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Long Novels Detailing the Developments that Made Us So Very Strange
When I was a high school kid in Rawlins County, Kansas, I began filling spiral notebooks with stories that I would hear from my mother and her sisters, and most particularly from my Aunt Lonnie Frick (Mrs. R.O.), whose sister Ruth Hayden has published a couple books on Kansas history. Little Atwood, Kansas, at the intersection of U.S. highway 36 and Kansas 25, was my mother's ancestral home, in a way, though in a manner marked by a disconnect that somehow worked its way into my own DNA, as did the stories that I heard there. It was the mid-1960s and suddenly I was in this odd farming community, having been transplanted from a cozy suburban lifestyle in Englewood, Colorado. I had been plopped into this gonzo other-existence on the ether of my father's decision to get out of the aerospace industry and return to his rural roots, for like my mother, his ancestry also featured pioneering homesteaders on the high plains, his in nearby Nebraska. Go figure such impulses, given the Cape Canaveral via Martin Marietta lifestyle we were enjoying, at least from my child's perspective. Then again, I wasn't doing the long commutes and the 16-hour work days. I was just enjoying the neighborhood. Denver's suburbanites were like-minded clusters of company workers - everyone in our neighborhood was affiliated with Martin-Marietta - and, in that sense, were familiars. Small town Kansas, on the other hand, was different. The world we parachuted into was peopled by real flesh-and-blood characters, the likes of which have fired the imaginations of writers ranging from Samuel Clemons to Sinclair Lewis to Sherwood Anderson and beyond. That's the thing about a town such as Atwood, which in the 1960s had a population no greater than sixteen hundred people: you get to know everyone's back stories. Or at least most everyone's, though there are always outliers, whose presences remain mysteries whom no one seems able to fully explain or comprehend.
For those of you who have heard enough, good night and please check back again soon!
But for you handful of knuckleheads silly enough to comprehend where I am going with this, I shall continue by saying that fish-out-of-water types often rely on coping mechanisms that yield dramatic results. Sometimes they murder a bunch of people with an automatic weapon, and sometimes they create things, from the mundane, like working governmental structures, to the sublime, such as art. (Rawlins County produced the National Forest Service artist who created Smokey the Bear. Does that count?) And then there are people, such as myself, assuming that other such types exist, who endeavor to find the connection between working governmental structures and art. Such is the nature of my Atwood Trilogy, which has existed for years as an un-publishable pile of manuscript over fifteen hundred pages deep. This work had its genesis in those spiral notebooks from high school days, later to take form in my graduate school days at Ball State University (and that is not a joke), and then later in my twenties, wedging fiction time among my daytime journalism duties. I showed the Atwoodmanuscript to a literary agent in San Francisco once and got nowhere with it. And then my kids were born, and personal time stopped altogether.
I have written only dry technical proposals and marketing collateral since 1995, though the RARWRITER Publishing Group websites have served as an outlet for articles on all types of subjects, so by most anyone's ' standards I have remained a manic producer of written stuff. But my only creative outlet, other than sitting at a typewriter keyboard, has been my songwriting and recording pursuits. These have been a nice release, because I have never taken them very seriously.
What I have taken seriously is the loss of focus one feels with age, so I am pleased to report a sort of rebirth on my part of late in those areas of life I find most satisfying, and that I had assumed to be most dead. As an exhibit to the point, I am offering a recent screenplay,The Oracle, registered with the Writer's Guild of America (WGA) and available for the consideration of anyone shopping for a two-hour political satire. I would pitch this as The Devil Wears Prada meets Being There. Some readers have noted parallels in tone to Wag the Dog, but my humble estimation is that The Oracle is far better. This product is available for license and/or production, and interested parties should contact Rick@rickarice.com.
My other purpose for writing, in this long-winded manner, is for the pre-publicizing of the completed Atwood Trilogy, my big concept project that I consider my own Lord of the Rings. It is similar in its mix of high ideals while also having the elements of a ripping good yarn, and it has a political-historical timeliness that will bring clarity to aspects of the most important issues under discussion today.
The rush of energy that propels the Atwood Trilogy, beginning with the novel Atwood, is generated by a form of stream of conscious fiction, the likes of which I have not been able to produce since I was very young. It is a quality in writing that a person may or may not recognize in its earliest form, but it often stands over time as the real thing in a writer's development. Education and training tends to work against the instincts that give birth to those early nuggets, which is why writers who happened to catch the wave, upon which commercial success cruised under the power of native instinct, often struggle to regain their natural form. Some, like Bret Easton Ellis, just finally give up and just use Twitter to express themselves. (He seems to have convinced himself that Twitter is a new literary form.)
I suspect that my kids having reached the ages they are, nearing eighteen and sixteen, is the thing responsible for my recovery to my own juvenile form. There is a feeling that they are now able to take care of much of what has consumed my time since their arrival, and perhaps I am feeling a shimmer of freedom. It is mysterious to me, but of late I have returned to myself as I once was, at least for the time forgetting to think and simply writing, flowing positively into forty-second street, and splattering brightly among the disarray. My sincere thanks and appreciation to whatever force of nature is visiting this re-found influence upon my being.
The Atwood Trilogy, comprised of Atwood, The Marion Hotel, and The City By the Lake, tells the story of America through the historically-based account of a group of homesteaders in Northwest Kansas, whose story begins in 1876. Through three novels the trilogy demonstrates the interconnectedness of the cultural, governmental, and environmental influences that have shaped the middle section of the U.S., addressing the "what is the matter with Kansas" issue that has plagued the state since the pre-Civil War era of Bleeding Kansas.
The three novels are tied together by recurring characters and storylines that serve as intersections where superstition, religion and fantasy come together with human development and westward expansion to produce a people and a history that is profoundly revealing while being extraordinarily entertaining. The novels are footnoted and indexed and presented with respect to actual historical events between the years 1820 and 1965, and in that they are an extraordinary historical resource, providing perspectives on issues unique in context and insight. But the driving force of the narratives are the complex characters, who are destined to be remembered with special places in the annals of American literature, and the dialogue, which explores with great nuance the attitudes that have created the fractured societies in which we live today. The Atwood Trilogy addresses every important issue of the past two hundred years, and does it within a dramatic framework that brings unique perspective on why Americans, and particularly those in the "Red States", are as they are. It is a struggle for the soul of man, acted out to this day by a very small group of isolated people at the very heart of our nation, whose impacts are out-sized due to the extraordinary history and cultures that they represent.
ATWOOD - A Toiler's Weird Odyssey of Deliverance is currently available through Amazon as an eBook for Kindle viewers. The Atwood Trilogy will soon be available in its entirety, and interested agents are welcome to contact Rick@rickarice.com for sample chapters, or for the entire set. Also available is Cowboy Town, a sample chapter of which is available through this link.
Original Political Satire
Screenplay For Our Paralyzed Times
"The Oracle", a screenplay by Rick Alan Rice, Publisher of the RARWRITER Publishing Group, has been registered with Writers Guild of America - West. Described as The Devil Wears Prada meets Being There, the screenplay follows a group of White House strategists under the leadership of a Karl Rove-like character. When he discovers a pharmaceutical short-cut to fixing his Republican President's faltering poll numbers, it sets off a torrent of violence and mayhem not anticipated nor intended, which takes on a further life of its own. In turns both funny and horrifying, "The Oracle" satirizes today's Washington D.C. and the paralysis of ideas that has created a lost generation (The Post-Millennial). In the process it touches upon virtually every issue of importance in the world today. This screenplay, which some will consider in the same vein as "Wag the Dog", is looking for an agent and a producer. Use this link to open the WGA Registered draft, or click on the cover below.
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ATWOOD - A Toiler's Weird Odyssey of Deliverance
by E.A. Kay
Rick Alan Rice’s epic novel ATWOOD: A Toiler’s Weird Odyssey of Deliverance, revolves around the founding of the town of Atwood, Kansas situated in Rawlins County in the northwest corner of the state. The book weaves together multiple stories that meander like a twisting stream through historical fact, fictionalized events, Native American beliefs, and the folklore and legends brought to this country by European emigrants who homesteaded Kansas in the late 1800s. ATWOOD is an entertaining, easily readable and incredibly informative book. You’ll find it enjoyable, whether or not you have Kansas roots, as will people interested in the history and folklore of the western United States. It is the first book in a trilogy the author is currently working on.
ATWOOD: A Toiler’s Weird Odyssey of Deliverance opens in the post-Civil War years, an age of massive European immigration to America when western territories such as Kansas were rapidly being explored and exploited by people bent on trapping, hunting, mining, grazing and farming. At this time the high plains of northwestern Kansas were being advertised as a veritable “Garden of Eden” by various moneyed interests: bankers, chamber of commerce, state publicity departments, railroads and real estate brokers. But the German and Czechoslovakian farmers who arrived in 1875 by wagon train to Rawlins County to establish homesteads soon discovered things to be quite different. Barely enough rain fell annually to grow a profitable crop of any kind. The homesteads had to be defended from Indian raiding parties and from vast herds of bawling cattle driven by cowboys who didn’t know the meaning of property lines.
In this atmosphere of ever present danger and uncertainty, an event occurred in 1878 near Atwood that rattled the sparsely inhabited community. A little girl named Charlene Steele living on a remote farm on the Beaver Creek wandered into the nearby woods and disappeared.
“Nothing gripped the scattered community of homesteaders with greater fear than the possibility of losing a child to any of the predators that roamed the area. There were eagles that surveyed the potential for poaching from great heights, and there had been incidences where the giant birds had swept from the sky to pick up a baby left momentarily unattended in an exposed area. And then the child would be gone forever, spirited away to a bloody aerie that man would never find, to be flayed live and devoured by rapturous hunters, with wing spans six feet across and more, who ruled the lands with such utter contempt that they had been crowned our national bird.
J.B. Talbot, whose homestead was set atop a tall hill above the creek two miles west of the Steele’s, had erected a tower there for the purpose of alerting the community to emergencies. If help was needed, he burned a salt-injected pile of wood that produced a noticeably yellow cloud of smoke, and the seeing of it encouraged settlers from around the area to quickly gather to help with the emergency. Within a couple hours there were seven families gathered at the Steele homestead.”
Assuming the child had been murdered by Indians, the settlers embarked on a shocking act of violence. European immigration to the plains was rapidly stripping Native Americans of their means of existence as well as their methods of retaliation. With each new wave of settlers and government soldiers the Indians were becoming increasingly desperate and murderous. Rice describes the savage acts that occurred in and around Rawlins County on both sides. Indian raiding parties were targeting wagon trains moving along the Santa Fe Trail and shooting settlers in cold blood. East of Atwood a group of Cheyenne slaughtered a herd of cattle numbering about one hundred in an area that came to be known as “Hundred Head Draw”. The brutal Sand Creek Massacre in Kansas Territory in 1864 and the massacre of Cheyenne Hole in 1874 marked the government’s systematic eradication of Native Americans over the course of fifteen years.
The Indian Wars were only one example of how contentious Kansas territory was during this time. As Rice explains, throughout the mid to late 1800s different groups spilled blood for a variety of passionate causes: the right to own slaves (or not), drink alcohol (or not), allow women the vote (or not), tolerate Catholics, Jews and other faiths (or not), and welcome ex-slaves after the Civil War (or not). The towns of Atwood, Blakeman and McDonald locked horns a heated battle about which would become the county seat. (Atwood eventually won this distinction and gained its courthouse by physically removing it from another town.)
Along with descriptions of day to day struggles, tragedies and accomplishments of the Kansas farmers and ranchers, the novel depicts larger historic events impacting the territory during this turbulent era. These include the Homestead Act of 1862, orphan trains, the gold and silver rush, abolition wars, the advent of statehood, railroad operations, innovations in farming technology, land marketing schemes, Prohibition, the post-Civil War influx of African Americans to the midwest, and the economic collapse of 1873.
One of the many unforgettable characters in ATWOOD is a loner named Dobby Leitner who takes up residence in the Beaver Valley in 1869, long before the other homesteaders arrive. One day a friend named Col. Atwood passing through the region pays Dobby a visit and plants an idea in his head:
“My belief is that if someone were to establish some basic services here, like a warehouse, icehouse, meat house, and maybe a blacksmith and carpenter shop, you’d have a pretty reliable start on something,” said Atwood. “You would become a hub and settlers would come here for supplies, which would be delivered right off the tracks through here. There’s a thing called synergy, Mr. Leitner, where all the forces swirling around a situation miraculously join together in unison to make something more than might have otherwise existed. You could be the synergist.”
Dobby Leitner becomes the operator and manager of the first Atwood Trading Post as around him the town begins to grow. Sensitive to the spirit of place, Leitner recognizes something profound about this particular location:
“A place out of the weather would be what people would mostly need, and here it was, the Beaver Valley. Fertile lands stretched out from the cup along the creek, providing ample room for the layout of a town, even a lake were a man of a mind to make one, before the elevations rose two hundred feet at the valley’s perimeters to meet the high plains.”
The town of Atwood takes shape, starting with a grid-shaped blueprint. After the courthouse is acquired construction begins on a municipal water well, drainage system, post office, newspaper, depot, school, ice storage, sewer, sceptic, and eventually, a railroad spur. Atwood’s founding father, James Matheney supervised its road construction with unusual skill and forethought:
“Matheney oversaw the construction of a surface roadway system built using the macadam method . This used compacted layers of small stones that were then cemented into a hard surface by stone dust – macadam – and water. To produce a durable and sustainable surface, the roadways were excavated and then backfilled with stone. In the east, this had often required compaction of the subsoil, but in the clay soils of western Kansas compaction was hardly necessary. These hard soils at the base of the construction would stand the weight of loads, while the rock surface would drain water away from the roadway and provide a uniform surface on which to ride. This was immensely expensive, which is why it was limited to a few important streets, selected to give a sense of place to the new community; a sense, as one left the dirt trail and began traveling upon this higher level surface, that here (Attwood) was a place where things were better.”
As Atwood grew so did competition for business . . . especially concerning what the railroads could provide. Expectations for a railroad spur to Atwood is one of the ongoing themes of the novel. An infuriated Scots cattleman named R.L. McDonald who had a nearby town named after him decided to even the score:
After Atwood wrested the county seat . . . He [McDonald] decided to dig Rawlins County’s largest well right in the heart of the McDonald settlement. It was going to be his play for the place that bore his name, the effort he had never made, and it was going to encourage the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad to invest there as they had done in a big way over in Herndon. . . . he figured that there was no resource in all of Rawlins County more precious than water, which existed in great volume in the Ogallala Aquifer, the giant lake locked in the earth’s crust, that had been sealed over by geomorphic processes millions of years ago. Left above it were the limestone rock formations and the fossil remains of the world that once was, whose legacy has moved underground into that vast alternative reservoir.“
Rice delves into the cultural roots and psychologies of the diverse emigrants families flooding into the area. People from so many different regions of Europe were moving to northwestern Kansas that a family’s language and religious beliefs were often completely different from those of their next door neighbors. Getting along was often challenging, and the impulse was to stick to one’s own kind. But sometimes the better side of human nature rose to the occasion, as when a heroic woman named Kate Cochran came to the aid of a standoffish neighbor family stricken with diphtheria.
“The bacteria may also live on objects, like cups and saucers, and may be spread by sharing contaminated objects. In the early days of the American west there developed a practice of hanging metal cups from well handles, for the convenience of anyone who wished to pump fresh water out of the ground and have a drink. The cup would then be left for the next person, and these sorts of practical pioneering habits had the unfortunate effect of generating disease paths. . . . But Kate wasn’t accepting the grim awfulness of the whole thing or willing to allow their aloof neighbors from across the street to suffer without benefit of assistance and aid. She had heard that the spice Asafetida had qualities that would prevent the transmission of airborne disease and so began to fashion tiny pouches of the spice to be worn around the neck , with the bag to be covering its hollow, and that could also be placed inside the cheeks of one’s mouth.”
Running parallel to the prosaic lives of the novel’s characters are stories of their inner worlds where dwell imaginative beings, dreams, desires and fantasies that range from profound to ridiculous. The working class people who settled in Rawlins County were steeped in European mythologies and their imaginations were rife with cantankerous kobolds, friendly house spirits, water sprites and fertile sylphs. Rice portrays these nature spirits as being just as real as the sodbusters, store keepers and cowboys whom they aided or hindered or sometimes flat out seduced. In these chapters we encounter some very strange beings, indeed.
“The krivopeta, who lived in the caves near the old dinosaur boneyard in Burntwood Township, had been attracted by the presence of the newly arrived sylph at the Vlček property, and incidentally had wiped out all of their few farm animals in the course of her investigations. She was an awful creature whose presence typically portended the arrival of storms, but she also had an insatiable desire for blood feasts so she represented something of a storm in her own right. It was unclear if she had arrived in the area with the wave of Slovakian immigrants, or if she was simply an entity of the cave systems, which branched and networked everywhere, beyond what any human had ever known or explored; likely from Kansas to Slovenia. The krivopeta could transit realms probably too hostile for humankind, so some suspected that they simply moved throught the world, surfacing here and there as storms were called and need arose.”
The Indians relied on a supernatural being named Pale Lightning whom they conceived of as a long haired woman who ruled over the mountain territories, controlled the movement of the buffalo and sometimes dispatched avalanches. Pale Lightning had connections to a race of small, brown-skinned people with canine-sharp teeth, who lived beneath the mountains and who routinely surfaced from their caves in hunting groups to attack all living things, including humans. The caves in Rawlins County, we learn, were not only an entrance into a deadly underworld, but also a convenient place to store bootleg whiskey during prohibition.
As Rice splices fact with fantasy conventional notions about life on the frontier fly out the window. Did a group of incredibly strong, mostly unmarried, seriously independent women from the nearby town of Ludell actually cavort naked in the pale moonlight? The settlement around Ludell, Kansas, Rice tells us, began to be populated by an odd assortment of literal bohemians – which is to say, emigrants from Bohemia in Europe – and emigrants from several regions of Germany, some of whom were of Jewish heritage. Then imagination grabs the reins. The leader of these women, the stunning Elizabeth Newberg who is attuned to arcane mysteries, tells her followers: “There are waypoints in life that orient us to the earth’s natural energies, which are closely aligned with our inherent sense of positive and negative. And those polar opposites align closely with the impulses we feel to do right and wrong. Truth, faith, wisdom and charity – all of those ideas that Amaranth is about – are the result of aligning ourselves perfectly with the earth’s energies, and our landmarks are there to help us do that.”
Deep in the wilderness Elizabeth invites her group to participate in an activity that is part ritual, part catharsis. “There were a dozen of them, all white as alabaster and tall and slender, moving like reeds swaying in a circular motion around a blazing campfire, with flames shooting eight feet into the night . And they were stark naked, a fact that hadn’t been perceived by him immediately as the light of the flames seem to lick their bright skins with changing hues that seemed at times to flash, as if some mysterious climax of light had reached a crescendo movement and exploded in a burst among the group, who laughed joyously and sang as they moved like forest nymphs.”
No one spins a good western spook story better than Rice who infests the plains and creek bottoms with dangerous, unnatural creatures that give the cowpokes hell. Even in the darkest moments, however, these tough Kansas cowboys never entirely lose their acerbic sense of humor:
“. . . Buck Lindsey was snapped from his dreams in the black of night at the sound of a ruckus that he figured to be a hundred or more yards off to his right. He quickly jolted in his saddle, which immediately reminded him that he had tied himself in, just in case. It was hard on these warm summer nights to keep his eyes open, and this night he had lost the fight, until he heard that sound: a horse’s nay, a rider’s shout, and a hissing snarl. . . . Moving so as not to make a sound, consoling his nervous horse as they picked their way through trees and underbrush, Buck suddenly found himself in a small open area and his attentions were drawn to the source of the light, suddenly close at hand. He froze at what he saw. Crouching over his friend, prostrate on the ground, gravely wounded but not dead, his legs jerking spasmodically in reaction to his pain and agony, was what appeared to be a man, and yet not. He wore dark clothes and yet seemed feral, like an animal, with long hair, dripping with blood, and he was using his teeth to tear into the flesh of the neck of Sparky Hibbits.”
“Hurley, the foreman, could not quite take in what he was seeing , and he had seen a lot. The victim was so brutalized that the corpse appeared almost not to be real, so that Hurley and the others had a hard time comprehending what they were seeing and what was happening.
“How would you know a thing like that?” asked Hurley.
“From amputating limbs and whatever at Antietam and Sharpsburg, I reckon that’s where it started,” said Hawks, staring at his estimate. “I got right good at summing up loss.”
Hurley continued to stare at the grisly scene with bewilderment, too knocked off his usual capable stride to fashion a quick plan for what to do next. All he could think to say was - “Well, this young man isn’t going to need anything anymore.”
Rice’s novel ends in the 1890s as John D. Rockefeller’s younger brother Frank Rockefeller is teaching a young ranch owner named Chauncey Dewey how to drive a brand new Oldsmobile ‘Model N’ Touring Runabout. An era is ending and a new one is about to unfold, but to read about that we will impatiently have to wait for the next book in the ATWOOD trilogy.
“It wasn’t long before the sun was down and the sky turned dark. “Here’s another thing your horse doesn’t have,” said Frank, reaching to turn a switch that activated two brass lanterns situated on each side of the front of the car, so that the way ahead was lighted. “You can drive at night.” The beam of the lights made a beautiful picture of the fading daylight before them, the silhouetted plains giving way to a deep blue sky changing to azure by minute degrees with each passing moment. The light of the brave little lamps reached out only so far, creating a shallow zone of marginal safety surrounded by fast-encroaching mysterious night, so that the road before them came to seem like a portal. “There is a flask under the seat,” said Frank, as they bounced along, stars above coming out for the night as they drove.”
~E. A. Kay
NOTE ON REVIEWER: E.A. Kay is a painter and writer living and working in New Mexico, whose musical performances are often featured on the CCJ at RARWRITER.com.
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