Sunday, February 15, 2009

The End of Ebenezer Le Page





















Tonight I finished reading The Book of Ebenezer Le Page. Until I read a review by the Ochlophobist, I had never heard of the book. The Ochlophobist, in turn, had heard of the work from Douglas Ian Dalrymple. Their mutual recommendation made this, for me at least, The Book Which Must Be Read.

I will not attempt a review, as the Ochlophobist has already done such an admirable job with that (you will need to scroll back to January 15th for the particular post). This little-known work is the only novel of G. B. Edwards, who died in 1976. In my view, he joins the company of Harper Lee, Guiseppe di Lampedusa, John Kennedy Toole, and yes, Margaret Mitchell; all writers who show that if you do something well enough, it only has to be done once. The book is simply one of the most satisfying reads I have had in a long, long time. These characters will stay with me--Ebenezer himself, the tormented Raymond Martel, the fussing sisters La Hetty and La Prissy, good old Jim Mahy, the unattainable Liza Queripel, harbinger of doom Cousin Mary Ann and finally, Neville Falla, who epitomized the author's hope for mankind. As Och noted, the book does not lend itself to short, pithy quotes, for the entire work is a gem. I do like this one, found in the last pages: "Is all one generation can do to set the stage for the comic, sad story of the next?"

This is the story of a man firmly rooted in his place, the island of Guernsey. He came of age before the First World War, lived through the German occupation during the Second, and continued on into old age-but never senility, and living long enough to witness the Disneyfication of his beloved island. But through it all, he knew, and lived who he was--Ebenezer Le Page of Les Moulins.

The rootedness of Le Page to his place and his world is at the heart of my fascination with his story. Ebenezer stands as a rebuke to the utter rootlessness of our age. And yet, while we recognize its value, and lament its loss, we are sometimes happier when it is others who tackle becoming "rooted."

My wife and I have lived for 21 years in a now-101 year-old house. We are but its 3rd owners. Her parents home, purchased in 1950, lies across the garden patch. Her brother owns it now, and her niece lives there, while the other brother lives next door. The sister, before her death, lived at the end of the block. Various aunts and cousins have and do live in other houses scattered around the neighborhood, a near family compound. In fact, my wife has never lived outside this 2-block neighborhood. Except for 3 years in Austin, I have lived my entire life in the southwestern quadrant of our county. My son, my nephew and I are the 5th and 6th-generation owners of our farm, which we simply refer to as "the old place." My folks purchased the new farm, closer by, in 1962. Even the building where our little Orthodox mission meets is in the old schoolhouse associated with my mother's family. Sometimes, after liturgy, I step across the road to the cemetery, and visit with my parents, where 6 generations of my family lie buried. My wife's family and my maternal family had been scratching around on this little patch of earth since the mid 1840s. And the fact that we are 3rd cousins attests to the fact that there is a good bit of overlap in our family stories. All this is to say that the two of us are not exactly poster children for the mobile society.

Certainly our situation is hardly typical in today's society. I am thankful to be able to live out my life in a particular place that has meaning to me. I am sympathetic to the story of Ebenezer Le Page, and yet...I also realize how much a product of the modern world I am. I could have never been content with staying-put as he did. My yearning to travel is a reflection of this, I suppose. Also my familial connectedness is not so much with the close-at-hand ancestral ties, but rather with my dad's family, the "other" which was lost. He was not from around here, as they say. During the Great Depression, he found his way here, settled in, and took charge. Without him, no "old farm" would have been saved, or anything else for that matter. So, I appreciate the rootedness I do have. But reading The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, reminds me how far I actually am from that life. At best, I may just be trying to have the best of both worlds, which is seldom convincing. It certainly lacks the honesty of a life lived like Ebenezer Le Page.

5 comments:

Kirk said...

Sounds like an interesting read. Next time I'm in Tyler, I'll trade you a few Solzenitsyns for a Dalrymple.

I struggle with the 'staying put' thing. I was born in Colorado, raised in Lubbock, attended three colleges--four, including grad school--and settled thirteen years ago about seventy-five miles north of the town where my paternal great-great grandparents settled 150 years ago. Beyond that ancestral connection, I have no local roots. Nor can I return to any other area where I have once lived and find familial connections.

Personally, I want to move to another town; someplace a little faster, a little more prosperous where I might have an easier time putting my daughters to college. My town is the only place my children have known, but I don't expect them to return after college--I wouldn't want them to. So what is one to do? Afraid to move forward and sever what roots I have; afraid to stay put.

The Ochlophobist said...

Thank you for these thoughts. I am glad that you found the book to so satisfying. It will stay with me for a long time as well, methinks.

Your situation in Texas is beautiful, in part, because of the fragile way it must all have held together in recent decades. I am reminded of many of the folks portrayed in Berry's novels, especially Old Jack. Sometimes it seems that all it takes is one person of extraordinary caliber to hold a family to a place for a few generations, more or less, given the right circumstances. In Berry the rootedness of given families creates the environment in which real men can shine, can live to their fullest. Perhaps this was the case for your father. His saving of the old farm, in a sense, might have recapitulated his own life, and recapitulated the maternal family's myth (in the Tolkien sense of myth). But perhaps I am applying Berry's outline onto an altogether different situation.

I have something akin to you experience. I live surrounded by my father's family here in Memphis, and near Helena from whence they all but one left (the one being one of my father's 42 first cousins, almost half of whom live in Memphis). My grandparents were married in downtown Memphis, and one of my great uncles was the #2 deputy sheriff during the time of Boss Crump. I feel their blood in my veins when I venture around the Delta, or walk through a field of cotton. But at the same time, it is my mother's family, particularly my maternal grandfather, that I "identify" with, and no matter where I roam in this world, it is the hills and hollows of the Ohio Valley that will always be home to me - a place where nearly everybody leaves or dies trying, it seems. Very few of my cousins and my childhood friends remained there.

John said...

Kirk,

The small town thing can be tricky. When I first moved to my little burg, it was still a pretty sleepy place....or so I thought. My neighbors were 7 little old ladies--6 of them widows. It was fascinating--all of the old stories, intrigues, scandals half-remembered. I lived as a bachelor there for 4 years, and then we remained there for 7 years after marriage, before moving 2 blocks into our current house. In both locations, I felt my life was much richer and diverse than if I had lived in a cookie-cutter suburb among people my own age. The rhythm of small town life can be a great joy. But, that said, the danger is one of falling into a bad rut--an insulated life, too filled with gossip and pettiness, failing to see that there is a larger world outside. Such a concern kinda dates me, for who can be unaware of the demands of the "larger world" these days? But my point is that the mind has to stay engaged--even in the small town.

As for your particular situation--the answer is easy. There is a thriving university town located some 65 miles south of your present location--and only 20 miles east of where your paternal ancestors settled. There is also a mission church in the area that would welcome y'all with open arms. See there--problem solved.

John said...

Och,

Thanks for sharing your story. There are interesting parallels between our family stories. First, you have it exactly right concerning my dad. When he arrived in East Texas as a young CCC recruit in 1934, the loss of his family's farm and livelihood was still fresh on his mind (if indeed, it ever left). My mother lived with her family on this farm--but they really didn't own it. It had been my great-granddad's portion off the west end of the larger place. His share was 200 acres or so. My great-grandmother remarried and moved off. My granddad--really almost a charity case--moved into her house and farmed the land. But his mother still owned an undivided 1/2 interest, and he actually only owned a 1/10th interest in the other half. It was only a matter of time before the heirs, in need of money, started selling off. As you say, the farm's future was very fragile at that time. My dad and mother eloped in 1936. My mother, I think, saw this as her chance to escape. My grandmother followed my mother out to the car, telling her that if she left with that man, to never come back. But of course they did come back. And before it was all over with, my parents ended up supporting both of her parents, most of her siblings and countless nieces and nephews off and on for the rest of their lives. Along the way, my dad slowly and methodically bought out my great-grandmother and all 10of the other heirs to the place. I think you are correct, he recapitulated himself, as well as my mother's family myth. I have just finished some restorative work on my great-granddad's old barn. And in a few years, God willing, our new temple will sit atop one of the farm's hilltops. So, all this is very familiar and special to me. This farm is about 10 miles from where I live. I know the general history of just about every old farmstead between here and there. I am very much at home in this place. But like you, I identify more with the part of my family not rooted here. It is that "other" that defines who I am in this regard. I have spent my entire adult life making excuses to drive down to the Texas Hill Country, the home of my paternal family since 1853. All we have left there now are the stories and the graveyards. My son learned the roads early on these journeys. As a child, he tagged it "going to the old country."

I can appreciate your connections to Helena and the Delta. A number of years ago, my wife and I stayed in a bed and breakfast there and enjoyed looking around the old town. I know of people who go to "the boats" in Tunica. I try telling them about Helena, just across the river, but I am wasting my breadth. A number of years ago, I was doing historical research over in Lee County, where the St. Francis flows into the Missisippi. I drove from Mariana down to Helena on the dirt road that comes out right in front of the incredible Helena Cemetery. Then early last year, I drove from Mariana down to Arkansas City--which is a remote a Delta location as you will find.

Finally, it is becoming clearer and clearer to me--I am going to have to break down and read some Wendell Berry. I think it's time.

The Ochlophobist said...

John,

The three Berry novels that truly stand out as fine American literature, in my book anyway, are Hannah Coulter, Jayber Crow, and The Memory of Old Jack. Old Jack is the shortest and was one of the first of his Port William novels.

Berry is a preacher, in terms of rhetorical tone, but he preaches far less in his novels than in his nonfiction, of course, and the man can preach well. Still, he tells great, moving stories, and his central characters in these novels give the reader an image of a good and honest life.