Review of In Search of Kinship

In Search of Kinship: Modern Pioneering on the Western Landscape,
by Page Lambert

Review by John Henry

(Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1996)

In Search of Kinship is the story of woman uncovering and building connections: to a rural way of life on a small ranch in eastern Wyoming, to her and husband’s family histories, to nature around her and within her, and to a spiritual life based partly on Christianity, partly on “sacred ecology,” and partly on Native American wisdom.

Interwoven within the family’s story are Lambert’s observations and reactions to many topics: land-developers versus family ranchers and farmers; cattle-ranchers versus environmentalists; the morality and politics of hunting and meat eating; the history of Native and non-Native Americans in the west; landowners resisting government bureaucrats; our love of kittens, dogs and horses; how family relationships and work have been transformed by the economic revolution of the last two-hundred years; the difficulties of raising children when both parents work. But family, family history, traditional forms of rural life, and a spirituality that connects the natural and human worlds are Lambert’s main concerns

The story is told through short episodes, almost like a memoir which follows Page and Mark Lambert through courtship, marriage, finding a place, building a home, raising two children, and caring for pets, horses, sheep, and finally the start of small herd of cattle. There is a worrying tragedy of rabies with a family cat. There is the joy of a shivaree for the new neighbors. Saying “no” to a son who wants a video game machine. There is the time that family missed Palm Sunday church while waiting for the sheep shearer on his first visit to a new flock of ewes, but then conducted their own service in the family barn in the late afternoon. A litter of kittens is lost to a raccoon, or maybe to a marauding tomcat. Sheltered under a picnic table that is beneath a tree in the yard, the old family dog slowly dies, and a father and young son dig his grave, and a mother and her young daughter wonder if dogs can play fetch in heaven. Calves are born. Fences are mended. A wife worries about a husband working a fire-line for days and nights on a fire crew made up of both women and men.

But embedded within each episode of family and ranch life are wonderings about bigger things. While nursing a crippled calf that surely faces a short and difficult life, Lambert wonders about the insecurity of our own life and whether our time is spent in vain. A young daughter cherishes a factory-chiseled arrowhead and her mother sees the connection between Moses, the prophet of the stone tablets, and the Brule Sioux creation story, “Stone Boy.” Lambert reads in Black Elk Speaks where the great medicine man saw the sacred tree dying and his nation broken. And she wonders if her children will appreciate the life, and the vision, and the land, which she and her husband value so much. Lambert remembers her days as a girl riding her beloved horse, Romie, days when she began to understand freedom and womanhood; now her horse, twenty-five years later, is so old that he can barely step, and the woman wonders if part of own self will die with her horse, and if something new will be born in her soul.

So there are small stories of everyday ranch and family life in this book, and there are careful excavations into deeper and bigger things: living on the land, living with nature, passing on values and traditions from one generation to the next, seeking wisdom that only comes from the conversations between many generations and between many peoples, trying to live a unity between the spirit and the body, trying to keep faith between the past and the now, trying to find ways to see human life and the natural world not as enemies. I am skeptical about some of her answers, but in a quiet and noble way Page Lambert asks ambitious questions.

Review of Colcorton

Colcorton, by Edith Pope

Review by Mark Munger

(New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1944)

First off, don’t rely on the book jacket description of this forgotten work of literary prose from a now-forgotten author. There is indeed a family secret, as hinted in the blurbs on the novel’s back cover that weaves its way into this story of hardscrabble existence. But unlike the depiction of the revelation of that secret in the comments from the book’s rear cover, the mystery concealed deep within the history of the Clanghearne clan doesn’t reveal itself in the opening stages of this fine story: It unravels, as Abby Clanghearne’s life seems destined to, far into the tale, long after Jared Clanghearne, Abby’s brother, has met his untimely end.

That having been said, this is one of those period novels written by an author readers haven’t heard of that is truly a “must” read for a number of reasons.

First, Pope is a quality wordsmith. That alone should be enough to compel you to search out this long out of print piece of fiction. But more importantly, I have the deep suspicion that one of our most revered and beloved pieces of Southern writing, To Kill a Mockingbird, had at least a shove at its inception, from this story, Race does play a part in this tale, a significant one. Though unlike Harper Lee’s masterpiece, where the issue of privilege and social standing due to the color of a man’s skin is tackled head-on, Southern discrimination against those of black or mixed race seeps into Colcorton like swamp water leaking towards a stream. I have no proof, of course, that Ms. Lee read and was inspired by this novel. I have only the rankest of suspicion on my side that there’s a kinship between the two tales. But I stand by my observation. I’ll leave it to scholars of the two authors to settle the debate.

More importantly, Pope paints her characters, particularly the two female protagonists, Abby Clanghearne, the surviving matriarch of a nearly extinct and once proud clan, and her sister-in-law, Beth, Jared’s widow and the mother of the last Clanghearne (Jad, the heir to the decaying mansion, Colcorton, the centerpiece of the diminished family estate) with as fine a brush as a novelist can wield. Abby’s a rough and tumble creature reminiscent of the frontierswoman Ruby Thewes in the literary and commercial blockbuster, Cold Mountain. It may well be that the similarities between Abby and Ruby are coincidence. Or it may be that Charles Frazier, another writer with Southern sensibilities, read Pope’s work before he constructed Cold Mountain. One can never be positive of the influences relied upon, consciously or subconsciously, by writers. But if you’ve seen the film version of Frazier’s masterpiece and you read Colcorton, I guarantee you’ll envision talented actress Renee Zellweger, who played Ruby in the movie version of Cold Mountain, playing the part of Abby Clanghearne.

Pope’s use of the countryside; steamy, hot, wet, and full of danger real and imagined; is one of the most compelling reasons to read this book. The swamps and beaches and tidal marshes and wild creatures of the St. Augustine area come to life, much like the human characters in the story:

Staggering, she paused to watch an osprey drop through the sky like lead, his talons curving fiercely for the kill, his wings straight up like the wings of a sphinx. He hit the water with a smack and vanished in a plume of spray. Water flashed and fell from his pinions as the hawk beat his way upward, a fish moving in his claws. “Ay-ay,” Abby groaned in admiration. “Ain’t that a fine way to git your supper.”

The land. It’s the land, as well as the family secret, that compels Abby Clanghearne to stay despite poverty, decay, and advancing age. And it is the land as depicted by Pope that forms as powerful a protagonist as Abby herself in the tale:

The sky grew pink in the east. She could tell where the ocean ended. The water no longer looked flat: she could see the scooped out shadows of the swells. Silvery beams of light ran up to the top of the sky. The sand began to sparkle. The sun came out of the ocean, burning red. The waves stopped purring; then the surf began to roar. The wind had sprung up.

Lord, to have the native or nurtured talent to write such a passage!
In many ways, this is a simple story in terms of the cast of characters who take the stage, the very parochial and condensed setting, and the moral and ethical issues that are raised by the Clanghearne family secret. And yet, as with Harper Lee’s better-known novel, there is complexity in the seemingly common and ordinary lives depicted in Colcorton. That alone makes this novel worth devouring.

Sadly, Edith Pope died fairly young and largely forgotten with but a modest body of work to her credit. There is no Wikipedia entry regarding her life or career and her obituary (http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=888&dat=19610201&id=E-4NAAAAIBAJ&sjid=EHkDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5959,61347) reveals little about the writer as a person. The article chronicling her passing indicates that Mrs. Pope died of complications from a long illness (rheumatoid arthritis) in 1961 at the age of 53 after having created one work of note. Given how well Colcorton is constructed, perhaps that’s enough.
4 and ½ stars out of 5.

Mark Munger sits on the Advisory Board of RLR. Currently a sitting district court judge in Duluth, Minnesota, Mark is also a prolific writer in his own right. Please visit his blog and website, http://cloquetriverpress.com/.

You can also find Mark on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/#!/mark.munger.7?hc_location=stream

Review of A Son of the Middle Border

A Son of the Middle Border, by Hamlin Garland

Review by John Carbonara

The edition reviewed was published by Penguin Books USA, Inc., New York, 1995.  The original work was published in the United States in 1917 and was followed by his Pulitzer Prize winning, A Daughter of the Middle Border in 1921.

The idea of writing an “autobiography” is somewhat strange.  To write the story of one’s life, that life ought to have something very special about it, at least if one hopes to have it recognized in literary and economic circles.  It is not clear that every life is so unparalleled that it justifies being recorded for the greater public.  There must be something, not only unique about the life, but that uniqueness must have a general appeal.  In the case of A Son of the Middle Border, we find a paradigm for a period of American history.  It was the time of the great “westward migration.”  The “middle border,” that moving boundary that kept sliding westward, is the story of all those homesteaders who sought their special piece of land that was just beyond their view.  As the government opened new “sections” for homesteading, these dreamers moved their families ever westward, thus moving the boundary of the “middle border.”  The idea of “starting over again” permeates Hamlin Garland’s life.  It is a life that has no roots, for even when they stayed in one place for several years, the specter of another move was never very far out of  mind.  The twin ideas of “movement” and “expansion” are so intertwined that the reader is left uneasy from the first to the last page.  Permanence seems out of place in their lives.  Simply to vicariously experience this journey is reason enough to read the book.  The work brings into relief those dominant American traits of movement and change.

Beyond these twin themes of movement and expansion, we are treated to a writer who is, in essence, a poet.  His work begins lyrically and whenever he finds himself miles from an urban center, this lyricism exerts itself and we are invited to enter the world as Garland saw it.  Unfortunately, he says:  “It did not in truth exist–it was a magical world, born of the vibrant union of youth and firelight, of music and the voice of moaning winds…”  (p. 55)   Its reality, however, is something for the reader  to decide.  Much of it rings too true to be myth.    His descriptions of the rural landscape filled with bird calls as he plowed or harrowed the fields are jeweled moments.  There is a noticeable change in his poetic style when he is in an urban environment.  The attempt to be lyrical is transformed, for the city does not have the pastoral richness of his remembered prairies.  Of course, all is not the song of the winds and the blue skies and call of the prairie chicken.  The lyrical moments are punctuated by the difficult work of breaking sod, plowing, harrowing, seeding and harvesting.  It is important to keep in mind that this was a time before the great John Deere Combines that do everything.  This was a time when the power to farm came from the strength of a man’s arm and the endurance of his legs and of his horses.  They were obliged to walk the miles of furrows that they worked.  Imagine a thousand acre wheat farm.   Although most of his novel is about man’s work, it finally dawns on him that women, especially his mother, had burdens the equal of any man’s.  Still, in spite of these less lyrical interruptions, the emphasis in his writings is profoundly romantic and sentimental.  Nostalgia dominates in many chapters.  Yet, within this matrix there remains the disparity between his lyrical poetry about nature and his often bitter prose about the work of farming itself.  He does not attempt to ignore the drudgery of farm work.  The contrast between his appreciation of nature and detestation of farming brings both into higher relief than would otherwise occur.  Often the two coalesce:  “As I look back upon it, I perceive transcendent sunsets, and a mighty sweep of golden grain beneath a sea of crimson clouds.”   (p.139).   This is a very hard earned moment of beauty.

Eventually, the farm boy has to begin the journey that would bring us his many literary works.  Strangely, the transformation came at the hands of an “evangel” (sic).  He heard a sermon from a young preacher that truly changed his life.  Far from God despising the beauty of the world, the evangel argued that God loved beauty.  This idea was, in that era, a novel thought.  “Beauty” suggested a worldliness that was antithetical to the Protestantisms of the day.  As he left the religious service:  “I recognized in this man not only a moving orator but a scholar and I went out from that little church vaguely resolved to be a student also, a student of the beautiful.”  (p. 157)

Boston, where he believed America’s literati resided, never really became his home:  As he speaks of this time, his poetic soul turns into more of a travel log and it will be some time before he recaptures his lyrical spirit. His wandering from Boston to other places is marked by another change in his style.  His poetic form is less romantic and becomes more a form of realism.  He begins to understand the devastation that farming wreaks upon the environment and this note of realism saddens him.  It is best expressed in his own words: It seemed a true invasion, this taking possession of the virgin sod, but as I considered, there was a haunting sadness in it for these shining pine pennons [homestead stakes] represented the inexorable plow.  They prophesied the death of all wild creatures and assured the devastation of the beautiful, the destruction of all the signs and seasons of the sod.  (p. 244)

The final realization occurs when he leaves the East and heads back to the prairie.  When he reached norther Illinois “…everything became so homely, uttered itself so piercingly to me that nothing less than song could express my sense of joy, of power.  This was my country–these my people.”  (p. 286)  Painfully, for the lyric poet, he concluded that beauty must take second place to truth, the harsh ugly truth of pioneering on the “middle border.”  His realism becomes abrasive at times, but he is unstinting in his need to tell the truth of pioneering as he experienced it.  And, thus the youthful lyricism finally must give way to the profound truth of the harsh reality of life on the “middle border.”

Review of A Daughter of the Middle Border

A Daughter of the Middle Border, by Hamlin Garland

Review by John Carbonara

The edition reviewed was published by Borealis Books, an imprint of the Minnesota Historical Society, USA, 2007.  This work is the companion volume to  A Son of the Middle Border originally published in 1917.  A Daughter of the Middle Border was first published in 1921.   The work was exceedingly difficult to write, especially as Hamlin Garland was under pressure from his publishers to follow-up the success of A Son of the Middle Border.  His patience proved right, for A Daughter of the Middle Border was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for biography.  The first of several lessons a young writer will find in this work.

Although the title would suggest that the work was about the life and times of a woman who underwent the trials and tribulations of life on the middle border, the work is more about Garland’s adult life.  Several themes dominate and are developed and returned to throughout the work:  First, we need to note that Garland has become exhausted with fiction and is seeking a new theme for this writing.  Secondly there is his participation in efforts to make Chicago a literary/art center the equal of New York City.  He was one of the Vice-presidents of the Cliff Dwellers Club, a literary group of significance.  Thirdly, there is his intimate relation with his family and their relocation to the area of one of the old homesteads.  Of special concern to him is his mother, a women who did live the life of the middle border and whose infirmities give proof to the truth of those difficult times.  Finally, we come to the “daughter” who is the putative subject, indicated by the title.

These themes are developed and displaced and returned to again and again.  Zulime Taft, who became his wife and the “daughter” which Garland’s mother constantly pressed Garland to provide, proves to be a women of great industry and patience.  She was an artist and and a sculptress in her own right, although she seldom pursued any of this after her marriage.  She was a perceptive woman and where she saw a need for service, she was always ready to fulfill the task.  Most of the time this involved caring for Garland’s mother and father.  It should be noted that her lack of artistic effort was not a result of Garland’s interference.  Consequently, although Zulime is frequently part of the story, as a character she is not developed as one would hope or expect.

Garland’s decision to change from fiction to non-fiction found him again on the middle border.  He decided to chronicle the dying old west and the recent developments in the gold rush.  In addition, he was commissioned to write a history of U. S. Grant, a work which brought him much praise.  As he vacillated about what to do, after Grant, he returned to fiction, utilizing themes from the northwest. This sidetrack from his ultimate work in non-fiction has the merit of illustrating how a fiction writer works.  For any reader aspiring to write fiction, there is much to be learned by noting his methods.  In particular, there was his need to travel the actual ground and talk to the people of the area who were to be the inspiration for his fiction.  This work is rich in references to noted American Indians of the time, as well interviews with prospectors and other figures of historical significance.  In addition, young writers should attend to his copious notes and sketches which formed the basis of the stories and poems to be written when he returned to Chicago and New York.  Young writers can also profit from his continuous challenge regarding the worth of what he had written.  At one point there is an almost “Seinfeld” like answer:  His writing, he feared, was about nothing.  One supposes all writers must have such moments such as this, Pulitzer Prize winner or not.

As he grew older, he saw his world change in radical ways.  He came to acknowledge that there was no going back to the life of the middle border and all that that entailed.  He was a member of a community of writers and this group constituted his literary family.  It was difficult for him to see them die one by one.  As he said of these friends (their names are familiar yet today):  “All were hastening to be history.”  (p. 270)  Thus, there is a special sadness, towards the end of this work, that sadness which often accompanies old age.  The reviewer leaves the details to the reader.

In sum, it is a work which completes his first work.  It still contains strains of the poetical lyricism which highlighted the earlier work, but that youthful lyricism is muted.  Of course, this is a much more mature writing, with mature themes, and mature endings.  Still, if the “Son” was of interest to you, the “Daughter” will complete the story.