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Blues Lessons

A Novel

About The Book

In the lush countryside of 1950s Michigan, young Martin Dijksterhuis has everything he could ever want, living among his extended family and working in his family's orchard fields. Despite his mother's plans for him to attend college in Chicago, he has no desire to leave home.
One autumn, in a camp of migrant farm workers, Martin discovers a music that touches him like nothing before -- the unsettling melodies and timeless words of the country blues. He also falls in love with Corinna, the daughter of the black foreman who runs the orchards. He ends up fathering her child, only to lose her in a stunning betrayal. Martin's music and his love for Corinna are the two themes of his life. His struggle to combine them in a single story takes him far from home and the life he had always envisioned for himself, only to bring him back again in a way he could never have imagined.
In this beautifully rendered novel, Robert Hellenga explores the fragility of happiness, the struggle to discover one's true calling in life, and the sorrows and satisfactions of family.


Chapter One: Vocation


It was not unusual for missionaries -- sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs -- to visit the Methodist church in Appleton, Michigan. They'd speak in church on Sunday morning and then, after the regular offering, there would be a special collection for whatever mission they were serving. These visitors were generally middle-aged, stout, and earnest, but Miss Prellwitz, who came late in the summer of 1954, just as I was about to enter my junior year of high school, was young and beautiful and lighthearted and spoke with a clipped British accent, and the stories she told on Sunday morning in church itself and the slides she showed in the evening at the Epworth League made me want to follow her into the heart of the dark continent. She was more entertaining and mysterious than the movies I sometimes saw on Friday nights at the Oriental Theater on Main Street, movies in which, after the previews, a large map of Africa would suddenly fill the screen, and then you'd see a line moving in from the coast toward the center, and later on in a jungle camp a huge spider would fall out of a tree onto the shoulder of a beautiful woman and the hero would knock it off. I pictured myself knocking a huge spider off Miss Prellwitz's shoulder.

"In my opinion," my mother said at breakfast the next morning, "these missionaries do more harm than good, though at least they're more interesting than Reverend Boomer."

"Reverend Boomsma." My father, who was on the vestry, corrected her out of habit. He had lived in Appleton all his life and accepted people on their own terms, whereas my mother, who had grown up in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, was often impatient and critical.

At that time my cousin Lotte, who was three years older than I, had been waiting for her vocation for almost a year, and a great deal of importance had been attached to Miss Prellwitz's visit. "Voco, vocare," my mother explained. "To call. She's waiting for her calling." My mother taught Latin and French at the high school.

Her calling? Very mysterious. Was it like waiting for a telephone call? When the telephone rang you could hear it ring: one ring for Lotte's parents, Uncle Barent -- my father's half brother -- and Aunt Margriet; two rings for Uncle Piet and Aunt Sophie, next door; and three rings for our house. But how would you know when you got this other kind of call? Would a bell ring inside your head? Would you pick up an imaginary phone? And then the missionary came, Miss Prellwitz, and I began to understand.

The missionaries always stayed with Uncle Barent and Aunt Griet, who lived right on the corner of Dijksterhuis Corners, one mile straight north of the stoplight in the center of town. It wasn't called Dijksterhuis Corners on road maps or in my mother's big Rand McNally Atlas of the World, but that's what everyone in Appleton called it -- dike-stir-hoice (rhymes with choice) -- and Appleton Road and Kruger Road were lined with my aunts and uncles and first and second cousins: Dijksterhuises (my grandmother's first family) and Schuylers (her second). Kitty-corner from Uncle Barent and Aunt Griet, my aunt Bridget, my father's sister, lived alone in the original Dijksterhuis farmhouse.

During Miss Prellwitz's visit I spent quite a bit of time at Lotte's house myself. I even ate tapioca pudding. The whole family -- Barent, Margriet, Lotte, and Lotte's older brother, Willem, who had left home and was now a Methodist minister in Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula -- seemed addicted to tapioca pudding, which I couldn't stand; but Miss Prellwitz said it was like a kind of gruel made from the manioc root and that the Mbuti were very fond of it. So I choked it down.

"We used to play a game called Missionary," I said one day, just as we were sitting down to lunch. It was the third day of Miss Prellwitz's visit. "When we were younger." As far as I could remember, this was the longest a missionary had ever stayed. "Corinna Williams was always the leader of the natives -- she's a Negro -- and Lotte was always the missionary. She'd get dressed up in an old choir robe and preach just like Reverend Boomer, I mean Boomsma. Out in a clearing in the woodlot." The clearing was also the bridge of our ship, the cockpit of our plane, the Railway Post Office car where we sorted mail like my favorite uncle, Gerrit, and staged train robberies. Gerrit had to carry a pistol when he was working, and sometimes Cory and I would ride into town with Uncle Jan, Gerrit's brother, to pick up Gerrit at the end of a run. The train would slow down just beyond the crossing and Gerrit would jump off holding his RPO grip in one hand and waving the other around in the air to help him keep his balance. Sometimes, when he saw us, he'd shake his head, and we'd know that he hadn't foiled any train robbers on this trip; but sometimes he'd pat his revolver, which he carried in a small holster under his coat, and tell us stories about the good old days when the mail trains were loaded with cash payrolls and robbers used dynamite to blow up the tracks and to blast open the doors of the RPO cars.

Uncle Jan was a Watkins dealer, and we stocked the clearing -- our hospital and pharmacy -- with Watkins products from his garage: herbs and spices, vitamins, bottled tonics, patent medicines. When you got shot during a train robbery, whether you were one of the robbers or one of the RPO clerks, you'd be well taken care of.

"You shouldn't call him that," Aunt Margriet said, meaning Reverend Boomsma.

"And what did you do?" asked Miss Prellwitz.

"I'd be a lion, and I'd start roaring out in the jungle -- it really is like a jungle out back: raspberry canes and nettles and poison ivy. And then I'd attack the natives. And the missionary." I looked at Lotte, who was sitting with her hands in her lap. Lotte didn't say anything, so I didn't know if she was pleased or otherwise at this story, but I continued. "And sometimes I'd be Superman or Robin Hood or Sir Lancelot or Tarzan and rescue the natives. And the missionary, of course."

There had been no explicit sex in my fantasies at that time, because I hadn't known what explicit sex was, but I could clearly remember the little tingle I'd felt whenever I rescued Cory and took her off on the back of my steed to a place vaguely based on Sherwood Forest, where I turned into a Robin Hood figure presiding over a band of merry men, and over Cory and Lotte and my other cousins too. I hadn't understood my emotions at the time, or the damp spots on my pajamas.

"Your mother wouldn't let you wear your Superman costume on the swing," Lotte said. "She was afraid it would get caught on something and choke you. And she wouldn't let you play with your sword either after you hit Lucia with it." (Lucia was one of my female cousins -- there were fifteen of them -- on Dijksterhuis Corners, though most of them were Schuylers rather than Dijksterhuises.)

"I had a Superman costume," I said, since no one else seemed to have anything to say, "and a Sir Lancelot outfit, made out of cardboard and tinfoil, and a wooden sword that my dad made out of a piece of lath. My mother's English," I explained to Miss Prellwitz. "She used to read the King Arthur stories to me. We had a book of Robin Hood stories too, and she taught me how to play chess."

"Where did she come from in England?"

"She didn't come from England herself," I said, "but my grandmother did. She ran away from home when she was nineteen and came over in steerage to live with a cousin in Chicago. My dad built a little house for her next to ours, but she's dead now."

Miss Prellwitz smiled. "Would you like me to tell you a story about a real lion?"

Miss Prellwitz, who was a good storyteller, had seen many things in the jungle, or forest, that most people will never see. She'd seen the Pygmies -- the Mbuti -- drive a lion into a net; she'd seen an Mbuti warrior kill an elephant all by himself; and she'd heard the song of something called the molimo and seen the dance of death.

Lunch consisted of olive loaf and mayonnaise on white bread, and more tapioca pudding. I could see the little china desert bowls lined up on the counter next to the toaster. Miss Prellwitz sang two verses of "Amazing Grace" in the Bantu language, and then she prayed in English. Unlike Reverend Boomsma, she spoke simply and clearly, aiming her words directly at us, like a Mbuti warrior thrusting his spear upward into an elephant's stomach.

"Dear Lord and Heavenly Father," she said, "help us to live a life of service rather than selfishness; help us to be mindful of the needs of others. We are like the Samaritan woman at the well. She did not recognize you, but you spoke to her and she listened. Speak to us now, for you know that our hearts are restless and will not find ease until they rest in thee." She gave my hand a little squeeze to indicate that the prayer was over. We both looked up and smiled at each other; and then the others, accustomed to longer graces, looked up and smiled too.

Looking back, I've sometimes thought it was the tapioca pudding that saved me. I could imagine living in a hut made out of saplings in the Negro village on the edge of the forest, or in a leafy shelter in a Pygmy camp in the middle of the forest itself. I could imagine being tested in the hunt -- if Miss Prellwitz had been invited to go along on a hunt, why wouldn't I be invited too? I could imagine singing hymns (with Miss Prellwitz) in a church built of palm logs; I could imagine eating moss and berries and wild honey and chunks of antelope meat that had been wrapped in leaves and roasted in the embers of an open fire. But the prospect of eating tapioca pudding day in and day out was more than I could handle, and when I refused a second bowl, saying that I was too full, really, they all looked at me and at one another and shook their heads, and I knew I wouldn't be going to Africa.

Summer was winding down. Peach season was over. The migrant workers had already started picking the early apples, Jonathans and Transparents. My mother had taken me to Niles to buy a new pair of school shoes with sharkskin toes that wouldn't scuff too badly. I had very narrow heels and couldn't wear the penny loafers that I wanted desperately. A week went by and still Miss Prellwitz, who was planning to go back to England to get married before returning to Africa with her husband, stayed on. The sense of expectancy surrounding my cousin's vocation increased. And then on Saturday night some of the members of the vestry, including Cory's dad, showed up at Dijksterhuis Corners, and we knew something was about to happen.

I could hear Aunt Else, Uncle Jan's wife, calling in Anna and Maria, breaking up the game of Red Rover that the younger cousins were playing under the yard lights by the garage. Cory and I were sitting by the well pump like two people waiting for a storm to break. We could hear the music of the pickers in the distance -- guitar and harmonica and the scrape of a washboard. Soon it would be time for us to go in too, but we were hanging back. It was getting hard to see Cory, whose skin was as dark as the semisweet Hershey bars that we bought at the bowling alley when we walked home from school together instead of taking the bus, but I could hear her playing with the safety clasp of her ID bracelet.

"What do you think it's like?" I asked.

"I think it's like a woman who's going to have a baby and she's overdue, and here comes the doctor now." She laughed and pointed at Reverend Boomsma, arriving late in his old Ford coupe. His black briefcase banged against his leg as he walked to the back door of the house without seeing us.

"It will all be decided tonight," I said.

"What's to decide?"

"She must have heard her calling," I said. "That's why everyone's showing up now. She's either going to Africa to do missionary work or she's going to Albion." Albion was the Methodist college, halfway across the bottom of the state, where her brother had studied for the ministry.

"If somebody called me from Albion College and told me to come, I'd be there in two shakes."

"What if they called you from Africa?"

"Maybe," she said. "Someday. I'd go anywhere."

"Voco, vocare," I said. "To call."

"I know," she said. "I'm taking Latin too, remember."

"It's a calling. I keep thinking about that."

"I'll be lucky if Lakeside calls me." Lakeside was the new junior college between Bridgman and St. Joe. I was destined for the University of Chicago, my mother's alma mater, but I didn't like to think that far ahead.

"Do you want to go listen to the music?"

"I don't want to get a whipping, if that's what you're asking, because that's what'll happen if Mama finds out."

The picking camp was strictly off limits, doubly off limits at night. It was like the one room in the castle we weren't supposed to enter, or the magic gift we weren't supposed to open no matter what, or the one tree in the garden we weren't supposed to eat from.

"Just for a few minutes," I said. "She won't find out."

We followed the path that Cory's father had cleared, with a brush cutter, through the "jungle" -- the old woodlot that separated the houses along Appleton Road from the peach and apple orchards that my dad and Uncle Piet and my grandfather had planted back in the twenties. This was the Michigan Fruit Belt, and Berrien County was one of the six richest agricultural counties in the United States -- at least that's what everyone said -- and our own orchards, almost two full sections, seemed to confirm this by producing between forty and fifty thousand bushels of peaches and apples every year. Cory's dad, Cap, was a kind of foreman. He contracted with an undertaker down in Georgia to put together the picking crew for the summer and helped my dad and Uncle Piet with the pruning in the winter.

We didn't speak till we came to the little clearing in the briers and nettles where Lotte had once preached to the natives. I had a clearer idea now about explicit sex than I'd had in the days of my heroic-rescue fantasies, or even than I'd had two years ago, when Barbara Kramer and Donny Holbrook had caused a minor stir by going off together at a class party out at Potter Dunes. They'd reached an age (my mother explained) when kids wanted to touch each other. It hadn't made any sense to me at the time -- why would kids want to touch each other? -- but it made sense now. But though my understanding was clearer now, it wasn't perfectly clear. I'd studied the two-year-old pinup calendar from the Harris Lumber Yard that I'd bought from Mr. Harris's son, Alvin, who was in my class, studied it like a detective studying the scene of a crime, looking for clues; and my father had taken me to watch Emmet Dziepak's father breed his big Poland China boar, Gunner, to Harlan Portinga's sows, but that was a mystery too. How did you translate that into human love? I couldn't picture Cory, or any woman, in the contraption they built for the sows to keep them from being crushed by the weight of the boar. Nor did I recognize my own longings in the little volume called Into Manhood that appeared mysteriously on my desk one day.

But there was another mystery, too, that was equally puzzling. As far as I can remember no one ever said anything, in all our years in school together, that might have made Cory feel at all self-conscious about being a Negro, and in fact her parents were pillars of the church -- Aunt Flo in the choir and in the kitchen, Cap on the vestry and in the basement looking after the old furnace. We were not, in fact, naïve about race. My mother kept the new novels by Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin on the coffee table in our living room, and she had in fact almost single-handedly put a stop to the annual minstrel show. And yet no one was at all surprised that Cory's date for the class dances that had begun our freshman year was always a cousin from Benton Harbor. It didn't seem strange to me, or to anyone else; it was just the way things were. And that's what was really strange. I'd breezed through Go Tell It on the Mountain and Invisible Man, and I'd shared my mother's indignation at the minstrel show; but John Grimes and the Invisible Man were creatures from another world.

Cory, on the other hand, was right there in front of me -- right next to me, actually -- and the knowledge that she and her cousin danced with each other and no one else, and that no one thought it strange, left a taste in my mouth as mysterious and troubling as a boy's first taste of alcohol.

I wanted to dance with Cory now, jitterbug or box step, just to touch her, taste her. My hands cupped; saliva rushed to my mouth.

"Do you remember how we used to play Missionary?" I said.

"I remember sitting on a log and listening to Lotte preach. She was more interesting than Reverend Boomsma, I'll say that for her." She looked around for the log, but it was almost too dark to see it in the woodlot.

"Over there," I said.

"There" was the edge of our little clearing in the brush, hardly more than a widening of the path.

I could hear the music a little more clearly now. I'd heard it all my life, usually from a distance, though sometimes when I'd slept outside in my father's old pup tent I'd snuck over to the picking camp and spied on the migrant workers, who followed the ripening fruit crops up north from Georgia and Mississippi, and listened to the singing. I hadn't really thought of it as music. Music was something else; music was the songs we played on the jukebox in the bowling alley: "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes," "You Belong to Me," "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" "Vaya Con Dios," "You, You, You," "Three Coins in the Fountain." Music was the choir cantatas at Christmas and Easter, and my mother's long-playing records, and piano lessons from Mr. Haptonstahl, and then the recitals at the end of the year ("Spinning Song" and "La Cucaracha," and then, more recently, Handel's Harmonious Blacksmith and Chopin preludes). My mother played the piano too -- lots of Brahms and Chopin -- and piano lessons were non-negotiable.

I took a step toward Cory but I didn't quite know how to begin doing what I wanted to do, so I settled for taking her hand, and we followed the path to the loading dock at the back of the packing shed. We had to cross an open area where the trucks had packed the dirt so hard it didn't turn muddy even when it rained in the spring.

The dormitories for the single men and women were on the far side of the packing shed, separated from each other by about twenty shacks for married couples. We went in the back of the packing shed, around the culling table and the grader, to the big sliding front door, which was open about six inches. We were close enough to smell the remains of the barbecue, and to see the migrant workers gathered around the remains of a small fire, and to hear the music. Cory looked out the door and when she turned back to me I kissed her, not hitting her mouth squarely, but at least touching her lips.

"Marty," she said, "what's got into you?"

What had gotten into me was that I was seeing her in a strange new light; I was falling in love with her. She was my Guinevere, my Maid Marion, my dark-skinned Jane of the jungle, with untamable hair and hands so quick she could reach down and catch a mouse scampering across the floor of the packing shed. But who was I? Still the little boy who'd pushed her in the tire swing in Uncle Piet's backyard? The little boy in his Sir Lancelot getup who'd rescued her from the lion?

"You've never kissed a girl before, have you?"

"I've kissed lots of girls," I said.

"Name one."

"That would be telling."

"You haven't got anything to tell."

"I've kissed Dixie Carpenter," I protested; "and Frances Cochrane. I kissed Frances after the dance."

Cory laughed, and then pulled my face toward hers and kissed me hard on the mouth, but by the time I figured out that I was supposed to open my mouth a little so that our tongues could touch, she'd pulled away. "I've got to go back now," she said. "You coming?"

I started to follow, listening for a moment in the darkness to figure out which way she'd gone. I could hear her footsteps, and her fingertips brushing the sizing rollers on the grader; could hear her opening the door next to the loading dock and jumping onto the hard dirt, letting the door slam behind her. I started to follow her, thinking she might wait for me in the little clearing in the woodlot, but something called me back, the cry of a harmonica and a sound I'd never heard before. I know now that it was the new man, Chesterfield, who drove the tractor that pulled the wagons in from the orchards, and I know now that he was playing the ugliest guitar I've ever seen in my life, a guitar made out of some kind of metal and painted the color of a baby's diarrhea; and I know now that he was playing it with a knife that he held between the first two fingers of his left hand. But I didn't know that then. All I knew was that the music filled me up, like Miss Prellwitz's prayer, like Cory's kiss, like a wound. And I thought of the beautiful color pictures in my Boy's King Arthur of the king thrusting his spear into the traitor Mordred, and of Guinevere praying in the cell of the convent where she spends her last days.

I couldn't cross the lighted area in front of the packing shed without being seen, so I jumped off the loading dock in the back and scooted along the edge of the jungle till I was covered by one of the big outhouses that my father relocated every year. The sounds came into me. I breathed them, inhaled them, along with the odors of the outhouse and the smoke from the fire. Through my mouth as well as my ears. Through my eyes. Chesterfield was singing a song about love, but not the kind of love I knew about from movies and from the radio, not "No Other Love" or "Till I Waltz Again With You." This was more like someone driving nails into a piece of oak: Moon goin' down, Lord, North star about to shine. The words pierced me. I had to get closer. I had to see as well as hear: My baby tole me, She don't want me hangin' round. And then a hand clamped down hard over my mouth so I couldn't yell and a strong arm pinned my arms.

"Jesus, it's Marty."

There were two of them.

"Marty? Marty, what the hell you doin'?"

"Jonah, is that you? I just wanted to listen."

"Your old man know where you are?"

"Yes," I said.

He looked at me. "Like hell."

"He don't mean no harm," said the other man, whose name was Jake.

"I don't mean no harm," I said. "I was just listening."

He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the circle of firelight.

Chesterfield looked like he was attacking the guitar, striking it with the heel of his right hand and hitting the string with his thumb at the same time. A train pulled into the station at midnight. The singer heard the whistle blow and saw his baby climb on board.

I'd been working in the orchards for as long as I could remember. My father paid me twelve cents an hour my first year for dusting the faces of the bushels with a big paintbrush. Later I learned how to face the bushels myself and fill them and turn them in the basket turner at the end of the line. But I preferred loading them onto the big trucks that took them to the market in Benton Harbor or to chain store warehouses in Chicago and Detroit. My father didn't want me to get a hernia, but I didn't care. You didn't get as much peach fuzz on you, and it seemed more manly.

Some of these men and women I'd known all my life, but now I was seeing them for the first time. For a moment I was not the boss's son but a stranger surrounded by a circle of black faces. Soft. Not black either, if you looked closely, but chocolate, coffee, ebony, honey, red, tan, alabaster. All with large eyes pointed at me. I was the boss's son too.

"Run on home, Marty," said a woman named June, who worked at the culling table. "We don't want no trouble."

"Let him sit with you," Jake said. "He don't mean no harm."

"How you know what he mean?" the woman said.

"It's just a kid."

Chesterfield was doing something to the guitar, changing the pitch of the strings. My heart pounded. I wanted to hear him play. Jake was still holding my arm while the woman inspected me. Pretty soon the guitar started to cry, like a man crying, and Jake let go of my arm. The music began to fill me again. I wanted to sing, I wanted to rush over to Chesterfield and put my hands on the guitar; I wanted to touch it.

There was a time I didn't know your name,

Why should I worry, cry in vain,

But now she's gone gone gone, and I don't worry,

'Cause I'm sittin' on top of the world.

The next morning I went to see my cousin Lotte. Uncle Barent's car was gone, the kitchen was empty, but Lotte was up in her room, sitting on the edge of her bed.

"What happened?" I asked.

I was expecting her to be radiant. But she was quiet. She had been called to do missionary work in Africa, she said, about a hundred miles from Miss Prellwitz's mission, near a Belgian station de chasse on the Epulu River in the Congo, where her knowledge of French -- she'd been in my mother's French classes -- would be useful. She'd be leaving in a week for training at the missionary headquarters in Léopoldville. Her clothes had been sorted into piles on the floor. She showed me her list from the mission of things she'd need. Miss Prellwitz had given it to her.

We sat together for a few minutes without speaking.

"Are you happy?"


"Happy that it's over, or happy that you're going to Africa?"

"Just happy."

"You don't look happy. I wouldn't be happy," I said, "unless I could stay in a hut with Miss Prellwitz."

She gave me a look to let me know how childish I was being. "You're not me."

"Lotte, I know I'm not you. But going off to Africa? Is that what you want to do? Live in a hut?"

"Don't talk like that," she said. "There's a mission school, and houses." She showed me a picture. Three white figures posed for a photo, surrounded by about thirty Bantu villagers.

"What about the Pygmies?" I asked. "The Mbuti."

"They live in the forest," she said.

"Do you really want to leave here?"

"It's my vocation," she said.

I started to argue; I started to tell her that I'd never wanted to go anywhere or do anything other than work in the orchards with my father and Cap and Uncle Piet, but something stopped me. A sudden thought: "I think I've found my vocation too," I said, for I too had heard something calling me from afar. Voco, vocare. Something that would take me away too, maybe even farther than Africa.

Copyright © 2002 by Robert Hellenga

Reading Group Guide

Blues Lessons: Discussion Points
1. For Martin, growing up with Cory in Appleton, Michigan, was truly paradise. What parallels can be drawn between Martin's life in the orchard and the biblical Garden of Eden? Why is he, like Adam, ultimately expelled from the garden?
2. Vocation is an important theme in Blues Lessons. What is Martin's vocation and how does he struggle to find it? Do you think everyone has a vocation? Do you agree with Reverend Taylor's belief that God has a plan for each person, but that it's up to us to choose to follow that path? Or are we more or less at the mercy of dumb luck?
3. The work of Ayn Rand makes a big impression on Martin in high school. After seeing the movie, his mother deftly sums up the main theme of The Fountainhead: "You have to live for yourself, heroically, if you want to achieve something for mankind" (page 30). In what ways could Martin be said to succeed -- or fail -- at living for himself, heroically? How about Cory?
4. Why do you think Martin chose to enlist in the navy and then take a job with the RPO instead of studying at the University of Chicago, as he intended? How do you make sense of his decision, and how do you feel about it?
5. Where did Martin's passion for the blues originate? With what does he connect its sound and its power to move him? The blues is sometimes identified with feelings of disappointment and longing. In fact, as a teenager Martin claims that he's come to regard longing as "the central experience in my life" (page 33). How does this feeling of longing continue to characterize Martin even as an adult? Does his relationship with the blues change and grow over time?
6. Do you agree with Cory's initial criticism that it's inappropriate for Martin to claim the blues as his vocation? Can the blues be played only by a certain kind of person? Has Martin -- a young, white, middle-class guy -- earned the right to play the blues?
7. Blues Lessons unfolds over the course of the turbulent sixties and seventies, alongside the civil rights movement. How does that time period shape the events of this novel? In what ways does Cory's life path exemplify the changing role of African-Americans in society at that time?
8. Ultimately, do you think it's simply race that separates Cory and Martin? Had their parents allowed them to stay together, what do you think their relationship might have been like?
9. After learning about his daughter, Cozy, for the first time, Martin thinks, "sometimes finding something can be as painful as losing it" (page 156). What does he mean?
10. The nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty" appears several times in Blues Lessons, and at one point, Martin tells Cory, "Sometimes you can put things back together" (page 249). Do you think they could ever go back to the ways things were, making a whole from the broken pieces? What kind of future do you envision Martin, Cory, and their daughter will be able to create together?
11. Climbing the water tower was a profound experience for both Martin and Cory, but for completely different reasons. What did the event mean for each of them, and why did they see it through such different eyes? What does it mean for Martin to climb the tower again as an adult, this time with his daughter? What effect do you think the experience will have on Cozy?
12. Martin's mother prepares a special dinner for herself and her son in which she re-creates "Babette's Feast. " What is she hoping to evoke or affirm with this meaningful evening? Why is her trip to Paris important to her, and what does it mean that she never gets to make the journey?
13. Martin and Cory's parents conspired to do what they thought was best for their children. Did they succeed in helping Martin and Cory achieve the brightest possible future? What kind of regrets -- if any -- do you think they had about their decision? What would you have done in their shoes?
14. As the orchard foreman, Cory's father, Cap, sometimes experimented with apple trees, grafting various kinds of branches onto a young tree. The result was a tree that grew several different types of apples at once. How does this image resonate within this story?
Q&A with Robert Hellenga
1. Reading Blues Lessons, it seems clear that you're a passionate fan of the blues yourself. Can you explain what role the blues plays in your life? You write about playing the blues in considerable technical detail. Do you play the guitar, or is this topic just especially well researched?
In a way, the blues are the sonnets of the musical world. There's a pretty tight format on the one hand, and room for variations on the other. But I'd trace my emotional involvement to the great themes and images of parting: men and women standing in railway stations as their lovers are carried away; or leaving their lovers behind; or men and women saying good-bye to someone setting out on the highway, or setting out on the highway themselves. My working title for Blues Lessons, in fact, was "Key to the Highway," but we changed it because that sounds too much like a road novel.
I've devoted a lot of time and energy to the blues since I took up the guitar in 1975. I play out occasionally, but mostly I play at home, where I do some recording on an eight-track digital recorder. I've learned mostly from books, which is how I learn most things.
2. The main character in your previous novel, The Fall of a Sparrow, is also very drawn to the blues. In fact, the song "Corinna, Corinna" even makes an appearance in that book. Was this the inspiration for Blues Lessons? How did the ideas in this novel take shape?
Rudy, Margot's father in The Sixteen Pleasures, is also a blues player, though he doesn't get much playing time in the novel. Woody in Fall of a Sparrow gets a lot more playing time, so I guess you could say that from the very beginning I was moving in the direction of a full-time bluesman/protagonist.
The novel didn't really take shape, however, until I hit upon the illegitimate daughter, Cozy. I'd vowed that in the novel no one would go to Italy, and that there wouldn't be a father with three daughters. No one goes to Italy, but I couldn't go without a daughter to move the story along.
3. Your novels are generously peppered with references to other works of art -- books, songs, poems, paintings, etc. How important is the role of art and literature in your life? And how do you think that's expressed in your novels? Literature has always played a very important role in my life. My grandmother read the King Arthur stories to me when I was little; my mother read Dickens to me; and I read to my three daughters every night for years. And of course I read on my own. That's what I do. Art and music are more difficult. I feel that I understand literature. I don't have to ask myself, do I like this story or this novel? I do not understand art and music, however, probably because they're nonverbal. I don't know how to deal with them. But in a way that's an advantage: they are mysteries that I don't understand, and so I keep pecking away at them, trying to get a foothold.
4. What works of art and what other writers have inspired you and shaped your journey as a novelist?
My favorite novel is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I always have a copy nearby. I especially like the forward momentum of the novel. There's an urgency in the narrative voice, something that says, this story is so important that I don't need to fool around with narrative tricks or verbal fireworks. Let me just set things down as clearly as possible.
Three contemporary novels that I return to very often are: Gail Godwin's Finishing School and Father Melancholy's Daughter; and Sue Miller's Family Pictures.
5. Do you see your books as related? Are there themes that you explore from book to book, with pieces of each novel echoing one another? Are there also motifs that you find recur even unconsciously in your works?
Yes, and I'm not terribly happy about it, but I don't seem to have any choice. The largest most consistent theme is transcendence vs. immanence. I can't get away from it. All my characters are torn between the desire to affirm that this world is enough and the sense that there's some spiritual realm that calls us away from this world.
There are smaller things, too, about which I don't seem to have any choice. The blues, for one thing. In the novel I'm working on now the impulse to make the protagonist a blues player is hard to resist. And it's hard not to give him a really good fountain pen, too. All my protagonists have a really good fountain pen, and in fact my picture appeared on the cover of Pen World magazine in an article about writers who write with a fountain pen.
6. The Sixteen Pleasures and The Fall of a Sparrow were set at least partly in Italy. What draws you to Italy? And what brought you back to the United States -- and to Michigan, the state where you grew up -- for this book? Will you be returning to Italy in a future work?
My first taste of Italy came from the men (almost all Italians) who worked for my father on the produce market in Milwaukee (where we spent our summers). They represented a different world, a different set of values, from the small, Protestant town in Michigan where we lived the rest of the year. The Italians valued pleasure, sex, food, drink. Back in Michigan we admired restraint, self-discipline, keeping a lid on things. (Like Lake Woebegone. )
7. The idea of vocation is a key theme in Blues Lessons. Do you consider writing fiction to be your vocation? Was discovering and accepting your vocation as difficult for you as it was for Martin?
Writing fiction has definitely become my vocation. The importance of story is a key them in all three novels. Margot realizes that without our stories we don't know who we are; Woody believes that what we find at the core of all religions are stories; Martin and Corinna define themselves by their stories, which are, in a sense, two different versions of the same story.
8. What's your favorite part of the writing experience? How do you manage to balance your writing with your teaching career? Do the two conflict with or nourish each other?
My favorite part of the writing experience is revising. I think that insight, inspiration, creativity -- whatever you want to call it -- is more likely to strike in the fifth or sixth draft than in the first.
If my classes are going well, then the teaching nourishes the writing. If they're not going so well, I tend to get preoccupied, and this makes writing more difficult. I taught full-time for thirty-three years, and now I'm shifting to writing full-time and doing a little teaching on the side.
9. What can we look forward to reading after Blues Lessons?
I'm working on a novel about Rudy Harrington, Margot's father in The Sixteen Pleasures, who goes to Texas to raise avocados and to meditate on the nature of reality. Right now it looks like a comic philosophical novel, but we'll see.
Copyright © 2002 by Robert Hellenga

About The Author

Photo Credit: Anthony Loew

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 7, 2003)
  • Length: 336 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743225465

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Raves and Reviews

Thomas Curwen Los Angeles Times An important novel...intelligent, deeply moving.

Chicago Tribune There is a sad beauty to this novel, a potent narrative about the lives people make out of broken expectations; it is a fable of the heart seeking resolution.

The Seattle Times Hellenga imparts his personal passion for music, explores issues of place, race, class, and destiny with a sure hand....A treat to read.

The New York Times Book Review Hellenga has a gift for nicely pointed satire and rich, almost lavish sense of place.

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