Friday, 13 April 2012. Red neck. A year ago (April 2011) I started writing a book. I like to have a working title, so since the book was (nominally) about Oklahoma and what it might mean to be from there, I decided to call the book "Red Neck."
I started writing the book one morning at a café in Natchez. A few months before I'd taken a trip to Oklahoma with my son to visit the farm I grew up on and a whole herd of relations that still live there. That week in Oklahoma was packed full of activity and I didn't get much writing done and I was still trying to sort out what (if anything) I might have to say about Oklahoma.
What prompted me to sit down in that Natchez café and start writing was a book I discovered at an indy bookstore the previous day called Red Dirt by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. (See "Red malaise" in my post "jerome et sylvie" from last year.) Oklahoma is famous for its red soil. I keep a jar of red dirt here at my house on Long Island to remind me where I'm from. The word "red" is a loaded term and can mean many things. So "red" in "Red Dirt" also suggests a political color, communism. Oddly enough, we use red to denote our conservative states on the electoral map. The term "red state" refers to a state dominated politically by right-wingers. So, I've been playing around with that color as I work on my book.
One (forgotten or overlooked?) fact is that in 1908, a year after Oklahoma was admitted into the union as a state, Oklahoma boasted the largest (by percentage) number of socialists / communists in the whole nation. Nearly a quarter of the electorate voted socialist or communist. This factoid surprised me since my impression of Oklahomans (the ones I know / knew) is that they (still) regard com-you-nism as the red menace. Folks just go crazy when you say the word "communist" and they stop thinking and start looking for a fight (usually a verbal fight, but "back in the day" you could get your backside whupped for going even the slightest shade of pink). Perhaps it was the large fraction of communists in the population that made them such a target for right-wing thugs.
Memoirs and fictions. When I started writing Red Neck I thought I’d write something like Sebald’s Vertigo, a fiction with an autobiographical feel. My plan was to use my “Donavan Hall persona” as the narrator. This persona is the narrative voice I use to write my blog and my beer novels. The “Donavan Hall persona” lives in a fictional Long Island village called Long Neck. Like me, Donavan is from Oklahoma, but he has a slightly different history. His wife is named Alice (after the one who visited Wonderland) and he has twin daughters, Erica and Christina, and a son named Patrick.
While I was in Oklahoma last week, I did a lot of thinking about Red Neck. I started viewing that book as more of a memoir, rather than a fiction. The reason for this shift is that there is much that I can write about the actual stories and history of the (real) Hall family. Red Neck could be (partly) a family history, a place where I could write about real people, real events. The fiction then I would save for my Eden book(s), what I’ve called my “Fisher Saga” since it records the history of the Fisher family.
Isabella. On Wednesday (the 11th) I drove with my grandfather, mother, and son over to Isabella, Oklahoma. Isabella isn’t much of a town. Folks live there. There’s a school house, a fire house, and a bunch of deserted buildings that were once stores (a general store and a filling station). Today, there aren’t any businesses (that I could see). Isabella is just a cluster of houses, most of them needing repair. We drove by one house that looks like it was built recently, modern brick skirting, garage, fenced yard. A woman was out front with her white puff of a dog. She didn’t recognize our car and I could tell by the look on her face that she couldn’t figure out what in the world would bring a car load of folks out to Isabella.
Our first stop in Isabella was the cemetery were a host of my relatives (ancestors) are buried including Jim Hall (my great-great grandfather) who, along with his brothers, made the 1893 Cherokee Strip Land Run and claimed land along the Cimarron River about three miles northeast of Isabella. Headstones in the cemetery were marked with the family names that over the years became intertwined with the Halls: Reames, Barnum, Spaulding, Chase, Wright.
The cemetery, while it bore hard physical evidence (traces) that my family had been there, I was more interested in the land that Jim Hall and his brothers had farmed for nearly 40 years (from 1893 to the 30s). With the help of my grandpa, we drove over the dirt roads that took us to the original Hall homesteads: two 160 acre claims adjacent to each other on the southern bank of the Cimarron River. Jim Hall and his wife Gertie lived across the road from Jim’s older brother Harry and Harry’s wife, Ina.
The two farms were clearly and conveniently marked. The oil company that has put wells on the property has named the pumps after the original settlers. So when we pulled up we saw a sign marked “Hall No. 2-29” complete with the survey designation for the section: Section 29-21N-10W, CA No. OKNM 74339. The same type of signs informed us that the property immediately south of Harry and Ina’s farm belonged to some of the Reames family. The farm south of Jim and Gertie Hall’s farm belonged to the Bierigs who are remotely connected to the Halls through the Wright family. Jim Hall had another older brother Howard who also homesteaded in the Isabella area. Howard’s daughter Fleeta May married John Raymond Wright and their son James Walter married the daughter of Eva Bierig.
What I realized on that visit was just how interconnected all the families surrounding Isabella were. It should have been obvious that over the course of 40 or 50 years living in one place that the families would form these natural connections by marriage.
West of Eden. A few years back, I read Frank Eaton’s (better known perhaps as Pistol Pete) “autobiography.” It’s full of stories (most of them made up it seems). The book is called Pistol Pete: Veteran of the Old West. This is what it says at the beginning of the book:
My friend and partner, Eva Gillhouse, wrote this book. It was her idea and she did all the work. It’s just the way I told it to her --- it’s all true --- and I’ll back her with both guns.
Of Frank Eaton, my grandpa said, “He was nothing but an outlaw.” Frank Eaton finished out his days in Perkins where it seems he devoted his life to drinking, a pastime not approved of by my grandpa. Both my grandpa and my father “saw” Frank Eaton. My grandpa’s story is that there had been some trouble at the church campground in Perkins. Frank Eaton, or Pistol Pete rather, was invited to come to the campground. His reputation as a gunslinger was enough to scare off the bad element that was disrupting the evening prayer meetings. Eaton wasn’t (evidently) religious.
My father told me about meeting Pistol Pete. My father was just a boy and was out at the campground one summer. He and some other kids went to Frank Eaton’s house where they sat on the porch and listened to the famous gunfighter tell his stories. My father wrote a short piece for the OSU alumni magazine about the boyhood encounter.
I read Eaton’s book and my impression was that the story had some promise, but it wasn’t developed enough to be a novel. For his book, Eaton (or Gillhouse rather) wrote down his stories. Eaton was a storyteller and he’d spent his life turning his experiences into entertaining stories. I could see Eaton getting away with telling his tales to a live audience, but they clearly lacked something when written down. For example, his description of his gunfights lack the drama on the page that they would have had when spoken.
Also, Eaton’s stories don’t add up to make a whole narrative. There are gaps, lacuna, and glosses which make the read less satisfying as fiction. I suppose such a patchwork is fine for the memoir form, but as a piece of fiction it needs work.
I was tempted to turn the story of Pistol Pete into a novel. Not that I had any serious intensions of doing so, but I liked to think about what that unwritten novel might look like. I’d thinly disguise my source by rebranding him Frank Eden. Then I’d play around with the dates and the details so that Frank Eden’s story would dovetail with my Fisher Saga. Frank Eden would be about the same age as Jim Hall (b. 1967). Frank Eaton reports that he was born in 1860, but this is probably an exaggeration. He’s probably added a few years to his age so that he’s not 7 years old when he’s supposed to be having gun fights with outlaws.
Anyway, my Frank Eden would settle in the fictional Oklahoma town of Cimarron. He would settle down with his Indian bride and his offspring would include Melanie Eden, Adam Fisher’s first love, and one of the principle preoccupations of the novel. The final part of the novel is called “Recovering Eden” so injecting Frank Eden and his story into the novel might make sense.
Monday, 16 April 2012. Genealogy. My grandfather also has a copy of The Hall Family by Elizabeth (Betty) Anne Bailey Hall and it came in handy on my recent visit to Oklahoma. On our last full day in Oklahoma we visited Isabella where the original Hall family homesteads were. I wandered around the cemetery at Isabella with the big red hardback book using the index to look up names I found on head stones to see if the person buried there was any relation to us. It seems about fifty percent of Isabella is connected to the Halls in some way.
I was glad to have a copy of Betty Hall’s book with me. The information contained in it added to the experience of visiting the cemetery at Isabella. The Hall Family is mostly a listing of names and dates and relations. It’s arranged as a series of entries beginning with the earliest Halls from England and fanning out to include the descendants that came to Oklahoma. Betty Hall and her son Richard compiled the information and published the book. Betty is of my grandfather’s generation. She married the son of my grandfather’s uncle, so the information for my great grandfather’s branch of the Hall family tree isn’t as developed as the branch she and Richard were principally concerned with documenting. Also, information in the book about my great-grandfather’s descendants is (slightly) inaccurate (in addition to being incomplete). For example, my name is spelled wrong in Betty and Richard Hall’s book, my wife’s family name is listed as “unknown” and the date listed for our marriage is off by one year. Extrapolating from the errors in just one entry, I wonder just how much I can trust the accuracy in other parts of the book.
Still with all the errors (known and unknown) it’s better that the book exists than not. It’s something to build on.
Family trees. Not long after I learned about the World Wide Web (the early 1990s), I discovered that some folks were putting genealogical information up on their web sites. With the prospect of being able to do genealogical research from a comfy seat in front of my computer, I set to work compiling my own family tree using a nifty computer program. I spent hours combing online databases searching for anything I could on anyone connected to my family tree. I kept up my genealogical research interests until about seven or eight years ago when I realized that I wasn’t going to get much more than names and dates for anyone from a generation earlier than my grandfather’s. Compiling a book of data wasn’t as interesting to me as telling a story. I wanted stories, not just a listing of names and dates. So compiling a family tree (especially given that Betty and Richard Hall already published a fairly complete one) became less interesting to me.
However, family trees are useful if you ever plan to write a narrative history of your family. Getting the facts straight is step number one. There’s about 50 pages of documents collected in Betty and Richard Hall’s book; it’s these documents that begin to tell the story of the Hall family.
Tuesday, 17 April 2012. The Promised Land. On our way back to the farm from Isabella we drove on a stretch of Highway 51 that was marked as the “Angie Debo Memorial Highway.” This marker reminded me that I’d started reading her book Prairie City: The Story of an American Community some time back and I hadn’t finished yet.
Last night I read chapter four of Prairie City; it’s about the religious life in the community and the formation of the early churches in these frontier communities. Debo wrote of Harry Hayman, the newly called Baptist preacher, “From the Bible he read the familiar story of another race of pioneers who settled a Promised Land, and he preached with Baptist fervor from the text, ‘Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward.’”
When I returned from Oklahoma, I said to a friend that I’d returned from Eden. Perhaps I should have said that I’d left the Promised Land. Given what’s on my reading list (Proust) you might say that I’d returned to Sodom and Gomorrah.
Exodus. The journey out of bondage into freedom is a universal story. Moses leading the people across the wilderness to take possession of a new land flowing with milk and honey is a metaphor not only for the community, but for the individual --- each of us striving to claim that little spot where we can settle in comfort.
For African Americans, the story is more literal. Many were brought to this land specifically to be in bondage. The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s mimicked the Biblical story. Martin Luther King cast as Moses and demanding of Pharaoh “Let my people go!”
The Biblical story of Israel claiming the Promised Land has a dark side. We tend not to think about what it was like for the Canaanites who already lived there and had made their homes in that place. The Israelites, chosen of God, came brandishing weapons to slaughter them by the tens of thousands so they could claim the land.
Another great Exodus --- but more terrible --- is known as the Trail of Tears. Our government expelled the indigenous peoples from their land, uprooted them, and sent them to Oklahoma. The “Indians” set about making a new life for themselves in this land that the White Man didn’t want, that is until the White Man decided that he did want it after all.
White settlement of Oklahoma began with the 1889 land run, giving away the so-called “Unassigned Lands” to whites on a first come, first served basis. My family came to Oklahoma in the next wave when the Cherokee Outlet was opened up on 16 September 1893. My great-great grandfather, Jim, and his brothers claimed rich farmland on the south bank of the Cimarron River.
Uprooting. The Trail of Tears was an act of genocide. Thousands died on that forced march to Oklahoma. I’m reminded of the Grand Dérangement of the Acadians from their home in what is now known as Nova Scotia. Only in 1990 did the British crown (through its Canadian representative, the Governor General) apologize for their act of ethnic cleansing.
Being of English decent (admittedly a long time back) and being white somehow implicates me in the series of crimes against people who happened to be living on land that my people wanted. The English wanted Acadia, so they kicked out the French Catholics. White America wanted the land given to the Cherokee, so we kicked them out. Am I wearing my liberal guilt as a badge of honor?
Private property. In my book Red Neck I keep coming back to the subject of Marxism. And I’ve been thinking about Marxism in Oklahoma because I just read Eli Jaffe’s memoir Oklahoma Odyssey about his experiences with organizing farmers and workers in Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma. At one point Jaffe writes that most problems that divide people are rooted in the existence of private property. I’m not sure that I would like to give up my private books or my computer for the greater good of the ideal Marxist society, but I don’t think I would object if we dispensed with the notion that individuals can own their own little squares of dirt.
That might sound strange coming from a boy from Oklahoma whose family lived and fed itself on a quarter section of dirt in north central Oklahoma, but now that I’m away from the farm, I’ve come to think that slicing up that little square of Oklahoma dirt into smaller pieces over the years didn’t really do my family any good. Wouldn’t it be better if the whole farm had been kept undivided so that my generation could work the land together (collectively)? One of our cousins has already sold off their 10 acre share of the farm to someone outside the family. That piece has been chipped off. Is that just the beginning of the erosion?
I mentioned Angie Debo already. She wrote thirteen books. Another is called And Still the Waters Run; I don’t have a copy yet, but from what I read, I can say that it’s about how the US swindled the Indigenous Peoples (“Indians”) out of their tribal lands. The culprit seems to be the Dawes Act, enacted in 1887, that forced private ownership of lands on the tribes. Once the tribal lands were in the hands of individuals, the tribe couldn’t do anything to protect those lands from being taken over by owners who had no interest in the tribe.
Collective ownership of land is a way of maintaining the land’s integrity, of securing it for future generations. What if we lived in a state where no one person was allowed to own land, where all the land was held by the people as a whole, and everyone who lived in that state had an equal share in the land? Perhaps awarded by an allotment system. No one would have a mortgage payment. There wouldn’t be any such thing as a property tax. Housing would be guaranteed. Too good to be true?
The house you lived in would still be yours (as long as you needed and used it). Your car and laptop would be yours. You could keep your library. But you wouldn’t have to worry about shelter. And anyone who wanted to could plant crops, or brew beer. Perhaps, I’m inventing a Utopia. It’s easy to say that such a system would never work. But even if you think the system we have is working, is it really a system that has our best interests at heart? No.
I’d be willing to give up my mortgage and property taxes just to find out if such a system would be an improvement.
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Your comments concerning this issue of The Angler are most welcome.