What I found in Sweden, Part 1

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This is the Kattegatt, a sea off the coast of western Sweden, sometimes considered a bay of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Many kinds of seabirds nest here. Photo by A. Hallinan.

 

Mormor

I’d just have to trespass. It seemed no one was home, and I’d come so far.

Some 4,949 miles, according to Google Maps, from central Oregon to Långås, Sweden – hoping to find at least one of the three farmhouses Mormor (Swedish for maternal grandmother) had lived in before coming to Cleveland, Ohio when she was sixteen in 1914.

My son, Andrew, and I were standing in front of one of her former homes, a classic red Swedish farmhouse that matched the photo I’d kept buried with other family papers in a box for years. We were here thanks to my incredibly kind and knowledgable Swedish fifth cousin, Jan, whom we’d connected with after my nephew and I had DNA tests.

After Jan wrote to us, I sent him family photos and some facts about my maternal Swedish grandparents. A few days after I arrived in Sweden, Jan sent me the GPS coordinates for one of Mormor’s childhood homes. And here we were – in stunningly beautiful Halland county, flat and lush green, on Sweden’s west coast.

A few housing developments dotted the landscape, but mostly this was still wide open agricultural land with old, old farmhouses like my grandmother’s, and squat, black windmills built long before my grandmother’s time, with modern wind turbines close by as well.

It was late afternoon, mid May, but the sun was still high, this being Sweden with its long days. I stepped into the yard while Andrew stayed behind the property line taking pictures.

I walked around the grounds, marveling at the obvious care with which the old exterior architectural details had been preserved.

 

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A hidden retreat next to an old stone wall in the backyard

 

I took my time, communing with this ancestral home and the spirits of those who’d lived there once upon a time, marveling that Mormor had left 105 years ago, never to return. Did her hands touch this old doorknob? Maybe she had the key for this old lock. Where would the garden have been that she must have helped tend?

 

 

What would Mormor think of her granddaughter and great grandson making a pilgrimage to this place? I wanted to leave the owners a note – we still had time to return the next morning before the next leg of our trip – but for once in my life I had no pen or pencil.

Jan had also given me the name and approximate location of another house where he said my grandmother had been born.  I had no photo for this house, or any other information besides what Jan had given me. Andrew and I decided to drive there, next. I didn’t think we could top what we’d just seen – but I was wrong.

 

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They did not seem pleased to see us when we arrived at our second location, where one of the old houses bore the name of the farm where Jan said my grandmother had been born.

 

At this second location, a cluster of farmhouses, Andrew and I stood debating. Which of the houses would have been my grandmother’s birthplace? I thought it must be the house with the old sign – Lönestig gård – the name Jan had given me – but Andrew thought it might be one of the houses across the road. As we approached those homes, I debated whether I should knock on one of the doors.

Just then, a woman came across the meadow, walking five magnificent dogs – two fluffy, snow-white Pyrenees and three sheep dogs. She studied us – we were obviously strangers in these parts. I introduced myself and Andrew.

“We’re from the United States,” I said. On a hunch, I decided to show her another old photo I’d had for years, of yet a third farmhouse my grandmother had lived in, directly on the sea. I’d always loved the photo’s romantic aura, with seabirds, rocks and water.

“We’re looking for this farm,” I said, taking out my smartphone and pulling up the photo. “It was where my grandmother – my mormor – lived.”

Louise gazed at the photo for a moment. “I know this house,” she said. “I’ll take you there.”

 

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My photo of Mormor’s farmhouse on the sea that I’ve had for years

 

This is where Louise took us:

 

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The farmhouse, found.

 

We stayed for a couple of hours, talking, talking, talking with the current owners. We met Lars, who lives in one portion of the house with his wife, and Lennart, who resides in what was once the boathouse.  The farmhouse is directly on the sea – we walked way, way out on the rocks. Lars told us many species of seabirds nest in this protected area. It was still bright daylight even though it was nearly 8 pm; it felt as though the universe was making the day longer just for us, to give us more time to linger.

Lennart invited us into his portion of the house. He dug out a regional history book in Swedish, and there we found a photo of my great grandparents. Lennart gave me the book as a gift.

 

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Lars lives in the main house. Louise, on the right, led my son and me to Mormor’s house. You can see the house on the horizon. The shadow belongs to my son.

 

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You can walk to the sea directly from Mormor’s house.

 

After our visit with Lennart and Lars and the old farmhouse, Louise invited us to her home nearby, where she raises prize-winning sheepdogs. When I stepped into her old classic Swedish farmhouse I was astonished; it was like walking into one of the Carl Larsson prints I’d hung in my upstate New York home for decades.

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Detail from Louise’s kakelugn, an old masonry heater or stove. (A. Hallinan)

Louise has an old, Swedish floor-to-ceiling stove that heats the entire house, and a spacious Swedish kitchen and dining room with a wall of windows to let in as much light as possible on dark winter days.

And best, best of all, a few days later Louise connected me with two of my closest Swedish relatives!! I haven’t seen them yet – that’s for the next trip.

In everyone we met on our sojourn, I sensed a strong, deep love for this corner of Scandinavia and it’s beautiful natural world.

Countless thanks to Jan, Louise, Lars, Lennart, and all our new Swedish friends who helped my son and me dive deeper into our family history.

*****

 

Below is a book about how knowing little about our ancestors may not be the best thing, and how learning about them can heal us. I’ll let you know when I finish reading what I think and how its insights might impact my family history research. So far, a couple of chapters in, I’m fascinated.

 

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More family history discoveries to come on my next post, about Morfar (Grandpa).

 

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My son and I stayed in Falkenberg a few blocks from the sea.

 

What I was reading, etc, etc:

I read The Royal Physician’s Visit by Per Olov Enquist as I travelled, a fictionalized account of the mentally ill Danish King Christian VII, his young wife Caroline Mathilde, and the king’s physician (Johann Struensee) who tried to enact Enlightenment reforms that were not appreciated by the people. Later in my trip, I bought The Wandering Pine, an autobiographical novel I haven’t read yet.

 

 

Below are scenes from Waldemarsudde in Stockholm, the former home of Prins Eugens, now a gorgeous museum. My friend, Darlene, and I lingered a long time in this beautiful place. The day we visited there was an exhibit about an art colony in Grez, France, where many late 19th century and early 20th century Swedish artists went to paint. The lower left photo is part of a Carl Larsson painting of his wife, Karin (who was also an artist), and their child, entitled “Lilla Suzanne” (Little Susanne). The lower right painting is by William Blair Bruce, “Plein-Air Studio.”

 

 

 

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The Kattegatt. This photo, and the first sea scene in this post, are views from Mormor’s farm. (A. Hallinan)

 

Next on Books Can Save a Life:

What I found in Sweden, Part 2

Enchanting Sicily, and a wedding

In Sweden, what will I find?

Swedish farm

Will I find them? I have photos, but no addresses, of the two Swedish farms where my grandmother lived at the turn of the century. My mormor, Hulda, helped her mother and father with baking, cleaning fishing gear, etc.

 

I am in Sweden for the first time, exploring Stockholm with a friend, preparing for a journey west to research family ancestry with my son.

I’d like to find at least one, if not both, of the farms near Falkenberg and the North Sea where my grandmother (mormor) lived. I have photos, but no addresses.

I’d like to find out more about my mysterious grandfather (morfar), who was said to have been orphaned in a flu epidemic and who sailed for America a few days behind the Titanic, having missed that ill-fated ship because of a rail strike in England.

For the most part, seeing extended Swedish family will have to wait until another trip to Sweden, although we do have plans to meet up with a distant cousin. Many years ago when I was living in New York City, two Swedish cousins came to sightsee and I had a great time showing them around. They have both since passed away. My aunts visited Sweden a few decades ago and saw many cousins, but there is a new generation now whose addresses I don’t have.

We’ll see what I find this time around.

 

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Morfar and Mormor: Ivar Emmanuel Håkansson and Hulda Viktoria Johansson

 

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My maternal great grandparents – stora farföräldrar – on their 50th wedding anniversary

 

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“How is it to be done? I have known a long while now. Chance has so arranged matters that the solution is as good as given: my potassium cyanide pills which I once made up without a thought to anyone but myself, must be brought into service.”  Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg

I brought with me the classic Swedish novel Doctor Glas, a brooding, psychological period piece that foreshadows modern-day themes of euthanasia and abortion. Margaret Atwood wrote the foreword to the paperback edition I have.

It has been intriguing to find turn-of-the-century landmarks, such as restaurants and museums, mentioned in the novel as we pass by them sightseeing around Stockholm.

And there is the unusual, early morning light of the 4 am Swedish spring sunrise – Atwood mentions eerie evening light below.

“Doctor Glass is deeply unsettling, in the way certain dreams are – or, no coincidence, certain films by Bergman….the eerie blue northern nights of midsummer combined with an unexplained anxiety, the nameless Kirkegaardean dread that strikes Glas at the most ordinary of moments….It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since.”   – Margaret Atwood

 

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A city garden allotment in Eriksdalslunden, Stockholm on the Årstaviken inlet/canal. Imagine living in a beautiful, spacious pre-war apartment in Stockholm and having your very own garden hideaway several city blocks away. You can be placed on a waiting list for one of these coveted allotments, but you will wait 30 years!

 

In Stockholm, I found my way to a city park, which gave way to an enchanting neighborhood of garden allotments along the water, with a public, tree-lined hiking path. I saw the following passage in Swedish on a plaque. I used Google Translate to decipher it. Because that tool is imperfect, I took liberties and edited the passage, so it’s not a literal translation:

“From the cottages on the slopes above the Eriksdalslunden, with its aspen and small flowering gardens, look down to the water and the dark wilderness of coniferous forests across thew way; it’s as if you’ve been transported to Sweden’s Norrland (Northland). – Architect Osvald Almqvist, 1930s

 

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This garden allotment (kolonilottor) reminds me of a Carl Larsson painting.

 

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Allotment spring flowers (blommor)

 

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Parked along the Eriksdaslunden path

 

Birdsong and flowers in Eriksdaslunden:

 

 

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View from my airbnb in Skanstull, Stockholm, on Sunday morning, 6 am.

 

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The quaint old elevator in our airbnb. Or I can walk two floors up on a winding staircase.

 

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Good, strong Swedish coffee in a konditori, with cardamom and cinnamon buns, budapests, and princesses (these are the names of various desserts).  No such thing as decaf here.

 

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I’ve been carrying around (and not so much reading) the poetry of Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer. Here, his poem about espresso:

The black coffee they serve outdoors/among tables and chairs gaudy as insects.

Precious distillations/filled with the same strength as Yes and No.

It’s carried out from the gloomy kitchen/and looks into the sun without blinking.

In the daylight a dot of beneficent black/that quickly flows into a pale customer.

It’s like the drops of black profoundness/sometimes gathered up by the soul,

giving a salutary push: Go!/Inspiration to open your eyes.

 

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Tomas Tranströmer 1931 – 2015. His grave is in the Katarina Church cemetery in Stockholm. Many prominent Swedes are buried there, including actor Michael Nyqvist of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame.

 

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Katarina Church, Stockholm

 

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Stockholm light at 4 am.

 

 

My best 2018 read: The Overstory

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One of the most beautiful book covers I’ve ever seen

 

“We’re completely alienated from everything else alive.” Richard Powers, author of The Overstory, in an interview with The Guardian

In The Overstory, nine strangers are summoned by trees. According to the jacket copy, they become connected in “a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest.”

(This post contains a few spoilers, although so much happens in The Overstory‘s teeming universe, I don’t think these small giveaways will make a difference in your enjoyment of the novel.)

***

 

[Nicholas Hoel] “Later, he’ll wonder whether he knew already, there in the front doorway. But no: He must walk around to the foot of the stairs where his father is lying, head downward and arms bent at impossible angles, praising the floor….Upstairs, the two women curl up in their bedrooms and can’t be wakened – a late-morning sleep-in on Christmas Eve….Nick blunders through the front door, trips down the porch steps, and falls into the snow….When he looks up, it’s into the branches of the sentinel tree, lone, huge, fractal, and bare against the drifts, lifting its lower limbs and shrugging its ample globe. All its profligate twigs click in the breeze as if this moment, too, so insignificant, so transitory, will be written into its rings and prayed over by branches that wave their semaphores against the bluest of midwestern winter skies.”

 

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In Oregon’s H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, where I had a writer’s residency in 2018.  The research geologist/ecosystem scientist who gave us an introductory tour of the old growth forest referred to these ancient trees as Druids and elders.

 

[Mimi Ma] “She hears herself being paged over the airport speakers again and again. Each time she bolts upright, and each time the syllables turn back into other words. The flight is delayed. Then delayed again. She sits twisting the jade tree around her finger, tens of thousands of times. The things of this world mean nothing, except for this ring and the priceless ancient scroll in her carry-on. She wants only peace. But this is where she must live now: In the shadow of the bent mulberry….”

 

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In The Overstory, Dr. Patricia Westover conducts research in a forest modeled after the Andrews Experimental Forest.

 

[Adam Appich] “Adam waits, month by month, for the choked black walnut to die and take his baby brother with it, smothered in his own clown-covered coverlet. But both live, which only proves to Adam that life is trying to say something no one hears.”

 

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Taking the vital signs of the elders in the Andrews Experimental Forest

 

[Dorothy Cazaly] “…she drives up onto the curb and wraps the car around a parkway linden wide enough to destroy her front grille. Now, the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree…..It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety – a tree that cannot be mistaken for any other, for alone in all the catalog of a hundred thousand earthly species its flowers and tiny hard fruit hang down from surfboard bracts whose sole perverse purpose seems to be to state its own singularity. The lindens will come for her, starting with this ambush. But the full adoption will take years.”

 

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“Douglas Pavlicek works a clear-cut as big as downtown Eugene, saying goodbye to his plants as he tucks each one in. ‘Hang on. Only ten or twenty decades. Child’s play, for you guys. You just have to outlast us. Then no one will be left to fuck you over.’

 

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[Neelay Mehta] “…the alien invaders insert a thought directly into his limbic system. There will be a game, a billion times richer than anything yet made, to be played by countless people around the world at the same time. And Neelay must bring it into being. He’ll unfold the creation in gradual, evolutionary stages, over the course of decades. The game will put players smack in the middle of a living, breathing, seething animist world filled with millions of different species, a world desperately in need of the players’ help. And the goal of the game will be to figure out what the new and desperate world wants from you.”

 

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[Patricia Westerford] “For the three agonizing days of the conference, people nudge each other as she passes them in the halls of the hotel: There’s the woman who thinks that trees are intelligent…..

….she can’t believe what her animal fear was willing to make her do. The opinion of others left her ready to suffer the most agonizing of deaths….Her real life starts this night – a long, postmortem bonus round. Nothing in the years to come can do worse than she was ready to do to herself. Human estimation can no longer touch her. She’s free now to experiment. To discover anything.”

***

We’ve all been summoned like the characters in The Overstory, I believe, but whether we answer the call, in 2019 and beyond, remains to be seen.

See also my post, “When the ancient forest embraces you.”

 

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The forest canopy. The overstory refers to the tallest trees in the forest.

 

What were your favorite books in 2018?

When the ancient forest embraces you

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The H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest

 

embrace: to hold (someone) closely in one’s arms. From Middle English, encircle, surround, enclose; Old French, embracer, based on Latin ‘in’ ‘arm.’ (English Oxford Living Dictionaries)

Last week I had a writer’s residency in the 16,000-acre H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. West of the Oregon Cascades, the Andrews is the most studied forest in North American and perhaps the world. Much of the forest is old growth, and some of it is ancient – between 500 and 700 years old.

Over 100 research projects are ongoing there, many of them so long-term the original researchers won’t live to see the outcomes. Walking through the forest, you’re liable to encounter a team of scientists digging in the soil to find out what it reveals about decades past. Or a massive Douglas Fir wired with sensors and instruments downloading data 24/7, such as leaf wetness and relative humidity.  Listening to the forest canopy breathe may help us respond and adapt to climate change.

A fantastic thing about the Andrews Forest, which is supported by Oregon State University and the US Forest Service, is that the scientists and researchers there value partnerships with the those of us in the humanities.  The Long-Term Ecological Reflections Program, co-founded by Kathleen Dean Moore, invites writers, photographers, musicians, artists and philosophers to “reflect on the meaning and significance of the ancient forest ecosystem as the forest – and its relation to human culture – evolves over time.”

Writing, art and music produced by guest artists at the Andrews become part of the Andrews Forest Log, which will be compiled for two hundred years.

 

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Infinite colors and layers upon layers

 

Although I didn’t get a chance to do so during my stay, often writers and artists can tag along with scientists as they go about their research. My wish is to return to the Andrews so that I can go out with the spotted owl team – we’ll see.

I shared the beautiful Green House, trimmed in forest timber, with a talented writer (my son’s age!) and all-around beautiful person who has already in her young life drafted a novel and written and directed a play. Georgina and I were lucky that our stay overlapped for a couple of days with a working visit by photographer David Paul Bayles.

We spent an evening with David talking art and life. After you see David’s photos, you’ll never look at trees the same way – and you’ll understand why he refers to his photographs as magical realism. David spends hours in the forest shooting one photograph, followed by many more hours editing in his studio to achieve his singular technique.

“The forest is my cathedral and trees are my teachers,” David said. “I feel most at home and most comforted by them.” Take a look at his Old Growth Dialogue, photos from the Andrews Forest. On his website you can also order his book, Urban Forest: Images of Trees in the Human Landscape.

 

 

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“One of my meditations is from a guided journey I was led on years ago. I enter a very large tree through the needles near the ground and I course upward through veins and into my own curving, organic gallery space where the walls are always flowing and the art is always changing.” David Paul Bayles

 

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As for books and reading: at Andrews, I finished The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, a biography. I also read Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, Unsheltered, which will be published in mid-October. (A friend gave me an Advanced Reader’s Copy.)

I was anticipating synergies between the two books: Teddy Roosevelt fully embraced Darwin’s new theory of evolution, and Kingsolver’s novel tells the story of a 19th century instructor shunned for teaching his young students about Darwin’s theory.

I loved the Roosevelt biography but Unsheltered wasn’t for me.

I chose to read the biography because in my Oregon Master Naturalist class, one of the naturalist teachers literally hugged the volume as she referred to it as her bible. I don’t usually read biographies, especially of US presidents, but this one is fabulous. Author and historian Douglas Brinkley tells the story of Roosevelt’s passion for the natural world and how he set aside millions of acres in perpetuity for the public to enjoy. At 800 pages, it is a reading odyssey, but it’s well worth it if you’re interested in TR as an undeterred trailblazer of US conservation.

In the early 1900s, Roosevelt wrote in a letter that he thought the vast majority of the educated American public had come to accept the theory of evolution. I wonder how that compares with today?

 

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More than a foot wide

 

I read all of Barbara Kingsolver’s fiction – I loved The Poisonwood Bible, Flight Behavior, and The Lacuna – but I was disappointed in Unsheltered. The intertwined tales of two 19th century devotees of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and a modern-day family in crisis underwhelmed me.

UnshelteredKingsolver sometimes uses her characters as mouthpieces for her themes and political beliefs, and she does this whole-heartedly in Unsheltered. The dialogue is preachy and tiresome, especially between the modern-day out-of-work journalist and her professor husband. Granted, the two are intellectuals, but I found their conversations (even in bed!) heavy-handed and unbelievable.

I’m just starting Richard Powers’ latest novel, The Overstory, which has gotten excellent reviews. David Paul Bayles is reading it too, and he told us that the forest depicted in the novel is the HJ Andrews Forest!

I’ve heard this is a complex, multi-layered book. I’ll let you know what I think.

 

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Though not mentioned by name, the forest depicted in Powers’ novel is the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Awesome cover design, don’t you agree?

For the next few weeks, I’ll be working on a new “From Where I Stand” audio essay based on my stay at the Andrews Forest.

I don’t want to give away the theme of my essay, but here’s a clue: yesterday, a newly released report warned of a planetary climate crisis as early as 2040.

Oh, but some of us in this country don’t believe in science, do we?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Forest fire

 

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A nurse log

 

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The small forest treasures we can easily overlook. These are bird’s nest fungi.

 

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The rainy season arrives. Average annual rainfall in the Andrews Forest: over 7 feet.

 

Many thanks to the H.J. Andrews Forest folks for generously supporting opportunities for science and the humanities to meet and for enabling artists of all kinds to enjoy this special place.

Have you been reading good eco-fiction or nonfiction nature writing? Tell us about it.

 

One Thousand White Women

One Thousand“We curse the U.S. government, we curse the Army, we curse the savagery of mankind, white and Indian alike. We curse God in his heaven. Do not underestimate the power of a mother’s vengeance.”  One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

It is the mothers, not the warriors, who create a people and guide their destiny.” Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Lakota Chief (December 1868 – February 20, 1939)

Somehow it seems fitting and poignant that, just days after watching the sad, exhausting debacle of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, and having seen the #MeToo movement play out during the last year, I’m writing about Jim Fergus’s historical fiction, One Thousand White Women, first published in 1998. More about the hearing and #MeToo later, but first, the book.

J. Will Dodd, (fictitious) editor of a Chicago magazine, has always been curious about his great grandmother, May Dodd, an ancestral family embarrassment who supposedly died in an insane asylum in 1876. Dodd’s research leads him to a Northern Cheyenne reservation, where he is given access to May’s journals, which tell her story, and the larger story of a group of white women sent on an extraordinary journey.

When she was a young woman, May Dodd left her wealthy family to live, unmarried, with a man beneath her station. They had two children. To get his scandalous embarrassment of a daughter out of the way, May’s father took her children and committed May to an insane asylum, where she met other supposedly mentally unfit women who didn’t conform to contemporary norms deemed appropriate for females.

This part of the story is true: in the 1850s, a Cheyenne chief, recognizing his people would not prevail against their white conquerors, proposed to the US government that his tribe be given one thousand white women to marry in exchange for one thousand horses. The Cheyenne culture was matrilineal, and the chief felt such marriages could be a way to peacefully unite the two cultures. His proposal horrified the US government, and he was turned down.

But the author Jim Fergus concocted a “what if” story. What if one thousand white women had indeed been traded to the Cheyenne?

Fergus set his fictitious story in 1875, the year before Custer’s Last Stand, and so readers mindful of history sense a looming thundercloud of doom. May Dodd gladly exchanges imprisonment in an asylum for marriage to a “savage,” hoping eventually for her freedom and reunification with her children. May is a maverick, markedly unconventional. If you peruse reader reviews on Goodreads, you’ll see that many readers find her character unbelievable for her time.

Another criticism of the novel is the voice of May Dodd. For some readers, she sounds too modern, too irreverent, not at all like a Victorian woman abruptly shipped off to the Wild West to marry a Cheyenne chief:

“Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages.” 

Some readers of literary fiction don’t generally read popular, trade list fiction, which is how I would categorize this novel. Sometimes the prose can be pedestrian and clichéd instead of fresh and nuanced, and the story can be more plot-driven while the characters may not be especially well rounded or complex.

I did find this to be the case with One Thousand White Women at first, but ultimately I was captured by the author’s compelling premise. Deeper into the story, I began to wonder about May Dodd. While at first she seemed unrealistic, maybe that’s because unconventional or transgressive females of her time haven’t been written about. May’s thoughts and words didn’t always ring true to me. But eventually, an unusual and arresting narrative unfolded, overshadowing any writing deficits.

Jim Fergus has lived in the West most of his life. He knows it well, he is an accomplished historical researcher and, as far as I can tell, he is intimately familiar with and has a deep respect for Native American culture. Astonishingly to me, May Dodd and her female companions assimilate into Cheyenne culture within a matter of months.

I questioned this. Surely, women wouldn’t have acted that way. Would white Christian women so quickly embrace a culture so different? Would they stomach polygamy? Paganism?  Frigid South Dakota winters living in teepees? Would May Dodd really become friends with her Cheyenne husband’s other wives and grow to love Chief Little Wolf? One Thousand White Women explores and shatters cultural “rules” of race, marriage, religion, and gender in a way that resonates with our contemporary times.

“It must have been a dream, for my husband was now in the tent with me, he was still dancing softly, noiselessly, his moccasined feet rising and falling gracefully, soundlessly, he spun softly around the fire, shaking his gourd rattle, which made no sound, danced like a spirit being around me where I lay sleeping. I began to become aroused, felt a tingling in my stomach, an erotic tickle between my thighs, the immutable pull of desire as he displayed to me.”

Fergus’s evocative depiction of Cheyenne culture and bone-deep spiritual connection to nature, a connection May Dodd and the other women readily embrace, is remarkable. A series of entrancing scenes depict May’s new life: She rises at dawn on a silent morning after a snowfall and walks to the frozen pond for her daily immersion; she relishes her Cheyenne family listening to stories and playing games around a fire in their tent on a dark winter evening. Cast out by her white family, May is welcomed by her Cheyenne family.

“How strange to recall that six months ago we departed Fort Laramie as anxious white women entering the wilderness for the first time; and now, perhaps equally anxious, we leave as squaws returning home. I realized anew as we rode into the cold wind on this morning that my own commitment had been sealed forever by the heart that beats in my belly, that I could not have remained even if I so wished.”

May and the other women and the Cheyenne know that come spring all remaining Native Americans on the frontier must turn themselves in to the US government. They will be moved to reservations, forced to give up their freedom and way of life forever.

An American tragedy plays out in the final pages.

Here are the words of John G. Bourke, a soldier who actually lived during that time and who has a major part in One Thousand White Women. This quote is not from the novel, but from John’s memoir, which was published in 1891:

“The youngster wrapped his blanket about him and stood like a statue of bronze, waiting for the fatal bullet. The American Indian knows how to die with as much stoicism as the East Indian. I leveled my pistol…” John G. Bourke,  On the Border with Crook

I was thinking about May’s commitment to an insane asylum for her transgressions of having children outside of marriage with a man of no wealth. I’ve been working on a memoir about my mother, who was in a psychiatric hospital for a short time. Yes, she had a serious mental illness, but I’ve come to realize as I’ve worked on several drafts that some of her “symptoms” were normal, understandable reactions to sexism and misogyny, and prejudice against women likely contributed to her illness.

When I watched the confounding Kavanaugh hearing – another American tragedy – Dr. Blasey telling her story to all those male senators and the world, Brett Kavanaugh and Lindsay Graham ranting, the women who had been sexually assaulted confronting Jeff Flake in the elevator –  I thought about how dangerous it was to be a woman in 1875 and 1982, and how dangerous it is still in 2018.

One Thousand White Women was originally published in 1998 and has been popular with book clubs. Have you read it by any chance, and what did you think? Where do you think women stand now in light of #MeToo?

 

Love and Ruin

LoveandRuin “We’d come all the way through the mine-filled Channel and now were sitting below the high yellow-green cliffs of Normandy surrounded by more ships than I had ever seen in my life or even knew existed. Thousands upon thousands of them made up the armada, massive destroyers and transport vessels and battleships. Small snub-nosed boats and cement barges and Ducks carried troops to the beaches, which were alive with pure chaos. Once they made the beach, there were two hundred yards or more of open ground to survive and then the cliffs. Overhead, the sky was a thick gray veil strung through with thousands of planes.”

There had never been anything like it, nor would there ever be.”  – Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain

I didn’t know that Martha Gellhorn, war correspondent and Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, was the only reporter with the Allied troops when they landed at Normandy on D-Day, and the only woman among 160,000 soldiers. At a time when female journalists were not permitted on the battlefield, Martha stowed away on a hospital ship the night before the landing. Ernest Hemingway and other male reporters tried their utmost to gain access to the battlefield that day; where they failed, Gellhorn succeeded magnificently. Her story has been beautifully re-created by Paula McLain in Love and Ruin.

I’m not typically a fan of fictionalized versions of real people’s lives, but I trust McLain because I’ve enjoyed her other novels: Circling the Sun, about Beryl Markham, and The Paris Wife, which depicts Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife, Hadley.

I’d assumed that by the time he met his third wife, Ernest Hemingway was well on his way to burning out, but that is not the case. Hemingway was at his peak and the most famous living writer in the world when he and Martha Gellhorn began a passionate love affair while he was married to his second wife, Pauline.

Martha Gellhorn was a ravishing beauty; she and Hemingway had a powerful mutual attraction. Martha had just published her first novel, and Hemingway mentored Martha to a degree unusual for male writers of his day. He encouraged her to dodge bullets, bombs, and mines with him as they covered the Spanish Civil War, Martha’s first immersion as a war correspondent. Hemingway has said that Gellhorn inspired him to write For Whom the Bell Tolls, which he dedicated to her. For a handful of years, Hemingway and Gellhorn enjoyed an extraordinary literary collaboration.

“….I loaded into a cement ambulance barge with a handful of doctors and medics, crashing through the surf around floating mines lit up by a flashing strobe. Soon I would know we’d landed on the American sector of Omaha Beach, but for the moment there was only horror and chaos. We bumped through severed limbs and the bloated forms of the drowned. Artillery fire shattered the air in every directions. Planes roared over us, so close my skull vibrated, but there wasn’t even time to wonder whose side they were on.”

I found Paula McLain’s depiction of Hemingway in Love and Ruin to be somewhat thin. For me, her rendering of Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, in The Paris Wife was far more emotionally compelling than that of Hemingway and Gellhorn, but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment of Love and Ruin.

I think what interested Paula McLain (and me, too) is Martha’s larger-than-life risk-taking, how it matched Hemingway’s, and how their love for each other fueled their work. Ultimately, their relationship didn’t – and probably couldn’t – last, given Martha’s independent spirit and Hemingway’s sexism – he was a male of his time. Hemingway betrayed Martha terribly, in more ways than one, when she would not stay home by his side and have a child.

Near the beach, we flung ourselves out into the icy water and waded to shore. The surf came to my waist and tugged at my clothes. I stumbled, feeling chilled to my core, but I couldn’t be dragged down. I had to hold up my end of the stretcher and stay between the white-taped lines that marked the places that had been cleared of mines.

We picked up everyone, anyone, even Germans, and assembled them all on the beach for triage. They were young and scared and cold and hurt, and it didn’t really matter how they’d been wounded, or who they were before this precise moment of need. Every last one of them made me feel gutted, and there were hours of this. Blood-soaked bandages, flares sailing like red silk over the beach with a pop, tanks, and bodies. Men and more men. Men with boys’ faces. Boys spilling their lives into the tide….

It was the strangest and longest night of my life. Later I would learn that there were a hundred thousand men on that beach and only one woman, me. I was also the first journalist, male or female, to make it there and report back.”

After Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn continued to have a full, rich life. She wrote prolifically into her eighties, publishing novels, nonfiction, essays, and plays, and covered every major war during the second half of the twentieth century, including Viet Nam. Gellhorn, photojournalist Dickie Chapelle, and a handful of other brave women blazed a trail for the many more great female war correspondents to come.

Given that journalists are being called “enemies of the American people,” and many reporters are deeply concerned about the threats of violence they receive daily, I think it’s timely and fortunate that Paula McLain has celebrated Martha Gellhorn in her latest novel.

“The Women Who Covered Viet Nam”  is an excellent article written by war correspondent Elizabeth Becker, a good, short read if you’d like to know more about women reporters of that era. For a riveting story about a contemporary war correspondent who lost her life, read “Marie Colvin’s Private War” in Vanity Fair. Town & Country recently featured an article about Martha Gellhorn written by Paula McLain, with great historical photos.  Goodreads has a list of memoirs by women journalists.

Here, Paula McLain talks about Love and Ruin at Mentor Public Library, a suburb of Cleveland (my hometown!) where McLain currently lives:

 

 

Here, she talks about poetry and inspiration:

 

 

Have you read Love and Ruin, or any of McLain’s other novels? If so, what did you think? Let us know in the comments.

Mountain, desert, iceberg adrift…and Books Can Save a Life, 2018

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Antarctic mountain, 2017. (Photo by J. Hallinan)

 

Adrift, and a timely new edition of a little-known book

One year ago, my husband left for a two-week expedition to Antarctica. He traveled with 90 other tourists aboard a former research vessel and ice breaker. It was the trip of a lifetime, and he was among the sixteen or so tourists who ventured out kayaking. I asked him to bring back some sounds of Antarctica, and he did.

Finally, in November, I created an audio essay, “Adrift,” from some of those recordings, and it was published as part of my “From Where I Stand” series on Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environment. The audio essay is six minutes long, and I hope you’ll take a few moments and listen. I would appreciate comments, thoughts, and feedback here or on Terrain.org. If you’re intrigued, please check out the other poems, articles, letters, and features on Terrain.org, an outstanding online journal.

I gave my audio essay the title “Adrift” for a variety of reasons. For one thing, this past summer a massive iceberg broke off from the Antarctic mainland, alarming climate scientists and environmentalists. The rogue iceberg has since been floating away from mainland Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. “Adrift” also came to mind because our country is more seriously adrift than ever in regards to acknowledging climate change and taking action.

 

Kayakers

Encounter with an Antarctic glacier

 

This past Christmas, our older son who is the avid reader brought home the novel Ice by Anna Kavan. I’d been seeing the 50th Anniversary Edition online, but I’d never heard of the book or the author. Curious, I read the novel in an evening. It embodies the lost feeling of being adrift in the worst possible way. It’s difficult to summarize Ice, except to say that it is a singular, dystopian masterpiece that is eerily of our time, even though it was written in the 1960s. Reading it at this particular moment is especially resonant, given the recent bomb cyclone and deep freeze in the eastern half of the United States. In the novel, ice and bone-chilling cold encroach on the world due to an unnamed environmental or nuclear disaster. Ice is, in part, the story of an ecocatastrophe.  (This is the apt word of a New York Times reviewer, not mine). 

It is also the story of a man searching for a woman; he finds her but then loses her. He finds her again but then is somehow apart from her. And on and on, his search continues, as in a dream from which he can’t awaken. Reviewers say that his endless, obsessive search is in part a metaphor for the author’s struggle with drug addiction.

In the novel’s foreword, Jonathan Lethem writes that Ice has a nightmarish quality, with a disjointed, endless loop of a narrative similar to the style of Kazuo Ishiguro, and I know what he means: the tone and narrative reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. It’s a disturbing novel by a relatively unknown author who has not gotten the attention she deserves, an arresting but bleak story. There is, though, a note of redemption on the last pages.

 

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A dark story with an unconventional narrative that may frustrate some readers. If you like this type of fiction, it’s well worth reading.

 

Books Can Save a Life, 2018

In a sense, my husband and I have been adrift, too, but in a more positive way. If you’ve been following Books Can Save a Life, you know that in October we left our dear, long-time upstate New York home and embarked on a cross country journey by car and train, stopping at several National Parks and scenic places in search of adventure and a new home.

In November, we landed in Portland, Oregon and in December we found the place that we’ll be calling home, at least for the next year: the high desert of Bend, Oregon. We’ve signed a year’s lease on an adorable bungalow in Bend’s historic district, known as Old Bend. Our intention is to spend the year immersing in nature – a face of nature that is novel and new for us, embodied in the dry climate east of the Cascade mountains.

We’d also like to see if we can learn to live more sustainably, in a more ecologically responsible way.

For example, we’ve chosen to live in a neighborhood where we can walk to the grocery store, the library, church, coffee shops, and restaurants. At the moment, we own one car, not two. We may take classes in permaculture and we’re looking into Oregon’s Master Naturalist and Master Gardener programs. Joe has signed up to renew his Wilderness First Responder Certification.

On Books Can Save a Life, books will continue to be the unifying thread, but I hope also to write about our lifestyle changes and their challenges. Concurrently, I’ll continue to highlight environmental and nature writers such as Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben, and other modern-day prophets who are deeply connected to the natural world.

As always, I hope to feature other important, topical fiction and nonfiction as well. Jaron Lanier was one of the writers new to me in 2017 who impressed me the most, with his vision of a humanitarian information/technology economy. These are challenging times, and I’d like to focus on novelists and nonfiction writers like Lanier who give us visions of a more humane world.

 

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A different kitchen window, a new view. This day, we awoke to lots of sunshine.

 

Originally, I began writing Books Can Save a Life to extend my author platform in preparation for publishing a memoir about mental illness in my family. Now, I have a rather ungainly memoir draft that needs cutting and that’s offering me plenty of opportunities for further creativity and deepening. (In other words, it needs revising. :))

As time goes on I’m more convinced that memoirs are making a difference. To that end, on Books Can Save a Life I’ll continue to occasionally tell you about memoirs that I think are exceptional, as well as books and writers concerned with maintaining and deepening creative practices like writing and art.

In the meantime, here are a few glimpses of our new home:

 

ThreePonderosa

Our former backyard in New York had two large beech trees and a hemlock tree. I think we must have been unconsciously looking for the same thing: now we have three huge ponderosa pines.

FrostedPonderosa2

Lightly frosted ponderosa pine. When it snows here, the sky is silvery-white, not the dark gray of places we’re used to. Of course, we haven’t been here long, so we’re not sure what is typical!

 

FrostyPine

 

LittleTree

A Charlie Brown tree

 

RaisedBeds

Raised beds waiting to be reclaimed

 

Pinecones

A lifetime supply

 

BungalowColors

Old Bend bungalows are painted in deep, earthy colors.

 

Pumice

The Cascade Mountains were formed from volcanic activity in the Pacific Ring of Fire. The home we’re renting, and many of the homes in Old Bend, have foundations made from pumice, and pillars and chimneys fashioned from basalt, which formed from rapidly cooling lava.

 

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A view from Mount Bachelor, where Joe and I went snowshoeing amidst the downhill skiers. This snow-capped mountain is one of the Three Sisters (I think!). The volunteer rangers who were our guides told us about the volcanic history of the Cascades. They also mentioned that Bend will be a major disaster relief center when the Cascadia earthquake happens sometime in the next fifty years. People here say “when,” and not “if” when they talk about the Cascadia quake.

Home

All the books are in place in our new home, of course.

 

Next up: Our older son recommended Ice, which was my final read of 2017. I’m giving equal time to our younger son, whose Christmas gift to us was Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. It’s a tremendously inspiring book (even though I have no interest in starting a business), my first read of 2018, originally meant to be a manual for Patagonia employees. I know that sounds boring, but it’s not. It’s been translated into ten language. A new edition was published in 2016.

 

FrostyTree

 

Happy New Year to all, and let me know what you’re reading!

Old Florida

SpanishMoss

Savannah, Georgia

BookLadyOn our road trip across the US (south to Florida, then west to Tucson, Arizona, then north to Portland, Oregon) we spent nearly two weeks visiting family in the St. Petersburg area. Along the way, we stopped in Savannah, Georgia, my first time in that lovely city. An afternoon wasn’t nearly long enough, but we did visit The Book Lady Bookstore on East Liberty Street.

They had a display devoted to the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, who lived most of her life in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she raised peacocks and wrote short stories and novels. Her shocking story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is taught in many high school English classes. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth your time, I promise you. I’ve never forgotten that story, although I’m not a fan of O’Connor’s novels – her protagonists, obsessed with working out their salvation, are too strange for me.

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A Flannery O’Connor display at The Book Lady

But seeing the display called up memories and reminded me how much I enjoyed her collection of letters, The Habit of Being. Many years ago, when I lived in New York City, the assistant rector of the Episcopal church I attended taught a class on Flannery O’Connor. Fleming, our rector, who was from the South, led us in reading her stories and letters, and I was extra thrilled because The New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell,  a Southerner himself, was in the class, too.

St. Petersburg

There are many things about Florida that I love, but I’m allergic to all the over-development and the acres of generic condos and shopping centers. There is plenty to do near the beautiful St. Pete waterfront though, and when our sons came down we enjoyed some of the shops and restaurants. (They enjoyed the music and night life, too.) We bought red snapper, grouper, and shrimp from a local fish market that had dozens of ice chests overflowing with fresh catches, and our sons did the cooking.

In Florida, I always look hard for bits of nature and local culture, so I was extra happy when we rented a sweet little apartment in a hidden alley in one of the older St. Petersburg neighborhoods. Some of the streets are cobblestone and lined SleepingPorchwith adorable Old Florida bungalows, many being renovated. Even though most of the windows of our airbnb were painted shut, we had air conditioning, and two large windows in the sleeping porch let in breezes from Tampa Bay two blocks away.

In the yard, I found lots of angel hair fern. We used to add this delicate bit of greenery to the roses we sold by the dozen in my family’s flower shop in Ohio.

This part of Florida reminds me of one of my favorite books growing up, The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Years later, I discovered, and loved, Marjorie’s memoir, Cross Creek. (There is a Cross Creek Cookery book, too.)

AngelHair

I love angel hair fern.

 
The ‘burbs

We had many happy visits with extended family in the St. Pete suburbs after we left our airbnb.  We walked in the neighborhood every day. It was warm and humid, with occasional light rain that felt wonderful.

 

SandhillCrane

A sandhill crane waits for a bus

 

Ibis

Ibis, following their leader

 

AfterRain

After the rain

 

BigLeaves

They grow them big,

 

Garden

My sister-in-law has a kitchen garden with herbs and veggies, including plenty of Thai basil.

 
We passed by this wind sculpture on our walk every day:

 

 
In the evenings, my niece, my sister-in-law and her mother, and I tried Chinese brush painting for the first time. We taught ourselves how to grind the ink, which is pressed into sticks and colorful rectangles, and mix it with water in an ink stone. Then we practiced brush strokes and painted our first, simple pictures. It was fun!

 

Chick

My attempt to paint a chick

 

RabbitBamboo

My sister-in-law’s mother made a beautiful rabbit and this beautiful bamboo.

 
The Panhandle

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to family and move on to the Florida panhandle and points west along our Deep South route. We stayed in Destin, our final visit in Florida, which had a lovely beach that we had almost to ourselves. It was beside a sea turtle breeding ground and state park, and there was a hidden garden teeming with Monarch butterflies.

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Destin, Florida. There are military bases in nearby Pensacola, so we heard jets taking off from time to time.

 

Monarch

In a garden on the beach in Destin, there were hundreds of monarch butterflies.

 

Tracks

Places to go….

 

DestinSunrise

Sunrise, Destin, Florida. (Photo by J. Hallinan, who gets up much earlier than I do.)

 

TheYearling

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ classic coming-of-age story, set in backwoods Florida, 1930s

 

CrossCreek

Her memoir.

 

TheHabitofBeing

Flannery was a great writer of letters.

 

The Invention of Nature

This is what I’ve been reading on the road. It’s wonderful! More about it later…

Coming up: Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans

Traveling, immersing in nature, visiting bookstores. Do these experiences call up memories of books read long ago?

 

My Absolute Darling

MyAbsoluteDarling“Martin holds his burning cigarette upright. The cherry is just barely visible in the dark; above it, the tower of ash. He turns it slowly, inspecting it from all angles. He says, ‘You want me to eat that scorpion?’

‘Try it!’ Cayenne says.

Turtle can see that the girl wants to share this with him. She wants this to be something they’ve all done together. But Turtle doesn’t want him to do it. She wants to show Cayenne something important here, about her own substance and about Martin’s because Martin, Turtle thinks, is afraid.

Martin says, ‘You didn’t eat a scorpion.’

‘Why would we make this shit up?’ Turtle says.

Martin chews his lip. At last, he says, ‘You really want to see me eat this scorpion, huh?'” – My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent

This novel and its author have been getting so much attention, I had to find out what all the fuss was about. Stephen King declared My Absolute Darling a masterpiece, and there are endorsement quotes on the book jacket from Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for the short story collection Redeployment, and Celeste Ng, author of the novel Everything I Never Told You. All are writers I’ve enjoyed whose opinions I respect.

On the other hand, another writer I like, Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, is not a fan of My Absolute Darling.

So readers are divided about this first novel by Gabriel Tallent, whose mother, by the way, is the writer Elizabeth Tallent. I decided to read other reviews before I wrote this post because I was conflicted about the novel, and I wanted to see if these could help clarify my thinking. If you are up for reading a disturbing story of incest and obsessive love, I do recommend My Absolute Darling. I think the book has flaws but, in the end, they didn’t fatally undermine the story for me, which is a true page-turner – I stayed up late reading it on two consecutive nights. And despite its dark theme, the protagonist, 14-year-old Turtle, is a brave, noble spirit I won’t soon forget.

Turtle lives with her father, Martin, on the northern California coast near Mendocino. Martin is an autodidact partial to reading David Hume and other inscrutable texts of the great philosophers, a survivalist waiting for the end of the world, and a sociopath who is sexually abusing his daughter. Guns are everywhere in their decrepit house, as well as stocks of food and medical supplies. Martin began teaching Turtle how to shoot when she was six, and now she is an excellent markswoman with superb survival skills.

Martin worships Turtle as a goddess he can’t live without, but his mood can turn on a dime and Turtle suddenly turns to filth in his eyes. Having endured this abuse for years, Turtle has a fragile sense of herself. When two boys from the local high school come into her life and Turtle develops a crush on one of them, Turtle realizes that forming bonds with others endangers them. Turtle must go to great lengths, both inside herself and out in the world, to break free from the dark power her father holds over her.

Tallent’s prose can be flashy and mesmerizing. There is a strong sense of place, with lush descriptions of coastal California. Sometimes the language is technical and the paragraphs are long, peppered with words I wasn’t familiar with but, generally, this didn’t bother me; other readers may feel this interferes with the story. I love good nature writing and, for the most part, I felt that Tallent nailed the dramatic beauty and wildness of the California coast.

The writing was sometimes over the top in other ways. For example, Martin, Turtle’s father, could be so senselessly sadistic, he sometimes wasn’t believable. I think the author wanted to write a keep-the-pages-turning story, and he may have been influenced by the current highly sensational nature of movies and television drama. I’m revealing my age as far as literary taste goes, and younger readers might not find aspects of the story so extreme. That said, there are also echoes of fine literary works evident, among them The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lolita. These deepen and enrich the story of Turtle and Martin.

More problematic than Tallent’s occasionally self-conscious prose are issues that Roxane Gay points out in a Goodreads review. Gay, who has written about sexual abuse, feels that there are elements of Turtle and Martin’s incestuous relationship that Tallent simply got wrong. I can’t speak to this, but I did feel, occasionally, that Turtle would not have acted in certain ways or that she would have made different decisions. Destructive relationships are complicated, and it’s incredibly difficult to capture the psychological dynamics involved.

I’m listing so many caveats you might think I didn’t like the novel, but that’s not the case. Turtle is an unusual heroine, a real survivor, though not the kind her father envisioned. Gabriel Tallent is young – about thirty – and he chose to tell an extremely challenging story.  His writing will mature. He’s now working on a second novel.

Here are a few more excerpts from My Absolute Darling:

“‘You are the most beautiful thing,’ he says, ‘that’s what I think. Everything about you, kibble, is perfect. Every detail. You are the platonic ideal of yourself. Your every blemish, every scratch, is inimitable elaboration on your beauty and your wildness. You look like a naiad. You look like a girl raised by wolves. You know that?'”

********

“Walk away, Turtle. Just walk away from him, and if he follows after and if he will not let you go, you kill him. He’s given you everything and all you need to do is walk away. Do you remember when blood ran in your veins like cool, clear water? You could find that place again and it would be hard but it would be good. Nothing and no one can keep you away from it; only you can take yourself back into the dark, only you can do that. He can’t do it to you, and don’t lie about that. So walk away, Turtle. Think about your soul, and walk away.”

Who else has read this novel by a brand new American novelist, and what did you think? I’d love to hear from other readers.

Salvage the Bones

SalvagetheBones“I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”    Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Last week, as Hurricane Harvey had its way with Houston, I wrote about an excellent work of investigative journalism that came out of Hurricane Katrina: Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital,

This week, as Hurricane Irma gathered strength, I finally got around to reading Jesmyn Ward’s fine novel about Hurricane Katrina, Salvage the Bones.

Jesmyn grew up with her family in rural Mississippi trailer parks. Her father had been a gang member; he eventually abandoned the family, but not before the pit bull he was raising attacked Jesmyn, sending her to the hospital.

In 2005, Jesmyn’s family survived Hurricane Katrina. They had to evacuate her grandmother’s house, wade through chest deep water, and wait out the storm in their cars as flood waters swirled around them. Jesmyn was moved to write a novel about the hurricane, in part, because people seemed to forget about Katrina’s devastation long before the land and the people were healed. As a writer, she also must have been compelled to translate this life-threatening and life-changing episode into art.

Salvage the Bones is about an African American family and their rural community of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, where most of the residents are poor, much like the place where Jesmyn grew up. It’s written from the viewpoint of 15-year-old Esch, who has just discovered she is pregnant. She has three brothers and a hard-drinking father; one of her brothers is raising pit bulls for fighting. China, the pit bull mama, is just as much a character as the people in this novel, as well as a symbol of strength, power, and vengeance.

In the opening pages, I felt a stranger to this family, whose experiences and culture are so foreign to mine even though we live in the same country. By the end, I’d fallen in love with Esch and her family. I even had a grudging respect for China the pit bull, which says something about the power of Ward’s writing – I’ve always disliked and feared pit bulls. I couldn’t help but be awed by Jesmyn West’s fiction. Her writing is outstanding – fierce, evocative, and gritty.  Jesmyn has said that she strives for a “narrative ruthlessness.” Salvage won the National Book Award in 2011.

I plan to read Jesmyn’s memoir next. Men We Reaped is about the deaths of Jesmyn’s brother and four other young black men she knew due to car accidents, drugs, and suicide. And she’s just published another novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing.

You can listen to an interview with Jesmyn Ward on NPR at this link.

Have you read any books by Jesmyn Ward? What about the literature of natural disasters – any books to recommend?

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