It’s a good season for robust and interesting writing. I have two book recommendations, one fiction and one nonfiction.
The Coming of Cactus Jim
Kansas sheriff James Early makes his debut in Early’s Fall, by Jerry Peterson. Known to his friends as “Cactus”—and I guess I’ll have to read another book or two to find out what that’s about—Early is a cowboy sort of guy, equally at home riding the range on horseback or in a sheriff’s department jeep.
The book, set in the 1940s, opens with a bold-as-brass daylight bank robbery in a sleepy little town. Early and his deputy scour the countryside in a high-speed, all-terrain chase, to no avail. Before they can catch the taunting, whimsical bank robber, they get distracted by a grisly murder.
As Early methodically investigates likely suspects in the murder, he stops a passenger train, interrogates an Israeli secret agent, and is forced to balance his professional duties with care for his pregnant wife’s mental aberrations. Everything unravels inexorably to an exciting and moving finish.
Peterson, a seasoned author with fourteen books to his credit, knows how to keep a story moving at a compelling pace. His diction is strong and his images stirring. You won’t lightly put down Early’s Fall.
Norwegian journalist and author Lars Mytting has three critically acclaimed novels to his credit. But the book that made him a household name in the Nordic world is the nonfiction classic Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way.
Mytting’s book comes along at just the right time to make me a better-informed woodsman. Some of his practical advice—about axes, chainsaws, and such—tallies with my own observations over the year. Some, however, has given me a new understanding of the best ways to process timber for burning in my fireplace or my cozy little woodstove.
I had long assumed—I don’t know why, wishful thinking perhaps—that if logs sit in the open air for up to a year before being split, they will be better seasoned and thus will split better, or at least easier. Wrong, says Mytting. Log should be split just after the timber is felled. Not only does the wood split easiest when it is fresh; the splitting itself is essential to the proper seasoning of the wood. To dry quickly and fully, the inner wood must be exposed. A log that sits, fully wrapped in bark, for any length of time will start to decompose from the inside out. Even a little bit of this internal rot eliminates hot gases needed for efficient burning and guarantees that the log will never fully dry.
So from now on, I’ll split all my wood as soon as I get it.
For me, that was the great lesson from this informative book; for you, something else might be. Writing with fluid and engaging clarity, Mytting delves into all aspects of the Scandinavian firewood experience, as witness his chapter heads: “The Cold,” “The Forest,” “The Tools,” “The Chopping Block,” “The Woodpile,” “The Seasoning,” “The Stove,” and “The Fire.” Each subject, by turn, is thoughtfully and fully explained. The whole book is well-illustrated with photos of lovely and creative woodpiles.
If you burn any wood at home, this book is sure to tell you things you’ll wish you had known before.
Two books, Early’s Fall and Norwegian Wood. Great books for the he-men, and the she-women, among you. Go now and read.
One of the pleasures of my trade is reading the historical fiction other people are writing. This week it is my pleasure to give enthusiastic endorsement to a couple of wonderful books by female writers with female protagonists.
Flight of the Sparrow by Amy Belding Brown
Mary Rowlandson is a contented, if repressed, minister’s wife on the Massachusetts frontier in the 1670s. When Indians raid her village in an early phase of King Philip’s War, she and her children are taken captive, with other English colonists, in a harrowing ordeal. Eventually she is released and resumes life as a proper colonial wife.
But her season of captivity has changed her outlook on the world, and she finds that extisence within the normal Puritan channels of the Massachusetts Bay Colony no longer is a comfortable fit for her.
Amy Belding Brown’s prose is straightforward and workmanlike, rising sometimes into the lyrical, as she tells Mary’s tale. We meet a number of actual historical figures besides Mary herself, including Increase Mather, King Phillip (Metacomet), his sister-in-law the female sachem Weetamoo, missionary to the Indians John Eliot, and James Printer (Wowaus)—one of Eliot’s “Praying Indians” who mastered English, worked in the printing trade, and lived in both worlds.
The external movements of this sweeping novel are all, in the author’s words, “consistent with historical records.” However, the heart of its narrative lies in the inner turmoil of Mary Rowlandson: the easy assumptions she finds shattered, the travail of adjusting her old viewpoints to fit often-unpleasant new realities of her life, and her fearless encounter of love’s contradictory pulls on her heart.
Anyone interested in history, in the mysteries of the human heart, or both, will enjoy this book.
Tinsmith 1865 by Sara Dahmen
In Tinsmith 1865 a young woman, Marie Kotlarczyk, transplanted to the Dakota frontier, must take up and succeed at her family’s trade of tinsmithing, despite being a woman. The voice of Marie, often tormented by the decisions she must make and the feats she must perform, is strong and compelling. Romance is a strong part of this story but it would be wrong to call it a “romance.” It is historical fiction, with emphasis on the real struggles of a community of well-drawn characters in the post-Civil War American West. The book highlights the varying ethnicities present in the fictional Flats Town—especially Marie’s Polish family and friends and several Norwegians who sometimes help and sometimes hinder her quest to be her own woman. I was fascinated by the story’s authentic historical detail and was continually drawn into Marie’s personal struggle.
The author, Sara Dahmen, says, “Today, I am, as far as I can tell, the only female coppersmith in America who builds copper cookware, re-tins and restores vintage pieces, and custom-designs them.” Besides the practice of smithery and the design and marketing of her own cookware line, Sara is the author of both nonfiction and fiction books, including her Flats Junction Series, of which Tinsmith 1865 is the second installment.
Hope you will enjoy one or both of these outstanding books as much as I did.
Does a writer spring full-bodied from the brow of Zeus, like Athena? Or does a writer rise from the sawdust of the arena floor, like Eric Hoffer? Are writers born, or made?
All I know is, writers write. Perhaps you are one of us. We who cannot not write.
Some of our tribe, like the fictional Jo March of Little Women and John-Boy of The Waltons, scribble in notebooks from childhood on and sell their first work as teenagers. Others may hold their fire like dormant volcanoes, then erupt in middle age. My friend Greg Renz waited till retirement to novelize the stories he had been processing over 28 years as a Milwaukee firefighter.
I’d be willing to bet that more than once during those 28 years, Greg told some of his stories to someone, informally. I doubt anybody suddenly becomes a writer without some kind of prelude. What warming-up exercises did Homer go through before composing 27,000 lines of dactyllic hexameter known as the Iliad and the Odyssey?
Dear Reader, I was an old man when I set out to burst upon the literary scene. I wanted to share my dearest concerns with others.
I did not know how to do it but was called to try. Impressions, thoughts, and feelings that had been marinating in cobwebbed bottles on the dusty shelves of my soul began to ooze forth as written words that the world might see.
Like Greg, Jo, John-Boy, and Homer, I did not come to this calling completely cold.
I wrote a detective story when I was eight. Around that time, I also drew a few comic strips starring myself and a fantasy sidekick as cowboys, fighting bad guys. In junior high I got a $25 savings bond for writing an essay about traffic safety. I wrote for the high school paper. I was a radio guy in college. After a series of abortive career launches in young manhood, I at last burrowed safely into the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, the agency that oversees the National Guard and Emergency Management. My role there included both writing and photographic skills. After 23 years with the agency, I retired. Immediately I was called to edit a well-regarded and historic religious quarterly, The Congregationalist—a part-time job I did for six and a half years.
I had done no “creative” writing since grade school. But I had the itch to “be a writer.” Having reached the age of 70, I knew that if I wanted to be a writer, I’d better get started.
For by that time I was feeling definitely Homeric. Odyssean, in fact. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses,” has his old Ulysses (Odysseus) say—
How dull it is to pause, to make an end, To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! As tho’ to breathe were life! . . . . . . but every hour is saved From that eternal silence, something more, A bringer of new things . . . .
New things. Yes. I was ready for new things. So in 2016, I quit the best job I ever had and declared myself a writer. Not in some doomed quest for fame, fortune, or any other phantasm. But merely to share myself with you and others in a new way. Have you ever had that kind of an urge?
A New Chapter
There were things to get off my chest; this I knew. I just didn’t know exactly what they were. That was what Mr. Donald Rumsfeld would call “a known unknown”: I knew that I did not know it. But faith told me that if I only started to write it down, it would come out through my fingers and splat itself upon the virtual page of my laptop screen. It would become visible, and then I could fix it up.
The real itch inside me, the thing I wanted to share with the world, was precisely what T.S. Eliot mentioned in his poem, “Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
Yes, I thought, that’s really what I’m all about. I want to unearth the long-ago and show it in new writing, so that I, and my readers, can see that past with new eyes.
I wrote short stories about life in the 1950s, starring a little boy named Izzy Mahler, based on my own small-town boyhood. Three of them—“Nickle and Dime,” “The Liberation of Irma Ruger,” and “The Lion’s Den”—achieved online publication, with minor paychecks, by The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, Virginia, there still is a Saturday Evening Post.
“Those Old Siberian Blues,” a whimsical essay about our then 12-year-old Siberian husky, Montana, was published in Fetch!, “Wisconsin’s #1 Free Dog Publication,” in December 2016.
But soon, bigger game was afoot: A sweeping historical novel, an immigrant saga.
A Novel Obsession
My wife, Joelle, had researched and archived our family’s roots, both on her side and on mine. She did such sound research that she won an award.
Since I was now a self-admitted full-time writer, she badgered me to write a brief prose essay on one of my ancestors. This was necessary to claim a cultural skills badge in genealogy from the Sons of Norway. Both of us have Norwegian lines, but I was the “official” member of the organization. Besides, she said, “You are the writer, I’m just the researcher. Write something about one of your ancestors.”
So I looked into the research that she had painstakingly compiled and learned that my great-great-grandfather, Anders Gunstensen, came from Norway in 1853 and settled in Menard County, Illinois.
Gentle Reader, please take note of this: I knew nothing about Anders Gunstensen. We had no diaries, letters, artifacts, heirlooms, or even word-of-mouth stories about Anders, his wife Johanne-Marie Nybro, or Norway. None of this had come down through my family.
I am thus a Norwegian without any discernible Norwegiosity. I snakker ikke norsk (speak no Norwegian); Grandma didn’t bake fattigmands bakkelser (“Poor man’s cookies”) at Christmas; I don’t even own a Norwegian sweater. Uff-da!
We had only dry statistics: Anders’ dates of birth, emigration, marriage, and death; names of his parents and more remote progenitors; what ship he traveled on; the woman he married; the places where he lived; the children he fathered; and the simple fact that he wore Union blue as a soldier in the Civil War.
To make even a brief article from these bare bones took some interpretation—dare I say, interpolation—from hard facts to reasonable inferences.
Anders embarked for America February 8, 1853, the very day after his passport was issued. Hmm. Seems he was in a big hurry to get out of Norway.
He sailed from Arendal, Norway, to New Orleans, Louisiana. Not New York, not Quebec. New Orleans. Picture a 23-year-old farm boy leaving Norway in early February and arriving in New Orleans eight weeks later. The heat alone must have prostrated him—not to mention the spectacle: Hordes of people, all races, all colors, all modes of dress, all speaking a polyglot of American, European, and African tongues. And some of them buying and selling others in open-air slave markets.
What a novel this would make.
The trickle of Norwegian immigrants in the 1830s and ’40s had become a stream by the 1850s. That stream flowed from New York or Quebec to Northern Illinois, then to Wisconsin, then to Minnesota and on west. Anders traveled north from New Orleans, undoubtedly by steamboat, and stopped when he got to Central, not Northern, Illinois—in a place with only a handful of other Norwegians. He had to learn English and local customs fast.
Then, two years after settling in this non-Scandinavian part of North America, he married a Norwegian girl, Johanne-Marie Elisabeth Nybro, who had come to Menard County from guess where? Oiestad, Anders’ own home village. Is that a spooky coincidence? How did that happen?
Can you see, Fair Reader, how a person might start to become a novelist? If you were in my place, wanting answers to questions that had no answers, you might do the same thing I did: Make the answers up!
Three recent posts have explored the early history of Pan American World Airways, a great airline, which employed my uncle as a pilot from the 1930s into the modern era.
Content for these posts came from old family stories, from photos and reminiscences provided by my cousin Steven Sommers, and from information easily available on the Web. However, two good books also provided a wealth of information. Each of these two books is a little treasure in its own right. One or both may interest you as a reader.
An American Saga
One book is An American Saga: Juan Trippe and his Pan Am Empire, by Robert Daley (Random House 1980, 529 pages). This book is available in hardback from Amazon for $54.30. Fortunately, a Kindle version is also available for $7.99. It is highly readable, though the Kindle edition has a few typos. It tells the story of Pan Am from Juan Trippe’s youth through the founding and early years of Pan Am, the glory days of the China Clipper era, the global success of the postwar years, and the airline’s ultimate demise in 1991. Encapsulated in the overall story are many tales of dogged persistence and even heroism. Looming above all is the enigmatic figure of Trippe—a legendary entrepreneur who was modest, collaborative, visionary, and inspiring; while also being secretive, cold-blooded, manipulative, and ruthless. In the process of building Pan Am, Trippe became midwife to the worldwide aviation industry. Daley has boiled down an enormous mass of information into a readable and compelling narrative. If you’re interested in the details of Pan Am’s fascinating history, this is where you’ll find them.
Of equal interest is Robert L. Gandt’s China Clipper: The Age of the Great Flying Boats (Naval Institute Press 1991, 214 pages). This one is available in hardcover for $17.50, or in a Kindle edition for $14.49. While Daley’s book chronicles the swashbuckling upstart company that became the world’s most successful airline, Gandt’s volume tells the story of the airplanes themselves—most specifically the seaplanes designated “flying boats” that dominated international aviation in the 1930s and 1940s. Best known are the Sikorsky S-40 and S-42, the Martin M-130, and Boeing’s B-314—all airframes that Juan Trippe purchased for Pan American, and simply by placing his orders, caused their development. What you may not know is that British, French, and German designers developed other flying boats of varying size, range, and carrying capacity. Gandt, himself a former Pan American captain, lovingly traces the development of all these designs. He includes enough cultural and economic context to give the reader a sense why each plane did or did not succeed in the marketplace. Along with his illuminating text, he provides a large gallery of photos, so the reader can see the obvious differences among these planes, and a full set of line drawings by J. P. Wood at 1:300 scale. Read in tandem with Daley’s book on Trippe and Pan American, this book gives a very full picture of the Golden Age of the great flying boats.
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.