Sunday, February 9, 2014
You keep working because words bind and heal you, because you can't stop yourself, because some part of you still hopes, you won't deny it. You keep working because along the way you make friends you are ever so grateful for, because you sink into conversations you can't believe you're having, because an editor, generous, says she believes in you, because the readers who have found you cloak and care for you, steady you up, throw you a line.
A few weeks ago I published a mini-memoir called Nest. Flight. Sky.: on love and loss one wing at a time with Shebooks. I'd written my heart out on this first work of memoir in years; I'd gone so far; and as soon as the e-book had gone up for sale, as soon as I'd (blushing) sent my announcing note around to friends, I thought, Oh, Beth. What did you do that for? The making of the thing is gift enough. Let all else be. Leave them alone.
Then came Beth Hoffman over Twitter, sending me a photograph of Nest. downloaded on her device. Beth Hoffman, author—I'll say, though of course you know this, of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and Looking for Me. I hadn't sent a note to Beth. We'd never talked before. Somehow she had found me.
Generous? Absolutely. Kind? She does have the southern in her. She said we had birds in common. She said, Read Looking for Me; you'll see.
Well, I have just finished reading Looking for Me, this enchanting novel about southern legacies and the things that get passed down over time. I have slipped into Beth Hoffman's world of feathers and bald eagles and goldfinch shimmer and raven wisdoms. I have given my imagination over to Teddi, who tells this story about growing up on the edge of a national forest, on a large stretch of land, with a brother determined to save the wildlife from the people who do wildlife harm. That brother, Josh, will get lost in time. Teddi, now running an antiques shop with a sure hand in Charleston, will keep on believing he's alive. Signs will float toward her. Skies will speak some truths. She has to know. She can't know. She worries her secrets in private.
Hoffman's story is fluidly, so engagingly told. Her characters are the kind of people we'd like to know—good, but hardly perfect; occasionally jittery with shoulders up, but capaciously tenderhearted, too. Hoffman, who was an interior designer before her first book debuted, knows furniture and odd odds and ends. She knows rare books. She knows birds. Here, in one of my favorite scenes, she introduces a part-albino hawk:
In a powerful rush and flash of feathers, Ghost lifted into the air, building speed as he flew over the field. He flew cockeyed at first and then straightened out, gaining altitude until he became a perfect silhouette in the sky.
But Hoffman also knows the landscapes both of old southern shops and deep forest crevices, and I found her evocation of place transporting, enveloping. I went right there and stayed. I also kept thinking, as I read, of all we have in common—not just those birds, but ballroom dance as well (you'll see), and a deep curiosity about men who go deep into the woods and don't come back out, for that is precisely what my own great-grandfather, Horace Kephart, did years ago—leaving his family behind in St. Louis so that he might travel into a part of the world he would ultimately fight to preserve as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smoky Mountains aren't far from Hoffman's Daniel Boone National Forest. The spirit of her renegade Josh and my renegade great-grandfather could be the very same, one spirit.
My life is full of books I mostly have to read—as a reviewer, as a teacher. I rarely get to stroll through bookshops and say, Yup. I'm reading this one through. I'm so glad, for so many reasons, that Beth Hoffman somehow (inexplicably) found my own small treatise about my obsession with birds in the wake of a major loss and that she (so graciously) wrote to me.
Beth, that photo up above is taken on the hill about Bryson City, North Carolina. It's my great-grandfather's grave. He's watching over your Josh.