Among the many writers who have captured the look, feel and sound of rural America are names like William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison. Now a new author has emerged in Texas to tell a tale of Czech farmers eking out a living from the hard landscape there a century ago. The author is Bruce Machart.
The world depicted in Bruce Machart's novel "The Wake of Forgiveness" is a tough place where men sometimes do the work of horses and women sometimes have it even harder. It is a world of grudges and resentments, but it is also a world held together by blood relations and shared ties to land, animals, religion and culture.
Bruce Machart, who teaches writing at Houston's Lone Star College, is not from that world, but he is descended from Czech immigrants like the ones depicted in his book, which is set in Lavaca County, a rural area midway between Houston and San Antonio. He says it was the desire to understand this somewhat alien place and its past that attracted him.
"As a writer, instead of writing what I know, I tend to write what I do not know, sort of what I want to know and that provides for a great sense of discovery on my part, which, hopefully, translates well to the page," he said.
What one finds on the pages of Machart's book is evocative prose that brings to life the land and its people as they were decades ago.
Here is an example: "Some 40 yards [36 meters] to the west, just beyond the swinging cattle gate, Vaclav Skala's youngest, Karel, sat his pop's biggest roan stallion. The boy's neck, like his brothers', was kinked from so much time harnessed to a plow, warped such that his head cocked sharply to the left and made him look a little off-kilter in the saddle. Still, there was an ease in the way he handled the animal…"
Machart took some elements of his plot from stories his father told him. "He told me this story about a family where the father, because of meanness or desperation or some motive we cannot even conceive of, used his sons rather than horses or mules to pull his plow. I thought that is just so darn unbelievable that if I can pull that off in fiction I will have really achieved something there," he said.
Although Hispanics make up a large part of the population in south-central Texas today, a century ago they were few in number and Czechs, Germans and Poles were the predominant ethnic groups. Machart hinges his story on the arrival in Lavaca county of a well-off Mexican rancher and his daughters, driven out of their homeland by the violence of the 1910 revolution.
"It is not based on any true event that I know of. I do know that if you look at the newspapers from the county at that time, there were very few Hispanic names ever mentioned, whether they be laborers or otherwise. Whereas 10 years, 15 years later, by the time we get to the 1920's, there are whole schools devoted to Spanish-speaking children in Lavaca County," he said.
The story in "The Wake of Forgiveness" starts in 1895, but mostly takes place in 1910 and 1924, switching back and forth to fill in details. It is all held together by Machart's vivid descriptions of rural life, the sights, the sounds, the tastes and the smells. "Good fiction is rooted in the body and the five senses and I have very distinct sensual memories from the country and what it feels like and what it sounds like to be out in those wide spaces," he said.
But Machart also spent many hours researching the setting, both in libraries and in lengthy sojourns down country roads. "Mostly what I did was sort of cultural research: reading old newspapers and genealogical records, those sorts of things, just to get a feel for the place and the language. And, of course, I drove all over the county so I could really get a feel for the place. I am a city boy, I was born and raised in Houston and the Houston area. So it was a way for me to get in touch with a place that had distinct family roots and important family roots, but a place where I had always felt like the outsider before," he said.
Bruce Machart's novel "The Wake of Forgiveness" has garnered some rave reviews and comparisons to some of his own favorite writers. His next offering to the reading public will be a collection of short stories.