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Posts tagged ‘Florida’

Review: ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel BoysThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This powerful story needed to be told. That power comes, in part, through Whitehead’s restraint as he tells a fictionalized story about Florida’s notorious Dozier School (called Nickel in the novel) in a straightforward, almost deadpan style. That is, he lets most of the atrocities speak for themselves rather than resorting to purple prose and sentimentality.

Floridians, who grew up in the panhandle and knew Dozier was a hell hole before the authorities knew (or admitted) it was a hell hole, will appreciate the care Whitehead took with his research into the school itself, the environment, and the Tallahassee neighborhood where college-bound Elwood Curtis grew up. The random and unfair vicissitudes of life for African Americans are aptly and horrifyingly demonstrated early on via the event that sends Curtis to the Nickel School.

Yet, I was disappointed in this novel and ended up with mixed feelings about it. One flaw came from the sudden uses of an omniscient author to explain Nickel customs and realities that should have been communicated to readers via dialogue or through the actions of the characters. Suddenly, Whitehead was more reporter than novelist.

Without giving away a spoiler here, suffice it to say that the authorial trickery in several places where the narrative jumps into the future are intolerable. The sections are not only jolting when they suddenly appear out of sequence with the chronological story but mislead the reader so that Whitehead can enhance the drama surrounding Curtis near the end of the novel. The realities here are interesting and make for an engaging subplot that could have been written without lying to the reader.

The protagonist’s near-worship of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially King’s belief that no matter what was done to the African American race, it should return only love–serves as an effective counterpoint throughout the novel. Can Curtis love his tormentors? The Nickel School tests Curtis over and over again, making it difficult for him–and the other “students”–to maintain a true sense of self in a land where the realities inside the school are similar to the realities outside the school.

The book is strong. It could have been stronger. I recommend it in spite of the flaws.

View all my reviews

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell grew up in the Florida Panhandle in the era when the novel is set, delivered telegrams in the Frenchtown neighborhood where the protagonist grew up, and saw the Dozier school many times before it became a news story. He mentioned the Dozier school in his short story “Cora’s Crossing,” included in the collection Widely Scattered Ghosts.

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Time for a book sale

 

Okay, so I was lazy and didn’t create an updated version of this graphic that says the sale is live now.

Description:

When Police Chief Alton Gravely and Officer Carothers escalate the feud between “Torreya’s finest” and conjure woman Eulalie Jenkins by running her off the road into a north Florida swamp, the borrowed pickup truck is salvaged but Eulalie is missing and presumed dead. Her cat Lena survives. Lena could provide an accurate account of the crime, but the county sheriff is unlikely to interview a pet. 

Lena doesn’t think Eulalie is dead, but the conjure woman’s family and friends don’t believe her. Eulalie’s daughter Adelaide wants to stir things up, and the church deacon wants everyone to stay out of sight. There’s talk of an eyewitness, but either Adelaide made that up to worry the police, or the witness is too scared to come forward.

When the feared Black Robes of the Klan attack the first responder who believes the wreck might have been staged, Lena is the only one who can help him try to fight them off. After that, all hope seems lost, because if Eulalie is alive and finds her way back to Torreya, there are plenty of people waiting to kill her and make sure she stays dead.

Warning: Today’s My Birthday

Yes, I’m a Leo and darned proud of it.

–Malcolm

The stuff outside the car window on a road trip is actually real

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. 

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” 
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Interstate highways accentuate the problem. They take you past the real territory whether it’s small towns with local character or countryside made up of differing ecosystems that all blend together outside the car window with the same unreality as the background in cheaply made theater/tv cartoons. Even the exits look alike, featuring the same chain gas stations, fast food restaurants, and hotels as the exits one saw five hundred miles ago.

Wikipedia photo.

I remember my first trip through the peninsula part of Florida. Looking back, the homespun roadside attractions all seem rather tacky and low grade when compared to the destinations everyone’s racing to see in and around Orlando or Tampa or Miami. All that homespun was real and very different from town to town when compared with today’s tourist destinations. Even now, I prefer the numbered U.S./State/County roads where one can experience the local cultures and local environments. I’d rather eat at Mom’s Diner than another Applebee’s or another Cracker Barrel.

Chain restaurants offer a bit of security, I guess. When you walk into an Applebee’s or a Cracker Barrel, you already know what you’re getting. With Mom’s Diner, you don’t. When a see chain restaurants, I think of the old Pete Seeger song “Little Boxes,” a slam against suburbia, and I think, yes, all these buildings are made of ticky tacky and look just the same.

When you race through Florida on I-4, I-10, I-75, and I-95, you’re really out of alignment with the territory and can no longer say (obviously) that the journey is more important than the destination. Using the contents page of one of my favorite books about Florida’s wetlands, when you travel an Interstate you don’t see, much less differentiate, between seepage wetlands, interior marshes, interior swamps, coastal intertidal zones, and mangrove swamps. Likewise, hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods, and savannahs fly past your car window (like TV) at a mile a minute.

Wikipedia Photo.

I see that Disney World and other theme parks are raising prices again. So, there goes a hell of a lot of money, long lines, crowds of people bumping into each other, submerged within Orlando’s ticky-tacky sprawl, and then home again via Delta Airlines or the Interstate. Missing from this experience is, of course, the real Florida. You missed the whole thing except for the so-called Magic Kingdom that features everything but real magic.

I’ll admit that when my daughter was little, we took her to see Seaworld and Disney World. And we recently went back again with her family so that my granddaughters could see the best of the best at Universal and Disney. Yes, we had fun. Probably, the kids had even more fun. I hope the kids will grow up and discover the real Florida someday, that is to say, a beach other than Daytona with its crowds and condos and hotels, the real magic of grasses, wildflowers and trees in one of the state’s diverse environments.

One Interstate is pretty much like another, but the stuff outside the car window isn’t the same from state to state. It’s too bad the good stuff gets passed by. It’s even worse when you realize most people don’t think anything’s outside the car window.

Malcolm

Campbell’s contemporary fantasy novel “The Sun Singer” is free this weekend of Kindle.

 

 

 

Our writing takes us back to our childhood

“Other than childhood, what was there in those days that is not here today?” – St-John Perse from “To Celebrate a Childhood”

Perse is not well known today. I know his work because my mother bought a copy of one of his books in 1944, and I found his memories of childhood to be similar to mine in tone as I left home, grew older, and thought back to those formative years before I grew up and started losing my innocence.

Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash

If my parents were still here today, they would tell you that I was dragged kicking and screaming out of the Pacific Northwest into the Florida Panhandle just before entering the first grade. If the acronym had been around in those days, I would have been shouting WTF–and probably incurred the wrath of everyone!

Oddly enough, Florida won me over. I “blame” the Boy Scouts and their camping trips for this as well as friends who had beach cottages, and my mother, too, who organized family day trips to all kinds of tempting places.

Florida has been showing up in my work of late. I set my first novels in Montana and then placed a satire in Texas. But I finally came home, and I guess I think of Florida that way now, and concentrated on the world where I grew up. My childhood in Florida was actually quite good once I started looking around at the neighborhood and finding an environment I liked. Basically, I grew up on the beach and in the piney woods.

Now, as those days draw me back now in my fiction, I wonder how many other authors discover that not only can they go home again, but that that is where their most powerful inspiration can be found. Childhood is such an impressionable time that it variously haunts us or inspires us for the rest of our lives. So many people are writing memoirs these days as though the writing itself helps them understand where they came from and what happened there. We do that in our stories as well.

Then, as now, I was struck by the conflict between the land and its beauty and the politics of Jim Crow. That disconnect still makes no sense to me. So, I write stories about it and try to figure it out. I have a feeling a lot of other writers are doing the same thing in fiction and nonfiction. We want to understand what turned us into the people we are today. Nature? Nurture? Probably both. For all I know, fate dragged me to Florida so that I would one day write Conjure Woman’s Cat.

That’s probably not the case. For one thing, I don’t believe in fate. But I do see that childhood wields a lot of power over us and that try as we might, we can never really escape it–supposing that we want to. I don’t want to, though I once did. Stories from a writer’s childhood are always there waiting to be told, to influence what s/he writes many years into the future. Those stories hold a lot of power over us and, frankly, life is much easier if we listen to them and share them with others.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Widely Scattered Ghosts’

Widely Scattered Ghosts begins with Moonlight and Ghosts: A couple visits an old abandoned mental hospital and development center at night, to quell some troubling dreams. This story draws you in quickly and kept me on tenterhooks until the very end. It had the right amount of tension to be spooky and just enough heart to leave a smile on my face.

Source: BigAl’s Books and Pals: Review: Widely Scattered Ghosts by Malcolm R. Campbell

I like this review, not just because the reviewer liked the book, but because she made a comment about each of the collection’s nine ghost stories.

If you’re not famous, it’s hard to find reviewers willing to consider short story collections. Those who do really earn their keep since they have multiple plots and characters to consider.

–Malcolm

Florida’s Oyster Reef Restoration Program

“Along Florida’s coasts, oysters play a vitally-important role in supporting healthy estuaries. Oyster reefs provide multiple benefits, from providing habitat and food for wildlife, to filtering water, removing nitrogen, and stabilizing eroding coastlines. Oysters are also a favorite cuisine for people and Florida once had robust oyster fisheries in many areas throughout the state.

“’Oysters are the quiet, unsung heroes of our estuaries, working hard every day to protect our coasts, clean our waters, feed and shelter fish, birds, crabs, shrimp and other wildlife,’” said Anne Birch, marine program manager for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “When we help to restore and conserve oyster habitat and support the fishery we’re also helping our estuaries and our coastal communities flourish.”

Source: Florida’s Oyster Reef Restoration Program

Storms, reduced river water flows, and pollution are taking their toll on oysters, including those along the Florida Panhandle’s gulf coast where I grew up and where I’ve set many of my books. I’m happy to see that the Nature Conservancy chose to study and solve this problem–one that’s worldwide, actually.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s Florida Panhandle books include “Widely Scattered Ghosts” and “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

My granddaughters will have to wait a while for my ghost story book

My granddaughters are 11 and 6 years old, so I thought it would be cool to dedicate my new collection of stories (Widely Scattered Ghosts) to them so that when they are in their 50s they can take a copy to Antiques Road Show and learn that the book–at auction–is then worth $1000000000000.

This haunted Florida bridge is the setting for one of the stories.

They live in Maryland, so I’m going to mail the book. But I can’t address it to them because they love getting things in the mail, especially packages. But they’re way too young to read any of the stories. Even though none of the stories are the Stephen King variety, Freya and Beatrice will need to wait until they’re teenagers (I guess) before they get to see the book.

So, the mail is going to my daughter with instructions to hide the book and to remember where she hid it. My father was an author. I always thought it was neat to have copies of some of his books autographed for me. Maybe the girls will feel the same way even though I’m no James Patterson or John Grisham.

Four of the stories are about an inquisitive and highly intelligent teenager named Emily who talks to ghosts. She reminds me of my daughter (except for the talks-to-ghosts part). As a grandfather, I get to brag and say that I think my granddaughters will grow up to be smarter than Stephen Hawking.

That makes me wonder if they’ll correctly guess the endings to each of the stories before they get there.

Malcolm

 

 

Here be dragons, yeah, right

Here’s the thing. About 100000 times a year, I read that old maps used to place the words HERE BE DRAGONS in areas that nobody knew anything about. The odd thing is, nobody has ever found an old map with those words on it.

It’s quite possible that I was a cartographer in a previous lifetime, though I’ll claim that I misspoke if I’m ever asked any questions about that by a Congressional committee.

Florida Photographic Collection

Maps fascinate me. Always have. Maybe this character flaw began when I was growing up and got bored between stops on long family vacations. We always went by car. After a while, the landscape outside the windows got repetitive, so I’d turn my attention to the service station maps we carried and made a game out of predicting when we would arrive at various locations down the road. Now, our cell phones do all this for us. But then it was fun.

In those days, I could predict within a few minutes when we’d pass the cities limits sign of every town down the road. Now I spend time trying to figure such things out when my stories involve people traveling. If a character is walking, riding a horse, on a train, in a car, or flying, when will they arrive where they’re going? I find myself looking up lengths of stride, terrain, and all sorts of things so that a hike in my story takes the same amount of time as the hike would take in real life.

In one recent short story, a father and his daughter were driving from Tallahassee, Florida to St. Marks, Florida while listening to a Scott Joplin recording. I kid you not, I timed out the lengths of the songs with the mileage so I could say stuff like “as they passed through Woodville, such and such a song was playing.”

When I was working on my two Glacier Park novels, The Sun Singer and Sarabande, I had a hiking map on my desk. Since I had hiked most of the trails in the section of the park where my stories were set, I knew how long it took to get from one place to another if one walked at a steady pace. Along with the map, I had a trail guide. That reminded me what the landscape looked like at each fraction of a mile along the trail.

While many authors look at me like I’m crazy when I mention such things, I don’t think I’m the only author who does this. I read a lot of novels set in a lot of cities and many of them are very specific about what a character can see while walking down one named street or another.

I guess it comes down to wanting to orient my characters in the places where they are just as I have always liked feeling oriented in the places where I am. If you have a compass and a map, but don’t know where you are, you can take sitings of recognizable landmarks and find the answer. I’ve always done this. So now, I’ve passed that trait along to my characters and maybe a few readers. And, if I’m lucky, maybe a dragon or two.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released collection of short stories called “Widely Scattered Ghosts.” You won’t be surprised to hear that it includes a story named “Map Maker.”

 

 

1950s Florida – The Klan

Following up on yesterday’s post about authors posting material relating to their books, here’s a picture from Florida Memory of a KKK flyer that was similar to many I saw as a child. The Klan was always recruiting, holding rallies, and marching in parades.

1950s Klan Flyer

 

Officially, the Klan purported to be a friendly organization. I doubt that anyone in Tallahassee and other Florida Panhandle towns was duped by this farce. We read the stories in the newspapers about fire bombings, black churches burnt, black men lynched, and crosses burnt in the yards of white people who spoke out against the Klan. I wonder if we will ever know what percentage of Florida law enforcement officers were members of the Klan. I suspected many of my neighbors were members, including some who went to my church. To paraphase the old Texas song:

“The Klan’s eyes are upon you,
All the livelong day.
The Klan’s eyes are upon you,
You cannot get away.

One never knew who one was talking to. I hope the recent emergence of white supremacist groups isn’t returning the country to those times. Those times extended into the 1970s and 1980s. Here’s a photo of a 1970s march in Tallahassee:

Florida Memory photo

 

KKK rally from the 1950s:

Florida Memory photo

 

Here we have a crowd watching the KKK burn a cross:

Florida Memory photo

The Klan was very strong in Florida in spite of the state’s pristine, playground image disseminated in magazines and vacation brochures.

The KKK as an enemy organization is a major focus of my Florida Folk Magic Stories novels. In all three novels, a conjure woman is fighting the Klan. That’s why I often call the books crime and conjure stories.

–Malcolm

Calendars with historic black and white photographs

In our kitchen, we keep a colorful scenic calendar, sometimes featuring wildlife and sometimes featuring scenes from national parks and other inspiring landscapes. In my den, I always have a calendar of historic black and white photographs. It comes with my membership in the Montana Historical Society (MHS). These old photographs tell many stories and I never tire of looking at them throughout the year. As more and more archives are digitized, pictures such as those in the calendar are often available for research online. Here’s the cover of my MHS calendar for 2019:

Hmm, we seem to have a problem here. When I worked as a volunteer at a railway museum, our library included a lot of photographs of wrecked locomotives. One of our members had once worked on steam locomotives for the railroads. When I asked him what happened to the locomotives in the pictures, he said they hauled them into the shop, fixed them, and put them back on the line. Today, I suppose the insurance company would come out and mark the equipment as totaled.

These old pictures are better than rare treasure for history enthusiasts; fans of (for example) trains, old cars, historic buildings; teachers who are working on lesson plans for K-12 classes that focus on state history, authors, and others. The national park services has an archive of old photographs.

You can find other photographs online at the Library of Congress and in the archives of many states under such names as Florida Memory and Georgia Encyclopedia. (Some of these sites include teacher lesson plans.) This access has improved from the old days when one had to travel to a museum on the far side of the country to see roughly classified boxes of papers and photographs in a storage area. Likewise, the historical societies in many states also support the digitization of old newspapers, many of which are appearing in databases sophisticated enough to allow for searches on words in the news stories and photograph cutlines.

Here’s a sample from Florida Memory of the kind of resources available for teachers.

It bothers me when I hear that many state school systems no longer teach state history lessons. I know it’s often hard to squeeze in local history when courses must include all of world history or all of U.S. history into an hour a day for one or two semesters. Historic old pictures, when available in a print format, give school systems the opportunity of placing a few of them in frames (with captions) in hallways and classrooms. They might just attract student attention. My wife once curated and mounted an exhibit of old photographs in a high school where we used to live. Opening day attracted a lot of attention, including a news story in several papers.

I’ve been happy to see many of these old pictures showing up on Facebook, sometimes from sources such as “Smithsonian Magazine” that remind people of lesser-known events and people. Many of them get a lot of LIKES and comments, including “Why wasn’t this information in my school history books?” (I often wonder why as well.)

If you know about your state’s history, I think you have a better shot at understanding why things there are as they are. You can also help combat misinformation in hastily researched news stories and online essays in which the writer clearly doesn’t know what happened in his or her state prior to last week. Growing up in Florida, I constantly saw (and still see) mistaken pronouncements about the reasons for the Seminole Wars or about the conflicts between Spain and France to control the region. You can probably cite similar examples from the state where you live.

Old photographs won’t fix the gaps in our educational systems, but they might attract some attention to the many things we don’t know about the places where we live.

Malcolm

Sometimes I think historical research for my novels set in Montana (“The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande”) and Florida (“Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and “Lena”) took more hours than writing the novels. I didn’t mind because the old photographs and newspapers were very addictive.