The Wished-for Country

by Wayne Karlin

Curbstone Press.
342.pp $16.96 paperISBN: 1-880684-89-6

The reason why art is better than history is because Good art seeks to tell the truth as beautifully as possible and cares for nothing else. There is no stake in manipulating audiences for political reasons, nor in perpetuating systems of belief just because they dominate. History is a floating reality at best, even when told by historians. The historical novelist has one agenda – as the poet Victor Jarra put it – “to keep the tree from growing crooked.” This is what this author has dedicated his life to. And if the subject the novelist presents is powerful enough, and the characters well made, we will learn, and deeply remember the past; and, more, we will hope that these books are taught to our children.

In this latest novel, Wayne Karlin takes on 17th century colonial Maryland. His characters – some composite, some actual – speak directly from discrete chapters, in each his own voice. Chief among them are James Hallam, an indentured servant; Ezekiel, an African enslaved and brought to America; Tawzin, a Piscataway Indian returning to America; and Leonard Calvert, leader of English colonists.

There is no one writer who can bond characters in a braid better than Karlin, so that interaction is continual and believable. We’ve seen this in other of his books, most recently Rumors and Stones: A Journey, where he accomplishes the improbable task of moving back and forth between the holocaust’s effects in Poland, and the war in Viet Nam. It is a trademark of this writer to be a time traveler and take his inventions with him, to populate imagined worlds where real dirt clings to the roots. And real blood.

Wayne Karlin is Professor of Literature at Charles County College, Maryland; and, a well-known teacher of fiction writing. Surely the most difficult skill to teach, beyond compositional attention, is how to let the work stand on its own legs, objectified and clean. Never is this author’s ego intruded upon the work; I speak from having read all his novels. Wayne Karlin is a writer whose life respects a world bigger than himself, beyond his own literary ambitions. It may be a definition for greatness.