Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Stop calling me Shurley

I once pointed out to my son, as he struggled with his English homework, that the school is essentially trying to teach him a language he already speaks. I said this to give him confidence, but it illustrates the backwards nature of English as a subject. We learn to speak English, and to a lesser extent write it, informally, via parents, books, television and everything that goes on around us. In other words, we learn by imitation. We don't learn anything about the bones of the language. And then school comes along and tries to stuff those bones into what we already know and in the process they often end up turning the English language into something dull and unappetizing.
Let me just say that I like grammar when it is nicely done. I'm particular about the subjunctive (if she were, not if she was) and various other archaisms. Parsing a sentence, and seeing exactly how the words have their own place and yet work together, has the same excitement for me as a medical student might feel watching the dissection of the muscles of the arm. But how did I learn grammar? Truthfully, not in elementary school or middle school "Language Arts," no matter how many times we were tested on it. None of that stuck. No, I learned in high school, when I took Latin. Suddenly I had to know all the verb tenses, and the difference between an indirect object (the dative case) and the direct object (the accusative case.) And when I knew Latin well I suddenly looked back at English and understood everything I had forgotten so many times. And it seemed easy.
Some things have changed for the better in school, but English grammar instruction has not. I can say this because my son's school uses the popular "Shurley Method" to teach it. Shurley uses jingles to teach everything and yes, that does make it easier to remember. And Shurley does make sentence structure easier, although after the poor sentence has been parsed it's an obsessive-compulsive's nightmare of PPV, HV, SN, PPA and a dozen other labels. But I think when you have an English grammar system that requires students to memorize all 49 prepositions and 23 helping verbs the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
No one ever learned English by memorizing prepositions.
No one ever learned any language by memorizing prepositions.
Having to memorize prepositions is like having to memorize road signs. You see a road sign, you know what it is. No one is supposed to run around with a catalog of all possible road signs in their head, and if they did it wouldn't help much. The brain just doesn't work that way.
Did I also mention that this particular test required him know the prepositions in alphabetical order as well?
I just hope that somehow my son, and all the other Shurley kids, survive this instruction and come to realize that the English language was not specifically invented as an instrument of torture designed to ruin an 11 year old's weekend.
If not, I guess I can always enroll him in Latin.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Perryville, Part II

I think Americans sometimes forget that we have suffered actual physical damage during wars. We forget that the cities of Vicksburg, Atlanta and Richmond were burned and bombed out. We forget that ports were blockaded, that people starved, that they fled from their homes. There are very few photographs to remind us of these events and very often, when we see the site of a three-day battle in the middle of what is now suburban sprawl, we can't quite picture it. Of course we preserve these battlefields, but they are overgrown now, and function much as oases of peace amid modern life. And the towns that do still bear scars, like Gettysburg and Perryville, get stuck in a time warp and are not allowed to really be part of our century. Wandering through them is very disconcerting.
On Thanksgiving visits I used to go with my mother to the town of Perryville to take afternoon tea in a bed-and-breakfast/tearoom there. We never went to the battlefield. We believed (wrongly, I think) that it was closed in the winter, and in any case my mother says she finds battlefields depressing. The bed-and-breakfast was in a large house which had been used as a hospital for the wounded. We would eat petit fours and drink tea and then drive back, in the fading light, to Lexington.
I have always been good with directions and so more than ten years later I was able to find my way by myself, slowing down as I passed through the same Victorian houses of downtown Harrodsburg (and the Baatan memorial -- another reminder of another war) and turning onto the Perryville road. After a few miles I saw an interesting-looking graveyard behind a church and I got out to look. It proved to be very cold, and I got back in the car within a minute. I drove into Perryville, turned as directed by a battlefield sign, blinked, found myself outside of Perryville, and had to turn around and go back to the turnoff I had missed. Perryville has a river, a couple of churches, some old houses and an intersection with one of the blinking yellow lights that scare the heck out of city drivers. The battlefield was just a couple of minutes down the turnoff, past houses with signs for "Antiques - Bullets - Shells." Even after I parked I still wasn't sure it was open. There were only two small buildings, both deserted. Just beyond the parking area were two monuments, one Confederate, one Union, side by side. The Confederate monument had one of those big standing wreaths in front, while the Union monument was undecorated, and I must confess I minded. I let it go, thinking that the wreath might have been placed in honor of a recent Confederate Memorial Day (which is sometimes celebrated in January), but I still minded.
After this I walked onto the battlefield itself. It was hilly -- long gentle hills -- and there were clumps of trees, often on the ridgelines. Where the grass had eroded the muddy areas were covered by straw. Except for my walking everything was silent. It was very cold. I went up a long slow hill, hoping the exercise would keep me warm. In the next few minutes I did several sentimental things, but I did them and I suppose I ought to confess them. First I took two pieces of straw and looped them into a cross like on Palm Sunday. Then I found a pebble and picked it up. When I got to the top of the hill I looked at the green and brown landscape and the bare trees. There was still no one in sight. My feet were going numb. I went down into a little copse of trees because in my Perryville scene Thetis finds wounded men in such a copse. I remember trying to judge from the size of the trees if they would have been there at the time of the battle. I don't know much about the size/age relationship of trees, unfortunately. In the copse I sat for awhile and then I found a snail shell. At first I couldn't imagine how that could get there and then I remembered land snails. I've lived too long in the desert, I guess. I put that in my pocket with the pebble. I really wanted to find something from the battle, something that would be an actual connection, but there was nothing. I had come to Perryville to "pick up" details for the battle scene, of course, but I was thinking not so much about the shape of the hills and the bare trees (I had this in my memory a million times over just from growing up in Kentucky) but something more. I guess as a writer you're always looking for a kind of "aha!" (Perhaps secretly you want something that will make it easier for you, something that just falls into your lap.) There was no aha. There was just what you would expect standing on a hill in Boyle County in January -- serious cold, and silence.
I went back down the hill and I put the straw cross and the pebble and the snail shell on a step at the lower edge of the Union monument. Then I crossed the road and went in the museum and said hello to the woman behind the gift-shop counter. She was kind of bubbly. I didn't like her. She suggested I go into the museum and watch the movie but I had to be a rebel so I started the movie but walked around and looked at the exhibits while it was on. I looked at old medical implements and items that had been dug up out of the ground and I read accounts of the battle. Then I signed the name "Robert Southey" in the visitor book. Southey wrote a poem "After Blenheim," which recounts two children finding a skull on a long-deserted battlefield and wondering what all the fighting was about. It repeats the line "it was a famous victory" in every stanza. I wrote that in the visitor book, too. It seemed very clever at the time. Then I hovered in the gift shop, had one of those sudden pangs that lead you not to buy anything after all, and went back out to the car and drove away.
My mother had warned me that I would find nothing to eat this side of...Louisville, perhaps, but in fact Harrodsburg had quite a respectable selection of fast food restaurants. I chose Pizza Hut. Everyone was so polite I thought something was wrong until I remembered that this is normal in Kentucky. While I was eating I eavesdropped on the waitresses, who were talking about their kids. On the way back to Lexington I drove by the big liquor store that I remembered from eons ago as a landmark signalling the border of a dry county.
I went home thinking that nothing had changed in my conception of Perryville and that I had found no new details for my chapter. But not long afterward I began to see how the ending of the book might be brought around to Perryville again, with Thetis and Sheba visiting the battlefield two years after the fighting, and considering the place where their war began. This tightened the narrative focus and made visible certain things I hadn't seen before. It turned out to be a huge leap forward. I have often written scenes, credibly, I hope, in places I have never been. But I'm glad I went to Perryville. Sometimes you need to sit there and absorb the place with all your senses to understand its importance and to convey that to your readers.

Perryville Part I

A major scene in How to See the Elephant is set at the battle of Perryville, which took place outside the small Kentucky town of the same name on October 8, 1862. Although I grew up about a hour away (country-road driving) in Lexington, and although we learned a select amount of local history in social studies classes, I learned very little about the battle, the broader campaign it was part of, or its significance to the war as a whole until I was much older. In fact, I did not visit the battlefield itself until about two years ago, well after I had decided to set part of the novel there*. I suppose the reason we didn't learn much about Perryville was because it was generally thought in those days that all important Civil War battles occured in Virginia -- or at any rate, back East. (I grew up in a subdivision whose streets were named after Civil War battles, including Cross Keys and Seven Pines, but there was no Perryville, no Franklin, no Pea Ridge among them.)

Recently historians have cycled back to the view that those Western battles were significant, but I'd be a little suprised if local schools have picked up on their proximity to the battlefield. Perryville is just a hard battle to admire. It was fought more or less by mistake by two generals who were both eventually dismissed for incompetence and who were out of touch with their troops when it was actually going on. There were 8,000 casualties from a half-day’s fighting, and it is generally conceded to be one of the goriest and fiercest battles even for the West, where the fighting tended to be more bloody than in the East. After it ended, both generals claimed victory, but both acted as if they had lost – Braxton Bragg, the Confederate general withdrew not just from the battlefield but the entire state, which he had spent two months conquering, and Don Carlos Buell, the Union general, did not bother to follow.
For those left behind, soldiers and civilians both, conditions were bad. There had been a serious drought all summer and food supplies were further reduced by soldiers living off the land. Buell had made little provision for medical care for the wounded -- his theory was "the sick take care of the sick." Worst of all, perhaps, the Union soldiers refused to bury the Confederate dead who had been left on the battlefield. After several days had passed, with conditions now unbearable, they finally rounded up townspeople from Perryville and made them do it. Altogether it's not a story that can make you extremely proud of your country. But some attention must be paid -- if for nothing else, for the men who died there.

This is all by way of background for what will probably be a two-part post, the second part taking up the visit I made to the battlefield two years ago. By that time I knew all the foregoing and I looked around with eyes that might have appreciated more than when I didn't know anything.

*My sister says we did go once, when I was a baby, and I was sick. Or maybe I didn't go because I was sick. In any case, I don't remember.