Monday, September 14, 2020

Short story based on a song

     The Truth About Billy Joe is a story based upon a song, and also was my entry into the acrostic story contest held annually by Brucedale Press of Port Elgin, ON.  It won second prize in 2019 and was published in The Leaf, #44, Spring 2019 edition, published twice yearly by Brucedale Press.                

                            THE TRUTH ABOUT BILLY JOE

by Ruth Latta

Always curious, also concerned, I worry about my sister-in-law Bobbie  withdrawing from the world. Becky Thompson is my name, or rather, was my maiden name, and Bobbie was my best friend all through school.  Carroll County is where we grew up, a farming community on the Mississippi Delta with Choctaw Ridge the only high point for miles around.  Daddy’s gift of a down payment on a store, a wedding present for me and Jeff, means that we’re living in Tupelo and aren’t as close to Bobbie as I’d like to be.

“Easier,” is what we say if someone from home comes into our convenience store and asks how we find city life.  Folks at home think Jeff should have stayed where he was and continued working the land, even though his pa had willed the farm to his mama, but after the tragedy with our friend Billy Joe MacAllister, and then his father’s death from a virus soon afterwards, Jeff deserved a new beginning. Getting started as a married couple and small business owners has been wonderful, but I feel badly about leaving Bobbie back home, brooding and grieving.

“Help us in the store,” I coaxed, but she said she had to stay home and see about renting out the land, since her mama was too upset over her daddy’s death to do much of anything. I can’t fault Bobbie for wanting to care for her mother. Just between you and me, though, I think she should pull herself together and try to find someone new  instead of being caught up in sorrow over Billy Joe  as if she were to blame.  

                  Knowing everyone in our high school class so well, I was surprised when Bobbie confided to me that she and Billy Joe were in love and were seeing each other secretly up on Choctaw Ridge.  Lots of highschool students marry their sweethearts shortly after they graduate, including Jeff and me, and I think she pressured Billy Joe to make a commitment so  she wouldn’t be left out.

Maybe poor naive Bobbie assumed, back in ninth grade, that when Billy Joe tried to scare her with a frog at the picture show it meant that he had a crush on her. No one else saw Billy Joe as husband material; in fact, I always suspected that he liked girls only as friends. 

One day after graduation our preacher, Brother Taylor, dropped by to discuss wedding details with me, and while there, asked me if there was anything going on between Bobbie and Billy Joe. Playing dumb, I listened as he mentioned observing them together on the Tallahatchee Bridge, and seeing Billy Joe throw something over the rail, down into the muddy water. Quickly I said that the only connection I knew of was that they, along with me, had formed a trio, the “Three Bees”, and had sung at high school assemblies.  Remembering something else, I decided to keep silent. Secrets, like  Bobbie  wearing Billy Joe’s ring on a chain beneath her collar, were none of Brother Taylor’s business.

The day Jeff and I got back from our honeymoon my parents broke the terrible news that Billy Joe MacAllister had jumped to his death off the Tallahatchee Bridge early that morning. Unnerved, I wept as Jeff drove us to his folks’ place  to see Bobbie.  

Violently sobbing, she lay curled on her bed, while her  mother, downstairs, told Jeff she didn’t understand why his sister was so upset.  With trembling lips Bobbie told me that Billy Joe had broken up with her, saying that while he liked her a lot, he couldn’t love her as she ought to be loved, and would she please keep the ring.  “X-rated” is the term for the frank conversation they had, and I won’t repeat any of what she told me, except that when she put the ring on the bridge rail he seized it and threw it away.

“You’ll find someone who isn’t a misfit like me,” he called after her as she turned and started home.

Zealots like Brother Taylor, quoting from Leviticus and preaching about Sodom and Gomorrah, create a climate that makes sensitive boys strive too hard to be normal, whatever “normal” is, and I blame him, not poor Bobbie, for Billy Joe’s tragic death.

© Ruth Latta, 2019, 2020

721 words

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Another flu epidemic section from "Votes, Love and War"

The Emergency Nursing Bureau, headed by the Lieutenant Governor's wife and the President of the Women Teachers' Club put out a call for home nursing volunteers. They especially wanted teachers, as we were available, out on salary, and worked in cooperation with public health nurses in the schools. When Baz's mother heard my plan to volunteer, she  said,"I'll go too."

Together we went to the Manitoba Medical College for the four hours of lectures that were our training before we were sent out into the community as home nurses. The women in charge of this crash course recognized Elizabeth Weaver (Baz's mother) as a doctor's widow and were especially welcoming to her.

"One would think," Elizabeth joked later, "that my husband's medical training was communicable, transmitted to me by marriage."

We were issued white arm bands with green crosses to show the public that we were volunteer nurses going crucial work. That very day, Elizabeth was assigned to a family of newcomers in the North End,  a young couple with two preschool children. She returned home exhausted but exhilarated.

"Neighbours helped the couple when they were first stricken," she said. "The people of that area have really banded together, but they need outside help now that so many have fallen ill. This young man and woman had high fevers at first but their temperatures are down, now and I think they'll make it.  They held my hands and said 'Thank you,' one of the few English expressions they know. They're lovely people and it's such a pleasure to hold a baby on my lap again."

The following morning she packed a hamper of food and bed linens to take with her. "I thought of giving the children Baz's toy horses and teddy bear, because they have nothing, " she said, "but I just can't."

I put my arm around her. "We may want those toys in years to come, when Baz comes home."

I was annoyed at the Emergency Nursing Bureau's delay in placing me. It was against the Bureau's policy to send a young girl where there were five or six ill persons, as it might be too much for her to deal with. Nor could young ladies go at night to poor neighbourhoods, nor care for delirious men, who might do something violent or improper. How silly and prudish!  I was twenty-two, a married woman. As for being out at night, male volunteers drove nurses to their assignments, so what was the problem?

When Mrs. Weaver got home that day, however, I had exciting news. The Bureau was sending me to care for a war widow with two children. When we were discussing my assignment, to start the following day, the telephone rang, and to my surprise it was [my brother] Henry. ....Marta [our stepmother, had the flu...

"I'll be on the next train," I told Henry.


On the train, the passing countryside blurred as I thought of Marta...I couldn't lose another mother.  Lily Kate and Francie, who had taken me under their wings and taught me so much, were so far away and we hadn't been in touch for months...I still had Elizabeth Weaver and Keira Waite to take a motherly interest in me and I was fond of both, but neither was a substitute for Marta. I couldn't lose her!

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Review of "Becoming Lady Washington"

My review of Betty Bolte's novel, Becoming Lady Washington, has been published in Compulsive Reader. Check out the link, below, to find out why I didn't like the book.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

More from "Votes Love and War" flu sections

More from my central character,  Charlotte.

Around her neck, Keira was wearing a small cotton drawstring bag of camphor, and Elizabeth remarked to me privately that the strong smell would definitely keep people from getting close enough to spread their germs.

Ned was well, Keira said, though the CPR shops were hotbeds of disease, as men who had symptoms still came to work, not wanting to stay home and lose pay. She and Ned thought the ban on public gatherings was being inconsistently enforced and that its aim was to prevent unions from holding meetings and planning for the November civic election. The Trades and Labour Council was sending a delegation to the mayor and council asking that those laid off their jobs because of the ban on public gatherings, like theatre employees and musicians, be compensated for their lost wages. I was lucky; teachers continued to get paid.

Dad phoned me from the Prosper General Store to ask how I was and whether there was news of Baz. There wasn't.....On the 8th and 9th of October, the Canadians and some British army units took the town of Cambrai, and on October 11th the Canadian corps was relieved, but we didn't hear anything from Baz.

Dad said I'd probably get a letter soon and changed the subject back to the flu. There were no cases at present in Prosper, but in other small towns there were. In Carman, three of the four doctors had fallen ill, leaving just the one to tend patients for forty miles around. At our home, all was well. The local school and Prosper Collegiate were still open.

"Your old suitor, Mr. York, was by a few days ago," he said jokingly. "He just got back from overseas and dropped in on us to see if we'd board his child. He wants the little lad nearer so he can see him more often. Marta said yes."

He said goodbye, then, asking me to keep the family informed about my health, and telling me not to worry about them. "Way out here in the country, no germs can reach us.

Monday, July 6, 2020

The Flu Epidemic Sections of Votes, "Love and War"

In my novel, Votes, Love and War (Ottawa, Baico, 2019 ISBN  978-1-77216-191-5, $32), my central character, Charlotte, writes of her experiences during the heyday of the Manitoba women's suffrage movement and World War I.  These experiences include the "Spanish" flu epidemic of 1918-1919.  One of my readers told me that the novel is especially relevant today as we experience the Covid-19 pandemic.

Canada in 1918-1919 was much less prepared for a pandemic than Canada of 2020, and the virus was not the same, in that the 1918-1919 flu struck down people in the prime of life, while in 2020 the elderly seem to be the most susceptible - though in both instances there were many exceptions to the pattern. In both epidemics, person-to-person transmission seems to have been the reason for the spread of the virus.

The 1918-19 flu was called "Spanish" because there seemed to be  more cases in Spain than in other countries.  Actually, some of the first reported cases were in an army barracks in Kansas. Spain was probably more honest in reporting its statistics, while the countries at war in 1918 did not report the full incidence of the epidemic for fear it would interfere with morale. The historian Eslett Wynne Jones has written an informative book about the impact of the pandemic of 1918-19 on Winnipeg.

I've decided to share some portions of Votes, Love and War to show how my fictional Charlotte, a young teacher,  and her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Weaver, cope with the 1918-1919 pandemic. Charlotte's young husband, Baz, is overseas at war at the time. See below:

In March 1918, Mrs. Weaver drew my attention to a news item about an influenza epidemic at a military camp in Kansas. Having lost her doctor husband to typhoid, she was interested in communicable diseases. I listened with mild concern but didn't think much about it. We'd all had the flu at one time or another; it was seldom life-threatening except in the cases of the frail elderly and fragile infants. My worries were focussed on Baz... (pp. 341-342)...

In late August, cases were reported in the Eastern United States where some of the victims died within twenty-four hours of exhibiting symptoms. Mrs. Weaver consulted her husband's medical books and said that this virulent flu was "mutating" - changing slightly into new strains for which there was no vaccine. The crowding and movement of troops, the weakened condition of both soldiers and civilians in Europe, the dirty  living conditions of the war - all contributed to its spread... (p. 346)...

Meanwhile, cases had been reported in Newfoundland and the disease seemed to  be creeping westward. Next, cases were reported in Montreal and Toronto. On September 30th the Winnipeg Tribune headlined: "Fifteen Spanish Flu Victims will Reach City Tonight.  The sick  men were on a troop train from Quebec, bound for Vancouver, thence to Siberia to fight against the Bolsheviks.  According to the Tribune, all the men had been healthy on leaving Fort William. When the train got to Winnipeg, the sick men were taken to the convalescent soldiers' home run by the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire. Other ill soldiers had been dropped off at  military hospitals en route. On  October 3rd, the Tribune reported that two of the soldiers had died. A third died on October 9th. The Tribune claimed that men who were supposed to be quarantined had been allowed out to attend movies, thus spreading the disease to the community.... (pp. 346-7)

With a mask over my nose and mouth, I went out and bought menthol, cough medicine and lemons, which were much in demand. Meanwhile the death toll mounted in Eastern Cities... Winnipeg public health officer  Dr Alexander Douglas introduced a fifty dollar fine for anyone caught spitting in the street. In a  public statement he told the sick to go to bed and everyone else to avoid crowds... As of midnight, October 12th, all public meeting places were ordered closed, including churches, movie theatres, libraries and schools.

"You're getting a vacation!" Elizabeth told me. I smiled, but neither of us felt lighthearted."

To be continued in next posting.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Always a Bridesmaid - not true, actually

As someone very fortunate in winning writing contests over my many years of writing, I shouldn't complain about being an  honourable mention in two recent contests,  My short story,  "Sometimes Crime Pays" was a H.M. in the Capital Crime Writers' Audrey Jessup short story contest this June.

Also, I was recently informed that three of the poems I entered in The Ontario Poetry Society's "Rain on the Brain" contest won honourable mentions.

It's always a thrill to win something or get published. My review of Isabel Allende's new novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, appeared recently in Compulsive Reader.  Here is the link