Book Report

I went through three books that seemed unrelated this past week – Benjamin Lee Whorf’s Language, Thought and Reality, Robert Ruark’s The Honey Badger, and Gary Montgomery’s Doughboys, Rumrunners and Bootleggers.

I’ve been looking, off and on, for a copy of Whorf since 1969.  He was an MIT chemical engineer who was employed in fire prevention, and (taking a few seminars from Edward Sapir) moved his studies into linguistics – how the language we use affects how we think, how we research.  It has been a slow read.  Whorf died in 1940, and most of his concepts have already been delivered to me, well thought out and developed, by two generations of scholars that researched his topics before I got the book.

I first read The Honey Badger as an undergrad dormie.  Ruark’s phrase, “There is a bloody brave little animal called the honey badger in Africa.  It may be the meanest animal in the world.  It kills for malice and for sport, and it does not go for the jugular – it goes straight for the groin.  It has a hell of a lot in common with the modern American woman.”  I’m not really sure that I would recommend the book to a seventeen-year-old college freshman . . . a thought about the mature cynicism of Ruark being inflicted during a young man’s formative years forms without needing a lot of development.

It was a lot different read at 73 than at 17 – mostly because, on page 341, I was reintroduced to an old friend and colleague.  I realized that portions of Leonard Bull, a gunsmithing instructor when I taught at Trinidad State, were fitted into the final third of the book.  Leonard had worked with Ruark as a hunter in Kenya, when Ruark reported on the Mau-Mau uprisings – his daughter had told me how much of the action in Uhuru’s pages was based on Leonard’s work during the uprising.  Leonard could not return to Kenya – the nation he had represented in the Olympic games.  A thoughtful, pleasant man, his work opposing the revolution had left too many people in the government knowing who to credit with a relative’s disappearance.

Reading an autobiographical novel sixty years after it was written, and encountering old friends at a time before you met them is an interesting experience – definitely not something my English teachers prepared me for.

Ruark did prepare me for Gary’s book.  Gary’s a touch older than I and came to this country a half-generation later.  The old-timers he interviewed over the years were often folks I had met as a kid . . . and they had shared the same stories of the Great War, of prohibition, bootlegging, and rum running with me as a kid as Gary heard in his many interviews.  As I think on it, Mom was a pre-teen in the time of his novel . . . the stories I heard from her – for example, of Billy Lloyd flying whisky in from Canada to the “old airport” up Swamp Creek – were stories that she had heard from an older generation.  Ten-year old girls just weren’t central to the stories of blind pigs and speakeasies. 

So as I read  Dougboys, Rumrunners and Bootleggers, the story line was always supported by the tales I heard as a little boy – I can say for certain that P.V. Klinke’s tale of taking out a runner’s tires with a 1×4 full of nails didn’t show up in my reading . . . but I was waiting for it.  The description of the places in the neighborhood . . . places that were new to Gary when he arrived in the seventies, kept me thinking what things were like in the seventies when he first arrived.

His description of the irrigation district brought back a memory of Bert Roe, at the end of the system, in the late seventies, telling how it was the first time his place had water all season.  The coal trains from Canada, with rye whisky barely hidden beneath the coal were from stories I had heard long before.

There are a lot of worse things for a writer than having Robert Ruark prepare your reader. 

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