The best history stories show us ourselves in a different setting. And so it is with Adrienne Morris’ ambitious novel The House on Tenafly Road. I had expected a nostalgic view of a New Jersey village almost 150 years ago. But what I discovered between the covers was the compelling story of a complicated man whose early circumstances as a mixed race (Delaware Indian and British) child of poverty and his Civil War battle wounds nearly destroy his life and family.
John Weldon is a brave and honorable man, but he knows himself so little. The reader can see that he has the potential to be a true hero, and the girl of his dreams, Katherine McCullough, certainly sees him this way. John comforts others with his impressive knowledge of scripture, but he has lost his own faith.
Believing himself to be undeserving–a weak man for having become addicted to the drug given him by the Army doctor–, he secretly feeds his addiction to morphine. Perhaps John is a classic anti-hero because although the reader watches John’s world crumble around him because of his addiction, the reader desperately wants John to succeed. For the most part, John demonstrates loyalty, courage, and compassion for others, although he is not so generous with himself.
Rather than the main characters building a life in New Jersey, John’s army career soon leads the young family to the wilds of the Arizona Territory. Katherine can no longer be the suburban lady she was raised to be, but must toughen up as an officer’s wife in the most far-flung post she can imagine. John and Katherine raise their two children in a tiny, unadorned cabin. I live in present-day air-conditioned Arizona, and it was exciting to read of the relentless heat, the flora and fauna, and of course, the U.S. Army’s relationship with the native tribes of the region.
The novel is long (much longer than most books) but John’s path to redemption is plagued with very realistic setbacks and mistakes, and I hung on to every word, eager to get to the next plot development. In a book this rich and layered, various threads repeatedly surface. For example, as makes sense for a serious book of American history, Morris examines the issue of race—specifically Native American images through the eyes of well-read east coast citizens, through the military, and through John Weldon himself. She doesn’t shy away from controversial topics, such as Weldon’s Indian mother’s alcoholism. Her touch is so deft that while she made my heart break at seeing atrocities against the Apaches through the eyes of the appalled and far-removed Americans back in New Jersey, she also showed me the results of two cultures slamming into one another.
Underlying all lies John’s nasty little secret—the addiction he keeps from his wife. I hadn’t realized that morphine addiction among returning Civil War soldiers was a problem until I read this book and decided to Google it. It’s estimated that a half million men became morphine addicts thanks to their service to our divided country. There were no rehabs and no 12-step programs in those days. Perhaps the only hope that an addict could have would be his faith, and above all, The House on Tenafly Road is about faith. Morris so skillfully weaves questions of faith and love in this epic tale that it isn’t until the end of the book that all stills and clarity emerges.
One final note: the version I read still had some typos and mechanical errors, but a revision has cleaned up these problems, at least according to a spot check that I made.
Go, now, check out Adrienne’s blog, too. NOTHING GILDED, NOTHING GAINED: WHERE PAST MEETS PRESENT AT MIDDLEMAY FARM
My latest short memoir piece was just published by Six Hens. This nonfiction story was very difficult to write and even more difficult to think of publishing. Called “Boundaries,” it’s about a time when my boundaries were invaded by someone else–and just at that vulnerable season of puberty.
We go back and forth between Arizona and California often enough that I am sick of the ride. There are only two ways to travel. One is via Interstate 8 through the mountains west of San Diego. We pass so close to Mexico that my cell service switches over for awhile. The other is our regular route, via Interstate 10. We rarely take the first route because I hate losing cell service while we drive through the mountains–just in case something goes wrong–because we are generally on a deadline. It’s also a little longer.
I10 takes us through the flat desert. I always thought this was the Mohave, but actually the southern boundary of the Mohave is just north of the 10. We drive through the northern section of the Colorado Desert. Go figure. Maybe that is why we drive over the Colorado River near Blythe. Or maybe the desert is named after the river.
Since we only make one stop each drive and it’s to get gas and have a potty break (5 minutes in and out), we never stop near the river, so I haven’t been able to take a pic of it.
But there are things I can snap as the car moves (since I’m not the one driving).
Look at that. Beheaded palm trees. This is the sort of view that gives me the creeps. I keep wondering what happened to their branches. You could say, “Where’s the green?” (Happy St. Patrick’s Day!)
There are the picturesque (to me) ruins of old gas stations and motels, generally covered with graffiti, but darned if I’ve been able to capture those either.
We go to California for work and to see our son and his fiancée.
After seeing them, I am always ready to head back home to this: Pear, Tiger, Kana, Felix.
I’m still working my way through the work that got behind this winter. Then I plan to get back to writing. Sigh.
Do you find it difficult to write when your head is too full of stuff to do?
When I started writing creative nonfiction/memoir, the issue of dialogue tags rose its nasty little head early on. I’d never given them much thought in fiction writing, and they don’t exist in poetry. For some reason, nonfiction made me think and rethink what works best. Maybe it’s that more expressive word choices conveyed more information than plain old “said,” but in nonfiction it seemed like overkill to write “stammered” or “giggled” about oneself.
These “more expressive” tags look something like this:
Eventually I took courses online and learned that all the creative and imaginative tags I’d debated were worthless. I think these teachers were right, so I’m sharing what I learned from them.
The idea is to stay as far from “tagging” as possible.
That means that if you can write dialogue where it’s clear who is speaking each line, you don’t need any tags at all. Sometimes you can start a conversation out by identifying the first speaker and then drop tags after that point. Here is a passage from Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty:
We stopped at the airport gift shop and I bought a scarf in a red tartan with the money I had left. “Write to me all the time,” she said as we walked to the gate, her head back on my shoulder.
“I always do.”
“Write to me more often now. I’m going to miss you more.”
The book is about the friendship of Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face). Lucy is leaving and wants Ann to write to her. In this passage, we know it’s Lucy who begins because she is the only other person in the scene and because with her head on Ann’s shoulder, she’s exhibiting her characteristic neediness. In the next line by Ann and the response from Lucy their personalities shine through. The only tag in this whole passage is “she said,” used once.
So why did Patchett use “said” and not a tag with more emotion or more information?
Because said is an invisible word. It’s so common that it exists just under the surface, much like articles (the, a, an) do. It doesn’t intrude on the scene. Instead the dialogue itself is allowed to pop with just a little help from scene setters: “as we walked to the gate, her head back on my shoulder.”
Another way you can avoid a tag is to pair the line of dialogue with an action that advances the plot. Here is a passage from Bernard Cooper’s The Bill from My Father:
“By the time they come, I’ll have proof.”
“So what? What if I was seeing a man?”
My father turned. His hands were shaking. “It’s too soon.”
In this case, the father’s hands shaking pair with his words and create more emotion than if Cooper had written, “It’s too soon,” he said with a shaky voice. What is more important is that by avoiding a tag, the action and the words are not watered down by unnecessary words that attract attention.
Different versions of this “Said is Dead” chart are being shared all over the internet, along with other questionable writing advice. Rather than listening to these sources, pick up a good writing book and follow the advice in there. Two good ones for nonfiction are Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away and Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanna Paola.
Have you seen advice online that you know to be wrong?
On Monday I had a recheck on my foot reconstruction that was done 10.5 years ago. My surgeon is now retired, so I saw a new doctor. He’s quite young, but I think he is still in contact with my original surgeon because he said he would mention me to him. They are scheduling an MRI in case the X-ray wasn’t doing its job, but I suspect my only problem is arthritis from the surgery, not a reoccurrence of the very rare tumor.
I remembered a blog post I wrote a long time ago that explained the discovery of the tumor, as well as a poem I published about the experience and my disappointment with my original foot doctor. Instead of reblogging, I thought I would repost the story itself, as well as a link to a poem I wrote about dealing with this bone tumor. The poem is called “Seasons.” Call the story “Good Thing.”
I collapse into the nearest empty wheelchair parked just inside glass doors to the ER waiting room of St. Mary’s Hospital. “Wait, Marshal.” I call to my husband who marches, with his head bent forward, to the triage desk. He turns, sees me in the chair, and motions me to follow.
He speaks to the nurse, and his upper body moves with the force of his words. I don’t have time to observe the waiting room, when the nurse pushes me into a cubicle in back. Within minutes I am in a gown, on the Stryker bed which is no bed, but a parking place for a sick body. The gown smells of a commercial laundry. I unbuckle my medical walking boot, dropping it to the floor, where it looks like a robot’s foot.
Marshal goes outside for a cigarette, and I am cold, shielding my eyes from the fluorescents positioned directly above. I get migraines from fluorescents, but not headaches. Mine originally were confused with transient ischemic attacks, or mini strokes, because they pucker one side of my face like a rotting fruit and give me vertigo, vomiting, and an inability to rise up from a prone position. I put the pillow over my face and wait.
“Excuse me.” A handsome young man has pushed another bed to the opening of my cubicle. He helps me onto that bed, tells me to lie down, and pushes me still farther back into the ER, shielding my face from the lights with a towel. “It won’t take long to x-ray your foot. We should have some answers soon,” he says. His voice is gentle. His features vaguely resemble my son’s. I wonder if he’s Korean; my son is of Korean heritage.
“Where’s my husband?”
My bed driver says, “He’ll be back soon.”
The lights are off in the x-ray room, so my eyes relax. My driver stays in the room.
“My foot has already been x-rayed by two different doctors,” I say.
The x-ray technician is tall, blond, and he’s focused on his machine. “We need to x-ray it ourselves. Did you bring those films with you?”
I want to tell him that I’ve been traveling for weeks, barely able to walk with the shoe on, with a symphony of pain in my foot. We arrived only last night in Rochester for my husband to get to the bottom of his mysterious medical ailments at the famed Mayo Clinic. Now, before he has had a chance to be seen, my tears have sent him driving me to the ER before his own appointments at the clinic.
No, I did not bring my films from California, Mr. X-ray.
Both young men introduce themselves to me, but I can’t take in their names. They are studying to be doctors. Or maybe they are already doctors, studying ER patients. They look at me to answer their question.
I want to tell them it’s the end of July, and it was early April when the spider climbed the wall behind the couch and I jumped up and came down to a fireburst of pain in my right foot. I want to say that in these months, I have been examined by two physician’s assistants, four doctors-in-training, and have received advice from two specialists. Both said to exercise my foot and tough it out.
No, I did not bring my films from California, Dr. X-ray.
My driver is to hold my foot while the blond works the machine. The rubber gloves he is to wear to protect his hands from the radiation are huge, clumsy, and my foot can’t get placed correctly. In frustration, he pulls them off his long slim fingers and with those fingers, he pulls my foot apart, spreading the bones out like the ribs of a silk fan. This is the third set of x-rays and the first time anyone has concentrated on trying to do the best job possible. Gratitude wells from me like tears brimming over. I worry about him becoming a doctor, worry that if he continues putting himself in danger for his patients that there will not be enough of him to sustain a full career and a long life.
When we reach my cubicle, my husband stands at the doorway, hands in his pockets, surveying the workings of the ER. He looks at my face quickly, steps aside to allow the possibly-Korean young doctor to position the bed-on-wheels next to my Stryker. I scoot over onto the bed.
“Thank you,” I say. “Have a good life.” He smiles and pulls the bed back out of my cubicle.
Marshal stands at the doorway and watches the ER from there. I lie under the fluorescents. The ceiling is low and the light so concentrated they can do surgery right there on my Stryker, if they need to. I shield my face with my hand until my hand gets tired, and then I switch hands. Marshal sees me squinting and finds a light switch, turning off one panel of lights over me. I hope he, too, has a long life and gets some help tomorrow from the Mayo doctors for his ailments. He says if you rub your arm for twenty minutes and then stop, that’s what his esophagus feels like all the time. Nobody has solved this mystery yet, but Mayo has the best doctors in the world.
Nurses and orderlies walk back and forth in front of my doorway. I can see them beyond Marshal.
Marshal says, “What’s taking them so long?”
I lie down and pull the pillow back over my face. Exhaustion settles like a blanket over my limbs, even my mind. A clatter on the floor startles me, and I realize I have started to doze. My body settles down again, shrugging into itself from the chill of the room. The thin blanket I have pulled over myself only keeps me from chattering off the metal bed.
“It’s been at least forty-five minutes since they took those x-rays,” Marshal says, but I tune him out.
A hum starts in the large open room of the ER. It grows in sound, a barely perceptible vibration. I see Marshal alert, watching the quickened pace of the medical personnel.
“They must have brought in a bad one,” he says.
I sit up and look out past him. The room feels as if a bee colony has awoken and begun droning. I get off the bed and hop to the doorway, lean on Marshal’s shoulder. Two doctors are walking from the hospital side into the large room. At the same time two others who must be doctors stride from the other direction. I can tell they are doctors because they know they are doctors. It shows. A fifth doctor materializes and they meet at the nurse’s station, talking at once, interrupting each other.
Marshal turns to look at me. “Get back on the bed,” he says and helps me up onto the Stryker. “I don’t know what you have, but you have something.” He’s so dramatic. I wonder what he’s talking about. He sounds silly sometimes. I wonder if he has the beginnings of early dementia. He’s such a pessimist.
I’ll tease him, as usual, when those doctors converge on the stretcher coming off the helicopter or out of the ambulance or wherever the new patient is coming from.
Then the doctors are crowding into my cubicle, vying for my attention. They all want to share the news with me, but finally the others defer to one who speaks to me. They are busy, taking time away from their duties, and there is no time for finesse. “You have a tumor in your foot.”
I stretch my foot out in front to stare at it, the ridiculous stranger. “No, no!” one of the doctors says and another catches my foot in his hands and slowly pushes it onto the bed, keeps his hands on it as if it’s a new hatchling or huge opal fresh from the mine. The speaker keeps talking. “You must be extremely careful of your foot right now. The least misstep and the bone will shatter. It will be irreparable, and you will not be able to walk. Let me explain.”
Marshal is leaning against my bed, his hands behind his back, defenseless.
“A tumor has taken over your navicular bone, which is the central bone from which the other bones operate. There is very little left of the navicular. The only way it can be fixed is to graft bone tissue into the bone. If the shell of the bone shatters, there is no way to recreate a new bone.”
Eventually they file out, and Marshal and I don’t look at each other. He hands me my clothes. A nurse bustles in with a long list of appointments for the next day and an address for the wheelchair store. When I’m dressed, Marshal hands me the walking boot and opens the hospital’s wheelchair, plunking down the footrests with his foot.
“Good thing we came here,” one of us says. “Good thing.”
UCLA Santa Monica Hospital–newly remodelled
One of only two doctors who could do this surgery was located at UCLA Santa Monica, only two hours from home, so that is where I went. When I was there, the marble was an ugly dark green, and Britney Spears was having her second child.
Usually I think I know myself pretty well. But every once in a while I get an epiphany that shows me something I hadn’t quite realized. Maybe the knowledge was somewhere inside my head or even my body, but it hadn’t come to the front of the brain yet. Then, snap, there it is. Today it was about my relationship with music.
I love music. Sometimes I go to symphony concerts, classical and pops. Sometimes I go to old-timer concerts. I love Broadway musicals and have a ton of “soundtrack” CDs. I have an eclectic assortment of music on my iTunes. When I hear country music, I love it. My favorite is bluegrass. And jazz. In the car, I always play music (my daughter’s singing some of the time).
But I rarely play music at home. And I can’t talk country music with people because I’m not familiar enough with it. Or jazz. Or pop. Or blues.
So why don’t I listen to music at home? I thought I was “busy,” but today the reason occurred to me.
I’m a Highly Sensitive Person. Don’t laugh. You can read my old post about it, if you don’t know what that is.
Too much stimulation is the devil to an HSP. And music in the house is too much stimulation. Hubby has the TV on so often that when it’s not on, I crave the silence as a way to heal the synapses or slow down the neurotransmitters in my tummy and my limbs.
Maybe if I had a quiet house I would crave music. My mother does. But we have our offices in the house, and it’s often like Grand Central Station here. So it is definitely not a quiet house.
So. Am I weird? Nope, wrong question because if you’re not an HSP of course you think I’m weird. How about this question: anybody else out there like me? Easily over-stimulated?
On another topic, I was saved by the bell. I don’t want to say dodged a bullet as will become clear.
We got a new kitty at the shelter. She is a beautiful very young long-haired tortie with the absolutely sweetest personality EVER. Makes all my cats appear to be suffering from personality disorders. Anyway, they found a BB in her collapsed stomach, and they fixed her stomach. Her front leg is limp with neurological damage–also from the abuse she suffered.
They wanted to amputate her leg, saying it was dangerous to keep it. I felt that the reason for that decision was because it’s not possible to call in specialists and give special physical therapy and surgeries to a shelter cat. I offered to foster her (I KNOW, I KNOW, I’M CRAZY) and take her to specialists and for alternative care and give her therapy. But a lovely young woman came in the shelter today and adopted her along with a male kitty. She says she has a friend who is a vet who works with brain and spinal injuries. I asked to be kept in touch with her so I can follow our sweet kitty’s recovery.
Working with the shelter kitties calls for a lot of wine–or whiskey.
Marie of 1WriteWay introduced me to the writer of another book with the word DOLL in the title.
When I started reading Cinthia Ritchie’s novel Dolls Behaving Badly I immediately thought, “Oh, my son’s fiancée will love this book.” Then I thought, “Mom will want to read this book.”
It starts off like fun chick lit. A single mom of a genius 8-year-old son needs to figure out how to pay her bills on her waitress salary and find love and happiness from a trailer in Alaska.
Luckily for me, before I sent a link to them, the dolls entered the book. Just in time, I stayed my hand (I know the phrase doesn’t belong outside the Bible or historical romances, but this is where it gets a little “Biblical”). The protagonist, Carla Richards, is not just a server, but also an artist, and retired Barbie and Ken dolls serve her art. She hacks and appends to them, all for a very “upscale” erotic website.
Although I didn’t send out the link, I kept reading because the last thing this book is is porn. It’s a well-crafted story of how Carla and the “family” she builds around her grow and change with dignity.
Ritchie know how to tell a story that is both accessible and thought-provoking. Sometimes the book stuns me with a lyrical phrase or brilliant notion. She uses some contemporary stylistic experiments quite well. For instance, Carla is writing her diary in tandem with reading the philosophies of an inspirational speaker known as The Oprah Giant. She’s haunted by the ghost of her dead Polish grandmother and is still friends with her ex, a chef. The recipes of both these characters are translated by Carla and the recipes supplied for the reader.
If it were a movie, the book would be called a comedy, maybe even a romantic comedy, but as written word it is much more than that. The book probes and examines our hopes and fears without letting us know that’s what it’s doing. Dolls Behaving Badly is not lightweight or superficial. It accesses the hidden areas of the mind and of the heart.
I still think my mother and future daughter-in-law would love this book, but I can hear the comments (“My mom gave you a book with WHAT kind of dolls?”). Maybe I could send it to them anonymously?