Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

To Replace or Re-Invent Myself, That Is the Question

We were all younger once.

One day this past September I received an unsolicited e-mail offer that I read with very mixed feelings. I’ll quote the bulk of it here verbatim (omitting the company name and link at the end but including a few editorial comments) so you can see what I mean:

Pamela - If you’re not 100% happy with your blog, you may want to consider trying a new writer!  

The key is to find a great writer that [sic] also has a deep understanding of your industry [!]

The problem is, finding these writers [now we are looking for more than one?] can be a real challenge. 

To solve this problem, we use our award-winning _____ platform [I omit the name here, as it is no doubt trademarked) to search over 70,000 pro [sic] writers to find a handful of writers that [sic] we think will be a good match for your specific needs. Then, we have each writer write you [awk] the same sample article (title of your choosing). 

This makes it super easy [ugh!] for you to see which writer you like the best.

If this sounds like something you might be interested in, just click below to schedule a time so we can talk.

Interesting, eh? Here’s some of what raced through my brain in response: 

Why would I not be happy with my blog? Should I be unhappy with it? Is the sender implying that the writing is substandard? There are certainly writers in the world more talented than I am, but I doubt they want to work for me without compensation! Because I can’t afford to pay a writer to write for me, and I can’t afford to hire a company to find a writer to write for me!

And let me just say that I am repelled by the term “industry” applied to the world of books! Anyone who (who, not that) would apply the term “industry” to the world of writers and publishers and booksellers would probably also refer to the books in my store as “product.” 

Finally, who among these 70,000 “pro” writers for hire knows my life and the books I read and stock and my bookstore better than I do? My blog is not about some abstract “industry,” but about my very personal world!

Lest you think, however, that I was sputtering in outrage over this e-mail, I assure you I was more amused than offended. Did a “pro” writer compose the e-mail? My inner editor (who always slumbers lightly with one eye open) would have taken “that” out of “writers that we think would be a good match” and maybe moved “that” up to the previous one-sentence paragraph, using it place of the awkward comma, and that “super easy” claim did not impress me, either. Overall, I found the entire message uninspired and uninspiring.

Okay, I understand it was a sales pitch. But the message I received (besides envisioning a writer reaching way over her head) was that the sender had not spent any time at all reading my blog before trying to sell me her (I’ll use the detested word here) product. Know thyself and know thy market!

On the other hand, I’m sympathetic, I really am. It’s a dog-eat-dog world [No offense, Sarah!], and everyone is seeking an audience, making a pitch, feeling around for a footing and a handhold — in short, trying to survive. And I’m no different. I’m just (and this is probably my Achilles heel rather than any excellence of character) not single-minded about it. My little stories and snippets, travelogues, tirades, and vignettes are all offered at the same price I am paid to write them, and if they help my Dog Ears Books business in any way, so much the better. If not, I’ve had the pleasure of the writing and the occasional pleasure kind and/or thoughtful word in response.

Self-invention and self-promotion are touted as what we should all be about these days, and as wages race to an ever-lower and lower global “bottom” (for those jobs not yet lost to drones and robots), there are more and more people of all ages trying to figure out their next moves. I give a lot of thought to the question myself. What next? What if I’ve nearly run out my string with this bookselling gig? 

One thing is sure. I won’t be hiring anyone else to do my writing for me. So if you’re not satisfied with what you find on Books in Northport, you'll have to look elsewhere. At least you’ll have no trouble finding (here comes another buzz word I despise) “content” all over the place. It’s a big, wide, wonderful world out there, and, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s overflowing with words.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Old Book, New Questions

Did my mother’s high school class not have a yearbook, or could family simply not afford to buy a yearbook for her? These are questions I need to ask soon (my mother is 95), and they arise from the endpapers of what appears to be a surviving textbook from her senior year. “This book belongs to Joan Bryant,” is written at the top of the front-facing endpaper, with Joan’s address underneath, but then beneath the address is the inscription “To Nora from Joan. 12-24-’39.” 

Christmas Eve, that was. A Christmas present? All over the endpapers then are signatures of 11 other classmates from the class of 1940. Perhaps Essays Then and Now was never a school textbook? Or was it a text from the first semester of that senior year, one Joan’s parents purchased for her and that she passed along to Nora, my mother?

I took the book down from its place on the shelf one morning this December and turned to an essay by Washington Irving (1783-1859) called “Christmas Eve.” It seemed fitting both to the season and to the book’s inscription, and perhaps it would help me get into the spirit of the season.
It was a brilliant moonlight night, but extremely cold; our chaise whirled rapidly over the frozen ground; the postboy smacked his whip incessantly, and a part of the time his horses were on a gallop.
Irving was going to spend the holiday with an English friend whose father ran his inherited country estate according to the mores of two centuries earlier. 
“My father … used to direct and superintend our games with the strictness that some parents do the studies of their children. He was very particular that we should play the old English games according to their original form; and consulted old books for precedent and authority for every ‘merrie disport’; yet I assure you there never was pedantry so delightful.”
The two young men descend from their conveyance and proceed on foot through the park to the hall, 
…through a noble avenue of trees, among the naked branches of which the moon glittered as she rolled through the deep vault of a cloudless sky….
to arrive at the “old family mansion,” where they find the friend’s relatives of every age assembled and an enormous “Yule clog” ablaze in the fireplace. A festive dinner is followed by music and dancing until the company retires for the evening, while the separate party in the servants’ hall continues later into the night.

What did my mother make of this story when she was a girl of seventeen? There’s another question to put to her at the next opportunity. The daughter of an Irish immigrant father she never knew, she and her mother and stepfather and half-brother and -sister scraped through the Depression years. No landed country estate with servants for her family, and yet I remember my hardworking grandparents as affectionate and cheerful. The rundown dirt road neighborhood where they lived and where I visited as a child, a neighborhood of too many children and not enough money, where no one had indoor plumbing and few of the children had shoes, felt like the heaven of freedom to me.

It’s lovely to me that horses provided motive power in Washington Irving’s day. I’d have liked that. But in my grandparents’ neighborhood too the occasional horse or pony or mule could be found, and there were plenty of trees to climb and chickens to feed and eggs to gather and berries to pick. Barefoot from morning to night, I played with neighbor children, helped with chores, and delighted in being close to my grandmother, “Gram” to me, “Mums” to my mother.

No, if offered the choice, to travel back in time either with Washington Irving or to visit my grandmother again, I would not hesitate. No English manor house for me. I’d rather be the barefoot girl again.

*. *. *. *. *

Postscript, same day: I just had word that my Aunt Diane, widow of my mother's brother, died yesterday, leaving my mother now the oldest family member of her generation on both sides, siblings and in-laws. I'll need to call her with my questions tonight and also to share memories of my dear aunt and uncle.

Post-Postscript Dec. 12: Well, here is the scoop. My mother says she has a high school yearbook (Why don’t I remember ever seeing it? Have I seen it and forgotten?) She didn’t remember the book but said, when I described it, that it sounded like a textbook. She recognized many of the names as being those of students with whom she graduated (hers was a class of 416) but said that Joan graduated mid-year. “So maybe that’s why she gave me the book – because she was done with it and I would be needing it.” And now you can bet that when I’m at my mother’s house toward the end of January, I’ll be wanting to see her high school yearbook!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Difficult Family Matters

The book I want to highlight for your consideration today was written by a woman close to my own age. She is, unlike me, an avowed and devoted Christian with an intense focus on the Gospels. She is a college-educated wife, mother, and grandmother, deeply appreciative of her life on this earth but with heaven never far from her mind. She also practices yoga and does volunteer work (not proselytizing) with young people caught up in the life of street prostitution in Seattle. Her husband was always the gregarious half of the couple, and for years she felt invisible beside him. As it turned out, though, she discovered that her journey to visibility had more to do with freeing herself from her own demons than with quieting or competing with her more vocal, outgoing spouse. 

The book is Hidden in Plain Sight: One Woman’s Search for Identity, Intimacy and Calling, by Becky Allender, and from the title you might suspect that you have read this book before, in numerous other versions, by various American writers, male and female, but I think you will be surprised. I know I was.

It was a picture-perfect, materially comfortable existence from the outside — the side people saw — but that smooth surface hid a surprising degree of pain: the legacy of a cold, unloving mother; an unpredictable, bipolar father; and a startling rape during her undergraduate college years. Even within a mostly fulfilling marriage there was the pain, physical and emotional, of three miscarriages basically suffered alone and silently — because Becky had learned as a child not to ask for attention but to keep quiet, lest others become upset and angry with her.

Becky’s book is not about religion, per se: it is about her life in all its myriad aspects, physical, emotional, and spiritual. Her religion is clearly very important to her, even central to the woman she has become, but don’t look for preaching in these pages. Hidden in Plain Sight is, basically, the kind of full and honest account that Becky would have loved to have had of her own parents’ lives, in order to understand them better — and love them better — while they were alive. 

Since we all have parents, and since no one goes through life without accumulating scars, I think that whether or not you belong to a faith community or engage in anything that could be called spiritual practice, you will find Becky Allender’s story engrossing and compelling, and you will be — yes, inspired by her search for understanding and forgiveness, as well as by her dedication to going beyond her comfort zone for strangers. 

This is a beautiful, professional, and very moving work. If you happen to be, as is the author, a practicing Christian, your experience of the book will have added depth as you work through the questions and suggested writing exercises included at the end of each chapter. The layout and organization are very reader-friendly, and the frankness of the story is matched by the quality of the writing and presentation. 

Full disclosure: Hidden in Plain Sight would most likely never have come to my attention at all, except that Becky Allender is my first cousin. Our fathers were brothers, and we were thrown together from time to time when my parents and sisters and I made the summer trek back to Ohio to visit extended family. We cousins lived two states apart when growing up, however, and I left my family home for good at age 18, so we cousins never knew really each other well, even as children, and as adults we have had (up until now) almost no contact whatsoever. I owe my reading of cousin Becky’s book to my sister Deborah.

Twenty and thirty years ago, everyone was writing screenplays, and now it seems everyone is writing books, whether novels or memoirs. That being the case, one cannot help approaching cautiously a book by a friend or relative! But my cousin Becky Allender has written a beautiful book, and I am proud to be able to recommend it without hesitation. Because the Artist picked it up and began reading and I had to demand its return so I could finish it first, I know that men as well as women can find themselves caught up in this very frank and well-written account of one woman’s continuing struggles and joys. 

Yes, “continuing” — because we are all “works in progress,” for as long as we live, aren’t we? And I especially love what Becky says near the end of her book, after sharing an anecdote about one of her granddaughters. Echoing the little girl, the 65-year-old writer declares, “I am not finished!” — and how glad I am that she is not! 

Perhaps Becky and her sister and my sisters and I can have a girl cousins reunion one of these years soon and finally get to know each other. That would mean a lot to me.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Falling in Love Again

A man married to a reader must learn to tolerate other men in his wife’s life, so when I told the Artist I was in love with Adam Gopnik, he took it pretty well. It was Gopnik’s dispatches from Paris in the New Yorker that first brought his name to my attention (and let me just say, as a word of explanation, that fashion is no part of my life, dream or reality, so when I found myself reading every word of an article on the Paris fashion shows and looked to see who had written a such compelling story, I never forgot the name), but it was “Man Goes to See a Doctor,” a piece I read in bed in the middle of the night after the Artist had fallen asleep, that I recall as my first unforgettable Gopnik story. So as not to wake the Artist, I tried very hard not to laugh out loud. The bed, however, shook violently with my silent mirth. Gopnik tells his analyst he is suffering from writer’s block. The analyst tells him that no one cares. I was in hysterics. You just have to read it!

Does anyone else remember when the New Yorker went from having no table of contents to having one for the first time? I do, because Adam Gopnik was writing regular features right about then, and while I had been content for many, many years with the magazine as it had always been, once the table of contents was added I opened each new issue to that page, looking for Gopnik’s name. If it was there, I looked for the page number of his piece and went there next.

Then came the books. I had read each dispatch from Paris hungrily as it initially appeared, feeding my own desire for the City of Light, and then all those wonderful episodes in the Gopnik family’s Paris life were collected into a book. A book! What a gift! Other books followed, including Through the Children’s Gate (which included my beloved “Man Goes to See a Doctor”).

Now there is another New York memoir, At the Stranger’s Gate: Arrivals in New York, telling of Adam and Martha Gopnik’s first years in Manhattan in the 1980s, a decade for which Gopnik is already nostalgic. Well, who wouldn’t be in his place? Preparing French dinners in a tiny, one-room basement flat (cockroaches looking on), being taken under the wing of Richard Avedon, moving to a flat in (as it was then known) SoHo — if New York rather than Paris is your dream city, this book is for you. If Paris is your dream city (as it is mine) but you are a writer in your dream life, this is also the book for you. But really, it could be the book for you in so many ways and for so many reasons that it would be silly of me to go on in this vein. Instead I will give a sampling from a few representative pages, and I can vouch for their being representative because anything Adam Gopnik writes is pure Adam Gopnik.

Okay, he lands “a job, sort of,” giving lectures to visitors at the Museum of Modern Art. He had no stage fright, and here is his explanation:
The person who isn’t afraid of public speaking hasn’t overcome his fear of being ridiculed. He just likes being heard so much that he doesn’t notice how ridiculous he is. 

Explaining his reluctance (which clearly he overcame) for writing about his mentor Richard Avedon, he admits he still feels a twinge of regret:
To remember is to keep alive, they say piously. But to remember is actually to entomb, to inter emotion, at least a little. At least, I have never committed a vital memory, a moment of bliss or confusion, to paper or pixels without seeing it dim a little in my own recall, even to evaporate entirely. The living emotion seeps into the page, where it fossilizes.

And here is a lovely analogy, which I will put down without its context (so you will just have to read the book for the figurative meaning), because it is a perfect little parable just as these three sentences stand:
The moon tugs on the waters, and the little boats struggle with the tides even as they admire the shining silver object above their heads. If they knew that the moon made the tides, the boats would be angry at the moon. But they blame the water, or each other, and the moon shines on. 

Finally, one last quotation, this one for my writer and artist friends and readers:
The voice we search for is the voice we have, but cannot hear for all those other voices in our heads.

How about it? Are you ready to fall in love with this writer? I promise not to be jealous.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Where Does It Come From, and Where Does It Go?

Money, money, money! Wouldn’t it be great not to have to think about it? Well, we’re all thinking about it these days, as Congress flounders around in the dark on what promises to be the worst tax bill ever fobbed off on the American people, but even in sunnier times most of us are curious about other people’s financial situations. So here is my basic story.

My income derives from the sale of books old and new. In the past I’ve worked a variety of additional part-time jobs, from teaching and tutoring and freelance editing to picking apples and doing garden maintenance, but more recently I have focused exclusively on my retail business. And it is a business, not a hobby. I don’t have a trust fund or a pension from some earlier career, and if I didn’t need the income, I would stay home and garden and write and raise chickens and feeder calves.

As to where the money goes, that’s simple, too. Monthly business expenses get paid and groceries bought before money goes anywhere else, and then the Artist and I have all the usual expenses of any other household, with the exception of frills like television (we watch DVDs and listen to radio and, of course, read!), air conditioning (we have window screens), and dishwasher (washing dishes is my kitchen meditation time). If we stay home all winter, there is fuel oil and plowing the driveway to pay for; if we go elsewhere, there are frugal travel costs. 

Still, charitable giving is something I take seriously. It’s on my mind now because Facebook reminded everyone this week about “Giving Tuesday” (I give in my own way and in my own time) and because December is when I make my largest annual donations. 

I’ve made adjustments to priorities in recent years, but, as it stands now, the five organizations to which I contribute on an annual basis are the ACLU; Save the Children; the Carter Center; Foods Resource Bank; and the Southern Poverty Law Center. I started years back with the first two and added the third, fourth, and fifth more recently (and in that order). FRB and Save the Children do primarily community work (FRB focused on food security), both in the U.S. and overseas; the Carter Center focuses on do-able health projects in Africa; and ACLU and SPLC are concerned with justice and freedom here in our own country. Healthy, food-secure, and just communities are the goals I have chosen to support.

Leelanau County hosts many worthy organizations — charitable, cultural, environmental — but what I’ve finally come around to with those here at home is that, instead of sending a set amount to the same few every year and ignoring the rest, I give to whichever groups people have chosen for memorial gifts, whenever appropriate. One person’s obituary might list the Leelanau Children’s Choir and Saving Birds Through Habitat. Another might name a church or the League of Women Voters or the Leelanau Foundation. Whatever their priorities, when I send a check with a sympathy card, I honor those wishes and in that way give locally.

The Artist and I take a standard deduction (we have thus far been fortunate in not having sufficient medical expenses to make itemizing advantageous), so our income tax situation is not benefited by donations to charities and other nonprofits. Giving is simply what I decided long ago that I wanted to do, and it is my good fortune that I am able, thanks to my bookstore customers, local and visiting, who buy books on Waukazoo Street in Northport. 

So thank you for your support of Dog Ears Books, and please know that your support goes further than you may have realized. You are not only keeping a little bookstore alive in Northport but helping strangers, in very important ways, far from northern Michigan. It all adds up.

For details and to see if you want to contribute to any of the organizations I support, please follow the links up in the fifth paragraph of this post. And thanks again! Being in a position to give is one of the gifts I have received over and over again along the path of my life, and I am grateful.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Enduring Nature of the Written Word

My son came up from Kalamazoo for a five-day visit over the Thanksgiving weekend, and somehow on Sunday morning we found ourselves pawing through an old trunk I had not opened for years. Oh, the treasures that emerged from that archive! 

There were letters he had written me from camp when he was a kid and a little stash of hand-made “coupons” he’d given me as a gift, coupons I could redeem for various chores he would do around the house. “And you didn’t use any of them,” he noted. “I didn’t want to give them up!” I told him. “They were too cute!” Another gem was a handwritten note from a girl in his grade school class, asking me for a copy of a snapshot I’d taken of the two of them at Ian’s birthday party. “I want to see how romantic we look,” she wrote. Or rather, she printed. They must have been in third grade then, not yet learning cursive writing. 

Copies of letters my grandmother had written to my mother were there, along with a copy of a letter one of my aunts had written to my mother, all of this fascinating correspondence concerning the revelation of an old family secret. I read the letters aloud to my son, refreshing my own memory with the details. I’ll keep in mind this winter the fact that my mother’s parents were married in February of 1918, making it a century ago three months from now. 

I found a box of color slides from photographs I took during my two years in Cincinnati (1987-88) and will have those made into prints and also stored on DVD very soon. (The architecture of Cincinnati fascinated me, as did the hilly terrain. It was rich territory to explore with a camera.) I also found handful after handful of photographic prints, some dating back fifty years or more. The color was not always the best, but everyone in the pictures was recognizable.

A very modest collection of receipts and tissue wrappings from purchases (e.g., cheese) made in Paris appeared. I could never bear to throw away any scrap of paper that came my way in France, with words printed in French and sometimes a reproduced line drawing of a shop front or of the Eiffel Tower. You must understand that I shivered with pleasure over the phrase “vêtements d’hiver” (winter clothes) scrawled on a box in the closet of the apartment where I first stayed in Paris. Four years of high school French and the smattering I’d picked up before that from my father had not fully prepared me for the wonder of being in a foreign country and actually managing to make my way around in another language, one I felt I’d learned in a way somewhat similar to the way I had learned to read music, another mysterious, magic, “other” language. It worked! I felt like a gifted code-cracker!

But there is plenty of magic in English, and I was thrilled to discover in the trunk a couple of irreplaceable family items I had been afraid I’d lost forever. Before they married, before they had even met, my father and my mother, each separately, collected into little books their favorite poems. In 1974 the two books were given to me. With the exception of one verse my father composed with his high school French, my parents did not themselves write any of the works in their books, but their selections are windows into their youthful sensibilities. 

What did these two young people have in common? What aspects of their personalities were very different? Some overlap between the two collections gives clues, as do the majority of items found in one book but not in another. 

Neither book has either table of contents or index, but my father’s, titled “Favora Quotation Gilberti,” dated1941, begins with an “Indication of general trend…” listing eight attributes: amusing; slightly risqué; cynical philosophy; toward celibacy; satire; truism; good phrasing; and romantic: beautiful and healthy sentiment. Not everything in his book is a poem. Many entries are simply pithy sayings, and many verses and pithy sayings are attributed to “Anon,” for example this ironic observation that gives the lie to my entire thesis today:

Lives of great men all remind us 
As their pages o’er we turn, 
That we’re apt to leave behind us 
Letters that we ought to burn. 

There is no indication which heading he would have assigned here. Cynical, probably. There was more of cynicism and satire in my father’s collection than in my mothers, but both had generous helpings of romantic choices. And both include pieces by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, though I note that my father attributes the latter’s words to “Elizabeth Browning,” omitting the poet’s family name, while my mother invariably used all three names.

My mother’s collection includes Sara Teasdale, Eugene Field, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. I don’t find as many entries from “Anon.” as my father had, but a few, such as the two lists “Helps for Daily Living” and “Married Wisdom” have no attribution. (Actually, the latter, which is the first piece in her book, says “Author Unknown.” Could it be that favorite of my father, “Anon.”?!) My mother’s collection also has more entries from women, the names often unfamiliar to me. There are also fewer humorous pieces in my mother’s book, so Richard’s Armour’s “A Thousand Times No” stands out: 

Some take great pride in saying No, 
They scorn an easy Yes. 
Assent is sign of weakness, so 
To none will they confess. 

For utterance of No they live,

Nor would they have you doubt it.

They’re very, very negative

And positive about it!

At the end of my mother’s collection, following Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Use of Time” and Sarah Dunnings’s “These Things I Love,” comes a list of dated topics for what looks like a music class, “Hints for Song Leaders,” “How to Present a New Song,” and finally a recipe for Helen’s Peanut Butter Cookies, but my mother’s name appears nowhere in her book.  

Besides family memorabilia, I found in the trunk many bundles of letters from friends, a few with literary associations. There were two letters from Jim Harrison, one from Joyce, Jim’s assistant, three from Guy de la Valdene, and one from poet Dan Gerber, all these resulting from typing, proof-reading, and editing I’d done for him and Guy and Dan back in the old days. 

Then there was a xeroxed copy of the wonderful handwritten journal my sister kept on her first trip (with now-husband Bob) to the Boundary Waters, up from Minnesota into Canada, her first wilderness experience, with canoe portages and camp coffee and losing her camera to a black bear! I read aloud from the pages to my son (with David listening from the next room) and especially loved the full page listing of all the sounds of the wilderness, none having anything to do with traffic or phones.

All these memories are priceless to me, despite the mustiness of a trunk that had been closed for years. 

As I held color slides up to the light, exclaiming over the images, my son made a comment about digitizing old media files, and that’s well and good, I suppose. But if hard copies are not kept, if only digital files remain, I worry that those files could become unopenable black boxes to future generations. They are not, after all, human-readable, and as the technology to read digital files advances as breakneck speed, earlier readers become so much junk. There is also the question of “where” the files will be stored. In a “cloud”? As my son noted, “A cloud is just someone else’s computer.” 

I’ve never liked the idea of keeping my photographs or books in a cloud, anyway, and I wouldn’t want to reduce precious old letters from friends and family and photographs of same to someone else's storage black box. My old black trunk has served me well. And I have always been in love with paper and with holding physical objects in my hands. 

Sliding sheets of handwriting from envelopes (first appreciating the beautiful postage stamps), turning pages, shuffling and stacking snapshots and slides are pleasures I have no intention of foregoing, as long as they are available to me, and I hope that will be for the rest of my life.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Wild Children in the Woods

[Reminder: Tonight is the tree-lighting in Northport, after a day of merchant open houses and caroling. The horses will be pulling a decorated wagon through town, giving free rides, beginning at 3 p.m. Come and join us all day long!]

When Emily St. John Mandel wrote a post-apocalyptic novel, Station Eleven, she presented readers neither with a totalitarian, police-run urban world nor a barren desert in which gangs of young men, all looking like pirates, miraculously found fuel enough to roar endlessly through empty lands on fantastic vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Instead, when the infrastructure of civilization collapses in Station Eleven (subsequent to a global pandemic), survivors, of necessity, fall back on old ways. A troupe of Shakespearean players, for instance, roves from one isolated rural community to another (cities having become uninhabitable), hunting and foraging and preparing food over open fires. 

In two more recent novels, also by women — one set in England and the other in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — the modern world has not (yet) collapsed but is seen by pivotal characters as something to escape. 

Fiona Mozley’s Elmet tells of a father who moves his two motherless children to the woods, where he builds a house intended to last forever, long after he himself is gone, although they are only squatters on the land. His children are a boyish adolescent girl, given to brooding silences like his own, and a fey, girlish boy, the narrator of the story. 
We kept on with our silly childhood games long after we were much too old. Our copse provided the materials we needed and an undulant terrain in which to run and hide. In another world we might have grown up faster, but this was our strange, sylvan otherworld, so we did not. And that, after all, was why Daddy had moved us here. He wanted to keep us separate, in ourselves, apart from the world. He wished to give us a chance of living our own lives, he said. 
Fiona Mosley, Elmet

The father hitherto had made his living with muscles and intimidating size. He fought with bare knuckles in illegal bouts “far from gymnasiums and auditoriums where the money could be big…,” bouts arranged by toughs and travelers (gypsies). The money stakes ran high, and other stakes were even higher: sometimes his opponent did not survive. Thanks to his reputation, he was also hired from time to time by men with great wealth and few scruples to intimidate debtors slow in settling up. But he longs to escape a life of crime and fighting, a life he can live without having to grub for money, and in the woods is the freedom he covets for himself and wants to provide for his children. 

We realize early in the story — not only from the confusing, dreamlike opening scene, from which the rest of the story is told as flashback, but also from interactions between characters and our own knowledge of the greater world — that the father’s hopes for the family’s future are destined to fail. The question is only when and how and how spectacularly the failure will come upon them. 

The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne, is a survivalist tale set in motion by violent crime. The father of the narrator has abducted a 14-year-old girl, subsequently his captive for years in wilderness isolation. When she becomes pregnant and gives birth, their daughter is thus a product of rape, and even as the kidnapped adolescent grows older, with a child of her own to protect, fear of her captor’s mercurial temper and sadistic nature keeps her submissive to him. 
I can see now that the reason my mother was indifferent toward me is because she never bonded with me. She was too young, too sick in the days immediately after I was born, too scared and lonely and collapsed in on herself from her own pain and misery to see me. Sometimes when a baby is born in similar circumstances, she gives her mother a reason to keep going. This wasn’t true of me. Thank God I had my father.
- Karen Dionne, The Marsh King’s Daughter

The daughter’s relationship to her father is complex. She both fears and adores him. She hates his brutality toward her mother (whose small lapses in judgment or skill are rewarded with beatings) and is terrified of the punishments she herself sometimes receives (often when least expected), but at the same time she cannot get enough time outdoors with him, learning wilderness survival skills while her silent, distant cipher of a mother stays in the cabin cooking or sewing. The father is an unpredictable and sometimes punishing idol. Nevertheless, her life depends on what he can teach her, and being with him is an escape from the claustrophobic cabin. 
He’d lay out a trail for me while I was off playing or exploring, and then it would be up to me to find it and follow it while my father walked beside me and showed me all the signs I’d missed. Other times we’d walk wherever our feet took us and he’d point out interesting things as we went along. Drifts of scat. A red squirrel’s distinctive tracks. The entrance to a wood rat’s den littered with feathers and owl pellets. My father would point to a pile of droppings and ask, “Opossum or porcupine?” It’s not easy to tell the difference.

And so, long after she and her mother escape and return to “normal” life, after her father is finally captured and tried and sent to prison, after she changes her last name to escape the curiosity of anyone connecting her old name to her criminal father, and even after she marries, hiding her past from her own husband, and has two little daughters of her own — after all those years in which she realized very clearly what a cruel and crazy man her father truly was all along — when he finally escapes from prison after thirteen years, killing two guards in the process and launching a manhunt along the U.P.’s Seney Stretch, a question in her heart pushes Helena to track him down herself, as much as does her knowledge of the man and her need to keep her own daughters safe. She knows he has only laid a false trail to lead police into the Seney Wildlife Refuge, that he has undoubtedly gone in another direction. But as she tracks she can’t help also looking for signs that her father, for all his evil, loved her all along.  

Three novels by three different women, two with Michigan settings and one with a story spooling out in England, all of them taking place, for different reasons, in wilderness. In Station Eleven and The Marsh King’s Daughter, survivalism has been imposed on the characters, in one case by global apocalypse and in the other by the crime of one man. The wanderers in Station Eleven are not fleeing civilization but hoping to find remnants of it, while Helena in The Marsh King’s Daughter comes to see her U.P. wilderness isolation itself as the trap she would escape, despite her love of the woods and its creatures and the pride she takes in knowing her way around trackless land. Helena tells us that there is plenty in civilization she could live without but that she loves electricity. Characters in Station Eleven also have nostalgia for electricity’s gifts. And yet in both cases the world of nature is described in loving detail, as something not to be entirely left behind, and it is clear that these two authors value both wilderness and civilization, seeing the drawbacks either presents in a “pure” state.

Only Elmet seems to present a desire for off-the-grid living as longing to return to the Garden. If only the world will leave them alone, we want to believe, father and children can be happy in their isolated Eden. But how likely is the world to leave them alone? Is it the very lack of ambivalence in this story that leads to the most hopeless final pages of any of the three novels?

I began writing this post wondering if women writers, if women in general, are more drawn to recreating wilderness lives. While reading The Marsh King’s Daughter, for example, I could not help thinking of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, in which a young girl sets off alone to search for her mother, living off land and water, hunting and foraging — and, again, in Michigan.  Michigan. Its very name, Michigamme, conjures up grandeur and mystery. Among those who long to retire “Up North” (or, in England, “to the country”), is it men who would bring high-tech loud toys and women who would go back to an earlier era, and is that reflected in fiction by men and women? 

Or is that, as I’m sure it is, an overly simplistic binary gender division?

Certain it is, however, that men have produced reams of commentary and analysis on works by those of their gender and have developed countless theories on works written by male writers,  ignoring works of women, as if only a male sensibility could have produced those novels, so why should not women have their turn? Today, on Books in Northport, they do.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Grateful for Sunshine!

Bright berries!

There’s no denying that Sunday was a gloomy November day, grey and chill and forbidding. We went out into the world for a while, but before long I was more than ready to get back home again and curl up with a book, a cup of cocoa, and fire in the fireplace until dinner time. Monday, however, the postponed errands could no longer be shirked, and so it was with a glad heart that I greeted a sunny morning sky. Even if the clouds were to roll back in before noon, seeing blue sky and shadows on the ground had chased my Sunday blues away, and when David said he would join me on my far-flung rounds, we invited Sarah along and set off down the road, all three of us looking happily out the windows at the sunlit scene.

First stop, Leland: bank, post office, library. NJ’s Grocery in Lake Leelanau was next, and another post office stop in that little village before we swung over to Suttons Bay so I could visit Radio Shack and add minutes to my little flip phone. Loaded up with minutes, I took the opportunity to check out the Michigan products shop next door, where I bought Zingy Creamy Tahini Vinaigrette from the Redheads and fresh farm chestnuts that came from my Leelanau Township friend Margo Ammons and her husband. Before leaving town, we stopped to visit a horse on one of the back streets.

A new horse along the way
On the way to Cedar, where I had arranged to purchase rabbit meat from a local grower, we took one of my favorite back roads in hopes (my hope) the draft horses would be out this trip, and there they were. Then — lagniappe! — farther down the road a horse I’ve seen many times before was now joined by three new horses! We stopped to admire them, and I felt my day was already made, whatever happened from then on. And the sun was still shining….

The Bunny Hop Ranch would be worth a whole photo story. It’s a custom butchering operation out in the country, and since it’s the middle of firearm deer season Julius Bugai and his helpers had been very busy dressing out deer, along with getting started on Thanksgiving turkeys. “We’re falling behind,” I was told cheerfully. My rabbit meat came out of the freezer in neat little packages put together earlier in the season, but one of the guys offered to add me to to the crew. “We’ll give you an apron,” he told me, “and then all you need is a knife. We’ll teach you everything you have to know.” Maybe next year I should hire on, but this was my day off, the sun was shining, and David and Sarah and I were having a few hours of what felt like vacation, so I thanked the butchers and went on my way. 

Pegtown Station in Maple City is closed on Mondays, so we went back to the Cedar Tavern for lunch and shared a big plate of nachos, and then — back into the sunshine and through Maple City to detour past a major horse operation, because this, you see, is my idea of a drive in the country: seeing as many horses as possible. 

Unlike Sunday’s gloom, Monday was an inviting and cheerful day all over Leelanau County. No more bright reds and oranges and yellows of maples and popples, but somehow in the sunshine the browns of oak leaves looked very rich and warm and beautiful, so when David stopped to look over a car for sale, I strolled down the road a way with my camera. Staghorn sumac berries glowed in the light, which illuminated even nearly colorless grasses so that they looked ethereal.

We stopped once again at the library in Leland, this time for movies, and I made a quick dash into the Merc (Leland Mercantile, Leland’s grocery store since forever) for a bottle of hard cider from Tandem and some good organic carrots, picking up parsnips too for good measure, and then we were ready to go home. 

What a day! Looking and laughing, playing the radio or talking to each other, stopping to visit horses in three or four different places along the way, and going out for lunch, it really did feel as if we were on vacation all day long, and I was grateful for the sunshine, for the company of my darling and our dog, for the beauty of the countryside, and for the hard work of all the people providing good local food, not only for the holidays but throughout the year.

How strange that 24 hours can bring on such different attitudes to life! Sunday, I wanted only to huddle in my burrow. Monday, and my cup runneth over!

Oh, and I forgot to begin at the beginning. I’d been out first thing that day (well, second thing — after Sarah’s initial morning walk) to cut down a little tree in a crowded corner of our back meadow. But you will be seeing more of that in days to come, so I won't show it to you today....

This post is dedicated to Joanne Sahs in Northport, because she was disappointed I had not uploaded a new post on Saturday, and to all my friends and readers -- of books and blogs! -- in the Leelanau and Leland township libraries.