Thursday, February 5, 2009

Book review: Fiddler’s Ghost by Mitch Jayne

Thanks to Cuzzins Kathy and Don for loaning their copy of this book to my folks; and thanks to my folks for loaning it to me!

Mitch Jayne’s Fiddler’s Ghost opens with Steve and Lacey Clark, a young married couple living in Columbia, Missouri, in 1951 while Steve flails around, trying to finish his degree. When he comes upon a notice for a teaching position in a one-room schoolhouse deep in the Ozarks – “no degree necessary” – they figure that’s as good a vocation as any for Steve, whose faculty advisor had said to him in desperation, “If you don’t know what you want to do, then teach, man, teach.” Steve gets the job so they pack their meager belongings and head to the town of Medley Springs in [fictional] Burke County.

The Medley Springs folks are plenty friendly, and pleased to see a teacher for their “chirren.” The Clarks are told about a house they might rent and fall in love with it immediately upon seeing the place: a two-story white house with upper and lower porches, cloaked in ivy, shaded by tall trees and cooled by a gurgling spring. The house’s owner is more than happy to have tenants again although a neighbor warns the young couple that “the last folks lived there claimed it weren’t natural …” Steve and Lacey happily move right in and on their very first night in the new place, they meet its resident ghost.

What follows is a delightful story of the months the Clarks spent with their ghost, whom they named Hiram. He is the wandering spirit of one Benjamin Springfield, Tennessee fiddler and Confederate soldier killed untimely in the War Between the States. Hiram is tied to his violin, a priceless Guarnerius, which Steve and Lacey find hidden in the antique bed in their home. As the Clarks and their ghost spend time together, it becomes clear that Hiram is still on the earthly plane because of his music: his talent for it is extraordinary – even in the afterlife – and playing instruments both corporealizes him and leads him to his earthly purpose.

Fiddler’s Ghost is clever and funny, delving into the archaic speech and customs of the Ozarks folks. Clark’s scholars are polite and shy, eager to learn anything he can teach them, while the young schoolmaster soon realizes that he has much to learn himself. The novel is a suspenseful page-turner as well, as the Clarks attempt to protect their “Uncle Hiram’s” true identity from some superstitious and small-minded townfolk.

Ultimately, however, Fiddler’s Ghost is a love story – love of family, love of place, love of music. The author knows the Missourian Ozarks and its denizens well, his affection clear in his warm portrayal of the book’s characters. Mitch Jayne is also a lifelong musician, a founding member of the bluegrass group The Dillards, and his novel swirls with happy notes. Reading Fiddler’s Ghost transports the reader to a joyful, simpler place, much like whiling a summer afternoon away on a shady porch with a tuneful fiddle for company.

1 comment:

  1. Grandpa and Grandma MouseFebruary 9, 2009 at 10:58 AM

    You may like OLD FISH HAWK even better. We did. What do you Loves think?