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Steven L. Peck's intriguing, literary narrative follows Gilda Trillim's many adventures; from her origins on a potato farm in Idaho, to an Orthodox Convent in the Soviet Union, to her life as a badminton champion... When Gilda is taken prisoner during the Vietnam war, she finds comfort in the company of the rats who cohabit her cell. Follow Gilda as she struggles to comprehend the meaning of life in this uncanny, philosophical novel which explores Mormonism, spirituality and what it means to be human.
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Vignette 1: Gilda Trillim's Maternal Great-Grandfather Arnfinnur Skáldskapur.
As is traditional when one explores a life, it is not out of order to make a brief stop to examine Gilda's roots. I would like to look at one ancestor in particular to better situate and frame her unusual vivacity. Her maternal great-grandfather I believe captures Gilda's spirit more than any other of her progenitors. It is not that others are unimportant — certainly not — but rather this one stands out in a way that portends Trillim's adventures. The others are largely of that hardy pioneer stock that many of the Mormon faithful will recognize and appreciate: hard working; determined, undaunted by hardship and discouragement. Legends every one of them, but heroes and heroines of a recognizable type and manner and as such need little introduction or elaboration. Her maternal great-grandfather is different.
Interestingly, her great-grandfather's name was first introduced to me in a page from my grandmother's journal long before the name Gilda Trillim meant anything to me at all. On the page, she makes a passing comment, "Oh that I were as lucky as Skaldskapur."
Arnfinnur Skaldskapur was an Icelandic sea captain who joined the Mormon Church while his ship was being refitted in Liverpool, England. He had a reputation for being something of an explorer-philosopher, yet he tended toward the fantastic. For example, he kept a journal of encounters with what he believed were mermaids. They were always sighted at some distance, so it is easy to disregard the accounts from our modern perspective, which has no place for such creatures. However, Arn (as he was called) would not be dissuaded. One of his grandsons wrote in a letter to his sister from fin de siècle Paris, "Gramps Arny showed us his journal of sea people sightings when I was just a little tyke. I tried to tell him there weren't any such beasts as sea people but he would have non [sic.] of it. So I'm not surprised you cannot get him to take his medicine if he thinks it's been tampered with. Once something is in his head there is no talking him out of it."
After joining the Mormon Church in March 1866, he immediately resigned his captain's commission and left on the ship Arkwright with 450 other Saints under the direction of Justin Wixom. However, upon landing in the US in early July, he felt inspired to stay in New York and learn the art of daguerreotype photography and during the next five years became a well-known photographer of stage actors and actresses. In 1871, he took the Overland Route train to Salt Lake City, where he set up a photography business adjacent to a bank on the corner of Beech and Laurel streets. Soon after his arrival to Utah, he joined a gentlemen's club known as the Redbearded Horseshoers who met regularly to study the life and writings of Joseph Smith. He soon became the leader of the group. One of the few remaining pamphlets written by Arn contained the following paragraph:
"The Prophet Joseph Smith was a prophet and seer, but more than that he could wrestle the past into the future and vice-versa. I have it from John Taylor himself that when Brother Joseph found a treasure in the ground, the spirits that guarded it would try to pull it back deeper into the earth. But Joseph was more powerful than they all and he would lay hold upon it and with a yank heave it from the hands of those spirits. President Taylor said, "Now when he went to lay hold upon the gold plates those forces that make all things slippery tried to pull it down, but Joseph grabbed it by the rings and pulled, but he not only pulled up the plates he pulled the whole history of the Nephites into the world lock, stock and barrel. He made it real. Where once there was ordinary history he pulled into the universe sacred history.""
Arn began to teach that history was flexible and could be manipulated from the present moment just as much as it could influence the future. And through his photography Arn began to try to rewrite the past. He thought that through subtle manipulations he could do as he thought Joseph Smith had done to pull up new things into the past by a combination of faith and power.
He started his history manipulation experiments with small attempts at changing the past. He would photograph women in variously colored dresses. He would then hand-color the dress in the black and white photo a variant shade other than the one of which he had taken a picture. He would then save the hand-colored photo and approach the woman years later and show her the photo. When they disagreed on the original color, he would have her pull out the dress and examine it. His journal records years of failure, but as time passed, a series of successes began to appear. The blue dresses he was coloring red would be found in the possession of the woman, often after long storage in a cedar chest, actually turned to red. It seemed that the more recent past was harder to change (but not impossible). He reports that as his successes mounted he decided to try bolder manipulations of the past and would color the yellow dresses with, say, red and blue stripes. The discovery of the first red and blue striped dress stored by a widow named Rathbone sent shock waves through the Redbearded Horseshoers. There was talk of deception. However, the final proof came when a pale blue dress he had colored with white and red gingham turned up for which he clearly had no access. The dress had been taken by a woman and her husband down to the Mexican territories right after being photographed. Several of the more skeptical Horseshoers wrote to the woman, named Tantamount Lee, and asked her the state of her dress. She replied with the following:
"'Tis a strange thing. I had not seen that dress but a couple of times in the five years we've lived here, for after bearing (due to the good Lord's grace) three children in the same, I had not worn it for many years as the children had done much to rearrange my figure. I remember as clear as day that it was light blue in color. It had been in my daughter's hope chest for those five hard years and upon receipt of your letter, I dug through the chest until I found it near the bottom. Now, you will think me soft minded, but my memory of a blue dress must be set aside in light of what I found, for it was a red and white gingham dress. So I dug out the picture taken those many years ago and to my surprise it has always been a gingham dress (though the colors are hidden in the colorless original) for the pattern is as clear as day."
It was shortly after that that Arnfinnur Skaldskapur sold his photography business and became the man you are no doubt familiar with if you know any Salt Lake History at all. He became quite adept at things like finding Spanish treasure, or in having bank accounts he had never mentioned suddenly becoming available and holding thousands of dollars. Even things like people in places as far away as Chicago and New York leaving him vast sums of money in their wills. The Salt Lake Tribune called him "The Luckiest Man Alive."
Of course, as you know, that luck was not to hold. After being named as one of the Apostles, he was gunned down just after the century turned new. The man arrested was 77 years old and claimed Skaldskapur had stolen his wife, 45 years ago. Arnfinnur's wife had been engaged to this man apparently, yet they had never actually been married, so the shooter was thought to be mad.
His ideas on the present influencing the past are interesting. Science demands that I dismiss them, of course, but as Jorge Luis Borges says, "Reality is not always probable, or likely."
Vignette 2: Letter to Babs Lake — On Winning the Uber Cup, May 1957
I found the following fascinating letter in the Trillim Archives in Beijing during my last research trip. Her speculations are perhaps a little too bold, but do seem to portend certain trends in Mormon theology we see today. It was written to Babs Lake and dated May 19, 1957. It is intriguing to me because she draws on the work of Henri Bergson, the French/Polish philosopher whose work fascinated me during my time at the Claremont School of Theology. Bergson would have been much more well known in 1957 than he is today, but her tying his work to Mormon thought and theology reflects an extraordinarily deep understanding of contemporaneous evolutionary philosophy.
This work was highlighted in the 2010 Beijing Conference of the Gilda Trillim Society, and published in The Gilda Trillim Quarterly. I cannot tell you how exciting I find these developments.
I've transcribed the whole letter, which was written in Trillim's rather bold, sloppy cursive. It took a bit of work to decipher. Some words I just could not make out (guesses are noted below in italics). She is also an abysmal speller, for which I have deep and abiding sympathies.
I must tell you about the mornings. At first light a strident rooster floods my dreams with his urgent boasts and slowly, very slowly, I slide into the realities of this new world. The air is heavy and thick and graced with a first-light temptation to pull the sheets back over my head to reprimand the dawn for its disturbance, but the bright glow shining through the jalousie carries with it the humid smells of breakfast fires, the river's stench of human wastes, and the essence of an odd foreignness, which drives my bare feet to the wood slats of the floor. I sit up panting in a slight panic because I have trouble remembering where I am and what I'm doing amid such strangeness. Then I fall back into the bed. I lie for a while running through the metaphors that I will use to describe this place to you. The rattle of a cart is like ... the rattle of a cart. The voice of the woman in the street berating her husband resembles . the voice of a woman berating her husband. I think I am thwarted in my literary attempts because the otherness of this place is too new. Too striking. My mind finds it is all too novel to make the connections between these fresh sensual experiences and mere words. In short, everything is like nothing. I arise each morning on the edge of a horizon over which I've never peered. No wonder delight seems my constant companion.
Well, it's time to give you the tale in full. You've received postcard after postcard from me promising that I will give you the details in the elusive 'soon.' How weary you must be at my promises and lack of delivery! Well, settle back in your chair and prepare to have unleashed upon your beautiful head more details than you could possibly ever want. You poor dear. With friends like me, it's either feast or famine on the news front I'm afraid.
As you heard, we demolished the Danish in the final match of the Uber Cup. It was glorious. It was a first-class smashing. I'll have to say this without pussyfooting rococo hubris, because it is a fact that I was brilliant. I had a move that
After the tournament, at a banquet honoring our American victory, a British fellow and an Indian filmmaker approached me about helping others learn my trick. How could I turn down a trip to Pune, India the birthplace of our sport? My novel is well-stuck and I was doubting my ability to pull it off by the publisher's deadline (soft, self-imposed, not a fixed point) so thought why not? I knew that you would yet be busy helping your family with the
Remember that semester we accidentally took that philosophy class? I still laugh when I think we signed up for a graduate course in Mereology thinking it was a class in mere-ology — an approach to art from the most minimal of expressions — like my own novels. I thought we would be listening to Moondog's music or looking at Mondrian's paintings. What's funny is we didn't know we were in the wrong class until midterm! Hilarious. But you'll remember Professor Boehme was always trying to carve the world into its parts and patch together wholes and, as you'll recall, pretty much wholes were just sums of parts. (Remember his thick Austrian accent trying to get us to learn mathematical Set Theory [Ze Un-i-yon ov de elements iz ze whol-le]! I still think he was in love with you, you got the impossible ninety-eight on your midterm while I got a twenty-three? Come now, we studied together the whole time! Oh, the romance that could have been, eh?)
Anyway, my sponsors, the American and the Indian (they are paranoid and secretive and likely delusional, but they have asked me not to write in a letter their names as 'communiqués' might be read in the post office here ['Hello' to whomsoever is reading this! Say hello to your paranoid handlers]) were determined to design a set of techniques that would make the 'Trillim Lift' just a matter of following steps A through Z. Like Prof. Boehme, they thought the 'technique' could just be carved from a set of individual movements that when added together could be summed into the successful execution of the move. What a disaster. First they tried to film me doing it, but I couldn't! I just couldn't do it on command. They would lob at me perfect setups for the move, but when I tried to do it, I just fell apart (and sometimes even fell down). I just could not manage it when I was trying to think about it. This won't surprise you. The real execution is nothing less than the instinctual level of play that occurs during a match, much like when I throw a tennis ball to our dog and she becomes one with the entire enterprise. Nothing surprising in the observation that it does not take thinking to play badminton well, and that once you've given your body the motions over and over it gets good at doing it without bothering to inform you what it is doing. To me it is not interesting or surprising that the brain learns to take short cuts away from conscious thought and its grinding slowness (especially in me).
But what does intrigue me, is what I am and where the me comes from when doing that lift! Boehme's little part/whole debacle fails! Set theory cannot touch it, because it's a folded up thing that no simple summation or partition can ever get its greedy little claws into.
Certainly, with Boehme, I would agree I'm a boatload of objects. Even the 'lift' is an object (and yes I'm convinced a situation can often be an object, since all objects are situations!). So what is the lift? It has its roots in hopscotch, I think. The long hours I spent throwing my brother's hockey puck just so — it would have to land flat or it would roll away. Hop, hop, jump, hop, pick up, hop, hop, jump, hop, jump. Those motions were essential. Then there was the invention of badminton, the rules, the culture, the tools, the implements, rising into existence like a poem or a novel. Then it had to come to Idaho and capture the mind of Mrs. Beckwith who started a team. A thousand coincidences bouncing around and through things until I find myself in England, spinning around at just the right moment to capture the cup and crown, and the imagination of filmmakers who want to mass-produce the lift in an assembly line of motions. But the motions are not just pieces of a puzzle. They are rooted and grounded in the past in a way that cannot be separated from that past. Can it? I did learn the basics of the game in a way similar to what they are trying to do. Why should my lift be different from that, such that I think it unteachable? But maybe you need more than only the components of the lift, maybe you have to start by teaching hopscotch?
(I can see you raising a finger preparing to dissect this, your mouth twisting in that way that denotes flummoxed puzzlement, your brow furrowing, then lifting to one side as you ask, "So if the lift is an object, what sort is it? It certainly can be filmed. It has certain boundaries, fluffy ones true, but certainly there is a beginning and end. The beginning might be when the shuttle crosses the net? Or when your brain first discerns the trajectory of the shuttlecock's motion? Its end defined after the follow-through of your strike?" Any and all of these things I suppose.)
Excerpted from "Gilda Trillim: Shepherdess of Rats"
Copyright © 2016 Steven L. Peck.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Title Page of Katt's Thesis, 1,
Thesis Preface, 2,
Vignette 1: Gilda Trillim's Maternal Great-Grandfather Arnfinnur Skaldskapur, 11,
Vignette 2: Letter to Babs Lake — On Winning the Uber Cup, May 1957, 15,
Vignette 3: A Letter to Babs Lake on Relationships among Bottled Goods. Events Circa 1959, 24,
Vignette 4: Some Documents Compiled from Writings about Her Stay in a Soviet Orthodox Convent. Events Circa 1961, 33,
Vignette 5: Letter to Babs Lake about Her Studies in Junk Drawer Ecology. Events Circa 1964, 39,
Vignette 6: Notes for Gilda's Novel Muskrat Trap. Letter Written September 1965 about Events Circa 1949 with a Note Added around 1986, 46,
Vignette 7: Gilda's Reflections on Her Melancholy. Circa 1962, 59,
Vignette 8: Letter from Babs Lake to Her Mother Mathilda Lake. June 1962, 62,
Vignette 9: Trillim Cooks Emily Dickinson's Black Cake. Circa 1962, 70,
Vignette 10: An Account of Gilda's Vision under the South American Hallucinatory Drug Ayahuasca. Circa 1966, 75,
Vignette 11: Gilda's Poem My Turn on Earth. Written Circa 1951, 99,
Vignette 12: Trillim's POW Experience in Vietnam. 1968-1970, 115,
Vignette 13: Meditations at Apua Point, Big Island Hawaii. Circa 1972, 156,
Vignette 14 Trillim in New York Notes. Circa Late 1972, 185,
Vignette 15: Article from The Greenwich Peeper by Pseudonymous Author, 'Madam Alley Cat.' October 15, 1972, 187,
Vignette 16: Interview with Reporter Dob Klingford, Published in The Paris Review. July 3, 1981, 194,
Vignette 17: Gilda Writes an Event. Circa Summer 1983, 209,
Vignette 18: Letter from Trillim to Babs Lake from Nairobi, Kenya where Gilda was Teaching a Short Course in Writing. August 12, 1988, 211,
Vignette 19: Trillim's Reflections on Bodies. Journal Entry. La Sals, September 6, 1988, 222,
Vignette 20: Fragment from Travel Magazine Article: "Dreams of an Ancient Kingdom: Remembering Old Siam" by Rose Butler. Published Jan 15, 1989, 227,
Vignette 21: Gilda's Write-Up for Her Mother's Funeral. It Was Not Used there for Unknown Reasons. July 13, 1989, 229,
Vignette 22. Babs Lake's November 3, 1996, Letter to Her Mother, 236,
Vignette 23. A Small Fragment of a Text Supposedly from Gilda, Found in a Romance Novel, Discovered 2002, 252,
Vignette 24: Gilda's Final Note Written Two Months after Her Mother's Death. Given to Me by Babs Lake, 2013, 254,
My Thesis, 260,