Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"The Girl in the Halo" BAD MONKEY Curtis Smith

BAD MONKEY is a collection of images and emotion. Each theme settles itself in a reader's subconscious, requiring one to ask questions of one's own impulses and prejudices. Curtis Smith requires a great commitment from his reader, and no story better exemplifies this commitment than the first, "The Girl in the Halo."

A summary of "The Girl in the Halo" is a difficult one to offer. The tale is a kind of test. To give you the plot is to infect your own reaction to Smith's images. As the story begins, Smith creates an image of a house, and a life, falling in on itself. Dangling wires and a rickety foundation are as perilous as the protagonist's future. The reader at once pities this boy, and Smith takes advantage of that pity to test our prejudices. As much as we may pity this boy with the world against him, you cannot help but judge him in the end.

Is a boy who cannot bring himself to end the life of his late father's cancerous dog capable of committing a heinous murder? This same boy who cares for his invalid mother and struggles to keep a home together as best as a boy can. What does that say about the reader to suspect him of such a crime? What does that say of the boy to harbor such dark impulses?

Smith's destitute protagonist is juxtaposed with a heartbreaking image on the late news. A young girl is missing and as the broadcaster beseeches the small town for any information, images of her purity and privilege flash on the screen. Throughout the story circumstantial evidence collides with a reader's judgement to cast suspicion on the boy, this boy we once pitied. Now we notice his dilapidated truck, his tattered sneakers, his condemnable house, his crazy mother, and we use the superficial to condemn him.

The second person narrator only serves to inject the reader further. I felt guilty at the conclusion. I've thought often of what my own suspicion says about my Self. Curtis Smith has gotten in my head. He may even be judging me.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Letter from Birmingham Jail" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I do not remember the first time I heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say, "I Have a Dream..." I confess every time I hear it, it rings with the resonance and song of a poem. Dr. King's passion and determination and belief possess the rhythm and cadence, transforming his words from a speech to an oration.

I do remember the first time I read "Letter from Birmingham Jail": Salem College, Main Hall, English Wing, 3rd Floor, Creative Nonfiction with Professor Penelope Niven, (though I, and my peers, should have memorized it verbatim by the time we left middle school). Written in response to a letter written by eight white clergyman to a newspaper, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" is, in my humble opinion, the manifesto of the Civil Rights Movement. Read it. If you read nothing else this year, please read it and share it with your children, your neighbors. Not only is it a perfect persuasive essay, it is a testimony to Dr. King's personal dedication and humility and devotion to his faith. It is timeless, for "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." It is transcendent, because truth, real, honest, rare truth, knows no bounds.

To read "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in its entirety please follow the title link. It can also be found in the anthology, BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS OF THE CENTURY, edited by Joyce Carol Oates.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I feel as if I'm gossiping. LAST ONE HOME is so richly character driven, it seems in offering a summary I'm prattling in the churchyard. Gone down the mountain... left in the middle of the night, don't you know, with the furniture given to 'em... Cabin's front door left wide open to the weather and the raccoons. Don't that beat all? And her daddy gave them all that land... left behind their family... but Pink's never been satisfied, always looking for a deal when he shoulda been farming. And poor Amanda... her daddy liked to tore Pink's hide when he found her gone. That girl won't do in a big city like Asheville. She won't.
Admittedly, my colloquialisms are more Eastern North Carolina, but you get the point. I know this family. I have known them all their lives. LAST ONE HOME follows the last generation of the King family. Pinkney and Amanda King, beckoned by progress and tempted by ambition, brave their own way beyond the comforts of tradition and duty. Pink seeks to make a new family, and Amanda is the beneficial martyr.
I'm not quite certain whether success finds Pink or Pink keeps stumbling into success. I don't know much about life insurance, and I don't think Pink does either, but he quickly finds a fortune and gains stature in a growing city. Amanda holds him to the old ways. Amanda's reluctance over social progress is most evident as her precocious child, Hallie, grows into a smart, independent, decisive woman, duly suited to inherit the responsibilities of her father's company. Which is more than one can say for their rambling , oft-drunk, slow-witted first son Frederick. His mother's sense of entitlement for him, coupled with her desire to see her daughter in a traditional role as wife and mother, threatens to rip the family apart.
Even setting is molded into a character. No town is better suited to represent the blessings and burdens of progress than Asheville. We watch as Asheville is manipulated by the ambitions of wealthy outsiders. Crafts of necessity become a tourist's leisure. Mountainsides are blasted apart to give way to picturesque views. Local tradesmen struggle with an economy that seems always two steps ahead.
Mr. Ehle is a master of imagery and metaphor. Pink's namesake and younger son is himself a promise of the future once loyalty and refinement merge, representing potential and virtue. Furthermore, I don't think I have ever read a truer description of family as Amanda muses on the ability to measure love by a length of fabric.
There is no glamour in this story. Not in the primitive mountaintop community left behind, not in the busy marketplace or the bustling square of Asheville. Pink and Amanda break ground with as many hardships as their frontier predecessors. Perhaps that is the greatest triumph of this last installment in Ehle's seven book series--the Kings come full circle. For though the sacrifice is less physical as in THE LAND BREAKERS, the first book, the spiritual crises in LAST ONE HOME offer the reader several breathless moments of truth on themes of spirituality and family. Epiphanies don't come lightly.
John Ehle, in colloquial eloquence, has given us not so much a novel but an allegory, a tale for all time, a fable for an almost lost culture.