Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Celebrate the Sinner" - Steve Scott (Virtual Book Tours Blog Tour)

"Unsettled conditions anywhere give rise to fear,” Old Ted remarks. “Fear finds scapegoats and easy solutions.”

In 1924, Marie walks through the Waverly Baby Home and chooses Teddy because he looks like the child she deserves...but the boy has hidden defects. Five years later, against a backdrop of financial ruin, KKK resurgence, hangings and arson, Marie's husband, Merle, struggles to succeed, Marie loses her way, and troubled seven year-old Teddy begins to see what he and his family are missing.

CELEBRATE THE SINNER unfolds with the onset of The Great Depression after Teddy’s father buys a bankrupt sawmill and moves his small family to an isolated Oregon mill town. Merle feeds his hunger with logs and production, while his young wife feels like rough-cut lumber, unworthy of paint and without a future. When a conspiracy threatens the mill, Merle adds the powerful KKK to his business network. Untended, Teddy strays as he searches for a connection outside himself. He loves the machines that take the trees, but he also worships his new, young teacher. He discovers the Bucket of Blood Roadhouse and begins spending his Saturday nights peering through its windows, gaining an unlikely mentor: Wattie Blue, an ancient, Black musician from Missouri, by way of Chicago, plays the lip harp and calls out square dances. When Wattie faces the Klan and his past, Teddy and his family are confronted with equally difficult choices.

Framed by solitary, narcissistic, ninety-year-old Ted, this story of desperate people contains humor, grit, mystery and an ending that surprises, even stuns. "Spines and bellies soften and round off with the years," Old Ted muses. "Thoughts, too, lose their edge, but secrets scream for revelation. Perfect people, after all, don't hold a monopoly on the right to tell their stories."

 S.M. Scott was raised and educated in Oregon, Alaska, France and Africa. Born in the Willamette Valley, his father, grandfather and great grandfather were Oregon lumbermen. When he was eight, his parents packed up the family and their portable sawmill and moved to Anchorage, Alaska where they began cutting homesteader timber in the summers and teaching school each winter.

He later returned to Oregon to pursue undergraduate studies at Linfield College. Along the way, he has studied economics, biology, French and medicine. He attended medical school in Colorado, undertook surgical training at the University of Utah and completed his cancer training at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He and his family now live in Salt Lake City in the warm company of Saints and sinners. He is a practicing orthopedist and cancer surgeon.

Historical fiction is a tricky beast.  An author must weave an engaging story while maintaining historical accuracy, an accuracy that shifts as each successive generation sees past events through eyes shaped by different, more recent events.  How many times have each of us heard and uttered the phrase "if only I knew now what I knew then"?

The Good
This is going to be relatively short, as this post itself should not be a novel and there are a couple of others things that I am including down below my review (including an excerpt, which you need to read).

This is a very good book!  Teddy is a young man with a speech impediment and difficulty learning to read who has a family with a mother who desperately wants to keep up appearances and a hard-working father who does not want his son to be soft and desperately wants to keep up with the lumber market.  A young boy growing up out in the woods on his father's mill, surrounded by rough-and-tumble characters who are employed by the mill, "the boss's boy" who has a difficult time fraternizing with peers not only due to his remote location, but also because of stigma surrounding being the boss's son.  A young boy forced to grow up too fast in the Depression era. 

I like Teddy.  He's a young man caught by circumstances which land him growing up in a remote location with only adults for friends.  Hmmmmm, I kind of grew up that way (log cabin in the middle of Alaska), so I liked that about him.  I also, however, liked him for his observation.  He watched and learned the ways of adults at a far younger age than many.  He's a great character.  :)

Let's see...this work feels like something that would have been assigned as reading my college level classes.  You know those books that are loaded (grammatically, historically, emotionally....), that would take years to unpack fully?  This is such a work. The writing itself is absolutely beautiful (see excerpt below).  Scott uses images and metaphors that were a simple joy to read.  The text flows, and the plot grabs readers and forces them to slow down and smell the lumber...take time to soak it all in.  Like I said, this book is loaded - there is a lot to appreciate.  It is also like those old western movies that you have to actually watch to see what is going on.  There is no skimming allowed must take the time to slow down and read it rather than skim in order to know what is going on and appreciate how Scott has taken the time to beautifully lay out the scene, the heartbreak, the sinners.

The Bugly (bad/ugly)
Though a fine work, of course I'm nitpicky:
  • The characters sound too much like each other.  Scott has a definite authorial voice, and that is not a bad thing.  The problematic piece is that this voice is so strong that each character was echoing it, using the same kind of images, sounding nearly exactly like one another, and that bothers me greatly.
  • For me, the story was very hard to get into.  It took several chapters before I began to invest in the characters and what was going on.  The beginning is a little slow, but it picks up.  Perhaps I should not find fault in this, as it is the intro that lays the foundation for the upcoming action, and is necessarily a little slow.  It is, however, a tad slow.
Over all, I'd be surprised to not find this work in a reading list at a college sometime in the future.  This read like several works I was assigned to dissect as an undergraduate.  Scott automatically gets brownie points for spending some time living in Alaska (I'm from there!), and he created a work that is beautifully written by someone who has an obvious eye for detail (well, he is a surgeon, after all!). I really liked it. : )  It dealt with some pretty heavy historical material (KKK...'nuff said) as well as a heavy personal story that made the momma in me ache to provide Teddy with the nurturing that he so desperately needed.  Not a light, quick read by any means, but one well worth the effort.  

Overall, I give this book a 8 out of 10.

Thank you for the opportunity to visit.

How did the idea for this book come about?
The novel grew from two germs: personal knowledge of a little-known setting (Oregon sawmill town in the 1930’s) and an unknowable person, my father.  Given that ‘Only God can make a tree,’ I hesitate to admit that I chose to write unapologetically about rough men who lived to cut down trees, men whose idea of God resided in the machines that made that work easier. Early in the first chapter, my protagonist, the boy on the cover, states “Dad taught me to love the great trees for the lumber they produced…Yet more than the trees, I loved the machines that took the trees…The vibrations that marked their effort traveled through the earth and into me like the rumble of a great heart.”

That hard world produced men like my father and grandfather, a world I came to know only through their stories. We’ve seen the movie reels and read the great stories about lives ruined during the Great Depression in Oklahoma, throughout the South, in cities like Chicago and New York, but never in Oregon. By setting my story in an isolated Oregon lumber town during the early 1930’s, I was given an unused palette. This untouched setting allowed me to explore intolerance, sin and forgiveness (not to mention arson and murder) outside well-known clichés.

More important than setting was my need to explore the influences that deform an individual. The story opens with a nasty old man and then quickly moves into his childhood, revealing the events and people that changed him and perhaps explain why he became the sinner he is.

The structure of the did you decide upon this particular structure to convey your message?
I struggled with the book’s structure; I revised it more than once. In choosing an unsympathetic character, Old Ted, as my protagonist, I risk alienating my readers, and yet I couldn’t change the old creep into Mr. Rogers without sacrificing the integrity of the story. Like the miserly recluse, Silas Marner or Dostoyevsky’s murderer in Crime and Punishment, I had no intention of cleaning up the old man for prime time. To get around the problem of alienation and offer the reader a character she can care about—I decided to tell the story through the innocent voice of ‘young Teddy.’ I tried to give only enough snippets in Old Ted’s voice to cement his character, but the story is really young Teddy’s before his original sin. By using the young and old voices, I was able to create a story arc that started with an innocent and ended with something far different.

Having finished the book, if you could add another protagonist, who would that be?
I’m not sure that Celebrate the Sinner has room for another protagonist. In addition to Teddy and Ted, I filled the tiny town of Culp Creek with enough sinners to wear out God on judgment day, and then I juxtaposed them with two saints and a dog good enough to be a saint. But after all is said and done, after the machines and the saws quiet and the tough men pale, it is the women who prove to be my most interesting and revealing characters: Teddy’s mother, his seventeen year-old teacher, Miss Cherry, and my one other saint, grey, tireless Françoise Voisine will keep you thinking 
about them.

Thanks again for the invitation. I’ve had fun.

Steven Merle Scott

(Chapter 14, pp 83-88)

Nineteen twenty-nine was a funny year. Spring came and went. Summer followed with little to mark it except our move. But once August’s heat had passed, after the wild flowers had spilled their petals like corn flakes across a kitchen floor, at a time when the world was supposed to turn gold and slide into winter, that’s not at all what happened. The world slowly seized up.
Little towns in backwater states far away from New York City didn’t topple over the day the stock market fell, but their roots had been cut. In the months that followed, different parts broke down, wore out, couldn’t be fixed, and, like an engine choking under a tank of bad gas, the markets sputtered, slowed, and then stopped for good. That’s what later caused lonely, even desperate, men to show up asking their families for help. Uncle Normal, my mother’s brother, was one of those men.

Uncle Normal came to live with us in the summer of 1930 because he had no work, no family, and no other place to go. He was a skinny, nervous man with ears that stuck out. He looked like Ichabod Crane on Halloween night, always checking over his shoulder. Dad called him high strung, and Mother worried that he didn’t get enough to eat. Dad made fun of him and got on him like a hungry wolf chases an injured deer, but Uncle Normal seemed to take it well enough. Anyone could tell he wasn’t strong. For me, he was someone who would sit next to me on the porch steps with time enough to listen, and not just talk.
I think Uncle Normal would have come for supper every evening if Dad had allowed it, or maybe if Mother had insisted more strongly. It is hard to know for sure. Had Mother pressed Dad harder about Uncle Normal, she might have pushed events along faster than they were meant to move, and she may have sensed that to be so. That’s because Mother had horse sense, as Dad called it, but no real education. Mother attended elocution school after the sixth grade where she learned to form her vowels, where she became expert as to the correct way to pour black tea from a white china pot. They taught her that and whatever else it is that a good wife needs to know, but they taught her nothing of any substance.
Norm, you are a regular up-to-date Christopher Columbus,” Dad said one night, as he passed along the bowl of mashed potatoes. “Don’t you think so, Teddy?” Dad winked at me to let me know I was in on the joke.
I nodded back, more out of reflex than understanding, but I knew what was coming.
Isn’t that so, Norrrrmal?” Dad said. “Aren’t you a modern day Christopher Columbus?”
Uncle Normal stared at his plate. “Well, I don’t know.” He always was careful with his words before he released them, which made him sound slow. “I don’t have no boat, so I guess not.” He looked at Dad, knowing that he’d come up with an answer, certain it was wrong.
When you grow up alone, surrounded by adults only, it’s like living in a dirt packed yard with high walls and no grass. You can throw rocks and chip at the gray walls, but you’ll never pull them down, not by yourself. Without other children to distract, you become expert about adult conversation—when to tap into it and when to shut down, when to pull inside, and when to quietly will the weariness of their words to pass on by.
Dad breathed his drink in, sipped it, and let the oil slide along his tongue. “You do know who Christopher Columbus was, don’t you, Norm?”
Uncle Normal froze.
I know who he was,” I nearly shouted.
Dad didn’t look my way. He had hooked Uncle Normal by the lip and wasn’t about to let him go until something tore.
Mother forked salad onto my plate. “Merle, would you and Normal like some salad? I made Thousand Island dressing with my dill pickle relish.”
Uncle Normal reached for the bowl. “Thank you, Marie. I sure would.” He scooped the lettuce and tomato onto his plate and passed the bowl to Dad. “Good food tonight, good enough to be our own Mother’s, but even better, Marie, lots better.”
Uncle Normal smiled at the salad while he spoke. He rarely looked at people, not directly in the face, except for me; he’d look at me. He’d look at a dog, any dog, didn’t matter what size or disposition. He’d look at it square in the face and talk to it just like he was having a regular conversation, like he expected the dog understood. Most of them did. They would nod back and smile, especially when he cupped his hands around the base of their ears, his careful fingers gently pulling and sliding from base to silky tip.
Christopher Columbus,” Dad said, staying the course, “was a man without a compass, a soul who set sail with no idea as to where he was going.” Dad dipped a questioning finger into the dressing and tasted, nodded his approval, and spooned particles of green suspended in pink over his salad. “After months of sailing, when Columbus finally arrived in the new world, he landed on a white beach, stuck a flag in it, and christened it for Spain, but you know what, Norm?”
Startled, Uncle Normal looked up from his salad. “No, I don’t know what.”
Columbus had no idea where he was going when he started out, and once he arrived, he hadn’t the faintest clue where he was. After he returned to Spain and bowed before the goddamn king and queen, Columbus still had no concept at all of where he had been…not the faintest goddamn idea. The man thought he’d been to China and back!”
Uncle Normal stared back blankly, and so did I.
Norm, I have to believe that you are on some kind of Christopher Columbus expedition. You sure as shit don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t have any idea where you’ve been. Tell me, Norm, do you have any idea where you are right now, right this very minute?”
Uncle Normal stirred gravy into his potatoes like a man without an appetite.
When it’s all over, Norm, will you know any more than you do right now?”
Careful like always, Uncle Normal sucked on his words like corn caught between his teeth. “I suspect not,” was all he said.
I suspect not,” Dad mimicked.

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  1. Nora,

    Thank your for hosting the book and for your insightful review--I enjoyed reading your comments.

    As for our Alaska connections, I lived in Anchorage from 1959 through 1974. I climbed Denali in 76 and still own 'open to entry' land on Amber Lake--I staked out in '70 and my sons want to build a cabin on it one day. My youngest son is currently working as a fly-fishing guide at Crystal Creek Lodge near King Salmon. Where was your cabin, and when were you there?

    Steve Scott

  2. Excellent review. Thank you for hosting :)

  3. Steven - I grew up in Alaska in Trapper Creek in the foothills of Denali (near Talkeetna), 1989 - 2005. My sister and her family live in Wasilla, my parents are still on the homestead in the cabin, and my brother and his family live in Nome. :) I've got forget-me-nots tattooed on my matter where I live, I will always be an Alaskan chick!

  4. Great write-up and information about your upbringing.


  5. Thank you for an honest review. I'll be reading soon.