A great example of local history for authors

I like history and folklore and frequently mention them in my books as part of what makes up the place where my story is set. Since history and folklore are tied to real people and what those people believe, the interesting tidbits we use need to be treated with respect.

We paint the reality of a place in part with old stories.
We paint the reality of a place in part with old stories.

I’m currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, a folkloric study of Jamaica and Haiti based on her trip there in the 1930s. Early on, she talks to a man whom she refers to as Brother Levi. What Brother Levi has to say about the meaning of the word “Christmas”might sound sacrilegious to some people. That’s fine, because if an author were to mention this story in a book, s/he would be doing so not as gospel or a religious tract, but to establish a strong ambiance for the location.

The writer doesn’t necessarily paraphrase a story like this. S/he has a character mention it or mention the days when Brother Levi was a strong influence on local culture and beliefs, or perhaps includes it in a narrative overview of the country’s beliefs that newcomers are unaware of and might come across over time.

Hurston’s Story

Brother Levi: “We hold a candle march after Joseph. Joseph came from the cave where Christ was born in the manger with a candle. He was walking before Mary and her baby. You know Christ was not born in the manger. Mary and Joseph were too afraid for that. He was born in a cave and He never came out until He was six months old. The three wise men see the star but they can’t find him because He is hid in the cave. When they can’t find him after six months, they make a magic ceremony and the angel come tell Joseph the men wanted to see him. That day was called ‘Christ must day’ because it means ‘Christ must find today,’ so we have Christ-mas day, but the majority of people are ignorant. They think him born that day.”

I have no plans to write about Voodoo in Jamaica. But if I were setting a novel there, I would find this snippet a delightful way of setting the stage, of showing an alternative point of view. I love reading folklore for what it is, but I take note of things that might one day become part of the depth of place I’m always trying to establish when I write.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the award-winning “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and its sequel “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” magical realism novels about a north Florida conjure woman’s battle against racism and the Klan.

Gifting a book to a good home

What do you do when it’s time to downsize your personal library? I suppose you can sell some of the books on eBay or Amazon, but most  buyers at these outlets won’t pay more than a few pennies over shipping costs. That’s certainly not the fate most of us want for the older editions of niche books and classics.

Click on the graphic to see a newer edition on Amazon
Click on the graphic to see a newer edition on Amazon

A Facebook friend of mine used her intuition plus a healthy dose of reality based on the subjects I’ve discussed on my blogs about the research I’d been doing for two folk magic novels. She sent me a message telling me she was thinning out her library and thought she had a book that needed to be in mine. Would I take it in. It was an adoption, I thought even though I’d have to wait and see what it was.

Of course, when it comes to adopting pets, we seldom say we’ll adopt a pet without knowing what it is; nobody wants to be contemplating a regal cat or a playful puppy and have a tiger snake or an alligator show up. But, knowing S___, I didn’t think I’d end up with anything like those living books in the Harry Potter series that have teeth and are always angry when the wrong person tries to read them.

Her intuition was spot on. She sent me the 1938 original edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, an anthropological study of Voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica blurbed by Carl Sandburg, no less, with words like “bold,” “beautiful,” “priceless,” and “unforgettable.” The New York Times said of it, “Strikingly dramatic, yet simple and unrestrained…an unusual and intensely interesting book richly packed with strange information.”

I’ve read a lot of Hurston’s work from her novel Their Eyes We Watching God to her news coverage of the unfairly conducted 1952 Florida murder trial of Ruby McCollum to stories and books like Mules and Men collected while she was gathering hoodoo and other Florida folklore for the Works Progress Administration’s (1935-1943) Federal Writers Project. But Tell My Horse wasn’t in my library until yesterday afternoon at 4 p.m. when the mail arrived.

I know little about Voodoo (a religion), having mostly researched hoodoo (folk magic) except when I’ve stumbled across accounts out of New Orleans about notables such as Marie Laveau. So, I will enjoy reading this study about a related subject from one of my favorite authors; I’ll treasure the book and my highly intuitive Facebook friend who gifted it to me. I don’t know how long she had the book. When I told her Tell My Horse arrived, she said, “I knew you’d give it a good home. It languished with a friend of mine who was an antiquarian bookseller, until I found it in a dusty corner. I came to her through the experimental film of Maya Daren who was allowed to film and participate in voodoo rituals as Hurston did in her medium. It is a great relief to find her a place to thrive.”

S___, the book won’t languish in a dusty corner and, if you happen to stumble across this blog, I love you for your spirit of adventure, your kindness and your wonderful gift.

Now I know a good way to send my old books off into the world before they take over the house (my wife says they already have). Like Tell My Horse, many of my books are older than I am and will need loving homes rather than moldy basements and dusty attics.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two, Florida folk magic novels “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”