Hillbilly Elegy: reflection #2

In my last post, ‘Hillbilly Elegy: a personal reflection’, I related J.D. Vance’s experience in a family from a Kentucky holler transplanted to an Ohio steel town, to my own. We left the Hill in the Eastern Townships of Quebec to come to a steel town in Ontario.

I pointed out that an elegy is a lament for the dead. But, honestly, who could lament the passing of a class of such people, prone to violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, lack of ambition, despair and, finally, sloth?

The short answer is me.

After I posted the article, I began to feel very sad. Was it just the mountain I missed, the sunny open hay fields, the granite and the slate, the noisy trout streams and the deep, sighing woods? Surely it could not be the macho male culture.

My young uncles, younger than me were my playmates initially. There was a young aunt too. Together we four, armed with sandwiches and a wire handled bottle of spring water, would hike off to the nearest brook to cool off. We jumped in the hay mow together, played ‘Kick the Can’ and held country music fests on the roof of the garage. Their father, my maternal grandfather, would sit with us on the porch as evening gathered, and point out Venus. He called the porch the ‘piazza’ to make us laugh.

Ostensibly, it was a teetotal society. Beer and booze in general were spoken of in whispers.

Because, at the time, I was my father’s only child, I got a glimpse into the hidden side of our community, quite unlike the church yard where the ladies stooped as the minister arrived in case their dresses were too short.

In this other world, the backwoods camps, there was plenty of hooch made by my great grandfather and served in bean cans. Rinsed at least once. The latest kill, in or out of season, would be on display. There would be much laughter at jokes I couldn’t really understand, and bad language.

Eventually, my young uncles’ voices got deeper and rougher. They left school at the end of grade seven and began hard labor in their early teens.

When my husband and I, with professional careers and two children, went back to the hill for Christmas, the ‘boys’ took my citified husband off to such a camp on snow mobiles. They didn’t come back that night. I was, of course, frantic. They had got him roaring drunk, a familiar and manageable state for them. In the morning out hunting, they handed my husband a rifle and dared him to shoot a ground hog sitting on a stump. He shot it through the eye and never forgave himself. (Either that or Hitler turned him into a really annoying pacifist.)

What’s not to love?

On the other hand, there was the Guild. The women met in the church hall, a splendid structure with an art noveau interior, a curtained stage and a kitchen. The dances that were held there were a kind of bacchanalia for us kids. The Guild meetings were more sedate. Perhaps we played with the crayons and paper from the Sunday School room in the church. The women sat in a circle and conducted business, usually about projects they were undertaking. Then they got on with the quilt they were piecing together to raffle off, or they  took up their knitting, grey wool socks for the soldiers after 1939.

There was tea and home baking – cookies, squares, even a frosted cake. Not the luxurious spread of the oyster suppers or chicken dinners that ended with a glut of pie, but sugar nonetheless. Or some syrup substitute as rationing came in.

At the dances, the men would filter outside while the fiddle and the piano played South of the Border, Down Mexico Way. What went on out there, besides laughing and smoking was ignored, although female noses turned up at some of the returnees.

Guild meetings were altogether safer. For a year, I was the only baby on the Hill. I would have been adored by all those baby-loving women even if I were ugly. They led me to believe I was not. I remember lying on the edge of the stage being fitted into my snowsuit, while Maude, my mother’s cousin, or Mae, a great aunt on one side and step great grandma on the other, dressed me while singing Bye Baby Bunting. They called a snow suit a bunting bag. According to the song my daddy was out killing a rabbit to make me one.

In short, at Guild meetings, I floated in a sea of love, and this, Aunt Mae and Maude would teach me in Sunday School, was the love of God, ‘which passeth understanding’.

Still float there! I know, I know. Just hard to remember in the face of old age, distance from loved ones and even alienation. But that early grounding enabled me to continue the creation of something beautiful, not just my family, my extended family, my beautiful newly published book, but my own self.

So thank God for hillbillies!

Hour of the Hawkjoycehowe.com





Separatism Fatigue


I was born in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada, (on the border with Vermont and New Hampshire) and although I moved away when I was nine, my heart still lives under Hereford mountain. So imagine my surprise when I reacted to the latest uproar about Quebec separating from Canada by wearily wishing it would just go and be done with it.

I must have got old and crotchety, I thought. How could I think that? True I didn’t journey to Montreal in 1995 as thousands of others from right across Canada did in a massive demonstration of love, which worked. That referendum was defeated and we have had almost twenty years of something like peace, not all that peaceful but not excessively worrying either.

On the other hand, we have been stewing over this problem since the early sixties when A Royal Commission on Bilingual and Bicultural-ism was set up in answer to growing Québec nationalism. The effect was that people enrolled their children in French immersion schools across the country and seriously ambitious folk made themselves bilingual. We had a brief cultural détente during Montreal Expo in 1967, but the next year, we had FLQ terrorism and murder in the name of Separatism. We had the War Measures Act, martial law in Québec. Individually, we had serious inner conflict. That was the year the Parti Québeçois was formed by the merging of two existing parties. Under the leadership of René Lévesque, it won the provincial election in 1976.

I took that very hard. My mother, who had been given two weeks to live in 1970, was by the fall of 1976, unable to fight death off any longer and this Lévesque wanted to take away my motherland.

English speakers left Montreal in droves and flocked a few hours down the road to Toronto doing their bit to liven up their new city.

In 1980, Lévesque held the first referendum to that effect, weighting the question by what we Anglais considered to be an ambiguous question. Despite this the No’s prevailed, settling the question, we thought. Foolish hope. In 1995, after the Unity Rally, the No’s won again but barely.

Before I go on, a little personal history. I was an English-speaking Québecer. The mortgage on our farm was held by a Frenchman. He was depicted in family conversations like Simon Legree. I was dragged along by my father to “negotiations” with this man. The rest of the continent might have been pulling out of the Great Recession, but not Hereford Hill. The only reason we were still eating, and not well at that, was we grew potatoes, milked cows,  and hunted. I remember those tense ‘sort of’ conversations. Hard to talk when two people don’t share language, except for swear words. So my father gave up the farm. “Je me souviens” (“I remember”) is on the Quebec license plates. It’s not clear if it means the Battle of the Plains of Abraham where the British won over the French, or the humiliation of having to address the Federal government in English. When I read it, I remember being downtrodden by the French.

In the years since Lévesque’s win, Québec has passed laws limiting education in English schools. If you are a native French speaker or an immigrant, you are required to go to a French school. Together with the falling birth rate in the province, this policy has reduced the population, although people from Haiti or Morocco, French-speaking countries, flock in, it seems. Not sure how the “pur laine” (pure wool) the good old fashioned French Québecois, feel about that.

For a while in the 70’s, when I visited, store clerks, etc. actually pretended not to understand any English or my fractured French. I do have several years of study, but unfortunately under English speakers who had dreadful accents. My children fared better with French-speakers and summers in France. That is changed now. Hotel employees and other service providers are eager to communicate. They have lost their Parisian frostiness.

As I said in an earlier post, it is still not possible to figure out all the highway signs and I find myself praying – in English- that the one I just sailed past uncomprehendingly, didn’t say “Road closed ahead”. Let’s see “rue fermé…” And sort out “est” and “ouest” at 120 KPH!

Lately, Pauline Marois the P.Q. premier of Quebec and the merry band in her minority government, have sought to woo voters by plumping for a more secular state, à la France, which went that way after the French Revolution. She seeks to pass a bill forbidding the wearing of visible symbols of religious allegiance by public representatives and workers – the hijab, the turban, the yarmulka, even to be fair, ostentatious crosses, although small ones are to be allowed. So goodbye job, Muslim, scarf-wearing daycare worker/ teacher assistant. Marois called a provincial election for April 7, 2014 and proposes to win a majority in the legislature by this strategy. She vowed to fight the election on that bill and on the province’s economy.

Last week, she showed up at a press conference with PKP (Pierre-Karl Péladeau) in tow. He, she announced, would run in the election. He is the owner of a country-wide media conglomerate, including newspapers and television stations, which he vows to retain, but place in a blind trust if he is elected. (Blind, my eye; this guy is a hands-on publisher.) Trouble is he didn’t act like a humble, first time candidate. Immediately, he made it clear that he chose to run only with sovereignty in view. (Yes, that means Separation.) By the end of the week, Ms Marois was (gently) holding him back from the microphone. Then she went on to explain that a separated Quebec would still have open borders, use Canadian currency and have a seat on the Bank of Canada.  Really! but will there be a tariff on cheese?

Pundits including Conrad Black in Saturday’s (March 15, 2014) National Post (Let’s hold our own referendum) think that “the French are about evenly divided on the issue, and the 20% of Quebecers not native French Canadians are solidly Federalist” leaving opinion at about where it was in 1980 – 60 No to 40 Yes.

But … do I care? Finally, in Rex Murphy’s column in the same paper, I found out that I am not so special after all. In fact, he says that as a country we are worn out by this marital spat and we have all begun to think, “If you want to go, go.”

Did I actually say that? Oh my dear starvation mountains please still be there.

Richard III: evil or good

In a previous post, “Richard III: lost and found” (115journals.com), I described the recent discovery of the bones RIchard III who was killed by Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Henry then became Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch in England, followed in turn, by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The question I promised to address at the end of my previous post was whether Richard deserved the reputation that has come down to us, citing Shakespeare’s play, on the one hand, and Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time, on the other.

Shakespeare’s play Richard III was probably produced in 1594, during Elizabeth’s reign, over 100 years after Richard’s death. The playwright drew on Holinshed’s history which in its turn drew on Thomas More’s account of events. More was solidly in the Tudor camp, having served both Henry VII and Henry VIII. In any case, according to Tey’s research, More did not actually write the history of Richard that is attributed to him, but rather re-copied in his own hand an account actually written by one John Morton, a participant in events. This re-copied account was found in More’s papers after his execution and published as his own work. The Tudors -namely Henry VIII- repaid More’s service by beheading him.

Josephine Tey’s novel, The Daughter of Time, was published in 1951 and is not the first debunking of the evil Richard legend, which held that he was a usurper of the throne, guilty of fratricide and regicide, and a man without honour who proposed to marry his own niece. Other writers – Buck in the 17th century, Walpole in the 18th and Markham in the 19th – also contradicted that legend. Indeed there is something called the Rickardian Society devoted to that same task since 1924.

I came to love Shakespeare’s play when I saw Alec Guiness play the lead at Stratford, Ontario as a teenager. It was a brilliant portrayal of a villain who rejoiced in his villainy. Like all school children I had learned that Richard was the boogeyman who had killed the poor little princes (Edward V and his younger brother) in the Tower of London and it didn’t occur to me that might not be true.

I’m not sure when I first read The Daughter of Time, but it would have been probably 15 years or more after it was first published. A few days ago, I loaded it onto my Kindle and read it for the 3rd time. It is just not possible, for me at any rate, to keep its complex ideas in my head. The daughter of time, by the way, is truth.

Shakespeare’s play begins with a long monologue by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who was depicted by Guiness as hunchbacked and twisted, drabbly dressed with greasy hair sticking out from under a red cap. He begins by asserting that he was
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up –
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them –
And yet, so skilled is he at seduction that by the end of the scene, he has talked Anne Neville into marrying him despite the fact that she began by hating him. She has good reason: Richard has murdered her husband, the Prince Of Wales, and her father-in-law, the deposed king, Henry VI, to secure the throne for his brother. Richard carries on throughout the play murdering his way to the top. He kills his brother, Clarence, who is next in birth-order to Edward IV, and therefore, an obstacle to Richard’s inheriting the throne. He pins the murder on Edward thereby accelerating his illness and when Edward dies, he imprisons his sons in the Tower of London. He kills the nobles who support the child Edward V although he (Richard) has been appointed Regent to rule until Edward is of age. He kills his wife, Anne Neville in a plan to marry his niece, Elizabeth. Then, infamously, he hires James Tyrell to kill the little princes by smothering them. When Richard’s horse is shot out from under him at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry of Richmond finishes him off and becomes Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Shakespeare counted Queen Elizabeth, Henry’s grand daughter as the chief patron of his theatre company, plenty of reason to seize on the dramatic possibilities of Richard’s villainy.

Now, even before we turn to Tey’s refutation of these charges, it is worth noting that Richard’s hired hands are supposed to have dispatched his brother the Duke of Clarence by drowning him in a butt of Malmsey, that is a large barrel of wine. This was actually a Cockney expression indicating that Clarence died of drink, although, in actual fact, he was executed for treason.

Josphine Tey’s novel is constructed like a mystery. The detective, Grant is lying flat in a hospital bed recovering from injuries sustained while he was chasing a suspect. To pass the time, he is trying to solve the riddle of whether Richard deserved the reputation that Shakespeare hung on him. He has the help of a “research worker”, Brent Carradine, who looks things up at the British Museum. Those were the quaint old days when sitting in a library was the only way to do such research. By this time, Grant has figured out that More’s account was highly suspect and not even his own. Curiously, even the historians who castigate Richard, have to admit that he was devoted to Edward IV throughout his life and that he was an admirable administrator, an excellent general, and a brave soldier. Yet they also picture him as suddenly becoming willing to wade through blood to get to the throne, even though he is already safely ensconced there as the Regent. Grant and his researcher decide to focus not on such accounts, but on actual documents from the time – accounts, letters, decrees, court records, legislation.

It quickly becomes clear that  Richard’s rule of 18 months was not only orderly but progressive, the people being granted such things as the right to bail and freedom from intimidation as jurors. Richard dealt with those charged with treason in an even-handed way returning confiscated property, for example, to the family to be administered. In the light of future events, when the Lancasters and their Woodville allies rose against him, he would have been better to be a tyrant. Yet he seems to have been a decent fellow who was popular with the people.

The research In The Daughter of Time turns up information that, just as Richard is planning Edward V’s coronation, one Bishop Stillingham announces that he had presided over a marriage of Edward IV  to   another woman prior his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. As a result, Edward V is deemed illegitimate and the throne passes to Richard.

In the matter of the princes in the Tower, It is true that Richard sent them to live there. It was a royal residence at that time and to live there was not a punishment unless you were in the dungeons. The princes were not. They lived royally as their mother did once she came out of hiding and they were taught by their tutor. Their sisters attended events at Richard’s court and the mother, Elizabeth Woodville, accepted a pension from the man historians say is her sons’ murderer.

After he killed Richard, Henry VII moved to get an act of Attainder, declaring Richard was never entitled to be king, but in the posthumous charges, there is no mention that Richard has murdered his nephews. Indeed there is no mention of them again in any documents until James Tyrell is charged with their murders 20 years later and executed. True they have vanished. The documents that the research worker uncovers indicate that Tyrell is granted a general pardon by Henry in early June 1486 and another one a month later. What has he done during that time that makes the second pardon necessary? Shortly thereafter, Henry makes him Constable of Guisnes and Tyrell goes to live there near Calais. (England still had sovereignty over part of what is now France.)

Why would Henry want the princes dead? He has married their older sister and set about restoring her legitimacy, but if she is legitimate, so are her brothers and they have a much more lawful, hereditary claim to the throne than Henry. The researcher in Tey’s novel finds an abundance of evidence that Henry also eliminated anyone else who stood in Edward IV’s line, including Clarence’s son, whom Richard had made his own heir. Henry VIII carries on executing those who seem to threaten the Tudor claim to the throne.

Shakespeare’s Richard is a brilliant portrayal of an evil person who rejoices in his evil and his final end while tragic, is richly deserved. Tey’s Richard, the more historically accurate one, in my opinion, is an altogether more honourable fellow; moreover, apart from one shoulder being higher than the other, he does not seem to have been disfigured.  I regret that Richard’s reputation has been thus sullied for the past 500 years.

Richard III: lost and found

On Monday, February 4, 2013, a team of archaeologists and scientists announced the bones found last September under a Leicester parking lot were those of Richard III.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, ruled England from 1482 to 1485, having deposed his 12 year-old nephew, Edward V, whose guardian he was. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field at the age of 32 by Henry,  Duke of Richmond, who succeeded Richard as Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch.

The story was that Richard’s naked body flung over a horse was hurriedly taken to the Greyfriars Monastery for an ignominious burial, but the monastery had long since ceased to exist and the Richard’s last resting place was lost to memory. Members of the Richard III society researched the location of the monastery and came up with its location in the council car park in Leicester. Excavation revealed two bodies, one in a cramped grave showed signs of severe scoliosis and a fatal wound at the base of the skull. Richard III was known to have suffered a spinal deformity, which caused him to be hunch-backed and so, excitement grew.

Carbon dating of 2 ribs indicated that the bones were roughly 500 years old and further examination that they were of a man in his late 20s or early 30’s. Richard died at 32. A tooth was extracted for DNA testing and proved to have a rare mitochondrial DNA sequence, found in a very small percentage of people. Painstakingly, the chromosome sequence was restructured and eventually tested against 2 of Richard’s relatives, one of them a Canadian 17th-great nephew.  The results identified the bones as being Richard’s.

More of the story emerged as the week went on, somewhat to the discredit of Henry or possibly of his ill-controlled soldiers. A halberd, a long pike-like weapon with a spear-like point and an axe below it, had sliced through the base of his skull. (source National Post, Thu. Feb 7, 2013) There was a dent in his skull, probably resulting from a fall while wearing his helmet. A smaller cut at the base of his skull, also a fatal blow, was caused by a sword. There was a knife cut on his lower jaw, possibly caused when his helmet was lost. (He had, famously, already lost his horse: “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse”.) A small hole in the top of his head was probably caused by an arrow. There was a knife wound on his cheekbone. A cut mark on a rib may have been caused by a knife post mortem. He seems to have been stabbed in the right buttock, an insult injury after his armour was removed.  His hands were crossed suggesting that they had been tied. The feet bones were missing possibly because a 19th century outhouse had been built close to the grave and almost destroyed it. There was no evidence of a shroud or other covering.

The article in the National Post cited above speculates that the spinal deformity may have originated at puberty. My Encyclopedia of World History (Ed. Wm. Langer) describes Richard as able, a good soldier and skilled at winning public support. Evidently, he was also good at losing it if the pile-on at his death is any evidence.

There are 2 views of Richard. Shakespeare gives us one, painting him as an assassin and manipulator who killed Edward and his younger brother in the Tower of London. Had them killed, that is as well as his own brother Clarence who stood between him and the throne. A more positive view is presented by Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time. I will consider these 2 views in an upcoming post.