Monday, December 30, 2013

Why this "Mama Made up Her Mind" to write "The Peacemaker

My roommate gave me a book entitled “Mama Makes up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living” by Bailey White for Christmas. I was excited to delve into a book that I assumed would be full of local color and bring back lots of images about a life I could relate to having been brought up in Kentucky.

This book did indeed provide images of growing up in small backwoods southern towns in the latter part of the 20th Century. Indeed, the writer had been a child in the postwar era of the 1950’s and reached middle age near the end of the 20th Century just as I did. I had a lot in common with her because southerners from rural areas live simple lives and don’t travel much or very far from home. They are not affected by the trends of fashion and cosmopolitan living so the southern people develop differently from their urban counterparts.

Southerners develop unique qualities that don’t bear a rubber stamp counterpart of their peers. Each section of the book contains vignettes about individuals with eccentricities the sophisticated world would find unappealing to say the least. But for those in South Georgia, these individuals were part of that southern landscape that no one questioned.

There was, however, a degree of sophistication about Ms. White that came from her training as a school teacher. Because she taught school, she was responsible for opening up the larger world to her students through exploration of the natural world where they lived to exploring history and ideas through the world of books.

Ms. White has many stories about lessons she taught throughout her teaching years but the one relating the story of Jeanne d’Arc which led to her own Aha experience describes perfectly my “Aha” experience after ten years of teaching American history to 8th grade students in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My Aha experience led to writing “The Peacemaker.” It takes me a lot more time to relate my story than this brief vignette Ms. Bailey has in her book. With her permission, I now retell the story in her own words. The message should be clear.

“I have in my possession an old children’s book, the story of Joan of Arc, movingly written and wonderfully illustrated by a Frenchman name Boutet de Monvel. He has a way of using color and texture and a delicacy of line that makes you want to sink into his pictures.

I took the book to school one day to read to my first-graders. I had to change the French to English, but I tried to keep the high drama and charged emotion of de Monvel’s old-fashioned, rhetorical style. I showed them the pictures: hazy summer days and misty moonshiny nights, the archangel Saint Michael glowing gold, and the costumes of the royal court, painted so that the children couldn’t help reaching up to touch the page to feel the damasks and brocades of those robes.

The most glorious pictures are the battle scenes. There is Joan of Arc, leading the charge, with the head of her great horse bursting out of the frame and onto the next page, and the forward-thrusting lances, and the gleaming silver armor. And best of all, de Monvel has draped over Joan a filmy garment that billows out behind in the fury of the fray and unfurls itself in graceful tatters over the heads of her faithful soldiers.

The book was even more successful than I had thought it would be. Not a single child stirred, and when we got to those battle scenes, I could almost feel their eyes sucking the images off the page. At the end, I read de Monvel’s personal note to the reader: To be victorious, you must believe in victory. So remember, my children, this story of Joan of Arc, against the day when your country will call on you to give her all your courage.

Thirty pairs of hands reached out to take the book, and there was a chorus of voices, Read it again!

After school that day I looked through my Joan of Arc book before I packed it up to take home. I found some new smudges on top of the old smudges left on those pages by French children almost a hundred years ago. Then I thought of something, I turned to the title page and checked the copyright date. It was 1898.

Little French children six years old, reading that book when it was new, would have been just military age in 1914. And here am I, who should know better, in another country, with that very book in my hands, telling other children the same old lie:

Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

From: “Mama Makes up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living” by Bailey White.  First Vintage Book Edition May, 1994.

That was my same Aha experience about teaching white man’s political history and the glorification of war for over 15 years in Albuquerque, NM in 1986. I decided to start telling a different story.