Like a sailboat tacking obliquely through opaque mists with little to guide the course beyond hope and blind faith, my third novel,Mourning Dove, will be released at the end of June. It has been unequivocally the most roundabout way to publication I’ve ever heard of, and therefore I want to share my story. Let this […]
I used to go home every Christmas to the house I grew up in, and Finley would be there—eventually, anyway. He’d come swaggering in, all blue-eyed, gray three-quarter coat swinging. In from Virginia. The educated man. All beaming, charismatic six-foot-two of him, setting the stage in that rambling Southern house, simply by virtue of his presence. It was that way every year because Finley was the kind of guy who could enter a room and take over completely. My brother was that magnetic. Finley was born eighteen months ahead of me, so I came into the world following his lead. Mom told me, in one of her rare confessional moments, that Finley was an accidental pregnancy, but that I had been planned. I remember furrowing my brow and thinking it odd. If anybody has a God-given, significant purpose for being on earth, it’s Finley. Compared to him, everyone else is a random afterthought. Including me. Finley fascinated me. I used to study him—the way he walked, the way he talked, the way the air changed around him. He was absolutely something. But here’s what bothers me—Finley’s in heaven, and I don’t know why. When we were young, people thought Finley and I were twins. We were both delicately built, with that streaky red-blond hair genetically bestowed upon the Scots-Irish, and we both had huge, light-colored eyes that were disproportionate in scale to the size of our heads. Finley’s eyes were a hypnotic blue, mine are a serious green. Beyond that, few people could tell us apart. When Mom moved us without warning from Minnesota to the Deep South— the summer she decided she’d had enough of my father’s alcoholism and was going back home—I didn’t mind because Finley was beside me. His presence was one-part security blanket, one part safety net, and two parts old familiar coat conformed to fit my size after years of wear.
My love for Finley was complicated—a love devoid of envy, tied up in shared survival and my inability to see myself as anything more than the larger than-life Finley’s little sister. I’m thirty-six now and still feel this way. Finley was easy to admire, for he excelled at everything he did, and the template of this pattern was evident from the time he was in kindergarten. His reading skills were fully realized, his teachers claimed he had a photographic memory, and the sum of the variables that made up the young Finley was such a quandary that his primary school teacher arrived at the exhaustive conclusion he should skip grades one and two altogether and enter the third. After we moved down South, the issue of Finley’s education continued to stymie everybody. For at the precarious age of twelve, Finley was in a scholastic league of his own. My mother’s response to Finley’s brilliance was feigned resignation. She’d wave her graceful hand and sigh. “Well, I just don’t know where he came from,” she’d say, as if she’d woken up one morning to the great surprise of Finley at the breakfast table in the stone-floored kitchen of the house she’d grown up in in midtown Memphis’ Kensington Park and subsequently inherited. By anybody’s standards, 79 Kensington Park was not a kid-friendly house. Fashioned in the style of a stucco French chateau, it was sprawling, it was formal, and most everything in it was breakable. It was the antithesis of the bucolic comfort we’d left behind in Minnesota and being dropped into its clutching embrace felt like being jolted from a dream into disparate circumstances. But my genteel mother was back where she belonged. It was only Finley and me who had to get used to the idea of being displaced Yankee children deposited into a culture whose history and social mores don’t take kindly to outsiders. We were suspects from the very start. We had Minnesota accents, we were white as the driven snow, and we both had a painfully difficult time deciphering the Southern dialect, which operates at lightning speed and doesn’t feel the need for enunciation. Instead, it trips along the lines of implication. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, my mother’s plan was pin-point specific. She simply picked up in Memphis where she’d left off before marrying my father, as if she’d changed her mind over which cocktail dress to wear to a party. The dress would look good on her, she’d make sure of it, and it’d show off her curves and float lightly above her delicate knees with airborne fragility from every step of her enviable narrow, size-seven feet.
My mother didn’t walk into a room, she sashayed, borne from the swivel of her twenty-four-inch waist. Her name was Posey, and although there was a lot more to her than she ever let on, by all appearances, the name suited her perfectly. At the end of the summer of 1970, when my mother reconciled herself to the idea of divorcing my father, she needed to devise a long-range plan. She wanted to keep up appearances, my father had lost all our money, which left her with four years until she could access the money her father left her in trust. After uncharacteristically humbling herself for financial assistance from my father’s wealthy relatives, she packed Finley and me in the car and drove with steel determination to Memphis. She’d left my father standing drunk and hopeless in the driveway, watching his family evaporate in the distance, wondering how his life had come to this. Her mother, senile and incapacitated in Memphis’ Rosewood Nursing Home, barely clung to life. Although the house at 79 Kensington Park was in Gaga’s name, my mother had power of attorney. So, first things first, my mother moved her mother from Rosewood to the guest house in Kensington Park and solicited the services of one Rosa Mae Jones to tend to her needs. After moving all of us into the big house, Mom set about the business of doing the two most important things: invigorating her social standing in Memphis and finding an escort, preferably a rich one looking for marriage. She set those wheels in motion after she tackled the problem of where to send Finley and me to school. According to the dictum of Memphis society, there was only one acceptable answer to the question of where to educate a girl—the private Miss Hutchison School for Girls, and it had been that way since 1902. My mother told me she’d made no leeway from calling the school’s administrator, so without skipping a beat, she slid on her stockings, zipped up her Lilly Pulitzer dress, stepped into her Pappagallo shoes, and—because a lady never steps a toe in public without it—smoothed on her pale-pink lipstick, and drove to East Memphis, where Hutchison sat regal and tree-lined, overlooking a serene lake. She marched the two of us unannounced and entitled into the ground-floor office of the school’s headmistress and seated herself cross-legged upon an upholstered chair while I found a seat on a chintz-covered sofa and wondered what to do with my hands.
When Miss Millicent Mycroft appeared, my mother stood and welcomed her into her own office, disarming her with her cultured charm and spilling forth from her cup of Southern gentility. “Miss Mycroft, I hope you don’t mind our dropping in like this,” Mom lilted, “it’s just so wonderful to see the school grounds. You know, when I went to Miss Hutchison, back when it was on Union Avenue, it was never as grand as all this. I’m Posey Crossan.” She offered her slender hand. “I’m a good friend of Mrs. Winston Phillips and Mrs. John Turner. We all went to Hutchison together. I believe you have both of their girls here now.” “Yes, I have both girls,” Miss Mycroft answered. Miss Mycroft, practiced at the art of quick discernment, sat behind her desk and studied my mother, arriving at the accurate conclusion that she was society-born and wanted something from her. “Please sit down. What can I do for you, Mrs. Crossan?” she asked. Mom perched lightly and launched her campaign. “I just don’t know how I could have missed the enrollment deadline for my daughter, who’ll be going into the fifth grade this year. I can’t tell you how much I apologize for this, but you see, there simply is no other school I would consider sending her to. I’m hoping you’ll make an exception and let her attend?” “Mrs. Crossan, not only have you missed the deadline, the first trimester began last week,” Miss Mycroft remonstrated, giving me a slight glance. “We’ve already been through orientation.” “Miss Mycroft, now I realize school has started, but what’s a week to a fifth grader? My daughter, Camille, is bright. She belongs in the same school I attended. I want her in an environment that’ll give her advantages and would hate to see her compromised because of my bad timing. But you see, none of it could be helped, so here we are. Since I won’t change my mind, what can I do to persuade you to make an exception?” After achieving her objective, my mother and I got back in her car and drove two miles to the neighboring campus of Memphis University School, where she waged a similar performance on Finley’s behalf, tailor-made to accommodate the fact that her audience was now a man. With iron conviction, she first stepped—heels clicking through the white marble foyer—and entered the boys’ lounge, where a handful of students draped languidly in overstuffed chairs, waiting for their next class to begin.
Uncertain of the way to the headmaster’s office, my mother leaned down to a conservatively dressed boy and asked for directions. With the facts in hand, she crossed the lounge and made it all the way to the hallway, before a thought came to her that wheeled her around and nearly into me. Retracing her steps, she marched into the middle of the lounge and raised her voice to a pitch accessible to all. “Boys, a lady has just entered this room,” she announced. “Where are your manners? I expect every one of you to leap to your feet.” My mother was a woman who knew the game rules of life, and she wielded them to expert proportion. The Memphis Finley and I landed in was my mother’s Memphis. It was magnolia-lined and manicured, black-tailed and bow-tied. It glittered in illusory gold and tinkled in sing-song voices. It was cloistered, segregated, and well-appointed, the kind of place where everyone monogrammed their initials on everything from hand towels to silver because nothing mattered more than one’s family and to whom they were connected by lineage that traced through the fertile fields of the Mississippi Delta. My mother’s friends had known each other from birth and coexisted like threads in a fabric. They started families together, sent their children to the same schools they attended, and set up their cloisonné lives in congruent patterns of neat inclusivity. They threw dinner parties in stately homes, on tables set with inherited Francis I, polished to a shine by the help. In my mother’s Memphis, the conversation stayed pleasant and light over lingering cocktails, until dinner was served by a staff that dropped their own lives in deference to their employers. At an age where many women have seen their crescendo, my mother had only started to come into her beauty. She had the kind of looks that waited in arrested development during her youth, then pounced like a cat around the time she turned forty. With the passage of time followed by motherhood, her long limbs, flat chest, and slightly recessive chin filled out to capacity. Her face displayed sharp cheekbones that balanced her chin to a perfect heart-shape and earned her a self-confidence she wore with sparkling alacrity. But a woman in possession of unique beauty and charm was in a precarious predicament in 1970s Memphis. There was always the dilemma of where to seat her at a dinner party, and without an escort to take the edge off of feminine rivalry, she was easily held in contempt.
No, that position was not for her, and my mother—as a master of networking—knew exactly what to do. She acclimated herself to the women in town, joined the Garden Club and the Junior League, lunched at the Memphis Country Club, played bridge, and hosted sip-n-sees. It wasn’t long before the dates started rolling in, though she should have issued a red-flag warning that read: Ladies, hide your husbands. Posey’s back in town.
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He would have stood out anywhere, and standing in front of the entrance to a boutique hotel in Spiddal, wielding a black walking cane with an ivory handle two paces before made him glaringly incongruous to everything I’d come to know about the western coast of Ireland. He wore a three piece suit on his gentle frame: black, with gray stripes the width of angel’s hair, with a fitted vest, tailored trousers, complementary cravat, and a black Fedora angled just so.
I looked out from my window seat on the bus from Carraroe to Galway. It was one of those old kinds that looked as if it once had a life as an elementary school bus, now put out to pasture. With aluminum rails on the seats before, the bus would take off noisily, gravel scattering beneath its wheels before I had a chance to sit down. The bus driver greeted me in awkward English. It took a few rounds of greeting me in Irish before he finally realized I am an American, and his guttural salutation now came out sounding like something a little to the left of “Hiya.”
The bus rolled to its customary stop on the coast road that runs through the heart of Spiddal. There is no sign there; the stop is force of habit because years of driving this rolling route through Connemara told the driver where travelers would be standing, shielded from the vagaries of Irish weather.
Heads turned as the dapper, elderly man mounted the bus. He steadied his gait with his cane and favored his right foot up the three steps then halted beside the bus driver to beam his greeting. Out of the corner of my eye, trying not to stare, I saw the man tip his hat repeatedly to the right and left as he made his way down the aisle to the vacant seat beside me.
“Nice day,” he said to me as he took off his hat and placed it on his lap. “Going into town, is it? Where you go every day?”
“Yes,” I said caught by surprise and thinking nothing gets by anybody around here.
“Kearney’s the name, Seamus Kearney,” he offered himself. “You’re an American, yah?” he asked in that way the Irish have of answering their own question.
“Yes,” I answered.
“From the South, is it?” he continued.
“That’s a good ear you have. Yes, I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, but I spent the last five years living in Los Angeles,” I clarified.
“God helps us all,” he said with a wink. “And what is your name, then?” he prodded.
“Claire Fullerton.” I shook his offered hand.
“And your middle name then? Have you Irish connections?”
“Yes, I have Irish connections on both sides. My middle name is Ford,” I said.
“Ford,” he considered, wrinkling his brow. “That’s an odd middle name for a girl.”
“Yes, perhaps,” I said. “But I’m not an odd girl; I promise.”
“Now the Fords, they’re from around these parts. They’re old as the hills and Irish as the soil. Many are up the road in that old graveyard by The Centra,” Seamus Kearney said. “So they called you here, they did,” he said in more of a statement than a question.
“No, actually it was a whim that brought me here. I never knew any of my Ford relatives. Most of them died before I was born.”
Seamus drew in his breath in that audible sigh the Irish do, when they’re getting ready to say something poignant. It is a sound with a world of understanding contained: one part camaraderie, the other commiseration. “So, they called you here, they did,” he reiterated patiently. His white eyebrows raised encouragingly, as if leading a child along the road to good reason.
“Yes, definitely,” I complied.
“Ah then, there it is, so. We in Connemara don’t see the need in being parted by a little thing like death,” he said.
I couldn’t wait a second longer; I couldn’t help but ask, “Do you always dress like this?”
“Like what?” he asked genuinely unaware, which made me wonder if I’d put my foot in my mouth.
“You look so nice; I was only thinking that,” I said, the heat rising to my face.
“Pride of person’s not an unpardonable sin,” he said. “Now let me ask you what it is you do in town.”
The next thing I knew, I was explaining everything I did at my job in Galway, while Seamus gave me his rapt attention, with a pleased look on his face. Had I still been living in Los Angeles, a conversation like this one would have never taken place. One simply did not divulge personal information to a stranger in Los Angeles without thinking it would come back to haunt. But this was Connemara, and the Irish have a way of exchanging pleasantries in a manner that is somewhere between an exploration of and commentary on this business of living. It is an art so subtle you have to narrow your eyes or you’ll miss it; it comes creeping softly wearing white cotton socks and sensible shoes.
The bus rolled to a stop at the Spanish Arch, down by the quays in Galway. I stood up to disembark. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Kearney,” I said.
“Call me Seamus, please,” he returned. “I live just by the church there in Spiddal. I’d love for you to call out any time for a cup of tea,” he said, with his blue eyes smiling.
“Thank you so much, I will,” I returned, and as I got off the bus to head over the River Corrib’s bridge, I turned to wave to Seamus Kearney, and knew without question I would.
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Oh, the sheer joy of this book, which is not outweighed in the least by the rarity of coming across a writer with complete command of language and craft. The Headmaster’s Darlings has so much excellence going on that it’s a challenge for me to know where to slather my gushing praise first! Within its 245 pages of the tightest, page-turning story I’ve read in as long as I can remember, there is comedy, sarcasm, heart-tugging sentimentality, social commentary, and suspense to the point where, when I wasn’t laughing out loud over Katherine Clark’s spot-on Southern cultural insight, I was re-reading her laser-sharp paragraphs as if they were a writer’s tutorial. Crisp, clever, economic sentences lead the reader through the story of the obese Norman Laney, a beloved high school teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, whose job lays in the balance of rumor and false accusation. But it is 1980’s Birmingham society that is judge, jury and executioner, and Norman Laney knows how to game the system. So wise to the eccentricities of an insular, antiquated, upper-class society, Norman Laney beats them at
their own game by being one of them. He is both fish-out-of-water and ruler of the roost in a story that is part comedy of manners and part
emperor’s new clothes. It is not so much the story as the telling of the story that makes or breaks a book for me. Kathrine Clark gives us her all, nay, way more than we expect in sardonically laying bare the mind frame of Birmingham, Alabama’s cloistered elitist society, whose aspirations are maintaining the status quo. Yet Norman Laney is a teacher of principle and integrity, in the field for all the right reasons, which he has to keep under wraps, lest he startle society’s neat and resistant grid of logic by which it defines itself. Written in a tone that both laughs and bites at the nuances of Southern society, there is an undercurrent of nonjudgmental acceptance of a culture as old as the hills as it seeks to raise its next generation in a manner that aspires to keeping it so. Yet it is Norman Laney’s aim to teach his students to aspire to at least something by reaching beyond themselves, and he must lead by appeasing Birmingham’s old guard as he acts as guidance counselor to their offspring. The Headmaster’s Darlings is more than a comedic social commentary on a staid Southern mentality that will be its own hubris in the end; the book doles out a lure that shows the way out, and slips it in undetected from the cunning lead of one impressionable teacher, who knows his way around covert maneuver. I understand there are two more books behind this one. My hand hovers in anticipatory wait over my Kindle.