I’ve been working on a few new short stories lately, but the majority of May was devoted to beginning the initial drafting process for Part 5 of my novel The Hyphenates of Jackson County—the final section of the book. It’s all kind of a big mess right now, but it’s good to get into it. This always happens after I spend a couple months in revision, and this time was no different. The writing comes tough, in small amounts, 500-1000 words a day. It’s mostly blocking scenes, organizing notes, working out important descriptions and finding where symbolism might emerge. It takes a while to build some momentum and get a feel for how this part of the story should be told.
The narrative style I use is pretty steady throughout the book—third-person, through the point-of-view of my main character Jacob Bressler, although I’m experimenting with some brief first-person sections, too—but the main issue comes from the time scope of the book. The present-time thread of the novel takes place over three years, from 1917-1919, or starting when the United States declares war on Germany in 1917 and ending with the Red Summer and Omaha Race Riot of 1919. It’s not a huge amount of time for a novel, gratefully, although there is a lot going on, and it’s a challenge to account for the lost, un-narrated time between parts. Particularly in first drafts, I think I pay too much attention to what’s happened in the time gaps, instead of just getting into the action at hand. A lot of that will be eliminated soon enough, most of it in the initial edits. But it makes things a little clunky and difficult in the first draft.
Anyway, I’m really excited to be this close to finishing a draft of my first novel. I hope to be done with a rough version of Part 5 by the end of the summer. And since I’ve been editing the other parts as I’ve gone along, there isn’t a tremendous amount of work yet to be done, relatively. (I’ve been working on the book for about two years now.) If all goes well, I should have a decent draft of The Hyphenates of Jackson County finished by Spring 2012. Here’s hoping anyway. It’s not like I’m on deadline or anything.
In other news this past month:
-“The Current State of the Universe” is featured in the new issue of The Cincinnati Review. The story won their Schiff Prize for Prose last year, and I’m very excited to make it into this journal.
–Prairie Schooner accepted my review of David Philip Mullins’ Greetings from Below for publication. This will be my third review for PS, where I’m also currently a senior fiction reader.
-On cue, my second review for Prairie Schooner—of Nadifa Mohamed’s Black Mamba Boy—appears in our current summer issue. Check it out. It’s a pretty good one. (The issue, I mean. (The review is okay too.))
-In April we learned that Kwame Dawes was coming in as the new Editor of Prairie Schooner; in May we learned that Managing Editor James Engelhardt was leaving. James secured a position as the acquisitions editor for University of Alaska Press, and leaves for Fairbanks early in June. (Actually, today I think.) I owe a great debt to James for all he’s done for my editing and reviewing career, if I can call it that. James took me on as a reader after I received my MA from Creighton. I was looking to maintain some involvement in the literary world, and volunteering for Prairie Schooner has been a great anchor for me. After a year-and-a-half, I made my way up to a senior reader position; PS accepted my first book review, after some editorial help from James; my first two trips to AWP came with funding assistance from PS as well. I feel very grateful for what Prairie Schooner has done for me, in giving me the opportunity to work, particularly as someone who isn’t otherwise involved in the English Department at the University of Nebraska—and I owe much of that gratitude do James, I believe. Best of luck to him and his family on their Alaskan adventure! (And additional thanks for the fact that now, when I think of Alaska, I won’t think of Sarah Palin.)
-Nicole and I celebrated our fifth anniversary in San Francisco!
-This blog featured a longish post about researching the lynching of Will Brown, and coming across a great NPR feature about the execution of Willie McGee and his granddaughter’s quest to find out the truth about him many decades later.
Dispatch from The Hyphenates of Jackson County
“Jacob returned to Omaha the same morning President Wilson arrived from St. Paul. It was only partly coincidental it happened that way. Jacob was planning on coming back to Omaha that week anyway, to visit his friend Reinhold Bock, and then he read in the papers that Wilson was to arrive by train to the Union Station early Monday morning, before giving a speech on the League of Nations that afternoon. A parade route was planned out where Wilson’s car would meander the city. When Jacob read this, he went down to the station in Lincoln and got a ticket to Omaha for the next morning. He bought himself a suitcase too, at the store there that sold them. It was something simple, with cardboard sides, that didn’t lock. It wouldn’t have to last forever. Jacob didn’t know what he was going to do—he had no plan for the next year, or month, or for the next three days for that matter—but he wanted to see the president. He’d find a spot on Scandal Flats and wait for Wilson’s car to pass by. It felt like it would be significant to do that. Jacob didn’t know why. He just felt he needed to see the man. He needed to see the man as a man, that was it.”
Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks
West Branch for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Southeast Review and Conjunctions for “Attend the Way”; Missouri Review for “Shame Cycle.”
The Cailiff’s of Baghdad, GA by Mary Helen Stefaniak. An excellent historical novel about racism and confronting the Other in depression-era Georgia, with a detour to the more famous Baghdad in ancient times. Very well done.
Quarantine by Rahul Mehta. I really enjoyed this collection—which revolves around the lives and loves of second-generation, homosexual, Indian-Americans—and will be reviewing it.
The Names by Don DeLillo.
The Call by Yannick Murphy.
These past couple weeks I’ve begun work on drafting the final section of my novel, The Hyphenates of Jackson County. Since I began the book, I knew the story would end with the events surrounding the Omaha Race Riot of 1919 and the lynching of Will Brown outside the Douglas County Courthouse, and in some ways I’ve been working backward from that point in my mind, figuring out both how such a thing came to happen and why it’s a part of the story I’m telling.
There’s quite a bit that’s been written about what happened in downtown Omaha on September 28, 1919–first-hand accounts, timelines of events, conspiratorial explanations for its cause, a Grand Jury investigation–but surprisingly little has been written about whether or not the accusation of rape that led to Will Brown’s brutal lynching was true or not, or somewhere in-between. This is so for a variety of reasons. Foremost, there was never anything resembling a trial that would have brought some of the details of the case to light; Brown was lynched a mere three days following his arrest. Beyond that, there was a fire at the police station years later that destroyed any police record of the event, and Will Brown wasn’t from the Omaha area, and he didn’t have family here that would remember or memorialize him. I imagine any of his friends would deny any connection to him after the riot, out of fear. Also, as is common, no one really wanted to talk about the incident after it happened, particularly in the intervening years. So the truth remains something of a mystery. Which is where the historical fiction writer comes in, I guess.
During my preparation for writing this final part of the book, I came across an NPR feature from last spring that is really quite enlightening, horrifying, and sad. I feel compelled to share it here, and strongly urge you to take a listen. I’m not sure if Bridgette McGee-Robinson–the granddaughter of a man, Willie McGee, who was accused of raping a white woman and subsequently executed in an electric chair–unearths a lot more information than she already knew before she sought out to find the truth about her grandfather, but the story illustrates so well why such things happened. Most likely, Willie McGee had an ongoing sexual relationship with woman for quite some time, and once that relationship was found out, it was easier for her to damn McGee than it would have been to suffer the stigma attached to a white woman who willingly carried on with a black man. It’s the pull of propriety that caused the whole thing to happen like it did. For the jurors (all white) to admit the possibility that a white woman had sex with a black man consensually would turn their society upside-down, of course. McGee was originally kept from being lynched by the National Guard, and if it wasn’t for that, the affair and its dirty, deconstructing realities would have disappeared much more quickly and completely, as was the case with Will Brown’s murder.
But history doesn’t always stay buried like it’s supposed to, and that’s what makes this feature so interesting to me–in particular, that it’s a family historian, the granddaughter of an executed prisoner, who brings the story back into our field of vision and gives the accused a second chance at some kind of redemption. It’s amazing how far-reaching the impact of such injustices reach. But there were spouses involved in this case, and kids, and eventually grandkids too. That this can become a trauma that stretches generations makes perfect sense–and there would be a tangential shame attached to the plaintive woman’s lineage too, I’d imagine–but maybe it’s something that gets lost in all the drama of courtrooms, jail cells, and electric chairs. Even if the families never talked about what happened to so-and-so, there would be a gap in the line.
In doing research on my own family I’ve often come across gaps in the lineage, or points when a branch on the family tree stops. The family records don’t often go back that far. People just want to remember the good things, so the bad seeds are left out of the family history. It’s understandable, and I’m sure we all do something similar in our own families. However, a gap can be extremely disappointing if it so happens that that gap, that bad seed, was your great-great-grandfather, and there’s now no way to track down their history, or even their name, much less what they did to shame everyone so much. I’ve had particular trouble compiling information on the Wheeler line beyond a few generations. I have no real reason to suggest that the reason for this lack of information is something bad, I just don’t know. Although my great-great-grandfather, Squire H.P. Little, was stabbed to death in the streets, in 1918, by a man he was supposed to arrest. The assailant “had had some trouble with his wife,” according to The Democrat of Caruthersville, Mo. People talk about that, though. Maybe it’s just that they were too poor to really keep track of their lineage, and only the census bureau or the WPA cared enough to write these things down otherwise. More than likely, that’s the explanation.
As I mention above, nothing is really known about the family of Will Brown, but his relations are out there somewhere still, even if there are no direct descendants.