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

A Shameless Appeal for Comments

When I started writing this blog, a few weeks ago, I hit upon the–I thought–clever device of signing each post: “Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author.” A branding ploy, if you will; a not-so-subliminal attempt to influence your subconscious mind.

But it has occurred to me that it may be merely an irritating affectation. Maybe it annoys you, rather than endearing me to you.

So, what do you think: Should I keep it, or give it the deep six? Please discuss.

Thanks,

Larry F. Sommers, Who Hopes to Become Your Favorite Author

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

On page 153 of wildlife scientist Delia Owens’ novel Where the Crawdads Sing, nineteen-year-old Kya Clark—the “Marsh Girl” of a certain section of the Carolina coast—recalls a poem by “a lesser-known poet,” Amanda Hamilton:

Trapped inside,

Love is a caged beast, 

Eating its own flesh.

Love must be free to wander,

To land upon its chosen shore

And breathe.

Bits of Amanda Hamilton’s poetry recur throughout the book; and though the fictitious poet does not play a large part in the story, the six lines just quoted could well stand as the Marsh Girl’s personal manifesto. For Kya Clark’s story is one of isolation, of love frustrated, and of a huge conflict between hoped-for relation and indispensable freedom.

Abandoned by parents and siblings, spurned as “swamp trash” by the larger community, possessed of tenuous alliances with a handful of individuals, Kya raises herself. She marches to her own tune, responds to Nature in all its variety. She collects feathers, shells, leaves, and other wild things; eventually she builds a catalog of her collection. She delves ever deeper into her wetlands environment to go “where the crawdads sing.”

“Euastacus Clark, 1936, Spiny Crayfish” by David Paul is licensed under CC BY 4.0 

Crawdads (which you may know as crayfish, crawfish, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mudbugs, or yabbies) do not actually sing. But an imagined place where crawdads do sing is the author’s symbol for mystic union with Nature. The quest for that union turns out to be, after a host of disappointments in her relations with the human race, Kya’s only constant chord of survival energy.

Along the way she learns a great deal, becomes an acknowledged authority on the life of the marsh, and forms romantic relationships with two men (yes, a sort of love triangle)—one of which works out better than the other. However far life takes her, however, it is the quest to go where the crawdads sing that defines her.

Much else in this book will entertain and delight the reader: sudden death, mayhem, police procedures, courtroom drama, and the verses of Amanda Hamilton and others. At its heart is the story of the Marsh Girl, a remarkable woman who remains an enigma to the end. Speaking of which, do make sure you read all the way to the end. Even at that point, you may be surprised.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Writing a Historical Novel

Three and a half years ago, in January 2016, I retired from other pursuits so I could try to write fictional stories that other people would like to read. 

Coastal village in Norway. “Enligt AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors: ‘Havstenssund’.” by G. AB Flygtrafik Bengtsfors / Bohusläns museum is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

After a few small success with short stories, I got the idea to write a historical novel based on my ancestors Anders Gunstensen and Maria Nybro, who came to Illinois from Norway in the 1850s. We had scant information about their lives—a few dates,  places, and milestones—not much more. Not enough real knowledge to support a detailed, book-length factual account of their lives—even if I had wanted to write one. But what I actually wanted was to use the bare facts as a framework on which to hang a made-up story, through which we might discover the world in which they lived.

I spent more than six months on the trail of Anders and Maria. I struggled to imagine a plot around the known and unearthed events of their lives that would make a good fictional story, yet would not much distort the known facts. At last, early in 2017, I began to write text. 

Me writing.

The first draft of this novel, Freedom’s Purchase, took more than a year to write, at a steady rate of 1,500 to 2,000 words per week.This time also included research “on the fly” to support the detailed demands of particular scenes in the story.

My writing process is iterative. Contrary to what many great writers recommend, I invest a lot of time and effort, while laying down the first draft, in simultaneously revising passages already written. So by June 2018, when I finished the “first draft” of the novel, it was really anywhere between a fifth and a fifteenth draft, depending which part of the book you’re looking at. 

I loved my book so much that I started to query agents, seeking a traditional publication contract. After nine months, I felt a bit stymied. At the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute in April 2019, I asked Laurie Scheer about this. She said, “How many agents have you queried so far?” I said, “Thirty or forty.” She guffawed. “Try three hundred!” she said. 

Discouraged? On the contrary, I found myself reassured. The problem was not necessarily with my book; only that the literary market is tough to crack. However, that very reassurance gave me the freedom to consider the niggling little thought that if the manuscript itself were a bit better, that would make it easier for agents to see its merit. Perhaps a hundred fifty queries would be enough to do the trick!

My other friend in the UW Writers’ program, Christine DeSmet, read my first ten pages—the most important part of any book for making a first impression—and gave me very useful feedback. Her comments showed me how I could make the first chapter not a little better—rather, a whole lot better. So I did. But Christine also recommended dissecting the whole book scene by scene, then improving each scene as needed. I blanched at the thought. I decided to do it anyway.

Toward a Smashing Second Draft

I spent the whole next month just reading my book. I analyzed 159 separate scenes; I wrote down the overall purpose of each scene, its setting, its characters, their goals, their conflicts, the resolution of those conflicts, and the particular moments of dramatic change. This yielded an analytical document 54 pages long.

So now, I revisit each scene to fix the problems that have shown themselves through this process of analysis. A huge task. Yet, not enough.

After I work my way through a chapter of scenes, I do the next step, suggested by another friend, Tracey Gemmell, author of More or Less Annie, and other members of my Tuesday evening writers’ group. In Microsoft Word, I search for every “ly” in the chapter (many of these turn out to be adverbs); for every “ing” (present progressives, present participles, gerunds); for every “and,” “or,” and “but” (conjunctions); for every “is,” “are,”  “was,” and “were” (verbs of being); for every “saw,” “heard,” “knew,” “felt,” “smelled,” and “tasted” (“filter” words). Then, I re-read the chapter in search of introductory time phrases or other introductory adverbial constructions. 

That step is a lot of work, too.

Not that there is anything wrong with adverbs, a progressive verbs, passive constructions, conjunctions, or introductory adverbial expressions. All those things have their places in effective prose. But they can become crutches that allow us to write gimpy narrative, when overused. By considering each occurrence in isolation, one often finds a more vivid and robust way—a less distanced, less stand-offish way—to say what one meant to say. If you change even a quarter of those expressions to more powerful constructions, it’s worth the effort. 

By the end of this process, I’ll have a book more worthy of readers’ time and attention. And, perhaps, a traditional publishing contract.

Stay tuned, dear readers.  

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Boatman on the Tamsui

Taipei, 1968

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

“Look at this, Ralph.” 

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

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

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

“Not bad,” I say.

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

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

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

“Local scenery, huh?” 

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

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

A fictionalized account of true events.

#

Larceny at Twice the Price

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of Peco Yeh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountains and Water

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

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

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

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

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.

Time and Again . . . and Again . . . and Again . . .

Until now, I have read nothing by Stephen King, one of the major authors of our time—because I have no interest in horror. But King also published a time-travel book in 2012; and that has finally drawn me into his web.

11/22/63. The title will wake up anyone who remembers that date. It’s the day John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. King’s book is based on the premise, “What if you could go back in time and prevent the killing of JFK?”  

The Story

Kennedy motorcade in Dallas. Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News. Public Domain.

Maine school teacher Jake Epping discovers, in a local diner, a “rabbit-hole” through which he can walk from the present day into the morning of September 9, 1958. Jake has several reasons to travel back in time, but mainly there looms the tantalizing possibility that by regressing to 1958 and living out the next five years of that era, he will find a way to prevent the assassination of the president.

Time-travel stories usually consider the opportunity, however theoretical, of curing the present by doctoring the past. Jake Epping, in his role as first-person narrator, repeatedly asserts: “Life turns on a dime.” 

That’s not always true. For example, it would be hard to dismantle the complex chain of events that caused Europe to stagger into the First World War. Similar factors hold sway over the U.S. Civil War, the French and Russian revolutions, and the growth of “big box” superstores. 

But there are individual events, with major rippling consequences, that might be erased from time’s log by a small, practical effort applied at the right moment. Events like the assassination of President Kennedy.

The character Jake Epping seems convinced that if only Kennedy had lived, all sorts of bad things would have been avoided, and better things would have taken their place. To those of us who lived through those years, the theory does have its appeal. The murder of Kennedy, falling like a bolt of lightning into our postwar “happy time,” seemed to trigger a downward spiral for America, a sad cycle from which we have never recovered.

History, Re-organized?

History, however, is not that simple. Perhaps a full-term Kennedy would have managed not to stumble into the Vietnam War as his successor did. That’s possible, but far from certain. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Kennedy, despite all good intentions, would have failed to get the 1964 Civil Rights Bill enacted—a project at which Lyndon Johnson succeeded. We cannot know how things would have worked out, because the actual events of 22 November 1963 did sweep Kennedy away, leaving LBJ in his place.

But it’s entertaining to read about Jake Epping’s compulsive quest to derail Lee Harvey Oswald. Entertaining because the hero is thwarted by obstacles and complications at every turn. The rabbit-hole’s outlet in 1958 compels him to live in Texas for five years as he waits for the actors to arrive on stage. The secrecy of his mission requires him to adopt an alias and do a lot of perilous sneaking around as he spies on Oswald and his family and tries to keep tabs on a shady character named George de Mohrenschildt. In the midst of all that, Jake encounters the woman of his dreams and falls in love. 

King of Time

Everything falls apart more than once in this complex story. Jake Epping, growing ever wiser in the ways of the Space-Time Continuum, states clearly that the main problem is the past’s own spooky determination to keep itself intact and resist doctoring. Here King is at his best, casting a pall of enigmatic and menacing tension over the entire story.

Author Stephen King. Pinguino Kolb photo, Creative Commons.

Another charm of this book is verisimilitude. When Jake Epping walks into the 1950s, one feels transported into that time, because of the host of small details the author dresses the set with—Musterole, “Fresh Up with 7Up,” Cities Service, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring. My first thought was how remarkable it is that one too young to have been there was able to capture all these details and many more; then I Googled King and learned that he was born in 1947. So he didn’t have to do much research—like me, he’s an old-timer who remembers all those things. 

I won’t divulge further details of plot and action, because you might want to read the book. My one wish would be that King had embedded all that material in a sparer narration. At 849 pages, this book is a bit of a slog. Had it been published earlier in King’s stellar career, a good, truculent editor might have made it twenty percent shorter, thereby improving its pace and increasing its dramatic power. 

Still, the time-travel is presented imaginatively, even brilliantly. It reminds me of the works of Jack Finney (whom I’ve mentioned here and here). Indeed, King himself pays homage to Finney at the very end of his “Afterword,” referring to Finney’s Time and Again as “the great time-travel story.” However, this one clearly is King’s book and not Finney’s. 

In sum, 11/22/63 is an interesting and provocative romp through past and present by a master storyteller.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Stop the presses! Mystery Object Revealed!!

Last week, I asked you to guess the identity of the object below:

Foote, Pierson & Co. “Twentieth Century” telegraph key, popularly known as a “Pump Handle Key,” Serial Number 197. ©Larry F. Sommers, 2012.

That’s right, it’s a telegraph key. 

“Why doesn’t it look like a telegraph key?” you ask. Maybe you think a telegraph key should look like this:

Telegraph key. Lou Sander, Public Domain.

Yes, indeed it should—and that’s the problem. 

Samuel F. B. Morse invented electric telegraphy in 1844. In the ensuing years, telegraph keys—those little gadgets telegraphers used to send messages in Morse code over wires before the telephone, teletype, and Internet were invented—were mostly of the type shown in Lou Sander’s image above. The devices required a repetitive up-and-down motion of the hand to send the dots and dashes that composed the message.

As this new technology spread rapidly around the globe, men and women were soon spending whole careers “pounding brass” eight hours a day, five or six days a week—employed by railroads, military organizations, and other operations that needed to transmit information quickly over long distances. By around 1900, manufacturers started producing telegraph keys with horizontal or lateral actions to combat “telegrapher’s paralysis,” a repetitive motion injury that today we call “carpal tunnel syndrome.” 

One answer to this challenge was J.H. Bunnell & Company’s Double Speed Key, introduced in 1904. This key, known as “the Sideswiper” for its horizontal action, looked very similar to a standard telegraph key, but the lever was mounted for sideways operation. It became a very popular item in Bunnell’s inventory.

Priority, however, goes to Foote, Pierson & Company with their “Twentieth Century Key,” also known as the “Pump Handle Key,” introduced at the very turn of the century, in 1900. The motion of this device was rotational: The operator swung the handle up and to the left to make contact. Professor Tom Perera of Montclair State University tells us this key was “Popular with Railroad operators.”

That’s probably the reason I happen to own the Twentieth Century Key shown in my teaser photo at the top of this post. It came down from my grandfather, William P. Sommers, who was a young railroad telegrapher and station agent in the early years of the twentieth century. The “pump handle” of this device today is quite stiff, but I suppose that’s a matter of congealed lubricants. Even assuming fresh lubricants and a smoothly operating handle, it’s hard to imagine Grandpa sending with any speed while using such a cumbersome wrist-twisting motion to send the signals. 

But the very nature of that wrist motion presumably spared the operator’s carpal tunnels and made the key “popular with railroad operators.”  Even so, I suppose by the time Grandpa left the employ of the railroad, his “Twentieth Century Key” was an obsolete relic, superseded by the sleek Bunnell “Sideswipers.” That is what allows me to think the railroad would have let him take the outmoded key with him as a souvenir of his railroad days. 

Grandpa was a fierce, truculent, and eccentric man. He was also a stickler for propriety. He would never have simply stolen railroad property.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Isinglass

“Fried egg sandwich and a turnip,” Millie said, with a clack of her new boughten teeth, something she did unconsciously these days, to settle them in her mouth.

“That’s good, it’ll fix me up for the walk home.” Bill heard the turnip clunk inside the lunch pail as she handed it to him. He would not eat this lunch until he got off work at two. 

She turned away to stoke the woodstove and start mixing cornmeal mush for the kids, who were due to get up an hour from now. 

Bill buttoned his wool greatcoat, pulled his fedora down around his ears, and stepped out into the five a.m. March drizzle. 

He walked east in darkness on the damp shoulder of the Peoria Road—U.S. Route 150, as it was now designated—almost sprinting, almost at a lope. A man of spare physique had to hustle to walk the nine miles to Dahinda in three hours. Bill usually made it in two and a half. Good to be early to work; some of those god-damned young jay-larks at the pumping station could take punctuality lessons from him. Not that he was old. He wouldn’t reach fifty for two more years.

Still, it was hard to be walking three hours each way, six days a week, for a six-hour job. Get six hours’ pay, but it takes you twelve hours to do it. The pipeline company had cut his hours a year ago, to make room on the payroll for a few more men. Well, everybody had families to feed, and most of the big employers were reducing the standard workday. The imbecile in the White House, Herbert Hoover, encouraged them all to do it. Not that this Roosevelt would be an improvement.

Damn it, he missed the Pierce-Arrow—a 1929 touring car, made shortly after Studebaker bought the company. Bill had bought it new for just under three thousand. A bit of a luxury, but it was a fine machine and well within the range of what he could afford. Then the stock market crashed, the company cut back hours, and something had to go. He couldn’t sell back Millie’s teeth—and anyhow, they wouldn’t fetch one-tenth the price of a Pierce-Arrow. He had sold the car at a sacrifice, but better fifteen hundred than nothing. Every one of those dollars would be needed to keep feeding five young mouths—plus his own and Millie’s, of course. Even with the large vegetable garden he kept.

Pierce-Arrow touring car. F. D. Richards, Creative Commons.

So far the company had only cut hours, not the hourly wage rate. But that was coming, no doubt. Things would get a lot worse before they got better. They couldn’t move back to Dahinda after moving all the way to Knoxville for Edward’s high school. And the other four were coming along right behind him. Best to stay put. So trudge three hours each way, whatever the weather. Sometimes he could hitch a ride from a passing freight truck.

Still, he missed that touring car. It had the optional side curtains with little isinglass windows in them. Just the thing to roll down and keep warm and dry in weather like this. He clutched the handle of the little steel lunch bucket. Nine hours from now, he’d need the nourishment before the hike home.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Grandpa’s Pierce-Arrow with Isinglass Curtains

My grandfather, William P. Sommers, terrified me. By the time I knew him, he was a bombastic, profane, old man—a bantam rooster, probably not over five-foot-two in his size six shoes. But I was naturally timid; he really meant no harm. He simply believed he knew best and everybody else was a damned fool. And what were children, if not to be yelled at?

Dad told me that Grandpa had once owned a Pierce-Arrow, one of the finest cars of its time, but had to give it up during the Great Depression and then was forced to walk to and from work. Nine miles was only a short drive, even on the roads of that day. But to walk it twice each day, rain, shine, or blizzard, must have been brutal. Maybe that’s part of what made him a tough old buzzard.

Dad said the Pierce-Arrow had “isinglass curtains you could roll right down in case of a change in the weather.” He was, consciously or unconsciously, quoting Curly, from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical  Oklahoma!, who sings exactly those words in a song about “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” 

But what are isinglass curtains, whether used on a horse-drawn surrey or on a fine motor car? The quest for the answer is perplexing.

In the first place, “isinglass” means at least two different things. 

DIGRESSION ALERT: When I was a boy, there was a popular quiz show on the radio called Twenty Questions. Panelists guessed a secret object by asking no more than twenty yes-or-no questions. The quizmaster started each round by saying whether the object to be guessed was “animal, vegetable, or mineral.” (Come to think of it, old radio programs might be an excellent subject for a future blog entry!) END OF DIGRESSION ALERT. WE RETURN YOU TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED BLOG POST: 

Isinglass would need to be classified as both animal and mineral. From Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition: “isinglass . . . 1 a form of gelatin prepared from the internal membranes of fish bladders: it is used as a clarifying agent and adhesive 2 mica, esp. in the form of thin, transparent sheets of muscovite”. So now you know.

Fish bladders?

What is this fish-bladder stuff? Other sources say it is a substance obtained from the dried swim-bladders of sturgeon and is used mainly for the clarification or “fining” of beer and wine. (Exception, however: The isinglass used for making kosher beer or wine must be from a different fish, because sturgeon is treif, or non-kosher.) This kind of isinglass is also used for darkly-hinted-at “specialized gluing purposes.” 

Sturgeon. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Russian mica

The mica form of isinglass is a “phyllosilicate mineral of aluminium and potassium” that occurs as thin, transparent sheets. That form of mica is known as “muscovite” because large quantities of it are mined in Russia. 

I can’t imagine either material being made into carriage-sized curtains that can be “rolled down.” The mineral mica would not be flexible enough; the animal mica would not be durable enough. And neither could be made in large enough sheets. Curly, in Oklahoma!, probably spoke imprecisely to achieve a lyric that would fit metrically into the song. That’s probably the answer, for we know that horse-drawn carriages and early automobiles did have fabric curtains inset with small windows or peepholes of isinglass. But, which kind of isinglass: animal, or mineral? 

Coachbuilt.com (which appears to be published by “Adirondack Motorbooks & Collectibles LLC dba Auto Antiques” of Palmyra, New York) reconciles both sides of the question quite nicely: “ISINGLASS—typically a window made from thin sheets made of a material other than glass. Early isinglass was made from a transparent sheet of gelatin, processed from the inner lining of a Sturgeon’s bladder. As it was flexible, it was perfect for the storm curtains and window on early touring cars. The term is now commonly used as any non-glass sheet material which passes light, such as mica, oiled paper, celluloid or plastic. Early isinglass of all varieties yellowed and scratched easily.” 

This explanation is logical and harmonious; but is it true? Were fish-gelatin sheets really used for windows? It’s hard to swallow—except perhaps as a fining agent in beer or wine, which could be easy to swallow. At least it would be flexible, so it would roll up nicely in a curtain. Mica, on the other hand, has only a slight flex—less than that of the wobble board Australian singers use on songs like “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.” Such windows would have to be tiny to roll inside a fabric curtain without undue lumpiness. The most sensible thing about Coachbuilt.com’s explanation comes at the end, for no doubt all different kinds of things have been casually called “isinglass”—just as in the days of my youth any kind of transparent candy or food wrapper was called “cellophane.” 

Wikipedia states: “Thin transparent sheets of mica were used for peepholes in boilers, lanterns, stoves, and kerosene heaters because they were less likely to shatter than glass when exposed to extreme temperature gradients. Such peepholes were also used in ‘isinglass curtains’ in horse-drawn  carriages and early 20th-century cars.” This seems to contradict Coachbuilt.com’s theory, but we might be wise to take this Wikipedia factoid with a grain of salt—or perhaps quartz or feldspar. 

My other grandfather—Alvin E. LaFollette, also of Knoxville, Illinois—had a kerosene space heater that stood in his living room in winter and kept it warm. It had a round window in front, about six inches in diameter, through which you could see, somewhat indistinctly, the leaping orange and blue flames. I think this actually was mica. But note: In stove/boiler/heater applications, the isinglass did not have to roll or bend. Mica, for its heat-resistant properties, was perfect in the application.

In short, when old Bill Sommers longed for the comfort of his isinglass curtains, and when his son Lloyd passed the story on to me, the exact composition of the particular transparent windows was hardly relevant. It was just “isinglass.” Whatever that may have meant to them.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Romance in Bible Times?

Barbara M. Britton

At last month’s UW-Madison Writers’ Institute, I met Barbara M. Britton, author of a growing series of Bible-based romances, published by Pelican Book Group. Astounded to learn that there even is such a thing as Biblical historical romance, I bought a copy of Providence: Hannah’s Journey, the first of the series. 

Providence opens in Jerusalem in 849 B.C. It tells the story of Hannah, daughter of the Levite priest Zebula. Hannah is cursed with congenital deformities which, though not very visible, bring her great grief. She lives in a society that interprets such things as frowns from God. Her priest father seeks a miracle cure at the hand of “the Prophet of Israel,” but the Prophet declines, saying only, “It is not her time.” 

Shamed and forlorn, an outcast from her family and community, Hannah goes on a quest to track down the wandering prophet and press her case with renewed urgency. She meets  a virile protector named Gilead, a young hero whose own uncertain parenthood is the burden he must bear in life. Hannah and Gilead are captured by the mighty military state of Aram and undergo severe trials on their way to a new encounter with the Prophet. 

This compelling story is based (loosely) on the case of Naaman, an Aramean army commander who suffered from leprosy (now called Hansen’s disease) and had his life change by an encounter with the prophet Elisha, as told in the fifth chapter of the Second Book of Kings. It’s worth reading that chapter of the Bible either before or after reading Providence, for the sake of context. 

Most of what happens in Providence is pure invention by Britton but is based on her view of the ancient Hebrew and Aramean societies. In that sense it is “Biblical” though obviously not literal. Is Barbara Britton’s depiction of that setting accurate and authentic? Who am I to say? Old Testament scholars would find a bone to pick soon enough—that’s why they’re scholars. But the story is moving and fast-paced, with a lot of heart, and with a firm foundation of faith at its core. Hannah and Gilead are strong and interesting characters, the kind of people we want to cheer for, and if this is an example of romance, it makes me want to read more.

Blessings, 

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author