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NOTES

About Point of View


As I finish The Dancin’ Man people asked me, “What is your book about?”


One of my answers appears in the summary description on a previous page. Another might be that The Dancin’ Man is the story of a young man, Ted Brunson, who gets what he wants and only much later realizes the cost.


When I was young, my mother gave me a painted tile. The legend read, “Whatever thou desirest, O foolish man, pay the price and take it.”  Ted Brunson pays the price, but in his late forties, dealing with multiple life crises, he questions the wisdom of the choices he has made.


But The Dancin’ Man is about much more than one man’s decisions. It is about women in the work force, the privileges and responsibilities that come with wealth, and the stratification of southern society. Perhaps most obviously, The Dancin’ Man is about family and about the way parents shape their children’s attitudes and expectations. Most especially it is about secrets.   


This book is also about the way different people view the same situation or event. The steeplechase, for instance, when Virginia announces to her mother, Dolly, that she plans to marry Ted. You will see the confrontation from both Virginia and Dolly’s point of view.


The truth is that we can only experience events from where we are in our own lives at the time. At the steeplechase,Virginia is nineteen. She perpetuates the image of her confrontation with Dolly, never adjusting her reactions in terms of events that follow. As Sam, her twin brother, tells her, she nurses her grudges, frozen emotionally in time. Ted and Sam remain friends because they have both adjusted their view, accepted the inevitable, grown into their maturity; Sam because of a near death experience and Ted because he’s Ted.


At several places in the story, you may wonder who is telling the truth and who isn’t. Here’s a hint: As you read, The Dancin’ Man beware of the unreliable witness. More about that later.


The unreliable narrator


We talked about POV (point of view) in an earlier entry. Now let’s take the next step.


 I found this description on the Schmoop web site:


“Ever been reading a book and get the feeling that the person telling the story isn't really telling you  everything? Maybe the narrator is just a little too chatty, or obviously biased about something. Maybe they have something to hide. Something just doesn't feel right. Chances are you're in the hands of an unreliable narrator.”


This classic fictional device can be a boon to novelists, but can prove a little puzzling for you, the reader. As you begin a story, you probably assume that the characters are telling the truth. In an earlier entry, I wrote about POV or point of view; how some characters are unintentionally misleading, able only to speak the truth as they understand it at a given point in time. As you come to know the characters better, you may begin to suspect that they are deliberately misleading not only you but one another.


You’re not alone. After the second or third draft of The Dancin’ Man an early reader questioned some of the dialogue.To my surprise, I discovered that one of the characters was not being honest. Not about feelings, and not about incidents that had occurred in the past. What a gift that reader gave me. I realized that the unintended characterization let me know that character much better than I had before. The insincerity, the deliberate evasions became a useful trait in defining the character’s relationships with others.


Review the paragraph above. Can you tell whether I am referring to a man or a woman? Here I am, then, being an unreliable narrator with you by not telling you the sex of the unreliable character!  


In any case, I didn’t deliberately create the characters in The Dancin’Man, as much as I discovered them. As I listened for the conversations between these people and recorded them to tell their story, I came to know them more intimately, to see them more clearly and to understand them as they grew and changed — or didn’t. I hope you will too.


A Musical Echo.


My alma mater is a small liberal arts college in South Carolina, Converse College. In the late fifties and early sixties when I was a student, Converse offered degrees in music at both the bachelor and masters levels, within the comfortable surroundings of a small liberal arts college environment.That comfort extended to the parents of musically oriented young women like me who might otherwise have balked at sending their daughters off to a big city professional conservatory or a major university, if in fact we might have even qualified. There were multiple opportunities to perform locally and regionally, a major plus.


In the course of my education, I had my first contact with what was then contemporary music of Samuel Barber, by way of his song for orchestra and soprano, Knoxville:Summer of 1915. Barber excerpted the lyrics from a short prose piece by James Agee, written in 1938 describing the dream memories of a childhood in the heart of a warm loving family.    


I don’t pretend to have fully understood the piece as I learned it and sang it, but I do know that I loved it from the first time I heard the recording, by Eleanor Steber, who had commissioned Barber to write it in 1947. I loved the shape of the piece. I felt a comfort level with the way it was written and knew it would lie well in my voice from the opening chords to the heart-rending last phrase. It was not an easy piece to love. For starters it runs about 18 minutes. Some of the phrases seem in direct harmonic opposition to the orchestral (or in my case, piano) part. The challenge was huge, but the piece required all the fireworks I could produce, pushing my lyric soprano range at both ends, demanding pianissimo high notes and a facility for singing in English, not an easy language to project, especially in those high pianissimos. Intellectually fascinated and dramatically excited, I jumped in, little knowing that the piece would have lifelong significance. How could I even suspect that fifty years later, I would meet it again at concert in Charleston, S.C., as a part of the Spoletto festival and find in it an apt comparison to the novel I had just finished writing?


When I heard the piece again this year, I recognized the sentiment as that of my heroine, Volly Brunson. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is about the search for self and so is Whirlygig: The Dancin’ Man’s Daughter. Both are set in the context of family and home. Volly’s thoughtless choices have bound  her for too long in an adolescent state. Not until she is exposed to her own potential as a graduate student does she awaken to her options and begin the struggle to find the adult in herself she longs to become. The poignant last words of the song echo Volly’s longing and her search for her place in the world, asking the question only she can answer. Like the narrator of Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Volly comes to understand that there is no one who will, or who can, tell her who she is, except herself.    


No longer a singer of songs I am instead now a teller of tales, a writer of stories who has found my place in the lives of Dolly Ward, her children and grandchildren. I hope you will find connection through these books. Connection with others, with your past and with your future. With those who have loved you and those you have loved. I did.