Christmas in Port William, Kentucky, 1954

From Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry:

“The night of the Christmas dance was starless. A few snowflakes were floating down out of the dark sky into the aura of electric light in front of Riverwood. I was moved to see the snowflakes melting in Clydie’s hair as I helped her out of her coat. She was wearing a light green dress with a full skirt that set off her figure, and I reached around her waist and gave her a little hug.

We protested and paid and went past Mrs. Fitz’s table into the darker room. The band already was playing and couples were dancing. Mindful that we were older than most, we took a table a little off to itself and yet where we had a good view of the floor. For a while we just watched. The boys were wearing their good suits. The girls were in party dresses, all dolled up. It was a pretty thing to see them dancing. The room was lighted by rows of shaded electric candles along the walls, an imitation log fire in the fireplace, and (so far) by a few lamps overhead that cast a soft glow onto the dance floor. Everybody (including, of course, me) had brought a pint or a half-pint stuck away in his pocket or in his date’s purse.”

Something happens at the Christmas dance that changes Mr. Jayber Crow, Port William’s resident barber and inveterate bachelor. He sees something that changes the direction of his life–in an unusual way. He makes a vow, and he spends the remainder of the book living out the consequences of that vow.

“Maybe I had begun my journey drunk and ended it crazy. Probably I was not the one to say. But though I felt the whole world shaken underfoot, though I foresaw nothing and feared everything, I felt strangely steadied in my mind, strangely elated and quiet.
The sky had lightened a little by the time I reached the top of the Port William hill. It was Sunday morning again.”

Jayber Crow is one of the best books I’ve ever read by a very talented author.

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1954: Books and Literature

The National Book Award went to The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. My mom once took a course in Modern Jewish literature, and I typed her papers for her. I learned all about Saul Bellow, Nathaniel West and Bernard Malamud by osmosis, so to speak, enough to know that Malamud would be my favorite of the trio. In fact, I actually read Malamud’s The Fixer (1966) and at least started Augie March, but Bellow didn’t interest me.

Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Newbery Medal for children’s literature: And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold. Krumgold’s story of a boy growing up in a shepherding family in New Mexico moves much too slowly for today’s children. But it’s still a good book.

Published in 1954:
Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Does every American teenager read Lord of the Flies in ninth or tenth grade? And what do they learn from it, I wonder? I remember the story as a wonderfully vivid illumination of the doctrine of original sin and how we are all idol worshippers at heart. But I don’t know if even my daughter got that out of it when she read it a couple of years ago.

Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. Semicolon review here.

The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis. Maybe my favorite of the Narnia books. Some people accuse Lewis of being racist in the book, portraying Arabic-style cultures as evil and depraved. But I see the story as a contrast between freedom and slavery, and it doesn’t matter the exact cultural tradition of the people that embody those two ways of living.

The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, first two parts of The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. All I can say about this item on the list is that 1954 was a very good year–and 1955 with the completion of the trilogy will be even better. I discovered Tolkien when I was a teenager, in his first phase of “coolness”, and these books and a Bible are the books I would most want to have with me on a deserted island or anywhere else.

Katherine by Anya Seton. I read this historical fiction classic about Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster, mistress and then third wife of John of Gaunt (14th century), a few years ago. It was a great book, and I recommend it.

1954: Events and Inventions

February 23, 1954. Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser becomes premier of Egypt. He will rule Egypt as a virtual dictator until his death in 1970.

April, 1954. The new Salk polio vaccine is being tested on nearly one million children in the United States. It is hoped that the disease will be eradicated by the use of this vaccine.

'Roger Bannister' photo (c) 2010, shalbs - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/May 6, 1954. British medical student Roger Bannister runs the mile in under four minutes, three minutes, 59.4 seconds to be exact. No one thought the mile could be run in under four minutes, and some predicted that the exertion of attempting it would kill the runner. Bannister says afterward that he was “prepared to die.” Roger Bannister’s account of his historic run.

May 7, 1954. Vietnamese rebels, mostly Communist, capture the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu. This defeat for the French may end the French presence in Indochina.

June 27, 1954. Guatemalan President Jacobo Guzmán is deposed in a CIA-sponsored military coup, triggering a bloody civil war that continues for more than 35 years.

June 27, 1954. The world’s first atomic power station opens at Obninsk in the Soviet Union, proving that nuclear power can be used for peaceful purposes.

July 21, 1954. A peace conference at Geneva divides Vietnam along the 17th parallel of latitude, sending French forces to the south, and Vietnamese forces to the north, and calls for elections to decide the government for all of Vietnam by July 1956. Communist guerilla leader Ho Chi Minh will lead the North Vietnamese section of the country, while Emperor Bảo Đại appoints Ngô Ðình Diệm as Prime Minister of South Vietnam.

October 20, 1954. Texas Instruments announces the development of the first transistor radio.

November, 1954. The U.S. National Cancer Institute claims that there is a link between cancer and cigarette smoking.

December 24, 1954. Laos gains full independence from France.

It’s a Story, Folks, Not a How-to Manual

In the front of my paperback copy of Snipp, Snapp, Snurr Learn to Swim by Maj Lindman, Brown Bear Daughter found the following disclaimer:

“A note to grownups: In this story, the characters are not wearing personal flotation devices or practicing some of the other water safety measures we now consider essential. While reading this book with children, you may want to use the story as a springboard to discuss safety around water and boats.”

O.K. Or you could just read the story, first published in the U.S. in 1954, and enjoy the old-fashioned Scandinavian setting and the self-reliant triplets and the lovely illustrations. Nanny does try to ensure the boys’ safety in the water —by having them learn to swim!

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Another thrift store find, I picked up a paperback copy of this 1994 novel for 66 cents because I had heard of it, and it sounded interesting. On the front and back of the novel other adjectives are used to describe the story: “compelling,” “heart-stopping,” “haunting,” and “luminous,” are a few. I think I’ll stick with “interesting,” even though it’s not nearly so descriptive.

Snow Falling on Cedars is the story of a Japanese American fisherman, Kabuo Miyamoto, who is accused of the murder of another fisherman, Carl Heine. The plot reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird, a courtroom drama in which local prejudices and racist stereotypes play a big part. Most of the action of the book takes place in 1954, about ten years after World War 2. However, each of the characters revisits the war years in flashbacks that illuminate the motivations of the people involved in the trial. Miyamoto is married to Hatsue, a Japanese American woman who grew up on San Piedro Island with him and also with the other major character in the novel, Ishmael Chambers. Chambers, as the editor and publisher of the island’s only newspaper, is writing about the trial, and he is also involved with the Miyamoto family in another way: he was Hatsue’s secret boyfriend during their high school years, before the war.

Well, thought Ishmael, bending over his typewriter, his fingertips poised just above the keys; the palpitations of Kabuo Miyamoto’s heart were unknowable finally. And Hatsue’s heart wasn’t knowable either, not was Carl Heine’s. The heart of any other, because it had a will, would remain forever mysterious.
Ishmael gave himself to the writing of it, and as he did so he understood this, too: that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.”

These are the final words of this murder mystery that attempts to transcend the genre and make some kind of commentary on the Meaning of Life. P.D. James does a better job. Harper Lee did a better job. First of all, there’s no mystery in Snow Falling on Cedars. It’s obvious from the beginning of the novel who didn’t kill Carl Heine, and the only mystery exists in figuring out the details of how Heine did die and trying to second-guess the author’s intentions in regard to the man who is accused of Heine’s murder.

Secondly, the novel tries to do too much. Is it a commentary on race relations and the injustice of sending Japanese nationals to Manzanar during World War 2? Or is it a courtroom drama about justice and injustice in the American system of law? Or is it a story about war and how it changes men? Or maybe it’s a novel about first love and the impermanence of innocence and the tendency of the world to disillusion and take away our youthful ideals. Or it could be an existentialist novel in disguise: we make ourselves real by the decisions we make. All of that stuff is in there, but I’m not sure any of it is developed as it could have been. Characters and themes keep getting in the way of each other instead of complementing and completing one another. Completion, resolution, or even character growth are not terms that I would use in connection with this novel, although the trial itself does come to an end.

I hesitate to question the literary quality of Guterson’s award-winning novel, but I must say that I found it disappointing. The novel raised many questions. Can human beings form any deep. lasting, or meaningful relationships? Does “accident rule every corner of the universe”? Or is the human heart free to make decisions and to remain unpredictable? Is the author trying to say that people of Japanese descent and people of Caucasian descent can never understand one another? (A seemingly near-racist conclusion.) Or is it that we are all unknowable? Is the American justice flawed or does justice triumph in the end? Do the people in this novel learn anything, or do they just act on impulse and a desire for self-gratification?

Guterson is quoted in his Random House bio: “Fiction writers shouldn’t dictate to people what their morality should be. Yet not enough writers are presenting moral questions for reflection, which I think is a very important obligation.” I think he’s got plenty of questions ,reflection in abundance, but isn’t the place to get any answers or even find out which questions are the most important and need answers. The characters in the novel are just drifting through life in reaction to whatever “weather conditions” come along. When individuals in the novel did make a definite decision about something, I never understood why they made the decisions they did.

I recommend Snow Falling on Cedars with reservations. It may grow on me. I know I’m still thinking about it a week after I finished reading it. However, by next year this time, I may have forgotten all about Guterson’s novel. I’m just not sure it goes deep enough to stick.

By the way has anyone seen the movie based on this book, and if so, what did you think of it?

Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya

Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And hope without an object cannot live.
–Coleridge

I read this book last week and thought it gave a beautiful, but very sad, picture of life in India for many people. It’s the story of a poor family, a fourth daughter who, because she has no dowry, cannot marry well but must settle for marriage to a landless tenant farmer who brings her home to a mud hut he built himself. Fortunately for the girl, Rukmani, her husband Nathan is “poor in everything but in love and care for me, his wife, whom he took at the age of twelve.”
Rukmani narrates the story in first person, telling of the birth of her daughter, the long wait during which the couple think they will have no more children, and then the birth of her five sons. The village where the family lives is on the edge of poverty and starvation; a bad year with too much rain or too little rain will push Rukmani’s family over the edge. Change and new economic oportunities come to the village; however, these new ideas and possibilities are full of danger too, for peasants who have nothing in reserve and are unable or unwilling to move with the times.
I wrote about a month ago about some of my favorite fantasy worlds. These fantasy worlds were first encountered on the pages of books. Then, there are historical and sociological worlds that I visit mostly in books, too. Finally, there is the actual world. I’ve never been to India or China or South America, but I have a picture of what life in those lands is (or was) like–again, from books. I think that Nectar in a Sieve, first published in 1954, will become a large part of my picture of India, along with missionary stories, the young man I met a few years ago at Baptist World Alliance Youth Conference, and other sources, such as the women I see at the grocery store here in Clear Lake dressed in saris.
Warning: The book has a bittersweet ending, but it’s realistic without being hopeless and depressing. Excellent.
These are some of my favorite books that have given me a picture of the world. Most of them are fiction.
Around the world in books:
South Africa: Cry, the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope both by Alan Paton
India: Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan
China: Imperial Woman by Pearl S.Buck, The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang
Antarctica: Troubling a Star by Madeleine L’Engle
The Netherlands: The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
England (Yorkshire): All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot
Lebanon: Alice by ? Doerr
Russia: The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (And, of course, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, although they’re more historical)
Israel: Exodus by Leon Uris
Hawaii: Hawaii by James Michener

For some of these places, all my ideas about the culture come from the book I listed. For others, I am certainly indebted to the book for most of my information. Can you suggest any books that capture the culture and living conditions of a country in either fiction or biography? I do prefer and learn more from stories.