Saturday, May 14, 2011

Detective work on a family mystery

My grandmother wrote a unpublished novel, and a bunch of short stories that did get published. Holland's: The Magazine of the South, Farm & Fireside, and probably others paid her nicely for her work.

I say "probably" others because she had an almost pathologically self-deprecating tendency to throw away her courtesy copies.

Bless him forever and ever, my grandfather often rescued the magazines from the garbage and hid them away. In 1984, when Gran had passed, my mom and I found them secreted among stuff on high shelves in odd rooms of their house. That's what's left of her body of story work, in the top photo.

The confession stories were the ones my grandmother was the most ashamed of. She said they were trash, and while she wrote them strictly for money, it appeared that she even felt bad about taking the money.

I well knew she was always hard on herself, but this seemed oddly extreme to me.

I tried to figure it out. Even confession stories presented positive enough values and uncompromising consequences for wrongdoing. Hers would be classy, I was certain. Maybe she felt bad about encouraging readers to even buy these magazines and be exposed to the lurid parts. Maybe the whole idea of fiction being sold as fact bothered her. I could kinda see that, and I understood the low status of trashy fiction for the time, but 30, 40 years later she still wanted to erase that part of her history, and seemed unhappy that my mother had even told me about it. What the...?

Anyway, I thought they were lost forever. But my grandfather must have stashed away one of those, too. There are multiple copies of the 2 mainstream magazines that mom uncovered in the old farmhouse, but I had never seen that True Story issue -- the one on top of the stack -- until a frikkin WEEK ago, when I found it in a drawer with the others.

Unlike the others, it's a wreck, tattered and flaking, and it's almost impossible to turn the pages.

But within an hour of finding the one in Mom's drawer, I was back here at my computer, and had bought and paid for a relatively nice copy from an eBay seller! God, the internet is so full of crap and misinformation and identity-thieving and data-mining and utter obnoxiousness..... ARGH, but sometimes it's the best thing that ever was :

True Story - November, 1930!

Now the hard part.

Confession stories, at least back then (maybe now?), carried no author names at all, even pen names. They were usually written in the first person which created an illusion of personal info-sharing. Because they were complete fiction.

While my dear grandfather had enough thought for her legacy to preserve the tattered copy above, he apparently did not go so far as to realize that family 80+ years later would need to know which was hers. Or maybe he marked it on the Contents page, but that page is now missing.

ARGH to the 2nd frikkin power!

Looking through the stories, it's a process of elimination. The $2000 and the $1000 prize stories?

Highly unlikely. If she'd won such a gargantuan fortune, that would have become family legend no matter what she wanted. So I eliminated those two.

Eliminate settings involving cattle ranching or olive growing in Spain. She could certainly research anything but I'm 99 % sure she didn't bother when she could write what she knew, and that was country people and country problems.

Eliminate anything about lust or mobsters, because she would never be un-classy, plus mobsters, and urban settings, weren't what she knew. Everything of hers that we do have was rural. Southern rural, but for confession stories, I won't completely discount a midwest farm story, when the plot concerns the people and not the particulars of plains farming.

The tragic honeymoon story is kind of amateurishly written, plus it's sort of pointlessly dead-honeymooner depressing and that's not her style. Anyway, it's about Rocky Mountains camping.

So I winnowed it down to these two. The Prodigal Son story ....

And the... other one.

And I'm pretty sure it's the other one. The prodigal son story is the midwest farmer one. It's countrified enough and carries her values, AND involves tuberculosis. She'd had one TB scare in real life by then and was always watched for signs of it, so it would be much on her mind. But it's drearily repetitive, and has a long story-within-the-story that's too detailed and mawkish. It isn't well-constructed enough for a novelist whose novel was very seriously considered by a major publisher and was nixed only for being too sad in 1931. She, as should be obvious by now, would never brag on herself, and she's the one who told me that the publisher's letter praised the novel.

Still, maybe lousy writing was the reason she loathed her short story so....

But! this one said "Bingo!" to me as I read it.

Despite its melodrama, it's well-written enough to be kind of touching. The girl who erred is relentlessly Noble, but it's a pretty realistic story about what happens to a woman in the early 1900's who has a baby out of wedlock, and the lifetime of self-abasement she, not so much undergoes (passively), but puts herself through if she's a good woman. And it's about her being a good woman.

Spoilers (because it's a lo-o-ong story in tiny print and hard to scan): Our heroine, 17-year-old Margaret, tells the story of Anna, who comes to keep house for Margaret's family after Anna's baby dies at birth. Margaret is in love with Christopher and comes to realize that Christopher fathered Anna's child.

It takes a few years for Margaret and Christopher to marry, and first they have a very open conversation about it, more honest about life's messiness than stories you'd get in Redbook at the time. The writing is good until the silly ending in which Margaret and Christopher find out that the child did not die, but inherited her long-suffering mother's beautiful voice and became a light opera star. Confession magazines required such Stella Dallas-y stuff and I expect Gran hated writing the big tearful Reveal to give the story commercial edge in a highly competitive market.

Clues that this is her story:

The heroine is the oldest of a brood of kids in a happy family. My grandmother was too. And Gran's youngest sister, about (?) 14- 15 at the time this was written, was surely known by the family to be just such a talented singer as the girl in the story. My great aunt did have minor success regionally before quitting to do the marriage thing.

A minor character has a name that's connected with our family, an unimportant clue except as part of the whole pile of clues. The heroine has to say goodbye to the man she loves for awhile, as he goes off to make a career for himself. My grandmother did this every week while my grandfather was on the road as a traveling salesman. The couple in the story love each other deeply and reconcile themselves to reality. Yep.

Adding up: the realistic yet very compassionately handled subject; the probability that Gran mined some sad local out-of-wedlock situation for her plot; and the melodramatic exposure-of-secrets tie-up at the end, required by the confession genre .....

I think this is her story, and that these are the reasons she wanted to disown it, even though the check it brought in probably meant they could now buy a mule for the farm. In her mind, she'd not only added bad melodrama to sell it, but, much more importantly, she'd used someone's tragedy to make money. I knew her and that would explain it.

And it's still a guess! A good guess, but a guess.

I feel like I spent the day having a long heart-to-heart talk with my grandmother. If this is her writing, both the story and her feelings about it tell me a lot about her. She wasn't proud of herself for this, and I understand, and yet I'm proud of her. And proud of my grandfather too, for being one of those people who preserve history when others think it's trash!


Sherwood Harrington said...

Fascinating Ruth, just fascinating, and good forensics of a sort.

There are some interesting parallels here to what happened to Volume II of Dead Souls. After having completed Volume I, Nikolai Gogol underwent an extreme religious conversion under the spell of Father Matthew Konstantinovsky. One of Father Matthew's instructions was that Gogol must give up literature (another, which ultimately killed him, was that Gogol must give up eating.) In a fit of self-loathing, Gogol threw his manuscript into a fire -- but parts of it were rescued by a friend. That's why only fragments of Volume II survived.

I'm not equating your grandmother to Nikolai Gogol, of course -- but the general theme of an author being ashamed of his/her work, its attempted destruction, and its partial clandestine rescue by someone who cares is pretty striking.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Good grief, "extreme" is a good word for such a religious conversion.

One more thing about the story - the fiance'-to-be goes to India. My grandmother took nurses training and was asked, by a doctor who observed her dedication, to go to India and work with him. Her father wouldn't let her (!). It remained a dream she never got to fulfill.

Mike said...

A click on the title page of the story, then a second click to blow it up, makes it wonderfully readable. No need to scan and correct text. Just do whatever you did with the other pages and your grandmother would gain some more readers.

This is a very heartening post for a mid-level writer like myself. I've got some manuscripts and tearsheets squirreled away, and I do hope that, when the day comes to deal with my things, at least one of the grandchildren will say, "Hey, don't throw those out ..."

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Hmm, it really is pretty readable - considering that it's just a photo taken with my tin-lizzy camera. The pages are a bit too long for my scanner, but i could try photos.