“If travel expands our experience and broadens our minds, the anticipation of travel helpfully narrows our reading list.”
— Thomas Swick, The Joys of Travel

Reading about Minnesota

Reading about Minnesota

A recent trip to Minnesota was a good excuse to resurrect my Armchair America project.  Before I go on any trip, I like to read books about the places I will be visiting and books by writers who live(d) there.  I was especially looking forward to reading books about Minnesota or by Minnesota authors because I spent my childhood and college years there.  I thought my reading list should include an old classic, Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, that I had never read.  And I wanted to re-read some familiar and favorite books from my past.  It turned out that instead of narrowing my reading list, my anticipated Minnesota trip did the opposite for me.  I have been mired in books, simply because so many of them are so good!

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

Two of my all-time favorite books by Minnesota authors — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and Letters from the Country by Carol Bly — have held honored spots on my bookshelves for most of my life.  I’ve read both books a few times, and I wanted to give them one final reading.  (I’m old enough now to start donating books that I will never read again in my lifetime, but I had been holding on to these for one last look before parting with them.)

I wasn’t expecting to find another favorite author, but after reading Leif Enger’s Peace Is a River I liked it so much that I also took the time to read So Brave, Young, and Handsome.  And I was thrilled to discover a “new to me” nature writer, Paul Gruchow, whom I like to think of as Minnesota’s Thoreau.

I remember reading a couple of Bill Holm’s books when I was preparing for my trip to Iceland in 2013, and although I did not take the time to reread him for this blog post, I did go back to find this quote from The Windows of Brimnes: An American in Iceland: “The paradox was that the farther away I traveled, to places utterly unlike Swede Prairie and my father’s farm, the more the wisdom it had to offer revealed itself to me.”  And yes, as I was reading through my Armchair Minnesota books, I did look for traces of my past, echoes of a landscape so familiar to me, and stories that these writers have in common with me.

I asked for recommendations from the expert librarians at the Hennepin County Libraries, and Lee gave these suggestions (and I read the ones marked with *):

Nonfiction:

  • *Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota by Gwen Westerman
  • Minnesota Real and Imagined: Essays on the State and Its Culture by Stephen Graubard
  • *Through No Fault of My Own: A Girl’s Diary of Life on Summit Avenue in the Jazz Age by Coco Irvine
  • Frog town: Photographs and Conversations in an Urban Neighborhood by Wing Young Huie
  • Night Flying Woman: An Ojibway Narrative by Ignatia Broker
  • Land of 10,000 Loves: A History of Queer Minnesota by Stewart Van Cleve

Fiction:

  • *War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (fantasy fiction).  (While the Twin Cities are the settling for this novel, I found that the action could really have taken place anywhere without hurting the story line.)
  • The Year of Ice by Brian Malloy (teen realistic fiction)
  • *Guy in Real Life by Steven Brezenoff (teen realistic fiction)

I also asked my siblings for their favorite books about Minnesota or by Minnesota authors, and here are their suggestions:

  • Mapping the Farm by John Hildebrand
  • William Kent Krueger series
  • Nancy Carlson picture books
  • Maud Hart Lovelace Betsy-Tacy books
  • Deb Hoven, children’s book author and illustrator
  • Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag
  • Old Turtle and Granddad’s Prayer of the Earth by Douglas Wood
  • Betsy Bowen books
  • Vince Flynn’s thrillers featuring Mitch Rapp
  • Louise Erdrich novels
  • Laverne Spencer books
  • How to Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr (here’s s short video clip from YouTube demonstrating how to talk Minnesotan.)

Here are the books I actually read before my trip to Minnesota and that I would recommend for capturing the essence of the state and its people:

Fiction

  • Staggerford by Jon Hassler.  This is a novel about Miles, a 35-year-old bachelor and teacher in the town where he grew up.  The cast of characters also includes a superintendent who is convinced he has a bad heart and leaves running the school to his capable secretary, the coach whose wife is having an affair with the town dentist, a promising student whose home life is in shambles, Indian students who leave school the minute they turn 16, and an elderly spinster teacher in whose house Miles is a boarder.  This is a good depiction of the ups and downs of ordinary small town life, but shows that those ordinary lives do matter.

 

  • Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.  It was a nice surprise to find this book which I liked as much as To Kill a Mockingbird.  The main character is 11-year-old Reuben, who suffers from asthma so often times he has to fight for breath.  His 9-year-old sister Swede is as endearing as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Their father is so wise and gentle and beloved, like Atticus, that he is the vehicle for miracles.  (Reuben once saw his father walking on air.)  When Reuben’s big brother defends the family and their home from two bullies and kills them, he is arrested.  But escapes jail, becoming an outlaw.  The family embarks on a trip in an Airstream trailer to find him.  The journey proceeds on a hope and a prayer.  I liked this novel so much that I took the time to read another of Enger’s books, So Brave, So Young, and Handsome, which is about another outlaw who is paradoxically a good man, and his friendship with a writer who had phenomenal success with his first book but is unable to write another.  They, too, embark on a journey.  “In times of dread it’s good to have an old man along.  An old man who has seen worse.”

 

  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig.  This has been on the list of my all-time favorite books for a long time.  It is the autobiographical story of a man who takes a motorcycle trip with is son.  The man, in his past, had been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital where we was given a series of shock treatments.  Although he now feels he has become a new man, he carries the ghost of his former self.  Now his son has been diagnosed with having the beginning symptoms of mental illness.  The motorcycle journey is the vehicle for confronting his past, recreating his personal story to find its meaning, and building a relationship with his son.  The story is full of philosophical musings about living a meaningful life, making choices, and being good.

 

  • American Boy by Larry Watson.  It is 1963 and Matthew Garth is in his senior year of high school.  He is best friends with the doctor’s son and is taken under the doctor’s wing so he believes himself to almost be part of the doctor’s family.  Then a young woman, victim of a shooting on Thanksgiving Day, is also taken in.  The novel portrays the unraveling of this “perfect” family.

 

  • Main Street by Sinclair Lewis.  This novel takes place in the fictional town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, “a  town of a few thousand, in a region of wheat and corn and dairies and little groves.”  Carol, an orphaned college graduate is casting about for something to do and she fantasizes that she could be the inspiration for waking up and beautifying small town America.  She marries Will Kennicott, one of the town’s doctors, and tries to live her dream.  But she is disheartened and stymied by the smug, boring, complacent, staid, and righteous people she encounters there.  She observes, “The people are savorless and proud of it.”  I didn’t like Carol or the story and I couldn’t force myself to finish.  Another classic remains unread!

 

  • In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien.  This novel explores the fallout and repercussions from secrets.  John Wade, a former Minnesota state senator and lieutenant governor, makes a run for the U.S. Senate.  But shortly before the election, his participation in a My Lai-type massacre is exposed, and he loses by a landslide.  He and his wife retreat to a remote lake cabin in northern Minnesota to lick their wounds.  Then, the wife disappears.

 

  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich.  Through a series of strange incidences, Agnes assumes the identity of Father Damien, who travels to Little No Horse on the Ojibwe reservation to become its missionary priest.  Years later, Father Jude is sent by the Vatican to investigate the report of miracles surrounding Sister Leopolda, one of the locals there who became a nun.  The writing evokes the sense of loss and despair and pain in the lives of every family on the reservation as their existence is threatened.  This is an intricate and complex story, well written.  Father Damien’s last words are, “What is the whole of our existence but the sound of an appalling love?”  I also read Erdrich’s memoir, Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country, written for the National Geographic Directions Series about special places in the world.

 

  • Safe from the Sea and Wintering by Peter Geye.  Both of these novels take place in northern Minnesota — the first in Duluth and the second in the old voyageurs boundary waters near Canada.  Both involve fathers and sons who reconcile after years of misunderstandings and emotional separation.  The stories resonate with the themes of returning to one’s childhood home, aging parents, and acceptance.

 

  • Vermillion Drift by William Kent Kruger.  This author has written a series of books about a private investigator, formerly a sheriff, who has some Ojibwe ancestry.  In this book, he investigates the missing sister of a Vermillion mine owner, and in the process discovers six bodies whose homicides go back 50 years to when his father was sheriff.  Hidden secrets come to light.

 

  • The Sixth Sense by P. J . Tracy.  This is the newest in a series about the Monkeywrench Gang, a group of four reclusive, eccentric computer geniuses housed in a mansion in Minneapolis, who donate their expertise and software to help law enforcement fight cyber terrorism.  I have enjoyed every book in this series written by a mother and daughter duo from Minnesota.

Nonfiction

  • The Necessity of Empty Places by Paul Gruchow.  Gruchow lived in southwestern Minnesota at the edge of the tall-grass prairie.  He writes, “It is an odd irony that the places we call empty should retain some memory of the diversity of life, while the places we have filled grow emptier and emptier. . . . From the top of the Blue Mounds, I look out across the countryside of southwestern Minnesota and see a landscape that has been reduced to its simplest terms.  On a clear day I can see for fifteen miles or more in any direction.”  I love how he writes about his prairie home, the “province of the big sky.”  He says, “Experiencing a landscape is an act of creativity.  Like any creative vision, it cannot be forced or willed.  It cannot be organized on a schedule, or happen by appointment.  If you would experience a landscape, you must go alone into it and sit down somewhere quietly and wait for it to come in its own good time to you.  You must not wait ambitiously.  You must not sing to pass the time, or make any kind of effort.  The solitude is necessary, the silence is necessary, the wait is necessary, and it is necessary that you yourself be empty, that you might be filled.”  And then, “All holy places command us, if only for a little while, to keep silence. . . . In speechlessness begins awe for life.”

 

  • Journey of a Prairie Year by Paul Gruchow.  In this book, Gruchow again writes what it is like to live on a vast, flat prairie:  “When we are faced with vastness on the scale of the prairie, we turn inward.”  He writes of the grasses and the resilience of the plants and animals that inhabit this landscape.  He is most poetic when describing the annual migrations of geese:  “What is it in the call of a goose that is so magical?  Is it the volume of it, so deliciously brazen after the months of winter silence?  Is it the appealingly adolescent quality of it, the way it starts in a resonant baritone and suddenly tumbles out of control into a high squeak, that delirious school childish sound?  Is it the humor of it after a season of seriousness and solitude, the improbability of such an uninhibited call gushing forth from a creature so elegant in flight, so formal in adornment?”

 

  • Letters from the Country by Carol Bly.  This is another of my all-time favorite books, and I’ve read it several times throughout my life.  (My copy of the book is dated 1982.)  I think it saved me and gave me concrete ideas for overcoming the cultural pressures of my Minnesota upbringing.  Bly advocates for a “madly expressive” life.  She quite accurately (I think) describes the restraint against feeling that she sees in her small, rural community and she calls out the resulting disdain for literature, the positive pretending masquerading as positive thinking, the loneliness when small talk is the principal means of avoiding conflict.  I love that Bly gives actionable ideas for engaging in a more deeply felt and conscious life, especially for people like me who grew up rather isolated on a farm.

 

  • The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl.  This is a book of essays written at Hampl’s dying mother’s bedside, the occasion of memories surfacing about growing up in St. Paul, which she calls “the pallid capital of the frozen flatland.”  “It was a world, old St. Paul.  And now it’s gone.  but I still live in it.”  She says, “In its cloudy wistfulness, nostalgia fuels the spark of significance.  My place.  My people.”  She describes her family as follows:  “An ordinary middle-class Midwestern family, in other words.  A cozy setting for heartlessness.”  She captures something of that Minnesota reticence and stiffness:  “Always eager to assure me of our modesty, our middling safety in the middle of the continent in the middle of the century. . . . the best place to be:  the middle.  No harm done there.  That’s us: smart enough, middle-class, Midwestern, midcentury — middle everything.  Safe, safe.”  And this:  “What a romantic city it was, full of believers, wrapped in pride and insecurity, those protons of provincial complacency.   We pulled the blanket of winter around us, we clicked shut the wooden blinds of summer against the killing heat, the swatted mosquitoes of summer, the dripping ice dams of winter.  Our lives were little, our weather big.”  I found so much honesty in Hampl’s writing, her take on her Minnesota upbringing resonated with my own.  “I sit with my mother, as has been destined since time began because a daughter is a daughter all her life.”  I liked this book so much that I read another of Hampl’s books, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, about writing memoirs.  She says, “Memoir is the intersection of narration and reflection.”  And, “The beauty of memory rests in its talent for rendering detail, for paying homage to the senses, its capacity to love the particles of life, the richness and idiosyncrasy of our existence.”  She goes on to say, “To write one’s life is to live it twice, and the second living is both spiritual and historical. . .”

 

  • Mapping the Farm and A Northern Front: New and Selected Essays by John Hildebrand.  These books are about rural Minnesota, particularly the area around Rochester where Hildebrand’s wife’s family owns a farm.  This is how he describes this part of Minnesota:  “a landscape of almost pure geometrical proportions, a landscape redrawn by machines every autumn as combines level the buff-colored fields, followed by chisel plows working in from the edges until black dirt frames the bare rectangles and the countryside resembles nothing so much as a plat map itself.”  I was most interested in reading about his family’s experiences with working out a way to pass the family farm to a new generation.  “If this farm is lost, it won’t be because of crooked bankers or poor markets or even bad luck.  It will be a failure from within when, after four generations on the land, the line of descent finally runs out.”  His family’s story is the story of America’s loss of small, sustainable, family farms, and he reflects on what this means.

 

Juvenile

  • Clabbered Dirt, Sweet Grass by Gary Paulsen.  This book lovingly describes the rituals of farm life in the era when everything was not yet mechanized.  Paulson describes many things that brought back memories of my childhood on a small Minnesota homestead farm.  For example, here he describes milking:  “Milking was all the time, not just in spring, but it was different then because the milk smelled, the air was of calves.  It was regular, so fitted into our rituals that it became more than just a chore. . . . And it became more than work, became something of spirit or grace, almost a benediction.”  He goes on, “Much is made of the bond between men and animals, horses, dogs.  But this is beyond that.  The milk stool is set just so and the forehead is put into the soft spot where the cow’s gut meets her back legs so that the stomach rumbles and gurgles as part of the person’s thinking, breathing, low sounds and the hands work in a rhythm perhaps as old as all rhythms, the movement that is the giving of milk, so that the person becomes the calf and the cow the mother and the milk hisses and sputters into the bucket, into the white foam . . .”  His descriptions are almost stream of consciousness reminisces: “By seven the chores were done and breakfast was done and it was time to go to work and all worked, young, old, all, and if we were too young to work we went with and ‘helped’ those who did work.”  I also loved the illustrations in this book, paintings by Ruth Wright Paulsen.

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  • Millions of Cats and Gone is Gone by Wanda Gag.  Gag was born in 1893 in New Ulm, Minnesota, a German and Czech community.  The first title was a Newbery honor book in 1929 and tells the story of a lonely old man and woman who decide to get a cat.  They happen upon a hill with “Hundreds of cats, Thousands of cats, Millions and billions and trillions of cats,” and finding that it is impossible to chose among them, a catfight ensues.  When the dust settles, only one cat is left.  Too homely to even hope it would be chosen, it was overlooked in the fray and survives to bring joy to the couple.  The second title plays on the switching of roles — wife to the fields and husband to care for the baby and keep house for a day.  The inept husband creates a series of disastrous mishaps and learns that his wife does not have the easy job after all.  I also read about Gag’s life in Growing Pains:  Diaries and Drawings from the Years 1908 – 17.

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  • North Woods Girl by Aimee Bissonette.  I enjoyed the scratchboard and watercolor illustration in this picture book about a granddaughter who visits her plain, outdoorsy, flannel shirt-wearing grandmother.

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  • The Betsy-Tacy Treasury by Maud Hart-Lovelace.  These were the first four books in the Betsy-Tacy juvenile novels based on stories from the author’s childhood in Mankato, Minnesota.  We follow the gentle exploits of two neighbor girls engaged in ordinary childhood activities like playing dress up and going calling, playing store in a discarded piano box and selling dyed sand in bottles, writing a letter to the King of Spain, making a trip to the new Carnegie library.  I also looked at The Betsy-Tacy Companion: A Biography of Maud Hart-Lovelace by Sharla Scannell Whalen, which goes chapter by chapter, looking at the historical basis for the people, places, and incidents mentioned in the fiction series.

 

 

Vintage postcard of Nebraska

Vintage postcard of Nebraska

“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.

Map of Nebraska

Map of Nebraska

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

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:

Adult Fiction:

  • 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.

Adult Nonfiction:

  • 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

Juvenile:

  • Have You Seen Mary by Jeff Kurrus
  • The Nebraska Adventure by Jean Lukesh

Nebraska Photographers:

  • 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)

Nebraska Poets:

  • 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:

Adult Fiction:

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!

Adult Nonfiction:

Map showing the trails west along the Platte River from Platte River Narratives by Merrill J. Mattes

Map showing the trails west along the Platte River from Platte River Narratives by Merrill J. Mattes

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.

Juvenile:

Photo by Solomon Butcher from Prairie Visions

Photo by Solomon Butcher from Prairie Visions

Photo by Solomon butcher from Prairie Visions

Photo by Solomon Butcher from Prairie Visions

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

 

 

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.

My daughter at the Grand Canyon, 2005

My daughter at the Grand Canyon, 2005

 

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ

Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ

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:

Fiction:
— 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

Nonfiction:
A Gift of Angels: the Art of Mission San Xavier Del Bac by Bernard Fontana
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea

Juvenile:
Gila Monsters Meet You at the Airport by Marjorie Sharmat

Postcard with map of Arizona

Postcard with map of Arizona

Vintage postcard of Arizona

Vintage postcard of Arizona

Now let me take you on a whirlwind trip to Arizona through the books I actually read:

Adult Fiction:

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.

Vintage postcard of the Grand Canyon

Vintage postcard of the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon postcard

Grand Canyon postcard

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.

Adult Nonfiction:

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.”

from Cactus Hotel

from Cactus Hotel

Juvenile Books:

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Map of Alabama

Map of Alabama

Today’s post introduces my newest project, armchair travel to each of the 50 states, journeying alphabetically from Alabama to Wyoming.  My intent is to imbibe the flavor of each state’s landscape, people, and culture through the words and images of a few books.  I hope to read at least one novel, one nonfiction book, and a juvenile title whose story takes place in the state or whose author was born there.  In addition, I hope to discover an artist or photographer or craftsperson who works/worked there.

This project is not intended to represent a comprehensive survey of the states’ literature and letters.  Rather, my reading will give me a peek through the pages of a few open books.  I will ask the advice of a reference librarian from one of the public libraries for each state, and I welcome suggestions from my readers, too.  I may not actually follow through on these suggestions, but I will consider them.

I will call this project Armchair America.  There will be no regularly scheduled posts.  They will appear as time permits — I will fit this reading in among the other demands on my life.

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

Vintage postcard of Alabama

By my count, I have physically traveled to 31 of the 50 states.  Someday I may get to see them all.  It was a particular pleasure to journey in my mind to Alabama for this first post in the series because I have never been there in person.

The reference librarian at the Birmingham Public Library responded to my query about good books on Alabama, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Up from Slavery, with these additional recommendations:

  • Alabama: The History of a Deep South State by Wayne Flint
  • Carry Me Home by Diane McWhorter
  • Forrest Gump by Winston Groom
  • Rocket Boys by Homer Hickham
  • and anything by Rick Bragg

But these are the books I actually read on my armchair travels to Alabama:

Up from Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington.  Washington was born a slave on a Virginia plantation in 1858 or 59, so he would have been 4 or 5 years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, and 6 or 7 years old when slaves were actually freed at the close of the Civil War.  He lived through the rough period of the Reconstruction, a time of poverty and hardship.  But through hard work, dedication and focus, and resilience, Washington put himself through school and eventually founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

His experiences shaped his educational philosophy, that every student should be required to do manual labor along with academics.  He said, “Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the production of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful.  No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.  It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top.”

In Washington’s time, about one-third of the population of Alabama was African-American.  Today it is about 26 percent black.  (In my own state of Washington, blacks represent about 4 percent of the population.)

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To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee.  I consider this novel one of my all-time favorites.  It is the story of Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, and the effects of this trial on his children and neighbors.

Lee is masterful at creating the ambiance of southern life — if I were to go to Alabama I would expect to see johnson grass and rabbit tobacco, smilex and scuppernongs (I had to look these things up.)  Lee describes her Alabama in passages like these:

“People moved slowly then.  They ambled across the square, shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about everything.  A day was twenty-four hours long but seemed longer.”

“There are no clearly defined seasons in South Alabama; summer drifts into autumn, and autumn is sometimes never followed by winter, but turns to a days-old spring that melts into summer again.”

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills.  This is a memoir by a journalist who lived for a year next door to the elderly Harper Lee and her sister Alice in Monroeville, Alabama.  While Mills considered herself their friend, this is not an authorized biography.  Mills is careful to stay on the side of memoir — her own personal experiences — which did not require the Lees’ approval.  Mills is from the north, so it was interesting to read her impressions of Alabama, land of red dirt and Piggly Wiggly grocery stores:

” . . . kudzu drapes over hundred-year-old oak trees.  It crawls up ravines.  It creeps across the caved-in tin roofs of abandoned country shacks.  It forms an intricate web of green so dense it seems to be hiding something.”

“We passed the occasional gas station and general store with ‘Coca Cola’ in fading white script on peeling red paint.”

“Around every other bend was a redbrick church or tiny white one with a steeple stabbing blue sky and a cemetery out back.  Most of the churches were Baptist, but we also saw ones that were Methodist, First Assembly, and Pentecostal.”

“Football was second only to God in inspiring devotion around here . . .”

The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis.  This award-winning juvenile novel is about a black family growing up in Flint, Michigan in 1963.  When the older son starts acting out, his parents decide to take him to stay with his strict grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama.  The family’s road trip points out the issues of blacks traveling in the segregated south.  While in Birmingham, the family witnesses the aftermath of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.  I loved how the Watsons used warmth and humor and love in facing life’s challenges.

The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer.  A man diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis decides to leave his family and friends in Idaho and live out his last days in Fairhope, Alabama.  I have written about this book before (link here).  I enjoyed rereading this novel, and this time I paid more attention to the descriptions of things I might see in Alabama:  piney woods, live oaks, water oaks, etc.  Brewer touches on hurricanes and their effects, and he says, ” . . . if you’re going to live in Alabama, you are going to eat grits for breakfast.”

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Picture Taker: Photographs by Ken Elkins.  Elkins was the chief photographer of the Anniston Star for many years, and I was pleased to have I discovered his work through my research for this project.  Here is how he is described by Rick Bragg in the introduction to this book of photos:  “He rejects the stereotypes of despair and ignorance often depicted by big city photographers on safari, and reveals his subjects as individuals who have endured hard lives but have found humor, dignity and faith.”

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The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.  This book showcases the handmade quilts by the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama.  It includes historical photos and narratives from 200 years.  As a quilter, I find these graphic quilts to be beautiful as well as practical.

Next State on My Armchair Journey:  Alaska