December 8, 2015
I’ve picked up my project of reading around America with some books about Louisiana. This was in preparation for a trip to New Orleans in December. Part of the joy of travel for me is the pre-trip planning, which is fed by research and reading. This dovetailed nicely with my Armchair America project.
I needed to remind myself that the purpose of my armchair reading is to get a taste of the state’s culture, people, landscape and history. One of the reasons I’ve been remiss in keeping up the series (my last post was in March) is that all the “required” reading seemed daunting. I tend to go overboard and try to read too exhaustively. I’ve decided to pull back from attempting an in-depth review and return to the idea of savoring a few good books that represent things that are quintessential about the states.
I sent queries to two libraries in Louisiana asking for book recommendations, but I did not get a response. So Here are the books I read about Louisiana or by Louisiana writers:
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Jack Bolling is a rather privileged man from a New Orleans family, but he has difficulty settling into the expected life of career and family. His Aunt Em has plenty of advice for him: “A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is the victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.” Jack does not want to disappoint his aunt, but he cannot pretend to be something that he is not. “I would not change places with him if he discovered the cause and cure of cancer, for he is no more aware of the mystery which surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in.”
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Walker Percy describes the main character of this novel, Ignatius Reilly, as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one — who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age.” I found him completely unlikable. Reilly is a college grad who lives with his mother who cooks and cleans for him but is held in contempt. Faced with paying damages from a car accident, Reilly is “forced” by his mother to get off his butt and get a job. Reilly wreaks havoc where ever he goes. I honestly could not see why this novel is held in acclaim.
A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines. A white farmer, universally hated, is shot and killed by a black man. About 18 elderly black men and one 18-year-old white woman, all gather together before the sheriff arrives. Each one holds a gun that had been fired once, with shells that matched the bullet from the real murder weapon. Each person claims to have been the killer. The sheriff suspects he knows which of the men was actually the killer, but how will he prove it? Someone will have to pay, and the threat of vigilante justice hangs over the situation. With little to lose, this gathering of old men finally stands up to injustice after a lifetime of intimidation and violence. I liked this novel so much that I immediately reread two of Gaines’s others: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying.
A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler. This collection of fifteen stories is told from the point of view of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants to Louisiana about twenty years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Butler really seems to capture the inner lives of his characters in a totally believable way.
Dinner at Antoine’s by Francis Parkinson Keyes. I didn’t know what to expect from this novel. Certainly not a murder mystery, and one with a twist at the end.
Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker. This collection of 20-odd essays and eclectic maps describes the layered appeal of New Orleans. A map of graveyards, another tracing the history of jazz hot spots, one highlighting spots of contemplation and delight — it’s an odd and inviting mix. One of my favorite maps showed where one could find alleys of live oaks in the city. I love reading anything Solnit writes, for she is a thinker, and I appreciate her take on things. Another of her books, A Paradise Built in Hell, discusses how people have responded to great disasters. Solnit believes in the strength and power of ground level, grass roots, spontaneous actions of ordinary people. These actions far outshine any institutional or government response. Much of what she says applies to post-Katrina New Orleans.
The House on First Street by Julia Reed. Reed and her husband buy an old house in the Garden District of New Orleans. What starts as a memoir about the vissisitudes of fixing up a ramshackle house becomes a first-hand account about surviving the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. While her house was mostly spared, Reed joins the groundswell of locals who rally to provide food and help cleaning up their beloved city.
Woof by Spencer Quinn. This novel is told from the point of view of Bowser, a mutt who has just been adopted from a shelter by eleven-year-old Birdie. As Bowser gets used to his new home near a Louisiana swamp, he and Birdie investigate the theft of a stuffed prized marlin from her Grandmother’s bait shop. Could the marlin been hiding a hidden treasure map? I could see how this story might be appealing to girls who like dogs.
My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt. Tiger has just turned 12 before this summer of 1957. She lives with her grandmother and parents in a small Louisiana town. Tiger’s parents are “slow,” and Tiger feels she’s growing up past her parents. She’s sometimes embarassed by their behavior and wishes she had a more normal family. When Granny dies, Tiger has the opportunity to live in Baton Rouge with her aunt. Will adventure and a new opportunity to fit in trump living in a loving home with her parents and taking care of them?
March 17, 2015
“The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.”
— Willa Cather, My Antonia
I decided to stray from my alphabetical journey across America through books. Having read my way through Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, and Arkansas, today I am making a detour to Nebraska in preparation for an upcoming trip to see the sandhill crane migration along the Platte River.
I can remember traveling to Nebraska only once before on a car trip with my parents. We drove from Minnesota to Colorado, and the one memory I have of Nebraska is that it was flat, seemingly endless, and rather boring. The Willa Cather quote that opens this post gave me a chuckle because it resonated with my recollection of the state.
I consulted with Rita, a reference librarian at the Kearney Public Library, for book recommendations for my pre-trip reading. I asked for books by Nebraska authors or books that take place in Nebraska. Here is the list of suggestions from this local expert:
- Echo Maker by Richard Powers
- Any of the Alex Kava mysteries
- Any of Willa Cather’s novels, but especially O Pioneers and My Antonia. Cather was born in Virginia but moved to Nebraska when she was 9 years old. She graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
- Any books by Paul Johnsgard, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an internationally renowned ornithologist and crane expert
- The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie by Merrill Mattes
- A Prairie Mosaic by Steven Rothenberger and Susanne George-Bloomfield
- The Platte River: An Atlas of the Big Bend Region by Allan Jenkins
- The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley
- Have You Seen Mary by Jeff Kurrus
- The Nebraska Adventure by Jean Lukesh
- Michael Forsberg (My library has one of Forsberg’s books, Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild, but unfortunately it was checked out by another patron, and I was not able to read it before my trip. I did look at his online photographs, however. Spectacular!
- Solomon Butcher (including Sod Walls: The Story of the Nebraska Sod House and Photographing the American Dream)
- Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate 2004 – 2006
- Twyla Hansen, Nebraska’s current Poet Laureate
And these are the books I actually read on my armchair travels to Nebraska:
My Antonia by Willa Cather. This novel is told through the voice of Jim Quayle Burden, who at age 10 becomes orphaned and is sent to live with his grandparents in Nebraska. Antonia is the daughter of immigrants who homestead on a neighboring farm. Even after Jim and his grandparents move to town, he keeps in touch with Antonia while he goes to high school. Antonia moves to town, too, as a “working out” girl, hired as a housekeeper for a town family. She runs away to get married, but is abandoned unmarried and with child.
Eventually Jim moves away for college and law school, and 20 years later he returns for a visit. He finds Antonia — who had returned in disgrace — now married, mother to a houseful of kids, living a hard-working life on a farm. . . but joyful and filled with life and strong ties to the land. She says, “I like to be where I know every stick and tree, and where all the ground is friendly. I want to live and die here.”
Jim gives some vivid descriptions of the Nebraska landscape of his childhood: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased . . .” And he also felt ” . . . buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the color and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvest; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and gray as sheet-iron.”
Jim lived in a wooden, not sod, house with a windmill, sunflower-bordered roads, with rattlesnakes, and shaggy red grass “as far as the eye could reach.” It was a wide open landscape. “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. . . . And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.”
“Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons.”
And the sunsets were glorious: “The whole prairie was like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed. That hour always had the exultation of victory, of triumphant ending. . . It was a sudden transfiguration, a lifting-up of day.”
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. The protagonist of this novel, Alexandra Bergson, is the daughter of Swedish immigrants homesteading in Nebraska. She is the strongest, smartest, and most industrious of her parents’ children, so when her father dies, Alexandra takes over the farm. With her smart business sense, she risks going into debt to expand the family’s holdings against the reluctance of her more staid brothers. Years later, the brothers have been set up on land of their own, and Alexandra is one of the wealthiest farmers in the area.
Cather depicts the challenges and hardships of farming on the prairie. “Our lives are like the years, all made up of weather and crops and cows.” And she also shows the dark side of relationships turned sour, lonely souls, and unrequited love.
Echo Maker by Richard Powers. This novel explores the mysteries of the brain. Mark suffers brain damage from an accident, and when he starts recovering, he believes that his sister Karen is an imposter, that someone is impersonating her. Meanwhile he is also trying to recover his memories of the accident — where were his friends that night? Was someone in the truck with him?
The backdrop for this novel is the sandhill crane habitat near Kearney, a seemingly wide open landscape, but really one with dark secrets. “She felt all over again, as she had as a child, the vicious treelessness of this place. Not a scrap of cover in sight. Do anything at all, and God would spy you out.”
“It seemed to him, as he drove, one of the last places left in the country where you would have to face down the conflicts of your own soul, stripped of all packaging.”
When those secrets are lifted to the light of day, the confusion over Mark’s accident starts to lift, too.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. This young adult novel by an Omaha author was one of my favorites. It is a story of first love, a universal theme that really could have taken place anywhere. I was drawn to Eleanor, who feels herself something of a misfit after moving to a new school midway through her high school experience. She is subject to bullying at the school, but is also struggling with an abusive stepfather. Her slowly evolving friendship with Park and budding love give her strength to persevere through life’s challenges. The writing is excellent and the relationship feels authentic.
A Perfect Evil by Alex Kava. This is the first in a series of eleven novels about FBI profiler Maggie O’Dell. And although this book is by a Nebraska writer, the Nebraska setting is not essential to the story. Maggie is called to assist the sheriff of Platte City, Nick Morrelli, in solving the murders of three boys. The murder’s identity is pretty clear about one third of the way through the book, but there is a twist at the end and some loose ends that I imagine are designed to keep readers interested in the next books in the series. Alas, I will not be one of those readers!
Happy as a Big Sunflower: Adventures in the West, 1876 – 1880 by Rolf Johnson. This is the diary of a man who, at age 20, emigrated with his parents and siblings to Nebraska. They were part of a group of families of Swedish descent who travelled by train to Kearney and then by wagon to Phelps County to establish homesteads. Included are some descriptions of the Nebraska landscape: “Leaving Omaha we soon crossed the Elkhorn and found ourselves on the plains, which stretched away to the horizon, a treeless waste covered with brown and russet wild grass. . . . Occasionally a stream with a fringe of trees along the banks broke the monotony of the scene.”
Later in summer, Johnson talks about a walk amidst the sandhills: “We had a pleasant walk over the prairie, which is carpeted with a soft velvety coat of buffalo grass and many varieties of prairie flowers.
From the top of one of the hills we had a fine view of the surrounding country. To the east stretched a thousand hills with green grass; to the north the broad valley of the Platte, with the river like a belt of silver with its emerald isles. . . ”
Conditions in the early days were very harsh and uncomfortable. They first arrived in March, and March in the prairie was still unforgiving winter: “A snow storm is now raging the like of which I have never seen before. The snow is falling about with its blinding force and it is about as much as a man’s life is worth to go out to the well after a bucket of water.”
“Last evening we had to bring the horses into the house for fear they’d perish outside and they kept stamping overhead all night so we could not sleep, fearing they would come through the floor.”
“A snow storm has been raging all day and we have been crowded into the dark cellar like so many rats in a hole.”
Some of the new settlers lived in a dugout, “which is partly a cave and partly built of log and mud. They are perched here and there on the steep banks and hidden away in crevices like so many swallows nests.” Others lived in sod houses. Johnson describes how to build a sod house starting with breaking sod with a plow and cutting it into bricks about 12 inches long and 4 inches wide. The walls on his family’s sod house were two feet thick, enclosing an interior 16 x 21 feet. “Building sod houses, especially when the wind blows, is not quite as pleasant as being out buggy riding with a girl. One’s nose, eyes, mouth, ears, and hair gets full of loose dirt. OK! its bad!”
Johnson writes about other challenges of homesteading in Nebraska: mishaps with oxen, equipment breakdowns, losing crops to grasshoppers, prairie fires, encounters with rattle snakes, the drought. “Sadly in want of rain. The ground is so dry and hard it is almost impossible to plow.” Sometimes they scavenged buffalo bones to sell at $6 a ton for needed cash.
Still, it was a surprisingly social place, especially for a young single man. Johnson talked about breaking bees (similar to quilting bees but gathered for the purpose of breaking the sod prairie), hiring out during harvest times, going on a buffalo hunt, and visiting friends.
All in all, the diary entries paint a realistic picture of Nebraska life during the homestead years. A nice pairing with Cather’s novels.
An Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature by Loren Eiseley. Eiseley was born in Lincoln, Nebraska and he writes as a naturalist and anthropologist. He discusses how scientists and philosophers place man in the evolutionary scheme of things. And he muses about how the development of consciousness in humans fits with the succession of life on this planet. He believes that the rapidity of change in the human brain, a surge in growth, seems to be a unique modification and adaptation story in history: “In the first year of life, its brain trebles in size. It is this peculiar leap, unlike anything else we know in the animal world, which gives to man his uniquely human qualities.”
I like how Eiseley wove personal stories into his more scholarly essays. Here he describes the Platte River: “As it leaves the Rockies and moves downward over the high plains towards the Missouri, the Platte River is a curious stream. In the spring floods, on occasion, it can be a mile-wide roaring torrent of destruction, gulping farms and bridges. Normally, however, it is a rambling, dispersed series of streamlets flowing erratically over great sand and gravel fans that are, in part, the remnants of a mightier Ice Age stream bed. Quicksands and shifting islands haunt its waters.” And here is the Platt River in winter: “The land was stark and ice-locked. The rivulets were frozen, and over the marshlands the willow thickets made such an array of vertical lines against the snow that tramping through them produced strange optical illusions and dizziness.”
I will soon be seeing the Platte River in winter, and I am curious to see how it compares today to Eiseley’s experience of it.
Flying at Night: Poems 1965 – 1985 by Ted Kooser. I liked quite a few of the poems in this collection because the images of farmhouses, Midwestern folk, and the countryside rang true to my memories of growing up on a farm in Minnesota. Here is one of Kooser’s poems about his state:
“So This Is Nebraska”
The gravel road rides with a slow gallop
over the fields, the telephone lines
streaming behind, its billow of dust
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.
On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs
hide broken tractors under their skirts.
So this is Nebraska. A Sunday
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,
a meadowlark waiting on every post.
Behind the shelterbelt of cedars,
top-deep in hollyhocks, pollen and bees,
a pickup kicks its fenders off
and settles back to read the clouds.
You feel like that; you feel like letting
your tires go flat, like letting the mice
build a nest in your muffler, like being
no more than a truck in the weeds,
clucking with chickens or sticky with honey
or holding a skinny old man in your lap
while he watches the road, waiting
for someone to wave to. You feel like
waving. You feel like stopping the car
and dancing around the road. You wave
instead and leave your hand out gliding
larklike over the wheat, over the houses.
Quite serendipitously, Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac posted another of Kooser’s poems a week before my Nebraska trip. I could see myself in this particular poem:
“A Person of Limited Palette”
by Ted Kooser, from Splitting an Order. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014
I would love to have lived out my years
in a cottage a few blocks from the sea,
and to have spent my mornings painting
out in the cold, wet rocks, to be known
as “a local artist,” a pleasant old man
who “paints passably well, in a traditional
manner,” though a person of limited
talent, of limited palette: earth tones
and predictable blues, snap-brim cloth cap
and cardigan, baggy old trousers
and comfortable shoes, but none of this
shall come to pass, for every day
the possibilities grow fewer, like swallows
in autumn. If you should come looking
for me, you’ll find me here, in Nebraska,
thirty miles south of the broad Platte River,
right under the flyway of dreams.
Prairie Visions: The Life and Times of Solomon Butcher by Pam Conrad. This book introduced me to Solomon Butcher, a photographer who took pictures of Nebraska pioneers. The typical setting was outdoors in natural light, in front of a sod home, and including some prized possessions (a piano in one photo!), all designed to show “people set in the drama of their everyday lives.” Butcher was considered lazy by some of the hard-working settlers because he simply could not settle into homesteading. Instead he worked odd jobs and set up a photo gallery so that newcomers — farmers and their families — could get portraits to send back to relatives back East. In 1886 he started a dream project to document the history of Custer County, Nebraska. He spent 7+ years on the road with a wagon and supplies and took over 1500 photos and collected stories and biographies. Then his home caught fire and he lost all the narratives. Thankfully his glass plate negatives were safe in an out building. Butcher had to start over, reconstructing the text. Thanks to the patronage of Ephram Swain, his work was compiled into a book that was published in 1901: Pioneer History of Custer County, Nebraska.
Because this is juvenile nonfiction, the life of Solomon Butcher is described in a very accessible way. We learn about the 1862 Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres of land free to any adult, citizen, head of household provided they paid an upfront filing fee of $14, built a home on the land (a shack would do), made improvements to the land in the first 6 months, and lived there for five years. They proved up after five years by paying the remaining $4 of the filing fee and providing testimonials of two witnesses. Still, many claims were abandoned because the settlers were ill prepared or ill equipped to be farmers, or the conditions were too harsh.
We also learn about sod houses, which were cool in the summer and warm in the winter. But the roofs leaked, snakes and small animals lived in the walls, and mud fell from the ceiling.
I was also interested to learn that there were black settlers who took advantage of the Homestead Act after the Civil War.
Conrad includes some of Butcher’s pioneer narratives in this book, including the story of a dead frog in a coffeepot, a book-smart judge who carried water for two miles through 2 feet of snow, and a hotel where 15 men slept in one room with six blankets.
The next state on my armchair travels: California
February 27, 2015
I have never actually set foot in Arkansas, so it was a pleasure to read my way around the state and discover some of its essence through literature. I knew that former President Bill Clinton hailed from Hope, Arkansas and that Maya Angelou grew up in Stamps, but I really knew very little about this part of America. I learned that Arkansas played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement in the hard battle to integrate schools. And that the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, believed to be extinct, focussed national attention on the importance of preserving wilderness and natural habitats.
I again consulted with a local reference librarian for book recommendations. Robert, a librarian with the Central Arkansas Library System, consulted with some of his colleagues and sent me this list of suggested Arkansas titles:
- The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
- Camp Nine: A Novel by Vivienne Schiffer
- Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories by Ellen Gilchrist
- True Grit by Charles Portis
- A Really Cute Corpse by Joan Hess
- Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
- Cash: The Autobiography of Johnny Cash with Patrick Carr
- Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High by Melba Pattillo Beals
- Halfway from Hoxie: New and Selected Poems by Miller Williams
- The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
- Summer of My German Soldier by Bettye Green
- Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou, paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat
- Arkansas Stories by Charlie May Simon
- Loop by Karen Akins (classified as young adult)
- Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell (graphic novel)
Here are books about Arkansas or by Arkansas writers that I actually read on my armchair travels:
The Lord God Bird by Tom Gallant. This is the story of a middle-aged man, a widower, who lives alone in the Big Woods of Arkansas in a house his grandfather built. We never learn his name, but he is “a solitary man with a bluetick hound named Paul, and a good working farm.” One day while out on his hand-built canoe, he gets a glimpse of an ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird he remembers last seeing as a young boy and now thought to be extinct. He realizes that the return of this elusive bird might revitalize his dying town and save the diminishing Big Woods habitat. When he makes the sighting known, researchers from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology visit to find evidence that the bird is real — photos of course, but also sound tapes of its raps and kells, and markings on the trees such as scarred bark and nesting hollows.
Gallant imagines the bird’s point of view as well, a creature of long memory who has returned with his mate to see whether life would be viable in this long abandoned woods. The pairs mate for life and need about 10 square miles of old growth forest to support life nourished by scavenging for grubs on dying trees. But the search for food takes the birds farther from the nest every day. “The whole fabric of life that was the Big Woods seemed to be diminished with each season that passed. There was less of everything except for weather. The rains were more violent, the winds carried more force, and the dry spells were more parched. There was a great change happening, and the bird wished for a glimpse of the long-past panther. That the cats were gone filled him with dread. When the cats were there, they were dread made visible, the sleek and beautiful embodiment of mortal danger. Life then was as it should be. Now, danger seemed to be everywhere, and it had no face, except, perhaps, for humans.”
This fictionalized account of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker shows the mixed blessings this kind of attention attracts.
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley. The ivory-billed woodpecker symbolizes life starting over, things coming back from the dead, and second chances, and that is the theme of this second title, which is catalogued as Young Adult fiction in my library. Cullen Witter is a bored teenager living in Lily, a small town halfway between Little Rock and Memphis. He says, “Living in Lily, Arkansas, is sometimes like living in the land that time forgot.” He observed, “That’s what happened in Lily. People dreamed. People left. And they all came back. It was like Arkansas’s version of a black hole, nothing could escape it.”
But starting with the first sentence of this novel — “I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body.” — the scene is set for changes in Lily. There is a report of an ivory-billed woodpecker sighting, and like many people, Cullen wonders whether the whole thing is a scam: “. . . our town needed that bird . . . They needed something to be hopeful about.” And then Cullen’s younger brother Gabriel disappears without a trace. Would the miracle of Lazarus bird’s return grace his brother’s return as well?
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield. Each year the Moses family gathers on the first Sunday in June for its annual reunion on the old Arkansas farm. The patriarch, John Moses, had long since retired from farming. His wife Calla opened a convenience store called “Moses” on the remodelled front porch. And John, in a pique after an argument with his wife, remodels the back porch into “Moses Never Closes,” where he served liquor “by donation.”
“And that’s the way things went along, right until the day John Moses died. Moses Never Closes was something folks counted on. It was a certain place in an uncertain world. Folks wanted it to stay the way it was, because once you change one part of a thing, all the other parts begin to shift, and pretty soon, you just don’t know what’s what anymore.”
Change is set in motion during the 1956 reunion when John Moses takes a gun and kills himself. His daughter Willadee, visiting from Louisiana, stays on to help out. Her husband, Samuel Lake, loses his preaching job and moves with his daughter Swan to his in-laws’ farmhouse. There he suffers a crisis of faith. He is unable to find another preaching job, his wife is working in a bar, his oldest son is bullied and does not buy into his advice to turn the other cheek, his brother-in-law is becoming a beloved father figure to his kids, and his family is frustrated in protecting a neighbor boy from his abusive father. This is a novel about the testing of faith, holding out for miracles, and the healing power of love.
A Painted House by John Grisham. This is another novel about a multi-generational family in 1950s Arkansas. Seven-year old Luke lives with his parents on his grandfather’s and grandmother’s farm. They are cotton farmers who rent the land, and who have no higher aspirations than to make it from year to year without going under financially. “The only farmers who made money were those who owned their land. The renters, like us, tried to break even. The sharecroppers had it worst and were doomed to eternal poverty.”
Luke’s mother harbored no illusions about this precarious life and she and Luke have an agreement that he will go to college and eventually leave the farm. She had been raised on a small farm on the edge of town and was almost a town girl. She never had to walk to school, and she had lived in a “painted house.” She found her pleasures in the garden.
This novel takes place during the cotton picking season, when they hired itinerant hill people and migrant Mexicans in a race to pick the cotton before the fall rains. Everyone pitched in, even Luke: “My fingers would bleed, my neck would burn, my back would hurt.” The hard work was relieved by small pleasures: listening to the St. Louis Cardinal baseball games on the porch of an evening, Saturday excursions to town and the matinée movie, letters from an uncle in service in Korea, a visiting carnival. But secrets and tensions build during the harvest. A 15-year old neighbor girl gives birth out of wedlock and it appears that Luke’s uncle is the father. Luke witnesses one of the hill workers fight and beat a man to death. And later he sees this man knifed by one of their Mexican workers. The weather provides the final defeat, flooding the crop before the harvest is complete.
True Grit by Charles Portis. This novel takes place in the 1870s on the edge of the frontier. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross hires Rooster Cogburn, “a man of true grit,” to avenge her father’s murder. The murderer, Tom Chaney, a former hired hand, stole away into Indian territory, and Mattie is determined to track him down. She’s resolute, single-minded, and a hard customer whose Old Testament morality gives her the backbone to keep Cogburn in line until her objective is realized.
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. This novel by an Arkansas author creates a world after death, a kind of way station where the inhabitants stick around only as long as they are remembered by someone on earth. Then they disappear. They stay the same age as when they died on earth, and they cannot reproduce. So the population in this afterlife ebbs and grows in relation to events on earth — floods, wars, earthquakes, epidemics, etc. Now people are disappearing at an alarming rate; it turns out there is a lethal virus killing off everyone on earth. The few hangers on in the afterlife realize that their existence is tied to the life of perhaps the last person alive on earth — a researcher in remote Antarctica who has been abandoned there. What will happen when she dies?
I liked this novel for opening my imagination. I was raised Catholic, so am familiar with the concepts of limbo and purgatory but Brockmeier’s afterlife is different. He doesn’t depict the people working to achieve any goal or release; they just seem to exist without worries, imagination, or urges to accomplish anything. They don’t even seem to ruminate about what life on earth was all about. Nor do they wonder about what happens next when they disappear from this temporary existence. I thought the premise was interesting, but this alternative world was not fleshed out enough for me.
Strangled Prose by Joan Hess. This is a rather light and formulaic mystery from the Claire Malone mystery series. I do enjoy reading mysteries, and I thought this one might be interesting because Claire owns a bookstore in a college town in Arkansas. But it failed to entice me to read any more books in this series.
Camp Nine by Vivienne Schiffer. This book tells “a story based on the improbability of nearly ten thousand Americans of Japanese descent suddenly appearing in the Arkansas Delta in the 1940s.” The story of Camp Nine is told from the point of view of 12-year-old Chess Morton, the granddaughter of the wealthiest landholder in the area. Hers was a world where unspoken rules shaped the interactions between blacks and whites, where everyone moved more slowly than the rest of the world: ” . . . the Delta is mysterious, the kind of place where so many things happen that go unnoticed by the outside world. The overwhelming stillness of the countryside and the oppressive flatness of the terrain, cleared almost entirely now of trees, slow the passage of time. The air is molasses in summer, an iron blanket of cold in winter. The vast landscape tricks the mind into thinking that gravity is somehow stronger here, that the bayous and the canebreaks can pin you against them so that even light can’t escape.”
The internment camp was an enterprise conducted in secret, and the Japanese American families were isolated behind barbed wire. Most of the community conspired to pretend that there was nothing wrong with things that were kept out of sight: ” . . . mostly, we separated ourselves from them, by refusing to acknowledge they were even there.”
Chess’s mother, something of an outcast herself, refuses to turn a blind eye. She calls the Japanese American families her neighbors, and she begins teaching art classes to the children and adults in the camp. Chess accompanies her and her experiences there open her eyes to a different world. For one thing, the Japanese culture valued education, and even adults wanted to continue to learn new things. She learns more about racism and honor when she sees young Japanese American men look past what was done to them and go to fight and die in the American Army.
Almost 20 years later, Chess is visited by David Matsui, one of her camp friends. He is now a renowned blues musician and lives in London because he cannot forgive the way Americans treated him and his family. “I’m not white, Chess. I always thought I was, growing up. But I didn’t really know what white was until the United States government carved us out of the white race, set us on a plate, and served us up into a dark corner of Arkansas. That’s when I learned what white really is. It’s separate. It’s sheltered. It’s a race apart.” Camp Nine is a bittersweet story, but well worth reading.
The Race to Save the Lord God Bird by Phillip Hoose. This is a nonfiction account of the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in eastern Arkansas and the controversy that still surrounds the findings. This magnificent woodpecker’s story is one of extinction due to habitat destruction. It thrived in vast tracts of virgin forest where enough dead and dying trees provided its food. Its disappearance occurred after the intense logging that began in the 1880s.
In 2004 Gene Sparling reported seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Cache River Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. His sighting was confirmed and supported by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and other scientists. Since then, the evidence has been challenged.
Regardless of their stance on the veracity of the ivory-billed woodpecker sightings, scientists and conservationists remain united and dedicated to preserving species by saving threatened habitats. “To become extinct is the greatest tragedy in nature.” The book states that 99 percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct, caused by everything from meteorites to drought. But today’s massive extinctions are caused by humans.
Red Ball of a Sun Slipping Down by Eugene Richards. Richards, a northerner, first came to the Arkansas delta in 1959 as a VISTA volunteer, and his photographs document the dignity and endurance of its inhabitants.
“You cross the Mississippi into Arkansas, pass a few miles of strip malls, trunk stops, and motels and the landscape comes to look like an abstract painting, with wide, flat fields and the sky pressed together. There’s a migrant worker camp north of the interstate peppered with bullet holes, tractors in the distance throwing off dust, farmhouses here and there, but no people that you can see. It’s August and nothing much forces people indoors like the heat. . . . And as happens whenever you return to the delta, the space between things that came to pass long years ago and the way it is now begins to collapse.”
Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Pattillo Beals. This young adult memoir tells the story of Melba Pattillo, one of the Little Rock Nine. She paints a picture of life under segregation: “Black folks aren’t born expecting segregation, prepared from day one to follow its confining rules. Nobody presents you with a handbook when you’re teething and says, ‘Here’s how you must behave as a second-class citizen.’ Instead, the humiliating expectations and traditions of segregation carry over you, slowly stealing a teaspoon of your self-esteem every day.” Pattillo watched adults in her family kowtow to white people, a shameful and humiliating and threatened existence.
The Little Rock Nine shared some things in common: they came from hard-working families (some parents, including Pattillo’s mother, were teachers); they were church-goers; they planned on going to college. Pattillo’s grandmother was a strong support and influence, and she taught: “We are not these bodies, we are spirits, God’s ideas. But you must strive to be the best of what God made you. You don’t want to be white, what you really want is to be free, and freedom is a state of mind.”
Without the support of Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP, other Black activists like Thurgood Marshall, community leaders, and the soldiers who were in the school to protect them, the Little Rock Nine would likely have been subverted from attending school. The reprisals, physical and mental attacks inside the school, threats to family members, and mob rule were insidious. Pattillo’s New Year’s resolution for 1958 was, “To do my best to stay alive until May 28” (when the school year ended). They persevered because they simply could not let the segregationists win. And where we are today is the result of their courage.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angleou. Angelou was born in California, but at the age of three she was sent, accompanied only by her four-year-old brother, across country to live with her paternal grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. This was a segregated small town, and she really didn’t see white folks as a child: “Crossing the Black area of Stamps which childhood’s narrow measure seemed the whole world, we were obligated by custom to stop and speak to every person we met. . . ”
“People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy vanilla ice cream.”
Angelou’s grandmother owned the Black general store. “Her world was bordered on all sides with work, duty, religion, and ‘her place.'”
At age seven, Angelou and her brother were taken to live with their mother in St. Louis where they were immersed in urban culture — store-bought food, numbers runners, gamblers, lottery takers, whiskey salesmen, and “shockingly bad” schools. Angelou also got her first library card. At age eight, Angelou was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend and then raped. He was brought to trial, found guilty, given a one year suspended sentence, and then murdered. Angelou, already traumatized by the rape, now felt responsible in some way for the death of this man. With the sense that words were dangerous, she stopped talking. And was sent back to Stamps.
There she found a lifeline in Mrs. Bertha Flowers, a model for the kind of woman Angelou wanted to be. “She was one of the first gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be. . . . It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro, just by being herself.”
Flowers gave her lessons in living and books to read, and challenged her to read aloud: “Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.”
Angelou stayed in Stamps until her eighth grade graduation, and the rest of her memoir tells about her move to San Francisco to live with her mother during high school. And it ends with her teen pregnancy and the birth of her son. This is the story of a woman who overcomes tremendous life challenges to become a gifted writer and artist of life.
Halfway from Hoxie by Miller Williams. I find reading poetry a challenge. So many poems are inscrutable and hard to penetrate. I guess I just don’t want to work that hard to enjoy literature. So I won’t even attempt to review the poems in this volume, but instead will share one from the collection:
“Depot in a River Town”
In the depot and the darkened day
the clack of an old pinball machine
demands a curious notice.
More sleeping than not
a satchel faced farmer makes noises.
A sailor circles like a child in church.
In the depot and the darkened day
I surrender my back to the imperative bench,
unlistening hear the emphatic pencil
tap itself on the table.
The little blond reads
and fingers the cloth of her blouse
like a nun telling beads.
Cracked across after an ancient painting
the face of the woman with children
ignores and ignores.
There is fog at the windows
and the open doors.
Within the ear’s rim rises a separate sound.
Wood slapping side slipping water sounds
settle me deep.
I feel again the penny in my pocket
and the slow sleep of the river
wraps me round.
Little Rock Girl 1957: How a Photograph Changed the Fight for Integration by Shelley Tougas. In 1954 a landmark Supreme Court ruling, Brown vs. Board of Education, found that the practice of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. As a result, schools in the south were forced to integrate.
Elizabeth Eckford, a 15-year-old student, was one of nine African American teenagers who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School on September 4, 1957. Although their admittance was allowed by federal judges, the Arkansas governor ordered that the Arkansas National Guard block entry. The vitriolic confrontation was recorded by photographer Will Counts, an image that captured the deep roots of racism in the south.
The nine Black students were prevented from attending school that day, but President Eisenhower brought in the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the federal order. So integration happened, but subject to bullying, torment, taunting and attacks. The next year the governor closed all of Little Rock’s public high schools rather than allow integration to move forward.
This book is a testimony to the courage, perseverance, and resilience of nine teenagers and the community of Civil Rights activists who wrought needed change. An update on the fates of the “Little Rock Nine” reveals a group of extraordinarily accomplished adults — at least five with master’s degrees.
Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green. Patty is a 12-year-old Jewish girl from Jenkensville, Arkansas. She feels unloved by her parents, whom she can never please. But the tensions with her parents are offset somewhat by the loving care of their Black housekeeper, Ruth, and her maternal grandparents.
The town becomes the base for a semi-secret camp for German POWs, and Patty crosses paths with a young POW named Anton. When he escapes from the camp, Patty hides him for a while and then helps him to escape. Anton is a scholar and a former medical student and Patty thrives under conversations with him. They discuss whether the world will ever become a good place, and Anton says, “I believe that love is better than hate. And that there is more nobility in building a chicken coop than in destroying a cathedral.”
When he leaves, Patty is heart-broken to lose a friend. He gives her an heirloom gold ring with these words: “Even if you forget everything else I want you to always remember that you are a person of value, and you have a friend who loved you enough to give you his most valued possession.”
Anton departs, but Patty later hears that he was shot dead by police in New York City while trying to avoid arrest. When the FBI investigates his escape, they learn of Patty’s role, and she is sent to reform school for actions. Another powerful story about a strong young woman.
Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou. Paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat illustrate this poem by Maya Angelou. The poem is a celebration of fearlessness in the face of life’s scary things, both real and imagined.
You can link to my earlier posts from my armchair travels across America here:
January 31, 2015
Having completed my armchair travels to Alabama and Alaska, I am continuing my literary odyssey with a bookish romp through Arizona. I have actually traveled to Arizona three times: once to Flagstaff where my husband and I met up with our guides for a rafting trip down the Colorado River, once again to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and once to Page where I was privileged to walk through one of the most beautiful spots on earth, Antelope Canyon.
Once again before embarking on my armchair visit, I consulted reference librarians for their personal recommendations for books that best embody Arizona in print.
Deborah at the Pima County Public Library system suggested finding good selections on its link called Southwest Books of the Year. And Karen, a another librarian at the Pima County Public Library system, offered a neat link with a map of literary locations along with these recommendations:
— These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881 – 1901: Arizona Territories by Nancy E. Turner
— The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
— The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
— A Gift of Angels: the Art of Mission San Xavier Del Bac by Bernard Fontana
— The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea
— Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Sharmat
Now let me take you on a whirlwind trip to Arizona through the books I actually read:
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. In this novel, Taylor, a young woman from Kentucky, sets out west for a fresh start in life. While passing through the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, she is handed a baby girl for safekeeping, abandoned by a woman in obviously dire straits. Taylor names the girl, Turtle, and together they end up in Tucson. Here is a description of the Arizona landscape through Taylor’s eyes:
“We crossed the Arizona state line at sunup. The clouds were pink and fat and hilarious — looking like the hippo ballerinas in a Disney movie. The road took us through a place called Texas Canyon that looked nothing like Texas, heaven be praised for that, but looked like nothing else I had ever seen either. It was a kind of forest, except that in place of trees there were all these puffy-looking rocks shaped like roundish animals and roundish people. Rocks stacked on top of one another like piles of copulating potato bugs.”
“This is a foreign country,” I told [Turtle]. “Arizona.”
Even the citizens of Tucson were different: “Standing in line at the lunch counters and coffeeshops [the New Age people of Tucson] would rub the backs of each other’s necks and say, ‘You’re holding a lot of tension here.'”
Later, after living in Tucson for a while, Taylor says: “What still amazed me about the desert was all the life it had in it. . . . There were bushes and trees and weeds here, exactly the same as anywhere else, except that the colors were different, and everything alive had thorns.” She watches an approaching storm: “A storm was coming up from the south, moving slowly. It looked something like a huge blue-gray shower curtain being drawn along by the hand of God.”
Taylor’s new friends in Tucson provide a safe house for political refugees from Central America, and this association opens her eyes to more of the suffering in the world: “I thought I’d had a pretty hard life. But I keep finding out that life can be hard in ways I never knew about.” When the threat of deportation arises, Taylor offers to drive Esteban and Esperanza to another sanctuary in Oklahoma. Taylor also hopes to find Turtle’s aunt and get signed guardianship papers, but that turns out to be like finding a needle in a haystack. An “illegal” adoption, “illegal” aliens — this novel addresses the tensions between following one’s conscience to do the right thing and the rules of the legal system.
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. The four protagonists of this novel engage in eco-terrorism, sabotaging the billboards, bridges, construction equipment, and development that is destroying the wilderness of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The conspiracy to join forces and form the Monkeywrench Gang is launched during a rafting trip down the Colorado River, and Abbey’s descriptions of that boat trip brought back good memories of my own boat trip through the upper Grand Canyon in 1978:
“More gnashing river, heaving waves, the clash of elementals, the pure and brainless fury of tons of irresistible water clashing down upon tons of immovable limestone. They felt the shocks, they heard the roar, saw foam and spray and rainbows floating on the mist as they rode through chaos into the clear. The adrenaline of adventure, without the time for dread, buoyed them high on the waves.”
“In the grand stillness between rapids, which was half the river and most of the time, Smith and Hayduke rested on their oars and let the song of a canyon wren — a clear glissando of semiquavers — mingle with the drip of waterdrops, the gurgle of eddies, the honk of herons, the rustle of lizards in the dust on shore. Between rapids, not silence but music and stillness. While the canyon walls rose slowly higher, 1000, 1500, 2000 feet, the river descending, and the shadows grew longer and the sun shy.”
The gang escalates its clandestine activities against oil and mining companies, and inevitably draws the attention of the law. The pursuit grows tense; several times they are nearly caught, but they navigate the inhospitable wilderness to their advantage under the relentless sun: “That desert sun of Utah-Arizona, the infernal flaming plasmic meatball in the sky.”
These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881 – 1901 by Nancy E. Turner. This is an historical novel about 17-year-old Sarah Prine’s journey across the Arizona Territories from Prescott to Texas and back again to Douglas. The trek is beset by extreme hardships and trials — Sarah’s brother dies of snakebite, Indians raid and steal horses and kill fellow travelers, and Sarah’s father dies from an infected bullet wound. Sarah regrets that she had never had the opportunity to attend school and finally passes her high school equivalency test as an adult and mother.
“It seems there is always a road with bends and forks to choose and taking one path means you can never take another one. There’s no starting over nor undoing the steps I’ve taken. It isn’t like I’d want to not have my little ones and Jack and that ranch, it is part of life to have to support yourself. It’s just that I want everything, my insides are not just hungry, but greedy. I want to find out all the things in the world and still have a family and a ranch. Maybe part of passing that test was a marker for where I’ve been, but it feels more like a pointer for something I’ll never reach.”
This is a wonderful story about resilience in the face of sorrows.
Hondo by Louis L’Amour. I could hardly visit Arizona without reading a classic western. Hondo was L’Amour’s first full-length novel published in 1953. It tells the story of Hondo Lane, a scout and dispatch rider for the General Cook during a time when the Apaches, “that fiercest and wiliest of guerrilla fighters,” were attacking white settlers in an attempt to clear them from the territory. Lane encounters a lone woman, Angie, and her 6-year-old son ranching on a small homestead, and they refuse to leave the area. Hondo’s and Angie’s lives become entwined as the Apache threat runs its course.
The stark desert is a vivid backdrop to the story. “Desert . . . not a dead land, but a land where all life is born with a fire, a thorn, a sting. One cannot fight the desert and live. One lives with it, or one dies. One learns its way and its life, and moves with care, and never ceases to be wary, for the desert has traps and tricks for the careless.”
The Blessing Way by Tony Hillerman. This was the first of 18 Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mysteries set on Navaho tribal lands near Window Rock, Arizona. I like this series for the snippets of anthropological findings about Navaho culture that tie into the various cases. The Blessing Way, for example, touches on witches in the Navaho belief system. “Leaphorn never counted on luck. Instead he expected order — the natural sequence of behavior, the cause producing the natural effect, the human behaving in the ways it was natural for him to behave. He counted on that and upon his own ability to sort out the chaos of observed facts and find them in this natural order.”
Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett. After his discharge from the army, Homer Smith has chosen the freedom of the road, picking up odd jobs when he needs money, and stopping or moving about as the spirit move him. “A man was free when he could say ‘yes’ or say ‘no.'”
When Homer sees some women struggling to raise a fence, he stops to see if he can pick up some paid work. He learns that the women were a group of four German-speaking nuns who had a dream of building a chapel in the desert. They have no money but lots of faith. Smith is irresistibly drawn to building the chapel for them, unpaid for his labor. “These were people who needed something that he had to give.”
While this heart-warming novel does not name the state where this story takes place, it is in the desert west of the Rocky Mountains, and the movie adaptation was filmed in Arizona.
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. In this novel, the Department of Defense orbits 17 satellites around the earth with the express intent of collecting alien organisms and bringing them back to earth. It hopes to discover pathogens for possible use in biological warfare. When one of these satellites lands in the tiny, remote town of Piedmont, AZ, population 48, catastrophe hits. Most of the people in the town die mysterious deaths, astonishingly quick but exhibiting no bleeding. Several short-term survivors commit suicide. A team of five scientists race against time to discover the cause of deaths and try to contain its spread.
Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest by Sandra Day O’Connor and H. Alan Day. This is less an autobiography of our country’s first female Supreme Court Justice and more of an elegy for a disappearing way of life — the era of open range cattle ranching. The ranch where Sandra Day O’Connor spent her childhood sprawled the high desert country on the border of Arizona and New Mexico, an area about one fifth the size of Rhode Island. We learn how the Days survived and made a living grazing cattle in this land where water was scarce. “Living at the ranch involved all of these components — association with our old-time, long-suffering, good natured cowboys; living in isolation with just one another and with few luxuries; eating mostly beef and beans, dried fruit, and biscuits; riding horseback for long hours in the heat and dust; seeing the plant, animal, insect, and bird life of the Southwest close at hand; and enjoying the love and companionship of Mo and Da, not just on evenings and weekends, but all the time.” They lived close to the land and the cycles of nature. “The Day family felt lucky to have such a place in our lives — a never-changing anchor in a world of uncertainties.”
The Grand Canyon Reader, edited by Lance Newman. This collection of essays extols the wonders and diversity of the Grand Canyon. It includes accounts by Colin Fletcher, “the man who walked through time,” who hiked the area and excerpts from Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: “Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone. Not so much from choice as from necessity — I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go. I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”
I particularly liked John Muir’s “Grand Canon of the Colorado” with his painterly descriptions: “In a dry, hot, monotonous forested plateau, seemingly boundless, you come suddenly and without warning upon the abrupt edge of a gigantic sunken landscape of the wildest, most multitudinous features, and those features, sharp and angular, are made out of flat beds of limestone and sandstone forming a spiry, jagged, gloriously colored mountain-range countersunk in a level gray plain. . . . I cannot tell the hundredth part of the wonders of its features — the side canons, gorges, alcoves, cloisters, and amphitheaters of vast sweep and depth, carved into its magnificent walls; the throng of great architectural rocks it contains resembling castles, cathedrals, temples, and palaces, towered and spired and painted, some of them nearly a mile high, yet beneath one’s feet.”
Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. A child, born and raised in New York, has to move out West, against his wishes, with his parents. He will miss NYC, and dreads encountering the buffaloes, prickly cactus, gila monsters, and buzzards of Arizona. And he doesn’t want to wear chaps and spurs and say “howdy.” Landing at the airport, he overhears another child bemoaning a move to the East, where there are sure to be gangsters, crowds, heavy traffic, snow, and skyscrapers that block the sky. Oh, how our preconceptions color our fears!
Cactus Hotel by Brenda Z. Guiberson. This book follows the life cycle of the iconic saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. Two feet tall after 25 years, the cactus is visited by a pack rat, a squirrel, a coyote and a jackrabbit. After 50 years, the cactus is ten feet tall and attracts birds and bees, bats and woodpeckers. After 60 years, the 18-foot saguaro is home to ants and mice. And so on to 200 years later, when it falls in a wind and its decaying ribs hide the collared lizard and ground snake.
November 24, 2014
I am continuing my project of visiting all 50 states through books with a peek at Alaska. I have actually traveled to Alaska twice, once on a cruise from Whittier to Vancouver, B.C. and once traveling the roads in a rented RV with my husband, brother, and sister-in-law. I never felt far from true wilderness. Alaska seemed far wilder than any national park I’ve visited in the Lower 48, like Yellowstone or Glacier, perhaps because of all the wildlife — including large mammals like moose and bears — that we encountered while we were out and about our daily rounds. I would love to go back.
I solicited recommendations for books that captured the spirit of Alaska from a reference librarian at the Anchorage Public Libraries. Here are the titles he suggested:
- for nonfiction: Coming Into the Country by John McPhee and Aunt Phil’s Trunk, vol. 1 by Phyllis Downing Carles
- for adult fiction: The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley
- for juvenile fiction: The Trap by John Smelcer
- for photography: Hidden Alaska, Bristol Bay and Beyond by Michael Melford
- for Native art: Raven Travelling, Two Centuries of Haida Art
Here are the books I actually read in my armchair travels to Alaska:
Travels in Alaska by John Muir. This book recounts three of Muir’s trips to Alaska, his first in 1879, his second in 1880, and his third trip a decade later in 1890. He says: “To the lover of pure wilderness Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” The book was written by Muir from his travel notes and sketches. It is filled with poetic descriptions of the land and the people of Alaska’s Inside Passage to Glacier Bay. I was reminded how back in the days before the ubiquitous camera, people relied on the written word to describe the world around them and their experiences. Muir was a powerfully descriptive writer. Here is one of his passages about Dirt Glacier:
“I greatly enjoyed my walk up this majestic ice-river, charmed by the pale-blue, ineffably fine light in the crevasses, moulins, and wells, and the innumerable azure pools in basins of azure ice, and the network of surface streams, large and small, gliding, swirling with wonderful grace of motion in their frictionless channels, calling forth devout admiration at almost every step and filling the mind with a sense of Nature’s endless beauty and power. Looking ahead from the middle of the glacier, you see the broad white flood, though apparently rigid as iron, sweeping in graceful curves between its high mountain-like walls, small glaciers hanging in the hollows on either side, and snow in every form above them, and the great down-plunging granite buttresses and headlands of the walls marvelous in bold massive sculpture . . .”
He captures the sounds as well:
“Hundreds of small rills and good-sized streams were falling into the lake from the [Stikeen] glacier, singing in low tones, some of them pouring in sheer falls over blue cliffs from narrow ice-valleys, some spouting from pipelike channels in the solid front of the glacier, others gurgling, out of arched openings at the base. All these water-streams were riding on the parent ice-stream, their voices joined in one grand anthem telling the wonders of their near and far-off fountains.”
Muir’s writing captures the exuberance he felt in the sublime natural landscapes. “Standing here, with facts so fresh and telling and held up so vividly before us, every seeing observer, not to say geologist, must readily apprehend the earth-sculpturing, landscape-making action of flowing ice. And here, too, one learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is the morning of creation; that mountains long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes . . .”
Libby: The Alaskan Diaries and Letters of Libby Beaman, 1879-1880. While Muir was off exploring glaciers in southeastern Alaska, Libby Beaman was living with her husband, a government agent supervising the taking of seal pelts on the remote St. Paul Island in the Pribolofs north of the Aleutian archipelago. She was the first non-native American woman to live there, and she accompanied her husband against the wishes of his immediate supervisor and most of her friends and family. America had purchased the Alaskan territory in 1867 for $7.2 million. Beaman calculated that the purchase price was more than recouped in a few years of selling seal pelts. But her husband found the business of taking fur beyond distasteful, and in addition to his unhappiness, Beaman had to deal with his jealousy and an extremely cold, hard winter which bound them to their quarters for seven weeks. She survived that malnourished, suffering from scurvy, but undaunted.
“We find that the winter’s dark and cold are the facts that dominate all life up here. Winter is the event for which everyone spends the other days of the year in preparation.”
Coming Into the Country by John McPhee. McPhee published these essays in 1976, not quite 20 years after Alaska became a state in 1958. In the Statehood Act, the national government promised to transfer to state ownership about a quarter of the land, and over the next 20 years, the fate of the land was debated by groups with conflicting interests: environmentalists and conservationists, oil companies, Natives, and others. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlements Act awarded about 1/10th of the land and $1 billion to 12 native corporations. McPhee wrote about his impressions of the people, the land of the Brooks Range and the Yukon, Juneau, the debate about where to locate the state capitol and more. He said, “The central paradox of Alaska is that it is as small as it is large — an immense landscape with so few people in it that language is stretched to call it a frontier, let alone a state.” There were about 400,000 people in Alaska in 1976. Current population is still less than 750,000. McPhee writes about how “civilized imagination cannot cover such quantities of wild land,” and how most residents cannot afford the float plane rental to explore or travel in all this wilderness.
McPhee does travel into remote areas. He describes a day on the river in the Brooks Range: “All day, while the sun describes a horseshoe around the margins of the sky, the light is of the rich kind that in more southern places comes at evening, heightening walls and shadowing eaves, bringing out of things the beauty of relief.” Of the tundra he says, “Possibly there is nothing as invitingly deceptive as a tundra-covered hillside. Distances over tundra, even when it is rising steeply, are like distances over water, seeming to be less than they are, defraying the suggestion of effort. The tundra surface, though, consists of many kinds of plants, most of which seem to be stemmed with wire to ensnare the foot. . . . Tundra is not topography, however, it is a mat of vegetation, and it runs up the sides of prodigious declivities as well as across broad plains.” He goes on to say, ” . . . the terrain is nonetheless valuable. There is ice under the tundra, mixed with soil as permafrost, in some places two thousand feet deep. The tundra vegetation, living and dead, provides insulation that keeps the summer sun from melting the permafrost. If something pulls away the insulation and melting occurs, the soil will settle and the water may run off. The earth, in such circumstances, does not restore itself.”
I think it would be fascinating to compare McPhee’s 1970s impressions with the Alaska of today, more than 50 years after statehood. The conflicting interests of environmentalists and oil companies, wilderness advocates and developers, are still raging after all these years.
Chasing Alaska by C. B. Bernard. This memoir of Bernard’s move to Alaska is intertwined with journal entries of an ancestor of his, Joe Bernard, who explored the Arctic and other parts of Alaska 100 years earlier. C. B. Bernard lived in Sitka for two years and he paints a picture of modern life in this Baranof Island town. It rains on average 230 days a year in Sitka, and he says, “Relentless rainfall gives everything the blurry focus of watercolor on paper.” And, “Liquid sunshine, they call the rain here, an intentionally optimistic euphemism, but it’s more like a houseguest who won’t leave or paranoia you can’t shake. Want to survive Southeast Alaska? Learn to ignore rain, or embrace insanity.”
The Woman Who Married a Bear by John Straley. Cecil Younger, a private investigator in Sitka, is asked by an elderly Tlingit woman to look at the evidence in the police investigation of the murder of her son. Though one of his workers was convicted of the crime, the mother wants to understand why he was killed. As Younger starts his case review, he realizes he has stirred a hornets nest and someone has now taken a shot at him. His investigations take him to Anchorage as well. Here are some descriptive scenes from the book:
“Sitka is an island town where people feel crowed by the land and spread out on the sea. This morning to the north and east, the mountains were asserting their presence by showing off the new snow that dusted them down to the two-thousand-foot line.”
“If you live in southeastern Alaska and are used to being stared at by the mountains with your back against the ocean, the country around Anchorage is a reprieve. The horizons are broad and open. The mountains slope up from the tidal flat, cupping Anchorage but not crowding it against the shallow waters of Cook Inlet.”
I found this to be a rather run-of-the-mill mystery novel, and I didn’t like it enough to find other of Straley’s books. But for years I have followed another Alaskan mystery series by Dana Stabenow. Her protagonist is an Aleut woman who lives in a fictional national park in Alaska. If you are looking for Alaskan mysteries, I recommend Stabenow’s.
Two Old Women by Velma Wallis. This is a recounting of a traditional Athabascan tale about two old women who were left to perish by their tribe, which was endangered by the scarcity of food during an extremely cold winter in the region north and east of Fairbanks. Only such dire straits would have compelled the tribe to abandon the weakest members, but the women felt betrayed and decided to die trying rather than wait numbly for the inevitable. They seek to make camp in a place that had been safe in the past, and by snaring rabbits and small game, and drawing on long dis-used skills from their pasts, the women not only survive, but put by surplus food and clothes made of rabbit fur in preparation for the next winter. When their former tribe, still weak and struggling, crosses paths with the women, they share their bounty and regain the respect of the People.
I have read this story several times; once it was a selection for my mother-daughter book group. I love this tale of subsistence — living off the land — and resilient elder women.
The Trap by John Smelcer. This is a wilderness survival tale. Eighty-year-old Albert Least-Weasel is checking his trap lines when he gets caught in one of its steel jaws. As the story unfolds, Albert calls upon his past experiences and traditional stories to survive in the implacable cold. His situation is a race against time as temperatures plummet, the supply of fire wood within his reach diminishes, and hungry wolves scent his growing weakness.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. This juvenile novel won the Newbery medal in 1973. It tells the survival story of Miyax/Julie, a thirteen-year-old who became lost on the tundra after running away from her husband Daniel. She comes upon a den of wolves — four adults and five puppies, and she strives to be adopted into the wolf family, knowing she would starve without their hunting skills. Miyax did have some subsistence and survival skills after living in a seal camp for five years with her Eskimo father. But in the summer’s perpetual day, she did not have stars to navigate by, and she did not know the ways of the tundra birds and animals as she did the coastal ones. Miyax’s father Kapugen told her that the birds and animals all had languages and if you listened and watched them you could learn about their enemies, where their food lay, and when big storms were coming. By mimicking the wolves’ gestures, Miyax is accepted by the alpha wolf, but once the pups are grown, they leave the den, and Miyax/Julie resumes her walk to Point Hope. This is a poignant story about the difficulties of straddling two cultures. Miyax/Julie ultimately wishes to live the Eskimo way, but the law says she must go to school, and the pressures to adapt to modern culture have compromised even her strong father. The book concludes with the words, “the hour of the wolf and the Eskimo is over.”
Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joose and illustrated by Barbara Lavallee. In this picture book for young children, an Inuit girl is reassured that her mother will continue to love her no matter what — even if the daughter breaks the ptarmigan eggs, throws water on the lamp, runs away with the wolves, or turned into a musk ox or walrus, etc. I love that the illustrations include Inuit artifacts and Alaskan animals. In fact, I bought a limited edition print of one of the images from this book because I liked it so much.
Reading about Alaska appeals to my sense of adventure. So many of the people live there by intention, drawn by Alaska’s diverse landscapes, the challenges of surviving cold and dark, and any number of individual dreams. These books feed the imaginations of armchair travelers like me.
The next state on my literary journey: Arizona