Tuesday, June 20, 2017

God's Children

Archibald Rutledge, God’s Children, 1947  (I read the Kindle edition of this book). 

            I have a love and hate relationship with this book.   Archibald Rutledge had an ability to see beauty and complexity everywhere.  A lover of nature and the beauty of his family’s South Carolina’s plantation, he was able to convey the awe he experienced in nature into words that delight the reader.  Yet, as he was writing in the early 20th Century, there is a strong sense of paternalism in how he relates to the African American sharecroppers who worked the land.  He claims to love them and credits them for helping him experience the fullness of nature, yet he’s a man of his time.  It doesn’t seem to bother him that he lives in the big house and they live in shacks. 
            However, Rutledge saw himself responsible responsible for the welfare of those who live around his plantation. “The whole business of government, especially the unpleasant details of taxes, is to a plantation Negro a dark and mysterious affair,” he writes.  Then he tells the story about Jim, an African American man who was delinquent on his poll tax and about to lose his land.  Rutledge spoke to the Sheriff who said Jim had to pay the sum or he would have to claim title.  Rutledge paid it, and expected Jim to work his debt off.  But the Sheriff later asked if Jim was over 60 years old, saying if so, he’d be exempt from the poll tax.  Talking with the Jim, Rutledge realized that he had no idea of when he was born.  He asked about things he could remember in order to determine his age.  He remembered being of “good sense” (which would have meant around 6-7 years old) when there was the Great Shake (the earthquake that damaged Charleston in 1886).  This put him over 60 years of age.  Archibald received a refund.  Reading this, I was amazed Jim would have to play a poll tax because I am sure he wasn’t able to vote South Carolina at that time.  Although it was noble of Rutledge to champion Jim’s cause, he followed it up with a joke about how now plantation owners are the slaves, as he noted how they are responsible for the descendants of slaves. I’m sure if Rutledge was writing today and not in 1947, such views would not be published or at least not received well by the general public.
            Yet, there is much wisdom and beauty in his writings.  “[L]ife is enlivened by its uncertainty, as it is made dearer by its insecurity and its brevity.  As the long look of the setting sun lights up the fading landscape (especially an autumnal one) with more tenderness than the morning mysterious glamours…”  This portion of a sentence (Rutledge was no Hemingway as I quoted only half the sentence) captures the wisdom and beauty of his words.  Life everywhere is made up of roses and razor blades, arsenic and azaleas,” displays the paradox Rutledge saw in life.  Writing about the African American cemetery, he says:  “There the mighty pines towered tallest; there the live oaks stood druidlike; there the jasmines rioted freely over hollies and sweet myrtles, tossing their saffron showers high in air.  As children, Prince and I dreaded this place.” His sentence structure is often complex and his words ring of poetry.
            In this book, Rutledge tells of hunting and fishing with his African American friends around the plantation.  Some of the stories are from his youth, such as when he and Prince caught a poisonous water moccasin while fishing and used it to scare the plantation’s cook (I thought of my own experience of almost catching such a snake).  Some of the stories seem a bit fanciable such as Mobile, the huntsman, hunting next to the rice paddies where workers were busy.  His wife was working in the paddy and their infant child was left to sleep on a dike.  When an eagle swooped down and grabbed the child, Mobile took aim and, from a long distance, shot the bird and saved the child.  Another story involved a traveling man with a monkey.  The monkey grabbed a child and took it up on the roof of the house, requiring another heroic and comic rescue.  
            Rutledge shares the plantation folk stories such as the one about the “Walk Off People.”  When Adam and Eve were first created, all wasn’t well in paradise. Adam liked to hunt and fish so much that Eve was bored and threatened to leave him.   So God created more people so Eve would have company, but it was late in the day.  God said he’d come back and put brains in these newly created people, but some of them “walked off” and never got their brains.  This story not only explains those without “good sense” but perhaps also those who move in on a married woman that has played second fiddle to her husband’s interests.
            Rutledge spends most of the fifth chapter writing about the religion of his African American neighbors.  The only place he gives insight into his own beliefs is where he addresses the fundamentalists need to understand how “the worship of nature and God go hand in hand, and that he who worships the God of the universe is usually ready to accept Christ as the Son of that God.”  Earlier in the book, he remarked how the folk saying, “Prayers never gets grass out of de field” illustrated the truth about faith without works! 
            I highly recommend this book, which is available on Amazon Kindle for a minimal cost (I think I paid 99 cents).  But I remember this book with a warning. This was written sixty years ago and recalls stories that are over a hundred years old.  Today, paternalistic views are criticized.  Yet, the reader who understands the world in which Rutledge was writing will appreciate his attempt at honoring those who lived on the plantation as well as the magic of the land. The author grew up on this plantation, then moved north for college and to teach in Pennsylvania.  In the mid-1930s, he moved back to the plantation, to help restore it and lived there until his death in 1973.  He also served for 40 years at the poet laureate of South Carolina and published over 50 books and numerous articles, many about the outdoor life.  Today, the plantation is a state historic site. 
 “There is, I think, no lovelier land than the old plantation regions of the Carolinas—a land of hyacinth days and camellia nights.  Nature there triumphs in giant trees, in great rivers, in lustrous fragrant fields, in an exotic profusion of wild flowers.”   

                                                     -Archibald Hamilton Rutledge. 1883-1973

17 comments:

  1. Everyone is a product of their time, so I don't think Rutledge is any different. Sounds like a good read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I imagine this would be a challenging read - yet sounds as though it's because he really takes the reader back to the era (in mindset too). Eloquent quotes and a powerful cover. Thank you, Sage.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm not familiar with this book, but it sounds like a compelling read.

    ReplyDelete
  4. what beautiful review. I would like to read this book. I have a kindle library and I ask books in amazon but still Im dont feel the same that e real book. Is my problem I know, I will try to find this.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I can understand how some might have conflicting emotions while reading this, but with time and place taken into consideration, it sounds delightful.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This is surely rich in history, and reads like gentle poetry too, as well as hardships in some places I'm sure. I have been lucky to tour a few plantations, and I hope a whole lot more sometime too. I like looking at how things were and trying to put it all in perspective.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Sounds like an interesting read. Might check it out, just for the glimpse of what life was like back then (from one man's perspective, that is) if nothing else.

    ReplyDelete
  8. It can be shocking when we read something written in ohh so recent past that has attitudes nearer the 18th century than the 21st. And in one way it's a good thing for it can show just how far we've traveled, while also showing how far yet to travel. In this, it isn't even a question of left and right, but one of citizenship, and those that control the system protecting those that gain most while protecting themselves all the while cloaking themselves in the mantel of democracy.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I find old books like this interesting precisely because they are a representation of the times. I like knowing how people used to think and what they did and enjoyed.

    ReplyDelete
  10. That does sound like an interesting book.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hard for a non American to comment here. Well, not and not have people reaching for a Winchester anyway.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Sounds like this is written from a unique perspective. I can understand why you'd have mixed feelings while reading it. I think I would too. Thanks for the review!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'll stay away from this one, but I truly appreciate the review.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Hi Sage - thanks for highlighting this book - it does sound a fascinating read ... and a real read at that too. Telling it like it is - yet from his perspective, which we can understand more now. I'm going to put it on my Wish List ... and at some stage I'll get to order it and read it! ... cheers Hilary

    ReplyDelete
  15. Since everyone else has already commented on the story being a product of its time, etc, I would like to comment about how people kept leaving their children around for wild animals to run off with them. I knew the mortality rate in children was much higher in centuries past, but I had no idea it was due to attacks by roving monkeys and birds of prey.

    ReplyDelete
  16. I sometimes struggle with older books, especially nonfiction. Some of the attitudes that were common in the past make me cringe now. It sounds like an interesting book. I’m glad you liked it.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

    ReplyDelete
  17. When we read something from this time, we have to remember what it was like. I personally wouldn't read it. What I read are stories from the other side. Like... To Be a Slave by Julius Lester.

    ReplyDelete