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Secrets, winning friends, and ‘Ivanhoe’

All families have their secrets, but some families have deeper and darker secrets than others. In June Titus’s novel Banjo Man (Fulton Books, Inc. 2020, 258 pages), we meet such a family.

The Western North Carolina “banjo man,” Luther Willson, makes and sells banjoes, and performs with them. Father of a large family and husband to a loving wife, in 1916 he begins spending the winters in Florida to earn money from his music and by selling his banjoes. While there, he meets a wealthy widow, Martha Lindsey, falls in love, and commits bigamy by marrying her as well. 

This secret marriage — Luther changes his name to Luke Harvey — becomes a ticking time bomb that decades later explodes and wrecks havoc in all the families involved, confirming the truth of Sir Walter Scott’s “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” 

Fast forward to 2009, and we meet Susan Willson Reece. Luther Willson’s granddaughter, she is a retired schoolteacher, a lifelong player of the banjo, and newly wedded to a retired surgeon. During her honeymoon with Mac, she comes across one of her grandfather’s banjoes and finds the owner, a Floridian picker and singer named Harry Harvey. Their encounter leads both to friendship and to an intensive exploration of the past: interviews with surviving relatives who knew the Banjo Man, searches for letters through attics and old desks, and probes into relationships through DNA samples.

The characters who inhabit Banjo Man are mostly senior citizens, some of them residents of nursing homes, and the story serves as a reminder that the elderly are living libraries whose knowledge and wisdom younger people often neglect. The novel also shines a light on family bonds and what they mean, and on the religious faith of some of these characters. We see too that our actions may have consequences stretching into the future long after we are in the grave.

Because of the complicated genealogy in this tale, readers may have trouble keeping track of the various characters and their relationships. Several times, I found myself having to slow down or to reread previous pages in order to sort out this Rubik’s Cube of generations. Like Susan Reece, I had to pick through various bits of evidence to follow the trail leading back to the Banjo Man. Though a little frustrated at first, I soon made a game of following the lives of these characters, which may have been the author’s intention. 

The book has a couple of flaws. On page 8, Susan informs Mac her first and only husband died in the Korean War. On page 102, she tells her “probable cousin” that he died in Vietnam, which given the time frame of the story is more likely. And given her circumstances — more details might spoil the story — Martha’s decision to have a baby at home instead of in the hospital seemed odd.

At any rate, if you’re looking for a novel to read as if you were Sherlock Holmes on a genealogical chase, Banjo Man is for you.

•••

Writing a piece on personal relationships in our troubled times sent me to the library and to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Though many consider this self-help book an American classic because of its cultural influence, I’d never read a word of it. The title always struck me as a little sappy, and the idea that we could be taught how to “win friends” struck me as contrived or bogus.

Boy, was I wrong.

Here is a confection of ideas liberally sprinkled with examples and stories which, if we would absorb Carnegie’s insights and put them into practice, might have Americans shaking hands instead of going for one another’s throats. In “Part Three: How to Win People to Your Way of Thinking,” for example, Carnegie devotes a chapter each to topics like these: “Begin in a friendly way,” “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view,” “Appeal to the nobler motives,” and “Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.”

In “Part One: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People,” the first chapter of my revised edition of the book is titled “If You Want to Gather Honey, Don’t Kick Over the Beehive” and ends with “PRINCIPLE 1: Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.” If our culture took that bit of advice alone, we’d solve a multitude of problems.

In her 1981 Preface to the updated version of How to Win Friends and Influence People, wife Dorothy Carnegie writes of this best seller, “The book itself was translated into almost every known written language. Each generation has discovered it anew and have found it relevant.”

Given all the divisions in our country today, maybe it’s time revisit Dale Carnegie.

•••

In my last column, I resolved to read more books this year other than those for review, including old books, and began with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Here was a surprise. Once I accustomed myself to the differences between this novel and those written today — the longer descriptions in Ivanhoe, its more leisurely pace of the plot, and its high-end conversations — I have come to anticipate with pleasure the time spent sitting in the most comfortable chair in the house, a cup of tea or coffee on the end table, and the book in my hands.

Next week: Bob Lantz’s Lean Downstream!! 

And more fun with Ivanhoe. 

Happy New Year to all!

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, Amanda Bell and Dust On Their Wings, and two works of nonfiction, Learning As I Go and Movies Make the Man. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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