Reader's Exchange

Haunting, but not like Halloween

No disrespect implied, but I've left witches and pumpkins behind, forging ahead to Thanksgiving mode this week.  It's all due to Daniel Woodrell.

The Maid's Version, his brief but masterfully done novel, was on my Don't Return Home Without It list at Book Expo last spring.  Alas, I came up empty-handed on that score--lots of Woodrell fans (the film Winter's Bone, with Jennifer Lawrence, was based on a Woodrell tale) at BEA.

But, thanks to a just-arrived review copy of the audio, I spent Saturday afternoon under the spell of Woodrell's memorable, tragic story: 42 citizens of a small town--including its most promising young folk--perish in a dreadful dance hall fire and explosion in 1929.  Woodrell based his fictional rendition on an actual incident that occurred in 1928, resulting in approximately 30 deaths.

Four hours' worth of small-town intrigue (nice rural accents by the narrator, too) elapsed in a blur.  I'm still thinking about that story with appreciation, melancholy scenarios and gory details included--and I find TV crime shows too disheartening to watch.

It's not just English-major respect for fine literary craftsmanship.  It's the season.  Along with the more obvious bounty of brisk air, family gatherings, and turning leaves, autumn carries an elegiac, somber sense of cyclical balance that humans probably require in regular doses, like vitamins.  

Tragic episodes, like autumn, remind us what is important and what we're made of.

A survey of Book Movement ("The Insider's Guide to What Book Clubs are Reading Right Now") lists five great examples in its current Top 100--historical fiction and nonfiction--attesting to popularity of devastating themes:  Allan Brennert's Molokai (leper colony); Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City (serial killings during Chicago World's Fair); debut author Hannah Kent's Burial Rites (accused murderer in Iceland); Jung Chang's Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (political regimes); Geraldine Brook's Year of Wonders (plague in 1666).

I can vouch for all five.  But this selection was new to me: The Lives They Left Behind:  Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic.  The title says it all.  It's on order for the library.

Vintage crossing signTragic stories aren't merely sad; literary definitions of "tragedy" include an element of human failing--moral weakness; character flaw; being overwhelmed by circumstance and demonstrating uncharacteristically poor judgment.  Tragedies aren't so much rooted in evil as in humanity.  

Consider these riveting real-life accounts from Round Rock Public Library's nonfiction shelves:  Curse of the Narrows by Laura M. MacDonald (1917 Halifax explosion/tsunami/blizzard); City on Fire by Bill Minutaglio (1947 Texas City explosion);  Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo; Gone at 3:17... by David M. Brown (New London, Texas, school explosion); Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson (Galveston hurricane); The Immortal Ten: The Definitive Account of the 1927 Tragedy... by Todd Copeland (train-bus collision in Round Rock). 

All demonstrate that catastrophe elicits bravery, selflessness, and concrete measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.   Amazing events, unforgettable lessons. 

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