For those of you who are leading book club discussions, here’s a downloadable version of my book club reading guide. Would you like to have me visit with your group in person or by online linkup? Contact me and let me know!
My friend Darren Osburn sent me this photo of some unripe pawpaws recently, which got me thinking. I remember eating pawpaws as a youngster; I liked the taste, which vaguely resembled that of a banana, but the seeds had to be worked around. A crude but reasonably effective way of telling when they’re ripe is to watch for raccoon scat—once you start to see pawpaw seeds in it, you know the pawpaws are ready. As with persimmons, eating an unripe one is a mistake made only once.
My mom used to sing “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch,” which some of you may remember. It’s a children’s tune about poor little Susie (or Nellie in other versions), who is way down yonder, etc., picking up pawpaws and putting them in her pocket, accompanied by hand gestures to match. Poor little Nellie had the good sense to pick the pawpaws off the ground, which meant that they were ripe, rather than off the tree.
My reading tells me that the pawpaw is the largest indigenous native fruit in North America and that chilled pawpaws were one of George Washington’s favorite desserts. There is also a dinosaur called the Pawpawsaurus, so named not because it dined on pawpaws (although it was a herbivore), but because its fossils were found in a rock formation in Texas known as the Paw Paw Formation. Still, I like the idea of pawpawsauruses roaming the earth in bygone times.
On a recent float trip, I drove down Highway 19 south of Salem, through the 41 acres known as Missouri’s Virgin Pine Forest. I remember being taken here as a kid, not really understanding what “virgin forest” meant—to me they just looked like regular pine trees.
Since then, I’ve visited the forest several times. There’s a two-mile drive that departs from the highway, passes through the grove, and goes a little way into the Pioneer Forest, the owner of the Virgin Pine Forest. (The highway is paved now, unlike in that historic postcard, although it still has the same stomach-wrenching twists and turns.)
For a time I doubted whether the forest had really remained uncut all these years; it’s not inaccessible, and it is located in the heart of timber country which was utterly decimated by pine loggers in the late 1880s. But this pamphlet from the L-A-D Foundation, which owns and manages the Pioneer Forest along with a lot of other Ozark land, cites research showing that some of the trees indeed predate the logging era, so I guess I’ll have to quiet my doubt, although the pamphlet is carefully worded. You’ll see considerable debate online as to whether the preservation of some old-growth trees means that the tract is truly “virgin,” i.e., uncut. It’s clear that a lot of the trees in the tract are recent growth, so I suppose it depends on what you mean by the word “virgin.” Never touched by human hands? No way. Having some trees that escaped the logging era? Looks like it.
I’d still like to know how those trees escaped the timber cutters. As far as I’m aware, the only other “virgin timber” in the state dating back to the 1700s is in cemeteries, private home lots, and other such areas where commercial lumbering was not possible.
Here’s a marvelous story from the Quincy Herald-Whig about my friend Scott Giltner and how he brings home the Civil War to his students. I’ve seen both Scott and his colleague Patrick Hotle teach; they’re exceptionally gifted, and the history department at Culver-Stockton College has long been one of its jewels.
We in the history-novel game often speak despondently about the lack of interest in history among the young; in some ways, it’s a natural phenomenon, as people’s interest in history grows as they become more a part of it themselves. But a good history teacher can spark that interest, and this article shows one good way of doing it—by bringing history home, helping students discover that history is not just a distant recitation of kings and armies, but something that happened in their own home town as well.
July 4 is about the only day most of us hear “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” which is more often called “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and our hearing it comes mainly from the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which James Cagney portrays George M. Cohan, the song’s author. It’s not high art, this song, but it’s worth reviewing if for no other reason than the mythology it incorporates. And besides, it’s irresistibly catchy!
The song comes from a 1904 Broadway musical written by Cohan, Little Johnny Jones. Very loosely based on the exploits of Tod Sloan, one of the most famous jockeys of the day, the musical tells the story of an American jockey who rises to fame and then travels to England, where he rides a horse named Yankee Doodle to victory in the English Derby. Thus the line in which “Yankee Doodle came to London just to ride the ponies” makes sense within the musical although most of us scratch our heads over it nowadays. (In real life, sadly, Sloan’s venture in the Derby ended in tragedy, when his horse inexplicably pulled up, broke its leg, and had to be put down.)
Today we only hear the chorus, which is oddly repetitious, repeating “Yankee Doodle” six times. Here are the lyrics of the verses, taken from Wikipedia:
- I’m the kid that’s all the candy,
- I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,
- I’m glad I am,
- So’s Uncle Sam.
- I’m a real live Yankee Doodle,
- Made my name and fame and boodle,
- Just like Mister Doodle did, by riding on a pony.
- I love to listen to the Dixie strain,
- I long to see the girl I left behind me;
- That ain’t a josh,
- She’s a Yankee, by gosh.
- Oh, say can you see,
- Anything about a Yankee that’s a phony?
- Father’s name was Hezikiah,
- Mother’s name was Ann Maria,
- Yanks through and through.
- Red, White and Blue
- Father was so Yankee-hearted,
- When the Spanish war was started,
- He slipped on a uniform and hopped upon a pony.
- My mother’s mother was a Yankee true,
- My father’s father was a Yankee too:
- That’s going some,
- For the Yankees, by gum.
- Oh, say can you see
- Anything about my pedigree that’s phony?
In the first verse, Little Johnny Jones combines North and South; although he identifies as Southern by loving the strains of “Dixie,” his girl is a Yankee, i.e., a Northerner. In the second verse, he combines Jew and Gentile; his father’s name is distinctly Old Testament, while his mother’s “Ann Maria” is about as Catholic as they come. Thus Johnny Jones is a thoroughly mixed-blooded American, who travels to Old England to both charm and vanquish the stodgy Old-Worlders.
The somewhat naive braggadocio of Johnny Jones, who proclaims himself “all the candy” (that is, he’s hot stuff) lines up with American folk heroes from Paul Bunyan to Mike Fink to Muhammad Ali. But in identifying himself as the amalgam of geographies and cultures, he also reminds us of the American ideal of inclusiveness and incorporation. And the bouncy tune is as hummable as they come, like Cohan’s other great songs, such as “Harrigan,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” and “Over There.”
Marvin Menne was my family doctor from the time I was about ten (I tried to find a photo of the good doctor himself, but was unsuccessful–who knew that someone could be that far off the grid these days?) I was a tolerably healthy kid, but had the usual number of youthful ailments and necessary check-ups, so I suppose my medical involvement was pretty typical.
Dr. Menne’s office, as you can tell from this photo, was modest. A small waiting room in front, a receptionist/appointment setter behind the counter, a couple of examining rooms, and then an office and a room for more involved procedures, which I rarely saw the inside of, thank goodness. It was the office of a small-town GP, not far removed from the Norman Rockwell illustrations.
Dr. Menne had a vaguely mournful expression much of the time, the expression of someone who’s seen too many broken limbs and lives. But I recall that even as a child, he would square himself up to me, sit, and listen, until I had told him everything I had to say. Only then would he prompt me with further questions or continue with his examination.
In today’s overheated discussions of health care, we romanticize the small-town doctor, who made house calls, accepted chickens as payment, or what have you. Let’s remember that the modern health care system has resulted in a high level of care, far beyond what my small-town doctor was capable of, and overall health has been improving. Instead of a chicken, today’s poor rural patient brings a Medicaid card. But the necessity of caring remains, and I have a feeling that doctors like Marvin Menne can be found all over rural areas just as in my childhood. With the election of a doctor from Mountain Grove to the presidency of the American Medical Association, this is a year to think seriously about the state of health care in rural America. Here’s a hint: It’s not good.
The roadside has sent me to my copy of Missouri Wildflowers quite a bit lately. Summer flowers tend to be more nondescript than spring ones–the delicate pinks and purples are replaced by rangy, white or yellow flowers whose names, unfortunately, I forget from one year to the next: feverfews and teasels, the sort of plant that often has “weed” in its name.
These roadside plants rarely make anyone’s list of favorite wildflowers; we see them from our car windows as a blur. But as these close-up photos show, they have a delicacy of construction that rewards examination. Umbels within umbels, twining and wiry stems, curiously wrought flowers that often nest among brambles.
What to say about these plants besides the obvious? That there is beauty in the common, beauty that repays attention, and that you have to get out of your car and stomp into the weeds in order to find it. On my wall hangs a watercolor with the marvelous verse from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Inversnaid”:
What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.
I finished Steve Yates’ intriguing and inventive The Legend of the Albino Farm yesterday and have been pondering it since. Like all of Steve’s books, it brims with sentences that surprise and descriptions that engage. Its central character, Hettienne Sheehy, compels our attention with her multi-edged personality and lapses into premonitory trance. But at its heart, I think it’s a book about our propensity for mythmaking.
I’ve heard Steve describe this book as a horror story turned inside out, and that’s an apt description. Imagine a horror story in which the focus is on the presumed monster, and in which the “monster” turns out to be nothing of the sort. That’s the situation of the “Albino Farm,” which I am told is a long-standing Springfield ghost story/urban legend about a farm on the northern outskirts of the city. The only monsters in The Legend of the Albino Farm are the townsfolk and rowdies, snoopers and idle curious, who trespass on the farm to get a look at its inhabitants, deface its buildings, and terrorize the old folks.
We make up stories to entertain ourselves, and as a storyteller I honor that impulse. But there’s a dark side to this tendency, which we see in people’s stunning willingness to believe all sorts of wild nonsense without evidence (my Facebook news feed testifies to this) and to construct the worst possible explanation for something we don’t understand. Our love for story is also a love for gossip and ugliness sometimes, unfortunately, and we warp toward the tawdry all too often.
I delight in working up talks to give to libraries and civic groups, usually in connection with one of my books. I conduct a great deal of research as I work on a novel, and although that research is not especially systematic or scholarly, I learn a lot about an era and can condense it into an understandable presentation. With Slant of Light, I developed a talk about 19th-century utopian communities; with This Old World, on Missouri during the years after the Civil War.
My new book takes place during the late 1880s, when large commercial interests from the Eastern cities and from St. Louis used the recently-built railroads to extend their reach deep into the Ozarks and set up lumber mills and mines to extract these natural resources. The Ozarks had been logged and mined for centuries, of course, but the industrial scale of this enterprise was new, and the impact—cultural, economic, and environmental—was profound.
So I’m working up a talk about the coming of industry to this hardscrabble, rural landscape, and the changes it wrought on the people. It’s an easy story to cast villains and heroes into, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Rural folk were often their own worst enemies, or willing collaborators, in their conflict with the lumber and mining companies, and those companies themselves were not always the rapacious beasts of our imagining. And the relationship between people and company was not merely conflict or exploitation.
I’ve given talks at so many places by now that I can hardly keep track of them all—libraries, historical societies, Rotary clubs, book clubs, you name it. Every group is a bit different, and no two talks are quite the same.
I’ve had the opening lines of “Sir Patrick Spens” running through my head for the last few days, probably because I’ve been thinking about narrative economy. And rarely will you find a more economical opening than this:
The king sits in Dumfermline town, drinking the blood-red wine.
“Where can I find a good captain to sail this ship of mine?”
Then up and spoke a sailor boy sitting at the king’s right knee:
“Sir Patrick Spens is the best captain that ever sailed the sea.”
And there you have it. We know that king. He’s idling away his time, he’s contracted for a new bride from Norway, and he’s eager to get to the business of siring heirs. With the wine in his blood, he’s growing impatient. But why won’t anybody sail over to fetch her? We know the reason. It’s a crazy mission this time of year to cross the North Sea. But he will not be brooked; he’s the king, and his word is law.
And we know that sailor boy, too. Eager to please, the little underling. Eager to show off his knowledge. So he “up and speaks,” and from that foolish remark the tragedy unfolds. Sir Patrick, his frightened crew, and “all the lords and noblemen” sail off to their doom. The blood-red wine foreshadows their fate.
A chance exchange of words sets off a chain of events, unforeseen by those who speak the words but inevitable as death itself. Now that’s narrative economy.