Prairie Songs

I first heard about Pam Conrad at a Highlights Foundation weeklong workshop for children’s writers in Chautauqua, New York in 1998. People still grieved her death of breast cancer two years before that had come much too soon when she was only 48. Many remembered her support of the workshops and of beginning writers. The Highlights Foundation honored her by naming one of its endowment funds for her. The endowment interest supplies scholarship money for writers to attend their very excellent workshops.

Her name came up again recently in a recommendation from Kimberly Willis Holt for Pam’s book Prairie Songs. I decided it was time for me to check “read Pam Conrad” off my To Read List. Besides the gripping story, I found much to learn from her writing.

Her beginning will go in my collection of good first lines: “The prairie was like a giant plate, stretching all the way to the sky at the edges. And we were like two tiny peas left over from dinner, Lester and me.

I empathized with her protagonist Louisa in her effort to give Lester the silent treatment since that revenge method is lost to me for the same reason: “But it was too hard, and too hot to keep all those words inside with that sun beating down on me like hard rain.”

She mastered the art of depositing the reader in her setting without giving a long description: “I watched Mrs. Berryman stand and walk to the window. I knew what she would see, gazing out that way, through the deep window. Nothing. Clear nothing for miles and miles.”

And look at the information and emotion packed into one incomplete sentence: “Our soddy with the flour-sack curtains, the flowers on the roof, and the two magazines under my cot.

The powerful book is not for those who need cheering up since the reality of a hard life that only gets more and more difficult draws her readers in until the sadness becomes theirs. It is for those who admire words into sentences into paragraphs that transport the reader into another life. It is for those who appreciate an ending that satisfies but carries little promise of “happily ever after.”

I finished the book with longing for Louisa to have a better life, sadness that Pam Conrad had such a short time to add to the canon of children’s literature, and gratitude to Kimberly for reminding me that I needed to read Pam’s work.


Criticism Caution for Charlotte

With my 20-20 hindsight, I could have told Charlotte Bronte not to pay any attention to Robert Southey. In connection with our reading of Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey from two of the Bronte sisters, our Classics Book Club librarian Gayle Kennedy also got copies of The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte by Syrie James to share with us.

The book is called a novel, but it’s based on extensive research and Charlotte’s own meticulously kept diary. There are only a few places where it appeared obvious to me that the author created fiction to fill in more than scenery and dialogue.  I recommend it to those who love the writings of the Brontes or for those just looking for a good story from their era.

Included in the back matter is an exchange with the poet Robert Southey. Charlotte had sent the revered English poet laureate some poems for critiques. His reply, dated 12 March 1837, gives several pieces of ambivalent advice:
•    Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation.
•    Write poetry for its own sake. . .and not with a view to celebrity; the less you aim at that the more likely you will be to deserve and finally to obtain it.

I would say the second advice is sound, but the first raises a question. Aside from a few English literature majors, who knows about Robert Southey? The parody of his poem by Lewis Carroll “You Are Old, Father William” is more famous [and much more fun] than Mr. Southey’s original.

Charlotte appears to take his advice to heart and works up mandatory feelings of guilt. In her response to his letter she begins by admitting she has wasted quires of paper in her useless writing and moves to a new rationalization that the pleasure of writing can be hers, but only after she has finished her real woman’s work. Her answer, dated 16 March 1837, includes:
•    I have endeavored not only attentively to observe all the duties a woman ought to fulfill, but to feel interested in them. I don’t always succeed, for sometimes when I am teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing. . .
Apparently all three sisters – Charlotte, Emily, and Anne – followed the advice and wrote in leftover time.

In retrospect almost 200 years later, students still read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights; movies abound for both of them – the latest Jane Eyre doing well at its box office release in 2011; and this teacher and her students enjoyed both in their read-aloud time. Even Agnes Grey is still readily available. All three are great books for shared reading and discussion. There is no one alive with any remembrance of how well Charlotte did her “woman’s work.”

There will always be the Southeys, quick to give advice of questionable quality. Borrowing an idea from a favorite principal, I would suggest when one of those advice-givers tries to tell you what to do, you can smile sweetly and say, “You could be right.” Then finish the sentence in your head, “. . . and children may build snow forts in July in South Mississippi.”


Fearing Dead Snakes

I almost touched the thing, so closely its gray mottled skin resembled the weathered two-by-four strips holding the netting over my strawberries. A mad scramble followed as I dashed into the house calling, “Snake! Snake!” My husband Al stuck his feet in his shoes and grabbed the shovel, following me to the strawberries. He took one look and said, “He’s already dead.”

Al had arranged the netting and two-by-fours to keep out the varmints that stole my strawberries. The snake trapped himself [or herself] in the netting and couldn’t get out. We didn’t check cause of death, but Al had to cut the netting to remove the snake for picture opportunities. He arranged and held the snake up on the pole, and I shot the pictures. I knew the snake was dead and still could not bring myself to get too close – and certainly not to touch. However, I seized the opportunity for a blog, recalling a favorite Shakespeare quote from As You Like It.

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Change the toad to a snake, and you can probably guess where I’m going with this. Writers find metaphors in everything. My irrational fear of a snake – a dead one at that – took me to thinking about fear that handicaps life.

Fear of public speaking, often listed as the number one fear, is one of those irrational fears. Put into logical terms, what is the worst that can happen? We’ve pretty much passed the stage of society where rotten tomatoes assail the speaker. Someone might yawn or go to sleep. Once in a while, someone may get up and walk out, but even then they usually do it quietly. The only permanent scars from public speaking are to the ego, yet the fear is very real.

Before I badmouth it altogether, let me say fear sometimes serves a useful purpose – if a hurricane is coming, if one is in rush hour traffic, or if a snake is poisonous and alive. There are times when healthy fear keeps us alert and safe.  

Other fears – of unexpected twists in life, of travel to different cultures, of assuming a new job, of sending out a manuscript – foreshadow not only things that can go wrong but opportunities not to be missed. Giving in to them doesn’t make any more sense than fear of a dead snake. Conquering fear can lead to rewarding communication with an audience, an exciting journey, or perhaps acceptance and publication of that manuscript. Now if I can just remember, when fear raises its ugly head, to check whether a hurricane is coming or if I’m just facing another dead snake.


A Change in Plans

During my senior year in high school, my life for the next few years was pretty well decided, or so it seemed. I had devoured the series of books that began with Sue Barton, Student Nurse. My favorite subject was chemistry. Daddy delighted that I had a higher grade point average than any of the boys in my class. He never held to the theory that boys were better than girls in math and science.

I had watched and helped care for my great-grandmother as she died of cancer the previous spring. With the right interests and a demonstrated ability to nurse gravely ill patients, I was headed to college to become another Florence Nightingale. I knew I would be no ordinary nurse.

And then on a crisp October afternoon, we drove to Pontotoc County, Mississippi to meet people in the new community where my father was going as pastor. He wanted to introduce us to members of his new church and help us get acquainted.

My mother, who always drove, stopped the car in front of the most modern country store I had ever seen. Plate glass windows spread across the front of the long white building that formed an obtuse angle. Men, sitting on the old nicked benches, whittled and gaped at entering customers and passers-by. Tall gas pumps with round glass tops stood guard out front. My parents, my three younger sisters, and I piled out.

The inside of the store fascinated me. Long glass cases lined the sides and stretched across the front. One held penny candy, nickel and dime candy bars, suckers, and chewing gum. Another held bolts of fabric. An assortment of things that didn't fit anywhere else filled another.

Canned foods of all kinds lined one wall. Another wall had nails, nuts and bolts, and hardware equipment. The center shelves stocked flour, meal, sugar, and other staples. The item that really caught my eye was a wooden two-drawer chest. The front bore the insignia, "J. P. Coats  Best Six Cord Thread."  Inside were wooden spools of thread in every color imaginable. Since sewing for my sisters and myself was my choice free time activity, I knew I would be returning often to the store.

The odor of feed and fertilizer drifted in from the back warehouse and mingled with the smell of bologna, hoop cheese, and liverwurst. The owner and his teen-age son were busy cutting off enough of the cheese to sell fifty cents worth of cheese and crackers along with an RC Cola to a waiting customer.

Daddy got us a Coke from the chest cooler. It had slivers of ice and tasted fresh from the Arctic. Never again have I had such a cold Coke.

Daddy approached the owner and his son as the customer left, signaling for us to join him. Bent on making a good impression on new church members, I had worn my favorite outfit for the occasion – my gold corduroy skirt that made a full circle and my black sweater set – in our school colors, of course.

The owner was bent over from the waist with rheumatoid arthritis and used a short walking stick. His son appeared to be his companion and helper.

Little did I know that the storeowner’s next words would change the direction of my life forever. Something was afoot that would make the nearby university that trained teachers much more appealing to me than the faraway nursing school. Mr. Butler reached up and put his hand on his son's shoulder. "This," he said, "is my baby boy."

A short time later, the boy showed up about two miles down the road to help the movers unload furniture into our new home. For two years, the neighbors took note that the boy regularly parked the Butler family car, a 1956 red and white hardtop Buick convertible, in our front yard. And they all turned out on the hot Sunday afternoon of June 1 when we were married in the country church – next door to the house about two miles down the road.
Afterward: The two-drawer thread chest sits on an old family trunk in our guest bedroom.

*Thema Magazine published this memory in its “About Two Miles Down the Road” Summer 2011 issue.


Not Just a Picnic

In my first memories of Uncle Charles, he’s home on leave looking sharp in his sailor uniform. Aunt Dee treasures the flag that draped his coffin and the World War II story told at his funeral.

Married for ten years and living in Florida after the war, Aunt Dee and Uncle Charles Maxson welcomed her younger sister Ruth for an extended visit. Aunt Dee had volunteered to make Aunt Ruth’s wedding dress, and fittings were necessary.

The prospective groom, soon to be my Uncle Leo, came down for a couple of days to see Aunt Ruth and meet more of his new family. At the supper table, Uncle Leo and Uncle Charles eyed each other with a wary, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”

Bit by bit, they reconstructed their pasts, discovering that each had served in World War II. By the time they got to the fact that Uncle Leo’s ship had docked in the Pacific for repairs, Uncle Charles exclaimed, “You’re the guy who tracked mud across my newly waxed floor!” Uncle Charles, assigned to the unit doing ship repairs, had been proud of his floor that rivaled the spit shine of his shoes! It was a Baptist funeral so they did not repeat the words Uncle Charles used in his reprimand to the young serviceman with the muddy shoes, but they were evidently words I had never heard him say.

The two men mended their fences and became brothers-for-real as well as brothers-in-law, beginning with a bond they shared of honor and service to their country that overshadowed mud tracks on a newly cleaned floor.

I enjoyed our church’s early Memorial Day celebration that was more than a picnic as we paid honor to those who had served their country in various military branches by calling out their names.  My thoughts were on two men who were part of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” – men who met half a world away, married my mother’s sisters, and became my Uncle Charles and Uncle Leo.