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CARPE LIBRUM: The ongoing pilgrimage of humanity

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Carpe Librum breaks down two books based on pilgrimages, a la ‘The Canterbury Tales.’

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world. 

St. Dale
By Sharyn McCrumb
Kensington, 2005

By Dan Simmons
Doubleday, 1989

Though my love affair with William Shakespeare is a frequently discussed topic in print, my closest friends endure an almost endless stream of patter about another man: Geoffrey Chaucer. I have a tie to “The Canterbury Tales” that at times feels almost cosmic. In addition, it baffles and fascinates me that people continue to read and discuss these stories written down during the reign of Richard II (roughly 1386 – 89), and find relevance and connection with them in daily life in the modern world.

“Have you read ‘Hyperion’?” Raven Metzger asked me when we talked about my love of Chaucer. “It’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ set in space.”

HyperionThat was enough to get me to the book. Indeed Dan Simmons uses the frame tale of pilgrims and sends them travelling in search of The Shrike, a mystical being around which a cult has formed. To entertain each other on the long journey through time and space, as well as to understand what has brought each of them to this point, they share their tales.

Simmons weaves allusions from British and US history and literature throughout the stories to create a world that pays homage to the people and moments that brought illumination to ours. Just look at the title: “Hyperion,” one of the Titans from Greek mythology. Simmons doesn’t try to reproduce the stories of Chaucer so much as the experience of people in search of something greater than themselves, which they might never understand. It is an experience humans respond to strongly: some with denial, others humor, anger, fear, and some with stoicism.

“Hyperion” lays the groundwork for a sci-fi series and has all the characteristics of world-building necessary to pursue a long-running series. The world Simmons creates is fascinating, with frightening parallels to the precarious situation of intellectual decay on Earth. More than anything, he uses different voices of each tale teller to emphasize the range of experiences of human cruelty and potential each has experienced and brought to the moment. In a series of worlds not dominated by human hands, these pilgrims seek a connection with something greater than what they have known thus far—and each story serves to deepen that meaning for them and their audience.

But another surprising homage to “The Canterbury Tales” is “St. Dale” by Sharon McCrumb. Set a year after the death of NASCAR-racing legend Dale Earnhardt,  it follows a group of pilgrims on their journey to visit the shrines dedicated to him. On the surface it sounds sort of gimmicky and hokey, but much like NASCAR is misunderstood to be about watching people drive in circles, St. Dale is much more than a one-joke book.

Though I grew up in North Carolina and have lived in the South my entire adult life, I never was a devotee of NASCAR. I own two mid-1960s VWs; speed is clearly not where my heart is. So let us say a book about NASCAR that can move me to heaving sobs is not something I predicted would happen. Frankly, I don’t think anyone other than Sharyn McCrumb (Wilmington native!) could have written this. Yes, I was crying uncontrollably by the last page, but she had me laughing on almost every page leading up to that scene.

St DaleMcCrumb’s humor is incredibly smart—she even has Latin jokes in a book about stock car racing. More than anything, it is not laughing at Southern life and stereotypes, but rather laughing with it. When a woman breaks down on a lonely country road at night, and a black Monte Carlo pulls up behind her with headlights illuminating the scene, she tells the driver (who is unmistakably Dale Earnhardt back from the grave to perform his first miracle) in surprise that she always thought their headlights were decals.

There is so much to love about this book, besides the skillful writing, well-drawn characters and surprising premise. Much of North Carolina is featured (of course), as well as local history and jokes. (Did anyone know we have a county named in honor of Earnhardt? “Our Dale,” think about it. It is just north of Charlotte.) McCrumb crams so much information about the history of NASCAR, the development of the sport, statistics for different drivers and tracks, and manages to do all of it smoothly within the frame of the pilgrims’ progress so readers don’t find themselves outside of the story bogged down with information they don’t care about. All characters care so deeply, in their own way, about this sport and what it has meant to them as people that the way they share it and celebrate with each other is infectious.

Though NASCAR started as a Southern sport, it has spread outside of here and local tracks have closed as larger, more national and international speedways open. McCrumb does tackle head-on the economic impact race weekend can have on small towns, and even more so the loss of losing a track and how quickly a community can suffer financially.

As the pilgrims progress through race country they learn about each of their backgrounds and what they are all seeking on this pilgrimage to Dale. Most importantly, they are reminded of what they are really seeking: something they can do for each other—that the most baffling, mystical experience we can have is not something from outside ourselves but what we share with others.

In many ways “The Canterbury Tales” was the first of road-trip books: a group of friends out to take a trip just to do it. No one was moving house, going to market, picking up a wife from a neighboring village; they were all just out to take a trip together. The frame tale reminds us that story is a way to connect with those we love the most and those we have never before; to bridge distances near and far. If anything, what both Simmons and McCrumb demonstrate that the power of story has not diminished over time as we have developed new technology beyond the quill pen, but we need our human voices and experiences now more than ever before to remind us of our own humanity.


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