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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Deserving Attention

Many long years ago I took an undergraduate class at Western Michigan University called “History Through Literature.” Offered through the History Department, it was taught by a professor who later taught in WMU’s small (now defunct) Agriculture Department. Our reading list began with fiction set in colonial America and moved through many regional classics, winding up with The Ugly American. The concept was tailor-made for me: the novels gave me a sense for each successive time period by focusing on individual characters’ lives as they were lived within respective historical contexts. We didn’t have to memorize specific dates but gained a “Big Picture” overall view of American history.

The e-mailed bookseller newsletter I receive every business day included the other day the following note:
Concerning All Things Considered's list of "forgotten" Pulitzer fiction winners in Tuesday's issue, Jean Ross, branch administrator of the Potomac Community Library in Woodbridge, Va., wrote:

I have to put in a plea to everyone not to consign Conrad Richter's books to the dustbin of history. His trilogy, The Awakening Land, which concludes with The Town (the 1951 Pulitzer winner), is a wonderful combination of history and folklore. The books tell the story of the Ohio frontier, a story I rather doubt most high school students now know, given that--to them--"the frontier" is the Wild West of the movies. When you read these dark and atmospheric novels about one woman's family (also the story of one place's history), you absorb the feeling of that early frontier life. I credit these novels with sparking a life-long interest in the Ohio frontier and the early Westward movement. They should live! (Thanks to Ohio University Press for keeping them in print.)

I’d like to add a loud “Amen!” Why isn’t this trilogy on college reading lists? And how about having high school seniors read it? An older friend had raved about these books to me for years before I finally took home from the bookstore one evening an edition that contained all three novels in one volume. From the first page I was mesmerized, practically turning to stone in my chair except for the hand turning pages. Over and over I would vow to “finish just one more chapter” and then go to bed, and over and over I would be unable to keep myself from starting the next chapter. “I remember when you were reading that book,” David says. For days it was as if I had left town. Subsequently I recommended the Richter trilogy to my two stepdaughters and various friends. (Only one man failed to find the story captivating.)

During my three months on the road and in Florida this past winter, foraging for books where we went, I managed to find all three volumes of the Richter trilogy, The Woods, The Fields, and The Town. A friend came by early in the week and bought the first novel in the series. Today he came back exclaiming over it, marveling that the book is not better known and more highly acclaimed, and he left with the second and third novels. Gone already! I don’t think he’s planning to trade them back for other books, either, because he was admiring the cloth binding and remarking on how good they would look on the shelf, if he only removed the dust jacket on the third volume.

But what about other Dog Ears Books customers who have not yet had the pleasure? Having read the Virginia librarian’s impassioned tribute, having been fortunate enough to find used copies of all three novels, and now having sold them to a good friend who agrees with me and with Jean Ross that it’s time to resurrect Conrad Richter’s genius, I’ve got all three novels on my next new book order list (these are quality paperback editions) and will have them in stock next week. The Awakening Land is outstanding American literature, and through the story you can live vicariously from one end of the 19th century to the other. I’m recommending it for ages 16 through 106,

But don't just take my word for it:
There are in the literature of the world few works of historical fiction that make the reader feel that the writer must have been a witness to what he describes; he was actually there and came back - a transmigrated soul - to tell a story. The Awakening Land is such a work... it would be a great novel in any literature. -- Isaac Bashevis Singer

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