Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

I’ll begin with the cover of this riveting, beautiful book: two blonde, young girls dressed in white cotton sit on a suitcase—one with a long braid, the other holding a teddy-bear, her arm behind her back as the pair face a body of water from a dock. Already there is a sense of longing before the reader gets to page one. We know from the title that there is a backstory waiting to be revealed, something the reader of this present tense, first-person story set in two timeframes and told through two points of view doesn’t know, but should.

Before We Were Yours is based on a true atrocity: In the 1930’s, until 1950, an orphanage in Memphis was run by deplorable means for profit, its despicable matron, Georgia Tann, acquiring newborns and young children through any means necessary, posing as the soul of compassion, yet tied in with a corrupt network that condoned illegal, heartbreaking practices of snatching the young from impoverished circumstances under the guise of placing them in better homes. Many confused souls suffered: destitute mothers in post-partum twilight sleep, unaware of the paper they’d signed relinquished their offspring to the Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Names were changed, histories were expunged, case files were sealed, and many were fated as victims set on a life-course of Georgia Tann’s self-serving making.

This is a tale of far-reaching history told personally. Author Lisa Wingate gifts us with the voice of young Rill Foss, the eldest of five children raised on a Mississippi river-boat shanty by parents who can provide love, but little else. When her mother is rushed to a Memphis hospital in peril from the coming birth of twins, it is Rill left to hold down the docked fort for her siblings, unaware that they are all sitting ducks, unguarded in the face of Georgia Tann’s profiteering scheme.

 The reader learns the Foss children’s’ story in hindsight. It is present day, and thirty-year-old lawyer, Avery Stafford, in the name of her family’s politically high-profile status, stumbles upon an old woman in a nursing home, while making a public appearance. When the old woman’s story is launched, past and present are woven seamlessly in a coincidental, unravelling of mysteries that pull at the heartstrings all the way through.

It takes a seasoned and gifted writer to emblematically take the harrowing premise of one family torn asunder by the institution of a real life, black-market network and leave us with resounding outrage by crafting the story as a tale of personal injustice. In pitch-perfect language, Before We Were Yours is a search for identity told at its most beautiful. It entices with a sense of urgency through immediate emotional investment and miraculously manages to satisfy the reader through the disturbing arc of a truth laid bare.

 

    

 

 

Southern Fiction: Gradle Bird by J.C. Sasser

Just when I thought I had a handle on the meaning of southern fiction, on its deep-rooted history, its significance of family and sense of community, J.C. Sasser comes blazing in with both barrels to turn all notions of southern fiction on its ear. The characters in Gradle Bird conduct themselves with similar surprise—they don’t walk through a door, they bust through it; they don’t take a drag on a cigarette, they rip it.

Sixteen-year-old Gradle Bird doesn’t know her backstory. She lives in a truck-stop motel with her grandfather, Leonard, until they move to a dilapidated, haunted house in small town Georgia. All she wants is for Leonard to look her in the eye and tell her about her mother. Leonard won’t, and Gradle doesn’t know why. But Leonard is haunted by his own backstory, which unfurls in the attic in the arms of a half-dead dancing ghost. Caught in his own history, Leonard doesn’t pay attention, when two local ruffians named Sonny Joe and Creif ride up in a truck and whisk Gradle to a junkyard, where the wheels of the story are set in motion at the house of a sixty-year-old King-Fu kicking, guitar playing, country music singing, dumpster-diving orphan named Delvis, who is one of the more endearing eccentrics to ever grace a novel. Sonny Joe and Creif intend to impress Gradle by making mischief at Delvis’s expense, but things go wrong and result in Gradle and Delvis’s enduring friendship, which, the reader discovers, has its own uncanny ties that bind. This is a southern story that hallucinates; a rollicking, free-association, stream of consciousness joy ride defying description for all its air-tight perfect sense.    

I absolutely loved this story. I won’t cheapen Sasser’s one of a kind voice by saying it’s quirky, rather, it is refreshingly and unapologetically right on. This is an author who won’t insult the reader by bowing to the temptation of explaining anything that could be interpreted as the oddities of the South. A main character sits at a table in a wife beater. There’s nothing campy happening here, it is simply the story’s state of affairs, best described by Delvis, who ain’t bragging, he’s just giving the reader the facts.

Read Gradle Bird and expand your horizons. Start at page one and strap yourself in. Do what I did and savor each uniquely spun line. Finish the book, and if you get your head back, run tell all your friends.

Claire Fullerton is the author of A Portal in Time, and Dancing to an Irish Reel. http://www.clairefullerton.com  

The Editing Process (Photo Courtesy of my Editor, who posted this on Facebook.)

I knew it was coming, yet I didn’t know when. Last February, after I signed the contract with Firefly Southern Fiction for my third novel, a sins-of-the-father, southern family saga set in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis, titled Mourning Dove, I was so ecstatic with the realization that it had found the perfect home, that I didn’t think to ask my literary agent when to expect the edits. The reason I didn’t think about the edits is because Mourning Dove’s release date is a long way off. It is set to release on June 15, 2018, and, because both of my other books were edited close to each publication, I put the editing consideration in the back of my mind.
Three weeks ago, I received an e-mail, and the good news is it had a southern voice. I know the south well, having grown up in Memphis, and will report that one of its charming peculiarities is that its language is delivered underhandedly. No abrupt, cold-splashing directives; southerners tend to cushion their own blows. I have to say it warmed my heart, when the e-mail I received from a complete stranger asked in that inimitable southern way if I was “about ready.”
Of course I was ready. I’d spent close to three years in the writing and fine tuning of Mourning Dove. It was an endeavor I held fast to with steel ambition through the publication of my two other books, and because the contract had been signed, I’d moved on to writing my fourth book, thinking I’d press pause down the line, whenever I head from Mourning Dove’s editor.
My editor, Eva Marie Everson, issued no further lead time. When I responded with a resounding yes, the first one hundred and twenty three pages arrived in my inbox within the half hour. I know now that this was a move of sheer brilliance on her part. Had I received the entire manuscript at once, it might have been overwhelming. As it was, the appearance of the first part of Mourning Dove was just too tempting not to look at immediately. Once I’d set up my end of the tracking changes, I couldn’t help but stop my life and jump right in. And I did stop my life, and by all appearances, so did Eva Marie Everson. While I worked into the night and through the following nine days, so, undoubtedly, did she. Eva worked on the second half of the book while I worked on the first.
It was nine days of joy-riding fun, and I look back now that it’s over and know it’s my editor who deserves the credit. Because she is not only an acclaimed editor, but an award-winning author of over thirty fiction and non-fiction books, Eva knows her way around bringing out the best of a manuscript in what could potentially be a grueling process. Because she is a writer, she knows how sensitive a writer can be with their labor of love, and had the wisdom to employ the fine art of encouragement in the margins.
She began by sending me a general paragraph of what to expect. She’d addressed my overuse of commas and adjusted my lapses into passive tense. But beyond these, she kept astoundingly respectful of all I’d written. She took no issue with the story line nor first person voice, and because she is a southerner, there was no awkwardness when she came across dialogue that included half-phrases such as, “Well, I have never!”
There was a continuous flow to the editing process that felt like a running dialogue between my editor and me. With both of us knowing the other was at her desk and instantaneously available, we shot e-mails back and forth when the moment required it, and therefore sped through the process in what I experienced as a highly personal manner. What made it feel personal to me was Eva’s intuitive grasp of who my characters were from the very beginning. Mourning Dove is a coming of age, family saga wherein the two main characters grow from adolescence to maturity in the opulent south. And because it is a glittering, opulent southern setting, and there is little homespun about it, my editor was keenly aware of the matriarch’s character in the story, which is heavily invested in manner and form in the interest of appearances. At one point in the novel, a sixteen year old Finley is taken out of public school and dropped into an elite boy’s private school, where he arrives wearing the wrong clothes. “Wait a minute,” my editor commented. “How could his mother, Posey, let this happen?” My editor was right. I went into the scene, added a few adjectives in the right place, and the matter was immediately clarified.
It’s the small things that can go over a writer’s head. A writer can become too close to their novel. But if an editor comes to the task from the vantage point of both editor and reader, continuity gaps are found then filled and essentially the entire manuscript is lifted up to its highest expression. But it doesn’t happen overnight. Though in Mourning Dove’s case, overnight was also a factor. During the nine days it took to complete the edits of Mourning Dove, I went to my desk first thing one morning and discovered my editor had sent an e-mail at 3:30 AM. Baffled, I disregarded the e-mail’s contents in favor of the more salient question, which is to say I wrote back and asked what she was doing up at that hour of the morning. “Your characters are keeping me up,” she returned, “I figured I might as well get up and keep working.”
Once I received the second half of the novel, the edits seemed to pick up steam. By this juncture, the story’s foundation had been laid, the characters introduced, and what transpired from here was essentially a deepening of this cause and effect story, all the way to its climax, followed by an epilogue.
“I’m a mess,” my editor wrote at the end, in the side bar. “I have to go fix my mascara.”
If comments such as these don’t endear you to an editor, then let me suggest that nothing will.
All told, the editing of Mourning Dove happened in three layers: first, the punctuation and grammar, then a handful of places that either needed slight filling out or a sentence of clarification. Last was the run through of breaking the manuscript into balanced chapters, which my editor did to absolute perfection, without my involvement.
What I took away from the experience of Mourning Dove is this: If an author is graced with the attention of an editor of the caliber that I was, they’d be doing very well to keep and study the initial mark up. It is there an author will learn of their weaknesses and short-comings, and in so doing, the author is left with a road map of how to improve their craft and continue to grow as a writer.

Girl on the Leeside by Kathleen Anne Kenney.

Because I once lived in a small town in Connemara, at the gateway of the Irish-speaking area called the Gaeltacht, I look for those novels that depict the region as it is, for once one has spent significant time there, its ways and means register in the soul with perpetual resonance, leaving one forever nostalgic for what can only be described as the west of Ireland’s consciousness. It isn’t easy to capture, for all its subtle nuances, yet author Kathleen Anne Kenney has done just that in writing Girl on the Leeside in the manner the region deserves, which is to say this beautiful story is gifted to the reader with a sensitive, light touch.

Girl on the Leeside is deep in character study. Most of what happens concerns the human predicament, no matter where it is set. More than a coming of age story centered on twenty seven year old Siobhan Doyle, it is a story of the path to emotional maturity, out of a circumstantial comfort zone, (which, in this case, is perfectly plausible, due to its isolated and insular Irish setting) into all that it takes to overcome one’s self-imposed limitations to brave the risk of furthering one’s life.

In utter fearlessness, Kathleen Anne Kenney invites the reader to suspend disbelief in giving us an otherworldly character that speaks to the inner fairy in those who dare to dream. Small and ethereal Siobhan is orphaned at the age of two by her unconventional mother, and father of unknown origin. She is taken in and raised by her mother’s brother, Keenan Doyle, the publican of his family’s generational, rural establishment called the Leeside, near the shores of a lough tucked away in remote Connemara. Introverted, with little outside influence, she is keenly possessed by her culture’s ancient poetry and folklore. She is a natural born artist, gifted with an intuitive grasp on words and story, a passion shared by her Uncle Keenan, yet so pronounced in her that she walks the line between fantasy and reality. It isn’t easy to redirect one’s invested frame of reference in the world, if it isn’t completely necessary, yet necessity arrives at the Leeside, when American professor of ancient Irish poetry and folklore, Tim Ferris, comes to compare literary notes with Siobhan and Keenan. It is this catalyst that sets the wheels in motion of a heartfelt, insightful story that involves the willingness to grow. All throughout, author Kathleen Anne Kenney explores the myriad fears that get in the way, and shows us the way to triumph.

Girl on the Leeside is a deceptively soft read. It is so laden with beautiful imagery, so seamlessly woven with radiant poetry that it lulls you into its poignancy and holds you captive, all the way to its satisfying end.

Book Review: The Dead House

 

I’ve been following author Billy O’Callaghan’s career with rapt enthusiasm, since I fortuitously came across him last year on LinkedIn. That he is Irish caught my attention, and as I delved further, I discovered he is the author of three short story collections, all of which I’ve read, all of which, to me, are in their own league and genre of what can only be classified as literary excellence. And so it was that I awaited the release of The Dead House, O’Callaghan’s first novel, and subsequently tore through it in three sittings. It’s the type of book you can’t put down, yet when you do, it stays with you.

 

In a first person voice unlike any other I’ve ever come across, O’Callaghan gifts us with a story that unfolds in just the way you’d want to hear it by the fireside: it is confessional, it is insightful, it is no-nonsense and direct, yet wields evocative words slipped in so seamlessly that the reader is pulled into the fantastic story in cresting waves that move the story forward while explaining the inner workings of the narrator’s vantage point. The reader understands the narrator, art dealer Michael Simmons, right out of the gate. He lays his cards on the table with no apology as he tells about his client, young, vulnerable, and frail painter, Maggie Turner, with whom he cultivates a mentor-like relationship verging on that of siblings, as he guides her career. That Michael is devoted to Maggie’s overall well-being helps us understand his acceptance of her capricious tendencies, and so it is that when Maggie decides to move from London to an isolated, desolate seaside location on Ireland’s rugged west coast, Michael has reservations, yet chalks them up to her artistic temperament needing artistic space.

 

The Dead House’s story is centered on one fateful night, during a weekend house party at Maggie’s renovated, pre-famine Irish cottage that involves a small group of friends, a bottle of whiskey, and a Ouija board. Everything careens in spine-tingling plausibility from there, in a dynamic that begins in seemingly harmless fun, yet quickly turns off-kilter with unintended consequences that sneak up over the readers shoulder with such disturbance that this book is best not read at night. And yet I’d be hard-pressed to label The Dead House a ghost story; though it is that, it is more. It is a treatise on friendship, a look at the ambiguity of new love, a tip-of-the-hat to Ireland’s storied past, and a lyrical love song to the unfathomable beauty of Ireland’s haunted, windswept terrain.

 

Let me now confess something I’ve never done before, after reading the last line of this book: I went back to the first page and began again. The reason I did this is because I was nowhere near ready or willing to let the narrator’s voice go; I was too invested, I was too concerned, and the fact that the story is so suspenseful that I read it with white-knuckled urgency made me fully aware, even as I read, that I simply had to go back and revisit its artful language. I’ll site an example of O’Callaghan’s genius with language here: “Another Sunday. Christ, the fools that time can make of us.” But I’m gushing. Because O’Callaghan deserves it.

 

All praise The Dead House. Do yourself a favor and get ahold of this book. It will be available in America come spring of 2018, but, if you’re American, you can do as I did and order online through O’Brien Press.

 

http://www.obrien.ie/

Claire Fullerton is the author of Dancing to an Irish Reel and A Portal in Time https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=claire+fullerton

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

On Visiting Como, Mississippi

As I await the June, 2018 publication of my third novel, Mourning Dove, which is a Southern family saga set in 1970’s and 1980’s Memphis, a sins-of-the-father, cause and effect story that took me two years to write, I’m spending my time doing what any writer would do to stop themselves from climbing the walls: I’m writing another novel.

This novel began as a story about female friendships, yet fifteen pages into it, I began to write the narrator’s back-story, as it seemed important to the development of the story, whose theme concerns the ramifications of displacement. And as the setting begins in Memphis then takes the reader to the lake at Heber Springs, Arkansas, I wanted the narrator to be from somewhere outside of, but close enough to Memphis to make the story plausible. And so I chose Como, Mississippi to set the narrator’s backstory, which is 45 miles south of Memphis, in The Delta of Mississippi’s Panola County. For many months, as the story took on a life of its own and the narrator’s back story evolved into the main focus, I realized the problem was that I’d never been to Como, Mississippi, but now I will report that I have.

Three weeks ago, I had cause to go to Memphis. I have a childhood friend named Louise who demanded I come for her birthday party. Louise is a real Southern belle, and if you’ve ever had the good fortune of knowing one, you’ll know there’s no refusing their iron-fisted way of dealing with the world. Most of the Southern belles I know could run a country through the power of suggestion, and Louise is no exception. After I booked my plane ticket, I figured I’d make the trip to Como, as long as I was in the South.

Let me digress by saying that although I now live in California, I grew up in Memphis, in the type of climate where everybody knows everyone, and if they don’t, they know someone that does. When I told a Memphis friend that I planned on going to Como to research the book I’m writing, her immediate reply was, “You should call Denise Taylor, you know her, right? She’s married to a fifth generation, Como farmer, they live down there.” So, I called Denise Taylor, and although it had been twenty years since I’d seen her face, it was as if we’d talked the day before. Southerners are refreshing this way. What you have to understand is if you’re born to any part of the South, you’re in it for life because Southerners have a tribal mentality and will never let you go.

And so it was that I set up a meeting with Sledge Taylor. If I could come up with a name that suggests a more prominent tie to the history of The Delta, I would, but I’m not convinced one exists. Let’s just say that within twenty minutes of meeting Sledge Taylor, at the Windy City Grill on Como’s Main Street, it came to me that his family all but put the railroad ties in the ground of the train tracks that run though the center of town. After lunch at the Windy City Grill and an introductory conversation that seemed to acclimate us, we took to the sidewalk of Main Street, where I received a tutorial on the history of every building standing in a shot-gun row, along the way to Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, which sits A-framed at the edge of town, beneath a flourishing oak tree, its red-painted double doors graced with two gold crosses, below a porte-cochere.  Holy Innocents Church, built in 1872, has a feeling inside its venerable walls that speaks of the town’s history, and many of its’ ten, cathedral stain glass windows memorialize a prominent local dating back as far as 1892. Its pine pews grace either side of its smooth, oak floors, covered down the center aisle with red carpeting leading to a raised altar, which the sun illuminates through a magenta and cobalt stain glass window. Because a writer’s  job is to place the reader in each scene, I spent much time taking notes in the church, covering every visual detail, for I’d already written a scene in my book that takes place in a Como church, and the more specific detail I could add when I returned to my manuscript, the better. I wrote down every facet that caught my eye: the names and colors of the books in the slat of each pew; the height of the cistern holding the holy water; the number of windows on each side, and the pitch and height of the roof.

My reason for visiting Como had little to do with historical facts and dates, it was essentially for the purposes of creating a strong sense of place. Its one thing to write a scene where a character runs through a field to a pond, and another to lift the event up by describing the low sky as the character trips through winter’s faded tangle of kudzu and ochre rye grass. Although I had no set agenda, I gathered most of what I wanted by looking through the window of Sledge Taylor’s truck, as we drove for hours through the countryside on the outskirts of Como’s town proper. There, all manner of indigenous foliage set the scene on both sides of the narrow, unmarked roads: oak, elm, hickory and cherry create dappled canopies over Johnson grass, Bermuda grass, crab grass and Virginia creeper, creating a fecund mulch of forest litter on the earth’s sodden floor. In my notebook, I wrote down Taylor’s answer to all of my questions. I wanted to know the exact name of every endemic tree, shrub, and blade of grass; what changes were vested upon the area seasonally, and what was planted in the fertile fields in which month. All of this I planned on working into my story, which is decidedly character driven, yet I’d heard it said by one of my favorite authors that land is destiny, and it hit me as a salient truth. One’s environment effects one’s consciousness, shapes one’s attitude, and cyclically influences one’s life. And rather than spend my time with my guide as if I were conducting an interview, I simply let him do the talking. I wanted to learn what he deemed worth telling, and I paid rapt attention to the manner in which he spoke, for there’s little more telling of a region than its accent and turn of phrase. And further, because I’d never been to Como and knew little of its hallmarks, I thought it best to sit back and let Sledge Taylor do the driving to wherever he thought it important to go. When one is a stranger in a strange land being shown around by a local, it’s best to keep one’s mouth shut, lest they squelch the spontaneity of the moment by boxing their host in with the inconsequential. Had I done otherwise, it may have diverted my guide from turning up a particular driveway. Would that I could write the name of the historic plantation I saw in Como, but because it is currently a private residence, it is bad form to do so. If I were writing nonfiction for a Southern magazine, that’d be one thing, after being granted permission. But as it was, I was simply along for the ride, when Sledge Taylor drove to his friend’s house.

The house was massive. Red-roofed, two storied, and four pillared; it loomed on hundreds of acres of manicured, velvet land replete with mature oaks and elms, rolling down to a screened cabin’s porch, facing the edge of a pond. It was a family seat, built in 1902, passed down through generations. As we scratched up the gravel driveway, its caretaker met us as if by divine timing, for our visit was unplanned. Employed by the family for thirty nine years, he greeted my guide by addressing him as Mr. Sledge, and I was suddenly reminded of the formal courtesies of the South, which included an immediate hospitable offer to come in and tour the house, as its occupants were in residence elsewhere.

We circled round back and entered the house through the kitchen, whose entrance rose from a series of weathered brick steps, beneath a heavy, twisted muscadine trellis positioned just so, to abate the sweltering, Mississippi summer heat. Every spacious room downstairs had a crown molded ceiling that towered at nine feet. Beneath area rugs, the wood floors flowed through the dining room and living room, straight to a screened front porch, furnished with leather club chairs beneath a ceiling fan. In the central, catacomb of the entrance hall, two bedrooms opened at the left, adjoined by a dressing area and attendant, ivory-tiled bathroom. In the center, a wooden staircase rose to a second floor landing with a view of the grounds as far as the eye could see. Upstairs, three more bedrooms, one with a series of avian prints on the walls, a white mantled fireplace, and two mahogany framed, matelassé covered beds.  All the bedrooms were furnished with antiques. Some had four-poster beds, tall chests of drawers, and porcelain artifacts tucked in nooks and crannies, besides built-in book shelving, housing family photographs, giving the overall impression that the house’s interior was geared towards the preservation of history. Mounted on some of the walls were portraits painted in oil: austere, looming facsimiles, with eyes that followed you everywhere, bordered in muted gold frames. And it’s fascinating what you can learn, when being given a tour of an old house in Mississippi: I learned there’s a problem in the area with ladybug infestation, that the insects swarm the window screens by the millions, and lay their eggs to the point where the light can’t get through the windows. It was not a glittering, ostentatious plantation house, boasting in pomposity, rather, it was a shop-worn, elegant house, pitched to a functional practicality that gave it a warm, sophisticated edge in a way that lived and breathed and spoke of safe haven.

All told, I spent five and a half hours touring Como, Mississippi with Sledge Taylor, and I can tell you now I got the gist, but am fully aware that there is much more to the story of this historic, Delta region. I was so enamored of what I saw, that I’m already thinking there’s another novel to be set in the area, so sylvan and inspiring is it, for all its rural, earthy, authenticity.

What I learned from my trip to Como is that it’s best for a writer to approach research for a book with a very loose agenda. With regard to my experience, the wisest thing I could have done was just as I did: shut my mouth and let my guide take the lead.