By Sena Jeter Naslund
Published by William Morrow
September 2003; 0-066-21238-3; 544 pages
From many places in the valley that cradled Birmingham you could lift up your eyes, in 1963, to see the gigantic cast-iron statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, atop his stone pedestal. Silhouetted against the pale blue skyline, atop Red Mountain, Vulcan held up a torch in one outstretched, soaring arm. In other mountain ridges surrounding the city, the ore lay hidden, but the city had honored this outcropping of iron ore named Red Mountain, as a reminder of the source of its prosperity (such as it was -- most of the wealth of the steel industry was exported to magnates living in the great cities of the Northeast), by raising Vulcan high above the populace, south of the city.
Fanciful and well-educated children liked to pretend that Vulcan, who looked north, had a romance with the Statue of Liberty, also made of metal. But she was the largest such statue in the world, and he was second to her, and that violated the children's sense of romance, for they understood hierarchy in romance to be as natural as hierarchy among whites and blacks.
Looking down from Vulcan -- his pedestal housed stairs, and around the top of the tower ran an observation platform -- you could see the entire city of Birmingham filling the valley between the last ridges of the Appalachian mountain chain as it stretched from high in the northeast to southwest.
In early May 1963, Stella's freckle-faced boyfriend, a scant half inch taller (but therefore presentable as a boyfriend, if she wore flats), had persuaded her to drive from their college, across the city, avoiding the areas where Negroes were congregating for demonstrations, to Red Mountain. From the observation balcony just below Vulcan's feet, Stella and Darl hoped for a safe overview.
I believe if outsiders would just stay out ... Darl had told her. Let Birmingham solve ... Don't you?
But Stella hadn't answered. Instead, she'd said, I'd like to see. I'm afraid to go close.
We can go up on Vulcan, Darl had offered, for he was a man who wanted to accommodate women; a man who loved his mother. Stella had met her. He'd brought along his bird-watching binoculars. Darl could recognize birds by their songs alone; he could imitate each sound; he kept a life list of all the birds he had ever seen. His actual name was Darling, his mother's maiden name, and though Stella dared not call him Darling, she longed to do so.
"Do you know the average altitude for the flight of robins?" he asked.
A spurt of laughter flew from between Stella's lips. She imagined the giggle as though it had heft and was falling rapidly down from the pedestal, down the mountain, into the valley.
"I don't have the foggiest idea," she said.
"About thirty inches."
"What a waste!" she said. "To have the gift of flight and to fly so low."
She thought Darl might laugh at her sentence -- half serious, half comic -- but he didn't.
Stella glanced up the massive, shining body of Vulcan, past his classical and bare heinie, up his lifted arm to his unilluminated torch. At a distance, she had often observed that the nighttime neon "flame" made the torch resemble a Popsicle. Cherry red, if someone had died in an auto accident; lime green, otherwise. Even this close and looking up his skirt, Vulcan's frontal parts were completely covered by his short blacksmith's apron.
Though it was May and the police were already into short sleeves, on the open observation balcony, Darl and Stella were lifted above the heat into a layer of air with cool breezes. Stella wished she'd worn a sweater. Darl put his arm around her -- just for warmth, she told herself with determined na´vetÚ, but she thrilled at his encircling arm diagonally crossing her back. His fingers fitted the spaces between her curving ribs. They were alone up in the air; they weren't some trashy couple smooching in public. Yes, this was what she had been wanting. Perhaps for years. Someone's arm around her, making her safe.
Stella knew her breasts were terribly small. If they had been plumper, Darl's fingertips might have found the beginnings of roundness. Sex, sex, sex, she thought. His hand slid down to her waist; her mind careened. Do I feel slender enough there? Inviting? With his other hand, Darl trained the binoculars on the city. With one finger, he adjusted the ridged wheel between the twin eyepieces. The black leather strap looped gracefully around the back of his neck.
Darl was the complete darling: a lover of nature, a lover of music, a lover of God, considerate, a gentleman -- if only he loved her. And best of all he was an organist, a master of the king of instruments. When Darl played Bach's "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," creating his own improvisations, Stella felt understood. It was she who had been wounded, and the music was what she missed and needed. The way Darl played promised wholeness, profundity. Almost it seemed that the spirit of her father was hovering around Darl and her on this high place.
She placed her hand just below Darl's waist; she shivered as though to say "I only seek closeness for warmth, against the chill." Her palm loved the unfamiliar grain of the cloth of his trousers, and underneath, the firm flesh of his buttock just beginning to flare. How tantalized her hand felt, the hand itself wishing it dare move down to know the curve of his butt. She glanced again at the side of his cheek, the binoculars trained on the city. His hair was a rich brown, and his freckles almost matched his hair.
She wanted to brush the field glasses aside, to stand in front of him ...
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From the acclaimed author of the national bestseller Ahab's Wife comes an inspiring, brilliantly rendered new novel of the awakening conscience of the South and of an entire nation.
Written with the same scope and emotional depth as her previous award-winning novel, Four Spirits is set in Sena Jeter Naslund's home city of Birmingham, Alabama, a city that in the 1960s was known as Bombingham. Naslund brings to life this tumultuous time, weaving together the lives of blacks and whites, civil rights advocates and racists, and the events of peaceful protest and violent repression, to create a tapestry of American social transformation.
Stella Silver is an idealistic, young white college student brought up by her genteel, mannered aunts. She first witnesses the events of the freedom movement from a safe distance but, along with her friend Cat Cartwright, is soon drawn into the mounting conflagration. Stella's and Cat's lives are forever altered by their new friendships with other committed freedom fighters.
A student at a black college, Christine Taylor is inspired to action by the examples of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. She courageously struggles to balance her family responsibilities, education, and work with the passions and dangers of the demonstrations. Her friend Gloria Callahan, a gifted young cellist and descendant of a runaway slave, tries to move beyond her personal shyness and family coziness to enter a wider circle, including blacks and whites, men and women, all involved with the protests. Lionel Parrish, teacher, preacher, and peddler of funeral insurance, battles his own demons of lust and self-preservation, while New York activist Jonathan Green gives up a promising career as a pianist to work for racial justice in the South.
These characters all add their voices to the chorus that makes up this symphony of innocent children and the mythic elderly, the devoutly religious and the skeptical humanist, the wealthy and the poor, the city and the country. Poignant and evocative, rich in historical detail, and filled with the humanity that is the hallmark of Naslund's fiction, Four Spirits is a compelling tale that transcends tragedy and evokes redemptive triumph.(back to top)
Sena Jeter Naslund grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, where she attended public schools and recieved a B.A. from Birmingham-Southern College. She has also lived in Louisiana, West Virginia, and California. She recieved her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. As well as authoring two other novels and two collections of short stories, her short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Reivew and many others.
For twelve years she directed the Creative Writing Program at the University of Louisville, where she teaches and holds the title Distinguished Teaching Professor. Concurrently, she is a member of the M.F.A. in Writing faculty of Vermont College. She is cofounder and editor of the literary magazine The Louisville Review and the the Fleur-de-lis Press, housed at Spaulding Univeristy, and has taught at the University of Montana and Indiana University. She is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the Kentucky Arts Council. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.