Novel explores memory 'fabrications'

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Keith Scribner

Keith Scribner’s new novel, Connecticut Shade, is set in the Connecticut River Valley. Here, for more than a hundred years, the world’s finest and most expensive cigar wrappers have been grown under cheesecloth nets stretched over a structure of posts and heavy wire, tenting the vast fields.

The novel, Scribner’s fourth, merges three main narratives from different time periods—1963, 1976, and the present. His third novel, The Oregon Experiment, will be released this spring by Alfred A. Knopf. Scribner is a Center Research Fellow and an associate professor of English in OSU’s School of Writing, Literature, and Film.

Connecticut Shade concerns memory, in particular how memories change over time and how they can be created and imagined. The novel explores these sorts of memory “fabrications” and the ways in which family members manage to live their lives in response to each other. In a more general sense, said Scribner, it “explores the ways in which American mythology can influence a family’s mythology.”  

From the opening chapter of Connecitcut Shade

The day I picked up my father from the R. J. Connor House I fell in love.  I didn’t know it yet—wouldn’t know until the last good damp of the summer when the final laths were lowered from the poles in the drying sheds and the leaves crated for cigar makers in Honduras and the Dominican Republic—but as we drank iced coffee at her picnic table on the rise butting up to the fields, the late-morning humidity brought a shine to her forehead, the sluggish breeze washed the sweet smell of young tobacco over us, and I was seized by a feeling I’ve heard people call home.  Though Caitlin and I had emailed and talked on the phone for years, we rarely ventured beyond business—whether a certain corbel or frieze would work for a particular mantel, whether a chestnut panel would highlight the pilasters.  Now, in her yard, face-to-face for the first time—sprinklings of sawdust on her arms and in her hair—I refilled our sugary coffees from her pitcher, newly eager for this summer I’d so long dreaded.

Before that morning, gazing over Caitlin’s shoulder toward the fields, I’d never thought of tobacco nets as anything but an agricultural fact of this place, no different from a hoe, a tractor, a bag of lime.  But today, after thirty years on the west coast, I could imagine them as an art installation by Christo, the swath of nets rolling with the terrain toward a dense line of elms and cottonwoods hiding a bend in the river, the cheesecloth undulating like acres of white linen sheets hung out to dry.  There was the art—the regularity and unlikely beauty of red cedar poles poking through the nets—and there was also the mathematical symmetry.  Poles were thirty-three feet apart.  The squares between poles were called bents, each bent had ten rows of twenty-seven plants.  A plant typically produced eighteen leaves, so each bent correlated to an exact capacity of drying shed.  Sheds were different sizes, the biggest as long as a football field; vent design varied, but they all had the simple New England lines of a covered bridge.

We carried our coffees to the back of her yard, waded through tall weeds, and crossed the tractor road.  There was no one working the field so I knelt down in the dirt, set my glass against a pole, and lifted the edge of the net to a hot whoosh of humidity and tobacco.  The plants were about two feet tall, already tied to the strings that would keep them from flopping over and damaging their leaves.  “They’ll be here to sucker any day now,” I said.

“How can you tell?”

I eased aside a heavy leaf and snapped off a sprouting one near the bottom of the stalk, my hands already sticky from tobacco juice.  “You pull these little guys off,” I said, twirling the leaf by its stem, “and let the best ones stay.”  As she took the leaf from me, I said, “You don’t know much about all
this, do you?”

“I feel a little guilty,” she said.  “I try to kid myself that there’s no connection between another lost tobacco field and my own livelihood, but if I strolled over to check on progress and mentioned that I fashioned torn-down sheds into mantels and doorframes and shipped them all over country, my guess is they wouldn’t offer me a cigar and a primer on their methods.  Still, it’s beautiful to see them unfurl these nets every spring.”

We ducked under the tent and walked the tight line between rows, leaves brushing our pant legs.  “When we were suckering,” I said, “we were practically lying on our backs, dragging ourselves along the dirt.  At seven-thirty in the morning, the ground was still cold from the night and everything was wet with dew so within minutes my jeans and sneakers and T-shirt were covered with mud.  My ass was freezing.  I had to move fast but carefully since too much jostling could blemish a leaf.  After coffee break, about this time, there was an hour, like now, when it was pleasant under the tents, but by lunch the heat and humidity cranked up and the juice oozed out of the leaves, so sticky that by July all the hair was stripped from my arms.”
Caitlin and I had stopped about three bents in and stood facing each other across a row.  She’d put the leaf to her nose and now she was trying to wipe the stickiness from her face but spread it all over her cheek instead.  I was a little pleased to recognize her self-consciousness before me, but I’d made a similar mistake, touching my chin as I talked, and all around my mouth I was sticky with the juice.

Our voices felt hushed and private under the nets.  In two directions the land dropped away toward the river, the top of the tent sloping down to enclose us.  I’d landed in Connecticut only four hours ago, and was now exploring this place, at once so other-worldly and familiar, beside a woman I’d been in regular contact with for a decade but barely knew.  Sweat beaded at her collarbone and darkened the green piping on her V-neck shirt.  I remembered the work under these tents but also the fistfights and more often my impromptu peace-making skills, keeping me or one of my friends from going home with a bloody lip.  Under the tents I smoked my first cigarette, and some years later pot.  Under the tents by the Little League field I kissed Ginger Polaski, and the first time I had sex—Sherry Smart—we laid out a bed of cured leaves in a fully loaded shed, like lying under a jungle canopy, and we fumbled and made promises, and with my nose in a thousand dollars of golden brown Connecticut shade tobacco, I found bliss.