Thursday, October 20, 2011

Scenic Getaway in The Cross Garden

The Tombigbee River at sunset, one of the real locations in The Cross Garden.
Called the Tennahpush River in the novel. Photo by Rhonda Goff Barton.
Excerpt from: The Cross Garden by Marlin Barton, published by Frederic C. Beil Publisher, Inc.
Attractions: Demopolis and Rice Cross Garden
Locations: Demopolis/Prattville Alabama
Photos: Click to enlarge!

There were three elements of style that reminded me of Faulkner in Marlin Barton's novel The Cross Garden, set in the scenic river town town of Demopolis, Alabama. The first was the incredible tension between the charatcers, something Faulkner wrote so well. The second was an accuracy of rendering the dialogue and mannerisms of the local characters almost to a point of devotion. Faulkner could do this whether he was writing from the point of view of a mentally handicapped character or Harvard undergraduate.

Finally, Barton writes in an unhurried pace that allows the reader to savour his literary style even in scenes about intense physical conflict such as a fist fight. Having said that, Barton does not delve into complicated sentences and structures that take a doctorate in English to comprehend, much less appreciate. The average reader can enjoy his work as well as the sophisticated professor. This is a standard that Fitzgerald spoke about as the the goal of every great writer.

The feel of Barton is very Faulkner, including the richly rural settings. However, these are not fictional places that only exist in Barton's imagination; they are the lush and humid river world of western Alabama. Click on the websites in the Tourism Links at the end to learn how to visit these settings in real life for a scenic getaway.


Nathan stood still for a moment, as if he were waiting on something to drive him on.

“Can I ask you a question?” James said.

“You’ll find out when we get there,” said Nathan.

“No, not that. Why do you think he didn’t go ahead and kill Arthur, shoot him in the head or something?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he thought he was dead. Or maybe he was scared to shoot him again, afraid of how it might look. It might be that he just plain got scared. Killing someone is a complicated thing to do, especially if you’ve had time to think about it for a while before you do it.”
The novel at the real Cross Garden in Alabama.

James studied him intently, the same way he’d seen him studying the river’s surface at times.

“Sounds like you’ve thought on it some.”

“I only wondered the same thing you did,” Nathan said. He walked to his dock and motioned for James to follow and didn’t look back or wait. The nylon rope was soaked through and it took him a minute to untie the boat. Once he did, he pulled it close to the dock. “You ride up front,” he said.

James stepped into the boat and sat down. Nathan took his seat in back. He was afraid James might start asking questions again, and he didn’t want it that way. He wasn’t sure how he would tell it, or even how much he would tell. He had too many questions himself still to be able to answer the boy’s. He wanted to wait until they got there and let the words come as they would.
Black Warrior River, called the Black Fork in the novel. Photo by Rhonda Goff Barton

After three pulls the engine caught, and the sound of it drowned any chance for more talk. He steered in the middle of the Black Fork, and the sight of the bridges loomed over them like monuments. The trestle was drawn and the ironwork above it and that of the bridge beyond made two great arches so large that the boat they sat in seemed dangerously small in comparison. He’d navigated the river beneath them many times, but at this moment the bridges seemed more grand in their proportions, as if they marked some unknown passage.

They picked up speed as he turned the throttle and passed under. A light spray of river water pelted their faces and the smell of it reminded him of being out with his father all those years ago. He couldn’t hold that memory, though, the way he wanted. It seemed to slip past with the boat’s forward motion, but that same motion only carried him into another memory—the night on the river with Walter and Puckett.

The water had felt so warm as he’d pushed Walter’s head beneath its dark surface, the same way the spray felt warm now. The river had always seemed to wind through his life, and he felt once again as though the water itself was his past and his memory made tangible, and that he had fought against those two currents for too long.

He breathed in the rush of air coming toward him. He let it fill him and opened the throttle as far as it would go without turning the boat over. The wind against his face felt clean, but the warm spray came harder.

They rounded the first bend, then the second. James hadn’t looked back, but as he edged toward the bank, the boy turned and looked at him as if to say, Where can you be taking me?

Nathan slowed, cut the engine, and let the boat drift to the bank.

A statue in the historic square of Demopolis, Alabama.
Photo provided by city of Demopolis

“Tie us,” he said.

“You got some kind of camphouse here or something?”

“No,” he said.

James stepped off the boat. Nathan followed and then walked ahead. He wondered what James would think when they made their way up the bank and he first caught sight of the crosses. Maybe he’d understand immediately that this was the place he had always sought, if not on a conscious level then on some deeper one, perhaps in the very pull of his blood.

Nathan made the climb to the top and turned to watch James. He could see the river below, its surface marked again by rain. James took his last steps up. Then he saw the cross garden spread out among the trunks of the trees, the crosses white and perfect in their random design. Some animal ran through the leaves just out of their sight.
Author Marlin Barton stands with a copy of his novel
in the real Rice Cross Garden in Prattville, Alabama.

“Is this some kind of old graveyard?” James said. His voice was raised just above a whisper, as if a burial were taking place and the preacher was in mid-prayer.

“I suppose it is, but it’s not all that old,” he said. He walked into the center of the crosses. James started to follow but stopped outside their circumference.

“You’re right,” he said. “It’s all just crosses. There aren’t any headstones. And wooden crosses don’t last. Besides, they all look new, mostly.” He paused as if trying to understand what he saw before him, as though he divined that the garden held some meaning. “Did you put them here?” he asked.

Nathan nodded his head.

“I made them, then planted them.”

“What for?”

Can’t you figure it out? he wanted to say. Don’t you know? But he didn’t. He would simply have to tell it now. He reached down and took a small handful of dirt from beneath the leaves. He tightened his fingers and felt the wet grains press into his skin and mold themselves into the hard shape of his fist.

“There’s only one grave here,” he said. “I can’t remember where it is exactly.”

James’ face paled with a sudden understanding.

---Excerpted with permission from The Cross Garden, Copyright © 2011 by Marlin Barton. All rights reserved.
Demopolis Banner, provided by city of Demopolis


Like many settings in novels, the landscapes of Marlin Barton’s novel The Cross Garden have their real counterparts in the physical world. The Black Fork River named in the excerpt is the Black Warrior River in historic Demopolis, Alabama (a town called Demarville in the novel). The railroad trestle is quite real; in fact, Marlin used to dive off of it as a teenager for the incredible rush of adrenaline. The rivers and lakes of the Demopolis area offer wonderful outdoor recreation for families and literary enthusiasts looking for a scenic getaway from the stresses of city life.

The cross garden also has a real inspiration in Rice’s Cross Garden near Prattville, Alabama. Unlike the fictional garden in the novel, Rice’s Cross Garden is easily accessible from the road and even offers parking for the casual tourist seeking a very unique attraction. Just click on the text in the Tourism Links below to learn more.
Historic Demopolis Square, a setting in the novel.
Photo provided by city of Demopolis. 

Demopolis and Rice’s Cross Garden are two hours drive away from each other, but both have something to offer the literary tourist. Just for an idea of Demopolis’ charm, consider the fact that its town square was laid out in 1819, making it one of the oldest town squares in Alabama. The best time to visit Demopolis is during one of its many public festivals, such as Sax in the City. Visit the websites in the Tourism Links below to learn more about visiting both Demopolis and Rice’s Cross Garden in Prattville.

When I first opened up my media review copy of The Cross Garden, I immediately noticed the book's quality of physical production. That is not something I usually notice (I've never mentioned it before). Bart (Marlin Barton) later told me on the photoshoot that Frederic C. Beil, his publisher, is one of the few small presses that still use the old methods of producing high-quality books. That is quite a shock for someone like me so engrossed in the digital publishing revolution.

Then I discovered that Beil is located in Savannah, Georgia, a southern city well-known both for its charming hospitality and complete disregard for changing its ways to keep up with the modern world. Savannah’s culture became famous after John Berendt’s non-fiction book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil became an international bestseller. Tourism skyrocketed after that, and the city continues to embrace the book with related tours even after a decade. A Hollywood movie version set in Savannah didn’t hurt tourism either.
Lyon Hall in Demopolis, Alabama. Photo provided
by the city of Demopolis.

One only wonders why city and state tourism departments didn’t attempt to attract novelists to repeat the performance through publicity incentives rather than just waiting for a novelist to become randomly inspired enough to write about their city's attractions. Maybe this project, the Southeastern Literary Tourism Initiative, will help inspire some ideas for that in the near future. After the USA Today article on the nation's first two tourism novels with interactive guides, things are likely to move fast in that direction.

Nowadays, the new Kindle Fire and iPad tablet computers can take readers straight to a tourism website from inside a Kindle novel, if the writer adds an interactive tourism guide at the end.

Blind Fate, the first Kindle tourism
novel with an interactive travel guide.
So far, the only two American Kindle tourism novels with travel guides are Blind Fate and Dixie Noir. However, I have to wonder if Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might include one in its Kindle edition. That way, today’s readers could instantly see some of the great book-related tours available in Savannah without having to do Google searches. They could just click on links from inside the Kindle book and jump right to the color tourism websites.


The Cross Garden on Amazon

Recent titles from Frederic C. Beil Publisher, Inc.

Visit the city of Demopolis

William C. Rice's Cross Garden

Marlin Barton also teaches creative writing for the Writing Our Stories Program run by the Alabama Writers Forum.

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