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SIMON THE FIDDLER


[Hear the plaintive song “Lorena” on his violin].

Anyone who read, News of the World by Paulette Jiles, might remember the name Simon “The Fiddler” Boudlin and the love of his life, Doris Dillon. Jiles’s newest work, Simon the Fiddler, brings the life of the young Paducah, Kentucky lad, Simon Boudlin to center stage. Jiles reminds us on her website:

“. . .  Simon from News of the World. . . was playing his fiddle in the Spanish Fort . . .  You remember the love of his life Doris Dillon. This is the story of how they met, how Simon survived the last battle of the Civil War and how they lived through his own terrible mistakes and the chaos of Texas under Reconstruction. It is a story of music and what those who create music must endure in a rough-and-tumble world.

It seems that Simon’s life began on the fly, so to speak. His father, an itinerant fiddler, paused long enough in Paducah to impregnate Simon’s mother and to pass along the genetic predisposition to love music. Simon’s mother died when he was young leaving him double grieved – born a bastard;  now, an orphan. His kind elderly great-uncle, a bachelor, named Walkin’ Dave did his best to raise him.

Throughout the majority of the Civil War, Simon and his uncle thrived and stayed out of the horrific conflict. The day arrived, however, near the end of the war, that their lives were upended. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s forces swept in and burned Simon’s family’s treasured horse barn to the ground and confiscated the horses for the cause.

As a result, Walkin’ Dave walked away. Simon, now in his early 20s, packed his prized violin and set out to make a living performing music gigs where ever he could find them. Present at every turn was the possibility of running into military “conscriptors”, both Union and Confederate, hungry for troops to sustain the fight. He had one advantage; he was slight of build and appeared much younger than his actual age. He also had one disadvantage; a hot-button fiery temper.

Jiles presents a flawed character in Simon. A young man raised in a world without a “normal” family. In her simple style, we follow Simon – a man with a plan as he conceives a future that will bring him peace.

He loved solitude; it was as necessary to him as music and water.

All he needs is a wife, the right wife, a woman that accepts his need for solitude and shares his love of music. A homestead, a place where he can live a life without social interference.

It was there at the Confederate encampment . . . that Simon considered his life and how he would survive in the world to come.

Through the thunder of war, through raucous scenes of bar fights, through placid moments where he is a peace with nature and his own music, we find Simon resolved to live a life of his own choosing. He can be friendly but lacking role models, never learned what it means to be a true friend. He knows what he wants and does what it takes to achieve his dream.

The weakest link in the story is the improbable love story of Simon and Doris. The reader is led to believe that love at the first sight can be sustained while separated through war and reconstruction. The question hangs out there… once reunited and married, can their dream be sustained when facing real life together?

The journey became tedious at times and bogged down with slow motion coverage of the same thing over and over.

The strongest theme throughout the book is the place music plays in life. Ed Power (Irish Examiner, January 31, 2020) expressed the power of music in our lives:

Music moves us – not just physically, but emotionally and psychologically – reducing stress and improving mood. And it’s been doing it for centuries. . . In the darkest days. . . music feels like a shard of light cutting through the gloom.

In the end, I enjoyed the book but News of the World remains my favorite. That said, any book that has me still thinking about issues and the place of music in our lives is a worthy read.

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Beartown

BEARTOWN

by Fredrik Backman

Atria Books|2017
Hardcover: 432 pages
ISBN: 978-1501160769
Genre: Fiction

ARC ebook from Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

★★★★

Where are our better Angels at such times/ As these? sweet Virgin, breathe awhile!——

William D’avenant, The Unfortunate Lovers
(licensed April 1638, printed 1643)

Late of evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there…………

Fredrik Backman, in hockey terms, hit me with a “check to the head”. His previous books feature curmudgeonly old men and quirky women that leave you warm and fuzzy inside. This newest book spins 180° toward the dark side. A small dying town, whose residents are obsessed with ice hockey, pin their hopes of economic revival on the backs of a junior hockey team as they head into a championship game. A town that has lost so much over the years needs a win – no matter the cost.

I ran into a group of friends the other day all excited to tell me that they had just finished Backman’s book, The Man Call Ove and wanted to know if he had any new books. As I looked into their eager faces, I told them about Beartown and I watched their faces deflate. Their reaction, I realized, was my initial reaction when I finished the book…disappointment. But I have had a change of heart.

I expected the author to give me another “bear-hug” book. A warm fuzzy hometown story resembling the 1950’s sitcom with “life is beautiful all of the time” Ozzie and Harriet Nelson nuclear families. Instead, Backman shows us that behind the painted-on-smiles and nothing-to-see here attitudes lies complex characters with flaws and less than lovable qualities. Not everyone ends each day with kiss goodnight and a promise of a bright tomorrow.

Tiny Beartown, isolated physically from the world-at large by dense forests and mountain terrain, resembles a tiny village inside a snow-globe. As long as no one shakes things up, the town turns a blind-eye to anything “unpleasant”; things look peaceful from the outside. When something “unpleasant” does happen, they feel it best to act like it didn’t happen. Don’t make waves. Look away!

You never want to get away from home as much as you do when you’re fifteen…It’s like her mom usually say when…her patience [has worn thin]. You can’t live in this town, Maya, you can only survive it.

As the all important hockey championship match draws near, the atmospheric pressure climbs for the town’s residents. It is now that the author has chosen to rock the town to its roots. Over-involved sports parents with their entitled children, down-on-their-luck townsfolk and greedy power-hungry men have chosen to live life vicariously through the talented young hockey team. The fate of Beartown is placed on the backs of children.

If tensions were high enough, the hockey team’s star player, son of a wealthy and powerful businessman, hosts a raucous party when his parents are out of town. The callous young man targets the daughter of the general manager of the local hockey club and makes a bet with his friends that he can get her to have sex with him. He invites her to the party and she goes, knowing that her parents would not approve, but never suspecting the danger. New to the party scene, the girl becomes drunk and charmed into going upstairs with the boy. Alone… he rapes her.

From that moment the future of everyone in Beartown changes. Some find their better angels and others succumb to their baser natures. New friendships are forged, old friendships are tested and other relationships are severed. Loyalty and love are tested. Marriages flounder, tempers flare, mobs form and unexpected heroes shine. The snow globe has been cracked and the residents of Beartown must look introspectively and make decisions to stay and heal the open wounds or to turn their backs on Beartown.

Recommended as a thought provoking book club selection.

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