Thursday, April 19, 2012

Southern Lit. Quick Read

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts. 

~~ William Shakespeare's As You Like It

For those who like dark Southern lit. murder mystery type books, this one is a fun way to pass a lazy afternoon. The Drifter's Wheel is part of Philip DePoy's Fever Devlin series. The story takes place in Blue Mountain, Georgia where Dr. Fever Devlin is a college professor, scholar and expert in Southern Folklore. His expertise in this field leads him to become part of many crime scene investigations involving the local mountain folks. Quirky character detail I noticed -- Devlin is described as commonly wearing different clothing combinations involving the colors "rust" (I'm guessing a dark orange) and black. Never really explained why only these colors seem to come up so much, but interesting, I thought :-P

The plot, which covers Civil War era through modern times, can be confusing in parts. A mystery man busts into Devlin's home and tells him this wild story of how he is a Civil War soldier (and, in one of his stories, a relative of Stonewall Jackson) guilty of killing his brother (whose body is later found near the estate lands of one of Devlin's neighbors, thus bringing about the murder mystery part of the story). Devlin, called in to help with the murder investigation, comes to find out that the same mystery man visited Devlin's fiancee, Lucinda and Hovis Daniel, an eccentric old man considered crazy by most Blue Mountain locals. Tricky part of the story is the mystery man gives different versions of his story and different clues to his true identity (including identifying himself by different names) to all three people. That's where the story can get confusing, trying to keep track of all the different stories and identities for the same guy. It's also part of the fun though. 

Lucinda was the head nurse at the county hospital. If she had been born a hundred years earlier, she would have been the midwife of our town -- two hundred years earlier and she might have been its witch. Long out of high school and college, she somehow had managed to maintain not only a student's looks but also an enthusiasm for learning new things I found absolutely fascinating. Her desire to gather new ideas was the perfect compliment to my passion for discovering old ones. There seemed to be no end in the things we found in common, or the joy we found in sharing those things. 

I loved all the history incorporated into the story. I particularly love stories that teach me something new about a part of history I didn't know before. In this story, that was the case with Devlin's study of the Hutchinson Family Singers, a group of Civil War era singers whose songs focused on abolition of slavery, womens' rights, political activism and the like -- they were also the original war protesters, loooong before hippies thought to fight the Vietnam war with enthusiastic rounds of Kumbaya.  I don't remember reading about them before but apparently they were THE group to see back in the 1840s. Sample of one of their songs below:

 By the time Andrews got home, I'd spent a very frustrating five hours, on and off, going from one web site to another without finding anything of use. It had only exacerbated my primary objection to internet research : a million miles wide and half an inch deep. {Pretty much how my internet research typically goes!}

There's even a science lesson or two here:

Mushrooms illuminated by the chemical Luciferin
Not photoshopped! This actually happens naturally 
via same chemical reaction that lights up firefly butts! :-)

In the book, this process is explained with Fever 
coming across Foxfire plants:

It's usually called foxfire -- a bioluminescence created by a certain sort of fungus or lichen. You find it on decaying wood. I used to believe it was primarily a product of only one species of the genus Armillaria, but over the years I think I've found as many as forty individual species. It exists everywhere. Pliny and Aristotle mention it. Ben Franklin suggested that the military use it to light the inside of one of our first submarines. Believe it or not, it's a substance called luciferin -- same thing that lights up a firefly -- reacts with an enzyme, luciferase, and that causes the luciferin to oxidize and make light. 

So there ya go... any of you who ever wondered how fireflies work... :-) Might take some of the mystique away from the little guys but they're still fun to watch!

There's a humorous observation on human behavior after Fever explains luciferin to his best friend and fellow professor Winton Andrews during a midnight hike through the woods to search for something pertaining to the investigation. Fever mentions the need to be careful as to not alarm bears in the area and notices in Winton:

And there it was: the human aversion to anything unfamiliar. Andrews, like most people, would rather face a real bear than imaginary fire. He understood what a bear was; he had no idea what made the fungus glow -- even though I had offered a perfectly good scientific explanation. He'd seen bears a hundred times. He'd seen foxfire twice. And even though the bear was a certain danger and the luminescent fungus would never attack him, rake him with claws, or bite him with teeth, Andrews preferred the bear. 

DePoy also hits upon the beauty of history, through his elderly character, Hovis:

...the old days. That's what I know best. There's not a single today in life that can beat a really great yesterday. And do you know why? Because yesterday is polished by the rags of memory, and it shines brighter, glows warmer. Hell. A man my age, especially, is more like to recall a penny's worth of ten-years-ago than a dollar's worth of earlier-today. 

graphic courtesy of  The Graphics Fairy

:-) Just love that!