Archive for July, 2008


“Hey-ho, rock ‘n’ roll, deliver me from nowhere.”

The van comes swerving toward me but misses the curb. The driver hits his horn, as if I hadn’t seen him—but where he’s from, they do things loud that way.

Squirrels scatter. Maintenance men stare. The wife rolls down her window and holds up a map. The husband leans across her lap to bark at me.

“Sir you know how t’gedteither of thesotels?”

I want to laugh at the sir. It’s not the gentle nicety of the Virginian, but the pained formality of a traveler in a foreign land. His question collapses by the end, but he doesn’t mean it to; he bites each word as it falls from his mouth, and he just gulps down too much.

“Watch wanna do is,” I begin, and then I poin him and his wife back thway they came, and tellm to make the firs right, and go awlway down, south on Cneticit, and make thright on Calvert—kyean missit.

“Jus likon’ map,” says the wife, enlightened.

“Jus likon’ map,” I agree.

No smiles, no thanks, not even eye contact—he’s on a mission, and his missions long ago became her missions—and the van spins around. They roll up their windows and roll down the street. Squinting at their license plate, I smile to see I was right.

You can’t go home; after a while, it’s foolish to try. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you receive a surprise, something worth more than a picture: the old sownds of home awl come cawlin f’you.

“Between our quests, we sequin vests…”

Over at Unlocked Wordhoard, Scott Nokes has written a long and thoughtful post about why he’s taken his interest in medieval literature beyond the confines of the campus.

For those of you who don’t know Scott, he teaches medieval literature at Troy University. His very accessible, medieval-themed blog attracts not only academics but also writers, reenactors, gamers, students, fantasy authors, and pretty much anyone else who’s intrigued by medieval subjects.

If you’re interested in the relationship between academia and the rest of society, you should check out what Scott has to say. His suggestions for broadening the academic culture, and his ideas for encouraging “fanboys” to explore the scholarly side of the humanities, apply to many other fields as well.

Scott is also, I should state for the record, extremely hospitable—not like Egil Skallagrimson at all.

“…and a fire-dance through the night.”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

Before he invented the kingdom of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander sought out Jewish heroes on the plains of antebellum Kansas. Published in 1958, six years before the debut of the Prydain series, Border Hawk: August Bondi was the second release from Covenant Books, an ambitious series offering “stories of Jewish men and women to inspire and instruct young people.” Based on Bondi’s own accounts, this fictionalized biography of the Vienna-born Kansas abolitionist was also Alexander’s first book for children. The frequent exclusion of Border Hawk from the author’s later biographical sketches makes sense, perhaps, for marketing reasons, but the book doesn’t deserve its obscurity. For those who know Lloyd Alexander only as a writer of fantasy, this little-known work is a pleasant surprise.

The opening pages of Border Hawk are packed with action, all of it unfolding in tight, economical prose. It’s 1848, and student revolutionaries face off with soldiers on the streets of imperial Vienna:

The drums beat wildly, the bugles blew the piercing notes of the attack. Anshl heard the heavy boots of the advancing soldiers. Desperately he tried to raise himself. Before he could move, he felt a bayonet rip into his back. Another soldier struck him on the head and shoulders with a musket butt. Amid the clouds of smoke hanging over the square, the students struggled against the battalion. Above the rattle of musket fire rose the screams of the wounded and the shouts of the battling students. The attack passed over Anshl. In spite of his pain, he managed to drag Hershel to a side street. Carefully he rested the wounded boy against a doorstep. He tore shirts into bandages and tried to revive his friend.

Nothing in that passage is stylistically remarkable, but its pacing is perfect. Never an indulgent writer, Alexander demonstrates how to put readers in the moment: by letting them imagine the details for themselves.

After 18-year-old Anshl Bondi trades Vienna for New Orleans and changes his name to August, he seeks excitement on a riverboat—until the sight of a slave auction makes him turn away, “sick at heart,” as he remembers Jewish history and his own fights in the streets of Vienna. Later, when he accidentally strikes a defenseless slave, August is overcome with shame at having been proud of such trifles as his riverboat uniform. Resolving to leave the South and join the fight against slavery in Kansas, the young immigrant understands that “true adventure would come from doing something he could believe in and fight for.” In August Bondi, Lloyd Alexander discovers his typical hero.

Alexander’s lifelong focus on ethical quandaries is evident in Border Hawk, but here he specifically roots them in Jewish experience. One subplot focuses on a shopkeeper named Theo Weiner, who wrestles with his conscience, unsure of whether his desire to fight alongside the Free Staters outweighs his obligation to obey the law. A run-in with pro-slavery ruffians who are also antisemitic helps Theo make up his mind. “In the ghetto we feared the law,” he tells August. “But there is no ghetto here. A man makes his own life. In the ghetto we kept our mouths shut and suffered without a word. I left Warsaw. Now I have left the ghetto that was in my own heart.”

In Border Hawk, violence is a sad necessity, but Alexander doesn’t lose sight of its limits. When August and his Jewish friends become gunrunners, the author does not disapprove, but after they join John Brown in his Kansas campaigns, Border Hawk distinguishes between necessary violence and coldblooded vengeance. As Alexander presents him, John Brown is a frightening and ominous figure. When August meets the charismatic, wild-eyed abolitionist, he gets a glimpse of the horrors to come:

August stayed a few minutes longer, then took his leave of the Brown family. Slowly he rode back toward the creek. The image of Old Brown, like a patriarch of the Scriptures surrounded by his sons, remained in August’s mind. Now that he had met the Old Man face to face, August could not really be sure of what he had seen. A rock? An eagle? Yes, but something more. A sense of terrible destruction that was to come, that would consume all, even the Old Man himself.

Seething and tragic, John Brown prefigures Justin, the obsessive revolutionary of the Westmark series. In fact, Border Hawk is full of embryonic character types that recur in Alexander’s novels. In the few lines of speech she’s given, August’s wife, Henrietta, shows herself to be strong-willed and independent, a typical Alexander heroine. Learning new skills as he wanders and matures, August himself resembles Taran of Prydain; like Theo of Westmark, he continuously rethinks the moral calculus of war. Early in Border Hawk, the young hero pries loose the cobblestones of a Vienna street and piles them up to build the first student barricade. Alexander was clearly impressed by August Bondi’s ingenuity: he used that scene again, 26 years later, in the climax of the final Westmark novel.

With its moonlight shootouts and desperate battles between Free Staters and pro-slavery ruffians, Border Hawk is an engaging book, and August Bondi’s involvement in the tumultuous history of Kansas reminds young readers that we live in the events of our times rather than in front of them. Adults who grew up reading Lloyd Alexander will find Border Hawk a revelation, not only because the author handles non-mythological subject matter so deftly, but because the book shows that the heroes of Prydain and Westmark have Jewish-American roots.

“High time is no time for deciding…”

Need some random, mid-week links? Of course you do.

Linda meets Sir Salman. Jake reviews The Enchantress of Florence. Sam Sacks reviews the reviewers.

Steven Hart has some thoughts on avoiding scam literary agents and waxes nostalgic on the 30th anniversary of Animal House.

Heather Domin takes you on a tour of Roman gardens.

Adam at ALOTT5MA memorializes Madam Marie of Asbury Park, who featured in a well-known Springsteen lyric.

Scott Nokes points out his favorite part of Egil’s Saga. (Keep this in mind if you’re ever a guest in his home.)

What hath WALL-E to do with E.M. Forster? (Link via Books, Inq.)

Ephemeral New York introduces you to Brooklyn’s Civil War drummer boy and a facade of masks in the West Village.

Did you know the King Arthur Flour Company has its own blog? They also sell lots of neat Arthurian cookware. (Discovered thanks to the Naked Philologist.)

At Contemporary Nomad, crime authors contemplate the agony of publicity.

If you love to mix the sacred with the profane, why not buy this chavtaculoso Vatican hoodie?