I have three relatively short trips planned for Oregon in 2017, but I won’t be surprised if a few more opportunities to travel there won’t pop up.  Oregon is one of my neighboring states, and I can cross its border after a three-hour drive south along I-5 from Seattle.  Like my home state of Washington, Oregon offers a selection of diverse geographic destinations — untamed ocean coastlines, mountains, dry lands, vibrant cities, and fertile agricultural valleys.  As I read my way across Oregon for this virtual travel post, I discovered that its literary offerings were as rich and varied as its physical ones.

Landscape near Antelope, Oregon

Landscape near Antelope, Oregon

I very much enjoy reading books in this series on armchair travel, but I have a tendency to get greedy and my book lists grow and at some point I begin to feel overwhelmed.  That certainly happened again with my reading about Oregon and by Oregon authors.  It didn’t help that a couple of the authors — William Stafford and Brian Doyle, for example — were such good writers that I wanted to read more deeply from their published works.  I hope this post can do justice to the literary wealth of the state.

Vintage postcard about Oregon

Vintage postcard about Oregon

I asked for recommendations for books that capture the spirit of Oregon from the reference librarians at the Multnomah County Library.  Tara, the librarian who responded to my request, is a native Oregonian, and she offered these suggestions:

  • Fiction (adult/young adult):  Ricochet River by Robin Cody.  This novel is told from the point of view of Wade, a high school senior from a small logging community.  While he is an easy-going guy, finding comfort in just going with the flow, his girlfriend yearns to leave and break free.  “Everything is so predictable,” she says.  “They box people up in tight little packages . . . Your cheerleaders, your farmers, your hoods, your jocks.”  But it is Wade’s friendship with Jesse, a Klamath youth and gifted athlete, that begins to open his eyes to the undercurrents of prejudice and conformity in his town.
  • Fiction (adult/young adult): Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.  Charley is a 15-year-old essentially raising himself.  His father has brought him to Portland and poor parenting leaves Charley struggling to cope on is own.  He shoplifts for food while diligently trying to keep in shape for the upcoming football season.  He takes on a job at a racetrack in order to earn some pocket money, but his boss is a shady character.  In a misguided effort to save the life of a horse destined for the knackers, Charley steals his boss’s truck, trailer, and horse, and sets off to find his aunt in Idaho and a chance for a more secure life.
  • Nonfiction:  Fugitives and Refugees by Chuck Palahniuk.  A tour of Portland showcases the “hipster and weird.”
  • Juvenile:  Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary.  What a joy it was to reread this book.  Cleary captures perfectly the trials of being a younger sister, the strange happenings at kindergarten, the perils of being misunderstood.  “Things had such an unexpected way of turning out all wrong.” I remember my ex-Marine, rather reticent brother-in-law reading Ramona and Her Father out loud to his two young sons, and breaking into guffaws over some of the antics in that book.  If you hanker to revisit childhood, I highly recommend all of Clearly’s books about Ramona, her sister Beezus, and neighbor Henry.
  • Poetry:  Traveling Through the Dark by William Stafford.
  • Art book: Oregon: A Photographic Journey by Greg Vaughn.


In addition to Tara’s recommendations, all of which I read, I also read the following books on my “Armchair Travels” to Oregon:

Fiction:  Martin, Martin by Brian Doyle.  This was the first book of Doyle’s that I read, and I liked it so much that I went on to read Mink River, The Plover, and Children and Other Wild Animals.  

Martin, Martin is about 14-year-old Dave and his loving family who live in a cabin on Mount Hood, and Martin, one of a litter of four martens born to a a single mother.  The lives of the two Martins cross paths from time to time, each watching the other with curiosity and interest.  Here the martens emerge from safety of their hidden home:  “And so it was the five marten made their way to the river through an astonishing new world of trees and rocks, songs and whistles, bushes and scents, mud and flowers, all bathed in the high thin light of a mountain afternoon in spring.”  And this is Dave’s first glimpse of the marten:  “. . . and then Dave saw, one after another in a line like hikers on a narrow trail, five small lustrous golden brown animals slip out of the woods on the other side of the river.  Four were smaller than the leader, who was clearly in charge, probably a parent, and the last one in line looked for all the world like he or she was the trusted deputy, bringing up the rear as a precaution against stragglers and mischief.”

The book is brimming with observations that evoke the lush Pacific Northwest forests and rivers landscape.  “We sit on park benches and beaches and couches and hilltops, listening and dreaming seemingly to no particular purpose.  But isn’t it often the case the when we cease to move and think, we see and hear and understand a great deal?”

You can tell that Doyle is a writer who just loves words and the sounds of words and the play of the tongue:  “By now, almost June, the snow was gone, this far down the mountain, but the river was still crammed with melt, and it raced and thrummed and braided in endlessly riveting ways.  You could, as Dave many times had, just sit there in the sun with your back against a tree and watch and listen to the river sprint and thurble and trip and thumble . . .”

You sense that Dave’s dad embodies some of Doyle:  “That is how Dave’s dad talks, with words like donnybrook and vainglorious and epistolary and he just expects you to know what he is talking about, says Dave, as if you too had read every book in the town library and every book in the bookstore’s lending library and every book in the lost-and-found library at Timberline Lodge up the mountain, where Dave’s mom works in laundry services.”

I just savored Doyle’s exquisite and apt descriptions:  “Dave’s dad knew that it was going to snow.  He could tell.  The clouds were pregnant, it was too cold for rain, and there was a sort of glower in the air . . . A sort of chilled expectation or premonition — like the air was grimacing, and soon it would begin to cough relentlessly.”

Doyle says, “People are stories, aren’t they?  And their stories keep changing and opening and closing and braiding and weaving and stitching and slamming to a halt and finding new doors and windows through which to tell themselves, isn’t that so? . . . You find that your story keeps changing in thrilling and painful ways, and it’s never in one place.  Maybe each of us is a sort of village, with lots of different beings living together under one head of hair, around the river of your pulse, the crossroads of who you were and who you wish to be.”

Mink River by Brian Doyle.  The protagonists of this novel are two guys in their 60s — Worried Man and Cedar — who are co-managers of the Department of Public Works in the small town of Neawanaka, where the Mink River meets the Pacific Ocean.  Their mission is “Brains against pain” in this town of 500 souls.

This is how Doyle describes Neawanaka as seen through the eyes of Worried Man’s wife, the town’s teacher:  ” . . . her town, the poetry and pain and poverty and plainness of it, the bravery and belly laughs, the stunning volume of rain, the sadness of winter, the petty crime, the smell of manure, the squelch of mud, the smell of skunk cabbage, the burble and babble and bubble of the children in her classroom, the endless fleeing of children to the city as soon as possible, the sticky smell of cottonwood buds opening, the prevalence of mold and mildew, the gargling snarl of chain saws, the violet green sheen of a swallow, the hollow eyes of retarded children, the stunning sunlight after rain, the prevalence of car parts in yards, the mustiness of basements, the prevalence of divorce, the slam of screen doors, the paucity of voters, the night oratorio of tree frogs, the smell of fish like a wall near the co-op, the smell of beer like an aura around the pub night and day, the thrill of thrushes, the smell of a crate of new school books, the riotous vegetation, the patient heartless brooding watchful sea.”

Doyle’s litanies are a signature characteristic of his writings.  Here he describes the Pacific Ocean:  “The sea is green and blue and gray and white and purple.  He stares at it for a long time.  It shimmies and shivers and shines and shudders and shimmers and twitches and glitters and trembles and gleams.  It stutters and whispers and moans and sighs.  It snarls and roars and hammers the patient shore.  It tosses its hair and rolls its shoulders an shuffles its feet.” Yes!

I fell in love with the human and humane, struggling, flawed, yet loving characters in this fictional town.  “Sometimes I think the all people in all times must have had the same joys and sorrows, says Nora.  Everyone thinks that the old days were better, or that they were harder, and that modern times are chaotic and complex, or easier all around, but I think people’s hearts have always been the same, happy and sad, and that hasn’t changed at all.  It’s just the shape of lives that change, not lives themselves.”

“. . . each of us, man and woman alike, is a seething sea of desires and shadows, of illusions and dreams, of courage and cowardice, and we arrive in peaceful harbors only by sailing ourselves true, by finding and wielding our talents and tools to help others.”

The town doctor says, “We make our holy gestures, we conduct our intricate and complicated rituals, we apply salves and poultices, elixirs and potions, and people remain broken and torn.  The best I can do it just witness the pain.”

The Road We Traveled by Jane Kirkpatrick.  My sister, who lives in Oregon, recommended Kirkpatrick to me.  She writes historical fiction.  The Road We Traveled was inspired by the life of Tabitha Moffat Brown, a widow and grandmother, who came west along the Oregon Trail when she was in her 60s.  She made the trip against the wishes and advice of her family, who wanted her to stay behind.  The novel imagines what the move might have been like — what to shed and leave behind, the nature of attachments, the courage to live true to one’s convictions, the tendency to second guess decisions.  Here is how Kirkpatrick describes Brown’s arrival in the Salem area:  “An afternoon of balm with shafts of sunlight through a pewter-colored sky greeted them.  The world here looked green and the Willamette River ran blue, unlike the brown Platte and Missouri they’d left behind.  Every shade of green covered the ground around them; fields, riverbanks, the centers of the trails they rose marked by sturdy grass.   Even tree trunks had moss, as did the shingle of the ferryman’s shelter.  The landscape promised spring even in December with a sky as gray as the bottom of a duck.”


Nonfiction:  Coastal Range:  A Collection from the Pacific Edge by Nick Neely.  This is a collection of essays about Oregon’s Rogue River valley and other landscapes.  Neely writes about the journey of salmon to their hatchery where they spawned, free gold mining by suction dredging along the Rogue River, madrone trees, and his experiences on a six-month writing residency off the grid in the backcountry of southern Oregon, among other things quintessential northwest.

Neely is a good writer.  Here’s how he describes salmon:  “fifteen or twenty pounds of sauntering muscle wrapped in silver” and “sleek torpedoes with jaws, speckled and scarred.”  And of the Pacific Coast he says,” This layer of continent is now disappearing: Sea stacks stand as pillars to a former coastline, and the basalt of the shore is riddled with coves and inlets the funnel waves furiously into blowholes, as if in homage to a volcanic past and the migrating gray whales.”  And, “. . . the sound of stones being tumbled by the waves is remarkable.  It is a thousand knuckles rapping softly at a door.”

“As we drove along the Oregon Coast, we were absorbed by the bands of the landscape:  The blue and white waves.  The slick and dry stretches of sand.  The quiet back pools reflecting the fast clouds off the Pacific.  Swaths of tidal marsh.  Bluffs and chasms.  The pavement the thinnest of lines.”

The love of this landscape permeates Neely’s writings.  “To become at home in a place, I think, is mainly to discover the words for things.  The names.”

Poetry:  I am drawn to the poetry of William Stafford, and have featured some of my favorites of his in past blog posts.  You can revisit them here: “Watching Sandhill Cranes,”  “Ask,” “What’s in My Journal,” “Things the Wind Says,” “The Dream of Now,” “Yes,” and “An Afternoon in the Stacks.”  Stafford was born in Kansas, but he lived and taught at Lewis and Clark College near Portland for many years.

I don’t have a favorite among the several collections of Stafford’s poems that I read and reread for this blog post.  I did copy out many poems and quotes that I am sure I will be sharing with you in future posts.  For now, I leave you with this William Stafford poem:

“You Reading This, Be Ready” from Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect the you carry
wherever you go right now?  Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found, carry into evening
all that you want from this day.  This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life —

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?




“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 *):


  • *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


  • *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:


  • 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.


  • 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.



  • 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.




  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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


  • 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.


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



Vintage postcard from Arkansas

Vintage postcard from Arkansas

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.

Map of Arkansas

Map of Arkansas

Arkansas postcard extolling the "Natural State"

Arkansas postcard extolling the “Natural State”

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:

Adult Fiction:

  • 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

Adult Nonfiction:

  • 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:

Adult Fiction:

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.

Adult Nonfiction

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.

Photographs of the Arkansas delta by Eugene Richards

Photographs of the Arkansas delta by Eugene Richards




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

Little Rock Girl

Juvenile Books

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.

Double-paged spread from Life Doesn't Frighten Me

Double-paged spread from Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

from Life Doesn't Frighten Me

from Life Doesn’t Frighten Me

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:

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.)

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





“Every journey happens inside one’s head.”
— Jochen Gerz

Traveling in Place

Traveling in Place

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?