Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Time in Old Fairhope

From the novel I'm working on, That Was Tomorrow, here's an excerpt about The Gables, a hotel run by Capt. and Mrs. Jack Cross:

The first settlers, who had moved from Iowa and other parts of the Midwest, had not been farmers, but were eager to learn how to grow enough food to feed their families, and they had assumed this gloriously warm climate would provide a garden of Eden for them. By now they had learned that the soil of Fairhope was sandy and alkaline, not ideal for many crops. But they endured in a spirit of cooperation and optimism, and many had accepted conventional wisdom that citrus, particularly the new Japanese satsuma orange, might be the salvation of Fairhope’s economy. The growing season was indeed a long one, and they experimented to extend it even longer if they could by growing and preparing vegetables and fruit unknown to them before their move to the South. There was a bounty of okra, which was quite tasty when you got used to it, and there were varieties of peas, beans and nuts which they came to enjoy over time.

That initial visit, Amelia stayed at the Gables, a simple two-storey wooden building, which Mrs. Johnson had recommended to her. The Gables was a little less fashionable and less expensive than the Colonial Inn, which sat a few blocks west, on the bluff overlooking the bay. The Gables, on the other hand, was right in town and just a few blocks from the school. The Gables was run by Captain and Mrs. Jack Cross. Mrs. Cross was a busy, funny lady—and her husband a raconteur with an English accent, who held forth with his pipe and a cup of tea on the front porch every afternoon, as cronies and neighbors stopped by to discuss the fate of the world with him. They often talked about the politics of the village, and about the future of the single tax system, and about books they were reading and authors they admired. The elders of the town stopped by to air the latest issues they were dealing with—even E.B. Gaston, the editor of The Courier and virtually the founder of Fairhope—stopped by on his morning walk to exchange pleasantries with the Crosses. It seemed to Amelia that this little hotel was the hub of the community, but the more she got to know her way around, other such hubs were revealed to her. There were three or four little cafes in the village of about 1,500, and about 15 hotels with dining rooms, and coffee urns all over town were hot with fresh brew all day long.

“Wherever there’s people in Fairhope,” Mrs. Cross said to her, “There’s coffee. Or maybe that should be, wherever there’s coffee, there’s people.” She made tea for her husband and his friends, but there was always hot coffee as well. The Crosses, both devoted to the cause of single tax, had moved to Fairhope with the idea of running a farm, but, like many idealists who had never farmed before, changed their minds after a year or two, at which time they had taken over the management of the Gables Hotel, where Mrs. Cross cooked and supervised work inthe kitchen. She laid an old-fashioned boarding house type of table, which was popular with locals as well as transients.

Amelia found both the Crosses fascinating people, and their visitors from town were a certain breed—earnest, wordy, and wise, with one central agenda, which was how best to put Fairhope on the map and change the world through single tax philosophy.

They hadn’t yet realized that the wave of the immediate future of Fairhope was actually Amelia and those like her who were moving to the town to participate in Mrs. Johnson’s school. Seven years before, the famed educational philosopher John Dewey had come to Fairhope to review the school for a book he was writing. His visit had set the little village on its ear with excitement. The children, informed that the only day Dr. Dewey had available to observe the school was Christmas Eve, voted to keep the school open its regular hours that day so that he might get a fair picture of it in operation. Mrs. Johnson took some of them outside, as was her custom so often, to teach a class, Dewey’s daughter photographed the scene which became the frontispiece of a book.


Harper and Row said...

I sure hope the novel is about the school life. It could be a multiple saga, each as long as Peer Gynt, or longer. Individual lives during and after attending MJS and what they brought to life (rather than what life brought to them).
Seems a daunting endeavor to me.
I can stay still barely long enough to make a blog comment much less write , rewrite and edit for
MMmmmm.. what and how is it to be, this novel. My curiosity is up for it. Even as a non-reader for entertainment, I'll have to read this one.

Mary Lois said...

I don't think it's going to be Peer Gynt, or entirely about the school, but Mrs. Johnson keeps coming through to me loud and clear. It's a pleasure to travel back in time to old Fairhope and Philadelphia just after the turn of the century. Comments like yours encourage me, and prod me to keep after this theme.

F Gump said...

A 'selling' title lures folks into a preface page or back cover. Maybe something like "Christmas with John Dewey" or "A John Dewey Christmas" or "Scrooge and John Dewey Duke It Out at Christmas"
or "Mrs Johnson Makes John Dewey's Christmas" or "Getting Organic With John Dewey" or "What Did John
Dewey and Mrs Johnson Do for Christmas?" or "Merry Christmas Mrs Johnson" or "Dowdy , Dewey"
or Mrs Johnson Teaches John Dewey a Lesson". Getting a reader to
initially pick up a book is the first step. Books are like plays. They are made for an audience.
Format could be to use all of your
detailed and wonderful historical collection as background, the truth so to speak. Then use the characters/personalities and their actions as they anticipate the big event of JD's visit. Not only Mrs J , but also students/families and other town folks as their routines are made special for it. The time of Christmas adds much opportunity as well, even weather.
My minds eye has a Tom Sawyer-ish feel to it for style, or even that of "To Kill a Mocking Bird".
The 'story' could be about the
people (some may be ficitonal by necessity) as the event is told using the beauty of the time and history as romantic background.
To relate the history as history
does not engender as much interest as do people's lives and feelings. "Mama, John Dewey Was at School Today".. "Mama, I Got to Read My Poem for John Dewey". It is not an event itself that draws interest, but the people and how they are entwined into an event that tweaks
the curiosity of emotion.

Mary Lois said...

I knew there was some reason not to post on the blog that I was working on a book. The working title refers to the paintings of The Peaceable Kingdom, which I have worked into the narrative. I was looking for a theme besides "heaven" (I've used that one) and "utopia" (way too many others have used that one). The only mention of John Dewey is the one in this excerpt. It is not a book about Marietta Johnson; she is a character in it because she was so much a fixture in Fairhope of the day; I try to do her justice in the scenes I have already mentioned.

I know titles are important and cannot imagine that having Mrs. Johnson's name in the title would sell more than about 20 books, all to old-timers in Fairhope (who haven't bought my other books either).

I'm trying to get the voice right, and am working more for an Edith Wharton tone of detachment than Harper Lee's no-nonsense capturing of a Southern childhood. Ms. Lee did that better much than I could. Mrs. Wharton did too, of course, but I like her late-Victorian style of looking back at previous decades.

Mr. Gump, please forget I mentioned my book to you. Inspiration is not what I need and advice only makes me feel I'm on the wrong track. As Marietta Johnson would say, it smacks of criticism, which stifles the creative urge.

F Gump said...

No harm intended nor insight perceived...
"Life is like a box of chocolates....." I have plenty of other things to do.
Good luck.

F Gump said...

After some thought on novel................
I described a story type that I would write if I could. It is not intended as advice. Events, facts and folks run before the hot air in my head like a movie. The thing is that hot air rises and is gone forever dissipated into the clouds, fleeting glimpses. ML surely has a tighter grip on ideas than that. I know that 'smack' you mention, and I stay all skint from the falls.