I've been thinking how, in this age of quick-read novels with thin plots, we yearn for bigger, deeper novels we can sink into, a universe we can enter and be part of. Kathleen Valentine has created such a novel in THE WHISKEY BOTTLE IN THE WALL: VOLUME 1 - 3, SECRETS OF MARIENSTADT. The town of Marienstadt is fictional, but is based on the Pennsylvania Dutch town she grew up in, populated with fascinating descendants of German immigrants.
Valentine is the author of fabulous short stories and such novels as THE OLD MERMAID'S TALE, EACH ANGEL BURNS, DEPRAVED HEART, and her many fans will be thrilled with THE WHISKEY BOTTLE IN THE WALL, now available as an ebook boxed-set and in paperback through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In Volume I, we are introduced to characters named Mulligan Wolfe, Peeper Baumgratz, Wenzeslaus Opelt, and beautiful, lonely ladies who run strudel shops, and fabric shops, shops for homemade breads, sausages and sauerkraut. One shop has the mysterious name, "The Bearded Lady Hometown Treats."
And there are a host of fascinating characters based on the author's memories of her hometown: Nuns who run a snowplow business. A handsome, virile chief-of-police, whom married women fantasize being handcuffed to. A three hundred-pound giant who loves to waltz and polka, a veritable legend on the dance-floor. How can you not be drawn to such fabulous characters? And best of all, the three volumes comprising WHISKEY BOTTLE contain a rotating cast of characters, people we grow to love. So it is not just random, unconnected vignettes that made LAKE WOBEGON DAYS, although a bestseller, a somewhat disjointed and disappointing book.
The first story in Vol. 1, "Peeper Baumgratz and the Sisters' Snowplow,"seems a light-hearted, hilarious, home-spun tale. But each tale in the collection takes the reader to darker, deeper depths, such as the journal found in the second story, "The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall," wherein a character learns the tragic truth of who his grandfather really was. In the third story, "The Great Dumpling War and Dance Competition," there is a hilarious scene where two women argue with righteous indignation over the proper ingredients for a variety of dumplings - knadles, niflies, spaetzles, semmelknodels, kartoffelkloses. Here the author is brilliantly eulogizing the dumpling! The most representative food of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.
From her earlier novels Valentine has proven she understands the darkest aspects of human nature, as well as the abiding goodness in each of us. As the stories progress in Vol. 2, she once again transports us to the highs and lows, the hilarious and tragic, aspects of humans, from unwanted pregnancies, and drug-dealing, to bear-hunting, same-sex love, even cross-dressing. Along the way, she gifts her readers with fascinating bits of local history, old Seneca Indian legends, the documented story of the highest viaduct in the United States, and wild elk who protect children lost in blizzards.
In Vol. 3, "The Legend of Father Cuneo's Grave," we learn the tale of a priest wrongfully accused of seducing a young girl, and the story behind his tragic death. "The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood" starts off humorous, with a touch of the erotic (a woman pinning a costume on a handsome, virile man), but then quiets down to a deeply sorrowful tale of Oliver, whose boys were taken from him, and his years of loneliness and grief. The scene where he is reunited with the boys as grown men left this reader in tears.
The last story in the collection, "A Long Day's Journey into Light," fittingly sums up the beauty and frustration of small-town life: people caring for and looking out for each other, but also trying to keep their secrets from each other. In the search for two elderly lost men, we learn the background of the handsome, virile town sheriff, Henry Werner, and why he is driven to womanizing and living his life alone. Its a humdinger of a story, involving a life-long desire and a murder long-overdue!
Reading Valentine's stories, I realize that this is not just an entertaining collection about a fabulously rich culture. She is memorializng her people, and her town. Thus, this becomes a fascinating and educational look at a region and culture relatively unsung in American literature. THE WHISKEY BOTTLE IN THE WALL, VOL. 1-3, SECRETS OF MARIENSTADT, is a tribute to a people and a place, the Pennsylvania Dutch, and their contributions to American history.
With compassion and satire, and beautifully detailed writing, Valentine has delicately chiseled out of these seemingly ordinary lives, the unique, profound, and quixotic traits that make each character memorable, even epic. Read these stories slowly, then read them again: while we are reading about life, love, birth and death, we are also learning the culture and traditions of one of the most fascinating communities in our United States.
I've asked Kathleen to chime in and tell us where she grew up in Pennsylvania, and how the region influenced her, leading her to become the well-loved author that she is today.
Thank you, Kiana. The town I grew up in, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, in the Seneca Highlands, was founded by Bavarian immigrants and is the home of the first Benedictine convent in the United States and Straubs Brewery, the only pre-Prohibition micro-brewery still in operation. Growing up in a mostly Pennsylvania Dutch family, I was surrounded by story-tellers. Sharing stories was central to every gathering of friends and relatives. Whether it was picnics, birthday parties, or just sitting on the porch on a Sunday afternoon, everyone always told stories and, as a kid, I loved them. My dad and uncles told hunting stories. My grandmother told stories about her parents coming from the “Old Country.” My mother and her friends told stories about their children. I loved those stories and kept a mental collection of them.
There is a scene in my first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale, in which the heroine, Clair, attends a harvest party where the old men sit around telling stories and she realizes that those stories have formed her destiny. She goes on to study folklore and oral tradition and eventually meets Baptiste, the musician who writes songs based on the lives of the people he knew when he was a mariner. I didn't realize it at the time but now I know that Clair's profession has also become mine. The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall is my contribution to the folklore of my people.
Now that I think about it, my second novel, Each Angel Burns, also grew out of a story my mother told me about a man she knew when she was a girl who went on a mission to find two missing statues of angels. If I hadn't listened to story-telling all my life I wouldn't have had much to write about.
I have loved your Pacific Island stories, which I suspect grew out of your people's story-telling traditions so we got our starts as writers in similar ways. Thank you for that.
Kathleen Valentine writes of her people with great PRIDE. Her very heart is in her words. I predict the entire collection of THE WHISKEY BOTTLE IN THE WALL will become a classic. What a wonderful Xmas offering to the German descendants of St. Mary's. Thank you, Kathleen Valentine!
The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall-
My Web Site: KathleenValentine.com
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