“The Low Road,” by Martin McCaw, 253 pages, paperback, $16, 2017, Big Table Publishing Company, bigtablepublishing.com.
Born in 1931, Martin McCaw of Walla Walla spent the first four years of his life in a house lacking electricity and running water. And his family had to use a hated outhouse.
However, his imagination soared while living “an enchanted childhood” on the McCaw farm two miles east of Prescott, where he said “the Touchet River woods became the jungles of Ceylon and I captured tigers and pythons for zoos.”
Throughout the peaks and valleys of his life, Martin wrote and until 2011 accumulated rejection letters for his efforts. After that, he won the UK’s Global Short Story Competition twice — see martinmccaw.com for links — and won second prize in the Short Story America Prize. His stories appear in all five volumes of the Short Story America Anthology.
For 18 years he sold correspondence courses. “I would pretend that my goal was to find out if my prospect was qualified to take a course, meanwhile pleading inwardly, ‘please enroll so I can pay my rent.’”
“My role model was Tom Sawyer, who conned his friends into thinking it was a privilege to whitewash the fence he was ordered to paint as punishment for skipping school.”
Selling correspondence courses weighs into the plot of Martin’s new novel, “The Low Road.” For his storytelling, Martin mined details from those experiences and elsewhere in his youth.
The story weaves through time, as protagonist Mark Roundtree flashes back to his childhood growing up on a farm near Prescott in the Depression-era 1930s.
Similar to his character’s childhood sleuthing games, Martin said “I played imaginary football games, tossing a rubber Humpty Dumpty in the air and catching it, doubling as the play-by-play announcer (Washington State always won). “After Pearl Harbor I flew a P-38 in our back yard, shooting down German Messerschmitts and Japanese Zeros.”
The author attended school in Prescott — first grade through his senior year in the same building — and graduated in 1950. “I was the FFA Washington State Star Farmer in 1949, but the FFA probably would like to rescind the award because I dropped out of college to play poker for a living.”
His protagonist Mark Roundtree did the same thing, leaving college to gamble into the bleary-eyed wee hours at an establishment in downtown Walla Walla. Many place-names are sprinkled throughout the story that ring a bell of recognition for anyone familiar this area
Through his character Mark, the author describes what it took to work the fields with horse- and mule-drawn harvesters, cook huge meals for hungry crews and hire workers in Walla Walla who waited at Lutcher’s Tavern for farming jobs.
Readers can almost taste the gritty, air-choking dust when young Mark describes a massive, blinding windstorm that tears across the Roundtree acreage and decimates the wheat crop farmed by Mark’s father and uncle.
A dark, murky memory nags at Mark as he straggles through the years, failing to complete college and dogged by career choices to be a “professional” poker player who preys on unskilled players and sells education courses to people who can ill afford them.
Mark spends hours in smoke-filled poker rooms or days on the road so his marriage with children withers from lack of time and attention.
When his mother dies, more childhood memories surface and he begins to probe friends, family and old neighbors to uncover the truth. He can’t shake questions about his uncle’s death. What did Mark really see as a child? Did it amount to murder? Among those he suspects, who did it? What became of his older sister who died as a young girl?
The gossip at church, tracks in the snow his father erased and haunting old letters written by his mother all take on new meaning for Mark decades later.
The author finally stopped taking advantage of others through cards and correspondence courses to earn a master’s in psychology at Walla Walla College.
Through the education program at Walla Walla Community College, he taught for 17 years at the Washington State Penitentiary “where I could finally make a living by helping people instead of manipulating them.”
Since then, Martin’s enjoyed being a wordsmith in retirement. He suggests unpublished writers “keep writing, not in order to get published but to tell the stories you want to tell in your own voice. It helps if you love to revise, as I do. My favorite book about the craft of writing is “Between the Lines: Master the Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing,” by Jessica Morrell.