Ah, Love! Could you and I with faith conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!
Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Edward Fitzgerald translation)
Not two weeks before I began reading Flossie Deane Craig’s novel Feathers In A High Wind did I encounter those lovely lines in the quasi-Sufi philosopher’s collection of mystical poetry, originally composed in twelfth century Khorassán (a region of modern day Iran). Given that the former title is a gritty narrative of life in bucolic northern Arkansas over the years book-ending World War One, I thought these two works to be about as remote from each other as they could be. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled upon that very quatrain a little over halfway through Feathers in a High Wind. As it turns out, Flossie was a woman of more literacy, eloquence and style than her seemingly humble origins would imply.
In the decades after her death, the journals comprising Flossie’s novel were treasured by her family as entirely fictional works. However, it was eventually discovered that those heirloom stories of love, strife and change were more than just recreations of the habits, customs and livelihoods of the period; rather, they chronicled actual events. More incredibly, the names scattered throughout the journal entries were recognized as pseudonyms for the people in Flossie’s life. Thus, when Feathers was finally published in 2015 thanks to the combined efforts of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the pseudonyms were reverted to their corresponding historical names, and Feathers debuted as an authentic ledger of Flossie’s remarkable and tumultuous life in the years from 1912 to 1919.
Flossie Deane Craig is my great-great-great grandmother. So closely related to me is she that a picture exists of myself as an infant being held by her then very senior daughter Cerece (whose birth and rambunctious childhood form one of the book’s most tender threads), and yet, for the first twenty years of my life, the significance of this relationship escaped me. Family trees tend to forego vivid details for the sake of graphical efficiency, causing ancestral marriages and unions to appear as nothing more than procreative mechanisms necessary to reach “the present’’. Thus, in my youth I found it difficult to recognize Flossie from among myriad faces in sepia-toned old photos, or to distinguish her name when it emerged from time to time in nostalgic family chatter. Again, until I read Feathers in a High Wind, I failed to understand how impressive a woman she really was.
Consider the ambient conditions of her rural town of Paragould, Arkansas (population then around 5,500) in the 1910s. Aside from the stirrings of growing industry, the region was one of agriculture, piety, patriarchy, and, if a man was from a well-to-do family, inherited responsibility (of tending to a family farm or business, for example). For women, who were not to win their franchise for quite a few years to come, opportunities for the pursuit of individual ambition were slim, as their futures usually hinged on the career trajectories of the men they married and attended to. Societal roles were, in modern parlance, “traditional”. Men worked and earned the vast majority of household income, and women were the domicile managers, cooks, and primary child-rearers. One could certainly argue that this environment exerted a stifling effect on the development of those progressive elements like female intellectualism, independence, and autonomy that would only evolve en masse nearly a century later. And yet, the pages of Feathers In A High Wind reveal Flossie to be a woman equipped with period-revolutionary sorts of bravery and intellect so premature that they align snugly with the female empowerment campaigns of today.
Take bodily autonomy as a case-in-point. At several instances in the novel, women (including Flossie) are burdened with the arduous task of pregnancy and childbirth as a consequence of the random (and occasionally violent) carnal hungers of their husbands, who then return to their work lives and leave their expectant wives to cope. Such treatment exacts monstrous mental and physical tolls on these women, one of whom snaps and merrily subjects her cruelly rapacious husband to a Tarantino-esque murder-castration. Thankfully, Flossie elects a different solution, and covertly begins a rudimentary course of birth control, freeing herself from the constant, gnawing anxiety of being subjected once again to pregnancy. This at a time where the refusal of a husband’s advances, much less the suppression of reproductive functionality, was sufficient merit for moral castigation, especially on Christian grounds.
Where the spiritual and the transcendent are concerned, Flossie spurns the idea of locating God in stuffy farm churches and among shrieking, frenzied worshipers (Flossie’s mother-in-law exclaims “when God wants to shout me, I just let him shout me!”), preferring instead to forgo the services and seek God in winds and snows and in nature’s other splendors. She derides the casuistry of the churchgoers who exalt God’s favor in the Great War, noting that her kind and loving God would never be partial in such horrendous human conflicts, and observes that the most enthusiastic believers are often the poorest models for her notion of Jesus (for years, my father cruised south Georgia in a truck sporting a bumper sticker with a Gandhi quote reading “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” I’m not claiming that Flossie was Gandhi, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t draw the similarity). In the face of a hawkeyed preacher who questions her devoutness, she conceals these convictions with an admirable and clever mendacity. No doubt those convictions would have alienated her from her community as an out-and-out heretic, destined for Hell.
That eternal condemnation, which I suspect she would still earn from certain Christian sects today, brings me to perhaps her most groundbreaking intellectual reform, captured contemplatively when she writes “But all I could see was that Man… managed to make for himself a hell, wherein, if one listened, there might always be heard weeping and wailing and the gnashing of teeth.” Her surmise that Hell is earthly and man-made, or in other words a product not of divine creation but of human frailty, is strikingly similar to that revelation which saw the megachurch preacher Carlton Pearson lose his congregation almost one hundred years later.
I have not even begun to describe Flossie’s ardent battle to wrest influence over financial matters from her lovable, endearing, and at times equally despicable husband Alex Walker, or her fervent struggle to win over his leery and judgmental parents, or her charming enthusiasm for “new” technology like cars, running water, and electricity and lighting systems, but if I haven’t yet made my point about Flossie’s striking and uncommon enlightenment, I’m not going to have made it, am I?
However, the vital artery of the book, and transitively of Flossie’s character, is her desperate quest not just to find romantic love — she and Alex accomplish this feat for a time early in the book — but to determine its authentic sources, to capture it for good, and to distill it as best she can. Unlike some couples in the novel, she understands that love does not stem from the sex and the distribution of responsibility that accompany wedlock, and that while the children of a marriage do not guarantee a love between the parents, they may certainly help to kindle it. Flossie (I think accurately) comes to envision love as a fluctuating state and searches again and again to find its stasis.
This endeavor fails frequently, though often through no fault of her own, and each failure elicited in me an unusually potent twinge of familial compassion. After all, her loneliness when Alex leaves her to fend for herself during a trying pregnancy, her broken spirit when she learns of his unfaithfulness, and her confusion and resignation at his repeated unwillingness to say “I love you” are all palpable accounts of the suffering of my kin. Her trials reminded me of something the author Salman Rushdie once remarked during an Emory University literary panel discussion about love:
“When we talk about love, we usually add to it.. related concepts such as fidelity, durability… it’s supposed it would go on for a long time, and it’s supposed to be monogamous… that might all be nonsense. That might just be a kind of comforting, bourgeois domestication of love. And that actually love might have more or less nothing to do with those things. It might be much more savage and brutal and non-enduring, a thing that betrays itself… it might be the kind of love that you find in high tragedy.”
Flossie never seems to find respite from confrontations with the callousness and temporality of love, and yet that struggle seems to be the surest indicator that her love was true. There were poignant and powerful instances of love and devotion, especially one wrenchingly sublime moment of vulnerability and understanding and partnership with Alex after several years of marriage, but even that long-awaited unity succumbs to high tragedy as the novel mournfully concludes. After closing the book in what I can best describe as a trance, I felt as if I suddenly knew my third-great grandmother and her family as if I had met them, but that elation was dampened by the sad reality that they had all died long before my arrival to this world.
I suspect that a natural consequence of knowing one’s ancestry, or of being anyone’s descendant, is to (perhaps solipsistically) wonder what traits and vestiges of past generations endure in oneself, and after I reveled in Feathers In A High Wind, I couldn’t help but give in to that little tug of introspection. While I entertain the notion that I can write, I have yet to scribble as elegantly and poetically as Flossie, and while heresy and nonconformity are for me sources of personal pride, I have yet to exercise those postures as daringly as she did. Nonetheless, and despite the chasm of time and societal change that separates us, I daresay we would have had a great deal to talk about, and I have a great deal from her left to learn. Fortunately, Feathers promises that what lessons she may yet teach her great-great-great grandson are hidden in the glorious depths of her work.
Alas, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented Manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the Branches sang
Ah, whence, and whither flown again, who knows?
Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Edward Fitzgerald translation)