Wisconsin Chainsaw Meditations

My daughter wanted to fence her backyard, but a big old bush blocked the way. 

She called. “Dad, can you bring your chainsaw?” 

Me with chainsaw. Katie Sommers photo.

Well, natch. What are dads for? I drove across town and performed an emergency bushectomy. No sweat.

But Your New Favorite Author wasn’t always a shrub shredding ace. Tons of tuition has been paid.

My first chainsaw, purchased more than thirty years ago, was a Poulan with a 20-inch bar. The bigger the better, right? It weighed 992 pounds on days of low humidity. 

A small tornado tore through one year and left our backyard filled with an 80-foot silver maple in prone position. Too big a job for me alone, even with my monster chainsaw. I called my friend Mikey, who lives Up Nort’, and he brought along his friend Rick. 

I noticed their chainsaws were small ones with 14-inch bars. They fired up their little machines, and I fired up my big one, and we went to work. After five minutes, Mikey said—with that tact for which he is justly famed—“Larry? Maybe you could stand over here and take it easy for a bit? Big trees like this can be tricky. Rick and I are concerned you could get hurt.” 

Two hours later, the tree had been sliced, diced, cubed, and quartered. It stood in neat little stacks all over my backyard. My friends, with their 14-inch chainsaws, had reduced a three-foot-thick trunk to silver maple briquettes. And I was all unscathed—except for my macerated self-image as a lumberjack.

Lesson One: It doesn’t take a huge machine, if you know what you’re doing.

I couldn’t get over how easily Mikey and Rick handled their little chainsaws, and what a chore it was for me just to lift mine. So I sold the monster and bought a 14-inch Stihl MS180C Mini-Boss, which is the saw I’ve used for the past fifteen or twenty years. 

I only hauled it out once or twice a year. At that frequency of use, one never quite masters the elements of the machine. I had trouble just getting it started. If it needed cleaning or a new chain, a major pageant ensued. Forget the simple steps breezily outlined in the owner’s manual. There’s no substitute for having enough experience to know how the thing works.

For various reasons, I used the chainsaw more often, several times per year. At last, I accumulated enough operator time to get acquainted with my machine. It’s impossible to overstate how proud I was of myself for finally figuring the beast out. 

Decimating the obstacle. Katie Sommers photo.

But need I tell you, Dear Reader, that pride goeth before a fall? Nay, you know that already. In fact, you could look it up. It’s in the Bible, Proverbs 16:18.

I did something quintessentially stupid. I tightened the chain at the end of a cutting session. As the machine cooled, the tight chain tightened further, pulled the bar out of line, bent the drive shaft, and scrambled the transmission parts inside the engine housing. 

You need to be an actual idiot to do something like that. 

Lesson Two: Don’t be an idiot.

I took the mangled machine to our local power center for an estimate. They called me later that week. “Gee,” the man said, “to re-seat all those parts, replace the bent and damaged ones, and get it all back together in good working order, would come to $138.49, plus tax.”

“Doesn’t really shock me,” I said.

But the voice on the other end of the line said, “The thing is, you could buy a new one for not much more.” 

Of course I could. But the new one wouldn’t be the same model, because they don’t make those any more. Even if the model number was the same, it would have been improved many times since I bought it. 

Half a lifetime of hard-won learning curve is built into the chainsaw I’ve already got. If I bought a new one, it would be ten years before I mastered the effortless starting feature. And I’m already in my seventies.

“It’s got sentimental value to me,” I said. “Go ahead and rebuild it.”

So they did, I paid the $138.49, plus tax, and now I have a good, dependable chainsaw that I know how to use and that I never, ever tighten at the end of its cycle. 

Even so, I would still call for outside help if I had a big tree come down.

Lesson Three: Sometimes it pays to rest on your laurels.

With all this history in mind, I loaded my 14-inch Stihl into the back of my SUV, threw in a can of gas-oil mixture, a jug of bar lubricant, a chainsaw multitool, a spare chain, and work gloves. And headed to my daughter’s house with well-earned confidence. 

I wonder if she has any inkling what a treasury of woodlore and mechanical know-how resides in that dinky little chainsaw.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Dispatch from the Northern Front

Stop the presses! I went for a walk. Outside.

A polar vortex has hovered over Madison for a month or more. Last week it sagged south enough to humiliate the Lone Star State. Blasted with snow, ice, and temperatures in the 20s and 30s, the Texas power grid collapsed, causing several days of misery and danger for some three million Texans, including friends and relatives of mine. I hope and pray for their safety.

There is, believe me, no gloat in it when I say: Our snow is deeper, and our temperatures are colder. We in Wisconsin are better prepared for winter, that’s all, since we are blessed with so much of it every year. Still, the past month has been a trial, even for us. 

Our house

We’ve been continuously below freezing, below zero much of the time—rivaling the record winter of 1978-79. We’ve had forty inches of snow, which is only a little above average for this time of year. But most of it came in January and February, and during this long cold stretch practically none has melted. It towers up to four or five feet on both sides of every street and sidewalk. Even in the dead center of our yard, it’s probably two feet deep.

With day and night temperatures clustered around zero, I’ve chosen to huddle indoors. Even in my house it’s cold. But yesterday the mercury rose to nineteen degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun shone. It was past time to exercise my new hip, so I walked all the way around the block. 

A neighbor’s window sign exhorted me: FIND JOY.

My friend Bill Martinez once told me: “Even if an experience is not particularly enjoyable, or even if it’s perfectly miserable, we can still enjoy it.” I’ve thought about that for more than fifty and have concluded he is right. 

We enjoy something by taking joy in it. And the only way to take joy in something is to put joy into it. Joy comes from us, from within. It’s already there, a free gift from God. Use it or lose it. If you don’t exercise your joy muscle, it goes to flab. 

So my neighbor’s sign reminded me to work on that as I walked. I’ll admit there are circumstances under which it might be harder to find joy. But strolling yesterday through a snowcape with my face turning red from the cold was a piece of cake. Joy enough for anyone.

My neighbors had shoveled their sidewalks, making my trek easy. The new hip limbered up well. With my Duluth Trading Company jacket, my scarf, gloves, stocking cap, and my sunglasses against the snow-glare, I was the perfect neighborhood tourist. The scenes through which I passed made me proud to be a Madisonian.

Southerners see photos of snow-covered landscapes and marvel at the beauty. Northerners know that a day or two after it falls, the snow is gray-brown, dingy, slushy—befouled by man, machine, and pet. This month, however, is an exception. Our neighborhood really is beautiful.

Forty inches of snow has fallen two or four inches at a time, once or twice a week. With continuously low temperatures it does not melt. A weekly or semi-weekly dusting of new snow keeps our city decked out like a New England Christmas card.

I saw neither hide nor hair of my old school chum, Milo Bung. Too cold for him, no doubt.

The telltale cord.

A neighbor has a nifty black Ford F-150 pickup truck. It sits outdoors in his driveway. I suppose other things occupy his two-car garage. Still, no worries. An orange heavy-duty drop cord ran from under the garage door to the front of the truck. He has what we all had in the old days: An electric tank heater, dipstick heater, or lower radiator hose heater to make sure that warm water or oil circulates through the engine block and keeps the engine primed for a trouble-free winter start. Good man.

I rounded the corner near home, and boy, was it good to get back inside. Baby, it’s cold outside.

Mute appeal. Could this be Milo?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Author

Another Story

Read Time: 7 minutes.

Below is the first draft of a story. You can help make it better by commenting on what you liked or what you didn’t. Feel free to make suggestions. How could the story be better?

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Bob’s Trees

© 2020 by Larry F. Sommers

BOB, OF BOB’S TREES, stamped his feet to warm himself. The Wisconsin cold froze his bones this year because business sucked. 

Most years, Bob sold trees, bundled trees, fresh-cut their butt ends, and carted them to people’s cars, hardly aware of the weather. After twelve hours on his feet, he gorged himself on the calorie-laden supper that Peg kept on simmer for him, then lapsed into a coma till dawn. Sometimes he fell into bed on arrival, leaving Peg to simmer for the both of them. From Thanksgiving to Christmas Bob could lose twenty pounds. 

Most years, there would be a few days with gaps between customers, welcome respite. Then he would sit in his little office shack and listen to the carols on the radio. 

But this year, trade slumped so that he stood in the elements and waved to motorists to remind them they needed a tree for Yule. This cajolery drew in every hundredth car, so it repaid the vigil in the bitter cold.

Here came one now—a black Lexus SUV that turned left into the mall parking lot, then continued around to the square of pavement occupied by Bob’s Trees each December for the past twenty years. The driver backed into a space against Bob’s curb blocks—a good sign. Backer-inners meant business. They came to buy a tree and would not go home without one.

The car sat idling while Bob shifted his weight from one foot to the other. At last the motor died and the doors swung open. Out stepped a middle-aged woman, a lanky teen boy, and a slender girl who came up to the boy’s shoulder. Their black face coverings prompted him to remember the plague. He slipped his Packers-themed COVID mask in place. 

“Merry Christmas!” he called. “Welcome to Bob’s Trees.”

The woman, cloaked in a long cashmere coat over Italian leather boots, gave a curt nod. Her green eyes skipped his face to scan the trees ranged on his lot. “Are these the tallest you have?”

That voice. Bob peered at the patch of face above her mask but nobody came to mind. “How big a tree were you looking for, Ma’am?” 

“The tallest you have.”

“That would be these in the corner.” He strode across the lot. The woman followed. The boy stumbled along behind, thumbs on his smart phone, while the girl hugged herself and chattered her teeth.

Bob plunged a hand into the wall of greenery and pulled out a nine-foot Norway spruce.

The woman’s brows beetled. “I don’t know. I was hoping for something taller.” She leaned back to view its top. “What do you think, Rory?” She nudged her son’s calf with the toe of her boot. “Will it stand out in the great room?”

The boy jerked at the touch of her toe, rolled his eyes, dived back into his phone. She put her hands on her hips, head forward, and glowered.

“Maggie!” It came to him. “You’re Maggie Flensgaard, aren’t you?”

She snapped her head toward Bob, green eyes round with surprise. “I am Margaret Prescott.” She sniffed. “I haven’t been Maggie Flensgaard for . . . ever so long. And you”—her eyes flashed with recognition—“Bobby! Bobby Achtemeier. Is it really you?”

“Rory, look!” The girl’s eyes glowed with interest. “It’s Mom’s old boyfriend.”

The boy looked up from his phone.

“Shush, you. Mister Achtmeier happens to be an old school chum. From way back, isn’t that right, Bobby?” 

“Not all that long ago, Mags. But things are way different now, I guess.” Your tangled brown hair has become smooth and chestnut, with hints of auburn and whispers of silver. What was wild is now controlled, and controlling.

The girl looked up at Bob. “Hi, I’m Veronica. You can call me Ronnie. All my friends do.” Her brown eyes sparkled above the black virus mask.

She must be thirteen. Going on twenty. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Ronnie punched Rory in the arm. “Dolt! Show some respect to your elders.” Whoops, back to thirteen.

Rory raised his hand to slug her back.

“Stop it, you two.” Maggie sighed. “What’s it been, Bob? Twenty years?”

He snorted. “Good deal more than that, my dear. I won’t say how long. Little pitchers have big ears.” 

“They know I had them late in life,” she muttered. “They may not know exactly how late.” Her eyes rested on him, took him in. “Look at you. I thought you’d wind up a tycoon.” 

He spread his arms to span the Bob’s Trees empire. “Exhibit A.”

She had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well, yes. Touché.”

He saw himself reflected in her eyes: A thickset old guy doing roustabout work out in the weather. I won’t tell her about our winters in Florida.

“I kind of lost track of you after we . . . after high school, Maggie. What became of you?”

She gave him a weird sideways look.

“No, I didn’t mean it that way. You know. What have you been doing with yourself all these years—besides raising these two delightful children, I mean?” 

Veronica giggled. Rory pinched her.

Margaret Prescott waved her hand self-consciously, the very gesture Maggie Flensgaard would have used. “Just the usual. Went to college. Worked in New York for a while. Then I came back home and married a guy that owns a lumber yard.” 

Bob smiled. “Guess you got into the finished end of the tree business. Me, I’m closer to the raw product.” 

“But you can’t sell Christmas trees all year. You must do something else.” She looked desperate for him to explain this was only a hobby.

He shuffled his feet. “Oh, Peg and me got a few rental units up in Door County. Keeps us busy in the summertime, you know.”

“Peg. You married Peggy Schneidermann?” 

He put a finger on his nose. “You’re good. First guess.” 

“I didn’t even know you two were an item. What a lovely girl.” 

“We kept it kind of low-key.” Of course she hadn’t known. Why would she take an interest? 

“And how is she?”

“Peg? Oh, she’s fine. Keeps the home fires burning.” Warming a stew that I’ll be grateful for tonight and will eat before I fall asleep, so help me God.

Rory and Ronnie now giggled like toddlers over Rory’s smart phone. What were kids all about these days, anyhow? Walter would not act that way. Of course, he was ten years beyond them, well-launched in life as a freelance accountant.

Margaret sighed: that long sigh that sounds like the satisfaction of shared memories but signals it’s time to wrap things up.

Bob shook the Norway spruce, spread its lower branches with his free hand. “It’s taller’n you might think.”

Margaret reached a hand out, touched the upright needles. “What do you think, kids? Good enough?” They both nodded. “Okay, I guess we’ll take it. How much?”

“All of these here are a hundred and fifty.”

“Really? That much?” Her question dangled in the frosty air, a gambit best declined.

Maggie Flensgaard might have got it for seventy-five. But Margaret Prescott will need to fork over a fistful of those finished lumber simoleons.

Bob smiled. “You wanted the tallest,” he said with a shrug of apology. 

“Well, yes. I did.” She nodded defeat.

“Let me square off the end for you.”

 “No, leave it. Don will want to cut it fresh himself. Just help us get it in the car.”

He led her into the office shack, scanned a QRC from her phone, printed a receipt for the tree plus tax. Then he helped Rory shoehorn the spruce into the back of the Lexus. They tied the tailgate down gently over the three feet of crown that protruded out the back.

“Keep in touch,” he said.

With a casual nod, Margaret drove off.

He visualized a svelte shape under her tapered woolen coat, considered the upscale tilt of her nose, the sheen and understated elegance of her hair. He gave thought to the half-formed Rory and Veronica.

He remembered Peg, waiting for him at home. His mind’s eye saw her solid form limp over to the kitchen stove, turn on a burner. She ought to get that knee replaced. She kept a dinner warm for him every night, whether he ate it or not. 

He smiled to think of Walter, their stolid son, with his year-in, year-out accounting practice.

Would Bob and Peg manage their usual Florida rental, this COVID winter? 

Sure we will. We’ll figure it out somehow. And then the vaccines will take hold, the virus will go away, and by June all Door County businesses and lodgings will be having a banner tourist season.

Maggie Flensgaard, eat your heart out.

Police

In the spring of 1965 I flunked out of Knox College. The timing of this was pretty spectacular, as there was a war on. 

I lost my student deferment and went to the top of the Draft Board’s list for two years’ service in the Army or Marines. Instead I volunteered for a four-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force. They sent me to Monterey, California, to learn Chinese. 

After learning Chinese, I spent a year on a Taiwan mountaintop, monitoring Chinese Communist radio communications; then spent about fifteen months flying out of Okinawa, grinding away at the Chinese Problem from recon aircraft over Southeast Asia. 

RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. Photo by Tim Felce, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I completed my service in September 1969 and came home to a land I barely recognized. Gone was the familiar America of Walt Whitman, singing its varied carols. In its place wallowed a society designed by, or for, Saul Alinsky and Howard Zinn.

The culture shock was starkened by my having gone immediately from military service to the University of Wisconsin campus at the height of its anti-war, revolutionary, zeal. The serious leftists in Madison, some of whom I got to know pretty well, were dedicated, if mostly amateur, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist agitators. 

Revolution

Turned loose by Uncle Sam, I sought now to redeem myself as a student. This time around, I promised myself, I would shun all-night poker parties and all-day Frisbee flinging. I would hit the books with righteous fervor. Admitted to the university on academic probation, I was determined to clear my name in one semester. 

Meanwhile, the campus of 35,000 students seethed with anger, revolt, socialist machinations, and broken windows.

On the twelfth floor of Van Hise Hall, East Asian and South Asian language students gathered to read, translate, argue, and kibbitz. From a perch nudging the stratosphere we gazed down on ant-like protesters surging at straight lines of National Guardsmen and police. Puffs of white smoke plumed the ground here and there—signs that our homeward treks at day’s end would be tinged with tear gas.

“The Pigs”

One day a young man whose name I no longer recall complained about the police—whom he called “the pigs,” in the argot of the day.

Pig. Photo by BadgerGravling, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

“I wish you wouldn’t call them pigs,” I said.

He frowned. “Why not? That’s what they are.”

“No. Pigs are animals; police officers are people. They may not share your ideas, they may be ranged against you in a riot. But they are human beings. If you call them pigs you deny their humanity and make it convenient to disregard their human attributes. They may have a viewpoint  of their own, but you will never bother to consider it, because they’re only pigs.” 

For me, this was a long speech.

Policeman. Photo by rocor, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The young man gazed at me for a moment and said, “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. From now on I will not call police officers pigs.”

A transformative moment, in the midst of the Revolution?  Fat chance.

If this young man was changed by my earnest entreaty, then he was the only one. I soon figured out that I was not made for political battles, or any other kind of battles. I gave up trying to engage intellectually with my friends on the left and shunned politics from that day to this. 

The protesters of 1969-70 opposed the police not only in practice but in principle. Policemen enforced the law. Thus they were tools of the Establishment, defenders of the status quo. The enemy.

Kent State, Sterling Hall

On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard members killed four students at Kent State University. Then on August 24, here in Madison, revolutionaries planted a huge bomb that demolished Sterling Hall, a large academic building, and killed a physics researcher.These grim events took steam out of the anti-war movement; but only in January 1973—when President Richard Nixon pulled the U.S. out of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government collapsed, and Ho Chi Minh’s communists took over the whole country—did that movement end.

Pre-Vietnam normality began to seep back into the United States. But the gaping wound in our national fabric did not heal. Fifty years later, we remain mired in distrust of one another, of our government, and of authority in general.

Today’s Crises

“Authority” can mean two different things. Let’s call them “intrinsic authority” and “conferred authority.” 

Intrinsic authority speaks for itself. Jesus was said to have taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” When you have a knee replaced, you may rely on the surgeon’s medical diploma; but your go/no-go decision might be based on your gut’s  confidence in the surgeon, not on his formal qualifications. That’s intrinsic authority.

Conferred authority is legal, or legalistic. It is the authority of a city clerk to license a couple for marriage. It is the authority of a president to okay the launch of nuclear-tipped missiles. 

When intrinsic authority and conferred authority coincide, one of the results is a high-trust society. Unfortunately, such coincidence is becoming a rare thing. We give little obedience to conferred authority because we discern no intrinsic authority within it. We jeer our leaders; we defy those to whom they delegate power, including the police. 

Then and Now

The long-drawn-out war of our present day, being fought in Afghanistan since 2001, does not attract the intense interest that the one in Vietnam did fifty years ago. Fewer American troops are involved, none of them are draftees, and Southwest Asia seems even farther away now than Southeast Asia did then. 

Today’s great controversy is not war but race—racism, racial discrimination, white privilege, and the oppression of blacks. But in one way our time does resemble the past: Police and policing stand at the center of the conflict.

I have not heard the term “pigs” applied to police in recent years—not even in the past two or three weeks. They are still regarded as humans, which is good. Recent events, however, paint them as racists—which may be worse than pigs.

Because of this, people keen on public order rush to point out that “most police” are dedicated, overworked public servants and should not be tarred with the brush of racism.

Defunding

But people keen on social justice assert that racism is systemic in our society. They profess that “defunding” the police would be a good step toward redressing the balance. The general public views this concept with horror, so the would-be defunders belatedly explain they do not mean complete defunding but only partial defunding. This satisfies nobody, because some folks really do want to abolish the police, while everybody else thinks the police need more funding, not less.

In all this palaver, what gets lost is any mature reckoning of the unique position that police occupy in our society. 

Mao Zedong in 1963. Public Domain.

The late Chairman Mao got at least one thing right: Political power does grow from the barrel of a gun. That is true always and everywhere. In a free society, we place that gun in the hands of a police officer and expect that officer to exercise conferred authority within limits prescribed by law.

George Orwell in 1943. Public Domain.

George Orwell said, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” Police are the people we hire to do violence on our behalf.

Protectors

What I am getting at is that, while police officers are humans, they are humans of a special kind.

Most of us fall into the category of the Protected. Police officers are the Protectors.

My wife’s cousin was a police officer in a Chicago suburb. He said that within a few weeks of putting on his badge, he had learned to lump people into two categories: good folks and bad guys. And he made this distinction within seconds of entering a situation. Such swift decisions must have included a large reliance on intuition. Was he ever mistaken in his assessments? The conversation did not extend that far. 

Those who have the “take-charge” kind of personality that leads them into law enforcement, and who need to survive in potentially hazardous situations, will most likely develop the same reliance on snap judgments that my wife’s cousin described. 

So when we, the People, lay plans to send out social workers in place of cops, let’s get real. When we modify police training and rules of engagement, let’s remember that police will need to translate their instructions into action in fluid situations. We should not be surprised when they find their powers creatively enhanced by statutes that we had thought would curb their power.

Remember that we license the police to use violence—brutal acts labeled as “authorized use of force”—on our behalf. If we do not wish to confer this authority, perhaps we should completely defund the police; abolish the departments. 

Then all of us, including those who “abjure” violence, would need to become the Protectors for ourselves and our families. Thirty-one states allow firearms to be carried openly. I suppose a general defunding of police departments would bring us back to the old Western ambience of Dodge City. Is that the outcome we seek?

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What we face, in practical terms, is a need to improve the way we confer authority upon our police officers.

But the greater issue is seldon spoken of. It is simply this: Unless those who wield conferred authority combine it with intrinsic authority, our problems will continue, will intensify, and will multiply.

Intrinsic authority = character. 

There is no substitute for character. Its short supply, in the police and in the whole population, is our real problem. 

When can we start working on that?

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Book Review

The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go

A novel by Amy E. Reichert

In the mood for a summer read that will boost your faith in people, yet without being simplistic and sappy? A book that may even compel you to cry real tears—I confess I did—from sympathy and joy?

A Wisconsin woman has written such a book for you. Her name is Amy E. Reichert, and the book is called The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go.

No, it’s not one of those step-by-step self-help guides guaranteed to make you happy by teaching you to trust your Inner Self. Instead, it’s a novel, the tale of four women—three  generations of one family—who must try out new, unaccustomed paths through life as they cope with dizzymaking love, heartbreaking loss, and hard-wrought social and psychic defense mechanisms. 

The story centers on Gina, who owns and operates a one-woman food truck, serving  gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for Milwakee’s lunchtimers. Gina’s a pushover for people in real need, yet hard-nosed enough to run a thriving business. She’s also half-numb with mourning for her deceased husband and stumped by the challenge of relating to May, her equally grief-stricken daughter.

Gina, May, and Gina’s younger sister, Vicky, are showered with unwelcome parental supervision by Lorraine, Gina and Vicky’s overbearing mother. When a sudden crisis in Lorraine’s health begins to expose deeply-buried family secrets, all four need to readjust their lives to accommodate startling new realities.

I loved this book, principally because the people in it are so real. They are all people I’ve known, and I’ll wager you know them, too. The family situations they find themselves in both preposterous and absolutely credible. These are just the kinds of things that happen to people in real life.

The characters’ strengths can also be weaknesses, and their weaknesses strengths. Gina is a compulsive organizer, who can only stumble through her hectic days by making lists. Patronizing remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, it is Gina’s listmaking that gradually, persistently, begins to impose order on the chaos of her life—and even on the structure of the novel itself.

The old woman, Lorraine, is almost as irritating to the reader as she is to her daughters and granddaughter. But as her story gradually unwinds, we find ourselves admiring the very adaptations that make her so annoying. 

I would like to go on and on about the strengths of this novel, with its sure-footed narrative style. But if I write any more, you’ll begin to feel I’ve told you the whole story.

And it’s too good a story not to experience for yourself.

Ensconce yourself, at your earliest opportunity, with a copy of The Optimist’s Guide to Letting Go. I’ll bet you will like it as much as I did.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Regional Books: Shotgun Lovesongs and Cold Storage, Alaska

“DSC00011” by Neil Rickards is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

One of the endearing things about experts is how much escapes their notice. I’m not talking about peripheral matters outside their sphere of expertise. Even things smack dab in their wheelhouse may elude them. 

Sometimes, the oversight may be merely geographic.

Take literature. In the United States, “literary fiction” resides in one or two postal codes on the island of Manhattan. The Big Five Publishers and most of their subsidiary imprints are located there—not to mention most of the editors, agents, reviewers, and listmakers (That’s you, New York Times!) who define the genre. 

Once, American Literature may have radiated from Concord, Massachusetts, home of Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts. But since the Civil War or even earlier, New York is The Place. Even otherwise sophisticated people seldom look beyond their own desk and dinner table. Ergo, “literature” is that which is written by people in New York City. Or at least, written by people who know the folkways of the Five Boroughs or could feel themselves at home there—and who write that way.

Kate Chopin. Public Domain.

However: A funny thing happened on the way to the twentieth century. New York critics discovered “regional” writing (also called “local color”). After the Great Conflagration of the nineteenth century, a few southerners (e.g., Kate Chopin), westerners (Mark Twain), and New Englanders (Emily Dickinson) wrote works surprisingly worth reading, despite their focus on far-flung American localities—perhaps, even, because of it. In view of the Recent Unpleasantness, the literary world recognized some kind of national duty to make believe that We Were All Americans, even though some of us were entangled in local allegiances. 

By the time I was a schoolboy in the 1950s and ’60s, the literati had digested this wave of regional literature and had reduced it to a few specimens in high school anthologies; a few required books, such as Willa Cather’s My Ántonia; and a general recommendation to read works by Hamlin Garland, Ole Rolvaag, William Faulkner, August Derleth, Erskine Caldwell, Joel Chandler Harris, and Sarah Orne Jewett. The tacit assumption behind this neat packaging of regional literature was that its efflorescence had been temporary, and literature could now revert to normal.

Today, however—more than fifty years later—almost every bit of what’s called “literary” (meaning serious and well-written) fiction is regional, in one way or another. “Local color” writing turns out to have been a hardy varietal that could not be weeded out.

Take Shotgun Lovesongs, a 2014 debut novel by Nickolas Butler. It presents four friends raised in the fictional hamlet of Little Wing, Wisconsin. Three had left to pursue careers in the wider world; one, Henry, had stayed in town to work the dairy farm his parents left him. Now some years have gone by. Kip the Chicago commodities trader, Ronny the rodeo rider, and Lee the music star have all returned—each drawn back by the mystical lure of home. With lots of scenes set in the VFW hall and in the town’s once-derelict (now gentrifying) feed mill, the book has plenty of the familiar cheese curds-peppermint schnapps-cow manure atmosphere that says Wisconsin. But it’s less about local color, less even about the varied career paths the four main men have taken, and more about their loves and friendships—among themselves, with various neighbors, and with the women and children in their lives. So yes, Shotgun Lovesongs is about the glory of the Wisconsin life, but it’s also about the hard things that we Badgers can inflict on one another. It’s not just a Wisconsin book, it’s also a full-fledged “literary” novel in the usual sense, and a fine one at that. It may not be coincidence that the author was educated in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has influenced so many other fine writers.

Another good regional book is John Straley’s Cold Storage, Alaska. Though just as “regional” as Shotgun Lovesongs—maybe more so—and just as deserving of the “literary” label, Cold Storage, Alaska is quite different in tone and approach. For one thing, it’s at heart a crime novel. Most of the characters who move the plot are crooks, writ large or writ small. At the same time, there is something worthy of redemption in each of them. The non-criminal central character, Miles, a health care provider in the Alaska village of Cold Storage, is more reactive than active—yet he’s the stable tentpole around which the whole circus revolves. His arc, though subtler than those of his brother and the other grand and petty crooks in this book, is also perhaps more profound. His great challenge is to remain human while also honoring his compulsion to care for others. Those others, in a place like Cold Storage, are not always easy to serve. If you like crime bosses who aspire to be screenwriters, rock bands who get paid in fish, and an innkeeper-impresario whom wild creatures address in English . . . be sure to pay a visit to Cold Storage.

These are but two among hundreds of books published these days—and in an unbroken train since the beginning of literature in America—with both regional attributes and unmistakable literary talent. It is a great time to be an author . . . or a reader.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author