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:
October 3, 2014
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.
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.)
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.”
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.”
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
February 3, 2014
“Every journey happens inside one’s head.”
— Jochen Gerz
For me, the planning of a journey is as enjoyable as taking the actual trip. Reading about places at my destination helps me form a route and itinerary so that I can make the most of my short time away. The words and images I find in books help me to imagine my trip, and this dreaming builds anticipation and heightens my expectations.
In planning for my San Francisco trip, I re-read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and parts of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur. I read Thomas Steinbeck’s Down to a Soundless Sea, Christina Schwartz’s The Edge of the Earth, Rebecca Solnit’s and Susan Schwartzenberg’s Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism, and Isabelle Allende’s newest book, Ripper, which planted the notion to see the redwood grove in Samuel P. Taylor State Park in Marin County.
It is so rewarding when I can actually visit those places in my imagined journeys. But time away from work is limited, so I also rely on armchair travel for the satisfactions of journeying without leaving home.
“How can one remain at home and still get away? . . . And so the answer is, no more travel, but instead read, and travel nonetheless.”
— Bernd Stiegler, Traveling in Place: A History of Armchair Travel, translated by Peter Filkins
A large part of Stiegler’s book, Traveling in Place, is devoted to the radical idea of room travel or garden travel, where one makes a pilgrimage through one’s room or garden, taking the time to look at objects and the near-at-hand as tools for transport and discovery. He says, “Whether in the room or in the city, the spirit with which the journey is carried out transforms the near into a distant unknown, into a wonderland . . .”
Stiegler also touches on some other interesting ideas for armchair travel, like traversing the world visually through Google Earth, or taking a round-the-world literary tour by reading a book by an author from your own country, then a book by someone from a neighboring country, and so on until you’ve journeyed around the world. I’d love to hear more creative and imaginative ideas like these. Suggestions anyone?