Backlands: A Novel of the American West 7

Darn good, old-fashioned Western storytelling: Western nostalgia and the beauty and serenity of southern New Mexico (1920 – 1943):  Second in a trilogy, Backlands illuminates New Mexico’s heart and spirit in a family saga as expansive as the landscape.  By centering on one family – the Kerneys – it offers a personal understanding of how the years of the stock market crash, Depression, Dust Bowl, Civilian Conservation Corps, and WWII’s Army Specialized Training Program affected the lives of hardworking ranching families in New Mexico’s desert Southwest.

The Tularosa basin, where much of the novel is told, lays in the remote backlands of the San Andres mountains overlooking the Mescalero Apache reservation, a “land of hidden canyons and wide mesas and high pasturelands and forested mountaintops and rugged mountains.”  The prose is “quiet, serene, and calming” resonating the scenery of the Tularosa:

“an expanse that filled the eye, stretched beyond blindingly brilliant sand dunes to the south and dangerous, ink-black malpais to the north.  Most days the basin shimmered under crystal-clear skies, with mountains looming and lurking in all directions.”

Backlands stands well alone.  But its feel-good values are so beautifully told you’ll be sorry when it ends and anxious for the final chapter.  If you can’t wait, or need another reminder about freedom and the “Code of the West” that vividly reveals “what kind of life a person lives” – especially when that life is physically, emotionally, and financially challenged – treat yourself, as I intend to do, to the saga’s beginnings, Hard Country (1875 – 1918).  The prose and the deft storytelling are a tonic.

The creative writing maxim – write what you know – is skillfully on display.  Not only is New Mexico the author’s home, but I reckon his psychotherapy and social work background is why the novel is so heartfelt.  (In the same way that McGarrity’s extensive law enforcement experience undoubtedly plays into the success of his Kevin Kerney crime series, a dozen penned from 1996 to 2008 prior to creating this New Mexican epic, called a prequel to the Kerney mysteries.)

As a fine Western novel should, this one is filled with colorful stories and characters that sweep us along its 503 pages.  They all revolve around the central character, Matthew Kerney:

MATT:  You’ll visually watch him grow from ages 8 to 30.  He loves his Ma, his horse, reading, education, and a beautiful gal, Beth Merton, who has come to New Mexico from Cleveland to be healed by its dry climate in one of the State’s TB sanatoriums.  We see him as a cowboy, a cattle rancher, an engineering student, an auto mechanic, a forest service ranger, and an army officer.  He’s a good, obedient boy and a very decent man who goes through a lot of tough times, often feeling an “empty weariness about life.” But he’s brave and resilient.

EMMA:  Matt’s Ma.  She has a serious heart condition, is fiercely independent, a smart financial planner, and divorced early from Matt’s Pa.  That’s why some of the novel is set in Las Cruces, where Matt and Emma live, not on Pa’s Double K ranch in the Tularosa.  While she gets lonely, it’s “not as important as my freedom.”  Emma has earned notoriety for having endured a roundup trail drive.  Perfectly introduced to us at the time of the passage of the 19th amendment, the women’s right to vote, she’s a terrific example of how a ranch woman’s life was more equal to a man’s in the early 20th century than a woman’s from the East.  That accounts for her native counterparts praise when a famous Western writer, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, writes a story about her cowboying escapades, yet she’s scorned by those eastern women.  Rhodes is one of several authentic New Mexican historical figures nicely folded into the novel.  He wrote about the beauty of the Tularosa, his stories serialized in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, but he’s all but forgotten – except for now.  Perhaps Rhodes’ poetic writing inspired the author to bring him back to life?

PATRICK:  Matt’s ornery Pa with a past that haunts him.  One of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, so he’s not afraid of hardships but a disagreeable character whose estranged from Matt, does best alone, and while not physically abusive to Emma hurt her “with words and looks.”  To his credit, he cares deeply about the Double K ranch, “one of the nicest outfits on the Tularosa” despite its lack of modern conveniences.  His character shows us that sound agricultural practices and foresight matters in the cattle ranching business, under the constant stress of weathering nature and financial crises.

PATCHES:  Matt’s pony is to be appreciated because “you can learn a lot about a man by his horse.”  In fact, “sometimes a man’s pony can be his best friend, the most important critter in a cowboy’s life.”

THE IGNATIO & LUCERO families:  Teresa Ignatio is Matt’s maternal aunt, and Nestor and Gaudalupe Lucero are Matt’s neighbors in Las Cruces.  Both Mexican families pay tribute to the historical heritage of Hispanics in settling New Mexico and the role of the Catholic church; gracious hospitality and fiestas; and the “closeness and affection” of proud families – proud of their traditions and their State.

AUGUSTA & CONSUELO MERTON: Gus, a professor at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanics in Las Cruces and his wife Consuelo are the beloved and watchful aunt and uncle of Matt’s “wonderful love” Beth.  Their hacienda is a great example of New Mexico’s ubiquitous architecture: thick adobe walls, “low-beamed passages” that sprawl onto an open courtyard with endless views of the desert.  Beth is another strong female character: she dreams to become a doctor.

VERNON CLAGETT: What would a Western be without an outlaw?  This one allows the author to depict New Mexican law enforcement in the early 20th century.

ERNIE PYLE and BILL MAUDLIN:  Pyle, the renowned WWII reporter and Maudlin, Pulitzer-Prize winning WWII cartoonist, add two more compelling New Mexican historical figures to the cast of characters.  They help tell the fascinating story of New Mexico’s role in WWII: Operation Husky.

There are more characters, more stories, but to say more would be a spoiler.

With all this telling of tales comes a delightful mix of old-fashioned, Western language – hornswoggling and lickety-split and hogwash and greenbacks and jake – and a swell balance of depicting New Mexico’s “stark beauty” against its parched lands and sobering history.  As Matt’s friend, Boone, declared when he set eyes on the Tularosa: “I’ve never seen anything like this place.”  You may feel the same, when you see it through the visually evocative prose.


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Chaplin & Company

Being different, being alike: an orphan, a canal boat community, and the silent world of mime (London, present-day):  It takes courage for a debut author to pen a novel full of odd and unlikable characters in an unfamiliar setting.  It also takes originality.  And a respect for the reader’s sensibilities to care about these unconventional characters when the inviting prose brings you close to a place that’s “a halfworld up, a halfworld apart.”  That’s what British author Mave Fellowes has done, drawing us in from the opening pages, quietly, poetically:

“London in August.  From above, the city shimmers and glints in the sun.  There is so much activity on its surface that it looks crawling, swarming with movement, as if it is one whole living thing.  But look closer and this is just an impression given by the million little channels of movement that cross, curve, diverge, and wind between buildings.  These channels glitter.  Look closer still.  Sunlight flashes back from the windscreens and the roofs of the coaches, lorries moving across the surface of the city.  The machines chug out a quivering exhaust which softens the edges of the buildings and blurs outlines.  It is thirty degrees of dry, dusty heat and London is baking.”

Not surprisingly, with a little googling, we can learn that the author once lived in a house overlooking these “little channels of movements” – 2,000 miles of historic waterways – where “narrowboats” (less than seven feet wide, designed for Britain’s narrow canals; up to 2012 managed by British Waterways, today by Canal and River Trust) float along towpaths and under bridges on water that’s “in love with the moon.”  Chaplain and Company takes place on the Little Venice canal, near London’s Paddington and Regent’s Park.  And yet, “life on these waterways is lower than life on the streets around it.  It is below the eyeline.  A good place to hide.”

The offbeat characters hiding and drifting along in this dreamed up canal boat community include:

Odeline Milk: The heart of the story.  At 19, she’s the oddest of them all.  She dresses oddly, acts oddly, and has chosen an unusual artistic aspiration: mime.  She senses she “breathed a rarer air,” but isn’t sure if she’s “better or worse”?  She’s performed as an illusionist at children’s parties, but adamant she’s “an artist not a children’s entertainer.”  Her ho-hum accountant mother, Eunice, who laughed at her tricks, bought her magic business cards, has passed away, which leads her to discover her father’s identity when she sorts through her mother’s paperwork.  When Odeline learns she’s named after her father, a clown in a traveling circus, the epiphany is life-changing.  Now she knows where she gets her “gift for movement,” her artistic passion, and her “butterscotch skin.”  Her father’s nomadic lifestyle inspires her to leave her quaint yet stifling village of Arundel for London, for a floating home.  She dreams to be with him.

One of the delights of the novel are glimpses into the silent performing arts world of magic and mime.  We hear of 19th century English magicians, Maskelyne and Cooke, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplain, and Marcel Marceau, Odeline’s idol.  (She owns 19 of his books.)  Her everyday dress and accessories are borrowed from these silent artists – bowler hat, baggy pants, oversized “brogues,” red “braces,” and a prop box she drags around.  When we meet her, she’s also antisocial, barely eats, paranoiac, fanatical about keeping track of finances and her plans in a notebook, unable to say thank you, and has difficulty discerning when “she has discovered a terrible thing, or done a terrible thing herself.”

Chaplain & Company: Odeline’s historic narrowboat, listed here as an important character because the boat feels alive: she “breathes” and “sighs” and endures.  Such a clever name, attracting Odeline to buy it with her inheritance, yet it has nothing to do with the legendary Charlie.  Its history becomes known to us over time.  Stay with it, because it’s interesting information about the history of narrowboats during the war, and because it tells us something about living a life different than our own.

John Kettle: Canal boat warden and Odeline’s nemesis.  He’s a disagreeable alcoholic, dirty, and prejudiced against persons who are bi-racial and Asian.  When he shouts profanities, Enchanted Prose winces.  Fellowes hints at an earlier life as a “submariner,” when he was “better at life.”

Vera: A big waitress who works at the canal café.  She dresses in flashy pink tracksuits and floral skirts, is glued to international news, harbors a secret, and is scared of her powerful boss, Mr. Zjelko.

Ridley: Odeline’s heavily-tattooed neighbor, owner of Saltheart, another apt name, we discover.  In fact, he and Vera are rather likable.  It’s Odeline’s slow acceptance of their friendship that absorbs us.

We may think these colorful characters have nothing in common with each other, or us, but the brilliance of the novel is the way the story unfolds to show us that they do.  The shared human thread: loneliness.  The prose feels intentionally matched to the world of canal boats and mime, “not grand or flamboyant” but gentle and purposeful.  The characters go through their share of disappointments but we’re on the lookout for hope and goodness.  It comes to us the way “sunlight seems to bounce piercingly off the triangle of water, making liquid stars” – magically.

Fellowes you’ll see knows how to wave a magic wand.  Lorraine

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Act One: An Autobiography

“Stage-struck”:  From poverty to Broadway (Bronx/Brooklyn, NY, 1914 to 1930): Beautifully written storytelling that stayed on the bestseller list over forty weeks when first published in 1959 – a book with devotees in and out of the theatrical world – is too good for Enchanted Prose to pass up because it’s not fiction.  Deeply felt books like this one seem to take on a life of their own, much like Moss Hart said a play has “its own peculiar and separate life.” And like playwriting, blogging does not come with absolute rules.  For as much as Moss Hart’s can’t-put-it-down storytelling memoir, Act One, renders a detailed, behind-the-scenes account of a famous playwright’s “lifelong intoxication with the theatre” (he wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner, You Can’t Take it with You, A Star is Born; he directed My Fair Lady, Camelot), it also offers what enchanted fiction ought to do: stir the heart and take us inside the human condition.  For those who don’t read enough memoirs, Moss Hart’s elegant prose might change that.  Yes, it’s that good.

This new edition (Act One has never gone out of print) coincides with the Lincoln Center’s production currently playing in New York City.  Dedicated to Hart’s wife of 15 years, actress/TV personality, Kitty Carlisle, it’s been updated with a moving forward by their son, Christopher Hart, a director/producer.

Act One is as physically alluring – oversized and the cover golden — as the drama it portrays.  It is not the whole of Moss Hart’s life, which is why the aptly titled “Act One.”  (Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart by Steven Bach, 2007, presents Act Two, which includes Hart’s battle with manic depression. Sadly, there is no Act Three, Hart dying early at 57 from a heart attack.)  Not that Act One, Hart’s coming-of-age story spanning ages 10 to 26, is entirely a happy journey either, but it’s full of triumphs you’ll want to cheer.

Poverty is the backdrop, overshadowing everything.  It “dulled and demeaned each day.”  Poverty Hart characterized as “thievery,” robbing the vitality out of his unemployed Jewish father (a cigar maker from England) and his also jobless brother.  Hart makes the uncommon point that it’s not just the lack of money that degrades and wears down the soul:

“It is hard to describe or to explain the overwhelming and suffocating boredom that is the essence of being poor …. Boredom is the keynote of poverty – of all its dignities, it is perhaps the hardest of all to live with – for where there is no money there is no change of any kind, not of scene or of routine.”

Poverty intensified Hart’s passion for Broadway at a time when it flourished in the 1920s, with some 70 theatres. (His attachment to his eccentric, theatre-loving Aunt Kate, who once lived with his family, another influence.)  His addiction for this “devilish profession,” which he claimed is “the most difficult of literary forms to master,” is all-encompassing.  Act One, then, is about sometimes “wanting so much it can suspend judgment, intelligence, or plain common sense.” It is always about what it takes to lift oneself out of an unrelenting human condition: the “boldness to dream,” courage, endurance, discipline, talent, “sense of timing,” and good old-fashioned luck.

One explanation Hart suggests for the magnetic appeal of the theatre is that it serves as a “refuge of the unhappy child.”  Indeed he is a lonely one, out of sync with most of his family and schoolmates.  So we almost expect he’ll drop out of school at a tender age, which he does.  And then we root for his burning wish to get his foot in the door of Broadway, which he does.  The prose draws us in, so we can picture ourselves seated beside him and his Aunt in the theatre nightly, his theatrical office job coming with the fantastic perk of free tickets.  Of course, Hart also desperately needs money.  When he finally earns some, slowly and painfully – out-of-town flops, social directing during an interesting era in American culture when “adult summer camps” proliferated – with his first Broadway hit, Once in a Lifetime, he consciously sets himself on a path of a lifetime of indulgences.  He makes no apologies for “excess;” he touts it as the purpose of money.  While most of his “shopping sprees” go beyond the scope of this first act, we don’t fault him when he gets “clothes drunk.”  No, we completely understand.

Much of Act One is a story of mentors and collaborators, the most important being the legendary, Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, George S. Kaufman.  The writing is so well-expressed we can see both men madly pouring over scene fixes for Once in a Lifetime at Kaufman’s brownstone on the Upper East Side.  Kaufman is a rather eccentric fellow – rituals of hand-washing, barely ever eating versus Hart’s voracious appetite, proud baker of wicked sugary fudge so the two can stay awake through regular all-nighters.  Kaufman’s “surgical” pencil looms very large here.

Considered one of or perhaps “the best book ever written about the American theatre,” Hart makes sure we understand it is like no other.  As far as he is concerned, there’s no “other profession as dazzling, as deeply satisfying as the theatre.”  For Hart, the “four most dramatic words in the English language [are]: Act One – Scene One,” and the “jolliest sounds in the world” are the “buzz of anticipation of a fashionable audience.”  Although he recognizes there are other careers more “noble,” none are as “sweet.” While we might not agree, you’ve got to admire the zealous devotion and fellowship.  Hart, though, admits the theatre takes a “tremendous toll” … on “nerves, in strain, in stamina – that it takes as much as it gives.”

Unquestionably, Act One delivers insightful and delightful commentary on playwriting and the “mystique” of the theatre:

“Never again a sound of trumpets like the sound of a New York opening-night audience giving a play its unreserved approval … no audience as keen, as alive, as exciting and as overwhelmingly satisfactory as a first-night audience taking a play at its heart.”

For playwrights and anyone wishing to be part of this artistic world, Act One is a gift of an insider’s observations on a range of theatrical topics – the importance of understanding the anatomy of a play; what makes great actors; sizing up pleased/displeased audiences; cultivating an “esprit de corps;” the promise of auditions and the disappointment of dress rehearsals.

While Hart’s commentary is laden with worries – by nature he’s a “chronic worrier” – let’s put aside these concerns for the moment.  Instead, let’s jump for joy when the acclaimed Kaufman magnanimously tells the opening-night audience that the success of Once in a Lifetime is “80%” Hart’s.  They have dissected and re-written Hart’s play so many, many times it’s heartbreaking and heartwarming.  For you cannot help but be inspired that they don’t just give up.  (Kaufman at one point did, leaving it to Hart to find their way back.)

When at long last the collaborators land their Broadway hit, Hart tells us “there is no smile as bright as the box-office man the morning after a hit.”  I’d venture to guess that if you were standing in front of that box-office window you’d be smiling brightly too.

Applause!  Applause!  Lorraine

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Astonish Me 1

Perfectionism and Aestheticism:  The All-Consuming Ballet (Paris, NY, Toronto, Chicago, CA, 1973 – 2002):  The deeper meaning of the title and pink ballet ribbon wrapping Maggie Shipstead’s compact second novel unwrap, in layers, through many characters, in many places, over time, astonishing until the final act.  Like a ballet balance beam, the author balances the gracefulness and harshness of balletomania, “meant to look effortless, not be effortless.”  Shipstead delivers a virtuoso performance by making an enmeshed story of two families, over two generations, over some thirty years, across continents, involving Russian defectors look easy!

She accomplishes all this in just 253 pages, in part, by structuring her novel in concise chapters that move back and forth through time and place, creating distinct and real characters because they take us inside the grueling physical demands and the emotional/psychological consequences of living in a world always striving for perfection, and yet – no matter how much practice and pain the balletomane endures – will likely “spend a lifetime of feeling inadequate.”  Perfection this precise, this astonishing is elusive.

While there are many important characters, it’s Joan, a ballerina since before age five, whose influence touches them all.  And so, Astonish Me opens with Joan in New York City in 1977, at a time when even “civilization seems fragile.”  Then Joan was in the corps de ballet of a New York City ballet company choreographed by Mr. K., one of the Russian defectors, who may be the “most famous choreographer of the twentieth century.”  (Could he be inspired by Balanchine?)

From the onset, we learn key details about Joan that set the stage for unwrapping the story:

The first is she’s pregnant, which means she must forgo her life’s passion since “tininess” is all you can ever be.  Joan reconciles this as not being good enough anyway – certainly not good enough to be a soloist.  (She “wished for more talent, for better feet, longer arms.”)  Perhaps motherhood and marriage to the brilliant, handsome, and witty Jacob who has loved her forever will be enough to make her happy.  Wishful thinking when the ballet has been her life and she still looks and moves like a ballerina.  Her ballet company roommate, Elaine, suffers from the same lack of confidence (“never in her life, not once, has she danced the way she wishes”), tempered by her devotion to Mr. K, the “only person who loves ballet as much as she does.”  Joan may never be a famous ballet dancer but she was chosen by a very famous one, Arslan Rusakov, a star at the Kirov, to help him defect from Russia.  They spent a year together at the Paris Opera House, where Sergei Diaghilev transformed the art form.  Of all the Russian dancers extraordinaire, the most potent force affecting the characters in the novel is Arslan.  For Joan, she is haunted by not knowing “why he chose her?”  No spoilers, except to say that at the finale you’ll have the answer.

At the center of Joan and Jacob’s twenty-plus year marriage is their son Harry, who becomes obsessed with ballet and Arslan.  They live in southern California, where Harry grows up with his neighbor, Chloe, who also takes up the ballet.  They both see the world as “dancers and non-dancers,” idolizing dancers to “not just people.” Their passions, developing bodies, sexuality, attitudes, struggles, and gifts communicate that ballet is about “intentions, power, and unfinished things.”

The author’s handling of homosexuality stereotypes is rendered with the same balance, sensitivity, and insightfulness as elsewhere.  This theme plays out in the characters of Mr. K., who both adores the “idea of women … their capacity as vessels, their aesthetics, their otherness,” and keeps his male attractions “walled off, invisible, underground, nocturnal, private;” and in Harry, whose mother does not care if he is gay, his father concerned he might be.  Appreciatively, this writing is not gratuitous, instead restrained and thoughtful.

Chloe’s parents, Sandy and Gary Wheelock, show us what the non-dancers of the world think of the dancers.  Sandy, who just so happens to be overweight, is awfully jealous and mistrustful of Joan.  She believes that “someone so thin can’t help but be pretty,” and that “mothers who keep their figures have sacrificed less than mothers who have widened and softened.” Her husband stares at Joan.  There is “something about dancers’ bodies, the obviousness of their manufactured perfection,” the author writes, “that makes people brazen about looking and commenting.”

I especially enjoyed the ballet prose, carefully placed throughout not to overwhelm.  You don’t have to know what the ballet moves mean to sense the artistry, risk-taking, and discipline to perform them: the pas de deux, demi-pointe, ronds de jambe, plies, tendus, dégagés, fondus, frappés, développés, grand allegro, brisé volés, coupés, jetés en tournant, piqué, arabesque, chasse, sissonne ouverte, camber, adagio, battements en cloche.

Leave it to Joan’s young Harry to be the one to gain the self-assurance he’ll surely need if he is to someday, maybe, become that exalted dancer:

The ballet is the result of endless repetitions: uncounted rehearsals of acts, of scenes, of combinations, of steps.  The steps themselves are only the most recent repetitions of movements he has done thousands, probably millions, of times in different rooms, on different stages, with different partners.

Astonish Me mirrors the same techniques. It takes us to different stages, with different partners, at different times.  And it does so in chapters that feel like acts and scenes (although not experienced chronologically).  But make no mistake about it.  Others have crafted ballet novels, but none quite like this one.  Lorraine

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Under Magnolia

Southern Memories – The enduring power of a passion for reading, writing, friendship, and a “sense of place”:  It’s wonderfully fitting that the first book I can’t wait to share that’s outside the historical/contemporary fiction genre Enchanted Prose mostly blogs about is a gorgeous Southern memoir by the “Bard of Tuscany” whose madly in love with prose.  You don’t even need Frances Mayes to say she “loves imagery, I will practice writing as though I were painting.”  Her writing is so sensory and poetic you’re likely to find yourself, as I did, re-reading sentences over twice, three times, to catch the nuances, the meaning, the beauty.

It’s also apt because Under Magnolia reads like fiction.  How else could the author recall “backward time” so vividly?  Part of the answer lies in her keeping diaries, letters, scrapbooks, reading logs, poems, autobiographical writings, and photographs (sprinkled throughout).  The rest comes from memories so intensely etched they endure.  They come from the “intense physicality” of her Southern roots (Fitzgerald, Georgia), a “landscape of riddles and tricks” that profoundly moved her and saved her from a terribly dysfunctional family.  That the author derived enormous pleasure in the beauty of her surroundings and from reading and writing in spite of her circumstances is inspirational.  She’s resilient and a lover of life: “If I ever get out of here, I will never select unhappiness.”  The author’s inspiration awaits you.

From the opening line, you’re hooked: “At a few times in my life, I’ve not been aware that I’ve just stepped onto a large X.  The X in this case is being magnetically, fortuitously, drawn back to the South while on a book tour stop at Square Books, in Oxford, Mississippi.  She only intended to “pause” not “leap” – the leap leaving San Francisco where her memories were “portable” to an historic home built in 1806 in a town of 6,000 artists and “dreamers,” Hillsborough, North Carolina.  Mayes still maintains her Tuscany home, which we all got to know in her first “Under” memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun.

The dreamy NC town is not the same South as Mayes’ southern Georgia childhood, a self-contained “world in a jar.”  This “greenest-green” jar niggles our senses.  Of smells: flowering magnolias where “the bloom smells South”; a “narcotizing fragrance … jasmine, ginger lilies, gardenia, and honeysuckle”; the “verdurous air” of palmetto, crape myrtle, pecan, and sycamore trees.  Of tastes: Sally Lunn bread, Lane Cake, chocolate icebox cake, peach pickles, so tantalizing that “maybe it’s the food of the South that makes the children long so for home.”  Of heat: “The sun could melt a bar of gold.” Of beaches: where the joy of “diving through sunlight in water” is so expansive it feels like a sixth sense.

Lest Mayes’ Georgia years sound idyllic, putting aside what you may think are ordinary family dramas, they are anything but.  She is the child of two alcoholic parents, who are “wild” and “chaotic” and always frightening to her.  Their arresting photographs remind me of Zelda and F. Scott, ironically also Fitzgerald.  They are so preoccupied with themselves the author is left immensely alone, despite two older sisters.  “For hours, for years, I hide, reading by flashlight … in my hideouts, I thrived.”  She covets normalcy.  She finds it in Willie Bell, their maid who raised her and gave her “a steady point of view.”  Willie Bell offers kindness and calmness and grace, which the author likens to the ancient Egyptian queen, Nefertiti.  On a vacation with Willie Bell on the Golden Isles of Georgia, Mayes becomes painfully aware of racism: separate beaches, “separate worlds.”  This South she yearns to flee.

Her parents would drive anyone away.  They are “jets over ocean,” speeding by so fast they never notice their nine-year old driving a car!  Reading is a prodigious escape: 6-7 books a week!  The author’s dubbing her parents “fabric people” is instructive.  Her father, Garbert, owned a cotton mill; the lovely fabrics he brought home magnify her mother’s devotion to the appearance of things.  Her beautiful mother’s tragic life mirrors the textures of fabrics she surrounds herself with – the dimity, seersucker, voile, chintz, toile, and silk.  Shear and delicate, fragile.  By high school, Mayes begins calling her mother by her name, Frankye, portending the slipping away of mothering.

Part of the fragility of her parents’ story is their dramatic downward trajectory due to long, awful, debilitating illnesses, whose affect to this day is that the author has a hard time dealing with illness.  Of her mother’s potential, Mayes sadly asks: “How do you hold onto a falling star?”

There is so much more to this penetrating memoir.  Quotes and notes and impressions and stories by famous Southern writers like Faulkner; colorful grandparents, miserly Daddy Jack and Mother Mayes; and university years spent at the all-girls Randolph-Macon College, where the “unimaginable” importance of friendships is learned, at the University of Virginia, and a paradisiacal senior year at the University of Florida, where Frances Mayes is finally set free.

When Mayes muses on an ideal love, we’re treated to the elegance of a true romanticist:

I want ardent notes, wildflower bouquets left wedged inside the doorknob, poetry books wrapped in tissue, first kisses, the lips at my ear, the soft words, the moment of being, dance cards with tassels, midnight walks through old neighborhoods, laughter reaching up to the moon in the palms.

Despite pain and losses, Under Magnolia is the author’s ardent love note to us.  Open it up carefully, like tissue paper.  And then gently walk with it, dance with it, dream with it.  Lorraine

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