I had mixed reactions to Bruce Machart’s debut novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, which looks deep into the heart of two generations of Texas farmers in Lavaca County, beginning at the turn of the century. While it was undeniably well-written, it was also demanding in terms of its twisting, interminable sentences. After a while I began to think of them as symbols for the coiled emotions of the characters, most of them men whose motherless childhoods or brutal upbringing had left them guarded, their wellsprings of feeling kept buried with whiskey and cruelty.
The story takes place in South Texas, hopskotching back and forth from 1895 to 1910 and 1924. The setting is stark, though often beautiful, and the characters are mainly Czechs who emigrated during the mid-19th century, naming their towns after the old country: Praha, Breslau, Bohemia, Bila Hora, Dubina. We meet Vaclav Skala, a hardbitten cotton farmer, in the opening pages, as he stands by helplessly, watching as his wife dies in childbirth:
The blood had come hard from her, so much of it that, when Vaclav Skala awoke in wet bed linens to find her curled up against him on her side, moaning and glazed with sweat, rosary beads twisted around her clenched fingers, he smiled at the thought that she’d finally broken her water. He pulled back the quilt, a wedding gift sent six years before from his mother in the old country, and kissed Klara on the forehead before climbing from bed to light the lamp. He struck a match, and there it was, streaked down his legs and matted in the coarse hair on his thighs – dark and half-dried smears of his wife’s blood.
And it kept coming. He saddled his horse and rode shivering under a cloudless midnight sky to the Janek farm to fetch Edna, the midwife. By the time they made it back, Klara’s eyes were open but glazed in such a way that they knew she wasn’t seeing through them anymore. Her pale lips moved without giving voice to her final prayer, which entreated the child to come or her own spirit to stay, either one.
When the baby arrived, their fourth boy, blood slicked and clot flecked, he appeared to have been as much ripped from flesh as born of it. Klara was lost, and Edna tended to what had been saved, pinching the little thing’s toe to get the breathing started, cleaning him with a rag dipped in warm milk and water, wrapping him in a blanket.
Vaclav Skala stood at the foot of the bed, grinding his back teeth slowly against a stringy mash of tobacco he’d chewed flavorless half an hour before.
The townsfolk would assume, from this day forward, that Klara’s death had turned a gentle man bitter and hard, but the truth, Vaclav knew, was that her absence only rendered him, again, the man he’d been before he met her…
As proof of this bitterness, the next time we see the Skala children, they’ve grown big enough to work Skala’s fields, and like some medieval overlord, Skala harnesses them together by twos and uses them as oxen, a habit that will permanently kink all their necks to the side. He walks behind them, “periodically cracking a whip to keep the boys focused and the rows straight,” as if this inhuman practice was the most natural thing in the world.
Imagery like this gives Machart’s book the look of a Greek myth or a Grimm’s fairy tale, and the next development is no less unreal: One day while Skala is out in the cotton fields, a darkly elegant stranger driving a surrey pulled by two handsome horses shows up, and what do you know but he’s got three beautiful daughters he wants to offer as brides to Skala’s boys.
When a sneering Skala rejects the offer out of hand—you can take “your little split-tails,” he says, and go home—the other father, whose name is Guillermo Villasenor, a Spaniard from Guanajuator, cooly ups the ante: “I hear,” he says to Skala, “you’ve got a pair of good-running horses.” He refers to two “towering quarter horses” Skala bought a few years back, and has been racing ever since, the outcome of each contest adding to his sizable parcel—largely because he has instructed his youngest son, Karel, the rider, to cheat. Karel, the boy who never knew his own mother, has never known his father’s touch, either. Winning the horse races, regardless of the cost, is his only way of gaining Skala’s approval.
Every wager in a fairy tale has a catch. Here, it’s that Villasenor only has three daughters. He proposes a race between one of his horses and one of Skala’s; if his wins, his daughters marry the three older Skala boys. If Skala’s horse wins, Villasenor will forfeit more land to Skala’s kingdom.
Karel and his father hardly consider the possibility of losing: in the years since his father discovered Karel’s talented horsemanship, he has never lost a race. But the outcome of this one will reverberate down the years: from 1910, when it takes place, to 1924, after Karel and his brothers have been estranged for 15 years, and events force him to come to terms with the legacy of his father’s—and his own—stubborn unwillingness to forgive.
Told mainly from Karel’s point of view, The Wake of Forgiveness is a brooding tale as harsh as the frontier Texas town it takes place in and as full of meanness as one of Skala’s dirty races. Its language is dense and meaty, the dialogue reflecting the macho posturing of the Czech community: Men who spend most of the book belching, spitting tobacco, and anesthetizing their feelings with whiskey, humiliate each other with sly references to their own virility and their enemies’ lack of it. Any sign of weakness and the insults fly: “Little pigtailed sister,” they call each other; of a sensitive man, Skala sneers, “Not a man here who doesn’t know you sit down to piss.”
Yet the imagery and language Machart uses to paint a picture of this harsh land and the even harsher men who inhabit it is female: lush, lyrical and providing a kind of antidote to the heavy doses of testosterone, as in this glimpse of the sky on the night of the fateful race: A sliver of moon flashes behind the low scrim of clouds with all the coy promise of a woman’s pale skin showing itself beneath the sheer guise of worn stockings.
And despite its masculine swagger, the novel’s most dramatic events are set into motion by women—Karel’s mother, the girl he rides against in the race, his pregnant wife, the midwife who nursed him—and the emotional cost of growing up motherless haunts all its characters, male and female.
In a recent interview, Machart says,
My paternal grandfather was Czech, born in Praha, Texas, and baptized at St. Mary’s, which plays a significant role in the novel. He later moved to Weid, and he and my grandmother, who was German, met at a dance in Moulton. All of these places have found their way into the novel. I recently discovered that my great-great-great uncle was a founding member of the Shiner Brewing Association, basically a bunch of Czech immigrants who were homesick for good pilsner.
Machart reserves most of his attention for the emotional currents and strong spirit of revenge and retribution that drives his characters, but sketches in a background of Czech culture in the pastries the farm women bake, the music played at the church dances, the beer, sausage-making, and slightly stilted language, which suggests, without ever using a Czech word, the fact that until about 1870, these immigrant communities rarely spoke any English.
The Wake of Forgiveness tells a powerful story about American life, the children in the book representative of many who lost a mother—or both parents—in epidemics, accidents, childbirth and ocean crossings back in the early part of the 20th century. It asks what options there are when a child grows up without a mother’s kindnesses and gentle touches. How do you connect with that forgiveness, that kindness in yourself if you’ve only ever seen it from afar?—or, as Karel does, in an old picture of his mother wearing her wedding dress, that his brothers sneak out of their father’s room whenever Karel cries for his mama.
Read an excerpt here.
Because the theme of motherless children runs through the book—almost everyone in the second generation of the town has lost a mother—it also made me think about my own family. Growing up, I was told that both my great-grandparents died in a flu epidemic, explaining why my grandfather worked as a child on the railroad in Illinois. Only a few years ago, shuffling through endless census records online, I found a record of my grandmother—still very much alive, and now reunited with my grandfather in 1920s Chicago—and realized that she had given him up probably because she had no means of providing for him, so farmed him out to one of his grown brothers, who put him to work on the railroad.
My grandfather was barely into his teens when he lost four fingers of his left hand when it was crushed between the coupling of two railroad cars. A quick-thinking bystander plunged my granddad’s hand into a nearby vat of engine grease to stop the bleeding. Then they put him on a streetcar, heading for the nearest hospital, not a short trip, according to my dad. At that time, he had no real mother to go home to—only the same kind of unsympathetic characters found throughout Machart’s book.
P.S. Between the holidays and the holiday cold that repelled every cure known to man, I have fallen behind in my blogging. Recent reading includes the long-awaited second book (Swamplandia!) from Karen Russell, whose St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006) was so promising; Rodney Crowell’s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks; House of Prayer #2, another long-awaited followup to Mark Richard’s Charity (1999); and the posthumous collection of short stories, Long, Last, Happy, from late, great master Barry Hannah. I’ll try to get to them all.
Another unread stack awaits: Georgia Bottoms, by Mark Childress; Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier; Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones’ newest; Miracles, by T.J. Forrester; and Witches on the Road Tonight, by Sheri Holman.
I wish I had two brains and four eyes.
Meanwhile, here’s some classic Texas entertainment: