Saturday, March 26, 2016

Inch One Hundred Ten: Another Look at Laura

There is a new Laura Ingalls Wilder book out just this month: The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I read it last week.

Warren asked me after I had finished what I thought. As I suspect is so often the case, he asks a question hoping for a short answer or amusing anecdote, and instead unleashes a torrent of words.

What did I think? I think the book added little to my understanding of who Laura Ingalls Wilder was. I think it could have been condensed into a good, solid, scholarly article with a handful of representational letters. And I think it darkened the image of the little, smiling, white-haired "Laura Ingalls Wilder, American author."

Well, that's what I thought of the book.

William Anderson, a biographer of Laura, edited this collection. To his credit, he makes clear in the introduction that there are large gaps in the body of extant LIW letters. Almost none of Laura's letters to her family, especially her mother and her older sister Mary, exist, most of them thrown out in the 1920s when the family home in De Smet, South Dakota, was cleared out after Ma and Mary died. More disappeared after sisters Grace and Carrie died. Rose Wilder Lane, Laura's problematic daughter and only child, destroyed large numbers of letters from her mother. In fairness to Anderson, he worked with as much as he had available, but too much material, especially the letters that would show the personal side of Laura, is gone.

So what do I know about Laura after reading her letters? She was a tireless correspondent with her reading public and until she was well into her 80s (she lived to be 90), Laura pushed herself to answer personally every note that came her way. Even after her publishers took over answering the correspondence that came directly to their offices, she continued to answer those that ended up in her mailbox in Mansfield, Missouri. Given that she received hundreds of letters annually from children and adults reading the Little House books, her tenacity is admirable.

The collection also makes clear much more than any critical works published to date how much Rose collaborated with Laura on the Little House books, especially By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter. Rose was an accomplished author of the times (the 1930s)) and brought a critical eye and a sense of narrative flow to Laura's writing. But make no mistake: the letters show that when it came to understanding both the story itself and what readers wanted, Laura reigned supreme. Rose has been characterized as a woman who was ashamed and resentful of her poverty laced childhood, ashamed and resentful of her parents for their humble backgrounds, and always sure in her conviction that she was superior in all ways to almost everyone else in the world. When she tried to put her attitude into the books and degrade the settlers of De Smet, Laura fought back tartly and precisely. Didn't Rose understand, she wrote, that the only way to survive the horrific winter was to hunker down into a stoic survival mode? Daily life was not the potboiler existence that was a feature of Rose's writing and Laura was not about to show the townspeople in unrealistic and unfair ways. Life that winter really was a matter of grinding wheat every day to survive. Laura also understood that the fictional Laura had to mature and that the story line had to mature with her, despite Rose's insistence that Laura continue to write only to young children.

In the end, of course, Laura was right. Her readers matured along with her storyline, a premise that J. K. Rowling understood well when she wrote the Harry Potter books decades later. The Little House books have never gone out of print, while much of the interest today in Rose Wilder Lane's books is to analyze how much she stole from her mother's history.

You cannot read even this small collection of Laura's letters without being aware of her politics, which were both conservative and harsh. Laura disliked Franklin Roosevelt and disliked the relief programs of the Great Depression. Better that children starve than give their lazy parents a helping hand (yes, she really did feel that way). She conveniently overlooks the great social welfare program of her youth, the Homestead Act, that allowed her parents finally to get settled and financially secure. As to her father, the immortal Pa Ingalls of the Little House series, she could be judgmental in assessing him: he was a dreamer, a ne'er do well until she was grown, and too quick to reach out and help his fellow man. Laura makes Pa larger than life in her books, but her real feelings were much more complicated. In those regards, she is not kind, she is not generous, she is not nice.

I am not sorry I read the letters, but it is not a book I will add to my personal library. Unlike other letter collections that I have read (E. B. White, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, to name but a few), collections that left me with a fuller sense of the man or woman behind the name, the LIW collections puts distance between me and the author.

I own the entire Little House series, well worn paperbacks with the Garth Williams illustrations, and they are still occasionally go to books when I need comfort reading (skipping the wildly inaccurate for the era of the stories and wildly bigoted for our era portrayal of Native Americans, which is why I will probably never buy the series for Ramona). As for Laura Ingalls Wilder the person, though, I will let her go. The author and the story are not the same, and I don't need the one to read the other.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Inch One Hundred Nine: Lares and Penates

Lares were Roman deities who protected, among other things, crossroads and boundaries. Within a household, they protected all of those within the boundaries of the family line. Penates were the guardians of the pantry and wealth of the family, related to Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. Together, they were often worshiped in a family shrine.

Lares and penates. My desk and study are full of them.

A painted china pig, with chipped ears and one penny rattling around inside of it, a pig that was old when I first claimed it as my own as a child. A little ceramic owl, chosen from a collection of owls at calling hours for a friend who wanted her owls to go out into the community after her death. A little soft plastic Pegasus that will make its way into my novel. A  papier-mâché fish, which opens to reveal a cache of paperclips. A string of little wood houses, a few small rocks from Lake Superior, a skeleton Frida for Day of the Dead. A geode holding a dime won over a poetry bet and a piece of paper with a quote about poetry. A small framed picture of Warren.

If you sit at my desk and look at the walls and at the back of the door, which serves as a wall to my left, you will see more. There are photos and postcards of places I have been, poems,  two articles on writing, one of which is Neil Gaiman's thoughts about it. There is a cover off of the University of Chicago Magazine, showing a street sign for University Avenue covered in snow. On a bookshelf on the other side of the door are photos of Sam, Ben, Alise, Ramona, and Warren. Behind me in the small bookshelf: a Mason jar with marbles, a heavy glass horse head bookend I have had as long as the china pig, my engagement gong.

Years ago when I moved out of the house and into my first post-marriage space, I had a small study tucked into a walk-through space. My desk, a table, looked out onto an urban rooftop that could have graced any Edward Hopper urban painting. On the wall next to my desk, I taped anything that caught my eye. Quotes, photos or bits of photos, magazine pictures of Mini Coopers, buildings. By the time I moved out, I had covered a good six square feet or more of the wall. My study today is a variation of that wall.

My writing habits have changed over the last decade plus. I deliberately created this space but I rarely write—in the sense of creation—there. In the old days, the days of the apartment above the streets, I would make notes on buildings, put on headphones, and, often starting at 11:00 p.m. or later, bang out a 2500 word article on architecture while listening to Queen. Now I most often write in pen, usually somewhere other than my desk, then turn it into a column or a post while sitting at my desk surrounded by my lares and penates. This post started out on a concert program, while Warren played timpani up in front of me. I will carry this program home, carry it up to my study, and turn my scribbles into print.

When I read articles about decluttering and simplifying, my desk and its surrounds could be called clutter by the authors. Too much clutter.

And maybe someday I will feel that way. But for now I see lares and penates, guarding my desk, guarding my home, guarding my loves.


Friday, March 11, 2016

Inch One Hundred Eight: Hard Times


I just finished rereading The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck's powerful Great American Novel. I have read it cover to cover four or five times since I was a teenager. This was my first complete reading in many years.

What hit me hardest this time around was how little has changed. Or, more accurately, how far backwards we have slid in this country.

The Grapes of Wrath is half the story of the Joad family, sharecroppers whose lives are upended and broken by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and half Steinbeck's pointed commentary on the times in which he wrote. The novel came out in 1938. America had not yet climbed out of the Great Depression. Hunger, homelessness, poverty, lack of medical care, xenophobia, discrimination: Steinbeck saw and captured it all.

An evening into the book, I cried out to Warren, "Steinbeck could be writing this for our times!"

Just before beginning Grapes,  I read Eviction: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. It is a searing look at the private housing industry operating in the poorest parts of a city (in this case, Milwaukee, Wisconsin), at the landlords who make money off of the poorest of the poor, at the tenants who scrounge by (or not) in that market. There are no heroes, there are not necessarily villains in the sense of Evil Grasping Landlord. But regardless of your political leanings and your personal views about poverty, it is a book that will leave you shaken.

Steinbeck and Desmond would have much to talk about.

In my community, I continue to see the effects of the Great Recession, which six years later is still doing damage. Our local food banks have grown, the free medical and legal clinics stay busy. The safety net that politicians and administrations on both sides of the aisle hacked to bits only contains the slimmest of strands. More and more juveniles coming through our courts and more and more families in our schools have been homeless at some time in the last twelve to eighteen months. Like Steinbeck, I defy anyone to blame it solely on the individuals without shelter. As he so clearly captured in Grapes, while individuals are responsible for the choices, good and bad, they make, there are factors beyond their control, the economy and the political climate, among them, in which individuals, especially the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised, have no say and over which they have no control.

The Grapes of Wrath come out 78 years ago. John Steinbeck died in 1968.  Here it is 2016, and the book still rings true, still reads hard, and still burns the conscience.

Our country today would make Steinbeck weep. And then he would pick up his pen with even greater urgency and anger and write a new book.


Friday, March 4, 2016

Inch One Hundred Seven: A Shining Light in the Long, Slow Slog


Frances, from Bread and Jam For Frances by Russell Hoban 

What I am 
Is tired of jam.

That lonely little plaint was sung by Frances, the badger created by Russell Hoban (edited by the amazing Ursula Nordstrom) when she got her wish to have bread and jam every single meal every day.

I am not tired of jam, but I am tired. Tired to the bone. Tired to the bone marrow.

It is truancy season and my hours at work are taxing. I spend much of my week in different schools throughout the county, mediating attendance issues with families and schools. When I am in my office at the courthouse, I am working doggedly to keep up with the flood of paperwork related to truancy season. Winter is when I pile up more comp time than I care to think of and winter is when I say to friends and colleagues asking me to join them for coffee or something similar, "I'll try but I don't know if I can make it work." While I type this, I think of the friend who I promised I would try to send her some open dates for this week (the one just ending) when we could meet for a quick cup of coffee. It didn't happen. It is hard to lift my eyes and thoughts to tomorrow, let alone another week.

I saw Tim, my oncologist, briefly on Wednesday. There has been a lot of emotional and medical ripples from Mayo, from Tim, and from other events in Cancerland. The short version is that, for now, we are staying the course on the treatment regimen I have been on since last August. (I'm being deliberately vague about this because my monthly column in The Myeloma Beacon will not run for another 10 or 11 days, and it delves into greater detail.) But when I saw Tim, I said as we were finishing the appointment, "you know, this is just a long, slow slog." Tim thought a moment, then nodded in agreement.

"Yes, it is."

Having a slow moving, incurable, terminal cancer is a long, slow slog. I am still working. I am still volunteering. I am still doing some of my regular activities. But the myeloma and the treatment are wearing me down. It is like being nibbled on constantly.

Hence my thoughts of Frances and her being tired of jam.  I am just tired, period.

The great thing about Frances is that there is always a happy (or at least satisfactory) ending. And the great thing about my weeks is that there is usually a bright and shining moment, or several of them, in the midst of all the weary moments, the ordinary moments, and even the plain old good moments.

One of the brightest moments this week was the Treatment Court graduation at our Juvenile Court. Treatment Court is actually two courts: one for juveniles who have committed offenses due to alcohol or substance abuse, and one for adults who have lost custody of their children because of the parent's substance abuse. A Treatment Court participant must go through a series of phases along with intensive supervision and support. It can take a year or longer.

At Wednesday's graduation, seven individuals graduated.

The graduations are wonderful because of the palpable air of accomplishment in the courtroom. The graduates are proud that they have made it this far. They know there are others who have washed out. The staff is also proud. Each graduate represents a large investment in time and direction and commitment by participant and court and providers. Graduation is a big deal and I never grow tired of attending the event.

This one was extra special because of the presiding magistrate, Lynne Schoenling. Lynne made an opening statement about how proud she was to see everyone graduate. It is one of those moments where a person's passion comes to the surface and radiates throughout the room. As I commented to Warren later, the only thing missing was her enthusiasm shooting out from her fingertips as she talked, because it certainly was clear in her voice, her body language, her words, and her brilliant smile.

It was a shining moment indeed. And it buoyed me.

I am exhausted and worn more days than not. I am sick more days that I am well, sickness now being an almost daily feature. It is a long, slow slog across a long plain.

But, oh, the wonders along the way! And this week the wonder was Lynne.