17 February 2007

Oooh! Mr. Kotter! Mr. Kotter!

I so loved Frank McCourt's series about his childhood that I thought I would dip into Teacher Man: A Memoir, his memoir about teaching. It was an enjoyable read,featuring the same irascable, endearing Frank as was familiar to me before, and showing how the scrawny boy muddles his way through adulthood, just as the rest of us do.

McCourt's tale of life as a muddler while leading a classroom offers an interesting contrast; few such dedicated muddlers can manage to arrive on time for 8 am classes. McCourt doesn't deny or justify his muddling, or in any way apologize for it; similarly to Angela's Ashes or 'Tis he lays out the circumstances of his life without obligating the reader emotionally. This lack of obligation instead results in a purer response; when he isn't asking for your sympathy, he earns it.

Strangely enough, muddling through his days as a teacher McCourt gradually finds himself successful as a teacher. Many parts of the story read like they were left over bits from an episode of Welcome Back, Kotter. His story gives hope to all muddlers, that having a good heart and keeping with a job day after day might make one good at it.

04 February 2007


Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier
is an engaging story from the perspective of Will Cooper, a nonagenarian frontiersman of the late 19th and early 20th century. I just loved reading this book, engaging with this retired rapscallion and reading his reflective, moderated tale of excesses and reflection. There is a love story in the tale, of his ardent pursuit of the nearly unattainable Claire, and the twisted complications of their relationship. There is a story here about father-son relationships (or, fathers-son) and how the obligations of child to parent are borne beyond death. There is a place story here too, of how love for and understanding of a place - and one's sense of home in it - can drive one to places and positions that to outsiders seem insensible.

Comedy and tragedy in this novel are subtle and genuine. Comic moments arrive so quietly as to fade at times, in Bear's discussion of his romantic troubles, Will's mediation of tribal disputes, and the ineptitude of government representatves to the Nation in handling translators. Tragedy is also blurred and unfocused; the specific tragedies of an unfortunately gelded horse lead to a chain of unfortunate events and relationship ruptures. The miseries of the Cherokee in facing their relocation and the smallpox epidemic are seen aslant from the narrator, too dismal and dismaying to encompass head-on.

Will's zest for his mission in life, to create a stable place for his people, creates a nobility in this otherwise roguish character. His yearning and romantic idealization of Claire transform a lusty crush into something of more profound moment. In such a way the author reveals the thin margin that separates the mundane from the divine, and the routine from the extraordinary in a way that separates himself from the run-of-the mill storytellers available on any bookshelf. I highly recommend this novel.