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.

RiverWithNoBridgeFront(2)

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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

 

Now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle

https://karenwills.com

Face Book: Karen Wills Author

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

 

Now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle

https://karenwills.com

Face Book: Karen Wills Author

Seventy Springs

Tomorrow I turn seventy.  Scaling the heights or heading downhill? It depends on one’s circumstances and attitude. I’m one of the lucky septuagenarians, unlike my favorite poet Robinson Jeffers who wrote when he aged, “I cannot walk the mountains as I used to do.” That and the loss of his beloved wife Una just about did him in. I still have my beloved Jerry, and if no longer able to reach the top of my mountains, I can still walk them in grateful awe.

I can appreciate the arrival of spring when winter melts away, and ice doesn’t render a pratfall no longer funny, but potential disaster. Contemplating seasons in life and nature, I’m more sharply aware than ever of how I appreciate each of the four as they appear and slip away. I love the blue sky of spring, but in late summer I watch for its paling into Faulkner’s Light in August.

So, keen to remind myself how boundless life can be in any season, I resolve to do seventy fabulous things in my seventieth year starting tomorrow.

Sblog photoee you in the mountains.

One Reader’s Bucket List

When most of us think of bucket lists—that enumerated set of things to do before dying—we assume international trips, jumping out of airplanes, at the very least hot air balloon rides. There’s nothing wrong with such true adventures, but I have a parallel bucket list that emerged from my reading life.
It all started with Proust. A close friend and mentor bequeathed me his boxed three-volume set of Remembrance of Things Past (or In Search of Lost Time to more modern translators). After I retired, I finally began to read it which proved a meaningful and insightful experience, not least because my dear friend had made notations in the margins. I read it in the early mornings, house still silent, sky slowly lightening. Tea and Proust became a ritual. And I value memory in a way I never could have without it.
When I finally finished, I wanted something else so beautiful and challenging that only a few pages at a time would do. I looked at my three-volume set of Dante’s Divine Comedy and took it up, one canto at a time, and only in the predawn hour. With the cat purring, the tea steaming, I traveled with Dante from the Inferno, through the Purgatorio, and on into the Paradiso. I appreciate how the world can be so vast and small all at once more than I ever could have without that journey.
Next, my husband gave me a four-volume set of the Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers for Christmas. Now my hour of solitude is spent near a stone house and tower at Big Sur. No day can go wrong that starts there. Jeffers wrote intimately of nature, of a wild landscape expressed by the people inhabiting it complete with their follies and mistakes, and of the peace of death. There are gifts on every page.
Perhaps, my reading list is written in invisible ink, each author or poet becomes visible only when the last has been read. I know that each is a treasure to be cherished, their works belonging to the ages.
I hope you set aside some part of your day for reading that uplifts and intrigues be it prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction. Make it something you always thought you might like to read if you got around to it. What might be on your literary bucket list?ImageKaren Wills