-.2R7,-\\ISE AT MIDNIGHT BOOKS & THE CULTURE I BY BARBARA BELEJACK Luck of the Irish After graduating from Northeastern University Law School in Boston, Martha McCabe moved to Deep East Texas. It was the 1970s and the perfect setting for a young lawyer. Elsewhere in the South, the civil rights movement may have ebbed, but in Deep East Texas things were just getting started. For 11 years, McCabe worked on civil rights cases as a lawyer in private practice; by her own estimate, she heard some 5,000 people speak about their lives. Decades later, those stories would work their way into her subconscious and onto the pages of Praise at Midnight, her recently published debut in a fictional Deep East Texas town called San Bernardo, the novel is a complex portrait of a place that is burdened by historical divisions of race and class, city and countrya place where justice has always moved swiftly and predictably. Just months after the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Texas death penalty statute man named Sherwin Ellis is charged with the murder of Ed Covey, a motel owner who dabbled in loan sharking. Stepping in as special prosecutor is Hayden Shipley, the town’s leading lawyer, who is also having an affair with the defendant’s cousin. Representing Ellis is 28-year-old Bill Mermann, a hapless young man who ends up trying the case when the big time civil rights lawyer from Houston is mysteriously pulled away at the last minute. Added to the mix of characters are a county sheriff with a terrible secret; a circuitriding judge biding time for an appointment to a higher court; and an FBI agent keeping tabs on the nascent civil rights movementand on a senior U.S. senator known to engage in sex with some of the county’s loveliest young black women. Things get really interesting when, against all odds, the town’s lone Communist becomes an alternate juror. McCabe began working on the novel while studying fiction at Texas State University, where she received her MFA in creative writing. She now lives in San Antonio and works as general counsel for the Alamo Community College District. She has also worked for several state agencies and as special assistant to former lieutenant governor Bob Bullock. Recently McCabe spoke to the Observer about life and law, Deep East Texas, and the art of writing fiction. Excerpts follow: Texas Observer: You grew up in upstate New York but your family has longstanding Texas ties. Martha McCabe: My mother’s family, the Bordens, came to Texas around the 18-teens. The big impetus to Irish immigration before the famine was the penal laws of the 1790s, which precluded Irish land ownership and voting. The three brothers carved out their niches, one was a surveyor and laid out part of the city of Houston. One had the first English newspaper in Texas, based in Galveston. Gail, my lineal ancestor, rambled around, failing in businesses here and there and running through an amazing number of wives. I think he buried four wives. He apparently was a dreamer and engaged in various efforts to make it big. It wasn’t until war presented the opportunity for maximum profit that he really hit the big time. He went up north at the outbreak of the Civil War and hooked up with a venture capitalist, as we would say today. And although my mother bridles at my adolescent use of the word, he stoleas far as we can determinethe technique for condensing milk that the Shakers had developed. Because the Shakers were godly people, they did not believe in recourse to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. So he got their technique, patented it, and the rest is history. That was the basis of the Borden Dairy Company. He wasn’t ever in the big leagues with the Fricks and the Harrimans and the Vanderbilts, but he did manage to get a toehold in the sweet life of the gilded age. He left Texas just prior to the Civil War and put his bets on the Union side. He became a war profiteeras soon as he got the technique from the Shakers, the first thing he did was sell milk to the Union army. Like many another, he built the foundation of his fortune on a public contract. TO: What brought you to East Texas as a young lawyer in the 1970s? MM: 1974. There’s a bit of a story: I had a boyfriend at the time who was going to South Texas College of Law. I wanted to try cases and I didn’t nec 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 2, 2005
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