If you’ve never read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, now might be a good time. It’s the classic American novel about corruption in politics, how a man is turned from idealist to crass manipulator of the “people” for his own ends.
When I began A Stone for Bread nearly thirty years ago, I didn’t intend it to be a story about political and personal corruption. I was desperate then to get a novel published and had decided to write a literary mystery about a lost collection of poems. But before I began writing, there came to me an image which dramatically changed the novel’s concept and story. That image is A Stone for Bread’s opening line.
“René was four years old when he buried a grenade in the garden behind his house.”
The time is 1917, the setting France in World War I, yet the boy’s innocent act will reverberate throughout his life, an unknown and unspoken story until he relates it to a young American poet in Paris on a study year in the mid-1950’s.
A Stone for Bread has two plot threads that eventually intertwine, Rene’s story (which may or may not be true) and that of the American student, Henry Beam, who forty years later tells his own story of Paris to graduate student, Rachel Singer.
Henry, born in rural depression-era North Carolina poverty, had worked his way out of that poverty through a college education and the publication of a collection of poems. Yet in Henry’s telling of his Paris year, what happens there soon devolves from the study of poetry into darker realms as he’s slowly drawn into the shadowy network of a fiery right-wing French politician.
In this series of posts, I want to examine how decent people may be corrupted and even at times find themselves participants in evil. I will look at this through the eyes of A Stone for Bread’s three major characters, Henry, René and French politician Renard Marcotte.
*From the Old Testament Book of Esther 4:14, and with appreciation to Greensboro’s Pam Strader for recently reminding me of it.