From Southerners to Seventh Grade
Feisty old women who presume to tell everyone what to do and how to do it (and are usually right) are as commonplace in Texas lore as horses and bad weather. Yet modern-day readers -- with appliances, air conditioning, cable TV, and superstores -- know little about what made such women. As my grandmother used to say, buying fried chicken at the drive-thru window is a far cry from raising the chicken yourself.
Laura Hoge Woods was a quintessential feisty old woman. She also happened to be the grandmother of Janice Woods Windle, whose new novel Hill Country is part Laura's biography, part Windle's autobiography, some fiction, and a bit of history. Windle says the book is "the confluence of two voices, mine and my grandmother's." It is also a eye-opening treatise on the making of the legendary steel magnolia.
Laura often put her opinions in writing, in everything from letters to journals, and in her seventies began an autobiography. This copious writing, saved in boxes thoughtfully tagged "For Janice," allows us to hear much of Laura's story in her own words and certainly in her own spirit, captured admirably by a granddaughter who knew her well. This is a true story, heavily undergirded with research, seasoned by plenty of folklore and interpretation.
Laura always knew she was ahead of her time. Hiding in the cellar from a band of potential horse thieves at the age of seven, she hears again how her mother, upon meeting Abraham Lincoln, asked him if a girl could be president. He said she could. That answer helped fuel Laura's lifelong aspiration to be more than what society deemed it necessary or appropriate that she be.
As a young girl, she falls in love with Herman Lehmann, a fair-haired young man stolen and raised as an Apache. But such a forbidden and scandalous love proves too much even for Laura Hoge. Herman runs off with the circus, and nearly 50 years later Laura would write:
"The woman I became would not have fallen in love with Herman Lehmann. But she would have forgiven him, possibly become his friend. When I think about driving Herman away ... the irony of that choice is apparent, especially as things turned out. ... I fled from Herman's savagery, only to marry a man who had killed. ... I slept in those arms for half a century. Both my loves carried crimson blades. ... Did I make the right choice?"
Our heroine sets her sights on Peter Woods, a handsome horse breeder from a prominent family. Their June wedding is not attended by Woods' family, a hurt from which Laura never fully recovered. Later, another wedding party at the Woods family home in San Marcos is marred by their genteel slights of Laura's working-class family and the uncle who (gasp!) fought for the Union.
Then in 1891, during the rough-and-tumble governor's race that James Stephen Hogg ultimately wins, Laura Woods finds another love, politics. It is a lifelong but constantly thwarted love; after all, women can't vote, can't even own land. The irony of the latter is apparent to Mrs. Woods when she spends six months living alone in the wild scrub of Central Texas, in a two-room, two-windowed house built in one day. Her exile fulfills the requirements of the homestead laws, enabling the couple to increase the size of their horse ranch fourfold. The move also means that she cannot accept an invitation to write a column for women in the Blanco News. While she regrets this lost opportunity, Laura is proud of what she does accomplish there in the wilderness. She identifies with her borrowed copy of Thoreau's Walden: "This was an airy and unplastered cabin, fit to entertain a traveling god, and where a goddess might trail her garments. The winds which passed over my dwelling were such as sweep over the ridges of mountains, bearing the broken strains, or celestial parts only, of terrestrial music. The morning wind forever blows, the poem of creating is uninterrupted; but few are the ears that hear it." The wilds of Texas along the Blanco River may have been a far cry from Walden Pond, but what we hear on the wind depends on the ears with which we hear it.
The ranch land secured, a new house is built closer to town, and Laura settles in to tend to her three young children and the fourth still to come. Here she meets the woman who will be her lifelong friend, Rebekah Baines. Other well-known names roll in and out of Laura's life. There is Teddy Roosevelt, who buys Woods' horses for his Rough Riders. Sam Johnson, who marries Laura's friend Rebekah. Edward House, a Texas king-maker who comes to anoint Sam Johnson as Texas' next governor, but puts his oils away when Johnson shows up after a few too many drinks to celebrate the birth of his son, Lyndon Baines Johnson. (The gubernatorial election was expected to hinge on the issue of prohibition.) House might have given the nod to Peter Woods but for an even grimmer skeleton in his closet. Laura packed away her secret dream of life as the governor's wife. She would not give up the dream of politics entirely, however, and she certainly didn't give up her opinions.
With Peter as chairman of the Blanco County Democratic Committee, and Edward House giving her words weight, Laura is able to meet and, apparently, influence Woodrow Wilson, first as a candidate and then as president. She relished the advisor role and would carry it to what some might call extremes for the rest of her life, writing to her son Maxey's commanding officer in World War I; to Texas Governor Ma Ferguson; presidents Roosevelt, Taft, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson; and even to General MacArthur.
The thread of hardship runs through the book, and through Laura's life: The daughter who ends up in a mental institution. An accident at Enchanted Rock that kills her sister. Her mother's move hundreds of miles away. An ambitious dream that dies along with 400 horses in a wrecked train. Such stories of tragedy and despair shape all families, and they certainly shaped Laura.
But there are threads of hope, also, of triumph, success, and happiness. While a move from the ranch on the Blanco into the town of San Marcos looks like defeat, Laura determines to make the best of it. The rooming house they buy sits on the creek and is, Laura says, "the best of both worlds. One door leads into the country, the other into town." It is in San Marcos that her son Wilton and his friend Lyndon Johnson, now a roomer in the Woods house, find out what political organization can do, first on the campus of Southwest Texas State Teacher's College, then in the statehouse. From here, Laura and Peter, Rebekah and Sam Johnson, Wilton Woods, Lyndon Johnson and their neighbor and mentor, Professor H.M. Greene, attend the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston. It's here that Lyndon Johnson and Wilton Woods bring home pretty young brides to meet their mothers, after the fact. And here where in her friend Rebekah's parlor, Laura overheard (accidentally, of course) men convince Lyndon Johnson to run for a Congressional seat. "Of all the images and sentiments filling the albums, the boxes, the cluttered miscellany in my bureau drawers, the dominant presence is Lyndon. He was the center of our lives, and his life defines who we were and are. Or is it possible," Laura wonders, "that we in the Hill Country shaped Lyndon as a sculptor shapes clay, and the chisel we used was love."
Just before Christmas, 1965, at the age of 95, and shortly after talking with President Lyndon Johnson on the phone, Laura Woods died.
"My first editor said from the beginning that Laura deserved to have a whole book," Windle says. Indeed, a whole book is the least such a feisty Texas woman deserves. -- Melissa Gaskill
In The Cockfighter, Frank Manley has crafted a Southern coming-of-age drama that, although short, is still too long. The Cockfighter centers around a day plus change in the life of 12-year-old Sonny Cantrell, a boy who is trying to shake a bit of his latent childhood sensitivity to become less like his (ever-sufferin', Bible-quotin', stereotypical) ma Lily and more like his (whiskey-drinkin', mother-cussin', stereotypical) pa Jake, a chapped-hands cockfighter who is as lively in the birdpits as he is in the bleachers chattin' up the good ol' gals. So while Ma worries at home with her quilts and peanut butter sandwiches, Sonny and Jake head off for the more masculine world -- courage and cuss and spit -- of the cockfights. The Cockfighter's choice of mascot is no mistake: The cock is a symbol, at once, of the boy's bravery, his father's dreams, the violence of the South, and (of course) male sexuality. Cocks are storied characters, no doubt, held in totemic regard by folks all over the globe, but that's a lot of meaning for one poor chicken to carry. It doesn't help that Manley is so overt with his symbolism, which is planted in bright shining sentences throughout the novel ("The cock was like the root of his root, the knot in the ropes that tied him together, the source of all his unborn rage and hatred and pride and violence and joy and happiness and incomprehensible release ..." Ummm, okay. But did you have to come right out and tell us?) Metaphors aren't the only things that are overworked in The Cockfighter; Manley's prose, although artfully precise at moments, is in the main repetitive, indulging paragraphs where sentences would do. Again, one wonders if Manley thinks we weren't paying attention the first time through. All the melodrama and weighty symbolism suggest the most predictable and redemptive ending Manley could hatch. But here's the catch: It doesn't happen. And in the last five pages Manley manages more surprise, subtlety, and images that stick than he did in the first 200. One finishes with the sense that there's a damn good short story contained within this novel, if only Manley would have let it be. -- Jay Hardwig
The title of Charles McCarry's latest novel, Lucky Bastard, is not, I am pleased to say, its most clever aspect (though it is pretty clever). And even though the calendar summer is quickly coming to an end, there is still time in the summer we know (which lasts at least until November) to buy and read this one, which has the light and clean flavor of a frozen margarita on a hot afternoon.
Jack Fitzgerald is the supposed illegitimate son of JFK, and, like a good little Kennedy, he is racing toward the presidency. I knew a Jack Fitzgerald. Blond, blue-eyed, all-American with his flashy smile, firm handshake, quick wit and all. If you didn't like him, you pretended you did because, well, everybody liked him, even if they didn't. I never trusted him. He was too smooth, too quick to appease, and he wanted to be a lawyer. Most likely is one by now, and well on his way to the presidency, and if he ever makes that, Lord help us all. Which is the way McCarry treats his Jack Fitzgerald, like a rattlesnake, but with a campaign manager and registered voters in his pockets and maverick KGB officers playing Daddy Warbucks. He's got the gift of gab, genius political insight, and ambition enough for all of us. He was built for the campaign trail -- city to city to city, rally after rally, and debate after debate -- and he probably does only one thing better: sex. The novel is written as a memoir, narrated by one of the maverick KGB officers, Dmitri, who might or might not look like Lenin. And it is Dmitri who recounts Jack's exploits on and off the campaign trail, leading us through Jack's life from the time of his college career right to the end, and it is an excellent, if anti-climatic, end.
It would be easy enough to attribute the habits and characteristics of Jack Fitzgerald to John Fitzgerald Kennedy and even easier, in light of certain current events, to fit him to our own smooth talking, all-American Bill Clinton, but McCarry would have us separate his novel from the here and now (and the there and then) with a disclaimer at the end of the novel, which pronounces that Lucky Bastard "is a work of the imagination in which no character is based on anyone who ever lived and no reference is intended to anything that ever happened in the real world. To the reader whose own imagination perceives linkages that I did not intend, I can only suggest that ... in our time history became fiction and fiction history." Which, I'm sorry to say, takes some of the bite out of the book, as if McCarry were to say, "I didn't really mean anything by it. It was just a story." Clearly, the novel is as much a political satire as it is political thriller (note to McCarry: If you write something this insightful, you should own up to it). Just as Primary Colors' "Anonymous" should never have been anonymous, this distancing is McCarry's one mistake in an otherwise well-written and humorous political novel. -- Manuel Gonzales
If the notion of revisiting the seventh grade strikes you as horribly masochistic, then you're doubtlessly among the majority of people alive today. Seventh grade is that most awkward of grades, when issues of sex and identity permeate every waking moment. By the seventh grade, the average gay person is aware, usually painfully so, that they are not like all the other boys and girls. The obvious question? Why would someone willingly submit to the torment of revisiting the seventh grade? Clifford Chase, the editor of Queer 13: Lesbian and Gay Writers Recall Seventh Grade, says that Queer 13 is "a reclamation project (as memoirs usually are, and not just gay memoirs). My own experience of writing about myself as a seventh-grader changed my view of myself at that age; I'd never gone back to re-examine those scenes, so seventh-grade Cliff remained a shameful figure in the back of my mind; when I looked again, I didn't think he was so awful and a lot of the embarrassment seemed quite funny to me in retrospect. I think that while many of the memoirs in Queer 13 are quite painful, they're also really funny." If you prefer humor of the blacker variety, you will not be disappointed. Queer 13's collection of memories of the angst-ridden middle school years mines a rich treasure: "Gen X" suburban alienation as experienced by gay teens.
In "Lost in the Translation," Michael Lowenthal recounts the exquisite torture visited upon a queer teen who dares to sound out his extreme affection on the ears of the straight object of his affection. This transpires against the backdrop of the Falklands War and the drama of having a virulent Argentine nationalist as a Spanish teacher. In "Still Life With Boys," Lisa Cohen writes about her mother's insinuating commentary about her "mannish watch" and her "swishy" male friend. Cohen's tales of her friend, a flamboyant teen drama queen, recall that unusual feeling, peculiar only to gay persons, of knowing that a friend of another sex is also different in that same way that you are. To really enjoy Queer 13, the reader must be in the mood for wallowing in the crucible of early teen alienation and high drama that gay teens can experience, but passing through this crucible yields its own reward. Chase states in his introduction that the beauty of reliving that drama is that "those mortifying scenes appear to have lost their power to overwhelm" and that the queer seventh grader now seems like a "wily subversive or intrepid traveler" from whom the reader might learn something. Whether you're looking for an uplifting life lesson or merely want to vicariously snicker at the cruelties and uncertainties gays faced as teens, one thing is abundantly clear about Queer 13: Aside from its entertainment value, this book should be required reading for the faculty and staff of middle schools across the country.
While Queer 13 celebrates a painful time in the lives of gay and lesbian teens to which all readers can easily relate, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand: Same-Sex Relations and the YMCA by John Donald Gustav-Wrathall provides the history of an institution which saw its pop apotheosis in a Village People song that extolled the joys of an experience common to a more limited sector of the population. The cover of this book shows a tableau circa 1940 in which men in various states of undress are enjoying the convivial atmosphere afforded by the dressing room at the local YMCA. This artwork may give the impression that Take the Young Stranger by the Hand is something more frivolous than the serious academic tome it is. Despite the suggestive nature of its title and cover, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand provides a history of the YMCA from its founding at the beginning of the industrialization of America through the postwar era.
The YMCA arose as a response to the need to nurture and protect the souls and bodies of the increasing numbers of young men who flocked to America's urban centers from the countryside in the 19th century. Originally, the YMCA endeavoured to provide a safe haven from the moral iniquities of the big city where young men could enjoy Christian fellowship. The rapid pace of change during the industrial age threatened the traditional structures of male-dominated society, causing a supposed "crisis in masculinity." The YMCA rushed to address this crisis by encouraging young men to hit the gym and bulk up. Combine the gym with the YMCA's sex education programs, locker rooms, and dormitories, and YMCAs became centers for men seeking anonymous sexual relations with other men. Gustav-Wrathall points out that "by the first decade of the 20th-century gay cultures could be found in virtually every major American city."
Take the Young Stranger by the Hand is primarily intended for an academic audience, complete with copious notes and entire sections on how data was collected. In fact, it's a legitimate question what relevance this book has for the general gay reader. Asked about this, Gustav-Wrathall replied, "This is a book that shows how the gay experience has really been woven into mainstream American life -- in this case, in the very American institution of the YMCA. The book is about passionate same-sex friendship and men giving their lives to each other in a Christian context. ... It is also about men having sex in YMCA dormitories and locker rooms -- how and why, and what the institution tried to do about it. Readers may find the answers to these questions surprising."
What is surprising in Take the Young Stranger by the Hand is the apparently nonchalant attitude the staff and management of a Christian organization took toward cruising. Cruising is as alive and well in 1998 as it was in the early days of the YMCA. When asked about that, Gustav-Wrathall contended that "Gay men and straight men participate in the same-sex cruising scene -- it's not just a gay or a bi thing. Much discussion about cruising takes place with the idea that it is disgusting and bad, and must be stopped. Let's drop that hypocritical stance, and simply try to understand what it's about. We live in a society that still deals with sexuality and gender issues with extreme paranoia and schizophrenia. Just look at what's happening to Clinton right now." The paranoia and schizophrenia the author speaks of exhibited itself in later years in the YMCA when it tried to clamp down on gay sex within its confines. According to Gustav-Wrathall, the irony here is that by creating an atmosphere where gay men could sexually connect and then obliterating it, the YMCA served as a powerful force for nurturing the very gay consciousness that would lead to the gay rights movement. But if you're looking for witty repartee or evocations of the scene depicted on the book's cover, keep looking. Take the Young Stranger by the Hand is a sober, meticulously researched look at how a group of well-meaning Christians managed to create an incubator for gay society that will be best appreciated by those with a passionate historical interest. -- John Baker