Guilty Pleasures

Is it The Eagles who sing, “You revel in the guilt, you revel in the shame…”????

by Tom Franklin

The Shame:

At first, I thought it was a documentary, it was so crisp  and terse and matter-of-fact. Then I stuck my finger in my place so I could look at the cover, and I realized Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was an Edgar Award Nominee for Best Novel– not a non-fiction work at all.  As I read deeper into the tale, it became clear that this was wonderful story-telling, but I never lost the feeling that this story could well be true.

And I felt sorry for Larry Ott.

Larry Ott got up every day and went to work at the garage he owned, waiting for a car to fix. The only ones that came were out-of-towners, people who didn’t know Larry’s history.

People in town believed Larry guilty of a heinous crime.  So he lived a life alone, alone, alone–caring for his mother, institutionalized as her dementia grew increasingly severe, keeping his house scrupulously clean, waiting quietly while teenagers, laughing, trashed his mailbox yet again, while a drunk smashed his truck’s windshield yet again.

Larry was never formally accused or indicted or convicted, but since the Walker girl went missing, back when he was in high school,–went missing the night of their one and only date,–Larry’d been in another kind of prison. He lived in his own shame, inflicted and convicted by the people of his town. He escaped only when he went into the service.  There, he learned his craft, but then his father died and it was clear his mother needed care.

So Larry went back home to a community that despised him.

Silas, too, escaped after high school, but returned to the little town.  He returned as a hero, though–Silas is known by the number on his sports jersey, 32; he’s known for his exploits on the playing field.  And he returns as an officer of the law.

One white, one black.  One judged guilty, one held in high esteem.  Each branded by what a small town southern community believes to be true.  There are secrets to be discovered in this book, but they are not the obvious ones.

I’d never heard the saying ‘Crooked letter, crooked letter’–which, the book explains, is the way southern children learn to spell Mississippi…not the M-i-double ess-i-double ess-i-pp-i that I grew up with.  And the racial issues, the secrets of intermingling blood, may be uniquely Mississippian.  But there are universal truths about small towns in this book.

There are safeties and there are strangleholds in staying in the small town where you grew up.  In a small town, you can find a 52 year old man, father long dead, who’s still known as Little Joe.  You can find people who remember high school ‘high jinks’ long after the high schoolers have grown up, gotten jobs, become parents.  It’s like you cast a long shadow as a child, and, if you stay in that place, you just keep walking into it.

Your own acts feed the shadow.  Your family’s acts do too.

That can happen anywhere in the United States–north, south, east west.  That, maybe, is true, anywhere in the world.

But there are comforts, too–the comfort of not having to explain or pretend.  Maybe there’s the hope of a change, of some kind of redemption, as we search the faces of the people we have seen every week since we were old enough to remember.

Some leave and do well.  Some stay and thrive.  Some stay and are shunned.  Some return and carry a new aurora into a renewed membership in whatever clan or society they once vacated.

Why did Larry stay?  Why did Silas come back? This is a book you need to read.


Tom Franklin, the author Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a Mississippi native; he teaches at the University of Mississippi, and lives in Oxford with his family.



The Guilt:

A testing situation shows a young girl that she has a range of abilities and potentials, but her society requires her to pick just one on which to focus.  She chooses the path that is as different from her upbringing as it could  possibly be, and begins a tale of change and growth, of revelation and cataclysm. And begins, too, her everlasting feelings of guilt–at leaving her family, at the acts she is forced by her choices and her society to make.

It’s Tris’s story, of course, in Divergent, the first of Veronica Roth’s trilogy of novels that follow Tris through dystopian challenges, danger, and losses–in addition to all the normal changes of moving into young adulthood.  Tris challenges the beliefs she’s grown up with; she meets a kindred spirit and falls in love; she is forced to make choices that will hurt someone, no matter how she chooses.  There is no way to avoid the guilt.

Tris grew up in the Abnegation faction, a group that sublimates self in service for the greater good. In this post-apocalyptic Chicago world, there are five factions young people choose from when the time arrives: Abnegation, Amity (seeking harmony among all parties), Erudite (using learning to make the society better for all), Dauntless (developing members’ bravery and defense skills to use in keeping everyone safe), and Candor, whose members are committed to reflecting the truth back to all.

Tris’s test results were very unusual: she could have selected among three of the factions.  Results like that are called ‘divergent’, and people in that category have abilities that frighten the leaders of Tris’s world.  Her choice of Dauntless makes her grow in surprising ways, and her training positions her to be in the midst of the action when one faction plans a surprise attack.

It’s a darned good story.  My son thoughtfully gifted me with the whole set for Christmas, and I am rewarding myself for completing a ‘mandatory’ read by allowing myself to read the next book in the series.  So I am happily a quarter of the way into Insurgent, and I will tell you no more–except that Roth’s books are compelling reads, and not just for young adults.  I look forward to reading the series and then beginning to watch the movies based on them.  Is this a guilty pleasure??

I can live with it.


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