Thursday, March 06, 2008

Pope Brock, "Indiana Gothic" (1999).

I've come to the conclusion that a reader should have significant doubts about the objectivity of a tragic story, especially if the narrator is related to any of the participants. If the difficulty of applying an even standard to the actions of all players is acknowledged ahead of time, then the account can be read with the confidence that the writer is at least honest with him/herself. Otherwise the reader should direct a jaundiced eye toward any inherent bias of the author. He/she should remind him/herself that there is no single inviolable truth. We all have personal understandings mediated by relationships, experience, and individual personalities. How could it be any other way?

Because of the inescapable reality of subjectivity, it must be pointed out that the author of Indiana Gothic is the great-grandchild of Ham Dillon, a man who was murdered by his brother-in-law. One might speculate that there are enough generations between the 'victim" and his killer that a fairly even approach could be taken in outlining the "real story". But as Brock himself says in the afterword of Indiana Gothic, "Almost a century later, Ham Dillon was still a golden boy in family legend." Therein lies the rub. It is eminently clear just how strongly Brock favors his ancestor in this tale.

Even with the obvious sentimentality that sprinkles Brock's portrayal of Ham Dillon, it is rather clear that the guy was objectionable. When his wife's sister (Allie Hale) comes for an extended visit to the family's Indiana farm, he wastes no time in finding her alone and putting the moves on her. This dalliance quickly builds into a full blown affair. Granted his sister-in-law is stuck within a passionless marriage to a rather pinched man who is much older than her, but this doesn't excuse the perfidy of the cheating couple. They even go as far as to plot out a way for them to be nearer each other, so they can continue their secret treachery for years. Ham convinces Link Hale (his brother-in-law) to give up a good job and a prosperous future, and move to a small farm community with the pretense that his wife can reestablish a close relationship with her sister.

Perhaps the torrid romance would have flamed out naturally had the illicit lovers not conceived a child, and tried to pass it off as Link's offspring. The little boy looked a lot like Ham, and Link couldn't help but wonder why. And it didn't exactly inspire confidence when the child's biological father suggested that the boy be named after him. Still the cheated husband tried to retain his misguided belief in his wife's virtue, and the integrity of his brother-in-law, who had made duplicitous efforts to help integrate him into the social world of rural Indiana (including sponsoring him for the Masons). Yet Link's self-denial eventually became too much to sustain. He caught the two of them in an embrace and finally confronted them with his suspicions. While his wife defiantly confessed, Ham Dillon lied to the end. Even on his deathbed he refused to admit his guilt to his own wife.

Indiana Gothic traces both the events that led up to the tragedy, as well as the court trial that resulted in its aftermath. The author's admirable attention to period detail can't obscure his essential unreliability. Because not only does Brock continually highlight the irrepressible charms of his adulterous great-grandfather, but he goes out of his way to represent Link Hale as a pathetic and weak man. It is almost as if Brock needs to find a way to justify the aggrandizement of his relative, in order to sustain the family legend. Additionally one wonders how Brock can pretend to faithfully relate the conversations, motives, and (even) inner thoughts of people who died before he was born. He makes no attempt to explain his conjectures, nor does he include an outline of his sources. There is no reason to believe in the authenticity of his account or any of the details, aside from the bare-boned facts accessible to anyone willing to comb through the newspapers of the time.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just completed this book. I didn't get the same impression you got, that the author "favored" Ham over Linc in the story. My reading of it was that Ham was the typical politician who thought he could lie and bluff his way out of anything. Linc became completely unhinged as a result of the affair and love child. All I know of the story is what I read. I just disagree that he tried to whitewash Ham.

I enjoyed the book. I was shocked at the verdict. It was not how I thought it would turn out.

Interested Reader,

2:51 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for taking the time to post a dissenting opinion. I appreciate that.

It's always a delicate business to try to reconstruct what someone was thinking a hundred years ago, especially when there are very few first hand accounts. I guess without a detailed record of the events, it's tough to judge whether someone is being misrepresented.

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wish to add a comment or two. I read the book and have a signed copy from Mr. Brock. Mama Dillon was my grandfather's sister. My mother told stories of some of Grandpa's brothers coming for a visit then going over to Aunt Angie's but refusing to take the kids. After Pope contacted her for what she could tell him of life in this area and the recollections of Aunt Angie, she concluded that the rest of the family just didn't want the tradegy and infidelities of the relatives to rub off on them and give them improper ideas. I have been to the gravesite of Ham and family not too far from my own house in the same cemetary where my own mother and father are laid to rest. I have the same picture that Pope has published in one of his essays of Mama Dillon. Our family is human and some have made mistakes. We cannot all recollect what we said yesterday but Pope put personalities with his characters. I, for one, was rather glad to have the ghost out of the closet and to learn a little more of the life around Daviess Co. Indiana during that era. Some of the places mentioned still exist and some are long gone but not forgotten.

I still like reading reviews of the book to see what others might think of Aunt Angie's family. I'm sure her life was not an easy one to endure, but we love her as family.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


As with the above comment, I always appreciate when folks take the time to leave a comment after reading a post.

I think it's great that you remind us that there are living descendants of the family involved, and for some it is an extremely personal story.

Thank you.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't get the impression that Ham was cast in a favored light either. He seemed like most of us, good qualities and bad, but for him a rascal's charm and good looks may have greased the slides a bit.

Loved the writing and I stayed up way past my bedtime just to keep reading. I'm not sure I would have cared what the story was about so long as I could keep reading it.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Well, who knows? Everybody brings a certain mental makeup to a book, as well as whatever mood they are in. Perhaps I was relating Ham's actions to those of people I've known in my own life.

5:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished reading this book and absolutely loved it. I've lived in Daviess Co. for over ten years and had never heard of this story until this last week when the author was in town and they were recreating the tragic events that unfolded in downtown Washington 100 years ago. I live just a few blocks from where Ham Dillon was gunned down and now when I walk thru downtown Washington I look up at the old windows on the 3rd floor of the Masons Lodge and see the old train depot and can't help but let my mind drift back 100 years to those characters. Unfortunately, the old Meredith Hotel burned down last year after years of neglect, but before it did you could see inside the lobby where the marble walls and ornate wood trim was still intact. This story beautifully captures many elements of living in a small southern Indiana town, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I look forward to visiting some of the other landmarks mentioned in the book the next time I'm up in Elnora and Odon.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I can relate to your satisfaction in learning about local history. The added context definitely makes experiencing such settings much richer.

7:46 PM  
Blogger chicawhappa said...

This story was just so incredibly and well-written, the entire book and all its characters totally lived for me. Ham Dillon does seem to be aptly suited to his career as a politician - and the confession of Allie's 17-year old daughter about his smarmy move on her does add a touch of ugly reality, like a smear on the otherwise easy-to-rationalise situation between Allie and Ham. It's the first book I got stuck on and read all the way through in years...well-researched and well-written. I even enjoyed the preface lol : )

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Indiana Gothic (which I learned about from the flyleaf of Pope Brock's excellent book, The Siege of Washington).

Indiana Gothic is OK but could have been soooo much better if Brock would have approached it the way he did the Washington book. I was disappointed when I saw it was written in novel format.

I found your blog because I was searching for more information -- the REAL story. I'd like to read the newspaper accounts of the trial.

You're right, even though it was over 100 years ago, the blood call is still too close for Brock to deal with the grime of warts and all. He did pretty well but may have got a little bit seduced by Ham.

Here is how I see it -- Hamilton Dillon was a super-full-of-himself, no good dog with 9 children. He seduces his sister-in-law, gets her pregnant and makes unwanted advances on his teenage niece, Louise Hale (pages 318-320)

If Id been on the jury I would have voted not guilty too!

And who are the people on the dust jacket of the book? Hamilton Dillon or Lincoln Hale? Maggie or Allie? We just don't know.

The reader needs more....... Pictures, real life accounts etc. Brock had access to the newspaper archives. Why not reproduce those articles and any drawings used by the paper? Pictures would bring this to life. Maybe all of the pictures were thrown away by Maggie Dillon?

My only thought through the whole book was that Brock was struggling to find more of the back story and may have had to resort to novel format because he couldn't dig up enough salient bits.

12:54 PM  

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