Update on The Maelstrom

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

On July 20 in this space I mentioned the new direction taken in revision of my historical novel, formerly titled Freedom’s Purchase, now titled The Maelstrom.

I am happy to report that extensive revisions have been made, based on very helpful feedback by championship-level book coach Christine DeSmet. As a result, it’s a much more compelling and exciting book. Many thanks to Christine, a noted author and a great personal friend of mine for many years.

I am now polishing the polish, and before long the book will be again making the rounds to agents and publishers. I’m quite confident we’ll get a good publishing contract this time around. 

So have patience! Before long, you’ll get to read the stories of Norwegian immigrants Anders and Maria, and Daniel the slave, in 19th-century America.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Salmonic Versus

Our trip has put me in mind of salmon. 

We did not travel to Alaska for the salmon, exactly. But once there, you cannot avoid salmon. They’re everywhere. 

Coho salmon. Bureau of Land Management photo. Public Domain.

Happy Salmon?

My Norwegian kin, I am told, have an expression: “A happy salmon.” En glad laks, in Norsk. It’s a label for someone cheerful by nature, a happy-go-lucky person. No worries, no cares. Smiling all the time.  

But, Kind Reader, consider the salmon. I mean the real salmon.

Salmon alevin with egg yolks. OpenCage photo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Spawned in springtime, in the shallows of a cold mountain stream, it (he or she, take your pick) hatches from a round pink egg into an alevin—a tiny swimming fish with the yolk sac still attached to its belly. Consuming its yolk over the course of a few months, it becomes a small fish or fry. Only then does it emerge from the gravelly shallows into the main part of its natal stream. 

Depending on its species—chinook (king), coho (silver), chum, sockeye, or pink—the salmon fry either heads seaward immediately or hangs out in a freshwater lake for a year or more. In either case, it then develops into a smolt—a small, silvery fish with scales—and drifts downstream to an estuary, the tidal mouth of a river.

Salmon smolts. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo. Public Domain.

Hanging out in the estuary for a time, the smolt gains weight and—crucially—changes its metabolism, adjusting to life as a salt-water fish. When ready, the salmon moves into the ocean, where it will spend—again, depending on species—from eighteen months to eight years.

Life at Sea

Once a salmon becomes a denizen of the salt sea, how does it spend this time? It swims around, eats, and grows larger. It may swim more than two thousand miles, gobbling plankton, insects, small crustaceans, and fish, and gaining body length and weight. Unless, of course, it is eaten first.

Salmon in the ocean may be prey to seals, sharks or other large fish, orca whales, or the all-purpose predator, humans. 

Purse seiner off the coast of Kodiak Island. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:NancyHeise. Public Domain.

Ocean salmon may be taken on hook-and-line by commercial trollers, in larger quantities in gill nets, or in even larger purse seines—depending on the species targeted and the size of the boat and its equipment. They end up as high-quality salmon steaks or filets, brined gravlax or smoked lox, ground salmon in a can, even salmon-based pet foods. 

Salmon Patties, Anyone?

When I was a boy (more than sixty-five years ago), Mom often served us patties of ground salmon, fried in her cast-iron skillet. They were cheap and nutritious, and I grew to despise them. Greasy and gamey-tasting. Not for me, thanks.

Salmon patty sandwich, photo by jeffreyw. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Since then, I have grown fond of lox with bagels and cream cheese, and I also like a nicely-done salmon filet. Context is everything.

But I digress. Back to the sea:

Those salmon who slip through the nets of man and beast eventually gravitate to the coast and, by a divinely-ordained process no scientist has fully explained, make their way back up the very stream then came out of and swim right up to the very shallows where they were born. 

Born to Spawn

Brown bear dines on salmon at Katmai National Park, Brooks Falls, Alaska. Photo by Brian W. Schaller, licensed under Free Art License.

Naturally, they must evade human predation. The rivers and creeks are full of anglers, fishing for recreation or to feed their families. Also, in parts of Alaska and Canada, the streams hold cunningly designed Native American salmon wheels, which skim off a regular portion of the fish swimming upstream to spawn. 

In this upstream, fresh-water journey is concentrated the whole point and purpose of their lives: Spawning. The procreation of their species. It is the Olympics they have trained for all their lives in creek, lake, river, and sea. And the competition is fierce. The journey is fraught with peril.

Besides humans, those streams are full of bears—brown and black. You’ve seen them on the wild Alaska shows, gleefully scooping salmon out of churning rapids and devouring them on the spot. Eagles and ospreys also take salmon, lifting them whole out of rivers, lakes, and ocean.

If the salmon successfully evade all predators, they still must swim miles upstream to find their spawning beds. This usually means braving powerful rapids and fish ladders. 

A Salmonic Odyssey

In Ketchikan, our dauntless daughter, Katie, led us through a steady downpour on a journey tracking the salmon upstream. We followed Ketchikan Creek from the trendy shops that sit on pilings over its lower end up to the Creek Street footbridge. Under the bridge, salmon leap up into the rushing falls under the bridge. Their leaps are strenuous, athletic, and mostly doomed to failure. The fish falls short and is swept back downstream, only to try again. They spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to pass these falls, and many never make it. 

To help them, people have built a fish ladder as an alternate route over the falls. The ladder, like the falls, is steeply inclined and filled with water rushing rapidly downstream. But little walls, baffles I guess you’d call them, line the sides of the metal chute, giving fish a chance to work their way up from one resting point to the next. Even so, it’s almost as great a challenge as the falls themselves. 

Those salmon who cross the falls, whether by means of the salmon ladder or by simply leaping up the falls, enter a quiet stretch of the creek, which winds for several hundred yards and flows through Ketchikan’s City Park. In that stretch of water, the creek is very shallow, with a gravelly bed. This is the spawning-ground.

Prurient Interest

The dark shapes at center are salmon spawning. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Standing in our waterproof ponchos under a soaking rain, we watched as female salmon—whose backs and dorsal fins protruded a bit from the water—wiggled their tails to scoop shallow depressions in the streambed. These depressions are called redds. There the females would release their clutches of round, pink eggs, while their male paramours released milt (fish semen) over them. After more wiggling to cover the fertilized eggs with fresh gravel, the female would move upstream to repeat the process. 

Scattered salmon roe in Ketchikan Creek. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

We could not see every aspect of this process, viewing it side-on under a stippling rain, but we saw the wiggles. Often we saw the back of what must have been a rampant male surging downstream—whether to frighten off rival males, or out of sheer exuberance of the rut, I could not say. 

But it was impressive, especially in that it was performed by the rare survivors of such a harrowing lifelong journey.

Ecce Salmo, piscis invictus!

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

North to Alaska

“Mormor, Bapa! Come on, there’s a lot of cool stuff at the top of the hill.”

Tristan, age nine, leaps and bounces in the trampoline-like mat of vegetation.

“You run back up there and learn all about it,” I say. “Mormor”—his grandmother—“and I will stay and rest a bit in the tundra.” 

“Okay, Bapa—if you’re sure.” And he leaps back up the hill.

Me enjoying comfy tundra. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

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Alaska has a way of wearing a man down. 

The first time we visited, in 2010, at age 65, there was enough bounce in my bones and enough tingle in my tendons to hike with a group up the mountain that overlooks the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau. We scrambled over exposed roots, clambered through corridors of rain-slicked rocks. It was a tiring, yet exhilarating, trek.

This trip, at age 76, Your New Favorite Writer—still an enthusiast—strategically avails himself of frequent rest opportunities. 

Elsie, Katie, and Tristan at top of impossibly high tundra hill, enjoying Sidney’s lecture. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Our time on the tundra in the middle of Denali National Park is precious. The softness, the springiness, the sink-in-ability of that blanket of tangled vegetation covering the deep permafrost challenges the hiker to walk without falling down and taxes one’s pulmonary system—especially going uphill. 

On the other hand, should you happen to fall down, you couldn’t pick a better place to do it. You almost can’t get hurt falling into the soft tundra. 

It’s an even better place to sit and rest, watching the mountains and listening to the enthusiasm of younger hikers as Sidney, our mountain guide—the young lady who carries the bear spray—points out wild blueberries and other flora just up the hill, telling which ones humans can eat, which ones the bears like, and so forth.

It’s a fine, warm day. Denali, the mountain, was out a few minutes ago and we got to see its peak before it was re-cloaked by its very own weather system. 

Denali seen behind Wonder Lake. Denali National Park and Preserve photo by Albert Herring. Public Domain.

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We have come here because we like Alaska; but even more, we want share it with our daughter, Katie, and our grandchildren, Elsie and Tristan. This resembles nothing they have experienced and nothing else they will ever experience—possibly not even in long future lives. 

Panning for gold. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

For a time, we have lured them from their telephone screens into the powerful beauty of the real world.

Later today we will pan for gold in Moose Creek. Lucky Tristan will find a flake in his pan and have it laminated on a piece of black paper. A speck of gold to carry with him forever after. Or until he loses it, which is likely. But the important thing is, he will find it in his pan and will always remember that. 

Elsie, age twelve, will find one too but lose it on the way to have it laminated. That will be all right, though, because she will find prizes of her own in the wilderness, including sightings of bears and moose and the chance to befriend a young adventurer, Rhys, traveling with his own family.

Katie and Mormor will not try panning for gold. They will opt for a horticulture hike instead, another rewarding adventure.

Old Bapa—Your New Favorite Writer—will stand in the creek swishing gravel around his pan, to no avail . . . but will bring home gold anyway.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Happy 200th, Saturday Evening Post!

Current issue cover. Art by Norman Rockwell.

An American institution marked two centuries on August 4.

I am letting you all know here, in case you missed the announcement.

Readers old enough to remember the Saturday Evening Post may think it died years ago. Not so. 

The once ubiquitous flagship journal of the Curtis Publishing Company was rescued from demise by the Saturday Evening Post Society, a nonprofit group which purchased the magazine in 1982. The Post now appears as six large-format print issues per year, with an impressive circulation of 237,907 (2018). It also manages a thriving Web presence.

“And this is significant, Dear New Favorite Writer, because of . . . exactly, what?”

Mainly, Astute and Forbearing Reader, because of the magazine’s unassailable tradition and the long list of distinguished writers whose works have graced its pages.

Rockwell in 1921. Photo by Underwood and Underwood. Public Domain.

Great Illustrators

Younger readers may recognize the Saturday Evening Post as the locus of a series of cover illustrations which cemented the fame of 20th-century artist Norman Rockwell.

But those full-color covers—52 of them each year—by Rockwell and other great illustrators merely scratch the surface of the Post’s glory. When Your New Favorite Writer was a kid, in the 1950s, the Saturday Evening Post was a major pillar of Main Street America. People from all walks of life read the Post, learned from it, and were endlessly entertained by it. 

Saturday Evening Post Cover of 27 Sep 1924 by Rockwell. Public Domain.

Great Writers and Editors

Each issue held a lively mix of fiction, nonfiction, and features. The Post’s quick response times and generous pay attracted the best writers—Joseph Conrad, O. Henry, Rudyard Kipling, and others. Jack London’s Call of the Wild premiered in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.

Under a succession of editors—George Horace Lorimer, Wesley Stout, and Ben Hibbs—the magazine reached a peak circulation of over seven million and attracted writers such as Owen Wister, Ring Lardner, William Faulkner, Stephen Viincent Benet, Agatha Christie, and Ray Bradbury. 

A Focus on Fiction

The magazine was particularly known as a great venue for fiction. Not avant-garde fiction, but mainstream fiction. And not just the writings of the greats, but great writing from not-so-well-known authors. 

Movie poster for Warner Brothers film based on Hazlitt’s Alexander Botts stories, starring Joe E. Brown.

As a boy I followed the exploits of Alexander Botts, freewheeling salesman of Earthworm Tractors for the Farmer’s Friend Tractor Company. In a series of stories by William Hazlett Upson, Botts’s odd-ball sales campaigns were chronicled as a stream of frantic memos, letters, and telegrams between the loose cannon Botts and his perplexed home office in Earthworm City, Illinois.

It was, as they say, to larf.

Many young writers got a hand up by selling stories to the Post. Young writers are still doing this today—not to mention a few superannuated novices, such as Your New Favorite Writer. When I began to write fiction as a septuagenarian, I had a few quirky tales about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in a small town in the 1950s. The Post was kind enough to publish three of them (see herehere, and here), including one which won honorable mention in the magazine’s 2018 Great American Fiction Contest. For this I cannot help being grateful.

Rescued from Oblivion

And I was thankful for the far-sighted energy of Indianapolis industrialist Beurt SerVaas, who saved the Post during its distressed days in the 1960s and ’70s. When he acquired the Post, he was primarily interested in its sister publication, Jack and Jill, the well-known children’s magazine. In 1982, he spun the Post off into a nonprofit company, and the magazine began to focus on nonfiction articles about health, medicine, and volunteering—the passions of his wife and business partner, Cory. 

A more recent strategic shift, in 2013, brought the Saturday Evening Post back to its original mission. According to the magazine’s website, it “returned to . . . celebrating America, past, present, and future. Since then, the Post has focused on the elements that have always made it popular: good story telling, fiction, art, and history.”

Storytellers, take note. The Saturday Evening Post is still in business, doing what it has always done best, bringing high-quality mainstream narratives to the American public.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

The Maelstrom

A lot can change in a few weeks.

Just over a month ago, I announced in this space that I was laying aside my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase for an indefinite time because of difficulty in reconciling two diverging story lines.

Soon after, I heard from my friend and champion Christine, who made a compelling case that it was possible to write a successful novel including this bifurcated plot. I took a deep breath, tried again, and lo! The successful rewrite is now complete. I am extremely satisfied.

I won’t tell you, Dear Reader, exactly what changes I made in the manuscript. I will tell you that it’s now a much more compelling read than the manuscript I was trying to sell as recently as a year ago. Some work remains to polish it, but I hope to begin marketing again in the near future. 

What I can tell you is that is has a new title: The Maelstrom. And it is still the story of a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Thanks for your patience. I heard recently the average time an author takes to complete a first novel is five years. So I’m right on schedule.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

What About the Pilgrims?

“The Pilgrims? It’s not November—why are we talking about Pilgrims?” 

For one thing, maybe in midsummer we can step back and be a bit—dare I whisper the word?—dispassionate.

Passion rules the day. On every hand, our passions are egged on. “Engage your passion” is almost as frequent a bit of advice as “Follow your dreams.”

Noah Webster pre-1843. By James Herring. Public Domain. 

But has anybody bothered to check what that really means? Perhaps you will indulge me: 

passion . . . n. [[OFr < LL(Ec) passio, a suffering, esp. that of Christ (<L passus, pp. of pati, to endure < IE base *p­­ē-, to harm >  Gr pēma, destruction, L paene, scarcely): transl. of Gr pathos: see pathos]]  1a) [Archaic] suffering or agony, as of a martyr b) [Now Rare] an account of this  [P-a) the sufferings of Jesus, beginning with his agony in the Garden of Gethsmane and continuing to his death on the Cross b) any of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Passion and of accompanying events c) an artistic work, as an oratorio or a play, based on these narratives  3 a) any one of the emotions, as hate, grief, love, fear, joy, etc. b) [pl.] all such emotions collectively  4 extreme, compelling emotion; intense emotional drive or excitement; specif., a) great anger; rage; fury b) enthusiasm or fondness [passion for music] c) strong love or affection d) sexual drive or desire; lust  5 the object of any strong desire or fondness  6 [Obs.] the condition of being acted upon, esp. by outside influences—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

Webster goes on to comment that “passion usually implies a strong emotion that has an overpowering or compelling effect [his passions overcame his reason] [.]” 

Ignoring all the brackets, parentheses, italics, boldface, numbers, letters, and abbreviations that clutter the lexicography, we can discern that passion comprises suffering, endurance, harm, destruction, pathos, agony, martyrdom, and extremes of compelling or overpowering emotion—to include love, affection, and lust but, more commonly, hate, fear, grief, anger, rage, and fury.

Passion. Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash.

As a novelist and screenwriter, I applaud these outrageous eruptions of emotion. They  make drama.

But in my role as a human being trying to cope with the world, I must take a rather different tack. I believe that reason and objectivity—things that do not easily coexist with passion—are the best survival tools handed down from the philosophers of old.

They allow us to see our world more nearly as it is—less tinted by our fears, resentments, and extravagant dreams.

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“Okay, My New Favorite Writer, but what about the Pilgrims? You were going to say something about Pilgrims.” 

We’ll get to that, Gentle Reader. Don’t give up on me yet.

First, another mild digression.

As a young man, I studied a bit of the History of Science under Prof. David Lindberg at the University of Wisconsin­–Madison. Lindberg’s introductory lecture in the course covered what he called ancestor worship. 

Ancestor worship, in the good professor’s view, was the study of history on the basis that people of old times were either clear-sighted heroes (if we can make out that they pioneered the values we espouse today) or blind and bigoted blackguards (if they violated our current norms). 

This ancestor worship—really more an attitude than a program—leads to outlandish propositions that we often accept without rigorous examination. For instance:

Martin Luther (1483–1546). By Lucas Cranach the Elder. Public Domain.
  • Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in order to champion Freedom, Progress, and Democracy.
  • Christopher Columbus ravaged the American hemisphere and commited genocide because he was a vicious white supremacist.
  • All those who lived before the Renaissance—or the Enlightenment, if you will, or the Summer of Love—were untutored savages who lived lives void of intelligent vision.

Many other, similarly fatuous, statements could be made. What they all have in common is a fatal simplicity.

Real life, Dear Reader, is not all that straightforward.

Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German mathematician, started from the assumption that the planets moved in circular orbits which could be neatly inscribed in a nesting series of perfect Euclidean solids, and ended up proving the planets move in elliptical orbits that could not possibly answer to such imaginary constraints. Furthermore, despite his massive intelligence, it seems he saw no contradication between his two irreconcilable theories. He saw the former as being proved, not disproved, by the latter. Huh? 

Actuality just wants to escape any convenient mental box we try to cram it into.

Portrait of a man, said to be Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo. Public Domain.
  • Luther lived in a time when Progress was not a recognized value. Democracy was unthinkable, except as a curious aberration of the Athenians in remote antiquity. And if Luther valued Freedom, it would have been the freedom of the believer to realize salvation in Christ. His whole concern was that the institutional Church was stifling the ordinary person’s hope of receiving the Grace which the Scriptures revealed. If Luther was a hero, he was a hero of Faith, not of Modernity.
  • Columbus seems to have been actuated by the hope of Glory, Fame, and Wealth on Earth—and, perhaps, Eternal Life in Heaven. That he pursued these goals by enslaving the inhabitants of Hispaniola shows that he did not value their lives as much as white European lives; not that he held a Hitler-style ideology of race. He trampled on the Arawaks just as any supreme egotist tramples anyone in his path. It was made easy by the fact that they could not post eloquent written protests in Spanish or Latin. His genocide was casual, not programmatic。
  • And as for the belief that those who lived in days of yore were simply not bright enough to understand the world’s complexities as we do—Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Augustine of Hippo would like to have a word with you.

The real history of the world is not a relentless March of Progress nor a sinister Parade of Criminality, but an ongoing Stumble of Perplexity.

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“But what about the Pilgims? Are we there yet?”

Here are the bare facts, as widely acknowledged:

A group of Puritan Separatists—people who wanted to leave the state-mandated Church of England—fled to Holland after persecution by British monarchs. A few years later, disillusioned with life among the Dutch, they sailed for America. They arrived off Cape Cod in December 1620. Half of them died of disease and hunger during the first winter. Friendly Indians named Squanto and Samoset introduced themselves the following spring and taught our Separatist Pilgrims how to grow corn. In the autumn of 1621, Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a harvest feast that we now call the First Thanksgiving. 

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936). Public Domain.

Because the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony established by other Puritans ten years later, became materially successful over the ensuing decades, they came to be celebrated by their 19th-century descendants as precursors of all that was good in American life. They were seen as model saints, who were sometimes victimized by their Native American neighbors but had never done anything to provoke such treatment. They were energetic and intelligent colonists, whose prosperity owed all to hard work and intelligence. Indeed, in the Mayflower Compact they had drawn up the very blueprint of American Freedom, Constitutionalism, and Democracy.

Does anything about this seem familiar to you? That’s right—Ancestor Worship! 

Because the view of the Pilgrims developed by 19th-century Congregationalists was slanted, 20th-century historians began to debunk many parts of it, in the interest of correcting the record. The 1960s and 70s also saw the rise of a corps of self-consciously subjective historians motivated by Marxist ideology. Their view was that there is no such thing as objective historiography; that history is always a political act. To them, the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ checkered relationship with the Native Americans of the region was an opportunity to denounce capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Besides this, Native Americans in the second half of the 20th century gained ground in their quest to be heard. And the Wampanoags, today’s descendants of the Patuxets and other early Massachusetts tribes, had some long-neglected bones to pick.

Thus, although the 19th century’s triumphalist view of the Pilgrims held sway well into the 1950s—when Your New Favorite Writer and many other old people were school children—the “oppressor Pilgrims” narrative, fed by leftist historians and supported by well-documented assertions of the Wampanoag people, has gained ground since the 1960s.

There are still plenty of pro-Pilgrim apologists out there. But they must increasingly feel like yesterday’s children, shouting down a dry rain barrel.

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In the interest of sanity, not to mention conciliation in a divisive era, let me point out a few truths that are sometimes overlooked.

1. Before the arrival of white Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, North America was never what we would consider densely populated. Nobody knows how many Native Americans there were in pre-Columbian days, but recent estimates range from eight million to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. The North American part of that would be less. If we average the two figures and assign half of the result to North America, we get 30 million. While this is a much larger population of American Indians than existed subsequently—after the effects of virgin-soil epidemics, outright wars, and a long period of genocidal practices—North America would still have seemed sparsely populated to Europeans of that era.

2. The incursions of Spanish colonists in the West and Southwest, and Englishmen on the East Coast, started a catastrophic decline in the fortunes and the populations of Native American tribes. Of this there can be no doubt. As the Pilgrims constituted an early successful experiment in colonization, they were part of the problem, from the Native American point of view.

3. The frequent forays of English fishermen, explorers, and adventurers into North America in the arly 1600s caused one or more serious virgin soil epidemics in New England. Such epidemics happen when a group of people bring new disease organisms into a population not previously exposed to them. Since no resistance has been previously acquired, the disease spreads swiftly, with extreme virulence. One such epidemic depopulated the Massachusetts shoreline just before the Pilgrims arrived. Finding evidence of a recently vanished native civilization, the religious Pilgrims saw in that circumstance the special providence of God—the Hand of the Almighty had cleared a place for them to live. 

4. In the first weeks of their sojourn on the new shore, the Pilgrims uncovered a bushel of corn left by the former inhabitants as grave goods. They understood something of the spititual significance of this corn to the people who had left it there. But those people were nowhere to be seen, and the Pilgrims were in danger of starving. They took the corn and resolved to make restitution if they ever got the chance—a pledge they made good on, by the way.

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Rodney King, April 2012. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now it is 2021. We live thirty years after Rodney King famously asked, “Can we all get along?” We seem to be having some trouble doing so.

If we are to make progress towards getting along, we must start by acknowledging the scope and pain of the real losses suffered by those cast aside in America’s rush to power and wealth. Where feasible, we should try to make amends.

To shed light on the past may help us do better in the future. But ferreting out the sins of our ancestors to use as cudgels against one another in the present is worse than useless. 

Our common history is no less complicated for its being troubled, and the search for Good Guys and Bad Guys is more futile the farther we are removed from the facts.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Patience

My old friend Jay came up from Chicagoland last week, with his lady friend Harriet. We chatted over a very nice Italian dinner at a local restaurant. At some point, Harriet inquired about my quest as a would-be book author. 

I told her I had the complete manuscript of a historical novel, but by submitting it to various agents and publishers I learned the story needed a complete, tooth-to-tail revision. A daunting prospect, but one I undertook bravely. The problem is that, even though the writing is a lot better in the new version, the many changes of plot and character made me fear that by the time I got to the end, the story would be an incoherent mess. But I was plugging on, regardless.

At this point, Jay made the obvious comment: “Well, at our age, you don’t have that much time left to finish this thing and get it published.” 

Jay was, of course, correct in his assessment. But I shared with him this amazing secret: The older I get, the more patient I become.

It’s hard to account for. Against all rationality, I look forward to thirty or forty more years of productive life. Therefore I can afford to spend time getting my manuscript right. 

Just when time is running out, I have learned patience.

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The manuscript is another matter. Since the conversation with Jay and Harriet, it has become clear that I have two separate stories—a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America, and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning. I am not creative enough to make the two stories mesh.

My spouse observed long ago that I was writing two books at once. She was right.

For now, I’m laying it aside. Maybe I can sort out the separate strands of story at a later date. I have a lot of other work “in the hopper,” no end of things to write about. 

One avenue of expression is these blog posts. Until getting bogged down in the rewrite project, I was posting here weekly. I now hope to resume that habit.

And I would like to pick up where I left off in what I call “the Bradbury Challenge”—writing a short story a week for a year.

And my daughter recently suggested an excellent setting for a screenplay. All it needs is a story to go with it.

So never fear, Dear Reader. I’ll keep busy. Someday, I’ll get back to the historical novel. Patience.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Harry T. Loper’s Difficult Day

Dear Reader: I am immersed in a demanding rewrite of my novel, Freedom’s Purchase. Thus I cannot offer you a fresh post this week. Please enjoy this reblog of a fictional/factual treatment of a major historical event, the Springfield race riot of 1908.

Anarchy, Loper thought. 

Crowds of men, women too, ran through the afternoon streets of Springfield. Shouted. Shook fists. Spooked horses. Snarled teams and rigs. Loper had witnessed the Cincinnati riots in 1884. Now those bloody scenes flashed back across his mind.

He frowned and crushed the horn bulb, steered his touring car through the lunatics, trying not to bump flesh. Loper’s 1906 Dorris was his pride and joy, but as a National Guard member and community leader, he knew his duty. He drove toward the county jail, the same place the mob was going, but on a different mission. 

Out of nowhere, six of Springfield’s new motorized fire engines came roaring down the street. Loper swerved, nearly killing some moron walking in the gutter. Bells clanging, the fire trucks raced northward, beyond Union Square Park—and the mob in the street followed them. Loper turned down an alley between Washington and Jefferson Streets and approached the jail from the back. 

“Took your time getting here,” said Sheriff Werner.

“There was a mob in the street, and by the way, the North End seems to be burning down.”

“Don’t worry about that fire. It’s a little invention of mine, to draw people away.” The sheriff barked back over his shoulder: “Come on, hustle!”

Two black men in prison stripes and handcuffs stumbled into the sunlight, surrounded by four armed lawmen. 

“Harry Loper,” said the sheriff, “meet Deputies Kramer, Hanrahan, and Rhodes, and Sergeant Yanzell of the city police. The famous desperadoes climbing in behind you are Joe James and George Richardson. They may hang for their crimes next week, but by God we’ll keep them safe tonight.” 

Loper turned in his seat to look at the prisoners. Both men stared bleakly at the floorboards. The Dorris was spacious, but two of the gun-wielding deputies had to stand on the running boards. Loper drove all six, prisoners and officers, five miles to Sherman, where they caught a train for Bloomington. 

He drove fast on the return trip, anxious to get back to his restaurant—even though a big supper rush seemed unlikely. Decent folk would not venture out this night, even for a Friday feed at Springfield’s finest eatery.

But that was the least of it. He turned into Fifth Street only to find his place beleaguered by an ugly mob. He parked in the street and leapt from the car. 

“There he is!” shouted someone as he ran in the door. “That’s Loper, the dirty nigger-lover!”

Loper made straight for his office and got the rifle he kept in case of robbers. He came out and stood in the doorway, brandishing the gun as broadly as he could. 

“You hauled the negro out of town,” shouted a voice, female this time. “Now we will haul you!” The crowd surged forward.

Loper ran for his life.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Loper postcard, interior.
Loper postcard, exterior.

Back in Business

My Grandma, Millie Marie Gunsten-not-yet-Sommers, lived in Low Point, Illinois, in 1908 and collected postcards. In her collection are two cards with no written message, no address, no stamps, no postmarks. They were never mailed. She must have been acquired them hot off the press. 

These cards were printed and distributed for an urgent purpose: To get Harry Loper back in business after the riot. But theywere no doubt kept by Grandma simply as mementoes of the riot.

I remember her, from the 1940s and ’50s, as a homely old woman in a shapeless dress, who wore big button hearing aids, smiled a lot, rocked me in her rocking chair when I couldn’t sleep, and gave me a spoonful of honey when I had a cough.

In 1908, she would have been about twenty, a shy and socially awkward telephone operator still living with her parents and younger siblings in a very small town. What would she have thought of the distressing and notorious events in nearby Springfield? Did the big riot stay in her memory? She had enough things to occupy her mind in the intervening years, with marriage to a profane and pugnacious railroad telegrapher, the raising of five children, the loss of two sons in World War II. She never mentioned the riot in my hearing, and I never asked her about it, since I had never even heard of it. Long before I came along, the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 had been buried in society’s willing forgetfulness. 

The Springfield Race Riot of 1908

But our haunted past has been resurrected. We now know that Springfield, Illinois—Abraham Lincoln’s home, the city from which he went to Washington to preside over a Union torn apart by slavery—was the site of one of the worst, and also most significant, race riots in the post-Reconstruction period.

On August 14, 1908, a young white woman, Mabel Hallam, charged George Richardson, a black construction worker, with raping her the night before. “I believe you are the man,” she said after hesitantly identifying him at the sheriff’s office in the Sangamon County Courthouse, “and you will have to prove that you are not.”

“Before God, I am innocent of this crime,” Richardson said. “I can explain her identification of me only by the theory that all coons look alike to her.”

An angry crowd formed outside the courthouse. Armed guards marched Richardson three blocks to the county jail and locked him up. Soon the mob re-formed at the jail.

Sheriff Charles Werner resisted using National Guard troops the governor placed at his disposal. He figured that getting the prisoner out of town would calm the mob. He telephoned Harry Loper to commandeer his car and arranged the diversionary tactic of a fake fire alarm. Perhaps as an afterthought, he added a second black prisoner to Loper’s cargo—one Joe James, languishing in jail for the July 4 murder of Clergy Ballard, a white mining engineer. 

Loper and motoring friends in 1910. Loper, in light-colored suit and black hat, sits in the passenger seat. Photo courtesy Sangamon County Historical Society.

But the mob would not be placated. Learning that Loper had driven the two men out of town, hundreds converged on his restaurant, utterly destroying it and Loper’s car. The restaurateur escaped through a rear basement entrance, but Louis Johnston, a white factory worker, was hit by a stray gunshot inside the restaurant and died.

Black Districts Pillaged

The mob then turned to the Levee, a black business district, and the Badlands, a nearby neighborhood where blacks lived in mostly run-down houses. Many African American residents fled to any available refuge, although some defended themselves with revolvers and shotguns, firing from upper stories of businesses in the Levee.

The white mob lynched two black businessmen—Scott Burton, a 59-year-old barber, and William K. H. Donnegan, an 84-year-old shoemaker. Both men were beaten, slashed, and hung, their bodies mutilated. 

In three days of rioting, at least thirty-five black-owned businesses were destroyed and riddled with bullets, and a four-square-block residential area was put to the torch. Local police, fire, and sheriff’s office responses were ineffective or nonexistent. Order was eventually restored by National Guard troops, deployed too late to stop the destruction and carnage. Accounts differ as to how many Springfield citizens, besides Burton and Donnegan, were killed or injured. At least several people, both black and white, died. Some estimates are higher.

Legal Penalties

Within a few days, a special grand jury “issued a total of 117 indictments and made eighty-five arrests for murder, burglary, larceny, incitement to riot, disorderly conduct, concealed weapons, and suspicion” (Something So Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908, by Carole Merritt [Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, 2008], p. 59). 

However, in the trials that followed, only one person faced serious punishment for participation in the riot—Roy Young, 15, who confessed to “shooting at negroes” and helping burn 15 or 16 houses and was sentenced to the state reformatory at Pontiac. Another rioter, Kate Howard, a boardinghouse owner known to have led rioters in the destruction of Loper’s café, was released on $10,000 bond and subsequently re-arrested in connection with the lynching of Scott Burton. “Before leaving for prison, Howard secretly took poison and died at the door of the county jail.”

Negro prisoner Joe James was convicted of the murder of Clergy Ballard and was hanged October 23, 1908. However, George Richardson, the man whose alleged rape of Mabel Hallam was the actual spark for the riot, was fully exonerated and released from jail two weeks after the riot, when his accuser admitted to the grand jury that she made the story up. According to Wikipedia, “He received no restitution or apology for his time away from work or harm to his name. He went on to work as a janitor, and lived until he was 76, when he died at St. John’s Hospital. His obituary did not mention the events of 1908.”

Catalyst for Founding of the NAACP

Richardson’s vindication would seem to be the only good thing to have come out of the Springfield riot. But it was not.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Wealthy white Republican Socialist William English Walling traveled to Springfield in the aftermath of the riot, visited hard-hit areas and spoke with survivors of the riot. He penned an article, “The Race War in the North,” for a New York weekly, The Independent.  Journalist and social activist Mary White Ovington read Walling’s article and wrote to him in response. They organized a January 1909 meeting in New York, attended also by Dr. Henry Moskowitz, which became the founding meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Prominent black and white leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Oswald Villard and his mother Frances Garrison Villard, Ray Baker, Mary Church Terrell, Archibald Grimké, and Ida B. Wells joined the initial organizational efforts. 

Thus the Springfield riot became the catalyst that led to the formation of the NAACP early the following year. 

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Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Re + Vision

re•vise . . . 1 to read over carefully and correct, improve, or update where necessary [to revise a manuscript, a revised edition of a book] 2 to change or amend [to revise tax rates]

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

Webster’s second definition, “to change or amend,” suggests a process that may be nonchalant, whimsical, or mysterious, as when the legislature metes out taxes. 

The first definition, which applies to a manuscript or a book, specifies a careful reading and only necessary corrections, improvements, or updates.

Friends, Romans, and countrymen—I am not here to raise your taxes. But I do have a manuscript to revise. (See last week’s post.) 

The Varieties of Revision

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Among literary lions, there are some who actually revel in the process of revision; who feel more comfortable and capable when improving a story than when thinking it up in the first place. Happily, I am one of those.

Revision, however, comes in different flavors:

  • There is the final polish, when you go through a solid manuscript to weed out extra spaces, an occasional poor word choice, or potentially embarrasing typos.
  • There is a thorough stylistic edit, where you change a lot of words, phrases, and expressions, with the aim of making the prose a joy to read.
  • But there is also another kind of revision. The term “structural” comes to mind. That is, a serious revision of the story itself.

My dictionary says “revise” comes from Latin re, meaning “back” plus visere, “to survey” or  videre, “to see.” (“See vision,” it adds, helpfully.) 

I am now embarked on what is sometimes known as a tooth-to-tail revision of Freedom’s Purchase. It’s clearly a case of re + vision.

More than simply supplying a few missing commas, it’s an attempt to supply what is missing in the story, and in the narration of the story, so that it will become a riveting read. It’s a re-working of the original vision.

What Will Change

Elmore Leonard. Peabody AwardsCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some characters will be lost in the shuffle. Many scenes will be redesigned or omitted entirely, and new scenes will be added. The main character will become more clearly a protagonist—the person who drives the developments in the story. Whereas the original manuscript had long sections of pastoral description or complex explanations of the historical context, my aim for the new version will be to put conflict or tension on every page.

It should be a book you’ll not want to put down, for fear you might miss something important while you’re making a sandwich.

The late Elmore Leonard had a simple explanation for his vast success in producing major novels and screenplays throughout a long career: “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”

That, Gentle Reader, is what I’m trying to do, so that when you buy my book, you won’t have to skip any part of it.

The process reminds me of Michelangelo looking at a block of marble and chipping away everything that’s not a horse.

Keep me in your thoughts and prayers. I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Watch This Space

Dear Reader,

Thanks for your patience. You may recall that I was attempting to write one short story a week, as recommended by Ray Bradbury, and was posting those stories each Tuesday on this blog. 

I was eight stories in, doing just fine. But a funny thing happened on the way to story number nine. I had major surgery to replace my left hip, and my brain was blitzed by opioid painkillers. The fuzz in my head made it impossible to start a new story.

Good news: The logjam has broken. I’ve got a good start on story nine, but it may take a few more days to complete. As soon as it’s ready, I’ll post it, and will add a hyperlink here to guide you to it. Then I’ll try to get back on the regular Tuesday schedule.

Here it is! Better late than never.

Thanks for reading.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer