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Christine Davis Merriman completed an MFA forty years ago but, as with many of us, life intervened with her writing plans. Christine’s novel At the Far End of Nowhere has recently released – a novel that begins with this proposition: Imagine being raised by a father who is easily old enough to be your grandfather. This sets up an intriguing story proposition with the experiences and memories of father and daughter so far apart.
Transported in Time and Place by Christine Davis Merriman
Although I grew up in mid-twentieth century America, my father came from a much earlier time and place. Born in 1878, he was 72 years old when I came along in 1950. I inhabited a curious space, neither fully here nor there, transported daily between a rapidly modernizing United States and my father’s remembered nineteenth-century world where horses plowed the fields, steam powered the engines, and time moved more slowly. This experience inspired me to write my first novel, At the Far End of Nowhere.
After capturing the reader’s attention with a dramatic event that occurred in the near-present—the 2015 Baltimore riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray—a flashback carries readers swiftly back, sixty years—from a defaced West Baltimore row house to that same address in 1955. Later, a scene depicting the 1968 riots in Baltimore, following the Martin Luther King, Jr., assassination, echoes the opening 2015 riot scene.
A first-person narrator, Lissa Power, a young girl of the 1950s, uses present tense to maintain a continuous sense of immediacy as she guides readers on her journey through recent history. Lissa draws us in close, telling her own story of growing up in Baltimore and Baltimore County, from age four to twenty-two, 1955 to 1972. As indigenous witness and participant, she walks us through events as they immediately unfold, presenting her personal perspective of firsthand experiences. As she grows up and moves through the years, Lissa’s language and perspective mature, enhancing the sense of time passing.
Local icons and landmarks, along with contemporary radio and TV programs, immerse the reader in local color. For example, a Natty Boh sign (the face of National Bohemian Beer, originally brewed in Baltimore) blinks his one eye from a corner bar as he watches over Lissa’s West Baltimore neighborhood. The Oriole Bird (symbol of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team) appears on an orange balloon at the downtown Oriole cafeteria.
A mechanized shoemaker in the front window of a neighborhood shoe store advertises a locally branded no-slip heel (originally manufactured in 1904 Baltimore by the Cat’s Paw Rubber Company). The precise actions of this miniature mechanical man capture young Lissa’s attention.
…the shoemaker, Mr. Gambini, …shuts down the mechanical man who works all day in his shop window. Over and over, the little shoemaker is taking a nail from between his pinched lips, jerking his head to one side, hammering the nail, and fastening a Cat’s Paw heel onto the bottom of a tiny shoe held upside down on what my daddy calls a shoemaker’s last. “Goodnight, little shoemaker,” I whisper.
In tribute to the waning mechanical age, Lissa’s daddy hoists her onto his shoulders to see the clock he once repaired in the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.
One day, my daddy takes me downtown to see the big clock on the Bromo-Seltzer Tower. He lifts me up and puts me on his shoulders so I can see above all the grownups. “Lissa, hold on tight, so you won’t fall.” He holds my legs steady, and I grab onto his ears. He wears his gray hat. He always wears a dressy hat when he goes downtown. In the summer, he wears a straw hat.
He points at the top of the tower. “I fixed that clock many years ago, and she’s been running ever since. After I die, I reckon all the clocks are going to stop running.”
Lissa and her father listen to radio programs. He tunes in to Gabriel Heatter, a popular news broadcaster. At age four, Lissa hears former President Truman speaking on the radio.
I like to sit on my daddy’s lap and listen to radio shows with him: Amos ’n’ Andy, Gunsmoke. My daddy likes to listen to the news on the radio. Gabriel Heatter is his favorite. Daddy says, “he tells us the good news, and we need to hear more of that.” I hear another man’s voice speaking. “Do you know who that is, Lissa? That’s President Truman. He was our president when you were born.”
A tool as simple and unobtrusive as a child’s hand-drawn map introduces a new local landscape. When the family moves from the city to a farm in northern Baltimore County, Lissa’s older brother, Spence, orients his sister, and readers, to the “lay of the land” in rural Maryland at that time, by drawing a map of the local farming community to show Lissa how to find her way around the neighborhood.
Our first year living on the farm, Spence gets a compass for his birthday, and Daddy teaches him how to read it. Spence goes on long hikes around the neighborhood and uses the compass to draw up a map on a big sheet of Daddy’s mechanical drawing paper. When he’s done, Spence shows me his map. “Look, Liss, if you don’t want to get lost out here, you need to learn the lay of the land. See? I wrote the four directions along the edges of this map—north (left), south (right), east (top), and west (bottom). You need to know the four directions so you can read a compass. I put different size rectangles with labels to show where buildings are. This is us,” he says, “Our property.” Spence and me are sitting cross-legged next to each other on the front-porch floor, and he has the map spread out in front of us. He points to our twelve acres. Our place is nested right in the middle of the map—farmhouse, grape arbor, Daddy’s woodshop, three vegetable gardens, barn and corn crib, three chicken houses, and two big fields that run all the way over to the east and south woods at the top and right edges of the map. At the top-right corner of the map, an arrow pointing beyond the east and south woods says To Grangerville Crossroads.
The old father’s storytelling threads through the novel, carrying daughter and readers back to a much earlier time in America. Stouten, born in 1878, recounts childhood memories of growing up on a Southern Maryland tobacco farm and spins nineteenth-century tall tales. In one of Stouten’s tales, the voice of a former slave recounts his mythical encounter with Johns Wilkes Booth (a myth consistent with local lore), as Lincoln’s assassin attempts his escape through treacherous local swampland.
“Once upon a very long time ago, I knew an old, old black man, a former slave by the name of Moses Queen. Some folks said he must be older than Methuselah. Said he was a young man in Civil War times….
“Moses picked up a stick of wood, began to whittle it, and embarked on his story about the fine white gentleman who had crossed his path. ‘You know, boy,’ says Moses, ‘it was just about this time of day, just before sunset, when I was making my way home through Fallen Angel Swamp. And what should I spy but a horse come galloping along like a bat out of Hades, carrying a handsome young gentleman, riding alongside another white man. Now, this gentleman in all his finery looked right bad, pale as a ghost and tormented-like. He pulled up sharp in front of me, leaned toward me from his saddle, and said in the most graceful of tones, “Boy, could you help me out. I’m lost in this godforsaken bog.”
“‘I looked him up and down, and well, his leg looked like it was busted and had been patched up, and his face looked so pitiful and twisted, like his soul was in the deepest of turmoil.
“‘Well, you know, the pathways through that swamp is laid out like a puzzle with false leads and cutoffs and undergrowth that blocks your way. Course, I know Fallen Angel like the back of my old black hand. So, I guided him and his companion, used my homemade machete to bushwhack through them laurel and rhododendron thickets. Guided him and his friend safe and sound through that swamp, and delivered him to a Confederate safe house he knew of, just outside the swamp…. Well, it turned out to be a right funny situation, after all. Come to find out, by and by, I had played a bit part in the chronicles of time. The newspapers was reporting different stories about where this man was, and who it was helping him. And there was talk about how a black man—some said a former slave, some said a half-breed or a We-Sort, you know, we-sorts-of people (mixed black, Piscataway, white)—came to the aid of an actor named John Wilkes Booth who broke his leg escaping from the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. Seems this Mr. Booth was making his escape through our own Fallen Angel Swamp here in Charles County….’”
A back story, drawn from old letters and diary entries written by Lissa’s mother, Jimmie, as a young nurse, provide insight into life during World War II. Found letters chronicle Jimmie’s courtship with a man old enough to be her father and fill in the blanks about Jimmie’s unspoken love affair with a man her own age, training to become a World War II pilot at Pensacola Naval Air Station.
…airmail missives soar past each other on parallel flight paths between Havre de Grace and Pensacola, as plans are made.
Characters’ speech and actions convey contemporary social norms and widely held cultural values. For example, when police officers see a teenaged Lissa, wearing makeup and form-fitting clothing, they dismiss her account of a man’s unwanted sexual advances in his pickup truck.
When I come into the kitchen, one of the police officers, who looks pretty young, is sitting at the kitchen table, writing up a report. The other officer looks older. He’s overweight and balding, and stands facing Daddy. As I enter the room, the older policeman looks me over. I realize I’m still wearing my school clothes. I can feel his gaze sweep over me, top to bottom, bottom to top. It makes me self-conscious. I feel the makeup on my face exhibiting to him something unintentionally provocative. I feel betrayed by the tightness of my form-fitting dress as it follows the contours of my body, by the sheer hosiery clinging to my legs. I am ashamed of my appearance. “Pete,” he calls out to his partner and tilts his head sideways in my direction. The partner responds to the signal, takes a long look at me, snaps closed the notebook he’s been writing in, stuffs it in his uniform pocket, and scrapes his chair back from the kitchen table.
“Not much we can do without a license plate number,” says the senior partner. “Lots of men in pickup trucks around here.” With that, both officers leave abruptly.
When Lissa withdraws from college to care for her old father, the dean of students tells her that college is where young women come to find a husband.
On Monday, I go to the registrar’s office and say I want to withdraw from college…. The dean is a black-suited, middle-aged man. He sits behind a formal desk in an old office with high ceilings and ancient radiators that ping as he gestures for me to take a seat….
“So, Lissa. Why do you want to drop out of college?”…
“You realize, Lissa, that most women meet their future husbands in college.” His statement takes me by surprise. It makes no sense to me. The last thing I want to do right now is find a husband. That’s not why I came to college.
Popular music stimulates aural memory and evokes period-specific mood. With the Vietnam War in full swing, Lissa falls in love with a soldier at the Baltimore USO, while dancing to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Closing words from the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, provide spiritual solace for Lissa’s elderly father as his health declines.
A backdrop of historic events that occurred during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s adds credibility to time and setting. Lissa’s lens exposes readers to the impact of living through the Cold War, space race, multiple political assassinations, Vietnam War, peace protests, and the women’s liberation movement. As Lissa and her father take the number eight bus downtown in the aftermath of the Baltimore’s 1968 riots, a detailed itinerary of the bus route recreates the layout of Baltimore’s streets, records characters’ real-time reactions to current events, and recreates what it was actually like be there, live through, and experience that particular moment in history.
In researching historic events to provide temporal context for the story, I discovered that these past events were precursors and portents of our present moment in time. Issues that Lissa and fellow baby boomers grew up with have echoed forward to influence ongoing political and cultural movements, events, and issues that contemporary readers face today. For example, #MeToo picks up where women’s liberation left off. The struggles of the civil rights movement continue to fester and mutate into new tensions that persist among races and ethnic groups. Fears of Soviet influence, generated by the space race and Cuban missile crisis, are resurging as apprehensions of Russian cyber warfare, election meddling, and political manipulation. The fact that history recycles—evolving, progressing, digressing, repeating—underscores the appeal of mid-twentieth century historical fiction.
Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Christine. Best wishes for your novel.
At the Far End of Nowhere by Christine Davis Merriman — In this hauntingly unconventional novel, young Lissa Power challenges the imagination and captures the heart as she struggles to grow up under the guidance of her father, Stouten―a watchmaker, inventor, and mechanical wizard―who is easily old enough to be her grandfather.
When Lissa is twelve, her mother dies from breast cancer, and the reclusive old watchmaker, now 84 years old, must oversee his daughter’s coming of age. Faced with the loneliness of celibacy, the vulnerability of old age, and the responsibility of supporting two young children, Stouten remains determined to protect his beloved daughter from all harm. As Lissa matures, Stouten’s authority becomes increasingly restrictive.
Against a backdrop of tumultuous events in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s―the Cold War, political assassinations, the Vietnam War, peace protests, the Civil Rights movement, the moon landing, and the women’s liberation movement―Stouten uses storytelling to transport Lissa back with him to the time of his childhood―when horses and oxen plowed the fields and folks moved more slowly, with the rhythm of nature. Here At the Far End of Nowhere, father and daughter weave fact with fiction and merge reality with fantasy to reveal a broader truth.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.