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  • Robert L. Pincus


REVIEW: Upcoming novel fulfills the promise of its first chapter (THE TIMES, Shreveport)

“Even before my horse got struck by lightning – a crazy thing all by itself – the world had gone stark raving mad.” So reads the superlative first sentence of Ashley Mace Havird’s debut novel, Lightningstruck. And who wouldn’t want to read further after taking in these words. It’s impossible not to wonder if the horse survived – you quickly find out it has-- and why 11-year-old Etta McDaniel believes her world has turned crazy.

The first chapter of Havird’s novel fulfilled the promise of that sentence, garnering my Best of Show award in the literary competition of the Shreveport Regional Art Council’s Critical Mass 4. Lightningstruck, which will be published in September by Mercer University Press, fulfills the promise of its first chapter.

The exhibition devoted to Lightningstruck, on view at artspace through Aug. 13, offers a compelling introduction to the book. Havird has selected judicious excerpts from it as well as photographs that strongly evoke the book’s sense of place and its historical context.

Her novel is set in the tobacco country of South Carolina, where Havird came of age, and the time is 1964. In the show, the tobacco culture of the region is pictured in such enduring images as Daughter of an African-American Sharecropper “Worming” the Tobacco (1939), by the great documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange. As insular and tradition bound as Etta’s tiny town is, the relations between its white and African American citizens are being altered by the larger Civil Rights Movement taking shape across the South. This aspect of the novel is represented in the exhibition by iconic press photos of that era, such as the haunting pictures of four young girls killed in a Birmingham Church bombing in 1963 and of the sit-in, that same year, at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi.

Even the small portions of Lightningstruck that appear on the walls of the gallery give us a sense of the compelling voice of Etta, who tells her own story. Most of us have read one classic coming of age novel or another. A list of enduring books in this vein would include the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. To this list I would add a recent example of note: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

The great appeal of these narratives is to feel as if the author is speaking directly to you. The magnetic voices in these novels pull you in quickly – and Etta’s does too. If the question about the survival of Troy, Etta’s horse, is disclosed in the first pages of the book, the bigger question is one the reader has to answer for him or herself. Are the events in Etta’s world signs of madness? At least in some measure, the term rings true to an 11-year-old girl’s way of seeing her world. But we should keep in mind that many a boy or girl of that age has a flair for melodrama and hyperbole.

So much of the novel is anticipated and hinted at in its first chapter. There is the gap between the horse Etta yearned for and the horse she has. There are her complex relationships with Cleo, the housekeeper who has essentially raised her and who she loves deeply; with her brother Will, who gets bullied at school for his cleft palette and who Etta feels compelled to protect; and with her grandfather Mr. Mac, who puzzles Etta by his low key reaction to events that trouble her deeply. Then, intertwined with all of these bonds is her relationship to the physically damaged horse, Troy, which she resents and yet is still her responsibility. Each of these characters is richly realized, including Troy.

While the story centers on a girl of 11, it is not only a book for young readers. It is also for adults looking back on childhood and the complexities of the world that reveal themselves as we come of age. Like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it can be read in different ways by people at different stages in their lives.

This idea of levels in Lightningstruck, for readers of different perceptions and stages in life, is actually built into the structure of the book, since one of its major motifs is archaeology. Troy acquires his name because Etta is so enamored with a book called Ancient Wonders of the World, highlighting the stories of ancient civilizations and the pioneering archaeologists who excavated them. This act of excavation, both literal and symbolic, is crucial to Etta’s story in this book, as she comes to term with everything from death to segregation to racism to the complexities of love in her family her tiny town and in the world beyond it.

The novel also suggests how the shift from childhood to adolescence is about looking beneath the veneer of the social world around us, unearthing societal tensions as well as the complex history of one’s family and region in the process. Etta is digging down even as she is looking outward to the landscape beyond her town. She sees how the Civil Rights Movement is affecting relations between people show knows well. Cleo offers her an empathetic perspective on the words of Dr. King, which collide with those of elderly white fellows who hang out at the town store. And Etta is trying to reconcile these conflicting views of race and community. The subtle dramatization of her newfound complex view of the world and the fully rounded characters that live it make this novel truly memorable. And all of this is foreshadowed in the beautifully realized first chapter of Ashley Havird’s novel.

“Though I couldn’t put it into words,” Etta reflects near the close of this chapter, “it occurred to me that somehow the stark raving madness of the world, which has seemed for almost a year now to keep me off-balance, lived in this gruesome horse, whose one good eye, as Cleo said, was evil.”

Of course, as in all elegantly structured novels, you shouldn’t take the narrator too literally. Madness and evil are highly subjective terms and at least partly ambiguous ones, as the chapters of Havird’s luminous debut novel makes clear.

Robert L. Pincus served as the art critic of The San Diego Union and The San Diego Union-Tribune for 25 years, beginning in 1985. Prior to that he spent four years as art critic for the Los Angeles Times. He has a combined doctorate in English and art history from the University of Southern California and is the author of On a Scale That Competes With the World, a book on the work of artists Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz.

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