The voice of Charles F. Emery

Charles Emery

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m working on a middle grade series. I’ve recently paused writing the second story to edit the first.

At a conference last fall I had the opportunity to read the first six pages of the first novel aloud to a group of twenty-five writers and the accomplished author/editor Arthur A. Levine.  In preparation I spent a day tweaking the brief introduction to the book. Arthur’s advice was to carry the voice of the narrator in that introduction throughout the novel, and I might have something worthwhile.

After the conference, I reread my manuscript and discovered serious inconsistencies in the narration. One voice was enthusiastic and immature.; another, brusque and flashy.  A third seemed unfocused. The only voice worth hearing was indeed the the plain, confident one in the introduction. Who was that? I searched my memory for the face of someone I knew who spoke like that. One wrong face after another appeared in my imagination before I recalled that of Charles Emery (pictured).

The late Mr. Emery was my high school coach and English teacher at the Fountain Valley School of Colorado.  He was an extremely reserved but approachable man in his forties. His teaching manner can best be described as deliberate. He gave good lectures supporting his positions with historical facts and passages from the text. Students could always tell when Mr. Emery was about to read. He would lean back in his chair, lower his half-moon glasses, and tip his head up slightly.   He read us Chaucer, Shakespeare and Donne in his naturally low timbre. There was a resonant, Gregorian hum to his voice that caught the ear. He spoke almost without inflection. The poignancy and emotion of the stories were carried rather in the occasional pause or drop in volume.  He read to a room filled with sixteen-year-old boys, none of whom ever spoke over him. I recall closing my own eyes or staring out through the window, not to avoid his performance, but to focus on it more intently.

Mr. Emery – Chuck, as he insisted I call him in our few correspondences years later – was a decorate war hero (UDT in WWII). He was a champion handball player and had been a scholar at Columbia University. He never spoke of any of this to us. We learned about it in murmurs from the seniors. I never saw him brag, or swagger, or speak sharply to anyone.

I’ll never have Charles Emery’s voice, but always carry it with me, perhaps feebly into my own little stories.

Here’s a bit more about Mr. Emery from the school. As you will see, I’m hardly alone in my praise of him.’38&nid=367998&ptid=39771&sdb=False&pf=pgr&mode=0&vcm=True

Maurice Sendak and his uncle

Maurice Sendak

Let me start by saying I never met Maurice Sendak, the exceptional author and illustrator of children’s books. But  I’d like speak about my reaction to something he once said :

After Sendak passed away last week, NPR replayed a 2006 interview with him (below). In it he talks about how his fury at his aunts and uncles drove his work – in particular his uncle’s comment to Maurice Sendak’s father that nobody would want to kidnap his children.

I’d like to offer a different take on the uncle’s statement that I feel I owe to my empathetic mother, who couldn’t bear even her own anger.

Naturally, a child might feel anger at what seemed to be a hurtful snub. I certainly would have as a boy myself.

But as an adult, I’d like to suggest an alternate explanation. Seeing the anxiety in his brother’s face, might not the uncle’s words have been meant to comfort and reassure his brother? Why indeed should Maurice Sendak’s father be concerned? Was his the family of a celebrity millionaire? Was there a kidnapping of a similar child in his neighborhood.

What I’m suggesting is not that the Sendaks’ reaction was extreme. We all feel personally threatened hearing news of notorious crimes.  But later in life, shouldn’t an adult look deeper? I’m not suggesting any kind of parity with the great author, but shouldn’t a writer see the world with more nuance than does a child?

NPR Narrative … Another book features a baby being kidnapped, just as the Lindbergh baby was famously kidnapped when Sendak was a boy.

MAURICE SENDAK: I had my father sleep in our room. We all shared a room, my brother, sister and I. And he had to sleep – and I still can see him with his underwear top, trousers, a baseball bat lying on the floor. And in case the kidnapper came in, he would kill him. And when my Uncle Joe – who I then used as the ugliest of all the Wild Things, because I loathed him – was – he said to my father: Why would they want your kids, Phillip?


SENDAK: How insulting could that be to a child, when he isn’t worthy of being kidnapped?

INSKEEP: Have you now gotten even with the people who made your childhood unhappy?

SENDAK: No, of course not. But, you know, being in a fury and not getting even is a lot of the energy that goes into work.

* )

The Last Light

I wrote this song is from the perspective of a father, whose boy fell victim to suicide.
This is an early version with six verses instead of four. It seemed too long, but I don’t think there is a word too many.

The Last Light

By Sperry Hunt

You bowed your head.
You were through.
You’d had enough, but no one knew.
The young are brave.
You held your tongue.
You’d soldier on till it was done.

You packed your bags.
I wish I’d known.
I’d have told you all you took was not your own.
You closed the door.
And walked unseen
To the black ship in the harbor in a dream.

You paid the fare.
The fare was high.
It was everything beneath the sky.
You stepped on board,
I was ashore
Listening for your key inside the door.

The sun shines too in memory.
The night is held away.
The sea will give you back to me,
If only for that day.
I’ll meet you on the lea shore, son.
We’ll speak and wend our way
Before your ship returns for you
In the last light of the day.

You mom, she works.
She naps and whiles.
She is afraid she will betray you with a smile.
In the day
She knows you’re gone.
But the moonlight shows your shadow on the lawn.

In God’s book
It says you’ve sinned
And only The Devil would let you in.
Those words were penned
By some damned hack,
For only a devil would think of that.

I like to think
You’re lost at sea
Searching for your mom and me.
I man the beach
Beneath the caves
Searching for your sail
Above the waves.

The sun shines too in memory.
The night is held away.
The sea will give you back to me,
If only for the day.
I’ll meet you on the lea shore, son.
We’ll speak and wend our way
Before your ship returns for you
In the last light of our day.