Oh, my poor sweet Buckie.”

Graham pressed his wife in the way he did surgery—with no sign of emotion. “Tell me about these bruises, Margaret. What is this about?”

Margaret’s body shook against her son, and Buck became one with her terror. What would come next became too much for Buck to wait for and so he jumped in to stop that terrible waiting when the world turned black with anticipated pain.

“I’m clumsy, Father. Terribly clumsy and awkward—the bottles in the cellar—all my fault. Forgive Mama at once, and you can thrash me—but please not so awfully hard.”

“The bruises, Buck . . .” Graham began, anger turning to something far worse—a softening—that softening that let this all happen again and again.

“The bed fell on me. Fred and I were playing, and I hid beneath the bed, and it fell on my back when Fred jumped on the mattress. We should have told you, but it doesn’t hurt. Not at all.”

Margaret pulled the hankie from her sleeve to wipe her eyes—so like Buck’s violet eyes. “Oh Graham, I never imagined we’d have a child so addicted to trouble—just like my brother Oliver. I thought I’d escaped all that went on between Oliver and my father.”

“Your father is a beast . . .” Graham choked up. “Maggie, it’s not your fault. Buck is clumsy—like I was and with a weak constitution.”

Buck wasn’t sure what constitution was until he looked it up later but the words followed him—weak and clumsy. These words set his whole family off kilter. “Father, may I go to my room?”

Graham turned to his wife. Lucretia slipped from the room to the kitchen to finish preparing Buck’s favorite meal Beef Wellington.

“Margaret, I know this traveling I’ve been doing is difficult for you . . . what do you want me to do about Buck?”

Margaret sniffled and blew her nose. “Two lashes, nothing more. I couldn’t bear it. Buck needs to learn that disrupting supper is not allowed.”

“Supper?” Graham asked. The belt limp in his hands.

Margaret stumbled over her words but regained her composure. “The gash on Buck’s chin has already taught him a lesson, but he needs to know who’s in charge.”

Graham preferred not to take charge. He hesitated, thinking of Buck’s back and grateful that Lucretia hadn’t called in another doctor to examine his son. Graham caught sight of Fred hiding in the shadows of the hallway closet. “Frederick Crenshaw come here at once.”

Fred looked as though he might bolt up to his room but sighed and dragged himself in at an excruciatingly slow pace. With hands in pockets he came before his father, the handsomest member of the Crenshaw clan. At this young age Fred still yearned for his father’s elusive approval.

“Fred, has something happened over supper?” Graham asked.

Fred glanced first at his mother and then let his eyes fall upon his brother.

“Fred . . .” Graham asked with a touch of impatience.

Fred’s eyes were big as he met his father’s gaze. This was before the passenger pigeons flew with Fred’s optimism to their deaths. The boy never wandered far from his twin. Last evening Fred saw from the top of the cellar steps his mother and Buck like ghosts playing out a ghastly theatrical in the cellar. Until Lucretia shooed him to his room Fred had stood transfixed at the begging of his brother and the power of his mother—the two he loved most in life always so at odds.

“You’ll make it worse for Buck. Now get to your room, Fred!” Lucretia had whispered, pushing him along when he resisted.

Just before Fred climbed the back stairs the night before from the kitchen to the bedrooms above, he heard the sickening crash of his brother’s body against the fragile collection of spirits and caught sight, before Lucretia pushed him away again, of the glistening shards of glass on the floor and the dark liquid on the front of his brother’s shirt.

Fred and Thankful spent the night perched on the top step listening. Was Buck alive? Was he at home? They heard pots being moved to the stove and muffled voices and wondered if Buck himself was being cooked. Their minds raced. The two most imaginative children of the clan who with different parents may have been artists or storytellers lived perched in the shadows of their substantial home where real stories were forbidden. Light talk meant survival. The big ideas of Thankful and Fred were snuffed out in a mix of worry and anger, false light and deep darkness.

The forlorn look of Buck—his fingers twitching, his sad violet eyes always unsettled—pained Fred more than any other thing. It colored his days and disrupted his nights. How many times did Fred seek to step between his brother and mother? How many times had Buck at the last moment turned and took the blame? And so Fred had always gone along. Margaret would beg Fred, and Fred learned his allegiance would be rewarded with an extravagant favoritism and a lesser punishment for Buck. Keeping Buck safe and keeping Buck weak and keeping Buck quiet made good sense.

Until last night the children heard more than they ever saw of the abuse. Yes, they’d witnessed many small beatings, endless berating and humiliations but never had they seen blood. Buck’s ability to take a throttling and still appear at supper to be physically well, awed the other children, and bruises and welts were easily hidden. Blood frightened the siblings with its messiness—and didn’t Margaret demand cleanliness of them all?

In fact, the children had convinced themselves that Buck did half-deserve what he got. Yet two days previous to the supper beating Fred had seen something new.

Fred looked one last time at his frightened brother and this time went against script. No longer could Fred stomach the fear and maddening behaviors all around him. “Father, Buck and I wanted to go hunting the other day.”

Graham shook his head. What did this have to do with anything? “Fred, I told you both I didn’t want you taking the guns on your own. You’re too young.”

“Yes, Father, but we wanted to anyway. We were going to run away, and we climbed out the window,” Fred said. He glanced at Margaret. His mouth was dry. He licked his lips. “Mama caught us in the barn.”

“Freddie, please!” Margaret begged.

“Mama took Buck’s gun and beat him with it in the stables,” Fred said, his voice quaking. “It gave the horses a fright, and I saw it all from the loft where I’d run to hide.”

“That’s a lie!” Margaret screamed. “I took the gun away from Buck, Graham. I did. I didn’t want them hurting themselves! Yes, I took it, but I never beat Buck. He ran against the gun and cried out—that’s certain but I never . . .”

Graham took hold of Buck again solemnly unbuttoning the boy’s shirt—it hung now from his trousers. Old and new marks mingled.

Margaret cried. Fred cried—no wonder Buck hadn’t wanted to wrestle anymore. Graham wiped his eyes. He recognized the signs. They ran in Margaret’s family. Yet despite the doctor’s many aggravations with Margaret he loved her.

There must be another explanation.

Buck read the room—his one talent. The truth hurt him, but so did this exposure. He slipped back into his shirt. In his young mind, in his young heart the only way to get away from all the feelings was to lie.

“Fred is lying, Father,” Buck said. “Mama loves me and does her best. I ran into the gun.”

Graham shook his head. “But, Buck, the other marks.”

“Fred and I wrestle—isn’t that right, Fred?”

Fred’s open, friendly face closed never to open again. “No! Mama hits you too hard! And we’re all afraid she’ll kill Buck one day!” Fred cried, years of pent-up emotion exploding in great sobs.

“LUCRETIA! Call down the children!” Graham ordered.

They came down in single file, reluctantly lining up before their father. Each one lied.

Fred stood alone.

“Now apologize to your mother, Fred,” Graham said.

“No. I won’t.”

Graham waited. He wanted Fred to be wrong and hadn’t Fred made up stories before? “Fred, this is your last chance to tell the truth. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Father.”

Everyone waited breathlessly.

Fred ran at his mother. “You hurt Buck! You don’t love him somehow!”

Graham pulled Fred off Margaret.

“That’s not true!” Buck cried, embracing his mother. “Mama loves me! I’m to blame!”

Margaret sobbed into Buck’s tousled and sandy hair. “Oh, dear boy!”

Graham held Fred by the arm. “Never tell these horrible lies again! How dare you make your mother a monster!” He struck Fred three times with his belt but broke down and sent all the children to their rooms. Buck listened just out of sight.

Margaret threw herself upon her husband. “Graham, you believe me, don’t you? All I’ve ever wanted was a house full of safe and happy children!”

Graham shrugged her off and collapsed into a chair. “Margaret . . . those marks . . . I don’t know what to believe. Fred seemed to be telling the truth this time. I just don’t know.”

Margaret fell at his feet. “No! Fred’s become a better liar. How many times have I begged you not to leave me alone with the children for so long? They’re vicious and brutal and lie like the devil. They need a father’s discipline. Fred—you know I love him best but today you see how Buck has poisoned him. His eyes were so like my brother Oliver’s—it sent shivers!”

Graham having made himself an outsider had no idea how the family ran.

“Graham, please. I need your help,” Margaret cried. “I beg you to believe me. I’d never hurt a fly!”

Later when the house was blanketed in hush and warmth Graham stared into the dying embers of the fire in the parlor. A sound in the hall startled him.

“Lucretia?” Graham stood. “Where are you off to this hour?”

Gripping her bag with white knuckles, Lucretia glanced up the stairs and then toward the door. “Sir, I didn’t want to do this, but I’ve left you a note—in the kitchen.”

“Lucretia, please tell me what’s the matter—sit with me a moment by the fire.”

“No, sir.”

“I insist—please.” Graham led her to Margaret’s chair and waited.

“Sir, Mrs. Crenshaw is like a sister to me—I hope you don’t mind me saying—but, well, she struggles—it’s a mighty struggle with the children being so—full of energy.”

“She hurts them?” Graham asked, leaning in.

“Sir, I just wanted to say . . . I’ve grown very fond of your little ones—Buck especially—and feel . . . I feel tortured inside by . . .”

“Yes, Lucretia, go on.”

“Mrs. Crenshaw—she doesn’t mean to do it, but it’s as if she becomes someone else altogether and Buck with his clumsy ways and—I’ll say it—his ambition to withstand all Mrs. Crenshaw heaps upon him . . .” She cried then. “It’s none of my business, sir, but as a Christian I can no longer be party to what goes on. I fear for Buck’s life, too! I’m terribly sorry!” Lucretia made to get up, but Graham prevented her.

“Lucretia, Mrs. Crenshaw is with child.”

Lucretia shook her head.

“This is a family matter, you understand,” Graham continued, “and I consider you a family member. Maggie struggles, but what are my children to do without a mother?—and an auntie? What am I to do? If any of this ever got out the scandal would ruin us all. We need to help the children and Maggie, don’t we?”

“But, sir, I’ve done my best. I’ve given my best years, and the fear of finding Buck one day—who I love as my own—to find him dead one day . . .”

“Now, now,” Graham interrupted. “Bruises—they are troubling to see, but dear Lucretia, Maggie’s not a killer. She’s tender-hearted beneath it all—but her temper sometimes—I understand at times it gets the best of her, but if you desert us now—consider Buck.”

Lucretia stood to go.

“Wait! Lucretia, what if . . . what if we arranged—with Maggie’s consent of course—what if we kept you on more as an advisor.”

“Sir?”

“I could tell Mrs. Crenshaw that you would take charge of the older children—see to their needs. To give Mrs. Crenshaw a much-needed chance to recover her equanimity.”

“Sir, I don’t see how I could protect Buck and the others,” Lucretia said, edging toward the door.

“I would double your pay—no—triple it and give you all day Sunday off. You would have final authority over the children.”

“Sir! Mrs. Crenshaw wouldn’t like that!”

“Lucretia, I’ve known in my heart for a while now that something wasn’t quite right. I didn’t want to admit it. Maggie’s a good girl in a lot of ways,” Graham said with trembling voice. “But unless she agrees to this arrangement I’ll have to take the children away from her completely and divorce her.” Graham waited a moment for the information to settle in. “You may not consider me a good father, but I love my children very much, and I’m prepared to take drastic measures if need be.”

What did drastic measures mean to a boy of nine? Buck understood only the part about being taken away from his mother. He silently vowed to be a better child—to be the best child and the least offensive.

There were no more beatings to speak of. Buck studied Fred’s every move in an effort to emulate his well-loved brother, but in the end settled for being mostly unseen. And the small humiliations he was prepared to take as the price for a home.

If Buck never felt quite himself, and slowly it became harder to find that self, at least he could survive. Having heard his father—that absent, passive voice of his faraway father—threaten drastic measures cut the last cord of stability in Buck’s unstable world. All sense of love, intimacy and value however strangely woven together could now be unraveled by his father. Buck only now realized his father’s soft outer covering masked an authority to do drastic things.

Fred had taken the lash which was far more unsettling than the daily threats and acts of his mother. Unlike his mother who after a good sound thrashing begged for forgiveness and bribed with treats and affection, his father did not apologize, did not show the usual regret that signaled an end to torment. Graham’s actions and words left an uncertainty in the suffocating air of the Crenshaw house which Buck grew to despise and test.

What were the drastic measures? When would they come?

Lucretia, whom Buck had great affection for, stayed and took her pay, and when she tried to act as mother from then forward Buck repelled her. He told Lucretia she had yellow teeth every time she smiled and pulled from the only physical affection he got until she no longer offered it. No more talks in the kitchen about school or stories before bed. He was too old for it all anyhow.

Lucretia watched Buck from afar like everyone else, and it was good for a time.

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“Rich and colorful page turners. Morris has a fine sense of time and place and brings her memorable characters to life. She also tells a captivating story. You won’t find it easy to put her book down, and her characters will stay with you when you do. We can only hope she keeps writing and gives us more episodes in this fascinating chronicle.”

9 Signs You May Have Mistakenly Joined a Dystopian/Utopian Community

“I had staked no valuable amount of hope or fear; it had enabled me to pass the summer in a novel and agreeable way, [and] afforded me some grotesque specimens of artificial simplicity.” Nathaniel Hawthorne from The Blithedale Romance

MY CLASSICS CLUB Response to The Blithedale Romance

Having sent one of my main characters, BUCK CRENSHAW, to a 19th century perfectionist community based on THE ONEIDA COLONY and having lived on a modern-day farm with utopian pretensions, and having worked on yet another farm with similar pretensions, I was excited to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance—to compare his opinions with my own.

The book is a strange one; seeming to first be about the utopian society and then about the mysterious history of two female characters. Many of the people I’ve met in my utopian circles, who often disdained “conventional society,”  tended to be running from some real or imagined life of mystery and horror.

Unlike my character Buck who arrives at my fictional “Middlemay Farm” as a somewhat prudish and naïve babe in the woods, Hawthorne’s narrator, Miles Coverdale is a poet who manages to keep just enough of his individualism to begin to question the motives of the charismatic leader of the Blithedale community. This leads to the first thing one can expect when joining a society of people who think they know just how to fix the world, and by world I mean other people.

A reform movement usually has a charismatic leader who, while possessing a dynamic sexual energy (felt by one and all), is actually kind of gross, mean-spirited and selfish in his desire to change the world as he sees fit. This man may be, as at Blithedale, a man who is obsessed with prison reform. Miles Coverdale is shunned when he expresses honest concerns about Hollingsworth’s grand schemes of reform:

“They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience … They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.”

 

At Middlemay, Richard Rhinedale is obsessed with sexual reform. Buck becomes a useful pawn until he is no longer useful. The socialist farmer I worked for was obsessed with Cuba, wind energy and shocking Hasidic Jews (who paid for farm tours) with his hatred of their religion. He did this in the name of women’s rights but it seemed to me that he was bitter at losing his own faith while attending Yale Divinity School. I was also shunned for questioning a socialist idea.

These strangely charismatic men often attract women who are willing to fund the leaders’ pipe-dream endeavors while also accepting the men’s only slightly veiled contempt for said women. Miles Coverdale is shocked by the mad infatuation and devotion the two lead female characters have for the brooding, self-absorbed Hollingsworth.

Utopian women often subject themselves to “free love” once they are convinced that it will improve their relations in the long run. At Blithedale, the woman perceived to have money is thrown aside when it becomes clear that she has nothing.

In MY NOVEL, Richard’s wife is given the job of training young men to control themselves sexually. This is Richard’s inside joke since he finds his wife so repulsive and assumes the young trainees will control themselves with little coaching. As I mentioned in a post long ago, a friend raised in a Utopian society bitterly remembers his mother’s neglect due to her devotion to “the cause” of socialism in the 1960’s.

Many (if not most) people who dive into this lifestyle really don’t like people they consider “common.” For instance, I’ve heard many an erudite farmer blame regular farmers’ stupidity for the loss of their family farms. The fact that many of these perfectionists often rely on unpaid labor in the form of eco-apprentices or converts to their cause and often aren’t more successful than the regular guys who don’t read Mother Earth and Foreign Affairs, their disdain seems pretty hypocritical.

One farmer I knew insisted on only using horse-power-unless he was in a hurry. His contempt of modern machinery was thrown aside when he butchered a lame old goat with a dull knife in front of a family of Hassidic Jews in the rain and unceremoniously shoveled up the animal with his tractor. Hawthorne brilliantly captures the uncouth but far more able true farmer who trains the city folk at country life.

Manual labor is often “spiritualized,” says Hawthorne, with the actual sweat on someone else’s brow at these colonies. There is something quite lovely about raising your own food, living by the seasons and going to sleep tired, but the work is mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting. From a distance golden hay bales look beautiful at sunset, but hay up close means work, sweat and worry.  It doesn’t take long for those of us with big ideas to realize that picking and hauling potatoes isn’t the glamorous thing it looked like in the old peasant paintings. Hawthorne quips,

 “I seldom saw the new enthusiasm that did not grow flimsy and flaccid as the proselyte’s moistened shirt-collar, with a quarter-of-an-hour’s active labor, under a July sun.”

Usually when living in utopia people start dressing funny. Many of these reformers think they are quite unconventional yet in most cases they only trade one uniform for another.  Whether it be at the Oneida Colony where dress reform was explored or on your basic farm as at Blithedale. When city folk come for a visit you’re usually pretty shocked at how far off the path you’ve gone in terms of fashion. Zenobia, the beauty at Blithedale, wears a hothouse flower in her hair. In the city it’s a flower of jewels. I suppose it’s true that in real life we buy more fake things. Certain high-end farm gear is always in style on the “better” farms these days (on others the badge of honor is wearing 100% thrift store items—I do both ;)).

Utopians hate the present. Some romanticize the past. Some, at the very beginning of their endeavors, worship the future. In the present, many feel misunderstood, angry at humanity and depressed. I’ve seen this myself far too many times. It’s sad because if these reformers actually stepped out of their dream/nightmare they might possibly see some of the pleasant things in life that make humanity and the world worth saving.

A very odd thing I’ve noted and Hawthorne mentions is that there’s usually a utopian who insists on being called by a name that isn’t their own. I’m still not sure what to make of a young lady I once met who called herself “Fiddlin.” She didn’t play an instrument as far as I know. Zenobia at Blithedale sported a fake name as well (for mysterious reasons).

Utopians are bound by their hatreds:

“Our bond, it seems to me, was not affirmative, but negative. We had individually found one thing or another to quarrel with, in our past life, and were pretty well agreed as to the inexpediency of lumbering along with the old system any farther. As to what should be substituted, there was much less unanimity.”

Hawthorne, like many other people who end up deserting these attempts to change the world one elevated summer at a time, sees the characters he once called friends as tragic and deluded.

Related: UTOPIA & SEX

***Peasant Girl by Jules Breton

My Life Mission Is Soon To Be Accomplished

MY MESSAGE TO EVERYONE is to NEVER STOP SEEKING PURPOSE! Never settle for what others think is enough for you.

For most of my life I drifted with that uneasy feeling of never finding a life purpose. As a purpose-driven person I dove deep into things I was only mildly interested in and relationships that were fascinating but dysfunctional. At the time these weird relationships and ridiculous career choices were only slightly amusing–to others. Family and friends thought I was successful enough. They thought I was too serious. I was doing pretty normal things fairly well, but internally I was in a constant state of unrest.

Then I wrote a novel about life, family, love and addiction. One hundred pages into the first draft I knew, I really knew, that I’d found my purpose–or that I’d finally listened to the inner voice given to me at birth. And now with the end of one long novel about an addicted soldier and his wife and a series about their offspring coming to a close after 5 books, I’m satisfied.

This doesn’t mean I plan to die from Lyme complications or that I’m tired of writing, but if I had to stop after I publish the novel I’m editing right now, I’d be okay. Before I was never okay. I was a caged tiger, a malnourished creative and a diamond in the rough.

Some people who like epic sagas loved THE HOUSE ON TENAFLY ROAD (a few didn’t). The next books  starting with WEARY OF RUNNING are shorter and possibly better, but I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish writing the series I’ve hardly talked about all the fun, sad and exciting characters who’ve become a second family to me. Now I know what happens to them all, and I can’t wait to share them with the world.

I don’t know where I end, but it’s okay. It really is.

My mission was to write imperfect characters. That I’ve done. Will readers understand the hearts hidden behind pride, fear, stupidity and a desperate need for love and meaning? I hope so. The mission was (and is) to take imperfect people and let them know they are loved. I love them.

My fantastic designer and I decided with the series nearing completion that it was time to re-do the covers. They so fantastically capture the spirit of the books I have a hard time not bringing them into every conversation I have with strangers.

Aren’t they beautiful?

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Fiction: The Morning After Pill

Thankful Crenshaw wakes to find her position at Fort Grant changed.

Thankful had just finished buttoning up the smallest child for a walk out in the morning air when Miss Peckham, wrapped in one of Thankful’s favorite robes, descended the stairs from the bedroom. Miss Peckham motioned for one of the children to give up his seat and pointed to the door. The child left politely.

“Oh, I’ve such a head this morning! Late nights can be such a bother,” Miss Peckham lamented. “And such busy bees you are; banging around all morning.”

“Have you been crying?” Thankful asked.

Miss Peckham gave her a barely tolerant look. “No, of course not. Why?”

“Your eyes are horribly puffed and your poor complexion is so ruddy.”

Mrs. Markham scolded Thankful with her eyes. “Miss Peckham, are you hungry?”

“Positively famished,” Miss Peckham said while adjusting Thankful’s flower arrangement on the dining table.

“Too bad you missed breakfast,” Thankful said, scooping up a toddler.

Miss Peckham smiled. “My, Miss Crenshaw, with that child in your arms you look like a dear old matron.”

Thankful opened her mouth to speak, but Mrs. Markham again stepped in. “Thankful, please go to the kitchen and fetch our guest coffee and toast.”

“Have you got eggs?” Miss Peckham asked.

“No, I’m sorry . . . but Thankful will go next-door to Mrs. Tremble, and see if she’s got an egg to spare.”

Thankful deposited the messy toddler onto Miss Peckham’s lap and stormed off to Mrs. Tremble’s quarters. She knocked until the hired-on Mexican girl Anita answered, peeved at the racket. Thankful pushed past the servant. It annoyed Anita that Thankful held her nose so high when she was still just hired help until she married Lieutenant Fahy.

Mrs. Tremble spent hours upon hours doing needlework and studying the occult. She claimed to talk to dead soldiers though living ones did their best to avoid her and her weird husband who’d lost one of his eyes to a bear (though some said it was a bar brawl in St. Joseph). He never bothered with a patch.

Mrs. Tremble’s eyes were serpentine green and her dark old teeth gave Thankful shivers. But who cared about her feelings now that Miss Peckham was here? Thankful sniffled.

“Miss Crenshaw, how nice to see you.”

“I-I need an egg, please.”

“Excuse me?” Mrs. Tremble said over her glasses as she pulled a red thread through her needlework.

Thankful burst into tears. “An egg. May I borrow one?”

Mrs. Tremble dropped her work and went to Thankful. “My dear, what in heaven’s name is wrong? Of course you may have an egg. Take two even . . .”

“No, no, it’s not the egg,” Thankful sobbed, wiping her eyes on her apron. “Oh, I don’t know what it is exactly.”

“Have you and the lieutenant quarreled? Do tell!”

“No, never mind. I’ve just behaved childishly, but Miss Peckham is so awful!”

“Miss Peckham? The lady on the horse?” Mrs. Tremble asked.

“Yes, and I think that she’ll take advantage of William.”

“I’ve never seen your friend William smile so much as he did last night at the dance.”

“I don’t care!” Thankful cried. “And we’ve had breakfast already, and she has the nerve to ask for an egg after she was offered toast! Miss Peckham is forward and ugly—don’t you agree?”

“Now Thankful, I’ve never heard you be so mean before. It’s unattractive.”

“Have you got any spells maybe?” Thankful eyed the mantle full of skulls and glass balls.

“Spells?” Mrs. Tremble giggled. “I’m afraid not, but here’s some advice—there’s no protecting others in love.”

“Love? Who said anything about that? William was drunk, and that’s why he behaved so foolishly. He’ll realize it today, I bet.”

“Or not. Bill didn’t look so foolish to me,” Mrs. Tremble said. “He’s a handsome young man. Miss Peckham seems to have done him a world of good. He was never meant for you, young lady.”

“No. You’re wrong,” Thankful said blushing. “I mean about Miss Peckham. May I have the egg, please?”

Mrs. Tremble returned to her chair and rocked. “Anita will give you one. Cheer up; your friend will be fine. You’ll see, dear.”

“I think that I know my friend best, Mrs. Tremble, but thanks all the same.”

PREVIOUS EPISODE: WEARY OF RUNNING

Excerpted from WEARY OF RUNNING. Read more about Buck Crenshaw, his sister Thankful and William Weldon’s  misadventures when you buy the book today!

“The second installment in The Tenafly Road Series definitely did not disappoint. With the introduction of new characters and the return of familiar ones, Weary of Running made for an exciting read. The protagonist, Thankful, is the real highlight of the novel. She consistently makes very poor decisions but in the end, you can understand why she has made every last one of them. The story ranges from love and romance to questions of faith and morality. It does all this without being preachy and explores many angles of different aspects of life. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.” Amazon Review

“Buck Crenshaw is my favorite dysfunctional lovable character.”

forget me not promo

Thoughts on Romantic Reformers

“When the romantic fails to illuminate or enlighten others, and when social reform is slow to come—or seems not to come at all—then he or she can only resort to violence.”

The Nation review of Man’s Better Angels: Romantic Reformers and the Coming of the Civil War by Philip F. Gura

“They have no heart, no sympathy, no reason, no conscience … They will keep no friend, unless he make himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third, and every other step of their terribly straight path.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance

***featured image: The Gang by John George Brown

Fiction: Wine With Supper

“Why is it you think women would improve politics?” Thankful asked. “I’d hate for a woman like you to speak for me—nothing personal, of course, Miss Peckham. I’m fond of men. I wouldn’t want them to change.”

“Miss Crenshaw, (you seem such a smart girl), was it God who planned slavery?”

“Well, no, I guess it was men, but . . .”

“Just like it’s men who keep women from the vote. I don’t for a minute expect women to be better voters. Most women are too stupid to realize how enslaved they are and would probably waste their votes on a handsome yet stupid candidate. But if the Negro, only up from complete and utter ignorance, should vote then why not a woman? Many slaves loved their masters—or at least the security they were given. They had a home and food and a place in the order of things—just like women. They all need to see the real way of things. I consider myself an educator. . .” Miss Peckham proclaimed.

“My father never offered my mother security, and she’s devoted just the same,” William said, never missing an opportunity to snipe at his father. There was an embarrassed silence. The trumpeter called for stable duty.

“My goodness, how do you all put up with that infernal racket?” Miss Peckham complained.

“I love it,” Thankful said with her arms folded in front of her.

“Me too,” William said with a small smile at Thankful.

She offered no such response, but said quietly, “It was low of you, William, to speak so unkindly of your father in front of a stranger and old military acquaintances.”

“Bill gets a scolding. How nice,” Miss Peckham laughed.

William fumed. “Miss Crenshaw, you have no right to judge me at all!”

“I’m your friend.”

“Really?” William asked.

“Why, yes! How can you question that?” Thankful replied on the verge of tears. “Why do you want to hurt me?”

Hurt you?” William was taken aback.

Mrs. Markham spoke uneasily, “Of course we’re all friends—Bill, don’t be so silly—we ALL miss you at the post. Now, I’ll set up a nice meal for us, and we’ll get along—as we must—till morning.”

William looked at Thankful with soft eyes before turning his attention to Miss Peckham. He cleared his throat. “Mrs. Markham always has nice meals.”

“It will be an excellent chance at research,” Miss Peckham said.

“You’re not visiting a foreign land,” Mrs. Markham said, with an annoyed laugh. “Our food is of the most ordinary sort.”

“I’ll be the judge of that!” Miss Peckham laughed too.

The matron glanced at the telegraph line as she set off for home, with the small party traipsing behind.

Thankful and William understood how frugal an army wife—even an officer’s wife–must be if she had any ideas for her children’s education, or a trip east for a wardrobe change every few years. What the captain’s wife offered that evening was more than she could afford.

William ate reluctantly, figuring the little ones seated in the kitchen might be going with less, but didn’t turn down the wine. Thankful ate like a bird—an unusual trait for a Crenshaw. Miss Peckham pushed the ordinary and bland food on her plate with her fork, unimpressed.

“Maybe someone might offer to take me to a real live Indian meal,” she said as she moved her plate away.

William whispered, slurring his words, “What were you expecting soldiers to eat—Indian testicles?”

Miss Peckham let out a big guffaw as Thankful and Mrs. Markham cleared the table for coffee and tea. Thankful, standing with a few stacked plates, watched William cling to his glass, pour another and get closer to Miss Peckham.  Mrs. Markham pulled Thankful’s sleeve.

“Some are just bent on their own ruin, poor boy.”

“He’s not poor in the least; just blind,” Thankful said, storming off with the dishes.

Miss Peckham teased and flirted with William. He couldn’t think of a way to quiet her, so he drank and enjoyed it, noting the annoyed glances of Thankful.

“Miss Peckham, you’re probably too worn out to come dancing,” Mrs. Markham said.

“My goodness, of course I’m not tired a lick—your strong army coffee is quite a restorative!”

“I would think that dancing might be against your beliefs since the men lead,” Thankful said with a triumphant grin.

The captain’s wife laughed, too.

Miss Peckham ignored Thankful. “Mr. Weldon, you’ll escort me, won’t you?”

“No, I’m afraid I’m no dancer and unwelcome anyhow,” William replied.

“Bill Weldon, that’s a great fiction you’ve invented,” Mrs. Markham said. “You’ll come as my guest.”

“Well, I’ll come to watch, maybe,” William said, pouring out the last of the wine.

“It’s a shame that dances aren’t held on horseback—then you wouldn’t be so awkward, Mr. Weldon,” Miss Peckham said.

The women did not appreciate it. William excused himself for a smoke on the porch.

“Miss Peckham, you are very insensitive!” Thankful scolded.

“Mr. Weldon is still bitter over the accident that kept him from a place at West Point,” Mrs. Markham added.

Thankful had related many of William’s trials and accomplishments to the garrison. The stories were so enmeshed with her own.

“How is it that Mr. Weldon is so well-known here?” Miss Peckham asked.

“Why Miss Crenshaw and Mr. Weldon are from the same town in New Jersey—their parents are friends, and Bill’s father served in the military years ago under General Crook,” Mrs. Markham said.

“Oh, General Crook, I’ve heard he has kind feelings toward the Indians. Anyway, I’m sure you’re all well-meaning. Bill seems to be a pet to you, but a man should never be overly pampered,” Miss Peckham stated. “My remark was said in jest—Bill is a good horseman.”

“William suffered awful torment and abuse at school, and pain, too. If you had been aware of that . . .” Thankful started.

“I’m aware that he’s crippled physically, but he’s fine company, and I’m sure has many other talents—I didn’t think he needed any coddling.”

There was a new voice on the porch. Thankful ran to the stairs. “Land sakes, Lieutenant Fahy is here, and I’m not ready!”

“Miss Peckham, you may freshen up . . .”

“I need no improvement, Mrs. Markham—besides, I don’t have any of my clothes.”

The captain’s wife sensed a small chink in the young lady’s confident demeanor. “Miss Peckham, you may look through my things, though I know they’re not as modern as you may be used to. We are about the same size.”

PREVIOUS EPISODE: WEARY OF RUNNING

Excerpted from WEARY OF RUNNING. Read more about Buck Crenshaw, his sister Thankful and William Weldon’s  misadventures when you buy the book today!

“The second installment in The Tenafly Road Series definitely did not disappoint. With the introduction of new characters and the return of familiar ones, Weary of Running made for an exciting read. The protagonist, Thankful, is the real highlight of the novel. She consistently makes very poor decisions but in the end, you can understand why she has made every last one of them. The story ranges from love and romance to questions of faith and morality. It does all this without being preachy and explores many angles of different aspects of life. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.” Amazon Review

“Buck Crenshaw is my favorite dysfunctional lovable character.”

What are Your Favorite Film Adaptations of Books?

pierce brosnan courtesy AMC
Pierce Brosnan courtesy of AMC (I love this pic!)

You know mine will be period pieces set in 19th century America, right?

THE SON

Okay, so I haven’t watched this one yet but I will. Pierce Brosnan in a western family saga? What’s not to like?

GLORY

One of the few movies that captures the nuances of race relations during the American Civil War. The cinematography and music are beautiful.

“The screenplay was written by Kevin Jarre, based on the personal letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the book One Gallant Rush by Peter Burchard (reissued in 1990 after the movie), and Lay This Laurel (1973), Lincoln Kirstein‘s compilation of photos of the monument to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on Boston Common.” Wikipedia

THE OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL

Alan Gurganus tells how he came up with the idea to write this epic saga about a crusty old Civil War veteran who married a very young girl which I devoured when it came out.

Back in the day television networks actually called people at home to complete surveys about miniseries ideas. I answered the phone and they asked me if I’d like to see this book made into a miniseries! They granted my wishes!

What are some of your favorite books made into movies?

Fiction: Lost Time

William Weldon ponders generational curses . . .

William, now at loose ends,  went to see if he’d gotten any mail. He opened a short letter from his father in the old soldier’s pathetic, shaky script.

Dear William,

We are all well here. Mother was very pleased to receive a kind letter from Captain Bourke dated some months ago, but it seems as though you have impressed Captain Markham and the others as we knew you would.

Please tell us when your sketches are published so we can look for them in the magazines. We would like to hear from you more, but we understand about your headaches and all the distractions of the West.

Enclosed is a small bit of money for you, I wish it could be more. Buy a little treat.

Affectionately your father,

John Weldon

His father had great timing—always too late. What was five dollars to him now? William didn’t feel at all guilty about sending his father nothing for Christmas. Being out west reminded him of the Christmas long ago, alone with his father, before his accident.

All of the soldiers had sparkling gold and silver pocket watches, and William wanted one desperately. His father had taken him hunting with the same old carbine he still carried, and they had gotten a big bird. It was probably John’s bullet that caught it, but he lied and insisted it was Willy’s. He hinted that William would get what he wanted for Christmas. Something made William turn spiteful. “All I want is Mother,” he had said.

His father got sicker and the watch never materialized. Later William realized that his father had traded it for opium.

William shoved the letter into his pocket and limped in his old, uneven and tattered shoes from home. His head burned in the sun. He found shelter in The Buckskin Saloon.

“Merry Christmas, Robinson,” William said and sat at the bar, sliding the five dollars towards the bartender. “This is some of what I owe you.”

The bartender gave him a once over. “Well, this is a holiday, if you’re payin.’ But it hardly covers the damage you done last night.”

“Damage?”

“Boyo, you really are soft in the head, ain’t you? I mean to say all the drinks you bought on credit—that’s the damage.”

“Credit?”

“Like always,” Robinson replied. “What will I get you now?”

“Now? Oh, just a ginger beer.”

The man raised his brows. “On the wagon?”

“Gosh, no. My stomach just pains me is all.”

“Gosh? Bill, if you didn’t amuse me, there’d be no fun. So when you sellin’ another picture so’s I can get some more spoondulicks from you? More than just a few dollars, I mean,” the bartender asked while passing him the small glass and nodding at another customer.

“Soon.”

Jay Haviland slapped William on the back. “Here’s just the man I wanted to see today. You were all horns and rattles last night. Is the girl sent back and all, do you know? Thought I saw the very same one with one of them high-falutin’ officers this morning. Boy howdy—it’s hot enough to wither a fence post, ain’t it?”

“Yes, it’s hot.” William finished his drink, remembering the first time he met Haviland.

WEARY OF RUNNING PREVIOUS EPISODE

Excerpted from WEARY OF RUNNING. Read more about Buck Crenshaw, his sister Thankful and William Weldon’s  misadventures when you buy the book today!

“The second installment in The Tenafly Road Series definitely did not disappoint. With the introduction of new characters and the return of familiar ones, Weary of Running made for an exciting read. The protagonist, Thankful, is the real highlight of the novel. She consistently makes very poor decisions but in the end, you can understand why she has made every last one of them. The story ranges from love and romance to questions of faith and morality. It does all this without being preachy and explores many angles of different aspects of life. This is one of the best books I have read in a long time.” Amazon Review

“Buck Crenshaw is my favorite dysfunctional lovable character.”