An Examined Life: A Review of Linda Hasselstrom’s Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal

By Paul Theobald

This book is a journal–no mistaking that.  It consists of an entry for each day of an entire year, although the entries may refer to one of several of years.  Uniquely, however, it is also a treatise on the very act of journaling, of putting down words in an effort to create a record of one’s life, or perhaps to make sense of one’s life.  Throughout the year, Linda examines journals of her own from many years earlier, as well as those of her deceased mother and father. The book ends with an examination of a journal Linda found among her father’s papers, a journal that belonged to Bill Snable, a pioneer who settled close to Linda’s ranch in 1912.  Linda’s recollections of going into Mr. Snable’s abandoned cabin as a child were riveting.

All of these journals are profoundly concerned with the particular place on earth where these people lived their lives, did their work, and shared the joys and sorrows that define life itself.  Journaling is, of course, an aid to memory because, inevitably, time outlasts memory. But, in thinking about this book, as all readers will do, I couldn’t help wondering about the Native peoples who inhabited this same physical space years earlier, who did their journaling orally.  Was it in The Laws, or another of Plato’s works, where he shares the story of the ancient Greek King, Thamus, who beheaded the inventor of the pen, first telling him that he had created an instrument for forgetting?  The story resonates with my understanding of Native cultures.

But, if this were true, would we know about King Thamus today?  Certainly, if it were true, I would never have known about Bill Snable.  That would have been a loss.  No, I think Thamus was wrong about the inventor of the pen, and he was wrong to take his life.  The pen is an instrument for remembering, not forgetting.  I am grateful that the Hasselstroms were seemingly never very far from one.

Sharing this latest journal, as Linda does, gives the reader insight into her own intellectual journey of introspection, her own well-examined life.  Everything is in this book, from childhood memories, to serious family discord, to the impending decisions one faces nearing the end of life. The writing is graceful and compelling.  It was impossible not to react emotionally when Linda decided she would never ride a horse again, when she gave away saddles that had been in the family for decades, when she sells the 1951 and 1962 pick-ups her father used to operate the ranch.

There is pain in this book, but there is also healing.  Its greatest contribution, I think, will be the way it pushes the reader to examine his or her own life and legacy.  The book is a roller coaster, however, be prepared for that.  Linda moves the reader from St. Augustine to Wendell Berry, from Dylan Thomas to Bob Seger.  The intellectual flexibility exhibited in these pages is reminiscent of Emerson or Thoreau.  It is first-rate American literature.  As one reviewer put it, “Linda Hasselstrom is a national treasure.”  It is a joy to read this book.

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