Review: ‘The Rebel in Autumn’ by Michael Shaara

This gem of a novel is an accurate immersion into campus life in the 1960s, especially the protests and the discussions of university censorship of student materials. Inspired by an event at Florida State University (FSU) in which the president banned a short story from the college literary magazine due to the use of a few “dirty words,” the story begins with a grim sense of reality.

Shaara (1928-1988), who taught creative writing at FSU at the time would have known about the incident as well as the machinations within a university faculty. The true event was resolved more amicably than the fictional event in “The Rebel in Autumn” which, for readers, presents an opportunity to see how in a time of national stress over the Vietnam War, segregation, and other issues a relatively mundane matter can spiral out of control to be the point of a looming threat of violence.

The characters–both students and faculty–are well developed and display multiple points of view about the prior restraint (pre-publication censorship) that had generally vanished from the American scene (except within student publications and college administrations).

Just how to “fix” the situation is more difficult than it sounds when you have a university president following the letter of the law that says he is the publisher of all student publications and can restrict what is released. As one faculty member said, the president had the power to ban the short story, but not the right.

Every character in the book is at risk one way or the other. Faculty members can be fired or demoted; students can be expelled. Anyone can be harmed if outside agitators or the National Guard (as we saw at Kent State in 1970) appear on campus. Shaara paints the evolving sense of danger perfectly down to the dramatic conclusion.

Kudos to Shaara’s son Jeff and daughter Lila for overseeing the posthumous publication of “The Rebel in Autumn” as well as other Shaara novels that had gone out of print. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Killer Angels” (1974) has remained in print. The family chose to publish “Rebel” as is rather than second-guessing the changes Shaara might have made during the editing and revision process that occurs once a manuscript is accepted. I agree with their decision with one exception, that being the lack of a blank line or a printed separator between scene changes; this would have reduced the confusion that occurs when scenes run together.

Disclaimer: I was a friend and a student in Shaara’s creative writing class at the time he was working on this novel. I didn’t know about the novel then, but students and Shaara had many discussions about censorship and other issues both in and out of class. My potential bias is enhanced because I was fired from a college after a long-running debate about its censorship of student publications of which I was the academic advisor.

–Malcolm

Some books are a joy to write

(A word from your sponsor (AKA, me).

If you hike, jog, kayak, or so anything else that requires effort and stamina, you know that when everything within you (mind and body) is functioning optimally, you reach what’s called a flow state–in the zone, some say. Writers feel that flow state as well when the words are coming off the keyboard and onto the screen without struggle. There are multiple sensations here, but they can be summed up as joy.

I felt this way while working on the four novels in my Florida Folk Magic Series set in the panhandle near the Apalachicola River (shown above). While writing in a flow state, I saw in my mind’s eye a movie of the stories unfolding and typed up what I saw. I loved the characters, the locations, and the themes, so I felt that I was working on a view of the 1950s’ racial tensions in the sunshine state that needed to be told.

I began with Conjure Woman’s Cat and quickly discovered I was writing about my childhood and all the days I lived in Florida starting in the first grade came flowing back to mind. I was writing this book for myself but happily found out that others liked it, too, and that AudioFile Magazine loved the audiobook edition with a great review and an earphones award. 

Melinda, my publisher, asked if I’d thought about a sequel. No, not really. Funny thing. Once she asked the question I began seeing a movie of the book that would become Eulalie and Washerwoman. When Facebook friends found out I was working on a second book, they said, “nothing better happen to that kitty (Lena).” I promised that the conjure woman’s cat would be okay. Having people check in and ask about their favorite characters was a new experience for me and added to my flow state.

So now I’ve written four books, including Lena and Fate’s Arrows. It’s time to stop. I remember my creative writing instructors warning us not to write past the ending. Fate’s Arrows, the only book in the series that isn’t told from Lena’s point of view, seems to be a natural place to stop inasmuch as the conjure woman is feeling her age–older than dirt–and the protagonist (Pollyanna) is moving from west Florida to Tallahassee (where I grew up).

I’ll always be tempted to search for that flow state again with these characters. Never say never, right? 

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Save money on Kindle with the four-book set.

Writers: Hell’s Angel in a China Shop

In the novel I’m reading, somebody notes that those in a college English department who write about writing are well paid and respected within the academic world while anyone in the department who actually writes is branded as dangerous and is considered definitely outside the safe and stifling confines of the brick walls that house literature. Since I’ve been there and done that, I’ll say we are viewed with the same horror as Hell’s angels in a China shop.

My favorite college writing instructor was in a similar position. When we (students of his) got together with him outside of class at a campus watering hole, we talked about this. Some people saw the English department paradox as similar to having a battle-scarred general on the staff of a military school who is treated with less respect than those who learned battlefield tactics by reading books.

The best we could determine is that wiring requires heavy use of the imagination and that teaching literature (pronounced li-tri-chure by the snobs) requires logic. And never the twain shall meet. Those who pride themselves on logic don’t like those who rely on spontaneity and imagination. Logic is favored in our science and technology world over intuition and magic, so naturally, writers don’t fit into the consensus reality of the university, much less the English department.

So, as I read this novel, I recognize a lot of things from my life as a student en route to becoming a writer and suffice it to say I’m getting angry again about the way prospective writers were/are treated by their English departments. And yet, all these years later, I wonder what the logic-focussed non-writers in the department thought we were going to do after college. Write or teach, I guess–and teaching was more stable, salary-wise, and respect-wise.

I hope there will come a day when magic and imagination and intuition are respected in writers and others who can sense how the world works without a calculator.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Happy birthday, Bob

You don’t know me, but I’ve listened to your music from the beginning. I liked everything about it until one day you switched to rock. Too many joints that day, Bob? I came back later and I’m still here except now I’m too hard of hearing to listen to music. Wanted to hear “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” No dice, don’t think twice, it’s wall right.

Back in the old days, I wanted to write you a letter demanding that you stay away from Joanie. She didn’t know me either, but I also listened to her music from the beginning. While riding on a train goin’ west. I fell asleep for to take my rest. I dreamed a dream that made me sad, concerning Joan Baez who said the war was bad but that we weren’t destined to protest it on the same streets on the same days.

Everything I did for years seemed to have one of your songs or Joanie’s songs tied to it. The songs didn’t cause me to do what I did; they just seemed to fit my prevailing moods. Yet, I always wanted to escape the constraints of college and follow Mr. Tambourine Man. I listened for that jingle-jangle world before heading out to my paper route into the realities of Betton Road and Randolph Circle.

And today you’re still here. That makes me happy because so many people are gone by now. I may be nearly deaf, but I still hear your music in my mind. All of it. Thanks for all that. Oh, and congrats on the Prize, you know which one I mean.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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I consider Roe v. Wade Settled Law

Of course, it isn’t.

Now a new abortion case is approaching the court from Mississippi. The state now bans abortions after 15 weeks. This time scheme is purportedly based on when the fetus would be viable outside the womb. With advances in medicine, we might be approaching the time when abortions are banned before a woman could reasonably know she is pregnant–some suggest banning abortions as soon as it’s possible to detect a fetal heartbeat.

My political/moral views are somewhat eclectic, but the libertarian side of my beliefs is that government has no right to tell me what I can eat, smoke, drink, worship, think, believe in, do to/for myself (including taking my life), or–if I were a woman–whether or not I could end my pregnancy.

Certainly, as a man, I cannot support anyone–especially men–who believe they have the right to get involved in a woman’s personal choices, including giving birth.

I have long feared the day when the government would try to justify getting involved in the lives of pregnant women, dictating what they can and cannot do once the pregnancy is discovered. That is, making a list of forbidden activities that could harm a baby and/or charging women with murder if a life choice can be proven to have harmed a baby.

So many people argue against abortion due to their religious beliefs. I see this as arrogant and irrelevant. In a country that supports freedom of religion we cannot help but support freedom from other people’s religions. In short, the law cannot base its restrictions on what one (or more) religions restrict simply because we cannot apply a religion’s beliefs to people who are not part of that religion.

Now there is talk again about adding more justices to the Supreme Court. That only works for us if we like the current philosophy of the court–or if we don’t. FDR tried this and we often laugh about it now. But now people are actively thinking about trying it again. Where will that end? Will we one day have a court with more members than the Senate?

Sure, three more liberal justices might do the trick for now to prevent the Court from modifying or overturning Roe v. Wade. A short-term gain, to be sure, but probably a very bad road to travel, long term.

The public’s view about abortion shifts over time, though I would like to see a higher percentage of people in surveys stating neither “pro” or “con” but “none of my business.” When people believe it is their business, they are–in my view–saying that they don ‘t really believe in freedom and that they want government to ban the freedoms they don’t like.

Our first right, I think, is to be left alone and not have one level of government or another lurking like a vulure that will swoop down on us when some person or some group thinks they’re entitled to make us live according to their belief system rather than our own.

–Malcolm

BRIEFLY NOTED: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee

I have no idea why it took me nine years to get around to reading Karen Abbott’s detailed, well-written, and a dripping-with-atmosphere book about Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970). I enjoyed the book, partly because of the nostalgia of vaudeville and burlesque that I heard about years ago when watching The Steve Allen Show, Johnny Carson, and other programs that often featured older performers who got their start in the older art forms. The use of the word “art” here depends on who you’re talking to.

There’s an old theater I know that once featured Vaudeville acts that’s being restored and serves its community by using its facilities for regional theater groups. On several occasions, I’ve asked the management why their website says absolutely nothing about the Vaudeville performers who appeared there during its heyday.  They said the old posters and records would require a grant to compile. Get one, I said. Don’t let this slide because without displaying what happened there in the old days, your theater is without most of its heart.

If you saw the 1962 film “Gypsy” (that grew out of Gypsy’s 1957 autobiography), you were exposed to a cleaned-up version of the real story. I liked the movie, especially the performances by Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. But compared to Abbott’s book, the movie is a mere hint about the realities of the heart and soul of Vaudeville and burlesque–and the hopefuls, stars, gangsters (and other denizens) who made the system work.

From the Publisher:

America was flying high in the Roaring Twenties. Then, almost overnight, the Great Depression brought it crashing down. When the dust settled, people were primed for a star who could distract them from reality. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite stripper who possessed a gift for delivering exactly what America needed. With her superb narrative skills and eye for detail, Karen Abbott brings to life an era of ambition, glamour, struggle, and survival. Using exclusive interviews and never-before-published material, she vividly delves into Gypsy’s world, including her intense triangle relationship with her sister, actress June Havoc, and their formidable mother, Rose, a petite but ferocious woman who literally killed to get her daughters on the stage. Weaving in the compelling saga of the Minskys—four scrappy brothers from New York City who would pave the way for Gypsy Rose Lee’s brand of burlesque and transform the entertainment landscape—Karen Abbott creates a rich account of a legend whose sensational tale of tragedy and triumph embodies the American Dream.

From the Book:

“Mother was,’ June thought, ‘a beautiful little ornament that was damaged.’ Her broken edges cut her daughters in ways both emotional and physical, and only sharpened with age.”

“And truth is malleable, something to be bent or stretched or made to disappear, but direct lies always find the path back to the one who tells them.”

“Later, the sisters would remember things differently, as sisters do, old grudges and misunderstandings refracting each memory, bending them in opposite directions.”

From the Critics:

American Rose is a fitting tribute to an amazing woman, telling her story beautifully while revealing as much about post-Depression America as it does about celebrity life. It’s cultural history at its best.”—Rebecca Skloot, New York Times bestselling author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“Abbott creates a brainy striptease similar to the one her subject may have performed.”—Newsday

“With staggeringly in-depth research . . . Abbott composes a story wrought with personal drama and insight into a dark era in American history. . . . The story is as beguiling as it is timeless.”—Elle

The book takes you into the heart of things Vaudeville and burlesque, and we find that it’s not as pure as we wish it were, nor as kind. But the grit is a large part of the story, one worth telling and one worth reading about and ya gotta love it in spite of its worst sins, for it was a heady time, the roaring twenties when everyone was pushing the envelope.

–Malcolm

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Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Gosh, how bad is my memory?

I seem to remember most things. But reality and my memory often diverge greatly when I think back to old TV shows that seemed like they were on for years that were, in fact, hardly on at all in spite of their great followings and influence. Two of my favorite shows were “The Honeymooners” and “Fawlty Towers.” I thought they were on forever, say, like “Grey’s Anatomy” or the “Johnny Carson Show.”

“Fawtly Towers” aired in 1975 and 1979 with a total of 12 episodes. “The Honeymooners” aired from 1965 to 1970 with a total of 39 episodes, though there were attempts to bring it back later. One of my favorite cartoons during the last several years showed astronauts exploring the moon and coming across a body. One of them says, “It’s Alice Kramdem.” The show had a lasting impact for a cartoonist to think of that and for people to know what it meant.

Looking at how I turned out, I’m sure that an entire generation of otherwise sane individuals was warped silly by its exposure to these shows. I’m pretty sure that “Twin Peaks” and “Lost” probably put more viewers into asylums, but Jackie Gleason and John Cleese probably had a lot of questions to answer about the impact of their shows on our sanity when they reachers the Pearly Gates.

Do you ever get the feeling after watching a TV series or feature film that you are warped for life. Not only that, but the series or the film seems longer than it was or, worse yet is still going now every time your turn off the light and fall asleep? You leave the TV on in hopes that it will drown out the recurring dream, but still, you hear:

Sybil Fawlty:
[on the phone] I know… I know… I know… Oh, I know!

Basil Fawlty:
Then why is she telling you?

My theory, especially with shows like ‘Twin Peaks” and “Lost,” is that the writers got drunk and/or addicted to heroin and lost track of what they were doing.  The thing is, you get addicted along with the writers and the stars. Being addicted means you are lost to the real world and are hopelessly stuck inside the minds of Mark Frost and David Lynch or John Cleese and Connie Booth.

So time becomes fluid, like bad booze in a sordid bar in New Jersey. You wonder if all these people are in your closet or under your bed. They probably are. But they’re part of your life now even if your memory of how they got there is a bit shabby.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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I might have been drunk and/or addicted to heroin while writing this novel, so it might just get stuck in your dreams. You have been warned.

You’d think a writer would be good at Scrabble

I lose most of the “Words with Friends” games I play on Facebook because I just can’t see prospective words in a pile of letters. I was never very good at the original Scrabble with the wood tiles. I wonder if they’re made out of plastic now. I’m sure I’d be doubly bad at the various sanitized versions of Scrabble that are weeding out words that aren’t politically correct.

There’s a joke floating around Facebook that shows an Ikea-style, assemble-it-your-self novel that arrives on your doorstep as a box of letters. I get nightmares thinking about it it.

I can’t speak for other writers, but I have never viewed words as collections of letters that must be assembled into what I want to say. I think of the word first and then type the letters without really noticing them. So Scrabble is the exact opposite of how my mind works. It’s embarrassing, though, because people who see writers as wordsmiths expect them to be impossible to defeat in a game about words.

I console myself by thinking that most carpenters and others who create miracles out of wood know little or nothing about the building blocks of matter. If you gave them a box of protons, neutrons, and electrons, they probably couldn’t turn them into a birdfeeder or a table. They’d be even more lost if the box contained quarks and other elementary particles.

Most craftspeople don’t make their raw materials from scratch. Writers don’t either. This is my excuse and naturally, I’m sticking to it with the determination of a covalent bond.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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The ending I did not see coming! You think you know somebody then BAM, right out of left field it knocks you for a loop! I found Fate’s Arrows well told with several threads woven together to make it an encompassing tale of the era. It’s raw and fraught with danger. The Klan may operate differently these days, but it is still alive and well. – Big Al’s Books and Pals

First rule: love your stories’ locations

This is a book that packs a lot into its 166 pages. Despite this bleak subject matter the book is beautifully written, allowing this Brit a vision of a place which the author knows well and clearly loves. The contrast of the natural beauty highlights the ugliness of human behaviour. – Zoe Brooks review of “Conjure Woman’s Cat”

One of the greatest compliments a writer can receive from a reader or a reviewer is an acknowledgment of his or her love for the novel or short story’s place setting. To love a place unconditionally means accepting its beauty along with its flaws. When I think of a place, I think first about the land whether it’s swamps and marshes or glacier-carved mountains and pristine blue lakes.

Pitcher plants in Florida’s Tate’s Hell Forest

Experience helps supplement an author’s research. I lived in the Florida panhandle from the first grade through college. Family day trips, Scout camping trips, and recreation in various places shows an author what the guide books and maps miss: your perspective through first-hand research.

Quite often, this first-hand experience teaches you about the land’s history, myths, ghost stories, and folklore, all of which become a part of you and your view of life in that place which is much more real than picking a place on the map and then looking up its myths and folklore on Wikipedia or Amazon.

As people say, a map is not the territory. Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, said that riding through the countryside and seeing it through your car windows was pretty much like watching TV. You’re in your car, maybe on an Interstate racing toward your destination at 75 mph. Suffice it to say, you’re not really at any of the locations alongside the road. To know the location, you have to live there or explore it on one or more extended vacations. This way, you come to know and love the land–or you decide it’s not your kind of place.

If you love the land, it takes part in shaping you just as surely as a spouse. If you don’t love the land, then you’re either unhappy in that place or you try to ruin the land to suit your needs. If the land has, in part, made you who you are, this fact will be obvious to the readers of your work and–like you–the characters in your work who live there.

Good fiction, I believe, depends on recognizing the importance of the land on your plot, characters, and theme.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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Sin Taxes: do they violate the separation between church and state?

If you have arrived at this post today expecting high-quality research, you’re in the wrong place.

Basically, federal and state governments levy sin taxes on anything remotely harmful that will nonetheless bring money into the coffers. The government prefers to call it an excise tax to cover up the notion that sin taxes are really a religious matter. In some countries, government and religion are the same thing, while in the U. S., they’re not supposed to be.

Even so, the government makes a killing off sin taxes because the faithful think sin is wrong even though they drink, smoke, have sex outside of marriage, and other naughty things. This is better than the old days when the government killed people for sinning. In some countries they still do.

It seems to me, that sin taxes ought to apply only to members of churches that believe a certain activity or purchase is sinful. Non-members basically have a get-out-of-hell-free card except in those countries that still charge people with heresy who are not members of the religion in vogue.

This idea might decrease church membership. On the other hand, it could be the start of churches that aren’t paternalistic, that don’t have long lists of things we’re not supposed to do–like dancing, for example. I’ve always liked the idea of a sect called The Church of What’s Happening Now.  It’s kind of a different strokes for different folks approach to the Creator who, at present, isn’t getting a cut of the so-called sin taxes.

The best short-term approach is to make sin taxes optional. When you walk into a liquor store or a grocery store that sells wine and beer, you should be handed a form that asks if you believe the liquor you’re buying is sinful to drink. If you answer “yes,” you pay the price. If you answer “no,” you get (more or less) 50% off the price on the label.

It’s the right thing to do. None of us should be forced to pay for sins we don’t believe in.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell

Publisher: Thomas-Jacob Publishing

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The animals are lucky. They don’t have to worry about sin or sin taxes.