The History Museum on the Square hosted a panel of scholars and keyed off my novel
The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015) to discuss
This is what I said.
Thank you, James Braun, for that introduction, and thank you, Ken Coopwood and Sabrina Brinson, of the Missouri State University Division of Diversity and Inclusion for sponsoring this event. To John Sellars of the History Museum on the Square, thank you for opening the glorious Fox Theatre for our use this evening.
And thank you Jim Baumlin for organizing this lineup. As someone who has worked now at three different scholarly publishing houses, I want to stop just a minute and extol what I will call founding genius. It takes a special sort to found a publishing house, to be the green fuse that drives the first shoots of creativity. Tonight’s agenda marks one more moment when I find a by now six-year association with Jim Baumlin over two novels to be a Godsend.
A long time ago, I was a sleep-deprived junior in Dr. Katherine Lederer’s African American Literature course at Southwest Missouri State University, now Missouri State. My classmates were very much representative of the student body then, I believe, mostly white, mostly middle class, and from the accents I recall almost all from the Ozarks if not from Springfield. The literature Dr. Lederer had us studying, it shook us up as only great art can—Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. These authors brought us a whole new way of seeing, a whole new set of perspectives and experience.
Near the end of that class, Dr. Lederer opened our eyes to history I daresay none in the class knew, or at least judging by our stunned silence, none of us had acknowledged publically. Dr. Lederer taught us of the black community in Springfield, and of the devastation brought on that community by the triple lynching and by the mob that killed, mutilated, and burned Will Allen, Fred Coker, and Horace Duncan, on Easter Vigil and Easter morning 1906 in our town square beneath a replica of the statue of liberty.
Now I came from what I considered a politically and historically awakened family, one with a substantial bookshelf in its formal dining room and books within arm’s reach of every seat in the living room—The Revised Standard Edition of The Holy Bible, Plato’s Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, Njal’s Saga, Marx’s Das Kapital, Duane Meyer’s A Heritage of Missouri, and Harold Bell Wright’s The Shepherd of the Hills. My mother and father both held post-baccalaureate degrees. Mother taught social studies at Central High School before I was born. And Dad was at one time president of the chamber of commerce, on the airport board, and later our district’s highway commissioner. We were boosters of the Queen City of the Ozarks, through and through. What Dr. Lederer taught us about our city required a rethinking of a whole cosmos I thought I had a grip on.
One story she told, never let me go. She described to us, and describes in her book Many Thousand Gone, that several of her respondents in the black community related an extraordinary tale. In the aftermath of the 1906 lynching and the rampage of the white lynch mob that not once but twice visited and destroyed our jail to extract its victims, the black community was terrified that a second mob would form. Two years previous in nearby Pierce City after a lynching, a second mob had gathered and burned out the homes of the black community there. So this was a tangible menace that Easter Sunday. And in answer to this menace, a white quarry manager at Marblehead Quarry was said to have given his black employees the quarry’s dynamite to mine the streets. And that this dynamite, or more precisely in the minds of her informants, the mere story of this grant of fire, if you will, was enough to shield the black district from destruction.
A story stemmed the tide of violence and hate. That is what they believed. What fiction writer in the whole world could hear and then resist this?I knew enough of race relations and of the nadir of American race relations to know that a white quarry manager doing anything of that sort in 1906 was committing personal, professional, and social self-immolation. He would be done for in his hometown, done for at the quarry, maybe even in his church and within his family. And yet there was no proving that the act had happened at all. To the survivors who kept the lore, that act existed as a truth, it was the way the story had to be told. And a story had turned the tide. I wished to know such a man, and that’s what started the Morkan’s and Morkan’s Quarry. And I wished also to know Springfield again, to relearn some of its history, for all that had been upended and had to be remade. For many, such a challenge might lead to a life of writing nonfiction history, which by profession I promote, publish, and devour. But on my own I am no good at knowing the human heart in that way, and so I chose the path presented by what little talent God gave me, that of writing fiction.
My first novel, Morkan’s Quarry, involved an Irish Catholic family in early Springfield, specifically during a fictionalized version of our Civil War. We would today call the Morkan’s culturally Catholic, even a step beyond lapsed Catholic. They were the sort who kept a sick call set at their quarry, still reverencing the power of the Consecrated Host, the body and blood of Christ in the transfigured and Holy Presence of the Eucharist, kept in the sick call set, which was an ornate but durable and portable Last Aid Kit. And yet the Morkan’s did not attend Mass and did not seek out the Sacrament of Reconciliation, though both father and son did plenty in that novel that might call for confession. Their Catholicism, then, was more like a guiding memory.In The Teeth of the Souls, that lapsed, culturally Irish Catholic meets what may arguably be its opposite, a devout and practicing Missouri Synod, German-American Lutheran. Patricia Grünhaagen Weitzer comes from that first generation of Missouri-born Lutherans, whose Stephanite forebears had escaped the Evangelical Church of the Prussian Union and persecution by Prussian kings, then endured the humiliating downfall of their founder and first bishop. These German immigrants, who became the mighty Missouri Synod, had disembarked at St. Louis renewed under a new Bishop with a real mission and a solid vision. In The Teeth of the Souls, Leighton Morkan, whose father has died, whose house is a near ruin, whose quarry must start over in a shattered town, sees in Patricia Weitzer not really a love, and certainly not a guidepost to Faith, but instead a property very loosely based on the Galloway quarry, now owned by Conco Quarries. So Patricia represents to Leighton a lot more really good limestone. And this acquisition is the basis of the marriage that became a lie, and the lie that became a marriage, which is really the heart of the story in The Teeth of the Souls.
I want to read briefly tonight a swag of home life in the very conflicted Morkan household. Anyone who read Morkan’s Quarry will recall Leighton Morkan’s demi-sister, confidante, ally, house hand, the Morkan’s former slave, Judith. In this scene Judith’s son is also present, a little boy she gave the unfortunate name of Holofernes, often called Holy for short. Poor child. Judith knew that Leighton’s Catholic Bible contained the story of Judith and Holofernes. But Leighton was too fearful of any further association with the birth of her child to make Judith aware of that chapter’s fearsome content. Upstairs Leighton’s wife Patricia is putting the Morkan son and heir, Gustasson, to bed. And our Leighton has participated recently in some Ozarks justice, in night-riding vigilantism, Bald Knobber style. He and Patricia are on extremely sour terms when this scene begins in The Teeth of the Souls.
* * *
Leighton glanced at his watch. Six p.m. He was home two hours early. When he stepped through the door to the mudroom, the mulatto child, Holofernes, was on tiptoes reaching for something beside the stove, his little calves straining beneath the frayed bottom of his sack gown. Seeing Leighton, he dropped his hands at his sides and stared down at his feet.
Judith turned from the stove and greeted him with surprise. Leighton reached in his coat pocket and slowly, bobbing his eyebrows, he drew out a shining coil of copper tubing a mechanic at the quarry had forged into the shape of a snake for him.
Holy reached for it, then popped the head of the snake in his mouth. Immediately, his round face furrowed and he pulled the tubing from his mouth, stood wrinkling his nose at the copper. Infantile acts like these made Leighton wonder at him. “Da?” the boy asked, irking Leighton again. At least the child refrained from the habit when anyone else was around. Da, like an Irish child might say to its father, what Leighton called his own father when times were dire.
Upstairs Patricia’s footsteps creaked across the floor. In each pop of wood he heard her intense carefulness. A door sloughed shut.
Leighton placed a hand on top of Holy’s head and the boy raised his arms, dandled his fingers on top of Leighton’s—tiny fingers, the color of red cedar heartwood, pink at their tips, and beneath each fingernail a color, pale, no different from his own skin.
“Ain’t he a good lookin’ chile?” Judith whispered.
Leighton pulled his hand away as if it had been stung.
They hunched over their stews while Holy munched milk toast in the low lamplight. When Leighton finished, Judith said, “Go upstairs quiet.” She grinned. “You catch Mama and the boy reading and praying fire and damnation.”
Upstairs, Leighton paused at the doorway to the nursery, once his boyhood room, and peered in. Patricia sat on Gustasson’s bed with her legs crossed. She wore a white chemise that revealed the shadows of her small breasts. She held the massive Lutheran Bible in her lap. In the corner of the room the spinning wheel waited surrounded by pyramids of wool rolags, piles of carded wool and skeined yarn.
Gus was now five. A thin, already long little fellow with curly reddish hair, he knelt in prayer at the foot of the bed, his tiny nose crammed against his fingertips. With his curly hair and slim face, he sometimes struck Leighton as a miniature of Leighton’s father, the late Michael Morkan. His gray eyes skated devilishly just above the footboard’s trim. They widened when they caught Leighton at the door, but Leighton put his finger to his lips to keep the boy quiet. Gus grinned, and said something to himself, which made him snicker and cover his mouth. He rolled his eyes at Leighton, then glanced at Patricia whose eyes were closed as she fingered the pages, reciting from rote:
And they brought up an evil report of the land which they
had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land,
through which we have gone to search it, is a land that
eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people we
saw in it are men of great stature.
The Israelites proceeded to weep and rend their clothes and eat ashes and eventually they decided to stone the bearers of the bad news. Patricia related all of this with her shoulders hunched, her head rocking to and fro. Gus’s eyes widened at the giants and the ash eating and clothes rending; otherwise, he watched Leighton, and his shoulders shivered with delight. He tried to keep his hands in prayer, but often had to cover his mouth to stifle laughter.
Finally, the Lord spoke to Moses and passed judgment on the Israelites. Patricia raised her fist, her long white arm waving with an air of triumph. She read, “I will smite them with pestilence, and disinherit them.”
Patricia clapped the bible shut. When she noticed the direction of Gustasson’s gaze, she turned, and her eyes narrowed when she saw her husband. She stuck her chin forward and scowled. She swung her gaze back to Gustasson, who ducked his nose to his fingertips. His grin vanished.
“Yes. Let us say our prayers, young man,” she said. “For your father. In English.”
Gustasson took a deep breath, his back rising. He prayed:
Much wickedness a child must see
And evil is learned easily.
Protect, Dear Lord, this little lad
So that he will learn nothing bad.
“Good,” Patricia said. “And?”
Gus craned his neck, and in a high voice said: “God gives grace to those who fear Him. Therefore I pray:
O, My Dear Rod,
Teach Me to Fear God.
Make Me Good, I Beg,
Or the Hangman Will Have My Neck. Amen
“Amen,” Patricia said, nodding.
“Good Lord!” said Leighton, stepping into the room.
Gus blinked at him, and Patricia glared.
“What the Hell kind of prayer is that?”
“Language, Mr. Morkan,” Patricia squawked. “It is the prayer I was raised on. Papist!” She moved off the bed and parted the sheets then ordered the boy into bed. He crawled between the sheets, and she folded the top of the sheet across his chest and pulled it taut. Kissing him on the forehead, she then raised the wooden railings that prevented Gus from rolling out in his sleep. The metal springs whined as they tightened. With a grunt, she fitted the railings into place, and a perfect wooden cage of headboard, footboard, and railings surrounded the boy. Such protectiveness—Leighton remembered sleeping on the cold, smooth stones of the floor with the struts of the unfinished mansion framing starlight, remembered sleeping in stone wagons where the lime dust would crust his eyes shut by morning. When Patricia backed away, Gus’s eyes were on Leighton, and his lips turned in a smile. Leighton stepped to the bedside and rubbed a hard knuckle against his son’s cheek.
“I tell you a secret, Papá!” Gus whispered. Papá!, he said, as if the lad were Dutch.
Leighton leaned over the railings and bent his ear to the boy’s lips.
“Mamá says I cannot ride with you at night. But I do in my dreams.”
Leighton hesitated as he backed away. Gus was grinning broadly.
“No one rides at night, son.” Leighton said, stroking the boy’s tender, smooth forehead. “The woods… it is far too dark.”
* * *
Thank you, and I am mighty eager to listen in fellowship now to our panelists.