Pandemic Reading: Kristin Lavransdatter

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“An older woman sitting by me on the subway, or waiting beside me in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or having lunch at a nearby table, would cross the boundary separating strangers in order to volunteer that she, too, had once read Kristin Lavransdatter – a remark accompanied by that special glow which comes at the recollection of a distant but enduring pleasure.”  – Brad Leithauser, from the Introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter.

 

“He was well, but had cast himself into a wild life, just as many young people, out of despair, had done. They said that whoever was afraid would be sure to die, and so they blunted their fear with carousing and drinking, playing cards, dancing, and carrying on with women.” – Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

 

Historical fiction is what I’ve been immersed in lately, what with watching the Outlander series and reading the remarkable 14th century Norwegian trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter.  I first read The Wreath, The Wife, and The Cross by Sigrid Undset when I was in my twenties, thanks to my college roommate, Kathy, (of Norwegian descent) who highly recommended it. I vowed to read it again someday from the perspective of a good portion of life lived. A few weeks ago I ordered it; the time was right, I thought, especially because the Black Plague has a part to play in Kristin’s story and we’re living through our own time’s pandemic.

The story centers around the life of Kristin from childhood to elderhood, and her sexual, emotional, familial and spiritual pilgrimage across the span of life. I see many similarities between Kristin and Claire Fraser, the protagonist of Outlander.

Published in 1920, 1921, and 1922, Kristin Lavransdatter was a worldwide literary sensation. Sigrid Undset won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928.

Here is something about Sigrid’s singular protagonist from the Introduction to the edition I’m reading:

IMG_2179“In the annals of literary ‘fallen women,’ Kristin Lavransdatter, the twentieth-century/fourteenth-century literary figure, occupies a curious and fascinating place. After they fell, a number of Kristin’s nineteenth-century counterparts were whisked offstage, often to meet a premature end. In the latter part of the twentieth century, many of Kristin’s successors were sexual adventuresses whose exploits were pure and liberated triumphs. Writing in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Undset chose a middle path for her heroine. Kristin never doubts that she has covertly sinned, and the pain of her deceptions remains a lifelong affliction. Even so, her unshakable guilt in no way paralyzes her and she carries on with her life. Throughout the trilogy, Kristin is an indomitable presence in every role she undertakes….”

At age seven Kristin gazes at the view from her home:

“There were forest-clad mountain slopes below her in all directions; her valley was no more than a hollow between the enormous mountains, and the neighboring valleys were even smaller hollows; there were many of them, and yet there were fewer valleys than there were mountains. On all sides gray domes, golden-flamed with lichen, loomed above the carpet of forest; and far off in the distance, toward the horizon, stood blue peaks with white glints of snow, seeming to merge with the grayish-blue and dazzling white summer clouds. But to the northeast, close by – just beyond the pasture woods – stood a cluster of magnificent stone-blue mountains with streaks of new snow on their slopes…

She knew that wolves and bears reigned in the forest, and under every rock lived trolls and goblins and elves, and she was suddenly afraid, for no one knew how many there were, but there were certainly many more of them than of Christian people.”  

Kristian Lavransdatter seemed to fall out of favor for a time, but it is having something of a resurgence. My son and his girlfriend are waiting eagerly in line to read it once I’m finished. (My son lives in the heart of the US Covid outbreak in Brooklyn, and we were glad when he was able to stay temporarily near to us. Yesterday was a fine, warm day, and he and his girlfriend came for a socially distanced visit. They brought a blanket and sat on the grass while I picked weeds. We talked about the books we’re reading.)

 

 

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At over 1100 pages, the trilogy I have is the beautifully produced, deckle edged Penguin Classics Deluxe edition, with smooth, cream-colored paper, translated by Tiina Nunnally. Helpful footnotes – not too many – explain aspects of medieval Norwegian life.

 

This line in particular, which refers to the time of the Black Death, spoke to me as something that could be said about our current pandemic:

“Now it almost seemed as if all people were equally close and distant to each other at this time of great need.”

Kristin was skilled in herbal and healing remedies:

“They now had to do the milking and chores in the cowshed themselves; they cooked their own food, and they brought back juniper and fresh evergreen branches for the cleansing smoke. Everyone did whatever task needed doing. They nursed the sick as best they could and handed out healing remedies: their supplies of theriac and calamus root were gone, but they doled out ginger, pepper, saffron, and vinegar against the sickness, along with milk and food. When the bread ran out, they baked at night; when the spices were gone, people had to chew on juniper berries and pine needles against the sickness.” 

 

 

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One of the murals in Älekulla Church, Sweden, where my great, great, great grandfather lived. Christian morality and the medieval church have central roles in the life of Kristin Lavransdatter. Reading it, I’ve been reminded of the rural churches I visited last spring in the Swedish towns where my grandparents lived.

 

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In a distant century, my ancestor donated this Bible to his church in Älekulla. (In his handwritten dedication, he calls the Bible “his greatest treasure.”) I’d hoped to return to Sweden to do more family research this summer, but I won’t be getting on a plane anytime soon.

 

My dear friend Kathy of Blueberry Hills Art first introduced me to Kristin Lavransdatter. Please follow the link and check out her gorgeous website, which just made its debut. She’s on Instagram, too. Here is one of her woodcut prints, which reminds me of the nature that infuses Kristin’s world:

 

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Fritsla Church, Sweden

 

Kristin Lavransdatter is wonderful reading, especially if you’re spending hours at home. Have you read it? What are you reading these days? I have some special books to share with you in my next post; they are making my pandemic days richer.

Station Eleven (for real this time (almost))

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“Couldn’t put it down,” my son says, leaving Station Eleven on a chair outside my door, which is propped open a few inches with – what else – a book. A friend sent him the novel, urging him to read it. We talk about it through the glass door for a few minutes, but it’s cold outside and my son returns to the apartment he’s living in, temporarily, in the complex next to ours.

His being here has given my life a small, gratifying purpose during the pandemic; I enjoy cooking hot meals for him, which we leave in a paper bag on our front stoop or deliver to his doorstep.

Look, I’m a mom. I’d hoped our son would choose to take a break from the NYC borough and neighborhood he’s loyal to – a place that still has obscene daily death tolls. But it was up to him. We were lucky to find a place in Rochester where he could land (and quarantine for a couple of weeks in case he’s a carrier.)

“Think of it as an artist’s residency,” I’d said. “You can work on your photo editing.”

I pick up the copy of Station Eleven, wipe it down even though it’s a paperback. What’s great about having had Books Can Save a Life for over eight years is, I can go back to see what I wrote about a book years ago. Some books shine the more time passes. Below is what I wrote about Station Eleven in 2014: I’d choose different excerpts now, and in fact have added one at the end that is a bit of a spoiler, but which has remained emblazoned in my memory over the years.

I get that some of you can’t bear to read about a pandemic now. One reason you might choose to is Emily’s transcendent concluding chapter that celebrates youth and a vision for a different, hopefully better, world. But of course I understand if pandemic books are not the thing for you at the moment!

I do urge you, though, to listen to six minutes of the magnificent Ursula K. Le Guin below. Sadly, she is no longer with us, but her words resonate in 2020. She passed away in 2018.

Here’s the post I wrote in 2014:

“On Day Seven the networks began to blink off the air, one by one. ‘So that all of our employees may be with their families,’ a CNN anchor said, ashen and glassy-eyed after forty-eight hours without sleep, ‘we are temporarily suspending broadcast operations.’ ‘Good night,’ NBC said an hour later, ‘and good luck.’ CBS switched without comment to reruns of America’s Got Talent. This was at five in the morning, and everyone who was awake watched for a few hours – it was nice to take a quick break from the end of the world – and then in the early afternoon the lights went out.”     Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

I’ve been reading dystopian fiction lately and looking forward to the third installment of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. Just as I dipped into pandemic-ridden Station Eleven, Ebola was front and center in the news. Reality and fiction are getting too close for comfort.

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a National Book Award finalist, portrays a flu pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population in a matter of days. We see the end of advanced civilization through the eyes of five characters, and the first decades after the collapse.

Clark is a corporate consultant who specializes in coaching problematic executives and CEOs to change their behavior. Days before the outbreak of the Georgia flu, Clark interviews an especially perceptive employee to see what others think of a particular manager. I love this exchange:

“‘….it’s like the corporate world is full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front-row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.'”

“‘I’m talking about these people who have ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that….but I don’t think he even realizes it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.'”

What was it in this statement that made Clark want to weep?

“…you go on like that, looking forward to five o’clock and then the weekend and then your two or three annual weeks of paid vacation time, day in day, and that’s what happens to your life.”

“Right,” Clark said. He was filled in that moment with an inexpressible longing.

“Guys like Dan, they’re like sleepwalkers,” she said, “and nothing ever jolts them awake.”

Clark, of course, is jolted awake in a very big way when his flight to Toronto is diverted to a small Michigan airport after the pandemic explodes. He and his fellow passengers, untouched by the flu, watch the end of life as they know it on television. They never leave the airport – it becomes their settlement, their home. Eventually, Clark establishes a Museum of Civilization, where people donate iPads and smart phones and other remnants of their now-lost advanced culture.

“Like educated children everywhere, the children in the airport school memorized abstractions: the airplanes outside once flew through the air. You could use an airplane to travel to the other side of the world, but….when you were on an airplane you had to turn off your electronic devices before takeoff and landing, devices such as the tiny flat machines that played music and the larger machines that opened up like books and had screens that hadn’t always been dark, the insides brimming with circuitry, and these machines were the portals into a worldwide network. Satellites beamed information down to Earth. Goods traveled in ships and airplanes across the world. There was no place on earth that was too far away to get to.”

Meanwhile, a roving theater troupe travels from town to town performing classical music and Shakespeare for groups of survivors living in abandoned Walmarts and gas stations. In this troupe are characters we’ve met earlier in the novel.  The younger members only dimly remember a world with electricity and other marvels, and some were born after the collapse. One day, they arrive at Clark’s airport settlement, and there is a poignant reunion of sorts for Clark.

Station Eleven, among other things, asks whether art can save and redeem humanity. I can’t help but think of this outpouring of dystopian literature as the proverbial canary in the mine. A wake-up call for those of us who, like the characters in Station Eleven, may need it.

Here is another excerpt I’m adding to this post in 2020 (beware the spoiler):

“Miranda woke at four in the morning with a fever. She fought it off with three aspirin, but her joints were knots of pain, her legs weak, her skin hurt where her clothes touched her. It was difficult to cross the room to the desk. She read the latest news on the laptop, her eyes aching from the light of the screen, and understood…. 

It took a long time and considerable concentration to put on her shoes…..

Outside the air was heavy and still. A greenish light on the horizon, the beginnings of sunrise….She was thinking about the container ship on the horizon. The crew out there wouldn’t have been exposed to the flu. Too late to get to a ship herself now, but she smiled at the thought that there were people in this reeling world who were safe.”

*****

Ursula Le Guin, in her stirring National Book Award acceptance speech, said we will need more writers like Emily St. John Mandel who can imagine a different way of being. Six minutes well worth listening to.

 

 

Have you read Station Eleven? Do you have other pandemic literature to recommend? Stay well, everyone!

One Long River of Song

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“So much held in a heart in a lifetime. So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment. We are utterly open with no one, in the end — not mother and father, not wife or husband, not lover, not child, not friend. We open windows to each but we live alone in the house of the heart. Perhaps we must. Perhaps we could not bear to be so naked, for fear of a constantly harrowed heart…..You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words ‘I have something to tell you,’ a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in a thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.” – One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder for the Spiritual and Nonspiritual Alike by Brian Doyle

Easter Sunday, 2020 in the time of COVID-19: Just about the coolest and most uplifting and loving and literary and funny and expansive collection of essays you could ever read.

In my last post I wrote that I discovered two favorite, amazing, new-to-me authors in my 2019 reading. Margaret Renkl is one; Brian Doyle is the other.

During the first month of our time in Oregon, we lived in Lake Oswego. The first time I entered the public library, I saw a Christmas tree decorated with hand-written tributes to Brian Doyle, who had made his home in Lake Oswego and who had recently died.

I ended up reading a collection of his essays and his most famous novel. If you are looking for joy in the midst of this pandemic, Brian Doyle would be the writer to read.

Here is what Margaret Renkl had to say about One Long River of Song:

“If you are in love with language, here is how you will read Brian Doyle’s posthumous collection of essays: by underlining sentences and double-underlining other sentences….by marking whole astonishing paragraphs with a squiggly line in the margin, and by highlighting many of those squiggle-marked sections with a star to identify the best of the astonishing lines therein…. and, finally, by dog-earing whole pages, and then whole essays, because there is not enough ink in the world to do justice to such annotations, slim as this book is and so full of white space, too.” – Margaret Renkl in The New York Times

Below are some excerpts. By the way, Brian was a devout Catholic, but you do not have to be a Catholic, or a Christian, or religious or spiritual in any way to sip from the wellspring of joy that runs like a river through all of Brian’s writing.

“But you cannot control everything…All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference…You must trust that you being the best possible you matters somehow…That being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will prevent a thread or two of the social fabric from unraveling.”

****

“A 5.56-millimeter bullet can punch nearly half an inch into steel, and punch right through a bulletproof vest, and punch right through a human being of any size and shape and age and nationality and gender and religion and sexual orientation and combatant status, or not….

Dear outraged shrieking lunatic, you who are about to lecture me on how this was just an accident, and how it’s a necessary part of the capitalist system, and how I am clearly a yellow liberal pansy: Are you only stupid, or are you insane?”

****

[On hummingbirds} “Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backward. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold and they cease to be.”

****

“Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”

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This novel is about the quirky people who make up a quirky “little green cup of a town” on the Oregon coast.

“On a clear day the Oregon coast is the most beautiful place on earth—clear and crisp and clean, a rich green in the land and a bright blue in the sky, the air fat and salty and bracing, the ocean spreading like a grin. Brown pelicans rise and fall in their chorus lines in the wells of the waves, cormorants arrow, an eagle kingly queenly floats south high above the water line.”

****

“Rained gently last night, just enough to wash the town clean, and then today a clean crisp fat spring day, the air redolent, the kind of green minty succulent air you’d bottle if you could and snort greedily on bleak, wet January evenings when the streetlights hzzzt on at four in the afternoon and all existence seems hopeless and sad.”

****

“She’ll be a fierce woman, that one. It’ll take a hell of a man to love her right. Be like living with a thunderstorm. Same as her mother. A fierce woman. Force of nature. The kind of woman you just hand on for the ride. The most exciting and the most heartbreaking woman you could ever meet. They don’t know their own minds most of the time, but their hearts are so damn big it hurts em inside.”

****

“Dawn. A pregnant green moist silence everywhere: and the robins start, and then starlings, and the jays, and the juncos, and the barred owl closing up shop for the night, and a hound howling in the hills which starts a couple other dogs going, which sets a guy to shouting at the dogs to shut up for chrissake, and someone tries to get a recalcitrant truck going, and the truck just can’t get going, it gasps and gasps and gasps, which sets the owl going again….and then the truck finally starts but then immediately dies, which sets the driver to cursing steadily feck feck feck which sets his passenger to giggling and the passenger’s giggle is so infectious that the driver can’t help but laugh either, so they are laughing…”

****

“They pull in the lines and up come three small halibut, a vermilion rockfish that is the reddest thing Nicholas has ever seen, and a ling cod with a gaping mouth the size of China. They clean and ice the fish. Gulls wheel and dive at the offal flung into the water.

See? No snot, no shit, and birds clean up after you, says Grace.

Can I ask you a question? says Nicholas.

No.

Do you miss your dad?

No.

Is your mom dead?

No.

Should we bait up again?

Yes. 

Am I bugging you?

Yes.

I’ll stop talking.

No.”

****

“These things matter to me, Daniel, says the man with six days to live. They are sitting on the porch in the last light. These things matter to me, son. The way the hawks huddle their shoulders angrily against hissing snow. Wrens whirring in the bare bones of bushes in winter. The way swallows and swifts veer and whirl and swim and slice and carve and curve and swerve. The way that frozen dew outlines every blade of grass. Salmonberries thimbleberries cloudberries snowberries elderberries salalberries gooseberries. My children learning to read. My wife’s voice velvet in my ear at night in the dark under the covers. Her hair in my nose as we slept curled like spoons. The sinuous pace of rivers and minks and cats. Fresh bread with too much butter. My children’s hands when they cup my face in their hands. Toys. Exuberance. Mowing the lawn. Tiny wrenches and screwdrivers. Tears of sorrow, which are the salt sea of the heart. Sleep in every form from doze to bone-weary. Pay stubs. Trains. The shivering ache of a saxophone and the yearning of a soprano. Folding laundry hot from the dryer. A spotless kitchen floor. The sound of bagpipes. The way horses smell in spring. Red wines. Furnaces. Stone walls. Sweat. Postcards on which the sender has written so much that he or she can barely squeeze in the signature. Opera on the radio. Bathrobes, back rubs. Potatoes. Mink oil on boots. …..Rain in every form from mist to sluice. The sound of my daughters typing their papers for school. My wife’s eyes, as blue and green and gray as the sea. The sea, as blue and green and gray as her eyes. Her eyes. Her.”

Brian Doyle passed away from complications of a brain tumor in 2017.

 

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Columbia River, view from Amtrak train heading for Portland, 2018.

 

Birdsong on the trolley trail, Easter Sunday, 2020.

 

We come from Joy; we are sustained in Joy, and to Joy we will return. – The Upanishads

Sicilian Wedding

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Segesta, a view from the wedding reception. As the sun set, we could see the temple illuminated on the hillside. It stood silent and mysterious at 1 am as we boarded the bus back to Carini. Are there important historical sites in the land of your ancestors?

 

“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands.”Linda Hogan, as quoted in Jung and the Ancestors: Beyond Biography, Mending the Ancestral Web, by Sandra Easter

In May, after researching my mother’s family ancestry in Sweden, I went to Sicily with my husband for a family wedding, to ancient Carini where my father was born.

Sweden and the gracious Swedes were new to me. Going to Carini was like coming home.

One of the best decisions my husband and I ever made was to travel to Sicily with our boys to reconnect with my father’s family in Carini. Over the years, we went back when we could – a couple of times with my father, and once with extended family. We watched my cousin Giuseppe grow up, along with several of his cousins.

Last spring we were thrilled to receive Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding invitation in the mail. Since the wedding was to be shortly after my Sweden trip, I decided to make it an extended journey.

Giuseppe and Eloisa’s wedding reception was within view of Segesta, built around 420 BC and one of the best preserved Doric temple in all of Europe. Overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare, the temple is a mystery, because it appears to have been abandoned before it was completed. And although the Greeks claim it was built by an Athenian architect, during that time period the area was likely inhabited by people indigenous to Sicily, and not the Greeks, though they were elsewhere on the island.

(Some scholars believe that parts of the epic Greek poem the Odyssey are set in Sicily – that Odysseus encountered Cyclops off the eastern coast, for example, and Scylla and Charybdis in the Strait of Messina.)

At any rate, I was thrilled to see the temple of Segesta once again; our first time in Sicily, in 2001, Giuseppe’s family took us there on a sightseeing trip. At the reception, the sun setting behind the illuminated temple gave an air of timelessness to the festivities. I could imagine the spirits of the ancients looking down on us as we celebrated with Giuseppe and Eloisa, and their friends and families.

 

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Carini, Sicily, where my father was born. “We need to see where we have been before we see where we should go, we need to know how to get there and we need to have help on our journey.”Vine Deloria, as quoted in Jung and the Ancestors.

 

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Carini has its own castle and a scandalous story connected with it. The Baroness of Carini was murdered at the age of 34 by her father in 1563 for committing adultery. Her story has become part of Italian poetry and literature.  My son, who was learning to play the violin on our first trip to Sicily, composed a musical score inspired by the castle.  If you look at the literature of your ancestry, you’re sure to find intriguing and inspiring stories.

 

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My cousin has this drawing of the Baroness Laura Lanza with her lover, Lodovico, who was also murdered, by either Laura’s father or her husband. Many years ago, my cousin showed us Laura Lanza’s death certificate, preserved in the town’s historical records.

 

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From the castle, a view of Carini and the sea beyond

 

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Our first visit to Sicily, in April, 2001. 9/11 happened five months later.

 

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Angel’s trumpets in Angelo and Piera’s garden.

 

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This is thought to be my father’s birthplace in Carini.

 

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Portrait of an ancestor, Katarina (my grandfather’s sister)

 

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I was thrilled to meet a beautiful family brand new to me on la mia nonna’s side. Here we are on a picnic in Carini. Concetta, third from left, corresponded with my grandmother for many years. Rosaria, second from right, is a teacher and an avid reader. I loved discussing literature with her. She has fond memories of the Easter baskets filled with chocolate kisses my grandma sent from America every year.

 

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I was so surprised when I met the twins, Alessia and Erica, who look like my niece in America. They are about the same age, too! I hope the three of them can meet one day –  that Malena, my niece, can travel to Sicily and that we can welcome the twins to America.

 

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We had a wonderful time in Palermo with Concetta, Rosaria, and their family. Here is Teatro Politeama, home of the Sicilian Symphony Orchestra. The bronze quadriga (chariot drawn by four horses) depicts the Triumph of Apollo (the god of music and dance) and Euterpe (the muse of lyric poetry).

 

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I loved the church in Palermo where Giuseppe and Eloisa were married, Basilica della Santissima Trinità del Cancelliere, “La Magione” (the mansion).

 

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Giuseppe and Eloisa, our future! She is a journalist, he an interpreter and translator. They currently live in Palermo. (Giuseppe has tirelessly interpreted for us on our visits with family – his English far exceeds our Italian.)

 

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Angela and Pepino, my father’s cousin.

 

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Rosalia and Enzo, my father’s cousin. Pepino, Enzo, and Angelo (see Angelo in photo below) have passed down to us so many family stories. Thanks to Enzo, I know that when my grandparents went back to visit Sicily, my grandfather’s family made rice pudding for his birthday celebration, his favorite dessert. An entire wheelbarrow filled with rice pudding. In the telling of this story, a heated argument ensued as to whether the pudding was made from sheep’s milk or cow’s milk.

 

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Amate e bella famiglia, celebrating a 60th birthday. (l. to r: Eloisa, Giuseppe, Pino, Vita, Piera, and Angelo, my father’s second cousin.)  A beautiful evening, just like the wedding reception.

 

This is what I read when I was in Sicily:

 

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I figured if Elena Ferrante liked it, I would too, and I did.  “’I don’t feel like seeing Procida grow distant and indistinct…I’d rather pretend it didn’t exist. So until the moment you can’t see it anymore, it’ll be better if I don’t look…’
And I remained with my face against my arm…until Silvestro shook me gently and said: ‘Arturo, come, you can wake up.’
Around our ship the sea was uniform, endless as an ocean. The island could no longer be seen.”

 

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If I ever get back to learning Italian, I’ll read this collection of essays by Elena Ferrante I bought in Palermo. The essays are about a page each, manageable for a language learner.

 

Our airbnb was in the old city of Carini. It had a small, shuttered balcony that opened to the noisy, busy, colorful street, almost like another room. We made friends with the neighbors across the strada and chatted with them from our balcony in the evening. Here, a mamma and her figlio, with the neighborhood dogs chiming in:

 

 

We’ve been lucky to have been able to travel to see extended family and our ancestral lands.  I feel as though I have a second home far away and a fuller, more complete identity, anchored in a specific time and place in history. I hope we’ve given that to our sons, too, and that the younger generations – in Italy and Sweden – will someday come to visit their cousins in America.

 

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Grandma and me, Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1960.

 

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Sicilian sunset

 

“Take a moment and look at your life from the perspective of being an ancestor. You are with those who came before you and those yet to be born looking back at your descendants as they live their lives moving forward in time. Imagine that you can see your entire lineage from the first born to the last in your line. Imagine yourself as an ancestor, one of the thousands whose love expresses itself and is embodied now in your descendants. Who we are at this moment in time is a result of the countless generations that have come before and a response to the generations that will follow…..  –  Sandra Easter, Jung and the Ancestors

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 knowledgeable 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. At the farmhouse above, 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.

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