For this week’s Words & Music I’m pleased to introduce my first ever guest Columnist. Melissa Fox and I go way back, all the way to our early days in DC. We are both voracious readers and pretty darned opinionated broads. She is also a well known blogger and expert on Young Adult fiction. She serves as a panelist for the Cybils, Children’s and Young Adult Blogger’s Literary Award, and is currently working for Watermark books Wichita’s premiere independent bookstore. If that weren’t enough she spends whatever spare time she has left keeping up with her four daughters and husband Russell.
Take it away Melissa….
The one reason I love historical fiction is simple: instead of just sticking to bare facts, the novel form allows the author to delve into the motivations behind the historical figures, making the past seem that much more alive.
Because of this, J. R. Moehringer’s new novel, Sutton caught my eye. The gorgeous cover speaks of a time when men were dapper and would do anything for their women, from loving them to committing crimes for them. Even though I knew nothing about the notorious bank robber Willie Sutton going in, I found myself transported though time to a world where nothing went right.
Willie Sutton was in fact a bank robber, who over the course of 30 years stole $2 million from New York City banks. He spent about half of his adult life in prison, though that led to his second claim to fame: he was an accomplished escape artist, breaking out of several prisons. Because he was taking on banks during a time when banks were pretty much despised, he eventually became a folk hero. On his release on Christmas Eve, 1969, all the media outlets were clamoring for an interview, but Sutton only granted one.
This interview becomes the framework for Moehringer’s novel as he gracefully flits back and forth through time. Sutton leads Reporter and Photographer (as they are aptly named) through the highlights of his past, and in doing so, Moehringer allows us to travel through time and memory with Sutton as he reminisces about how he ended up where he did.
The book becomes an interesting exploration of nature vs. nurture. Was Willie, at his core, an evil man? Or was he, as one character in the book says, “a good man who’s done many bad things”? Did Sutton turn to crime because his older brothers beat him on a daily basis? Or because his father never spoke to him? Or because he grew up Irish in Brooklyn? Or because there were just no jobs at the right time for someone like Willie, who only had education through 8th grade?
Mostly, though, Moehringer paints a picture of a man who wants to deserve the woman he loves. Willie met and fell in love with Bess – who was everything he was not – when he was in his 20s, and convinced himself that with her by his side, he could become anything. Except, her father – a rich shipyard magnate – stood in their way, refusing to give permission for an Irish Catholic to marry his daughter. Desperate, Willie becomes despondent, so when Bess suggests that he rob her father’s vaults to get the money they need to elope, he jumps at the chance. That theme, that longing for Bess’s approval factors in everything that Willie does from that moment on: in his humane way of robbing banks (he never injures anyone), to his educating himself while in prison. It was all for Bess.
And it’s this human stamp – for who doesn’t love an unrequited love story? – that gives this gritty crime novel its heart and soul.
This week’s playlist is a joint effort between Melissa and myself combining tunes that are appropriate to time and place, but also a few of our favorite outlaw songs.
I Want to be Bad – Helen Kane, Nat Shilkret & the Victor Orchestra – We decided to kick off the playlist with a track appropriate to the time period at the start of Sutton’s story. We were spoiled for choice but in the end this one won out.
If I Ever Leave This World Alive – Flogging Molly – Often described as celtic punk Flogging Molly carries on the Irish tradition of playing great music combined with poignant social commentary.
Pretty Boy Floyd – Joel Rafael – Rafael’s cover of Woody Guthrie’s tune about a famous outlaw. Still relevant today if only for the lines Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, And some with a fountain pen.
Zombie – The Cranberries – A powerful anti-violience anthem, and incidentally the biggest hit for the Limerick based band.
Walk Away Joe – Trisha Yearwood – Naive young thing plus sexy outlaw equals an unhappy ending.
A Man of Constant Sorrow– Alison Krauss and Union Station – A long time mutual favorite that we felt fit the mood of the book.
Next week’s Words & Music Wednesday will feature Frank Langella’s Dropped Names: Famous Men & Women as I knew Them. If you’ve got a great suggestion for that playlist send ’em on in!