Hoagland novel tells tales of human courage

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hoagland review-1Children are Diamonds, by Edward Hoagland.  Published by Arcade Publishing, New York, New York, 2013.  213 pages. $23.95.

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre 

What to think of a 30-something-year-old schoolteacher who got fired from his job in New Hampshire, absconded from a sinking ship with his company’s money, and went on the lam into central Africa, where he became a jack-of-all-trades, bringing food and medicine into a ravaged war zone where boy soldiers cut the intestines out of their dead victims and wear them around their necks like a necklace?

Or a woman in her early fifties, a relief worker with Protestants Against Famine, manning an outpost in the bush overrun by refugees speaking many tribal tongues, where she mothers orphans, treats diseases, war wounds, and all the myriad health complications that go with malnutrition and starvation without cutting any slack for herself?

“You have to believe in heaven, and I don’t know if I do,” she says at one point.

Ruth and Hickey are the two riveting characters in Edward Hoagland’s admirable novel, Children are Diamonds.  Each is flawed in ways both morally and spiritually, and each bring to Africa a different kind of American than we are used to seeing, either in other works of fiction or in the history of Western imperialism or colonization.

When it comes to novels set in faraway places few can match what Hoagland achieves in a story that unflinchingly comes to grips with the courage it takes to be human in the face of a time when there is so little to gain.  That it’s a story set in what was once called the “Dark Continent” makes it all the more daunting.

The Africa that Hoagland sets his novel in is the Africa where war and hunger have become the norm of daily life.  It’s the Africa of Idi Amin, whose brutal rule of Uganda has been replaced by tribal warlords who run outfits like the Lord’s Resistance Army, which kidnaps children during village raids and turns them into soldiers by a gruesome ritual that forces them to eat the organs of their murdered parents.  It’s an Africa where the people have been uprooted and displaced, strafed by Russian MiGs in service to the same Arabs who hire blacks from Darfur to do their fighting in the bush.  And it’s an Africa where there are no second chances.

“In Africa, everything is an emergency,” Hoagland writes in the first line of the novel.  “Your radiator blows out and as you solder a repair job, Lango kids emerge from the bush, belonging to a village that you’ll never see, reachable by a path you hadn’t noticed.”

Although one is armed with a Kalashnikov, they are not depicted as threatening, only hungry.  Survival for a white man like Hickey depends on his ability to keep a balance between “friendliness and mystery.”

As a writer, Hoagland cut his teeth on essays and travel pieces, with a novel tossed in every now and then, like the fisherman who fishes in streams for brook trout and occasionally tries his hand spin-casting for bass in still waters, using what he has learned about fish and his own ability to catch them.  In Children are Diamonds, Hoagland combines the wisdom of a seasoned traveler with a novelist’s imagination in writing a book that takes us through a country few of us have seen, through emotions we have seldom if ever felt, and delivers us into a troubled land where unspeakable atrocities suddenly explode.

What better setting could there be for a rolling stone character like Hickey, who moves back and forth between guiding tourists and bedding airplane stewardesses to trucking food into relief camps, “pussyfooting slowly through Lord’s Resistance Army rebel territory in northern Uganda?”  Hickey may be a likeable survivor — the kind you might enjoy talking to over a beer in a bar — but he becomes endearingly heroic when he throws caution to the wind for a woman, a hard-nosed relief worker, who could be his older sister.

Courage is often what we think of when someone risks life and limb for some greater good or noble purpose.  Hoagland tell us that you don’t have to be a doctor to hand out aspirin or Kaopectate, and that it takes very little to be human or brave in the eyes of those looking for a shred of hope.

“The old stone-and-concrete ruins of a Catholic chapel that had been forgotten since the colonial powers had left could be reoccupied, if you chased the leopards and the cobras out and joy, I think, is, like photosynthesis for plants, an evidence of God,” he writes.

Against his belief that the laws of survival are poised to turn against him, Hickey goes into the bush where doom is about to descent on Ruth and her outpost.  A temporary truce in the fighting has ended.  Two white Norwegian doctors and a nurse already have been killed, and everyone who can flee — from aid workers to refugees — is fleeing, except Ruth.

She is the novel’s Mother Courage.  “She shouldn’t be stranded,” says an accomplice of Hickey, who may or may not be a CIA spook.  In one of their early encounters, Hickey watches her as she mixes powdered milk while a toddler clings to her — a malnourished toddler with a “head disproportionately large because skulls can’t shrink.”  Leo, named after a missionary priest, becomes her African diamond.

So into the fray Hickey goes.  The fact that he and Ruth are both white may or may not be a plus.  There is the spearman who warns the fleeing whites of mines in the road, but refuses to guide them.

“He’s telling you you people have the atom bomb so what do you need him for?” says one of the African assistants who, though loyal to Ruth, has no love for the West.

As the opposing armies close on one another, those in the know seek a solitary escape route as “they slid into the forest like fish wiggling into a reef.”  But for Hickey and Ruth there is no looking out for themselves first.  Their jeep is loaded with crippled passengers, and leading the way are the healthy children ready to warn any guerrillas waiting in ambush that the vehicle behind them contains white people who are “not to be casually shot.”

In the end there may be no possibility of escape for Ruth and Hickey who defined themselves by “where we were.”  And they are in Africa, where “everything is an emergency,” which is something each appears to desire and need.

Aside from being a novel about courage and morality, Children are Diamonds is a novel about landscape — a landscape of rivers and their feeder streams, of mountains and valleys that Hoagland renders with the deft touch of a cartographer and the imagination of an artist.  If you want to visit Africa close and up front and don’t have the wherewithal to get there, reading this novel may be your best option.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For an interview with Mr. Hoagland, click here.

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Edward Hoagland: 23 books and still going

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Edward Hoagland stopped in at the Chronicle office to do an interview.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

Edward Hoagland stopped in at the Chronicle office to do an interview. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

by Paul Lefebvre 

When writer Edward “Ted” Hoagland turned 80 in December, he had 22 books under his belt.  Today, he has one more and is working on another.  Of course there’s an essay in the works, from the man writer John Updike called “the best essayist of my generation.”  And then there’s a journal he’s been keeping that will be published posthumously.

Some people who come to the Northeast Kingdom think there is nothing to do.  Not Hoagland.  He bought a house on Wheeler Mountain in the early ’60s, and has been living there ever since as a summer resident.

To the extent it is in the boonies, the Northeast Kingdom has undoubtedly contributed to his impressive literary output.

“I’m doing very well on what is my sixth novel because, well there is no phone, no electricity, which is fine at this time of year,” says Hoagland, who sat for a taped interview at the Chronicle’s office last week.  “I don’t use all the daylight there is; I fall asleep before it’s dark.”

Hoagland came to Vermont to buy a house and land when he was about 35.  He had been introduced to the state by a college friend whose father, the eminent historian Henry Steele Commanger, had a house in Newfane.  Hoagland says the house was “crammed with books” and rural enough to take walks on dirt roads and see tracks from wildlife, “which, of course, I loved.”

A love of wildlife and wilderness landed Hoagland in southern California as a young, hotshot firefighter in the early ’50s.  Poking through the country on his off hours, he became so intrigued by mountain lions that he traveled to far-away places, such as the mountains of Alberta, Canada, to see one.  This obsession may account for his willingness to risk life and limb when he became a caretaker for MGM’s signature lions, who appeared to produce a loud roar at the beginning of every picture the movie company made.

The company had a retirement home in California for all the lions it had employed since the ’40s.  It was also keeping “a very sweet female mountain lion,” which happened to be in heat when Hoagland was there.  He says he would often sit next to her cage when no one else was around.  Until one day when he was struck with “the impulse to crawl into her cage.

“She was very surprised, and she went to the back of her cage, turned around and sprang at me,” he says.

But as she went to strike him in the face with a paw, she withdrew her claws.

“It was a love tap,” Hoagland says.

Hoagland doesn’t say whether the experience taught him to conquer his fears.  But to this day he strikes a fearless posture in the face of adversity.

“If I saw a black bear in the woods, I would say, ‘You are not a grizzly.’  I love animals.  I am not going to make you unhappy, but you are not going to scare me.”

Or when he encountered a potential mugger on the street he would say, “You are not a tiger,” and continue on his way.

When Hoagland came to Vermont looking for a place, he was living in New York City, a connection that appears to have helped him find what became his heart’s house.  From Avis Harper he got passed on to Em Hebard, who had lived in New York, Greenwich Village, Hoagland’s old neighborhood.  And together they found the place on Wheeler Mountain.

“I loved the house to start with,” he says.  “I knew it as soon as I saw it.  And it wasn’t just the house, it was also the cliffs.”

He figures he’s spent a third of his life there.

“When people ask me about it, I say I’m going to my heart’s home.”

Hoagland says he came to Vermont rather than Maine, New Hampshire, or the Adirondacks because of the people.  Prior to Hoagland’s purchase, the man who had lived in the house made corn whiskey and brewed bathtub beer.

“For a long time after I bought the house, old customers would periodically drive up and would be disappointed there was no white lightning,” he say.

From living in Barton, he got to know Phil Brooks, a taxidermist, and Paul Brochu, who owned an exceptionally clever hound dog.

“Paul could call the dog and point to the fox, and the dog would stop chasing the coon and follow the fox. And if they happen to come onto a bobcat track, which is much more valuable, the dog would just pick up the bobcat track.”

The state shared physical characteristics that he had seen elsewhere in his travels.  But there was something else.  The people.  And not just those who shared his interest in mountain lions or wildlife.

“Vermont combined the landscape of the West, I mean it looked like Idaho,” he says.  “But the people of the East I have always loved.  I’ve been to Alaska and British Columbia, too, nine times.  But I don’t like the people who live there as much as Vermont.”

Vermonters, he says, have “more of a sense of conservation.”

At the time he bought the house, he had written three books and was working on his fourth.  Although he’s a prolific writer, Hoagland writes with the concentration of a monk. He says it takes him three or four months to write an essay, and four to five years to write a book.  He routinely goes from fiction to non-fiction with the facility of a Northeast Kingdom native who can switch from English to speaking French.

If he becomes stymied while writing a novel, he picks up where he left off writing an essay.  And often, working on the essay, he figures out the next conversation or scene to use in the novel.

Since Hoagland only spends summers in Vermont, he had never written a book from beginning to end while residing in Barton.  But, perhaps not surprisingly, he was in residence at Wheeler Mountain when he wrote the essay, “Hailing the Elusory Mountain Lion,” which was published in 1971 by The New Yorker.

Other essays of Vermont origin include “Of Cows and Cambodia,” and the “War in the Woods,” after an outing with houndsman Paul Doyle.  During the ’70s, Hoagland also wrote “The Moose on the Wall,” which took its title from a head mount inside the Howard Bank and featured his taxidermist pal, Mr. Brooks.

But among Kingdom readers with long memories, Hoagland may best be known for the essay he wrote about the girlie shows at the fair, which caused the uproar that led to their early and premature demise.

“Unfortunately,” says Hoagland.  “It was not my intention.”

The shows continued for three or four years elsewhere before they were banned.  Hoagland says his essay took the church-going people of Barton by storm.  “Of course they stay away from that so didn’t know what happened inside until I wrote about it,” he says.  “But they found out why boys went to the fair as boys and came back men, which they had never known before.”

After his spate of Vermont essays, Hoagland traveled to Africa.  He went twice during the ’70s; once in 1976 and again in 1977.  He went during a time when there was a lull in the fighting.  On his return, he wrote African Calliope: A Trip to the Sudan, first published in 1979.

War had returned to central Africa and the Sudan — “that I love so much” — when Hoagland made a second round of visits, once in 1993 and again in 1995.  The war caused widespread famine and Hoagland says he had to be there.  Strafed by MiGs and living in a church compound close to the war zone, his experience this time around resulted in what some critics believe is his best book, Children are Diamonds.

“It took me 20 years to produce this novel because the experiences are based on my own experiences,” he says.  “I did do a couple of pieces for The Nation, but I couldn’t exorcize them through those pieces.”

Hoagland was working as a freelance journalist when he accompanied a transport of food into a relief workers’ compound where thousands and thousands of starving refugees had gathered.  It was the first shipment of food since the killing of four UN aid workers four months ago.  The scene beggars description.

“They had eaten all the insects, all the grasshoppers, all the song birds,” Hoagland says.  “All the area smelled of smoke for in order to smoke out the insects and the rodents, they had burned everything off.”

There were 58 trucks in the transport, carrying corn.  He recalls watching children running alongside the lorries, gathering spilled kernels that they would bring to their mothers after acquiring a handful.

It was that moment, he says, that he had the most powerful experience of his life.  Hoagland was in his sixties at the time and his hair had turned prematurely white.  The women and children equated white with power, and in Hoagland they saw someone they believed to be their deliverer.

“So, they asked me if I was the head of the United Nations,” says Hoagland, who after all these years still chokes up with the memory.

“Are we forgiven?” they asked him.

Hoagland told them he had just arrived from America, and he says they looked at his boots and asked if he had walked.

The most powerful emotion he experienced came moments later when he heard the mothers tell their children: “That white man can save your life.”

And, just like that, he remembers it happened.  “These wobbling, staggering children with huge bellies came up and touched me.”

Throughout his career, Hoagland focused on being the best American essayist he could be.  But it’s an attitude he’s extended to the very craft of writing, and one that leaves no regrets.  Every book he has written, he says, “was the very best I could do at the time.”

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

For a review of Mr. Hoagland’s newest book, Children are Diamonds, click here.

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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