Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Two writers, one brand new and one experienced and award-winning begin to write a story about a child who possesses affection for extraordinary children—abused, neglected, ignored, sick, and dying. The stories share the same title, Child of My Heart. I was the new writer, fumbling for proper grammar and eloquent enough prose to tell Annie’s story, my story—the story of a nurse. On the other hand, Alice McDermott, already proficient in prose and confident enough to use her own style of grammar, tells the story of Theresa, a teenage girl on the cusp of fifteen who is clever and beloved by children and animals alike, but also a solitary soul with an already complex understanding of human nature. Theresa’s working class parents decide that their “born beautiful” daughter’s best chance in life is to marry a wealthy man, so she is raised on the east end of Long Island among the country houses of the rich. She’s the town’s most sought after babysitter when her favorite niece, Daisy (who is eight) comes to spend the summer. The story begins, “I had in my care that summer four dogs, three cats, the Moran kids, Daisy, my eight-year-old cousin, and Flora, the toddler child of a local artist.”

The precocious Theresa believes that Daisy is the least cared for child of her father’s sister who has six boys and one bossy sister, Bernadette. When Theresa visits the family, actually Daisy, she shows the reader what she’s made of by telling them a tall tale about how she and Daisy obtained over eight dozen lollypops:

“There was a barrel of lollipops beside the newspaper rack, a handwritten sign, TWO FOR A NICKEL. Her parents had made her too polite to ask for one, so I casually bought a hundred of them, refusing a paper bag and stuffing them instead into our pockets, pant pockets and coat pockets, and then lifting the hem of her sweater to form another pocket and filling it as well. When we got back to the house, we dumped all of them over her brothers and Bernadette, who were lying on the living-room floor watching their allotted hour of television before dinner. The lollipops in their wrappers were wet with snow, some were muddy from where we had dropped them on the walk home. “Where did you get these?” Bernadette asked, and before Daisy could answer, I said, “We found a lollipop tree. You should have come.” The boys said, “Yeah, sure,” but Bernadette couldn’t resist grilling us on the particulars, her eyes narrowed, her thin mouth opened skeptically, showing the little blowfish teeth. A house on the boulevard, I said. A willow tree. A huge willow tree filled with lollipops for the taking. The tree belongs to an old couple, I said, whose only child, a little boy, had dreamed of a lollipop tree in his front yard on the night he died, fifty years ago this very day. Once a year and only on this day, I said, they make his dream come true by filling their willow tree with lollipops. (And the odd thing is, I said, it was snowing in his dream, too, and it snows every year on this date the minute the old couple hangs the last lollipop on the tree.) They invite children from miles around. I’m surprised you guys have never heard about it before. The old couple serves hot chocolate out on their lawn while the children collect the lollipops from the tree. They hire tall men to help lift the smaller children high into the branches. The single rule is that you can pick only as many lollipops as you can carry home— no paper bags or suitcases, oh, and that the picking lasts for just one hour, from dusk to nightfall, to the second the first star appears. Corresponding to their son’s last hour on earth, since the evening star in the dark blue winter sky was the first thing the old couple had noticed when they went to the bedroom window only a minute after the doctor had pulled a blanket up over his peaceful little face. Although Bernadette squinted skeptically through it all, the boys had their backs to the TV set by the time I’d finished. “We’ll have to go next year,” Jack Jr. said softly. But Bernadette turned on Daisy. “Is this true?” she demanded. Daisy shrugged her thin shoulders. There was a remnant of hot chocolate on her upper lip and the top of her wiry hair was darkened by a little skullcap of melted snow. “You should have come,” she said matter-of-factly, skirting the lie. Child of my heart.”

And thus sets the stage for the rest of the novel.

In my Child of My Heart, Annie begins her story the summer just after she turns twelve when she has her first taste of death—not of a child she loves but of a beloved doll:
“I ran across the alley and hurdled myself over a neighbor’s croton hedge. Before my feet hit the ground I spotted an object that turned my spinning world to slow motion. I stopped to look at the thing, hoping my eyes had lied. But there on her chest was the tiny heart I’d drawn with a red ballpoint pen. My heart cried out but I couldn’t make a sound. From atop a trash heap I picked up my small broken doll and stared at her as if we were frozen in time. She was the most cherished thing I’d ever owned. The doll’s shiny yellow braids tied with tiny pink bows were torn from her scalp. Dirty smudges covered her naked body, her blue eyes scratched off, belly slashed open, a leg amputated. A filthy pink ribbon tied her one remaining possession to her hand—a tiny white toothbrush.”

The two protagonists, Theresa and Annie, deal with much more abuse of children, animals, and possessions. Although both stories seem gruesome—and parts of them are—the neglected children are cared for by spunky teenagers who refuse to accept the world the way it is.

In Alice McDermott’s effortless and passionate prose, she brings the “expected” portion of her story to an end. But, this is not the end of the book:

“Daisy speaks. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be back here.’ I laughed, just a puff of air against her scalp. ‘Why?’ I asked her. ‘I don’t know,’ she whispered. ‘I just have that feeling.’ I tightened my arm around her. ‘Of course you will,’ I said. ‘Every summer. You could come at Easter, too, if you want, even Christmas. You can come back anytime, all the way until you’re grown up.’ I said it fondly, assuredly, with all the authority I knew she gave me, all the authority I knew I had, here in my own kingdom, but I also said it against a flash of black anger that suddenly…made me want to banish every parable, every song, every story ever told, even by me, about children who never returned. The newborn children named for Irish patriots. The children who said, I want to show it to the angels. Children who kissed their toys at night and said, Wait for me, who dreamt lollipop trees, who bid farewell to their parents from the evening star, children who crawled ghostly into their grieving father’s lap, who took to heart an old man’s advice that they never grow old, and never did. All my pretty ones? All? I wanted them banished, the stories, the songs, the foolish tales of children’s tragic premonitions. I wanted them scribbled over, torn up. Start over again. Draw a world where it simply doesn’t happen, a world of only color, no form. Out of my head and more to my liking: a kingdom by the sea, eternal summer, a brush of fairy wings and all dark things banished, age, cruelty, pain, poor dogs, dead cats, harried parents, lonely children, all the coming griefs, all the sentimental, maudlin tales fashioned out of the death of children.”

I hope you'll read and enjoy both.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Go Set A Watchman is right up there with Fifty Shades of Grey

In HarperCollins’s press release of Go Set A Watchman, Michael Morrison states, “…that in lines that manage to be both tautological and cliché-sodden, that ‘Watchman’ is a ‘brilliant book’ and a ‘masterpiece’ that will be ‘revered for generations to come.’ Jonathan Burnham, Senior Vice President and publisher of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins believes that ‘Watchman’ “is a remarkable literary event,” although he obviously means publishing event: big difference.

And isn’t this also true of Fifty Shades of Grey, that it was a tautological and cliché-sodden publishing event? The novel by E.L.James was first self-published on Kindle and reviewed mostly on Goodreads where it went viral on social media and garnered a phenomenally high average rating and sold ten million copies in the first six weeks. The novel placed second in the Best Romance Award in the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. A year later, Vintage Books a part of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and a subsidiary of Random House, won the publishing rights in a bidding war. The war didn’t seem to be about great literature as much as financial gains. To date Fifty Shades has sold over 100 million copies and remained on the New York Times Best Seller List for 100 weeks as of February 2014.

  Yes, I did what I said I’d never do. I read Fifty Shades—well, I actually skimmed it. Both books (Go Set A Watchman and Fifty Shades of Grey) apparently read like comic books, Fifty Shades surely does but I must admit that I only read the first chapter of Watchman and am basing my opinion on the hundreds of articles and reviews online.

The premise of Fifty Shades of Grey is a coming of age erotic romance between Anastasia Steele, an innocent /naïve young woman, and Christian Grey, a psychologically injured young billionaire who are unable to give the other what they need. Anastasia wants to love and be loved while Christian needs to inflict sexual pain on submissive women (BDSM). Anastasia wants to help Christian recover from a childhood trauma yet the story is shallow. Can you imagine what a gifted writer or an insightful publisher could do to make this story worthy of say, a Pulitzer Prize?

The shallow story holds true for Harper Lee’s original manuscript of To Kill A Mockingbird. Fortunately, Tay Hohoff encouraged Lee to turn a rough draft into a beloved masterpiece. Go Set A Watchman, that rough draft, should never havebeen printed. An astute editor could have at least changed the name of the girl, the name of the father, the name of the town, and the name of the accused defendant. Then all we’d have to worry about would be the bad grammar and not the fall of one of American’s greatest literary heroes.

An Amazon review of Go Set A Watchman by VANESSA, titled I WISH I HADN’T READ IT on July 14, 2015states, “GSAW is just not a very good book. This book can only be of interest to writers and literary scholars as it illustrates how a very poor first draft can be reworked to become a masterpiece.”

An Amazon review of Fifty Shades of Grey by meymoon, titled, DID A TEENAGER WRITE THIS? on April 15, 2012 stated: “Then there’s the writing. If you take out the parts where the female character is blushing or chewing her lips, the book will be down to about 50 pages. Almost on every single page, there is a whole section devoted to her blushing, chewing her lips, or wondering, “Jeez” about something or another.”

As for Go Set A Watchman, William Giraldi stated that, "Ponderous and lurching, haltingly confected, the novel plods along in search of plot, tranquilizes you with vast fallow patches, with deadening dead zones, with onslaughts of cliché and dialogue made of pamphleteering monologue or else eye-rolling chit-chat. You are confronted by entire pages of her Uncle Jack's oracular babble, and you must machete through the bracken of listless, throw-away prose in order to get a memorable turn of phrase. 'Jean Louise smiled to herself' and 'Jean Louise laughed aloud' and then 'Jean Louise shook her head' before 'Jean Louise's eyebrows flickered.' Someone has 'green envy' and someone else 'worked night and day,' while someone 'dropped dead in his tracks' and someone was 'bored stiff.'

"For once, none of those flaws in the novel can be blamed on the author. She was learning how to write when she composed Watchman and wasn't able to ready this draft to publication. In the two and a half years it took her to turn this mess into To Kill A mockingbird, she evolved beautifully as a stylist and storyteller, helped along by an astute editor." 

I'll end my rant with one more Amazon review. A TESTAMENT TO THE POWER OF A GOOD EDITOR by RosieDee753 on July 14, 2015: "The short version of this review is, if nothing else, Go Set A Watchman, especially compared to the brilliance of, To Kill A Mockingbird, is a testament to the power of a good editor."

And to that I say, "Amen!"

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Whose Pulitzer Prize Is It? To Kill A Mockingbird.

Five years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Louisa Thomas asked the same question I’m going to ask today—Who really wrote ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’?

 I can’t help wondering about Harper Lee’s agent and publisher’s involvement during the almost three years  before ‘Mockingbird’ appeared on bookshelves in 1960. According to her editor at J.B. Lippincott (Tay Hohoff), Nelle Harper Lee’s manuscript was by no means fit for publication. Hohoff described it, “more a series of antidotes than a fully conceived novel and by no means fit for publication.” (The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Jonathan Mahler of The New York Times).

Tay Hohoff saw hope for the world when a white lawyer would go full out to represent a Black man. Before all the Civil Rights Leaders of the 50s and 60s there was Atticus Finch showing us ‘freedom for all’. But this idea doesn’t seem to be Harper Lee’s.

When I was new to writing, I submitted a rough draft of my first novel to Gardenia Press, in Wisconsin. The small mid-west press was a far cry from the big publishing houses in NYC but I’d searched for a couple of years for somebody to accept or at least appreciate my writing. I believe Harper Lee did the same. I worked with my editor, Elizabeth Collins, for over a year changing the story from first person to third and learning about point of view and voice, scene breaks and strong verbs. The story slowly improved until Elizabeth suggested I enter it the company’s First Novel Writing Contest 2001 where I won an honorable mention. Gardenia still didn’t think the novel was ready for publication so Elizabeth and I spent another year battling it out. In 2003, Gardenia Press published ‘Child of My Heart’. As much help as I received from Elizabeth Collins, ‘Child’ remained entirely mine. Elizabeth took a heartfelt story and made me write it in proper English.

When I think of Tay Hohoff I’m astonished. Harper Lee brought a subpar novel to Hohoff, a genius editor, and after years of revisions ‘Go Set A Watchman’ evolved into ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’—a best seller, an acclaimed novel, and the winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. But who really deserved the Prize?

Tay Hohoff assisted Lee in turning, “a distressing narrative filled with characters spouting hate speech” (MichikoKakutani, chief book critic of The New York Times) into one of the most popular and beloved books of all time. Which brings me to this: The 72-year-old Atticus Finch in ‘Watchman’ is not the wise and heroic young lawyer of ‘Mockingbird’ and this older Atticus was a man both Tay Hohoff and Harper Lee refused to show the world. Tay Hohoff died in 1974 at the age of 75. Nelle Harper Lee suffered a stroke in 2007 and is by many accounts completely deaf and blind. Lee is 89 years old and resides in an assisted living facility in Alabama. So who in the world allowed ‘Watchman’ to be published? Tonja Carter, Lee’s estate trustee, lawyer, and friend? And why didn’t Lee or Carter change the character’s names since ‘Watchman’ and ‘Mockingbird’ are supposed to be two completely different stories? I am personally heartsick at the change in Atticus Finch as he aged. It’s an abomination of the character of a beloved American icon.

I guess we’ll see in the coming weeks if ‘Watchman’ flies or bombs. If it bombs then I say the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for fiction should be re-awarded to Tay Hohoff. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Atticus Finch, Dixie Land, and The Confederate Flag

Who in the world doesn’t agree that Harper Lee’s, Atticus Finch, in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, is the most endearing fictional image of racial heroism?
I believe that Lee’s editors were correct in encouraging her to hold back a later story of Atticus and Scout to focus on the 1936 account of the life and times of Maycomb, Alabama.

If you haven’t heard by now, last week The New York Times as well as the BBC panned, ‘Go Set A Watchman’, by Lee stating that this older Atticus is a racist who says things to Scout like, “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theatres? Do you want them in our world?”

The theme of ‘Mockingbird’ is empathy for those like Boo and Tom Robinson, while the theme in ‘Watchman’ is empathy for bigots like the 72-year-old Atticus.

It’s ironic that the release of ‘Watchman’ took place in the same week as the removal of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol after a 54-year run. For most, this is a good thing. On Sunday people in Ocala, Florida rallied in support to put the Confederate flag back up at the McPherson Government Complex with the Southern Pride Ride—a parade to support Southern heritage. “The flag has a lot of different meanings to a lot of different people,” said David Stone, 38, who organized the event. “It doesn’t symbolize hate unless you think it’s hate—and that’s your problem, not mine.”

In the week before the ‘ride’ two small protests were held in Ocala in opposition to the Confederate flag—for those who see it as a symbol of racial hatred. The protests and rallies are spreading and this is a very good thing for the shooter in Savannah. This is just the beginning of what he wanted to happen—not the peaceful ride for pride but the bitter disputes between races.

When I walk on my new treadmill, I try to sing or recite something to lose track of time. When I started walking this morning, I found myself pondering the young Atticus Finch and the rebel flag and I broke out singing one of my favorite Girl Scout songs from my childhood, ‘Dixie’ by Daniel Decatur Emmett of Mount Vernon, Ohio. 

Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.

In Dixie Land, where I was born in,
Early on a frosty mornin’,
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land.

I wish I was in Dixie, Hooray, Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand,
To live and die in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.
Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

This is a benign song about a dearly loved place. Back when I was ten, I imagined that while the Southerners sang ‘Dixie’ they waved the rebel flag in pride and not in hate. Southerners are proud of their heritage and proud of their part in the Civil War. They’re proud of their Armies and especially their Generals and forts and the battles so bravely fought. Even Southern Black soldiers fought for the Confederacy. Southerners fought for their land, their cotton fields, their farms, for their red clay, and for their muddy rivers. The Confederate flag is honored and cherished as a remembrance of a proud society that reeked of the blood of their ancestors. But today, we see that the fight was really about keeping the Blacks down and not so much about anything else. The flag that means land and family and Southern pride for some, means white supremacy and segregation to others.

So when I sing Dixie, I sing about the pride in my roots. I sing about The South that I love so much and like someone at the rally said, “we’re not looking back, but to the future.” The Confederate flag is a military flag and I hope it will find a proud place to wave. I hope we can put our violent past and the 72-year-old Atticus Finch behind us and look to the future through the eyes of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Don’t let the white shooter in Savannah win. He massacred nine innocent Black people, ‘to start a racial war,’ and that’s what’s happening—with the older Atticus Finch on the front lines.

I won’t say any more than this: I won’t be reading ‘Watchman’.