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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 14, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


North Carolina Mysteries and English Histories

Let's face it, half the country doesn't know there are two Carolinas. Almost everywhere I go outside Dixie, people keep assuming I'm from South Carolina.

I always tell them, "South Carolina's the famous one, because they caused so much trouble. I live in the big quiet Carolina where people mostly mind their own business."

Nobody contradicts me because they think the Klan/Communist massacre, like everything else, happened in South Carolina. Nor do I point out that the two most detested Jesses in American public life (detested by opposing groups, of course) started here.

There are good points about North Carolina not being the famous one.

We may not have all the notoriety, but we're quietly gathering some good fame, because our state is being presented to the rest of the world through the work of two outstanding mystery writers.

Sharyn McCrumb has a series of wonderful mysteries set in the Appalachian Mountains, in which continuing character Nora Bonesteel has a knack for knowing when folks are about to die -- but mostly keeps the information to herself. Folk music, mountain culture, and all kinds of lore fill the pages of mysteries like If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, which are so hauntingly beautiful they make you feel as if you'd grown up in Appalachia.

Margaret Maron has a delightful series set in eastern Carolina, where her continuing character, Deborah Knott, is a judge whose father was a bootlegger during Prohibition. The family ties and connections, the echoes of rural life that still resonate in modern settings -- it's all there in books like Slow Dollar and Uncommon Clay and The Bootlegger's Daughter.

Most mystery series are set in cities like LA or New York, where it's believable that one character might get caught up in so many murders.

But McCrumb and Maron make rural settings work, both as mysteries and as explorations of places full of old scandals and unforgotten sorrows that still cause pain today.

McCrumb's books have a strong element of magic in them, just a titch more than the most recent Dave Robicheaux novels by James Lee Burke. The main thread of the story usually doesn't depend on our believing in folk magic; what matters is that the characters do.

Unfortunately, the latest entry in this series, Ghost Riders, probably isn't a good place to start. The book reads as if McCrumb fell too deeply in love with her research and thought that readers would automatically be as interested in the historical backstory as she was. Some readers will; some readers won't.

I wish, personally, that she had focused exclusively on telling the story from the point of view of the modern characters, instead of spending so much time in the point of view of far less interesting people from the Civil War era. I bet McCrumb could write a brilliant Civil War novel ... but this book isn't it, because it never quite decided what kind of book it was going to be, and therefore ended up not succeeding too well at either.

Which is not to say that it's not worth reading. You just don't want to start reading McCrumb's Appalachian mysteries with this anomalous book.

Margaret Maron's most recent novel is also an anomaly, but for a different reason. Last Lessons of Summer is not in the Deborah Knott series. Instead it's a standalone.

Usually when mystery writers depart from their series characters, they forget the obligation to make their protagonist as engaging as the series sleuth. I suspect it's because they've gotten used to having a readership that already knows and loves their continuing character; and they forget that their readers won't feel that way about the main character in an out-of-series book.

Margaret Maron most emphatically does not make that mistake. Her protagonist, Amy Steadman, is the heir to a fortune built on the children's-book characters created by her grandfather and grandmother. One of the characters is "Max," who was based on Maxie, Amy's mother.

But Amy has no memory of her mother, who killed herself when Amy was very young. Her missing mother is the great mystery of her life, and when she goes down to eastern North Carolina to sort through and dispose of the family papers after the death of her grandmother, she rather hopes to find something that will answer her aching questions about her mother's life and death.

Instead, she finds herself caught up in the mystery surrounding the murder of her grandmother, especially when she realizes that the murderer intends to strike again.

Last Lessons held me from the first page, but not in the way a thriller does -- unless there's such a genre as the "family thriller." Maron has such a sure way with characters that you find yourself being just as drawn to (and annoyed by) them as your own family. There's plenty of comedy -- would it be a Maron book without it? -- but you never get the sense that a character is there just for laughs.

The ending is a glorious relief, and the novel lingered with me like a sad sweet dream.

*

I've been an anglophile ever since I read Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper as a nine-year-old. Never mind that I soon discovered that Twain's knowledge of England was about as good as Chirac's understanding of the United States. I was hooked.

After all, English history is what made American history possible. All those elitists who sneer at the writings and achievements of "dead white males" live in a society that is free only because of the struggles and bloodshed and suffering and courage of the dead white males of England and Scotland. America took it a few steps farther and made republican ideals a bit clearer, but the roots were English ones.

I read Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples in my teens, and it may well be that it's still the most thorough and readable overview of English history -- people often forget that in between saving the world and governing England, Churchill made his living by writing scintillating, provocative prose, and those books still exist.

Recently, though, I've been reading Simon Schama's three-volume A History of Britain. (The volumes are At the Edge of the World, 3500 b.c.-1603 a.d., followed by The Wars of the British, 1603-1776 and The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000.)

Schama is a historian who grew up in the age of debunking; but, like Stephen Ambrose, he was able to see past his skeptical bias and realize that there was still great value in linear history.

Still, he brings his sharp attitude to these books, and even when I think he's hopelessly wrong, he's always interesting and his points are always worthy of consideration. Perhaps the biggest annoyance is the way he treats the Puritans as if they were always obnoxious, and some of his criticism of Oliver Cromwell, for instance, is a bit anachronistic. But these are mild flaws, especially since he bends over backward to be fair to precisely the groups and individuals he is most predisposed to detest.

He does not lose track of the fact that it was Catholic Queen Mary who burned heretics at the stake; under her ardent Protestant brother, Edward VI, the total of burnings was exactly zero. And if he is harsher on Oliver Cromwell than I would have been, he is fairer than most other contemporary historians.

The oddest thing about the books is that he often speaks as if he assumes his readers already know the basic outlines of English (and Scottish and Irish) history.

Of course, his intended audience is British, and so his assumption may be correct. Our complete incompetence at teaching native history to our schoolchildren may not yet have infected schools across the Atlantic.

Still, it's disconcerting that he completely skips over the Wars of the Roses. He's justified in minimizing them -- they were dynastic wars that had little effect on the common people. But they still deserved at least a couple of pages, if only to establish some sense of the back-and-forth kingships of the Yorkist and Lancastrian parties.

Instead, he assumes that his readers have already had their fill of these wars from their school days and leaps ahead to the really interesting stuff.

And what seems most interesting to him in the early volumes seems to be the religious struggles that began when Henry VIII accidentally launched Protestantism in England, when all he really wanted to do was get out from under the thumb of the Pope.

Well, that's probably a good pick as the most important struggle in English history. After years of betrayals and revolts and executions and oppression, what emerged was an uneasy kind of religious tolerance, which was made even more explicit in America.

And Schama is not one of those nitwits who blames religion for all the evils of the world. Quite the opposite -- he makes clear that the rule throughout history had been that gods and nations (or proto-nations) were inextricably tied together, and that when a nation gave up on the idea of religious uniformity, it had to invent something to take its place as an ideal that people would fight and die for, and (between wars) accept as a basis of authority.

In other words, if you couldn't agree on God, then by which divine right would kings rule, and in the name of what God would you fight the infidel?

Which is how and why patriotism was successfully created by Queen Elizabeth's speech to the troops at Tilbury. "I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman," she said. "But I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England, too." There it is, the first breath of calling upon soldiers to fight and die for their nation, and not just their king and their God -- for these soldiers were certainly not united in the details of their faith.

If you know little about English history but wish to get a highly readable account that tells you most of the things you need to know in order to understand our own heritage and the roots both of our democracy and of theirs, it would be hard to find a better choice than Schama's trilogy.

He is opinionated, but you he doesn't try to pass his opinions off as facts, and when he's quite possibly wrong, he gives you enough information to recognize that there are alternate views. And in the end, you'll certainly feel grateful to our English forebears who, for their own (often less-than-noble) reasons, blundered their way into discovering tolerance and freedom.

And let me state clearly what would not need to be stated at all, were it not for the deliberate ignorance of political correctness:

These are our forebears, not because all Americans share a family tree with the English, but because the culture and society we live in descends in a continuous stream from the history of England.

Even if your ancestors came here from Russia or China or Africa, or already lived here when the Europeans arrived, the principles that shaped the nation that we live in now weren't invented here. They were mostly invented there, and brought to fruition here almost entirely by people who thought of themselves as English. However inadvertently our particular ancestors might have joined that stream of history, we certainly belong to it now.

However much we might benefit from studying the history of whatever ethnic group our ancestors belonged to, the history of England, and of England's daughter-nation, the United States, belongs to us all. We cannot know who we are, as Americans, until we know how we got to where we are, and at what cost.

And that tale can only be found in England.


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