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.
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.
Three recent posts have explored the early history of Pan American World Airways, a great airline, which employed my uncle as a pilot from the 1930s into the modern era.
Content for these posts came from old family stories, from photos and reminiscences provided by my cousin Steven Sommers, and from information easily available on the Web. However, two good books also provided a wealth of information. Each of these two books is a little treasure in its own right. One or both may interest you as a reader.
An American Saga
One book is An American Saga: Juan Trippe and his Pan Am Empire, by Robert Daley (Random House 1980, 529 pages). This book is available in hardback from Amazon for $54.30. Fortunately, a Kindle version is also available for $7.99. It is highly readable, though the Kindle edition has a few typos. It tells the story of Pan Am from Juan Trippe’s youth through the founding and early years of Pan Am, the glory days of the China Clipper era, the global success of the postwar years, and the airline’s ultimate demise in 1991. Encapsulated in the overall story are many tales of dogged persistence and even heroism. Looming above all is the enigmatic figure of Trippe—a legendary entrepreneur who was modest, collaborative, visionary, and inspiring; while also being secretive, cold-blooded, manipulative, and ruthless. In the process of building Pan Am, Trippe became midwife to the worldwide aviation industry. Daley has boiled down an enormous mass of information into a readable and compelling narrative. If you’re interested in the details of Pan Am’s fascinating history, this is where you’ll find them.
Of equal interest is Robert L. Gandt’s China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats (Naval Institute Press 1991, 214 pages). This one is available in hardcover for $17.50, or in a Kindle edition for $14.49. While Daley’s book chronicles the swashbuckling upstart company that became the world’s most successful airline, Gandt’s volume tells the story of the airplanes themselves—most specifically the seaplanes designated “flying boats” that dominated international aviation in the 1930s and 1940s. Best known are the Sikorsky S-40 and S-42, the Martin M-130, and Boeing’s B-314—all airframes that Juan Trippe purchased for Pan American, and simply by placing his orders, caused their development. What you may not know is that British, French, and German designers developed other flying boats of varying size, range, and carrying capacity. Gandt, himself a former Pan American captain, lovingly traces the development of all these designs. He includes enough cultural and economic context to give the reader a sense why each plane did or did not succeed in the marketplace. Along with his illuminating text, he provides a large gallery of photos, so the reader can see the obvious differences among these planes, and a full set of line drawings by J. P. Wood at 1:300 scale. Read in tandem with Daley’s book on Trippe and Pan American, this book gives a very full picture of the Golden Age of the great flying boats.
“Down the Hall on Your Left,” a blog that has been the source of much innocent (and not so innocent) merriment for many since 2014, is shutting down.
World-class curmudgeon John Kraft has posted more than 1,500 entries and now, of all times, claims to have run out of things to say. Well, John, all I can say is, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.
I personally (that is, myself, in the first-person singular) have become practically addicted to John’s weekly dash of cold blather. I will miss it.
AND HERE’S THE GOOD NEWS:
I checked directly with His Bloggishness, and there are no near-term plans to extinguish the site itself. So, if you happen to like writing by Old Guys (and if not, Dear Reader, why are you here?), then be sure to check out “Down the Hall on Your Left,” where plenty of past delicacies and indelicacies remain for your enjoyment.
My wife’s father, Joe Nelson, and his older brother Morris, as boys in North Dakota, spent a couple of years in an orphanage. They were not orphans.
Their father, an itinerant small-town newspaperman, struggled to make a living. The eldest son, Bob, could work and augment the family income. The youngest, Lou, was too young to be away from his mother. So Morris and Joe, in the 7-to-10 age range, were placed in a Catholic orphanage. The family was Protestant, but beggars can’t be choosers. You could “go to the Sisters” or live in the county poorhouse.
Many of our families have stories like this, often just a generation or two back. Times were tough. People did what they needed to. Many children in orphanages were not orphans. Sometimes, they were collateral victims of family troubles or fiscal hardship, perhaps temporary.
Buy the Little Ones a Dolly
Rose Bingham’s memoir starts at Thanksgiving—“a very special Thanksgiving” in 2013. Rose’s large extended family has come to her house in the woods near Wisconsin Dells. Plates are full; cups runneth over. They give thanks. Thanks for the strength and grace that have kept their bond strong through decades of pain caused by a dark mystery.
In 1952, when Rose was a teenager, her loving, luminous mother disappeared, vanished without a trace. The family was devastated. Through the years that followed, emotional and economic turmoil plagued them. As Rose’s father, a talented sign painter, struggled to keep things together, she and her six siblings were placed in St. Michael’s Orphanage, miles from home—a strange, unfamiliar place run by nuns.
The woes that brought the family to this point; Rose’s lifelong battle, as the eldest, to keep her family together; and unexpected light shed only in recent years on the decades-long mystery of her mother’s disappearance, form a riveting and inspiring story.
It is a story told in the authentic, down-to-earth voice of a wise and humane survivor. I highly recommend Buy the Little Ones a Dolly. You’ll get a lot out of reading it.
’Tis the Season
And now, for something completely different: A series of Christmas stories from veteran Wisconsin writer/guru Jerry Peterson. Peterson is the creator of James Early and many other memorable Americans—some stalwart, some eccentric—whose doings and undoings are guaranteed to please you and sometimes tickle your funny-bone.
’Tis the Season, hot off the press, collects eleven of his best Christmas stories, written over the past 26 years. Some are excerpts from longer works. Others were originally written as short stories. This book puts them in one place for the first time.
If you’re a member of “Jerry’s Army,” you may have read some of these, but others may be completely new to you.
If you are NOT familiar with Jerry Peterson’s work, you have been missing out on something special.
Only just now have I received my copy of this handsome volume. I will plunge into these stories in the very near future. But as a member of Jerry’s bi-monthly Tuesday night writers’ group, I have previously read some of this work in early draft. I have also read lots of Jerry’s other stories. Therefore it is with confidence I say, get this book. You’re in for a treat.