To contact me, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out my blog erniehebert.com and my tweet of the day via ernesthebert.com
It's recycling reality. It's like a long lie you tell a psychiatrist. It's a hideout for Truth. It's beauty. It's bullticky. It's everything you can feel, compressed into words. It's the music an elephant experiences in the soles of his feet that tells him there's an earthquake a thousand miles away. It's a reason to believe in God when reason tells you there is no God -- or visa versa. It's what I believe in and who I am. Welcome to my website. -- Ernest Hebert
|Darby Essays||A scholar's view of the Darby series|
This is my imagined life if I had never gone to college. For me, it's my tribute to working people and an attempt to deal with my Franco-American roots. For the reader it's a journey from 1953 to 2006 seen through the eyes of Jack Landry. After he makes mistake that hurts the teenage girl he loves, Jack gives up a possible career as a pitcher for the Red Sox to live as a common laborer. In the end Jack is redeemed by love and fidelity to his own moral code. The plot follows the general story line of the Evangeline legend (Lovers are parted when they are very young and spend the rest of their lives searching for each other.)
To get away from booze and to deal with the death of his lover in childbirth, a young man raises his infant son in the deep woods. All my love of the forest is in this book.
These novels show changes in the imaginary North Country town of Darby, New Hampshire, over twenty-five years. It's not necessary to read them in order.
(which includes two novels, A Little More Than Kin, the second of the Darby novels, and The Passion of Estelle Jordan, the fourth, plus an essay)
(the fourth of the Darby novels, alas, out of print)
(the fifth of the Darby novels and a prequel
Published in 1993, this cyber punk road book anticipates reality-based television -- with dire consequences. It's Huck Finn and On the Road rolled into one.
An historical novel set in early days of the French and Indian wars, this story tells the tale of Caucus-Meteor, an aging chief, and his captive, Nathan Blake, an English colonist. Can Caucus-Meteor hold his village together? Can Nathan Blake get back to his wife and family? Based on a true story.
|How John Gardner Kicked My Ass and Saved My Soul|
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When I married Medora Lavoie March 22, 1969, I was a twenty-seven year-old senior at Keene State College in my home town of Keene, New Hampshire, and she was a nineteen year-old sophomore from Dover, New Hampshire. We honeymooned in Quebec City near our ancestral roots in French Canada.
In the fall of that year we set out in my 1963 Chevrolet for Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where I'd been accepted by poet Donald Davie in the poetry section of the master's program in creative writing. Medora and I were an hour and a half out of Keene in Bennington, Vermont, when Medora said, "Ern, this is the furthest west I've ever been."
I didn't like the Bay area from the get-go -- too many seemingly good-natured people and a climate that raised my suspicions because it was so redundantly nice. My adventures in creative writing workshop soured me on poetry writing as a career and I switched to a fiction writing class taught by Wallace Stegner. The class did its job, which was to tell me I was fiction writer all right but not one cut out for grad school.
I quit and Medora and I returned to New Hampshire so she could finish college. Eventually, I landed a job as a reporter with The Keene Sentinel newspaper, but for a couple years I managed Top Gas, a small, one-man gas station; those were the days before you pumped your own.
Nights I labored at the craft of fiction writing, days I wore a baggy blue jump suit that said Top Gas over the left breast pocket. Many years later, after I'd published several books, I met a guy at party and he said, "Where do I know you from?" I named one of my books. He said, “"No that's not it.” I named another book. "No,” he said, “"I remember now —-- Top Gas. You washed my window. They don't do that no more."
One summer day in 1970 an old dented pickup truck pulled into the station. The driver was a big, balding man about fifty with little squinty eyes. He wore heavy cotton forest-green work duds, and the left sleeve of the shirt had been cut below the shoulder revealing an arm that ended at the elbow. In the passenger seat was a small boy.
The man bored into me with his eyes. "Fill it," he said, and pointed with his one index finger to the regular pump. While I dispensed the gas, the man grabbed an oil rag on top of a pump with his one hand, tucked it in the crook under the half arm, raised the hood of the pickup, pulled out the dip stick, swiped it on the oil rag, inspected the dip stick, put it away, slammed down the hood and returned the oil rag to its place. I was impressed.
The man remained at the outer limits of my peripheral vision while I washed the windshield. I imagined that he was eyeing me critically; I went out of my way to do a competent but not great job to signal him (and convince myself) that I was not intimidated.
I took note of the boy. He was seven or eight, watching the motion of the squeegee with interest and delight.
Probably I never would have remembered the episode if something seemingly insignificant hadn't happened. Just as the pick-up was pulling out of the station I glimpsed the man as he looked at the boy, a sudden tenderness in his hard eyes. I thought: this is a man who is both tough and tender.
That night I went home and started writing a novel with a working title called The New Englander, basing it on the one-armed man. I wrote in longhand in a school notebook. I wrote every day for a couple weeks. I can't tell you what that preliminary draft was about because I threw it away, all hundred pages, but I do remember that it didn't go anywhere and that I do not regret abandoning it.
However, I did not forget the one-armed man. I kept seeing him in my mind's eye, his intimidating glare, his sudden vulnerability when he laid eyes on the boy: a man tough and tender. Finally, in 1974 something happened to allow me to write up to my abilities, but that is another story. (See How John Gardner Kicked My Ass and Saved My Soul.) Let's just say that I found a portal into my subconscious.
Of course I didn't know the real story of the one-armed man, nor did I care to. I wanted to invent him according to my own lights. I called him Howard Elman; in my imaginings Howard was a shop foreman in a textile mill, and he lived in the small town of Darby in an old house with purple asphalt shingles and yard littered with junked cars that offended the sensibilities of his new neighbor.
In an early draft I arranged an accident at the mill where Howard loses an arm. However, I didn't want the core of the novel to deal with a disability, so I rewrote the scene and cut off only his little finger. Now I had symbol and a theme. The Dogs of March was going to be about a man in danger of losing the things he values —-- his job, his son, his wife, his house and land. The antagonist would be his wealthy neighbor from downcountry, Zoe Cutter.
If Howard Elman was rural working class, his best friend Ollie Jordan was rural under class. In the second Darby novel, A Little More Than Kin, I set out to explore the relationship of Ollie with his retarded son, Willow. By the third book, Whisper My Name, I was beginning to see that the main character in all the books was the town of Darby.
Darby is a composite of three New Hampshire towns -- Westmoreland, Sullivan, and Dublin. When Medora and I came back home from California we lived a couple years in the Park Hill village of Westmoreland. I thought then it was about the prettiest place on the planet. I still do. In the Darby series Westmoreland equals Center Darby.
Some years later I built a cabin in Sullivan, which in those days had a section populated by poor people living in shacks. In my imaginary town that section became Darby Depot.
Before I was born, my mother worked for the Cabot family as a nurse in the Pumpelly Hill mansion in Dublin, New Hampshire. My mom told me some great stories about life in a mansion. She remained in contact with and on good terms with Mrs. Cabot for many years. Like my mom, I’ve always had an affection for the Old Rich. My bias has been against the New Rich. When I picture Upper Darby I see the mansioned hills of Dublin.
The Darby series will never be complete, just as a town is never complete. I see myself thinking about and writing about the town of Darby until the end of my days.
My good friend, fellow writer and wise critic Terry Pindell used to get on my case for making up silly names back when I was learning my craft as a fiction writer. My worst offense against Terry's sensibilities and other persons of refinement came in a book I wrote that was never published. I named a character Professor Juan Up Juan Down.
I reformed — -- more or less —-- by trying to give my fictional characters names with meanings that tie into the story and to culture in general.
Howard Elman is the protagonist of my first novel, The Dogs of March. His first name is in honor of E.M. Forester's novel, Howard's End. In Forster's book, the village of Howard's End is in danger of losing its identity in the spreading London megalopolis in the early decades of the twentieth century. In The Dogs of March, the town of Darby —-- indeed, the entire state of New Hampshire —-- faces the same threat in the 1970s from Boston and New York.
When I was growing up in Keene, New Hampshire, in the 1950s, the place was known as The Elm City. I remember two huge elm trees on my family's property. The Keene elms were all destroyed by a disease, which came from over seas. My protagonist is also threatened by outside forces —-- so, Howard Elman.
Howard Elman's antagonist is Zoe Cutter. She tries to cut him down.
For Howard's son I wanted a name that could be both formal (Frederick) and slight (Freddie) to show his ambivalent nature. I named Howard's wife after a neighbor in Westmoreland, New Hampshire. Her name was Eleanor. However, I'm a poor speller, so Elenore Elman.
In Spoonwood, my latest Darby novel, Frederick Elman all grown up is the protagonist. Elenore Elman, in genealogy research, discovers that Howard Elman's real name is Claude de Repentigny Latour. Howard, secure in his identity as an Elman, simply ignores the new information. But Frederick changes his name to Latour, thus reclaiming a minuscule part of his French-Canadian heritage.
In the history of Acadia, and indeed in the history of the shaping of North American, no name stands out more vividly than Latour. The story of Claude Latour and his son Charles is too deep and convoluted to get into here. It’'s enough to say that it makes fascinated reading.
In my fictional world, Howard Elman is descended from the famous Latours of old Acadia, but also from Robert de Repentigny, a voyageur I created in my historical novel The Old American. In my imagination, the Elmans are distantly related to Grace Metalious, the author of Peyton Place. Grace's maiden name was de Repentigny.
In The Old American Robert de Repentigny takes an Indian wife, who also happens to be of mixed race. Her father is a refugee of the King Philip war of the late 1600 hundreds; her mother is a Seneca Iroquois who is part Black, her father an escaped slave from the states who was adopted into the native American tribe. Though he doesn't know it, Howard Elman has a little Indian and Black blood in his DNA. I believe that anyone whose people have been in North America for a long period of time is likely to be a mongrel of one kind or another.
In The Old American, Father Esubee Goulet is named after an ancestor of mine; another priest, Father Sanibel "Spike" Morrissette, is named after Jack Kerouac's priest in Lowell, Massachusetts. I had a memorable lunch with Father Spike Morrissette. He told me Kerouac stories while knocking down three Manhattans.
In Live Free or Die —-- the fifth of the Darby novels -- I named my tragic heroine Lilith. One of the supposed origins of that name is “"woman of the rocks"” and since Lilith dies on a ledge, I thought the name fit nicely. My brain must have been scrambled. I don't think there's more unpleasant word on the tongue than Lilith. It's not only hard to say, it creeps you out to voice it.
In my latest Darby novel, Spoonwood, where Lilith plays a big role even though she's dead, I changed the name to Laura, after the mountain laurel on the ledges where she perished giving birth. However, my editor, John Landrigan, argued that to change the name would be to confuse, yea even to betray readers of the Darby series. In our discussions he used the word “"consistency"” more than once. He won me over with his argument and I changed Laura back to Lilith. But every time I see Lilith in print I want to puke.
About consistency: There are bound to be some inconsistencies in the Darby series, because I've never actually read one of my books after it has been published. Every time I sneak a peek at a published book, I find something wrong and become upset because I can't change it. For the record I want to apologize to my readers for inconsistences.
A Personal Note
Hebert is one of the oldest names in the New World. All the Heberts come from two brothers who landed in Acadia (present day Nova Scotia) in 1632. When the English, in one of their more disgraceful Colonial adventures, deported the Acadians from their homeland in 1755, many of the inhabitants wound up in what is now Cajun country in Louisiana, which is why so many Heberts hail from that part of country; for example, former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert.
Hebert is pronounced Abare in Louisiana; I grew up a Hee-bert, though some New England Heberts keep the ancient French pronunciation but spell the name Abare. Many a Yankee has called me Heebit, as in Ehnie Heebit, he's a writah. In Nova Scotia, it's Heh-bert. In my last visit to Montreal a few years ago, my name was pronounced Ee-bare. So there you have it: at least five different ways to say Hebert, and two different ways to spell it.
Vaccarest, my mother's maiden name and my middle name, is unusal to say the least. My great Grandfather, Giovanni Vaccaressi, was from LaSpezia, Italy. He migrated to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and moved to Quebec where his name was Frenchified to Vaccarest, silent 't' at the end. When Geovanni's son, Jean Baptiste, came to the states the spelling of his name remained intact, though the pronunciation was Americanized to give it a hard e-s-t sound, as in crest.
I come by weird names naturally —-- Elphege (dad), Elodie (mom's middle name) and Omer (bro). I believed that my name was Ernest Vaccarest Hebert until I had occasion to look at my birth certificate when I was age 18. It said Joseph Ernest Vaccarest Hebert. I asked my mother where the "Joseph" came from. She told me that Catholics from French Canada traditionally named the oldest boy in a family Joseph. However, since that practice led to too many Josephs, one was given a second name to use day-to-day. I've flirted with the idea of writing under a pen name of Joe Vac.
I find it hard to speak my authorial name, Ernest Hebert. It comes out Erness Teebert. In high school, I briefly carried the nickname Dirty Ernie, based on a lowlife character in the TV series Dragnet. I kind of liked the nickname because it sounded bad. It did not stick. My good friend Dougie Sullivan used to call me Heebo the Homo, which I always thought was pretty funny. It never really mattered because I could always beat him up. I happened to bump into him years. He'd grown to about six feet five, with broad shoulders. I realized I could no longer beat him up.
When I worked at The Keene Sentinel newspaper, my first boss was Sports Editor Bert Rafford; we were Bert and Ernie. Later, I transferred into the news department, where the editor was Frank Barndollar; we were Frank and E[a]rnest.
My wife calls me Ern, and a handful of friends call me Ernesto because to them I look vaguely Hispanic.
I'll sign off as Ernie, which is what most people call me.
I was thirty-three -- healthy, with a great wife, a job I liked, friends whose company I enjoyed; everyone I loved was alive and hearty; I caught fish on trout flies and cross-country skied with my dog. Never mind. Something was wrong deep inside. The source of my anguish was my fiction-writing.
I'd published a short story in college (in a girlie magazine called Cavalier) and a more serious short story in The Fiddlehead Review, Canadian Literary magazine, but nothing in five years. I had written two novels, and even I knew they were not worthy of publication.
Give up, I told myself; concentrate on news writing, which is fun and easy. But every once in a while I would write a paragraph's worth of fiction that was good, and I would soar inside. I wanted that feeling for a whole book even more than I wanted publication, I wante validation. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and it was all shit and I knew it was shit.
I was afraid, not even sure of what, but it had something to do with identity. I'd convinced my myself that God (if there was one) had put me on this earth to do the work of the novelist, but I was not doing the work of the novelist, which is to create a kind of model-train world that the reader can take in all once in way that one cannot in the great big real world. I believed and still believe that the novelist recycles reality in a way that helps people understand the world a little better and a little more accurately than their own casual perception.
I flirted with the idea of attending the Breadloaf Writer's conference in hopes that some mentor would smarten me up, but I was immobilized by my fear. My wife Medora cajoled, argued, and eventually persuaded me to apply.
I was accepted. John Gardner, my favorite writer, was going to critique my work. For days I typed furiously, coming up with sixty-five, single-space pages. I wrote like Jack Kerouac, automatically and from the large intestine. I didn't even proof-read the tale, and all I can remember about it today is that it was about a funeral. It was mediocre, I knew, but I sent it off to Gardner in belief that somehow he would see into it with x-ray vision that would reveal my potential, and in our conference he would say just the right words to free my cloistered muse.
The conference was held in a compound in the woods up slope from Middlebury College in Vermont. Medora and I didn't have much money, so to save on coin we didn't lodge at the conference center but in a tent in a nearby campground, primitive living for three weeks. I was in an agitated state of mind. I imagined myself a prisoner going up before a one-man parole board -- John Gardner.
I didn't like the scene at the conference center. It was too much like a summer camp for adults with tennis courts and cocktail hours and schedules and a hierarchy that consisted of published writers, darned-near published writers, wait persons; at the bottom were myself and the other wanna-be's who had paid money to get in. The weather was sunny, the people civil, the talk gossipy, full of good humor, subtle irony, even joy. I would have preferred dark skies, austere surroundings, and serious conversation.
I particularly hated seeing other conferees enjoying themselves. In particular, I hated Poet Mark Strand. He was six feet six, handsome, kind, warm; he played tennis in white shorts and beautiful women fawned over him. I would have hated him less if he'd been a mediocre writer, but his poems were beautiful and insightful.
The daily workshops, nightly readings and lectures put me on edge. I went out of my way not to listen. I was hanging around for one reason -- my impending conference with Gardner.
He was clearly the number one pooh-bah here, even bigger than Mark Strand. His appearances drew the biggest crowds. I was fascinated by his face. He had long blond hair, and if you looked at him straight on, you saw a wide head with coarse features that suggested cruelty. But in profile, the chin, nose and lips were delicate, proportioned, sensitive -- almost feminine.
During odd moments, I would feel myself crumbling from the inside. I was not part of this writers fraternity, nor did I want to be. If not here, where? If not with writers, with whom? I thought about that song, "I am a real nowhere man." That was me. Through this period, I was lucky to receive the constant support of Medora and a new friend.
His name was Bill Gill. He was a young academic and like myself a Gardner aficionado. He possessed a healthy skepticism and a calming disposition. Though we had just met I trusted him as if he were an old friend. Looking back, I think that Bill was a natural-born teacher who, though he was younger than I, saw in me a student on the verge of either a break-through or break-down. Whatever his motives he did his part to keep me on a more or less even keel, and I will always be grateful to him for that.
The day finally came for my conference with Gardner. I was not nervous. I just felt kind of stiff and a little disassociated. I do remember that I made eye contact with him, but he did not make eye contact with me.
There was no small talk. He picked up my manuscript, pointed his finger a third of the way down the first page, and said, "This is as far as I read. No real writer would write a sentence like that."
End of conference. I was out of there without a word in fifteen seconds. By now my disassociation was complete. It was as if I'd been hit by a car and was in shock, wandering without memory or identity on a lonely, unfamiliar road leading into a fog bank.
With Medora's help, I was able to get through the remainder of the conference. And then on the three-plus hour drive on the way home I remembered something Gardner had said during one of his lectures: Don’t write the next scene until the one you're working on is as good as you can make it, because a flawed scene is a take-off point for the next flawed scene. It hit me that when I occasionally wrote well, the writing had come hard with many revisions. The Jack Kerouac method of automatic writing, which I'd practiced by necessity as a news reporter on deadline, was no good for me as a fiction writer.
Next morning I went to work. I made three rules for myself: (1) Do not move on until the page is as good as I can make it. (2) Each page should contain at least one arresting image, metaphor, insight, or action. (3) Follow the protagonist's inner life with the same care and intensity as his outer life. I started a novel, sketching out the first scene in longhand. I copied from my handwriting on the typewriter until I reached the end of the first page. I removed the page from the typewriter, pencil-edited it and retyped it. I wrote the page half a dozen times before I went on to the next page. And on. For four years. In May of 1978 I received a telephone call from my agent. My novel The Dogs of March had been accepted for publication. Now, more than twenty-five years, later it is still in print.
|Prizes, a Speech|
One winter day about fifteen years ago I saw a shape in the snow that at first seemed to be a body. I ran to it. There was nothing there. The image haunted me and led to the first draft of my novel The Old American, in which a boy freezing to death imagines himself in another time era. That draft didn't work, and I abandoned it. Later, I returned to the image of the boy lost in the snow in my most recent novel, Spoonwood. Even then I could not shake the image of the shape in the snow, but I hope I've put it to rest with the poem that follows.Back to Top
You started as a shape in the snow.
Not dead, but like
one pretending to be dead,
body temperature dangerously low,
mind in a torpor. I stripped you
to your underwear. I undressed, and crawled into
the sleeping bag with you,
and looked at the sky through hardwoods
bare of leaves.
I told you how nice it is when
the wind sends tremors through the tops
of the trees and underneath it's still.
I did not voice
my regret that the shape in the snow
was only you and not a new me.
Slowly, you began
to warm. I said, "Come to consciousness."
You whispered, "Are you my poem?"
I answered, "No, I am only a story."
My neighbors, Donald and Martha Chase, had one child late in life, a boy so physically powerful and difficult that girl baby-sitters couldn't handle him. Around age 14 I was recruited to watch him when the Chases went out. I baby-sat off and on for the Chases until I turned seventeen. The Chase boy, a terror with girls, never gave me any trouble. After 8 PM, he would be asleep and I had the house to myself. I liked the quiet, I liked the solitude. The house itself brought me comfort and, oddly, confidence. It was one of the oldest houses in Keene, New Hampshire, in the Cape Cod style with pine board floors and low ceilings, comfortable but elegant, as I remember it today. The Chase house was the first Protestant middle class home I stepped foot in. Just being inside made feel smarter, more able. I wanted to live there. I wanted to be Mr. Chase's son. I can't say I wanted Mrs. Chase as a mother. For one thing I was attracted to her; for another I was at an age that I didn't want to have a mother.
In my fantasy today, I see andirons by a hearth, paintings of wood ducks and English cottages, book shelves that actually hold books, weathered wainscoting, a locked gun cabinet holding a deer rifle, a .22 plinker and couple of shotguns for bird hunting. I see myself sitting on the couch by the fireplace reading. Because the house makes me smarter, I get more out of the book. Actually, I have no visual or narrative memory of how I passed my baby-sitting hours. Certainly, no fire blazed. Maybe there was no fireplace, no gun cabinet. My memories are not of things or activities, but of feelings and desires.
I never talked in any personal way with Mr. Chase, but I watched and admired him over the years. When I was younger, he had a bird dog that he'd call by whistling very loud though a slot in his lower lip. I practiced for years trying to learn that whistle. By the time I finally figured out how to do it, I'd outgrown the urge. It's that way with so many things. For a long time the Chases had no children; even so, Mr. Chase impressed me as an ideal father. Though he was a small man, he was handsome and well built with a commanding air and a booming voice, yet he never appeared to lose his temper. He managed to appear authoritative but not dictatorial, assertive but not intimidating.
A little before I turned seventeen, Mr. Chase approached my parents with a suggestion that they endorsed and passed on to me. Soon I would be available for the draft. I could escape this obligation by joining the army reserves -- six months of full-time soldiering, plus six years of reserve duty. I could start attending monthly meetings after I turned seventeen, delaying my six months of active duty for a year when I would graduate from high school. Mr. Chase was actually Captain Chase, the commanding officer of the local reserve unit. I wanted to throw myself at his feet and confess my fears that I would be a coward in combat and disgrace myself, my family, and him. But in the end I decided to trust Captain Chase's judgment rather than my own. If Captain Chase thought I'd make a good soldier, why I would. A few days after I turned seventeen, May 4, 1958, I became Private Hebert, U.S. Army Reserves.
In June and July, I went to meetings held in what was then known as the old armory in Keene. I was the only quote unquote soldier who was still a high school student. I didn't know how to salute, march, or stand at attention when somebody yelled ten-hut. We were an artillery unit and I did like the guns, twin forty millimeter, anti-aircraft ”pom-poms” mounted on a tanklike carrier. I'd seen guns like these in documentary movie footage and in war movies; now I could touch them and smell them. Even so, they didn't seem real to me. The whole army business -- fatigue uniforms, combat boots, weapons, inspections, formations, and the possibility of going to war to fight the Russians -- did not register as real. I'd seen a zillion war movies, read about war, played war with my friends, but the idea that people actually shot at each other and blew each other up was beyond my grasp. Actually, everything, even reality itself, was beyond my grasp.
My contact at the reserve meetings with Captain Chase was rare, our conversations brief and formal. He was remote in a way that he never was in the neighborhood. I used to think that the distinction between my family and Captain Chase’s could be laid to differences in ethnic origins, education and income. Now I was seeing differences enlarged and ritualized. Captain Chase was an officer, I was an enlisted man. I was taught to salute lieutenants only a few years older than myself, but not enlisted men my father's age. Officers lived separate and obviously better lives than enlisted men. (The notion of women in military had yet to dawn on me.) Military structure reminded me of history books I'd read in school where people were divided between nobility and commoners. The officers were the nobility, the enlisted men the commoners, obviously unAmerican practice, and yet nobody questioned it. Was I the only one who noticed, the only one troubled by this system of hierarchy? I didn't dare make known my objections, not because I was afraid of being punished or scorned, but because I figured I was just thinking stupid thoughts. I didn't trust my ideas, feelings, insights, or gut reactions. I had developed no system of beliefs of my own, because I had no confidence in my thinking apparatus. If I voiced an idea and somebody else said it was wrong, it must wrong.
For me life at age 17 was a long, plotless dream that neither started nor ended but went on and on in its own nowhere, and I kept waiting to wake up into the real world. I wasn't even a participant in this dream, but an observer. The trouble was nothing was happening. I knew life was more than a dream. I'd been to the real, waking world once: when I was a kid. It slipped away from me a few months before I turned fifteen when my uncle and mentor, Monsignor Ernest Vaccarest, died suddenly of a heart attack. I didn't feel grief; I felt jerked out of reality into an alternative world, similar to the one I'd known but more chaotic and malevolent. I had a question for the rulers of this world, though I did not voice it: ”I'm a stranger here, can you show me the way home?”
Reserve meetings consisted of marching drills and class room instruction that was too much like school to suit me. I wasn't very good at paying attention in those days, and I cannot remember today any of the lessons. I remember that I heard somebody say ”motherfucker” for the first time. The sound of the word and the way it was spoken troubled me. This world I was trapped in was a harsh place. Time dragged. I couldn't wait for the smoke break at the end of the first hour. I'd started smoking the summer before, and now I was hooked. I'd tried all the cigarettes on the market and settled on Camels. It was during a smoke break that I learned there would be no meeting in August. We would be traveling to Camp Wellfleet on Cape Cod in Massachusetts for two weeks of military exercises. I looked forward to this experience. We would actually fire the guns.
The enlisted men in our battery drove to Cape Cod sitting in the rear of a canvas-covered two-and-one-half ton truck, or "deuce-and-half". (I liked the name more than the truck.) It was dark back there and they wouldn't let you smoke and the seats were nothing but hard wooden benches and it was dark and everybody griped and it was dark but I was secretly happy for the discomfort, because it made feel a little bit like a real soldier. When we passed Boston it was the furthest south I'd ever ventured, except for a trip to New York when I was twelve years old.
My priest uncle -- "Father Vac," as he was known -- had flown my brother and me to New York in a DC 3 for a vacation. He had ditched his Roman Collar and black suit, and traveled in civvies. He persuaded the stewardess to talk to the pilot, who allowed us a view from the cockpit. The Cold War was on so it wasn't exactly a serene time period in American history, but nobody worried that a commercial airliner would be hijacked.
All I remember about New York was an incident on top of the Empire State building that later made me realize the kind of man Father Vac was. We were looking at the sights.
"There's the Statue of Liberty," my uncle pointed.
"Didn't France give us the Statue of Liberty?" I said.
My uncle laughed and said, "Yes, but we've paid them back many times over."
Two French women tourists overheard our conversation, and they started speaking to one another in French about the rude, ungrateful American. My uncle immediately went over to the women and began talking to them in their own language. I don't know what he said, but within a minute the women were laughing and joking with with him. Later, we joined the French women for lunch, and we parted as friends.
I'm not sure how accurate my memory is of the firing range at Camp Wellfleet, but it certainly is vivid. I see blue water and gentle surf breaking on a sandy beach in a cove closed at each end with bluffs. On the beach are 90 millimeter guns with their long snouts sticking up in the air, our own twin forties on the tread carriers along with others from other batteries. There must have been a dozen or so anti-aircraft guns on that beach, and they were all firing at once at a small, remote-controlled drone plane. (Or maybe it was dragged by a bigger plane.) There would be puffs of smoke all around the drone, but no hits. It was almost week before one of the nineties finally hit the drone. Our twin forties never scored a single hit.
If we couldn't hit a drone, how could we hit a Russian MIG jet fighter? In that question, I saw the cold war unfolding to the disadvantage of my country. I figured that eventually I would follow Captain Chase into war and we would be destroyed. My only hope was that I would not die a coward in front of Captain Chase's eyes.
I saw very little of Captain Chase or any other officer on Cape Cod after hours. They disappeared in the evening after "mess," which was army talk for meals. Rumors flew that the officers had brought their cars. All I can remember about the enlisted men's barracks is bunk beds. There was enough of a kid left in me that I wanted the top bunk. My bunk mate was glad to oblige. He was an older guy (since I was only seventeen, they were all older guys), but this guy was particularly old. He was probably reaching up there toward thirty. He smoked one of the new brands on the market, Marlboro, but he did not resemble the Marlboro Man. Captain Chase resembled the Marlboro Man, but he did not smoke. My bunk mate was a big, red-faced man who wore thick glasses.
That first night suddenly the barracks were full of beer, and a card game got going in another room. My bunk mate offered me a beer just as if I was regular drinker like everybody else. In my memory he says, "Help yourself," and points at a GI can (a.k.a. metal trash can) full of ice and beer, but that image may be from another time, another place.
I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to admit that I had no experience with alcohol. It wasn't that I had made a decision not to drink, it was just that drink was hardly in my consciousness. My parents didn't drink. My friends didn't drink. I'd heard stories that some of my classmates at Keene High School drank, but the subject never came up in my presence and I hardly gave any thought to the matter. I had never seen a drunk person, or if I had I didn't recognize the symptoms. I had no idea what drinking would feel like or how to drink. How many beers should I drink? One? Two? Ten? I had no clue. It did not occur to me to confess my inexperience. I rarely volunteered information about myself, because I believed that the more people knew about me the less they would like me. I did not consider myself worthy of being liked or respected. I opted for mystery. If I kept quiet, people might make more of me than I was or, better yet, ignore me. Maybe if I took a beer and pretended some kind of familiarity with the product, my bunk mate and all the other soldiers would be diverted from who I really was and my inferior core would not be revealed.
"Thanks," I said, and pulled a beer out of the GI can.
I started with a sip. The taste didn't strike me as all that interesting. Beer was fizzy but not sweet. It tasted vaguely medicinal. My feeling was to get it down quickly so I wouldn't have to taste it. I drank the beer the way I'd drink an Orange crush on a hot day, in a couple of gulps.
I sat on my foot locker and contemplated my situation. I reasoned that there were two possible conditions from drinking -- sobriety and drunkenness. Since I had drank, I should feel drunk. But what was the nature of that feeling? I waited while my virgin liver processed this new substance. A minute went by with no felt changes in my mental state. I decided to drink another beer. Still no affect. Now what? I didn't want my fellow soldiers to believe that I was not capable of drunkenness. Perhaps I was some kind of freak. I knocked down a third beer.
It dawned on me that drinking was just one more thing I'd failed at. The realization didn't bother me all that much. I'd long ago accepted my inferior status in life. I would never be a star athlete, I would never get an A in academics, I would never hold a decent job. Most disturbing, I would never have a steady girlfriend. I believed that girls only dated me out of pity. I could hardly bear to look at the girls I was secretly in love with, let alone attempt conversation with them. If a girl showed any interest in me, I found myself losing respect for her. How could a girl be so stupid as to like me? My lone goal was to survive a life of involuntary celibacy and failure. If people knew how inferior I was, they would kill me.
Soon I lost touch with the amount of beer I drank. Counting didn't matter any more. I wandered over to the card game. It seemed to me that the barracks had been hoisted onto some kind of ocean barge that was now pitching and rolling in the sea. I had a hard time keeping my balance. Something about my behavior must have been amusing, because everywhere I went I heard laughter. I too laughed. I felt like a comrade in arms with my fellow reservists. Perhaps I could look forward to becoming a successful soldier.
Time went by, I don't know how much. I experienced a delicious feeling of contentment with the present moment. Somebody would say something, anything, and I would laugh. I found myself initiating conversations and expressing opinions. Neither the topics, nor the words themselves, mattered. We were speaking the language of camaraderie. We were all on the deck of the ship, and the storm had to be worsening because I could barely stand up.
Finally, some of my fellow soldiers, including my bunk mate, were assisting me to my bunk. With their help, I managed to climb up and lie down. Immediately I dropped into a vortex, a pleasant sensation really. Perhaps I would come out the other side and be back into the real world I left behind when my uncle died. The next thing I knew it was dawn. I was suddenly and dramatically wide awake, the tile floor coming at me very fast. Is this how death comes, the only emotion surprise? A moment later I heard myself splat. My first sensation was embarrassment at the idea that the entire battery might at this moment be watching me. The second sensation was pain. I'd fallen in such a way that various parts of my body absorbed the shock equally. I could tell exactly where and how I hit by the pain -- the tip of my chin, both elbows and forearms, big toe of right foot, and chest; the pain told me that I'd done a perfect belly flop from top bunk to tile floor. I looked around. My bunk mate was snoring placidly on his lower bunk. I could not hear a foot fall or a voice from the corridor. I alone was awake in the world.
I struggled to my feet, still mildly drunk. It passed through my mind to make a vow never to drink again, but then I thought, why not? Despite the soreness, despite a pounding headache coming on, despite a queasy stomach, I felt relieved, almost giddy. I was alive without any broken bones or blood shed. No one had seen me fall to witness my disgrace. It was a beautiful morning. I had been certifiably drunk. In my pain and in that scary flash of falling, I’d known reality. It seemed to me at that moment that the world was real, and I was real in it. I had come out the other side of the vortex. I made a vow to continue drinking. With a little bit of practice, I figured I wouldn't get myself prematurely killed before the Third World War.
I've been fortunate to collect a few writing prizes along the way. United Press International honored me with three journalism awards back when I worked as a reporter for The Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire. My first novel, The Dogs of March, was cited for excellence by the Hemingway Foundation. The New Hampshire Writers Project named Mad Boys the best novel by a New Hampshire author in 1993 and The Old American in 2001. In 2002, I received the Sarah Josepha Hale Award for lifetime achievement by a New England author. Below is my speech accepting the award.
For a long time I wondered about my secret motives for writing my first novel, The Dogs of March, and the subsequent books of the Darby series. I did not choose to write those books. They were insisted upon by something inside of me that went against my common sense and ambition. I wanted to be a success in the world of books and I understood my material -- small town characters outside the middle class -- was not the right stuff to make either a literary reputation or a buck out of. Why did I do it? I didn't know. I was guided by unknown forces.
And then a couple years ago my father died, and I began to have a clearer understanding of the source of my material.
My dad lived with my family and me in the last year of his life. He was crippled with arthritis, osteoporosis, and just plain old wear and tear. My dad had only seven years of education. He had worked in a textile mill as a weaver for almost five decades. When he came to live with me, he was flat-busted broke, and widowed. But he had a great attitude about life, a sense of humor, an eye for the ladies, and crazy optimism. Dad wanted a girlfriend. "What are you looking for in a woman?" I asked. Gripping his walker, he said, "One with a car."
He died very together psychologically, but it wasn't always so. He came home from World War II so traumatized that he dressed every morning in a suit and tie and sat in a chair all day. It was six months before he was able to return to work, and years before he was able to heal himself. But he did it. I always wondered how a guy who had been in the Navy and had never seen any action could be so discombobulated by the war. In old age he told me the story.
When he was drafted into the Navy at the age of 33 he was sent to work in the engine room of his ship, an LCI, which was a small landing craft ship that only carried a five-inch gun. Well, one dark night the ship hit a rock in the ocean somewhere near the Philippines. They were there for days before another ship arrived to pull them off. Because dad worked in the engine room, he was at the very bottom of the vessel. As it turned out he was alone down there. Everyone else had been relieved of duty in that dangerous locale. He didn't volunteer to do this chore. Nor was he ordered to. He was just doing his job. When they were pulling the ship off the rock the craft pitched and heaved and threw him against the bulkhead. He tried to open the hatch to get out, but discovered that they'd locked him in. Or locked him out. Depends on how you look at it.
The source his trauma was not the moment of panic and the fear of death, it was that they didn't tell him that he might be sacrificed. This minor slip in common decency -- not telling him that they'd locked him -- alienated my father from his crew and especially from the officers. He would have volunteered. But they didn't ask. He just did his job, for the good the ship, the crew, the United States of America.
I tell you this story about my father because I've come to think of it as a parable that illustrates the plight of the people who do the grunt work of America. The country needs them as a group to give the rest of us necessities and comfort, but as individuals they are dispensable and unimportant. The grunt laborers are uncelebrated and unacknowledged. They have been locked out of contemporary America.
I have had many role models without whom I never could have written the books that I have. My uncle, a Catholic priest, the Reverend Joseph Ernest Vaccarest, after whom I am named, my full name being Joseph Ernest Vaccarest Hebert. My mother, Jeannette Vaccarest, my father, Elphege Hebert, both of whom who taught me how to live and then, surprisingly to me, how to die. David Battenfeld and Malcom Keddy and David Leinster, and other teachers at Keene State College. I'm grateful to my editors and my literary agents over the years -- Alan Williams, Chuck Verrill, Kathryn Harrison, Michael Lowenthal, Phil Pochoda, Rita Scott, Nat Sobel, Sally Brady -- and to those who have read and critiqued my work when it was in a raw state -- Delia Daniels, Dayton Duncan, Audrey Lyle, Terry Pindell, and many others. Even in the last fifteen years when I've published books with some regularity I still need and, through the grace of the Divine, have found mentors. So thank you William Cook and William Spegemann, professors at Dartmouth College. (And by the way, thank you Dartmouth for giving me a good job, pleasant working conditions, and colleagues who could teach me as well as our students; and thank you students. You give me faith in the future.) But the influence I think about the most is someone I hardly ever talked to. He's one of those uncelebrated grunt guys.
His name was Harold Archer. He was a telephone man. I didn't go to college after graduating from Keene High School. I applied but I was denied admission because of low grades and low test scores. On the ACT test I scored a 6 percentile in English, which means that 94 percent of the people who took the test did better than I did. I went to work for the phone company. For four years I was on the road for the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company in towns like Belfast, Maine, Rumford, Maine, Rutland, Vermont, Wakefield, Massachusetts, and right here in Newport putting in the dial system in central offices. I was looking for self worth, a quality I lacked. For me, self worth was wrapped up in the idea of being good at something. I didn't know what it took to be good. I thought it just sort of happened. I was waiting for something or somebody to come along and clue me in.
Slowly, I grew to admire Harold Archer. Unlike many telephone guys who worked on the road away from home he rarely went to bars after work. His idea of a good time was to call his wife after supper. He seemed serene. But it was his attitude toward work that impressed me. If you can picture iron bays maybe ten feet high and thirty inches wide filled with relays and switches, all of which need solder joints for wires -- thousands of wires -- you have an idea of the work we did: put up the bays, run the cable, wire the relays. I can still remember the color code of the wires -- blue, orange, green, brown, slate. The wires would be carried in plastic-wrapped cables that ran on racks above the bays.
Harold Archer put his heart and soul and art into his work. We used to tie the colored wires in bunches with a waxy twine that we called twelve-cord. Harold made perfect solder connections, wrapped his wires with twelve-cord to make elegant turns. Guys would hang around his bay just to admire his work. Harold Archer not only did his work beautifully and competently, he did it with passion. Sometimes he would work right through the breaks and into the lunch hour and after five o'clock when nobody was paying him. The backs of Harold Archer's bays should have been in art galleries; however, replaced by the age of the chip, they've probably been scrapped. But his art lives today in my mind. Harold Archer taught me what it takes to be good at something.
They say that anybody who was around when John Kennedy was killed remembers where they were when the news came. I was on a cable rack in White River Junction, Vermont, when somebody said, "The President's been shot." I remember looking down ten feet at the floor while men whispered their fears, and I had no one to speak to or even a face to look at. I remember being suddenly aware that my head was only a foot from the ceiling. I felt just a twinge of that claustrophobic, alienated feeling that my father must have felt in the engine room when they were pulling his ship off the rock. The next year I was out of the phone company and in college, on a track that has brought me here today.
So the answer to my earlier question -- why did I do it, write the kind of books I have? Well, I still don't know. But part of it has to do with honoring the working grunts.
On behalf of my parents and on behalf of the Harold Archers of the world, and the people who make stuff, fix stuff and serve stuff, who fix cars, build houses, prune bushes, plow roads, carry bed pans, sweep floors, flip burgers, operate the looms, weld the joints, keep the engine rooms humming, walk the steel beams, wait on tables, shuffle the papers, and scoop the ice cream (the scoopers, how I love them) you, the soul of America, the working grunts -- for you I accept and dedicate this award. Thank you.
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The Bridges of
Social Divisions and Trust
Live Free or Die
By Tom Major
In A Little More Than Kin, the second novel set in the fictitious New Hampshire town of Darby, author Ernest Hebert described the feeling that Ollie Jordan enjoyed after fleeing civilization. Six days living in the woods had taught Ollie “that life, to be good, to be free, must be bare of duty, desire, involvement.” (A Little More Than Kin, p. 59) Inclement weather, loneliness, hunger, and ultimately madness discredit Ollie’s quest for happiness through freedom from duty, desire, and involvement, but Hebert returned to the idea in his fifth Darby novel, Live Free or Die. Collectively, the books chronicle the fortunes of several families, creating a portrait of northern New England as a socially stratified region where people stubbornly maintain entrenched beliefs about the place and its residents, in spite of obvious significant changes. In Live Free or Die, the concept of freedom through withdrawal from the community is approached more practically and examined more exhaustively, but ultimately it is rejected again. Hebert’s story asserts that misunderstanding, frustration, and tragedy result from either clinging to notions of Darby that no longer hold true or attempting to escape the real relationships one could have with the place and its people. Contentment can only be achieved by shedding the divisive prejudices about Darby and recognizing the citizens as individuals rather than icons of social and historical forces.
At the beginning of the novel, Frederick Elman, the son of Ollie’s friend Howard Elman, has fled Darby in a camper truck he called the Live Free or Die. He was working as a bridge painter in New Orleans, consistently late to work, antagonistic to his boss, in part hoping “to get fired, so he could move on to another town, another bridge, without having to make the decision himself.” (p. 9) The ambivalence he felt about nomadic life was shown by a dream in which he was divided, one self wandering the USA while the other stayed in Darby. His reluctant return to his hometown to help his injured father temporarily reunited the Frederick’s divided selves, allowing him to re-examine his choice between interdependence and independence.
Although freedom is emphasized in the book’s title, trust is the central moral value of the story. The most prominent symbol of that value was a land trust created by the late Reggie Salmon, the Squire of Upper Darby. Playing the part of a wealthy aristocrat, Salmon established the Trust as a monument to his family name. To do this, he consumed virtually all his inheritance, leaving his daughter Lilith a large, dilapidated mansion and only enough money to finish college. His wife was left with nothing except her self-image as the dowager of Upper Darby, and an avenue of escape; her most recent lover, Professor Hadly Blue, had proposed that she join him in Australia.
Yet the Trust itself was ironic, for it had been founded on crime, deception, and betrayal. Trellis Butterworth, Reggie’s mother-in-law, initially agreed to donate her property to the Trust, but decided instead to leave it to her children, including Reggie’s wife, Persephone. Since Reggie and Persephone had quarreled about the cost of sending Lilith to an expensive private college rather than the local state school, Reggie could have been certain that the land would not be dedicated to his vision of a wilderness preserve.
Although Trellis died without announcing her intention, a will reflecting the change was discovered by Ike Jordan, a burglar with aspirations of social and political elevation. His attempt to blackmail the Squire resulted in Reggie murdering him and then exploiting the death at a town meeting to rally opposition to a proposed mall. At the same town meeting, Reggie promised that the Trust would be “a haven to walkers and campers and cross-country skiers and snowshoers, perhaps even to snowmobilers and off-the-road vehicles.” (Hebert, Whisper My Name, p. 206) After defeating the proposed mall, Reggie established the Trust, but closed the land to all use except his own and that of the groundskeeper.
In Live Free or Die, Persephone Salmon turned her seat on the Trust Board over to her daughter Lilith, but remained in a three-way struggle for control of both the land and her dead husband’s body. That conflict, laden with historical animosities and competing visions of both the Trust and the town, was waged with secrets, self-interested offers of assistance, and temporary alliances. By accepting her mother’s seat on the Trust Board, Lilith subjected herself to the lies and schemes that seemed both natural and inconsequential to her mother and other Board members, her uncle Monet and her father’s attorney, Garvin Prell.
Lilith’s relationships to her parents had been constructed without trust and largely without love. Hebert wrote that Persephone was “[n]ever really upfront, but always ahead of her daughter and always with a plan.” (p.54) Persephone was so territorial that even by allowing her daughter to drive, she put Lilith on guard. (p. 59) Persephone arranged Lilith’s early release from college classes without consulting her daughter, having already made the arrangements to abandon the house, the Board, and the daughter for a new husband in Australia.
Lilith also grew up with the knowledge that she was second in her parents’ hearts to her deceased older brother (p. 62), that Reggie and Persephone had trained her to do their domestic chores because they could no longer afford servants, and that she had grown to enjoy the housework because it “contained no surprises, no promises, no betrayals.” (p. 129) Each parent had a refuge from the other and from their daughter – Reggie brooded on the Ledges of the Trust and Persephone escaped to her greenhouse. Aware of these emotional gaps in her family, Lilith hoped that the relocation of her father and brother’s graves as well as her restoration of the family home would give her contact and closure with Reggie.
Yet the father she so admired continued to disappoint her even after death. From her mother she learned that the family fortune was spent, and from Frederick she learned that Reggie had committed suicide. Hebert left for the reader the question of who had betrayed Lilith more – the father who abandoned her or the mother who had lied about it.
Like other northern New England writers, Hebert depicted social divisions in the region as geographic divisions. The poor lived in Darby Depot, the middle class in Center Darby, and the wealthy in Upper Darby. Lilith’s return to Upper Darby placed her at the heart of an ancient but shrinking web of rivalries, rebellions, and alliances. The Salmons were the highest in the social hierarchy, but the ambitious and commercially successful Prells were on the verge of overtaking them. Persephone was born a Butterworth, but as a rebellion against her own family she had moved away; eventually her family’s home had been sold to Reggie’s brother Monet, a reformed drug-dealing hippie who became eager to claim his late brother’s social status.
Both Monet Salmon and Garvin Prell were aware of Lilith’s financial situation, and each sought to exploit it for his own advantage. Monet’s rebellion was over, but he wanted to buy the house to complete his ascension as the new Squire. Part of Garvin’s interest in proposing to marry Lilith was as an act of rebellion against his father; Reggie Salmon and E. H. Prell had been bitter lifelong rivals. Garvin had begun his rebellion by agreeing to serve as Reggie’s attorney, and the marriage would be a continuation of it. Yet as little as E. H. would have relished the union, it would still be a Prell triumph for Garvin to impose his name on Reggie’s house and Reggie’s grandchildren. Even the Trust would be exploited by Garvin through his intention to bury Reggie there, raise a monument to him, open the Trust land as a public park, and thereby enhance the value of his condominium development.
One of the few areas of agreement between the Upper Darby and Center Darby was their mutual mistrust. The interclass antipathy was shown by the similarity of reactions by Howard Elman and Persephone Salmon upon learning of the relationship between Frederick and Lilith. Howard told Frederick:
There’ll come a day when she’ll double-cross you. You think you’re putting it to her, but all along she’ll be putting it to you. It’s in her blood… Upper Darby uses Center Darby and Darby Depot as whores.” (pp. 162-163)
Persephone said to her daughter, “Lilith, that young man is going nowhere and taking you along for the ride… Why does it have to be one of them? Why can’t it be someone from Upper Darby, or even Tuckerman?” (pp. 176-177) By depicting class prejudice as universal, Hebert expanded the responsibility for the eventual tragedy to the mutual misunderstanding and mistrust.
Frederick’s aspiration was not so much to rise above his social position as to bridge gulf between the social classes. He took as his model literal bridges at both the beginning and end of the novel, but significantly they were located outside Darby. At the first bridge, on which he attempted to rescue a suicidal girl, he realized that he had “nothing to say to this girl, nothing to say to anyone.” (p. 14) In spite of having told the jumper that there was nothing for him in his hometown, his realization on the bridge impelled him to honor his mother’s request to return to Darby to help his injured father.
He found the other bridge on his westward flight near the end of the novel. Spotting a graffito too high on an abandoned railroad trestle to be read from the road, Frederick decided to climb the grid work to see it. Contemplating his relationship with Lilith, with the rest of Darby, and with himself as he climbed, he began to consider jumping to his death. Yet the moment he slipped, he reconnected with his strong desire to live. With the new literal and figurative perspectives that resulted from his slip, he became able to see the graffito: I LOVE YOU. His love for Lilith overcame his wounded pride and mistrust, and he realized that irrespective of her feelings, he needed to return to Darby to support her.
Until that point, Hebert had presented no characters capable of bridging the social class divisions. Dot McCurtain, the town gossip, moved among the three spheres of Darby, but her role was more divisive than unifying. “Once Dot McCurtain had passed judgment, decided what you were, who you were, that was it as far as the people of Darby were concerned. You were what she said you were.” (p. 277) Her pronouncement of Frederick and Lilith as different tied the “to the post and punished them with the whiplash frowns of their neighbors.” (p. 281)
The only example of a human bridge at all was Cooty Patterson, the hermit friend of the Elman men who survived by trapping and scavenging food. Howard and Frederick were unable to relate to each other directly, but they expressed their mutual love and concern through Cooty. Each spoke freely to Cooty about the other, and each offered Cooty those things which masculine pride prevented them from offering to the other directly. Frederick camped on Cooty’s land when he returned to Darby, even though (or perhaps because) it wounded Howard. (p. 150) Throughout the chapter “Listen, Freddy,” Hebert described the mutual admiration and concern of the father and son, even as they antagonized, cursed, and mocked each other. In contrast to the harsh counsel Howard gave Frederick about Lilith and Upper Darby, Howard nursed Cooty back to health. (p. 391) Cooty served as a proxy recipient for the familial love that the Elman men could not express directly.
Frederick’s contemplation of Darby fishing patterns showed that on some level, he understood the need to shed the cultural prejudices of one’s class to become a bridge. Upper Darby fishermen preferred brook trout, spawned in hatcheries and stocked in lakes for the fly fisherman’s pleasure. Like the people who fished for it, the fish was not native to the area, but had displaced the native trout so completely that it was commonly believed to be native. The Darby Depot fishermen preferred hornpout; “he’s a bullhead, a lowly member of the lowly catfish family… easily caught…. but hard to kill.” (p.210) Center Darby preferred to fish for black bass, “…a school fish with an independent streak. It can be daring, impulsive, on occasion brave, but not contemplative or philosophical, even as far as fish go… Actually, the bass is like the guy who hates his job, who on Saturday night in the living room after the wife and kids have gone to bed, sits drunk and inert in front of the TV, watching his perfected self in the beer commercials.” (p. 213)
Frederick, branded as different for his relationship with a woman above his caste, preferred to fish for perch. In explaining the fish’s characteristics to Lilith, he noted that it is “ignorant,” “independent,” “greedy,” “territorial,” “scorned, despised, misunderstood, and unprotected by the state he swears allegiance to.” (p. 183) As with the trout, hornpout, and bass, the characteristics of the perch could be applied in the main to the fisherman who preferred it. Pricked by a dorsal fin, Lilith added to the perch’s description: “mean,” “unattractive,” “self-indulgent,” and “afraid of touch.” (p. 183) Yet in spite of her assessment, she accepted both the fish dinner and Frederick.
As the novel progressed, the false equivalence of freedom and independence, in combination with Darby’s conservative social structure, divided Lilith and Frederick. Frederick’s preference for nomadic life had been expressed in the name of his truck, the Live Free or Die. As both the slogan for his lifestyle and the official motto of his home state, it ironically tagged him with the home he was fleeing. In this, Hebert subtly illustrated the futility of seeking freedom by running from family, friends, and home.
Frederick’s doomed desire for total independence was also symbolized by his eighty-nine cent headband. “The headband was courage and freedom and identity as an individual; it was a self within a self.” (p. 19) By allowing Lilith to take it from him, he gave up that independence and committed himself to a relationship with her. She in turn used the headband to symbolize the rebellious aspect of their relationship. When questioned about it by her mother, she replied, “I sleep with it – what do you think of that, Mother?” (p. 176) In their final argument, Lilith returned the headband to Frederick with other laundry. Although Hebert was not specific about the socks and shirt, he did explicitly note that Frederick kicked the headband back to her before leaving. Having become a rejected symbol of their fractured love, it had lost its value as a symbol of freedom.
Yet it was the social structure of Darby more than Frederick’s desire to run that divided them. In addition to Dot McCurtain’s pronouncement that they were different, many others in the community contributed to their break-up. Garvin Prell actively courted Lilith, promising the financial security, social standing, and stability that Frederick could not offer her. Persephone’s disapproval of Frederick may have spurred Lilith’s rebellion, but her class-based objections resonated when they quarreled. In their final argument, Lilith yelled, “You’ll never understand me. You’re too stupid. Go away. Stupid! Trash man! Trash! Go!” (p. 382)
Howard was even more corrosive on their relationship. Like Lilith, Frederick’s inclination to rebel against his father spurred his commitment to Lilith, but at the same time it obscured their love for each other. Howard’s accusation of Lilith’s infidelity may have been a good faith attempt to protect his son, but its foundation in class exploitation made it plausible enough to infuriate Frederick, temporarily blinding him to his love for Lilith.
Even Frederick’s mother, Eleanor, contributed to the destruction of their relationship by closing her door on Lilith. The social gap between them was wide; Lilith’s gift of dried flowers appeared dead to Eleanor, and though Lilith didn’t know that a notorious local prostitute had arranged them, Eleanor surely did. Nonetheless, Eleanor had no sooner spurned Lilith than she recognized her sin and prayed for forgiveness.
By returning Frederick to Lilith on the Trust just before her death, Hebert illustrated the choice between living free and dying. Freedom was not, as Frederick has supposed, achieved through isolation from loved ones, but rather by discarding the historical prejudices and resentments of each social class against the others. Only by shedding the traditional attitudes and biases of Center Darby and Upper Darby could Frederick and Lilith truly unite as they had at the allegorically named Grace Pond in the heart of the Trust. Lilith’s flight instead to the Ledges, the refuge of her father from other people, may have doomed her, but Frederick’s return allowed her to die happy and him to save their son. That child, created from the union of the two classes and born within (the) Trust, could claim as a birthright the potential to truly live free.
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Spoonwood and Other Tales from the Darby Series
An Analysis by Tom Majors
The novels that Ernest Hebert set in Darby, New Hampshire have focused on the struggles of individuals to come to terms with their identities and places in a socially stratified community. Several characters have striven to define themselves rather than simply accept the roles assigned to them by the town and based on family, gender, and especially class. Hebert’s characters have a mixed record of resolving their struggles for individuality, but they consistently fail to make meaningful personal connections outside their own classes. While some have the latitude to define their own places within the narrow scope of their castes, the community becomes brutal when its social boundaries are transgressed. With the publication of his fifth novel, Live Free or Die, in 1990, Hebert’s pessimism about inter-class relations is unmistakable.
After a fifteen-year hiatus from Darby and two unrelated novels, he has returned to his fictitious town with a more optimistic attitude. While the same struggles about class and conformity are reprised, the potential for characters to define their own identities and form cross-class friendships is much greater. Unlike Hebert’s previous novels, Spoonwood shows how people from different socio-economic backgrounds can overcome a history of animosity and prejudice to build family and community bonds.
A Survey of Darby
Demographically, the population is small enough to require a government of no more than one constable, a town clerk, and three selectmen, but Darby encompasses a diverse enough social spectrum to be generally representative of northern New England. Geographically, its settlement pattern follows its class stratification, dividing the town into three villages representing the wealthy, working class, and poor. Rivalries and even sub-categories divide those villages further.
The poorest village is Darby Depot, a shantytown which readers experience through the Jordan clan. They are alcoholic, abusive, incestuous, under-educated, under-employed, and prone to criminal behavior. Their peculiar social code regulates many aspects of their lives, from gendered spaces to non-verbal communication, but the two highest principles are ascendancy and succor. The terms are illustrated by the plight of Ollie Jordan at the beginning of A Little More Than Kin. Having been evicted from the land on which his family had built a small compound of shacks, Ollie was faced with turning to the hated and feared Welfare Department for support, or to one of his younger half-brothers. By the code of the Jordan kinship, they were bound to provide support, or succor, for him if he asked, but if they did so, he surrendered ascendancy, or pre-eminence, to them. Faced with these alternatives, Ollie fled to the woods to build a home for himself and the special-needs son he kept literally chained to himself when in town.
Howard Elman and his family primarily represented center Darby, the home of the town’s working class. A laid-off mill foreman, Howard faced the same crushing poverty that was so familiar to the Jordans, but with his Yankee virtues of self-reliance, stubbornness, and diligence, he built a successful trash removal business. Indeed, it is Howard’s attitude toward work rather than money, education, or even ancestry that separated Howard, and therefore Center Darby, from his friend Ollie, and by extension, Darby Depot.
Ollie tried hard not to hold it against Elman that he was addicted to work. After all, work was only one of two flaws that Elman had, the other being clock-watching. Elman even worked when he was drinking…Ollie wanted to say to his friend, “Good God, man! How can you concentrate on your drinking when you are trying to fix an engine? But Ollie reined himself in. He would not criticize Elman’s ways, anymore than Elman would criticize his ways: This was in the code of their friendship. (A Little More Than Kin, pp. 115-116)
Also included in Center Darby’s working class are land rich, cash poor farmers like Avalon Hillary. While they evinced no particular disdain for blue-collar workers like Elman, his resentment of them was undisguised. In Live Free or Die, Elman and a landless agricultural worker called Pitchfork Parkinson had the following conversation.
“There’s the man I’m looking for,” Howard said.
“What do you want with me, Howie?” Pitchfork was not a man to be bullied.
“I hate farmers, you know I hate farmers - you know that, doncha?”
“It’s well known.” Pitchfork rocked back on his chair and folded his arms…
“You regard yourself as a farmer?”…
“I got the experience for farming, but I ain’t got no land,” Pitchfork said.
“The old farmers are all rich bastards,” Howard said.
“Land-rich, not money-rich, God love ‘em.”…
Howard began anew before Pitchfork’s words were out. “Now, this present-day batch of young farmers are a bunch of a different kind of bastards, because they all go to the aggie school in Durham – tell me I’m wrong.”
“Except for the bastard part, you’re not wrong, and maybe you’re not wrong all the way around… Farmers are poor. All the green stuff is in the field and not in the wallet. They hire these retarded fellows to shovel shit for low pay. They hire darkies from the islands to pick apples for low pay. Then there’s me, with experience. They’re ashamed to offer me low pay. So I sit in Joe’s store.” (Live Free or Die, pp. 234 - 235)
Although Hebert did not develop a plot line to show the direct clash between farmers and other working class laborers, Howard’s attitude was illustrative of the intra-class resentment found in Center Darby. Howard’s combative examination of Pitchfork was his way of recruiting the man for his trash collection business, but it was as much recruiting him from the enemy camp to his own army.
Members of the town’s highest social class lived in the ancestral mansions of Upper Darby. The pioneers of the caste, the Butterworth family, had moved out, married out, or died out, leaving the family home to be occupied by a member of the class’ most imperial family, the Salmons. In contrast to the Salmons’ pre-eminent status and their financial ruin, the commercially successful Prell family had less attachment to Upper Darby’s past glory, and even less compunction about developing the land they inherited. As a result, they became the wealthiest of the old families, though not the most highly esteemed.
Truces in the struggles between Prells and Salmons resulted from outside threats. One such menace came from Howard’s son, Frederick, a temporary trash collector who had the temerity to love Lilith Salmon, heir to the family’s home. Another such threat was Lawrence Dracut, an attorney and recent arrival to Darby. As a representative of the wealthy newcomers, Dracut’s defeat of Monet Salmon for selectman and subsequent proposal to tax the late Reggie Salmon’s Trust Land at market value impel Monet Salmon and Garvin Prell to a temporary cease-fire and alliance against Dracut. In addition to the legacy wars and battles against the new money of their village, Upper Darby’s old families must also contend with occasional populist insurgencies from Darby Depot. In Whisper My Name, Reggie Salmon, the Squire of Upper Darby, was blackmailed into supporting the candidacy of the notorious burglar Ike Jordan for selectman. When Monet faced Lawrence Dracut for selectman, Ike’s son Critter also ran.
The Struggle for Individuality
Hebert developed several characters that struggle to express their individuality within this rigidly divided community. In Darby Depot, complacent, satisfied Jordans like Donald and his son, Donald Again, were rare. Ike, for example, was a slumlord, a thief, and a fence. As such, he might have prospered for many years, but his delusional self-confidence and boundless ambition led him to his fatal attempt to blackmail the Squire for political advancement. Ike’s imposition on Reggie’s reputation led directly to his own death.
If Ike had asked for money like any common blackmailer, Reggie would have paid. But Ike wanted his political support. He wanted to tie the Jordan name to the Salmon name. On behalf of his father and his grandfather, Reggie could not abide this demand. (Whisper My Name, pp. 226-227)
Yet Reggie, too, destroyed the identity he had carefully cultivated for himself, first by impoverishing his family to establish the Trust and then by murdering Ike. While his earthly aspirations to maintain his aristocratic and genteel image lasted as long as he did, his death exposed his poverty and Ike’s death violated the rules of behavior for gentlemen. Hebert deftly illustrated this retributive loss of identity with a nightmare on the eve of Reggie’s suicide.
He had done what he had to do, so it was not guilt that barred him now, as the voice had pointed out. It was the fact that Ike, in his sudden surge of fear in the moment before Reggie pulled the trigger, had seen in his face someone else, had called him by a name not his own – Ollie. “Do you understand now?” the voice spoke again. “A man’s name is the compass that leads him from one world to the next. Yours has been taken from you.” (Whisper My Name, pp. 227)
Yet not all Hebert’s characters fail in their effort to define or redefine their identities. Ike’s son Critter had difficulties adjusting to the new roles he was thrust into. Dominated by both his father and his girlfriend Delphina, he was suddenly propelled by Ike’s death into the position of a businessman, a property owner, and the head of a household. At the conclusion of Whisper My Name, Critter based his manhood and bid for ascendancy within the Jordan clan on the false rumor that he murdered his father. Critter’s pregnant girlfriend, theretofore more strong-willed than he and uncertain that she would marry him or give the baby the name Jordan, recognized his new confidence and the effect it had on the balance of power between them.
Having come to his Jordan manhood, he was in a good position for fulfilling it. What he could get of Ike’s estate would give him a strong base from which to provide succor for his kin; their own belief that he had done in Ike would give him credentials in his campaign for ascendancy in the clan.
He sat there enjoying the dark for a long time, then he climbed the outside stairs to the apartment. Delphina saw his eyes, shrank before them. She would have to accept him now, on his terms. The baby would be a Jordan. (Whisper My Name, pp. 216-217)
Yet in Hebert’s fourth novel, The Passion of Estelle Jordan, Critter’s public image as a businessman and pater familias had not been realized as a self-image. Not having actually murdered his father, he had never done anything to prove himself worthy of his position, and thus was troubled by uncertainty and self-doubt.
In fact, Critter had mixed feelings about his father’s ghost. He wished Ike really could see him now, a success in the business Ike had started; but he was also happy Ike was dead and buried. Ike had had a way of keeping him between his boyhood and his Jordan manhood. With Ike’s death, Critter had been overwhelmed not by grief but by relief. (The Passion of Estelle Jordan, p. 56)
Hebert elaborated on Critter’s confusion by placing him at a party in Upper Darby. Critter’s sister-in-law had married Roland LaChance, a newspaper writer who was hired by his former lover Persephone Salmon as the caretaker of the Salmon Trust Land. Roland’s education helped him feel at ease with the people of Upper Darby, but Critter, sorely out of place at the party, had fallen to reflecting on the loss of identity that resulted from his new status.
He’d been a lonely, confused boy, with a mother who had abandoned him before he was old enough to know her and a father who was self-centered and pre-occupied with his own dramas in which his son was only a bit player. Critter had survived by thinking; mainly he thought about sex. But these days his mind was busied by practical thinking – fix, figure, buy, build, sell, swindle, borrow from Peter, pay Paul. There was much achievement but little fun in this. So he had mixed business and pleasure by opening the [pornographic] bookstore. It had stimulated him, but only for a while. He’d reached the point where he had to say that a beaver is a beaver is a beaver. There must be more, he thought – “But what?” (The Passion of Estelle Jordan, pp. 96-97)
Like Critter, his grandmother Estelle was struggling to adapt to the new circumstances of her life. Sold into marriage to her Uncle Oliver at sixteen years old, she had sustained herself for many years as a prostitute. The product of her sexual relationship with their son Ollie (the same Ollie who befriended Howard Elman) was an apparently retarded child named Willow. Oliver’s resentment of the sixteen-year-old Ollie led to a threat against the infant, a fight with Ollie, and his death. Estelle bore two other sons, Ike and Donald, by unidentified fathers, but all were named Jordan. Renamed the Witch by Ollie, Estelle created an identity to match the name; the Witch was tough, masterful, unemotional, and professional. She kept her private identity, Estelle, hidden from her clients and her family.
Critter’s employment of Noreen Cook, a Jordan in-law, at his bookstore forced Estelle to confront how age was changing her identity. Though lacking the Witch’s wisdom and experience, Noreen had the right attributes to replace Estelle as the town pump, but what role then would she have? Her search for her new identity led her to visit her mother, Romaine, at a geriatric mental hospital in Concord. There she discovered that Romaine had created two Estelles in her mind – her daughter, whom she saved, and the other Estelle, whom she sold to her brother Oliver. Estelle, who prompted the conversation by introducing herself as Romaine’s daughter, cruelly concluded it by declaring “I am the other Estelle,” leaving the older woman shrieking in her madness (The Passion of Estelle Jordan, p. 149).
Her passion, in the sense of sacrificial suffering, was effected by posing as Noreen to draw an attack by a sexually deviant Upper Darby young man. The near fatal assault, during which she is stabbed in the abdomen, forced the rebirths of herself as Estelle and Noreen as the new Witch.
On the floor lay the Witch, bleeding, naked, oddly vibrating. And then it was as if the Witch had risen up from that battered body, and stood, young, beautiful, and cruel. Critter raised his hands to his face, resisting the urge to cover his eyes… He saw now that it was Noreen standing before him. She was wearing the Witch’s clothes…
He couldn’t get out of his mind that the Noreen that he knew was gone, vaporized, that this person was not Noreen but the Witch in a new form.
A movement form the Witch caught his attention. He watched her belly ripple. Critter had never seen muscles behave that way…
“What’s this?” he said more to himself than to Noreen.
“Birth – she’s borning something.” Noreen’s face glistened. (The Passion of Estelle Jordan, p. 202)
That same passion which helped Estelle become a tender, unified self who was sensitive to the beauty of destruction and renewal (The Passion of Estelle Jordan, pp. 208-209) also helped Critter to realize his own identity. Upon learning that the Witch had been attacked at his bookstore, he experienced a literal epiphany.
Critter knew he’d be the first to arrive at the barn. He had no gun; the smart thing to do would be to wait for help only minutes behind. Yet he did not. Something in him was changing second by second. Concern gave way to worry, worry to panic, panic to fear, fear to anger, anger to rage, rage to desire, desire to ecstasy, until he felt everything he’d ever felt all in his life at once; he was bathed in a pure emotional light – and then one thing, one emotion, something he’d never felt before, a single-minded will to do, soul to dare… He was no longer the husband and father, businessman and employer, the American bent on happiness and prosperity – cautious, logical, worrisome, cunning. He was a pure Jordan male loosed on the world – headstrong, unpredictable, fearless, direct, dangerous, deadly. (The Passion of Estelle Jordan, p. 201)
Critter’s realization of his identity was significant within the body of Hebert’s work because it reaffirmed his place in Darby. Marriage, legitimate commerce, and prosperity suggested a shift from Darby Depot to Center Darby, bestowing in Critter the very same attributes that his Uncle Ollie found difficult to accept in Elman, but in a crisis, the essential Critter – “a pure Jordan male” – emerged.
Whisper My Name introduced two other characters that struggled to uncover their own identities. Roland LaChance, the former reporter whose party Critter attended, was an orphan nettled by the secret of his parentage. His girlfriend, the sister of Critter’s girlfriend Delphina, was an unwashed aphasiac bearing the ironic nickname Soapy. Her surname, Rayno, was borrowed from her mother’s husband; her genetic father was a shadowy Vermont hippie outlaw. Calling himself Newhawk, he refused to tell Soapy his name, her name by extension. Although each was troubled by questions of ancestry, Soapy’s incomplete socialization was explicitly linked to her unresolved identity.
She didn’t care what Again said or what anybody said. Let them call her Soapy. Let them believe she was a Rayno. She knew who she wasn’t, which was more than they knew; when, finally, she knew who she was, they might never know her actual name, but they would sense the unsuitability of the other name – Soapy Rayno – and shrink from it. (Whisper My Name, p. 40)
LaChance and Soapy successfully resolved their questions of identity, allowing them to freely love each other, emotionally as well as physically. The description of their union, beginning with Roland washing her and ending with sex, was important because Soapy’s aphasia and social withdrawal were directly linked.
In order to name something, it was best to touch it. Too bad you couldn’t touch people. If you touched them, they would hurt you, and if they touched you, it meant they wanted to hurt you. People were afraid to touch because they didn’t want to know each other’s hurt – hurt held so much of the knowledge of the world. (Whisper My Name, page 40)
By discovering the story of her parentage, including her real name, Roland redeemed himself from the offenses that had alienated them. In giving her back her name, he won her trust enough to touch her, to expose her (through washing), and to love her.
Names, as keys to identities, are important in Hebert’s novels, but they are no more changeable than the essential identity of the person itself. Roland, Soapy, and Critter discovered themselves; Ike and Reggie lost themselves. Noreen and Estelle realigned their self-images and their public personae to reflect their essential selves in the context of changing circumstances. Pretense in Hebert’s New England is futile.
Identity and the Class War
In Live Free or Die, the book Hebert expected to be the final Darby novel, the most futile of all pretenses – social class mobility – was explored by Frederick, Howard Elman’s twenty-eight year-old son, and Lilith Salmon, the late Squire’s nineteen year-old daughter. Their ill-starred romance was criticized not for their age gap, especially since Frederick’s rival was her late father’s thirty-something year-old attorney, Garvin Prell. Rather, they were unanimously counseled to part because of the mutual mistrust between the working and leisure classes. The symbols of the novel – bridges, the Trust Land, the headband, his truck – have been explored in an earlier essay, but the reader may find a brief review of the main points helpful.
Like other Hebert characters, Frederick was dissatisfied with his externally imposed identity, especially the facet influenced by his overbearing father. In references to his headband, his fishing preferences, his travels, and even the nickname Mohawk he adopted in Louisiana, Hebert established Frederick’s desire to express his individuality. He fled Darby, working as an itinerant bridge painter until his mother called him home to assist his injured father. While back in Darby, he covered his individuality with the uniform of Howard’s trash removal company. Yet after hours, his guard relaxed within the boundaries of the Trust, he met and fell in love with Lilith Salmon.
The Trust Land served as a dual symbol in the book. It was first a wild place, ungoverned by the social norms of Darby, and so a place where Lilith and Frederick could freely unite without the historical animosities of their respective classes. Yet the Trust was also a misnamed battleground for Upper Darby, having been created through deceit, vanity, and murder. Garvin Prell, Reggie’s brother Monet, and Reggie’s widow Persephone formed the Trust Board, but each had conflicting designs for the land’s use and clever plots to foil the others.
A misunderstood remark about Noreen Cook’s surrogate maternity for Monet’s new wife fueled suspicions that Garvin, not Frederick, was responsible for Lilith’s pregnancy. After a quarrel with Lilith, during which class-based prejudice surfaced in the tension between them, Frederick left town in his truck, again seeking freedom through isolation. Upon recognizing his true feelings for Lilith and the child, he shed his class-based prejudice, resentment, and suspicion, he raced home to find her dying on the Ledges of the Trust after having given birth. She remained conscious long enough to recognize that he had returned to her and tell him that she was truly happy before she died.
The book’s conclusion was a blend of despair and hope; Frederick and Lilith’s failure to bridge the gulf between their communities was made permanent by her death, but the survival of the child offered the possibility of unity sometime in the future.
A New Hope for Community
Spoonwood, Hebert’s sixth Darby novel, will be published in the fall of 2005. The central character is Birch, the son of Lilith and Frederick. With him, Hebert has wandered into magical realism, or at least mysticism, endowing the character with telepathic awareness of his father’s mind, an encyclopedic recollection of all that he experienced beginning at birth, and receptivity to the thoughts of his grandfather’s cat. But even as other characters have struggled to connect with one another, Birch strives without success to bring himself, Frederick, and Lilith into a spiritual communion.
However, the novel does not begin on the high note that Lilith struck at the end of Live Free or Die. Blaming himself for Lilith’s death, Frederick has become mired in self-doubt and alcoholism, abdicating all responsibility for Birch to his mother. He was sent to jail for a bar brawl, and during his incarceration, readers meet his whiskey-conjured ersatz spirit guide, Old Crow. A character distinct from Frederick, the guide systematically sabotaged Frederick by voicing all his recrimination and doubt, advising that he flee once again to the isolation of the open road.
Elenore pressed Frederick to allow her and Howard to adopt Birch. Her interest in the child was driven in part by guilt from her refusal to help Lilith the day before she died, by her natural maternalism, and by her growing interest in family roots. Since she and Howard were both foster children, this interest has led her to genealogical research. In this, Hebert echoed the quest of Roland and Soapy, who could not be wholly themselves until they learned their ancestry and names.
Elenore never learned anything about her own ancestors, but she did discover that Howard’s father’s name was Latour and that his mother was still alive in Frenchville, Maine. To Howard, a self-reliant man whose confidence was grounded in the present, the news meant nothing. “I live in the here and now,” Howard told Elenore in response to her question of whether their grandchildren “have a right to know where they came from.” Frederick, whose sense of identity was less clear than his father’s, legally changed his own and his son’s surnames to Latour, and even made a trip to Frenchville to meet his grandmother. While Howard’s detachment from ethnic and familial heritage freed him to be himself, Frederick used that same heritage to reshape and carve out his own identity in a way that frees him from Howard.
In this, the central symbol of the novel becomes clear. For several years, Frederick supported himself and Birch by carving wooden spoons. Although they were masterfully crafted, never forced from the wood but found within the natural grain and released through Frederick’s work, the thing that distinguished them from other spoons is the meticulous, poetic documentation that accompanied each spoon. Frederick recorded where and when each spoon was created it, of what wood, from what source, and under what circumstances. Thus, even as he released the natural identity of the utensil from the stick or board, but he also recorded the context for those who value history. Spoonlike, Howard emerged from his own rough grain, expressing his essential self without regard for his history; Frederick reclaimed the Latour heritage that was preserved in documentation to refine and polish his essential self. Both approaches to life are valid in within Hebert’s model of community.
Also vying for control of Birch was Persephone Salmon. Having sold Grace Pond, the heart of the Trust Land, for development, she had restored the family fortune. Called Grandma Purse by Birch, she used wealth, legal maneuvers, and the nagging insinuation that Garvin Prell was Birch’s father to persuade Frederick to give her the boy. Yet Persephone’s obsession with the past became an impediment to her own emotional health and ability to connect with others. In a locked room in the mansion, she had constructed a shrine to Lilith. During the course of the novel, she collected spoons and other artifacts from Birch’s life as well, recreating their identities in her private treasure room. Until she made gifts of some of the things that she had collected, they were indicative of how the past was an unhealthy preoccupation for her, blocking her ability to relate well to the rest of her grandson’s family. By giving up the paintings of Birch and Frederick done by an artist in New York, she not only relinquished her control of Birch’s history (which, in Hebert’s community, is tied to identity), she forged relationships by sharing that control with others.
Reprising the decline and death of Ollie Jordan who fled to the woods with his son Willow in A Little More Than Kin, Frederick took up residence on the site of an old hippie encampment in the Trust. Sobriety, sanity, and the craftsmanship all helped Frederick prosper in the wilderness where Ollie failed. Goaded by Old Crow with feelings of inadequacy but desperate to redeem himself, Frederick began to lactate and nurse Birch, becoming both mother and father. Like Ollie, Frederick became increasingly isolated, but he was spared Ollie’s fate when Persephone pressed charges against him for cutting wood on the Trust and endangering his child.
They fled Darby for several years, but eventually a case of mistaken identity exposed them; Birch was placed in Persephone’s custody and Frederick, under a court order to stay away from his son, returned to both the woods and the bottle.
Slowly, Birch developed his potential as a bridge across Darby. He formed a friendship with Missy Mendelson, the socially awkward daughter of his therapist, the novel’s representative of Upper Darby’s new money subgroup. The friendship expanded to include Bez Woodward, a young victim of life in Darby Depot. Although Birch lived with Persephone in the Salmon mansion, he visited the Elmans weekly and unlike all other Hebert characters, he shared Elenore’s interest in religion.
Toward the end of the novel, a crisis drew Frederick, Persephone, and the Elmans together. Through Birch’s inclination toward unity, the temporary truce became a lasting peace.
And that was that. From here on in, Persephone and Howard would depend on one another the way one depends on family and of course, being the domineering souls of their respective clans, they would bad-mouth one another for sport, jockey for position, bring each other grief on occasion, but the hatred, the animus, and the disrespect was [sic] gone forever. Howard Elman was going to be more than an in-law. He was going to be an ally to depend on.
Although it lasted until the end of the book, the unity that Hebert created in his small, northern New England town was fragile. Development has eroded much of the town’s character and threatens to consume the Trust. Monet’s shifting aspirations cast a divisive shadow over the Birch’s efforts to unify his corner of Darby, but his specific plans remained undeveloped. Frederick became sufficiently sober and emotionally healthy to form an intimate partnership with a woman, but declined to live with her and her children, preferring his small hut in the Trust Land.
After the bleak suggestion in Live Free or Die that people who remain attached to their heritage cannot bridge the gulf between social classes, Spoonwood presents an optimistic view of community in northern New England. Perhaps not all division can be overcome, nor will the scars of old divisions be entirely healed, but with sensitivity to the perspectives of others, tolerance for their habits, and forgiveness for the past, communion among the living remains attainable
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