Wednesday, November 14, 2012, I hope you’ll stop by to visit with Paulette Mahurin, the author of The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap. These excerpts offer a taste of this fast-paced historical novel that talks about tolerance, hate, change, and how much and how little things have changed since 1895. Read her guest post at A Penny and Change on Wednesday, and join her on her blog tour to promote her latest book.
Preview – Wednesday Guest, Author of The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap
EXCERPTS: The Persecution of Mildred Dunlap
“One can survive everything nowadays, except death, and live down everything except a good reputation.” Oscar Wilde
Telegraphs clacked around the world with the breaking news of the conviction of Oscar Wilde. Mr. Wilde, noted celebrity and one of the most successful playwrights, novelists, poets, and short story writers, suffered a stunning defeat when he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison after being convicted for “gross indecency.” Wilde’s case, one of the first tried under Britain’s recently passed Criminal Law Amendment Act, criminalized sexual activity between members of the same sex, thus changing people’s attitudes about homosexuality from a mood of pity and tolerance to hatred and abuse.
The unofficial buzz in the tabloids was that Wilde was caught in the act with another male, Lord Douglas, the son of the Marquis of Queensberry, and Victorian London would have none of it. The news of trial and conviction spread fast and furiously to towns large and small around the world, exactly the kind of news story Red River Pass, a small town in Nevada, relished.
“I know you’re not going to say anything. But you know it’s true.” Gus looked over at the stacks of books. “That’s why I read so much. A book isn’t going to hurt me. A book isn’t going to form some opinion about me that could wreck my life. I learn about so many new and great things from reading. I keep to myself with a good book and a shot of whiskey and I’m right with the world.” He went on to tell him about some of the great books he had read over the years, mentioning a few of the ones in his private stack.
“Was Jesus afraid? What can we learn from that day when he walked to his death for us?” He paused, took a deep breath, and glanced around with a peacefulness that put the crowd at ease. He was lit up with a gift, a knowing that words can’t touch on the actual. Like a painting representing its subject, words were representations. He compensated with his demeanor, attitude, gestures, which spoke volumes where language fell short. He knew that the best he could do was to point at what he was trying to say and use his speech wisely in an attempt to get through to the hearts of his congregation. “In those darkest hours…what do we see?” He looked over to a wall on the right side of the church at a painting showing Jesus on the cross. “Look at the peaceful expression on his face. What is that?” He knew that a pause for silence was more effective than continuing, so he stood looking at the painting until the room went silent with him. When you could hear a piece of paper drop, he continued, “The light shines on the darkness. It shines within. Always. Look at his eyes…at his darkest moment…there’s that spark.”
She read about Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish background, whose trial and conviction in Paris on charges of treason was becoming one of the most sensational political dramas in French history. He was a graduate of the elite École Polytechnique Military School at Fontainebleau. When a highly placed spy passed new artillery information to the Germans, widespread antisemitism in French society, particularly in the conservative military, threw suspicion onto Dreyfus. He became a target of the French Army’s counter-intelligence section, and was arrested for treason in October 1894. On the fifth of January 1895, he was summarily convicted in a secret court martial, publicly stripped of his army rank, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Josie was in glee till she came to the part about Dreyfus’s possible innocence being leaked to the French press. “What! That has to be a lie. Who’d come to a Jew’s defense?” Her laughter ceased as she read out loud, “…resulting in a heated debate on antisemitism, France’s identity as a Catholic nation, and a republic founded on equal rights for all citizens…” She crushed the paper in her hand. “They won’t let him get away with it. I know he has to be guilty. Can’t trust those kind…it’s his fault anyway. Why’d he have to go to that elite school? Should know his place. These people are so stupid.”
Satchel responded. “He should stay in prison and learn his lesson.”
Josie smiled and Satchel felt comforted that he had succeeded in breaking the tension.
Mildred Dunlap’s day started, like every other, at five-thirty sunrise. While dressing she looked out her bedroom window to a place several feet from the house to notice a six-foot sagebrush move. At first she did not see anything in the sand nearby. Then at closer view she caught sight of a sage grouse browsing leaves. The plant had not yet blossomed into the tiny yellowish white flowers that would come with summer, still a few months away. She loved this time of year when spring starts, paving the way to summer, and her body surrendered to the warmth. A time when life begins to slow and relax in the heat, like a quiet that comes with the nighttime in a bustling city.
The good mood she was in abruptly ended when she went to her kitchen and found the beginning of a rat’s nest at the bottom of a pantry. Twigs, leaves, bristles of pine cone, tiny particles of what looked like wood from a mesquite shrub, and a corner of a piece of fabric from a towel were alongside several droppings.
He lapsed into a monologue of exaggerated details, altered beyond original description: The Negro must have lied, probably has some rich white women sponsoring him because he’s good in bed, and the Jew deserved to be imprisoned for having the gall to try to become some- thing he was not born into. “People should know their place. When they are made by God to be inferior, they should just do their best to stay out of the way of the good hard-working folk who are the backbone of society.”
Mildred was disgusted. Anger welled up into her throat that wanted to be let out in a scream and she felt an urge to pick up one of the horseshoes and whack him to shut him up. As the blood began draining from her head, she felt sick to her stomach. “Oh my,” she mumbled, trying to ease out of the tirade.
He kept on and on, discharging a hatred that gave her chills. She knew then and there, beyond any doubt, that the fear she had felt when she first heard of Oscar Wilde’s conviction was not just about prejudice existing across a continent and ocean, but rather the ignorance that lives in closed minds everywhere. The seeds that grow and inflate the small- est minds into giants, those who believe they can take down anyone with their petty realities, was what she saw full-blown in Pursey. It mattered not whether his reality was based on prejudice, fear, or just plain ignorance, the end result would be the same, ruined lives. The tone in his voice reminded her of Josie that day outside the telegraph office. She now understood why up till that time this sort of talk didn’t bother her.
The hatred was now something personal and she knew, no matter the excuses, that she and Edra no longer were immune from suspicion.