Regional Books: Shotgun Lovesongs and Cold Storage, Alaska

“DSC00011” by Neil Rickards is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

One of the endearing things about experts is how much escapes their notice. I’m not talking about peripheral matters outside their sphere of expertise. Even things smack dab in their wheelhouse may elude them. 

Sometimes, the oversight may be merely geographic.

Take literature. In the United States, “literary fiction” resides in one or two postal codes on the island of Manhattan. The Big Five Publishers and most of their subsidiary imprints are located there—not to mention most of the editors, agents, reviewers, and listmakers (That’s you, New York Times!) who define the genre. 

Once, American Literature may have radiated from Concord, Massachusetts, home of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts. But since the Civil War or even earlier, New York is The Place. Even otherwise sophisticated people seldom look beyond their own desk and dinner table. Ergo, “literature” is that which is written by people in New York City. Or at least, written by people who know the folkways of the Five Boroughs or could feel themselves at home there—and who write that way.

Kate Chopin. Public Domain.

However: A funny thing happened on the way to the twentieth century. New York critics discovered “regional” writing (also called “local color”). After the Great Conflagration of the nineteenth century, a few southerners (e.g., Kate Chopin), westerners (Mark Twain), and New Englanders (Emily Dickinson) wrote works surprisingly worth reading, despite their focus on far-flung American localities—perhaps, even, because of it. In view of the Recent Unpleasantness, the literary world recognized some kind of national duty to make believe that We Were All Americans, even though some of us were entangled in local allegiances. 

By the time I was a schoolboy in the 1950s and ’60s, the literati had digested this wave of regional literature and had reduced it to a few specimens in high school anthologies; a few required books, such as Willa Cather’s My Ántonia; and a general recommendation to read works by Hamlin Garland, Ole Rolvaag, William Faulkner, August Derleth, Erskine Caldwell, Joel Chandler Harris, and Sarah Orne Jewett. The tacit assumption behind this neat packaging of regional literature was that its efflorescence had been temporary, and literature could now revert to normal.

Today, however—more than fifty years later—almost every bit of what’s called “literary” (meaning serious and well-written) fiction is regional, in one way or another. “Local color” writing turns out to have been a hardy varietal that could not be weeded out.

Take Shotgun Lovesongs, a 2014 debut novel by Nickolas Butler. It presents four friends raised in the fictional hamlet of Little Wing, Wisconsin. Three had left to pursue careers in the wider world; one, Henry, had stayed in town to work the dairy farm his parents left him. Now some years have gone by. Kip the Chicago commodities trader, Ronny the rodeo rider, and Lee the music star have all returned—each drawn back by the mystical lure of home. With lots of scenes set in the VFW hall and in the town’s once-derelict (now gentrifying) feed mill, the book has plenty of the familiar cheese curds-peppermint schnapps-cow manure atmosphere that says Wisconsin. But it’s less about local color, less even about the varied career paths the four main men have taken, and more about their loves and friendships—among themselves, with various neighbors, and with the women and children in their lives. So yes, Shotgun Lovesongs is about the glory of the Wisconsin life, but it’s also about the hard things that we Badgers can inflict on one another. It’s not just a Wisconsin book, it’s also a full-fledged “literary” novel in the usual sense, and a fine one at that. It may not be coincidence that the author was educated in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has influenced so many other fine writers.

Another good regional book is John Straley’s Cold Storage, Alaska. Though just as “regional” as Shotgun Lovesongs—maybe more so—and just as deserving of the “literary” label, Cold Storage, Alaska is quite different in tone and approach. For one thing, it’s at heart a crime novel. Most of the characters who move the plot are crooks, writ large or writ small. At the same time, there is something worthy of redemption in each of them. The non-criminal central character, Miles, a health care provider in the Alaska village of Cold Storage, is more reactive than active—yet he’s the stable tentpole around which the whole circus revolves. His arc, though subtler than those of his brother and the other grand and petty crooks in this book, is also perhaps more profound. His great challenge is to remain human while also honoring his compulsion to care for others. Those others, in a place like Cold Storage, are not always easy to serve. If you like crime bosses who aspire to be screenwriters, rock bands who get paid in fish, and an innkeeper-impresario whom wild creatures address in English . . . be sure to pay a visit to Cold Storage.

These are but two among hundreds of books published these days—and in an unbroken train since the beginning of literature in America—with both regional attributes and unmistakable literary talent. It is a great time to be an author . . . or a reader.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Radio Days

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

A boy named Izzy Mahler, seven years old, springs out of bed and dashes down the stairs. It is a Saturday morning in October, 1952. 

The Old Philco

Barefoot and pajama’d, Izzy makes straight for the wooden Philco radio, switches it on. Izzy remembers going downtown with Dad to bring home the Philco and its fine supporting table. Ever since—through three apartments, the birth of little Christine, and now the move to this two-story house just across the alley from Grant School—the Philco has been the Mahlers’ proudest possession, and the most useful.

Moving on to the kitchen, Izzy opens the refrigerator, takes out a quart of milk, removes the round cardboard cap from the glass bottle’s neck, and pours himself a glass. Then he sits down at the kitchen table and listens as the radio set in the living room spills forth Let’s Pretend, Buster Brown, and Space Patrol. He sees every detail of each story.

Commander Buzz Corey is just cutting his way into Jelna’s spaceship with an atomic cutting torch when Mom and Dad come out in wrinkled pajamas, rubbing their heads with their knuckles. Izzy wishes he had an atomic cutting torch like Buzz Corey’s, or even just a plain old cosmic ray gun. He would give it to President Eisenhower for copying. That way, should American soldiers run into bug-eyed monsters from Planet Orkulon, they’d be ready.

Christine bangs her tin cup on the wooden tray of her high chair, but Izzy hardly hears. Why can’t you get a ray gun by sending in box-tops? he wonders. A ray gun would take more boxtops, and probably more quarters, than the usual things like the Lone Ranger decoder ring he lost while helping Buster Wiggins plant potatoes—but it would be worth it. He hopes none of the Wigginses will bite into a spud and break a tooth on his decoder ring. 

Now Christine squalls to beat the band, so loud that Izzy can’t hear the radio.

“Harold,” Mom says. Dad stares into space, as usual. Mom plunks down the checkbook with a loud WHACK! Dad sighs and sits down at the kitchen table.

Izzy goes upstairs and gets dressed. When he comes down, Dad frowns over his slide rule, while Mom knits her brows over numbers scrawled on paper with a pencil. 

Izzy opens the back door. Dad looks up. “Where are you going, son?”

“Out to play,” Izzy says.

“Be home for supper,” says Mom.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Out of the Ether

I was born in 1945 into a family that couldn’t, or at least didn’t, afford a television set until 1957, when everybody else had already had a set for two or three years. As a result, I was privileged to be present at the last stand of radio broadcasting as a mass entertainment medium—before TV gobbled up radio’s best shows, and most of its advertising revenue, added a few original programs of its own, and became—well, Television. As we know it.

If you did not experience those “radio days,” let me assure you: radio was great. All the action, all the drama, all the excitement, all the laughs of TV—only you could see it better, because everything played on the full color, panoramic, high-definition screen inside your mind—with all the pans, tilts, and zooms each story required. 

Stan Freberg, the advertising world’s comic genius, produced a radio spot, “Stretching the Imagination,” that perfectly illustrates the vast cinematic potential of the sound-only medium. You can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppZ57EeX6vE.

An Embarrassment of Riches

What kind of shows did radio offer? Besides the Saturday morning fare Izzy consumed in our fictional vignette, there were:

Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. “roy_trigger_new_color72.jpg” by amycgx is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

Westerns galore, all of the juvenile variety: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders. But most of all, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:30 p.m.: “In the pages of history there is no greater champion of justice than this daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains, who, with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, led the fight for law and order in the early West. . . . Return with us now to those gripping days of yesteryear—the Lone Ranger rides again!

Northerns, starring Royal Canadian Mounted Police like Sergeant Preston of the Yukon with his famous lead dog Yukon King; and mountie Jim West, The Silver Eagle, voiced by radio legend Jim Ameche—one of the Amici boys from Kenosha, Wisconsin—on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Lone Ranger’s 6:30 time slot. 

Game shows like The Quiz Kids and The 64-Dollar Question. That’s not a misprint. Sixty-four dollars was the top prize. That was big money. When television came along, the same show was recycled, “isolation booths” added for showmanship, and three zeroes tacked on to the prizes—so it became The $64,000 Question.

Audience-participation shows like Art Linkletter’s People Are Funny or Ralph Edwards’ Truth or Consequences, in which typical Americans made fools of themselves, on the screen in your mind, for fame, glory, and small sums of money. They may have been forerunners of what is today called “reality TV.” 

Comedies, glorious comedies of all descriptions. There was the pompous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd; you could not even see his lips move—at least, on the radio. There were situation comedies of small-town life, like Fibber McGee and Molly and The Great Gildersleeve. Others relied on ethnic identities: The Goldbergs (not to be confused with the 2013 TV series of that name), Life with Luigi (in which Irish-American actor J. Carrol Naish played the title Italian character), and Amos ’n’ Andy (a show whose African American title characters were created and portrayed by white actors Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll). There were comedies about teenagers—Henry Aldrich, Corliss Archer, My Little Margie, and the high school denizens taught by Our Miss Brooks. And there were wholesome family shows like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. (Leave It to Beaver, the classic exemplar of this kind of show, never appeared on radio; it was a creature of television only.) 

And then there was The Jack Benny Show, in some ways the forerunner of modern shows like Seinfeld. To say the Benny show was comedy is true enough; but it hardly does justice to the subject. Jack Benny was an institution. Perhaps a good subject for a later blog post.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Review: More or Less Annie

More or Less Annie, by Wisconsin author Tracey Gemmell, is an entertaining book. The author’s sharp eye for absurdity informs every page of this funny, fast-paced, delayed-coming-of-age novel.

Annie Hardcastle is an English housewife, a part-time cake decorator who surfs the Web while she dreams of escape to exotic places around the world. When she and her husband, Lester, win the lottery, it seems her dreams are about to come true. It’s off to Costa Rica, where they find it’s not so easy to get away from the implications of their windfall wealth. 

Jet ski. “IMG_0504” by Jorge Santos72 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

The novel also features Taylor and Charles, a Chicago power couple on the skids and looking for revenge.

Annie’s hopes for a smooth transition to a wonderful new life begin to unravel, but she persists in striving to find out who she is and how she can turn money into happiness.

It’s not only a story for women, but can be enjoyed by everybody. There are traces of romance, but it’s not a romance. With its quirky interpersonal dyamics and its lush tropical setting, More or Less Annie is the perfect summer beach read.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

A Shameless Appeal for Comments

When I started writing this blog, a few weeks ago, I hit upon the–I thought–clever device of signing each post: “Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author.” A branding ploy, if you will; a not-so-subliminal attempt to influence your subconscious mind.

But it has occurred to me that it may be merely an irritating affectation. Maybe it annoys you, rather than endearing me to you.

So, what do you think: Should I keep it, or give it the deep six? Please discuss.

Thanks,

Larry F. Sommers, Who Hopes to Become Your Favorite Author

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

On page 153 of wildlife scientist Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing, nineteen-year-old Kya Clark—the “Marsh Girl” of a certain section of the Carolina coast—recalls a poem by “a lesser-known poet,” Amanda Hamilton:

Trapped inside,

Love is a caged beast, 

Eating its own flesh.

Love must be free to wander,

To land upon its chosen shore

And breathe.

Bits of Amanda Hamilton’s poetry recur throughout the book; and though the fictitious poet does not play a large part in the story, the six lines just quoted could well stand as the Marsh Girl’s personal manifesto. For Kya Clark’s story is one of isolation, of love frustrated, and of a huge conflict between hoped-for relation and indispensable freedom.

Abandoned by parents and siblings, spurned as “swamp trash” by the larger community, possessed of tenuous alliances with a handful of individuals, Kya raises herself. She marches to her own tune, responds to Nature in all its variety. She collects feathers, shells, leaves, and other wild things; eventually she builds a catalog of her collection. She delves ever deeper into her wetlands environment to go “where the crawdads sing.”

“Euastacus Clark, 1936, Spiny Crayfish” by David Paul is licensed under CC BY 4.0 

Crawdads (which you may know as crayfish, crawfish, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mudbugs, or yabbies) do not actually sing. But an imagined place where crawdads do sing is the author’s symbol for mystic union with Nature. The quest for that union turns out to be, after a host of disappointments in her relations with the human race, Kya’s only constant chord of survival energy.

Along the way she learns a great deal, becomes an acknowledged authority on the life of the marsh, and forms romantic relationships with two men (yes, a sort of love triangle)—one of which works out better than the other. However far life takes her, however, it is the quest to go where the crawdads sing that defines her.

Much else in this book will entertain and delight the reader: sudden death, mayhem, police procedures, courtroom drama, and the verses of Amanda Hamilton and others. At its heart is the story of the Marsh Girl, a remarkable woman who remains an enigma to the end. Speaking of which, do make sure you read all the way to the end. Even at that point, you may be surprised.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Writing a Historical Novel

Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read. 

Coastal village in Norway. “Enligt AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors: ‘Havstenssund’.” by G. AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors / Bohusläns museum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates,  places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.

I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text. 

Me writing.

The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.

My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at. 

I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said. 

Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!

My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.

Toward a Smashing Second Draft

I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.

So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.

After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,”  “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions. 

That step is a lot of work, too.

Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort. 

By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.

Stay tuned, dear readers.  

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author