“Gifts: A Novel”
Author: May Lamar
Publisher: The Donnell Group
Price: $28.00 (Hardcover)
May Lamar’s new novel is a fictionalized account of the life of pioneering artist Anne Goldthwaite, who lived from 1869 till 1944. Goldthwaite, raised partly in Montgomery, was a suffragette, and an artist in several media. She began but did not complete a memoir.
May Lamar had published a similar book, “Brother Sid,” based on the life of the poet Sidney Lanier.
This novel is even more ambitious and a delight to read.
“Gifts” is Anne’s story, and much more.
Lamar begins with Goldthwaite’s grandfather, who is coming into Alabama in 1826 on the then new Federal Road. He had been unjustly expelled from West Point in his sophomore year and, disgraced, was seeking his fortune on the wild frontier.
It’s wild all right.
George is attacked and nearly killed by a panther, saved by a pair of wonderful, unusual characters: a redhead with one useless arm, called Dead-arm Red, and his sidekick Archie, a white- skinned Indian. These two take George to Nancy, a conjure woman, and they arrive just in time to save her from being drowned as a witch by some local religious fanatics.
Nancy, part Muscogee, part African, is an herbalist, and she has POWERS. She has the power of telepathy and, if threatened, she can cause bodily harm to her attacker with her mind. Nancy will save George, and the three-generation saga begins.
The novel is simultaneously deeply physical—with blood and pain—and mystical. Nancy learns that George was tossed from West Point, and insists everything happens for a reason. She smiles shyly and explains she has had a vision of a small Catholic mission, surrounded by thousands of Mexicans who kill all the American soldiers. But George was not there at the Alamo.
The group make their way to the raw village of Montgomery, which will grow and thrive. As one newspaper wag put it, The Federal Road “will bring with it the lost lambs, those out to fleece the lambs, and those on the lam.”
To get their cut of the new prosperity, this ragged group start a travelling medicine show: Red as Professor L’Orange is ringmaster; George learns to juggle; Archie throws knives; Nancy sells Life-Everlasting tonics and salves and has trained a chorus line of dogs to dance.
In time, George settles down, marries his Boston girlfriend, has a son, Richard, and takes up the practice of law.
They prosper in Montgomery. Richard is a little frail, and becomes Nancy’s special care. Richard will fight at Chickamauga, survive the war, and hate the Reconstruction ugliness so much he moves to Dallas, where Anne is born.
Nancy recognizes Anne as artistically “gifted” and her story gets under way, and encompasses a good deal of twentieth-century cultural history, especially early feminism.
An art student, Anne moves to Greenwich Village, studies, learns lithography, becomes a suffragette and learns to ride a bicycle, a wildly liberating activity in those straight days. In 1906 she moves to Paris and becomes acquainted with Matisse and with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, even attending a séance at Gertrude’s salon.
An author can never go wrong with scenes set in Paris.
Anne falls in love with fellow artist Daniel Rosen, a Russian Jew and, after difficulties, they have a long and happy life.
“Gifts” kept surprising me and kept me reading happily from start to finish.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.