- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

In March, 1889, Frank Dawson, a respected (and despised) newspaper editor in Charleston, S. C., was murdered by his neighbor, who was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. In his new novel, A Gentleman in Charleston and the Manner of His Death (University of South Carolina Press, $24.95, 203 pages), William Baldwin has taken this factual episode and turned it into an intriguing novel of Southern vice and virtue.

The names have been changed: Frank Dawson has become David Lawton, a Confederate hero; real life wife Sarah is Rebecca, a beautiful, fragile Southern belle from Baton Rouge; the murderer is Dr. McCall, a married man with designs on the Lawtons’ Swiss governess, Helene.

The outcome is no mystery. When the murder takes place, it comes not with a bang, but almost as a quiet whisper, an inevitable pantomime. Everyone has a secret and secrets are revealed slowly through a narrative taken from the actual records of the time.

Lawton’s erotic relationship with the prostitute Mary, who in a twist of fate becomes a fortune teller relied upon by Rebecca; Rebecca’s suppressed libido and illicit longing for her dead brother; the governess, Helene, who flirts with her admirers and tempts them to indiscretion; David Spencer, who believes David Lawton may be his father and sets the murder in motion; and Dr. McCall who cared for black and white, poor and rich alike yet could not control his passion for Helene — these are the main characters of the tragedy.

Mr. Baldwin’s 19th-century style and his flashbacks are sometimes difficult to follow, but he has done a fine job in bringing the elegant drawing rooms of Charleston’s first citizens and the back alleys of the poor to life. “A Gentleman of Charleston” is a lively read and invites the reader to learn more about the “real” people whose complex lives are the basis of the novel.

According to Celtic mythology, a “thin place” is where the membrane between the physical and the spiritual world is so thin that leakage occurs between the two. In Kathryn Davis’ new novel The Thin Place (Little, Brown, $23.95, 288 pages), the leakage through young Mees Kipp who seems to resussitate the dead. Magic, mystery, whimsy are all part of this unusual book.

The novel’s venue is Varennes, a small town near the Canadian border. Winters are cold, summers are lovely and warm but flies and mosquitoes abound. Miss Davis turns ordinary people living ordinary lives into the extraordinary with wit, intelligence and a profound sense of the value of life.

In “The Thin Place,” the intriguing device used in Miss Davis’ earlier novel, “Versailles,” of interspersing playlets into the action to enhance character motivation, is echoed with snippets of a 19th-century diary of one of the town’s ancestors and mini chapters that appear to be digressions but become relevant later in the story.

The story begins with Mees and her two friends finding an apparently dead body on the beach. From there, the novel meanders through the lives of the townspeople with their idiosyncrasies. The men of the town are neither strong nor brave; the women are filled with unspecified longing. Only Mees seems to understand the fragility of the world and the relationship between life and death, between the human and animal worlds.

“The Thin Place” is a delightful book, somewhat reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town.” Miss Davis gives voice to cats, dogs and beavers as well as people. The gentle pace erupts in a somewhat contrived violent climax.

The author’s love of life, her profound understanding of the interconnection between all things living — plants, animals and humans — and her sense of humor radiate throughout this highly original novel.

Lithuanian writer Icchokas Meras’ Stalemate (Other Press, paperback original, $13.95, 160 pages, beautifully translated by Jonas Zdanys), first published in English 1980, is a stunning short novel both in terms of subject and execution.

Mr. Meras writes without bitterness despite his own history: born in northwestern Lithania, both his parents murdered by the Germans in the summer of 1941; confined to a ghetto, then taken to a gravel pit to be shot, he miraculously survived to spend the war with a Lithuanian peasant family.

“Stalemate” is set in the Vilna ghetto during the time of the German occupation in World War II. In command of the ghetto is Nazi Commandant Schoger, an avid chess player and a sadistic human being. Capriciously, he decides to deport all the children of the ghetto under the age of 10. When Abraham Lipman, a prominent member of the Jewish community, comes to plead with Schoger for the children, Schoger offers to engage in a chess match with Lipman’s only surviving child, Isaac, a young chess master.

If Isaac wins, the children will live, but Isaac will die; if Isaac loses, the children will die but Isaac will live. Only a stalemate can save both.

As the chess game progresses to its climax, the pawns’ moves are alternated with stories of ghetto life including those of Abraham Lipman’s children and their fates, among them Ina the singer who smuggled weapons into the ghetto; Riva the partisan, caught and shot; Kasriel, the unwilling betrayer who committed suicide rather than betray his fellows.

The tale is told almost lyrically, with repetitions that underline the helpless horror of daily ghetto existence. When Isaac first sees Esther, he asks the reader, “Do you know how the sun shines in the spring? You probably have no idea how it shines. How could you know if you have never seen the smile that lighted [Esther’s] face.”

Isaac risks numerous beatings to pick wild flowers for Esther on his way back into the ghetto after a day working outside for the Germans.

“Here, in the ghetto … [f]lowers are forbidden. They can’t be grown, and they can’t be brought in… . Everyone understands about weapons. We don’t have to discuss them. I understand why it’s forbidden to bring food into the ghetto. Schoger wants us all to go hungry. I understand why we are not allowed to bring in clothing. They want us to be ragged and tattered so we will be cold. But why has Schoger forbidden flowers? … A flower. A thin stalk, colored blossoms, and an affecting smell. Who can forbid flowers?”

The novelist E.L. Doctorow recently told Time Magazine that the difference between history and fiction is “the historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” Icchokas Meras makes his readers understand what it felt like to be cold and hungry, to live in fear of torture and death, and yet retain a sense of life’s beauty.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer.

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