Nine O'Clock Blue by Teresa Henkle Langness
A Case for Grace
Faith is the trickiest of subjects, and those who believe in original sin and the beast within every living human surely have a case to make.
It’s my own belief, though, that a general great benevolence lies over mankind, and that most times, most people, no matter the color or creed, mean to do well by their neighbors. Our natures, our souls, aspire to grace, to goodness. The Golden Rule generally applies and serves us well. How else could there be seven billion of us here in this world together, with neighborhoods and schools and symphonies and other energetic collections of like minds and spirits? Yes, we have wars and rumors of wars and, too often, murderous deeds that howl out of nowhere on the opening night of the latest Batman movie. But isn’t the very fact that we can be appalled by such terrible acts a sign of some brimming goodness borne in us?
The writer and educator Teresa Langness surely falls into the camp of brimming goodness. Her 2000 novel, Nine O’Clock Blue, newly re-released in June 2012, looks searchingly into the horrors endured by a young black girl growing up in the pre-Civil Rights era in rural Louisiana then at the life this protagonist spends coming to terms with the evil visited upon her.
It’s a tale of grace.
Delia May Burris, our protagonist, loses her family to KKK violence in the late 1950s. As an eyewitness to the murder of her brother and parents, Delia could not be faulted for a belief in original sin.
Here’s Langness, through Delia’s eyes, describing a little girl’s kidnapping on the night the Klan murders her family:
A buttery wedge of moon had tiptoed up into the sky, looking like the last remnant in a dish of peach pie. She looked around to place herself, but did not recognize this part of town. The houses were way off across a field of darkness anyway. She could only make out a shed on the property. Cotton balls dotted the darkness here and there, like dull, distant stars behind a veneer of clouds. Delia scanned the yard for a place to hide if by some miracle she could get out of the ropes. Then they threw a sheet over her so she couldn’t see a thing. She heard the doors close and the engine start and felt the goose bumps welling up on her arms.
From the ashes of tragedy, Delia must somehow take root and grow. Her germination begins when a pair of querulous old-maid neighbors pack her off to Washington, D.C. Delia comes up there in the care of a relative of the sisters, a kindly man as white as he is black, and consequently at peace in neither world. Delia’s rightfully troubled questions about racial attitudes, of course, grow more complicated with this relationship.
Langness transitions to 1990s Los Angeles, where Delia, grown and strong-minded now, works on the biology faculty of a university. We experience the City of Angels with Delia during the Rodney King riots—not one riot, but dozens, all over the city, raging for two days, a city in meltdown. The burning of L.A. by minority groups neatly counterpoints the burning of the black Louisiana community by the Klan, and Delia finds herself menaced by blacks in ways that resurrect the fears and insecurities raised by white-hooded Klansmen years before. Again, Langness gives questions of race no pat solutions, no easy answers.
What to do to deal with all this trouble, all this unhappiness? The final third of the novel brings Delia to completion as woman, teacher and soul. She founds a camp in the mountains and brings troubled youth from the inner city to walk wilderness trails and discover a world beyond pavement and graffiti-cloyed walls. Delia befriends another woman, a non-black woman, and she lets herself trust a handsome Native American laborer enough to begin thinking love might be possible for her, at long last, even in such a cold, cruel world.
Delia also comes face to face in the wilds with a figure from her dread past, a man she sometimes believed memory had covered more completely than sheets. And then there’s a grizzly bear
Teresa Langness knows the West. She grew up in Oregon and enjoyed a fairly long career as a Western environmental writer and journalist (Rocky Mountain News, editor of Ursus Magazine), and she penned what many consider to be the definitive Sedona-area trail guide. She has written extensively about Yellowstone’s fire-based ecosystem, about grizzly bears and their habitats, and about climate change. She published two volumes of Western poetry, and she even composes excellent music for children in support of her non-profit work (discussed later in this review).
The Western experience allows Langness to capture beautifully, poetically, the landscapes in the mountains where Delia builds her camp. Consider this section near the end of the book, when a lone horseman confronts a grizzly bear in the wild:
Clive Hammett cocked his gun. The clip-chirp echoed across a meadow buttered by a rising sun that had already siphoned off the moisture from the storm. Grizz stood up and listened, unable to see Clive but acutely aware of his scent. He rose to his full height and pointed his snout toward the sky with his hump arched away from the wind and his paws poised mid-air.
He shone like a monument to evolution.
Across the horizon, the jaggedly arched buttes silhouetted his form. Delicate yet immense. A river of liquid sun oozed from the womb of the canyon, and aspen trees flicked their coppery nickels at the sky, and everything about that moment seemed made to convince Clive not to shoot.
Langness’s western roots anchor her story much more securely in passages like this one than in her Louisiana scenes. The early chapters contain troublesome errors, just nettlesome enough to prevent a full immersion in the fictive dream she works to cast.
Once, Langness writes that Delia’s family crosses the border from Alabama into Louisiana. She’s pulled off a trick—skipping Mississippi entirely—that some travelers may fervently wish they could accomplish more often.
Elsewhere, Langness describes a stand of eucalyptus trees in Louisiana. While certain common Bayou State trees—cider gum, silver dollar gum, etc.—belong to the eucalyptus family, I’m pretty sure most Cajuns will simply blink if asked to point out a eucalyptus. We have fishermen pulling mackerel, a salt-water fish, from fresh-water ponds, and other fishermen fly-fishing for catfish, a mud-lurking bottom fish.
I do quibble. Langness gets perfectly right the biggest, most important part of unspooling a redemption tale.
She makes us care.
It’s no small matter, this thing called care. Remember that great benevolence I mentioned? It shows here and there through the human race in glints and glimmers.
Call those flashes care.
While writing this novel, Langness started in Los Angeles a non-profit eventually called Full-Circle Learning. The program, focusing on at-risk children, rose from the ashes of the civil unrest of the Rodney King riots in 1992. Today, Full-Circle learning programs operate in 15 countries, more than 50 schools in all. The program teaches kids and carries out service projects, customized to meet the needs of local communities.
The author wrote Nine O’Clock Blue simultaneously with the creation of Full-Circle Learning. She has said that inventing the fictional Delia actually inspired her to live up to ideals she ascribed to her heroine’s character. It’s not far from the kind of character identification we see Dave Eggers take on in his cause-focused books like What Is The What and Zeitoun.
Langness donates all the money raised from book sales of Nine O’Clock Blue to Full-Circle Learning outposts in Southern California and several African countries.
Her good work supports good works. This reader finished the powerful last pages of Nine O’Clock Blue hoping for more novels by a writer with such an overflowing soul.
Charles McNair is author of the novel Land O’ Goshen and is Books Editor at Paste.