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Tom Chaney. R766 review: The Coming of Rain

Of Writers and Their Books No. R766: First appeared10 June 2007. Review, Richard Marius The Coming of Rain, based on a grisly Kentucky crime.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column :Tom Chaney. R765 review: Mississippi storytelling

By Tom Chaney

The Coming of Rain

Twenty some years ago when my niece Elizabeth Matera was casting about for a college, she flew to Philadelphia. From there we boarded the cars to New York and Boston. Near the latter city was a college of some repute -- Harvard. That school met all of her requirements, chiefly that it be above the snow line.

We happened to arrive just after letters of acceptance had been mailed. The admissions office hustled us off to join a tour whilst they arranged a lunch for us. At the lunch Elizabeth met with a delightful admissions counselor, also a faculty member, Richard Marius.

Professor Marius ran the undergraduate expository writing program required of all undergraduates.

Early in the conversation he asked just where we were from. When I replied, "Horse Cave, Kentucky" ready to explain in detail just where that was, Marius said, "I know Horse Cave!"

Turned out he was a student at the Baptist Seminary in Louisville in the 1950's and traveled between Louisville and East Tennessee on a regular basis.

Thus began one of those casual acquaintances continuing for the next four years with the occasional lunch in Cambridge. I last saw him in Nashville at the Tennessee Book Fair in 1994. By then Elizabeth had graduated from Harvard and was off and running in a search for just what she was going to do.

I was dismayed to learn some five years later that Professor Marius had succumbed to the ravages of cancer. I resolved then to dip into his books to get a better understanding of a man whose company I had so much enjoyed.

Richard Marius was involved with the Thomas More project at Yale where he had taken his Doctor of Philosophy degree. He published the definitive biography of More in 1983. Just prior to his death he completed Martin Luther in 1999. Both of those highly readable works challenged the prevailing orthodoxies of their enthusiasts by approaching their subjects, devoid of their sanctity, as men of their time "struggling to reconcile their beliefs, fears and earthly ambitions, sometimes without admirable result, but always fully human."

His novels also interested me. All four are set in the mythical East Tennessee county of Bourbon. I have just finished reading the earliest, The Coming of Rain (Knopf, 1969).

The novel spans two days in June 1885. Hundreds of folks in the county, in the throes of a 53 day drought, have gathered in the near-dead land to witness the hanging of Mr. Simpson who had murdered his wife with a hammer in dogwood time. Despair over the futility of hard work had led to the crime.

Simpson's six-year-old daughter Ardelphia came upon her father in the act of murder, escaped, and ran the six miles to town in her nightclothes for help. When Sheriff Delaney and his deputies arrived they found Simpson sitting on the bed, hammer in hand in a trance.

"Simpson made no attempt to defend himself. No attempt to do anything. Instead he continued in an aimless silence, unbroken for the rest of his life except for one sentence that anybody heard, and that was spoken on the scaffold a moment before he died and it had nothing to do with the murder."

When the sheriff asked him if he had any last words, Simpson emerged from his stupor and said, "Hey there, Sheriff, well, I see we're going to have rain by tomorrow night."

The community was skeptical and stunned.

Marius sets out to sketch the details of the blighted land and people.

Mr. Bazely, a hellfire and brimstone Baptist preacher, exhorted at the blank brick wall of the jail urging Simpson's repentance. Mr. Campbell, the local defense attorney whose client was the center of attention said Bazely "year in, year out . . . . flung the Gospel at the Baptists like a man throwing rocks."

In the night and day following the hanging several murders are committed. Many of the good folks of Bourbon County are forced to confront the dark pits of their own souls. Love begins and withers as did the tobacco dying in the patch.

In the novel we find a strong tendency to question the validity of all systems of belief without any suggested replacement. The narrator in another Bourbon County novel tells us the county is "a community where the only compelling desires anybody had were to [have sex] and make money and swim in the cesspool together like frogs."

"Memory," says lawyer Campbell "is choking us to death." Another character tells a friend that the valley is "haunted" by the dead kept alive by memory.

The minority of skeptics reject the harsh judgment of most of the community.

The day following the hanging, the rains do come in torrents bringing salvation to the tobacco and corn but not much cleansing to the tormented souls of the land.

I commend Marius as a fine, disturbing writer. Through his novels and biographies we can see ourselves more clearly -- even if not in a more flattering mirror.

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

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