As a child in 1940s Wales, Enfys McMurry listened and watched as Luftwaffe bombers hummed in accord during the Germans’ Blitz of London, Birmingham and Coventry. She grew up in the coalmining village of Llwynypia, which translated from Welsh means 'magpie bush.' She was born in a hospital on the side of a mountain. Her grandfather was a coal miner at a time in Wales when one miner was killed every four hours. During World War II, her family filed down to air-raid shelters at night. They sat in the dark and listened to the thunder.
“When I was 11, in that day and age, there was an academic examination that all kids had to sit, and you were sifted out,” McMurry says. “The academic ones, and the middle ones, and then the ones that there was no hope for at all. You go to separate schools. I went to an all-girls school.
“The head teacher—her name was Enid Walker. She took the most instant dislike to me. I told kids when I was teaching, ‘No one’s gone through anything worse in high school than I’ve gone through.’ And they said, “Well, tell us about it!’
“It’s like something out of Charles Dickens. I was precocious. That must have frightened her. And the fact that I was raised in a political home where I was never put down for giving my opinion. I can remember a minister coming to the house when I was a little girl, and there was a world map—it was the Second World War. My mother had been a teacher. We were looking for the Russians, for the Germans, for the Americans—we were following the movements of the war on the map with little pins with flags on them.
“This minister started asking my sister, who was five years old at the time, a lot of questions, and she was answering. Then he turned to me and said, ‘Now, you’re too little to know this, but what’s the capitol of England?’ I said London. He asked me the capitol of America. Then he got clever, and he asked me the capitol of Iceland. I said, ‘Reykjavik!’ So he turned to my mother and said, ‘A child this age shouldn’t know this sort of thing.’ And my mother said, ‘If you don’t mind, in this house, we totally respect what our children have to say.’ So I’ve grown up with that.
“In this school, there was a course called civics. And this head teacher taught the course. She came into the classroom, and would immediately expound her own opinion. All the students were mute. She said, ‘The minute you mix religion and politics, religion goes out the window,’ with nothing more to be said. So I said, ‘Ms. Walker, I profoundly disagree. Because look at Sir Stafford Cripps that’s in the parliament…’ and before I could get any further, she said, ‘Oh, girls, I forgot. We have the mastermind in here.’ She was a total [female dog] to me, right. It was put down, put down, put down.
“On the day I left school, she was waiting for me outside the gate. She said, ‘Enfys, you’ve never listened to anything I’ve ever told you,’ and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s accurate, Ms. Walker.’ She said, ‘Well, you will remember my final words—everything you ever touch, my dear, will turn to complete and utter failure.’
“About a year later, my mother met her in a bus station. She turned to my mother and said, ‘I understand Enfys was very unhappy when she was in school.’ And my mother replied, ‘You know, Ms. Walker, I’m a teacher too. And if any student had been as unhappy with me as Enfys was with you for seven years—I’d have wondered about myself as a teacher.’
“She committed suicide the next day.
“I’ve told so many kids—and I had enormous self-control—she’d have chucked me out of that school if I’d have answered her in a rude way. Which would’ve been humiliating for my parents. But I had a sister who would launch out into attacks, so I had learned, and I’ve still got it—I am self-control. Maybe that’s bad to be a writer, I don’t know [laughing].
“Whatever life throws at you, when you get to my age, you realize, 'Oh my God, that was a gift!’ The fact this woman treated me like that is a gift. You’ve got to be old enough to see it. Because when I was about 23 years old, and I was teaching in the east end of London, they tried to put a memorial in this town for this awful head mistress.
“There was a knock at the door, and another of the teachers that I’d had said, ‘I understand Enfys is home from London, can I come talk to her?’ So my mother allowed her in. She said, ‘Enfys, we’re collecting money for a memorial for Ms. Walker.’ And I said, ‘You won’t get a penny from me.’ So there was silence, and she said, ‘Enfys, we know it was bad, surely now you can move on and give her a memorial.’
I said, ‘She’ll get a memorial, all right—I’ll never speak to a single student in my class as she spoke to me. That’s her memorial.’ See what a gift that is?”
McMurry lived in Wales until she was 18 years old, before she attended college in London. She taught elementary school in London and in Wales—when her mother was dying, she returned home to nurse her.
In all, she taught in Great Britain for seven and a half years. Before that, though, she traveled the great distance from Wales to Arizona for college, where she met Corydon native Earl McMurry, whom she later married in London in 1963. Their son, John, was born in London in 1967. The couple migrated back to America when John was around a year old. Her husband taught at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he was head of a small
They stayed there about four years, before the university wanted him to change his citizenship to Canadian.
“If he was to go on the tenure track, they said it would vastly aid him to renounce his American citizenship,” McMurry says. “He looked at me and said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do that.’ So we came back without a job and lived north of Promise City. He was putting roofs on houses, and his self-esteem was going down. Finally, he was hired at Truman State, teaching physics there.
“Then, a job opened up as science teacher at Indian Hills’ Centerville campus. They knew Earl’s reputation, because the man in charge was Dick Sharp, who had gone through Corydon High School. Eventually, I got a job teaching kids that had dropped out of high school. Then the English position opened up at the Centerville campus, and I moved into that job and was there for 23 years. Loved it. Adored it.
“You know what is happening at colleges—they’re trying to take more and more teachers in as adjuncts, because then they don’t have to provide medical coverage, etc.—it’s a riot. That’s what’s happening at universities all over America.”
McMurry also mentions that her husband—with a PhD in physics from London, and as a former college geophysics professor—could not get a job as a high school teacher in Corydon because he did not have his teaching certificate.
“One of the teachers at the high school said that Earl knew more about physics at 15 than she knew with a degree in it,” McMurry says. “Part of his science is now on Curiosity on Mars [a rover studying the planet, which landed in 2011].
“And that’s what’s wrong with our education system! We should have kids with PhDs teaching elementary-age kids.”
One thing that McMurry has seen improve in Iowa is young people’s attitudes toward race. In the past 20 years, as a college English professor, McMurry describes the alteration as 180 degrees. When I described my understanding of the prevalence of racism during high school in the early 1990s, she corrected her posture and exclaimed, “Have you seen the difference?
“One of the courses I had to teach at Indian Hills was speech. So kids in the past would be standing up there making speeches, and I would be going, ‘Oh, my God. How do I handle this?’ Now in America, it’s easy to handle racism. Because you just look at people straight in the face and say, ‘All men are created equal, aren’t they?’
“Let me tell you, in the 23 years I taught at Indian Hills, a 180-degree change. I had one girl start giving a speech where racism was in there. I didn’t have to say one word—every kid in there stared and withered her. So that’s the younger generation. People are changing. You can see the shift coming. And the younger generation, I love them, because they’ve made the mental shift—by the way, they’re doing it in Britain, as well, but they’re a little bit behind the younger generation of Americans.”
McMurry’s life might have been much different, however, if she had allowed a suitor to woo her to sit on his arm in parliament. Ironically, a pair of racist Germans helped convince her to follow a saner path.
“I was going to marry an Englishman named Peter, and he wanted to be a member of the British Parliament. But he said I wasn’t clever enough or pretty enough to be at his side. Can you see what a flaming egotist he was?
“I went to the University of Arizona on a Latin-American scholarship—because they’d run out of other scholarships.
“No sooner than I’d gotten to Arizona, then he’d changed his mind. I’d be sitting in a lecture room in Tucson, and a girl would come up to me with a piece of paper, and say, ‘You’re getting a phone call from Great Britain.’ My mother had cancer, so I thought, oh God. But it wasn’t. It was the Englishman crying because he’d changed his mind. He was going to live with a woman from Norway, and she’d turned him down. Would I now go back? Well, by this
time I’d met Earl and I was beginning to enjoy myself.
“The next thing, I get an airline ticket straight from Tucson from London. I sent the ticket back. The next thing he did—he taught at the University of Liverpool—I get a letter from the Liverpool Education Committee saying thank you for your application, you start teaching in this classroom at this time. And
then came the third one, which was from the British income tax people, to say Peter had been claiming me as a dependent, and would I please sign these forms.
“Now, I get back to Britain, and he’s waiting for me off the boat. There were a group of young Germans on this boat. I had a bit of a fight with them in conversation. I tried to think of something tactful to say, and I said, ‘we really admire how Germany has recovered after the war.’
“And one of them said, ‘you know how we did it? We got rid of all the Jews.’
“Well, that’s it for me. If someone’s a racist, they’re on their way to hell—I can’t deal with them. I was so shocked. But, those young German men turned to me and said, with Peter at the bottom of the gangplank, ‘Promise us you will not marry him.’ They could see—they picked up on his egotism.’”
Instead of following Peter, who eventually did become a member of parliament, McMurry followed her husband Earl to America. Though they later divorced, she still cares for Earl. He lives with Alzheimer’s, and she turns the television to the Science Channel every morning.
When McMurry isn’t enjoying a cup of Welsh tea that she orders from a British grocery store in Ames, she is working on one of her literary projects. After over 10 years of research and writing, McMurry published 'Centerville: A
Mid-American Saga' in November of 2012. As opposed to other locales in Iowa with large populations of one nationality, such as Danish or Dutch, McMurry sees America more appropriately represented by the diversity of Centerville, where African-Americans, 60 Jewish families with a synagogue, and various other peoples merged.
“People are fascinated by the five chapters on the Klu Klux Klan—how the Klan took over the town, and how people rose up, eventually.”
McMurry has moved on, and is now researching a novel about an era that has always fascinated her. She is combining Oscar Wilde’s marriage, and family life with his two sons, and rumors of his sexuality, Charles Darwin’s death and the uproar over whether he should be buried in Westminster Abbey, the revolt in Ireland, and the eruption of Mount Krakatoa, along with the discovery of
cuneiform tablets with the story of the flood 3,000 years before the Biblical story—the 'Epic of Gilgamesh'—with the backdrop of the Victorian era.
“The father of the family is based on George Alfred Walker,” McMurry says, “a doctor who discovered effluence flowing down alleyways in Drury Lane, and that it was partially because sewers were flowing over—and people were drinking the water and dying like flies. But also, it was coming from disintegrating graveyards. He led a campaign to seal up graves in central London.”
When she was working at Indian Hills, she wrote to the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop to see if she could get six credits. She spent that time writing an early draft.
“The people who judged it thought it was a terrific story. They said, ‘You’ve got bombs going off, you’ve got redemption,’ but I hadn’t developed the characters properly.
“Where I am now, I really need an agent, but I’m not going to act until the idea that’s been in my mind for forty years coalesces—which is why I have so many books, and why so many are toppling down.
“In the 1970s, I read a bestselling novel, 'Ragtime,' by E.L. Doctorow. He interweaved different members of a family from 1901 to about 1909 in America. I’ve read the book about twenty times. I’ve taken notes, I’ve
underlined—the book is falling to pieces. I want to take that as a kind of a template about Victorian England.
“When I was a little girl growing up in Wales, I always said I wanted to go to London. Even when I go now, I find it so noisy, with too many people everywhere, that I have no desire to live there unless I was a multimillionaire, who could live in a quiet, exclusive place. The quietness of the country I prefer.”
For now, McMurry will sit in a white room with her 22-year-old cat and drink Welsh tea, legions of dog-eared books piled in corners and bulging from shelves. Occasionally, she will try to lure the postmistress in for a cup. She can take a step out of her door to see the Iowa countryside, walk down to the corner to listen to the quietness, and then return to a couch and scribble away as the sun fades through her west window.