Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Garden of Experience: Still Learning About Vanzetti's Era in Old North Plymouth

             Sixty-five people turned up for my Authors Series program in Kingston last week, certainly more than I anticipated. It was a great evening, though I botched the challenge of holding a microphone in one hand while speaking -- especially while trying to read from "Suosso's Lane" with the other (but even when simply speaking from hand-held notes). Things got so bad that a friend emerged from the audience, manifesting by my side as if from nowhere (like Athena in the Iliad), and held the mike steady for the entire remainder of my presentation. Note to self: make sure there's a fixed microphone holder before you attempt public speaking again.  
             I keep learning from this experience. Another thing I learned is that my book's peculiar title, "Suosso's Lane," wakes memories.
              Explaining her interest in the book, one would-be reader told me that her grandparents on both sides were immigrants who settled in North Plymouth. One side of her family owned the property where a school was built (Vanzetti was employed as a laborer during its construction), operated a store, and offered lodging on one the neighborhood's main streets. Her grandparents on the other side ran a bakery and made and delivered Italian horn bread. Another of her relatives from the early days lived on Cherry Street, still a main street and the one where Vanzetti spent his final year in Plymouth, boarding at the home of Mary Fortini. 
              Italian horn bread does not receive a mention in the novel "Suosso's Lane," though I'm sorry now that I overlooked it. (However, I did find this story about the "beloved Italian specialty, only in North Plymouth" written by my former Globe colleague Christine Legere at
               "Suosso's Lane" is largely about politics, society, conflict between big money and poor laborers, anarchists, bombs, a miscarriage of justice, and the consequences of these conflicts on many lives. 
             And yet one of the side effects -- and benefits, perhaps -- is that the tough story of the Sacco-Vanzetti case with which the book primarily concerns itself wakes memories, and possibly interest, in a very different, but real time in America. There are lessons we can can learn from that time. 
              One big lesson concerns immigration itself. Those grandparents and other ancestors who immigrated to the US from countries where opportunities were in shorter supply to a place where opportunity for betterment and freedom of thought went hand in hand did become Americans -- and in a relatively short time. The twentieth century, for all its social and economic problems, absorbed people from other places and turned them from "others" to "us" in a relatively short time. 
               However, in the century's early decades many native-born Americans believed the United States was being overrun and weakened by newcomers, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. They particularly despaired over the number of people who were coming here from Italy. This is a truth I did not fully appreciate until reading and researching for a book about Vanzetti's Plymouth. 
                 Under the weight of national prejudice against Italians -- and also Poles, Russians, Serbs, Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Syrians and others -- the fear of subversion and revolution prompted by the Russian Communist Revolution in 1917, the opposition of American socialists, anarchists and others to the country's participation in World War 1, anarchist bombs and the Red Scare, America began to narrow its borders in the 1920s. The first restrictive act aimed at the new immigration was called the Italian Exclusion Act. When Calvin Coolidge signed it in 1924 he said (to paraphrase), 'it's obvious that some groups will just never learn to live in a democratic society.'
                   Has any prediction ever been more wrong? The phone books everywhere today are full of the descendants of the Italian, Polish, Jewish, et al. immigrants from the late 19th and early 20th century. 
                   When I was looking for memories of Vanzetti's days in Plymouth, I spoke to a man who grew up in North Plymouth, told me his father (now deceased) knew all about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, and now lived himself in another part of Plymouth. Italian Americans live all over Plymouth, he told me. 
                   "Italians in Chiltonville," he said, referring to a part of town with large expensive properties and residents who can trace their ancestry back to Plymouth's beginnings. "Imagine that. My grandfather would have never believed it."                  

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Garden of Digital Fowers: I Added a Dot.Com to My Name

               Website, website on the wall, who's the vainest of them all? Add a to the end of your name and, voila, you have a website. In this case
               Not that easy of course. But it got a lot easier for me when I hired someone, a friend of my sister's from childhood who happens to be great at these things, to design and build it. 
               The primary motive, of course is to promote myself as a writer, so here I am -- a self-promoter. Maybe I should tell myself things such as 'If Walt Whitman were alive today, you'd be seeing his name all over the internet.' Whitman paid for the publication of his mid-19th century masterpiece "Leaves of Grass," which sold very, very slowly despite his efforts to promote it such as writing anonymous reviews praising it in newspapers and other journals. And by printing Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous praise-words ("I greet you at the start of a brilliant career") on the cover of the book's next edition without Emerson's permission. Great scandal; few extra sales.
               So self-promotion has a long history. If Shakespeare's company (known as "The Lord Chamberlain's Men" and then "The King's Men") was around today, his plays would be on Broadway every year, battling it out with "Hamilton" for headlines. I'm not sure the bard would be above giving talks explaining his success to the contemporary equivalents of Elizabethan joint-stock companies. How much did Hillary get for that again? 
               So here I am, someone long convinced that his personal ambitions were extremely moderate, doing what everybody else in this era of ceaseless hustle is striving to do: become a brand.
               I'm branding myself:
                I should probably have it tattooed somewhere. Actually, that's where I draw the line. 
               When I think about how I've been running around, mentally, telling myself 'you'd better get a website,' I keep hearing the arch-satirist Tom Lehrer's classic parody of the spread of nuclear weapons: "you'd better get a bomb!"
               All right, enough with the apologies: I have a website. It comes with its own blog. Here's an excerpt from the maiden post, which went live yesterday. Naturally (you were expecting this) it's about my novel "Suosso's Lane." 
How I Came to Write This Story:
             As an international cause, the Sacco-Vanzetti case was a big deal everywhere. Many nonfiction books have been written about the case and the highly flawed trial that condemned what most people believed were innocent men. Working for a community newspaper in Pilgrim-happy Plymouth MA, I was surprised to learn that Vanzetti was a Plymouth resident at the time of his arrest. And since I was a local journalist, “Vanzetti in Plymouth” was a local angle on a big, largely forgotten story that intrigued me. Working on a local history for a special issue, I looked into what was known about Vanzetti’s life in Plymouth by  scanning through old, microfilmed newspapers and searching for people who remembered, or were told by older relatives, that Vanzetti once lived in North Plymouth.
              I also read books on the case. The more I looked into it, and the more I learned about the America that produced the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the more convinced I became that the history of Vanzetti’s life in Plymouth offered a multi-faceted opening into a story of what life was like for factory workers in Plymouth, and the rest of industrial America a century ago — as well as a means to examine enduring issues in American society and politics such as the negative stereotyping of immigrant groups, the stark social divisions between rich and poor, bias in the criminal justice system, and the fear that oppressed groups will turn to violence.

(Here's the link for the full post:


Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Garden of the Seasons: Remember me? I'm April

There comes the day, always in April, when all your clothes are suddenly too heavy. They're the same clothes that have been hanging around for most of six months, so it shouldn't come as a surprise, but it always does.

            The jeans, that were never really warm enough when you wanted to go for a walk in the winter (and would be disastrous in snow if you got them wet), well, they're also not right when the temperature shoots up into the seventies. The long-sleeved pullovers, and sweaters, and flannel shirts: all too warm.  
            This happens in April. The temperature, expected to go up well into the sixties one day, goes up into the seventies instead. Maybe it's because the steady wind off the ocean along the coast that has been chilling us nicely with us for weeks takes an unexpected break. Next day when the temperature is supposed to reach the seventies, it shoots up near eighty (according to the house thermometer, which I admit is at a times a great kidder). In any event it feels like eighty. The kids who've been dying to wear their shorts all winter are wearing their shorts today.
            But not you. Your summer clothes are buried in a box somewhere on another floor of the house. You're in no mood to look for them. You're in a mood to sit in the grass somewhere; find some shade. Because it's April, and a lot of the month has been parka weather rather than shorts weather, the trees are not leafed out yet. Most of them are showing their buds, but just this week. So there really isn't a lot of shade yet.
            And, besdies, even more than relaxing the shade, what you really want to do is make all your spring flowers bloom.
            April is a great mointh for patience. Not for showing it, but for telling you that you need it.
            The main thing that happens when the temperature shoots up in the third week of April is the tulip buds you've been inspecting for a week or two begin to open. Some years this doesn't happen until May, so your patience is rewarded early this year. Now you are happy that you devoted a period of a considerably chillier recent afternoon cutting off several hundreds (but who's counting?) of last year's dried, yellow-brown very tall blades of the ornamental grasses smack up against the house's foundation... so that this year you can actually see the line of dark pink tulips that bloom right in front of them.
            This year April said, 'Good on you. Here are your tulips.'
            I may have said some ungenerous thngs about Aprils in previous years, for that matter I probably said such things just a few weeks ago this April, but let's enjoy a winning streak when we have one.
            The narcissus daffodils (second photo down) I planted last year bloomed pretty much the same day. One day, that is, I noticed two or three blossoms showed. The next day, a warm one, a dozen.
            The grape hyacinth blossoms (they look like upside down grape bunches, the blossoms turn more blue than wine-colored in the photographs), and which constitute the only successfully enduring colony in the earth around the hungry roots of the maple tree, have been been shining for a couple of weeks. April has been good to them too -- or to me, through them.
            The bright early yellow blossoms are Alyssum Saxatile (third photo).
            Pachysandra shows its modest little white blossoms, just to let you know they're still in there trying and have a jump on pretty much everything else.
            The April bloomer called Spring Vetch (photo left) also kicks up its heels.
            The low early-blooming phlox (fourth photo down) hugs the sidewalk, enjoying its moment in the sun.
            The blue speedwell (photo left) keeps its color even in the shady afternoons behind the house. The back of the house garden is partial sun, especially in the months before the sun is at its full height. Plants in the back are always behind their sun-filled cousins in the front, known locally as the sunny side of the street. But I see the sun shining again this morning, and I do believe I'll be paying a visit to the tulips and daffodils that are opening back there. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Garden of Spring Arrivals: Suosso's Lane Comes to Kingston

I'm cleaning up my act and taking it on the road. (Is that how that expression goes? I can't remember exactly.)
             I'll be speaking on "Suosso's Lane" in Kingston, MA on Thursday, April 28, 7 p.m. at the Kingston Senior Center, 30 Evergreen St., in the Kingston Spring Author Talks sponsored by the Kingston Library. 
             Kingston is not far from Plymouth, MA, where the book is set. Suosso's Lane is a street in North Plymouth where Vanzetti lived for about five years. He was still living in Plymouth, though on another street a few blocks away (Cherry Street) when he was arrested and charged with the crime that tuned into the international affair, the Sacco-Vanzetti case. My first book program took place at the Plymouth Public Library and attracted a big audience, drawing on local interest in the subject. 
        I'm hoping that some of that interest spread out, or leaks out, or otherwise disseminates beyond the municipal borders of the fair and history-proud township of Plymouth.  
         Speaking of history, I do have some of my own with the town of Kingston. Before the Boston Globe downsized its South regional section from two papers a week to one edition a week, I covered Kingston. I wrote little news briefs on a weekly basis, calling up folks such as the town clerk to find out the latest list of who was running for office and who had dropped out of the race by not turning in their nomination papers in time. Or the police chief, on various matters, including drugs. Or various local government offices on (in latter days) whoever was complaining about the noise form the town's wind turbine. One thing we have learned about wind turbines is they are marvelously effective in improving the hearing of certain residents who live what appears to be reasonably far away from them. 
           On the other hand, to be perfectly fair, when a neighbor plants a tree directly in your line of sight on the ocean it proves hard for months to see anything else. And when another neighbor (in another town) triples their house size over your back fence, it becomes difficult for a while to remember that the sky is still there. 
            Enough with these petty complaints. Kingston has always been a good neighbor for a journalist. When the state decided to reanimate the long-lapsed Old Colony Railroad it determined the best place to terminate the line was in Kingston, even though (as Plymouth officials pointed out) the term "Old Colony" has always referred to their "old" Pilgrim-planted town. 
            And when a big shopping mall company decided to build its state of the art regional consumer paradise, it chose a location in Kingston, thereby sending Plymouth's Main Street old-school retail economy into a death spiral. This of course ultimately did that town a favor since Main Street has recovered with its current leisure-time and tourist economy based almost entirely on restaurants, bars and antiques (enriched by some entertainment meccas that did not exist until recent years).
            Special friends live in Kingston as well, some of whom have particularly endeared themselves to me by becoming early readers and supporters of "Suosso's Lane." Sara Altherr is a friend and colleague from my years working for the Old Colony Memorial, the local newspaper that remains a valuable community resource. Full disclosure: the OCM has very been very good to me and "Suosso's Lane."
             My friend, the painter Carole Bolsey, also lives in Kingston. I can't ever look at her paintings without feeling more alive than I did the moment before. 
             In addition to which my Kingston friends and contacts all seem to live in beautiful homes on beautiful sites. Does it have something to do with the Jones River, a historic Colonial ship-building site whose local prominence has proved a catalyst for a vibrant conservation movement...?
              Will I ever stop saying nice things about Kingston? 
              Well, not before I mention the library, which promotes the community's cultural life with public programs such as the Kingston Library Author Series. Here's what the library director Sia Stewart kindly wrote about my upcoming visit: 
The 1920 Sacco-Vanzetti trial remains one of the most controversial legal cases of modern times. Two Italian immigrants, targeted for their political views, were convicted of a murder-robbery in a trial marred by weak evidence and judicial prejudice. They were executed seven years later despite international protests. In his novel, named after the street in Plymouth where Bartolomeo Vanzetti lived for five years, author Robert Knox provides a contemporary setting for a rearview look at the early 20th century trial of Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.
           Robert Knox lived in Plymouth for 20 years before moving to Quincy, where he has lived for the last 10 years. He graduated from Yale University and taught English at Boston University and other colleges. He is a correspondent for The Boston Globe, and his poems, creative nonfiction and short stories have appeared in numerous literary publications.
           Light refreshments will be offered and although the program is free, reservations are requested.
           For more information or to register, visit the library’s online calendar at or call the library at 781-585-0517, Ext. 112.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Garden of the Absurd: Silly Fruit on the Cherry Tree

It started a couple of years ago, and now I've come to expect it. I'm resigned to it, I told myself. The Japanese weeping cherry tree that we planted in part because of the beautiful white blossoms ballooning around it like a shapely white skirt during its all too brief flowering season has turned into a garden party for birds who tear off the blossoms before they fully open and toss the drop of nectar inside down their gullet. This practice, amusing and no doubt satisfying some primal urge for the birds who do it, essentially denudes the tree of blossoms before that picturesque white fountain effect comes to pass.
            Anyway, the flower buds began to show early in April this year following a warmer than average winter. Then came the Sunday snow morning that melted during the same day. Then came the Monday snow that kept up all day and sat on the buds and on some half-open blossom. After this, some of the blossoms had that washed out appearance a rag or some small article of clothing gets when it sits in a puddle all day.
            The snow disappeared, the weather normalized, the white buds and half-opened blossoms began to dry out.
            Then came the birds. I watched them perch the umbrella shaped nexus of branches at the top of the tree, get comfortable, tie their napkins under the necks, take out the cutlery, grab a blossom in their beak and toss it into the air. I watched the ground beneath the tree fill up with discarded blossoms.
            No white cherry tree bloom time appears likely this year.
            I opened the window of my study and yelled at the birds. This kept them away about two-three minutes. Maybe half a minute after the second or third time. Even then I had to get really extravagant in the vocalization department to get the last bold fellow off the tree. It was a finch, with a lot of brilliant dark pink color around the head and neck. A prince among finches.
a natural leader. I noticed no birds on the tree until he came along and set up shop. Then a few others quickly followed.
            I walked to the bedroom, opened a window (temperature 'moderate' for April) and gathered tiny gravel pebbles to throw at the birds when they next appeared.
            The plan is I stand guard in my bedroom, with the window open, in April, ready to throw pebbles at birds. This is ridiculous, I decide, after thought. Similarly, I can go outdoors and stand next to the tree, ready to wave my arms and scare away the blossom marauders the moment they arrive. But then I wouldn't be sitting at my desk pursuing immortality at my keyboard.
            Another sensible plan goes down to a minor flaw.
            So then, because the other choices were ridiculous, and also because I have taken to shaking a bamboo leaf rake at the birds during my frequent forays outdoors to discourage them, I decide to build a scarecrow version of myself shaking a rake at the sky.
            This fantasy lasts even less time than it takes to relate. How can I make an effective scarecrow unless I decide to stuff myself?
            So then (no appetite for stuffing) I come up with a brilliant flash of inspiration. I will turn the tree itself into a scarecrow by tossing the rake on top of the still near-blossoming weeping cherry tree. Surely the birds will be frightened by the rake, an obvious man-thing, and realize that the man is probably just about to appear and wave his arms and frighten them muchly, and so they will keep away from the tree...
            This worked, the first time at least, for about an hour.
            Then the red-necked finch came back and found a comfortable perch on the tree right next to the rake's bamboo flanges, if not right on top of them, and went to back to work on the blossoms. His followers promptly followed.
            I decide the problem is an insufficiency of rakes. I find two other, smaller leaf rakes, and manage to toss them on top of the cherry tree as well, (The tree is now feeling very foolish.)
            But this plan almost worked. It kept the finches off the tree for a little while, as long as I punctuated my day with visits to the tree about every half hour or so in which I stood next to the tree, jumped up and down waving my hands exuberantly back and forth, and shouting extravagant threats at the top of my lungs. Somehow the neighbors have still not called the police.
            What really happened is that most of the blossoms were by now consumed. The tree wore its crown of rakes on the center of its blossom-bare scalp, and the white flowers opened on the lower, weeping branches, where presumably it's a little less comfortable for a bird to stand and peck.
            And so our cherry tree had its annual spring semi-blossom.
            [Top photo, tree with rakes; second photo last week's tree in semi-bloom. Below, for comparison, the tree in previous years]
             I do not think that Basho, or the other Japanese poets who worshiped the spring ritual of the blossoming of the cherry trees, would be much impressed.
            To seeker a more enlightened view of cherry blossom time, some three-line poems by the classic poet Basho on this season in Japan, gathered from the internet:

Between our two lives
there is also the life of
the cherry blossom.
If I had the knack
I'd sing like
Cherry flakes falling

The oak tree stands
noble on the hill even in
cherry blossom time

A lovely spring night
suddenly vanished while we
viewed cherry blossoms
Kannon's tiled temple
roof floats far away in clouds
of cherry blossoms
  (Kannon is the Bodhisattva of Compassion)

From all these trees –

in salads, soups, everywhere –
cherry blossoms fall
How many, many things

They call to mind

These cherry-blossoms!