First, I’d like to offer Mrs. Churm felicitations: Nine years ago today, I knelt on the steel deck of the Staten Island Ferry with all the lights of Manhattan as a backdrop and asked her to marry me. She accepted and told me she’d never forget that day.
“Me either,” I said romantically. “It’s the anniversary of the Herrin Massacre.”
She forgave me that eventually, and now here we are: Two beautiful boys, a Victorian house cozy enough that even the raccoons in the attic have no complaints, and my first novel—set during the time of that labor strife—just out.
If you’ve already bought the book, thank you very much. Your support, especially in these hard times, means more than I can say, but I’ve arranged for the chance at a few giveaways—books and music from University of Illinois Press, a subscription to a very cool magazine, an Amazon certificate, Southern Illinois Miners baseball stuff, and more—as a small gesture of my appreciation. Tune in later this week for details.
If you haven’t picked up a copy yet for yourself, one for your dad, and several for your sisters, cousins, coworkers, casual acquaintances, and the dozens of strangers you list as friends on social networking sites, please read on.
The novel’s first review, soon to appear in ForeWord Magazine, says in part:
[Griswold, aka Churm] is able to describe the most violent scenes with the lyricism of Steinbeck, and he can effortlessly shift into the stark beauty of narrative like Truman Capote.... As in The Grapes of Wrath, many of Griswold’s characters are...absorbed in day-to-day living but are still aware of their status as tiny parts...in the engine of a larger corporate machine. Unlike Grapes of Wrath...Democracy of Ghosts doesn’t get caught up in Steinbeck’s inclination towards melodrama and moralizing. Readers may uncomfortably identify with the characters in Ghosts.... Neither saints nor sinners, but possessing the qualities of both, the characters of A Democracy of Ghosts are liars, cheaters, killers, torturers, and opportunists; at the same time, they are loving, humorous, protective, and very human.
That pleases me, and I’d add that it’s also about the limits of American will, the different kinds of endurance needed in life, and the moment when you realize the shape of what you’ve built, almost unconsciously, over time. There’s some writing advice in the book, a Saturnalian act of onanism, and an otherwise nice guy who finds himself in the cemetery with a really dull jackknife and a crowd to cheer him on.
One of the most interesting aspects, for me, of the historical violence the novel’s based on is how large the event loomed in America’s consciousness in 1922-23, given the relatively small number of deaths that occurred, and how it continues to ripple down through time. It’s alive and powerful and has resisted being made harmless, let alone ridiculous, the way Chicago finally converted the bad reputation and fear over “Bang-Bang Chicago” into Capone-themed restaurants and walking tours. But prohibition is over, after all, while the struggle for self-determination and dignity continues.
(This is no comparison, but the attitudes that remain about the Herrin Massacre remind me of the way some Scots still feel about Culloden. An editor-in-chief of a large newspaper e-mailed today to tell me that, only ten years ago, a high school teacher he knew was planning to do a history unit on the Herrin Massacre, but someone called him at home and said he’d die if he taught it, so he dropped the lesson plan.)
Yet none of the troubles Southern Illinois has endured—vendettas, mine wars, bootlegging wars, coal depression—is what I think of first. I remember instead its varied landscape of Southern Till Plains, rugged sandstone hills, and river bottoms, and its smart, funny people, as positively imprinted on me as those of nearby Hannibal, Missouri, were for that other guy.
The novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, is now available from Amazon, or if you want to fully support a literary press for its good taste and daring, buy directly from Wordcraft. Either way, I hope you’ll check it out!