Saturday, October 8, 2016

'No one has written anything like this before'

The readers have spoken!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘Set Your Fields on Fire.’” “Interesting and engaging” “Hard to put down”Read this book--it will make you think and have a lot of laughs in the process.” “Very enjoyable and informative” “A real "in-the-trenches" Christian read” “It's a book I can read again and again.” “I loved it!” “Pulled no punches” “Expect a fun read – and a lot more” “Very good and very entertaining book." “I couldn't have loved this more if it was handed to me for nothing." “Really enjoyed this” “Entertaining, lively, laugh out loud fun!” “It's not often an author manages both informed criticism and genuine respect of a topic, but Thornton does.” “This one was awesome!” “It is a book you will remember and want to read again." “This book is a page turner and I highly recommend it to anyone” “ What a great gift for pastors and lay leaders" I very much enjoyed this rollicking story “An excellent, layered work.“ “Great writing, humor and truth.” “A revealing book on how many of us do church instead of being the church. A great read.” “A thrilling ending with surprises throughout. Funny, truthful easy read.“ “Best book I've read all year!!” “No one -- and I know this field -- has written anything like this before." 
“It's that kind of wonderful.”

 Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Read the first chapter of 'Set Your Fields on Fire'

This is the first chapter of my novel, which won the grand prize in the 2015 Aspiring Authors Contest through WestBow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson and Zondervan Publishers. It is available here.


The Raw and the Cooked 

"The twenty-first century, my friends, is about debt.”

Alterman says the words to the room of faces that have no idea what he’s talking about. The lights are out, the only illumination provided by the projector and the screen radiating light back on crags in their perplexed features. This is a standard speech he gives his clients - one of the better ones he carries around by his estimation. All for Shiloh Church at the Point, a modern, glass-and-steel temple feeding off three subdivisions of six-figure homes for its congregation.

They wanted his expertise, and if they know him, they understand this is part of the package. They might as well sit back and enjoy it, because he is going to give them their money’s worth.

“Debt,” he continues, his voice provoked by the silence of his audience. “Piles of it. Mounds of it. Mountain ranges and peaks and valleys of gorgeous, fatty, pulsating debt. The twentieth century was about the accumulation of old debts, old vendettas, old hatreds. This one will be about running up new ones that aren’t really new.”

Oh, how they are going to hate him for this one, once they hear it. Not as they are hearing now, but later on, during the drive home, when they’ll finally catch the nub of what he is saying. Alterman knows he has a voice that carries, not into the next room, but into the next hour. They’ll hear him long after he finishes talking, his words pitched at a tone just above the sepulchral.

“What did Our Lord say, during His prayer? ‘Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ By this, even the Son of God proclaims that we do not forget debts. We forgive them, as though they are an offense before the Almighty. What do we say when someone leaves prison? That he has paid his debt to society. Debts are meant to be paid.

Alterman can see their faces darkening, even if he can’t clearly make out anything. The room is darkening, in mood. They did not expect a sermon.

But if they didn’t expect a sermon, Alterman thinks to himself, they shouldn’t have come to a church.

“Even now, this glorious house of worship has a significant amount of debt that must be disposed of if the business of Heaven is to continue. The Lord does not withdraw, my friends. He invests. He saves.”

Alterman pauses here, just to let his next words sink in. As he speaks, he runs through a range of motions and gestures. He brings his left fist down into the open palm of his right hand like a tent revivalist. He rubs his thumb and index finger together as a croupier would at a Las Vegas table, asking one side to kindly pay up. He raises his hands over his head as would any stickup victim. He is all of these characters, but he is more focused on how the words sound, rolling off his tongue with elegant meter and precision.

“I realize that you probably don’t want to think of it this way. You don’t want to …as it were, cheapen…what you feel is a very holy business. And I respect that. But you also hired me to do a job. And part of that job is that occasionally, I have to preach from the Gospel of Plain Truth so that the Truth can set you free. So let me tell you, with all due respect, that to pay this debt off, you’ve got to have bodies coming into this church.”

Alterman sees there are a few here starting to nod their heads. That may surprise his partner, but it doesn’t surprise him. Alterman expects a few of them to agree with what he’s saying.

“Unless these coffers are overflowing with offerings, you’re not going to be able to pay back what you owe.”

This, of course, proves too much for one of the faces he cannot make out. It is a man who speaks, finally, with the challenge Alterman expects.

“I think what you’re saying is shameful!” the voice says. Alterman’s eyes dart into the darkness but cannot pinpoint the source. “You’re saying that we need to draw people into this church in order to get their offerings so that we can pay off our debt! That’s not the mission of this church!”

Ah, they always make it easy for him, don’t they?

“Indeed it is not, my friend!” Alterman’s manner is genial, but he does not smile. Alterman never smiles. “But I didn’t say that you need to bring more bodies in here to soak their hard won dollars.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I’ve done a full audit of this church for the past three months. Longer, actually. And the problems here are much deeper than I think you realize.”

The pastor, who has been politely silent up to this moment, now has a reason to speak. “I hope you’ll be getting to that part soon.”

That’s not enough for the voice in the back though. It must belong to Chaffey. “Wait a minute. I want to know what all this rigmarole has to do with why you were hired.”

“I was getting to that…” Alterman begins.

“You were hired…at great expense…to come in and observe every aspect of our ministry. The same way somebody scouts a business or a hotel or a resort or whatever, I was told. A ‘mystery worshipper,’ they called you. Now you’ve got us in here listening to you rattle on about our debt. What has this got to do with why you were hired?”

Now it’s time for Alterman to go into his wounded routine. The very idea of alleging that he isn’t doing his job now! Why, it’s insulting. And it isn’t that great an expense either. So Alterman takes out the report that he’s prepared. He does this very deliberately. Anyone watching probably thinks that he was planning on handing it out after his little talk, but now it appears he’s ditched that plan. It’s time to defend himself. He hands the pastor one, and then passes copies out among the people in the room. It’s thick - more than 400 pages easily. A lot of people probably didn’t expect anything more than his talk. He’s giving them enough data to occupy them for the rest of their lives.

Then, Alterman eyes his partner in the back, and launches into his defense.

“Did you not, my friends, vote to borrow money to build this worship center? And did you not do it because you felt you were accommodating this community, which at the time was growing more and more every year? Didn’t you think it was an act of faith to borrow all that money and believe that God would find a way to grow you out of debt?”

The room is darkening even more now, because the words are recognized. A few of them probably remember what they said at the meetings, and still others remember what they heard. That was weeks and months ago, many, many offerings ago, and they had moved on to other acts of faith, Alterman figures. A few of them skeptically look at the report in their hands and likely conclude that if what’s inside resembles what they’re hearing, they may never open it.

“Are you not actively engaged in bringing people to this new sanctuary? And they’ve got to believe in the mission of this church. Correct? So why else did you hire me? I’m here to audit everything that you do, in every way that you do it.”

That seems to satisfy a few of them. Okay, so maybe he has a point. He doesn’t have a lot of tact, but he has a point, they’re probably saying to themselves. All but the pastor. He still looks uneasy.

“What about those deep problems you mentioned? What are they?”

Alterman is pleased, because this is what he’s been waiting for. “I didn’t go into this really in the report, because you asked me to audit what is going on right now. But I think it has some bearing on how you’re doing things. As I understand it, you’ve had your present pastor for only about two years, correct?”

The pastor nods, a little unsure of what this means.

“And you…you came on after the building project was already underway, correct?”

The pastor nods again.

“And the man who was here before? Did he leave to pastor another church?”

There is silence. A few people shift in their chairs. A few chairs shift on the floor, sounding like the cries of captured beasts.


“He left,” is the reply, from that voice in the back of the room.

“Left,” Alterman repeats.

They understand that he is dissatisfied with the answer. “He was asked…politely…to leave.”


“There was a problem,” comes another voice, a little warmer, from behind the pastor. “It was all very amicable.”

“I see,” Alterman says. He pauses for a second or two, to wait in vain for another, truer explanation. “He was, in fact, let go, because of a matter of background checks, I believe?”

A head nods near the front, vigorously. “Yes. Business with the music minister.”

“The music minister had a prior criminal record that had gone unreported?” Alterman says, waiting for the heads to nod again. “Yes, and this came about at the time that the building plan was being voted on, correct?”

No one says anything.

“Of course, I’m sure the two had nothing to do with each other,” Alterman says. “Just as I’m sure that your last pastor,” he pauses, as though trying to remember the name, “a Reverend Templeton, was it? He was mistaken when he said that one of the reasons he was let go was because he was overweight.”

“That wasn’t the only reason,” comes a reply, then a head shaking violently. “He deliberately misled us about the music minister. It was the simplest thing in the world. All he had to do was check the man’s background.”

“Did he hire the music minister?”

“No, that was done by committee,” comes another response, this time from someone who hasn’t spoken. This voice sounds as though it sees where Alterman is headed with his line of questioning, and is silently thrilled.

Alterman nods. “Yes, but it’s the pastor’s duty to make sure about such things? Or at least it was?”

Another voice feels the need to clear the air. “Brother Templeton knew about the music minister. The music minister was arrested while he was at seminary for drunk driving. The music minister told the pastor this in confidence. Brother Templeton didn’t mention it to anybody else.”

Now both sides are suddenly at each other’s throats in the darkness, giving each other rehearsed, ancient arguments hardened in place.

“He had a responsibility to tell anything he knew!”

“It was a confession! He told Brother Templeton something he was ashamed of.”

“With good reason!”

“What has this got to do with the state of our church now? Brother Templeton didn’t want the new sanctuary. There were several reasons why he was let go. Some people felt he misled us. His weight was embarrassing, but beside the point. None of that has anything to do with us now!

Alterman smiles. “But it does. You see, you still have the same problem. You’re not doing proper background checks on your staff.”

“What?” the pastor says.

“There’s a man here right now about whom I doubt any of you know the truth. And his presence perfectly illustrates the reason why this church can’t pay its debts, can’t fulfill its mission, can’t see why it has any problem at all!”

As Alterman says the words, there are a few people on staff who begin looking around to see if they can pick up any guilt in the darkness. Anyone with a wounded expression. Nothing. Just a sheepish smile on the face of the children’s director.

“If there’s a problem, let me know about it,” the pastor says. “But we should be discreet about any issue like this.”

“Don’t worry, brother,” Alterman says. “This isn’t about you. It’s about your children’s director.” He points at the man with a finger that brings down guilt just as the lights go up. “Your children’s director has only been here for three months. Potentially the most sensitive position in the whole church. The future of the faith right there, under his guilty fingers, and you weren’t even aware that everything he put on his resume was a fraud!”

All the eyes in the room now turn to the children’s director, the man everyone calls B.D. All of the staff pick up on it instantly. There’s something about him that looks cool, as though he expected Alterman to bring this up, but he’s got a foolproof defense.

“Mr. Satva, is it? That’s your real name? That’s what you’d have these fine people believe?” Alterman demands.

Satva doesn’t move a muscle.

“Listen to me,” Alterman says. “I don’t care what you think about this man, but everything I’m telling you about yourselves is laid out in my report. If you really are serious about what you want to do, and I think some of you are, then you’d better pay attention to everything in there. I can assure you the conclusions in it were arrived at through lots of hard work and very careful prayer. But brothers and sisters, our friend here with the false name is indicative of what’s wrong with this church. You allowed him to sneak in here and do whatever it is he’s been doing, unaware of who he really is and what he might be up to. You’ve got a serious problem here.”

“What has he done?” the pastor asks, genuine horror in his voice.

Alterman puts both hands on the pastor’s shoulders. “Brother, you’re not the one to blame. You had no idea what you were walking into here. I think that if this church is to grow, you’re the man to do it.”

“What is it that happened?” the voice in the back demands.  

Alterman looks at Mr. Satva. “You want to tell them, or should I?”

Satva gestures with his hands, as if to say, it’s all yours.

“Very well. You see, for me to do this job adequately, I’ve got to be able to gather lots of information and do it when people don’t realize they’re being watched.”

“Which means…?”

“Which means that we’ve been spying on you for the past three months. Mr. Satva is one of my operatives. He hasn’t been doing anything to the lovely children of this church. He’s merely been one of my spies. That’s all. But the fact that you didn’t pick up on it shows how bad this problem still is.”

The darkness in the room suddenly dissipates, like a bank of fog evaporating in the open sunlight. A few men laugh. A few breathe heavy sighs. As Satva stands up, his grin is now even broader. A few of the people clap, as if to say well done.  

“You’ll find inside my recommendations on how this could have been avoided,” Alterman says. “This kind of thing is potentially more harmful than unpaid debt. But…there’s something else you should know about Mr. Satva.”

At this, Satva begins unbuttoning his shirt. Satva is a man that is easily 50 pounds overweight, but he has all this time insisted on wearing an undersized shirt that seems to accentuate his girth. The buttons bulge from the too-tight front even as he removes it, to reveal padding beneath. He discards the padding to show a very fit and remarkably chiseled chest. He buttons the shirt. Then he reaches up to pull both of his eyebrows off, with much cleaner, thinner ones underneath. There is a gasp of recognition from the room just before Satva pulls off the thick glasses he wears, the false teeth that gave his voice a lisp, the wig he has worn for the last three months. In the space of less than two minutes, B.D. Satva has revealed himself to be Steve Templeton, the deposed former pastor, now remarkably thin and back to pay a visit.

 ”I’m sure most of you will recognize my partner, the Rev. Templeton. He and I have been in business together for almost the whole time since he left your church. I would have expected at any time that you would have caught on. Oh, but I forgot. After all, he is thinner than he was before. But that didn’t stop you from hiring him for this job when you thought he was heavier. Hiring him a second time, as it turns out?”

There is an outraged silence in the room, the silence of people who realize they are being judged - most mercilessly, by themselves.

“And I doubt your present pastor need feel his job is in any jeopardy because he didn’t know your committee had hired his predecessor as the children’s minister.”

Templeton, now revealed, walks to the door behind Alterman. He has a feeling they may need to leave immediately, but he is having too much fun watching all this. The tension of the last three months has proved worthwhile, if just for this moment. He couldn’t believe it when Alterman told him they had been hired by his old church. Surely they knew where Templeton was these days? But they didn’t. The idea that they didn’t care offended him, and Alterman had seen that. In the space of about 10 seconds, that was all the time Alterman needed to hatch this latest and greatest audit of his career.

“You see, my friends, this is all about unpaid debts. When someone does you wrong, what do you say? You say, I owe you. It’s a debt. You got rid of my partner here and didn’t even pay him what you agreed to in his original contract. Why? Because you could. You wanted to borrow money, and he didn’t. I have to congratulate you too. This kind of incompetence would have rated you a bonus on Wall Street. I mean, you didn’t even research the names on my staff!”

Alterman gives Templeton an eye, pauses, and forges on.

“Did it ever occur to you that maybe he had a point that things might not always grow around here? Maybe it isn’t because of his lack of faith? Maybe it’s leadership when a man says things which aren’t what the rest of you want to hear? Did you ever stop to think that maybe the Lord was trying to tell you something through your pastor, something you needed to listen to?”

Alterman’s voice now is low and threatening, and Templeton has given enough sermons to know this is the tone a pastor adopts when he is about to issue the invitation to salvation. This is the business voice, not the one designed to wake up the deacon in the back who stayed up too late the night before watching football. This is the pin-drop voice.   

“Well, listen to this. Your church can’t grow, and it won’t grow, as long as you are careless with what you have. How did you construct a building this big, and yet leave no room for the presence of the Living God? This church isn’t yours, any more than it was Brother Templeton’s or your present pastor’s. It’s His. You can’t just sack people you don’t like any more than you can borrow money and expect everything to pay for itself. When the devil tempted Our Lord, Satan challenged Him to throw Himself from the Temple and dare the angels to rescue Him. He tempted Him with carelessness. You’re careless people. You can’t be careless with this. You can’t.”

 Alterman is finished. He nods as if to thank the stunned people in the room, and turns to leave. He gives Templeton a loving pat on the shoulder as they move toward the door. A few of Alterman’s thick reports have dropped to the floor from incredulous hands.

“Look here!” says the voice in the back, stirring. Alterman thinks, this is the guy who did Templeton in. Chaffey probably. It’s always the ones who don’t show themselves. “What you’re doing is deceitful! You’ve probably destroyed this church on a whim! Just to prove a point that’s already settled?”

Alterman turns to the voice, with a smile on his face.

“Yes, it’s deceitful,” he says. “You think we’re bad? You don’t think the devil worries about something like that, do you?”

As Alterman shuts the door, he hears someone who hasn’t spoken for the whole meeting demand, “Whose idea was it to bring them in?”

As the two of them are walking out of the church, Alterman says, without looking at Templeton, “You know, I’ve got something. Something big. We may need to get everybody together again for this one.”

“That’s good. Once word gets out about this, we may not be able to ever get another…”

“Are you kidding? We’ll have to fight them off with sticks after this.”

“Are you talking about clients or mobs?”

“This is big,” he said, ignoring Templeton and reassuring him at the same time. Alterman makes a mental note – he must send out the bill for this job tomorrow. He wonders if it will be paid.

 “You had this in mind all along, didn’t you?” Templeton asks. “You were waiting on this particular job to open up, weren’t you?”

“Weren’t you?”

  © 2015 William Thornton
You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Trust Me, You Have Never Read This Book

This is a review perhaps a century too late. And maybe that is appropriate. Sometimes a book has to wait an awfully long time to find its audience, even in unlikely places.

Perhaps it was an act of pity, or disbelief, which caused me to pick up a book from the castoff shelf at a store in Atlanta last week. These were the volumes that were left out on sidewalk shelves, selling for $1 - basically offered up for sacrifice to any lazy, literate thief. The faded red spine stated the title: “History of the States of Guernsey Telephone System,” by Alfred Rosling Bennett.

 The idea of the book seemed patently ridiculous. At first, I thought it was some prank, some highly esoteric bit of British humor. In case you don’t know, Guernsey is an island off the coast of Normandy that is not a part of the United Kingdom but a “possession of the Crown.” It occupies about 24½ square miles and lent its name to a world famous breed of cow. Victor Hugo lived there in exile and wrote “Les Miserables,” as well as a lesser-known novel of the island, “Toilers of the Sea.” After the fall of France in 1940, Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis until the German surrender, the island and its conquerors bypassed by the Allied invasion a year earlier.

I opened the book to find it really did have words inside. A slim 136 pages with an appendix. It wasn’t some joke volume bound with blank pages, like the gag “Everything Men Know About Women” one finds in knick-knack stores. “History” was published in 1926, and its yellowed, stained pages testified to the veracity of its age. I thought maybe it was an ironic title. Maybe this was some long-forgotten romance, about a boy, a girl, and the telephones of a tiny island in the English Channel. But no. This truly was a history, like those anniversary books written by someone’s industrious grandmother whenever a church celebrates its centennial, dutifully recording the names of Sunday School superintendents gathered to their fathers. I wondered how many years had gone by since this book had been last read, if it ever had been. And for some reason, I decided I would read it. 

Alfred Rosling Bennett, as I discovered, was an engineer, journalist, and pathfinder in the spread of the telegraph and telephone in the United Kingdom. He is more well-known for another book, “London and Londoners of the 1850s and 60s.” And he was absolutely instrumental in the development of the Guernsey Telephone System, as I was soon to discover.

I do not know whether Mr. Bennett was commissioned to write the island’s “telephonic” history or whether he took on the job himself. But I can assure you, he attacked it with the thoroughness, exactitude, and, yes, mirth, one would expect of a Victorian journalist/engineer.  This is evident as early as the introduction, when he records the judgment of an auditor that Guernsey has “the finest telephone system in the world.” A footnote at the bottom of the page quickly adds, as though panic-stricken at some barrister’s urging, “No claim to this effect is made.”

 As this narrative of 30 years spins out under his pen, Bennett’s tone veers from pioneer to proud parent, feeling no need to justify why one should want to read it. Consider this – when Bennett’s book was published, Guernsey had approximately 38,200 residents. One might expect a few of them to be curious about this book, but how many might actually buy it? And how many of those copies stood on shelves, their spines intact, taunting their purchasers? And why might someone on the other side of the planet, almost a century later in a world where phones are carried in pockets, want to read it?

There were skeptics when the idea of telephones on the island was first proposed, Bennett tells us. At a public meeting, he told the inhabitants that many cities, such as Glasgow, were seeking their own telephone systems. A skeptic in the crowd assured him that he had learned that very day that the Post Office had refused Glasgow a license. (The Post Office evidently being in charge of granting them at that time.) Bennett went to the trouble of telegraphing his contacts in Scotland to find this information erroneous. The speaker was later confronted, and stammered out apologies that he had been misinformed and had never meant to deceive. Still, there were persistent doubts. Some felt the system would only grow to perhaps 300 users at the most, and any estimate above that “would only expose the project to ridicule.”

The author also spends a great deal of the book dealing with a vicious cabal between the Post Office and the National Telephone Company to preserve their monopoly and deny the good citizens of Guernsey the telephone. This moves the book’s plot past dry columns of names and numbers and gives a sense of the island’s embattled destiny, as well as our engineer as both agent of change and historian.  The battle just to string wires and erect poles actually began without permission to proceed, he tells us, and ground to a halt while the legal niceties were settled months later. Then Bennett rewards his readers, carrying us back to those heady first moments when the port’s streets were “crossed and recrossed by numbers of bright red wires, attached to creamy-white insulators, all blinking and scintillating in the sun.” The age of wonders has arrived.
Ah, the loving care that our Mr. Bennett lavished on the unsuspecting audience! He recounts how in 1897 the telephone office took up temporary residence in a barnlike building between the Royal Court and the police station. While there, he entered his office once to find a table laid out for tea with a noncomformist pastor and 12 ladies engaged in a church committee meeting. They had been using the building for years, they explained, and couldn’t find new quarters. He gladly sat down to share a cup with them.

While working in the barn, he also made friends with a Russian who was conducting radio experiments in the police building’s basement. His attention to the sensibilities of his readership is evident, as he cannot let the mention of the Russian go without this explanation: 

“This Russian was of benevolent disposition – the word Bolshevik had not then been heard – for he gave a substantial sum to a family who had been burned out of their house in the Pollet, and on the occasion of a children’s party at Old Government House he lighted a Christmas tree with many variously-tinted little glow-lamps entirely at his own expense.” 

In between recounting the steady gains of the telephone system, which grew far beyond those 300 hoped-for lines, Bennett also introduces us to a universe of charming characters. There is the nameless operator who ran off with a woman to France, and the operator who mistakenly disconnected calls as soon as they were placed, as she was unfamiliar with the system. There is the woman who refused telephone service because keeping the lines open on Sunday might require a switchboard operator to break the Sabbath. The wire installation foreman who fled Guernsey after getting into a fistfight with an islander. The 107-year-old customer who received a phone, which she used until her long-tardy death nearly four years later. The child who mistook the telephone wires for the Equator she had only seen on maps. The French convict who escaped from the island prison –by climbing a telephone pole – and was caught later that day attempting to steal a boat. Caught by a telephone call, of course.

There are the friends of the author, such as Major-General F.B. Mainguy, R.E., Jurat., the patron of the telephone system, who insisted on its configuration and policies in order that no calls should ever be eavesdropped upon. We hear of other remarkable personages, but we only know them through a few anecdotes, such as the 150-year-old ghost of a murder victim who haunted the switch house and drove off an Irish family living there. Bennett gives us the fate of the Dorothy Watson, the ship that delivered the 448 telephone poles Guernsey required before sinking off the coast of Cornwall, its crew surviving. And he gives us the telephone council’s action of 1913, which installed a telephone at a lighthouse for fog-stymied vessels. Bennett tells us that, as of 1925, the phone had never been used, as “some more or less unreasonable objection exists to climbing a forty-two feet perpendicular ladder in a fog, from a tossing boat, in order to get to a telephone.”

And there is a world that sadly disappears as a new one emerges, built on the telephone poles and wires that begin to shoot up into the seaside sky. Some landowners see no need to cede even a few feet of their property for poles without compensation. A few neighborhood boys have to be told not to break the pole insulators with rocks as a summer prank, and they eventually acquiesce. The old guard of the telephone council slowly retires and dies, each death recorded with endearing anguish by the author. The coming of the Great War in 1914 requires guards for the switch houses, and assurances for soldiers once employed by the telephone service that they will still have their jobs should they survive the war. And there are the country men who, upon hearing the voice of a female operator on the line, instinctively stand and remove their hats when placing a call. “It is to be feared that a quarter of a century’s familiarity has rather rubbed that polish off,” Bennett tut-tuts, giving the epitaph for a vanished epoch.  

 Sadly, I never found the charming love story I suspected might be hiding in the pages. Maybe that awaits some writer in search of a piece of period literary fiction, or a screenwriter with Colin Firth in tow. The author’s engineering sensibility takes over at the climax, and he closes with columns of statistics and the results of an audit showing the financial rectitude of the Guernsey Telephone System. He is so enamored by its efficiency (9 ½ telephones for every 100 Guernseymen!) and its ultimate victory over the machinations of the Post Office that we lose the picture of our dear island and its customers. He frets presciently that the party line is an inefficient mode of communication, unaware that in another two decades the island will be dotted with swastikas.  

Mr. Bennett died just two years after the publication of this remarkable volume at the age of 78. I sense he had pride not only in bringing technology to Guernsey but in telling its story. And like every other author in the grip of a tale, he obviously felt it was worth telling, just as much as I, for some still mysterious reason, felt it worth reading.  

But no, that isn’t quite right. It was a story worth preserving between the covers of a book, and I can testify, a story that deserved a place on a shelf, and even might travel to corners of the world far from the author’s conception. That has always been the nature of stories – that they arrive in the hands of their audience and are, in some measure, powerless to shape how they are received. But I am curious, and even longing, to know what became of the generous inventive Russian and his colorful Christmas tree, and the woman who begged off the future, as personified by a wooden, bell-decorated box, to prevent the wrath of the Almighty.

The story of Guernsey, and her telephones is like every other - a story of human connectivity, of humanity in all its mundane glory, full of unremarked-upon remarkable lives - their enthusiasms , their annoying yet healthy skepticisms, their relentless perseverance.  

You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Read a story for Village Living here.
Read a story for Fox6 here. 
Read a story in The Gadsden Times on the book here.
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here.