The Unknown American

Squanto teaching. The German Kali Works, New York. Public Domain.

His name is known to most of us, but it’s unusual to hear it spoken, except around Thanksgiving. Each November, we briefly recall that Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, thereby saving their colony from annihilation. We honor him for giving our English ancestors a warm welcome.

U.S. postage stamp commemorating the Tercentenary of the Plymouth Landing. Public Domain.

There are no true pictures of Squanto. Photography had not been invented; no artist drew him from life. The image above—adopted here mainly for its freedom from legal encumbrance—shows a man with intelligent eyes and open smile, demonstrating the use of fish to fertilize a planting. But Squanto’s story goes far beyond that. 

Our knowledge of history can be ten miles wide and one millimeter deep.

“So Squanto helped the Pilgrims get started when they landed at Plymouth. Why, for crying out loud, do we need to know more?” 

The Rest of the Story

It’s a fair question, and here’s the fair answer: The full story of Squanto informs us beyond the familiar triumphal tale of European colonization. We heirs of the Pilgrims should desire this information, not to dim the luster of our own history, but to remember it with wisdom and grace.

The Landing of the Pilgrims, 1877. Painting by Henry Bacon (1839-1912)

Squanto never aspired to be the native mentor to the Pilgrims. That role came about because when the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod in 1620, Squanto was already quite familiar with the English and even spoke their language.

Six years earlier, he and about twenty other young men of the Patuxet tribe had been snatched in one of many kidnappings by English explorers and freebooters ranging in those days up and down the Massachusetts coast. He was shipped across the Atlantic to Málaga, Spain. In Málaga he was freed by Spanish friars, or escaped on his own, or somehow avoided the life of slavery to which he had been consigned. He made his way—we know not how—to England, where he lived for some time in London.  

After a few years, he managed to return to Massachusetts with an English voyage of exploration. When he returned on foot, alone, to the site his old village, he found it abandoned. All of his people were dead or scattered to the winds.

“Virgin Soil Epidemic”

Squanto’s Patuxet tribe had been utterly wiped out by an illness that swept the Northeastern seaboard in those years. Because that illness did not afflict the many Englishmen and other Europeans mingling with the natives at that time, historians consider this great plague a “virgin soil epidemic.” The kind of epidemic that occurs when new disease organisms are brought by outsiders into the midst of a population which lacks prior exposure to them. Nobody knows for sure what single disease, or combination of diseases, rampaged the Massachusetts coast in those years, but the result was a region cleared of former inhabitants. Thus, when the Pilgrims in 1620 arrived on the Mayflower, in foul weather, desperate for a place to hunker down, there was a choice spot of land recently vacated: Squanto’s former home.

One could hardly blame Squanto had he showed hostility to new English settlers. Not only had he been abducted and forced into years of exile far from home, while his friends and family suffered extinction by disease. Many similar kidnappings and other atrocities had been worked upon the local inhabitants in the years preceding the Pilgrims’ landfall. Despite all this, Squanto befriended the Pilgrims.

Why?

Chief Massasoit and Governor John Carver smoke a peace pipe in 1621. Unknown artist. California State Library. Public Domain.

We would like to think the Pilgrims’ character, which stood out from these toxic relationships, vouched for them; that remaining Indian tribes, such as the Pokanoket under Chief Massasoit, discerned their peaceful and honorable intentions, well enough at any rate to trust them and form an alliance. In this context, Squanto was far from a “noble savage” who innocently befriended newcomers with a great white vessel and strange ways. Rather, he was a capable, worldly man, acquainted with European technology and customs. He consented—given his footloose status on his former soil—to become a kind of diplomat for the neighboring tribe in its calculated attempt to forge an alliance with the least-threatening and most promising band of Englishmen in the region. 

After about twenty months of generally satisfactory service in that role, Squanto himself succumbed to illness, leaving the Pilgrims bereft of one important man who had been their friend in adversity. Governor William Bradford, in Of Plimoth Plantation, writes approvingly of Squanto and his influence on the young colony.

Stone marking the spot of King Philip’s death, placed by the Rhode Island Historical Society more than two hundred years later. Photo by Swampyank. Public Domain.

Squanto was a complex individual. The Pilgrims were, like many of us, saints but also sinners. Chief Massasoit and other Native Americans sought to advance their own interests. Latter-day champions of the Pilgrims and other Puritans who poured into Massachusetts starting in 1630 point out that the lands occupied by these English immigrants were acquired in fair, legal purchases, duly recorded in colonial archives. It is also true that white European immigrants—legal niceties aside—began to displace the original inhabitants of the land, who retreated ever further westward. This trend eventuated in King Philip’s War of 1675-76, the first real “Indian War” fought in the English colonies. More than 600 colonists were killed; thousands of Native Americans were killed or displaced. The ultimate effect was the continued advance of English civilization and progressive decimation of the American Indian population.

A present-day family poses with historical interpreters portraying its Pilgrim ancestors at Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts.  “pallattos with ancestors” by drain is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

The Moral of the Story

Nobody can undo the past. The people of the past had their own motives, praiseworthy and otherwise, for everything they did. Wisdom for us in the present requires owning the full truth of the past in all its messy–sometimes inconvenient–complexity.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Memoir-ization

We’ve all got a good memoir or reminiscence book buried inside us. It’s quite another thing to actually get it out on paper, virtual or real, in any useful form. Because it requires selectivity. Unless you’re a major public figure, the world probably doesn’t need your autobiography. But it might not be able to resist your own take on the choicest bits.

That’s why there is so much to admire in what my friend, Michael Bourgo, has done. His memoir, Once Upon a Time: Growing Up in the 1950s, delivers exactly what the title claims—the experience of childhood in that now-legendary era from which so much of today’s pop culture—Happy DaysBack to the Future Leave it to Beaver—derives.

Unlike Hollywood’s version, however, Michael’s version has the smack and tang of real events as lived in a particular person’s life. That person happens to be a warm, engaging old man recounting oodles of details from a long-ago period of his life. The struggles of a young family trying to get a start in a dynamic yet unpredictable postwar economy; the thrill of shopping at Marshall Field’s in Chicago’s Loop and dining at one of that elegant store’s six on-site restaurants; the satisfaction of showing up at summer camp self-contained and not dependent on a helicopter mom (yes, they had them in those days, too!) to unpack one’s footlocker. 

Most of us, when we go to write a memoir, get overwhelmed by the imperative of sharing everything we have experienced—because every bit of it is significant to us, and we are sure that if we simply spray it out in its entirety, our own deep appreciation of each detail will transfer automatically to the mind of the reader. That is a delusion.

Write for the Reader, Not the Author

What readers want is information that is in some way new and significant to them—not a catalog of what is old and significant to the author. While trotting out an abundance of details from his amazing memory, Michael Bourgo always respects the reader’s need to get something surprising and interesting from the narrative. He also knows when to quit. This never becomes a recitation of everything that happened in the author’s life. He knows that what is significant, that today’s people might need or want to know, has to do with childhood in the Fifties. He sticks to that subject.

Jerry Mathers as The Beaver. ABC Television. Public Domain.

With a format composed of solid chapters arranged on chronological and topical lines, alternating with page-long poems that shed further light on matters already covered in prose, Michael gives us a credible understanding of life in the Fifties, one that goes well beyond the stereotypical adventures of Beaver, Wally, and Eddie Haskell. 

For example, describing the ritual of young boys getting haircuts in those days: “There was another side to Ken’s [barber shop]. . . . My brother, always a more astute observer than I, figured it out when he was in high school. One day he overheard a strange exchange between a patron and one of the barbers, and he realized they were using some sort of code to set up a wager. So, in addition to cutting hair, Ken’s was also a front for a bookie operation that handled bets on sports. No doubt this was a service that many citizens found useful because in those days there were only two places to place a legal bet—at a horse track or in Las Vegas.” (I also, Dear Reader, patronized that kind of a barber shop as a boy. But I only got my hair cut.) 

Those of us who lived through the times Michael Bourgo describes will recognize many of our own experiences in his narrative; and we will encounter other episodes, foreign to our own experience, that reflect the broad range of life lessons disclosed to members of different families in different places. 

For readers who did not arrive on the scene before the Fifties finally petered out (around 1965), this well-balanced and life-affirming memoir will showcase a whole new world in richness and nuance—a world that Marty McFly would never find in his DeLorean.

I recommend Once Upon a Time: Growing Up in the 1950s to anyone who would like to re-live the era through a different set of eyes, and also to anyone who would like to experience it for the first time as it really was—not just as shown on TV.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

The Next New Thing

I noticed last Thursday that the world is going to hell. You say, “The world has always been going to hell.” I say, “Yes, but now it is going straight to hell. Rapidly to hell. Immediately to hell.”  

No handbaskets need apply. Photo by Melody Bates on Unsplash.

Do not pass “Go,” and do not bother with a handbasket.

Senior citizens have long known that civilization is on the skids. The knowledge comes free with age. You have seen too much. You remember how things were. The good things you remember keep sliding down into the dustbin of entropy. Meanwhile, bad things come up out of nowhere and metastasize across the evening sky.

Wheels coming off the dustbin of entropy. Photo by Jon Toney on Unsplash.

However, God says:

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

—Isaiah 43:19 (NIV)

God is preparing Something Completely Different, and it’s on a channel our sets can’t pick up. The Great New Thing of the Future is already here, but we’re looking the wrong way. (Theologians have been known to call this “eschatological tension.”)

Bubbling up from below, not quite visible, something altogether new. Photo by Daniel Chen on Unsplash

Eternity crashes down about our ears in more ways than Chicken Little could ever count. 

  • War. Plague. Famine.
  • Inflation. Depression. Hard-heartedness.
  • Dissension. Criticism. Hurtfulness.
  • Politics.

Pick your poison.

Whenever things come crashing down, a whole new arrangement waits in the wings.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfills himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world. 

—Tennyson, Idylls of the King

We waste ourselves attacking visions that diverge from our own. History shows that diversity of viewpoints is a kind of “rocket fuel” that has propelled our society to greatness. We can’t be bothered with that. The deplorable politics of others, we take for our bête noir—perhaps because we face no real existential threats.

The Bible tells us, more than it tells us any other thing, “Fear not.” Yet we continue to be  governed by fear. What if we were governed by confidence that the next new wave of things will bring the perfect, peaceable Kingdom of God that much closer to fruition? 

Road to the peaceable kingdom. Photo by Eryk on Unsplash

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

The Newest, Latest, Last Frontier

Chet Huntley has got me thinking about frontiers. 

Chet Huntley. NBC Television. Public domain.

Huntley (1911-1974) was an influential broadcaster, a television journalist who co-anchored NBC’s evening news program, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, for fourteen years beginning in 1956. When his run at NBC ended in 1970, Huntley, then 58, became front man for the founding of the Big Sky ski resort in his native Montana. Earlier, he had written a memoir titled The Generous Years: Remembrances of a Frontier Boyhood, published by Random House in 1968. This book was recommended and lent to me by my friend Jerry Peterson.

The Generous Years is a warm and interesting read. We learn much about the childhood of Chet Huntley but more importantly we learn about life in Montana in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Seen through the eyes of a boy who, as his adult self tells us more than once, was privileged “to know and remember a few years and a few scenes of the nation’s last frontier.” 

The Last Frontier

The Montana of Huntley’s youth was indeed, in many ways, a raw frontier. People made their livings by farming, by herding, by mining and railroading. It was a society that still went about on horseback; motor vehicles, other than steam locomotives, were rare. Old Doc Minnick, the blunt, persevering medico of Huntley’s remembrance, made his housecalls in a one-horse buckboard. The memoir includes those staples of frontier life: prairie fires, locusts, and even an enterprising bank robber foiled by the derring-do of local boys. It’s a tale worth reading, and I commend it to you.

But what of Huntley’s claim to have recorded America’s last frontier? Even while typing the phrase, I thought of Alaskan friends. “What about us?” they would cry. “What are we, chopped liver?” Alaska has been raw frontier much more recently than Montana. Many parts of Alaska still qualify for that distinction. That’s also true of vast swaths of Canada’s Yukon Territory and northern British Columbia. These places are truly “the last frontier.” 

Or are they? 

The Frontier Thesis

Frederick Jackson Turner. Public Domain.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner put forth in 1893—eighteen years before Huntley’s birth in Montana—an idea that came to be called “the Frontier Thesis” of American history. Turner figured the frontier experience was the main thing that called forth the development of American democracy and other unique aspects of our civilization. Jackson’s Frontier Thesis became a mainstay in the scholarly interpretation of U.S. history. It has also been fiercely disputed; yet it still holds considerable sway.

Turner’s thesis took the frontier as a fact of physical geography. He proposed that when the frontier line reached the West Coast about 1880, the first phase of American history had ended. The frontier was no more. 

New Frontiers

Starship Enterprise. “1701-D” by kreg.steppe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

This has not stopped others from declaring new areas of frontier-like emphasis. One example is likewise rooted in physical geography, although it is extraterrestrial. The moon, by this thinking, is a new frontier—and so is Mars. In 1966, forty-four years after Turner retired from Harvard, actor William Shatner declared all of space to be “the final frontier” in the opening title sequence to the Star Trek television series. 

Gene Roddenberry. NASA. Public domain.

Whoever wrote Shatner’s speech (Gene Roddenberry, et al.) ought to have been more circumspect; because many more “new” and “final” frontiers have been proposed. 

JFK. Cecil Stoughton, White House. Public domain.

Senator John F. Kennedy, accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1960, said: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. . . . Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” The phrase “New Frontier” then became a label for Kennedy’s presidential administration—like Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” or Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal.” As political branding it stood for a vaguely-defined stance of confronting unknown but large national challenges of the future. In that sense, we will always have a “new frontier” to deal with. 

The Perpetual Lure of the Frontier

Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier.” Portrait by James Hamilton Shegogue, 1806-1872. Public Domain.

All this frontiersmanship makes me think that Americans have been so shaped by our frontier experience that we simply cannot do without it. We always need a frontier. Unless we are out on a frontier of some kind, we are not satisfied. 

I wonder if Italians, Poles, Vietnamese, or Pakistanis talk and think as much about frontiers as we do. Frederick Jackson Turner and I doubt it.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

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

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

Boatman on the Tamsui

Taipei, 1968

The boatman bends to his oars. He guides his sampan with the ease of a sage, gliding by a large gate, toward a three-masted junk that looms beyond. Shadows and ripples tether him to water, yet he hangs suspended, the center point on which the misty harbor turns. 

“Look at this, Ralph.” 

My drinking-, carousing-, philosophizing-buddy peers through the shop window at the row of canvases. “I can’t believe the same guy painted all of these.”

“Me neither.” Six oils in sepia monochrome. Five show stark village streets, all sharp angles, hard lines, crisscossed phone wires; the sixth reveals a dreamscape that evokes the timeless China of peasants and poets. All six have the same name at the bottom.

“Good afternoon, you like these paintings?” A man stands at my elbow. A smiling man, a chubby Chinese with a servile aura. (Hen heqi,“very affable,” his mother might say.) He wears dress slacks and a gray short-sleeve shirt, stands before the storefront, shares our perspective on the art.

“Not bad,” I say.

“These are my paintings.” He smiles full wide. “I am Peco Yeh.” He shakes hands, gives us each a small card. On one side, Chinese characters; on the other, in English,  “Peco Yeh, Traditional Chinese Artist.”

Sidewalk commerce, typical for Chungshan North Road. I downplay the boatman in his watery realm, feign attraction to the sterile village scenes. But Peco Yeh homes in on my real interest. “This, Tamsui River,” he says.

Chungshan North Road, 1960s. Courtesy Taipei Air Station Blogspot.

“Local scenery, huh?” 

He waxes lyrical on Taiwan’s mountains and rivers. Besides his fawning attitude, typical for Chinese pitchmen, there is something else. One can’t mistake Peco’s effeminate manner. It suggests he is queer—a surprise, in broad daylight, here in Chiang Kai-shek’s Methodist/Confucian state. However—to each his own. He’s trying to sell his paintings, that’s all.

Ralph bad-mouths the artwork. I walk away twice; both times Peco Yeh shepherds me back to the storefront for “one more little look.” Eventually I make the watery scene my own for three dollars American, twenty-two less than his original price. The artist smiles, gives us a good-bye wave, bends his head, palms together, in the timeless Asian gesture.

A fictionalized account of true events.

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Larceny at Twice the Price

My only defense: It was a different time and place. The event narrated above is fictional only to the extent that I have invented bits of dialog I can’t recall, word for word, from fifty years ago.

Ralph and I were U.S. airmen stationed on Taiwan to monitor radiocommunications of the Chinese Communist Air Force, who flew operations just across the hundred-mile-wide Taiwan Strait. We had been taught Mandarin Chinese for eavesdropping purposes; it also came in handy when we mingled with the people of Taipei. 

Young men on our own in a place where most prices are negotiable, we took haggling to extremes. We prided ourselves on the discount we could wring from anyone selling anything. The sum of three dollars in those days was equivalent to about twenty-two of today’s dollars. One U.S. dollar bought forty NT (New Taiwan dollars), the local currency. You could get a nice restaurant dinner for half that or less. So Peco Yeh got more purchasing power from me than may be apparent. Still—when you consider that Peco’s asking price of twenty-five U.S. dollars would be less than two hundred today—I feel chagrin at having driven such a hard bargain, in the service of youthful pride. 

The value derived from this picture is far beyond the three dollars paid. That price, by the way, included the wood frame that the canvas still wears today. I took the whole thing to the U.S. Navy’s Headquarters Support Activity just up Chungshan Road. They crated and shipped it to my mother and father in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for fifteen dollars—five times what I had paid for the painting, but a worthwhile expense. 

The canvas graced my parents’ living room wall for decades. It came back to me when they died. Now it hangs in our house, where I pass it every day, oblivious to the quiet beauty it radiates. When I do stop to notice, I can’t believe my good fortune in having encountered Peco Yeh fifty years ago in Taipei. 

In Search of Peco Yeh

Who was Peco Yeh? It seemed he spent a lot of time on the street, promoting his art to any American who happened to walk by. His effete manner made him the butt of ridicule. “That guy’s as queer as a three-dollar bill,” one of my fellow airmen said. In 1968 “queerness” was not accepted. Homosexuality, although common and known of (even in the military), stayed under cover.

A Google search on “Peco Yeh” yields thumbnail photos of a few pictures attributed to him on various online auction sites, at modest prices. The paintings shown do not much resemble my boatman in style or substance, any more than did the stark village scenes with which it appeared in the store window. Peco, I think, dabbled in many styles.

Some sites give an unattributed, apocryphal biography of the artist:

“Peco Yeh is/was a Chinese man living in Taipei Taiwan during the 1970s. He came from Chengdu, China with the nationalists in 1947 with his mother. His mother was the mistress of the last court artist of the Qing Dynasty. When Empress Dowager Cixi was poisoned, the court artist went to Chengdu and took the mistress.”

A romantic tale. It seems farfetched. Could it be true? Yes. Stranger things have happened. 

China was in turmoil in the late 1940s. Communists under Mao Tse-tung defeated Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces under Chiang Kai-shek. In 1949, the Nationalists fled the mainland, occupied Taiwan, became its government. Wikipedia says, “The Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party), its officers and approximately 2 million troops took part in the retreat; in addition to many civilians and refugees, fleeing from the advances of the Communist People’s Liberation Army.” Most civilian escapees came from Sichuan or other southern provinces.

The thumbnail bio puts Peco Yeh on Taiwan two years before the main exodus. That’s possible; or it could be a misprint. He is said to hail from Chengdu, which happens to be the capital of Sichuan. Many civilians who fled with the Nationalist Army were members of, or related to members of, the upper crust. The mistress and child of a former imperial court artist could have been among them. So this narrative, though extravagant, may be true. Hard to tell.

I pray that Peco Yeh lived out a long life to its proper natural conclusion. And may God forgive me for appropriating his fine artwork at such a mean price. 

Mountains and Water

Whatever the merits of his other works, the one that hangs on my wall seems to me a fine example of a modern impressionistic work that embodies important elements from classical Chinese art: Careful composition, calligraphic brushwork, and the suggestive use of negative space—areas of the canvas that seem occupied by nothing at all yet contain the universe in that nothingness. The effect is of beauty, tranquillity, eternity. The masters of the Southern Song would recognize an affinity with their landscapes.

Chinese people use the term shan-shui(山水), “mountains and water,” to mean both natural scenery and the landscape painting that depicts it. They also have an old maxim, “The wise delight in the mountains; the good delight in the waters.” 

I can only hope the delight I now take in Peco Yeh’s Taiwan waterscape, purchased in 1968, suggests some upward evolution of my soul in the intervening fifty years.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author