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The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart – a Texan family saga

July 18, 2021 2 comments

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart (2010) French title: Le sillage de l’oubli. Translated by Marc Amfreville.

The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart is set in the fictional town of Dalton, in Lavaca County, Texas.

The Skala family settled there when the first Czech immigrants of the family arrived from Europe. This area is full of Czech families. The plot covers three periods of time: 1895, 1910 and 1924. Each year is a turning point in the saga of the Skala family.

The book opens on a dramatic scene. We’re in 1895 and Klara Skala dies in child-birth. Karel, the baby, survives his mother and Vaclav, the father will never be the same.

The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara’s death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before he’d met her, one only her proximity had ever softened. He’d known land in his life that, before a few seasons of regular rainfall, had been hard enough to crack a plow point, and he knew that if, by stubbornness or circumstance, that land became yours to farm, you’d do well to live with the constant understanding that, in time, absent the work of swollen clouds and providence, your boots would fall loudly, giving rise to dust, when you walked your fields.

Vaclav and Klara had already three boys, Stanislas, Thomas and Eduard when she died giving birth to Karel. The four boys have a very hard childhood with their father who is only interested in acquiring land, farming and breeding race horses. These horses are his passion. The boys do the heavy work in the fields, including pulling the plow that the race horses are too precious to pull. They grow up without affection.

In 1910, Guillermo Villasenõr arrives from Mexico with a lot of money and three daughters to marry. He knows about the Skala boys and intends to settle in the Lavaca County and marry his daughters to these farm boys.

The girls get their first glimpses of their future husbands, what they see, instead of blond-haired and handsome Czech farm boys, like they’ve been told by their father to expect, are weathered young men straining against the weight of the earth turning in their wake, their necks cocked sharply to one side or the other, their faces sunburned despite their hats and pealing and snaked with raised veins near the temples, their boots sliding atop the earth they’re sweating to unearth. The four of them work harnessed two abreast in front of their father, who’s walking in their work, one foot to each furrow spitting stained juice between his front teeth and periodically cracking a whip to keep the boys focused and the rows straight.

With this kind of living conditions would you blame the boys to be willing to do anything to escape their father’s literal and figurative yoke? They know Villasenõr’s arrival is a ticket out of their father’s power. They grab that ticket, even if it’ll tear their family apart.

Fast forward in 1924. Karel is married to Sophie, it’s December and she’s about to give birth to their third baby. She wanted to go to church, even if it’s far and risky with her pregnancy. She’ll break her waters during the church service and, contrary to Klara, will get a midwife’s help in time. Meanwhile, Karel waits and drinks. He hires two teenagers to go and take care of the farm while he stays in town with Sophie. The boys also have to deliver the moonshine beer he makes, discretion needed since it’s the prohibition area. The boys will not follow orders and take ill-advised initiatives. This will trigger another dramatic event for the Skala family.

The Wake of Forgiveness goes back and forth in time, between 1910 and 1924. It covers thirty years in the life of this Texan family. Life is hard and we follow Karel’s point of view, the boy whose birth triggered the family’s unhappiness. Although he never says it aloud, it is clear that he carries the weight of depriving his brothers of a mother and his father of his wife. He doesn’t know how to make up for that and he sure doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. He’s a hard man but, despite his harsh upbringing, he’s a better father than his own, playing tenderly with his daughters.

I’ve read The Wake of Forgiveness in an excellent translation by Marc Amfreville. Machart’s style is beautiful and haunting. Nature and men are one, each has power over the other. As you can see in the two previous quotes, Machart compares humans to the land and shows how the land impacts humans. Human emotions find their counterpart in the mesmerizing descriptions of the landscape. The land and the climate shape the humans who settles there, imprinting their mark on people’s tempers. With subtle brush strokes, Machart takes us to Lavaca County, among these farmers who live a hard life and with this family who needs to find their way to happiness through forgiveness and redemption.

A very powerful book and another great find by Gallmeister.

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

May 4, 2014 18 comments

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry. (1966) French title: La dernière séance. Translated by Simone Hilling (1972)

When I saw La dernière séance by Larry McMurtry on the display table of a book store, I didn’t think of the film but of the eponymous song by French singer Eddy Mitchell, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the book. That and the fact that it’s published by Gallmeister prompted me to buy it.

Duanne and Sonny live in a small town in Texas, Thalia. We’re in 1951. They’re in high school and come from dysfunctional families. They are roommates in a boarding house and work after school to support themselves. Their circumstances don’t prevent them from being typical adolescents: school is barely tolerable, sport takes part of their free time, girls are the centre of their attention and the best moment of the week is Saturday night. We’re following Sonny’s point of view in this coming-of-age novel.

Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets are completely empty, the way they were one Saturday morning in late November. The night before Sonny had played his last game of football for the Thalia High School, but it wasn’t that that made him feel so strange and alone. It was just the look of the town.

There was only one car parked on the courthouse square—the night watchman’s old white Nash. A cold norther was singing in off the plains, swirling long ribbons of dust down Main Street, the only street in Thalia with businesses on it.

Sonny is coming out of the protective shell of childhood and starts confronting himself with real life. He didn’t have a sheltered childhood but he’s mentally shifting from innocence to realization that adult life isn’t that easy. He’s going through the motions of his life without parents. Duanne is his constant companion and he relies on Sam the Lion, an old man who owns the billiard in town. He’s taken in Billie, the simpleton of the town and watches the teenagers to make sure they stay on the right path. The boys play billiard, go to the cinema more to make out with girls than to watch the film and play in all the sports team of the high school. (It seems to have too little students per school level to have enough different participants in each sport)

McMurtry_livreThe Last Picture Show doesn’t have a clear plot with a beginning, events and a conclusion. It only describes Sonny’s days, his growing awareness that life is not a Hollywood film. He doesn’t have a clear future. College is out of the equation, no exciting job is waiting for him. He doesn’t intend to leave Thalia; he lacks confidence in himself, encouragement to be ambitious for himself and to expect more from life. He doesn’t have an adult role model to push him forward. He’s an intelligent kid but he’s drifting away, he lets the flow bring him wherever it goes. I couldn’t help but think that he was a young plant lacking the right fertilizer that good parenting can bring. The adults around him aren’t great role models, especially the coach at school. Sam the Lion keeps Sonny and Duanne on their toes and obliges them to behave because he doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour in his business. In a town like Thalia, you can’t afford to be banned from the billiard joint, there aren’t enough possible replacement places for enjoyment. Apart from that, the boys rely on themselves.

The town of Thalia is a character in itself with its colourful characters, its small town atmosphere. Thalia is oppressing; it’s small, isolated and doesn’t have a lot of employment opportunities. Some small town live thanks to an important factory settled on their territory. Not Thalia. Courtesy of small town world, everybody knows everything about everybody, gossips are the rule. But despite its small size, Thalia has its social barrier between people and although Duanne dates Jacy, the local high school beauty and celebrity, he doesn’t have the economic power to marry her. It’s also a decade where sex is a taboo and a hypocritical one in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of way, even if Thalia is not an overly religious town. It could be, we’re in the Bible belt after all. Larry McMurtry wrote at the beginning of the book: The Last Picture Show is lovingly dedicated to my home town. He was born in 1936 in a small town in Texas and he was 30 when this novel was published, which means his memories from his adolescence were fresh in his mind. This dedication is important because it sets the tone of the book with the word lovingly. Thalia is the kind of town an adolescent could loathe. It’s narrow-minded, small and boring. But McMurtry’s vision of Thalia is full of affection. Even if he doesn’t hide the drawbacks of such a tiny remote town, he’s nonetheless tolerant and forgiving.

I love cities and the anonymity they provide. I’m not fond of crowds but I like that they mean that people mind their own business and don’t notice if you change your car, your hair colour or of boyfriend. The Thalias of the world make me want to run to the other side of the country and I felt sorry for Sonny to be trapped in that kind of place. I wanted him to bolt and start afresh in the nearest city.

The Last Picture Show is a lovely book, a bit sad sometimes. It’s depicts well adolescence in small towns but shows that wherever you are, teenage angst is surprisingly alike. That comes with being human.

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