Help! Need Reviews – Amazon Strikes Again!

I noticed a couple of weeks ago that Amazon seems to have, once again, removed a number of reviews even though I don't use paid reviewers for my products and so I'd ask anyone who has read any of my books to take a minute, if it isn't too much trouble, and head on over to Amazon.com and GoodReads.com and leave a review on any of my books they have read.

Apparently, Amazon has now initiated a policy where on some occasions they remove reviews from people who are your social media contacts. Since I do my best to interact with readers as much as possible, both in person and online, and have accounts on almost all of the social media sites I can only assume this is why some of the reviews were removed.

This happened last year (I think it was last year) when I lost a number of reviews with no explanation from Amazon (who also owns Goodreads) despite a request for them to explain what happened. As I said, I don't use paid reviews, unlike some other authors from the large publishing houses, and I can't tell why these were targeted but I know it happened to a number of independent writers all within a few days of each other. I applaud Amazon's attempts to make sure people aren't just buying reviews and are doing their best to police this practice but there appears to be some issues with their algorithms and if they actually are removing those of people who have "liked" a Faceboo page or interacted with a social media site then it does a great disservice to both independent authors and their readers, both of whom are Amazon customers.

In the online world of book sales, you live or die based on your reviews since people tend to buy what other people have liked and I can only ask those of you who have read my works to take a minute and leave a few words at these two sites or any others you go to.

I hate to impose on anyone but it would be much appreciated.

My Journey of Re-evaluation

It's really strange how things, good and bad, always seem to happen for a reason. I've also noticed time and time again that God, Fate, Gaia, the Cosmos, or sheer, dumb coincidence, depending on your belief system, tends to remind us some things need to be addressed or taken care of at different times in our life.

If you're reading this post, then there's a 99% chance you already know I'm a writer and have been writing to some degree since I was in junior high school. I don't profess to be a great writer or a gifted writer, just a writer.

But there are a lot of writers out there and there are various levels to being a writer, not only levels of talent but also levels of willingness. These include a willingness to write about things which make us uncomfortable, a willingness to try and write a short story (because those are hard),  or the willingness to devote enough AIC (Ass in Chair) time to finish writing a book and then the willingness to either seek a publisher or spend extra time and effort self-publishing, which comes with its own challenges and rewards.

In another post I'll discuss a trip I took to Natchitoches on June 6, and finding a patch of low bush huckleberries with my Uncle Mike in Kisatchie National Forest. For those of you who read my book, The Bottle Tree, you'll remember huckleberries played a part in the story.

Not long after, I was writing at my desk when my Jack Russell Terrier 'Sup began barking and having a fit on my desk, his usual resting place when my wife isn't home. I looked out the window to see a raccoon in the front yard, calmly eating something she was picking from the ground. While I live in a small East Texas town, I do live in the city limits and  this is the first raccoon I have ever seen in the area but she has apparently taken up residence here now. Again, raccoons and 'coon hunting play a part in The Bottle Tree.

Other things kept happening to remind me of my book, the first one I published although not the first one I'd written but those are enough examples for me to share and, as I said, sometimes things happen to get our attention for a reason.  

On June 17, 2015, 21 year old Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, sat through a church service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and then, after discussing Scriptures,  pulled a Glock .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol from a fanny pack and shot ten African American members of the congregation, nine of whom died. While shooting them he is reported to have shouted racial epithets and said, "Y'all want something to pray about? I'll give you something to pray about." He also reloaded his pistol five times. The victims ranged in age from 26 to 87.

The book description of The Bottle Tree on Amazon and other sites is:

Deep within the piney forests of central Louisiana, three children learn that life amid the turpentine and lumber camps they call home is not what defines who they are, or who they will become as adults. In the early 1900s, Louisiana’s forests were home to hard working men who made turpentine from the piney lumber by day, and then went home to the clapboard houses in company camps set up around the sawmills. If they were lucky, they had families waiting for them when they got there. The Bottle Tree is a gripping account of life in a turpentine camp for 3 resilient families and their children, who must face this harsh environment in order to survive. Leesie, Johnny, and Caleb endure many of the same hardships as their parents, but once their bond is forged, the trio takes a stand against one of the camp’s most common problems: the struggle with racism. While the segregated camp feeds adult insecurities, Leesie and Caleb befriend Johnny and begin teaching each other that racial divides are fabricated by ignorance and fear; 2 qualities each child refuses to possess. The Bottle Tree will make you laugh and cry and leave you entertained.

At its core The Bottle Tree is about racism and hate for no reason other than the color of a person's skin.

Many of you know that the Johnny Robinson in the story  was named after a friend of mine I went to school with in Provencal, Louisiana. Although he was the first black person I knew, I never really thought of his or his family's skin color. He was always just a nice kid that I wish I'd kept in touch with when I'd moved away. I still saw him when I'd come back to the school to visit, just as I'd see the other people I'd known, but anytime I saw racial issues pop up wherever I was my mind would always snap back to Johnny and how race had never really been an issue in that small, Louisiana school way out in the country.

As I mentioned in the prior post, I had always been "proud of my southern heritage" based on oral family traditions and was surprised to learn from my research that my family had actually owned slaves. Not only slaves but teenaged slaves.

Once I learned that, all the crap about Southern Heritage goes out the window. While my forefathers may have believed in state's rights, etc., the simple fact is that if they owned a slave, even one, at the time of the Civil War then the presumption must be that they were fighting to preserve the right to own that human being and, I'm sorry, say what you will but only an uneducated fool can call that something of which to be proud.

Not only that, but the simple fact is that many of the black (or African American, whichever term you prefer) families that live in the rural south are direct descendants of the slaves who were freed in that area.

For me, what that means is the kids I went to school with, Johnny and others, could very well have been descended from or relatives of the very people my ancestors once owned.

I'm all for learning about your ancestors. Studying history, good or bad, is important because as philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

I'm not getting into a discussion of the Confederate Flag here, this isn't a political website, although I'll be glad to discuss my views one on one if anyone wants to talk to me about it but what I will say is that between 1900 and the segregation years of 1950s-1960s the flag wasn't being used or flown anywhere on a regular basis and the talk of it representing "Southern Heritage" simply didn't exist in any resources I've been able to find other than those dedicated to the history of the confederacy.

As I said at the beginning, this is my journey of re-evaluation, so make of it what you will and choose to stand pat on your own views or re-examine them as your conscience sees fit. It's not my duty to judge you.

It is, however, the duty of history and future generations to judge us.

Big Thanks to the Folks at Kisatchie National Forest and the US Forest Service

Kisatchie National Forest-2As anyone who reads my books, my website, or knows me personally, my family has been "inextricably intertwined" (a legal term that applies in other situations) with Natchitoches Parish and the Kisatchie National Forest area in Louisiana since settlers began appearing in the area. I kicked around an idea for a book for years before choosing to set The Bottle Tree in a turpentine camp that actually existed in Kisatchie in the early 1900s.

Every time I visit Natchitoches I can feel the woods/forest calling and I love hitting the back trails and roads in there, walking occasionally and riding the rest, and visiting place I've been going to since I was old enough to walk for a while and then be carried by my grandfather or uncle the rest of the way.

On my last visit, my Uncle Mike and I were driving the back roads and a turkey suddenly darted out of the woods and then slowed to amble across the dirt road in front of us. He stopped the car and I shot a short video of the hen while waiting for others to appear since she acted like she might have been a part of a larger flock following her. We didn't see any more but did get to watch her for several minutes (video coming soon!).

I had heard the wild turkeys were making a comeback in the forest and then I spoke to my uncle again last week and he said he had seen a Bobwhite Quail not far from there just a few days before. I remember when I was a kid, many, many years ago, and we'd go out there with a relative of ours, Bud Gandy, who loved quail hunting and he'd always find plenty. It wasn't unusual for us to bust a covey during our walks through the woods (and when you're always expecting rattlesnakes, a covey of quail busting out from under your feet is a truly exhilarating experience) but over the years the Bobwhite and the turkeys had virtually disappeared. 

During one of our exploring trips last year we'd walked up on a section of the forest where there were a number of pine trees with large white painted sections on them, metal strips nailed around the tree (to prevent climbing animals) and holes drilled a ways up the tree with sap running down. Not far from those we found what we originally thought might have been a small trap on the ground with fencing running in four directions leading into it. We thought it might have been a quail trap so someone could take a count of the numbers.

What we found out was that the trap was actually one designed not for quail but for "America's Rarest Snake", Louisiana's Pine Snake, a number of which were released back into its natural range there in Kisatchie by the Forest Service (for more info on this see this article).

Red-cockaded Woodpecker NCM11002

The holes in the trees were part of an effort to improve habitat for the Red Cockaded Woodpeckers in the area (see article here). Interestingly, the Red Cockaded Woodpecker has significantly less red on their head than the other species in the area but to anyone who sees one flying, they still fly in the distinctive up and down woodpecker flight motion.

Those are just a few of the huge number of animals the good folks at the forest service are doing such a great job of protecting.

As I stop by various lookout points and springs, many of which most people don't know anything about, I was struck by the fact that I could have been standing on an area that my grandfather worked on when he was living at the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp located near where the Kisatchie visitor's center is now located since many of the roads, trails, and other feature were created by those men trying to work their way out of the Great Depression.

I'll be back in Natchitoches for the NSU Folklife Festival on July 17-18 (if you're in the area stop by the festival and say hello), but I suspect that I'll either get there a day early or stay a day or two afterwards to hit the woods again. I'm a lot older, a lot fatter, my back hurts, and my knees ache from all the motorcycle wrecks I had back in my youth (many of them in Kisatchie) but I always feel a little better no matter how tired I am, how out of shape, or how hot it gets when I get back to my roots.

I want to thank the US Forest Service and particularly those people who work out in the Kisatchie National Forest area for what they are doing there. I know that when I have grand-children I'll be able to take them to the same trails, eat huckleberries off of the same huckleberry bushes, and fish in the same fishing holes as my family has been doing for two hundred or more years. The turkeys I see, the Bobwhite Quail I hear whistling, and the rattlesnakes I watch out for, will likely be the descendants of the same ones that roamed the woods and my ancestors saw. 

Without people choosing to be the stewards for the rest of us, working hard, not making enough money, but caring about the area and the environment all of those things might not be here now or might not be here in the future.

Thanks.

Heritage and Facts – This Will FORCE Me to Re-evaluate

The kick in the teeth came today while I was looking over the internet and all of the discussion regarding the church shooting in Charleston, SC, and, by the way, the number of idiots posting on the internet about this is astounding.

As you know, a little while back I wrote a piece on my journey of self discovery as it regards family history, slavery, and civil rights.

I knew that several of my ancestors had fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War and I was proud of the fact, just as I'm proud of the ones who fought in all the other wars and the ones who didn't serve in the military at all. 

When you are judging what your ancestors did, to a certain extent you have to judge it in the climate and the circumstances of that time. It doesn't necessarily excuse "bad" behavior, but it may make their actions less reprehensible or make it more understandable that they did such things than the same actions (or omissions) would today.

I had always assumed that my ancestors fought on the side of the Confederacy because they lived in the South, they viewed the attitudes and actions of the North as offensive, and because, at one point, their homeland was "invaded" (for more information on that topic see the Red River Campaign of 1864).

The oral family history indicated we'd always been "dirt poor farmers" (my words) and I'd looked at census records when I started doing genealogical research (I am an absolute novice at this) and had never seen any indication that the farmers had slaves at all, just a bunch of children which I'm quite sure had been put to work in the fields at as early an age as possible.

However, I wondered if I had the whole story and so, on a whim, I decided to dig a little deeper and do some research on how to find out if someone owned slaves right before the Civil War. What I discovered was unsettling in a number of ways.

In 1860, the US census was a little different than some of the others, which listed slaves on the same pages as the other members of the household. This particular year, the slaves were listed on a separate document called a "slave schedule" which lists the slave owners by name and then the slaves they owned by gender and age.

I'm researching the maternal side of my family at this moment and so I chose one ancestor that I knew who was alive in 1860, had been in the Civil War (he died of Typhus or Typhoid in 1862), and who owned land. I looked up his name on the slave schedule.

In 1860 he owned two slaves, one 16 year old male and one 14 year old female.

Admittedly, I was a little shaken. I chose to look up another ancestor, one who isn't listed in the official records as having served in the war.

In 1860 he owned one slave, a 14 year old male.

I stopped my research at that point. I'll go back to it later, because ignoring history doesn't change it or make it go away.

To those claiming the right to fly the Confederate flag is a matter of heritage and that it wasn't about slavery, it may be time for you to go back and do a little digging in your family tree. I thought my ancestors were fighting for an "ideal" and now I have to acknowledge that at least a portion of those principles were that they wanted to own another human, in the limited research essentially three kids, to make it easier on themselves. Not something I particularly want to celebrate.

What's particularly troubling to me about this isn't that I was operating under erroneous facts, that happens to everyone occasionally, it's not really that my ancestors owned slaves because while that was wrong, there is really nothing I can do about that. What is really troubling is that there is a good chance that I may know the descendants of these slaves quite well.

This all plays into the real characters that influenced my first published book, The Bottle Tree, and I must say it has really, really had a deep and, I suspect, a lasting effect on me.

More on that at another time, when I've had the chance to reflect and consider.

Calling All Book Clubs!

Calling all book clubs

One of the things I enjoy most about being a writer is interacting with readers and potential readers. I always learn something new about them, the subject of my book, or, just as often, about myself. As a matter of fact, the only thing I don’t like about doing book signings is that often it gets so hectic I don’t get to spend as much time interacting with individuals as I would like.

Unfortunately, it seems as if reading is becoming a lost art and I would love to do anything I can to help keep it stay alive.

If there are any book clubs out there looking for a writer to speak to their group, either in person or via Skype, or to help them with some type of promotion drop me an email and let me know. I’ve donated autographed books or collections of books in the past and have also agreed to let readers name characters in future books as a way to help clubs.

My schedule is pretty flexible and I’m willing to drive to meetings in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Louisiana (or maybe further!) and Skype is always a possibility. I don’t ask for expenses since I’m always doing research on different parts of the country and the chances are good that no matter where you are located I’ve got a project being researched near you.

The offer applies to libraries and schools as well. Last year I was honored to be asked to accompany Dr. Shane Rasmussen, the head of the Louisiana Folklife Center at Northwestern State University, to a storytelling session at the Coushatta Elementary School (in Louisiana) and had a tremendous time talking to several classes of students there. I was even luckier since the older of my twin sons, Robert Michael Bennett, went with me and the students got to hear a little about his backpacking trip across Europe from which he’d just returned.

So…drop me a line if I can be of any help. I’m always happy to add dates to my calendar.

2015 Natchitoches-NSU Louisiana Folklife Festival

2015-Folk Life Festival

Summer is here and everyone is looking for something fun to do. I'd like to suggest that you consider visiting the 2015 Natchitoches-NSU Louisiana Folklife Festival held in beautiful and historic Natchitoches, Louisiana at the Prather Coliseum on the campus of Northwestern State University. Most of the exhibits (including my booth) are inside the air conditioned coliseum so you can escape the heat and see some great craftsmen, hear good music and try Louisiana foods.

The Folklife Festival is set for July 17th-18th, 2015, and the theme this year is Backroads and Bayous: Celebrating Louisiana's Rural Folklife.

The link to the festival website with the schedule and bands is here.

My wife and I used to visit this every year from when we were first married continuing through when we moved away and then we were lucky enough to be invited to start attending as exhibitors when I started publishing books a number of years ago. The festival is put on by the folks at the Northwestern State University Folklife Center and they do a great job every year. The cost is low and it is well worth the expense plus, if you've never been to Natchitoches, it's a great time to visit my hometown.

Natchitoches is the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, founded in 1714, just a short distance from the location of the festival.

If you do decide to attend be sure and stop by my booth and visit with me. I'll have books there for sale but I like to visit with everyone whether they purchase or not and my family has lived in the Natchitoches are since its founding. I've actually been learning about its history since I was a very, very small child through the stories my relatives told in addition to the enormous number of hours I've spent doing formal research so I can probably point you to some interesting places that most people don't know about as well as the more touristy ones. My kids can tell you that no matter where you are in Natchitoches Parish I can probably point in a direction and tell you something fun or historic not far away (much to their boredom at times).

Anyway, it really is a great festival and Dr. Shane Rasmussen and his staff are working hard to preserve the Louisiana culture and heritage, focusing on not just the bayous and swamps of the southern part of the state or New Orleans.