Anne Stinson - May 2007

The Great Depression, Despair & Hope in Troubled Times
by
Anne Stinson

   Sandwiched between two tumultuous decades - the Roaring Twenties, filled with excess and frivolity, and the 1940s, a terrible war of worldwide scope - the 1930s Great Depression tested and scarred the generation that struggled to survive it. Two books at hand shine a spotlight on those hard times - one book set on the Eastern Shore and the other in Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl.
    Beginning close to home, Down on the Shore: the Family and Place that Forged a Poet’s Voice by Adele V. Holden. Paperback, Tidewater Publishers, 248 pp., $15.95, chronicles a childhood alternating between pervasive fear and family warmth. The fear was a normal response to being African-American in a climate of racial prejudice manifesting itself in two lynchings not far from Pocomoke City, the small town where Holden and her extended family lived.
    In December 1931, a white mob in Salisbury took a black man, Matthew Williams, out of jail and hanged him on the Courthouse lawn. Less than two years later, a black man in Princess Anne befell the same atrocity. The message was frightening and crystal clear. “The colored,” as they were called, had better be obedient and invisible.
    Some few black people, while being “respectable and not uppity,” worked within the system to change the status quo. One of those brave souls was Adele Holden’s father. Among his fine qualities were love of family, love of his church and a reverence for education. In an era when “colored schools” were furnished with discarded desks and books from schools for white children, his self-appointed mission was to persuade the all-white school board to lengthen opportunities for his children beyond Pocomoke City’s ninth grade.
    It took charm, tact and persistence for the author’s father, Snow Holden, to wring permission for the addition of a tenth grade, with the clear understanding that it was for one year only and would not be restored. The closest high school for black children, one that awarded a diploma at the end of the eleventh grade, was in Snow Hill.
    When Snow Holden mentioned to a sympathetic politician that a brand new school for white children was partly empty due to under-enrollment and black children could use the extra space, a chill fell over the discussion.
    Shortly afterward, Adele’s mother, Jane, was delivering washing to the mayor’s wife, who warned her that “Snow’s been running his mouth about things he’d best leave alone. I’d sure hate to see... Just talk to him, Jane. Mr. Griffin {the mayor} is right bothered. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
Adele’s mother had nightmares at the implied threat. “Then I fully understood,” Holden writes, “the current of terror that flowed through our humble life along the Pocomoke River.”
    Determined that his children complete high school, Adele’s father borrowed a car to drive her and her brother the 13 miles to and from Snow Hill Colored High School in the county seat, where they earned diplomas. Adele was inspired by the school principal, a young man who was a graduate of Morgan State College, the traditionally black training school for teachers in Baltimore.
    Her father could only scrape up tuition for one child, and Adele’s brother was enrolled at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, with work-study financial help while Adele hired out doing housework and as a dishwasher in a restaurant while she saved money for college. A year later, she was off to Morgan State, boarding with a family friend in return for being worked almost to death. By the end of her freshman year her health was so fragile she was forced to stay at home for a year to restore her strength.
    Adele Holden graduated from Morgan State, now Morgan State University, in 1940. Most of her teaching career was at Dunbar High School and Baltimore Junior College (now Baltimore City Community College), from which she retired in 1982. In 1965 she studied at the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University. Her first book, Figurines and Other Poems, was published in 1971.
    Her life and career have run concurrently with tremendous changes in attitudes and opportunities between the races here on the Shore as well as nationwide.
    Seldom has a writer made them so vivid and poignant as Adele Holden in this memoir, a tribute to her parents.

   A vastly different ethos moves What the Thunder Said by Janet Peery. St. Martin’s Press, publishers. 306 pp. $24.95. Rather than a memoir, this book is categorized as “A Novella & Stories.” The novella introduces two sisters who spend their adolescent years during the Depression in Oklahoma, a decade of terrible drought and dust storms. The Stories section of the book tease the reader before revealing in time that one or both of the sisters’ grown and aging lives wander over the map of the Southwest.
    Both Depression-era stories begin with a similar central figure, a father of admirable piety, dignity and optimism. From there, the two narratives diverge, but to prove the inversion of the old saw, life is stranger than fiction, it seems that Fiction is stranger than life. One of the father’s girls winds up on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, just a hop and jump over the state line from Pocomoke City of the previous book. In an uncanny parallel, both authors have depicted small-town life on the Delmarva peninsula as insular and bigoted as if it were a hamlet in Mississippi.
    The Bible-quoting father in Thunder has his life haunted by a tragedy of his youth. Hearing a woman’s scream in the woods, he comes upon the figure of a man raping a woman. He aims his gun and yells for the violator to back off, accidentally pulling the trigger and killing his own brother. The victim of the rapist is his secret love and he’s been too shy to pursue her. When it becomes evident that she is pregnant, he marries her to give the child a name, but neither half of the union ever forgets that the husband killed his brother.
    Violence becomes a legacy that afflicts both girls and their children to the present day. In the last of the five stories that follow the novella, one of the star-crossed sisters is now a very old woman waiting tables in a shabby café somewhere in the Southwest. An old television set on the cafe’s back counter is turned on to a news flash of the attack on the Twin Towers. In the parking lot outside the lonesome café, a young woman in an orange t-shirt sits in a car with her head on the steering wheel. Is she asleep? Weeping? Dead? We have met her in a previous short story and know that she is planning suicide.
    Inside the café, the old waitress is oblivious to the proximity of her only daughter, abandoned as an infant. A short patch of gravel separates mother and daughter and neither is aware of the other.
    The tenor of the book is permeated with awareness of the weather-beaten land, its harshness, cruelty and occasional beauty. It’s almost a parable for the inevitability of disappointment, sorrow and helplessness of mortals. Neither God nor human intelligence seems able to control or affect destiny. Once a pattern of loss inhabits a family, the future is doomed, the stories seem to prove.
    Is Peery, the author, telling the reader that’s the message in the riddle, What the Thunder Said?
    The overwhelming sadness in these connected stories seems so unfair. The father, his two daughters and their children are all essentially good people. They have made some dumb choices, to be sure, but never with evil intent. Their private heartbreaks are as palpable as a personal injury. These are characters, however fictional, that the reader cares about.
    In retrospect, both the memoir and the novel cast the land in a central role in these two Depression-driven books. In Down on the Shore, poverty, ignorance and limited options can cripple and pinch lives. In What the Thunder Said, the cloud that obscures hope is blowing dust that chokes off a happy future. The first book offers redemption to those who fight back, although its sanitized telling casts doubt on whether it tells the whole story. The novel candidly admits to its invention, not veracity, and oddly seems more true.