A Servant of History by Ron Rash – Selection 13 of #DealMeIn2018

The Card: ♦2♦ Two of Diamonds

The Suit: For #dealMeIn2018, ♦♦♦Diamonds♦♦♦ is my Suit for (mostly) stories from the anthology Everywhere Stories.

The Author: Ron Rash. One of my book clubs read his great collection, “Something Rich and Strange” last year. When I drew a wild card this week, I decided to revisit a story from that book

The Selection: “Servant of History”

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details may be found here  but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants try to read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for the list of stories I’ll be reading in 2018. Check the sidebar for links to other book bloggers who are participating in this year’s challenge.

A Servant of History

“When his ship docked in London harbor six weeks later, Wilson’s tongue had not fully healed.”

Why is it that some of us (myself admittedly included) enjoy so much stories in which someone gets his ‘comeuppance?” I suspect it’s because so often those people we ourselves know who are “full of themselves” are never held accountable for their haughtiness. My granddad used to say that such people were “too big for their britches.” But being full of oneself isn’t exactly a crime, is it? And, as much as we may want to ‘go upside someone’s head’ for such behavior, actually doing so would be an overreaction. (It would, wouldn’t it?)  My Granddad’s actually a somewhat appropriate authority for this particular story too, as he was a denizen of Appalachia as well as most of the people in this story. In his case, the mountains of West Virginia, in their case in Jackson County, North Carolina.

The story is set in 1922, when James Wilson, the story’s protagonist, and a member in good standing of the English Folk Dance and Ballad Society, journeys across the ocean to venture “among the New World’s Calibans” in search of ballads that, “though lost to time in Britain might yet survive in America’s Appalachian Mountains.” Upon arrival, he makes the acquaintance of an elderly resident who serves as his guide in the ‘neighborhood’ letting him know of an established local family, the McDonald’s who immigrated from Scotland, though long ago. His guide says the family has “their great-granny yet alive,” and that she’s “nigh a century old but got a mind sharp as a new-hone axe. She’ll know your tunes and anything else you want, but they can be a techy lot, if they taken a dislikin’ to you.”

It turns out old great-granny McDonald does indeed know some old Scottish ballads, though is hesitant to share them. Rash describes Wilson’s first meeting and seeing the old woman wonderfully: “…Wilson only then saw that the Windsor chair was occupied. The beldame’s face possessed the color and creases of a walnut hull. A black shawl draped over her shoulders, obscuring a body shrunken to a child’s stature. The old woman appeared more engulfed than seated…”

Wilson’s efforts to coax the old woman include posing as if his own Scottish heritage (not really much of one, but he exaggerates it in hopes of gaining favor) is of great and long-standing importance to him. He leaves his chair and “…walked over to the red-and-black tartan hung on the wall, let a thumb and finger rub the cloth. He nodded favorably, hoping to impart a Scotsman’s familiarity with weave and wool. ‘Our tartan hangs on a wall as well, blue and black it is, the proud tartan of Clan Campbell.'”

Suffice it to say perhaps that Wilson should have done a little more research about the Clans whose descendants he might encounter, and especially about what their relationships might have been to his clan, which he so suddenly remembers and claims allegiance to…

(below: I imagine the top tartan here might be like the one hanging on great-granny McDonald’s wall)

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Have you read Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange?” It was a big hit with my book club, and I have posted briefly about it before. What are some of your favorite ‘stories of comeuppance?’

 

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“Shiloh” and the Orphan Stories from Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange”

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One of my unofficial blogging resolutions for this year is to have more posts that aren’t specifically about the Deal Me In Challenge. So, okay, here’s one:

One of my book clubs recently read a short story collection, Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange,” which contains stories set in Appalachia, but across a wide time period – all the way from from the Civil War era to the present. This book and meeting recalled to my mind that once, several years ago, the book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met to discuss his superb collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” We only had an hour to meet – not enough to cover all 24(?) stories in the book – and afterward I wrote a blog post “Orphan Stories from the Monkey House,” briefly describing the stories we didn’t get to in order to give them a little love too. Strangely, both at that meeting and at my recent one for Ron Rash’s book, I found my favorite story was being neglected throughout the meeting. This time, however, I took action and “forced” my book club to talk about Rash’s story, “Shiloh,” maybe my favorite of the whole 34 included in that volume. And what is it about Shiloh, anyway? It keeps popping up in my reading and related adventures…

“After Shiloh, the South never smiled…”

I first heard of the famous Civil War battle, Shiloh, when I was quite young. Many young people first learn of things via movies or tv, and in this case my experience was no different. My Mom and Dad were huge fans of the blockbuster (of its time, anyway) film “How the West Was Won.” It featured an all-star cast, and several more huge stars (like John Wayne!) in extended cameos. Wayne played alongside Harry Morgan as generals Sherman and Grant engaged in a dialogue after the first day of the Battle of Shiloh – a day where the Union suffered considerable losses. The film was narrated at points by Spencer Tracy, whose magnificent voice informed us that, “after Shiloh, the South never smiled…”

Yes, that’s actor George Peppard stumbling through the foreground in that clip. Later, maybe when I was ten or eleven, my family went on a summer camping trip (we did a lot of these since my dad was a teacher, and he often said the three best things about being a teacher were June, July, and August) where we visited many of the more famous Civil War battlefields, and though Shiloh wasn’t among them, my “general knowledge” of the Civil War and its battles increased.

Still later, when a student at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, I learned a little about General Lew Wallace, the author of Ben-Hur and a resident of that town in the later years of his life. It was also in college where I acquired the nickname “General” or “General Jay” – though that had nothing to do with Lew Wallace. (I apparently liked to give orders to my fellow freshman when we were fraternity pledges.) I learned that Wallace was an important figure in the Battle of Shiloh, frequently blamed for heavy losses on the first day of fighting,  because he allegedly “took the wrong road” on the way to the battle. It was a “stain” that hounded him the rest of his career.

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(above: (left) author Kevin Getchell and some of the artifacts he shared with us at his lecture; (right) Major General Lew Wallace)

STILL later, just a few years ago, I went to a program at the Indiana Historical Society given by author Kevin Getchell,  who had written a book (“Scapegoat of Shiloh“) which in his eyes “exonerated” Wallace from the blame that history had – right or wrong – assigned to him. I learned a lot more than I had ever known about the battle, and got a copy of his book which I later read but never blogged about (my brief review on Goodreads.com is linked above, though). He autographed my copy for me referencing”the peace of the true Shiloh.” 


Back in November, during a visit to the Lew Wallace Museum and Study in Crawfordsville, I saw among the General’s collection of walking sticks one that my guide told me had been collected by him many years after the war, when he returned to the exact site where his tent had been and selected its raw material from the wood available there. I thought that was a great story – and artifact! (It’s not a great picture by me above, but I think it was the one with the white handle)

Then STILL later, just a few weeks ago in fact, I went to another program, this one sponsored by “the Indianapolis Civil War Roundtable” (http://www.indianapoliscwrt.org) – a local  organization of amateur historians that I didn’t even know existed until just not long ago. The program was about Lew Wallace’s role in the Civil War. This rekindled my interest in Shiloh and THEN – Lo and behold – the penultimate story on Ron Rash’s book was one titled “Shiloh.”

“Shiloh” by Ron Rash

Rash’s story is that of a soldier who is seriously wounded in the the famous battle and begins walking(!) home, which in his case is quite a long journey to undertake on foot. His wound is severe enough that I immediately began to question whether or not he had actually survived his injury, suspiciously wondering if Rash was trying to pull off a variation of Ambrose Bierce’s famous story,”An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I was prepared to be outraged at such a transparent “rip off” of a favorite story. As the character in Rash’s story got closer and closer to home, other hints emerged concerning the severity of his injury and of there being a “fever” at large, which he may have contracted. “Here we go,” I thought.

When he reaches home, and sees his wife, and she doesn’t answer his shouts of greeting as he approaches the cabin, I thought, “this is it.” But that wasn’t it. Rash had a different twist in mind for us, one that I hadn’t seen coming, and one I applauded, especially considering the short story pedigree of Ambrose Bierce’s story that it called to mind.

There were a few other stories that my Book Club didn’t get to (unlike the Vonnegut Library’s book club, which meets in the middle of a weekday(!), we have an open-ended meeting time, though we rarely go on for more than 90 minutes or so). Still not enough time to cover 34 stories, though. Prior to the meeting, I had made a list of the story titles with a one-sentence, ridiculously oversimplified summary of what the story was about and, as I sensed the meeting starting to wind down, took a look to see what stories we didn’t get to. It made me think once again, as I did with Welcome to the Monkey House, what causes some stories in a collection get “orphaned” at a book club meeting?

In this case, reviewing my list today almost four weeks after our meeting, the stories we didn’t cover weren’t necessarily weaker stories, though a couple were in my opinion, but rather were crowded out by the club wanting to talk more about other stories – other stories that perhaps elicited a more emotional response. There were three that were left out (Okay, I admit there is a possibility these were discussed and I’ve forgotten – or were sneakily brought up during my trip to the restroom. 🙂 ), however, that I’d like to mention here for those that may be interested in reading this book:

“Into the Gorge” was a great story about an older man whose family land had been sold off to the government which had, in turn, made it part of a State Park. The protagonist remembers that his father had a secluded crop of ginseng plants “in the gorge” and decides to do a little ad hoc harvesting, which local law enforcement doesn’t approve of. My blogging colleague Dale at the Mirror With Clouds blog posted about this story  recently.

“Dead Confederates” was a grim tragi-comic story of a down on his luck – but likely good-hearted – man who falls into bad company and agrees to help plunder some old graves for civil war artifacts that can then be sold to collectors.

“A Servant of History” was a truly creepy tale that felt as if it might have been inspired by Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” or “Twilight Zone” series. A “college boy” with “delusions of grandeur” fancying himself as an historian, visits an ultra remote Appalachian family (descended from a Scottish Clan) in search of nearly forgotten ballads that though “lost to time in Britain might yet survive in America’s Appalachian Mountains.”

(below: Gratuitous picture of the Lew Wallace Study in Crawfordsville, IN)

So, that’s my story. 🙂 What about you? Have you been in a book club that read a collection of short stories? If so, how did you handle the discussion? Did you just talk about ones that came up naturally, or did you plan the discussion so each got a fair hearing? I’d love to hear about it…

(below: Author Ron Rash)