Joan Dark


Discussion

I completed Joan Dark in 1998 while on sabbatical from my job as an Electronics Production Manager. I had always been told I should be writing, but it took some major life changes and a couple of years concentrating on poetry before I actually started getting my first novel out on paper. They say you should write about what you know, so it seemed only natural to explore the life of a fourteen-year-old girl in New Orleans who hears voices from an Irish immigrant who died more than sixty years before she was born. Seriously, Joan Dark is not the 'thinly-veiled autobiographical first novel" of legend, but I did draw on my experiences as a VISTA Volunteer working in Manhattan and my short-lived career as a Navy Photographer in writing the book.

The story opens in the early autumn of 1960 in New Orleans with the first occurrence of the dream which is to plague protagonist Joan Dark through the next five years. By this time, the nineteen-year-old photographer Joan has made her way to New York City where she discovers a whole new perspective through the words of a former occupant in the tenement building where she now lives. That people can touch others beyond the realm of their own discrete existence is no miracle. The interwoven stories of Patrick and Joan speak to all who seek something more for themselves and others, all who, in spite of adversity, rise above their circumstances to make a connection with, or a dent in, the bigger whole.

The nineteen-year-old Jeanne d'Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, but her spirit continues to touch people in direct and indirect ways. Our heroine, Joan Dark, gains a baptism of insight through the realisation that the way to change things is to fight a battle of attrition, to coax the process of evolution by specific efforts of specific individuals. The things that have touched me (the story of Joan of Arc; the tenements of New York in which I lived and worked; the actions of photographer, journalist and muckraker, Jacob Riis; the programs of the University Settlement; the spirit of the Irish immigrants and every immigrant to every other country; the quest for literacy and the need to communicate) can touch others and perpetuate the chain of involvement.

Excerpt:

New Orleans
Early Autumn, 1960

Joan couldn't remember a time when she didn't have the Dream—always the same one—a devastating fire with no survivors. But she could remember distinctly the first time she heard the voice. She'd been playing in the cemetery with her best friend, Rachel Dufours.

New Orleans is below sea level. You just can't dig a six foot hole without generating a five and half foot puddle and sealed coffins tend to be quite buoyant. In years past, clever people tried all kinds of tricks from filling the boxes with rocks to drilling holes in the bottom and holding them under with long poles. Imagine a chorus of "Nearer My God to Thee" accompanied by "glug, glug, glug." Eventually, a heavy rain would raise the water table and relatives would pop up unexpectedly. The coffins with drilled holes stayed in place a little longer but there were problems with aesthetics and disease control. Eventually somebody got smart enough to figure out that they could just inter the corpses in above ground crypts.

The cemetery wasn't far from Rachel's house so the girls often wandered down to play in the "City of the Dead."

On that day they were stretched out on a low tomb with a slightly slanted roof. It was the resting place of a young woman who had given birth to a little girl at the age of 15. The baby was born dead and the mother died within hours—of a broken heart. She was buried with her daughter in her arms. At least that was how Rachel and Joan decided it must have been. They made up stories to go with the names on the tombstones and that was their favorite. "Mary Margaret Murphy, born 1870, died 1885, loving wife of Patrick Murphy, loving mother of Mary Grace Murphy, born 1885, died 1885" was carved on the respectable though smallish stone face. Joan, almost 14, got a shiver thinking about how a girl not much older than herself could be a mother and dead all in the same day when all she had to worry about was whether she was going to pass her Algebra test on Tuesday. They had just washed down half a muffuletta with a jug of warm red Kool-Aid which they pretended was wine. Joan's mother didn't let her drink Kool-Aid at home and its forbidden aspect made it taste all that much better. Stuffed on this feast, they had stretched out on Mary Margaret's crypt and closed their eyes for what seemed like only a minute when she first heard a man's voice. "Ghosts of wallady ushin," it said, in an accent Joan didn't quite recognize. She sat up but there was no one around.

Joan still had a suspicion of Okie twang, though they had been back from Oklahoma for a little over a year now. Her father was working at the Naval Station and was close to retirement so they weren't going to have to move anymore. He had met her mother during the Mardi Gras celebration in 1946. Their relationship had a passionate beginning but settled into something comfortable and long lasting right away. John told his buddies that he and Isabel had to get married. "We just can't stand being apart," he quipped. As it turned out, she was already pregnant with Joan when they got married but it made little difference. He only regretted that he wasn't able to be there when Joan was born. They had moved around during most of Joan's childhood and never really lived in New Orleans until now. Still, she had a knack for absorbing the dialect of whoever she was talking to in a matter of moments. Rachel's family was Cajun. Her accent was as thick as quicksand—it sucked you right on in. The language of "N'Awlins" was as varied as its inhabitants but this new voice was different.

"Ghosts of wallady ushin."

The accent sounded vaguely familiar but Joan couldn't make out the words. She realized she had been sleeping.

A dream, she thought. She woke Rachel but thought better about mentioning anything.

Must have been the Kool-Aid.

~

Joan's eyes opened wide. Again, she'd been sleeping and the logical explanation was that she must have been dreaming. But the voice was distinct and the message the same: "Ghosts of wallady ushin" or something very close to that. Later that morning she decided to tell Rachel. Having the secret out in the open gave her a sense of relief and a rush of bravado.

"He's talking about ghosts! Maybe we should go back to the cemetery and check things out."

"Are you crazy, girl? This might be bad stuff, voodoo, evil—who knows?"

Rachel's family was Catholic. Well her mother was anyway. Her father, a quadroon with family in Haiti, held onto beliefs in something dark and unspoken. When one of his family was sick he took them to visit a woman who lived on the bayou. Once she had given Rachel a little pouch with some nasty smelling stuff in it. Rachel dug it out of an old wooden chest and offered it up for Joan's protection.

"It's called devil's dung and it's supposed to ward off evil spirits."

"God, Rachel," said Joan. "This will ward off more than evil. I'll never get a date this way."

"Your folks won't let you date till you're 16 anyway. Besides, who would ask you?"

"Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence. I don't see the hordes making their way to your door either! OK, give me that thing."

Joan made a face and hung the asafetida bag around her neck—for exactly twenty minutes anyway. Handing it back to Rachel she said, "I think I'll take my chances with the evil spirits!"

"Well, at least we can light some candles," Rachel pleaded.

And so they did. She loved the shrine Rachel's mother kept in the living room. It was so downright tacky it was beautiful. There was one large and twelve lesser virgin Marys flanked by assorted saints, relics, medals, rosaries, crucifixes, miscellaneous first communion veils, palm fronds and holy cards. Several tall candles stood rear guard and at least thirty votive candles in brightly colored glass holders served as footlights. Among these sacred trappings lurked the occasional plastic dinosaur or action figure thanks to one of Rachel's little brothers and a few items with a decidedly pagan flavor that her Dad had contributed to the array. It was wonderful. Joan felt much safer.