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Willie Wilson's Long-Awaited Memoir Has Arrived

Jan. 21, 2005 – One young man writes a poem, another throws a rock. Later, the poet publishes a memoir, the rock thrower becomes a murderer and then a fugitive. Could those simple early acts have dictated the direction their separate lives took? Or is it simply the nature of the poet or the rock thrower that ordains their separate destinies?
Would the story have ended differently if both had gone off to boarding school, instead of Vietnam as the rock thrower did?
This is the nature of the first question posed by St. Thomas writer Willie Wilson in his recently published, excruciatingly readable memoir, "Glassbottom Days."
The second question, and perhaps the one which prompted Wilson to put pen to paper many years ago: what is the nature of memory? Can it be called accurate – especially forty years later? Or is memory merely the story that is left after being filtered by time and assumptions? Is all of life just our semi-fictionalized versions of our separate realities?
In this beautifully crafted account of a boy who, as Wilson describes it, was taken up by "the scruff of the neck and dropped" somewhere else – somewhere unfamiliar – at the tender age of 10, Wilson explores the nature of happenstance. He wonders if, "events determine who you become."
The metaphor of the glass-bottomed view, Wilson explains, represents the nature of memory.
"As you drift across a reef, things pop out at you." But for large parts of the voyage you see nothing more than "a bleak gray plain with not much going on." Those are the parts we don't remember. It is the large and colorful events that we must struggle to somehow tie together through the murky shadows in order to make sense of the journey.
It is the images that "pop out" that are significant, Wilson says – the huge brain coral, or the brilliant purple of the sea fans — that when tied together give meaning to a life.
His gently moving memory of growing up an outsider on St. Thomas in the 50s and 60s begins with a violent and prolonged street fight between his father and Anton Merced, a fictional name for a real character in Wilson's life. The fight ended when a 12-year-old child threw a brick hitting Wilson's father in the ribs. The 12-year-old, Jimmy Merced, another fictional name, grew up to kill several people on a golf course on St. Croix. In his book Wilson calls the incident the "Sweet Bottom Massacre."
The use of fictional names for real people and events was a promise Wilson made to the father of the murderer, without whom Wilson says he could have never woven his tale of the parallel lives lived by Wilson and "Merced's" son.
In an almost tragically ironic turn of events, the real "Anton Merced" died less than a month before Wilson's first box of freshly-printed books arrived on island.
But the relationship between Wilson's family and the fictional Merceds is only one of threads weaving through "Glassbottom Days."
Wilson has managed to intertwine the feelings of a young man growing up anywhere with the realities of being a transplanted adolescent growing up on St. Thomas in the 50s and 60s. His tales of adventures on Hassel Island with his friend Niles, summer camp on St. John, secret revelations about a mountain top crack in reality – all of these memories combine with falling in love, being bullied and loss of innocence.
Wilson describes one of his earliest thoughts upon arriving on St. Thomas from Rye, N.Y.
He had walked up Crystal Gade to Raadet's Gade and looked down to the harbor where a huge ship sat at anchor.
"This is a really different world," he remembers thinking.
In his earlier, highly-acclaimed book, "Up Mountain One Time," Wilson's artist wife Karen Bertrand provided the splendid illustrations for her husband's story.
She was the designer and artist for the cover of "Glassbottom Days," which illustrates a picture of the life Wilson has chronicled in his tale – his.
Wilson has the look of a new father as he gazes fondly at the results of 20 years of labor. After three major drafts and several attempts to crack the tough nut of New York publishing to get editors to offer more than glowing feedback, Wilson finally took matters into his own hands and published "Glassbottom Days" himself.
From the stitched binding, to the soft, pleasurable- to- touch pages, Wilson and Bertrand made every decision about the book themselves.
Wilson, a teacher at Antilles School, is quick to explain that the 20 years spent putting the true tale of his life together was done during summer vacations and holidays.
"I spent some time on weekends, but mostly I did the work in the summertime," he says.
As for the decision to write a memoir instead of a fictionalized story of murder and mayhem in paradise, Wilson writes in the author's note, " This book could … have been rendered as fiction, which would have allowed me to place myself at the scene of a murder, or aboard a hijacked airliner. Tempting as that was, I have chosen to stick to real life, which has its own wonders."
He adds, "The lines between memory and imagination are, at best, like those drawn in the sand. But I have tried to be truthful; the essential events in this book actually happened and that matters to me."
"Glassbottom Days,"published by Bonne Resolution Press is 259 pages and is priced at $25. It is available locally at Dockside Bookshop. Or you can e-mail Wilson at wwilson@antilles.vi to order a copy.

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