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.
This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].
I was the oldest at home, and was more of a homebody, not caring so much for getting out and tearing around as some liked to do.
There was always plenty to do at home outside of school hours, and then we didn’t have automobiles those days to race around in. We had parties of different kinds quite often especially in the winter. When they were out of town we often went in bob-sleds—a farm wagon bed on sled runners, with straw in the bottom to sit on.
Of course there were dances, but I didn’t care for them, and my folks didn’t like them either.
They were mostly public dances in a hall, and some not very nice to go to.
They didn’t have dances in schools & for teenagers as they do today.
Roller Skates and Old Maid Decks
Then Roller skates came in & as we had no cement walks those days, the skating rinks were in a hall or opera House. Very few had their own skates, whoever operated the rinks had skates for rent.
I was never very good at it, but I always went and tried. But ice skating was simply out for me. I was too clumsy or too big a coward or Something.
My father was never a very religious man, but he never would allow a deck of cards in the house, even a deck of “Old Maid” as was popular then.
So I never learned to play cards & didn’t care enough for it to play much, or try to learn.
In summer & fall when the leaves came down, we would rake the leaves into ridges or walls for the houses we would layout, marking off rooms etc. This was mostly the girls games. We also played hide & seek quite a bit in the evening, and caught lightning bugs under the street lights.
When some cousins or neighbors came to visit in the evening, especially in the winter, we kids would play what we called “Dark Room,” which was Hide & Seek in the comparatively dark bedrooms or other unoccupied rooms. It was a lot of fun but I wouldn’t have liked my children playing that game, as the rooms were not very presentable when we were through, as we crawled over & under beds and other furniture etc.
My one enjoyment was reading, and I had a little trouble with my eyes. The folks would hide any books I was reading, but I usually dug something out to read. My grandmother [Johnanna Marie Elizabeth Nybro Gunstenson Reierson Anson] lived next door at the time, and she was as much of a reader as I was. Of course they didn’t have magazines and librarys in most every town as they do now.
One day she bro’t out some magazines that were yellow with age, but they surely had a lot of good stories in them. I don’t know where she got them, but she had a lot of them & would bring out a few at a time. So I had a “Field Day” for quite awhile. She came from Norway, but these were American magazines.
My younger brothers and sisters cared for a few different things that I did not.
But as I write it, it seems like practically nothing compared to what they have today, but we never knew about anything else, so we were satisfied.
We always had an organ, a reed organ as practically everybody had. We didn’t have pianos at that time.
My mother taught me a few pieces to play by ear when I was quite young, long before I was of school age. & soon I could play practically anything by ear, or rather any tunes I had ever heard.
Then one day while looking in the instruction book I accidentially [sic] caught on as to how the notes were placed on the scale & what it all meant. So after that I played also by note. None of my sisters or brothers ever learned to play much.
I have always played in churchs [sic], Sunday Schools, School etc. without ever having taken a lesson.
I never have learned the pipe organ & very little on Electric organs, tho I have always wanted to, and still do.
Being oldest of the family, I naturally learned to cook & sew very well & did most of the sewing for the family. Those days we couldn’t go to the store & buy ready-made clothes as we do today.
But I never cared too much for sweeping, dusting etc. I would rather do outside work, such as shoveling snow, carrying coal, wood etc. and as my brothers were a lot younger than I, I could always do that. One thing I remember that I had forgotten about, where a short time ago something in a paper mentioned the fact that when we set the table, we always turned the plates upside down over the knife, fork & spoon. I think maybe on account of dust etc. as we usually left them on the table from meal to meal along with salt, pepper, Sugar, vinegar etc. which were in a caster (a sort of merry-go-round) which was in the Center of the table & was high and would hold up the Cover.
We always covered the table with a thin white cloth or a mosquito bar or something.
Feel the Burn
We usually had a summer kitchen for summer use, as we had no gas, electricity, or even kerosene stoves at that time.
We would move the kitchen stove out there every spring, unless we had two stoves as some had.
But it was nice to get the stove out of the way so we didn’t have to look at it in hot weather.
Then there was usually a rag carpet, which had to be taken up each spring & cleaned.
We burned quite a lot of corn cobs in the summer as they made a quick fire & would cool down quickly when we were done with it.
Later we had a kerosene stove, and then a gasoline stove. That was something! but a lot of people were afraid of them.
There were no furnaces in those days. As for heating stoves, they were also moved out and in, spring & fall, or at least set back in the corner, and decorated a little during the summer. These burned coal or wood.
Then there was the Base Burner which was a large heating stove, with small squares of ising glass [sic] all around, through which the fire glowed and looked real nice. They burned hard or anthracite coal with very little smoke or soot.
We didn’t always have transportation of our own but our grandparents lived near, on a near farm at first, then in Middletown they lived next door. So we went with them quite often. Of course we didn’t go places like folks do now a days, and if we went to Springfield or some place farther, we went on the train. To go to Greenview (10 miles) on the train we had to change in Petersburg. But we went that way every once in a while.
While living in the country, we went to Church & Sunday School sometimes at a Country Church.
Then there were always Decoration Day services at the Cemetery about 2½ miles from town.
There was a speakers stand, and they would take an organ out from town. I sometimes played the organ at these services. Later when a band was organized they played too.
Then on 4th of July we usually went to Greenview. They had a large grove there at the edge of town, and there would be a program. Everyone took a picnic lunch, but I can’t remember that there were any tables. They just spread the lunch on the ground.
The water supply was in large barrels, set around the grove. There was ice in them, and about a dozen tin cups fastened to the barrel with long chains, and eveyone drank. (Real sanitary)
They also had fireworks, but of course not as elaborate as they have today. But we all had firecrackers, sparcklers [sic] etc.
Next Week: All the Comforts of a 19th Century Home
This is a guest post by Millie Sommers (1889-1971), my grandmother. In 1969, at my request, she wrote a memoir of her life, mostly telling about her early days, around 1900. She wrote 13 pages, in clear, crisp longhand. I have broken it into three parts for easy reading. It is verbatim, straight from her pen, except for a few additions of my own, in [square brackets].
I was born Aug. 8 – 1889, at Greenview, Menard Co. Illinois. I was the oldest of 10 children. My father & mother were running a resturant [sic] in Greenview. But when I was about a month old, we moved to a small farm, about 10 or 12 miles from there.
My father’s name was John Oliver Gunsten, and his folks were Norwegian, altho he was born in this country. My mother’s name was Sarah Elizabeth Foster. My father did not farm, but was a carpenter as were quite a few cousins of two other Gunsten families who lived near by.
They all worked together, with my father as Boss Contractor. He never had but little education, but was an excellent carpenter, and drew all his plans and then had them blueprinted. He also made a lot of our furniture, such as dressers, desks etc.
Several years later we moved to Lincoln, Logan Co. Illinois. There was a Feeble-minded Institution there, and they always kept several carpenters for repair jobs & other work that needed to be done. So my father was Boss Carpenter there.
I also had my first two years of school in Lincoln. Then we moved to Middletown, also in Logan Co, and about 25 miles from Springfield.
Later quite a few of my fathers relatives moved there, as did a few other Norwegian families.
My mother’s folks still lived in Greenview, about 10 miles away, but quite a trip in horse & buggy.
I finished my schooling in Middletown, which had 8 grades, and 2 yrs. High School, as most small towns had.
This was all one 2-room building – one downstairs and one upstairs, with two teachers.
I even taught several times in the lower room, when the teacher was sick or had to be away.
I was large for age and also rather quick to learn, so I suppose that was the reason I was chosen.
In those days only the “well-to-do” tho’t of going away to High School or College.
Small Town Life
After finishing school, we moved to Lowpoint, Ill. a very small town in Woodford Co. But it was a very important town, and was practically owned by three brothers. They had a large general store, lumber yard, elevator, coal, etc.
They always kept a Carpenter for their house building etc. thru out the country, so that was my Dad. The telephone exchange was in the middle of the General store, and there were wires extending from there to different parts of the store for the cash boxes. So I was the telephone and cashier there.
There was a blacksmith, but he was independent, and let everybody know it.
Several years later we moved to Springfield. My mother’s sister lived there, and later most of the rest of her family moved there.
The older ones lived there until their deaths. I still have one sister living there. My mother’s father lived to rather a good age, and her mother [Martha Elizabeth Smith Foster] lived to be 100. She was in good health always and able to get around rather well altho her hearing was not too good. She was knitting a suit for one of her grown up grand-daughters, and finished it soon after.
But she seemed to give up at 100 years, and 6 mos. later she died.
Marriage and Family
I worked as telephone operator in Springfield for awhile, then later did office work, until I was married on May 29, 1912 to Wm P. Sommers of Metamora, Illinos. He and his father [Peter Anton Sommers] owned and operated the Telephone Exchange in Metamora, as in those days most of Telephone Exchanges were privately owned.
My husband was a Telegraph Operator, and railroaded since quite young (14 yrs.) Those days they worked as apprenticesˆ(and general roustabout) in a station until they learned Telegraphy and then they were on their own.
We lived in Metamora 23 yrs. Our 5 children (4 boys & 1 girl) were born there. My husband was station agent there for awhile, then he went to work for Sinclair [Oil Corporation]. At that time they dispatched their oil [on their oil pipeline] by telegraph, and had pumping stations every 40 miles (I believe). He had to work as relief Opr. at different places at vacation time until a permanent place was open. Finally we moved to Dahinda, Knox Co., Ills. We lived there 8 yrs. but as the children had to drive 10 miles to High School, we moved into Knoxville where we still live (or at least I do.) My husband died Jan. 1957. He had retired from Sinclair after 16 yrs. The children all live away now.
Our children all graduated from Knoxville High School. The oldest Edward went to University of Washington 2 yrs. Then enlisted in the Naval Cadet Program, which was being pushed at that time on account of W.W. 2 looming up. After 4 yrs in Navy, he went with Pan American Airway where has been [sic] ever since.
He married Mary Nelson of Knoxville, and have three children and 3 grandchildren.
Next oldest is Mabel, who married Robert Hiler of Knoxville, who is mechanic for United Airlines in California. They have one son.
The third was Stanley, who went to Knox College 2 yrs. & then enlisted as Aviation Cadet. He became a Pilot and 2ndLt. He married Mary Parkins of Galesburg just before going overseas.
He was killed in So Pacific. Dec-1st 1942.
The youngest Franklin was also a pilot and 2nd Lt. He was killed in France at age 20 years. Sept 2 – 1943.
The next to youngest was Lloyd went into the Army, just after High School.
He spent 3½ yrs. in So Pacific and came home in fairly good shape. He then went to Knox College for 4 yrs, and taught H. School for 3 yrs. [Mistaken: Actually 2 years.]
He is now Chemist for Johns-Manville in Waukegan, Ills. He married Barbara La Follette of Knoxville, and they have two children. Cynda, the youngest is in first yr. college.
Larry who is overseas with Army Air Corp [actually, U.S. Air Force], works as interpeter [sic] of Communist broadcasts, for one thing.
He went to a Chinese language school & studied the Chinese language. Since being in Okinawa part of the time, he has studied Japanese language. He is the one who gave me the idea of writing these memoirs. He wanted me to write of some of the things we did differently in the days when I was young, and what we did for fun. So I will try and think of some things that might be interesting.
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—
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 here, here, and here.
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.”
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.
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 Days, Back 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.