July 16, 2020

Reading Uncertainly? ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ by Stephen Gencarella

Editor’s Note: Stephen Gencarella, the author of ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ will be the guest speaker at the Lyme Public Library’s Annual Meeting on Tuesday, June 26, at 7 p.m.

What a pleasure: to read an engaging book by a close neighbor (Steve and his family live just down Tinker Lane from me) and to encourage other Lymies to do the same!

Steve, a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and the resident folklorist at the Connecticut River Museum, offers us a series of essays about unusual folk from New England, eccentric and out-of-the-ordinary men and women: hermits, healers, poets, mesmerists, fortune-tellers, prophets, reformers, bandits, visionaries, vagabonds, introverts, and misogynists.

In other words, most of us!

But what is eccentricity. The professor explains: “ … eccentricity is not an inherent quality but one always partially imposed from the outside, from the society that demarcates and gazes upon the eccentric … “[it] is always a matter of contested perspectives” and “ … tendencies to the reclusive or to the flamboyant quickly garner the label of eccentricity.”  He continues, “As tends to happen when history yields to folklore, this oddity began to grow in dimensions through the course of a century” of retelling stories of eccentrics.  And “the stories themselves are vagabonds.”

Among the locals described in these essays are a character at the Monkey Farm Café in Old Saybrook, William Gillette of Gillette’s Castle, that “Hadlyme stone heap,” and Elizabeth Tashjian, perhaps better known as “The Nut Lady” of Old Lyme.

Steve concludes with the counsel, “but that is precisely the challenge of eccentrics: to demand respect for the integrity and for the unique and unusual demands of every individual and to refuse to allow authority – however minor – to get away with discouraging people who hear a different drummer.”

We are all story-tellers!

But I was most impressed by the author’s continued use of the word “passing” as his euphemism for death: he uses it 31 times, by my count. It reminded me of that famous “Dead Parrot” skit from Monty Python, in which John Cleese presents an inert parrot nailed to a stick to Michael Palin, the man who had just sold it to him.

“E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch, ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! This is an ex-parrot!”

Does this usage “passeth all understanding” (Philippians)?

I pass … but do read these entrancing stories of eccentric Yankees!

About this book: ‘Wicked, Weird & Wily Yankees’ by Stephen Gencarella was published in May 2018 by Globe Pequot, Guilford, CT 2018.

Felix Kloman

About the Author: Felix Kloman is a sailor, rower, husband, father, grandfather, retired management consultant and, above all, a curious reader and writer. He’s explored how we as human beings and organizations respond to ever-present uncertainty in two books, ‘Mumpsimus Revisited’ (2005) and ‘The Fantods of Risk’ (2008). A 20-year resident of Lyme, he now writes book reviews, mostly of non-fiction that explores our minds, our behavior, our politics and our history. But he does throw in a novel here and there. For more than 50 years, he’s put together the 17 syllables that comprise haiku, the traditional Japanese poetry, and now serves as the self-appointed “poet laureate” of Ashlawn Farm Coffee, where he may be seen on Friday mornings. His wife, Ann, is also a writer, but of mystery novels, all of which begin in a village in midcoast Maine, strangely reminiscent of the town she and her husband visit every summer.


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