guest review: The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt, from Pops

Here’s how I ‘found’ this book. Your July 2019 post about various short-reads included Charles Chesnutt’s essay “The Banquet,” which I appreciated. You also linked to Wiley Cash’s fine essay recommending Chesnutt’s novel, and interpreting it in light of current events – which convinced me to eventually find a used copy. Along with the novel’s 1993 introduction, Cash’s explication of the book, its era and its implications is an excellent addition to a full understanding.


The Marrow of Tradition by Charles Chesnutt was published in 1901; I read the 1993 edition with introduction by professor Eric Sundquist. The novel was reportedly well-researched by the established black author, using the Wilmington, NC Massacre of only 3 years earlier as foundation for its story about a fictional ‘Wellington.’ Chesnutt had relatives who survived the event, and interviewed their neighbors as well; further, his personal history tied him emotionally to the wider narrative. In the book, the event itself is limited to the last ~100 pages (of 340), although that finish is given force by the involvement of fictional characters developed throughout the book. This is a fascinating, accessible look at an important historical event, through the unusual lens of informed and incisive literature of the same time.

Chesnutt’s main interest is in describing how much the post-Reconstruction period is reverting to the form of its racist legacy: white control and oppression are still functional; social relations serve to keep the town’s minority-white (~1/3) elites well-ensconced; mixed-race generations are in the shadows but ever-present (reflecting Chesnutt’s own family history). Indeed, this is a heritage of social complexity that Ta-Nehisi Coates is addressing even today in his new fiction. Chesnutt’s purpose is to give readers of the time a sense of “the complex psychology of white supremacy and black resistance” [Sundquist], for a close look at the social tensions stewing in this small town where a few white conspirators use the specter of rape to intentionally create conditions for a coup, for mobs to overthrow the elected Republican (white and black) leaders, and murder many citizens in the process. Chesnutt himself sent copies of the book to politicians of the time.

The narrative form is dated yet engaging, suggesting a period gothic novel of the antebellum south, often preoccupied with big-house romances, rivalries and closeted skeletons. Black characters too often appear mere background for that narrative. The melodramatic ending involves several fictional characters, apparently unrelated to real events. In effect, for a modern reader, Chesnutt generously ‘humanizes’ the white villains to a surprising extent, depicting their anxieties and self-justifying motives. It is curious that an involved black author, especially with historical purpose, chose this form and delivers so well; but it was an established form and likely effective – I am in no place to judge. To be fair, his description of the social mechanics of oppression are in spells direct and unvarnished. Still, I felt the limited narrative about black characters was glaring, and often served to trivialize them.

The essential 1993 Introduction (a detailed 37 pages) by white academic Sundquist addresses the author’s life and work, the country-wide factual context of reaction to Reconstruction, the factual basis of the event itself, the book’s references to real people; and convincingly analyzes the literary result. He tags the book as “One of the most significant historical novels in American literature.”

Prominent for Sundquist is this thesis: “The gender politics of the Wilmington revolution were of utmost importance to a national ethos of segregation.” This is not ‘gender politics’ in our contemporary sense. Rather, for me he refers to the broad historical morass of racism, gender and sexuality: the southern white male ego threatened by both black men and encroaching potent black culture; confusion arising from both sexual attraction and sexual assault amongst all manner of racial pairings; rape as both a weapon to dominate a people, and contrived as excuse to torture, mutilate and murder its men; biracial children as legacy complicating both the perpetuation and the extinction of white supremacy, for all parties; maybe more. His sweeping analysis defeats my capacity to summarize. Some threads of all this arguably appear in Chesnutt’s novel (e.g. the character of Chesnutt’s fictional Olivia Carteret); Sundquist provides further evidence in historical fact. His explication is compelling.

I am so thankful for this thorough review of a complicated book!

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copley Eisenberg

A keen, thoughtful inquiry into relationships, place and the forces that contributed to a 1980 crime.

In The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia, Emma Copley Eisenberg offers a true crime story as well as a painful look at misogyny and estrangement; a gorgeously rendered memoir of human relations; and a sensitive, perceptive profile of a misunderstood region.

In 1980, two young women were hitchhiking to a Rainbow Gathering (one of a series of events that attracted as many as 20,000 hippies) when they were killed and left in a remote clearing in southeast West Virginia’s Pocahontas County. A third young woman had parted ways with her hitchhiking companions just before they died. Eisenberg’s title points toward her fascination with this character: the one who, apparently by a stroke of luck, lived. Locals told conflicting stories about what had happened. More than a dozen years later, a local man was tried and convicted, then later won his freedom in a new trial. An imprisoned serial killer claimed responsibility, but was considered a less-than-reliable source and was never tried for these crimes.

The Third Rainbow Girl is an incisive, thoroughly researched work of true crime reporting. Eisenberg visits those close to these events–the accused, witnesses to the trial, lawyers, police investigators and local bystanders–and forms her own loose theories, while acknowledging how much will never be known. The book’s mastery, however, is in how much more it accomplishes. “If every woman is a nonconsensual researcher looking into the word ‘misogyny,’ then my most painful and powerful work was done in Pocahontas County. It could have been done in any other place, because misogyny is in the groundwater of every American city and every American town, but for me, it was done here.” Importantly in this region that is oft maligned, Eisenberg lived in Pocahontas County for a time, forging relationships and grappling with her place in the world; she begins to bridge the differences between Appalachian insider and outsider. Part of her work is indeed to study misogyny, the relationships between genders and the responsibilities and challenges of those, like herself, who wish to enter a troubled place and “do good.” This book is as much about gender and political and social relations as it is about a specific crime. In brief sections, it also contains an outstanding account of the historical forces that shape present national attitudes toward Appalachia.

Eisenberg’s gaze is unflinching, whether turned on a traumatized community, an unlikeable but probably innocent man or upon herself and her own tendencies. Her prose is incandescent, precise, descriptive and often lyrical: a medical examiner testifying at trial has “a face so pink it looked slapped” and her first time spent
working in West Virginia at a camp for girls is “dense and crackling.” The narratives of the murders, of the investigations and trials and of the author’s Appalachian life intertwine and comment on one another. The result is a subtle, steadfast examination of the sources of pain and trauma.


This review was written for Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade, but is published for the first time here.


Rating: 9 music nights.

One of the things I appreciated here is that Eisenberg was sensitive to the local perspective and her position as outsider (because even after months or years here, you go easy declaring yourself to be an insider). Unlike Ramp Hollow, this book cites sources from within the community (like Sugar Run!).

WVWC Dept. of Theatre and Dance presents Fool For Love (2019)

Written by Sam Shepard in the ’80s, this one-act play features just four actors/characters; this production was student-directed, and one of the lead roles was played by one of my students. (I was going to go anyway, but was extra excited when I heard that.) It was phenomenal; I’m so glad I went.

The whole thing takes place in a hotel room in a desert, where May is staying. She has just received an unexpected guest, Eddie, who appears to be a former lover. He wants to take her away to live in a trailer; she doesn’t want to go. They argue and argue and argue… she says she’s expecting a date, but Eddie isn’t sure he believes her. A strange man sits in one corner of the room, only occasionally interacting with the two main characters. Eventually Martin, the new date, does show up, and the three continue a confrontation of sorts. The story of Eddie and May, their past and their relationship, eventually becomes clear. The actual, present-tense action is fairly sparse; the plot is formed more by the backstory related in dialog than by the events within the play itself, although there are some small but significant developments there, too.

The strengths of the play as written are all about tone and atmosphere, black humor, and the kind of frustration and quiet desperation that marks Shepard’s work (and reminds me of Tennessee Williams too). It’s a hell of a play; but I’m perhaps even more impressed at how well these college kids knocked it out of the park. (I guess I expected more from Shepard than I did from them, I confess. I saw a play at the college earlier in the semester that was so bad I didn’t bother to write about it here.) That is, the two lead roles (Eddie and May) were both played by college kids–both freshmen, no less!–while the old man was played by a member of staff, and Martin was played by I think an alumnus. Still.

They knew their lines; they delivered them powerfully; I was able to lose myself in the play and forget that it was a play at all (and saw my student in a whole new light), which is the highest achievement, I think. I came home that night in a glow of appreciation. Thanks, young people. Keep up the excellent work. I look forward to seeing Steel Magnolias in the spring!


Rating: 9 glasses.

guest review: The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland by Nan Shepherd (introduction by Robert Macfarlane), from Pops

Months ago, back in August, my father came to visit me in my new home in West Virginia. One of our evenings was spent with my friends Doug and Melissa, down at the little brewery in their town, sharing stories and pints and a pizza. Among many other things, various author names were thrown about. Robert Macfarlane forms a meeting point for Pops and Doug. We finished up at their home, with a little casual live music from our host, and a book recommendation. My father returned home to Washington state and acted quickly. I received this email from him just a week or two later.

On Doug’s recommendation, I received this WWII-era book, lost and only first published in 1977: The Living Mountain, by a UK publisher, from Pacific Northwest provider ThriftBooks. This used copy is the 2011 edition with a 26-page introduction by Robert Macfarlane. Shepherd’s subject-homeland is the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, one of my favorite places from our visit, where we stayed a few days so I could take several mountain hikes, view Scots Pine recovery efforts and drink Cairngorm Brewery’s Black Gold Ale at the local pub with a view.

In 1977, The Guardian called it “the finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain.” Their 2011 review says “This is sublime, in the 18th-century sense, when landscapes like these were terrifying. And she achieves it in language that is almost incantatory, like a spell…” I can’t wait.

Scots pines. photo credit: Pops.

Black Gold. photo credit: Pops.

Some three months later, I received this review.

The introduction here is by Robert Macfarlane, who nearly singlehandedly has led a revival of her works of poetry, fiction and this book. And today the Scottish 5-pound note displays her image, with a quotation.

As Macfarlane says, this is “a formidably difficult book to describe.” Shepherd’s subject here is the Cairngorms: a massif, a group of peaks, a plateau – all those things, which she habitually refers to as the Mountain: an organism, an ecosystem, full of life, all its pieces intricately and inextricably linked. This place comprised her true life-long home, even as she traveled widely. She was obviously a committed and ambitious walker, in all weather; hers were no casual visits to the Mountain, and she often stayed overnight.

The Scottish author quietly lectured in English for Aberdeen College for most of her career. Eight years after writing four books in a burst, she wrote (and shelved) this one in 1945 at age 52. It was only published in 1977, inexplicably (although: Macfarlane notes the same year saw four other similar classics; again, a mystery). She died four years later.

Her language is simple, florid, passionate, and so unending it leaves one nearly breathless even if reading in silence, creating a sense of stream-of-consciousness in spite of typical narrative form. I was immediately deterred from any highlighting or marginalia; the prose is simply too dense with compelling description and notions. It is no surprise to learn she was a close reader of Buddhism; her sense of being one with the Mountain is complete: spiritually, physically, emotionally. Her ability to convey a deep and personal devotion to place challenges many others who embrace the same sense, and work hard at molding language to the task of saying so: Berry, Doyle, Sanders, Kingsnorth come to mind. Yet, reportedly, she never felt that task complete.

I was reassured all along knowing we have Macfarlane’s introduction to rely on; it’s an artful and meaningful essay in itself, and does justice to her work. He reports reading the book “perhaps a dozen times,” and his always capable language is informed by his own early-life passion for the same place, which I briefly visited as well. I only wish I had carried her slim, small volume with me when I was there, as both guide and inspiration.

What a lovely review, and strong endorsement! Thanks, Pops.

And for a postscript: Macfarlane’s 2013 Guardian article (with slideshow) about his recent visit to the Mountain, Shepherd always in mind, provides ample evidence of the magic.

The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh

Letters from mother to daughter shed glimmering light on reunions, reconciliation, immigration, heritage and familial love.

Poet and translator E.J. Koh grew up in California’s Bay Area, the daughter of Korean immigrants. Her parents moved back to Korea when she was 15, leaving her to live with her angry, taciturn 19-year-old brother. By the time her parents returned to the United States, Koh was off to graduate school in New York City. During those years of separation, a flurry of letters from mother to daughter sketched a yearning over distance.

The Magical Language of Others revolves around these letters, translated from occasionally English-spattered Korean. Koh read them as arrived, but it wasn’t until much later, in their rediscovery, that she came to understand what they offered. In a small box she has kept for years, Koh finds exactly 49 letters: “In Buddhist tradition, forty-nine is the number of days a soul wanders the earth for answers before the afterlife.”

As Koh studies Korean and Japanese, and eventually adds a graduate degree in Korean translation to her graduate poetry studies, she works as well to translate the love, longing and abandonment of generations of women. Her paternal grandmother’s memories of Jeju Island are first idyllic and then filled with trauma from the massacre in 1948. Koh’s privileged but heartbroken maternal grandmother, after several suicide attempts, left her cheating husband in Daejeon and took an apartment in Seoul. She loved it there, but eventually relented and moved back home to a family that begged for her return. “Coming to one home, she had abandoned another.”

Meanwhile, in Koh’s own lifetime, she deals with young adulthood with her antagonistic brother. She makes frequent trips to see their parents in Korea, where she shops and visits the bathhouse with her mother, formally studies languages and informally studies people. “He waved not a hand but a blank page, and I knew it was gestures like this one that meant nothing.” Such luminous prose is evidence of an unusual mind.

This slim book is a memoir–of the years Koh spent quasi-orphaned in California; her visits to Korea; finally sharing a continent and eventually a home with her parents again in adulthood. It is also a study of generations of women before her. Koh considers how people make poetry out of imperfect lives, and how they interpret and generate love. In startling, lyrical, imaginative prose, Koh wrestles with the meanings of devotion and duty, and with the challenges of language and translation. Her final lines are as heartbreakingly beautiful as the entire book deserves. The Magical Language of Others is a masterpiece, a love letter to mothers and daughters everywhere.


This review originally ran in the November 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 parentheses.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between the worldFinal review of the year, and the book is a great one. Pops reviewed it first, and I knew it was one I needed, but it just took me a while to get to it. The reason I finally prioritized it now is because I suspected a student needed it – actually, that was Pops’s suggestion, too – and so I needed to read it first, to know, and to be able to recommend it to her. So I have that student to thank for my own education, which is often how it works.

Coates speaks painful truths about our society and the legacy of slavery and ongoing racism in this country. He speaks with specificity and detail of his upbringing in a Baltimore that was worlds away from what he saw on TV growing up, the world where “there were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak.” I think of his narrative as accomplishing three things: a review of the evils of racism in this country since its founding and continuing today; a memoir of the experiences of one man, his coming-of-age and coming to realize the above, and of growing up in Baltimore; and a review of the writings and philosophies of Black American thinking and activism. Coates has an inquisitive mind from a young age. In this book, he actively investigates the nature of education, and who gets to define the value of a civilization. I loved the part where we learn that his mother used to have him, as a child, write essays about his own mistakes. This taught him to question, and that the question itself, not any purportive answer, is the point. This lesson has got to be the most important lesson anyone can offer a young person. This is the concept behind the classic liberal arts education, right: critical thinking?

Coates assigns his son the same essays in response to his own transgressions.

I gave [these assignments] to you not because I thought they would curb your havior–they certainly did not curb mine–but because these were the earliest acts of iterrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness. Your grandmother was not teaching me how to behave in class. She was teaching me how to ruthlessly interrogate the subject that elicited the most sympathy and rationalizing–myself.

Oh, that I could teach one or two of my own students the same.

I have tried to write more about this book and what it accomplishes, both artistically/stylistically and in its content, but I keep observing that my dad did it better. (I especially like his work with what he calls metaphorical coding, and the Richard Wright poem that gives this book its title and a refrain.) His book review says everything I’d like to say about this book, and says it beautifully, so let me again try to send you back to it. Thanks, Pops.


Rating: 9 open, easy smiles.

reread: Martin Marten by Brian Doyle (audio)

By coincidence, this book review was next in line when today’s date came up. But it feels perfectly appropriate for this gift-giving holiday, because Brian Doyle is a gift, and I think this novel is my favorite of his.

I have returned to my very first Brian Doyle experience with Martin Marten (originally reviewed here), because I miss him and love his work. Having enjoyed a few other audiobooks of his, I thought I’d try Travis Baldree’s narration.

It’s very good; I enjoyed the different voices for each character, from Maria to Dave to each of Dave’s parents, to Moon and Emma Jackson and Miss Moss and Mr. Douglas the trapper. I thought he preserved the sense of wonder and boundlessness that characterizes Doyle’s work. I found myself not thinking of the narration much, actually, and just living in the world of Martin Marten, and I think the disappearance of an art form’s container is often the highest compliment.

And the book is everything I remembered. As is said early in The Princess Bride, this book has everything it. “Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…” Well, there’s no fencing here, but there is death and birth and love and fighting and beginnings and endings and the easy connection of the two, and an un-wedding, and blizzards and springtimes and basketball and running and maps and trees and all the animals and plants and beings… Brian Doyle inspires lists like these; he writes in lists like these. He is all-encompassing, in the best and least pretentious way. For example, here is a paragraph that caught my eye this time around.

And deep mysteries too, things that no one could ever explain and in most cases no one ever knew or apprehended or discovered–a new species of snow flea mutating in a dark crevasse on Joel Palmer’s glacier; a blue bear born to two black ones but alive only for a day; a place where trees and bushes and ferns decided to intertwine and make a small green cottage complete with walls and a roof and a door; a cave with the bones of a creature eight feet tall inside; a pencil lost by Joel Palmer at nine thousand feet of elevation on the south side of the mountain, long ago encased in ice and now some twenty feet beneath the surface, waiting to be found in the year 2109 by a young woman named Yvon, who would be amazed that the pencil never wore out no matter how much she used it, as if it had patiently stored up words for two centuries; and much else, more than we could account even if this book never ended and its pages and pulses went on forever, and it was the longest book in the history of the world. Even then, it couldn’t catch more than scraps and shards of the uncountable stories on the mountain, of bird and beast, tree and thicket, fish and flea, biome and zygote. And this is not even to consider the ancient slow stories of the rocks and their long argument with the lava inside the mountain and the seething and roiling miles beneath the mountain, all the way to the innermost core of the sphere, which might be a story of metallic heat so intense that to perceive it would be your final act in this form; another mystery.

A dear friend of mine, nearing the end of her MFA study, read this book on my recommendation and sent me a message that said simply, “my prose is lifeless.” Well, it’s not, but I know what she meant: Doyle’s just jangles with life. I know he is not for everyone. The above paragraph includes a single sentence fragment that is 198 words long. He gushes. But for those of us it works for, I think it works very well.

I wish I could go to live in one of Brian Doyle’s fictional towns. Although it does snow a lot there.

If you love the natural world and are charmed by the idea of not privileging any one species (ahem, humans) over all the rest; if you are excited by the many possibilities for joy in the world, big and small; if you love life, words, all kinds of critters, and even humans; if knowledge for its own sake thrills you; if you are prone to being pleased by lists and wonder–do give the novels of Brian Doyle a try. He has made this world a far better place.


Rating: there is no reason to amend my original 10 tomatoes.
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