30 September 2015

Open Topics: The other great Viking Northumbrian raid --St Cuthbert's Storm

By Michelle Styles

There are certain headline events which echo through the ages, such as the raid on Lindisfarne which started the Viking Age and other events which were once known and have now been largely forgotten. In the second category are the events of 794 where the Northumbrians fought back.

The precise reason for the Viking raid has long been consigned to annals of forgotten history, but one thing is certain. Once one Viking felag (or fellowship of warriors) had successfully raided, others undoubtedly tried their hand.
12-century depiction of a Viking invasion source: Wikipedia

Sure enough, Symeon of Durham records that 794 brought yet another raid. Rather than returning to Lindisfarne, the raiders struck lower down at Jarrow. This time, however, the raiders did not have it all their own way.  First the raider’s chief was killed in a violent clash with English warriors. Then a great storm which became known as St Cuthbert’s storm struck, swamping the Viking long boats and making it impossible for them to escape. Symeon states the survivors were put to death.

The next time the Vikings are mentioned in connection with Northumbria is 800 when they lay waste to the monasteries at Tynemouth and Hartness. The six year interval is significant in my opinion. Other areas in Britain were attacked but not Northumbria. There is no recorded alliance or payment of gold to make them go away.  The Vikings tended to strike a weak target. In 794, Northumbria had shown that it wasn’t weak, but in the intervening years, Northumbria was riven with civil war. This jeopardised its alliance with Charlemagne (which may have been one of the reasons for the original raid as shortly before this, Charlemagne  had moved against the heathens to the North).  Apparently in 796 Charlemagne was so angry when he heard King Athelred had been slain near Corbridge that he took back his generous gifts. He considered Northumbria nobles to be worse than pagans, but Alcuin (a bishop from Northumbria) interceded on Northumbria’s behalf and he was pacified.  By 800, Northumbria had been through three more kings and had fought several wars, including at least one with Mercia.  The court was also riven with gossip and intrigue.
reconstructed Viking long ship source Wikipedia

It is interesting that the raid that gets remembered is the one which succeeded, and not the one which didn’t. One of the reasons might be that Alcuin did not feel the need to write emotive letters about St Cuthbert’s storm.  He seemed to be using his considerable writing skills as a call to action. Obviously because Northumbria had succeeded in defeating the Viking threat, his skills were not required. However, I suspect that Northumbria itself was not shy in making its success known.

When I wrote Summer of the Viking, I wanted to look at what the situation on the ground after the Lindisfarne raid. It was then I discovered about St Cuthbert’s storm and its aftermath.  Certainly the Viking raiders do seem to be aware of the Northumbrian strength as they stop raiding until after the third civil war. Symeon mentions with glee about how vengeance was taken on those who threatened innocent people. And of course Northumbria could not know if the Vikings would continue to raid or not.

Anyway, I thought it time that this success was better known.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance in a wide range of time periods. Her most recent Summer of the Viking was published by Harlequin in June 2015. You can learn more about Michelle and her books on www.michellestyles.co.uk

25 September 2015

Open Topics: The Hon. Charles Stewart Rolls (1877 - 1910)

By Anita Davison

Whilst researching prominent Edwardian characters for my next cosy Mystery, Murder at St Philomena’s – which hasn’t been submitted to my publisher yet, but one can dream – I  came across an archetypal upper class young man whose name most people have heard of but little is known though his name graces the radiators of some of the most exclusive cars in the world.

The Hon Charles Stewart Rolls was an impressive 6ft 5ins tall, handsome and from a wealthy family. Instead of leading the life of an Edwardian aristocrat, he was an adventurer at heart, making a significant contribution to both aeronautics and transport.

Charles was the third son of John Allan Rolls, 1st Baron Llangattock, an Army officer, Justice of the Peace and High Sheriff of Monmouthshire. Their country home was The Hendre, [Welsh for Winter Dwelling or main house] near Monmouth.

Charles’ eldest brother, John Maclean Rolls was destined to be the 2nd Baron Llangattock but died of wounds received at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The second son, Henry Allen Rolls, was a Lieutenant in the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia) who was wounded in WWI and died Sussex, in 1916. A daughter, Eleanor Georgiana Rolls married Sir John Edward Shelley, the sixth Baronet Shelley and died in 1961.


Charles was always fascinated with engines and electronics. In his teens installed a dynamo at The Hendre, and wired part of the house before entering Trinity College, Cambridge. At 18, Charles went to Paris, where, with his father's assistance he bought a 3 3/4 hp Peugeot Paris-Bordeaux Phaeton for £225 - the first ever car based in Cambridge and one of the most powerful available at the time. When he took the 140mile trip home to Monmouth in his new motor car, the townspeople waited two days and nights to catch a glimpse of him as he drove over Monnow Bridge- only the third car owned in Wales.
Rolls in his 8hp Panhard Lavassor 1900

Charles left university in 1898 with a degree in Mechanism and Applied Science, earning the nicknames "Dirty Rolls" and "Petrolls" because of his inclination to get oil on his hands from the engines. He worked on his father’s  steam yacht ‘Santa Maria’, after which he obtained a third engineer's (marine) certificate. He worked at the London and North Western Railway at their main locomotive engineering workshops, the largest limited company in the world at the time.

In 1896, he joined and a group of auto enthusiasts campaigned against the 4mph speed limit, after which it was increased to 12 mph. He was one of the founding members of the Automobile Club of Great Britain in 1897 where he served until his death. Rolls had a reputation for being very careful with money, didn’t over eat and drank alcohol in moderation. An enthusiastic racing driver, his first motor race was in France in 1899, finishing fourth in his class, driving an 8hp Panhard and Levassor.

Despite the inaugural London to Brighton Run in November 1896 there were still few automotive vehicles on the roads of Britain, so in 1900, Lord Northcliffe organised a ‘Reliability Run' over 1,000 miles from London to Edinburgh and back. This was intended to show detractors of the ‘horseless-carriage’ that the internal combustion engine could replace horse power.
The drivers had to deal with bumpy, unmade roads, with no signposts; in open cars whatever the weather. No windscreen, and little more than a pram-hood for the protection of the driver and passenger, who wore 'autocoats', hats and goggles. Charles drove his Panhard Levassor and won the gold medal for best car in any class. Frank Hedges Butler, wine merchant and 1st hon. Treasurer of the RAC, took part, accompanied by his daughter, Vera, who became Charles Roll’s girlfriend. In 1902, the pair were on a drive when they collided with a horse-drawn trap in traffic from the Barnet Fair!
Vera Hedges Butler, Charles Rolls Girlfriend

That same year, Charles started one of the first car dealerships in Britain. With £6,600 of financial backing provided by his father, C.S. Rolls and Co began importing and selling high-class French Peugeot and Belgian Minerva cars through their ‘showroom’ premises in Fulham, London.

In June 1902, Charles entered the  Paris-Vienna three-day race covering 990km - legendary as being one of the toughest because it included the Arlberg Pass, a 6000ft climb up a wagon road, crossed by drainage ditches; and a dangerous decent which burnt out brakes and caused more than a dozen accidents!

In February 1903 Rolls competed in the fateful Paris to Madrid town-to-town race which claimed the lives of thirty-four drivers and spectators. He held the unofficial land speed record in 1903 piloting his 80hp Mors, a French car which he imported and distributed, to nearly 83 mph along the course in the Duke of Portland’s Clipstone Park.

After a slow start, Rolls’ business was doing well and he opened a showroom in Brook Street in the West End of London. His friend John Scott Montagu, edited and owned a magazine called ‘Car Illustrated’. Rolls wrote for the magazine which ran advertisements for his cars.

In April 1903 the team GB Gordon-Bennett trials were held in Buckinghamshire, though Charles didn’t make the team. He entered the 800 mile race from Paris to Madrid in May which was intended to be a triumph of speed but ended at Bordeaux in chaos and disaster.

Despite starting the faster vehicles first, the disparity of speeds meant there was over-taking on the road. Due to a lack of rain, the first cars raised huge clouds of dust which hampered the vision of the following drivers but also the crowd, some of whom strayed onto the roads trying to get a better view of the oncoming cars and several were run down.

On 4 May 1904, Charles met Frederick Henry Royce at the Midland Hotel in Manchester to discuss selling Royce motor cars. Royce was fifteen years older and had worked hard all his life, unlike the wealthy Charles. Royce found he had little in common with the handsome aristocrat, yet they still became friends. Royce wanted to build the best cars, Charles wanted to sell the best, and both wanted them to be British.
Original Logo

Legend has it that when Royce showed Charles his motor car, he climbed aboard and asked Royce to go ahead and start her up, Royce replied, “My dear fellow, she’s already running!”

Charles borrowed one of Royce’s cars for his return journey to London; where he announced he had:-“...found the greatest motor engineer in the world”.

Thus Rolls-Royce was born; the first cars offered to the public in December 1904. Charles was appointed Technical Director at a salary of £750 per annum with 4% of any profits over £10,000. As a board member he provided financial backing as well as technical and business expertise.

In 1906 Rolls won the Tourist Trophy and also broke the Monte Carlo-to-London record.  When the staff at the Rolls-Royce plant in Derby heard the news, they hoisted Henry Royce aloft in triumph.

That same year, Rolls exhibited Rolls-Royce cars at the New York Motor Show and was introduced to the Wright Brothers.


Charles’ first ascent aboard a balloon, was on the ‘Wulfruna’  in 1896 on a sixteen mile flight from Crystal Palace to Epping Forest.

In 1901, Vera Hedges Butler had arranged a trip for her father, Frank,but before they were due to set out, Vera’s Renault 4.5 caught fire and the trip was cancelled. Instead, Charles suggested a trip with their friend Stanley Spencer in Spencer’s balloon, ‘City of New York’. They took off from Crystal Palace and whilst sipping champagne over Sidcup, Kent, discussed starting an Aero Club along the lines of the Royal Automobile Club, but allowing women as equal members. They leased a clubhouse at 119 Piccadilly, which it retained until 1961 and in 1910 became the Royal Aero Club.
Charles Rolls with Frank and Vera Butler Hedges

Every weekend, weather permitting, he and his friends, and his girlfriend, Vera, could be seen at The Hurlingham Club  at Ranelagh, or the Crystal Palace to ascend in balloons.

The Club membership quickly grew to nearly three hundred, The Hon. Lady Shelley – Charles Roll’s sister, Eleanor, was a member as well as being a keen motorist. The club owned three balloons where trips were charged at two guineas each. Races, contests, and exhibitions of aeronautic subjects and machines were held in the Club grounds.

Charles’ friend, Leslie Bucknall, invented a sport where balloons were chased by motor cars; originally intended to show the military that despatches could be moved more quickly by balloon.

In January 1903, Bucknall’s balloon Vivienne II, left from Prospect Park, Reading with Bucknall, Charles and Frank Hedges Butler on board. The pilot tried to bring the balloon down beneath the cloud cover so the cars could see to follow it. They descended too fast, only stopping in time to avert disaster to the passengers, although Vivienne II  was destroyed by the rough landing. Subsequently, Charles made over 170 balloon ascents and in 1903 won the Gordon Bennett Gold Medal for the longest single flight time and held the record for the Paris to Berlin flight.

His interest turned from balloons to powered flight, and in April 1910, he purchased the French Wright with a Wright Bariquand engine - not Rolls-Royce powered because Royce was yet to design a Rolls-Royce aero engine. Together with the Wright brothers in America and the Short brothers, balloon makers to the Club, Charles acquired a Wright license for the first aircraft production line in the world at Leysdown and later at nearby Eastchurch.

From 1910 the Royal Aero Club, issued Aviators Certificates, Charles Rolls was issued with Certificate No 1. The Club trained most military pilots up to 1915, when military schools took over.

On June 2nd, 1910, Rolls flew his Wright biplane across the English Channel to France, was spotted over French territory without permission, and returned to England without landing. The trip was the third Channel crossing by air, Bleriot having made the first, and Jacques de Lesseps the second. Charles became the first man to fly non-stop across the English Channel both ways.

On the 12 July 1910, around twenty of the world’s most famous aviators travelled to Hengistbury Head, at Christchurch, Dorset which attracted approximately 2,000 visitors.

With a gusting wing speed of 20 to 25 mph, Charles came in to land. He shut off his engine, intending to glide in a broad circle down onto the target spot. He saw he would undershoot, so pulled back the controls to lift the nose and began a turn, when a stiff wind hit his plane beam-on.

Witnesses report they heard a crack and saw the two rear rudders break loose from the tail plane which bent upwards, crumpled and snapped off. Parts splintered and fell from the aircraft as the tail boom broke away. The machine overturned and nose-dived into the ground.
Roll's Crashed Plane

Although Rolls fell only 20 feet, he fractured his skull, and died in the arms of a distraught friend, US colonel and aviator Sam Cody.   He was 33 years old

Charles was Britain`s first aircraft fatality in a powered aircraft, and the eleventh internationally. Lord Montague of Beaulieu interrupted his speech in the House of Lords to announce his death. Charles was buried at St. Cadoc's Church on 16 July 1910. He had a philosophical outlook towards the danger he courted, saying:

“All good engineering calls for casualties—so why not?”

As a symbol of mourning, the intertwined “RR” logo on the Rolls-Royce radiator plate was changed from red to black and his name retained as a mark of respect.

Rolls-Royce History

20 September 2015

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Tony Riches on OWEN - BOOK ONE OF THE TUDOR TRILOGY

This week, we're pleased to again welcome author TONY RICHES with his latest release, OWEN - BOOK ONE OF THE TUDOR TRILOGY. One lucky visitor will get a free  copy of Owen. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

England 1422: Owen, a Welsh servant, waits in Windsor Castle to meet his new mistress, the beautiful and lonely Queen Catherine of Valois, widow of the warrior king, Henry V. Her infant son is crowned King of England and France, and while the country simmers on the brink of civil war, Owen becomes her protector.

They fall in love, risking Owen’s life and Queen Catherine’s reputation—but how do they found the dynasty which changes British history – the Tudors?

This is the first historical novel to fully explore the amazing life of Owen Tudor, grandfather of King Henry VII and the great-grandfather of King Henry VIII. Set against a background of the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York, which develops into what have become known as the Wars of the Roses, Owen’s story deserves to be told.

**Q&A with Tony Riches**

Tell us about your most recent novel

My latest novel is OWEN – Book One of The Tudor Trilogy. Set in England 1422, Owen, a Welsh servant, waits in Windsor Castle to meet his new mistress, the beautiful and lonely Queen Catherine of Valois, widow of the warrior king, Henry V. Her infant son is crowned King of England and France, and while the country simmers on the brink of civil war, Owen becomes her protector.

They fall in love, risking Owen’s life and Queen Catherine’s reputation—but how do they found the dynasty which changes British history – the Tudors?

This is the first historical novel to fully explore the amazing life of Owen Tudor, grandfather of King Henry VII and the great-grandfather of King Henry VIII. Set against a background of the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York, which develops into what have become known as the Wars of the Roses, Owen’s story deserves to be told.

What has been your favourite part of the book publishing journey?

It’s great to have feedback from readers all over the world. I like to know all the hard work of researching, writing and editing has been worthwhile, particularly if I can help raise awareness of men like Owen and Jasper Tudor.

What inspires you?

I have always enjoyed reading historical fiction – a way to travel back in time and understand what it must have been like to live in the past. My first novel, Queen Sacrifice, was inspired by the idea of bringing a real chess game to life, with the whole of Wales as the ‘chessboard’ and thirty-two characters, kings and queens, bishops, knights and pawns, each with an interesting back-story. (I actually had to invent a few wives and female relatives, as there are of course only two female roles on a chess board.)  The Tudor Trilogy was inspired by living close to Pembroke Castle and learning about Jasper Tudor, who once lived there.

What is your favourite book?

I first read Alice in Wonderland as a child and still think it has a special magic that few books achieve - although I didn’t really understand it then and am not sure I do now!

Who is your favourite author?

I read widely so it is almost impossible to pick a single author, although I’m currently reading Lamentation from The Shardlake Series by C. J. Sansom. For anyone new to historical fiction, Sansom is a great place to start, as he weaves fascinating historical details into his stories and really brings the medieval world to life.  Another of my favourite authors is Anne O’Brien. I admire the way she evokes a real sense of time and place and it was Anne who sparked my interest in the fifteenth century, so I always look out for her new books.

What is your advice for other writers/authors?
I often hear writers complain that they don’t have the time to write a book. My advice is to remember that if you only write one page a day, that’s a book a year!

About the Author

Tony Riches is a UK historical fiction author living in Pembrokeshire, Wales. You can find out more on Tony’s blog ‘The Writing Desk’ at www.tonyriches.co.uk and find him on Twitter @tonyrichesOwen – Book One of the Tudor Trilogy is now available in eBook and paperback on Amazon and all formats on Smashwords. There is a short trailer for the book on YouTube http://youtu.be/ELH4IU5pxds

18 September 2015

New & Noteworthy: September 18

Jessica Knauss has been accepted into Grub Street's prestigious Launch Lab. Taking place over the next three months, Launch Lab is a seminar in which eleven other soon-to-be-published authors and industry professionals will collaborate to create the best launch experiences possible for their books, including Jessica's SEVEN NOBLE NIGHTS (Bagwyn Books, 2016). Jessica thinks she may be the only historical novelist in the group, but will report in full on her blog at www.jessicaknauss.com. Grub Street is Boston's literary hub, with classes, a yearly conference, and other indispensable writer support. 

Heather Domin's 2012 novella ALLEGIANCE will be published in French by Sidh Press on October 21. Pre-order is available now at Amazon.fr. Sidh Press will publish the French edition of Heather's 2009 novel THE SOLDIER OF RAETIA later this year, as well as the sequel THE HEIRS OF FORTUNE in 2016. Heather is excited to be working with this new independent press to bring her stories to French-speaking readers. For more information, visit sidhpress.com.

17 September 2015

Excerpt Thursday: OWEN – Book One of The Tudor Trilogy by Tony Riches

This week, we're pleased to again welcome author TONY RICHES with his latest release, OWEN - BOOK ONE OF THE TUDOR TRILOGY. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free  copy of Owen. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

England 1422: Owen, a Welsh servant, waits in Windsor Castle to meet his new mistress, the beautiful and lonely Queen Catherine of Valois, widow of the warrior king, Henry V. Her infant son is crowned King of England and France, and while the country simmers on the brink of civil war, Owen becomes her protector.

They fall in love, risking Owen’s life and Queen Catherine’s reputation—but how do they found the dynasty which changes British history – the Tudors?

This is the first historical novel to fully explore the amazing life of Owen Tudor, grandfather of King Henry VII and the great-grandfather of King Henry VIII. Set against a background of the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York, which develops into what have become known as the Wars of the Roses, Owen’s story deserves to be told.

**An Excerpt from Owen – Book One of The Tudor Trilogy**

Winter of 1422 

I tense at the sound of approaching footsteps as I wait to meet my new mistress, the young widow of King Henry V, Queen Catherine of Valois. Colourful Flemish tapestries decorate the royal apartments of Windsor Castle, dazzling my senses and reminding me how life in the royal household presents new opportunities. My life will change forever, if she finds me acceptable, yet doubt nags at my mind.

The doors open and Queen Catherine’s usher appears. I have been told to approach the queen and bow, but must not look directly at her or speak, other than to say my name, until spoken to. Taking a deep breath I enter the queen’s private rooms where she sits surrounded by her sharp-eyed ladies-in-waiting. I have the briefest glimpse of azure silk, gold brocade, gleaming pearls and a breath of exotic perfume. I remove my hat and bow, my eyes cast down to her velvet-slippered feet.

‘Owen Tudor, Your Highness, Keeper of your Wardrobe.’ My voice echoes in the high-ceilinged room.

One of her ladies fails to suppress her giggle, a sweet enough sound, if you are not the reason for it. I forget my instruction and look up to see the queen regarding me with confident, ice-blue eyes.

‘You are a Welshman?’ Her words sound like an accusation.

‘My full name is Owain ap Maredydd ap Tudur, although the English call me Owen Tudor. I come from a long line of Welsh noblemen, Your Highness.’ I regret my boast as soon as I say the words.

‘Owen Tudor...’ This time her voice carries a hint of amusement.

I put on my hat and pull my shoulders back. She examines me, as one might study a horse before offering a price. After years of hard work I have secured a position worthy of my skills, yet it means nothing without the approval of the queen.

‘You look more like a soldier than a servant?’ The challenge in her words seems to tease me.

‘I have served in the king’s army as a soldier.’ I feel all their eyes upon me.

‘Yet... you have no sword?’ She sounds curious.

‘Welshmen are not permitted to carry a sword in England, Your Highness.’ I am still bitter at this injustice.

I remember the last time I saw her, at the king’s state funeral in Westminster. Her face veiled, she rode in a gilded carriage drawn by a team of black horses. I followed on foot as the funeral procession passed through sombre crowds, carrying the king’s standard and wearing the red, blue and gold livery of the royal household.

‘You fought in France?’

‘With the king’s bowmen, Your Highness, before I became a squire.’

The queen has none of the air of sadness I expected. Slim, almost too thin, her childlike wrists and delicate fingers are adorned with gold rings sparkling with diamonds and rubies. Her neck is long and slender, her skin pale with the whiteness of a woman who rarely sees the sun. Her golden-brown hair is gathered in tight plaits at the back of her head and her headdress fashionably emphasises her smooth, high forehead.

King Henry V chose as his bride the youngest daughter of the man they called the ‘mad king’, Charles VI. They said King Charles feared he was made of glass and would shatter if he didn’t take care. Charles promised Henry he would inherit the throne and become the next King of France and there were rumours of a secret wedding dowry, a fortune in gold.

Barely a year into his marriage, the king left his new wife pregnant and alone in Windsor. He returned to fight his war in France, capturing the castle of Dreux before marching on the fortress at Meaux, defended by Jean de Gast, the Bastard of Vaurus, a cruel, brave captain. The king never saw his son and heir, his namesake.

The siege of Meaux was hard won and he suffered the bloody flux, the dreaded curse of the battlefield. Men had been known to recover, if they were strong and lucky. Many did not, despite the bloodletting and leeches. The flux is an inglorious way to die, poisoned by your own body, especially for a victorious warrior king who would never now be King of France.

The queen has an appraising look in her eyes. She has buried her hopes for the future along with her husband. I remember I am looking at the mother of the new king, once he comes of age. One thing is certain; she will not be left to raise the prince alone. Ambitious men are already vying for their share of power and influence.

At last she speaks. ‘And now you are in my household?’

‘My appointment to your service was made by Sir Walter Hungerford, Steward of the King’s Household and constable here at Windsor.’

‘Sir Walter was one of my husband’s most trusted men—the executor of the king’s will.’

‘I worked as squire to Sir Walter for many years, in England and France.’

‘You speak French?’

‘A little, Your Highness.’ I answer in French.

‘Were you with King Henry at the siege of Rouen?’ Now she speaks in French.

‘I was, Your Highness. I will never forget it.’ I answer again in French. I learned the language on the battlefield and in the taverns of Paris and can swear as well as any Frenchman.

‘I heard the people of Rouen were starving... before they surrendered.’ Her voice is softer now and she speaks in English.

‘War is cruel, yet now there is less appetite for it.’

‘I pray to God that is true.’ She glances back at her ladies, who are watching and listening, as ladies-in-waiting do. Queen Catherine regards me, giving nothing away. ‘I welcome you to our household, Master Tudor.’

About the Author

Tony Riches is a UK historical fiction author living in Pembrokeshire, Wales. You can find out more on Tony’s blog ‘The Writing Desk’ at www.tonyriches.co.uk and find him on Twitter @tonyriches. Owen – Book One of the Tudor Trilogy is now available in eBook and paperback on Amazon and all formats on Smashwords. There is a short trailer for the book on YouTube http://youtu.be/ELH4IU5pxds

16 September 2015

History and its Limits: Tolstoy’s War and Peace

By Kathryn A. Kopple

Famously, Henry James detested historical novels.  At best, he regarded them as derivative, and at worst, he thought them cheap.  The historical novelist appropriates materials from sources far removed from first-hand experience.  The historical novelist works not with character, which is for James the novel’s true subject, but types.  The historical novelist never knows when to quit and instead produces cumbersome narratives better used as doorstops.  He spared no one his withering appraisal of historical fiction.  Leo Tolstoy—to whom the word genius is ascribed with such regularity it begins to feel as if it were part of his name (the Genius Leo Tolstoy)—did not escape James’ cudgel.  For James, Tolstoy was guilty on all charges.  He also committed one other unpardonable error. He allowed himself as a writer to be constrained by a concern peculiar to historical novels:  fidelity to his sources.  Historical realism, for James, is the enemy of artistic freedom.

This is not a mere quarrel over two different approaches to literature.  Tolstoy is a writer who does not allow himself the luxury of imagining that freedom exists in an essentially unfree society.  Individuals may enjoy greater or lesser privileges, but privilege is not freedom.  On the contrary, privilege is exhibit A in demonstrating the extent to which individuals are not the masters of their own existence.  In his major works—War and Peace and Anna Karenina—Tolstoy does not deviate from his worldview.  Even the most influential men—those who appear to wield absolute power over the fate of nations—are not free.  In War and Peace, Tolstoy takes it upon himself to demonstrate how no-one escapes this rule, not even legendary figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte.  

In the 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte survived the maelstrom that followed in the aftermath of the French Revolution, seized power, and declared himself the emancipator of his country—and then of Europe.  Of course, he had his enemies.  But, he had far more supporters.   The conclusion drawn by historians goes something like this:  Napoleon was a great hero.  He did what great heroes do:  change history.  He could do all this because he was exceptional, and only the most exceptional persons know what to do with power.  Use it.  Tolstoy understood how such conclusions could be arrived at:  unchecked power is freedom at its absolute limit. But, Tolstoy would have none of it. He understood freedom defined by absolute power as abhorrent as well as false. He thought it the baldest lie.

Bonaparte had been dead less than a decade when Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in 1828.  By the time Tolstoy publishes War and Peace (1869), he was an aristocrat in his mid-thirties, married, who has put behind him, by all accounts, a colorful and checkered youth.  He had fought in both the Chechen and Crimean wars.  His writings about his war experiences, together with other works, earned Tolstoy the reputation of being one of Russia’s most gifted writers.  It is in War and Peace that Tolstoy offers up a portrait of Bonaparte that is contrary to the legend of the great man.  For Tolstoy, there are no great men.  And not simply because great men, like all humans, have flaws, but because historians are either enthralled or duped by the very idea of greatness.  When Tolstoy attacks Napoleon, he does not do so out of a particular disdain for the ruler (although, certainly Tolstoy had no love for the emperor).  He seeks to exorcize the spirit of Romanticism that deifies people to the detriment of all rationale thought.

But, there is a long process of initiation before readers of War and Peace can appreciate the extent to which Tolstoy struggled with the concept of freedom. The author lived during times of reform and repression. Serfdom had not yet been ended but there were attempts, not to mention significant setbacks, to reform. Reformists from the upper-classes fought for greater liberty and were put down by the tsar. Foundational institutions—marriage, for example—were riven by hypocrisy and void of virtues. And then there was the Church, with its self-proclaimed power over heaven and earth, which instilled superstition in the masses while doing very little to improve the conditions of poor. Everywhere Tolstoy looked, people were punished for thinking for themselves. War and Peace addresses this dilemma on a scale that can only be described as epic.

Tolstoy is such a good writer at creating convincing characters and story lines—extraordinarily good—that it can be tempting to become irritated with his habit of inserting exposition where the reader expects the narrative to chug along on its tracks, as if it were a well-oiled machine. And important authors have criticized him for his digressions, sermonizing, and belief system. There is a temptation to skip the boring parts of War and Peace, as they say, and get on with the story. But, at a price. War and Peace takes the reader through the military campaigns beginning with the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 through France’s invasion of Russia in 1812. The war ends with the French army’s retreat after the Battle of Borodino, where some 70,000 lives are lost. The French arrive in Moscow to chaos—much of the city is in flames. The exposition makes it possible for the reader to understand why the beautiful city had to be destroyed in the most objective manner possible. For this task, Tolstoy settles on a detailed description of a dying beehive—and it is but one example of how the author asks us to consider the true complexities of historical events, so much so that the instigator of this destruction can never be named.

Kathryn A. Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.

13 September 2015

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Audrey Taylor Gonzalez on SOUTH OF EVERYTHING

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Audrey Taylor Gonzalez with her latest novel, South of Everything, set prior to the pre-Civil Rights movement. The author will offer one free copy of the novel to a lucky visitor.  Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

“In West Tennessee God forgot his geography…” so begins South of Everything, the story of Missy Sara. Born to a plantation-owning family in 1940s in Germantown, Missy Sara is, like so many other white girls of her era, largely raised by Mammyrosy, the black woman who rocks her from the cradle and who cooks the biscuits her Daddy lives to eat. But Missy is a quiet rebel. She develops a powerful kinship with Old Thomas, her parents’ servant, who introduces her to the Lolololo Tree—a magical, mystical tree that Sara discovers is wiser than any teacher or parent or priest, and that heals everyone and everything.

As her parents cling to the Old South, Missy reaches out to create a new world, one that embraces all human beings, regardless of the color of their skin or the size of their property.

**Q&A with Audrey Taylor Gonzalez**

What was your inspiration for South of Everything?

For months, while living in Uruguay in the 80ties-90ties, I woke in the night remembering the people who had helped to raise me. They were all dead, and had passed on to God’s kingdom. I kept a pad and pencil beside me (and the dogs and my husband) and started taking notes. Out came the story about South of Everything, and the relationships I cannot forget. So this was a tribute to the wonderful, loving African-American people who not only took care of me and made sure I turned into a good woman when I was growing up, but were the foundations for my faith and belief in God and the afterlife.

What message do you want your readers to take away from the book?

The message is always that we must love each other, trust each other, respect each other and overcome the divide that man has tried to put between people of all races. The young folk and middle age ones today who are fighting the fight don’t really know how it was in the ‘40ties and ‘50ties because they didn’t live it. There was a simpleness, a goodness, a kindness and love and there was always hope that things would get better. I don’t imply there was equality. That never existed in the South and the war still rages on today. But those two decades, there was a sense of optimism, of trying to find a solution on both sides of the divide. I was horrified by what was called racism when I learned as a teen what had been going on in history and my own life. My purpose for the rest of my life has been trying to make that difference go away so that all have a fair chance.

Why did you become a writer?

I don’t think anyone CHOOSES to become a writer. It chooses you. Some of us have an ability to express self and to think with an open mind and creatively = all poets and novelists have a heart and soul that comes from some deep place which we try to discover and exercise as long as we are alive and can use our brain. It’s like an itch that won’t go away until it is scratched. It can be painful, but in the end, it’s delightful, even the agony. I started as a journalist., as an obnoxiously curious girl who wanted to be smart, to know, to investigate. I was the first female hired to work on the city desk at the newspaper.  I was fortunate to work for the city newspapers, to have Merriman Smith, dean of the White House correspondents in the 50s and 60s, as a mentor, and to have interviewed the first great African leader, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in 1962, Elvis a couple of times, Telly Savales, fashion designers like Halston, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and also great artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Arneson. Recently I was able to interview in Beijing, Ai Weiwei, who is my new hero.

What’s your take on perspective on race relations and violence?

The history of the world is based on violence, from the very beginning. Religions have evolved with their elbows deep in violence. It’s in our mental system. People just cannot agree to agree or disagree. The hatred of the south, the vulnerability of the races, the prejudices which strangle our hearts and souls, these must be eliminated. I married a Latino man, a boxer, whom I love with all my heart, even today though he is in heaven. He was a character and never spoke a word of English (I learned Spanish quickly), and though my parents let us visit one Christmas, we were not allowed to stay in our family condo in Delray, Florida. I never knew why. But my father refused and we had to find another place to stay. Sergio never came back to the States. We settled in Uruguay and it was the happiest I have ever been or will be in my life.

Why did you become a deacon?

It wasn’t something I decided to do. I was working on the streets of Montevideo, and running a soup kitchen in the bowels of our cathedral, and a priest from Ecuador told me, I need to be a deacon. I didn’t even know what a deacon was. But he gave me a book on the subject, and I realized at that moment, that was my charge, my feelings, my spirit, my hope. In 1994, the Anglican Church in England allowed the ordination of women to the deaconate. This was about ten years after the Episcopal Church had voted for women as deacons and priests. Women still are not wholly accepted in the entire church, even though it “looks” like they are. But times are changing. And we pray it will grow stronger every day, and those Bishops who are against it, will realize the amazing value women have in this world and in our faiths.

What have your many life experiences taught you?

Take a challenge. It makes you more human. Life shouldn’t be limited to a safe stage, a safe place, a safe neighborhood. Believe in what you want to do and have at it. Believe you can do it and find a way. Put yourself in the middle of where you want to be. Sometimes that means taking an outrageous risk and trusting God that you are on the right road.

For me, when I turned 67 - I said, it is now or never. I wanted to travel the world - and I was blessed to be able to do so - and see how other people of other religions live their faith. I’ve been privileged to participate in many lifestyles - from journalist, TV host, art gallery owner, racehorse breeder with champions, and a reluctant mountain climber that got me attacking the Grand Tetons, and then two months after surviving breast cancer, to the base camp of Mt. Everest at age 68. Then at age 72 I circumnavigated the holy mountain Mt. Kailash in Tibet  (all sins are supposed to be forgiven after that! J) and I’ve been to Vietnam to see where the war was and what devastation it left behind; I’ve been to Antarctica and to Russia, most of Europe, to Israel, and Mexico, Costa Rica, and many South American countries, - and all over Africa when I was 21 and a budding journalist. High on my list have been visiting Mother Teresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying in Calcutta, India, and also the monastery of St. Theresa de Avila, just recently, when my daughter Mary and my granddaughter Megan, 14, did part of the Camino (The Way) to Santiago de Compostela, to give thanks to St. James remains in that Cathedral. I adore the Saints and have visited many sites where the holy Virgin Mary has appeared, from Fatima to Walsingham in England and Guadaloupe in Mexico. There is so much more to do.

Learn more about author Audrey Taylor Gonzalez

10 September 2015

Excerpt Thursday: SOUTH OF EVERYTHING by Audrey Taylor Gonzalez

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Audrey Taylor Gonzalez with her latest novel, South of Everything, set prior to the pre-Civil Rights movementJoin us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. The author will offer one free copy of the novel to a lucky visitor.  Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post  or Sunday's author interview. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

“In West Tennessee God forgot his geography…” so begins South of Everything, the story of Missy Sara. Born to a plantation-owning family in 1940s in Germantown, Missy Sara is, like so many other white girls of her era, largely raised by Mammyrosy, the black woman who rocks her from the cradle and who cooks the biscuits her Daddy lives to eat. But Missy is a quiet rebel. She develops a powerful kinship with Old Thomas, her parents’ servant, who introduces her to the Lolololo Tree—a magical, mystical tree that Sara discovers is wiser than any teacher or parent or priest, and that heals everyone and everything.

As her parents cling to the Old South, Missy reaches out to create a new world, one that embraces all human beings, regardless of the color of their skin or the size of their property.

** An Excerpt from South of Everything**

In West Tennessee God forgot his geography. Decades past an earthquake caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards and form a lake called Reelfoot. That’s all we got. No Smoky Mountains in this part of the state. No tableflat buttes. No skyscrapers. Only the Mississippi chewing its way along the border like an old timer working the tobacco stuffed in his gums. Settlements that imbibed the muddy juice along the river were about as tangy as the brown banks, and people seemed to want to keep it that way—quiet and out of harm’s way, or covered if harm got in the way. Waiting for disaster. Fending it off with doing nothing.

Germantown, where our family lived, on the east side of Shelby County, carried on this pace, away from urban Memphis, near where Wolf River set free from the Mississippi. Germantown had less roll than the railroad tracks that passed through it, and the soil was poorer than the rich Delta lands below the riverbanks. The hills weren’t as adamant in their lifting up as the rest of Tennessee, kind of like an illegitimate landscape born of its neighbor states but cut out because it had to be somewhere to hold up all those trees. Herefords, hogs, horses, cotton bales and unpainted sharecropper houses. Farms backed into each other. Only tornado warnings twirling over from Arkansas charged up the atmosphere, but no one panicked, trusting in the famous Memphis bluffs, humps of hills along the river where old-timers swore clipped the tornado’s tail so it jumped over Shelby County.

This was dull country out here, unpestered by progress. Still safe. People behaved. Everyone knew his place, his role in a situation. Nothing much went on, and if it did, everyone knew about it. Germantown was not a town of Germans. In fact it changed its name to Nashoba during the World War. Nashoba was an old Indian name, probably Choctaw. But this wasn’t a town of Indians either. What did we know of Indians? Indians lived out West and held rain dances, wore feathers, moccasins and showed up in Lone Ranger comic books as villains. When I was ten I got a crush on an Indian horse wrangler at a dude ranch out in Colorado where our family went summers. Neal Ride the Wind, he was, with long black hair under his Stetson, every strand in place as if just brushed, moving like a curtain over his lemon colored slicker as he brought up the guests’ horses. Back then I was just a pudgy nuisance who could sit a horse pretty well, western shirt barely snapping across my jellyroll midriff, shapeless jeans, cuffs turned up off the ground.

But home was Germantown, and in the ‘40s when I grew up there Germantown was Deep South, not Indian Country—an uneventful, unincorporated town of insignificant people, tractors taking up half the narrow roads, big farms, rolling grass every whichaway, a “for whites only” county high school with yellow buses, plenty of wood shacks and barns, and a few stately old homes left over from pre-Civil War grandeur. There were probably more colored people than white living in the country. Rich white folks had big houses mostly in town. On plantations the houses were colonial style with portico porches from which there was a view while colored people had unpainted porches, lifted off the ground by bricks stacked under the four corners to keep out flood water and rats. Hound dogs and sneaky snakes slept under the crooked open-air porches, unraveling screen doors, and early Maytag washers rested in the front yard. Hound dogs welcomed visitors with heads drooped to knee level, anticipating an ear-pull. They howled if you played on a piano.

Poor white folks lived like that, too, people like Mr. Hugh and his family who took care of the cows on our farm. Their sons had bb-guns and played football, tinkered with dead automobiles, and took their girlfriends over the state line to Hernando, Mississippi, to get married. B-Budd Hugh was one of my first friends. Then, when I was fourteen, my first true love, the beginning of many, was a sharecropper’s son who had a squashed nose like a boxer’s. Twice it was broken. He scored touchdowns some Friday nights at the high school. Guys liked him. He had rolled a car in a ditch. Didn’t get a scratch. Didn’t go to jail. His dad had one leg crippled from an old war wound, drove a leased tractor to farm his crops. His mother, her uniform a thin flower specked housecoat, passed warm days on the front porch shelling black eyed peas into a cast iron pot or peeling peaches for canning. I spent a couple of afternoons shelling peas before my parents told me I couldn’t see Duke anymore because he didn’t respectfully stand up when they walked into the playroom and I introduced him. He lacked good manners, claimed Daddy who had no time for that.

We lived in one of those big houses, and we knew colored people better than most because they lived next to or with us on our farms. The farm men got up at dawn, hooked up the mules, drove the feed from pasture to pasture no matter if there was rain or sleet or snow, sort of like the postman. The women rocked us from the cradle and arranged us for getting married and cooked the biscuits Daddy wanted every night for dinner. The men wore white coats to serve dinner, and the women washed and folded our delicate underwear and changed the sheets every other day. They inherited our unwanted clothes and broken toys—not the fine things which Mother sent to the Junior League. Their children conspired with us to throw baby pigs out of haylofts to see if they bounced and then fled with us from the angry farm manager so as not to get killed. They galloped barebacked with us on the walking horse and played war with us by the old ponies in the pastures.

They called me “Miss Sara” and they called my brother “Master Robertelee,” even when we were children. Never first names alone. Daddy called them “the help,” and Mother called them “the servants.” From childhood I guessed they were ours because they were always there, polishing up the house so it was a showpiece. I knew if I stood at the top of the stairs and yelled, “Yeh-Yeh, come get me,” the butler whose name was Willie would soon have me up in his arms and tote me to the bottom of the stairs.

Like the servants at the big house where things were nicer, the farm help’s life seemed to begin and end where they worked. The old men hardly scattered from the farm because it was a long walk to anywhere, and weekends they walked to church or to a mule race where they could win silver dollars, or maybe they’d go down to Hoppers’ for fried chitlings and marshmellowed sweet potatoes which kind Mrs. Hoppers prepared with great skill. Old men poked along on foot at the edge of rut-filled Stout Road, ambling in slow motion, dark apparitions dressed in layers of caramel brown or parson black, even on the hottest days, often a thick stick in hand, a towsack over the shoulder, a hat on the head, going to or coming from in the same manner so the footpaths were worn like cattle trails. The kids rode thin bicycles or an unkempt pony.

But before the farm, when I was six and we still lived at my grandfather Reddaddy’s mansion on South Parkway I dressed in my favorite pink pinafore with the bibbed front that barely covered my chubby chest one Eastern morning and waited impatiently for Mother to get ready for church. She was taking a long time, so I went out to the barnyard where our twin goats, “Custard” and “Pudding” lived with my Shetland pony, Penny. When I walked in Penny, her teeth almost as big as her hooves, gave my shoulder a nip, and then she shook her head with its golden mane and reared up to put her hooves on the fence. A loud whinny and few nose blows and she stood on her hind legs for a few seconds before going back down. She did that only for me. I knew she was a trick pony because of that. But no one believed me when I told them. For my birthday parties Penny, on her best behavior, was hitched to the six-seat wicker cart to give my guests with balloons tied to their wrists a ride around the front driveway. Most of the time I wasn’t allowed to ride her unless Old Thomas wasn’t busy. I was only allowed to feed her sugar cubes which she nudged off my flat hand. So I wanted to go find Thomas. I thought he must be picking strawberries for our cook, Mammyrosy’s, shortcake, but before I could, Mother yelled for me to come get in the car.

I turned and ran towards her call, and that’s when I tripped and fell hard on the gravel driveway. The hurt wasn’t too awful, but three rocks stuck in my knee. I cried, and when I got to the car, I told Mother what had happened. She didn’t believe I was wounded. No one did because no one could see the rocks lodged under the skin, and my knee wasn’t bleeding. Besides, we were late, and Mother was in a big rush to get us to Sunday School, so she ordered me to quit fussing and get in the car.

When I told Robertelee about the rocks he said if I kissed my knee, they would go away. So that day when we got home I looked at my knee in the mirror and watched those rocks glistening deep under the skin. I realized there was no way I could kiss my knee. I could only push my finger in and out on the triangle. Those rocks felt like hard candy in the bottom of my Christmas stocking. Day after day I studied them and pushed at them, and when I was fiddling with the rocks, I’d get a fizzy sensation that I was being lifted up.

At that age I didn’t know if it was magical or spiritual or what that sensation was. I couldn’t evaluate it then. But, I promise you, this is true: When no one was around, I could fiddle with those rocks and then I could float down the grand curving staircase of the Big House. If I whispered, “Lift me up Lord,” He’d do it. He’d lift me up. I could think where I wanted to be, and a moment later I’d be there. At the top of the grand front steps, my feet would hover a shoe’s length off the first step and I’d drift slowly, in vertical fashion, from the top step to the safety of the bottom one. It was sort of like Mary Poppins coming in for a landing without her umbrella. The sensation felt as smooth and delicious as ice skating on a cold day.

Of course, I didn’t tell anyone except Old Thomas about that. Old Thomas was the colored man my grandfather, Reddaddy, had brought up from one of the cotton warehouses, and he was magical. He could analyze just about anything. Sometimes in the night, while I slept with my cat Flossie, the rocks in my knees stung, and I was sure the boogie-man was chewing on my toes. I didn’t want to look to see if he was. If my covers were on, I was safe and the boogie-man would get bored and go bother my brother in his room. But during restless nights, a scary dream began in me. In that same pink pinafore and with my rock-filled knee leaking blood, I had to run in curves around the tall oak trees as I tried to dodge red Chevrolets aiming to run directly over me. I hid behind the thinner elms or turned sharply in narrow triangles around the poplars, feeling wise that I knew metal cars couldn’t bend around trees, and then, exhausted, I stretched out on the ground as flat as possible in my roundness, so wheels could pass by on either side of my body without the belly of the car scraping my stomach.     

Old Thomas knew so many stories I just wanted to be around him all the time. He knew the inside of people didn’t always jell with the outside. Many people came to him for advice. He never admitted to any powers because once the police hauled him off, and he didn’t want that to happen again. Maybe he really was a healing man but he just wouldn’t practice on people who particularly wanted to be practiced on. He practiced on whatever was closest at hand. Old Thomas had a special way with animals, especially those with religious potential. He taught a dozen pink and black pigs how to pray before they dove into their evening meal, and he taught chickens how to squat down over their legs for an epistle reading and sit still until it was over, and dogs wandered along behind him so that he might have picked up a whole congregation of them by the time he got a short piece down the road. Mother thought it was strange how the dogs that usually try to bite colored people loved Old Thomas. Maybe it was because he hummed like an icebox or a summer ceiling fan. When things were quiet, it was the hum you picked up. Old Thomas even hummed when he was serving and it wasn’t proper to speak, like at dinner when he passed the lady peas mounded up in silver dishes, silver serving spoons aimed right at you for better handling.

It bothered my mother to have to put up with his humming. But she couldn’t get rid of Old Thomas because Reddaddy had made an agreement with Daddy that Old Thomas would be there with us all his life. And that he’d be safe. Daddy knew some secrets that Mother didn’t, so she simmered a bit in being left out.
            “Thomas is doing that humming stuff again,” she’d complain, returning from the kitchen to the den where the sound of Vaughn Monroe came out of the record player. She’d be hoping to get sympathy from Daddy, who kept his eyes focused on the Zane Grey western he was reading.
             “Whenever he gets like that, nothing gets done,” Mother said into space. She was never satisfied with “the help,” even though most stayed with us until death. And she had no patience with burning religion. If anyone got religious inspiration during work hours, it made her nervous.   “Is he going into a trance again?” Mother asked Mammyrosy who was beating the cream for prune whip.
            ‘Dunno, Miz Lucy,” Mammyrosy replied, the muscles in her walloping arm like knots in a seaman’s rope. Mammyrosy wasn’t getting into anybody’s debt. She had a tendency to nap when Old Thomas hummed, and when dinner was all ready to be served, the greens and corn pudding and squash casserole pierced at right angles by the oversized serving spoons so Mother would have no problems with the first serving, Mammyrosy rested in her metal chair in the corner and fell asleep sitting up. Automatically at six p.m. her eyes snapped open, and Old Thomas would quell his humming and go announce that dinner was served.

Now and then Mammyrosy wore a long white cotton dress and white beret to work; this outfit signified that she was going to the meeting of her Salvation Sisters group at the Coloreds Methodist Episcopal Church after she tied up. Mammyrosy too had “experiences” with the Lord, but they were quieter than Old Thomas’s and pretty much hers alone. When she got into a state of vision, she’d just close her eyes and beat whatever batter she was mixing even faster.
            “I don’t know why you all have to do these things right at dinner time,” Mother mumbled, pushing out the swinging door as she left the kitchen.

I thought Mother was disturbed that she couldn’t order around the time and place of Jesus’s activities, which seemed to have a priority around dinnertime. Or maybe she was disturbed because Old Thomas had a white eye that had been turning whiter and whiter lately and looked like the star opal one of Daddy’s friends brought back from the War in India. You never knew where Old Thomas was looking, but he could see clearer than a dog’s scent, and I always knew when he was looking at me, because when he was, I felt warm.             

Even before I told him, Old Thomas knew things. I often passed my secrets on to him. He could spot a miracle from any distance and tell if it was real or fake, and when I told him about the dream, he claimed it had something to do with those rocks in my knee. He said my knee had snagged the three spots off the devil’s dice, the kind we used playing board games but a more powerful version because they were red with brown spots. I couldn’t figure out what the devil’s red dice were doing in my grandfather’s gravel driveway. Old Thomas didn’t go into detail. But he did promise one day the devil would get his comeuppance and wouldn’t win any more games.

On Sundays the population of Germantown swelled with Sunday drivers from Memphis looking for an outing or a good barbecue sandwich because Germantown was home to the best barbecue pit in the country. Bozos, it was called, ten miles down Highway 61 from our farm. Barbecue-lovers drove the twenty miles out of town for good pulled pork barbecue sandwiches and a slab of ribs. Barbecue was born out of a way to make cheap, fatty meat edible, complimenting the laid-back lifestyle of these parts. Slide a pig’s thigh on an iron grate, turn it every now and then, slop it with a sauce that stung with vinegar. This land I came from was a land where violence was turned deep into the soil, but no one dared bring it up except in whispers at Bozos. Bozos was an enigma. Besides being home to the best barbecue in the country, it was also its own sort of church where ideas got disturbed in conversation. Pull open the door and be assured your spirit would soon be saved.

Two aged sisters, Miss Irma and Miss Lulu, with over-bleached blond hair and aqua blue eye shadow, ran Bozos on an old family recipe, a secret they planned to take to the grave with them, so we had to eat it while we could. Miss Irma looked like she was the barbecue taster, big and buxom in her spotty white apron over a flowered dress, and Miss Lulu was skinny. She always wore a green bow in her hair and green socks with her sandals because they matched her green apron with its big pockets. My Reddaddy went to Bozos so much he should have owned the place, and some days Old Thomas went along to visit with the sisters, too. But Reddaddy and County Sheriff Ferget met there every week, and sometimes on Sundays when Reddaddy could sneak away from the big house. For me it was the forbidden place I had to get to. Mother got upset when Reddaddy took me there and fed me pork barbecue. Pork was unkempt for a proper young girl, she said. And all that sauce, too messy for good manners. But besides the Lolololo tree, Bozos was one of my favorite places in the world, and Old Thomas and Reddaddy were my favorite people.

Learn more about author Audrey Taylor Gonzalez