Sunday, October 9, 2022

Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed (1983).

It's interesting the way some memories can stick in the mind.  That's not like any world shattering secret, or anything.  I know that's always the truth for everybody.  Some folks, including perhaps a surprising number of famous writers, have admitted to having a difficult time dredging up their own long ago experiences.  In his creative, how-to memoir, for instance, Stephen King admits to being "stunned by Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club.  Not just by its ferocity, its beauty, and by her delightful grasp of the vernacular, but by its totality - she is a woman who remembers everything about her early years.  I'm not that way.  I lived and odd, herky-jerky childhood...Mary Karr presents her childhood in an almost unbroken panorama.  Mine is a fogged-out landscape from which occasional memories appear like isolated trees...the kind that look as if they might like to grab and eat you (17)". 

To be fair, I don't think he's lying.  Instead, based on a lot of other non-fiction writings of his elsewhere, and even in the same autobiographical writing manual, it seems more as if all King has done is to perform a minor, yet helpful form of public service for those who wish to remember their own pasts, yet often have a surprising amount of difficulty in ever finding their way back to that fabled memory lane.

I bring this up not to criticize.  I think all it does is just help make my point about how interesting are the things of our youth.  Those fragments of lived experience that we can sometimes manage to recall at odd hours, when we least expect it.  This is often because of the quirky nature of some our best recollections.  They ususally tend to center on an event, person, or thing that just has this aura of fascination about them.  It's the kind of experience that manages to stamp a permanent imprint of magnetic allure on our minds, and makes sure that whatever else happens, the remembrance of that person, place, thing, or event somehow manages to never fade away with the rest of the photographs we keep floating around in our own mental attic chests.  I know of at least one instance in which that has has been very true for me.  Even King himself admits that one of the few memories he can recall, the one that still sticks out with so much clarity as to prove itself something of a formative influence on his profession, is that time he and his brother Dave found a collection of old, Horror pulp magazines hidden away up in an old, attic loft of a family residence.  It's something he could remember so well that he later felt it important enough to share with his reader in the pages of Danse Macabre (98-102).

My own experience of this same phenomenon is a lot less rich and full of hidden depths as it was for King, I'm afraid.  In fact, it can't even qualify as anything special.  Mine was no rich harvest of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, like the ones King and his brother turned up.  Instead it was just this one excerpt of narrative tucked away in the back of an old, battered copy of a simple high school English 101 text.  It was one of those ancient seeming 6th grade primers that somehow look as if they might have been around long enough to witness the building of the Alexandrian Library, or something like it, anyway.  It's one of those school texts where the pages seem heavy in your arms, and yet are so soft when have to rifle through to find your assignment, that it's kind of a wonder that it never falls apart in your hands.  The funny thing is how the dreaded moment of textual collapse never happened.  Or at least it never did with me.  Those battered, old elders proved to be tougher than the rest in my case.  I still have some of them tucked away on a few shelves in my home, even after all these years.

Guess I'm just a sentimentalist like that.  The irony is that the one textbook I've been unable to track down is the one that contains the story I want to talk about today.  In a way, though, I suppose its fitting that the single, solitary, school text I might harbor anything like a genuine reader's fondness for is also the one that continues to elude me.  There's a real life poetry in that kind of situation, one which I think only a handful will ever have the capacity to appreciate.  It's that somewhat mystic gray area, where we know the memory is real, yet some of the details have managed to reach the right and pleasing amount of brilliant haze, making what we can recall stand out with a more powerful clarity.  If I'm recalling things right, here, one of the other reasons this textbook stood out was because it contained a recreation of Rod Serling's The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  It's not the story under discussion here, though it perhaps did work as a contributing factor to why I can recollect any of this in the first place.

The other story that makes that old, half-remembered school text stand out as clear as it does, all these years later, was a simple, almost childlike sounding title.  It was called Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed, and it was written by Virginia Hamilton.  Here's where I need to make a confession.  I ran across this author just the once, a long time ago, way back in high school.  As I moved up through the grades, I lost track of both Hamilton, and her story.  It was a time when it at least seemed like a lot of important stuff was happening.  It's all small potatoes, compared to where we are now, of course.  The point, however, is that it was one of those singular, fleeting encounters that manages to leave a certain type of impact that you're somehow lucky enough to remember all these years later.  The trick was that as far as I know, Virginia Hamilton is still very much a mystery to me.  That's not to say, however, that I haven't learned some things about her, or that her own life isn't a story worth telling.

That's far from the truth, as it turns out.  In fact, based just on what I've been able to dig up since that time, it is always possible that what I've accidentally stumbled over is a diamond in the rough.  Ginny Hamilton first saw the light of day on March 12th, 1934.  In her own words, she was born "on the outer edge of the Great Depression".  Which is a polite way of saying she and her folks got lucky, while a lot of others never were.  Her parents were part of a large, extended farming property which was brought together by the mutual agreement of each part of her extended family, on both her father and mother's sides.  The whole thing appears to have been a gamble that managed to pay off, somehow.  There's no way on any possible green Earth that Virginia, her parents, siblings, and the rest of her loved ones were ever able to be considered anything other than poor.  And yet, by the standards of the Stock Market Crash, along with the collapse of the Roaring 20s, and its attendant fallout, they were a hell of a lot better off than most folks at the time.  John Steinbeck's Joad clan, for instance, would have eyed Ginny's freehold setup with a very real envy, made up of equal parts desperation and hunger.

Ginny never seems to have had to suffer that kind of depredation, or at least not in that sense, anyway.  There's no way an African-American girl growing up during that period didn't have plenty opportunity to get well-acquainted with the peculiar institution known as racism.  It's not the kind of thing she, or any of her folks, ever asked for.  So there it was, even, or especially since they didn't want it.  In spite of this, going just off of the basic outline trajectory of her life, it seems as if Virginia wasn't the kind of girl who was ever interested in letting this kind of shit get in her way, or keep her down, and under the thumb.  Instead, consider these astonishing biographical facts.  In high school, Ginny graduated at the top of her class, and won a scholarship to Antioch College.  She was enough of a success there to transfer to Columbus's Ohio State University in 1956, where she majored in literature and creative writing.  In 1958, Ginny made her way to New York, getting by on a number of odd jobs trying to build up enough support for realizing her dream of being a writer.  Now imagine this scenario.  An Afro-American woman falls for a white guy.  Not unheard of, yet back in the transition from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy era, it was pretty much like taking a blow-torch to some ill-defined taboo line.  Either way, Ginny crossed it by falling for and marrying Arnold Adoff in 1960.  Turned out that choice was yet another lucky break.  The added income was enough for her to focus on her writing career.

In 1969, Hamilton and Adoff made their way back her the ground of her parents old farmstead.  By now, Ginny was an accomplished and published writer, with her then latest book The House of Dies Drear having won and Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery (web).  The pay off from both her and Arnold's writing was enough to allow Ginny to buy back her own, old childhood home.  It's the place where she spent the rest of her life, and wrote the remainder of all her books   On the whole, not too bad of a record for a girl whose decedents were refugees, and possibly even workers on the Underground Railroad (web).  In fact, if you stop to take the time and think it over, it soon hits you that its probably because Virginia Hamilton grew up hearing stories about her ancestors exploits with the Railroad that led to her growing up with this sense of never wanting to let herself be either defeated or used by the same forces that tried to dominate her own family.  In that very ironic sense, Ginny was able to grow up with a perfect number of role models right within her very own household.  It appears to have been this particular, and familiar drive, that lead her into becoming what can only be described as something of an early pioneer in the history of the African-American arts scene, and it shows in a lot of her work.

Dies Drear
does, in fact, stand out as one of the first big successes of a black voice making a popular impact in the venue of American Gothic letters.  She followed this up, not long after, with The Planet of Junior Brown, a slice-of-life narrative which nonetheless might be said to contain certain tell-tale elements which mark it out as perhaps one of the first tentative steps into the sub-genre now known as Afro-Futurism.  With all this accumulated information in hand, it really seems as if the correct phrase we're looking for here, is to describe Hamilton as a ground breaker.  That's why it's all the more interesting, because aside from that one time I ran across a story of hers in an old Junior High textbook, I've never really heard her spoken of, or talked about much over the years.  If I hadn't been curious about that old, faded memory to enough to decide to look it up, I probably would never have become aware of either Virginia, or her literary efforts.  It's the kind of mistake that perhaps ought to be remedied, sooner or later, and not just by me.  If the voice of a pioneer in both African American and Women's Literature has managed to get lost in the shuffle, then I think future generations probably do owe it to themselves to try and rediscover a forgotten voice.  The best I can do in that regard is try and give an honest review as possible of a childhood memory contained somewhere in the pages of a book. 

The Plot.

To Wilhelmina Beatrime Mills

(Address Withheld), Dayton, Ohio.

C/O The Letter And Public Relations Department Of The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) And Its Affiliated Stations.   

51 West 52nd Street, Midtown Manhattan, New York, NYC.


My dear Ms. Mills,

Hello, and good evening.  Allow me, by way of introduction, to start off by offering my sincerest apologies to you.  Seeing as how I'm sort of the one responsible for most of your troubles, it seems only fitting that I was granted the privilege of doing what I can in the way of setting things right.

Let me begin, first by replying to what you've told in your initial letter to me.  Though it was no doubt lodged as a form of complaint, let me note in passing, madam, that your missive bears all the hallmarks of the natural born storyteller.  Take it from me, Ms. Mills, this is not the sort of compliment that gets handed out lightly.  In fact, you've described the layout of your life among friends, rivals, and loved ones in such rich detail that you are able to accomplish the one goal of all good writing.  You've made your recipient see you life with the best accuracy possible, using nothing but the power of the written word.  I confess I almost picture the exact nature of the crop fields and pastures surrounding your extended family property  The corn and wheat fields, once standing tall and proud, now shortened and modest with the pay out of a good harvest crop.  The sky overhead dwindling to a fine, orange, October evening.  The fresh grown pumpkins lined up like an Autumn regiment in your mother's produce garden.  Your parents themselves, Jason and Marva Mills; you siblings, Bay Sister and Bay Brother.

Then there's the family of your father's brother.  Aunt Lu and Uncle Jimmy Wing, along with their own children, Big and Little Wing.  Near last, but not least, there is your mother's sister, Aunt Leah.  From what you've shared with me, she sounds indeed like a very remarkable, almost lucky, young woman.  She sounds almost, in fact, like someone I might have known.  Though I doubt we've ever met, and in any case that's another subject.  The interesting point is that she was able to tell you your fortune, and revealed that you have the sign of Venus in the palm of your hand.  You say it has always been there, ma'am.  Like a birthmark?  I merely ask because of what might be no more than a vague sense of imagination.  Yet perhaps still valuable, all the same.  In earlier times, back during the era of writers like Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Donne, the planet Venus was often looked upon as a Bringer of Peace.  This made her the polar opposite of the great and infamous Mars, the god of war, and bringer of strife.  I guess that sort of brings us to the other conflict you told me about.  Before we address that issue, however, know this.  Your Aunt Leah may be half right in saying you bear a close relation to the goddess of peace.  Back in the day (in fact, it was right around the time Columbus discovered this very continent, for good or ill) she was known by the Latin tag of Fortuna Major, or the Great Good Luck.

While it might not sound like much, your way of dealing with the strife in your family tells me you must at least have something of those qualities in you Ms. Mills.  That may be a quality of value.  Now as for your own personal troubles.  In addition to your skills at painting a living portrait of your parents and siblings, you've been able to do a true artist's work in making the reader see even such minor figures in your letter, such as your Grandmother and her husband, in addition to the sometimes trouble-making Cousin Hewett.  From what I gather, there is something in the way of "bad blood" between you, Hewett, and Little.  Things might even have come to a bit of an almost literal head after a stunt involving your Bay Brother, and an amateur's attempt at playing William Tell.  Let me just say that I'm glad to know that Bay remains unscratched.  Though there never really is anything comfortable about a close call, is there.  If that were the case, would I even be writing this reply to you, in the hopes of explaining my own role in your recent dilemma at home.  I can't pretend to know how things would have turned out between you, your Cousin and Little Wing if I hadn't been in the mood for a bit of holiday mischief.  Which sort of brings us all the way back to the crux of the matter, I suppose.  It's the very reason for your letter.    

You know I actually did a little public speech about the whole affair?  From what you've told me, it's all too probable that you missed it, along with a great many others.  It went something  along the lines of "having no more significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theater’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian. . .it’s Halloween (web)".  That's how I tried to explain things to however many denizens of a panicked nation, running around, jumping at their own shadows.

At least that's what I said.  It may count as what was expected of me, what the country "needed to hear", in other words.  So is it true?  Or what do I really think?  Let me try and explain myself in a roundabout fashion.  Let's start by going back to what your Aunt Leah told you.  She said you were born under the sign of Venus.  That very same night, a bit of Mars was unleashed on an unsuspecting public.  What even your Aunt seems to have failed to realize was that the god of war wasn't alone in his shenanigans that night.  He had some very deliberate help from an unseen, yet very expected source.  In addition to Venus and Mars, there was also another planet exerting its influence that night.  It's name was Mercury.  In the myths of old, he was known as not just the messenger, but also the grand magician, or trickster of the gods.  If he wasn't busy being the ancient equivalent of Western Union, he could often be found playing a practical joke on anyone within his reach.  I've never been all that certain as to why someone like that would want stir up so much trouble wherever he chose to go.

All I can do is try and explain why I've always felt compelled to do the same, on occasion, like just this past Halloween.  The truth is probably a complicated answer composed of many elements.  I'm sure a great deal of it is on account of being a bit too pampered when I was the age of you or Little, your half sibling.  I can tell you've been brought up about as right any one else will probably ever be able to manage.  Your are kind, courteous to others (especially to adults, which is probably all anyone means when they talk of the modern facade known as "manners").  Above all, you show an agility for being not just responsible for yourself, but for others.  These are saving graces that might just make all the difference for you.  I almost want to say I'm envious.  I am at least capable of "pretending" at all of these qualities.  It's a pantomime that's done me some good, though it's done nothing for my sense of character.  If you wish to know all of my faults, Ms. Mills, then imagine someone who looks like a full-grown blessed with the curse of a surprisingly decent university education, and a talent for playing whatever part is necessary just to get by, and see whatever you can get away with before any of the adults in the room catch on to what you've been up to.  Does all of this sound familiar to you?

I wouldn't worry overmuch about your cousin, though, or Little Wing for that matter.  Sooner or later someone or better yet something is bound to come along and show Hewett the difference between world and want.  When that happens, he might just come away from it wiser than the Wedding Guest.  I never seemed to have had such a moment of clarity.  Or if I did, it's difficult to tell if it did me any good.  Even now, I still seem to be the type to who would be more than happy to soap windows, teepee trees and houses, or else take apart a car in the yard, and reassemble it on the roof of a perfect stranger.  I realize none of this paints either myself, or the little prank I've just played in anything such as a "good light".  Still, if there's any consolation to be had, then it might be found in the second reason for why I chose to see if I could pull the wool over the eyes of as much of an entire nation as I possibly could.

This reason is a bit more difficult to discuss, though perhaps you may know something of what I'm about to talk speak of.  The other motive I had for making a fool of myself with a stunt like this is simple enough to describe.  Getting anyone to understand you is a different thing, altogether.  Some time ago, I realized one of the dirtiest possible secrets that this world of ours tries its damnedest to keep from being discovered, especially by impressionable young minds, such as yourself.  The truth is that perhaps there aren't anything like actual grown-ups running the world.  Maybe there never were?  Whatever the case may be, it's one of those moments where the basic motto is: once seen, can't be unseen.  Or at least that's the way it was for me.  From there, revelation led on to realization.  A good illustration of what I mean is to take those moments when you knew the grown-ups had missed something vital, and that just made things worse.  You've experienced this yourself just recently, haven't you?  When your mother insisted Big Wing was responsible for almost endangering your little brother. You tried to get her to see that it wasn't really his fault at all, except that Little goaded him into it.

She wouldn't see sense, though, did she?  As a result, the actual guilty party got away red handed.  Thus justice was made into a dancing mockery.  Have there ever been any other times just like it?  If I ever kept a record book of all the times I know of the exact thing happening, it would amount to little more than a chronicle of human folly.  One of the worst offenses I know of is the burden you and the ones you love have to carry.  None of you ever chose this for yourselves, and so the fact remains that some delight in taking offense at you based just on the way you appear.  I think the worst thing about such prejudice is that part of its goal is to always try and erase the actual character of a single human life.  It's truth that's easy for many to dismiss in the abstract.  It's a lot harder to do when you can put an actual face to the burden, isn't it?  At least I know it should be.  If there's one certainty I can hold onto in a nursery room such as this, it's that a number of things are definitely beyond the pale, even for scoundrels like me.  Discrimination against your fellow human beings is one of them.  I know it's impossible for what I'm about say next to mean all that much, yet I do feel like some apologies are necessary, at the very least.  I also hope the skills you've shown will help you at some future date.

That's the second best reason I pulled the wool over the audiences eyes.  I'd simply grown tired of the smug, disenchanted, hypocritical complacency that makes a man wall himself off not just from his fellows, yet also from all the potentials that actual reality contains within itself.  The real trouble with human nature is the way it has of always falling into the same mistaken idea that the world around it is silent, and dumb, that there's nothing to know or learn, and there's an end of it.  Well, to hell with all of that, I say!  It's thinking like this that leads to tinpot little saber rattlers like Hitler in Europe, or the Great Depression here at home.  It's also that kind of mindset, if I may be frank, that bears at least part of the responsibility for the way some of the worst are bound treat you, based on nothing more than skin and bone.  That's the trouble with letting the mind atrophy.  In place of imagination and vision, all you're left with is delusion, and that way lies madness.  I hate to say it kid, yet that's a good idea of what you're up against.  Perhaps that's the other explanation for why I tried to make everyone believe there was life on other planets.  If there's any way I can snap the lives of quiet desperation out of there stupor.  If I can shake the cage of complacency, then perhaps I'll be able to prove there's more to life than are dreamt of in most people's philosophy.  At least that's best excuse I've got for my actions.

I'll be the first to admit, it's no real excuse for scaring a child, much less one with the deck stacked against her.  At least it's the best explanation I'll ever be able to give.  I'm a two bit con-artist with a knack for spinning yarns.  If every now and again I can find a way make people start thinking again, then I suppose its another feather in the cap.  To all those who believe life's a poor player, who frets and struts his hour upon the stage, I pull stunts like this as a way of saying, not if I can help it.  Whatever price I wind up paying for it, the people who would try fence you in will always suffer worse.  That's something else I'm sure of.  Which just leaves you.  Your letter says things are sort of on the mend between you and Little Wing.  That's perhaps more good to know than you realize.  Also, you claim that Aunt Leah has apologized for getting so carried away, because of me, of all ironies.  Well, there's another debt incurred, and who knows where I stop with it.  Still, I wouldn't sell a woman like that short.  To your mother, Leah's just a flighty eccentric.  In a way, her sister makes the perfect Yin to your parent's Yang. From what you've told me, Marva Mills sounds like one of those girls who know how to find a thin thread of order running through a whole weave of chaos.  I wonder if she's ever stopped to ask herself just how many times her own sibling might be responsible for helping her with that?

You see, that's the trick with Mercury.  He can be be a liar and a thief.  He also has this uncanny knack for bringing order out of chaos.  Something tells me that's what your Aunt is like, whether your mother can see it or not.  However many flights of fancy she likes to indulge in, the greatest skill she has in her favor is a desire to find all the right changes, and the tenacity to pursue them with all of her will.  She's just as determined to give the cage a good shake as possible.  Hell, something tells me she'd like to give the whole damn thing a good, swift kick, and then stomp it flat into the dirt.  I wish her the very best of luck.  This is also the best advice I'm ever likely to give you, Willie Bea.  I may have scared you needlessly.  While I can never apologize entirely for it, I can offer amends.  Your mother hopes a for a stable, working future for you.  Your aunt is smart to realize sometimes that will mean knowing when to take a risk on those one in a million chances that could make such a future possible, even if it does mean giving the cage a good poke in the ribs.  The question is if you can see the value in both?

Always rely on your mother's commonsense, and yet also know when to use your aunt's intuition to help you with some of the issues you may face in life.  If you do, something tells me you'll be able to think around corners, and find solutions where others would just see a blank wall.  Both qualities might just serve you well in your dealings with others, especially with anyone who would like to be your jailer.  Others may try and conquer their own speck of dust.  You, however, might just be able to learn what it means to have an actual life.  And to think, all of this because some village idiot decided to try and play a simple prank on the United States of America.  It really is proof that positive results can sometimes stem from the unlikeliest of places.  It's a play worthy of chimeric Mercury itself.  Whatever else happens, just remember, I get paid to lie to anyone and everyone for a living.  That's the easy part.  The real challenge is to know whether its possible to find a truth tucked inside of a lie.  That is the sort of discovery which can sometimes help make all the difference in the world, and possibly beyond.

Yours sincerely, Orson Welles.     

Conclusion: A Good Idea in Need of a Better Execution.

One of the first things that hits you as you begin the opening pages of Hamilton's book is that we're dealing with a slice-of-life story.  The action starts with our protagonist, Willie Bea, lounging under the porch of her parents house, in the year 1938, and pondering the upcoming Halloween festivities.  We're also introduced to a future recurring character named Toughy Clay.  She seems to be trying to hide from him, mainly because she doesn't appear to want his attention at the moment, and would rather be alone to do her own thing, and make her own plans.  Right off the bat, Hamilton has given us a setting, and a pair of characters to go along with it.  There's Willa, Toughy, and then we're even given brief glimpses Willie's family, including her mother, aunt, her half-siblings, Big and Little, and good idea of the kind of hopes and dreams the main character has for herself going forward.  So far, so good.

The author has gone out of her way to set the stage of her play, and made sure the audience has a good idea of who the cast list is, what their relations are to one another, and a basic, yet important sense of the dynamics between each of these characters.  In retrospect, these first few pages allow Hamilton to give the reader a demonstration of her skills as a narrator.  Her prose style is an interesting combination of simple, neat, and to the point.  It's not complicated and uncluttered in a way that manages to be a perfect fit for the story, as often the book's point of view keeps shifting back into the mind the story's twelve-year-old protagonist.  It's also to Hamilton's credit that what winds up on the page is very much able to win the reader's hearts.  Willie Bea is perhaps the strongest element in the entire novel.  And what makes her a valid example of good characterization is because Hamilton is able to give us as full a realized picture of not just how a girl of 12 would behave, yet also the thought process involved in that kind of mind set.  It allows the author to give us an idea of Willie Bea as someone who is entering that important in-between state, where the child's mind begins the slow, sometimes painful transition into the general outlook, and frame-of-reference that we've fooled ourselves into believing is adulthood.

This allows Wilhelmina to occupy two mindsets at once.  The first half is composed of the sort of childlike outlook of wonder and curiosity that a lot main leads in children's books are known for.  The other side of her personality is one that is willing to acknowledge the looming shadow side of daily survival.  She sees it in the way people such as Little will to try to manipulate others, and often get their way through cunning, and guile.  She also lets us know, without ever once coming flat out and saying it, that she already knows what it's like to be the target of the sort of free-floating, casual racism of the times.  It's also kind of heart-breaking when your realize that part of the reason for Hamilton's skill in handling this delicate part of the subject matter is because she's able to draw from long, personal experience in such a way that she no longer has any need to shout it to the rooftops, and instead is able to present the mere facts as they are, and let them speak all the volumes it needs in order to make her voice heard.  It's perhaps one of her greatest strengths as a writer, and it's also a bitter irony, as well.

The interesting thing about this is how she is able to integrate these burdens into Willie's character in such a way that while it's clear she's had to suffer the same pointless insults as the rest of her family, she never lets it bring her spirits down.  She takes it as a natural obstacle navigate and overcome, while always keeping a clear sight of the goals she has set for herself, and never letting any discouragement get in her way.  The result is a character portrait that is about what you'd expect.  It's both tragic, and inspiring all at once.  And I don't think it's going too far out on a limb to surmise that Hamilton was drawing in large part from her own life and experiences for helping to craft this character.  This can be seen in the stage setting details of the novel.  Like her author, Willie Bea grows up on a farm in Ohio that is part of a family consolidation.  While we don't know much more about Hamilton's personal history, odds are probably even that a lot of the characters in this book are fictionalized extrapolations of actual people she would have been in close contact with on a daily basis during her childhood.

As a result, while the accounts of narrative itself are make-believe, Hamilton is able to give all of it a verite sense of realism that almost makes the characters seem alive.  A final helper that she's got in her corner is her skill at tapping into the particular languages of the African-American vocabulary.  All of the cast speaks in a way that comes off as genuine to that found in a normal Black family or community.  It is yet another detail that helps cement the author's firm grasp of the situation, and the imaginary characters who dwell in it.  In fact, the first few chapters are probably the best part of the book.  From the that first scene underneath the porch, we follow Willie Bea as she makes her way through the rest of the novel's stock company.  Each encounter with the next story figure, or set of characters helps advance the plot, and gives us a sense of a lived-in space that is a fitting combination of the warm and loving, as well as the silent and troubled.  Hamilton knows a story can't exist without any conflict, and she find it by stumbling upon an image that is straight out of the American Gothic.

At one point, Willie Bea's baby brother is discovered to have gone missing, and someone mentions how they saw the boy headed off into the woods in the company of Big and Little Wing.  Mention is also made of the fact that Big Wing had remembered to bring along his new bow and arrow set.  A gift he'd been given out an enthusiasm for target practice.  It's a bit of information that galvanizes Willa and her mother, and the reader winds up trailing along in their footsteps through the wood surrounding their farm.  They soon begin to hear the voices of the three missing kids, and when they emerge from the branches of the thickets, this is what they see: "Big and Hewitt were there, as Marva and Willie Bea had known they would be.  And Little was there, as Willie Bea had suspected she would be.  Willie Bea and her mama stood among the trunks of close trees.  They wouldn't move for fear of scaring Big.  He was in the middle of a shot.  He stood there, aiming.  Hewitt sat on the ground beside Big.  Little sat next to him.  Her legs were crossed and she chewed on a stalk of weed.  She and Hewitt stayed very still, so as not to disturb Big's aim.

"About thirty-five feet in front of Big and Hewitt, almost in the middle of the clearing, sat Willie Bea's baby brother; her mama's youngest son, Kingsley, called Bay Brother...Surrounding Bay Brother on the ground were broken pumpkins.  Small ones.  Big must have plucked them right from the vine and kept them in a cool, dark place, like Uncle Jimmy's cellar, until he had enough for practice.  One little pumpkin had been placed on Bay Brother's head.  Then, another, and another...It happened so fast.  Willie Bea was aware of a sound, like something gathering air to it and carrying it along at high speed.  She had seen Big pull back the string of his great bow.  Somehow, she missed seeing the arrow that he pulled with the string.  She saw Big's fingers move.  She had a fleeting thought.  Why in the world would Uncle Jimmy buy Big that great bow with some arrows!  She thought she heard the bowstring vibrate.  She heard that heavy-sounding rush of air (41-43)".  In some ways, that really is the high point of Hamilton's efforts.  What happens next may not be anywhere so near as dire as the same set of circumstances as you might find them if it were written by William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or a Flannery O'Connor.  If any of them were at the helm, this scene would have taken a darker turn.

Hamilton's entire setup almost seems poised to take a similar direction as that found in the opening segment of a Peter Straub story called The Juniper Tree.  That fact that none of this happens signals just how different either Hamilton, or her story is from any of the brand names listed above.  To be fair, that's not a slight on either the author, or the narrative.  Though perhaps it does help point out an inherent irony at the center of her story.  It's the one moment in the entire book where Hamilton's plot is willing to show the audience that it might have teeth, and is willing to at least scratch at the jugular.  The writer could be accused of pulling her punches here.  Yet I'm not sure that's a fair call.  It makes sense to me that there should be this edge to the narrative, yet nothing about what's come before tells me it deserves to go in an all out bleak direction.  Instead, Hamilton seems to have handled this Faulknerian moment with as much skill required to get the main point across.  There may be a sense in which she can be said to "hold the readers hand" through this segment, and I wonder if that was such a good idea.  On the whole, however, this one pays off with enough skill to earn its points as decent.

The trouble is that I've just given the reader the closest thing a highlight the book ever has going for it.  The writer spends the rest of her time afterwards in building things up to the second, and final big show piece of the story.  The problem with things from here on in is that it does almost read as if that one moment when her story showed that it was willing to take things in an edgier direction, the author might have gotten cold feet, because nothing that happens afterward ever quite lives up to the promise of that one, singular, Gothic image outlined above.  Let me just say right now that I hope no one's getting the wrong idea about where I'm going with all this.  The last thing I care to see in a book like this is the death of one of the most harmless and gentle characters.  Indeed, I don't think mortality should ever really be on the table at all, here.  The thing is, that macabre, William Tell image just seems to have literally popped in out of nowhere, and not even the author seems to have expected it.  There's nothing inherently wrong with a circumstance like that.  In fact, I'm even willing to go out on a limb and say it's at that exact moment when the story seems to be gaining a life of its own that that writer has managed to strike it lucky, and hit an archetype that is ready to tell itself for all the world to see.

The key thing, however, is when that happens, the author has to make a choice on whether they are willing to commit to whatever directions the story is suggesting to the artist.  It is sometimes the case where the writer, as I say, gets cold feet, for whatever reason.  In the strictest sense, nothing is wrong with that.  All that's happened is you've kind of lost the story, and any entertainment value, or interest the plot might have held for the reader.  In the grand scheme of things, that doesn't even count as a misdemeanor.  In artistic terms, however, that sort of thing is the kiss of death for any possible narrative.  It means that all the artist has left is Fancy, as opposed to inspired Imagination, and that can sometimes be too precarious if you want to carry the story over with any real success.  This, at least, is the biggest criticism I would lob at Hamilton's book, when taken at its essence.  She starts out with an interesting idea, and then seems to either lose the plot, or else she winds up not having the confidence needed in order to make her characters and their situation take off in any really entertaining way.

At it's core, Hamilton's story boils down to a what-if scenario revolving around the real life incident of Orson Welles' notorious War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast.  It's one of the more ironic moments in American history, when for one instant, a simple entertainer found the right access panel to a great enough number of the Nation's phobic pressure points.  It's what allowed Welles to use the then dominant medium of Old Time Radio to pull what still has to remain as the greatest Halloween prank in the history of showbiz.  Not even The Blair Witch Project has managed the sort of feat Welles was able to pull off, in making a country believe it was under attack by invaders from outer space.  It's the kind of thing that sounds ridiculous now, and pretty much always was, yet Welles discovered how easy it could sometimes be (perhaps it happens more often than any of us will ever be comfortable with) to at least make people believe in the untrue, or the unbelievable.  Looking back from today, it's got to be the first time anyone ever realized the full power inherent in the collective tool known as the modern media.  What was discovered was just how far anyone could have the ability to shape and mold the perception of an entire national audience, and there's perhaps a fitting irony that it was a mere, Hollywood showman who was smart enough to realize and use this power for his own mercurial ends.

Hamilton either decided to play off of this idea, or else an idea occurred to her which, in essence, does very much the same thing.  We're given the story of this simple, extended family, living on a farm somewhere in Dayton, Ohio, and its All Hallows Eve.  On the same night that Willie Bea, her brother, sister, and half-siblings are getting ready for trick or treat, Welles decides to perform his Martian Space Hoax.  The result sends Willa and her family into a panic, and the remainder of the text chronicles her exploits once she decides to try and make contact with the invaders, thinking she might know how to talk to them.  As a bare-bones outline on paper, it's the kind of idea that might just have a lot of fun, dramatic potential contained within.  The only trouble is if that's the case, then it seems as if Hamilton has dropped the ball somewhere along he way.  She either couldn't quite manage to tap into the creative idea enough to bring it fully to life on the page.  Or else (this seems the more likely explanation for what happened) the archetype signaled it was willing to go in a more manic and crazier direction, and the knowledge of this might just have given the artist cold feet.  At least so far as this story was concerned.  Whatever the case, this is a book that delivers less than what it initially promised.

If the blame has to be laid at the writer's doorstep, then while I'll admit this is the type of situation that can be frustrating for a critic.  It's best to also be fair.  There's bound to be a logical explanation for how come the writer doesn't do more with her narrative than might have been possible.  I think a lot of it comes down to the simple fact that Hamilton always felt she should gear her book towards a younger demographic.  Somewhere between the ages of six and twelve.  If this was a goal she kept in mind as the story unfolded at the keyboard, then perhaps that explains the awkward, and somehow unconvincing tonal and structural shift that occurs near the beginning, after the searing bow and arrow incident.  What the reader is given in that instant is a glimpse of an alternate narrative that means business, and aims to play for keeps, just like the best stories often do.  The next thing that happens after it, however, is that Hamilton appears to go out of her way to pamper her audience by trying to do the same with the characters.  Rather than delve into anything like a real fallout from the picture we were just given, she then surrounds the readers in a few meager slices of life, while relegating the essential Gothic setting and ethos of the book into this minor, and somehow hollow background presence.  This results in a series of plot beats that seem disconnected from each other.

What's frustrating about these results is that a closer look at all the components of the story leaves one with the unshakable impression that they should have all been able to cohere in a better, and more seamless narrative whole.  I get the impression that if a number of key scenes, plot points, and story beats had been repurposed in a different order, and the story given more room to grow, then we might have had a passable, possibly decent and atmospheric Halloween story.  One that could have been a much better, and more deserving showcase for the African American voice than what we wound up with.  What could have worked better is that we start out with Willa getting herself and her sibs ready for the big trick or treat event.  Then, after all the costumes have been laid out for nightfall, Aunt Leah arrives, and give Willie Bea the fortune telling that reveals she has a Venus mark on the palm of one hand.  It's best to treat this plot point in the classic style.  Namely, that of a story element that is deliberately highlighted right at the start, so the audience will be queued in that it will be important later.

From there, we're treated to some nice scene setting involving Willa, her family, and the Halloween festivities.  These moments should be double-edged.  On the one hand, the writer should find he right way to evoke the kind of ageless nostalgia that the holiday is able to have for most of the audience.  Something that almost feels like it stepped out of a picture postcard of some kind, with lush autumn colors, and warm hearths.  At the same time, there does need to be the sense of lingering foreboding.  It should all be told in a way that leads the audience to believe that something bad could happen soon.  That way, when Big and Little take Kingsley into the woods for target practice, the image has this sense of a well-earned payoff to a lot of good build-up.  It should be the first big set piece of the drama.  

The Faulknerian image of a little boy being used for target practice should also come with heavier consequences.  While no one gets hurt, it should cast a cloud over the holiday celebrations.  The adults are now keeping a watchful eye on the kids, and the bad blood between Willa and Little should now be at a boiling point.  There's a scene between them in the original novel where this hostility is told about, and never developed.  Here, it should be the focus of the next act.  There ought to be words exchanged, and maybe even the adults have to come in and stop a fight before it breaks out, making the story's protagonist and antagonist declare a false truce for the sake of everyone else.  Then the fun begins.

Here is where Hamilton perhaps should have let the story kick into as high a gear as it could manage.  The problem, like I said, is that she decided it was best to hold the reader's hand, where a more hand's off the wall approach might have done things a lot better.  An idea that might have worked could go as follows.  Willa and Little "apologize" to each other, and yet its clear that each of them remains seething.  Don't let up on that particular element.  It's the seed bed out of which a lot of the best drama emerges from.  While maintaining that level of conflict, here is where the story can offer the reader one last moment of breathing space before things really take off.  Willie Bea can receive some parting words of wisdom from her Aunt Leah before she leaves to celebrate Halloween in town.  She would be reminded of the Venus sign in her hand, and that it means she has it in her to be a good peacemaker someday, if she's ever ready to put her mind to it.  This should calm Willa down enough to the point where a sense of that old, festive nostalgia returns just in time for the narrative's big, third act.

Here is the point where things sort of branch off in a not so different direction from Hamilton;'s original book.  A lot of the the plot beats are retained, yet they get retooled, here and there.  For instance, in this alternate scenario, Willie Bea's trick or treat doesn't get interrupted.  She does get to have a fun time knocking on doors, and getting candy.  The big switch-over should comes in two forms.  The first is Willa's chagrin at realizing she'll have to chaperone both Big and Little Wing, in addition to her baby brother and sister.  This will allow yet another opportunity to bring back the tensions between the two, and allow for a further escalation of drama, as Willie Bea just tries to have a good time, and Little does all she can to spoil her fun, allowing the anger each has at the other to build until the reach a point where the primary cast is walking down main street and is approaching a group of kids and adults huddled around a radio located outside of the town's general store.  

Here is the part where I'm taking liberties with history.  Welles broadcast his Martian adaptation on Oct. 30th, so as to deliberately not get in the way of trick or treat.  From a storytelling perspective, however, is makes sense to set both the holiday and the radio play at the same time, for a better dramatic synchronicity.  Which explains the scene in front of the store involving Willie Bea, Welles, and the the media panic that his play inspired.

This alternate, make-believe timeline also has the added bonus of allowing the story's main heroine to have a brush with history (however brief) that allows her character arc to have a closer emotional and plot-based connection to Welles and his infamous prank.  In the book, Hamilton keeps this radio play as a minor background presence.  Here, it is brought right up front and center stage, right next to the drama's main lead, allowing her (and the reader) a much more immediate, gut reaction level as the so-called "adults" around her.  It should be a perfect moment of role reversal, where everything goes topsy-turvy, and the kids find out that sometimes adults really are just playing a maturity, without ever having an actual clue as to what that entails.  Anyway, in this version, Willa and her charges arrive at the general store radio in time to here Welles go ahead and pull his wild little stunt on the air.  It results in total panic, and everyone scattering to the for four corners.  Some of them go off to run and hide, others get ready to arm themselves, and try to make a stand against the Martians.  The trouble is what happens if the monsters exist only in your head?  Willie Bea has a bigger problem to worry about right now.

Bay Sister and Bay Brother have both run off into the night, full of fear.  And now she'd better damn well find out where they went.  From here, I honestly think the best route things could have gone in would be to make for the right type of gradual, creeping, build-up in tension.  First there's sense of incipient panic that Willa would feel as she tries to hunt down her missing family.  Couple this with the rising sense of fury that piles on as the worst of Little Wing's personality comes to the fore.  Then add in a good dollop of shock and suspense when, say, a farmer spots them and tries to take pot shots at the kids.  Either because he thinks they are Martians, or just because he can tell who they really are, and this situation creates an opportunity too good to pass up.  The tension would then continue to build throughout what should have been the real main plot of the story, as Willie Bea and crew make their steady, yet agonizing way towards the two missing kids.  It should take them through streets, then back-roads, then forest, and finally the fields of Dayton's farming community.  Another idea that might work here is to let the character of Big Wing prove to the audience that he's not really a bad guy.  Let him demonstrate, for instance, that he's good a tracking either people or animals, and that he comes in handy at helping Willa find here two sibs.  He could have been practicing at hunting, or something like it.

Maybe his father, Willa's Uncle Jimmy, had been training him in the art of big game hunting, and it sort of took well.  Either way, it gives an otherwise silent character in Hamilton's novel something to do, and perhaps could even go further in supplying him with something like a redemption arc.  At some point, for instance, let Big tell Willie Bea and Little that he kinda-sorta- "reclaimed" his rightful property, and let's them know he's carrying his bow and arrows again.  At first, however, let this add to the growing conflict within the group.  Willa could be aghast that Big might not have learned his lesson from his William Tell stunt earlier, while Little is just inclined to laugh, and egg him on.  This would set the two female leads in further opposition to each other, and if done right, would ratchet the dramatic tension further up a notch.  Eventually, Big's instincts as a tracker should win out, and they find the missing kids huddled together in a cornfield somewhere.  This is where the final set piece should come in, and while it is drawn from Virginia's novel, the stakes have been given a bit of a heightened quality.

This is the moment when strange sounds begin to occur all around the kids.  At first, they don't know what they're hearing, until one of the youngest, Kingsley perhaps, lets them know that the Martians are coming back.  They first saw them as they were making their way through the woods, and so they tried to take shelter in the corn, and instead, the Martians have followed them, meaning they all might be surrounded, and no one knows where they are anymore.  Here is where the tension could really reach its nadir, with a near breakdown of the group dynamic.  Little Wing accusing Willie Bea is getting them all lost, possibly killed by invaders from outer space, and being a failure for not helping, and now the "goblins are about to get us".  Willa, in turn, accusing Little of being a "good-for-nothing brat", the two possibly coming to blows.  The children crying.  And Big not quite knowing what to do.  Then a searchlight appears over the corn, and everyone "knows" the Martians have heard them.  The group breaks into a run, each one trying to keep up with the other.  Before long, however, a second light appears just ahead of them, also casting it's glare through the fields, searching.  The kids are cornered.

In a desperate bid for freedom, Willa orders everyone to cut through the corn itself.  They all make it out into another clearing, and think they've gotten away.  Then another light appears in the sky, this one agonizingly close.  As everyone looks, what appears to be a Martian war machine starts barreling down on them mercilessly, with Little Wing right in its direct path.  As Bay Brother and Sister scream at the top of their lungs, Willie Bea makes a desperate run at her half-sibling, intending to push her out of the way.  As the two girls roll away through the dirt, Willa strikes her head against a stone embedded in the dirt of the field, causing her to see starts, and lose consciousness.  The last thing she sees before the curtain goes down in front of her eyes, is the sight of Big Wing drawing back on his bow, sending an arrow straight at the advancing Martian, and somehow managing to put the monster's eye out.

From here, I  almost want to say its best to let most of Hamilton's text take over, with just a few minor modifications.  That being that Big has proven himself to her as someone who is capable of taking responsibility for the lives of others.  In fact, it was his swift decision to knock out the light of the field harvester that alerted the driver of the vehicle to their presence, and saved all their lives.  Little, meanwhile, ought to be shown to have learned to wise up a bit, after having her literal neck saved by Willie Bea's swift action of pushing her out of reach of the harvester's blades.  Because of this, she's managed to surprise even herself by discovering a new-found respect for her half-sister.  Willa seems just as surprised, and yet it's clear both are willing to let bygones be just that.  Each of them has probably learned a number of valuable lessons on their Halloween Night, and they've both grown a bit wiser, while also learning when and how to both forgive, and perhaps even forget and move on.

That's a very rough sketch full of suggestions there.  I don't know how good any of it sounds.  These are just some of the ideas I could think of that would help make Hamilton's original story a bit more interesting.  It's a suggestion, at least, of how intense and exciting things should have been allowed to become, and yet never were.  Like I said, the biggest fault in Hamilton's story is that the author makes the mistake of holding the reader's hand.  I don't think she meant it be a deal-breaker, yet it takes a lot of the potential bite out of what should have been a more rip-roaring kids Sci-Fi, Horror, Coming-of-Age, Adventure yarn.  Instead, things are allowed to meander to a pretty lackluster close.  I think the word everyone's looking for here is a simple phrase like confidence.  That might sound like a contradiction in terms (how can you trust something that's make-believe, after all?) yet it really isn't.  If a writer wants to be serious about their craft, they'll soon find themselves faced with those moments where it looks as if the story just might be ready to take off into whatever literary stratosphere its trying to aim for.  It's an interesting crossroads sort of moment; the instant when the writer has to make the choice of whether or not they trust the story to go wherever it has to in order to be a success.

It's a crucial part of the writing process, and one that seems all too easy to overlook.  In Virginia's case, I don't think she overlooked anything.  She just saw the branching choices in front of her, and made a decision.  This is all just theory, bear that in mind, yet I think what might have happened is this.  At a certain point, Ginny may have seen two sets of narrative outlines forming in front of her.  One was a relatively safe, though unremarkable path.  The other led off further in the darker regions of the same type of forest path as that tread by Hansel and Gretel years ago.  Virginia must have at least had a notion that she could take things in the more wilder, Martial-Mercurial direction.  I think what made her decide not to was a combination of worry over whether she was up to the challenge, plus she wanted to focus on the kids, more than anything else.  The potential of her story idea probably had a lot going for it.  Yet in the end, it was just too daunting for her, so she chose to play it safe.  I'll have to admit, even if it's a good explanation for the book we got, it's still kind of puzzling.  I mean why not hand over the car keys and let your story take you on the ride of your life?  Isn't that what all good books are meant to do?

Put it another way.  I once heard it said that any children's book that can only be enjoyed by kids is probably not all that good of a story to begin with.  The basic sentiment of that thought is that the best young adult reading material is usually the kind that manages to incorporate this identifiable, yet hard-to-pin-down all-ages appeal.  It's the reason books like A Wrinkle in Time, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hobbit, or Watership Down are able to occupy this interesting grey zone where both kids and adults are able to get a surprising amount of kick out of them.  They have teeth, they'll bite if you don't know how to handle them properly, and yet they have it in them to pay the reader back in dividends throughout the years.  That's got to be one of the truest marks of good writing.  I get the impression that Ginny's story wanted to at least somewhere near that kind of wheelhouse, and yet it perhaps was never really given the chance for full, creative expression that it ought to have had.  This is made a lot clearer when I contrast my current reading with that ancient, faded, elementary school memory photograph snapshot..

Back then, catching just snippets of Hamilton's book in excerpt format, while it might not have been anywhere near as epic as the adventures of Bilbo Baggins, or even trying to match the sense of apocalyptic scale as found in the original H.G. Wells source material, the sense that the words gave me is that the story I was reading could just manage to have their own, homespun form of grandeur.  The good news is that is true in at least one sense.  What's nice to see carried over into adulthood is that author's clear and present sense of the African-American voice.  The most notable skill of Hamilton's book is her ability to capture the colloquial dialect and mannerisms encoded into the experience of American-Africans in a way that give a layer of genuine authenticity to the characters and their world.  None of it is patronizing, and all of it is honest, and you get the sense that Virginia was doing little more than drawing from her own memories for the sake of her story.  That has to be the overall greatest highlight of the novel.  It's just too bad that she couldn't bring herself to do the same for the most important element of the book, the main narrative itself.  It the one ingredient that comes off as lacking.

The result is a book that reads a hell of a lot different to me as an adult than how was as a kid.  I wanted to come in liking this text.  Instead, I'm forced to conclude what we've got here is a minor offering, at best.  I just can't shake the idea that the author didn't just cheat her audience out of a good story reflecting the African-American experience in relation to such themes as love, trust, paranoia, and Science Fiction, she also might have cheated herself more than anyone else.  Her story was basically trying to encourage her to reach whatever start she could grab a hold of.  Instead, she balked.  I think that's the most unfortunate part, not that we didn't get a better story, but that the author was too cautious to allow herself to stretch her means of creative expression.  Let's put it this way.  Even if she weren't African-American, I'd have still said it was a genuine shame that you didn't take the chance when it was offered.  The fact that one of Hamilton's intended goals was to provide a voice for the Black experience just makes the mistake all the more ironic.  Because right now, dozens of other artists in the same predicament as her still have to struggle to get their voice heard, even in our so-called "open society".

Beyond that, however, I don't know what to say.  It was Ginny's choice in the end, and I respect that, even as I think the results from it are lackluster.  It's a shame to have to report this, yet I'm afraid Virginia Hamilton's Willie Bea and the Time the Martians Landed is a story that can't quite live up to the hype promised by its title.  Sometimes taking a look back at the old memories you recall from childhood can be a mixed blessing roll of the dice.  Odds are just as even that you'll get small returns for investment as you are to discover that what you recall from childhood has instead taken on a greater sense of depth and imagination as you've grown older.  I wanted this memory to be greater than I knew way back when.  Guess it just wasn't in the cards, this time around.  I think there was a valiant effort here that was squandered when it shouldn't have been.  Still, it is enough of an experience to leave me anxious to see what else this author has written going forward.  You never know just how a trip down memory lane is going to pay off.  Still, that's no reason to stop trying to dig and search for treasure.

No comments:

Post a Comment