Lincoln writer's book not for the faint of heart
LINCOLN — Louella Bryant’s new novel, “The Cowboy Code,” took 20 years to complete — in part because she didn’t want to write it in the first place.
“It has taken every iota of courage within me to allow this book to be published,” the author and Lincoln selectboard member told the Independent.
Bryant’s coming-of-age tale, which will be released on Aug. 8, touches on issues of race, alcoholism, same-sex love and southern culture.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” she said.
The novel tells the story of Bobbie Grey, a 14-year-old girl growing up in the fictional mill town of Pine Cliff, Va., just after World War II. Bobbie loves Gene Autry movies and uses the performer’s “Cowboy Code” to help her understand the mysterious world of adults.
A significant part of that mysterious world was inspired by the author’s own life and family history.
“After my grandfather died, my mother found his Ku Klux Klan robes while cleaning out his house,” Bryant explained. “The neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., where we lived when I was a pre-teen did not allow African Americans to purchase houses. My own brothers used racist epithets. And my father was an alcoholic and a womanizer.”
It was a fellow writer who urged Bryant to explore these issues in her fiction.
“Back in 2000, when I was in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was writing weak short stories,” Bryant said. “My mentor, Sena Jeter Naslund, insisted I write about my family. I balked, but Sena had delved into her own family and had success with publishing, so I complied.”
While the project that would become “The Cowboy Code” fermented for two decades, Bryant steadily published other books, including the nonfiction “While in Darkness There Is Light” (2008), about five young men in the Vietnam era (with an introduction by former Vermont governor Howard Dean, whose brother was one of those men), and the short story collection “Full Bloom” (2010).
A TOWN LIKE BRISTOL
“The Cowboy Code” is Bryant’s third novel to be set in the South. This time around, there is an autobiographical connection.
Pine Cliff is based on the Appalachian city of Covington, Va., where Bryant used to visit family every summer as a child.
And Covington has another thing going for it, she pointed out: It’s pretty much the spitting image of Bristol, Vt.
“The first time I stood on the sidewalk in downtown Bristol, I might as well have been in Covington,” she said. “The towns are about the same size in population and geography, and the buildings and streetlights are almost identical. At the end of both Main Streets, you see mountains at about the same elevation. Bristol has Bartlett Falls just outside of town, and Covington has Falling Springs Falls, both impressive and beautiful features.”
There are some obvious differences, however.
“Covington’s population was and still is about 12 percent African-American,” she said. “And a tall monument to (Confederate) Civil War soldiers stands in front of Covington’s county jail.”
As is often the case, one of Bryant’s great literary revelations came out of the blue.
From 1978 to 2002 she taught at Mount Mansfield Union High School.
One day, “the librarian brought around a cart of books to give away because they hadn’t been checked out in a while,” she recalled. “I picked up a paperback titled ‘Midnight Birds: Stories by Contemporary Black Women Writers.’ The book became — and still is — the inspiration for my writing.”
In that book she discovered the work of Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange and one of greatest American writers of all time — Toni Morrison.
“For years I read nothing but works by black women,” Bryant said.
More recently Bryant read “The Hate U Give,” the critically acclaimed young adult novel by Angie Thomas that in 2018 was made into a movie.
“It vividly illustrates the rift between black and white societies in this country,” Bryant said.
That rift, in turn, is an essential factor in “The Cowboy Code.”
“My aim as a writer,” Bryant said, “is to make connections that will show readers that the differences between races are mostly of our own invention, born of misunderstanding and — yes — ignorance.”
WHO’S WRITING WHOM?
Sometimes, though, regardless of her aims, the author has to listen to what her characters are saying — especially when they say, “I belong here.”
In “The Cowboy Code,” Phoenix was that character.
“I was chugging along with the first draft of the novel and a character named Phoenix popped up,” Bryant said.
“She was a tomboy who worked with Bobbie’s mother at the mill, and she was most likely a lesbian.”
When the character threatened to take control of the story, the author tried to eliminate her from the novel.
But Phoenix would have none of that.
“When she reappeared and demanded to be in the novel, I had no choice but to let her in,” Bryant said. And the author is glad she did.
Not only does Phoenix form one part of a love triangle in the book, but she also becomes Bobbie’s mentor.
“Phoenix is probably my favorite character in the book,” Bryant said.
“The Cowboy Code” will be available online and in bookstores.
Bryant will make an appearance on the WCAX evening news Aug. 8 to launch the book.
Bryant will read from her work at the Lincoln Library on Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. and at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington on Oct. 8. Another event is in the works in Covington.
For more information about “The Cowboy Code” and its author, visit louellabryant.com.
According to Gene Autry’s “Ten Cowboy Commandments,” the cowboy must:
1. never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage.
2. never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. always tell the truth.
4. be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.
5. not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. help people in distress.
7. be a good worker.
8. keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.
9. respect women, parents and his nation’s laws.
10. be a patriot.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].