When I read an early review of the The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow that compared the book to John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, I was dubious. Owen Meany is one of the most memorable characters in fiction. However, after reading Rita Leganski’s debut novel, I understand the comparison; I think Owen and Bonaventure would have been great friends. So I was thrilled when Rita Leganski agreed to answer a few questions about the book for Southern Spines.
Unspeakable tragedy seals Bonaventure Arrow’s vocal chords when he is inside his mother’s womb, but at the same moment, the boy is gifted with exceptional hearing. Bonaventure can hear colors, flowers growing in the earth and inanimate objects calling to him from his mother’s closet. He can also hear the voice of his dead father, William. And the extraordinary things that Bonaventure hears help him piece together why his father was murdered by a man known only as The Wanderer.
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow takes place in the 1950s in the fictional parish of Bayou Cymbaline in Louisiana. But the book’s author, Rita Leganski, grew up in Wisconsin and lives outside of Chicago, where she teaches at DePaul University. Rita says she listened to the voices of her favorite Southern writers–including Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams and Harper Lee–when writing the book, but she visited New Orleans to firm up her research. That research trip inspired my first question.
SS: When you visited the South to research the book, what surprised you about the place that served as the setting for your novel? Was there anything your writer’s imagination didn’t prepare you for when you visited the real place?
RL: I was pleasantly surprised to find that you can walk or take the streetcar almost anywhere in New Orleans. Everything was on a smaller scale than I’d expected, and that was a good thing; strolling around let me absorb the beauty of brick buildings and filigreed balconies and window shutters that were centuries old. The St. Charles streetcar was a particular joy—like taking a seat in the past. Honestly, I could’ve ridden that lovely old streetcar all day, gazing at those beautiful homes and giant live oaks.
I’ve characterized New Orleans as a society lady with a hole in her stocking. It’s the best way I can think of to describe a place where refinement and revelry enjoy each other’s company. Quiet dignity is that city’s heartbeat, but joyful noise is its lifeblood. I was unprepared for the extent to which that is true.
SS: How did you research and learn so much about voodoo, hoodoo and root work?
RL: Even though The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is fiction, I wanted to be correct in my writing, and that meant months of research. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I was able to access an incredible amount of information without ever leaving my house. I was then able to make requests from library collections all over Illinois.
I usually started with a Google search and would then comb through links and bibliographies for further source and resource materials.
Examples of the topics I searched were: Marie Leveau, the 19th century voodoo queen, homeopathic medicine, and Ancient herbal remedies and abortifacients (which led to Pliny the Elder, Discurides and his De Materia Medica Libri Quinque, and the Académie Impéiale de Médicine).
Works of folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt’s are archived and can be procured online. His “Hoodoo – Conjuration – Witchcraft – Rootwork” (HCWR) is a collection of folklore from a number of states, including Louisiana. It contains interviews with professional root doctors, as well as conjure and hoodoo practitioners. It’s amazing!
SS: The novel offers different takes on organized religion, magic and life after death. How did your own personal beliefs about life, the afterlife and spirituality influence your writing?
RL: People tend to have strong feelings about those things. My personal belief is that this life does lead to an afterlife, which influenced the way I portrayed William’s situation. Letice personifies the stock I hold in the power of faith and prayer. She also helped me showcase the beauty and meaning of sacraments and ritual. Trinidad offered a different path to understanding by letting me acknowledge the miraculous tendencies in Nature, yet reverencing its source. I don’t think it’s unusual for people to experience a loss of belief, especially during times of suffering. Even Mother Teresa wrote about going through a trial of faith and a “dark night of the soul.” I tried to convey the pain of that in Dancy.
In The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, I tried to remove “organized” from religion by letting diverse characters show the effects of spirituality. My aim was to convey that no single group has exclusive ownership of goodness. In this story, Trinidad Prefontaine and her altar became my vehicle for integrating the spirituality of Catholicism with the naturalistic beliefs of hoodoo. Trinidad is drawn to the Virgin Mary, while at the same time holding onto her belief in the supernatural healing powers found in Nature. Here’s how I say it in the book:
She laid the note and the prisms on her homemade altar amidst those symbols and souvenirs of her deity’s Spirit—the Blessed Mother who loved every single child; the sea glass, like pieces of broken lives made lustrous and baptized by the ocean’s healing waters; the feathers of a bird that can fly precious little yet proclaims the new hope of every day’s dawn, and those odd little bits of nature’s bounty. From her pocket she pulled a holy card, one given to her in the orphanage by Sister Sulpice. The card was soft as a piece of old leather, made so by the oils in the skin of Trinidad’s hands. The front bore a picture of Francis of Assisi and printed on the back were the words to his Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Trinidad lives gently. Like Letice, she is a woman of strong convictions. She simply casts her net wider in order to bring close “those things she found spiritual.”
To learn more about The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, the She Reads Book Club selection for March, visit the She Reads website. The website features online discussions and several posts written by Rita Leganski, including a beautiful post about her decision to go back to school after raising a family. You should also like Rita on Facebook: facebook.com/RitaLeganskiAuthor and follow her on Twitter @ritaleganski.