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The Floor of the Sky. Pamela Carter Joern. University of Nebraska Press, One of the Flyover Series. 2006. 238 pp.

This is another of Joern’s books in the University of Nebraska’s Flyover Fiction Series. (For a review of the later title, The Plain Sense of Things (2008) see: https://wanderwest.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/book-review-the-plain-sense-of-things-by-pamela-joern/)

51kIKMnrLPL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_The Floor of the Sky,  like its companion, is set in the Sand Hills area of Northwest Nebraska, near Elymrya, Joern’s fictional “big” town that centers the novels. This is a tough place to ranch or farm, and Toby, a central character, is just eeking out an existence on her deeply mortgaged spread. Her husband has died; the hired hand has stayed on; a pregnant granddaughter arrives for the summer and the impending birth. It is a bittersweet summer as Toby prepares to lose the farm, reminiscencing about her shattered past brought back to mind by her granddaughter and her situation, and her ever-present harpie of a sister, Gertie.

Again, Joern employs the same technique of a series of short self-contained stories cum chapters to lead us through the brutal memories of the past placed against the placid action of the present. The present, is of course, overshadowed by looming foreclosure, overseen by the standard evil banker, who is selling other local properties to a huge corporation who wants to use it as a toxic waste site, even while claiming they will be managed in the downhome style the area has always had. Kindness triumphs in the end, though not without a large amount of tragedy present and remembered.

A fascinating sidelight of the story is the main farmhouse, known as “the Alhambra”, named after the Sears kit home that Toby and Gertie’s father Luther had purchased in the early 1920s. Kit houses have always appealed to me. I think we may have been in an Alhambra model once. It featured beautiful mission-style detail and lots of woodwork. Pocket doors. Plenty of windows. And all this came in flatbed boxes on a railcar, ready for assembly. Why could we fashion such beautiful pre-made stick-built homes in the ‘20s but not now?

Alhambra in Webster Groves, MO.

Alhambra in Webster Groves, MO.

Alhambra

Sears Catalogue description The Alhambra

A few days ago, we noticed our Halloween pumpkin had disappeared from our back step. Hummm…

We live in a densely packed over-55 community and it’s been weeks since Halloween. What the heck could some retired person want with our pumpkin? It was big, heavy, not carved. Barely moveable.

Original Pumpkin: A Simulation

BEFORE: Original Pumpkin:
A Simulation

The rhetoric quickly heated up:

“If somebody needed a punkin that bad they could have asked!”

“Can you imagine some old geezer walking away with that thing, quietly no less?”

“I mean really, what’s going to happen next? Is anywhere safe anymore?”

An immediate scan of the area yielded nary a clue. Maybe the pumpkin-napper had taken it away in an SUV? We were stumped.

Then yesterday Stan happened to notice something semi-round and orange laying on its side beneath a nearby Arizona rosewood tree.

AFTER: Our Pumpkin!!

AFTER: Our Pumpkin!!

Our Pumpkin! Now a mere shadow of its former self, cleaned out through a hole chomped through its side.

I wonder: What will the neighborhood javelinas eat next?

All That's Left is a Few Seeds

All That’s Left is a Few Seeds

I guess our pumpkin wasn't singled out

At least our pumpkin wasn’t singled out

 

 

 

 

A Road of Her Own: Women’s Journeys in the West. Edited by Marlene Blessing. Fulcrum Publishing. Golden CO. 2002. 211pp.

In this eclectic grouping of western travel essays by twenty different authors, readers are introduced to both the exterior and interior journeys each writer has taken down the byways and backroads of the West. The open road—that metaphor of freedom and adventure—beckons each in a different way: from stalling on a lonely stretch of Nebraska highway, to confronting degenerative disease on a backcountry trail, to pounding out a half-marathon on city streets.41u-QGi5x2L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

The book begins with an essay by Brenda Peterson entitled “Detours”, which describes two women of our mother’s generation stuck never being able to travel alone or with other women (“there was always someone insisting on coming along”), who  finally get to embark on a half-continental road trip. This seventy-something mom and her sister have a bang-up time delivering a car to a daughter. It’s a giddy flight, one which inspires the author to wonder what if it had been women, rather than men, who explored and named the west. Maybe we’d now be looking at a map of “feminine geography”, perhaps bereft of old male European royalty’s names but more descriptive of the landscape itself, more as Native Americans named their landscapes. An interesting thought.

In “Buelah Land” Linda Hasselstrom’s epic journey across western Nebraska in her 1954 Chevy turns quickly from a one-woman jaunt home into a ceaseless barrage of male innuendo and incredulity as her car breaks down too close to a Hell’s Angels encampment and too far from the gas pump a condescending station attendant says she needs. (She already knows that’s the problem but what does a woman know about engines?) It’s a ruefully funny story and one I imagine many women will read, nodding their heads. (I remember all too well my various run-ins with testosterone-charged mechanics in my solo journeys.)

Perhaps the most lyric essay is Kim Barnes’ loving memoir “The Clearwater,” an Idaho river by which she makes her family home. Although a potentially fatal decision winds her and her children up at the end of a too steep washed out canyon road, the Clearwater has obviously cast its spell over her: “It has taken me time to understand the need I feel to be consumed by the river…I want to be immersed—my hands, my feet, my hips. Like all seductions, it necessitates surrender. I am learning to let go.”

There are other, equally illuminating, and well written essays; many display a love not just for the western landscape but also for the loving attention it requires to carefully construct the language adequate to embody such beauty and fearful aloneness.

Some essays were not so appealing; some I felt could use a closer editing. But overall the stories these women tell are robust and arresting and I found myself enjoying each and every trip taken.

Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig. Riverhead Books. New York. 2015. 453 pp.

51S9z5jS6mL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Last Bus to Wisdom is the last novel Ivan Doig completed before he died in April, 2015. Losing him is a great bereavement for any reader who loves the West as much as he did. I count myself a “Doigie”—someone who has always welcomed his latest cast of characters into my life. To know that there will be no more is a great personal loss. Still, there is always the reacquainting that comes with re-reading great writing. There is always something new to discover.

This book is about a red-haired 11 year old, much like Doig himself at 11 must have been. Thrust off his beloved Montana ranch in summer of 1951 Donal is sent to live with an unknown great-aunt in Wisconsin while his grandma/guardian recouperates from an operation for “lady problems”. His adventures begin on the dog bus aka the Greyhound that carries him from Great Falls to Manitowoc. Where the excitement continues and grows once his aunt sets him adrift again a few weeks later when she discovers that, even though Donal has the makings of a card-sharking canasta player, she can’t deal with his, well, boyness. More excitement ensues as Herman the German, his great-aunt’s sort-of husband, decides to join him, lighting out for the territory, as Huck Finn so famously described his heading out with Jim. There are obviously many more similarities between Donal and Huck offered by Doig in this marvelous tale of a boy, whose childhood will soon be behind him.

It is always Ivan Doig’s writing, his understanding of people and dialog, that drive his stories and make his often over-the-top characters perfectly acceptable. To me in this book it seemed that Doig, anticipating that this might be his last, threw in all the nuance and sly observations he’d garnered over the years, yet hadn’t had a chance to use before. So we’ve got canasta, radio soaps, cowboy and hobo lingo, wicker suitcases and sailor’s duffel bags, ties adorned with suggestive mermaids, countries made from toast, autograph books, arrowheads, bronc riders, even Jack Kerouac is featured in a cameo role! It felt like nothing was held back. And that is all to the good. It’s a book that speeds ahead at dog-bus-on-empty-highway speeds but never loses one thread, never misspeaks with accents or syntax. It is a joy to read.

I have seen in more than one place the mention of Doig as the next Wallace Stegner. I don’t know…Stegner always, it seems to me, needs to make a point. Doig is first and foremost there to tell stories of another, quieter time about how normal people make their way. It’s often zany and just a little bit pushing the envelope toward tall-tale-telling, but that’s a great gift he has given over and over.

And I, like millions of others, have always been more than happy to raptly listen.

The Plain Sense of Things. Pamela Joern. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London. 2008. 221 pp.

Pamela Joern’s The Plain Sense of Things, is a chronological story through three generations of a farm family in northwest Nebraska. Beginning in 1930, we first meet Gramp who has gone to Colorado to retrieve his orphaned grandson, Billy. Carlene, Billy’s mom, was Gramp’s estranged daughter and Gramp returns to Grandma and his Nebraska farm to raise his grandson. Joern introduces the reader to other members of this family as well as neighbors in the countryside surrounding Palymyra, the farming center of this mostly empty region.The_Plain_Sense_of_Things_small_frame_brn_2-225x341

It’s a hard life; most reviews can’t help but use the word hardscrabble. No running water, often no electricity, crop loss, heartbreak. It’s a full disclosure of hard times living in a region of Nebraska just clinging to its farming tradition. The writing is direct, fierce, unflinching. Not a lot of adjectives. It is stripped bare prose, like the characters whose story is told.

The style of Plain Sense is a novel built on a series of connected but stand-alone short stories. In that this book reminds the reader of My Antonia by Willa Cather, another book composed of short stories. Yet Cather’s book, for all the hard times and heartbreak, is an optimistic book, full of the future and hope. The Plain Sense of Things, not so much. Perhaps it is because the timing of Cather is at an optimistic time in Nebraska’s beginnings (also in a much more fertile part of the state.) This novel begins in 1930 and ends in 1974. Not much forward progress has been made economically.

At the end of the book, we find Alice, one of Gramp’s daughters, and her children fixing up and cleaning out her home after their father dies. While the children, it seems, have never really figured each other out, in the end it is place and family that holds them, and this book, together, just as it does in Cather. As Alice’s daughter Molly reflects: “…fixed on the star-lit faces of her brothers, she is unafraid. She knows they will not speak of love or any other thing. Instead they will hover in silence until one or the other will say, ‘Well, good night then,’ and they will peel away.”

Why did Joern choose “The Plain Sense of Things”, a well-known Wallace Stevens poem, for the title. Perhaps it is contained exactly within the opening lines which she quotes: “After the leaves have fallen, we return/To a plain sense of things.” Almost elegiac, certainly autumnal, Joern’s Plain Sense is a stark, stripped down remembrance of a family struggling to survive on the harsh, unforgiving high plains.

 

The Song of the Lark. Willa Cather. originally published in 1915. For this review I used: Early Novels and Stories. Library of America. New York. 1987. pp. 291 – 706.

b7864763c8b7f89da30ba6e7bfb3beb0The Song of the Lark was the middle volume of Willa Cather’s Prairie Trilogy. In many ways, it’s surprising that it should be book-ended between O’ Pioneers and My Antonia. Where those two books were both set in Nebraska and firmly planted in the pioneer farmer tradition, Lark begins in a railroad town on the northeastern Colorado sand plains. And the central character, a prairie girl at heart, is no farmer; she’s an aspiring artist. While the telling of Alexandra Bergson’s and Antonia Swoboda’s stories are spare, straightforward and deeply rooted in the prairie, Thea Kronborg’s story develops much more slowly with many more words, characters, settings and drama. Of course, Kronborg is destined to become a world-famous opera star, so it hardly seems inappropriate to take her to Chicago, New York and Dresden.

Kronborg is also a more complex person, at times amazingly self-centered and ungrateful for the many people who help her along the way. And yet, she grapples throughout the book with questions about what makes an artist and what makes a life. When the reader sees her through this lens, it is easier to accept her seeming self-absorption, perhaps more understandable as a dedication to developing her art, rather than herself. This is a fine distinction I know, and it seemed to me in some places she oversteps. Still, it is a fascinating glimpse of how artists perceive themselves and their “calling.”

To me, this is one of Cather’s finer books, in part because she is using a different style than her trademark spare prose with little expressed emotion. And yet, while we readers may feel we know these characters more deeply than some of her others—making it feel perhaps recognizable as a more standard novelistic style—I still come away with that sense that Cather has remained firmly in control her words, adroitly telling the reader this remarkable story in exactly the way it should be told.

“Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, know how difficult it is.”

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”.
-Abraham Lincoln, 1862 Message to Congress

Over 150 years and We still haven’t disenthralled ourselves about guns.

Yes guns do kill people. What if this latest shooter had had a spear?