Birth of a Book

Who is a writer? 

What is a writer? 

How does a writer come to be?

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?

Athena emerges from Zeus’ forehead, armed and ready for battle. Attic exaleiptron (black-figured tripod), ca. 570–560 BC. Found in Thebes. Public Domain.

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

My 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. 

The Main Office of Larry F. Sommers, Writer–a spare corner of my bedroom. The mess is essential to the creative process.

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!

Which is how my novel, Freedom’s Purchase, came to be.

Next Week:  Update on the novel project.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Antique Road Show

. . . ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world. 
Push off, and sitting well in order smite 
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds 
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths 
Of all the western stars, until I die. . . . .
—Tennyson, “Ulysses” 

In the autumn of their lives—he was 65, she 60—my grandparents set off on an epic journey. 

Grandpa and Grandma Sommers, 1944

They had weathered two world wars, one Great Depression, and the daily trials of work and family in pre-electronic, not-yet-airconditioned America. They had lost their Pierce-Arrow touring car in the Depression; they had lost two of four sons in the Second World War. In that era, when men and women often seemed worn out at 50, Grandma and Grandpa Sommers had lived to an age when a slowdown was in order.

Instead, they plunged into the adventure that six decades of hard living had denied them. 

1946 Hudson Commodore. Photo by Christopher Ziemnowicz (CC BY 4.0)

They drove their Hudson sedan, a bulbous gray beast with dusty velour upholstery. It must have been about a 1946 model. I don’t know that for sure; but it had 36,410 miles on its odometer when they left their little house in the village of Knoxville, Illinois, at 7:30 am on Friday, October 7, 1949.

They were bound for California. Before coming home seven months later, they would add 8,232 miles to the Hudson’s clock.

“Is this Trip Really Necessary?”

What possessed them? Why undertake an odyssey at that stage of their life? 

For one thing, Grandpa didn’t have a job to worry about any more. When Dad got off the telephone and told Mom, “Pop’s been fired,” I cried. My four-year-old mind saw Grandpa blackened to a cinder from the flames. They had to do quite a bit of explaining before I understood that Grandpa’s boss had merely sent him home from work and told him not to come back.

Grandpa—William P. Sommers—was a piece of work. Trained as a young man in telegraphy and telephony, he had worked as a rural phone company manager for a few years, then as a railroad telegrapher and station agent many years, before settling down in Sinclair Oil’s pipeline company as a telegrapher and pumping station agent. His technical training and certain unfortunate family traits gave him a lifelong impression that he was the smartest guy in the room, and everyone else was a fool. And obviously, it was his plain duty to inform them all of that. It’s easy to imagine that he simply told his supervisor where to get off, and his supervisor in turn told him where to get off. 

Grandpa was too old to go back to work—and there was a whole world out there. During the Great War, the Chicago and Alton Railroad had sent him by rail to the Pacific Northwest. The rocky terrain he traveled through made a deep impression. I guess he had always itched to go back and see it again.

Grandma had never been anywhere outside of central Illinois. She was stolid, unromantic, matter-of-fact; whereas Grandpa was fiery, flighty, and mercurial. He must have said, “Millie, let’s go! You’ve got to see the West.” 

Test Run

A year before, in September 1948, they had made a swift dash across Iowa and Nebraska, traversed the high plains of Colorado, and ended up in the Front Range of Colorado. They had returned via Wyoming and the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. They returned home on the eighth day after they started, having logged 2,513 miles. 

            Napoleon I, miniature painting made in 1807 by Jean Baptiste Isabey. Public Domain.

Grandpa, the towering figure in any group, was living confirmation of the Napoleon hypothesis, for he stood only about five feet tall. He wore size six shoes as an adult.  I can still see him driving that huge, high-riding Hudson sedan, peering out over the high dashboard from under the upper rim of the steering wheel! I can’t really remember how he managed to get his feet all the way to the pedals, but he must have.

That earlier trip perhaps gave them the confidence for the longer jaunt they now embarked on. It seems their plan from the beginning was to drive to California and stay a good, long while with their only daughter, Mabel, her husband Robert Hiler, and their little boy, Dickie. And also, if possible, get to Seattle and spend some time with their eldest son, Edward, and his family. Whether they knew when they set out how long they would stay, I really don’t know.

All There in the Book

Fortunately for me, Grandma kept a careful log in a wire-bound stenographer’s book, and my father left that book to me. She recorded dates, odometer readings, and expenses. But when they encountered something she thought was remarkable, she remarked. 

Bagnell Dam. Photo by KTrimble, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

They drove to Peoria and followed Route 66 southwest, with some deviations. They visited relatives and friends in Springfield and Gillespie, Illinois, and in the state-named town of California, Missouri. They visited the nearby Bagnell Dam—a modern wonder built eighteen years earlier to impound the Osage River and form the Lake of the Ozarks, thus gaining both hydroelectric and recreational benefits. (Wikipedia claims it’s still there.)

They drove through Joplin, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. That night, near Sapulpa, they stayed at the Wild Horse Cabins. Ah, the romance of the West! To lifelong residents of Illinois—where the horses are all tame—what could better hint of high plains adventure? The word “cabins” may suggest a certain rusticity, and that may have been the case. But in those days, “cabins” was simply a word for inexpensive roadside lodgings, which could be quite sketchy for creature comforts. The modern motel had not been invented—neither the word nor the item itself.

Petroleum Fever

Oil derrick. Photo by Egeswender – Own work, Public Domain. 

As they drifted west, Grandma frequently noted oil derricks, drilling rigs, pumps, and refineries. That’s because Grandpa had a definite interest in oil. I suppose he figured his great natural intelligence (which was an actual fact), combined with his technical mastery of telegraphy and telephony, qualified him in the oil business. In later years, he acquired  an idée fixe that by poring over geologic maps of the western states, he could pick winners in the great wildcat game and make a fortune. He invested what must have been only small amounts of money in dozens of oil-drilling partnerships to open wells in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. My mother, who was never intimidated by the old man, used to laugh at this obsessive hobby of his. But the old man had the last laugh: His complex portfolio of oil royalties continues even now, more than sixty years later, to trickle dollars into our family’s coffers.

Rugged Travel Days

Grandma and Grandpa crossed into Arizona and she noted that they “slept in car 1st time” before driving on the next morning. Probably there was no convenient overnight  cabin near the Arizona border. Bear in mind, Dear Reader, that a long motor trip was still a big adventure in 1949. The best roads were two-lane, two-way ribbons of concrete. Other roads were more iffy. Hotels, tourist cabins, restaurants, and gas stations were strewn haphazardly about the landscape. You might find one, you might not. I’ll bet Grandpa had stowed a five-gallon can of gasoline in the trunk—just in case.

Arizona Meteor Crater. “467” by bunnygoth is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 

On Friday morning, October 14—one full week into their journey—they drove by the “Immense Munition Depot” at Holbrook, Arizona, but stopped to see the Arizona Meteor Crater and its museum near Winslow. That afternoon they drove out of Williams, Arizona, at 3:00 pm, and Grandma added a plaintive note: “Decide not to visit Canyon as too late in afternoon & no good place to stay overnite, so head for Boulder Dam.” What a letdown, having traveled so far, to forgo a once-in-a-lifetime view of the Grand Canyon! But Grandma’s notes contain no hint of disappointment; just the matter-of-fact account of a decision made. Maybe the Grand Canyon was not a high priority, since it contained no oil wells.

The next day they did spend about three hours seeing the Boulder Dam, the name of which had been changed to “Hoover Dam” not too long before. “Took in free movie showing building of dam,” Grandma noted. 

Eventually, they rolled through Las Vegas, Nevada (“wonderful city”) and entered California over the Clark Mountain Pass. By the time they crossed the desert and reached  Los Angeles, they had fulfilled Bobby Troups’s 1946 hit song—having visited Kingman, Barstow, and San Bernardino. The Hudson came down with a flat tire at San Berdoo. I wish I could have seen Grandpa make change that huge tire. The little Bantam rooster must have made short work of it, by might and main, with no expletives deleted. 

They arrived in the City of Angels, where they stayed with an “Aunt Annie” for three days and also visited some cousins in Compton. On their way out of town they bought a new tire; evidently the flattened one was beyond repair.

“Open Up That Golden Gate”

They drove up the coast to San Francisco—or actually, San Bruno, a southern suburb, where Mabel and Bob Hiler lived—arriving on Thursday, October 20, the fourteenth day of their trip. They visited the Hudson Motor Company, where they got a lube job for $1.50, tires rotated for $1.00, five quarts of new oil installed for $2.25, and 6.8 gallons of gas for $1.82. All this by way of putting the car right after its long trek.

Their outward journey encompassed 2,871 miles and used 150.4 gallons of gas, an average of 19 miles per gallon. They spent $55.44 on “gas oil etc.,” $23.10 for “meals etc.,” $23.00 for “Cabins,” $24.92 for “other incidentals,” and $16.65 for the new tire. 

A harbinger of things to come: $31.71 of the automotive total was bought on a credit card, which must have been a newfangled thing. Grandma’s notes do not say which credit card it was, but this was more than eight years before the 1958 launch of BankAmericard, the first general-purpose credit card. It must have been an oil company card. It may even have been an embossed metal “Charga-Plate,” which some merchants issued to favored customers and which enabled easy recording of transactions.

Once at San Bruno, Grandma and Grandpa stayed put for several months, with Mabel and Bob Hiler and their little son, Dickie. Grandma recorded nothing about that stay—but it was not without events. 

In those days, you stayed with family. For Grandma and Grandpa to rent a hotel room, or even a “cabin,” in a town where family lived, would have been unprecedented. Still, months of their constant presence may have been trying to Mabel and Bob. And equally trying to Grandma and Grandpa. 

If my read on Grandpa’s mind is accurate, he would hardly have minded imposing on his daughter and her family. It would have been a welcome change from going to work every day, to take orders from the know-nothing young popinjay who gave him his walking papers. Mabel’s house in San Bruno was, by contrast, an adventure. It was the West.

NEXT WEEK: More adventures in the West.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author