Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell

Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell

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by Ellen Douglas

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In four haunting family stories, Ellen Douglas seeks to track down the truth—about herself, about her white Mississippi forebears, about their relationships to black Mississippians, and ultimately about their guilt as murderers of helpless slaves. Progressively searching further and further back in time, each of these four family tales involves collusion and

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In four haunting family stories, Ellen Douglas seeks to track down the truth—about herself, about her white Mississippi forebears, about their relationships to black Mississippians, and ultimately about their guilt as murderers of helpless slaves. Progressively searching further and further back in time, each of these four family tales involves collusion and secrets. In "Grant," a randy old uncle dying in the author's house is nursed by a beautiful black woman while his white family watches from a "respectful" distance. Who loves him better? When truth is death, who is braver facing it? In "Julia and Nellie," very close cousins make "a marriage in all but name" back in the days of easy scandal. The nature of the liaison never mentioned, the family waives its Presbyterian morality in the face of family deviance. In "Hampton," her grandmother's servant, who has constructed a world closed to whites, evades the author's tentative efforts at a meeting of minds. And finally, in "On Second Creek," Douglas confronts her obsession with the long-lost—or -buried—facts of the "examination and execution" of slaves who may or may not have plotted an uprising. Having published fiction for four decades, here she crosses over into the mirror world of historical fact. It's a book, she says, "about remembering and forgetting, seeing and ignoring, lying and truth-telling." It's about secrets, judgments, threats, danger, and willful amnesia. It's about the truth in fiction and the fiction in "truth." Praise for Ellen Douglas: "It's possible to think that some people were simply born to write. Ellen Douglas is just such a writer."—Richard Ford; "Proust wrote in one of his last letters, 'one must never be afraid of going too far, for the truth is beyond.' Ellen Douglas has taken this very much to heart and has sought the truth in a region beyond falsehood; through falsehood, in effect. It's a fascinating performance."—Shelby Foote.

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Editorial Reviews

Laura Jamison
...[N]ot so much dishy revelations as...intrepid inquiries as to how one approximates the truth....Douglas marches fearlessly through [the stories], surely getting closer to truth than most because she so boldly acknowledges its elusiveness. —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
After 40 years of exploring Southern life through fiction such as the NBA finalist, Apostles of Light, Mississippi native Douglas turns to nonfiction in these deeply felt reminiscences full of family skeletons, tragedies, crises and the ghosts of the Deep South. In "Grant," her husband's uncle, dying of cancer at 82, befriends an illiterate, devoted black caretaker and nurse, while his white relations virtually abandon him. In "Julia and Nellie," a tale of kinship, identity and religion, Julia Nutt, a family friend, defies convention and her Catholic upbringing by shacking up for decades with her married-but-separated Presbyterian first cousin, Dunbar Marshall. "Hampton" concerns Douglas' attempts to break down the wall of reserve and condescension surrounding her grandmother's African-American gardener/handyman/ butler, Hampton Elliot. The final true-life tale is her convoluted investigation of the brutal execution by whipping and hanging of 30 slaves in Natzchez, Miss., in 1861, after a summary "trial" occasioned by apparently phony allegations of plotting a slave uprising. Douglas digs up a distant cousin's handwritten, firsthand account of the massacre and meditates on the sins of her slaveholding ancestors--none of whom, to her knowledge, were involved in this incident. At 78, Douglas has delivered a beautifully written book that is haunted by death, by the weight of the past and by the myths that hold together or sunder families and friends.
Library Journal
In recounting these stories of her family and friends in Mississippi, Douglas, the author of seven books, including the novel Apostles of Light, and a finalist for the National Book Award, writes her first work of "truth" after a career in fiction, although as she points out, fact and fiction can become blurred when reaching deep into memory. From the description of the black woman who nursed her uncle as he dies of cancer to the exploration of her family's involvement in the execution of slaves suspected of plotting an uprising, her writing illustrates the relationship between her Mississippi forebears and the blacks they interacted with. More than memoir, these stories grapple with the race question in America since the Civil War, suggesting that understanding comes from knowing one's own condition as well as the other's. -- Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
At 78, southern novelist Douglas tells true tales about her Mississippi background. The characters include a man dying of cancer who is abandoned by his family and becomes devoted to a black nurse, a friend who lives for years with a married but separated minister, her grandmother's reserved gardener, and the whipping and hanging of 30 slaves in 1861 because of a phony uprising plot. No index or bibliography. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Laura Jamison
...[N]ot so much dishy revelations as...intrepid inquiries as to how one approximates the truth....Douglas marches fearlessly through [the stories], surely getting closer to truth than most because she so boldly acknowledges its elusiveness. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Earnest, searching inquiry into family and regional history and the pivotal but mutable role memory plays in both—by one of the true grand dames of southern letters. Douglas, author of seven books of fiction (Can't Quit You Baby; A Lifetime Burning; The Rock Cried Out;) turns to nonfiction, though her musings on the connections between life and art demonstrate how unsatisfactory genre classifications can be. As the narrative moves backward in time (each selection exploring an earlier period than the preceding one), the style changes from fiction to personal essay. "Grant," about a terminally ill uncle who moved in with Douglas' family, is a textbook example of the short story form. "Julia and Nellie" is a long, convoluted (and sometimes confusing) exploration of the tangled allegiances among small-town Southern families. The book is a kind of owning up: Douglas tells stories that, for reasons from personal shame to a need to protect relatives, she couldn't tell as a young woman. Striving to settle accounts, to discover a personal or historical truth, she runs up against her instincts as a novelist—an urge to extract meaning by fictionalizing, to imagine the cause of events which clash with her desire to record or discover what really happened. In some instances she's able (even willing) to invent. Mulling over the "ancient romance" at the heart of "Julia and Nellie," she dreams up several explanations for the scandalous common-law marriage of distant cousins, then rejects them as too romantic. In others ("Hampton" and "On Second Creek," in which she strives to understand the 1861 massacre of slaves belonging to her family), neither her fictionalizingnor the spotty family record is enough to fill in the missing links. Slightly more valuable for its insight into Douglas' fiction than for what it says about history's subjective biases a must for Douglas fans, but instructive still for students of southern history.

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Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.36(w) x 7.24(h) x 0.86(d)

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Chapter One

       This is a story that has been waiting for me--and now I am old enough to tell it. Not that I had forgotten. How could I forget what happened in my house, under my nose, to me? I even thought from time to time about telling one of the stories that lay next to it, so to speak. There were the bees the night Grant died. There was Rosalie, who sat by him every day when he was dying, beautiful Rosalie, who had five children and sometimes came to work with a cut lip, a battered nose, a bruised temple. There were the day walks, the night walks. But I didn't want to tell those stories. Nothing came of thinking about them.

    My husband's uncle came to live with us during the last year of his life. He was eighty-two. His wife had died several years earlier and he had no children. He had cancer.

    He could have gone to a veterans' hospital--he was an Annapolis graduate, a retired naval officer. And there were other possibilities. Once he was too feeble to look after himself, he could have hired live-in help or gone into a nursing home. But we invited, insisted, and he came.

    I knew him as one knows uncles-in-law who live in the same town--as a genial enough fellow who brought his fiddle to family Thanksgiving gatherings and played badly to my husband's piano accompaniment. I can see him now on those occasions, fiddle tucked under his chin, standing over the piano, stooping to read the music, an expression of deep but clearly ironic concentration on his face, his head bent, light bouncing off the balding scalp. They'd play easy pieces from a collection of violin and piano duets: "None but the Lonely Heart," "Humoresque," a Schubert serenade. After they finished a piece he'd sit down, lay the violin across his lap, and smile. "I always have trouble with the triplets in that one," he might say. And his mother, nearly ninety then and nodding in her wheelchair: "Grant plays so well. It's a pity his violin squeaks."

    That was a family joke.

    So ... Why did we invite him in? Well, again, family--he was family. One couldn't send him off to a veterans' hospital or put him in a home, could one? But I'm misstating the case. No one could send him anywhere. He was perfectly capable of sending himself anywhere he wished, or of staying where he was, in the house his wife had left to her own niece and nephew.

    Now there's another story. His wife, Kathleen, who was fifteen years younger than he, had died suddenly of a stroke. She'd doubtless always believed he would die first (he'd been retired early from the navy after a coronary) and had consequently left him nothing. The house and what other modest property they had was in her name. His name was not even mentioned in her will.

    Grant could have contested it, of course: in our state you can't leave all your property away from a spouse. But he would never have done such a dishonorable thing. In her will she had said what she wanted. It would be done.

    In their dealings with him the niece and nephew were correct, but they were a cold pair to my way of thinking. Or maybe it's just that they were like me, had other things to think about besides aged uncles-in-law. They gave him permission to live in the house for the rest of his life. So that there would be no confusion about the title, they paid the taxes and he reimbursed them. They didn't charge him any rent. He paid repairs and upkeep.

    Now I ask you, no matter how much younger you were than your husband, no matter if he'd had a coronary, would you leave everything away from him? Wouldn't you think he might by chance survive you? You might get run over by a truck or stung to death by hornets or drown or get trapped in a burning house, or God knows what. Surely you would mention in your will the name of your husband of forty years.

    The only light he shed on this story came when he moved in with us and was clearing out of her house the things that belonged to him. He brought with him his clothes, a couple of canvas-covered wicker trunks from his tour in the Philippines before the First World War, a beautiful Japanese tea set, some brass trays from India, a huge piece of tapa cloth, his easy chair. Everything else--the furniture, his wedding silver, china, linens, even the lovely carved cherry bed he'd had made for them by a local cabinetmaker--"All that stuff," he said, "I got it for her. It was hers. She left everything to them. So ..."

    He brought his navy dress uniform and his cocked hat, circa 1911. They're still in a closet somewhere in our house, the uniform in a mothproof bag, the hat stored in its leather case.

    His sword he had given some years earlier to one of our sons. His violin he gave to my husband.

    I think of one ray of light his wife shed on their marriage, although, I don't know, it may be misleading.

    She was one of those large, soft-looking women, fair haired and blue eyed, who, statistical studies indicate, are most vulnerable in middle age to gall bladder attacks and diverticulitis. And indeed she did have the latter, although not for long, since she died when she was sixty.

    In any case, what she said surprised me. She'd always seemed an easygoing, lively lady, ready for a good time, and I would have thought her tolerant of other people's foibles and failures and moral lapses. Not so, or not everybody's. We were talking of a man in the county who had left his wife for a woman who was widely known to have had in the course of her life a number of open love affairs--not so common among the smalltown gentry of a couple of generations ago. I mean, people had clandestine affairs, of course, but not open ones. "She's filth" Grant's wife said to me when I commented once on this lady's charm and wit. "Filth. That's what they both are." She shivered and looked straight at me. (This was when I was quite a young woman, still focused almost to the exclusion of everything else on those lovely nights in bed.) "Men," she said. "There's only one thing men want and she gives it to them."

    So, as you see, there's the story of their marriage, if one could dredge it up. And then ... There's Rosalie.

    But I think, instead, of the day Grant gave his sword to our second son. This was after his wife's death, but long before he came to live with us. As I've said, he had no sons of his own and my husband was the only child of his brother. There were no children of his blood except ours. He came walking slowly up the driveway the afternoon of our son's tenth birthday, bearing the sword in its leather scabbard with the gold tassel attached at the hilt. He didn't have a particularly soldierly bearing, looked more like a slightly seedy, gentle-mannered farmer than a potential admiral. Ross, our son, and three or four of his friends were sitting around a trestle table eating ice cream. Ross had been alerted ahead of time that his great-uncle intended to give him his sword and we had explained that this was a significant gift and he should feel honored. He stood up very straight and looked solemn and said thank you, but it was clear to me he was unimpressed--didn't quite know what use this sword, almost as tall as he was, would be to him. He and his friends were organizing a war with another neighborhood gang for the next day. Mud balls and BB guns would be their weapons of choice. We invited Grant in and he sat and had a drink with us. He was always convivial, happy to join you in a drink, never at a loss for words, often the butt of his own jokes.

    So he came to live with us the last year of his life. He had refused treatment for the cancer. "I'm too old to let somebody cut on me," he'd said. "It's out of the question." He knew that he probably had less than a year to live.

    The first few months he used to take a long walk every morning through the humming, buzzing late-spring world, bees swarming around the honeysuckle vines on the back fence, towhees calling, flickers drilling for bugs in the bark of the pecan tree, squirrels chasing each other up and down the trunk. He'd walk slowly, head a little forward, determined to go as far as he could; and then he'd return even more slowly, going to his room by the side door into the wing. He'd stop there sometimes and watch the squirrels. One day he pointed out to me that a wren had built her nest in the potted fern by the side door.

    I never joined him on these walks. I didn't have time.


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What People are saying about this

Ursula Hegi
Unsettling. Brilliant. Urgent and relentless in [her] search for truth--a truth.
Russell Banks
The power and depth of a brilliant novel....reminds me of the best of Eudora Welty.
Percy Walker
[Ellen Douglas] "is like nobody else. [She] attacks with unladylike power and gusto, with a style at once cheerful and sardonic, with a kind of black-hearted good humor, and with an inventiveness which puts some outlandish folk up to some wondrous doings."

Meet the Author

Ellen Douglas is the pseudonym for Josephine Haxton, whose family roots extend back to the earliest settlements in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Her fiction has won many prizes, including the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, the Hillsdale Prize for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. She lives now in Jackson, Mississippi.

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Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
cliched, predictable....overrated