In my last posting, I highlighted Foreword Reviews magazine and its mission to draw readers to the best of independent publishing. What is perhaps most remarkable in the world of indie publishing is the sheer number of presses operating more or less on a shoestring in an industry whose margins continue to shrink. Indie presses typically don’t make fortunes for their owners, so what makes those people keep at it?
In a word, passion. Okay, perhaps two words, the other being dedication. Both are crucial to persevering in the best-seller-driven world ruled by publishing’s Big Five, but that big-press culture certainly leaves behind underserved readers and underrepresented writing voices, which is where indie presses shine.
Passion, dedication, and perseverance all describe Richard Peabody, the force behind Gargoyle, the Washington, D.C.-based literary magazine now in its 40th year (minus a seven-year hiatus in the 90s), and its publisher, Paycock Press. Peabody is justifiably known for his tireless support of those in the D.C. writing community, and Paycock publishes many local authors.
One such author is Jeff Richards, whose debut novel of connected Civil War stories, Open Country, celebrates its one-year anniversary of publication on May 21st. Several of the stories that appear in Open Country were originally published in various journals and magazines, one of which was Gargoyle. Paycock later published the full novel.
Arguably, the stories that make up Open Country are not so much short stories in the traditional sense as they are episodes or vignettes. Certainly each one can be read on its own, but the emotional punch derives from the force of the full collected narrative. This novel shines in its intense humanity, and in the author’s unwillingness to make anyone into a caricature of either good or evil. The title comes from a quote by author Quentin Crisp: “You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave.” That was true of both sides.
In the preface, Richards explains that his inspiration for these stories comes from his family, two halves of which were already related in the mid 1800s though they were split by the Ohio River. The Prices were in Chester, Ohio, while the Ellises were in Gaunt, Kentucky—a quick row across, within easy shouting distance of each other. The families regularly visited back and forth until the division that came with the Civil War.
The first story draws that division clearly. “Opening the Ball” takes place just before the start of the war as tensions are running high. The boys of Gaunt are being feted as they prepare to ride off to join the 2nd Kentucky, though there are plenty of folks in town who haven’t decided where their loyalties lie, and others—the mayor’s son, for example—intend to head north to join the Yankees. When a fight breaks out between the opposing factions, Gaunt’s favorite son Ray Ellis negotiates peace by reminding the combatants how often each has helped the other out. These people have known each other all their lives, but now they’re on more than just different sides of the river.
In roughly equal portions, the stories follow the developing fortunes of the Ellises—Ray, his younger brother Lew, and their parents Emmett and Faye, as well as other relatives and friends—and those of Aden and Rebecca Price, their son Walker, and others from in and around Chester. We see both Lew and Walker grow from boys at the start of the war into men as the fighting slogs on through four bloody years.
Walker signs up for the 109th Ohio Volunteers once he finally puzzles through the concept of duty: “His dad had a duty to fight for the North. Ray Ellis had a duty to fight for the South. Eliot Price had a duty to fight for God, and that meant not to fight at all . . . That means duty doesn’t fall on you like a brick, but instead it means you got to think about it and come up with a decision that suits you.”
The first few stories are almost jaunty in tone, reflecting the general excitement, optimism, and innocence that the boys going to war often displayed, right up to the moment of “seeing the elephant”—that is, of being in their first full-scale encounter at close range. Soon the tone of the stories darkens to match the deepening conflict, and the language is consistently evocative of the time period.
Though some stories put us into the thick of the fighting, we’re always on the ground with individuals on an intensely personal level. This is never more true than in “Cold Harbor”, in which one of the Chester boys, Frank Moore, lies motionless among the dead and dying through an inferno hot afternoon, waiting until dark to crawl back to his lines so that enemy snipers don’t pick him off.
Unlikely personal connections within and across the lines crop up again and again, whether it’s Walker’s abiding friendship with a fellow soldier who could be his grandfather, or sweethearts united despite belonging to the hated bluebellies or sesesh, or two non-combatants on opposite sides drawn together by the common loss of their sons in battle. Ray encounters Aden in close combat and runs to help him after he is shot. As Aden later tells Walker, “Your uncle Emmett raised a good boy.”
The crossed paths and interconnections multiply as the stories take us through the end of the war and beyond. The last story, “Begets”, helps to answer final questions and tie up loose ends, describing how the Prices and Ellises and their friends on both sides of the river became ever more closely related as the war wounds healed, thereby adding to the tangled web of Richards’ intertwined ancestry. If I had any complaint about Open Country, it’s that I wanted at least a few more stories.
Open Country is the perfect fit for a small press. It is the work of a debut novelist of a certain age writing a story inspired by his family. None of these facts would endear Jeff Richards or his book to a big press imprint (and trust me that, with the exception of the pronouns, I could as easily be speaking of myself here). However, none of that matters to a literary indie press like Paycock–or, it’s worth emphasizing, to its readers–both of which care first and foremost about the writing. And Richards’ writing is simple, lovely, and humane. I’m eager to read his next stories.