Aug. 2, 2007

Brothers and Sisters

by Jim Harrison

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Poem: "Brothers and Sisters" by Jim Harrison, from Saving Daylight. © Copper Canyon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Brothers and Sisters

I'm trying to open a window in this very old house of indeterminate
age buried toward the back of a large ranch here in the Southwest,
abandoned for so long that there's no road leading into it but a slight
indentation in the pastureland, last lived in by the owner's great-
uncle who moved to New York City to listen to music, or so he said,
but his grandnephew said that the man was "light in his loafers," which
was hard to be back in New Mexico in those days. In the pantry under
a stained vinegar cruet is a sepia photo of him and his sister in their
early teens on the front porch of the house, dressed unconvincingly
as vaqueros, as handsome as young people get. The photo is dated 1927
and lights up the pantry. I find out that the girl died in childbirth in
the middle thirties in Pasadena, the boy committed suicide in Havana
in 1952, both dying in the hands of love. Out in the yard I shine my
flashlight down a hole under a massive juniper stump. A rattlesnake
forms itself into anxious coils surrounding its pretty babies stunned
by the light.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer James Baldwin (books by this author), born in Harlem Hospital in New York City (1924). He decided as a young man that he had to get out of Harlem or it would kill him. So he moved to Greenwich Village, supporting himself as a dishwasher and a waiter. He would sleep for three or four hours every night, and spend the rest of his free time writing. He had some success publishing book reviews, but he was struggling to write his first novel. He got a grant to help him finish the book, but even that didn't help. In a last-ditch effort, he used what money he had left to buy a ticket to Paris.

Baldwin arrived in Paris with only 50 dollars in his pocket. A few days after his arrival, he was locked out of his hotel room for lack of payment. He sold his clothes and his typewriter in order to survive, and then was falsely arrested for stealing a bed sheet and was thrown in a French prison. That first day in prison, surrounded by drunks and thieves and robbers, Baldwin said, "It seemed to me that my flight from home was the cruelest trick I had ever played on myself, since it had led me here, down to a lower point than any I could ever in my life have imagined — lower, far, that anything I had seen in that Harlem which I had so hated and so loved."

But he got out of prison. He had almost given up on the novel he'd been writing for years, but a friend set him up in a cottage in the French countryside. Writing in almost total isolation, Baldwin was able to finish the novel in a few months. It came out in 1953 as Go Tell It on the Mountain about a young preacher based on Baldwin's stepfather. That book was a big success, and Baldwin went on to become one of the most renowned writers of his generation. Today he is remembered more for his essays than his fiction, especially in his collection Notes of a Native Son (1955).

James Baldwin said, "If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you're not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real."

It's the birthday of the novelist Isabel Allende (books by this author), born in Lima, Peru (1942). She grew up in Chile with her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was a conservative, wealthy landowner who was so old-fashioned that he forbade even a radio to be brought into his house. Allende's grandmother, on the other hand, was a spiritualist who practiced astrology and participated in séances. After she finished school, Allende became a journalist, writing for a feminist magazine and occasionally appearing on television. At the same time, she watched as her uncle, Salvador, was elected the president of Chile, the first freely elected socialist leader in history. But in 1973, three years after taking power, Allende's uncle was overthrown by a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet.

Allende moved to Venezuela. She had a hard time finding journalism work, so she took a job as a teacher and an administrator and basically stopped writing. And then, in 1981, Allende got a phone call from her grandfather, who was almost 100 years old. She hadn't seen him since she left Chile, and she'd rarely been able to communicate with him. He was calling to say goodbye, because he was ready to die and he'd stopped eating. After she got off the phone with him, Allende decided that she had to preserve everything she remembered about him and everything she knew about his life. And that inspired her first novel, The House of the Spirits, which came out in 1985. It tells the story of four generations of the Trueba family and the history of Chile from the turn of the century up to the coup in 1973, while also incorporating elements of the supernatural, including ghosts and fortune-tellers and psychic powers. The novel went on to become an international best seller.

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