Draw an X across New York State--letting one arm of it be the Erie Canal as it runs from Albany to Buffalo--and where the two arms of that X cross, you'll find the city of Oneida. The place where I grew up. It's a city by name and charter only, so when you picture it you should picture a town instead. A modest one. And on the perimeter of that town, past a sign at the edge of a cornfield that with no irony whatsoever marks the "city limits," picture a rich and endless panorama of farming country. A glacial landscape of great beauty, at work in the service of corn and cows.
My father was born in that farming country, although he didn't stay. He was the son of a previously itinerant day laborer and machinist and circus magician, who had left Tennessee's Clinch Mountain in order to start a new family in upstate New York. My mother, on the other hand, was born in the town. She descended from educators and preachers who traced their lineage to William Howard Taft--not just America's fattest President, but the only one who did double-duty as her Chief Justice.
No wonder I love that "city limits" sign, planted out there at the edge of a cornfield. No wonder I'm interested in whatever divisions it would seem to mark.
The thing is, I never saw the beauty of that place until I'd left it behind. And when I finally discovered what I'd lost, I spent years finding my way back. Kings of the Earth was part of that journey.
In it I tried to capture and preserve the voices of my childhood. The sound of the world as I knew it. The stories that people told, the things they valued, and the ways in which they understood one another (or tried to). Writing it was, as one character says, "like trying to hear a tune somebody whistled last week." But however impossible that kind of thing might be, making the effort can bring a person very close to something precious and important.
Because in spite of the many different voices heard in Kings of the Earth--women and men, farmers and city folks, con men and criminals and keepers of the peace--the book isn't just about how they talk. It's about how they listen. To one another.
The story begins with three old brothers on a dirt farm, just down the road from the place where my father came into this world. Three uneducated brothers who've lived and worked and slept together on that patch of hard ground and in that shack of a house all their lives long. Until the summer morning when one of them doesn't wake up.
Whatever might have happened in that shared bed of theirs was deeply private, but it takes on a wide public dimension. And the effort to make sense of it draws together a community of personalities, each of them with his or her own point of view. Together they draw a portrait that spans the better part of the twentieth century in one small American town, a portrait not just of the brothers but of themselves.
Listening to those people talk--giving them their own voices and putting them all in a book where they might endure for at least a little while--was my aim and above all my honor.
From Publishers Weekly
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