Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dwellers in the Hills by Melville Davisson Post

Artist: Thomas Moran of the Hudson School, 19th century

I can’t remember how I came to learn about Melville Davisson Post, but something I read somewhere intrigued me (is that vague or what?).  A writer from the early twentieth century, Post is known for preserving the culture of West Virginia at the turn of the last century in his mystery novels. 

His writing has a definite archaic style to it and at first I wasn’t sure I was going to bother finish reading the story.  He is of the “only show never tell” school, which can make it hard at times to figure out what is going on.  Also, I’m really not a fan of writers who think that have to paint every detail of a picture for me.  At one point the first person narrator describes his descent from a mountain on the back of a horse at break neck speed.  I really could not care less how fast the trees whizzed by or how each blade of grass looked, how your horse frothed, or how you felt.  Just tell me that you rode a horse as it galloped down the mountain. That’s good enough for me. I can imagine the rest for myself.

But, at one point near the beginning of the story (I believe it was after the narrator arrived at his destination from the mountain) the characters and the plot provoked my interest.

Quiller, the younger brother of Ward, a cattleman, arrives home to discover that Woodford, a rival of his brother’s is there to claim some cattle that his brother had agreed in a contract to sell to him.  Prices had dropped and Woodford, was demanding the cattle immediately.

With Woodford is Cynthia, a woman who possessed beauty and charm enough to have almost magical powers over Quiller simply because his brother, whom he idolized, adored her.  But here she was, sitting and laughing with his brother’s rival.  Feeling his brother betrayed, Quiller’s admiration for Cynthia is instantly turned to hatred.

Ward is laid up from being thrown from his horse so he is unable to round up the cattle, which are a day’s journey away.  This leaves the job up to Quiller and two ranch hands:  Jud, a giant of a man, and Ump, an old bewizened man with a hunch back. 

Quiller speaks often of his youth and inexperience and at first I imagined him to be a youth of no more than ten or eleven.  As the story progressed I began to gather that he must be a teenager.  This confusion is a result of aforementioned “showing only” strategy.  Since the entire story is told from Quiller’s point of view, the reader has to figure out as best he can what’s really going on from different comments he makes.

Yet, it is not an entirely ineffective strategy because Post does not make Quiller omniscient or objective.  The reader becomes persuaded to believe certain things due to Quiller’s personal prejudices and limited understanding of the bigger picture.  This allows the reader to become as shocked or surprised as the narrator when certain truths are discovered.

After this initial set up begins the story, which is basically a race to get one hundred head of cattle back home in order to sell them before the prices drop, which is why Woodford wants the cattle now.

As challenging as rounding up a hundred cows would be, it is made even harder when Quiller, Jud, and Ump realize that two of Woodford’s men, Lem Marks and Parson Peppers, are ahead of them sabatoging their efforts.  This is the basic outline of the story.  On the way to the cattle and on bringing them back, Quiller, Jud, and Ump have to overcome the hurdles Marks and Peppers throw in their way. 

Even though the formula is transparent, it creates a level of suspense in wanting to know just how the three men are going to get to their cattle and back.  As the story transpires, the reader discovers, through Quiller, that Ward’s accident was due to someone shooting at his horse while he was riding it.  Then the black smith purposely nails corrupt nails into the shoes of their horses to impede their ride and finally, the ferry boat, which is cut loose overnight requires Quiller and the others to force the cattle to swim across a rough river and risk their drowning.

It doesn’t sound very interesting the way I write it, but Post’s descriptive powers do help create a vicarious experience that allows the reader to enter into the story.

The ending is a little strange in that Post seems to randomly throw in the fact that the Civil War is going on, something not revealed until the last paragraph of the book. But then again maybe it wasn’t random.  Maybe it’s supposed to pack a punch and throw the whole story in a new context.  It certainly left me wondering what was really going on after all.

Another aspect of the book is the insertion of old Celtic mythology.  Quiller informs the reader of the lore of the dwarfs, the “dwellers in the hills.”  They made the bridge that the ranch men have to cross at one point.  He gives a little history as to the relationship these hill dwellers had with the people who settled the land.  I’m not sure how the dwarfs fit into the story.  It made me wonder if I was mistaken about the location of the story and if it was not in fact in Scotland.  I suppose the dwarfs made it across the ocean with the Scots who colonized the Appalachian mountains. Perhaps this was a part of Southern culture that I am not familiar with.  I know Southern culture has its roots in English and Celtic traditions from singing to story telling to art.  I just had never heard stories about dwarves. 

Considering the time period Post wrote his stories  I believe that there was more to Southern culture than I realized and can learn a lot from reading his stories.

 Melville Davisson Post


Further information on Melville Davisson Post:

Clerical Detectives

America's Greatest Mystery Writer 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Last Day in Paris: Adieu to the Arc de Triumphe, a boat ride down the Seine and a midnight climb up the Eiffel

Arc de Triumph

This is part of a travelogue, chronicling my twenty-one day trip to Europe last summer. 

 On our last day in Paris, Derek and I walked down the Champ Elysees to the Arc de Triumph.  We were on a street corner, looking at our map when  a young French woman approached us and asked us where we were going.  She then walked us most of the way.  She said she was going that way to deliver a letter anyway.  I thought, her mailbox is awfully far away from her apartment.  Between you and me I think she was just being nice.

Stairwell up the Arc de Triumphe

 I can not emphasis enough how valuable getting a Paris pass is.  We saved hours waiting in line.  We got to bypass everyone and go straight to the top.  This was true for all the museums as well.  The only things that the pass didn't cover was Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.

I had no idea how huge the Arc de Triumphe was.  I got a lot of cute bookmarks from the gift shop on top.

That evening Derek and I went on a boat ride.  While we waited on the Seine river for it to commence I took a few more photos of the Eiffel Tower.  It is so impressive, I couldn't stop snapping.  Every angle seemed to demand I preserve the moment with my camera. 

I'd like to see this guy get in his little car.

Scenes along the Seine

The following photos are what we saw on the boat ride along the Seine.

As we floated under a bridge.
It was hard to keep track of what the recorded narrator said about each building on the ride because it was repeated in several different languages: German, English, French, Chinese, Japanese etc.

 When we finally returned it was around ten o clock.  As you can see it is still light.  Summer days are  very long in Paris.  We got in line to get to the top of the Eiffel.  The wait was over two hours.

The tower in the evening, around eleven pm.
 It was a long arduous wait, but we arrived at the top of the Eiffel at precisely midnight.  My camera didn't take the most brilliant photos of Paris at night, but I think they have their own special appeal.

At the foot of the Eiffel looking straight up.

At the second level of the tower.

Midnight on top of the Eiffel.

By this time I am more than a little wiped out.

Paris at night or abstract art?  Maybe both!

Paris at midnight

Elevator going down to the second level.

 We found out at the second level that we could climb down the stairs to the ground.  Derek and I eagerly got out of the elevator line and began climbing down one of the legs of the tower.  Or rather, we ran down.  I wasn't sure when the subway trains stopped running.  I didn't relish the idea of getting a taxi.  Taxis are the only negative experience on my European trip.  The drivers really are a bunch of crooks.  The only reason you should take a taxi is if you have money to burn.

Running down the stairwell of the Eiffel

Derek and I sprinted to the closest subway station, a block away, only to find ourselves ensconced among crowds of people also waiting  for the train.  Silly little east Texan.  Paris stays open long after midnight.

I saw many scenes on the subway I would have liked to capture with my camera.  One was the pole I was grabbing with twenty other hands.  It was such a cool image:  all these disembodied hands and arms going off in all different directions and angles.

The Eiffel Tower at midnight
Another scene I'll always remember was a couple of young French girls who were seated next to where I was standing.  The one girl was dominating the conversation chatting away a mile a minute as the train wound its way up to the near northern section of the city where my hostel was.

Suddenly, at one stop, she jumped up with an exclamation. She and her friend pushed their way out of the crowd barely before the doors closed.  Evidently they were not intending to disembark here.  By the girl's breathless and excited laughter I knew there must be somebody they knew outside on the platform that they weren't expecting to see.  Or maybe they came upon their stop more quickly than they realized.  

 I looked out the window and saw the object of their excitement.  Or objects. Two young men were there waiting for  them.  I wish I could adequately describe this girl and how she laughed as she made her way through the crowd to get to her male friends.  To me it was such a charming picture of Parisian youth culture.

Exhausted and barely able to stand, Derek and I walked the few blocks from the subway to our hostel.  We were starving, but what was open?  Across the street from our place was a Turkish falafel shop.  We went in and for only a couple of Euros plowed through plates piled high with lamb and french fries, washed down with coke. 

While I was standing at the counter waiting for my food, a group of young people sauntered in.  A pretty girl with flowing curly hair stood next to me and grinned hugely at me.  At this point in time, she would not have passed anybody's sobriety test.  She said a few words in French to me but quickly surmised I didn't understand and switched to English.  The remainder of the time in the restaurant she spoke English to everybody, including the cook, whom she joined behind the counter, insisting that she help him.

As I sat down at my table and ate, I thought, "That's great.  This girl can speak fluent English drunk and I can't speak comprehensible French sober.  I blame it on our educational system."

At two in the morning, Derek and I dragged ourselves up the four flights of stairs to our rooms and collapsed onto our beds.  We didn't bother changing clothes.  We had to get up in two hours to catch our plane to Barcelona.  

Goodbye Paris.  I hope we'll meet again one day.

Previous posts of my European Trip:

Another Day in Paris: Arc de Triumphe

Paris First Day

Switzerland :Gimmelwald and Murren

Third Day in Switzerland

Montreux, Switzerland



Pisa and Cinque Terre 




Further Links:

Paris Pass

Paris Museum Pass 

Eiffe's Tower by Jill Jonnes 

Monday, February 17, 2014

One of Life's Slaves by Jonas Lauritz Idemil Lie

Edward Munch, The Storm 1893

First, I apologize to my readers who have commented that they have not received new posts from me.  I’m a free lance pianist/organist and I am currently working four jobs:  twenty singers and twenty-four instrumentalists I play with, an opera, and pipe organ for church.  Just a leetle busy. 

And…I’ve recently become engaged so time I usually reserve for reading has been otherwise occupied.  (Insert huge smile here). 

I have managed to read one book finally.  Thanks to Zohar over at Man of laBook, I have become aware of a Norwegian author whose books, at least some of them, are free downloads at Amazon.  The first one I’ve read is called, One of Life’s Slaves.  It is a rather grim story and I’m not sure what the author’s reasons were for writing it, but I’ll speculate on this after the review.

A young woman, Barbara, gets pregnant out of wedlock.  Since in the 19th century, this is considered a scandalous condition, Barbara is hard put to find work.  She finally procures a job as a wet nurse and nanny at a well-to-do household on the condition that she get rid of her own child.  This she does by paying a local village family, the Holmans, to care for her son, Nikolai.

Barbara’s life takes a turn for the better where she becomes a pampered, spoiled and imperious “servant” of the family that hired her.  She raises the two children as if they were her own, while rarely visiting her own blood child.

Nikolai’s fortunes go from bad to worse.  He is exploited, neglected and abused at the hands of his foster mother, Mrs. Holman.  He is treated like a slave and any minor infraction is severely punished with prolonged beatings and being made to spend terrifying nights in a coal cellar.

Still, Nikolai manages to grow up, run away from his foster family and get work as a black smith.  He returns to the Holman household in secret, however, because he has formed an attachment to their daughter, Silla, who grew up with him. They meet in secret for as long as they are able.  Though his life takes many adverse turns, Nikolai manages to earn enough money to ask for Silla’s hand in marriage. 

Mrs. Holman tries to intimidate Nikolai with her usual imperious, demanding and sanctimonious manner and speech but he has become hardened to them.  Furthermore he is determined to marry Silla.  Doing her best not to show Nikolai, Mrs. Holman is secretly hopeful of the prospective marriage.  Her own husband has since drunk himself to death and she has had to rely on doing the washing of town folk.  Because of her caustic attitude she loses as much work as she gains.  She begins to think that if Silla and Nikolai were to marry, she’d have a source of financial security by moving in with them.

The fly in that ointment is that Nikolai’s mother, Barbara, who has by this time moved in with him.  The family she worked for finally developed enough of a back bone to throw her out and her attitude of entitlement has successfully ostracized her from any other employers.

Demanding that Nikolai cannot abandon his very own mother, she persuades him to let her move in.  Plus he gives her his hard earned savings to buy a store.  This forces him to postpone his marriage plans. 

Barbara eats more of her products than she sells and the store goes under.  Oblivious as to the reasons her store is going bankrupt, she demands more money from Nikolai.  He refuses to give her more and the reader, with a sigh of relief, hopes that finally Nikolai has wised up and will boot his parasitical mother out.

This is not to be, however.  After blaming Nikolai for all her life’s misfortunes, Barbara threatens to seek help from Veyergang, the boy she wet nursed.  Nikolai cannot tolerate this so he gives her the money.  He understands that this ruins his chances of ever marrying Silla.

Things finally come to a head when Nikolai reviews the hardships he’s had to endure his entire life.  Who made his life hard?  Mrs. Holman who abused and neglected him through out his childhood?  His mother, Barbara, who abandoned him and, literally, ate up all his money?

Common sense would dictate that this was the case.  Nikolai, as tragic as he is, is made even more so by an amazing lack of common sense.  After reviewing all his misfortunes he arrives at the conclusion that it is Veyergang who is the cause of them all.

Part of his prejudice could perhaps be explained by the fact that this rich young man has enjoyed everything Nikolai lacked:  a wealthy, privileged home, the love of Nikolai’s own mother, and finally he has begun wooing Silla.

Silla is a young, silly girl.  She loves Nikolai but also loves fun and dancing.  Nikolai provides the former without any of the latter.  Who does?  Young Veyergang.  It is at a dance where Nikolai find Silla and Veyergang together.

Nikolai hurls a large stone at Veyergang’s head and kills him.  What is the conclusion to Nikolai’s life?  A life time of hard prison labor.  The final words of the novel are uttered by Nikolai as he swings his pick:

“If I got out (of prison), it would only be to come in again.  For either the world ought to go to prison or I ought, and I suppose it may as well be the last!”

I have wondered what the point to this dismal tale could be.  Is Lie hoping to show people their pious hypocrisy?  Is he trying to awaken their compassion for the misfortunate?  Is he hoping to strike their consciences by recognizing their own pharisaical and heartless attitude?

It’s possible.  The characters certainly weren’t meant to portray the complexities of actual people.  They all seem to represent types.  Two types, really:  the selfish and the innocent victim whose life suffers as a result of others’ selfishness. In this sense the story reminds me of the short stories of the Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore.

There were not any compassionate people in this story to counterbalance the bad.  All of them were the worst of any bad guy Charles Dickens could conjure up without any of his good characters to provide relief and ultimately hope.  Dickens always gave us the ending we wanted.  Lie feels no need to provide the reader with any sense of good triumphing over evil, rather the opposite.

Reading a biography of Lie, he is known for creating characters and story that colorfully depict the folk life of the Norwegian people in the 19th century.  That he certainly does.  The writing is impeccable and the characters are vivid.  And I must say that the story, for all its sordidness, drew me into the time period and culture quite effectively.

And for that reason alone, One of Life’s Slaves are worth reading.