Miscellanea and Ephemeron
05/17/2007 Archived Entry: "Book review: Lost Layson"
Review by Ida Vega-Landow
Summertime is my time to dive into new books, preferably short novels or compilations of short stories to pass the time on the subway taking me to the beach, or at the beach itself. When my husband and I went on to Atlanta, GA on our annual vacation the weekend of May 4th, our main intention was to see the baby girl panda at the Atlanta Zoo. But we also visited the Margaret Mitchell House & Museum on 10th and Peachtree Streets in midtown Atlanta, a museum dedicated to that one-hit wonder of novels written by Margaret Mitchell, "Gone with the Wind". While we were browsing in the ubiquitous gift shop, my husband, who had never read the novel, bought the DVD of the movie, which he had seen, while I, having partaken of both the novel and the movie, scanned the bookshelves for anything else Ms. Mitchell might have written.
As I expected, the rest of Ms. Mitchell's works were given short shrift; there were plenty of bios written about her by people who knew and loved her, some who knew her before she became famous, and some who only knew her after. Most of them had helpfully included a list of her short stories along with her life's history before and after GWTW. But none made any mention of another novel. I was about to settle for a short, sweet little self-help book entitled "Scarlett Rules", a tongue-in-cheek guide to "life lessons inspired by Scarlett O'Hara (more about that one later), when what to my wondering eyes did appear but a slenderóand I mean extremely slenderónovel by Mitchell entitled "Lost Laysen"!
I was surprised, flabbergasted, astonished, every superlative you can think of as I laid eyes on the only other novel written by Ms. Mitchell. (I call her "Ms." as a concession to our contemporary mores; the lady was an unmistakable feminist, despite her traditional upbringing and Southern belle demeanor, even though she would have been the first to deny it. Strong, independent women were not admired back in the day, but Ms. Mitchell was so far ahead of her time that she can truly be called a writer for the ages. Just remember to judge her writing by her era, not ours, and you'll soon come to admire her as much as I do.) Seeing that the hardcover was financially out of my reach, I settled for the paperback version, and even then had to beg for monetary assistance from my beloved, who loves indulging me when he can afford it. So I got both books, neglecting to leave my business card for JLHLS (Drat, drat, and double drat!), but triumphant at having scored a rarity for the society.
When I finally cracked the covers of "Lost Laysen" on the Amtrak overnight train to NYC, I was surprised to see just how short the novel really was. Debra Freer, the writer/historian who helped to publish this lost manuscript, had to pad it by throwing in some photos of Ms. Mitchell in her salad days back in the 1920's, along with those of her bosom friends and beaus, chief among them a young man named Henry Love Angel. It seems Ms. Mitchell wrote this story as a love gift to Mr. Angel, one of her favorite beaus (she had five of them!), just before he left to fight in the First World War. She wrote the story in longhand in two notebooks and gave them both to Angel, who preserved it lovingly along with all the letters she wrote him, and all the pictures of him and her with their mutual friends. Apparently he was so devoted to her that he kept the manuscript, letters and photos long after he returned from the war to find her married to someone else. She went through two husbands while he settled down with one wife and put away his memories of Peggy (what her friends called her) in a shoebox, which was discovered decades later by his son, Henry Angel Jr., back in 1952.
The younger Mr. Angel, upon discovering his father's legacy, looked him up in Ms. Mitchell's bios and discovered that he was barely mentioned in passing. This made him determined to see that his father was given his proper place in history. So he contacted the Road to Tara Museum, the precursor to the contemporary Margaret Mitchell House & Museum which my hubby and I visited (the guided tour was fascinating; I thoroughly recommend it if you're ever in Atlanta. For more info call 404-249-7015 or visit their website at www.gwtw.org), and put the manuscript in the capable hands of Ms. Freer. The first edition came out in 1997, but it took me this long to find it! Maybe I should go down south on vacation more often?
Bear in mind that Ms. Mitchell was only sixteen when she wrote this novel. By today's standards it's little more than a potboiler, a disparaging term used to describe romantic fiction read by housewives to pass the time while dinner is cooking, between diaper changes, or until the children get home from school. But one can see precursors of her unforgettable characters from GWTW in her protagonist, Courtenay Ross, (a highborn Southern belle with an easygoing manner toward men, not unlike Scarlett O'Hara), who boards a dinky little ship at Yandano, somewhere in the Pacific isles, heading for the isle of Laysen to open a missionary school and get away from her too attentive beau, Douglas Steele (an athletic, all-American fellow who reminds me more of Frank Kennedy, Scarlett's stodgy second husband, then the noble Ashley Wilkes). Upon boarding the ship, she captures the heart of a rugged Irish sailor named Bill Duncan, who is also the story's narrator. Duncan is so smitten with the "little lady", as he refers to her throughout the novel, that he gladly gets into a fight with another passenger, an insolent half-breed named Juan Mardo (half Japanese, half Spanish), when he overhears him making a fresh remark about her in Japanese.
The rest of the novel goes by as rapidly as a Saturday afternoon matinee as Duncan swears his devotion to Courtney, who pleads with him to save Douglas when he goes after Mardo in the middle of the night after the despicable half-breed dares to lay hands on her and proposition her, apparently thinking that she owes him one for having persuaded the children of Laysen to attend her missionary school. Before they part company, Duncan gives her a silver Spanish dagger named "Amigo Mio" for her protection. He doesn't catch up to the bad guy that night, but after his ship leaves Laysen, which ends up underwater following a volcanic eruption, the bad guy and his henchmen, or what's left of them, come drifting across their path in a little boat where Courtney and Douglas have been taken prisoner. What Duncan and his captain find on board proves that "Amigo Mio" turned out to be a real friend in need to Courtney after Douglas was mortally wounded while defending her honor.
Warning to the politically correct and ethnically sensitive: this story is full of outright racist terms by today's standards, like Jap and Chink. Just remember that Ms. Mitchell was an honest, forthright woman, like her protagonist, who didn't hesitate to call a spade a spade, and when putting words into a male character's mouth she also didn't hesitate to use the same words a man of her time would use. So don't fly off the handle and start crying "Racist!" like one of the players on the women's basketball team whom Imus called nappy headed ho's. (Actually, the team acted like ladies compared to everyone else around them, who seemed determined to lynch Imus, even after an abject apology.) In GWTW she also used the "n" word, which wasn't surprising. Remember, she was writing about the antebellum and post Civil War south, when civil rights were only a dream and blacks were grateful just to be free and be paid for the work they did. So if you're the type who's easily offended or determined to censor all literary works written before our "enlightened" era, to avoid setting a bad example for young people, remember that young people have to see a bad example before they recognize it for what it is. In other words, you have to know the rules before you can break 'em. And Ms. Mitchell broke a lot of rules, for a gently-born woman in the American South at the turn of the 20th Century. So did Scarlett O'Hara, for a gently-born Southern woman of her era, which is what endeared her to the hearts of so many GWTW fans.
"Lost Laysen" is a very good first effort for a budding writer, which Ms. Mitchell was at the time. It gets awfully melodramatic, but the old-fashioned flavor only adds to its charm, in this reviewer's opinion. So if you have an afternoon at the beach to kill, do take along "Lost Laysen".
The Wapshott Press
Ontology on the go!
"Ontology on the Go!"
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