Honoring NC’s literary heroes

by DG Martin

In the flurry of election news did you miss the announcements of important awards to other North Carolinians?

On Wed., Nov. 8 Gov. and Mrs. Easley presented North Carolina Awards (“the highest civilian honor the state can bestow”) to former Gov. Jim Holshouser, former Wake Forest President Tom Hearn, former Glaxo CEO Charles Sanders, newspaper editor Roy Parker, artist William T. Williams and writers Emily Herring Wilson and Michael Parker.

Thursday the University of North Carolina presented its highest award to its former president and her husband, Molly and Bob Broad.

Friday, during the fall conference of the North Carolina Writers’ Network, the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame (located at Weymouth in Southern Pines) inducted poet Gerald Barrax, poet and prose writer Fred Chappell and the late journalist and mystery writer Elizabeth Daniels Squire.

I want to share a few words about – and from – each new Hall of Famer.

Former NC State writing professor Gerald Barrax is a poet of “exceptional perception and stunning poetic technique.” His work often deals with the African American experience, but his themes cut across racial and cultural lines.

His poem, “Whose Children Are These?” is a poignant example.

Whose children are these? Who do these children belong to?

With no power to look over,

He look at them sleeping,

Exhaustion overwhelming hunger, barely

Protect with burlap from the cold

Cabin. Fear and rage make him tremble

For them; for himself, shame

That he can do no more

Than die for them

For no certain purpose. He heard

About a woman, Margaret Garner,

In spite of the white folks’ silence.

How she killed two

Of hers to keep them from being taken

Back; killed herself

After the others were taken back

Anyway. So she saved

Two. He couldn’t save

His Ellen and Henry.

Who do these belong to?

He doesn’t dare kiss them

Now, but stands dreaming,

Willing these five back

To a place or forward to a time

He can’t remember or imagine.

All he can do is find the place

He knows about. Leave now

Before dawn sets the white fields glowing

And murders the North Star.

Former North Carolina Poet Laureate and writing professor at UNCG, Fred Chappell is author of more than 40 books of poetry, fiction and essays. One reviewer called him “truly a national treasure.”

Chappell’s work often reflects his experience growing up in the North Carolina mountains, as in this selection from his novel, Farewell, I Am Bound to Leave You.

Yes, but I’m alone. I can’t well say how alone I am. Do you remember once when you climbed up into the big poplar in the back pasture and stayed there all day and didn’t come down and nobody knew? And then just about dark you showed up in the yard and looked in through the window at us eating supper. You commenced crying then, tears as big as seed corn, and I heard you and came out and you hugged my waist and said you were crying because you thought none of us remembered you. You said it was like you had passed away to another world and was not one of us any longer.

Winner of the prestigious Agatha Award for mystery writing, Elizabeth Daniels Squire, died in 2001. A member of the Daniels family that owned the Raleigh News and Observer, she became a reporter and nationally syndicated columnist before she created Peaches Dann, an absent-minded detective and the central character in a popular series mystery novels.

In a creative effort to describe the effects of the aging process she wrote a dialog between herself and Peaches, which she began as follows.

Characters of all ages tend to talk to their authors. And, because characters live inside our heads, they have access to everything we know. On top of which they know even more than we do about themselves. Which makes them uppity or else helpful, as the mood suits them. Or even philosophic.

So I wasn’t surprised when Peaches Dann, my 58-plus absent-minded sleuth looked me straight in my mind’s eye and said: “You don’t know how lucky you are to write about a well-seasoned wiser sleuth like me.”