THE SHACK (Film Review)

I saw THE SHACK after my rabbi, a Messianic Jew, recommended it. “It’s about relationship,” he explained. And, indeed, it is. God’s desire for an intimate relationship with man is the underlying theme.

In the beginning of the film, “Mack,” the main character, is grieving over a personal loss when he receives a note from “Papa” to meet him at “The Shack.” What follows is an encounter with the triune God of the Bible–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–in a most unlikely setting.

“The Shack” is one of my favorite films. I’ve seen it three times, and I don’t want to spoil it by giving away too much information. I read Paul Young’s book before I saw the film. The film complements the book with an explosion of color and texture.

The cast is impressive. Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Aviv Alush, and Sumire Sarayu are outstanding in their respective roles.  (As far as I know, Aviv Alush is the first Jewish man to portray Jesus in cinema.)

THE SHACK was in the theaters last spring.  Now it is available as a DVD.  You can also rent it at Amazon.com.

 

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Write What You Know About

SUBJECT AND SETTING

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The interior of Berryman United Methodist in Richmond inspired the fictional Methodist church in Faifax.

The easiest subject to write about is the one you know the most about.   I knew before I wrote the first sentence of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER that the book would feature a Methodist minister, his family, and his ward.  My dad was a Methodist minister, so I’m familiar with the underpinings of the United Methodist Church. As for wards, I had read about wards and guardians in novels, but never knew any in real life.  Like Augusta Evans Wilson wrote [in VASHTI]: “The only wards I ever knew happened to be fictitious characters.”

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Fairfax Court House built in 1800

The setting of a novel is like a frame around a portrait.  If the frame is too dark or too light and if it doesn’t complement the colors in the portrait, it will take away from the picture.

I wanted a nostalgic setting that enhanced the old-fashioned romance I had in mind.  I chose the City of Fairfax, not only because it is historic but because I lived nearby and spent many hours walking through the town and researching its role in the Civil War.  History is one of my favorite subjects and the City of Fairfax fit the bill.  I deliberately put the parsonage right in the middle of “Old Town” Fairfax City near the scene of “Mosby’s Midnight Raid.”

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The Moore House in Fairfax

The fictional parsonage was a conglomeration of houses I had written up when I had a real estate column in THE CONNECTION, a local paper in Northern Virginia.  Using the best features of some of the houses I reviewed, I created the interior; but the exterior of the parsonage was solely inspired by the antebellum Moore House, which is behind Truro Anglican Church and across the street from what used to be the Black-eyed Pea Restaurant.

copy-005956-r1-23-241-e1387249318579.jpgWhile writing the novel,  I got permission to tour the Moore House, which housed a business at the time.  I was delighted to see that the house has two staircases just like the fictional parsonage.  The Moore house has thirteen gables as well, so I created a parsonage with thirteen gables.

Thirteen gables added a nice touch to the modern gothic theme I was developing, not to mention the secret room on the third floor hidden behind on
e of the gables.

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INEZ: A Tale of the Alamo

Sometimes it’s hard to know how tfullsizerendero rate a book. For example, I’m not a great fan of the plot or the outcome of “Inez: A Tale of the Alamo,” written in 1855 by Augusta Jane Evans, but I was mesmerized by the author’s style of writing, especially considering her age. This was Evans first novel, and she was only 15 years old when she wrote it.  She was living in San Antonio, Texas, when she began penning the book.  She wrote during the wee hours of the night, keeping her project secretive, then presented the manuscript to her father when she finished.

INEZ was just the beginning of her life-long literary career.  The experience of writing INEZ prepared Evans for writing greater and greater novels. She was a literary genius who wrote eight hand-written novels and dictated a ninth in her latter years when her eyesight was failing.

MACARIA, her second novel, showcased her writing skills and her ability to create page-turners. Her third, ST. ELMO, is the jewel in the crown.

My late aunt was named “Inez” after the title of the book. Her mother, my paternal grandmother, was a mega fan of Augusta J. Evans’ books.  Inez was happy that her mother named her Inez, instead of “Vashti,” the name of Evans fourth book.

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Named after the book INEZ, my aunt Inez Wright, born in 1905, dressed for her part in a play called “The Awakening” about women’s suffrage.

 

Coming Soon on Public TV: THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA

THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA airs on Alabama Public Television Sunday, October 2, at 6 p.m. EST.  The drama/documentary, produced by filmmaker Robert Clem, highlights the life of Augusta Evans Wilson and her best-selling novel, ST. ELMO.  The uniqueness of THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA is that it is structured around two settings: the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century.  The film is a visual smorgasburg of nostalgic landscapes and  imagery.  The story shifts from the 1860s to the 1950s, from black and white to technicolor, from sub-titles to sound.  The theme highlights the changing roles of women and the language of romance during those eras.

If you have the opportunity to see THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA, don’t miss it.  The trailer is a treat in itself.

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Augusta Evans Wilson

THE PASSION OF MISS AUGUSTA goes beyond fiction drawing parelells between Augusta Evans Wilson and the novel’s heroine, “Edna Earl.”

Note: The ST. ELMO novel was made into a silent film in 1923 starring  John Gilbert , my favorite actor.saintelmobookcover-1

 

ST. ELMO: Book Review

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ST. ELMO, by Augusta Jane Evans, was written in 1866. ST. ELMO was the third bestselling novel (after BEN HUR and UNCLE TOM’S CABIN) in the 19th century, equivalent in popularity to the 20th century novel GONE WITH THE WIND. In fact, according to Margaret Mitchell’s biography, Rhett Butler was modeled after St. Elmo Murray. The book inspired plays and was adapted to film in 1923. The ST. ELMO silent film, starring John Gilbert and Bessie Love, is sadly a lost film.

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John Gilbert in ST. ELMO (Fox, 1923)

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The story begins at the foot of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Today that part of Chattanooga is named after the book.) “Edna Earl” is an orphan of humble means living with her grandfather. Early one morning, Edna stumbles upon a duel in which a man is killed near her home. Having witnessed the duel from beginning to end, she is permanently traumatized by the incident. The victim’s body is laid out in her house. When the victim’s wife comes to see the body, she dies from the shock.

Edna Earl is horrified by the damage that the senseless duel has caused. Meanwhile, Edna adores her grandfather, who is a blacksmith. One day on the way to her grandfather’s shop, she encounters a gruff, arrogant man who is in need of a blacksmith to replace a horse shoe. Edna directs him to her granphotoMA31468942-0002dfather’s shop. The man is impatient, swearing as he waits for her grandfather to finish the job. As the man rides away, Edna’s grandfather says to her: “He is a rude, blasphemous man.” Edna notices that “the rude blasphemous man” drops a book as he rides away in haste. The book is a leather-bound copy of DANTE with the initials SEM inside the flap. Edna learns to treasure the book for its text and illustrations.

When her grandfather dies unexpectedly, Edna tries to make it on her own. Just 13-years-old, she boards a train bound for Georgia. The train wrecks. Many die but Edna survives and is rescued by one of the locals, “Ellen Murray,” a wealthy widow. Edna begins to recover under the widow’s care. The two bond and Mrs. Murray decides to raise the orphan, as if she were her own child. Then, something happens that shatters Edna’s contentment. Mrs. Murray’s son arrives home.

Edna hears his harsh voice in the next room and realizes that he is “the rude blasphemous man” who disrespected her beloved grandfather. She returns his copy of DANTE at the first opportunity, realizing that the initials SEM stand for “St. Elmo Murray.”

Throughout the rest of the novel, Edna Earl is torn between loathing and loving St. Elmo. He’s the Byronic type that women love to loath and loath to love. “He’s like a rattlesnake that crawls in his own track, and bites everything that meddles or crosses his trail.”  But in time, Edna is “disquieted and pained to discover” in “his bronzed face . . . an attraction–an indescribable fascination–which she had found nowhere else.”

The conflict in their relationship stems from the issue of dueling, a common practice in Augusta Evans day. But the sub-theme–feminism vs. anti-feminism–is the theme that catches the modern reader’s attention. When I say “feminism,” I don’t feminism as we define it today. The book was written long before women had the right to vote. So while “Edna Earl” disapproves of women in politics, she believes that men and women are intellectual equals and applauds women with literary careers.

The book is filled with explosive, romantic tension that just won’t quit. The characters are not particularly realistic; instead, they are larger than life, and that’s what makes the book fun to read.  However, ST. ELMO is not easy to read. You will find allusions to mythology mind-boggling at times, but if you like character-driven novels, you won’t be able to put it down. You have to read it more than once to truly appreciate this book. Parts of the book are hilarious, but you might miss the humor the first time around. Much of it is tongue in cheek.

ST. ELMO is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today. Deadra Lore of St. Augustine, Florida, is writing a ST. ELMO study guide that explains the foreign expressions, mythical references, and difficult words peppered throughout the story. Several years ago, filmmaker Robert Clem created a docudrama called “The Passion of Miss Augusta,” which highlights scenes from ST. ELMO and compares the fictional “Edna Earl” with her creator, Augusta Evans. He explores the feminist side of Augusta Evans with riveting drama and insight.

 

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ST. ELMO inspired THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER

 

 

 

True Love Waits

The theme of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER was inspired by “True Love Waits,” a program that took root in the 1990s to encourage young people to abstain from having sex before marriage.  I am familiar with the program because I participated in teaching abstinence to teens at a Baptist church.  The program culminated in “DC 94,” where youth from all over the country displayed covenant cards (pledging to abstain from sex before marriage) on the Mall in Washington.

The True Love Waits theme is spelled out in the following conversation between “Effie” and “Benjamin Wright,” the youth pastor, in Chapter 22:

“I like being your assistant or whatever you call it,” Effie said between bites of a sandwich.

“Assistant has a nice ring to it,” Benjamin replied with a grin.”

Effie returned his smile, pleased that he treated her like an equal.  They were having lunch at the Black-eyed Pea in Fairfax, and she had chosen a seat by a window with a view of the Moore House, an antebellum home that reminded her of the parsonage.  

She had been helping Benjamin with MYF, so they had been seeing a lot of each other.  She was aware that people at church thought they were dating, but Effie deemed the relationship platonic because Benjamin, who talked mostly about evangelism, had never crossed the line of friendship. 

“How do you like college?”

“The first year was awkward, but now I’m at ease.”

“I knew you’d adapt.  High school is one thing but college is different.  Most people are there because they want to be.  They’re serious about getting an education.  Changing the subject, there’s something I want to talk to you about.  True Love Waits.”

“What?”

“True Love Waits,” he repeated.  “Didn’t you read about it in the paper a few years ago?  It was a church sponsored program that taught abstinence.  Teenagers were encourage to sign covenant cards stating that they would remain celibate until they married.  During the youth rally in Washington, covenant cards with signatures were displayed publicly.  I wanted our church to participate, but Gideon [senior pastor] was opposed to the idea, but maybe he’ll reconsider this time.”

Effie pressed her lips firmly together.  How typical of Gideon to oppose something noble.  

“I want you to help me,” Benjamin added, leaning over the table.

“How?”

“Lead a group at MYF [Methodist Youth Fellowship] on dating and sexuality.”

“Me?”

“Yes.  You take the high school kids.  They’re easier to manage.  I’ll take the ones in junior high.  All you have to do is ask a few questions to get a discussion going, and don’t let them go off on a tangent.”

“What kind of questions?” 

“Should a couple kiss on the first date?  How far is too far?  That sort of thing.”

“But what if they don’t give the right answers?”

“I’m not worried about that.  I just want them to think about abstinence.  The discussion will be held with a Bible study, so the youth can explore what the Bible says about fornication and discuss the role and symbolism of sex in marriage.  When the course is over, we’ll hand out covenant cards.”

“When do we start?”

“As soon as possible, but I have to run this by Gideon first.”

“Oh no,” she blurted.  “Do you have to?”

“Yes, because I want to end the True Love Waits program with a Sunday evening service, and I need Gideon’s approval in advance.  Have you finished eating?”

She nodded.

“Good.  Let’s go by the church and ask him.”

“We?  You mean you want me to go with you?”

“You’re my assistant, aren’t you?  Besides, I think he puts a lot of stock in your opinion.  Maybe with your influence, he’ll agree to True Love Waits.  You know him better than I do.  How do you think he’s going to react?”

Effie shrugged.  “He’s a mystery to me.”

***

“Unrealistic!  You can’t stop teenagers from having sex.  Smarter to give them condoms.  No?  Then go ahead.  Do as you wish but you’re wasting your time.”

Effie looked at Benjamin wondering if he was thinking the same thing she was thinking.  A half-hearted endorsement was better than none.

“A word of advise,” Gideon cautioned.  “You’d be wise to form a committee of parents and teens before you start.  “You’ll need their support as well as their ideas for implementing this . . . what did you call it?  Save It for Marriage?”

“True Love Waits,” Effie cut in.

“Whatever.  And one more thing.  Once this chastity drive of yours getting going, make sure you don’t alienate young people who don’t care to participate.  A vow of celibacy is meaningless if you pressure someone to take it.”

“I wouldn’t dream of pressuring anyone,” replied Benjamin. 

Pass the Salt, Please!

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Before the invention of salt shakers, people used “salt cellars,” a.k.a. “open salts,” “salt dips” or “salts.”  They are fun to collect because most are inexpensive and don’t take up much room. Some are glass, usually clear.  Some are porcelain.  The smaller ones are “individual salts,” and the larger ones are “master salts.”

Years ago my sister Linda and I were in an antique shop in Clifton, Virginia, that sold pressed glass.  Linda showed me a tiny dish that I mistook for a candle holder.  We took it to the manager who explained that it was a salt cellar.  She asked if we had heard the expression “seated below the salt’?”  In Victorian times, the farther away you were from the salt, the less important you were in society.

individualsaltsLater, after learning about salt cellars, I was reading my favorite novel, ST. ELMO, by Augusta Evans Wilson, when I stumbled upon the following passage on page 124.  “He did not look at her, but resumed the conversation with his mother which her entrance had interrupted, and during supper Edna could scarcely realize that the cold, distant man, who took no more notice of her than one of the salt cellars, was the same whom she had left leaning over the Taj.”

abbysaltFrom that day on, I began collecting salt cellars and was so intrigued with them that I made mention of a salt cellar in Chapter 12 of THE PRINCE IN THE TOWER.  “Gideon’s a magnet for attractive women.  Their hands gravitate towards him.  Have you noticed?  Even your little friend Clara follows him with her eyes.  Women make a mistake chasing after men,” Mrs. Baldwin added with mild disdain.  “I know it’s politically incorrect to say this, but men are natural born hunters, not prey.  They like a challenge.  What a shame that Gideon has never found one, although Eleanor could prove to be the exception.  Effie, if you don’t steady your hand, you’ll drop the salt cellar.  It’s an antique you know.”

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In addition to individual salts and master salts, you can find double salts as well as mustard, pepper, and salt combos in flea markets, antique stores, and even thrift stores.spoons

Salt spoons are collectible also. They come in glass as well as sterling silver.  The glass spoons break easily.  I like the silver ones best, but they corrode if you forget and leave them in the salt.

Kosher salt works best in salt cellars because the grains of salt are larger than regular table salt.

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Most of the salt cellars I’ve seen were made in the 1800s, which makes them conversation pieces.  But collecting salts has a practical side too. I use my salt cellars not only for the dinner table but also for tea candles   If you’d like to learn more about salt cellars or start a collection of your own, consider 5,000 OPEN SALTS: A Collector’s Guide by William Heacock and Patricia Johnson.