The eighteen children in his “charge” were “imprisoned by the circumstances of their birth.” He left them a prayer, “That the river is good to them in crossing.”
17 Bookers including one guest, Roz Ball (our resident pilot’s stepmother) visiting from Seattle, met at the home of Donna Walter to discuss this month’s selection, The Water is Wide, a memoir by Pat Conroy. Many thanks to everyone who participated in our “Bookers got you covered” hat parade in honor of Jane Freer and special appreciation to Cherry Fugitt for birthing the idea and taking charge of the program. To all who brought enough hats, scarfs, and turbans to keep our dear friend’s head warm and chic, we are grateful beyond words to be part of this special community. The hatboxes and gift sacks were delivered to their front porch this afternoon so we’re hoping this outpouring of love was enough to put a smile on Jane’s face! Many of us have projects near and dear to our hearts and as a promise to the Freers, Patty Evans pledged Wreaths Across America would continue with donations of wreaths and volunteers from the PWC and our community to deliver them with Jane leading the pack of volunteers next December. Patty will be compiling a list so if you are interested in participating in this heartfelt project, please contact her at email@example.com. We all also extend our thoughts and prayers to those within our community dealing with on-going health issues.
Pat Conroy is the author of six novels and five non-fiction books and for those who do not know Conroy's heartbreaking work, he grew up as a military brat, one of seven children, son of a Marine Corps pilot whose hobby and solace was to beat his wife and children until they cried "uncle." He sought refuge in books partially because he knew his father would not beat him while he was reading as he assumed he was studying. Books were his constant companions as they relocated from one military base to another. The first novel his mother read to him was Gone With The Wind – and in her warm Southern tone, she took the book characters and compared them to their real-life relatives. Conroy said his mother showed him that the relationship between life and art was very close; you just had to pay attention to find it. The most powerful words in English are "Tell me a story… words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself.” He was a poet who wrote prose….a novelist who could bring a sunset into a dark room, invite you to smell the scent of a gardenia with a few sensual words….and make you laugh and cry in the same sentence. He remains in the hearts of his fans through his words, but sentences like, “Poets candle the pilot light where language hides from itself” died with 70 year old Pat Conroy last March.
Beverly Dossett, the book’s reviewer, introduced the author (who we had to tear away from the literary laps of those legends who preceded him!) in the flesh of John Magee who took off his Chris Cleave hat and replaced it with Mr. Conroy’s. He provided a brief background of his life and an overview of his year teaching eighteen black children divorced from society living on an isolated island off the coast of South Carolina. His job as the “white schoolteacher” was to educate his students but instead they taught him….to look at life through a different lens. “They changed my life and I feel this book, The Water is Wide, was my first real book…like a firstborn child.” A few of the students crossed the water safely as one became a teacher, another, a nurse, a Gullah cookbook writer, and one worked as the assistant manager of a local Publix grocery store.
Gullahs are descendants of enslaved Africans whose origins lie along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia and the adjacent Sea Islands such as Daufuskie Island (aka Yamacraw in the book.) They can be traced to the transatlantic slave trade of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Settlers in America struggled to find a crop that would produce sufficient revenue for England discovering rice was best suited for the coastal climate and the Africans from Sierra Leone were “imported” to farm this new crop. White plantation owners succumbed to Malaria and yellow fever leaving a handful of white managers and trusted Africans known as drivers to tend to the rice crop, resulting in a black majority in the colony by 1708. Because the slaves derived from diverse regions, they developed a creole-type language in order to communicate. Their religion, based on Christianity practiced by their white masters, differs as their faith includes communal prayer, song and dance….plus witchcraft.
The Water is Wide, written in 1972, is honored by the National Education Association – a “must read for new and veteran teachers. Conroy writes of a universal theme, young idealistic man sets out to change the world and runs into a brick wall. His teaching job of elementary age black children on a lonely outpost between Savannah and Hilton Head forced him to step outside the box. Giving out textbooks and administering spelling tests was not going to work with this group. The majority of the children didn’t know what country they lived in, could not recite the alphabet or read or write, thought the Civil War was fought between the Germans and Japanese, had never heard of an ocean much less know that it was the Atlantic Ocean that lapped onto their beaches every day, or could add simple numbers. The septic days of segregation were easy…the black schools where the sons and daughters of cotton pickers were herded together, ruled by black principals who played their role with downcast eyes. Pat knew there “was a river rising flooding the marshes and threatening dry land”…the established black/white divide was disappearing at least from an educational standpoint. His challenge, to find a level of communication with these children to allow them to see a world outside of their walls….to encourage a desire to leave the nest and to give them what was necessary to take that first step. The book, filled with humor, descriptive language, and a cast of characters so over the top if this was a work of fiction, they would be unbelievable. There is no telling what impact Pat could have had if he had not been fired after one year, but the literary world benefitted from a failed teaching career.
We discussed the Dallas Morning News article offering lessons to Texas educators and leaders on the success Singapore has enjoyed because of their dedication to teaching as a profession on the same level and pay scale as an engineer. Their top students fare as well as those in Texas but the difference surfaces with the average student. Singapore, roughly the size of Austin and a developing world country in the 1960’s, now has a higher living standard than ours; require their students to be linguistically and literally bilingual, and their teachers are regarded in an elite industry. Teacher applicants have to be in the top third of their high school class to apply and only seventy per year are accepted out of thousands. They endure extensive training and “quality control” type evaluations before trusted to educate the children and only answer to one government entity in charge of education. Pat Conroy agreed with their theory – “a true quality teacher loves the students coming to you each year.” Bookers shared personal experiences as teachers, students, and parents recognizing that a teacher’s passion often suffocates inside bureaucratic red tape and the chain of disillusionment and frustration surfaces in poor teaching and burnout….and everyone suffers.
On the Business side:
MN’s other book club, the Dauphin Island Book Club, held their first meeting in January to discuss A Man Called Ove. Eleven attended for the review by MN and live sister-prop, Pam, posing as Sonja in a wheelchair with a stuffed cat on her lap. Her group’s comments, “It’s going to be impossible to follow that.” The legend lives on!
We discussed a possible book for our March selection, Orphan # 8, a historical novel inspired by true events by Kim van Alkemade. MN has read it and highly recommends it. I’m about 25% through and will save my recommendation until I’m finished….soon I hope. So far, I love it. The story is of a woman who must choose between revenge and mercy when she encounters the doctor who subjected her to dangerous medical experiments in a New York City Jewish orphanage years before. There is a thread of a lesbian relationship throughout the book, but it is subtle. We also discussed selecting one of Fannie Flagg’s books, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.
Bookers has supported Henderson County Library’s fundraiser each year. The 5th annual Books in Bloom event will be held March 31, 2017 at First United Methodist Church, 225 Lovers Lane, Athens, Texas. The speaker is New York Times bestselling, award-winning historian Sam C. Gwynne author of the incredible story of how Hal Mumme and Mike Leach—two unknown coaches who revolutionized American football in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s—changed the way the game is played at every level, from high school to the NFL. The Perfect Pass is a perfect book about football—and the transformative power of innovation. Sam Gwynne brings the same remarkable reporting and storytelling skills he used in Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell, revealing the dramatic history behind the passing revolution that disrupted and forever changed America’s favorite sport changing it from a run-dominated sport to a pass-dominated sport.
We didn’t know if this was going to be something Bookers would be interested in this year but who knew….the volunteer hands flew up…(crept might be a better word) and Patty Evans, Pat Faherty and Cherry Fugitt have agreed to spearhead the event and are already planning the table decorations. THANK YOU so much as we love this event. The tickets are $40.00 per person and it is imperative we reserve a table for 8 early so if you are interested, please email me by January 20. If we have more interest, we can acquire some additional seats at another table. When I get your commitment, I’ll write one check and you can reimburse me.
COLOR CODING SYSTEM
WHITE: LIGHT READ
PINK: MODERATELY CHALLENGING
February 14th: Miss Jane by Brad Watson, set in rural Mississippi early 20th century and inspired by his aunt’s true story.
Reviewer: Jean Alexander
Home of Pat Faherty
March 14th: Book TBD
Reviewer: Patty Evans
Home of Jean Alexander
April 11th: The Girl Who Wrote In Silk, by Kelli Estes, debut
The protagonist discovers an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in her deceased aunt’s island estate revealing a connection with a young Chinese girl mysteriously driven from her home a century before.
Reviewer: Pat Faherty
Home of Rokhshie Malone
May 2nd Earlier date due to travel conflict
Reviewer: Barbara Creach
Wine & Cheese evening meeting at the home of Melanie Prebis.