Simon the Fiddler

Reading Paulette Jiles’ Simon the Fiddler was like a quiet meditation at first, which is probably just what I needed.  I read slowly, taking in the author’s poetic style, the bits of song interspersed in the narrative, her all encompassing descriptions of the wild land from Ohio to Texas in post Civil War America.   If life seems difficult now, imagining those old times with yellow fever and impossible living conditions, had the unexpected side effect of an appreciation for today’s modern progress, such as it is.

Despite the pull of Confederate  conscription, the misery of military camps, and later the task of making a living as a musician, Simon is an optimist and a realist.  Coming from hardscrabble beginnings in Kentucky, he is determined to use his talent to make a good life for himself.  After the war is over, he manages to pull together a quartet, who with borrowed clean white shirts, follow the music from his violin to entertain – for money.

When Simon meets Doris, an Irish immigrant and indentured servant to a Union officer, he falls in love.  Through years of secret but limited correspondence, as she travels to San Antonio with the officer’s family, and he makes his way through Galveston playing his fiddle to save money for land and a wife, they form a bond until they finally meet again.  During this sojourn, Jiles slowly reveals the beauty of the land and its challenges.  Simon’s confrontation with an alligator is a highlight.

Finally, the action begins with Simon and Doris reunited in San Antonio, with romance sizzling as Doris plays the piano and Simon his fiddle. The story takes on a thrilling pace – intrigue, secret meetings, threats – culminating in a confrontation in a bar, ending badly.  All seems lost at the end – Simon in jail accused of murdering a man, the violin destroyed, and Simon beaten and wounded – from slashes to his gut to crushed knuckles.  And Doris?  Could she escape the Colonel’s sexual advances?

All ends well, thank goodness, because by this time I had invested a lot of time in Simon.  But the ending is not all sunsets and roses.  Jiles’ last notes are:

He saw all the hard road before them unrolling like a scroll and their names there,  for better or for worse, written in the Book of Life.

And so, life goes on …

After reading and enjoying Paulette Jiles’ News of the World, I had some expectations for her new book.  But this book is longer and slower moving; for a while I wondered if anything would happen, but the descriptions, the language. and the music kept me going.  And, it was worth it; Jiles delivers a moving tribute to pioneers’ determination and grit.  Not all were farmers and ranchers – some were fiddlers.

Review: News of the World

The Drowning House


Galveston, Texas has always had the aura of the old wild west for me, but Elizabeth Black’s Gothic mystery – The Drowning House – reveals a sophisticated old city on a barrier island that reminded me of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The story mixes tragedy across decades, with the devastation of the Great Storm of September, 1900 as the historical backdrop.

Still despondent from the accidental death of her six-year-old daughter, photographer Clare Porterfield returns to her childhood home in Galveston to organize an exhibit from the town’s archives.  Galveston has the flavor of the deep South, not only with the oppressive heat and humidity, but also with the hierarchy of old family ancestry that separates those BOI (born on the island) from the tourists and outsiders.  At times, the pace of Black’s novel seems overwhelmed by the heavy atmosphere as the family secrets slowly unravel.

The Carraday family and their historic house form the base for the tangents of grief and mystery.  Local lore suggests that Stella Carraday drowned in the Great Storm that swept the island at the turn of the century; her hair was found tangled in the immense chandelier in the family mansion when the water level submerged roads, houses, and any escape from an overrun causeway.  Clare’s family home sits next to the Carraday house; her connections with the Carraday family, especially Patrick Carraday, her childhood soulmate and partner in juvenile pranks, hide the secrets that Black teases the reader with throughout the narrative – something sinister is lurking beneath the gracious veneer and hospitality.  How did Stella really die?  And why were Clare and Patrick sent away as teenagers to live apart from their families?  Eventually, all is resolved in an unsurprising ending, but with a few shocking revelations along the way.

Black’s style reminded me of Carol Goodman – author of The Lake of Dead Languages and Arcadia Falls – that same dark Gothic flavor, but with a much slower pace.  It took awhile to become engaged in the story; I found myself distracted by the finite descriptions of the place and the melancholy of the narrator.  Luckily, the pace suited my mood, and I enjoyed the tale, while learning a little about a piece of Texas I had not encountered before.