The Thing about History

February 15, 2016

About ten years ago I had the opportunity to visit Athens (Greece, not Georgia).  That’s a story in itself, but for now I want to focus on just one impression: Athens is one vast archaeological site.  Even the subways are museums—hurrying from one stop to another you pass glass cases full of artefacts found while digging out the Metro system.  The friend I was staying with told me that digging is a major issue; even scraping up soil for a parking lot is bound to turn up loads of pottery shards and ancient tools and blackened silver.  If they’re in a hurry they don’t even take time to label it all—just plow it in deeper and pave over it.

History is like that: wherever you poke your spade, you’re bound to turn up something interesting.

It was always my favorite subject in school and my favorite fiction genre, and the reason for that was probably—at least partly—my sister Melissa.  While we were growing up, she was always going through some favorite history phase, and since she’s four years older than me (and didn’t consider me a pest or a pinhead) her influence was powerful.  It’s one reason why four of my six published novels are historical.

One of her retirement jobs (are you old enough to know what that means?) is program director at a relatively new historical site in central Texas.  Channel 5 New in Fort Worth did a TV spot on it, and I tried to embed the video, but the embed code wasn’t working for me.  So I’ll have to provide the link instead.

melissa

 

See what I mean about archaeology sites?  There are some good stories in that Robertson County soil, and I may even dig one out some day.

My writer/illustrator friend Cheryl Harness is one of the best history practitioners around: she showers her Facebook friends with famous-people birthdays, tasty tidbits, and fascinating relics every day.  One of Cheryl’s “likes” on my news feed led me to the story of the coat—a 19th-centry frock coat hanging in the display case at a Maine High School.  It was moldering away until a couple of sixth-grade students and their mother did some research and made a plan.

The coat belonged to Albert Bacheler, who served as a Union Soldier in the 12th New Hampshire Bacheler coatRegiment.  During the last year of the Civil War he was captured and sent to the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond.  He was lucky enough to escape with only the clothes on his back, which happened to be a blue uniform. But several slaves helped him find his way to safety, including one family who gave him a civilian coat to cover his sitting-duck outfit.

After the war Bacheler moved to Gloucester, Maine, where he taught at, and eventually became principal of, the high school.  The man is long gone but the school remains—and the coat that may have saved his bacon back in 1864, moldering quietly like John Brown’s Body.  But the King boys and their mom are crowd-funding a project to restore the coat and provide a better home for it.  The boys think it’s cool.

It is cool, to put your spade in the past and see what you dig up.  Most of it—the vast bulk of it—is gone forever.  We’ll never think, feel, or experience like our ancestors did decades, centuries, or millennia ago.  But perhaps we can be a little more considerate about judging them. And we can run our hands lovingly over some of the artefacts.  And we might not be so hasty to slab over their burial ground with the concrete of our premixed assumptions.

My Library Valentine

February 12, 2016

When Lois Lowry spoke at our local library event last Spring, she told one little story that didn’t end up in my reportage (and one little story that did—you really MUST read it! It’s amazing!  I’ll wait here until you get back).

The speech was a kickoff to the library’s One Book One Read event, and the One Read, of course, was The Giver.  I first read The Giver when I checked it out from the local library—the same way I “first read” almost all the books I read.  And always have.  When I was a kid I visited the local branch library every Saturday, unless that was one of the Saturdays I took the bus downtown, and in that case I visited the BIG multi-story central operation.  I honestly don’t know what my childhood would have been like without the public library, and no telling what my adulthood would be like without it either.

So here’s Ms. Lowry’s little story: not long ago, some young friends visited from Europe—France, I think.  A country we would consider “developed” and not blighted by years of Soviet servitude.  While entertaining these girls she took them to the local library, where they browsed the stacks and chose some books to check out on her card.  Back in the car and on their way to somewhere else, one of the girls asked, “What do you have to pay to belong to the library?”

Ms. Lowry was a bit startled by the question, and so I am.  Why, nothing.  That’s what we pay.

Of course it’s not technically true; you just don’t see the library line-item on your county tax statement.  But still, the public library you see in almost every community in America is one of America’s better ideas.  And a surprising number of Americans still think so.

Here’s the good news, from the ALA’s Quotable Facts brochure, printed in 2013:

  • 58% of American adults possess a library card.
  • Americans to libraries (public, school, and academic) over three times more often than they go to the movies.
  • Reference librarians answer nearly 6.6 million questions every week.
  • There are more public libraries than there are McDonald’s restaurants.  (You just have to look harder for them—maybe libraries should have the equivalent of golden arches on a fifty-foot pole.)
  • Americans check out an average of eight books/year.  (Since about 24% of adults have not even read a book in the past year, somebody is doing a whole lot of checking.)
  • The highest achieving schools have well-staffed and well-funded libraries–but you already know that!

America even designates Library Week in April.  This isn’t April, but it is close to Valentine’s Day, so this is my whacked-out, bedraggled-lace, hastily-constructed Valentine to America’s libraries.  We’ve been together through good times and bad, and I don’t know what I’d do without you.

library-valentine

Dangerous Fiction

February 8, 2016

Whenever a controversial YA novel comes under scrutiny, youth advocates always call the book community to arms.  Novels, they explain over and over again, are good for young people—period.  The right kind of fiction may even be the salvation of a struggling teen soul.  No matter how depressing or graphic the content, novels can 1) help teens find themselves by offering characters they can identify with, 2) comfort them in a desperate situation by letting them know they are not alone, or 3) offer a “safe space” to explore other ways of looking at things.  Fiction is too powerful to keep from the young, they say.  But the defenders seem blind to the possibility that that very power can be negative as well as positive.

dangerous

In the online journal Aeon, Tara Isabella Burton makes the case that reading fiction is not necessarily an unalloyed good.  Nor should it be.  Might the power of fiction be used for evil?  Or as she puts it, “in treating novels as the ultimate nutrition for the brain, do we risk neutralizing their potency?”

A story “works” by taking the elements of human life and character and emotion, cutting them to pattern, and shaping them to fit not only a compelling plotline but also a moral vision.  Every novelist works from a sense of what’s good and bad, even if he’s convinced that nothing is ultimately good or bad.  Every novelist spins an imaginary world within the text, whether realistic or fantastic, then sits back and invites the reader into that fictional parlor.  The pleasure of reading a novel depends to some degree on surrender–a true reader wants to be swept away.  Call it suspension of disbelief or unput-down-ableness, the novels you love are the ones that capture you.  “Captivating” signals charming, enchanting, magical—but those very words, in themselves, imply that someone has been overcome by something outside.  It’s what book reviewers mean when they say they were “shattered” or “shaken to the core,” and it’s not always a good thing.

Burton quotes warnings from a past that saw reading novels as a “kind of possession: an encroachment of the ‘other’ upon the self.”  She cites 19th century minister Jonathan Townley Crane who worried about consumers of fiction (mostly women) reading themselves into “clumsy little romances” and identifying themselves with the heroine to such an extent they lost track of themselves.  That was a theme as late as the 1980s, when a boom in steamy romance novels made pastors wonder if too many housewives were comparing their potbellied husbands with Fabio.

It wasn’t just a religious concern.  Burton takes a fictional character as an example of unhealthy reading, namely Dorian Gray, Portrait of (the novella by Oscar Wilde).  The title character is poisoned” by a little volume identified only as “The Yellow Book.”  Literary historians say this was an actual experimental novel, Against Nature, which affected Wilde himself in a negative way.  It could be that in the act of reading this particular book both the author and the character surrendered too much: in vampire terms, the poison book sucked Oscar/Dorian’s life force into itself and left him defenseless.

Active readers are co-creators, in a continual dialogue with the story (Why did he do that? Yess!  Don’t go there! I don’t get it—).  When a reader closes the book, it’s hers—her version, that is.  What she remembers is the book she read, and a book has as many versions as it has readers.  But some stories latch on to the reader, working so powerfully that she suspends the inner dialogue for pages or chapters at a time.  She’s becoming the story, rather than the other way around.

I read Raintree County in my early twenties, and it inhabited me for weeks afterward with its fervid romanticism.  Today I find it mainly pretentious and overwritten–but I make that judgment from the self that was, at one time, permanently altered by that same book.  We’re designed to be shaped by our culture even as we shape our culture.  So the issue isn’t whether you’re every going to be influenced by a “shattering” book, but what that influence might be.  That’s where the disclaimer for good or ill comes in.

Toward the end of the essay Burton tips her hand.  To her, it seems, the “dangerous” books are those that shaped the backward values of an earlier day.  “A rich tradition of political response—literature from the post-colonial and feminist traditions, has emerged in recent decades, in which literary classics are challenged or rewritten in rebellion against their purported textual authority.”  In other words: we know better now.  A case in point is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a “postcolonial” response to Jane Eyre showing how Rochester’s mad wife was driven insane by patriarchal and colonial oppression.

So that’s where she’s coming from.  Okay, fair enough—everybody is coming from somewhere, but to my mind Ms. Burton undercuts the whole premise of her essay in the last paragraph: “Too acknowledge that textual narratives have as much capacity to be truly dangerous as they have to be truly illuminating is to acknowledge that books, like people, are not inherently moral or immoral.”  Wait a minute—not inherently moral?  But didn’t she write the entire article from a moral perspective?  How can we even determine that some books may be “dangerous” unless that’s a bad thing (especially as opposed to “illuminating,” which is a good thing)?  .

I think she’s right in essence: some fiction can be damaging to the reader, depending on a host of factors: the content, mood, or tone of the former matched to the disposition, situation, or vulnerability of the other. Young people are especially vulnerable because they are in formation and don’t yet have the perspective to evaluate dark themes–even while many of them are attracted to dark themes.  That attraction in itself isn’t abnormal, and one depressing book won’t tip the balance of a reasonably well-adjusted teen.  But a deluge of them could create a current of despair, rage, or cynicism.  If your diet of fiction (or your kids’) seems tilted toward violence, oppression, suicide, or tragedy, it wouldn’t be amiss to wonder if it’s too much.

Riding Herd on Time

February 1, 2016

tyranny-of-timeBack in the mythical age of young-adulthood, time was everywhere—on my hands, waiting to be killed, never flying unless I had a paper due.  Baby #1 slowed the clock even more: who knew a day could be so long?  That changed with my decision to start homeschooling.  All of a sudden there was never enough time, because it burned at both ends.  “Time is my enemy,” I remember saying savagely. But of course it isn’t the enemy; it just acts that way when you treat it that way.

It’s the great healer, and the ultimate killer.  It brings all things to pass, waits for no man, runs through the roughest day, and bears all its sons away. It’s essentially mysterious: “I know what it is, provided no one asks me” (says Augustine), but weighs heavily on a guilty soul.  “I wasted time, and now time doth waste me,” muses Richard II, the most introspective of Shakespeare’s kings.

And the impatient reader says, “Yeah, okay, lots of profound people have said profound things about time.  So get to the point: how do I find more of it?  Time is money.”

So, has this ever happened to you?  New Year’s Day, or the first day of school, you make a schedule and promise yourself you’ll stick to it.  Maybe it lasts as long as a week, but more often, by day three or four you chuck it.  Things take longer than you thought, or you just don’t feel like doing what the schedule says you must do, or it’s too hard or interruptions get in the way or it’s boring.

This has happened to me over and over, so this year I approached the issue from another angle.  Instead of trying to wrestle time to the grid, I sneaked up on it from behind. What do I accomplish, and what do I want to accomplish better?  Thinking through everything I do, I found these activities fall into four basic categories.  I gave them names: Janie/mom/grandma, Janie Cheaney, Janie B. Cheaney, and J.B. Cheaney.  I drew four columns on a piece of notebook paper, and headed each column with one of those names.

 

The first category is who I am as a person and family member.  About how much time in a week do I timespend just being a human?  Starting on the far right column, I wrote everything I could think of, plus time spent doing: number of hours sleeping, shopping, preparing food and eating it (and cleaning up afterwards), keeping the house from looking like a pigsty, even talking to my kids on the phone (since they don’t live anywhere close, the little scamps).  I wrote all this and more, added up the total and put that sum directly under the list, as well as on the far left side of the page.

Next, who I am in my community and church.  How many hours a week do I spend actually in church, and how much preparing Sunday school lessons or Bible studies?  How much in volunteer work and lunch with friends?  All of it went in the second column from the right, with the total number of hours underneath and also added to the running total on the left side.

My professional life splits in two, roughly divided between Christian writing and fiction writing (at this point, they’re not the same).  Janie B. Cheaney writes for World Magazine and blogs at RedeemedReader.com; J. B. Cheaney writes fiction for kids and tries to market the same.  There’s a bit of overlap in these, indicated by the little arrows you may see between the two columns.  Both involve some marketing, blogging, Facebooking, and maybe (one of these days if I can ever figure it out) Twittering.  I also count reading time because Janie B. reviews books—nice work if you can get it, but it puts me to sleep sometimes.  Adding up my professional hours showed me two things: 1) I’m going to have to create an additional blog and Facebook page to accommodate them, and 2) I work an average of 45 hours a week.  After all these years, I can prove I’m a FULL-TIME PROFESSIONAL WRITER.  So don’t mess with me.

After adding up all these hours and subtracting them from 168 (the number of hours in a week), I came up with 29 hours and 45 minutes unaccounted for!  That’s more than a whole day!  I’m breathing easier already.

beattheclockThe purpose of all this is not—like scheduling—to see how much activity I can cram into a twenty-four span.  The purpose is to show Time what it’s dealing with (I’m serious, pal).  It also shows me what I can realistically expect from a day.  “Realistically” is key—if you have young children at home or if you let your Doberman make out your schedule, you’ll have to set aside at least six hours daily for Mr. Unexpected to drop by.  Otherwise, given something you might call a “normal day,” you can start assigning your various obligations to blocks of time.

“Blocks,” not linear increments.  Our days don’t flow minute-by-minute, but rather bump-by-bump: periods of single-tasking followed by periods of multi-tasking; times of relative calm interspersed with times of hectic activity. Figure out when you are most productive and/or when you are least likely to be interrupted.  If those hours are not the same, synchronize them if you can, and tackle your most challenging tasks for that block of the day.  Squirrel your less-demanding tasks into those blocks when you’re more available, and arrange the things you can do simultaneously (like listening to an audio book while mopping the floor, or practicing French while driving—though that sounds like it should be illegal).

Of course you will not find yourself automatically doing what your planner says.  Your planner doesn’t understand human nature, much less your individual slacker mentality.  That’s where discipline comes in.  It’s also where standard advice that you’ve heard a million times comes in: whatever requires the most concentration needs to occur when you are best able to focus (for me this is 6-8 a.m.).  Do not check your phone.  Do not check your email.  Do not peek at Facebook, even for one teeny-weeny second.  If you can only set aside one hour a day to work on your novel, whip your attitude into line and tell it you won’t tolerate any backtalk for this one hour.  Do your best to scale back interruptions and streamline routines.  Lay out your clothes and mix the ingredients for your breakfast smoothie in the blender the night before.  When you take a break, keep it to ten minutes or less.  Ride herd on those productive hours, and you can loosen up the reins for the rest.

Case in point: I can do all my serious writing between 6 and 11 a.m. with a half-hour break for breakfast and a quick check of the news–4 ½ hours.  Afternoons are for uploading, Facebooking, research, business and personal emails . . . and everything else.  I don’t have to fill each week with everything on my hour log—self-employed people get vacations too.  And I’m not always going to be as productive as I planned because stuff happens.  (Look on the bright side when it does, maybe you can write about it!)

There’s also this: My times are in his hands (Ps 31:15).  Anyone who’s ever tried to command the hours learns that she’s not the boss.  But at least I know the Boss, and I don’t have to feel destroyed every time the plan goes off the rails.  There’s a bigger plan at work.

 

One Sad Birthday

January 18, 2016

George Washington’s birthday is coming up next month–Feb. 22nd, in case you’ve forgotten in the birthday cakemashup that we call Presidents’ Day.  It’s probably with that date in mind that Scholastic timed its release of its new picture book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington,  for early this month, to give libraries time to purchase the book and feature it in their Presidents Day displays.  A Birthday Cake for George Washington features Hercules, Mt. Vernon head cook, and the long process of baking a special cake for a special occasion (recipe included).  But on the book’s way to market, something happened that the Scholastic publicity and school & library coordinators should have foreseen, especially considering what befell an earlier culinary picture book.

I wrote about that at RedeemedReader.com: A Fine Dessert, published a year ago, racked up an impressive list of raves and starred reviews before running aground on the reef of social conscience.  The story tracks the history of blackberry fool (a kind of cobbler) through the lives of four children living in four different centuries who enjoyed making the dessert with a mother or dad.  It’s a lovely little book with sunny illustrations and engaging text, but one of the children is a slave girl living on a South Carolina plantation. Most of the scenes of the little girl picking blackberries, whipping cream, and later licking the bowl with her mother show her smiling and apparently happy.

Did actual slaves ever smile?  Of course.  Did they ever experience moments of joy?  All humans do.  Did they ever take pride in their work?  Those who mastered a skill for which they received praise undoubtedly did.  Not because they were less than human but because they were fully human–the very thing that made chattel slavery so heinous was also the quality that allowed these people to experience life its complex, deep, and mystifying dimensions.  That included happiness and pride.

Anyway, the discontent was already there in the background when Scholastic released George Washington’s Birthday.  In its pages Washington’s slave cook Hercules is seen with his daughter, Delia, whipping up a scrumptious cake that pleases the master and his guests and wins numerous complements to the chef.  This makes him happy.  The author, NY Times food editor Ramen Gameshram, spent four years researching the topic, including original documents and primary sources from the Mt. Vernon archives, and says it is beyond dispute that Washington and his chef enjoyed a close relationship and respected each other.   I think this is probably true.  But it didn’t stop Hercules from escaping when he had the chance, an act that bewildered his master.  Though courageous, disciplined, inspiring, honorable, and indispensable, Washington was also as boneheaded as any in his generation about the morality of  African servitude.

Anyway, the press about A Birthday Cake for George Washington was so bad Scholastic announced just yesterday that it will no longer distribute the book, and will accept all returns.  This is the only picture book recall I can remember (though it’s not exactly a recall).  While praising the talents and good intentions of the author/illustrator team, the publisher reluctantly concludes that “without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn.”

Well, yeah.  I’m surprised the editorial department didn’t see that one coming.  I haven’t perused the book, so I don’t know if any context was provided in a historical note at the end–but historical notes in picture books for preschoolers don’t get read anyway.  The Amazon page is now up to 182 reviews with an average of 1 1/2 stars.  I doubt that every reviewer read the book much beyond the preview, and elsewhere on the web some of the comments are vicious.

Author Ramen Gameshram thoughtfully explained her rationale, and I largely agree with her.  For example, “the range of human emotion and behavior is vast, and there is room in between how the literary world depicted historical African American characters [i.e., as childish, simple souls] and how it does now.” Humans are vastly complicated, and can’t be reduced a “a condition,” however miserable and overwhelming.  Slavery does not define African Americans, then or now–to be defined by a single term or condition is to submit to slavery all over again.

And yet–it’s probably best, at this present time, to pull the book.  It would have been even better to hold off on publication altogether.  I’m sad about it; sad that we can’t talk about the actual historical record and the varieties of human experience, but it’s impossible now.  Maybe later; I do hope so.

 

Horn Book Reviews IDK

January 15, 2016

I would call Horn Book the  premier children’s-book review journal–what Atlantic Monthly is to horn bookNewsweek, Horn Book is to . . . oh well, I’d better not make any comparisons, because the other review journals have been nice to me.  The magazine is  appropriately based in Boston, the bastion of literacy, and does not include every book reviewed in its annual guide, so I’m honored that I Don’t Know How the Story Ends has appeared in the current issue.  I can’t provide a link but can share the review itself.

And it’s good!  I would change one word, though–guess which one?

When Isobel’s father enlists in the Medical Corps during WWI, his assurance that “bullets won’t get me” offers only uneasy comfort. Seeking a change of scenery from rainy Seattle, Isobel’s mother takes her and her younger sister to visit their ebullient aunt, Buzzy, in Los Angeles. The adults believe that Aunt Buzzy’s thirteen-year-old stepson, Ranger, will be a great companion for the girls, but he’s more interested in making films than making friends. Ranger and his buddy Sam are obsessed with filming a movie intended to catch the eye of D. W. Griffith and create an entrée for themselves into the industry.

While long on technical skill, the boys have only a bare-bones script, so Isobel steps in with rewrites. These end up being unintentionally autobiographical, with the worry about her father never far from her mind. Cheaney establishes setting partly by name-dropping, introducing readers to Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, and Douglas Fairbanks. But the real sense of the times comes with the freedom of the characters to roam the Hollywood Hills on their own and, like many a movie character from those days, the confidence that they can indeed produce a fine show. There’s plenty of melodrama to both the movie script and Isobel’s real-life situation, but her coming of age rings true.

__________________________________________

Did you guess?  It’s in the last sentence and starts with a “b” and I advise parents and teachers never to use it while correcting their students’ writing assignment.  Yep: it’s the word “but,” which makes “melodrama” sound like it’s a bad thing.  Most fictional stories sound like melodrama (or soap opera) when you relate the bare plot, and this story is big on “pathos,” both onscreen and off.  The word but waves a little red flag in the middle of the sentence: beware the melodrama!  Not a complaint, though–there are plenty of  great words like ebullient, real, true, confidence.  So here’s one more: Thanks!

Bulwer-Lytton Has Nothing on Me

November 13, 2015

So the winners of the annual Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest were posted earlier this week.  If you’re not a literary nerd, you may not recognize the immortal name of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who began his novel 1830 novel Paul Clifford with It was a dark and stormy night–later pirated by Madelyn L’Engle and Snoopy.  Not a bad opening line, but the author unfortunately followed up with

the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Hence the inspiration for the contest.

I don’t understand why this is such a big deal–I throw off these multi-liners every day.  In fact, the original opening sentence of my latest novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, goes like this:

The scar on Mother’s upper lip quivered like a compass needle, and that was the first indication I had that a plan had been brewing in her restless mind to take us all to California–although I can be forgiven for not immediately grasping her intent because if the scar was a compass needle it was pointing north, and even my little sister Sylvie, currently wailing on the entrance hall rug where she’d landed after I pushed her downstairs, knew that California was south.

TMI, I suppose–my editor got it down to 40 words:

The first I heard of Mother’s big idea was May 20, 1918, at 4:35 p.m. in the entrance hall of our house on Fifth Street.  that was where my little sister ended up after I pushed her down the stairs.

I leave it to the reader to determine which is better.   It’s fatally easy to run on at the pen, though (or keyboard); for the opening lines of my first published novel, The Playmaker, I went for vivid imagery:

Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs, but I was happy to discover, as I crested the last rise on the road to London, that the pungent smell that ripped my nostrils was not burning flesh, only garbage and dung.

The final cut:

Smithfield once blazed with burning martyrs.

Sometimes shorter is sweeter.  What I consider my best opening line took a little work.  Originally I tried a dramatic approach:

Little did I know, as I stood in the bathroom doorway holding my brother’s sweaty hand as his screams mingled with the groans of my mother who was sprawled on the cracked tile floor with one leg grotesquely twisted like a pretzel and the scraggly hairs of a squirrel tail seeming to mock her agony, that I was in for the road trip of my life.

But then, it’s not necessary to give everything away in the first sentence, so I settled on Middle of Somewhere

None of this that I’m about to tell you would have happened if my mother hadn’t found that squirrel in the toilet.

I should enter that contest some day.  They even have a category for children’s literature.  Here’s the winner:

The doctors all agreed the inside of Charlie’s intestinal tract looked like some dark, dank subway system in a decaying inner city, blackened polyps hanging from every corner like tiny ticking terrorist time bombs, waiting to burst forth in cancerous activity; however, to Timmy the Tapeworm this was home.

You can see all the winners here.  Get inspired, and may the terse be with you!

Hollywood Backstories: Douglas Fairbanks

September 26, 2015

Continuing a series of post about historical characters and themes that appear in my new novel, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends.

Film historians agree that if silent film and its first heroic figure hadn’t matured around the same time, the heroic figure wouldn’t have known what to do with himself.  If Shwartzenegger was The Last Action Hero, Douglas Fairbanks was the first.  It’s not too much to say he invented the “actioner,” a genre of film that at its broadest includes spy thrillers, sci-fi/fantasy, comic-book treatments, buddy-cop movies, and all those nonstop edge-of-your-seat blockbusters that everybody says we have too much of now.  And everybody is right about that.)  But when the actioner was invented Fairbanks was there, calling the shots.

Not only that, but he appeared to have a great time doing it.  It used to be a high complement to a movie star to say, “he does his own stunts!”  Fairbanks actually did his own stunts—often because nobody else could.  No film actor since has possessed that degree of physicality, finesse, and pure joy that came bounding off the screen whenever he was on it.

He was the kind of kid who had to climb everything he saw.  At the age of three, it wasn’t uncommon for his brother to yell, “Mama! He’s on the barn roof again!” Not much of a scholar, he was expelled from high school after a St. Patrick’s Day prank and soon after joined a touring theater company headed by Frederick Warde, a British actor-manager.  Warde was impressed with the teen’s stage presence but couldn’t control him—young Doug’s first part, in a play called The Duke’s Jester, became a source of anxiety for the lead actor because the lad never made an entrance the same way twice.  He would come in through the window, or down from the ceiling—and he wasn’t even the Jester. After the tour he was fired.

Fairbanks drifted in and out of theater for the next few years before marrying the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and deciding he was out.  After dabbling in business, though, the profession called him loud and clear–and by then the film industry was vigorously recruiting stage talent.  In 1915 he moved his family to Los Angeles and, like Charlie Chaplin arriving around the same time, decided he was truly home.  The two became close friends, and even though Chaplin achieved worldwide fame a little earlier, Douglas Fairbanks was not far behind.

Hollywood royalty, 1918: Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks (by the way, all of these people were short, beginning a long Hollywood tradition of "I thought he would be taller").

Hollywood royalty, 1918: Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks

In I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, which takes place during the summer of 1918, we meet him twice.  He makes a startling entrance—and an even more spectacular exit—during a huge war bond rally in Los Angeles.  He, Chaplin, and Mary Pickford (more about her later) had spent the latter part of 1917 going from coast to coast raising money for the war effort.  The rally in Chapter 8 is a hometown event.  By that time Fairbanks has become famous as a certain kind of screen character in movies like Say! Young Fellow and He Comes Up Smiling—the bumpkin or loser who turns the tables on his snooty rivals (and wins the girl, if it’s that kind of story).  He wins over Isobel by sheer force of personality.

He shows up again two chapters later at a dinner party hosted by Ranger’s father, during which he (Fairbanks) dances on a table and does handstands on his chair.  Maybe a little far-fetched, but not by much—Isobel wonders if he’s going to swing from the chandeliers next.  He arrives at the party with Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” and while I don’t dwell on this in IDK the two of them were living together even though married to other people.  They were, we might say, the first “Hollywood couple,” and when they married a few years later, their fans went wild and forgave all the, uh, awkwardness.  (In other words, sin)

By then he was exercising more control over his output, and in 1920 came the movie that established his swashbuckling persona for good: The Mark of Zorro, which has spawned endless remakes.  The Three Musketeers (also endless remakes) followed in 1921, then Robin Hood (ditto) in 1922.  Keep in mind, when watching Russell Crowe as Robin Hood or Logan Lerman as d’Artagnan, that Fairbanks did it first, and if he didn’t set the all-time industry standard, he certainly had the most fun with it.

The Thief of Bagdad is probably his masterpiece. It’s visually stunning even today, and while some of the “special” effects are anything but, others will make you wonder how they did that.  Though not the director, Fairbanks was so closely involved with every aspect of the production it’s fair to call it his movie.

Like most silent film stars, he didn’t make the transition to sound pictures very well, but unlike Chaplin and Pickford, he died relatively young: 56.  It was as if all that combustible energy burned itself out quicker.  By then he and Mary had split up and Fairbanks had found happiness (one hopes) with Lady Sylvia Ashleigh, of the British nobility.  That seemed fitting; he was king of the screen for a while, but his style and dash have lingered ever after.

Other posts in this series:

How to Watch Silent Movies

D.W. Griffith and the Birth of an Industry

Charles S. Chaplin

Five Reasons to Go Slow with Children and Transgenderism

September 4, 2015

I usually steer clear of hot-button issues like this one.  Except, perhaps, when it touches my own field of business, a large part of which is writing for children.  I try to keep my ear close to the ground regarding hot books and publishing trends (you should feel how my ears ring sometimes), and it doesn’t surprise me that MG and YA novels, even picture books, with transgender themes are buzzing in the book world.

There’s no question that some children experience a real struggle with gender identity, and the adults in their lives should be gentle and encouraging.  Sometimes the struggle is due to actual physiognomy, sometimes to neurological cross-signals, and sometimes to we know not what (more on that later).  That said, here are five reasons why it may be too soon to celebrate if a pre-pubescent boy or girl decides they are really a girl or boy.

  • Males are overwhelmingly more likely to experience transgender feelings than females.  Three to one.  Maybe that should be perfectly understandable (Girls are better!) (Just kidding, of course) except that males also experience more identity issues in general: more likely to be exclusively gay (as opposed to bisexual), more likely to fall on one side or the other of the IQ bell curve, more likely to commit suicide, more likely to be geniuses or criminals, statesmen or tyrants.  This means something.  It may mean that the male identity is more precariously balanced than the female, and can be more easily tipped.  I have my own ideas about why this is so, but if transgender identity is simply a matter of being born in the “wrong” body, why don’t girls experience it as often as boys?  There’s something here we need to understand better before we go full-speed-ahead.
  • Children are impressionable and suggestible.  When I was growing up, my sisters and I and the jacobneighborhood kids would occasionally put on plays in our backyard.  I always wanted to play the boy parts.  In my imagination (which took up way too much of my time) I pictured myself hunting bears like Davy Crockett or fighting in Civil War battles.  I never thought this was because I was “really” a boy—neither did anyone else.  That’s a significant phrase: neither did anyone else.  Nor were there cultural hints or markers to incline me to think my identity was more male than female.  The word “identity” was not commonly used that way at the time.  But if I were starting school right about now, at the height of public debate and interest in transgenderism, I might have questioned my femaleness instead of taking it as a given.  Is it too much to conjecture that a little boy (for instance) whose first-grade teacher puts Jacob’s New Dress in his hands during reading time, might interpret his occasional interest in cross-dressing to mean that he’s really a girl?  And if other factors gang up on him, such as an absent father or mother, academic challenges, bullying, etc., might he possibly start rooting all his problems in his gender identity?
  • Children are in process.  Growing up involves a lot more than height, hormones, and rapid cell multiplication.  It’s an integrated, multi-layered enterprise: mental, physiological, spiritual, emotional.  We all know “good” kids who took a walk on the wild side for a while—who knows why—and straightened up later.  We know “bad” kids who turned out surprisingly well.  We know kids who went through phases and obsessions that made us wring our hands in despair.  The point is that they’re going through: identities will be picked up and discarded along the way.  At the age of six, they don’t know yet who they really are.  It’s said that eighty percent of children who experience some gender-identity confusion before puberty will come to identify with their biological sex after puberty.  So why push it before?
  • Children are already confused enough. Growing up has always been tough, but never tougher, perhaps, than right now.  Kids need stability while navigating the constant shifts and challenges of personal development, and fewer of them have it.  Whatever our personal feelings about divorce or revolving-door parenthood, in the vast majority of cases, lacking one or both parents is not good for children.  It’s terrible, in fact: it pulls the rug out from under them.  Moving house, changing jobs, changing relationships, and all the other adult vicissitudes their children are subjected to multiply the instability.   Most of them (the vast majority—well over 99%) could at least cling to a few basic identity markers: I’m a human being.  I’m an American.  I’m a girl.  I’m a boy.  But now even those stout pillars are getting shaky.  Can we at least agree that it’s best for all if a child’s gender identity agrees with the child’s anatomy?  The alternative is a severe mind/body split, years of futility and unhappiness, costly therapy, even costlier hormone treatments, and—if the victim takes it all the way—astronomically costly “reassignment” surgery that, in many documented cases, does not solve the problem.
  • We don’t know enough yet.  Cross-dressing in itself isn’t new.  Lord Cornbury, the royal governor of colonial New York, raised eyebrows when he borrowed his wife’s clothes for special occasions, and we’ve heard of brave ladies who disguised themselves as men in order to go to war.  Those examples may or may not be instances of what we now call transgenderism, which dates only back to the first successful “sex change” surgery on Christine Jorgenson in 1952.  That’s within my lifetime; I remember the buzz over Myra Breckinridge and Victor/Victoria.  One of my best friends in college, ca. 1970, became convinced that he was a woman (the conviction was temporary, last I heard).  The phenomenon has mostly been a sidebar except for some high-profile cases every twenty years or so; now it’s front page again.  All of which is to say that there hasn’t been enough serious scholarship on the long-term effects of transgenderism on individuals—not a group, not a movement, but boys and girls and men and women.  We don’t know if this is ultimately liberating, or even healthy.  We don’t know, and it’s worth waiting a little longer to find out.

So what do you do in the meantime?  Be patient.  Take one day at a time.  If your child is being bullied at school, help him or her deal.  Consider home schooling. Love a lot.  Remind  them that, God willing, they’ll be around for a while and bad days don’t last forever and we’ve got some time to figure this out.  It’s not easy, but changing genders isn’t easy, either.  In fact I suspect it’s a lot harder than we’re being led to believe.

Coundown to IDK: First Reviews

July 31, 2015

hollywood2It’s nail-biting time.  The final edits have been made, the blurbs have been solicited, the Advance Reader Copies have gone out into the big wide world.  Reviews generally start appearing one to three months before a book’s official release, to give librarians and booksellers time to consider whether they want to order a particular title or not.  Sooner is better–or at least that’s how it looks to me.  Sooner means the reviewer is intrigued by the cover or the premise and is eager to read the book.  And if they like it, they are eager to share.   That’s why I’m excited to get two reviews of IDK already–eleven weeks ahead of official release!  One is very good and one is great.  The great one, from Kirkus Reviews, is online (see the pull quote and click the link).  The very good one is from School Library Journal, which generally doesn’t publish reviews online.  So I’m quoting it in full.

I have a shot at four more review journals: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Hornbook.  None of them, of course, have to acknowledge IDK at all.  But I’ll be watching, with eagerness and trepidation.

I DON’T KNOW HOW THE STORY ENDS [STARRED REVIEW]
Author: J.B. Cheaney

Review Issue Date: September 1, 2015
Online Publish Date: July 27, 2015
Publisher:Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
Pages: 288
Price ( Hardcover ): $16.99
Publication Date: October 6, 2015
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-1-4926-0944-5
Category: Fiction

“The novel is packed with cameos by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin…fascinating tidbits about the early days of film, and a relentless series of action scenes. Set dressing and quick pace aside, as narrated by Isobel, the story relies on—and delivers—solid characterization to drive it forward. Impressive on all fronts.”
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The review from School Library Journal (not available online) doesn’t come with a star, but still makes IDK sound enticing–to me, anyway:

Cheaney, J.B. I Don’t Know How the Story Ends. 288p. Sourcebooks Jabberwocky. Oct. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781492609445.

“The electrifying setting of early Hollywood, along with the ever-relevant story of a young girl’s search for stability in an increasingly chaotic world, make this a winner…Industrious, creative, and resourceful young characters will charm readers interested in the life-changing magic of filmmaking.”

Gr 5-7–Isobel’s father is serving overseas in the Great War and she misses him terribly. But when her mother moves the family from Seattle to Los Angeles for the summer, her world is truly turned upside down. This is the golden age of cinema and Hollywood is the center of it all. Isobel’s tour guide is her stepcousin, Ranger, a biracial renegade auteur with a habit for sneaking onto film sets to stalk his favorite directors. Ranger and his friend Sam, the son of an alcoholic cameraman, have a plan to make a moving picture and enlist Isobel and her impulsive little sister, Sylvie, to star. Unfortunately, this plan also involves more than a little “borrowing” of film equipment and facilities. The 13-year-old sheds her responsible nature and is swept up in the allure of authoring a happy ending to her story. Cheaney’s well-researched descriptions of the complex filmmaking equipment and processes of the silent era will surely amaze any reader used to casually filming their world with a smartphone. Cheaney also recounts several real silent films of the era, which may encourage some readers to broaden their movie-watching choices. The story tends to feel unnecessarily long at points, but the electrifying setting of early Hollywood, along with the ever-relevant story of a young girl’s search for stability in an increasingly chaotic world, make this a winner.

VERDICT Industrious, creative, and resourceful young characters will charm readers interested in the life-changing magic of filmmaking.