West Virginia Book Festival

Matewan to Missouri: “The Dave Store Massacre”

For those who know anything about West Virginia history — or even just those who saw the John Sayles movie — it might be hard to find anything funny about the Matewan massacre, the shootout between miners and coal company guards that left 10 people dead in the Mingo County town in 1920.

But Ron Ebest did his best this year. His novel from earlier this year, “The Dave Store Massacre,” takes the (very) basic story of the Matewan shootout and transports it to a modern-day retail environment in Missouri. The result, according to one reviewer, is a “riveting dark comedy.”

The Dave Store is named after its founder, Dave Blandine, who’s known equally for his ruthless business sense and his huge glass eye (he’s so cheap he uses a marble). His huge stores all across America sell everything — “from lawn mowers to Pop Tars to wine-cask sized jars of dill pickles,” according to the publisher’s book description.

But employees at one store decide they’ve had enough, and stage a wildcat strike, prompting Dave to send in his son and a bunch of goons with guns to sort it out.

In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jeremy Kohler wrote:

Ebest borrows names from Matewan’s major players, but he doesn’t force them to follow the parallels to real-life events. Instead, he winds them up with booze and pot and sexual desire and lets them wander, in some cases switching roles altogether.

Kohler also notes that the title is accurate; there’s a lot of bloodshed in the book. But he seems to think that Ebest pulls it off:

It takes some skill to make this work as a comedy, but Ebest’s characters are so complex and finely drawn that we feel their anguish and their joy.

Here is the recipe from “Young Kate” by John Lewis, a novel from the mid-19th century set in the Greenbrier area. It is just what you might need to round out the holidays.

In the novel, some men bag a 20-pound turkey and are spending the night at a way-station before taking a ferry the next morning. They contribute the turkey to a communal meal consisting of turkey, bear, dried venison, ham and corn bead.  As they cook, they drink heartily from a jug of the “rall critter” (rye whiskey). The narrator of the novel describes the cooking scene in great detail. I especially like the specific cooking time.

Here is is (paraphrased):

This is a paraphrase: After a  20-pound turkey is prepared in the usual way for roasting, pass a long, sharp, narrow knife around the thigh bone and up to the hip joint, separating the flesh from the bone; extract the bone. In the same manner, the wing bones are removed. Make an incision from the inside of the body, and remove the breast bone and those articulated to it, passing on to the back below the neck

Insert flitches of fat bacon, peppered, salted, and rolled in flour, into the legs and wings; fill the internal cavity  with a compound of cold, light bread, crumbled fine, and kneaded up with bear’s fat, salt, and pepper. Close all the apertures with a string tied around the neck close to the body. Suspend the turkey by the legs with a cord over the  clear coals (enough coals to fill the whole fireplace)  Place a short-handled frying-pan beneath to receive the drippings.

Cut lean fresh bear’s meat into steaks, and the fat pieces into similar steaks; these later are salted and peppered, and a wooden skewer or spit, three feet long, is thrust through the middle part of a lean steak, and then of a fat piece, alternately, till the stick is full. Hang this before the fire perpendicular, but occasionally take it down and  slightly dredge it with with flour, while holding it horizontally over the coals, and again suspended over the skillet..  The bear meat and bread are not put to the fire till the turkey had been revolving before it for one hour and thirty-seven minutes. Bring the meats to the table brown and smoking hot.  The gravies are placed on the table in two tin pans.

Yum. Now go get that bear.

Completely unrelated picture of old Christmas feast via clipart.com.

The Secret Stars

By Joseph Slate; illustrations by Felipe Davalo

“The Secret Stars,” by noted West Virginia author Joseph Slate, is a refreshingly simple picture book for children. Illustrated by Felipe Davalos, it tells the story of an American Hispanic family’s celebration of Three Kings Day, or the Epiphany.

According to tradition, Jan. 6 is the date the Magi, or Three Kings, completed their journey to find the baby Jesus. Their gifts to the babe established the tradition of giving gifts to commemorate the occasion of his birth.

In this story two children, Pepe and his sister Sila, live with their grandmother on a ranch in the state of New Mexico.  On the Night of the Three Kings the children are snuggled in bed, one of each side of their grandmother. Suddenly they awaken to the sound of icy rain pounding their tin roof; it is raining so hard the stars are hidden. The children begin to worry, without stars how will the Three Kings find their farm and the gifts the family left for them: hay for their horses and figs? If the Three Kings get lost there will be no gifts for Pepe and Sila?

Grandmother swaddles them tighter in their large quilt and quietly tells them stories about the secret stars, stars the Three Kings can use as guides. As she tells the stories the quilt takes flight and they find themselves on a magical journey around their farm to see secret stars.

The next morning they rush to the barn to see if the secret stars did guide the Three Kings. Sure enough, in the barn the hay is gone and so are the figs. In their places the Three Kings left the children candy, and a doll for Sila, and a belt for Pepe. As the children return to the house they notice three sparkling pine trees on a nearby hill. The branches shine like stars and remind the children to thank the Three Kings for their gifts.

The story of the Three Kings is one way to acquaint young children with the varied cultures of the United States and to perhaps minimize the commercialization of the season.

The poem written by Elizabeth Dacre, a lady in Tudor England, to Anthony Cooke, who may have been her tutor. WVU photo by Mark Brown.

For readers, the Rare Book Room in West Virginia University’s Charles C. Wise Library is a very cool place, whether you’re researching a project or just looking around. You never know what you might find — as evidenced by a recent find by Elaine Treharne, a visiting professor of English from Florida State University.

According to a news release from WVU this week, Treharne was taking some students to the Rare Book Room as part of a lecture. She picked up a 1561 edition of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and found something unexpected pasted inside the cover — what appears to be a love poem from a young woman, Elizabeth Dacre, to Anthony Cooke, an older man who may have been her teacher in Tudor England.

Harold Forbes, associate curator of WVU libraries, shows the 1561 Chaucer edition where the poem was found. WVU photo by Mark Brown.

Cooke, who also tutored the eventual King Edward VI (son of Henry VIII and half-brother of Elizabeth I), was a Protestant and had to leave England during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary in the 1550s. Elizabeth Dacre married while Cooke was in exile; the fact that she used her married name in the poem indicates she composed it after that.

In a journal article on her find, Treharne said the poem doesn’t have to be romantic in nature:

“Whether this poem records an amorous relationship, or something more akin to a display of poetic erudition (which just does not seem to do justice to the personal and tender lament here), its private nature is evinced in the poem’s hidden history, and in the touching scene it depicts.”

But Treharne told Diana Mazzella of WVU News that she believes it is a love poem.

“That poem is just gorgeous. It’s beautiful and sad. It’s very ambiguous. I actually do really genuinely believe that she was really in love with her tutor … It has that level of intimacy and playfulness about it. At the very least it’s cheeky, and it’s much more likely to be an indicator of a very, very personal and illicit – totally illicit – relationship.”

The Chaucer book was previously owned by Arthur Dayton, a Charleston lawyer and WVU graduate who donated his collection of about 7,000 books to WVU after his death in 1948. About 1,500 of those books helped establish WVU’s Rare Book Room.

Wonder what else is in there?

A visit to the Thurber House

The Thurber House, on a recent gray December afternoon.
Photos of the hundreds of writers and others who have visited Thurber House, including former Charleston Gazette reporter Wil Haygood (upper right), hang on the walls.

Made it to Ohio for a brief pre-Christmas vacation last week, and found time to stop at the boyhood home of one of America’s great humorists, James Thurber. The Thurber House, at 77 Jefferson Ave. in downtown Columbus, was the family’s home from 1913 to 1917, while Thurber was a student at Ohio State (he never did graduate because a childhood injury — his brother shot him in the eye with an arrow — prevented him from completing a ROTC course that was required for a degree). Several of Thurber’s stories are either set in the Columbus house or based on events that happened there.

After stints as a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune, Thurber moved to New York, where his friend E.B. White got him hired at The New Yorker during the magazine’s early years. Thurber served as an editor, writer and cartoonist at The New Yorker until 1935, and continued to submit his work there for the rest of his life.

Thurber's high school graduation photo also hangs on the wall.

He’s best known for his classic story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” featuring a daydreamer who spends more time on his fantasies than in the real world. It’s on the short list of stories that every American should know. (Some people may have seen the film version starring Danny Kaye, but it’s so different from the story that after the movie’s premiere, Thurber joked, “Did anyone catch the name of that film?”)

Since 1984, the Thurber House has served as a museum devoted to Thurber’s life and work, showing the house as it would have appeared when Thurber lived there, and featuring memorabilia from his life throughout the building. It’s a small house, so if you’re around downtown Columbus and have an hour or two, it’s worth the trip.

The Thurber House also serves as a nonprofit literary center, and helps administer the Thurber Prize for American Humor, described on the website as “the only recognition of the art of humor writing in the United States.” The winner headlines the annual Thurber Birthday Gala, which was held last Thursday.

Year-end lists: A look in the mirror

The end of the year brings many things: holidays, cold weather, resolutions for the coming year … and lists. Lots of lists, the best and worst of the past year. Books are no exception — and even though the year’s last month has just begun, the lists are already coming out. Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com were among the first, and after coming out with their annual list of notable books last week, The New York Times announced their choices for the ten best books of the year on Wednesday.

These lists are always a little bittersweet for me. I find a lot of good ideas for future reading in them, but they’re full of books that I haven’t read, and many that I’ll never find time to read.

But there’s usually at least one or two that I can point to and say, well, at least I read that.

This year’s top 10 list from the Times, though … I’m 0 for 10. Haven’t read a one.

Man, I hate that.

It’s not like I didn’t know any of them were out there; I’ve actually had “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach and “Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell checked out of the library, but I didn’t get them started. I planned to at least read at Christopher Hitchens’ latest collection of essays, and Amanda Foreman’s “A World On Fire,” about Britain’s role in the American Civil War, has been on my list since it came out.

But still: there are 10 books on the list, and I haven’t read any of them. I find that depressing.

Just one bright spot: Including today, there are 31 days left in the year. Still time to crack a couple of them open.