Monday, February 15, 2010

Common Endings – a fiddle, a song in the night, and the security only love can bestow

Once upon a time, sixty years ago, a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.

The great, dark trees of the Big Woods stood all around the house, and beyond them were other trees and beyond them were more trees.  As far as a man could go to the north in a day, or a week, or a whole month, there was nothing but woods.  There were no houses.  There were no roads.  There were no people.  There were only trees and the wild animals who had their homes among them. 

LHBW So begins the first chapter of the first of several books Laura Ingalls would write, books that have a special place in my heart and those of my daughters, Diane & Laura. 

Back in 1973, I was selected to take part in an inter-school (primary) competition of sorts.  Thanks to this contest, I would be teamed up with 3 other boys I’d not met before that, despite our being in the same school and the same level for 5.5 years prior, boys who would later be my classmates in secondary school.  I suppose we were among the few that our teachers figured were reasonably avid readers, because the contest involved reading 3 books, and then sitting for a multiple choice test to gauge how much we recalled and comprehended.  (I vaguely recall the test being held in a school in Chai Chee, back when the western end still had the main road running along a ridge, and a large chinese cemetry populated the northern slope, and kampong houses dotted the hills). 

One of those books was Laura Ingalls’ Little House in the Big Woods.  This was not the kind of book a nearly teenage boy should dare to admit liking – it was told from the point of view of a little girl, and was about life in the wild woods of Wisconsin, living among the wild things, living a life of self reliance and mostly, living a life strongly nourished by the love in her family. 

I would read this book to Diane many years later, when she was around 4, in a small cabin somewhere near the Canadian Rockies during a holiday we were having there at that time.  We had purchased the book in a delightful children’s store in Seattle called the Imaginarium.  It was the ideal setting, and being much older than the pre-teen who first read the book, found myself taken by the simplicity and good naturedness of the story, and the humble, self-depreciating way in which the author presented herself.  It wasn’t long before Laura came along, and we had acquired most of the books in the series.

Lately, I’ve been taken by how the books end.  In “Big Woods”, Pa is playing his fiddle on a winter evening, in a darkened room lit only by firelight and Ma is swaying on her rocking chair knitting.  He’s just played and sung Auld Lang Syne.

When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said.  “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods.  She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle.  She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting. 

She thought to herself, “this is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now.  They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now.  It can never be a long time ago. 

At the end of the second book, Little House on the Prairie, the family has left the home they built behind them, preferring to pull out on their own before being forced to do so by federal troops out to drive settlers away from land the government had allocated to the Indians.  Pa is understandably angry and upset that his own government has caused him and his young family to flee west like outlaws toward an uncertain future with only the possessions that would fit into their wagon, and the animals they took with them.  They’ve camped out on the prairie for the night, the children are in bed in the wagon, and Pa is playing his fiddle and singing. 

They sang with a lilt and a swing that almost lifted Laura right out of bed.  She must lie still and not wake Carrie.  Mary was sleeping, too, but Laura had never been wider awake.

She heard Jack making his bed under the wagon.  He was turning round and round, trampling down the grass.  Then he curled into that round nest with a flop and a sigh of satisfaction. 

Pet and Patty were munching the last of their corn, and their chains rattled.  Bunny lay down beside the wagon. 

They were all there together, safe and comfortable for the night, under the wide, starlit sky.  Once more the covered wagon was home. 

The fiddle began to play a marching tune, and Pa’s clear voice was singing like a deep-toned bell. 

“And we’ll rally round the flag, boys,
We’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom!”

Laura felt that she must shout, too.  But softly Ma looked in through the round hole in the wagon-cover. 

“Charles,” Ma said, “Laura is wide awake.  She can’t go to sleep on such music as that.”

Pa didn’t answer, but the voice of the fiddle changed.  Softly and slurringly, it began a long, swinging rhythm that seemed to rock Laura gently.

She felt her eyelids closing.  She began to drift over endless waves of prairie grasses, and Pa’s voice went with her, singing:

Row away, row o’er the waters so blue,
Like a feather we sail in our gum-tree canoe.
Row the boat lightly, love, over the sea;
Daily and nightly I’ll wander with thee

Laura’s third book, “On the Banks of Plum Creek” ends thus:

The wind was screaming fiercer and louder outside.  Snow whirled swish-swishing against the windows.  But Pa’s fiddle sang in the warm, lamp-lighted house.  The dishes made small clinking sounds as Mary set the table.  Carrie rocked herself in the rocking-chair and Ma went gently between the table and the stove.  In the middle of the table she set a milk-pan full of beautiful brown baked beans, and now from the oven she took the square baking-pan full of golden corn-bread.  The rich brown smell and the sweet golden smell curled deliciously together in the air.

Pa’s fiddle laughed and sang,

“I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines,
I feed my horse on corn and beans
Although ‘tis far beyond my means, for
I’m Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines!
I’m Captain of the army!”

Laura petted Jack’s furry smooth forehead and scratched his ears for him, and then with both hands she gave his head a quick, happy squeeze.  Everything was so good.  Grasshoppers were gone, and next year Pa could harvest the wheat.  Tomorrow was Christmas, with oyster stew for dinner.  There would be no presents and no candy, but Laura could not think of anything she wanted and she was so glad that the Christmas candy had helped to bring Pa safe home again.

“Supper is ready,” Ma said in her gentle voice.

Pa laid the fiddle in its box.  He stood up and looked around at them all.  His blue eyes shone at them. 

“Look, Caroline,” he said, “how Laura’s eyes are shining.”

There’s a lovely pattern emerging as we savor the ending paragraphs.  In the preceding chapters, there’s a challenge, a danger, a trial of some sort.  It’s always night.  The family is together.  A fiddle plays and Pa is singing.  There is good humor and love.

Here are the closing paragraphs from Laura’s forth book, By the Shores of Sliver Lake.

“Now we are all snug,” Pa said, “settled at last on our homestead.  Bring me the fiddle, Laura, and we’ll have a little music!”

Grace was safely in her bed with Carrie beside her. 

Ma and Mary sat rocking gently in the shadows.  But moonlight shone through the southern window and touched Pa’s face and hands and the fiddle as the bow moved smoothly over the strings.

Laura sat near Mary and watched it as she thought how the moonlight would be shining in the fairy ring where the violets grew.  It was just the night for fairies to be dancing there. 

Pa was singing with the fiddle:

“In Scarlet town where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin’’
And every youth cried “Well-a-wa.”
Her name was Barbary Allen.”

“All in the merry month of May,
When green buds they were swellin’
Young Johnnie Grove on his death bed lay
For love of Barbary Allen.”

Laura drew the curtain as she and Mary joined Carrie and Grace in the tiny bedroom.

And as she fell asleep still thinking of violets and fairy rings and moonlight over the wide, wide land, where their very own homestead lay, Pa and the fiddle were softly singing:

“Home! Home” Sweet, sweet home,
Be it ever so humble
There is no place like home.” 

It’s easy to see night and sleep as being a metaphor for the end of life.  Each book ends with the gradual and peaceful onset of death, a death in the company of loved ones, music, stories (in the form of song), and contentedness.  And each next book in the series is a new morning, a rebirth complete with loved ones that closes yet again with another evening, where it’s cold and dark outside, with the family all together, safe, and with fiddle and song. 

Just a week ago, I completed my reading of Raymond Moody’s “Life after Life”, and the thoughts that book has me mulling over work so nicely with the endings of the Laura Ingalls books. 

“Look, Caroline,” he said, “how Laura’s eyes are shining.”

Note:  If you’re keen to learn more about Laura Ingalls and her daughter Rose, there’s an good piece by Judith Thurman in The New Yorker entitled “Wilder Women – The Mother and Daughter behind the Little House stories

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Gaiman’s Wake for Bruce/Batman

This two part story (Batman 686 and Detective 853) by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert brings to mind lots of things.

The art style harkens back to the work of Will Eisner and Dave Stevens.  There is a “Bob Kane’ishness” to the Batman’s costume. 

The storyline makes me recall Alan Moore’s and Curt Swan’s “the Last Superman Story”, from just before the John Byrne reboot.  Moore and Swan created such a loving tribute, capturing something so genuine and true about the Superman of the 60s and 70s. 

The holding of the wake in Crime Alley, and having Joe Chill as the bartender brings to mind the classic O’Neil/Giordiano story where a visibly upset Batman goes on a rampage, beating up crooks and fiercely demanding from them information on where to find Leslie Thompkins.  I remember thinking that this Leslie person must be a real bad-assed crime boss guy – the truth at the end of the story is that she’s the social worker, now old, who comforted a young Bruce Wayne just after his parents were shot by Joe Chill, and is still working to bring hope and love to Crime Alley. 

It also harkens to the Sandman “Wake” story cycle, and I would not have been surprised to see Death of the endless make an appearance.  As with the end of Morpheus, it’s also a “not-end”, a beginning of sorts.  There is a lady character that leads Bruce to his transition, but it’s not Death. 

First up to speak at the wake are Alfred and Selina – both claiming to have been responsible for the death of the Batman, both telling stories so brilliantly inventive in the context of the relationships they’ve both had with Bruce.  These short snippets of story could each be easily expanded into graphic novel length productions.  They are that interesting. 

A quote I like from Alfred’s eulogy/confession:

“And then he began dressing as a bat.  As an Englishman, I find it difficult to identify the place that eccentricity ends and madness begins.  That Master Bruce was eccentric, I do not deny.  And I admit that it is not normal to dress as a giant bat and fight crime.”

Another quote, from the mysterious woman at the end of the story:

“Remember the goodnight book, Bruce? It’s just like that.  You remember.  It’s time for you to say goodnight.  Say it.”

Which evokes memories of that bit that Death of the Endless says in “Facade” (Sandman #20):

“When the first living thing existed, I was there, waiting.  When the last living thing dies, my job is finished.  I’ll put the chairs on the tables, turn out the lights and lock the universe behind me when I leave.”

The wake is held at the back of the Dew Drop Inn, which is the title of a short piece written by Gaiman, dated Dec 1995, and posted on Tori Amos’ site,

Reading this story also brought to mind a 4 part Batman story by David V Reed (and art by John Calnan) ages ago – sometime in ‘77, titled “Where were you on the night Batman was killed?”.  It’s a very “David Reed” type of story – featuring Batman as a brilliant detective rather than as a superhero.  News gets out among the denizens of the underworld that the Batman’s body is found, but no one knows who killed him.  Various villains start claiming credit for the murder, and a court is convened where 4 villains give their testimony of how they killed Batman (depositions by Catwoman, Luthor, Joker and the Riddler).  Two Face acts as the “District Attorney” debunking their stories lawyer style, and Ra’s Al Gul presides as judge.  At the end, we discover that Dent (Two Face) turns out to be Batman in disguise, and as he knew the details of the death of the person wearing a batman suit (an admirer/impersonator) was waiting for the real killer’s story to match the facts he knew.  So the whole “court” was a trap Batman had set up to find the killer in a murder where so many were claiming to be the killer.  While searching the web for references to this story arc (I had trouble recalling the artist’s name – I first thought it was Jim Aparo), I came across this very entertaining write up of another 4 part David V Reed Batman story from the same period – the Underworld Olympics 1976.  Damn – I actually remember it now – and can picture myself reading the issues on a hot afternoon, on the shaded side of the house, by the drain, close to where the watermelon vines were growing, and near where the wind blew noisily through the patch of jungle land from which snakes sometimes emerged, only to be slaughtered by yours truly. 

A last recollection before I end – one I don’t recall too well as it’s a Punisher story I just leafed through and didn’t actually read – there’s a wake at the back of a bar for one of the villains in the Punisher’s rogues gallery, and the other members of said gallery get together to pay respects and reminisce.  Turns out the bartender is the Punisher in disguise, and he uses the opportunity to do-in the collection of his enemies in the room.  Not sure I recall this correctly, but I think he blows up the bar with explosives.  Which pretty much illustrates dramatically the difference between Batman and the Punisher.