Saving a Songbird

Preface to
Saving a Songbird and Other True Stories from Texas to Venezuela

     Most of the characters in this book are unusual, more than a bit weird, and American—both North and South American, for the setting spans both continents. The book opens with a man who sought God in buttermilk, who took his family across the Southwest in a covered wagon, and who seduced as many women as he could while preaching his notion of religion. His sons included a charming car thief and a soldier of fortune who took his family on a fantastic adventure in Venezuela. The stories recounted here are set in Austin, Boerne, Corpus Christi, Port Arthur as well El Tigrito, Puerto la Cruz and other places in South America. Though the stories might strike readers as fantastic and often bizarre, this is not a book of fiction. The accounts come from my own memory as well as the memories of my siblings, cousins, and parents.
     I’m a bit confused about how to classify the book. One chapter won first prize for short fiction in the Frontiers in Writing annual contest. Another was published in a collection of fiction. Before submitting, I asked the editor if he would consider nonfiction. He said no, that the book would feature only fiction. I submitted anyway, figuring it would be impossible for anyone but me and some members of my family to know the piece wasn’t fiction. Perhaps my book is best labeled as a memoir made from a collection of short stories that happen to be true.
     This book contains movement and development from the beginning to the end, yet it is possible to read the chapters in random order, for each chapter, though connected to the others, is a complete story in itself. While the stories are based on memory, the book might not be a memoir, for I wrote more from a desire to tell unusual true stories than to tell about me. In researching the book I dipped into the past in imaginative ways while always sticking to the truth.
     In another book, The Wild Part, I constructed a novel by taking many of the same characters chronicled in this collection, adding elements of fiction and changing some names. In an account based broadly on our experiences in river jungles and savannahs, my good friend Sylvia became Rosita in the novel, and I became Don Seale. But in the work of fiction I also kept some names unchanged, such as Noraye the candy maker and his daughter Fatima, who lived two houses down from mine in El Tigrito. In many ways The Wild Part and Saving a Songbird are companion pieces, for they deal with some of the same people and the same values and issues.
     Odd and bizarre people inhabit the landscape of memory, though in the making of memory, the places and personalities appeared normal: a child often accepts even the most outrageous behavior of adults as simply the way the world is and therefore ought to be. In this book I explore the exotic strangeness of an early life in both North and South America and take such peeks as memory allows of peculiar people who seemed, through the eyes of a child, not weird at all.
     My father, Gorman Craven, moved his young family to Venezuela. He shuffled them from village to village for five years, then with startling abruptness relocated to South Texas. Gold and diamonds seduced Gorman into wild jungles where he lost all his money in the quest for wealth, and while he sought an elusive fortune, his children—or at least his boys—found delight and pain living in a land of eternal summer where friends taught them Spanish, where a neighbor fed ground glass to dogs, where Uncle Ray gave up hunting after he shot a monkey, and Gorman dealt with vampire bats and gunrunners.
     Gail, the younger daughter of Gorman and Rosebell, was born in Venezuela, and her first sentences were combinations of English and Spanish, for the family lived in native villages. My parents confined Susan, the older daughter, to home and yard because they feared what lustful men might do to a little girl. “They were innocent in a more innocent age,” Susan said of our parents. “It never occurred to them that my brothers might be attacked by men of jaded appetites.”
     Luck kept me and my brother unharmed, mostly. My brother Carl and I found a Venezuelan childhood a grand adventure, a world of river jungles full of wild fruit and monkeys, a savannah landscape where boys could find berries, lizards, and spiky cucumbers tucked among grasses. And when we lived on the coast we dived the Caribbean for conchs, caught parrot fish, swam with barracuda and clownfish.
     But a darker side of this tropical paradise plagued us. Through a window I watched Renaldo seduce the Hungarian’s wife while her husband sat staring at her bedroom door. A charming revolutionary befriended me not long before being gunned down in the streets. I thought I helped murder a good friend’s mother. Violence and fear sometimes followed me around: I tried to bring down a thief with bolas; I stole a pocketknife, then lay awake at night fearing the police would lop off my hand for being a robber.
Back in North America it became necessary to deal with racism and the violence of the ratboys who liked to kill animals and do unspeakable things to cows. And there were outlandish relatives to deal with such as our uncle the car thief, our grandmother who tortured a dog for its own good, and our grandfather with his weird ability to find religious grace in gravel pits.
     Today the events recounted in these writings jolt with alien strangeness, but when I was a child the incidents felt normal enough, for the bizarre people who acted them out were prosaic relatives and neighbors, and the now-exotic landscapes were the essence of everyday experience. Today these people seem the stuff of fiction, so I found it easy to write these stories about them—stories that look like fiction but are not.
























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