Rhode Island/The Shepherds Of Shadows

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

“His spirit responds to the country’s spirit...he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes.”

Walt Whitman wrote these words in 1855 but they live on in the work of a contemporary Whitman, Gabriel Gudding. A poet and teacher (Illinois State University), Gudding recently published RHODE ISLAND NOTEBOOK, a truly original and inspired book dealing with the twenty-two trips he made between Normal, Illinois and Providence, Rhode Island, circa 2002-2004. Driving straight through in 18-hour stints, he was mostly alone at the wheel, except for the few times that his precocious young daughter Clio accompanied him.

Gudding writes about the American heartland he observed and experienced during those marathon journeys. Sometimes powering down interstates, other times investigating back roads, his eye takes it all in: the fields and rivers, the bridges and townspeople, the billboards and road-kill–-and makes art out of it, thanks to his felicitous use of language, his feeling for landscape, his keen, finely-honed sensibilities and convictions. His on-the-road epic poem runs 436 pages but never flags, never becomes dull or repetitive. Gudding is too good a writer for that, too down-to-earth and insightful.

RHODE ISLAND NOTEBOOK is a contemporary literary classic, a book to be treasured and remembered.

(Published by Dalkey Archive)

* * *

With the publication of his twenty-first book, THE SHEPHERDS OF SHADOWS, Harry Mark Petrakis crowns his long literary career with an illustrious achievement. A fictional treatment of the early years (1823-25) of the Greek war of independence, his novel succeeds on many levels, beginning with the historical. Petrakis not only brings to life in masterful, Tolstoyan fashion the battles Greece fought against Turkey in the Peloponnese, but does the same with those who led those clashes: Ibrahim Pasha, Markos Botsaris, Theodoros Kolokotronis, Yannis Makriyannis and Lord Byron, to name but a few. Each lives vividly on the page, with nary a whiff of pedantry in the air. The same holds true for the lesser-known characters: the hardy sea captain, Leonidas Kontos; the compassionate village priest, Father Markos; the schoolteacher turned scribe, Xanthos; the beautiful widow Matina Vrouvas with whom Xanthos falls passionately–-and dangerously–-in love.

Petrakis paints a large canvas–-a tapestry, really–-but his brush-strokes are minute and telling. His descriptions of battle scenes are executed with breathtaking skill and power. Petrakis holds nothing back, not even when dealing with the atrocities committed by the Greeks during the course of the war.

There was brutality on both sides, he reminds us. “Whether Greeks or Turks were victorious, the victors often massacred the defeated,” he writes. “When there were no battles to be fought, robbery and murder flourished. Dead bodies became so numerous that they were left unburied to rot in the streets of towns and villages or to be eaten by bands of wild dogs that roamed the countryside. These decaying corpses produced virulent outbreaks of the plague.”

Marring the Greek cause were further human failings and conflicts. Various groups and leaders claimed to represent the government of the revolution: the generals Kolokotronis and Mavromichalis; the Greek Phanariot, Mavrokordatos; and a self-styled savior from eastern Greece, Theodore Negris. There also were dozens of lesser-known but equally headstrong warlords, klephts and guerrillas whose lust for power and riches was such that they fought each other more strenuously than they did the Turks.

How Greece managed to surmount these internal weaknesses and conflicts and ultimately triumph over its Muslim masters is what THE SHEPHERDS OF SHADOWS is all about. As Petrakis shows, the victory was won by the ordinary people of Greece, whose resolve to “live as free men and women never wavered. The mighty epics of Homer and the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, from the land battles at Marathon and Thermopylae, the great sea battle at Salamis–-all depicted and honored the victory of men over tyrants, the supremacy of freedom over slavery.”

(Southern Illinois University Press)