Say Goodnight, Gracie

Nattie Birnbaum was in a jam. He needed a new act. Nattie loved the vaudeville circuit, but it was not a secure living. 

Vaudeville was a form of theater—before cinema, radio, and television—that featured brief live performances: Songs, dances, song-and-dance teams, comedy acts, animal acts, jugglers, magicians.

Nattie was game for almost anything that got him a gig. He had been Glide of Goldie, Francis, and Glide; Jed Jackson of Jackson and Malone; Maurice Valente of Maurice Valente and His Wonder Dog; Harris of Harris and Dunlop; Jose of Jose and Dolores; at various times both Brown and Williams of Brown and Williams; Jack Garfield; and “Eddie Delight when the real Eddie Delight got out of show business and gave me all his left-over business cards.” 

However, after years of experience, Nattie still did not have a successful long-term act. For the past year he had performed with Billy Lorraine under the name George Burns, but the act was going nowhere fast. Then—

SHAZAM!

Show Business Magic happened. 

A woman named Rena Arnold brought a friend to see Burns and Lorraine perform. “Nattie,” Rena said, “this is Grace Allen.” 

Grace told Rena she would not consider performing with Billy Lorraine, who had a tendency to stutter when he was nervous. But she would not mind trying a partnership with the other one. “That was my big talent.” George Burns reflected in his 1988 book, Gracie: A Love Story. “I didn’t stammer.” That’s the kind of line that would cue a cigar puff. Whenever George delivered a funny line, he puffed on his cigar—a signal for the audience to laugh. You know, in case they couldn’t tell.

George and Gracie started with “a boy-girl act, a flirtation act.” George had most of the funny lines. “Just to make sure the audience knew I was the funny one in the act,” he wrote, “I dressed like a comedian. . . . I wore wide pants and a short coat, a hat with the brim turned up in front, and a trick bow tie on a swivel. That jazzbo tie was very important; this was long before I smoked a cigar onstage; I let the audience know I’d told a joke by whirling my bow tie. Being the straight man, Gracie wore a lovely dress.” 

Gracie Steals the Show

Burns and Allen, 1952. CBS Television. Public Domain.

They soon discovered that Gracie got more laughs than George. So George rewrote the material with himself as straight man and Gracie the funny girl. They became a  sensation. When vaudeville died, they made the transition to motion pictures and radio. In 1950 they dropped radio for television. For eight years they had a hit half-hour sitcom—in fact, they helped invent the form. Then Gracie retired, never to perform again.

George and Gracie were what vaudeville called a “Dumb Dora act.” The woman got the laughs by being silly, stupid—a featherbrain. But Gracie, from the beginning, was Something Different.

“The audience had created Gracie’s character,” George wrote. “I listened to the jokes they laughed at and gave Gracie more of that type. Gracie certainly wasn’t the first comedienne in vaudeville. There had been a long line of ‘Dumb Doras’ . . . . What made Gracie different was her sincerity. She didn’t try to be funny. Gracie never told a joke in her life, she simply answered the questions I asked her as best she could, and seemed genuinely surprised when the audience found her answers funny. Onstage, Gracie was totally honest, and honesty is the most important thing a performer can have. And if a performer can fake that, he can do anything.” 

Gentle Reader, if you have never seen Burns and Allen perform, you may not understand what George meant in the paragraph above. So we invite you, through the wonders of the Internet, to spend the next four minutes watching this. When you have done that, our symposium will reconvene here.

Many other samples of Burns and Allen’s work can be found online; you don’t need me to direct you to them. They include brief monologues when George tells jokes and puffs his cigar so you’ll know when to laugh. But, invariably and everlastingly, Gracie is the mainstay. George’s true genius lay in knowing how to cue Gracie appropriately, stay out of her way, and react naturally. His other true genius was in running all the business and managerial aspects of their show-business partnership. 

“The audience roared,” he wrote. “Either I was the greatest straight man who ever lived or Gracie was something special. By the time we finished those three days in Newark, Gracie had three-quarters of the punch lines. I didn’t mind, I still had 60 percent of our salary.”

Partners in Life, Too

When Nathan Birnbaum, from the Lower East Side of New York, and Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen, from Irish Catholic roots in San Francisco, started their vaudeville act, it was strictly a business partnership. Gracie was in love with a big star named Benny Ryan. But theirs was a long-distance relationship, since she and Ryan were always playing different cities. Soon, George fell in love with Gracie and began a determined campaign to woo and win her away from Benny Ryan.

With the disarmingly honest self-assessment that is one of his charms, Burns wrote: “I fell in love with Gracie because she was pretty, smart, nice, and talented. But I’ll tell you the truth. I also fell in love with Gracie because I fell in love with making a good living. If she had married Benny Ryan, what was I going to do for an act? I had no real affection for the seal [with whom he had once performed]. The Siamese twins already had partners. Where was I going to find another Gracie? Remember, she was born Gracie, she wasn’t manufactured. Gracie didn’t come by the dozen. I fell in love with her just like our audiences did.” 

Extra Tidbits

George Burns, who lived many years after Gracie’s death in 1964, turned out to be the bestselling author of ten books. I have not read any of the others. But I suppose Gracie, A Love Story is the one you need. Besides the tiny glimpses given above, it reveals many facts I had not previously known about George and Gracie, even though I grew up in the era when they were household names.

  • Gracie Allen ran as the Surprise Party’s candidate for President in 1940 against FDR and Wendell Willkie, on the slogan, “Down with common sense. Vote for Gracie.” She even did a whistle-stop tour.
  • Gracie was never seen in public except in full or three-quarter-length sleeves, because her upper arm had been badly scarred in a scalding accident when she was a child. 
  • She had one blue eye and one green eye. 
  • George and Gracie, unable to conceive, adopted two children, Sandy and Ronnie, as infants from a Catholic orphans’ home in Evanston, Illinois. Ronnie later appeared on television as their handsome young-adult son, Ronnie.
  • Jack Benny, fellow star of stage, screen, radio, and TV, was their dearest friend—a man beloved by all who knew him. His wife, Mary Livingstone (née Sadie Marks), not so much.
  • When Gracie retired in 1958, she was physically worn out and had a debilitating heart condition. In those days there were no heart transplants or coronary bypasses. She was given nitoglycerin pills to control the pain, but eventually her heart gave out.

Nattie summed it all up very fittingly in the opening line of the book: “For forty years my act consisted of one joke. And then she died.”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author 

On the Acheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe

The Adventures of Izzy Mahler

Izzy Mahler was seven years old when he met George Washington. 

The old man was not tall and majestic but short and stoop-shouldered; he wore not a white wig but the white jacket of a railway porter on the Super Chief.

“I cannot tell a lie,” he said, friendly brown eyes sparkling amid the folds of his wrinkled brown face. “I been George Washington every day of my life. That other fella, the one with the cherry tree and the little hatchet, he just borrowed my name… only, he borrowed it before I got to it.” With a merry cackle, he showed Izzy his union card—evidence he was indeed “Geo. Washington.” 

Izzy’s mother had given the man a dollar at the vestibule entrance of the day coach, asked him to watch over Izzy and make sure he got off at Loseyville. 

Train 18, The Super Chief – El Capitan, east of Streator, Illinois
on January 28, 1967. A Roger Puta Photograph. Public Domain.

George Washington loomed over Izzy, swaying with the gentle rocking of the coach as the train pulled out of the Plumb station. 

“Goin’ to see Grandma and Grandpa, huh?” he asked. 

 “All week until Friday,” said Izzy, with a sigh.

“Ain’t you pleased to be seeing them?”

“Grandma, yes. Grandpa, no,” the boy replied.

George Washington raised an eyebrow.

“He’s mean,” said Izzy. “He yells at kids.”

“My daddy was like that,” replied the porter. “God rest his soul.”

“Well,” said Izzy, upping the ante, “he says naughty words, too. Words you’re not supposed to say.”

The old man nodded his gray head. “Sure do sound like my daddy.” 

Izzy was certain his Grandpa Mahler was nothing like the porter’s daddy, but he did not say so.

“Why do you go see this yellin’, cussin’ grandpa, if you don’t like him?” 

“They don’t get to see me as much as my other grandparents do,” said Izzy, “so Mom and Dad said I have to go.”

“Ah,” said the old man. 

#

Two hours later, George Washington watched from the coach steps as Izzy stepped down from the train into the waiting arms of his grandmother, a large white woman in a floral-print dress, and followed her to a gray 1948 Hudson sedan.

Like Daniel goin’ to the lion’s den,the porter thought. He did not envy Izzy the prospect of spending a week with his grandfather—leastways, not if he’s anything like old Ennis P. Washington, God rest his soul.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Memory as Fiction

The vignette above is exerpted, with slight changes, from one of my Izzy Mahler stories, “The Lion’s Den,” which won honorable mention in the Saturday Evening Post’s Great American Fiction Contest for 2018.

In all essentials, it is taken straight from my life. I made up the part about the porter being named George Washington. 

No Risk Too Trivial

Younger readers may doubt there was ever a time when a loving mother would send her young child on a train trip all alone, would casually give him over to the care of a lowly  railroad employee, with just the added fillip of a small gratuity. But in 1952, that’s how things worked. Back then, automobiles did not have seat belts, either—and most people didn’t lock their doors most of the time. 

Now airlines have official policies and hefty fees for transporting “unaccompanied minors.” Amtrak, today’s version of passenger rail service, is even worse. It refuses to let children under age 13 travel unaccompanied, period. Our cars not only have seat belts but also shoulder harnesses and airbags—all mandated by the federal government. I can’t prove it, but I think more of us lock our doors all the time, or at least most of the time.

We may be safer, but life seems more fraught with peril. Here endeth the digression.

Black Porters

A. Philip Randolph, 1963. John Bottega, New York World-Telegram and Sun.Public Domain.

Jobs as porters or railcar attendants on passenger trains in the pre-Amtrak era were almost monopolized by African Americans. One can say they were relegated, as second-class citizens, to menial roles in the rail industry. On the other hand, those were steady jobs with some of the country’s largest employers. Moreover, they were union jobs, starting in 1925, when A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Many black families built their economic lives on railroad jobs.

Hazards of War

Helping rail passengers was far from the only contribution African Americans made to American life. Toward the end of my Izzy Mahler story, “The Lion’s Den,” George Washington the porter reveals the shrapnel scars on his legs—souvenirs of service in the First World War as a member of the 92nd Division, in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The 92nd was a segregated infantry division in the U.S. Army, organized late in 1917. In the Meuse-Argonne, the largest United States operation of the war, the 92nd suffered 120 killed and 1,527 wounded in action. That’s 1,647 casualties in a unit of approximately 15,000 officers and men.

When Izzy Mahler gets to his destination, the little town of Henderson Station, he spends time with his grandparents—the kindly grandmother and the abrasive grandfather. They, too, have had to cope with casualties of war. Two of their sons died as bomber pilots in the Second World War. That part of the story, too, is straight from life. My grandmother was a Gold Star Mother twice, for my uncles Stanley and Franklin.

Weaving Tales

Something as simple as a train ride can reveal who we are as individuals, as families, as a nation of people with disparate experiences but often with common purposes. I can’t speak for other authors, but when I write fiction, I can never make up something that strays far from the facts. 

While you wait with great patience for my novel Freedom’s Purchase to achieve publication, I hope you may enjoy some glimpses into the life of Izzy Mahler, a little boy of the 1950s, never far removed from the facts. You can find them herehere, and here.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Carpe Diem, Illinois

Some of Wisconsin’s best writers hail from the Flatlands. Kristin A. Oakley is one of those.

Oakley’s novel Carpe Diem, Illinois (Little Creek Press, 2014) is a mystery, a suspense thriller, and a romance. Dashing but troubled reporter Leo Townsend hopes to save his career by taking on a ho-hum assignment to profile a small town, Carpe Diem, that is a haven for home schoolers. Just when Townsend arrives to interview the mayor, things in Carpe Diem are heating up, due to an auto crash involving a local activist and the wife of a crusading state senator.

In the process of investigating the town, Townsend finds himself also investigating the accident. The lives and fortunes of the town’s residents—particularly its young, “unschooled” citizens—hang in the balance. There are lots of thrills and twists, and along the way we learn about the philosophy known as “unschooling,” a form of education in which “the children determine what they need to learn, when they will learn it, and how they go about it.” 

Kristin A. Oakley

The book is well-written and moves at a brisk pace. The reader winds up cheering not only for Leo Townsend but also for various teen and adult denizens of Carpe Diem. If you like to examine important social and educational issues in context of suspense and high drama, you’ll enjoy Carpe Diem, Illinois.

Kristin Oakley, who now lives in Madison, was a founder of In Print professional writers’ organization, is a board member of the Chicago Writers’ Association, and teaches in the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies writing program. She is also the mother of two daughters who were home schooled. You can find more about her at https://kristinoakley.net

Carpe Diem, Illinois is the first book in the Leo Townsend series. The second, God on Mayhem Street, was released in August 2016. 

Happy reading!

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

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 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

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

Birth of “Beneath the Flames”

This is a guest post by Gregory Lee Renz, author of  Beneath the Flames

Greg Renz

Storytelling is ingrained in the culture of the fire service. I was a firefighter for twenty-eight years, retiring as a fire captain. Invariably, after one of our more dramatic responses someone would say that someday they should write a book about all of this. Of course, very few ever did. So when I retired I decided I would. After all, over my twenty-eight years on the department, I had gained a deep well of experiences and colorful characters to write about, and I was an avid reader. So how hard could it be to write a book? I would soon learn. 

How to Become a Writer in Hundreds of Hard Lessons

At least I had the sense to enroll in a creative writing course with the University of Wisconsin Continuing Studies program. That’s when I realized I knew nothing of creative writing. I sucked. Thankfully, the patient instructors were able to inspire me to keep working at this extremely challenging craft. I had compelling stories to tell but did not have the tools to tell them. I kept working, and my writing improved to the point where I began to receive awards in contests. At the UW Writers’ Institute several years ago I was awarded first place in both fiction and nonfiction in their writing contest. This was the validation I needed to continue working on my novel BENEATH THE FLAMES

I realized I was a writer when I could not give up and walk away from the story. The vast majority of people who begin writing a novel will never finish it. It’s damn hard work. Some days are incredibly frustrating. But then some days fill me with such elation that I know I can never give up writing. There’s nothing like entering my fictional world and letting the story and characters come to me. The power of the creative mind is endless. I just have to give in to it.

Book Launch Coming Up

After ten years of creative writing courses, workshops, conferences, and writing group critiques, the dream is finally coming true. May 31 I will be launching my novel at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee at 7:00 p.m. It’s been a long road: endless revisions, rejections from literary agents, and self-doubt. Without the guidance of the patient instructors of The Continuing Studies Program and the energizing conferences and workshops, this would still be a dream. The best advice I can give other writers is to attend as many conferences and workshops as possible. I have made so many friends and contacts over the years who have inspired me to keep writing and are now supporting the publication of my novel. It is this network of writing friends who will keep you going through the tough times when you doubt yourself and your story. 

All in a Day’s Work

Now begins the other side of writing a book—the process of promotion and marketing. What an eye-opener this has been. Firefighters often say that we were just doing our job when we make a rescue or save a home. And we’re serious. If we happen to be in the right place at the right time, we do what we have to do. Sometimes that can be challenging and incredibly dangerous. But that isour job.

Now, as a writer, I’m supposed to go out and promote myself. I can’t say I was just doing my job as an author. Not too many people would be drawn to my novel if that’s how I pitched it. Now there are interviews, television appearances, newspaper interviews, and book signings. I have to admit this is quite fun and exciting, but what comes with this is the stress of coming off well and being entertaining with the talks.

So it’s been quite a journey and if you can’t walk away from your writing desk, chances are in your favor to succeed. Persistence, persistence, persistence.

If you want to know more about me and my novel please visit my website at https://glrenz.com. You can also preorder my novel there with free shipping until June 1.

Here’s a sample of the many advance reviews the book has received so far:

“Renz draws on his years of experience as a firefighter to bring a hardscrabble authenticity to his novel. He packs the tale with plenty of action and a lot of heart. His firefighting sequences are detailed and thrilling, placing readers right in front of the flames. His prose is clean and, at times, poetic.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Gregory Renz’s new novel is a triumph of poignancy, compassion, and restraint. In it, a man’s regret is transformed to triumph.”—Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of the bestselling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean
BENEATH THE FLAMESis an action-packed debut novel with something for every reader: suspense, romance, friendship, forgiveness, family, and more.  A novel that like its protagonist, relentlessly presses on into fiery and controversial terrain where many other writers fear to tread.”—Nickolas Butler, author of The Hearts of Menand Little Faith

Gregory Lee Renz, retired fire captain and author, was inducted into the Fire and Police Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2008 Gregory traded his turnout gear for a writing desk to pursue his passion. Storytelling. He now lives in Lake Mills, Wisconsin with this wife Paula.