At Home with John Steinbeck

Composite image of John Steinbeck's California

I was nine when I discovered Google Maps. I was a demure little thing, sporting wispy baby hairs and crooked front teeth, but I sat in front of our family computer with the omnipotence of a goddess. I could go anywhere in the world; see the tip of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the cascading grandeur of Niagara Falls. After just a few clicks, I could declare proudly to my mom that I was a world traveler.

I sat in front of our family computer with the omnipotence of a goddess. I could go anywhere in the world.

But what I loved best was to zoom in on the United States. I zoomed to California, zoomed to the Central Coast, and zoomed to my hometown of Salinas, wondering if the suburban sidewalks and neatly lined lettuce rows of my life looked different from the sky. “Of course, people are only interested in themselves,” as John Steinbeck’s character Lee says in East of Eden. “The strange and foreign is not interesting – only the deeply personal and familiar.”

Image of main street Salinas, California

From Salinas, California to Stanford, Like the Steinbecks

By the time I turned 16, I was trying to make myself fall in love with places I did not know. Places that were not far away, but foreign nonetheless. What would it be like to live in San Francisco? San Jose? Los Angeles? How would I fare deciphering a train timetable or navigating the concrete capillaries of a city that scrapes the sky?

By the time I turned 16, I was trying to make myself fall in love with places I did not know. Places that were not far away, but foreign nonetheless.

In short, I wanted out of Salinas. I think that was the general feeling of my peers as well. The mountain ranges rising from the dark soil of the valley seemed a macro-enclosure, a way to trap us. As Steinbeck notes in “The Chrysanthemums,” “the high grey-flannel fog . . . closed off the Salinas Valley from the sky and from all the rest of the world,” making us feel as though we were stuck in the belly of a large “closed pot.” Scribbling away at SAT prep books felt like clawing at the walls. I knew a college acceptance was my ticket out, as it was for Steinbeck when he left Salinas for Stanford, followed later by his sister Mary.

Image of John Steinbeck and sister Mary as children

In Journal of a Novel, Steinbeck’s record of writing East of Eden, he explained to his editor Pat Covici that he wanted to tell the story “against the background of the country I grew up in and along the river I know and do not love very much. For I have discovered that there are other rivers.” I knew that the Salinas is, as Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden, “not a fine river at all.” It wasn’t worth boasting about. Neither was the city of Salinas. When traveling out of town and answering the where-are-you-from question, I would quickly say “Monterey,” then quietly add “area.” Technically this face-saving half-truth wasn’t a lie, and when I entered Stanford as a freshman it also saved time. “I’m from Salinas.” Where? “Ever heard of Monterey?” Oh. Right.

I knew that the Salinas is, as Steinbeck wrote, ‘not a fine river at all.’ It wasn’t worth boasting about. Neither was the city of Salinas.

At Stanford, however, my relationship with my hometown started to improve. I suppose that to some degree all college students who flee the nest feel this way, but I think the proximity of Salinas to Palo Alto amplified the experience for me. I felt a wistful longing when I looked at photos of the rolling, golden hills that surround the Salinas Valley. Like Steinbeck, I missed the comforting landscapes of home.

Image of Stanford University English Professor Gavin Jones

The Stanford Course on Steinbeck That Opened My Eyes

One day in the dining hall during my second quarter at Stanford a friend from my dorm leaned over and said, “Jenna, you have to take the Steinbeck course with me.”

A friend from my dorm said, ‘Jenna, you have to take the Steinbeck course with me.’

Gavin Jones, the English professor my friend had a class with that quarter, was teaching a new course on Steinbeck in the spring. I had mentioned that East of Eden was one of my favorite books because—as Frank Bergon notes in Susan Shillinglaw’s collection of Steinbeck essays, Centennial Reflections—it made “the ordinary surroundings of my life become worthy of literature.” When I described Salinas to my friend, I realized I had strong feelings about the issues of socioeconomic inequality, gang violence, and racial tension that plague my hometown. I also saw that, like Steinbeck, my Salinas childhood shaped how I perceived Stanford and its surrounding community, from the groomed neighborhoods near campus to East Palo Alto, the other, poorer Palo Alto across Highway 101.

Image of Salinas, California mural of John Steinbeck with books

Although East of Eden wasn’t on the reading list for the Steinbeck course, a number of familiar titles were. The Red Pony, Cannery Row, The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath: these were the school books with yellowed paper and dog-eared pages that I had read at Salinas High. When I was preparing for third quarter during spring break at home, I mentioned to my dad that I was ordering new copies of Steinbeck books for delivery to our address. “Don’t,” he protested. After rummaging in the garage, he emerged with a dusty box saved from his school years. Almost all of the Steinbeck books selected by Gavin Jones for the course had been languishing since my father used them, waiting to be rediscovered.

Almost all of the Steinbeck books selected by Gavin Jones for the course had been languishing in our garage since my father used them, waiting to be rediscovered.

On the first day of class I failed to arrive at the lecture hall early. My previous English classes had been small, quiet affairs, so I was surprised to see more than 120 students, buzzing with anticipation, already in their seats for Gavin’s course on John Steinbeck. As I readied my notebook I pondered Steinbeck’s reach. I knew he spoke out against injustice in his day and won the Nobel Prize in 1962, but not that he resonated with so many people more than a half-century later. I wondered how many lives he had touched over time, how many students in my Steinbeck class had seen the country of my childhood, and Steinbeck’s, through the golden lens of Steinbeck’s prose. Never thinking beyond the “closed pot,” I always assumed that my teachers had thrust his books into our hands just because we were in Salinas, not because we were part of the universal story Steinbeck told.

Composite image of Susan Shillinglaw and book about John Steinbeck

Over the course of the quarter I looked forward eagerly to class with Gavin. He embraced unconventional ideas, tracing behaviorism in The Red Pony and linking plants and humans in unexpected ways in “The Chrysanthemums.” He also brought in guest lecturers who expanded upon these themes and others. One of the lecturers was Susan Shillinglaw, professor of English at San Jose State University and director of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, who discussed Steinbeck’s relationship with his first wife, Carol. Parts of her talk helped me better contextualize Steinbeck’s relationship with Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula.

One of the guest lecturers was Susan Shillinglaw. Her talk helped me better contextualize Steinbeck’s relationship with Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula.

Once I began to grasp Steinbeck’s central role in creating the region’s identity, I wanted to know more. The name Steinbeck was everywhere when I was growing up, attached to real estate companies, hotels, streets, and highways. How had the man behind the name shaped Salinas and the region? How had they changed since he roamed the hills of the Salinas Valley 100 years ago? What could characters like Lee and the stories of Steinbeck’s “valley of the world” teach me about growth, about spirit, about understanding and embracing human differences? I had a lot to learn.

Image of entrance to National Steinbeck Center

The Summer Internship in Salinas That Opened My Heart

In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck returns to the Monterey Peninsula to revisit his California past one last time. Hoping for joy, he experiences disillusionment edged with despair. Slumping over a Monterey bar with his friend “Johnny,” he laments: “What we knew is dead, and maybe the greatest part of what we were is dead. . . . We’re the ghosts.” When I returned to Salinas for my first summer home, I decided to look toward the future instead of the past.

When I returned to Salinas for my first summer home, I decided to look toward the future instead of the past.

Thanks to Community Service Work Study, a Stanford program that funds internships at nonprofit organizations for eligible students, I was able to take an internship at the National Steinbeck Center, the museum and cultural center on Main Street in downtown Salinas. Over the course of the summer I wrote grant applications, learned about marketing and management, worked with Susan Shillinglaw on a new publication for Penguin’s Steinbeck series, and planned a poetry slam for the NEA Big Read, forging a deeply felt bond with my community. I can’t say where the winds will take me after college, or if I will ever live in Salinas again, but I hope I never have the sense of loss that overwhelmed Steinbeck’s homecoming in Travels with Charley. I hope I can return to the landscape that raised me with joy, tapping into the sense of deep belonging I feel when I see the soft sunlight falling on Mount Toro or inhale the mild breeze from Monterey Bay.

Over the course of the summer I wrote grant applications, learned about marketing and management, worked with Susan Shillinglaw on a new publication for Penguin’s Steinbeck series, and planned a poetry slam for the NEA Big Read, forging a deeply felt bond with my community.

Steinbeck echoed the novelist Thomas Wolfe in Travels with Charley: “you can’t go home again.” Nostalgia is hard to reconcile with new names and faces, with the attachment to growth and “progress” that Steinbeck came to distrust in America and Americans. Yet elements of Steinbeck’s California remain, and I have faith that pieces of my California will survive too. During my summer in Salinas I combed the streets around the Steinbeck family home on Central Avenue. I sipped chai tea in the Main Street coffee shop that was once a feed store owned by Steinbeck’s father. I ate lunch at the little café Steinbeck is thought to have frequented. In Monterey I lingered outside Doc’s Lab and listened to the sloshing of the sea and the distant cries of gulls swooping in the sky.

Image of John Steinbeck book on Fremont's PeakBefore Steinbeck left home for the last time in Travels with Charley he did “one formal and sentimental thing.” He climbed Fremont’s Peak, the highest point in the Salinas Valley, and contemplated the places he loved—where he “fished for trout” with his uncle; where his mother “shot a wildcat”; the “tiny canyon with a clear and lovely stream” where his father burned the initials of the girl he loved on an oak tree.

I followed John Steinbeck to the top of Fremont’s Peak on a warm Saturday in July. I felt the breeze cool the back of my neck as I contemplated the checkerboard of farmland below, the sun-kissed “valley of the world” celebrated in East of Eden and other books and stories. Close to the clouds, the air seems sacred up there, offering something bright and righteous to the open heart. Something pure. Something deeply personal and eternally familiar.

Help Celebrate Four Years of Celebrating John Steinbeck

Image celebrating four years

This week marks four years of weekly posts at celebrating John Steinbeck’s life and work, the relevance of his writing to current events, and new art inspired by his enduring fiction. Features posted in August 2013 included new music, visual art, and creative writing, along with a young painter’s reflection on Steinbeck’s artistic impact and a piece about Steinbeck’s home movies by a professional videographer. Other posts discussed Steinbeck’s writing habits, his scrutiny by the FBI, and the connection between the campaign of character assassination waged against Steinbeck in the 1930s and 1940s and the flight of Edward Snowden. Since launching as an independent, noncommercial site serving John Steinbeck’s international fandom, has published 365 posts that continue the pattern of originality and diversity set four years ago—previously unpublished critical and creative writing, new art and music, and thoughtful commentary from 60 contributors from as far away as North Africa. Along with critical and creative writing inspired by Steinbeck, news items and reviews are also welcome, provided they are original and do not duplicate existing online content. In keeping with its mission, does accept advertising or pay for material. If you’d like to be in the picture, email

Steinbeck Now Publishes First Print Book and eBook

Cover image from Steinbeck: The Untold Stories

Steinbeck: The Untold Stories, a book of short stories about John Steinbeck’s life, family, and friends, has been published by in print and eBook format. Written by Steve Hauk, a playwright and fiction writer from Pacific Grove, California, the 16 short stories dramatize incidents in Steinbeck’s life—some real, some imagined—that take place over six decades, from the author’s childhood in Salinas, California to the years in New York, where his circle of family and friends included Burgess Meredith, Joan Crawford, and Elaine Steinbeck, the widow with whom Hauk had a memorable conversation 30 years after John Steinbeck’s death. Illustrated by Caroline Kline, an artist on California’s Monterey Peninsula, Steinbeck: The Untold Stories represents a milestone in the mission of to foster fresh thinking and new art inspired by Steinbeck’s life and work. If you are in a position to review or write about the book for publication in print or online, email for a review copy. Please identify the print publication or website, the date when your print piece or post will appear, and whether you prefer print or eBook format. Steinbeck: The Untold Stories is available through, in Monterey-area bookstores, and at Hauk Fine Arts in Pacific Grove and the National Steinbeck Center and Steinbeck House in Salinas, California.


Grapes of Wrath Parody Spoofs Steinbeck’s Style

Images of turtle crossing road

John Steinbeck famously refused to let style dictate subject in his writing. So fans of The Grapes of Wrath could laugh without feeling guilty when they read “Excerpts from Steinbeck’s Novel About the 2013-17 California Drought” by Riane Konc, a pitch-perfect parody of the turtle scene from The Grapes of Wrath published online by The New Yorker. For great writers, imitation really is a form of flattery, and the humorous send-up of Steinbeck’s full-throated style from Konc, a youthful contributor to the magazine’s humor section, also manages a shout-out to the ecological truth embedded in Steinbeck’s greatest novel. Here’s a sample of paying tribute while making fun of a style John Steinbeck chose not to repeat, despite urging:

When 2015 was half gone, and the sun climbed high above the 405 and stayed, an In-N-Out wrapper blew down the highway like a tumbleweed, and a land turtle lumbered onto the road and began to cross. . . . A woman screamed—something guttural, a noise she hadn’t made since Lindsey suggested that maybe they just pack up and try Brooklyn—and dashed into the road. She grabbed her turtle and screamed again, “Banksy!,” for that was his name. His name was Banksy, and he was a rescue, not that the man driving the Tesla would care to ask, or know the difference between a rescue turtle and one from a mall.

As they say in Brooklyn when recommending guilt-free pleasure: Enjoy.

Grammar-Check Your Blog Post About John Steinbeck

Image of John Steinbeck with dog Charley

Though he occasionally misused or misspelled words, John Steinbeck wrote to be understood, often revising sentences, paragraphs, and whole chapters before publishing. Unfortunately, blog posts written about Steinbeck for online magazines, ostensibly with grammar-checking editors, frequently confuse readers with sentences so ill-considered that their meaning is unclear or absent. Recent examples of both errors in online writing about Steinbeck’s greatest fiction can be found in a pair of blog posts published by two online magazines that, except for sectarianism and under-editing, couldn’t be less alike.

How Did The Forward Get John Steinbeck So Wrong?

The first post in question is by Aviya Kushner, the so-called language columnist of The Forward, a respected Jewish publication started in New York five years before Steinbeck was born. The “news flash from the distant land of real news” on offer in Kushner’s May 8 blog post—“How Did John Steinbeck and an Obama Staffer Get the Bible So Wrong?”—is the misspelling of timshol in East of Eden, old news to Steinbeck fans of all faiths or no faith at all. Kushner’s charge—that Steinbeck’s spelling error was an offense against language, culture, and morality—is undermined by her syntax. “It comes down to caring about language,” she writes in conclusion, “and insisting that words have meaning, which is, frankly, a hot contemporary topic that is not just political but also moral.” Ouch and double ouch.

Faith Is No Excuse When Blog Posts Make No Sense

The second example of online magazines writing badly about John Steinbeck comes from Pantheon, a site that bills itself as “a home for godly good writing,” apparently without irony. “Dreaming of Steinbeck’s Country”—the May 6 blog post by a self-identified minister named James Ford—means well but also proves that sententious praise, like captious criticism, collapses when style fails subject in sentences describing Steinbeck. “I consider the Grapes of Wrath [sic] one of the great novels of our American heritage,” writes Ford. “Currents of spirituality and spiritual quest together with a progressive if increasingly that agnostic form of Christianity feature prominently in Steinbeck’s writings. And no doubt it informs his masterwork the Grapes of Wrath.” [Sic] and [sic] again.

Is Your Piece Ready to Publish, or Does It Escape?

The lesson to be learned from this week’s examples of bad online writing? When blogging about John Steinbeck, take time to spell- and syntax- and grammar-check before posting. Online magazines have editors, but contributed posts are like the morning newspaper in Florida whose editor I once overheard describe this way: “Our paper isn’t published. It escapes.” Websites with a sectarian purpose, like The Forward and Pantheon, often make the mistake of allowing sentiment to overwhelm sense when publishing blog posts by sincere writers with a pro or con ax to grind. Steinbeck agonized over The Grapes of Wrath. East of Eden took years to write. Travels with Charley didn’t, and it shows. Is taking time to self-edit when writing about John Steinbeck for any website, secular or religious, asking too much?

John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown: How to Be a Writer In the Age of Donald Trump

Cover image from John Steinbeck's novel To a God Unknown

It’s easy to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, winner of the 1940 Pulitzer Prize, and as Stephen King describes in his best-selling book On Writing, to have “feelings of despair and good old-fashioned jealousy—[thoughts like] I’ll never be able to write anything that good, not if I live to be a thousand.”

Like King’s wise counsel about how to be a writer, John Steinbeck’s masterwork is a “spur” that “goad[s] the writer to work harder and aim higher.” During President Donald Trump’s regime of diminished-to-defunct arts funding, new writers—in addition to emerging musicians, painters, sculptors, photographers, and all creative people committed to contributing to civilization through art—can take inspiration from the inauspicious circumstances surrounding the publication of Steinbeck’s difficult second novel.

In the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of To a God Unknown—originally published in 1933, four years after Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup Of Gold, and six years before The Grapes of Wrath—the poet-scholar Robert DeMott writes that “Steinbeck labored longer on [it] than on any other book.” As DeMott notes, it took Steinbeck many, many revisions, crises in confidence, and almost five years to complete his second novel. (The Pastures of Heaven, published in 1932, is a sequence of stories—not a traditional novel—about the bad luck a new family brings to a happy valley.)

Flush with cryptic and crystalline allusions to paganism, Christianity, and the Greek epics, To a God Unknown is at base a pioneering tale. It tells the story of Joseph Wayne and his family leaving Vermont to homestead initially fertile but increasingly—and eventually, climactically and cataclysmically—drought-ravaged farmland in California’s southern Salinas Valley. Putting aside California’s recent rainy spell, and considering President Trump’s already abysmal record on global warming and the environment, one might say the book portends critical warnings for America’s future. In a journal entry, Steinbeck wrote, “[t]he story is a parable . . . the story of a race, growth and death. Each figure is a population, and the stones, the trees, the muscled mountains are the world – but not the world apart from man – the world and man – the one indescribable unit man plus his environment.”

Critical reviews of To a God Unknown were as savage as the feral wilderness it depicts. Virginia Barney opined in The New York Times that the novel was “a curious hodgepodge of vague moods and irrelevant meanings.” A book critic from The Nation characterized it as  “pitifully thin and shadowy.” As Robert DeMott notes in Steinbeck’s Typewriter: Essays on His Art, “not [even] enough copies [of the book] sold [for the publisher] to recoup the small advance” Steinbeck received.

Image of John Steinbeck by David Levine

What if John Steinbeck Had Stopped Writing in 1933?

And yet it is precisely through this example of Steinbeck’s early literary stumbles that I submit all brave new artists can find the courage, the resoluteness, and the abiding faith in the value of their art to persevere through rough spots, honing their craft through lean times as Steinbeck did—at risk to wallet, ego, and at times, to relationships.

Imagine the gaping, un-fillable hole in American literature if, after the unfavorable reviews of To a God Unknown and The Pastures of Heaven, Steinbeck had decided to up and quit. What if, disheartened and disconsolate by the failure of To a God Unknown—which foreshadows elements and devices brought to masterful fruition in The Grapes of Wrath—Steinbeck had packed up his pen, paper, and typewriter, period, end of story—and I hasten to add, end of all his stories?

In 2014 the novelist David Gordon described the business of writing in The New York Times as “a risky and humiliating endeavor.” Softened by self-deprecation, Gordon’s column firmly gut-kicks prospective authors with an honest peek at the lonely, ascetic, self-possessed lives that most writers by necessity lead. “Let’s face it [Gordon observed]: just writing something, anything and showing it to the world, is to risk ridicule and shame. What if it is bad? What if no one wants to read it, publish it? What if I can’t even finish the thing?” Both during and after the writing of  To a God Unknown and the book’s blisteringly bad reception, Steinbeck could have succumbed to any of these common writer’s ailments, never to be heard from again.

But he didn’t. He kept on writing instead.

To paraphrase Don Chiasson’s recent New Yorker magazine review of the biography of the poet Robert Lowell by Kay Redfield Jamison, “Perhaps [he had no choice, because as Gordon observed] being a writer is a bit like having Tourette’s, a neurological disorder. Or what psychologists call ‘intrusive thoughts’: unwanted and disturbing ideas and images that suddenly attack us unbidden. A need to speak the unspeakable thing.” Adds Chiasson, “mood disorders occur with staggering frequency in creative people, and writers seem to suffer the most.”

Perhaps. But unquestionably To a God Unknown—written when Steinbeck was a published-but-still-struggling 30-year-old grinding away in obscurity and insecurity—provides evidence of a sturdy self-belief, the kind of grit I submit all successful or striving artists must possess. This tough and necessary tenacity is embodied in Steinbeck’s advice to his friend and fellow novelist, George Albee: “Fine artistic things seem always to be done in the face of difficulties, and the rocky soil, which seems to give the finest flower, is contempt. Don’t fool yourself, appreciation doesn’t make artists. It ruins them. A man’s best work is done when he is fighting to make himself heard, not when swooning audiences wait for his paragraphs.”

In Memoriam, Martha Heasley Martha Cox: Lyric Poem by Peter Nathaniel Malae

Image of lyric poem manuscript by Peter Nathaniel Malae


The end arrives again, as the mallards honk their way across the graying Yamhill Valley sky.

Their form is nearly flawless, lined into their “V” of avian assemblage, ingenuity of flight that every pilot worth the weight must learn at an academy.

It’s rare to witness grace, it’s rarer still to have some inner bearings where the grace is processed right, it’s rarest to look inward.

We were told to do the thing that doesn’t hurt another human being, just before the storm broke through our tortured little home, and there was nowhere you could fly.

The sky was daunting then, is daunting now, even though the light, above the birds, has cracked the clouds so truly that there’s nothing left for me to see.

What guides their southbound journey save each other?

What drives them onward but the cold?

“Our Story Is a Life and Death Thing”: Peter Nathaniel Malae on Reading John Steinbeck and Writing American Literature

Image of Peter Nathaniel Malae

Like John Steinbeck, the American writer Peter Nathaniel Malae is a rugged realist who insists on honesty. A former Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University who grew up in San Jose and nearby Santa Clara, California, Malae spoke candidly about John Steinbeck, American literature, and the life-and-death issues of writing for a living the day after he eulogized Martha Heasley Cox. The memorial event was held in her honor by the Steinbeck studies center she founded at San Jose State University in 1971.

Composite cover image of books by Peter Nathaniel Malae

“That Book Saved Me”: On Reading John Steinbeck

Malae was an inspired choice to represent the 36 creative writers who received Steinbeck Fellow stipends. Teach the Free Man, a collection of Malae’s stories, was published in 2007, the year he was named a Steinbeck Fellow. Two novels published since then—What We Are (2010) and Our Frail Blood (2013)—confirmed Malae’s reputation as a versatile writer who refuses to repeat himself. Like Steinbeck at a similar point in his career, Malae’s output is ambitious: he has already written two more novels, a second collection of stories, two collections of poetry, and a play with a philosophical theme reminiscent of Steinbeck.

Like Steinbeck at a similar point in his career, Malae’s output is ambitious: he has already written two more novels, a second collection of stories, two collections of poetry, and a play with a philosophical theme reminiscent of Steinbeck.

The son of an Italian-American mother and a Samoan father, Malae spent his childhood in a culturally diverse, working-class neighborhood of Santa Clara, squeezed between the city’s “drug-dealing hub”—Royal Court Apartments, Warburton Park, and Monroe Apartments—and the stretch of El Camino Real known as Little Korea for its string of three dozen Korean restaurants and grocery stores running interminably from Santa Clara to Sunnyvale. As a boy, he utilized public transportation on the bus line 22, a tradition kept later as a writer, where he’d composed the bulk of his novel, What We Are, during three-hour rides on the 522, between East Palo Alto and Eastridge Mall in East San Jose.

As a boy, he utilized public transportation on the bus line 22, a tradition kept later as a writer, where he’d composed the bulk of his novel, What We Are, during three-hour rides.

Malae’s father served three decorated combat tours as a tracker with the Special Forces in Vietnam. His uncle Faulalogofie, a Force Recon Marine who’d also fought in Vietnam, was killed by police in Pacifica, California in 1976. His grandfather—the first Samoan minister in America—was a veteran of the Korean Conflict. “I was raised by men who’d had a gang of life-and-death pain in their lives,” Malae says. “But even before they’d ever gone off to war, they’d suffered tremendously. Death, poverty, choicelessness. A weird multigenerational effect of it all is that they basically taught me what to go for in story: they were literary in contradiction. A lot of anger, a lot of third-world violence, yeah, but a lot of third-world beauty, too, a gang of forgiveness.”

‘I was raised by men who’d had a gang of life-and-death pain in their lives,’ Malae says.

Malae attended an exclusive Catholic prep school in San Jose where, like John Steinbeck as a young man, he absorbed the language and rhythm of religious ritual. He read through the Bible for the first time and had his first encounter with Steinbeck in a freshman English composition class. “I loved Tom Joad,” Malae said, “the way he stood up for his family, the way he took it because there was no choice but to take it. I could relate to him. I never told anyone in high school, but I sort of secretly rooted for farmers back then on the sole strength of that image where the tractor comes in and topples the Joad farm.”

‘I loved Tom Joad,’ Malae said, ‘the way he stood up for his family, the way he took it because there was no choice but to take it. I could relate to him.’

Malae went on to play football and rugby at Santa Clara University and Cal Poly, but began getting into serious trouble with the law, having been arrested more than eight times for assault and battery in a two-year span, twice resulting in serious injury. “I was very angry back then. I fought everyone, anyone. Didn’t care how many people I had to fight, didn’t care what the outcome would be. When it comes to growing up tough and angry, I don’t defer to anyone, really. You own it, of course, how you are, but you also became it, shaped by the forces around you.” Within a few years, Malae found himself at San Quentin, where he (again) read through the Bible and started writing 500 words a day—copying Hemingway—on scraps of paper and whatever else was available. “I wrote on the walls, man. I wrote on my arms. The soles of my slippers, as Frost prescribed.”

Today Malae writes with a computer, but still revises in longhand, as seen in the manuscript of “Mallards,” the poem he composed in honor of Martha Cox. He thinks that Steinbeck, a pencil-lover who eventually adapted to the typewriter, would like the cut-and-paste convenience of computers. But he dislikes social media, email, and texting, inventions that he says increase social isolation and divorce users from life-and-death reality. On the train to San Jose he worked on a new novel, observing “human beings in their essence and element,” akin to Steinbeck’s claim of being a shameless magpie, taking to the fields with paisanos.

On the train to San Jose he worked on a new novel, observing ‘human beings in their essence and element,’ akin to Steinbeck’s claim of being a shameless magpie, taking to the fields with paisanos.

In prison Malae discovered The Pastures of Heaven, which he’d read in Spanish (Las Pasturas del Cielo). He described the experience with Steinbeckian irony in “The Book is Heavenly,” an award-winning essay published in South Dakota Review (Vol. 41, No. 1 and 2):

The book became my paperback talisman of hope. Something I could rely on in the unreliable undercurrent of prison life. . . . On the Catholic calendar distributed to us during Christmas, my reading list for the months of March, April and May 1999 were: The Catch-Me Killer, Bob Erler, and then fourteen straight readings of The Pastures of Heaven, John Steinbeck. . . . It kept me sharp and focused, reminded me of what once was and what, of course, could be again. That book saved me.

Image of manuscript of "Mallards," poem by Peter Nathaniel Malae

“Realism in the Craft”: On Writing American Literature

Malae’s first novel, What We Are (the title comes from a quatrain by Byron), explores life and death in the dark corners of contemporary society that few writers of American literature have exposed with comparable sharpness or skill. The narrative is a journey of adjustment, to anomie and estrangement, by a sensitive, angry character who learns, as Malae himself believes, that “our story is a life and death thing.” Our Frail Blood, his second novel (the title comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night), is as different from What We Are as East of Eden is from Cannery Row. In alternating plot lines, the book encompasses three generations of California life in which children and grandchildren pay for the secret sins of fathers, brothers, and sons. The family epic unfolds through the eyes and actions of fully developed female characters who bring unity, resolution, and redemption to the story, like Steinbeck’s women in The Grapes of Wrath. Malae cites East of Eden, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, James Agee’s A Death in the Family, and Francis Ford Copolla’s Godfather II as narrative forebears in scope and theme.

The narrative of Malae’s first novel is a journey of adjustment, to anomie and estrangement, by a sensitive, angry character who learns, as Malae himself believes, that ‘our story is a life and death thing.’

The Question, Malae’s most recent work, is his foray into the world of theater. The story dramatizes the struggle of a Hispanic ex-boxer and convict to answer the existential question asked by his eight-year-old son: “Why do people kill other people?” Malae says the idea for the play—and the question it poses—occurred to him at San Quentin in 1999, when Manuel “Manny” Babbitt, a veteran of the Vietnam War with a Purple Heart for heroism, was executed. Babbitt, a Marine, was wounded at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968; he received the death sentence in 1980, before post-traumatic stress disorder was understood as a consequence of contemporary warfare. Manny Babbitt’s last words were “I forgive you all”; at the end of The Question, Malae’s character tells his son that he can’t say why people kill other people—but “I know why people save other people.”

Malae says the idea for his play—and the question it poses—occurred to him at San Quentin in 1999, when Manuel ‘Manny’ Babbitt, a veteran of the Vietnam War with a Purple Heart for heroism, was executed.

Intense, thoughtful, and articulate, Malae worries about the overpopulation of modern American literature by writers trained in college MFA programs, 360 in number at last count. “They teach writers that the creation of story is a democratic roundtable or assembly line. Which can eradicate the soul of the work. Since art is about desperation, the last thing you want infecting your work is conformity. And then as you pay a fee for a service, the natural tendency is to expect that you get what you paid for. The daily struggle with the craft doesn’t abide that ethic. Sometimes it barely abides you. Sometimes you get nothing.” Steinbeck, too, championed what Malae calls “realism in the craft” forged by fierce aesthetic individualism.

Steinbeck, too, championed what Malae calls ‘realism in the craft’ forged by fierce aesthetic individualism.

Malae described the connection he feels with American literature of John Steinbeck’s century in an interview with Oregon Literary Arts after winning the drama fellowship for The Question:

I’m with O’Connor and Faulkner and a whole horde of other dead masters who describe the deal in terms of a blue-collar work ethic. I see the creative process as merely this, a dress-down of self that more or less occurs daily: do you have the balls to call yourself a “writer”? Well, then, “put the posterior in the chair,” as my freshman comp teacher used to say; “don’t talk,” as Hemingway advised, and handle your business.

Paul Douglass, the San Jose State University English professor who managed the Steinbeck Fellows program from 2000 to 2013, notes that Malae’s 2007-2008 class was “outstanding.” He recalls reading the untitled manuscript of What We Are when Malae’s name was first submitted, and being impressed. After finishing his fellowship, Malae continued to correspond with Martha Cox, a shrewd reader and enthusiastic patron. In his remarks at her memorial he recalled visiting her modest San Francisco apartment, crowded with “classics of American literature” by some of his favorite authors. He was humbled, he said, to see a copy of Teach the Free Man, read and annotated, on her shelf.

Short Story by Roy Bentley: Sad-Proofing Through Oz

Composite image from The Wizard of Oz and an Eastern Kentucky funeralSad-Proofing

My brother doesn’t hear what I hear, the sound of a coal train going away from the hollow, leaving Neon to the south. TW is busy glad-handing Quiller Yontz, a stonecutter he wraps an arm around by a spray of chrysanthemums in the shape of a horseshoe, someone’s idea of humor since my father died by a stroke of bad luck. Thomas William Wolff, M.D., my older brother, is nodding at something Quiller says as if the world of limestone and sweat is always a work in progress. It’s his town, my brother, his river of light the rest of us are paying to go down, which makes the rest of us passengers if not cargo. I tell myself to picture something pleasing—like my boy Charlie who I took to see The Wizard of Oz last night. In movie light, Charlie had looked up at Dorothy Gale and Toto and the black-and-white-then-Technicolor-then-black-and-white-again world unfolding as he chomped away at his popcorn like any four-year-old.

There are bullies, usually men, who will stand in the parlor of a funeral home and speak in loud whispers that excuse everything. Adultery. Greed. Pettiness. Betrayal. Death. My brother TW Wolff is a bully who delivers babies; has for a decade now. He travels the hills, in all weather, and on horseback—he owns a car but says he gets places with a horse that cars can’t go. TW sees himself like that: a knight-errant hero hoisting himself into the saddle.

Heroes can be scary, too. When my brother looks in my direction, I lower my eyes from habit. He wears a vested suit, dark blue. The chain of his pocket watch and the fob fall against the blue as strands of gold not unlike the hair of Mother when she was young, and mine when I was a child. My brother’s hair is freshly cut. Bleached strings of cigarette smoke rise from the fingers of his hand. He looks back at Quiller. They lean in to what is being said by the circle of whisperers they’re part of by the gaudy horseshoe-spray of white flowers I suppose are mums.

Lipstick reds creep across the oriental rug in the parlor where I sit beside my older sister America. I call her Sissy or Sis. Our parents called her Merkie—America if she had faltered in some way. She’s broad-shouldered for a woman, my sister, and there is a tough patience to her even with her father in a coffin on a bier in the front of a room of flowers and standing men.

Merkie had been entrusted with my son after I was taken away to the sanitarium. Today, she has decided to leave him at the house with relatives from Whitesburg, saying that he’ll learn soon enough about death and dying. No one asked for my opinion, which is pretty normal.

The unreal man in the closed casket at the front of the room is my father too, but what I think and feel are beside the point since I’m on furlough from Eastern State for being crazy, or what TW gets to say is crazy. Three years is a long time to be gone from home, put away for something that might have gotten you thrown in jail for a year (if that) if you’d simply been born a man. A pissed-off woman scares people, it turns out. Scared people are dangerous people.

Our father burned to death in a field fire—I imagine he was cutting brush, working alone—but the details hadn’t been passed my way. I had never called Daddy anything but Daddy. I knew he doted on TW, what parent wouldn’t? But my brother called Daddy awful things behind his back. Mostly a sonofabitch—one quick word like a stake through the heart. He made no effort to meet Daddy even part of the way toward peace or to shoulder some portion of the guilt he asked our father to drag around after the death of our mother who insisted on carrying her last risky pregnancy to term when she had been told not to.

I don’t want to despair. And thoughts of my brother TW are little paths to despair.

I struggle again to retrieve the picture of my son Charlie at the Neon. It’s hard to do, but I’ve learned after hours of practice sitting alone. I may have always been suited to solitude to some degree, to flights of fancy and imagination, but what sparked my ability to conjure up the sounds of a creek or of a crow settling on a branch, was Daddy putting me in a closet and locking the door when he found out that I was pregnant by a married man.

The name of the game is: don’t look at anyone and try to decipher the meanings of words. Go for tone of voice and fill in your own meanings. I call it “sad-proofing.” Really, it’s an exercise in controlling the world’s ability to confuse or control. If the object of the exercise is to keep me from reacting to the cruelty around me, then I’m getting better. I’m “gaining skill,” as the doctor at Eastern State would call it. He would have two good-sized orderlies tie me to a chair, not tightly but secure, and then raise the chair over their heads and walk like litter bearers. He’d walk along to one side and rattle off questions like What are you thinking? What are you seeing? and ask that I close my eyes and picture a river in summertime and focus all my “reactive energy” on holding that scene in the mind.

At first the orderlies “floated” me like that for a few minutes, then for half an hour, and slowly I came to accept what was out my control. It frightened me at first. I begged them to stop. Once in a while they dropped me and I was bruised or forced to experience falling and not being able to catch yourself. But the doctor said that these exercises some might have termed torture would help, and they did. That’s the best thing I can say about my time at Eastern: I can mask wanting to react until I don’t even feel like I want to react anymore. The last sticking point seems to be if the picture in my mind is of my son Charlie and I can’t see him except as someone dissolving. It’s not hard not to react to that.

Of course the exercise is practiced differently in different settings. Say, in a closet. It turns out that if you don’t want to be present in the life you made for yourself or that others made for you, you can pass into a place of your own making. If you can’t, you hurt and strike out. Then of course they give you shock treatments and you forget everything for months at a time.

The exercise is like listening to the sound of a train passing when there is no train.

That’s what I’m doing as I sit staring at the oriental then at Daddy’s buffed-shiny coffin then at the smoke from the cigarettes in the hands of the men standing at the front of the room: getting control of a desire to get up and walk over to TW and hit him in the face and keep it up, ruining the flesh and the shadow of the man, until I draw blood or he falls lifeless on the floor.

Maybe Daddy knew how his son was and stayed out of his way. Maybe he knew about TW being a bully, and maybe he didn’t. Daddy hadn’t been all that loving himself.

My father had locked me in an upstairs closet with a slop jar of a thing to shit and piss in and only water (and not much of that) and then made me stay in there for three mostly-dark days, after which time I was let out and given a beating. I may have reminded Daddy of my mother to the extent that we had the same color hair and same mean temper, with or without provocation. I never knew what to make of either of them. My mother and father each lived off the fury of the other in a way that spoke to the world, and what it said wasn’t so much a set of words adding up to reasons for this or that but a feeling that, deep down, they nursed a grudge.

The men at the front of the parlor are taking seats like something is about to start.

TW is coming this way.

He casts his eyes on first this one then the next, stopping to pat a shoulder or arm, before he takes a seat beside Molly, his wife, who is seated next to America. When he sits, the music commences like the funeral director is taking his cues from TW, the King of Eastern Kentucky, and the rest of us had better get with it and do likewise or be prepared to face the consequences.

People tell me all the time, You’re so lucky to have a brother like TW. I think: Luck has nothing to do with it. I never say this out loud. What good would that do? And lots of folks have siblings they’re proud of or who love them enough not to close the car door on their hands. All those folks, though, would never last a day in Eastern: if they actually felt themselves being wheeled down a hall on a gurney after some mysterious treatment had just befallen them, they could probably handle the initial shock of it. People handle a lot of strange things. But the thing is, they don’t handle the total loss of control something like that announces. They just don’t. Because to handle that, you have to want to handle it. You need a reason to keep going. One overriding idea you’ll want to have in easy reach when you emerge from the fog of treatment.

And you can never, ever let go of that. Not even when you wake up the next day and feel a tenderness between your legs—down there—and know that something has happened to you.

Sure, I want free. I remember the first time I knew I wasn’t free. I was sitting in church with my father and mother and my older brother. The front of the church was brick and limestone. What I knew that they don’t tell you in school or even as part of the Sunday services is that my people had quarried the stone for that church. The cross on the stone was someone else’s contribution, but the limestone it was anchored to was a gift of the Wolff family. We weren’t the symbols of faith and redemption, sin and resurrection after death. We were the stone of Letcher County brought forth by living hands that bled from the work—or the men of the Wolff family were that stone. The women were the earth they tore it out of with their bare hands.

Of course my father’s hard, calloused hands allowed my brother’s hands to be soft.

Daddy invested everything in TW’s education so that no son of his had to dig stone.

I can think these things because I don’t say them out loud. I’d rather not have to think at all, which would be like driving a car in the hills before first light: you feel the road and hear the engine and the wheel is in your hands and no amount of luck of thinking makes what happens, happen. You make it happen. The headlights are on or off because you turn them on or leave them off. And without thinking. You, for sure, don’t think: I’m a Wolff and Wolffs are the ones who bring up the limestone that builds towns in the middle of nowhere. You just drive. Pretty soon you’re at a house where they have in hand the folding money and coins they exchange for something perishable. Eggs. Butter. Milk. Cheese. You don’t think about delivering what folks need that day and the next, you just do it. And, sooner or later, it’s who you are.

I’m not free. But I don’t dwell on it. With any luck I might get free at some point.

I might borrow back my canary-in-a-coal-mine yellow Model A Ford and head out for some exotic place in one of the directions of the Cross of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior.

Someone who loves my brother—his wife Molly Wolff—is patting his leg then leaving her hand on his thigh. Someone who knows TW for who and what he is. Someone who has interceded on my behalf recently so that I might take my son to see The Wizard of Oz.

I can’t hear what she is saying, but I’m sure it has something to do with how he should behave toward someone weaker and less fortunate. For years, Molly has been a buffer between TW and the rest of Neon. She seems sure of what she’s doing. But she may never know what it’s like to be the focus of his controlling nature to the point where one life is taken from you and another handed back. So far, she appears to have no agenda other than to see that kindness prevail once in a while. I understand her trying to make being married to a powerful man, to this powerful man, something she doesn’t have to make excuses for. The funny thing is that loving my brother Thomas might be seen as aiding and abetting the part of us that nurtures fear to get what it wants. Maybe Molly is asking TW who sent the horseshoe of chrysanthemums and if referencing luck in that way is someone “trying to rub it in” with regard to Daddy’s accident. Whatever the answer, if that is what she’s asking, TW has made no effort to have it removed.

And if he wanted it gone, it would be gone.

A swath of flowers is at the head of a freshly-dug grave in the cemetery above the Junction, almost as many flowers as I recall seeing around the casket. I say “almost” because the horseshoe isn’t there. What I haven’t told you about TW is that even after standing up to resistance or disrespect, he practices standing up to the appearance of resistance or disrespect.

Obedience Harlow is standing to my right during the final remarks graveside. Beady, as she likes to be called, keeps looking up at first one then another man. She’s a few years younger than I am, and it’s clear that she’s on the prowl. “Hunting a man,” they used to call it and may still if things haven’t altered more than they appear to in the years I’ve been in the sanitarium.

When the preacher stops talking, Beady says, I like your dress, Abigail. Gray is your color. Then, most likely because I don’t speak right up, she adds: I’m sorry about your daddy.

Beady and I went to school together as far as she went. She dropped out before graduation. Married a miner. Divorced or he died—I can’t remember just then which is the case.

Beady has never been part of the better circle. Maybe, like most women her age, she hasn’t given up hopes of joining those ranks. She is dressed in a off-white dress that doesn’t hide her best features. Has on the sort of shoes that require thought to walk in, especially on a hill.

That’s something you can never understand if you haven’t been a child of privilege: not caring what others think but dressing and acting as if you do care. TW is an expert in matters like these. A veteran liar, some would say. Whoever sent the horseshoe of mums might say that.

I take Beady’s arm and say Thank you. Then I ask, Are you going to the house?

I’m talking a woman of a certain age now. Rejection staggers us, but we get up and go on. She looks for a moment as if she’s about to say yes or of course but stops herself, and then she asks if I think it’s all right if she comes. Like I could give permission. I tell her I’ll ask my brother and let go of her arm and start to walk over to where TW and Molly are standing.

I know to wait for TW to stop looking down into the open grave.

He looks into my face, and then I see he has actually been crying.

What is it? he asks in a taut voice that says he wants not to get upset more than is necessary. I recognize trying to hold yourself together. I say, Beady asked to come to the get-together, and then I point to her standing where I left her. But just now she’s talking to a man and seems occupied. Quiet and stillness fragrance the fall air over and around Daddy’s grave—or it may be the various perfumes mixing under cedars and pines that shade the family cemetery.

My brother wipes his eye and looks in Beady’s direction. In the light of the hillside her red hair glows more than I had noticed. She has a nice figure—for her age, as they say.

TW assumes whatever it is men assume about women like Beady, like me, and then speaks. Let me help you down the hill, he says and takes my arm. Molly is beside him. My sister-in-law is wearing the sort of sensible shoes that don’t call for the careful steps Beady’s shoes require. Molly smiles in my direction like I know something she isn’t saying because she doesn’t have to, and then the three of us walk down the hill to where the cars have been left.

I am afraid of my brother. I was afraid of my father, too. Each night I was in that closet, he would come to the door and listen. I would hear footsteps then breathing through the thin pine closet door. Daddy did what he could to keep me from knowing that he cared about whether I lived or died. With Daddy in the ground, the clock is ticking on my furlough.

I had feared him, my father, but heard him worrying certainty in those moments he stood listening. Cruel men rule over us, shaping a world we barely recognize. We take their hard or soft hands as Molly takes TW’s on the way down the hill.

We tell ourselves it’s to keep from falling and being seen as weak and less than beautiful.

Strength and beauty have nothing to do with it.

At Eastern there is an attendant named Butch. A colored man, Butch keeps to himself. An outsider among outsiders. Sometimes they send him to bring me to the day room or cart me here or there on the locked ward. And often enough that he seems to have gotten used to me or enough so that we speak. He doesn’t hold forth about the world, not like I’ve heard most men do, but he’ll report the time of day or where we are in the calendar year that I take for a small kindness. He may know that an outsider lives and dies on those kindnesses.

The last thing Butch said to me the day TW picked me up from the hospital stayed with me. Butch said, Watch yourself in the world, Miss Wolff,  like he knew better than I did what can be taken from you. And with little warning. Often by someone who didn’t need to act that way but did so because the opportunity presented itself. Butch is about as close to a protector as I have, but I won’t think too much about that today. I’ll just do what I’m told for now. Until I can see my way clear to get some distance. I know better than to think I’m Dorothy Gale and blessed with Hollywood good fortune, but I know a few things about men and their Emerald cities.

Read Roy Bentley’s short story “Blood Memory.”

Blood Memory: Short Story By Roy Bentley Set in Southern Appalachia

Image of Southern Appalachian creek baptism, circa 1940

Blood Memory

My farrier wants to bring his handcuffs. My sister Abby is on furlough from Eastern State Hospital and has to be taken back. And the likelihood is that she will fight going. If she weren’t so explosive or hadn’t shot at a man with a .45, running him up a telephone pole to escape her, we might not have to be talking handcuffs. I tell him I’ll let him know. I’m not sure yet about the timing of any attempt to return her to Lexington. Daddy has only been in the ground a few days, and I’m not sure when would be a good time. I do know that I’ll need help, however.

Joe Samuelson is the last of his family trained to do the work he does. Joe lives in a house I provide and takes care of my mare Irish Dancer. He has a talent for getting people to tell him things. His wife Tarfia is our maid. Joe also has a brother-in-law who has been keeping an eye on my sister Abigail at Eastern State. I pay Joe a stipend on top of his usual salary for work like this, and he’s worth every Lincoln-head cent. Joe is amazing, especially given that the guy only has one arm (which is too bad, but I did the amputation myself and so I know it could not have been helped). Abby may have seen mistreatment, judging by her condition since I brought her back on furlough for the funeral, but that mistreatment is likely only the usual unkindness common in asylums in the South. Staff are kept in check with Joe’s help. I don’t worry a great deal, though Abby has been in the care and keeping of Eastern State for several years. We’re in the stables. Joe’s red hair shines like firelight in the dim barn as I follow him to curry Dancer. The stables are shadowy. If I were a student at the University of Kentucky, as I was not all that long ago, a student who taught grade school and was bettering himself by taking literature courses, I might say the stables wear night robes. I might think it, but I’d never say it out loud.

Dancer is in the middle stall. Joe opens a red halved-door on black iron hinges and swings it wide. The air swills soft hinge sounds. My horse knows me. She comes over to have her head scratched and to nudge my right hand to see if I’ve brought her an apple, which I normally do. I scratch the smudge of a blaze in the center of her head as Joe begins his work.

Joe and I don’t say anything, which makes me think that our relationship is one based on a series of rituals and cues like those Dancer and I share. He doesn’t need me in here right now, Joe, and I should excuse myself and let him work, saying that I’ll be at the house and maybe he’d like to stop up, but I take some time before I pat Dancer’s stare and turn to leave.

Joe is as close to a friend as I have, but what passes between us is mostly of a business nature. A hundred years ago in Kentucky a quarter of the population owned men like Joe. Free blacks even owned slaves themselves. The Louisville Examiner would have brimmed with anti-slavery invective I’d most likely have agreed with whether I defended it or not. And eastern Kentucky was where John Gregg Fee established anti-slavery churches and schools before they ran him out of the state in 1859 after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

Maybe it’s a kind of blood memory, the way I see things, but it’s in the history too. Kentucky has always been a house divided when it comes to Negroes. The one-drop rule is the custom but an intelligent man—especially a doctor in 1940—knows the lie. Blood is blood.

I’ve read Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, but I’ve also read Marcus Garvey who just died this past summer. I’ve gone to Louisville and seen the musical Show Boat where a husband pricks his finger and swallows a drop of his mixed-race wife’s blood to avoid a charge of miscegenation. I see hypocrisy and try to live with it without making myself sick.

Joe isn’t talking until he stops brushing my horse. His empty half-sleeve flutters.

So, bring the handcuffs? he asks.

I can report from ten years of brief conversations that Joe sees the bigger picture: how Dancer is essential to my being able to see patients in bad weather because the roads—where there are roads—are primitive. Rudimentary. Both of us believe in horses and don’t want to give up that connection to a past of animal and man working together on mornings when coal smoke floats in the valley like the first breath of a newborn in winter in a wood-heated cabin. Each of us is fond of a good road. We have had that conversation, agreeing there are things about mountain roads that don’t meet the requirements of a road: Creek beds. Rivulets. Paths through the underbrush. Joe knows what it takes these days: A serviceable horse. A good listener who can keep his mouth shut. A pair of handcuffs.

I say, Better to have them and not need them.

. . . . .

I’m a mountain doctor who was first a teacher. Grade school. Quentin Wolff was my daddy. And according to John Rocque’s Map of London, 1746, a 24-sheet folding map (John Rocque handled the surveying and John Pine engravings considered among the best examples of 18th century British cartography), my great-grandfather Benjamin Cann Wolff grew from infancy to boyhood to manhood in a flyblown bar-and-bordello by the Thames called The Paradise Hotel. Ben Cann first came into Kentucky with Daniel Boone around 1775 just after the Siege of Boonesborough and Boone’s court-martial and acquittal. Reynolds Wolff, Ben’s son, carried a copy of the John Rocque map of London on his person for years, unfolding it to point to the section of Georgian London where his father grew up.

That’s where Paradise is, he said—or so my father Quentin reported.

The story goes, Ben Cann worked ships that sailed between the Colonies and England.

He signed on as a stevedore in the port of Charleston. Why my great-grandfather then journeyed from Charleston to North Carolina where he met Boone is anyone’s guess, but the decision resulted in his being in attendance at Boone’s forced departure from Boonesborough. The two were together, thereafter, in Kah-ten-tah-the—Wyandot for the area between the Ohio and Licking rivers. And Ben Cann Wolff was not a young man when he fought off the Shawnee. Stories depict Ben Wolff as lanky but a man of surprising ardor. His lethality was not his chief grace, however. Ben Cann was someone with a full purse and a talent for enlisting aid who oversaw the clearing of land that became the Junction and much of the original construction in that part of Letcher County. He built the town of Neon or caused it to be built, the stone to be quarried and virgin timber felled. (The girth of many of the trees brought down was said to measure a dozen standing men’s outstretched arms and hands touching in a circle around the base.) The work was done by the men Boone left him or, more accurately, who elected to follow anyone but the infamous alcoholic frontiersman when he moved on to Missouri. As a result, Boone’s men became his men. My great-grandfather’s eldest, my grandfather Reynolds Wolff, took it from there and finished Neon, handing off to my father Quentin who handed off to me. You could say the Wolffs know how to make something of what is handed them. You could say that some Wolffs take care of things that no one credits them for having taken care of.

. . . . .

What do I see if I step out from my office and look up and down the main street in the town my grandfather built and my father kept running? I see a town open at both ends, telephone poles nailed against the gray of future. Across the street from my office in Wolff’s Drugstore display window I see stair-stepped copies of Life and the Louisville Examiner—not my idea, but it may be a splendid notion for all I know—and a poster promising “Miss Neon Contest, First Prize One Ton of Coal from the Elkhorn Coal Company.” Farther up the street I can make out the white door to the offices of my lawyer French Hawk, Esq., who worked out a loan for me (and Molly) to build the new house, a loan paid out from my sister’s portion of “disbursements for rents, money received from sale or royalties collected from coal mined,” a loan arranged by the Letcher County Court after they declared Abby an Incompetent. The loan was for the entire cost of our house: $10,000. Mine #2 alone brought in that much a year. Having someone declared an Incompetent has its benefits, though the doing of it is another thing entirely.

Most nights on evening hillsides above Main Street, I see generations of miners and other workingmen in coveralls strip and wash up for dinner. Inside the row houses I know that biscuits steam and gravy from hog meat scents the cramped rooms. I’m welcome in most of the houses.

In town, someone may drop a nickel in a red Coca-Cola machine and slide his purchase out and up and dislodge its cap with a fizz-pop. Railroad men in from the west of the state might be walking the wood sidewalks to the Wolff House where they bed down with whatever lonely woman they can. Maybe I’d have been better served to be a railroad man, looking at the time in the dim and whispering sweet lies about Lexington and the land beyond the hills of Letcher County, but I was born a Wolff and as such there is a great deal more expected of me. I’m the miracle man for my people, an FDR with working legs and a horse named for the country they wish their forefathers had never left and what they do on Saturday nights to forget that life is hard and brief. I don’t say I’m a good man. I’ve done some good.

My sister Abigail is my cross to bear for the simple reason no one else can.

Abby has a history of violence. As her older brother I learned not to turn my back on her nascent rage. Her first marriage ended in divorce after she held a knife to the throat of her then-husband M.O. and took one good swipe at ending his life. M.O. Strong was just what his name said he was—a strapping six-footer with oversize forearms and a threatening manner—but M.O. failed to keep his attention focused on his wife after a quarrel about the temperature of some scrambled eggs she had served. He had gotten up from the table and stormed out of the kitchen. She’d followed—the story was told by their daughter Rose who had gone for help after her father fell back bleeding. According to Rose, M.O. must not have seen Abby approach because the much shorter woman somehow got the drop on the larger man on a set of stairs. Whatever the case, she sliced his throat with a kitchen knife. What saved her was that M.O. was brought to me. I stitched up a laceration that had missed any significant blood vessels and hadn’t penetrated the trachea. After 17 silk sutures I told M.O. that if he wouldn’t press charges I’d make sure that my family allowed him a divorce and threw in the cost of the materials and labor for a new house.

I recall that he sat listening, shamed by his failure to mount anything like a response or afraid the story might be attached to him like a bad haircut or a rumor judged to be more or less true and as hard to fend off as a riotous, much younger wife. M.O. got up from the examination table. Dressed in his bloody clothes. Leaving my office, he said, Sounds about right.

That was not the first (nor was it the last) time Abby answered an injury.

Nor was there one in particular that alerted our family to the possibility she might do harm beyond what even a family with considerable resources can quiet. The next year when she ran Dan Wright up a phone pole and emptied a magazine of forty-five-caliber ammunition in his direction, there was little to be done but commit her. Either that or jail since she was reloading when a bystander struck her with a handy river stone and knocked her unconscious.

Not long after Abby had been committed to Eastern I was alone in my office following the particularly tough delivery of a miner’s first child. I was thinking of our mother and how she read to us from the Bible. I can see how afraid we were—America, our other sister, Abby and me—and I could feel myself stiffen at the description of the End Times, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and some last battle on the plains of the Holy Land our mother said would involve so much bloodshed that the blood would be to the level of the bridles of the horses.

. . . . .

The day that I tell Abby to think about getting her things together, to head back to Eastern, begins with her coming down to breakfast with her housecoat open and nothing on under it. And the flash of her reminds me of a time when, like most women, she had a hopeful womb and ambitions to marry.

Molly is serving breakfast and motions for Abby to close her robe. Abby closes the robe and sits, saying, I am ready like she is going to rise and go to the movies with me and Molly and catch a new show at the Neon. Because I want to fill my head with something other than my sister this morning I try and recall the movie I saw them lettering on the marquee this morning. It stars Henry Fonda—I remember that much—and that the Henry Fonda movie replaces The Wizard of Oz, which I’m told sold out several nights last week. I can’t think of the most recent movie’s title, but it will come to me.

After we eat, Abby heads upstairs. Peacefully. No hoopla. No ruckus. I’m not buying it. I tell Molly what I’m planning. I say, I’ll drive her over to Lexington, drop her, and drive back this evening. And Molly nods. Says, Whatever you want to do.

I kiss my wife on the head and smell the ashes from the morning’s cook-fire in her hair.

I wonder if the clothed me will ever get accustomed to the naked me Molly has always exposed. Outside, I head to fetch Joe who sees me coming and waves with his good arm and waits, wiping that hand on a rag that hangs from the belt at his waist. It’s early, a chill in the air and coal smoke drifting across the valley. My friend the farrier will have been working for hours already. When he isn’t doing work for me, he forges knives and shovels for other people in town.

I see Joe headed out to meet me. Wiping his hand, he has guessed at most of what’s to come and takes up a position at the end of the walkway by the Model-A Ford, Abby’s old car.

I hear the mewing of kittens somewhere nearby. In the vicinity of the stables.

The sound is as light as a wasp’s nest.

Out of nowhere I remember the title of the movie: The Grapes of Wrath.

At the end of the walk Joe holds open the car door for Abby who is now walking like she is walking to the gallows: head down, her gray Samsonite suitcase in both hands and bouncing against her legs as she steps. I’m a step or two behind. The soles of her shoes click on the paving stones on the walk. Let me take that, I say and she releases the suitcase handle.

I say, You remember Joe, don’t you? He’s going to drive us today.

Abby stops and looks back at me. Her look asks what is happening to her.

Joe steps up and snaps one handcuff on her wrist and then steps back—my cue to step up and pull Abby’s arm back so he can snap the other cuff into place.

I drop the suitcase. Move toward Abby. I put my hands on her shoulders.

My sister is stunned but not so stunned she doesn’t react. She spins around and kicks me. I feel my strength leaving: she’s landed a blow to my groin. Out of the edge of my vision I see Joe take hold of Abby’s pale arm and turn her and bring the arm up and snap the other handcuff into place. The skin of his hand is the color of tea and he has hold of Abby’s white-white arm as he deposits her on the seat. Joe is this fellow with one arm who is performing the equivalent of a circus trick: putting the custom-made iron handcuffs on Abby while I try and get to my feet, making sure Abby doesn’t even bump her head, then stepping back as if to announce the completion of his miracle as he closes the door on her side with confident authority.

I manage to get up and put Abby’s bag in back under the rumble seat.

I go around to the driver’s side where Joe is holding the car door.

I slide in. I say, Actually, I’ll be driving. Joe isn’t going.

Abby is moving in the seat. You’re both black bastards, she says.

I take note of what she’s doing and start the car and begin to drive away.

Abby has her stockinged legs up and is kicking the windshield. With her hard-soled shoes—the kicks are having an effect. I hear a crack as the windshield spiders and then lets go and we are sitting in (and covered by) glass. The seats are covered in shards. I pull over.

Joe is there, opening the door to raise Abby from the mess. He scoops her up.

Standing handcuffed by the car, Abby doesn’t so much look at me as stare through me. Her dress is raised. She’s a mess. Stockings and garters are visible. I move to her.

This time, as she tries to knee me, I catch her leg and squeeze. Hard.

You sonofabitch, she says. And then she spits at me.

I feel the wet.

Thoughts of doing her harm tambourine in my head. I say, Joe, you take Miss Neon here to the stables. I’ll see what I can do about rustling up an automobile. And if she gives you any trouble, tie her legs. Abby has cut her thigh on a piece of windshield. Blood is flowing down the front of her right leg. I don’t think about blood memory or slavery or Kentucky’s role in the War of Northern Aggression, then I do. Joe is walking Abby to the stables. She’s going with him, twisting every so often as she goes. I’m trying to think what to say when I get to the house and on the phone to Caudill’s Ford as I wipe the spit from my face.

Read and hear Roy Bentley’s short story “The War of Northern Aggression.”