Southernmost, by Silas House

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In Southernmost, Kentucky author (and treasure) Silas House creates a road trip, family drama, and mediation on the disparity between modern Christianity and its most rigid adherents. He begins with a flood in Tennessee, and a family on the brink.

Asher is the pastor of a small church in a small community. At the height of the flood, his son Justin disappears in search of his dog and Asher, Justin, and two other men help rescue a father and daughter. When Asher invites the men into his home, Asher’s wife Lydia objects.

“Did those men leave?”

“No,” Asher said. “They’re putting on some dry clothes.”

“We can’t have them in here, Asher,” she said quietly.

“They don’t have anywhere else to go,” Asher whispered. “We’re the lucky ones.”

“What would the congregation say? It’s not right — “

“Not right to help people in trouble?”

“I know who they are,” she said. “They’re — you know what they are, Asher. We can’t have them in here around Justin.”

Asher has dealt with this dilemma before: his brotherLuke  left Asher’s own birth family years earlier, unwelcome due to his own sexuality. For years, Asher has missed his brother but accepted his absence as the way things ought to be, never divulging that he occasionally receives an unsigned postcard from Key West, Florida.

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Ten years without his brother. He thought of their mother sitting at the yellow kitchen table while Luke danced across the red linoleum. Asher was laughing and clapping — only twelve, Luke four years older. Their mother’s mouth clenched into a wrinkled line, like a pink drawstring purse. . . . .

Their mother darted up quick as a spider, snapped off the radio in one sharp click of her wrist.

The word she had said to Luke then.

(faggot)

Luke ran from the room, from the house, down to the willow-shadowy banks of the Cumberland, where Asher found him later, watching the river.

Near the beginning of the novel (just so you know I’m not giving away the ending), Asher undergoes a Road to Damascus change. He welcomes the gay couple to his church and then his position there is terminated, his wife Lydia throws him out, sues for divorce, and tries to take all visits with Justin away. Asher feels he has no option but to take the boy and run.

The descriptions of Silas House’s work tend to include words like “masterful,” “redolent and rich,” “poetic,” and “haunting.” In an interview with novelist Jeff Zentner for the Parnassus’ book store blog, musings, House discussed how he came to this particular topic at this time:

When I was little, our home was quickly overtaken by a flood and we barely escaped. So I had personal experience, and I knew the way an event like that can impact you spiritually and physically. When the 2010 flood hit, I heard a preacher on the radio saying it was the wrath of God because of “accepting gays.” I had already created this character who I knew was going to make a principled stand for equality and as soon as I heard that, I knew I had the impetus for the entire novel. So mine is a fictionalized version of that flood that I’ve moved to 2015 to coincide with the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. I loved working against such a dramatic backdrop to begin the novel.

https://parnassusmusing.net/2018/06/07/silas-house/

southernmostSouthernmost is a powerful work that offers chewy discussion on themes of family, redemption, morality, choice, love. If your book club has a diversity of political viewpoints, it may be a volatile fuse. I personally think that’s a good thing, and that’s what discussion is for.

 

 

Food

In the interview with Parnassus, House discusses the use of food in his work: “I always strive to make my writing as sensory as I can and few things do that as well as food. And we have such a strong cultural attachment to food — I mean, I’ve seen arguments bordering on violence about whether or not cornbread should or should not have sugar in it. (For the record, I say no.)” Interestingly, the Parnassus blog spells cornbread as one word; in the novel, Silas House spells it as two.

Some of the meals described:

fried green tomatoes, corn bread, cucumbers, green onions, and sweet tea

chicken, mashed potatoes, fresh green beans, a slice of tomato

red beans and rice, corn bread, chunks of tomatoes and cucumbers swimming in vinegar, avocados sliced and drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and blackberry pie for dessert

Asher fixes grilled cheese, fried bologna, and peanut butter and jelly (with a Nehi) sandwiches for Justin and packs a bag with chips, granola bars, oranges, bananas, Nabs, peanuts, cashews all of which Justin eschews and asks for a honey bun.

If you need a cornbread recipe, here’s Southern Living’s official one. No sugar, Mr. House: https://www.southernliving.com/recipes/ben-mims-perfect-cornbread

Music

Silas House talked about the music of Southernmost in his Parnassus interview as well (it’s like Jeff Zentner was reading my mind!) and said:

Once I knew that Asher was moved and changed by the music of Patty Griffin, I knew more about him. Once I figured out that Justin is obsessed with Jim James from My Morning Jacket, I had him pegged. Then there’s Bell, who has named her cottage after a Joni Mitchell song. For me, music is such an integral part of everyday life that I can’t imagine characters who don’t care as deeply about it as I do. This book had a soundtrack of about 75 songs that I listened to over and over again over the course of many years and that hugely informed the theme and mood of the novel.

Here are some of the songs I found as I read:

I Don’t Want to Know, Fleetwood Mac

Wonderful, My Morning Jacket

house-silas2-c-tasha-thomasTom Petty

The Mamas and the Papas

Song to a Seagull, Joni Mitchell

My Sweet Lord, George Harrison

My Dixie Darling, Carlene Carter

My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose, traditional Scottish song

 

 

Read Southernmost. Discuss it. Enjoy it.

Adventures With Huckleberries

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“Yes, I’m Your Man.”  According to the authoritative  “Urban Dictionary, the phrase “I’m Your Huckleberry” was common slang in the 1880s for “Yes, I’m the man you’re looking for.”  So when Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday coyly answers Johnny Ringo’s challenge of who wants a fight, he’s saying he’s ready.

In Tombstone, that western pinnacle of guilty pleasure, I find my admiration of the Earp Brothers well-mixed with my (a-hem) appreciation of that fevered brow, natty handlebar mustache, and straight-shooting gun wielded by Doc Holiday.  Val Kilmer, the embodiment of the handsome, naughty, well-educated Doc is indeed ready for the job.  Filmed in 1993, Tombstone relays the story of the 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral.  And truthfully, has nothing to do with this literary post other than the movie’s use of the word “huckleberry” gave me a chance to revel momentarily in my crush on Val Kilmer’s Doc.

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And really:  can you blame me?

So now, back to the real post:  The Adventures of Huckleberry, published in 1884, sweeps readers into another archetypal American story as Huckleberry Finn floats down the river with escaped slave Jim.    Mark Twain, the famous pseudonym for Samuel Clemons, begins the first-person narrative with this warning:

NOTICE

PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narra- tive will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.

I promise not to try to find a motive or a moral or a plot.  But I will say that many reviewers note that Huckleberry Finn is the foundation of modern American literature.  I will also say that the book seems as significant to those who want it banned as to those who want it to be part of every high school curriculum.  The language is tough and seems so unnecessary and downright evil to our modern sensibilities.  But Twain wrote this narrative in 1884 and was depicting the Antebellum South of approximately 1834-1844 according to Twain.  The language for the time and place was, sadly, accurate.

Interestingly, we chose this book for our book club this month and I was the only one who finished.  The six others said the language required too much concentration; they had to read the book in small doses in order to understand the dialects and dialogue.  I certainly see the point, but once you dive into the language and allow it to flow over you like the river Huck and Jim navigate, to me it becomes easy and entertaining.

And Huck’s descriptions of the natural world are gorgeous.

…It was a monstrous big river down there — sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights, and laid up and hid day-times; soon as night was most gone, we stopped navigating and tied up — nearly always in the dead water under a tow-head; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them.  Then we set out our lines.  Next we slid into the river and had a swim so as to freshen up and cool oof; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee deep, and watched the daylight come.  Not a sound, anywheres–perfectly still–just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bull frogs a-cluttering, maybe.

huckleberry-finn

With respect to Mr. Twain’s wishes, Huck’s journey down the Mississippi river coincides with his growth from boy to man; and represents American’s own maturation from a gawky fledgling yearning to test and try itself through the Civil War.

Ernest Hemingway said:

All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ If you read it you must stop where … Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.

MENU & RECIPES

For book club, I served the following menu:

Watermelon daiquiris — 1/2 watermelon in chunks, 1/2 cup of spiced rum; 1/2 cup of triple sec, 1/2 cup of fresh lime juice.  Add ice and blend.  Makes 6-8.

Watermelon balls

Fried okra

Cornbread — 2 tablespoons grease or lard (EGADS!  I used olive oil), 1 1/2 cups self-rising corn meal, 1 1/2 cups buttermilk, 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Grease an iron skillet.  Preheat oven AND cast iron skillet to 450.  As oven heats, mix cornmeal, butter milk and salt.  When pan and oven are hot, slide the cornmeal mix into the skillet.  Bake for twenty minutes or until top and sides are browned.  Serve with butter.

Cornbread Battered Fried Catfish

Hop’n’John — Out of deference to some vegetarian eaters, I did not use bacon or ham and had to work to add flavor to the quinoa/black rice/black-eyed pea mixture.  I did it by sautéing half an onion in olive oil and adding red pepper flakes to heat and then stirring all of that into the grain-bean mixture.  Quinoa was a nice addition to the usual rice.

For dessert, I found some Huckleberry Jam and served that over brownies topped with ice cream.

MUSIC

The American Spiritual Ensemble, led by Dr. Everett McCorvey of the University of Kentucky School of Music, performs worldwide to great acclaim.  A c.d. of their recreations of spirituals would provide context and beauty for your discussion.  http://www.americanspiritualensemble.com/store.html

Well, as Huck would say, “there ain’t nothing more to write about,” so I’ll quit and wish you a grand adventure of your own with Huckleberry Finn.

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