Advanced Search | Search A!:
Volume 26, Number 7 — July 2018

'Hiding Ezra" new book by Rita Quillen

Rita Quillen
Rita Quillen

Quillen's new poetry chapbook published

By Ben Jennings | A! Magazine for the Arts | April 30, 2014

Many of us have family stories that are so dramatic that you wish an imaginative writer could bring the world of that story to life. For Rita Quillen, that family story is of her husband's grandfather who hid out for two years after deserting the army during World War I. Quillen, who is one of the region's most accomplished poets, has tried her hand at writing a novel, "Hiding Ezra," in which she dramatizes the experiences of her family member.

In 1918, Ezra Teague, a young Scott County farmer, is in basic training at Camp Lee, Va., when he gets word that his mother is dying. At his mother's death bed, Ezra makes a promise to her to stay at home and help the family: a bedridden father and a sister Eva.

He goes AWOL, and when he realizes the consequences of desertion from the army, he goes on the run. The narrative thrust of the novel is following Ezra's life for two years as he lives off the land, living in caves and barn lofts, fishing and hunting, and eluding the local sheriff and even an agent of the army, who is from Big Stone Gap and knows the area well.

The local community is mostly sympathetic to Ezra's situation, although a few think he is a coward. Southwest Virginians saw no serous national security threat during World War I, and family interests were much more important to them than national political ones. One childhood friend, Alma Newton, who was an elementary school sweetheart of Ezra's and comes from a well-connected family, takes an active role in helping him.

There have been many Appalachian novels about army desertion during the Civil War (for example, "Cold Mountain"), but it is unique to have a novel about desertion from the army during World War I.

The novel is a survival story, a love story, but it is also a detailed social history of the early 20th-century in Southwest Virginia. The isolation of the area is breaking up with increased industrialization. During the time Ezra is on the run, he goes to Wise County to earn some money for his family, working in the timber industry and riding a log raft downriver to Knoxville. Women gain in political clout with the ratification of the 19th amendment.

What is most memorable about the novel is what Quillen the poet does best: craft precise, vivid descriptions of the landscape and natural world of Scott County and the interior thoughts of the characters. The novel alternates between an omniscient narrator and a journal that Ezra keeps. Even though it strains credibility that a deserter on the run, usually living in caves at night, would keep a written journal, having Ezra use his own language adds to the richness of the work and gives an insider-outsider structure to the novel.

Ezra writes of his experience: "In a way I feel more alive than I ever have been. The sounds of the bees and birds and bugs are sharper and clearer than I ever remember, and a new quiet place has opened up inside of me that I never had."

In "Hiding Ezra" Rita Quillen shows that she is as adept and artful a writer of fiction as she is a poet.

Ben Jennngs is retired after 45 years of teaching literature and film appreciation at Virginia Highlands Community College and is the co-chairperson of the editorial committee of A! Magazine.

Quillen's new poetry chapbook published
Rita Quillen says, "I never dreamed when I started submitting my poetry chapbook manuscript "Something Solid to Anchor To,' that it would be accepted so quickly and go to press at almost the same time as my new novel "Hiding Exra," but here we are." The chapbook is mostly poems about her father and her childhood. "Losing my dad suddenly in 2012 was the most awful experience of my life, and the poems began to come within just a few months. Poetry is my medium of choice for working out dark, complex questions and problems, and it stands to reason that's where the hurt and sadness would direct itself."

But not all the poems are sad tales of loss — there's humor and hope in this book, too. I believe there's something universal and intensely personal at the same time in this work, something that every reader will find meaningful in some way.

Something in That Winter Light

I thought of you today
When brown leaves rained from racing clouds
And the sky burned through, fierce blue.
Rushing air hummed and droned
Like an organ bass pedal.
Trees jerked and bowed in amber light.
I placed you among them
A paper doll on a bright page
Just beyond the fence
Letting you lean on your shovel or rake or hoe
And look long and longer
At what you're missing.

I thought of you today
Your back to me, head down
Walking away to some other place
Where light is all golden.
Just as in life,
You are somewhere else
A slow moving figure in the garden
Parting a mountain meadow far off
Fixing, mending, digging
Salvaging whatever you can.
You never speak in these visions.
You would think I wouldn't bother
To dream without gifting us
All those missing words.
The wind rushes along, one sound
And syllable, whispering "See."

I thought of you today.
When brown leaves rained from racing clouds.

Reprinted with permission.