Thursday, February 16, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 8

New Titles Added to Mutt's Research Docket

I am finishing up my reading of the book 'The Great Depression: Opposing Viewpoints', published in 1994 and edited by William Dudley. This book has been much more of an academic background exercise as it presents what the subtitle suggests, but from figures that were hashing through the problems of the Depression as they arose on a national, policy, intellectual level. That's why there are pieces from the two presidents involved (Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt), members of their cabinet, members of Congress, and journalists, all of whom make various arguments and prescriptions for what will heal the ailments of the nation during those lean and terrible years in America. It is great background for this project, but it is low on "human stories"; it doesn't get into how the people who lived through it, lived through it. But the first anthology I read did get into more of that, and some of the titles I have coming up are sure to touch more on the personal stories of the people that survived. Nonetheless, this reading has been more than worthwhile in that it brought to light to me what proposals our leaders were making, what MIGHT have come to pass if other people were in charge, where things may have gone. There were great arguments being made for and against the redistribution of wealth; for example, many leaders argued for lowering people's work hours from 40 to 30 hours a week so that it would take more workers to do large jobs because men couldn't get done in 30 hours what they might have gotten done in 40 hours. Thus, more people would be hired. Arguments like this were flying back and forth. As many policy makers and Congressional leaders as were behind the New Deal policies were against them. There was certainly no shortage of partisan politics as the Depression wore on.

Perhaps so that I can slide back down off the ivory towers in my reading into the lives of "real" people and their real thoughts, concerns and voices, my next read will be John Steinbeck's 1936 novel 'In Dubious Battle'. Obviously since this is fiction, the people involved are not literally real, but we all know that sometimes it takes novels to illuminate what people's lives were, or are, or will be, "really" like. If that's not the case, let me cut off this entire pretense and drift off into utter obscurity (oh wait, I'm already there!). I already read this novel once, back in 1999, but it seems like a long time ago, and it will be interesting to revisit. For those who do not know, 'In Dubious Battle' was the immediate predessor to 'The Grapes of Wrath', a novel which clearly set the stage for Steinbeck to write his masterpiece. But it's riveting, powerful novel in its own right, and is a good representation of that time in Steinbeck's career when he was clearly coming into his own as a storyteller and to some degree as the voice of his generation of novelists. Sandwiched between his classics 'Of Mice and Men' and 'Grapes', this novel is tense, brisk and full of emotional potency. It also contains a good measure of talk about what most people would now call 'socialism', as many of the migrant apple pickers depicted in the novel openly wonder whether or not the Russian system might not be more fair than the American system of democracy. The novel reflects some of the debating that I've read about to this point about that people were engaged in about whether or not the entire American system of governing itself had run its course. To readers now this seems like jarring, even anit-American stuff. But in its time, this novel only refected what many people were seriously contemplating, and Steinbeck, like most good novelists, is careful in his portrayal of this tragic story to keep 'himself' out of it. He's not advocating communism; he's reflecting the voices and spirit of the people of his time and place. 'In Dubious Battle' is up next.

After that I will most likely break into a superb discovery I made recently, one that I hope will really blow the doors off of my creativity for this SPECIFIC fiction project. I bought this book used for a total of $5, including shipping (you know right there that this should be one of the gems, for it does not violate my $5 book expenditure rule). I learned about it in an interesting way, by sending an email to the Indiana Historical Society (which I found online) and asking them for recommendations. Playing it up, I just said I was a 'writer' (true technically, I guess) researching a 'book' on Indiana during the Great Depression, and that I needed some Indiana-specific recommendations. They came back with only a few, but this one may be most of what I need. The book was actually published by the Society, so they oughta know, and it is called 'Indiana Through Tradition and Change: 1920-1945'. Sounds boring as hell I am sure, but when I went online to see if it was available used, I found it on for $3.00, and thanks to their online feature that lets you see some books' tables of contents, I realized I had found something close to the mother lode! Turns out that this book is Volume III of a five-volume history of the State of Indiana, but it covers exactly the time period that I need. Walter Brogan, as I see it, would have been born sometime around the start of the 20th century (Floyd, as previously noted, came around in 1903). I see Walter, for the purposes of my novel, as being a millennial child, so let's just say he was born in 1900. In that case, the period of 1920-1945 not only lines up very well with my own grandfather's middle life, from young man to middle age, and so reading this would be interesting on that level alone, but it also obviously lines up with Walter Brogan's. This book focuses only on the State of Indiana and what was going on in it during that time, and believe me, it covers EVERYTHING: politics & government (state and municipality levels), industry, agriculture, culture, relgion, sports, the arts, and everything in between. There is even one chapter that talks about the petroleum industry, the oil deposits in Indiana (there were some), etc. It's an absolute home run for my purposes and I cannot wait to get into it. It will be dry, but it is what I need. I am hoping, as I said at the outset, that it really drives some ideas and gives me foundational facts about the setting for my story. Thanks to the Indiana Historical Society! Look for a mention in the acknowledgments!

A Title and a Basic Storyline Begins to Emerge....

But you won't get much of it here. I won't reveal my tentative title just yet (Duke Altum knows, grease him if you really want it!), but I like the T.C. Boyle idea that having a rough title before you helps you gain some drive and focus. Sounds good anyway. I haven't even starting writing yet and don't plan to for a few months. But I am starting to get a concept going of what I want this story to be about. Let's just say it is going to be mostly about Walter Brogan, but also about his son, Father Luke Brogan, S.J. In a way, it is a kind of 'alternate history' of what MIGHT have happened if my own Dad had become a priest. Well, on second thought, it is not really that, because I don't know what would have happened. But this is a concept that is founded somewhat in the fact that my father studied for years to become a priest, and may have been one if things had gone differently. But, you ask, what does Father Luke Brogan have to do with anything? I thought you were writing about this guy struggling through the Depression? I am, but some of the themes that are emerging have a way of running down through more than one lifetime. I will leave it at that for now. You will have to buy the novel when it hits bookstores everywhere in, say, 2009.

On that optimistic note.....

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