Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Friday, July 23, 2010
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Rating: 5 of 5 - sheer perfection
Have you ever smelled the magnolias, tasted the gumbo, seen the Spanish moss strung like Christmas garlands in the live oaks, heard the rain play on a tin roof, felt the damp salt breeze off the Gulf of Mexico? And the fleeting visions in the corner of your eye are indeed ghosts of an antebellum past, in the land of Marie Laveau. James Lee Burke's gifts are such that you will experience all of these things right there in your own home or in the coffee shop or on the evening train, even if you have never made it to New Orleans (NuOrlans) or south to New Iberia Parish.
The Glass Rainbow is the best James Lee Burke novel, the best Dave Robicheaux tale. The novel begins with the investigation of the deaths of seven girls and young women. There is a list of suspects: an heir to a plantation fortune turned author of historical novels; an ex-con turned author of a novel about his prison time (one of those people made famous by an affluent "sophisticated" readership living vicariously on illicit thrills); a swamp-wise dealer/pimp/entrepreneur who preys expertly on desperate people with dreams of a significant life; a nouveaux-riche millionaire and his wife with old money pretensions, under investigation by the IRS and the SEC.
Dave Robicheaux, New Iberia Parish Sheriff Detective, Vietnam vet and recovering alcoholic who harbors no illusions about his fellow man, is conducting the investigation into the young women's deaths. As always, best friend and private investigator Clete Purcel, Vietnam Vet, disgraced former cop and alcoholic with a death wish (who is somehow adorable despite these things), has his back (sometimes in the form of ag assault and maybe justifiable homicide.)
The extra ingredient in this mix is the presence of Dave's daughter Alafair, home for the summer between college and law school. She is also writing a novel (there's a lot of writing going on here) and becomes involved with Kermit Abelard, aforementioned plantation heir from our suspect list.
This brew comes to a boil with results that I did not see coming. I kept counting the pages because I did not want it to end. This novel changes everything. Nothing in Dave and Clete's world will ever be the same. By the climax of The Glass Rainbow I was holding my breath with tears in my eyes.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
The High Plains were considered to be the best grassland in the world. In 1804 Lewis and Clark pronounced this land to be "well calculated for the sweetest and most nourishing hay." The Comanche, the Lords of the Plains, lived and hunted there. They chased on horseback the great bison herds over the plains and used them for everything from dinner to teepee hides, used the stomachs as canteens and the tendons for bow strings. This land was perfect for grazing antelope and buffalo. They fed on the grasses but left the stubble and root systems intact. This allowed the grasses to hold down the soil so that they endured and came back each year for millenia.
The settler farmers changed all that. In 1820 Stephen Long, a government engineer, explorer and surveyor, declared this land "...almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture..." His advice was heeded by no one. The federal government removed the Comanche from the land (as they always did - after breaking a treaty) to free up the land for farmers. The farmers used their plows and then tractors to turn the earth under, pulling up the grass. The farmers planted wheat during a time when Russia was not exporting wheat so the price was sky high. Then Russia began exporting again and the price of wheat dropped like a rock. To make up for the lower price the farmers plowed yet more acreage which further destroyed the grasses and set the topsoil free. I am a native Texan and I know all about how the wind blows on the High Plains: 24/7 and so it stole the unprotected topsoil and left behind dust. It is estimated that 80,000,000 acres of soil disappeared. Wheat won't grow in dust and neither did anything else.
Then the dust storms began. They sometimes topped out at 10,000 feet. The National Weather Service had no name for the phenomena. They weren't just simple dust storms or sand storms. No one had ever seen anything like it. The farmers called the dust storms "black blizzards," so named because it was frequently dark as night at high noon. The many effects of these blizzards were sometimes brutal. The storms generated static electricity so strong it shorted out cars and sparked with human contact such as handshakes and hugs, and electrified barbed wire fences. They caused dust pneumonia which was sometimes fatal. The flying dust blinded people and animals alike. Farm animals died from internal suffocation and starvation because their stomachs were full of dust.
The people tried all sorts of things to deal with the dust. They hung wet sheets over doors and windows and mud brown water ran in rivulets to the floor. When it was really bad they soaked towels in water and put them over their heads - inside. The Red Cross handed out face masks and people applied Vaseline to their nostrils in an effort to trap the dust before it got into their lungs. Homes had to be swept continuously because the dust always found a way in. It sifted down the walls like flour; often you needed a shovel to dig out of your home.
When Franklin D.Roosevelt was elected president in 1932 he thought the desperate situation of the farmers in the High Plains should be treated as a matter of relief. He dispatched Hugh Bennett, the director of a new agency within the Interior Department, to assess the situation and report back. When Bennett returned with his report FDR realized the extent of the disaster. The government put in place several programs to try to restore the balance in the High Plains. Among other things, they planted trees and grass. They bought up land and livestock. They paid farmers not to plow.
There are places in the High Plains that have yet to recover from the damage done to them by human hubris. But there is good news. There are now three national grasslands in the High Plains run by the Forest Service. The grass has come back in part thanks to the restoration and conservation efforts put in place by FDR. The antelope are back and there is a plan underway to reintroduce buffalo as has been done in other parts of the plains.
The Worst Hard Time is history at its most readable. It is never dry and there are no lists of dates. It's a collection of personal stories of the families that lived through this time that made me want to read this book as I would normally read a thriller: cover to cover in a couple of days. For those of you who don't like histories I recommend that you give this a try. I give it a 5 of 5: sheer perfection.
Bonus: The federal government's Resettlement Administration commissioned a film in 1936 to play for audiences in the rest of the US in order to draw public support for their policies. The result was The Plow That Broke the Plains starring a reluctant Bam White whose story is recounted in The Worst Hard Time. You can see the film (25 minutes) here:http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1119800966783091956#