It’s a good season for robust and interesting writing. I have two book recommendations, one fiction and one nonfiction.
The Coming of Cactus Jim
Kansas sheriff James Early makes his debut in Early’s Fall, by Jerry Peterson. Known to his friends as “Cactus”—and I guess I’ll have to read another book or two to find out what that’s about—Early is a cowboy sort of guy, equally at home riding the range on horseback or in a sheriff’s department jeep.
The book, set in the 1940s, opens with a bold-as-brass daylight bank robbery in a sleepy little town. Early and his deputy scour the countryside in a high-speed, all-terrain chase, to no avail. Before they can catch the taunting, whimsical bank robber, they get distracted by a grisly murder.
As Early methodically investigates likely suspects in the murder, he stops a passenger train, interrogates an Israeli secret agent, and is forced to balance his professional duties with care for his pregnant wife’s mental aberrations. Everything unravels inexorably to an exciting and moving finish.
Peterson, a seasoned author with fourteen books to his credit, knows how to keep a story moving at a compelling pace. His diction is strong and his images stirring. You won’t lightly put down Early’s Fall.
Norwegian journalist and author Lars Mytting has three critically acclaimed novels to his credit. But the book that made him a household name in the Nordic world is the nonfiction classic Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.
Mytting’s book comes along at just the right time to make me a better-informed woodsman. Some of his practical advice—about axes, chainsaws, and such—tallies with my own observations over the year. Some, however, has given me a new understanding of the best ways to process timber for burning in my fireplace or my cozy little woodstove.
I had long assumed—I don’t know why, wishful thinking perhaps—that if logs sit in the open air for up to a year before being split, they will be better seasoned and thus will split better, or at least easier. Wrong, says Mytting. Log should be split just after the timber is felled. Not only does the wood split easiest when it is fresh; the splitting itself is essential to the proper seasoning of the wood. To dry quickly and fully, the inner wood must be exposed. A log that sits, fully wrapped in bark, for any length of time will start to decompose from the inside out. Even a little bit of this internal rot eliminates hot gases needed for efficient burning and guarantees that the log will never fully dry.
So from now on, I’ll split all my wood as soon as I get it.
For me, that was the great lesson from this informative book; for you, something else might be. Writing with fluid and engaging clarity, Mytting delves into all aspects of the Scandinavian firewood experience, as witness his chapter heads: “The Cold,” “The Forest,” “The Tools,” “The Chopping Block,” “The Woodpile,” “The Seasoning,” “The Stove,” and “The Fire.” Each subject, by turn, is thoughtfully and fully explained. The whole book is well-illustrated with photos of lovely and creative woodpiles.
If you burn any wood at home, this book is sure to tell you things you’ll wish you had known before.
Two books, Early’s Fall and Norwegian Wood. Great books for the he-men, and the she-women, among you. Go now and read.
Bereft of people to see and places to be, I turn to the dwindling wood-pile in the rack along my garage wall.
A couple of years ago our friend Kevin rebuilt our old miscellaneous junk depot, making it into a newly inviting sunroom. It’s an awkwardly long space with a lot of windows but no connection to the furnace that warms the rest of our house. So Kevin installed a cast-iron woodstove at the far end of the room.
That woodstove has become a great blessing to Your New Favorite Writer. It means I can write in the calm of our sunroom in warm weather, in the cooler times of spring and fall, and even in the deepest part of winter.
But the cost is: Procuring enough firewood and splitting the logs to stack for drying and burning.
Into the Trees
Old-timers say firewood warms you twice: First when you cut it, haul it, and stack it; and second when you burn it.
I like to get logs for free, rather than pay money. From time to time, someone in the neighborhood has a tree felled; usually this work is done by hired arborists. If the homeowner does not want the wood, the wood cutters must haul the logs to a dump for disposal—an added expense I can lighten for them by taking some logs off their hands. It never hurts to ask.
After hauling a few heavy, 4- to 6-foot logs home in the back of my SUV, I need to cut them to fireplace lengths. I use a small, seven-pound Stihl chainsaw with a 14-inch bar. Small beats large where chainsaws are concerned. Schlepping a 23-pound, 20-inch murder machine around a tangled logjam will knock the stuffing out of you in half an hour. Very few men or women who are not woodsmen by trade can put a large chainsaw to good use. And fatigue will make the urban lumberjack a danger to self and others.
The timber is sawn, ideally, into 16-inch segments; then the real fun begins. Logs need to be split (1) so they’ll dry more efficiently, for the bark holds moisture in; (2) so they’ll fit conveniently in the stove; (3) so they’ll burn more readily as flames lap at their exposed innards; and (4) so Your New Favorite Writer may enjoy the satisfaction of cleaving a pillar of wood with the bite of a sharp axe.
Good blocks of beech it was I split, As large around as the chopping block; And every piece I squarely hit Fell splinterless as a cloven rock. The blows that a life of self-control Spares to strike for the common good That day, giving a loose to my soul, I spent on the unimportant wood.
Scavenging for wood seldom brings me “good blocks of beech” that fall “splinterless as a cloven rock.” Quite often I’m using, by turns, my axe, a heavy splitting maul, or even wedges and a sledgehammer to demolish a twisty, knotted specimen of brutish maple or fruitwood with desperately cross-tangled fibers. It’s frustrating to try to smash such a godforsaken glob of sylvan perversity to flinders.
But, ah! when I do score a nice chunk of straight-grained hardwood—such a joy to plummet the steel down upon it and pick up the halves on either side, to set the halves again on the chopping block and knock them into clean, glistening quarters. If you have ever done this kind of elemental work, then you know the peace it bestows.
Splitting wood adds rest and harmony to the soul.
Some of my neighbors use hydraulic splitters that can shiver a timber to its component parts in seconds. I have no quarrel with this efficient practice. I just like my way better.
Pride of Axemanship
Frost mentions a pair of bystanders who watched him at his beech-splitting chore:
Men of the woods and lumberjacks, They judged me by their appropriate tool. Except as a fellow handled an ax, They had no way of knowing a fool.
So there’s that, too. Pride, you see, rears its ugly head. I am proud of the little wood lore I have gained over my 75 years on God’s green earth, starting as a Boy Scout and continuing to the present day. Whatever small skill of axemanship I possess has been earned through uncounted hours of practice on “the unimportant wood.”
Let us say, rather: The importance of wood may be more in its first warming than in the second.
Owing to my amateur status as an axeman, and also to the amateur status of some of the trees I scrounge, my woodpile is far from a thing of beauty. Unlike those geometric wonders of forest engineering you see gracing the pages of coffee table books, my woodrack has all sorts of bent and twisted knots and gnarls, wood of all descriptions protruding rudely to snag the sweater of a careless passer-by. It’s almost disgraceful.
But here’s the thing, Gentle Reader: I intend to burn up all the evidence.
The menace of this season’s global pandemic, with its mandated idleness, has simply led back to roots, and branches, that are dear to me for their own sake.
Here’s hoping you likewise may find blessed paths to pursue as we patiently await good tidings from our common future.
It means, “prevalent over a whole area, country, etc.; universal, general . . . .” It is usually applied to disease, thus giving rise to its use as a noun, “a pandemic,” meaning, “a disease which is pandemic.” But it could really be used for almost anything that is widely distributed over the world.
Politics is pandemic. As was oft remarked of Chickenman, “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!”
In the midst of our current angst over COVID-19, President Trump has been accused of downplaying the threat. Trump’s opponents have been accused of weaponizing the fear of a dread disease. Players on both sides of the line of scrimmage are ripping up the Astroturf, wailing, “Unfair! They are politicizing a national disaster!”
So, what else is new?
If you read this blog regularly—a Recommended Best Practice—you may wonder, “Whence comes this commentary on current events? Is not this blog supposed to be about ‘seeking fresh meanings in our common past’?”
Okay, Dear Reader. You asked for it:
It Was Ever Thus
Politicians have made political hay out of all things sacred since the moment after time started. Many earnest combatants believe that everything is political; that exploiting all events to advance one’s political agenda is the purest form of service. (“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”—Rahm Emanuel, 2008.)
Those who seek to serve society must understand the political context in which they operate. Military leaders, in particular, often feel that war should be exempt from politics. But they would be extremely foolish to suppose that it actually is.
During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant showed a canny cognizance of the political winds which blew all around him. In that conflict, almost every general, North or South, was appointed and advanced politically. Even Grant, who demonstrated the highest ability, would never have received the opportunity to demonstrate that ability without the sponsorship of his local Congressman, Rep. Elihu Washburne. The Congressman put Grant in for a brigadier general’s star, immediately began thumping for his promotion to major general, and in every possible way championed Grant’s career.
In 1863, Grant was tasked with taking the city of Vicksburg, which President Abraham Lincoln saw as “the golden key” to unlock the Confederacy. Take Vicksburg from the rebels, and you re-open the Mississippi River to Union navigation. At the same time, you dreadfully complicate Confederate efforts to get men and materiel from the Trans-Mississippi West (Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas). Vicksburg in Union hands would be the beginning of the end of the rebellion.
Trouble was, Grant’s first try—aided by loyal subordinates Sherman and Macpherson and the ambitiously disloyal McClernand—had come to naught, for reasons beyond Grant’s control. “The strategical way according to the rule,” Grant wrote in his memoirs, “would have been to go back to Memphis; establish that as a base of supplies; fortify it so that the storehouses could be held by a small garrison, and move from there along the line of the railroad, repairing as we advanced, to the Yallabusha, or to Jackson, Mississippi.”
However, “At this time the North had become very much discouraged. . . . It was my judgment at the time that to make a backward movement as long as that from Vicksburg to Memphis, would be interpreted, by many of those yet full of hope for the preservation of the Union, as a defeat, and that the draft would be resisted, desertions ensue, and the power to capture and punish deserters lost. There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory.”
What Grant delicately omitted was that political powers in Washington wanted Grant removed and replaced with McClernand—an officer who, despite his loyalty to the Union, was unfit for high command. So long as Grant was actively campaigning against Vicksburg, it was not too hard for Lincoln to resist these demands for his scalp. But any movement that appeared to be a retreat—back to Memphis, for example—would most likely seal his fate. I am not the first to suggest that if Grant had done anything other than what he did—go forward through the Mississippi lowlands with no established supply line, feeding his army off the land—he would have lost his job. So that’s exactly what he did.
Grant could not afford to ignore politics.
In the end, he found a way to win without losing his job.
How does this history apply to the present day? Simply in this: Those who wish to serve the country need to be entirely apolitical; but they cannot afford to ignore the politics of the situation.
There are a lot of players, political and otherwise. One is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, an interesting figure. He is on the opposite political team from the president—but neither of them can afford to make trouble with the other in facing the coronavirus challenge, both for political reasons, and for the sake of people’s health.
Cuomo, like any experienced governor, knows quite a bit about handling emergencies. I saw him on TV the other day, revealing one of the key things about emergencies—a lesson I learned years ago as a worker in Wisconsin’s state emergency operations. There are two things, Cuomo said—I’m loosely paraphrasing—two things: One is the objective state of things: the resources, the damage, the things that need to be repaired; or in the case of a pandemic disease, the infection rates, testing kits, all that operational stuff. The other thing is the public perception of the situation. The latter is what drives rumors, panics, compliance with relief plans or the lack of compliance, etc. Often, Cuomo said, that second factor, the public perception, gets to be a greater problem than the disaster scenario itself.
Cuomo is dead accurate on that. (Your New Favorite Writer’s note to self: Write a blog post sometime about the 1996 Weyauwega, Wisconsin, train derailment.)
The only thing leaders can do about the second factor, the public perception, is to provide a steady flow of factual information from official sources. Credibility is key. People know when they’re being lied to, and it’s the kiss of death in handling an emergency.
Enter Dr. Anthony Fauci, and his sidekicks Dr. Deborah Brix, Admiral Brett Giroir, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams. These people are the key medical players on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. They are physicians with impeccable credentials and experienced public health leaders. Their usefulness on the task force is based on their ability to help move key decisions. But just as important is the straightness of their dialog with the American public as principal briefers of this ongoing emergency.
What makes them useful is that they never say anything that is not factual. Their credibility is gilt-edged. It is a remarkable feat, day in and day out, to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, from the epicenter of a hurricane of fear, anxiety, and political games.
As Executive Branch employees, they work under the authority of President Donald J. Trump—a gargantuan figure and one who speaks in momentarily expedient approximations. Fauci ranks as a genius, saying what is true and correcting what is false, while affirming truths uttered by the president and never crossing swords with him over statements that may be less reliable.
Without being himself a politician, Anthony Fauci knows how to survive in a tough political environment, giving good service and straight advice with an easy grace.
He reminds me of Ulysses S. Grant, who made virtues of necessities and got the military job done without having to bother Abe Lincoln overmuch with messy details.
Funny how often parts of the present resemble parts of the past.
When vast public ills descend on us, usually we can pinpoint the moment, or the day, when they became manifest.
In the case of sudden events—the eruption of Vesuvius, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, etc.—the time of their occurrence, even to the second, is obvious to all.
Other disasters roll out more slowly, and the precise moment we later remember is really an instant of realization, a time when the nature and dimensions of the threat suddenly crystallized. Thus it was at the Battle of Shiloh—April 6-7, 1862—when the emergence of forty thousand yipping rebels from the woods near a Tennessee River landing destroyed the wishful Northern hope that the Secession had almost run its course. Likewise, in the spring of 1965, the Students for a Democratic Society’s march on Washington served notice that the Vietnam War would not be, like previous wars, supported by most of the American public.
The Slow Roll
So it is with the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been raging, in China, since 1 December 2019. On 7 January 2020 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel notice for travelers to Wuhan, relating to “the cluster of cases of pneumonia of an unknown etiology.” On 9 January the World Health Organization confirmed the existence of a “novel coronavirus,” and the first death occurred in China.
On 19 January, cases began appearing in areas of China outside Wuhan.
On 21 January, the United States reported its first laboratory-confirmed case, in the state of Washington.
On 28 January, China’s Supreme People’s Court ruled that whistleblower, Li Wenliang, had not committed the crime of spreading “rumors” when on 30 December 2019 he posted to a WeChat forum for medical school alumni that seven patients under his care appeared to have contracted SARS. In their ruling, the Supreme People’s Court stated, “If society had at the time believed those ‘rumors’. . . perhaps it would’ve meant we could better control the coronavirus today. Rumors end when there is openness.”
On 6 February, Dr. Li died of the coronavirus illness.
By that time, there were thousands of cases in China and many cases in other countries of the world and certain cruise ships at sea or quarantined in ports.
Since then, we have had daily reports of new illness and deaths in many places around the world, and in the United States. America’s and the world’s financial markets have crashed as airlines, cruise lines, and many other business have seen their customer streams and supply chains badly affected.
Moment of Truth
Yesterday—Wednesday, 11 March 2020—is when this illness became real to most of us:
Tom Hanks caught it. And his wife, Rita Wilson. They have been diagnosed in Australia, where they are making a film.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that their annual basketball tournament would be played with practically nobody in the stands. (Today, they canceled the event entirely.)
The World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic (as if we didn’t know already).
Donald J. Trump made a speech from the Oval Office. Whether you liked it or not probably depends on what you think of Trump generally.
Norway closed, for crying out loud!
Now that Tom Hanks, our national Everyman, has caught the corona bug, and now that one of our great national festivals, the NCAA Tournament, has been canceled—COVID-19, overnight, has become dire in a way it was not before.
Classes, events, gatherings everywhere are being canceled or rescheduled. My own life has been affected: The University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute, an event many of us look forward to all year long, is suddenly off the books. We await, with bated breath, the new dates.
It’s most frustrating. But it really is necessary. A full-court press, in the realm of what we now call “social distancing,” is probably the greatest weapon we have to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus. It will save lives—mine for sure, maybe yours, too.
I have no advice for you, Dear Reader, any better than what you can get elsewhere. As Abraham Lincoln said in a much different context, “With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”
Please do your best to stay healthy. I need all the devoted readers I can get.
One of the pleasures of my trade is reading the historical fiction other people are writing. This week it is my pleasure to give enthusiastic endorsement to a couple of wonderful books by female writers with female protagonists.
Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown
Mary Rowlandson is a contented, if repressed, minister’s wife on the Massachusetts frontier in the 1670s. When Indians raid her village in an early phase of King Philip’s War, she and her children are taken captive, with other English colonists, in a harrowing ordeal. Eventually she is released and resumes life as a proper colonial wife.
But her season of captivity has changed her outlook on the world, and she finds that extisence within the normal Puritan channels of the Massachusetts Bay Colony no longer is a comfortable fit for her.
Amy Belding Brown’s prose is straightforward and workmanlike, rising sometimes into the lyrical, as she tells Mary’s tale. We meet a number of actual historical figures besides Mary herself, including Increase Mather, King Phillip (Metacomet), his sister-in-law the female sachem Weetamoo, missionary to the Indians John Eliot, and James Printer (Wowaus)—one of Eliot’s “Praying Indians” who mastered English, worked in the printing trade, and lived in both worlds.
The external movements of this sweeping novel are all, in the author’s words, “consistent with historical records.” However, the heart of its narrative lies in the inner turmoil of Mary Rowlandson: the easy assumptions she finds shattered, the travail of adjusting her old viewpoints to fit often-unpleasant new realities of her life, and her fearless encounter of love’s contradictory pulls on her heart.
Anyone interested in history, in the mysteries of the human heart, or both, will enjoy this book.
Tinsmith 1865 by Sara Dahmen
In Tinsmith 1865 a young woman, Marie Kotlarczyk, transplanted to the Dakota frontier, must take up and succeed at her family’s trade of tinsmithing, despite being a woman. The voice of Marie, often tormented by the decisions she must make and the feats she must perform, is strong and compelling. Romance is a strong part of this story but it would be wrong to call it a “romance.” It is historical fiction, with emphasis on the real struggles of a community of well-drawn characters in the post-Civil War American West. The book highlights the varying ethnicities present in the fictional Flats Town—especially Marie’s Polish family and friends and several Norwegians who sometimes help and sometimes hinder her quest to be her own woman. I was fascinated by the story’s authentic historical detail and was continually drawn into Marie’s personal struggle.
The author, Sara Dahmen, says, “Today, I am, as far as I can tell, the only female coppersmith in America who builds copper cookware, re-tins and restores vintage pieces, and custom-designs them.” Besides the practice of smithery and the design and marketing of her own cookware line, Sara is the author of both nonfiction and fiction books, including her Flats Junction Series, of which Tinsmith 1865 is the second installment.
Hope you will enjoy one or both of these outstanding books as much as I did.
You were regaled last week with the tale of how I became a full-time writer and embarked on a major work of historical fiction. (If by chance you missed out on this gripping account, you can make up for lost time here.)
My novel, Freedom’s Purchase, tells of a young man, Anders, and a young woman, Maria, who sail from Norway to America and settle in Central Illinois just before the Civil War. Those were years when our nation was in great turmoil, when slave hunters roamed the prairie looking for escapees from Southern plantations, or even for free blacks they could kidnap into slavery. It was inevitable that my characters, Anders and Maria, would come in conflict with Slavery and its minions.
Anders and Maria are based on my real-life ancestors—but they are wholly fictional characters. In other words, they are not the real Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro from whom I am descended. But there is some basis, you see, in the common usages of our common past.
While starting to work out the plot for my novel, I attended the University of Wisconsin – Continuing Studies Program’s annual “Write by the Lake” conference; my breakout was a workshop on “Know Your Genre,” taught by Laurie Scheer. We learned what genres are: Mainly, they are categories that allow agents and publishers to know how to pitch your story, and booksellers to know where to shelve it. I told Laurie my idea for a historical novel about Norwegian immigrants in the time of the Civil War.
“An immigrant saga!” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s it.”
She encouraged me to write it. Because of her encouragement, I started to think, “Maybe I could.”
How to Be a Writer, in 1,672 Easy Lessons
I was finding my niche. I had taken T.S. Eliot’s lines as my watchword—
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
By the time I began writing the first draft of Anders and Maria, I had hooked up with a great writing critique group, Tuesdays With Story. We meet twice a month, under the leadership of Jerry Peterson—to read and comment on one another’s work. This task is indispensable to any writer who is serious about developing his or her craft. You need to hear just how your work strikes someone who does not have the big advantage you have—the advantage of living inside your own mind and already knowing what it is you’re trying to convey. It’s all too easy to write things that convey to readers something other than what you intended. The Tuesdays with Story Group is a valuable backstop.
Also, to be a writer in today’s market, you must become a Major Literary Figure on day one. Besides writing and revising your own work, you spend many hours reading and commenting on other people’s work. You do theirs because they do yours; one hand washes the other.
But you also find yourself constantly immersed in many already-published books, both within and outside of your genre. The good, the bad, and the ugly. You can learn something from each one of them, Grasshopper.
And let’s not forget magazines—The Writer and Writer’s Digest—which are de rigeur, and conferences, such as “Write by the Lake” and the UW’s annual spring Writers’ Institute. A good writers’ conference brings together hundreds of people who share this creepy compulsion to put words on paper and have people read them.
The first time I attended the UW Writers’ Institute, in 2018, I knew right away I had found my tribe. We are all different, yet all the same. We have to write. Whether or not we’re any good at it. Whether or not we can sell it. Whether or not we grab the brass ring of fame and fortune.
Later this month I will attend my third Writers’ Institute. I will see old friends and make new ones. I will pitch my book to bona fide literary agents and learn new and better ways to navigate the literary marketplace.
Standing on a Platform
Above all, experts say, “an author needs a platform.” But “platform” has no exact definition. Arnold Palmer, the golfer, had a platform, only it was called an army—“Arnie’s Army,” thousands of devoted fans who showed up and paid good money to follow Arnie across any golf course, in fair weather or foul, whether he was shooting well or ill. That is a platform.
Say you’re famous. You’re Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, or Wayne Gretzky, or Ellen DeGeneres. You already have a platform. Just whisper a hint that you might write a book, and top publishers will give you a seven-figure advance.
If you’re a regular person and just hope somebody will read your book, a platform is harder to come by. If you’re already a published author, that’s a start. Readers who loved your cozy mystery The Chocolate Cake Caper might also buy The Apple Pie Fiasco. But if you’re not famous and have nothing in print, then all you have is friends and family. And—what else?—Social Media.
So, about the time I started writing Freedom’s Purchase, I added a “Larry F. Sommers, Writer” page to my Facebook presence. I didn’t know what I would do with it, and in truth, I have not done much. But I use it now and then to mention some little victory or struggle in my ongoing quest as a writer. Right now there are 227 followers on that page. I also have 611 friends on my regular Facebook page. What does that mean? It just means I have friends and followers. Which is good, right? (If you’re not already a friend and follower, I invite you to hop on the bandwagon at https://www.facebook.com/larryfsommers and https://www.facebook.com/LarryFSommersWriter/.)
Into the Blogosphere
Then, about a year ago, I decided to launch this blog. Let me assure you, Kind Reader, I did not do so lightly.
Some folks told me, “Oh, a blog is soeasy! No trouble, no time, a lead-pipe cinch.”
Well, Gentle Reader, Your New Favorite Writer is not among those who just fell off the turnip truck yesterday. No, sir. I knew it would be a grind. Nothing worthwhile is accomplished without significant time and effort.
I decided to do it anyway, because: This blog—titled “Reflections” and subtitled “seeking fresh meanings in our common past”—is not just a promotional device for my novel. Rather, it is a way to relate directly with you and others who like to read about old times and ponder what meanings we might derive from them. So it is not only a way to promote my writing; it IS my writing, so far more than 50,000 words and counting.
Though I approached the project with trepidation, I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy doing it. Especially I enjoy getting hints from time to time that my work has really connected with a reader. When I read a comment on my blog, or on my Facebook page, that just makes my day. Especially when that person says, “Your story reminded me of . . .”—and then proceeds to tell me a little story from their own experience and recollection. What I wrote stimulated their thoughts about their own past and its meaning.
That is why I am doing it, friends.
So I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you’ll spread the word to others—by mentioning this “Reflections” blog at https://LarryFSommers.com, by sharing it on Facebook, by tweeting it on Twitter, or whatever. And I hope you’ll come back often. We’ll explore a diverse range of human experiences and try to puzzle them out together. And when Freedom’s Purchase—or my new novel, which is completely different—is published, you’ll be among the first to know.
Does a writer spring full-bodied from the brow of Zeus, like Athena? Or does a writer rise from the sawdust of the arena floor, like Eric Hoffer? Are writers born, or made?
All I know is, writers write. Perhaps you are one of us. We who cannot not write.
Some of our tribe, like the fictional Jo March of Little Women and John-Boy of The Waltons, scribble in notebooks from childhood on and sell their first work as teenagers. Others may hold their fire like dormant volcanoes, then erupt in middle age. My friend Greg Renz waited till retirement to novelize the stories he had been processing over 28 years as a Milwaukee firefighter.
I’d be willing to bet that more than once during those 28 years, Greg told some of his stories to someone, informally. I doubt anybody suddenly becomes a writer without some kind of prelude. What warming-up exercises did Homer go through before composing 27,000 lines of dactyllic hexameter known as the Iliad and the Odyssey?
Dear Reader, I was an old man when I set out to burst upon the literary scene. I wanted to share my dearest concerns with others.
I did not know how to do it but was called to try. Impressions, thoughts, and feelings that had been marinating in cobwebbed bottles on the dusty shelves of my soul began to ooze forth as written words that the world might see.
Like Greg, Jo, John-Boy, and Homer, I did not come to this calling completely cold.
I wrote a detective story when I was eight. Around that time, I also drew a few comic strips starring myself and a fantasy sidekick as cowboys, fighting bad guys. In junior high I got a $25 savings bond for writing an essay about traffic safety. I wrote for the high school paper. I was a radio guy in college. After a series of abortive career launches in young manhood, I at last burrowed safely into the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, the agency that oversees the National Guard and Emergency Management. My role there included both writing and photographic skills. After 23 years with the agency, I retired. Immediately I was called to edit a well-regarded and historic religious quarterly, The Congregationalist—a part-time job I did for six and a half years.
I had done no “creative” writing since grade school. But I had the itch to “be a writer.” Having reached the age of 70, I knew that if I wanted to be a writer, I’d better get started.
For by that time I was feeling definitely Homeric. Odyssean, in fact. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses,” has his old Ulysses (Odysseus) say—
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As tho’ to breathe were life! . . . . . . but every hour is saved From that eternal silence, something more, A bringer of new things . . . .
New things. Yes. I was ready for new things. So in 2016, I quit the best job I ever had and declared myself a writer. Not in some doomed quest for fame, fortune, or any other phantasm. But merely to share myself with you and others in a new way. Have you ever had that kind of an urge?
A New Chapter
There were things to get off my chest; this I knew. I just didn’t know exactly what they were. That was what Mr. Donald Rumsfeld would call “a known unknown”: I knew that I did not know it. But faith told me that if I only started to write it down, it would come out through my fingers and splat itself upon the virtual page of my laptop screen. It would become visible, and then I could fix it up.
The real itch inside me, the thing I wanted to share with the world, was precisely what T.S. Eliot mentioned in his poem, “Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
Yes, I thought, that’s really what I’m all about. I want to unearth the long-ago and show it in new writing, so that I, and my readers, can see that past with new eyes.
I wrote short stories about life in the 1950s, starring a little boy named Izzy Mahler, based on my own small-town boyhood. Three of them—“Nickle and Dime,” “The Liberation of Irma Ruger,” and “The Lion’s Den”—achieved online publication, with minor paychecks, by The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, Virginia, there still is a Saturday Evening Post.
“Those Old Siberian Blues,” a whimsical essay about our then 12-year-old Siberian husky, Montana, was published in Fetch!, “Wisconsin’s #1 Free Dog Publication,” in December 2016.
But soon, bigger game was afoot: A sweeping historical novel, an immigrant saga.
A Novel Obsession
My wife, Joelle, had researched and archived our family’s roots, both on her side and on mine. She did such sound research that she won an award.
Since I was now a self-admitted full-time writer, she badgered me to write a brief prose essay on one of my ancestors. This was necessary to claim a cultural skills badge in genealogy from the Sons of Norway. Both of us have Norwegian lines, but I was the “official” member of the organization. Besides, she said, “You are the writer, I’m just the researcher. Write something about one of your ancestors.”
So I looked into the research that she had painstakingly compiled and learned that my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, came from Norway in 1853 and settled in Menard County, Illinois.
Gentle Reader, please take note of this: I knew nothing about Anders Gunstensen. We had no diaries, letters, artifacts, heirlooms, or even word-of-mouth stories about Anders, his wife Johanne-Marie Nybro, or Norway. None of this had come down through my family.
I am thus a Norwegian without any discernible Norwegiosity. I snakker ikke norsk (speak no Norwegian); Grandma didn’t bake fattigmands bakkelser (“Poor man’s cookies”) at Christmas; I don’t even own a Norwegian sweater. Uff-da!
We had only dry statistics: Anders’ dates of birth, emigration, marriage, and death; names of his parents and more remote progenitors; what ship he traveled on; the woman he married; the places where he lived; the children he fathered; and the simple fact that he wore Union blue as a soldier in the Civil War.
To make even a brief article from these bare bones took some interpretation—dare I say, interpolation—from hard facts to reasonable inferences.
Anders embarked for America February 8, 1853, the very day after his passport was issued. Hmm. Seems he was in a big hurry to get out of Norway.
He sailed from Arendal, Norway, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Not New York, not Quebec. New Orleans. Picture a 23-year-old farm boy leaving Norway in early February and arriving in New Orleans eight weeks later. The heat alone must have prostrated him—not to mention the spectacle: Hordes of people, all races, all colors, all modes of dress, all speaking a polyglot of American, European, and African tongues. And some of them buying and selling others in open-air slave markets.
What a novel this would make.
The trickle of Norwegian immigrants in the 1830s and ’40s had become a stream by the 1850s. That stream flowed from New York or Quebec to Northern Illinois, then to Wisconsin, then to Minnesota and on west. Anders traveled north from New Orleans, undoubtedly by steamboat, and stopped when he got to Central, not Northern, Illinois—in a place with only a handful of other Norwegians. He had to learn English and local customs fast.
Then, two years after settling in this non-Scandinavian part of North America, he married a Norwegian girl, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, who had come to Menard County from guess where? Oiestad, Anders’ own home village. Is that a spooky coincidence? How did that happen?
Can you see, Fair Reader, how a person might start to become a novelist? If you were in my place, wanting answers to questions that had no answers, you might do the same thing I did: Make the answers up!
When I wrote my first novel, I had no ego. No expectations. No ambition.
I was planning simply to write a book for fun and give myself a place to escape. I had nothing but a girl on a train and a wisp of a half-dream to guide me. I didn’t know where she was going or what would happen to her. I didn’t know who she was, or her name, or where she was going. I only knew she lived in the past, and she was pregnant.
That was the very beginning of my “serious” career as a writer and novelist. I say “serious” because I have always been a writer. I wrote stories before I could spell (like when I would say “She went to the vigge” and “vigge” meant “village”) and when they were primarily cartoon drawings with a sentence or two explaining the plot, but the dialogue in bubbles over the people’s heads. I wrote a lot of angst-y stories as a pre-teen. It got worse in high school and then peaked in college, when I’d write epic, 250+ page dramas instead of studying for philosophy class.
And then I stopped. I actually stopped writing for years. It wasn’t writer’s block—I don’t believe in writer’s block—but it was simply life. I fell in love and got married. (There went the angst.) I had children. (NO TIME TO WRITE!) I built businesses. (That time thing again . . . .)
But then somewhere in the middle of running a household, cooking meals, running a company, and chasing babies (and having more babies!), I found my voice again. It was therapy of a sort, but it was also like discovering a long-lost skill. I am inherently a storyteller, and I pour all my heart, soul and gusto in telling any tale. Writing that first book was like coming back to my spirit and recognizing what I was capable of doing, once again.
After several starts and stops between self-publishing and working with small presses, I eventually landed a mid-sized publisher based in Canada. They have published Tinsmith 1865 and Widow 1881, the first two novels in my Flats Junction Series. It was vindication that I could indeed do something with this storytelling skill I could apparently not stifle no matter how busy I stuffed my life with activities!
While these two fiction books were in the middle of the hairsplitting process of editing, re-editing, and more editing, I had previously started to research cookware. So much of what happens in my novels is either about the building or using of vintage cookware. The women characters either create it or use it, and I wondered how I could learn more about how such things were made and used in the 1800s. I also believed such wares should be made again in America; so without much thought or preparation, I started to build an American cookware company.
This meant learning an entire new industry. Sales! Tax! Inventory! Cost of Goods Sold! Tooling! Metallurgy! It was one of the steepest learning curves I’ve ever had in my life. I’m horrible at math and chemistry, and this utilized both. I had to learn how to talk to engineers and fabricators. I had to research old cookware. I had to decide how much of my savings I’d push into this crazy venture.
By serendipity I discovered that one of the top metalworking artisans in the country, master tinsmith Bob Bartelme, lived near me in Wisconsin. He took me under his wing to show me the original methods of building cookware. By spending time in his shop, I organically became his apprentice! (Now, four years later, I still go up several times a week to his shop and we work the tools from the 1700 and 1800s to build cookware.)
Suddenly, I realized I could not only write about what I was learning, which I did in Tinsmith 1865, but I could actually build the cookware in my own line. Today, I am, as far as I can tell, the only female coppersmith in America who builds copper cookware, re-tins and restores vintage pieces, and custom-designs them.
All the work that went into building cookware meant I learned way more than I had ever bargained for as a historical fiction writer and novelist. It became obvious that so much of my knowledge was oral, gleaned from tales of old tinsmiths, from Bob, from my research, from translating books out of German and French and talking to makers around the country. It was impossible to find such information about cookware in one place, so I wrote a non-fiction book about the history, science, use and care of traditional cookware—ironware, copperware, and pottery. That book has been bought by William Morrow/HarperCollins and will be released on April 28, 2020 as Copper, Iron, and Clay: A Smith’s Journey.
So suddenly, I have a brand, and it’s very cohesive. I’m a fiction writer, who writes about 1800s women in the west who use and make cookware. I make the cookware using the tools from the 1800s. I wrote a non-fiction book about being a smith. And when people ask me how I became a smith, I point to the fiction books! Around and around it goes!
Now what? I suppose I have more ambition than when I started. I want to share information about cookware. I want to teach about coppersmithing. I want people to fall in love with my characters, since they are no longer simply my own entertainment. I want people to learn from my non-fiction. I want them to stop filling landfills with cheap cookware and invest in a few pieces that will last generations.
Ambition, it seems, is impossible to escape when one is an invested writer.
I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse at the life and work of Sara Dahmen, Wisconsin’s leading female coppersmith/businesswoman/novelist.
You should go. I mean now. Drop what you’re doing and buy a ticket.
Grandpa donated my surname, which is German. But Grandma Sommers was a Gunsten, with two Norwegian grandparents, Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came over in the 1850s.
Since Grandma was half Norwegian, that means Dad was one-quarter Norwegian, so my sister and I are one-eighth Norwegian. Being even one-eighth Norwegian is pretty cool, because Norway is a gorgeous country, full of delicious food and improbable—dare I say quixotic?—heroes.
But it’s off the beaten track, on a boreal peninsula. And its population of five million is a fraction of Germany’s or France’s. Norway, to get any press at all, has had to specialize. Her great achievements are mostly explorations, and mostly nautical.
Around AD 1,000, Leif Erikson and friends sailed Viking longships across the North Atlantic and discovered America.
In the 1890s, Fridtjof Nansen built Fram, an uncommonly sturdy three-masted schooner, which he deliberately stuck in the arctic ice pack to study circumpolar drift. By 8 January 1895 the ice had carried the ship farther north than any ship had ever gone. On 14 March, Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen set out in dogsleds for the North Pole. They had to turn back short of their goal, but they did reach 86°13’6″ N, almost three degrees beyond the previous record.
On 14 December 1911, Roald Amundsen led the first expedition that reached the South Pole. Fifteen years later, Amundsen crossed the North Pole in a dirigible airship, leading what may have been the first expedition ever to reach 90°N by any means. (Three prior claims—by Frederick Cook in 1908, Robert Peary in 1909, and Richard E. Byrd in 1926—have been disputed.)
Thus it was with great expectations that my daughter, Katie, and I drove to Stoughton, Wisconsin, to see Kon-Tiki, a two-hour film dramatization of Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 1947 voyage across the Pacific on a balsa wood raft. It was shown at Livsreise, the amazing new Norwegian heritage center in Stoughton, Wisconsin. (A visit to Livsreise, by the way, is the next best thing to visiting Norway. Think of it as preliminary research for your upcoming trip.)
Across the Pacific by Raft
In 1950, Heyerdahl, who by the way was a great storyteller, published the bookKon-Tiki, recounting his epic voyage, and it became a best-seller. Heyerdahl was a zoologist, botanist, and anthropologist. His long stay on the little island of Fatu Hiva in the 1930s, and especially a conversation with a tribal elder, persuaded him that the Polynesian islands had been first settled not by Asians traveling eastward—then the prevalent theory—but by South Americans traveling westward. He peddled his theory, in the form of a long research paper, to academics from Norway to New York; but nobody was buying. The killer objection was that South Americans of 1,000 to 1,500 years ago did not have boats that could cross four thousand miles of ocean.
“But they did!” Heyerdahl protested. “They had balsa rafts in which they cruised the coast.” He was laughed out of the lecture halls. So Heyerdahl set out to prove that balsa rafts, built with strictly ancient methods, could cross the Pacific. He recruited five fellow lunatics—five Norwegians and a Swede—and they set sail from the port of Callao near Lima, Peru. I will not bore you with details, except for this BIG SPOILER: They made it. And by doing so, they proved that it could have been done, but not that it was done. His theory on the peopling of Polynesia never has become widely accepted.
Nevertheless, the Kon-Tiki story is a typical—did I say quixotic?—Norwegian exploration saga. Well worth your time. Read the book or see the movie. You’ll enjoy it.
On the way home after seeing the movie, I resolved to re-read the book. It was fifty years since I had read it, and I wanted to see how much the book had been “Hollywooded” for the film. The answer is—a little bit, but not too badly. For the most part, it sticks to the facts, and certainly to the swashbuckling spirit of the Heyerdahl quest.
Another thing that struck me is that Kon-Tiki has a curious fictional doppelgänger in the silly and profound 1990 romantic comedy film Joe Versus the Volcano, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. If you haven’t seen it, the film is, in my opinion, brilliant—though plenty of people disagree with me.
In Joe Versus the Volcano, an average guy named Joe Banks crosses the Pacific on a quest of his own. His motives differ from Heyerdahl’s. Beyond that, however, the two men and their quests are surprisingly similar:
who reach their destinations by raft,
celebrate with island natives,
and accomplish unexpected results.
Thor Heyerdahl and Joe Banks: Each, in his own way, a romantic. Each reaches for a goal he does not fully understand. Each comes up short, but finds a new path anyway.
The only disappointment about Joe Banks is, he’s not Norwegian.
Grandpa Sommers was the first person I knew who died. I was eleven. Less than a year later, Grandpa LaFollette would die. Not long after, my friend Norbert—a fellow Boy Scout, luminous in his wiseguyness—would be snuffed out while unwisely trying to halt a runaway bulldozer in his father’s construction yard.
Since that time, many other people I knew have passed into Eternity. Now that I am old, it has become a trend.
But the first to depart was my father’s father. When we got the phone call, I threw myself down on our couch and tried to cry. But I had no tears for Grandpa. I had always feared him. Now he was gone; it was hard to see a downside.
I was ever a timid child; Grandpa was no monster. But he had a cross-grained, profane, pugnacious personality. “Hey, you goddam kids, cut that out!” His continual outbursts were mere blips on the scale of human conflict, but they terrified me. Grandpa was also a genuine eccentric who lived on an exalted plane that no ordinary man could grasp.
It is more than sixty years now since Grandpa last walked the earth. Perhaps the time has come to give the old buzzard his due.
William Peter Sommers was born 26 January, 1884. He grew up in Metamora, Illinois, a German farming community where his father was a Big Cheese—building contractor, implement dealer, owner of the local telephone company, and inventor of a band-cutter for threshing machines. The Sommerses, you see, were not farmers themselves but townsmen and technicians, who drank from the Pierian Spring of science and technology.
Grandpa immersed himself in telegraphy and telephony. As a young man, he worked for his father but even then showed signs of a truculence that may have been genetic; the old man, hence the whole family, had broken with the Roman Catholic Church over a money dispute with the parish priest, whom they saw as a robber baron.
William P. Sommers expected to beat the world through natural superiority, by mastering the new field of communications technology. The Metamora Telephone Company, however, was a cramped corporate space. There was not room enough for two egoes such as Will’s and his father’s. Will left the family business in 1907 and went to work for the Chicago and Alton Railroad as a telegrapher.
In 1912 he married Millie Marie Gunsten, a telephone operator from Springfield. They begat children, five in all: Edward, Mabel, Stanley, Lloyd (my father), and Franklin.
In April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. Telegraphers were nationalized and deployed strategically where the government thought best. Grandpa at age 33 went to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to help move freight shipments across the U.S./Canada border. This may have been his first travel beyond central Illinois. Later that year, he was sent by train to the Pacific Northwest, leaving Illinois on 23 September and arriving in Seattle six days later. Judging by his breathless dispatches home to Millie by postcard—two or three per day—long-distance travel made his blood race.
He returned to Metamora and continued as a railroad telegrapher until 1927, when he jumped to the Sinclair (Oil) Pipeline Company. It was the same kind of work he had done for the railroad, only now he dispatched flows of oil by telegraph, not carloads of freight and passengers by rail.
He moved his family to Dahinda, tiniest of prairie towns but the location of a pipeline pumping station. They lived there three years before moving to the metropolis of Knoxville, Illinois (population 1,867), which had its own high school. Grandpa drove nine miles from Knoxville to his job in Dahinda every day in his Pierce-Arrow touring car, the one with isinglass curtains. When the Depression made money scarce a couple of years later, he had to sell the Pierce-Arrow; then he walked nine miles each way three or four days a week.
In 1942, when he was 58, his second son, Stanley, was killed while flying a B-17 mission in the Southwest Pacific. Stanley was a golden boy, bright and handsome, with a captivating smile, a fluent swing clarinet, and a lovely young wife. Less than a year after Stanley’s death, the youngest son, Franklin, was killed in a B-26 over occupied France.
Bear in mind, Gentle Reader: I was not born yet when all this happened. I did not observe how Grandpa took these wartime deaths; nor did it ever occur to anyone in the family to tell me. I do know that people in those days—not just my family, not just Germans, but Americans in general—kept emotions to themselves. When I first became acquainted with Grandpa, after World War II, he was a hard-bitten old man. But he was that, quite likely, even before losing Stanley and Frankie.
In 1949 he “retired” from the pipeline; that’s the word used in his 1957 newspaper obituary. The word Dad told Mom was “fired.” I remember that very distinctly. I was four years old. When Daddy said Grandpa had been “fired,” my mind’s eye saw him as a blackened cinder. My parents had to persuade me it only meant he had lost his job.
It’s easy now to guess how he got fired: He lipped off to somebody whom he regarded as a moron but who held the power of dismissal. It turned out all right, though. He was 65; no point looking for another job. He devoted himself to his large vegetable garden, probably half an acre; to a couple of long trips he took with his wife, Millie (additional details here, here, and here); and to a whole raft of personal eccentricities and foibles.
The CB&Q railroad ran just behind his house. As an old railroad man, he had a duty to count the cars on every freight train that went by, many of them more than a hundred cars long.
He drank a bottle of Hires Root Beer every day. He had a theory it was a health tonic. And not to waste the drop or two of this elixir remaining at the bottom of the bottle, he refilled the bottle with water and drank it down.
He also advocated eating the royal jelly of bees—not that he could afford to buy it—and the white insides of orange peels. Again, health measures.
He wrote long, typewritten letters to editors and to politicians in Springfield and Washington, favoring them with his definitive views on how to run things.
He bought tiny shares of wildcat oil-drilling ventures in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. He had a large U.S. geological map of the region. He could and did—for the benefit anyone in hearing range—pinpoint the location of each of his wells and rattle off incomprehensible data about its production prospects, or at least the plain fact that it was about to “come in a gusher.”
He purchased, for his own use, a Violet Ray Machine. It was a Bakelite handle on an electrical cord, with glass tubes of varying shapes that could be locked into the handle. When he plugged it in, there arose a penetrating hummmm; a gas inside the glass tube glowed bright lavender; and the air smelled of ozone. He would fire this up in a darkened room and move the radiant purple tube across his joints, or sometimes across mine. It was a marvelous device. Cured arthritis and rheumatism. Guaranteed.
He took nitroglycerin pills for periodic chest pains and was vastly amused that the most explosive stuff on earth was prescribed as a balm for his heart.
He never bought a car from the Big Three automakers. After he lost the Pierce-Arrow, the next car he bought was a Hudson. After that, in the mid-1950s, he bought a neat little sky blue Studebaker Commander. He would have argued forcefully, to anyone who would listen, that these were better-built products than Fords, Chevrolets, or Chryslers. Really, he was simply contrary.
His one-thousand-one-hundred-eleven weird sayings and doings, in my mother’s view, added up to a strange, disgusting old crank. But he was Dad’s father. What could she do?
On 27 January 1957, the day after his 73rd birthday, he drove the Studebaker to the post office, five miles away. He picked up his mail and drove homeward. Something happened. The car came to rest against the corner of the Steak & Shake Drive-in on East Main Street in Galesburg. Grandpa lay slumped over the wheel, dead.
All the world’s royal jelly, orange peel linings, and root beer could not repair his old heart. The world’s first coronary bypass surgery was still three years in the future, and it would be another decade or two before the procedure became common.
Grandma drove the Studebaker until she was no longer able, then it came into our family and I drove it to work most of the summer of 1965. Nice car.
Those crazy oil leases that Mom ridiculed have brought our family a minor yet welcome flow of dollars right up through the present day.
I don’t know what became of the Ultraviolet Ray Machine. I’ll bet if I had it now I could sell it to a rube for a buck two-eighty.