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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Day Five Out of Northport

[This is being posted in the morning after the day it was written, as the motel wireless signal wouldn’t reach our room last night. Single-digit temperatures are in the weather forecast for Tennessee.]
Wednesday: Effingham, IL, to Whites Creek, TN
Sunshine all the way

Sarah has a quality wonderful in dogs, that of being “good in the car.” Here she is on her travel pillow between our seats, looking to us for approval. When the pillow gets boring, she retreats to her cave, i.e., crate, i.e., cage, where she has room to lie on her side with feet outstretched. She is a patient traveler.

Expressways are not my preferred travel routes, but we’ve taken them from Grand Rapids to northern Tennessee, choosing time over variety and making getting and keeping ahead of snow a priority, and I too have been “good in the car.” I had to admit, reluctantly, that the expressway choice was sensible, given the weather. I miss going through all the little towns, and even the land looks different from the route roulante that the expressway seems to me: we pass by farms and woods and fields rather than going through them on the same level. By Day Five out, I had reached my expressway boredom limit, and so, while David was driving, and to pass the time in a more interesting fashion for both of us, I read aloud from Alex Karmel’s A Corner in the Memoir: Memoir of a Paris Neighborhood. The Marais having been David’s neighborhood during his first stay in Paris, he was fascinated before he heard the first word, but we were both captivated almost instantly by the story. Karmel and his second wife, a Frenchwoman, find a sixth-floor walkup apartment to buy in the Marais, and this launches the author into historic research of the quarter, beginning with his own building, which he quickly discovers is 300 years older than what they had been told. Part One ends thus:

…And so we are permitted to imagine, without feeling it is only imagination, how this ordinary house came to be built, how it was built, and who might have lived in and around it at various times. That is the kind of information that is called ‘History’—the sum of all we know, and infer, in the present about the past.

I prefer reading aloud to David rather than listening to books on tape. Our choices are not so constrained, and being the reader, free to stop and comment at any time or to take questions or comments from David or to join him in conversation about something else without losing a word of the story, I have more of a sense of control over the situation. Also, David can ask me to repeat something, and neither of us has to stop a tape and back it up. We both like reading this way.

Here is some history encountered along our way to the Ohio River. I-24 gave us an opportunity to stop at a rest area named for a fort built by the French in southern Illinois (before it was Illinois) in 1757. (It was the name, Fort Massac, reminding me of a town called Massiac in central France that led me to look at brochures inside and find the story.) Burned by Chickasaws (and who can blame them?) in 1763 at the close of the French and Indian War, the strategic site was subsequently neglected by the British, allowing Revolutionary Colonel George Rogers Clark to march into Illinois, capture Kaskaskia, and claim the entire Illinois Territory for the United States of America—without firing a shot! It was the first American president, George Washington, who ordered the fort rebuilt. (There is a rumor that Vice President Aaron Burr had a meeting there to plot for the conquest of Mexico, but Burr had other troubles, and Mexico was never annexed to the U.S.) Damaged by the New Madrid earthquakes, the fort was again rebuilt in time for the War of 1812, but at the war’s conclusion settlers of the region helped themselves to the fort’s timbers, presumably to build their own houses and barns, until little remained. Illinois was granted statehood in 1818. The Fort Massac site, purchased by the D.A.R. in 1903, the site became the first state park in Illinois in 1908 and is now home to a reconstruction of the original fort.

Seeing the historical marker for the Blue Star Highway made me feel at home, as both the Blue Star and Red Arrow highways in west Michigan hold many memories for me. Of course, the purpose of the Blue Star Highway was to honor America’s Armed Forces. This particular marker also honors George Rogers Clark.

David couldn’t stop in the middle of the bridge for me to take a photograph of the Ohio River, so this is the best shot I could get. We noticed that the river had flooded far up through the trees and into the fields of Kentucky but speculated that this natural flooding is probably a good thing. And then, south of the Ohio, we found ourselves in the limestone country of western Kentucky and Tennessee, dramatically different from the prairie farmland of Illinois we’d been traversing since Joliet. Even by expressway, the difference in topography from state to state is striking. “One union shall unite us, forever proud and free.” How easily I can imagine certain state lines as borders between countries, and yet they are not. Amazing!

We exited, before being caught up in the Nashville rush hour, with plenty of dog-walking daylight left. Later David channel-surfed while I read a little book by Paul Gallico, a rough, ex-library copy with the binding peeling off its spine. A strange story, Love of Seven Dolls. I kept imagining it with illustrations, but that would have made it seem too much a children’s book, and the antagonist, so to speak—the protagonist being a waif of a girl known as Mouche (fly)—is much too realistically cruel for a children’s picture-story book, not only striking but also raping the girl in his attempts to destroy her innocence. No, this is a book for adults, but its readers, to stay with the story to its end, must have children’s hearts and hopes. They must believe in the possibility of redemption. That is to say, I suddenly realize, that this book’s readers must be romantic pragmatists! Can the puppeteer be wholly depraved when his puppets (hand puppets, not marionettes) are so loving and kind to the desperately lonely girl they (i.e., he) rescued from suicide by drowning? Philosophical skepticism was awake from the beginning, for while my childhood fear of marionettes did not extend to hand puppets (the jointed mouths and limbs of the former that terrified me, hard and machine-like where hand puppets were reassuring soft like stuffed toys), still I could never completely believe in them the way Mouche did. I was even more put off by the character of Gogo, the Senegalese. The reality of the character I could accept, that is, but not the author’s treatment of him. He is the troupe’s “slave,” he must sleep in the car rather than hotels—well, that is the puppeteer’s treatment of him. But his name, given by the author, calls forth a stereotype, and his position has not improved by the end of the book. No, Gogo deserved better. But so did Mouche, and so, when it comes down to that, did the puppeteer himself, an orphan brought up in a hard world: “By the time he was fifteen he was a little savage practiced in all of the cruel arts and swindles of the street fairs and cheap carnivals.” Unloved all his life, become “wholly cynical,” there must have been some instinct within him to save himself, or why would he have saved Mouche, though giving all the credit for saving her to his puppets, from throwing herself into the Seine? A little story, simple on the surface, underneath it is an endlessly complicated and convoluted as human nature. I read my mother’s Paul Gallico books when I was young, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris and The Snow Goose. This one was new to me. I wonder if my mother would like it.


Raph G. Neckmann said...

I read Paul Gallico when I was quite young - if my memory serves me correctly, the books were 'Jennie' and 'Thomasina' and were stories about cats. I know I loved them at the time, but that is all I remember!

Sarah looks so lovely and serene! Some dogs do love travelling, don't they? We had an adorable boxer many years ago. She loved travelling but used to lean over the front seats and dribble down the back of my neck!

Reading aloud is wonderful - makes reading a social activity too - great!!

P. J. Grath said...

I think Sarah got bored today. She wouldn't ride between the seats on her travel pillow but sulked all the way to Georgia in her crate. All those hundreds of miles of hills and woods and fields and streams, and we wouldn't let her out to explore! As my sisters and I used to say, "No fair!"