On July 20 in this space I mentioned the new direction taken in revision of my historical novel, formerly titled Freedom’s Purchase, now titled The Maelstrom.
I am happy to report that extensive revisions have been made, based on very helpful feedback by championship-level book coach Christine DeSmet. As a result, it’s a much more compelling and exciting book. Many thanks to Christine, a noted author and a great personal friend of mine for many years.
I am now polishing the polish, and before long the book will be again making the rounds to agents and publishers. I’m quite confident we’ll get a good publishing contract this time around.
So have patience! Before long, you’ll get to read the stories of Norwegian immigrants Anders and Maria, and Daniel the slave, in 19th-century America.
Our church, like a lot of churches, has shrunk. So we sold our big meetinghouse and started holding services in a rented storefront. Our worship is now simpler, more informal.
Our music director plays an electronic piano, not a multi-manual pipe organ. Today’s prelude was Fond D’Orgue by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, 1632-1714. It must have been composed for organ, but now it was played on a single keyboard, boiled down to a simple melody.
As usual, my mind was on other things—mainly the progress of my historical novel, which I am now revising. I was thinking about changes I would make in Chapter 22, when Nivers’s tune broke through.
The simple fall of pure tones stopped me cold. In a startling moment, the tune became an attribute of the Divine.
It is more my style to cast God as a supporting player—essential, yet secondary—in my own grand maneuvers.
What is God for, if not to support me?
Along came Nivers’s tune, a pure thing, existing in its own plane, its link to a long-dead Frenchman moot.
My work—no matter how worthy, no matter how inspired—is a hardscrabble of striving and becoming, a smudged object of trade.
But a tune, a color, a shape, a tree, a stream—is all being. Is God manifested.
God dwells at the heart of things, always in flux yet never changing. The facets of God’s transformation flash like signboards on country stations at night as we go barreling through on the fast express with rarely a glimmer of recognition.
But the God of tunes and colors and leaves and fishes is always accessible. Is present to us in that sabbath state when we hear music and forget our customary concerns.
We did not travel to Alaska for the salmon, exactly. But once there, you cannot avoid salmon. They’re everywhere.
My Norwegian kin, I am told, have an expression: “A happy salmon.” En glad laks, in Norsk. It’s a label for someone cheerful by nature, a happy-go-lucky person. No worries, no cares. Smiling all the time.
But, Kind Reader, consider the salmon. I mean the real salmon.
Spawned in springtime, in the shallows of a cold mountain stream, it (he or she, take your pick) hatches from a round pink egg into an alevin—a tiny swimming fish with the yolk sac still attached to its belly. Consuming its yolk over the course of a few months, it becomes a small fish or fry. Only then does it emerge from the gravelly shallows into the main part of its natal stream.
Depending on its species—chinook (king), coho (silver), chum, sockeye, or pink—the salmon fry either heads seaward immediately or hangs out in a freshwater lake for a year or more. In either case, it then develops into a smolt—a small, silvery fish with scales—and drifts downstream to an estuary, the tidal mouth of a river.
Hanging out in the estuary for a time, the smolt gains weight and—crucially—changes its metabolism, adjusting to life as a salt-water fish. When ready, the salmon moves into the ocean, where it will spend—again, depending on species—from eighteen months to eight years.
Life at Sea
Once a salmon becomes a denizen of the salt sea, how does it spend this time? It swims around, eats, and grows larger. It may swim more than two thousand miles, gobbling plankton, insects, small crustaceans, and fish, and gaining body length and weight. Unless, of course, it is eaten first.
Salmon in the ocean may be prey to seals, sharks or other large fish, orca whales, or the all-purpose predator, humans.
Ocean salmon may be taken on hook-and-line by commercial trollers, in larger quantities in gill nets, or in even larger purse seines—depending on the species targeted and the size of the boat and its equipment. They end up as high-quality salmon steaks or filets, brined gravlax or smoked lox, ground salmon in a can, even salmon-based pet foods.
Salmon Patties, Anyone?
When I was a boy (more than sixty-five years ago), Mom often served us patties of ground salmon, fried in her cast-iron skillet. They were cheap and nutritious, and I grew to despise them. Greasy and gamey-tasting. Not for me, thanks.
Since then, I have grown fond of lox with bagels and cream cheese, and I also like a nicely-done salmon filet. Context is everything.
But I digress. Back to the sea:
Those salmon who slip through the nets of man and beast eventually gravitate to the coast and, by a divinely-ordained process no scientist has fully explained, make their way back up the very stream then came out of and swim right up to the very shallows where they were born.
Born to Spawn
Naturally, they must evade human predation. The rivers and creeks are full of anglers, fishing for recreation or to feed their families. Also, in parts of Alaska and Canada, the streams hold cunningly designed Native American salmon wheels, which skim off a regular portion of the fish swimming upstream to spawn.
In this upstream, fresh-water journey is concentrated the whole point and purpose of their lives: Spawning. The procreation of their species. It is the Olympics they have trained for all their lives in creek, lake, river, and sea. And the competition is fierce. The journey is fraught with peril.
Besides humans, those streams are full of bears—brown and black. You’ve seen them on the wild Alaska shows, gleefully scooping salmon out of churning rapids and devouring them on the spot. Eagles and ospreys also take salmon, lifting them whole out of rivers, lakes, and ocean.
If the salmon successfully evade all predators, they still must swim miles upstream to find their spawning beds. This usually means braving powerful rapids and fish ladders.
A Salmonic Odyssey
In Ketchikan, our dauntless daughter, Katie, led us through a steady downpour on a journey tracking the salmon upstream. We followed Ketchikan Creek from the trendy shops that sit on pilings over its lower end up to the Creek Street footbridge. Under the bridge, salmon leap up into the rushing falls under the bridge. Their leaps are strenuous, athletic, and mostly doomed to failure. The fish falls short and is swept back downstream, only to try again. They spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to pass these falls, and many never make it.
To help them, people have built a fish ladder as an alternate route over the falls. The ladder, like the falls, is steeply inclined and filled with water rushing rapidly downstream. But little walls, baffles I guess you’d call them, line the sides of the metal chute, giving fish a chance to work their way up from one resting point to the next. Even so, it’s almost as great a challenge as the falls themselves.
Those salmon who cross the falls, whether by means of the salmon ladder or by simply leaping up the falls, enter a quiet stretch of the creek, which winds for several hundred yards and flows through Ketchikan’s City Park. In that stretch of water, the creek is very shallow, with a gravelly bed. This is the spawning-ground.
Standing in our waterproof ponchos under a soaking rain, we watched as female salmon—whose backs and dorsal fins protruded a bit from the water—wiggled their tails to scoop shallow depressions in the streambed. These depressions are called redds. There the females would release their clutches of round, pink eggs, while their male paramours released milt (fish semen) over them. After more wiggling to cover the fertilized eggs with fresh gravel, the female would move upstream to repeat the process.
We could not see every aspect of this process, viewing it side-on under a stippling rain, but we saw the wiggles. Often we saw the back of what must have been a rampant male surging downstream—whether to frighten off rival males, or out of sheer exuberance of the rut, I could not say.
But it was impressive, especially in that it was performed by the rare survivors of such a harrowing lifelong journey.
“Mormor, Bapa! Come on, there’s a lot of cool stuff at the top of the hill.”
Tristan, age nine, leaps and bounces in the trampoline-like mat of vegetation.
“You run back up there and learn all about it,” I say. “Mormor”—his grandmother—“and I will stay and rest a bit in the tundra.”
“Okay, Bapa—if you’re sure.” And he leaps back up the hill.
Alaska has a way of wearing a man down.
The first time we visited, in 2010, at age 65, there was enough bounce in my bones and enough tingle in my tendons to hike with a group up the mountain that overlooks the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau. We scrambled over exposed roots, clambered through corridors of rain-slicked rocks. It was a tiring, yet exhilarating, trek.
This trip, at age 76, Your New Favorite Writer—still an enthusiast—strategically avails himself of frequent rest opportunities.
Our time on the tundra in the middle of Denali National Park is precious. The softness, the springiness, the sink-in-ability of that blanket of tangled vegetation covering the deep permafrost challenges the hiker to walk without falling down and taxes one’s pulmonary system—especially going uphill.
On the other hand, should you happen to fall down, you couldn’t pick a better place to do it. You almost can’t get hurt falling into the soft tundra.
It’s an even better place to sit and rest, watching the mountains and listening to the enthusiasm of younger hikers as Sidney, our mountain guide—the young lady who carries the bear spray—points out wild blueberries and other flora just up the hill, telling which ones humans can eat, which ones the bears like, and so forth.
It’s a fine, warm day. Denali, the mountain, was out a few minutes ago and we got to see its peak before it was re-cloaked by its very own weather system.
We have come here because we like Alaska; but even more, we want share it with our daughter, Katie, and our grandchildren, Elsie and Tristan. This resembles nothing they have experienced and nothing else they will ever experience—possibly not even in long future lives.
For a time, we have lured them from their telephone screens into the powerful beauty of the real world.
Later today we will pan for gold in Moose Creek. Lucky Tristan will find a flake in his pan and have it laminated on a piece of black paper. A speck of gold to carry with him forever after. Or until he loses it, which is likely. But the important thing is, he will find it in his pan and will always remember that.
Elsie, age twelve, will find one too but lose it on the way to have it laminated. That will be all right, though, because she will find prizes of her own in the wilderness, including sightings of bears and moose and the chance to befriend a young adventurer, Rhys, traveling with his own family.
Katie and Mormor will not try panning for gold. They will opt for a horticulture hike instead, another rewarding adventure.
Old Bapa—Your New Favorite Writer—will stand in the creek swishing gravel around his pan, to no avail . . . but will bring home gold anyway.
An American institution marked two centuries on August 4.
I am letting you all know here, in case you missed the announcement.
Readers old enough to remember the Saturday Evening Post may think it died years ago. Not so.
The once ubiquitous flagship journal of the Curtis Publishing Company was rescued from demise by the Saturday Evening Post Society, a nonprofit group which purchased the magazine in 1982. The Post now appears as six large-format print issues per year, with an impressive circulation of 237,907 (2018). It also manages a thriving Web presence.
“And this is significant, Dear New Favorite Writer, because of . . . exactly, what?”
Mainly, Astute and Forbearing Reader, because of the magazine’s unassailable tradition and the long list of distinguished writers whose works have graced its pages.
Younger readers may recognize the Saturday Evening Post as the locus of a series of cover illustrations which cemented the fame of 20th-century artist Norman Rockwell.
But those full-color covers—52 of them each year—by Rockwell and other great illustrators merely scratch the surface of the Post’s glory. When Your New Favorite Writer was a kid, in the 1950s, the Saturday Evening Post was a major pillar of Main Street America. People from all walks of life read the Post, learned from it, and were endlessly entertained by it.
Great Writers and Editors
Each issue held a lively mix of fiction, nonfiction, and features. The Post’s quick response times and generous pay attracted the best writers—Joseph Conrad, O. Henry, Rudyard Kipling, and others. Jack London’s Call of the Wild premiered in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.
Under a succession of editors—George Horace Lorimer, Wesley Stout, and Ben Hibbs—the magazine reached a peak circulation of over seven million and attracted writers such as Owen Wister, Ring Lardner, William Faulkner, Stephen Viincent Benet, Agatha Christie, and Ray Bradbury.
A Focus on Fiction
The magazine was particularly known as a great venue for fiction. Not avant-garde fiction, but mainstream fiction. And not just the writings of the greats, but great writing from not-so-well-known authors.
As a boy I followed the exploits of Alexander Botts, freewheeling salesman of Earthworm Tractors for the Farmer’s Friend Tractor Company. In a series of stories by William Hazlett Upson, Botts’s odd-ball sales campaigns were chronicled as a stream of frantic memos, letters, and telegrams between the loose cannon Botts and his perplexed home office in Earthworm City, Illinois.
It was, as they say, to larf.
Many young writers got a hand up by selling stories to the Post. Young writers are still doing this today—not to mention a few superannuated novices, such as Your New Favorite Writer. When I began to write fiction as a septuagenarian, I had a few quirky tales about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in a small town in the 1950s. The Post was kind enough to publish three of them (see here, here, and here), including one which won honorable mention in the magazine’s 2018 Great American Fiction Contest. For this I cannot help being grateful.
Rescued from Oblivion
And I was thankful for the far-sighted energy of Indianapolis industrialist Beurt SerVaas, who saved the Post during its distressed days in the 1960s and ’70s. When he acquired the Post, he was primarily interested in its sister publication, Jack and Jill, the well-known children’s magazine. In 1982, he spun the Post off into a nonprofit company, and the magazine began to focus on nonfiction articles about health, medicine, and volunteering—the passions of his wife and business partner, Cory.
A more recent strategic shift, in 2013, brought the Saturday Evening Post back to its original mission. According to the magazine’s website, it “returned to . . . celebrating America, past, present, and future. Since then, the Post has focused on the elements that have always made it popular: good story telling, fiction, art, and history.”
Storytellers, take note. The Saturday Evening Post is still in business, doing what it has always done best, bringing high-quality mainstream narratives to the American public.
In the land of my boyhood
dwelt a race of giants
tall and stern, male and female,
bound as if by law. I knew that
someday I would be a giant too.
Seven decades have dissolved
before my eyes,
and strange to say,
although the giants got smaller
I never did become one.
Just over a month ago, I announced in this space that I was laying aside my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase for an indefinite time because of difficulty in reconciling two diverging story lines.
Soon after, I heard from my friend and champion Christine, who made a compelling case that it was possible to write a successful novel including this bifurcated plot. I took a deep breath, tried again, and lo! The successful rewrite is now complete. I am extremely satisfied.
I won’t tell you, Dear Reader, exactly what changes I made in the manuscript. I will tell you that it’s now a much more compelling read than the manuscript I was trying to sell as recently as a year ago. Some work remains to polish it, but I hope to begin marketing again in the near future.
What I can tell you is that is has a new title: The Maelstrom. And it is still the story of a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning.
Thanks for your patience. I heard recently the average time an author takes to complete a first novel is five years. So I’m right on schedule.
O purple splotch,
How dare you?
Arriving by stealth
to the back of my hand,
claiming space, a fait accompli.
You are an intruder beneath my skin.
I say again, How dare you?
Your coup unheralded,
even by minor pain,
suddenly you were just there.
In days of old this could not have happened.
In days of old my forces would have marshaled
thick skin and stout-walled capillaries
against your onslaught.
Had you attacked in strength—
the bang of a hammer blow,
the tread of an opponent’s spikes,
the slam of a door where my hand rested on the jamb—
I would have known it in that moment.
This noiseless, painless incursion is a new strategem,
the exploitation of brittle skin and numbed receptors,
but be forewarned: I am on to you.
You and your cunning ways,
how you will linger
flaunting your port-wine-ness in my face,
then six days hence decamp
as silently as the Arabs,
making me doubt my senses
until the next signalless foray.
How dare you?
But at last, these marches can avail you nothing;
for I have received the cure
and simply wait for the finality
of its deliverance.
My old MacBook Pro 13” laptop has been Your New Favorite Writer’s general headquarters ever since it was purchased in 2011. It is a wonderful device. It’s probably as close as I’ve ever come to loving an inanimate object. (I had a casual fling with an MGB-GT sports car in the late 1960s when I was stationed on Okinawa—but that’s another story.)
My 2011 MacBook Pro exceeded my wildest expectations. And it still works.
But its keyboard and trackpad are not quite as responsive as they once were. After ten years’ hard use, they might be forgiven if they just wore out.
So I went to the Apple Store and bought a new MacBook Pro 13” laptop.
I wanted a computer just like the old one—but of course that’s impossible. The new one is thinner by almost 3/8”. It’s a pound or two lighter, though it still feels substantial. The keyboard has a nicer touch. There is more memory, more storage, and more speed. The battery is said to last twenty hours. I haven’t pushed it to that limit; but I have taken it off the grid for periods of two or three hours, only to find that 90 to 95 percent of the battery’s power remained.
But my Microsoft Office 2010 will not run on the new 64-bit system with M1 silicon chip and the . . . wait for it . . . “Big Sur” operating system. So I had to sign up for a $70/year subscription to Microsoft 365.
Big deal. I’m back in action and good to go.
The upshot of which, Dear Reader, is that you’re stuck with me for at least ten more years. Think about that sometime when you’re up in the middle of the night.