One of my favorite places to sit in the summer is on the front deck we had built a few years ago. Soon after it was built, my husband bought me a nice little bistro table and chairs that fits perfectly there, where I love to sit, sip ice tea, lemonade, or an occasional glass of wine, and read. Every now and then, I will look up to admire another great gift from my husband, our now full-grown Japanese maple.
I squirrel away books I don’t have time to read all year and wait for the precious months without teaching to sit on the deck and read. This summer is no different.
I have never been a fast reader, which may seem strange for an English teacher. Of course, if the writing is not particularly special or the characters are not deep, but the book has a good plot, I have been known to flit through it pretty quickly, but when I want to live with the author and the world she or he has created, ahhhh, what a pleasure to have the time to linger.
And that’s why I love our deck, my pretty bistro table and chairs, the cool Carolina mountain mornings, and the time my profession allows me to read.
So what is Mrs. Winkler reading this summer?
The first book I finished since my school duties have been over is The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash, who was one of the speakers at a North Carolina Writers’ Network Conference I attended a couple of years ago. I had heard him speak when his first book, A Land More Kind Than Home, was beginning to enjoy considerable success and had enjoyed that book, so I was eager to purchase The Last Ballad, especially after hearing him speak. I had The Last Ballad at the top of my stack to read this summer.
The Last Ballad is a historical novel, based on the 1929 North Carolina cotton mill uprisings and attempted unionization of the mills. The protagonist, Ella May Wiggins, is based on a real historical figure. The real-life Wiggins, the mother of nine, became a union organizer after four of her children died from whooping cough. She had asked to be put on the day shift so she could tend to her sick children but was denied. Cash’s book fictionalizes the story but is obviously well-researched and stays true to the time it was written.
Because my paternal grandmother worked in a cotton mill in Alabama from the time she was fourteen until she retired, part of that time as a single parent, this story particularly resonates with me. Some of my family members say that my great-grandfather had been part of an attempt to unionize the mill and was blacklisted, but I have been unable to verify that. Again, my personal connection to the work helped make it an especially meaningful read.
The historical novel is one of my favorite genres. If the book is well-researched and written, I love learning something new about history as I read an interesting and thought-provoking story with vibrant characters, like those in Wiley Cash’s book The Last Ballad.
Way back in July 2014, I wrote about my wonderful Uncle El, who introduced me to the works of Georgette Heyer. Although she is known mainly for her Regency romance novels, Heyer was also interested in history and wrote several novels outside of the early 19th Century time -period of most of her well-known novels, all of which I have read–some of them multiple times.
I thought I had read all of her books until I discovered The Great Roxhythe, Heyer’s 2nd novel, written when she was only 19-years-old. It takes place during the Restoration Period following the British Civil Wars, telling the story of the deceptively foppish Most Noble Marquis of Roxhythe. Like many of Heyer’s heroes, he is decried as a rake and a libertine, but to King Charles II, he is a most trusted and devoted friend, using his sullied reputation as a way to secretly serve the king.
Like The Last Ballad, The Great Roxhythe is impeccably researched and offers great insight into a time period that I am eager to learn more about. At the same time, the novel has the rich characters, witty dialogue, and insight into the culture of the time that I have always enjoyed about Heyer’s romances, but it is not typical of her work.
Jennifer Kloester, whose book Georgette Heyer’s Regency World, is a must read for anyone interested in the period, writes in the biography of Heyer that the author actually repressed sales of The Great Roxhythe, calling it “This immature, ill-fated work” (57).
Before I read Kloester’s biography, I supposed that Heyer’s distaste for the book was based on immature writing or poorly drawn characters, but the novel has neither of these. Since she was a stickler for accurate historical fact, perhaps she felt the research was not up to the more mature writer’s standards? But now that I am reading the book, I see things differently.
There is romance in the book, but not between a man and a woman. The romantic love shown so strongly is the kind of love men have for their leaders and leaders have for those men they must trust with their lives. The Great Roxhythe and the king share this kind of platonic love, but they are not the main ones.
It is Christopher Dart, the young man who becomes the secretary to Roxhythe, who is absolutely smitten with his Lord and expresses his devotion in the most romantic of ways. Kloester notes in the biography the manner of the relationship between Roxhythe and Dart did not seem to stir any controversy when it was published in 1921, but that in 1951 when it was republished against Heyer’s wishes, some may have started to see homosexual overtones in her work that Heyer did not intend and that this is what caused the author to reject the work (58).
I tend to agree; however, as I read more and more of the book, I am saddened that she felt the need to suppress her work for any reason. After all, if one studies and reads the literature and history of the 17th Century, it was not uncommon at all for older men to have proteges that they found beautiful (think Shakespeare’s sonnets). And those proteges had great love for the older men who guided them to manhood.
Heyer’s work, written when she was very young, is charming in its innocent approach to a close relationship between an older and a younger man. It may be naive, but I find it refreshing to read a book, written by one of the greatest romance novelist of the 20th Century, whose central romantic relationship is a platonic one–between two men.
Cash, Wiley. The Last Ballad. William Morrow, 2017.
Heyer, Georgette. The Great Roxhythe. Important Books, 2014.
Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer. Sourcebooks, 2013, pp. 57-58.
—. Georgette Heyer’s Regency World. Sourcebooks, 2010.