Gaithersburg Book Festival (GBF) 2019

The GBF celebrated its 10th anniversary on the grounds of the City of Gaithersburg’s municipal buildings this past Saturday. It was a fine summery morning as two of my sisters from western NY and I set off for the short drive over the railroad tracks from Derwood. This was the fourth year that they had made the long drive down the day before in order for us to attend the festival together. We’d spent the previous evening reviewing the GBF’s schedule grid, identifying the authors we most wanted to hear from. Over 100 authors would be speaking at ten outdoor, covered pavilions over seven hourly time slots.

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Testimony to Recovery

We went together for the first two presentation slots. Our first author was local writer and motivational speaker, Maria Leonard Olsen, whom we had heard two years earlier. Ms. Olsen is an accomplished Filipina-American woman whose previous book dealt with the challenges and joys of raising multi-cultural and multi-ethnic families. Her latest book, “Fifty for Fifty”, is about the challenges she faced entering her 50’s; challenges that included a divorce, overcoming alcohol problems (her own and her son’s), and a more existential issue regarding her personal identity and her right to define herself apart from the many social expectations she had taken on.

Ms. Olsen pointedly described the inner and outer chaos of her life at the time of her divorce and alcohol abuse. She slowly worked her way back to sobriety and a sense of purpose via 12-step recovery groups. Al-Anon in particular provided a sense of ongoing community support that helped her to discover her own “higher power” and to share her newfound serenity and purpose with others. She learned to become a better person, more accepting of herself and others without having to carry the many unnecessary burdens that she had falsely assumed.

The culmination of Ms. Olsen’s recovery work was the formulation of fifty desired projects and goals for addressing her mid-life crisis. Many of these involved risk-taking endeavors that she had always wanted to try but had held back from in fear. She bought her first motorcycle, sang solo in a karaoke bar, even set off for a months-long sojourn in a mountain village in Nepal. She came back from that trip with a deep sense of gratitude for all the things she had taken for granted: clean water, healthy food, a weather-proof home, friends and family. The 12-step message of gratitude, acceptance, and serenity became her daily practice and led ultimately to deep self-renewal and inner change.

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Like Father, Like Daughter

Our second author was Anne Hillerman, daughter of the prolific, Navajo-inspired detective/mystery classics’ author, Tony Hillerman. My sisters and I had read a number of her father’s taut, engrossing mysteries about police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his assistant Jim Chee, all set on the sprawling Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. Tony passed in 2007 and five years later, Anne, a professional journalist in Santa Fe, took up her Dad’s legacy and penned the first of her four Leaphorn-Chee sequels. My sister Marian had listened to “Spider Woman’s Daughter” and convinced us that daughter Anne was the real thing.

Well over fifty of us filled the Dashell Hammett Pavilion where Ms. Hillerman was interviewed by talented local writer and arts critic, Whitney Fishburn. Ms. Hillerman began by saying how pleased she was to be a participant in the GBF, extolling the pastoral outdoor setting and the friendliness of the organizers and attendees. She said she was active in the Santa Fe cultural scene and had long been advocating for such a small, quality book festival there.

Ms. Hillerman spoke fondly of her beloved father and how he was inspired to create his series of 18 Navajo tribal police mysteries, written between 1970 and 2006. Anne was born in 1949, the eldest of six children. By her account, her Dad was a loving husband and father; a World War 2 vet from Oklahoma who found his way as a writer after finishing college in New Mexico and staying on to teach there. He became avidly interested in Navajo people and their culture by attending their many open ceremonies and talking with Navajo anthropologists at the Univ. of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he settled.

Anne recalled the pleasure her Dad took in reading aloud his just-completed chapters. He had his creative roadblocks and struggles, but enjoyed a wonderful relationship with his wife, who became his literary confidante and lifelong editor. Anne marveled that her Dad’s writing inspired him to the very end, and that he took great pleasure and satisfaction in each of his carefully plotted novels.

Anne had toyed with the idea of writing a Leaphorn-Chee mystery of her own after her Dad died. She’d been a published non-fiction writer for many years and even collaborated with her Dad on some travel books of Navajo country. Finally, she was inspired to take the plunge, publishing “Spider Woman’s Daughter” in 2013, to great critical acclaim. Three more Leaphorn-Chee novels followed, culminating with “The Tale Teller” this year.

Anne knew that her own attempts needed a slightly different perspective from that of her Dad’s. She achieves this by highlighting one of Tony’s minor characters, a female Navajo officer, Bernie Manuelito Chee (wife of Jim Chee). I knew from dipping into “Spider Woman’s Daughter” that Anne had succeeded in maintaining the taut, no-nonsense flavor of the narrative while opening it up to include the somewhat softer, more intuitive perspective of Bernie. Leaving this lively and inspiring presentation, I knew that an Anne Hillerman novel would soon be my selection for our family book group.

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“A Good American Family”

My wife joined me for David Mariness’ talk about his new book, “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father”. Mr. Mariness is a career editor and writer for the Washington Post and well-known author of biographies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente. He began by saying that his latest book was his most personal and the one he cared most deeply about.

Mr. Mariness was another 1949 baby (like Anne Hillerman and me), born in the post-WW2 era when the Cold War had already begun and anti-Communist fanatics here in America were set on destroying the lives of men like his father. Mariness Sr. was a career journalist, too, active politically since his student days at the University of Wisconsin. At one point he joined the Communist Party, supporting its goal to improve the lives of minorities and working people during the economic ravages of the Great Depression.

Mr. Mariness’ mother was also a left-wing political activist whose brother fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist forces of Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. Mariness Sr. volunteered for the U.S. Army during WW2, attending officer training school and becoming a leader of a brigade of African American soldiers who fought at Okinawa.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed to investigate alleged Communists within the United States. Mariness Sr. was called before the Committee in 1952 and pled the 5th Amendment. He had long since abandoned the Communist Party and had returned from the war to start a family and resume his career as a journalist. Mariness Sr. had prepared a brief statement but the Committee would not allow him to deliver it unless he provided the names of “fellow travelers”. He refused to do so, and his statement remained undisclosed until his son David discovered it in his FBI file at the National Archives almost 65 years later. Part of that statement reads:

“In the 34 years of my life, in war and peace, I have been a loyal, law-abiding citizen of the United States. One week after this nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, I enlisted as a private in the Army of the United States and served for more than four years, climaxed by the campaign inn Okinawa. I was honorably discharged in January 1946 with the rank of captain.

“Upon my discharge I returned to my job as a newspaperman with the Detroit Times. I am a homeowner, a taxpayer, and parent, father of two boys and a girl.

“I was taught as a child and in school that the highest responsibility of citizenship is to defend the principles of the U.S. Constitution and to do my part in securing for the American people the blessings of peace, economic well-being, and freedom.”

Mr. Mariness was a young boy at that time, remembering mainly that his family moved a lot in ensuing years. In fact, his father was blacklisted from his job and spent many years moving from town to town pursuing work. Finally, Mariness Sr. was hired by a liberal-leaning newspaper in Madison, WI and enjoyed a long, satisfying career there. David remembers growing up mostly happy and secure — the product of a “good American family”.

Mr. Mariness had been aware only of the general story of his father’s public denunciation and blacklisting. His two years of careful research brought home in detail the ugly realities of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, realties he sees all too graphically being reproduced in our Trump era.

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A Daring Prequel

After meeting up with my sisters for lunch, and for book-buying in the Politics and Prose bookstore tent, I decided to rejoin them for one last author presentation. My sisters and wife were long-time fans of the “Anne of Green Gables” series of novels by the Canadian author, Lucy Montgomery. They were eager to hear from a young author, Sarah McCoy, who had just published a prequel, “Marilla of Green Gables”. Marilla is the 50-ish adoptive mother of Anne and Ms. McCoy’s novel is an extended exploration of Marilla’s life before Anne’s arrival.

Ms. McCoy was expertly interviewed by another local writer, Nicole Hertvik, who had launched a popular cultural Web site for the DC area, DC Metro Theatre Arts. She congratulated the author for daring to write a new novel for a series that was so much loved and venerated. Ms. McCoy confessed her naiveté in entering those sensitive waters but said her own love for the Green Gables books propelled her forward. McCoy was fascinated with the character of Marilla and used throw-away details in the original to construct the character’s earlier life. She made multiple visits to Prince Edwards Island both to finetune details but also to get the sanction of the Montgomery family estate.

Ms. McCoy’s bubbly enthusiasm was contagious, and I became intrigued. She had made reference to a new re-casting of the Green Gables story in the Netflix series, “Anne with an E”. Later that evening, after a fine supper out at a local Peruvian restaurant and our traditional tropical ice cream dessert at York Castle in Rockville, we watched the first episode of “Anne with an E” and were all taken with the freshness and creativity of the re-write.

This year’s was the 10th incarnation of the Gaithersburg Book Festival and it has become a family highlight for the last five of them. I’ve encountered no other venue where it’s possible to hear published authors at such close proximity, ask questions, and engage personally. My sisters and I are in an active book club together and the annual GBF has provided us with memorable experiences that often bear fruit in the selections we choose to read for the year. The Washington DC area has such a plenitude of cultural offerings that events like the GBF are often overlooked. I have to confess to being of two minds about publicizing it more, since its small size and intimacy are a big part of what makes it so special.

John Bayerl, 5/21/2019

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