Finally, Another Interesting Relative

I already knew we were related to the bad guys in The Crucible on my mom’s side. But I’d been disappointed to be from 400 years of relatively boring people on my dad’s side. Until I was researching some this afternoon on Nashville at the turn of the century and I noticed that Faust played here three times between 1900 and 1906 and once in the 1890s.

So, I go to refresh my memory on Faust and I see a link to the “Yankee Faust.” The “Yankee Faust”? What the fuck?

Meet Jonathan Moulton.

And I was like “New Hampshire? I have a bunch of dead relatives who helped settle New Hampshire.” And, sure enough. Jonathan Moulton, friend/enemy/acquaintance of the Devil is my second cousin ten times removed. His grandpa’s sister is my 10th great grandmother. Yes, her and thousands of others, but still.

I called my dad to tell him about his second cousin nine times removed and he was so tickled by the idea that he’s related to a guy that cheated the Devil that he began to laugh and said, “See, America needs us.”

I’m not sure that Devil-cheating is an inheritable trait, but, hell, if so, I’ve got your back, America.

Jacob, Called John?

So, my dream is to find a contemporary account of evidence of the Allenes’ seances. It doesn’t even have to be a first-hand account. I just want to know that there were stories at the time of this happening. The closest I’ve found is Hamlin Garland’s Forty Years of Psychic Research: A Plain Narrative of Fact that came out in 1936. The woman he mentions hearing the story from–Itta K. Reno–is probably Ittie Kinney Reno, who was the society editor for the brief-lived Nashville Daily News. The story does appear to be of “The Thing.” But what of this Judge John M. Dickinson who confirms the story?

Well, here’s where it gets interesting. The only John M. Dickinson I could find in Nashville in this time period is a John M. Dickinson living in the Maxwell House Hotel with his wife Martha and their son Overton. Considering naming conventions, this would mean some woman in the family, either Martha or John’s mother, is probably an Overton.

There is a Martha Overton with a son named Overton Dickinson in Nashville history. But she married Jacob Dickinson, as in Secretary of War Jacob Dickinson, served Assistant Attorney General of the United States, Jacob Dickinson.I can see how a census worker got the name wrong in 1880, but an author who knows the dude well enough to have dinner with him? Doesn’t know he’s Jacob, not John?

And, weirdly enough, though John is a pretty common name, I don’t find one in Nashville. I do think, however, that he’s probably some relation to Charles Dickinson, who Andrew Jackson killed. Jackson’s second? Thomas Overton.

Also, I learned that the editor of one of our papers was killed in a duel and that his statue is at the state capitol and that some lawyer has been working on getting it removed because Carmack, the editor, was such a racist. Well, if you removed all of the statues from around the capitol of all of the racists, we’d have like seven statues left, so… I don’t know. But I guess you start with Carmack and work your way to Forrest?

Ha ha ha. Not that it’s not important to strive to be better than the past, but I notice dudes are like “We have to remove the statue of the dude no one cares about because he was the most racist guy ever!!!” and few are like “Isn’t it time we put ole Nathan to pasture?”

But anyway, if Dickinson is actually Jacob Dickinson, his wife, like I said, is Martha Overton, whose brother, Robert, was married to Nancy Baxter, niece of Ben and Sue Allen.

But, pretty much, every prominent family in town had a million children who all married each other. It’s not so much if people are related, but how.



Okay, yes, this book deserves every ounce of praise piled on it. And I think that, if it had ended with the PowerPoint chapter, I would have come away feeling great about the book. That seemed to me to be hopeful–there will be children–while being kind of uncomfortable about the future–they will know you in ways you can’t know yourself and they will used technology in ways that feel alien to you–like PowerPoint as a form of journaling–without seeming so… ugh… yes, the end chapter.

It’s just a sour note, I think. Well written, but, to me, it rang untrue with the rest of the book. The whole rest of the book is about how personal tragedies play out or don’t. We see the people who appear to be on a good track fall apart. We see some folks who appear to be on a bad track fall apart. We see folks who try to commit suicide go on to be farmers. Other folks who don’t quite seem to be able to commit to killing themselves succeed. And the world goes on.

Even the natural temptation for the punk-rockers to try to push the hippies off the stage doesn’t have a particular political feel. It’s just the oldsters’ time to move off stage. Any feeling of being left behind by history is just a personal feeling. If the world feels like it’s ending, it’s only ending for you.

And I think, in general, that’s how it works.  And I think she does such a nice job of that throughout the book. We don’t need a “not everyone can just use drugs recreationally; some folks will not be fine” lecture, because we see it in one character.

And even the PowerPoint chapter–you knew it was slightly in the future. But she didn’t have to hit you over the head with “Things are so different now!!! Something has happened!” Just the seemingly-plausible PowerPoint journal was enough to do it.

The only moment in the end chapter that seemed like that was the revelation that LuLu had no tattoos or piericings. Just a nice little insight to remind you that the things we think are rebellious become mainstream and the things we think are mainstream become rebellions again in turn.

But I think she indulges in the same tired “We are in the end-times” bullshit that I wish people weren’t tempted into.

And don’t get me wrong. I’m going to attempt to be nuanced first thing in the morning on a Saturday. It may not go well. But right now, in various countries around the world, men with guns are entering houses and ending time for people who don’t deserve it. You and I will go about our day as if nothing has changed. Unless it happens in a way that makes us aware–down the block, to a neighbors, to a relative–we won’t even notice, let alone have our worlds shattered.

We have seen, in some of our own lifetimes, seismic human evil. And yet, though we all sit around with these apocalyptic fantasies–How can things go on after me? It must be the last days!–when actual apocalypses are happening, it’s hard to get people to recognize them, hard to get people to act in the face of monumental destruction. Even people who might be at the bad end of it. The urge to say “this is not happening” or “it won’t happen to me” is fucking huge.

I’m going to switch gears. When I was writing Flock, my dad and I were talking about one church he served where the people complained that they never sang any of the old traditional hymns, just stuff that the families in their 20s and 30s liked. So, my dad went through one Sunday and picked out three traditional Methodist hymns, things you would have regularly heard in a Methodist church in the 1800s. And he was the only one who could sing them. No one in the church knew them.

And so he asked, “What do you think are traditional hymns?” and they all picked out songs that were written either within their lifetimes or shortly before.

The things they grew up with, even if not that old were the “best” and therefore “traditional.”

Okay, so here’s what bothered me about the last chapter. It is a very difficult thing to get people to be aware of their place in history–whether it’s a matter of accepting that life will go on after them or accepting that something monumental is happening and therefor must be acted upon–and yet, everyone in the last chapter seems aware of the unique, strangeness of this proposed future.

And I really hated that, while, through the whole rest of the book, characters who do stereotypical things do not appear to be written as stand-ins for their whole group–the closeted gay guy who dies doesn’t stand for all gay people. The gal who can’t get her life together after years of drug abuse isn’t a symbol of the dangers of drugs.

But I felt like LuLu and the baby in the last chapter were stand-ins for “what’s wrong with kids today” in the near-future sense. And it bothered me that Egan, who up until that point had been so generous and careful to let each person actually be a person, turned that last chapter into a kind of rant against kids–they don’t communicate right, their words don’t even mean anything, their grammar sucks, their music is, in general, stupid, and they live in a police state without seeing how fucked up it is, and they’ve adapted smoothly without feeling the discomfort I do.

Yes, that has been one of the themes up until now–some people get to go on into the future and some people don’t. But we’re not supposed to feel uncomfortable with anyone else’s ability to go on ahead. I feel like we are supposed to feel that way about LuLu and the baby.

And I just feel like that sucks and goes against the grain of the rest of the book.