Burial and Other Literary Plots

By Karen Wills

Respecting the last wishes of the dying, our cultural norms surrounding the preparation and disposal of the dead, the circumstances that determine what is possible…all of these may become part of our literary endeavors. They show much of how we want to depict our characters and their feelings and attitudes.

This can be done in poetry, too. Robinson Jeffers wrote the following after the death of his beloved wife, Una.

poem of death

But what about working the handling of the dead into mythology or fiction? In Homer’s Iliad, civilization itself takes a step forward. Achilles, grieving for his friend who’s been killed by the Trojan warrior Hector, slays Hector. He then drags Hector on the beach before the great Priam, the dead man’s grieving father. But in the end, compassion and respect overtake Achilles vengeful madness. He returns Hector’s remains to  Priam as a gesture of pity and honor in a time of incivility.

Let’s journey from the realms of Troy to the American West and the love of mortal men, close as brothers: Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, the former Texas Rangers of Larry McMurtry’s classic Lonesome Dove. lonesome doveWhen Augustus lies dying of a gangrenous wound in a town in Montana, he makes an outlandish request of his friend. He wants Call to take his body back to Texas and bury him in a pecan grove where he’d once courted Clara, the love of his life.

Gus tells his friend that he is assigning him this task, a Herculean one in violent frontier days of primitive travel, in order to bestow the gift of one last great adventure. It is a sign of the unbending, proud, Call’s loyalty to Gus that he does fulfill the last wish of his longtime friend.

Set in more modern times we have Unsheltered, UnshelteredBarbara Kingsolver’s novel of lives of ordinary people in economically and socially precarious times. The protagonist, Willa, is beset by family and financial insecurity. She struggles to take care of everyone in her family, including her husband’s Greek immigrant father, Nick, a man of rigid, racist views. With her daughter, Tig’s, help she cares for him as he is dying. Then there is the matter of his ashes. He wanted to be buried in the Greek section of a lovely local cemetery. The problem is the cost of a plot there. They do what others have done before them in real life. (I know of at least one instance.) They bury him in secret where he wished to be laid to rest.

As authors, we should remember that death and dying are inevitable in real life, so can be great sources of drama in fiction. Everyone dies. Sympathetic characters are those who behave as readers would have their loved ones do. They behave with compassion and respect. The best try to follow the last wishes of their loved ones.

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Arbor Day Connections

By Karen Wills

Climate change thrusts us into a heightened awareness of nature. Oceans, lakes, meadows and trees are the living matrix of which we are a part.  Trees in particular have figured in much fiction and nonfiction of late. Of course, poets have long written about and concerned themselves with trees. overstory treesAmerican poet Robinson Jeffers planted about 2,000 seedlings on his sea cliff property near Carmel, California in the first half of the 1900s.

There is a kinship of us humans to trees. Tree deprivation became as real for me when we lived on the Alaskan tundra as it was for settlers living on the virgin prairies of America. I loved the big, empty tundra with its miles of tiny wild cotton, but trees have always meant shelter, the promise of something to lean against, and shade in the glare of summer. I missed them.

In a recent blog on my website I quoted from Joanna L. Stratton’s, Pioneer Women, which tells of a woman whose husband took her along on a journey to bring home wood. She’d not seen a tree for two years. “…when they arrived at Little River, she put her arms around a tree and hugged it until she was hysterical.”

That reminded me of when we lived on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. We explored the countryside, often peering into abandoned settlers’ houses. One was a stone cottage with a small grotto beside it sheltered by trees. The woman who pioneered there had walked nearly ½ mile each way every day carrying buckets of water to keep her seedlings growing. They flourished. She is gone, but her trees remain, providing homes for birds, being natural wind instruments, and soothing the prairie with their sighing leaves and branches.

An insightful novel about those who plant, nurture, and preserve not just trees, but whole forests, is The Overstory by Richard Powers–winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. One of its most interesting characters is a Vietnam veteran who finds his purpose in life replanting clear-cut, logged-out areas for a living. But he learns that replanting rows of trees earns his corporate employer permission to clear cut more and more forests at a greater profit. That knowledge drives the veteran to desperate, reckless acts.

Another character in The Overstory is Patricia Westerford who devotes her academic and personal life to the study of forests. According to Patricia, everything that happens in nature happens for a purpose. “The environment is alive—a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other.” She also concludes, “We’ve been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been homo sapiens.”

To return to Jeffers, in his poem “Ghost” he imagines himself as a spirit revisiting the new owner of his former property.  He has the following exchange with the startled man:

“I see you have played hell
With the trees that I planted.” “There has to be room for people,” he
answers. “My God,” he says, “
That still!”

This Arbor Day, enjoy the forests if you can, plant a tree if you’re able, and take a deep breath. Feel your connection to the earth of which you are still a part.

Besides Having More Money: The Rich in Fiction

By Karen Wills

There’s a famous, though perhaps apocryphal, exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald says, “You know, the rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway responds, “Yes. They’ve got more money.”

I’ve been pondering wealth and its effects and just how authors have depicted very rich characters in fiction. Pat Barker’s novel, The Silence of the Girls, silence of the girlsis set during the Trojan Wars with characters out of Homer’s Iliad. One of her characters, Agamemnon, is a nasty, boundary-ignoring king who never learned to share. He possesses vast wealth and vast power. He takes Briseis, a high-born captive woman awarded by the army to Achilles, away from him. He is brutal to Briseis, lacks honor in his dealings with Achilles, mistreats the powerless, and lies to his soldiers. But he pays a price in his greatest hero Achilles’ refusal to fight,  the scorn of his Greek officers, and the costs of prolonged war. Although we don’t see it in Barker’s story, which centers on Briseis, Agamemnon comes to a bad end in spite of all his gold, concubines, and power when he returns home to his wife.

Move ahead to Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, in which a plain governess discovers that the wealthy, brooding, yet attractive master of the mansion has a mad wife kept in the attic. It appears to Jane that our tortured hero is an innocent victim of fate. jane eyreBut wait, in the sixties another British author, Jean Rhys, started puzzling over the madwoman. The result was a new novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Since reading it neither I, nor many others, have been able to see Mr. Rochester as anything but a money and power-hungry monster. His naïve first bride loses freedom, fortune, and sanity at the hands of this now rich and powerful villain. He even eventually gains smart, loving, caring Jane as his wife. But before that, the madwoman/victim inflicts some serious damage of her own.

Now back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, that story of wealthy scofflaws pursuing an amoral version of the American Dream. I’ll focus on Tom Buchanan, great gatsbyborn into the upper class with an ego-fed sense of entitlement and an Agamemnon-like disdain for those less privileged. When Tom’s wife commits a hit and run, he buys them out of trouble that threatens to upset their lives. As the story ends, fate hasn’t seemed to exact a price for his corruption and carelessness with the lives of others. But I take comfort in the fact that The Great Gatsby was written and set in the mid-twenties. We all know what happened at the end of that decade.

These three characters, arrogant and immoral, are three different authors’ depictions of the very rich, written and set in three different time periods. They tend to be villains and authors find them useful antagonists. I’ve been trying to think of any wealthy character who challenges these recurring character types.

Can you think of any?

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What Our Characters Keep

By  Karen Wills

“All these items you’re safeguarding are, in essence, the relics of your life’s defining moments.”                   Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments

Authors can depict and clarify fictional characters by their keepsakes. Sometimes such objects are discovered and loved in a protagonist’s childhood because they’re connected to influential adults.

overstoryIn Richard Powers’, The Overstory, Nick Hoel, destined to become an artist, is fascinated by a series of photographs taken every month since 1903 of the sentinel chestnut on his family’s farm in Iowa. He keeps the stack of photos intact throughout his life which becomes as singular as the chestnut itself. The tree and the photographs ultimately shape Nick—his values, his devotion to one woman, and his fate.

In another of my favorite novels, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, gentleman in moscowthe aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced during the Russian Revolution to life under house arrest in the Metropol, Moscow’s most luxurious hotel. Moved to a cramped attic room, he must choose only a few possessions to take with him. One choice is a portrait of his deceased younger sister, Helena. He loved her, and her portrait also evokes memories of Idlehour, his family’s country estate. He associates the painting with his idyllic boyhood as part of a refined, privileged, and noble family. The siblings’ history shows the foolishness and sometimes cruelty of the old life as well. Both Helena and Idlehour are part of the beloved lost past. But our charming Count might still have a most surprising future.

In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, thirteen-year-old Theo rescues a precious painting following a terrorist attack on the museum where the work by the Dutch master Fabritius is part of an exhibit. The attack leaves Theo’s mother dead. He carries the little painting with him for years, never revealing that he has it. Its beauty sustains him through grief, loneliness, and one of the most interesting friendships ever created by an author. At the novel’s end, he ponders everything that has happened, and realizes that he kept the painting first and foremost because it is so touching and exquisite.

goldfinchHe thinks, “And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them…while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

What our characters choose to keep safe can help define them. If we accept that a bit of ourselves exists in each of our characters, perhaps their keepsakes help define us, too.

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Mystery and Wilderness in Fiction

By Karen Wills

My husband and I made up a personal list of criteria for good fiction. One of our essentials is mystery. By that we don’t mean crime solving. We mean the lure of what hovers just beyond the obvious. It’s what makes us tell our book club or other friends to read it so we can talk about it.

In literature it’s sometimes found in complex characters or in nature. I used the wilderness as setting that is almost a character in my historical novel, River with No Bridge. For me, books set in the wilderness often have mystery. There’s richness to that.

In Eowyn Ivey’s historical novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, to the bright edgea husband is one of the first to head an expedition to explore Alaska Territory’s Wolverine River Valley while his pregnant wife waits at Fort Vancouver for his return. In a letter to her he muses, “I suppose the wilderness does have its draw. She always keeps a part of herself a mystery.” Later he says, “It is a grand, inscrutable wildness. Never are the people here allowed to forget that each of us is alive only by a small thread.”

For authors and artists conveying the wilderness while honoring its mystery is challenging. In her novel about the artist Emily Carr, the forrest loverthe late Susan Vreeland wrote, “She looked back at the forest—more dense and tangled and full of mystery than the forested part of Beacon Hill Park at home. How could she ever paint it? No art school taught how to paint such immense, paralyzing magnificence.”

And yet, some of us keep writing about, or painting, those precious wild places that still exist. How long wilderness has existed. We marvel at the geology of places like Glacier National Park and find an awed comfort in astronomy. Poet Robinson Jeffers wrote these lines,

The stars shine in the sky like the spray of a wave

Rushing to meet no shore, and the great music

Blares on forever…

Perhaps, the meaning of wilderness is that wild beauty creates its own mystery.

river with no bridge

 

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