The October Palace, by Jane Hirshfield

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Hirshfield is one of my favorite poets, and I welcomed the opportunity to reread this early (1994) collection of hers for my poetry discussion group. I’ve written before about her essays on poetry in Nine Gates. I return to these essays frequently to remind myself of what I love about poetry and what I aspire to in my writing.

The poems in this book hold mysteries that, like koans, can leave me pondering a few lines for days, such as these from the beginning of “Within This Tree”:

Within this tree
another tree
inhabits the same body . . .

Or this from the beginning of “Floor”:

The nails, once inset, rise to the surface –
or, more truly perhaps, over the years
the boards sink down to meet what holds them.

My favorite poem in the collection is “Autumn” which so brilliantly evokes this particular moment in time, as the wind sweeps through the trees here, taking our glorious season into its next phase. Here is the poem in its entirety:

Again the wind
flakes gold-leaf from the trees
and the painting darkens –
as if a thousand penitents
kissed an icon
till it thinned
back to bare wood,
without diminishment.

Think about these images for a moment: flaking gold-leaf such a perfect description of yellow leaf-fall, an icon thinned by kisses for the tree’s gradual disrobement. Most of all, though, the bare wood—of the painting, of the tree—is not only without diminishment but is in truth the real value of each. What do we value? What do we repent of? What do we revere?

Winter-lover that I am, I adore the bare black skeletons of trees; they are a revelation, the strong bones beneath the leaves and fruit, a promise.

One thing I love about The October Palace is the section at the end titled Notes on the Poems where she gives a snippet of background on some of the poems: a dedication, a description of a proper name, a slight hint at what inspired the poem.

With some of the poems, my group floundered a bit, offering different interpretations and personal responses. To me, this openness is one of the great gifts of poetry: the leaps we readers must take, as Robert Bly said. Or as Hirshfield says in Nine Gates about storytelling in poetry:

. . . the reader as well as the writer must bring the full range of memory, intellect, and imaginative response. The best stories are almost mythlike in their ability to support alternative readings, different conclusions . . . The words of a poem are not ends, but means into an exploration without limit.

Rather than a response to the commonly asked question “What author living or dead would you like to have dinner with?”, I would most love to walk in the woods with Hirshfield or perhaps prepare a meal with her. I would ask her questions about her poems and essays. But in the end it’s the poems that matter, and I value the distance they must travel to reach me because it leaves me free to bring my own memory, intellect and imagination to them.

Have you read any of Jane Hirshfield’s poems? Is there one you particularly like?

My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Braithwaite

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Don’t be put off by the title of this brief but powerful debut novel. I myself hesitated, wondering if it would be sardonic humor or a grotesque butchers’ ball, but was persuaded to read it by one of my book clubs. I’m glad I did!

This is the story of two sisters. In the first chapter Korede, our narrator, gets a call from her younger sister, the beautiful and pampered Ayoola, asking for Korede’s help in cleaning up after her latest murder. This is the third one, leading Korede to note that her sister has now met the definition of a serial killer.

Not that Ayoola believes she’s a murderer. No, these are boyfriends who threatened her in some way and she pulled her knife in self-defense. The knife was their abusive father’s proudest possession which Ayoola helped herself to after their father’s untimely death.

Despite the title and this first chapter, the story is very much grounded in Korede’s everyday life. It’s more about family dynamics and personal worldviews than about violence. As one person in my book club said, “. . . there are rich veins to mine when you take ordinary, commonplace conflicts and amplify them to the extreme.”

So far from resenting her sister’s favored status, Korede has made it her mission to protect Ayoola, though of course we only get this through Korede’s eyes so she could be deceiving herself or us. But the crisis comes when the handsome young doctor at the hospital where Korede works, the doctor she has been trying to attract, catches sight of her irresistable sister. Should she warn him? Or will she continue to enable her sister?

The Nigerian author is also a poet, so it’s not surprising that she brings a poet’s use of compression and white space to this novel. What is astonishing is how effective it is. Each short chapter burns with purpose. There are no subplots or plot layers to distract us. Characters other than her sister and the young doctor are not presented as complex, which makes sense because we see them only through Korede’s eyes and she is focused, laser-like, on the two of them. As another person in my book club said, “For that reason [her succinct prose], the story delivered a sense of smooth, inexorable movement toward its resolution.”

Korede’s deadpan voice gives us her character: practical, straight-forward, a little OCD about cleaning. Eventually we begin to question her reliability. Was the father’s death an accident? Isn’t her protectiveness toward Ayoola laced with some other emotions? Does she care more about the idea of protecting her sister than for Ayoola herself?

There is good, if understated, use of symbolism and setting. Korede keeps coming back to the idea of the third bridge under which the sisters disposed of the body in the first chapter. The bridge isn’t described; it’s more the idea of it. I’ve mentioned the knife as a symbol, but there are others, such as the use of flowers and the bleach Korede uses to clean up the blood.

There are glimpses throughout the novel of conditions in Nigeria, such as an interaction with the blatantly corrupt police at one point, or the accepted patriarchal system. Also, a third person in my book club mentioned that “ . . . there’s a whole genre of Nigerian films that feature over-the-top, comedic violence, with the strength of the family prevailing in the end.” This idea gives me a different perspective on the novel and how it fits within its cultural context. From within my own context, though, I saw the humor but concentrated on the co-dependency of the sisters and Korede’s ethical dilemma.

Expanding further, while ostensibly about the relationship between the two sisters, the story can also be read as a comment on today’s inequality: the gap between the pampered one-percenters, so entitled that they can lie, abuse and rape with impunity, and the rest of us, beaten down by the treadmill of getting by while we labor to provide their goods and services. Since they pay almost nothing in taxes, with miniscule tax rates and generous offshore hideaways, the tax burden is left to us.

However you read this story, you’ll find much to think about and discuss with friends.

What would you recommend as a good book club choice?

The Silence of the Sea, by Yrsa Sigursdardóttir

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In the middle of a cold night, a luxury yacht appears in Reykjavik harbor on schedule, but instead of slowing down it plows into a pier. When the security guard and three customs officials board her, they find no one on board. There is no sign of the captain, two crewmen and the young couple with two small children who had set off from Lisbon a few days earlier.

As a lawyer, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is subsequently hired by the elderly parents of the husband. The youngest daughter had been left in their care, now apparently an orphan. The grandparents need to establish that the couple is dead so that the little girl’s future can be secured. They also fear that the authorities will take the girl away from them, saying they were too old and not well off enough to care for her. Apparently this is common practice in Iceland. The grandparents hoped that the life insurance would at least do away with one factor.

The atmosphere is suitably chilling, calling up echoes of other ghost ships such as the Mary Celeste. or is there a more rational explanation for what went on and if there could be survivors somewhere. The chapters alternate between Thóra’s efforts to discover what happened, belated accompanied by a police investigation, and a narrative of what happened on the yacht through the eyes of Ægir, the young husband.

Thóra must assemble as much documentation as possible to persuade the insurance company that the whole thing is not a scam perpetrated by Ægir and his wife, who have jumped ship somewhere and gone off to lead a new life. One would think that the youngest daughter as a hostage left behind, not to mention the missing crew, would be enough to end that line of enquiry, but apparently not.

Although the book is described as “A Thriller” on the front cover, I found the pace, especially in Thóra’s chapters measured, more befitting the PI/police procedural genre that it fits. Meanwhile the initial sense of unease in the yacht chapters accelerates gradually as their situation worsens. This adept handling of pacing is one of the things I appreciated most about the book.

One thing that struck me as unrealistic from the beginning is the behavior of Bella, the receptionist. Thóra and her partner Bragi in the law practice have five employees; the only one we meet is Bella who not only damages office equipment, insults Thóra and tries to sabotage her, but also spends her days using the firm’s computer and limited internet resources for her own personal purposes. Then she blackmails Thóra by refusing to tell her information she’d been asked to dig up unless Thóra pays for higher internet capacity, something the partners had decided they couldn’t afford. That’s when I almost put down the book. She is so astonishingly awful. Who would keep an employee like that? Though it’s possible there’s something I don’t understand about the Icelandic culture that would explain it.

I was also confused about Thóra’s home life. I haven’t read the previous books in the series, but a man named Matthew is introduced as her partner, which I at first took to mean another business partner as well as her significant other. It’s not clear what his profession is; at first I thought banker, but later she seems to refer to him as a doctor. Then there are a three children living with them, two of whom are apparently teenagers who have a baby. It took me way too long to untangle the relationships. This is the kind of information that should be completely clear, even in a series book, and not make us have to reread several times to sort out.

This is a minor quibble, though. Overall, I thought the book presented an intriguing mystery set in a country I’m eager to visit. The ending was abrupt but believable, though it left a couple of unresolved questions. Thóra is an interesting protagonist. I admired the fluidity of the way the people on the ship were presented; their twists and turns increased the suspense. I especially liked the way Sigursdardóttir used our bemused fascination with ghost ships to add to the creepy atmosphere.

Have you read a book set in Iceland?

A Place on Earth, by Wendell Berry

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A recent post on Writer Unboxed by Kathleen McCleary looked at what kind of book prompts a really good discussion by readers and book clubs. The first quality mentioned was that such books “deal with big themes that are at the heart of human experience.” That certainly describes this gorgeous novel.

I had read some of Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, so I was not surprised that one of the big ideas explored in this his second novel is our relationship with the land. Reading this story set in the small town of Port William, Kentucky in 1944, we are immersed in a way of life unfamiliar to most of us today.

The story is centered on Mat Feltner, a farmer like his father and grandfather before him, but includes a wide cast of characters, some of them eccentric but all of them deeply human. As it begins, Mat and three other men are playing cards in a store left empty when the son of one of them went off to war. It’s early March, a quiet time in the life of a farmer. Mat has just learned that his son Virgil, his and Margaret’s only child, is missing in action.

As spring turns to summer and then into fall, Mat must make place in his consciousness, in his plans and expectations, for the possibility that Virgil might not return. Interwoven with Mat’s story are those of others in the town: Virgil’s pregnant wife Hannah, Burley Coulter who has lost one nephew in the war and just seen off the other to boot camp, Old Jack Beecham who cannot work his land anymore and has been moved into town and an unwelcome retirement, Jayber Crow who lives above his barbershop in a room full of books, to name just a few.

Berry writes with the poet’s eye for beauty and ear for music. While this novel is a realistic portrayal of country life, it occasionally drifts naturally into lyricism, perhaps a description that is achingly beautiful, or a moment of insight that raises the story to a greater sphere. Mat, wakeful in the night, hears the first stirrings of morning:

And Mat’s mind would return like a ghost to his body, leaving its uncertain questionings, the conjectures and absences it had wandered among. He felt himself shaped again, weighty, among the intimate clear objects of his days: the spacious dawn-filled plainly furnished old room; the leaves of the fern on the windowsill, in which the greenness appeared suddenly to have woken up, the shadows hanging over the pot rim as if peeled downward by the light; his clothes lying on the chair at the foot of the bed. And he would turn to these things gladly—as if, out of the unknowing magnitude that surrounded and diminished it, he took back his life.

Another big idea that Berry explores is what is the purpose of our lives? What do we hope to accomplish? What does death mean? What is left after we die? And nested within those intersecting ideas is the notion of work. This to me was the most striking part of the book, this description of what it means to work every day. I loved the way he describes the rhythms of work within the day, across the year. Here’s Mat trimming his apple trees:

He likes this work—the look of his hands moving and choosing, correcting, among the tangle, the wild good health of the branches. The orchard is one of the works of his life, one of the most satisfying ones. From its young hesitant beginnings it has taken possession of the plot, become a landmark. There has never been any income from it except for the fruit, with which Matt provisions his own table and which the neighbors are made welcome to pick. He has a greater intimacy with what he grows for his own use than what he grows for the market. The orchard lights and shapes one of the deepest enclosures of his mind, his monument to the ground.

And here is Mat’s brother Earnest, going back to work after a short rest:

The day and the work are established around him again. He goes on, deeper in, with a kind of excitement growing in him, a kind of hunger for what it’s possible to do before night. It becomes easier to go on than to stop. The afternoon settles into its passing, less pleasant than the morning but more forceful, more gathered into itself, the impetus and urging of it building tighter and higher.

While my experience working on a farm was brief, I still recognise these same rhythms in my days working in an office or laboratory, and at home writing. I know Mat’s satisfaction in the competence and skill that comes with experience. And even more than that, I recognise the uses of work, the benefits beyond the completed project. In all my years of reading, I have rarely found this theme explored, much less embodied as well as it is here.

This is one book that I never wanted to end. I consciously slowed down my reading to savor every sentence. My only consolation is that Berry’s other novels are apparently about the people in this town.

What have you gained from the work you do, beyond a paycheck or a finished product?

Murder in the Bastille, by Cara Black

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I’ve written before about Black’s series set in Paris featuring private investigator Aimée Leduc. After the shocking death of her father, a police detective, she decided that she would stay away from crime-solving; she and her partner René would only provide information security services, such as computer forensics and corporate security. However, when Aimée stumbles into a murder investigation, she can’t help but be drawn in.

One of the pleasures of this series is the setting. Each installment takes place in a different neighborhood, or arrondissement, of Paris. Here, it is the Bastille, known to many of us because of the famous prison. Once a working class neighborhood, it’s now a gentrified area with the Opera Bastille, fancy restaurants and nightclubs. However, there is still a maze of old passages, back alleys and inner courtyards, the home of furniture makers since the 12th century. Now, apparently, these mostly house trendy shops, but in 1994, the time of this story, some older businesses still held on.

In this, the fourth book in the series, she wears a new—supposedly one-of-a-kind—Chinese silk jacket to dinner only to find the woman sitting next to her wearing the same jacket. The woman appears afraid and forgets her cell phone when she leaves. When Aimée takes it up to the maître d’, it rings and she answers it. The person mistakes her for the owner of the phone and implores her to show up at a planned assignation. Aimée goes there, expecting to find the woman but instead is brutally attacked in the dark Passage Boule Blanche.

Found by René, she awakens to learn that damage from the beating has blinded her, though it is not known if this is temporary or permanent. Even worse, the woman wearing the same jacket was killed in a nearby street. Now she must help Loic Bellan, the distracted policeman in charge of the investigation, solve the crime before the murderer silences her.

As a reader what I most enjoyed was René’s expanded role. Preferring always to work at a computer, his partner’s blindness forces him to take on some of her investigative activities, a prospect which terrifies and excites him in equal measure.

As a writer what I most enjoyed about the book was the intimate experience of sudden blindness. The author has thrown herself heart and soul into Aimée’s emotional and practical struggles, ranging from despair to pride to the craving for a cigarette. I have no idea how accurate the treatments and expectations for the blind might have been at that time, only that Aimée’s emotions rang true to me.

What I can say, as an information security engineer and analyst myself, is that the technology side of the story is accurate. Some readers have complained that the technology used in the story didn’t exist in 1994, but they are wrong. Not only were Aimée and René, by virtue of their profession, working with cutting edge equipment and software, but the technologies described in this story were in common usage in certain arenas in the U.S. and even more so in Europe.

I don’t know Paris and have only schoolgirl French, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the descriptions and the various French phrases scattered through the book. I can only say that I enjoyed them and hope someday to visit Paris, seeing it not just through the eyes of a tourist but through the gritty lens Cara Black’s books have given me.

Have you been to Paris? Which arrondissement did you stay in?

The Souls of Black Folks, by W.E.B. DuBois

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When my book club chose this book , I thought Really? Yes, I want to read more diverse books; yes I want to read classics. But would this 1903 book really have anything to teach me?

Yes.

First off, the writing is amazing. Although I’ve known of DuBois forever, I’d never before read any of his books. His prose is both expressive and straight-forward. These chapters are lessons in how to write about outrageous conditions with your outrage controlled and contained to add power to your sentences without turning the reader away. He marshals facts and numbers to back up his statements, yet doesn’t hesitate to move into lyric prose to bring home to us the reality of what he’s describing.

Second, yes, as a Caucasian who has tried to pay attention, I still have much to learn. I thought the whole book would be about conditions in the past. If only that were true.

Each chapter begins with the score of a spiritual, which I found myself humming as I read, adding another layer to the text. The chapters lay out a program of what is needed to bring the American Negro, particularly those in the South, into full citizenship: the right to vote, a good education—not just vocational training—and to be treated fairly.

He describes conditions just after Emancipation, particularly the Freedman’s Bureau. Much of this was new to me: the way Negro colleges grew and the idea that we had to start with the colleges and work down to the grade schools. Yet the political shenanigans described in later chapters, intended to return Blacks to virtual slavery, made my heart ache.

He talks about the role of the Black church and how music—what he calls the Sorrow Songs—grew out of slaves’ longing for freedom, traveled through the influence of the church and out to influence and be influenced by the White American culture. Having just watched Ken Burns’s remarkable exploration of country music, I was primed to recognise this primary source of America’s folk music.

The chapter that moved me most was the chapter on Alexander Crummell, an Episcopal priest who, according to DuBois, was subject to three temptations: Hate, Despair, and Doubt. In Crummell’s story we see in a single tragic life the effects of what DuBois names the Veil: an invisible barrier that separates Black and White Americans. White people do not comprehend what life is like within the Veil, the “double-consciousness”: “a sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

I learned a lot from this book. And even those things I already knew I came to understand more deeply.

Have you read this book, or anything by DuBois? What did you think of it?

Never Stop Dancing, by John Robinette and Robert Jacoby

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An ordinary man at work on an ordinary day sits through the regular weekly meeting, gets a soda, talks with a co-worker. Then he hears someone say, “That’s John.” And sees a police officer looking at him.

On that clear and beautiful April day, John’s wife Amy was knocked down by a truck as she crossed a street and died.

His close friend Robert, a journalist and author of two books, wanted to help, but what can you do? What can you say?

What Robert did was suggest that he interview John several times over the course of the next year, John’s first year without Amy. Because their friendship included an openness and sharing considered unusual between men, Robert hoped the interviews would give John a safe space to talk about his feelings. He also thought that someday John’s two young children would want to know more about this first year without Amy, and that perhaps “John’s grief might inform others’ grief—how they manage it, how they talk about it, and how they process it—and, ultimately, how they move on.”

And Robert himself, not unacquainted with loss and grief, was curious:

I wanted to know how someone could experience such a loss, put words to it, and come back from it. I wanted to know his experience of losing someone so close, so beloved. At the heart of it, I wanted to know the breadth and depth of love, and love lost.

In this powerful, if sometimes wrenching, joint memoir we move between Robert and John’s voices. Emotions are laid bare; the small and large moments—cleaning out Amy’s closet, signing the children up for Little League—are exposed. Robert says, “It felt like we were opening up the brutal places of human existence and emotion, holding things up for discovery and examination.”

Both John and Robert are smart, articulate and curious. They wrestle with the questions most of us struggle with in our lives: Who am I? Why am I here? What happens to us after we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? Does religion offer answers and comfort or just empty promises? Does grief ever fade? And if it does, have we betrayed our loved one?

It’s a remarkable book. John and Robert’s startling honesty and candor, holding nothing back, can’t help but open our hearts and ease our own empty places.

Most poignant are the scenes with John’s two young sons, four and seven, as they try to come to grips with their devastating loss. As John later says, he may someday find someone else to love and share his life with, but “My boys can never have another mother.”

Another devastating but comforting scene is when ten members of John’s church come to his home to sit with him shortly after Amy’s death. Curled on the floor, overwhelmed by grief, John feels them silently touching him, holding him. A laying on of hands. Held in that love and compassion he is able to find calm.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to step into the lives and hearts of these two men. Their story made me feel I’d opened the box and everything flew away except for one thing, and that one thing was love. By opening themselves to each other, John and Robert invite us into their community, to hold each other in love and compassion and to find peace.

Have you read a memoir that made you feel a part of something larger?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

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I read this popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel a few months ago but wanted to let it sit for a while before blogging about it. I needed to sort out the emotions it left me with: a combination of enchantment and disappointment.

It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees.

Writers are told to avoid polemics, to get down off our soapboxes, or we risk annoying or alienating readers. I don’t think anyone could question the wondrous greatness of trees or their life going on independently of us, yet Powers avoids the trap of dogma by giving us their side of the story through those of his characters, their resistance, their devotion, their sacrifice.

I didn’t need convincing. I’ve had a deep emotional attachment to trees since earliest childhood, counting some among my best friends. Nor did the rest of my book club, all of us already in love with trees, living as we do in the Green Mountains. Yet we all struggled with the beginning of the book, unable to remember the characters after each was introduced in the first section, having to flip back to remind ourselves.

We were also disappointed—while profoundly moved—by the ending. I try not to give away endings, so I’ll just echo the assertion of writing master Donald Maass that we want stories that reflect reality; he says, “the truth is that while we may live in a bleak world we are not empty inside.” Here, the enigmatic ending left us debating this idea.

The writing is enchanting. Eventually the characters became distinct and memorable but always the events and descriptions kept me reading.

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety.

Powers also brings devastating psychological insight to his characters. One, a man who has lived a life considered normal for a middle-class American man, says: “I’ve been a man who happily confuses the agreed-upon for the actual.” A brilliant description that could fit quite a few people I know.

But what I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story, surely another meaning of the title, which the author uses as a synonym for trees’ canopy. By telling the world’s story through those of nine characters, Powers has chosen the most effective way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. As writing master Lisa Cron has memorably described stories have been our means of survival since the earliest days. Stories are how we learn and the best way for us to remember.

My book club discussed the concept of forest bathing, the idea of destressing and even healing by walking through the woods, agreeing that we all had been doing this long before the term was coined. We hoped that this novel would increase awareness of and activism to protect the natural world, especially our beloved trees.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

Prairie Fires, by Caroline Fraser

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A friend recommended this book so vehemently that she actually sent me a copy. As I mentioned before, I’d never read the Little House books, so I’ve been catching up on them as I read this biography. Wilder always maintained that her stories were true, but questions arose even as the books were taking the world of children’s literature by storm. Now Fraser’s meticulously sourced account shows what is fact and what is fiction in those books.

That is not a criticism of Wilder. She was writing for children and wanted to spare them the most devastating details. She was also writing to memorialise her parents, her father in particular, so of course she managed the details to show them in a good light.

For example, one thing that was obvious to me reading the books as an adult, even without Fraser’s clarification, was that Wilder’s father was not above stealing, as when he knowingly tried to homestead on land that belonged to the Osage. He was also terribly reckless, constantly dragging the family away from security to chase a dream of a self-sufficient farm far from other people.

Fraser makes clear the near impossibility of achieving that dream, given the lack of federal programs at the time, the uncertain and often disastrous natural conditions—drought, storms, locusts—and the unsuitable land set aside for homesteaders. There is much here for us to consider looking at today’s situation: ongoing ecological damage that has put us on the edge of another Dust Bowl, the difficulty of making a small farm work even with boutique vegetables and the growth of farmers’ markets, and the near takeover of agriculture by enormous farms run by corporate agribusinesses with large federal handouts.

Yet, as the book’s subtitle, The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, asserts, that image of the self-sufficient pioneer pulling himself up by his bootstraps is a big part of the U.S.’s mythology. Much of the credit for that goes to Wilder’s books, as Fraser’s account shows.

As an adult, however, I could glean even from Wilder’s idealised stories that the family often depended on the help of others. The truth is even more substantial, not only during Wilder’s childhood, but even as an adult when she somehow didn’t see the hypocrisy of decrying government assistance while receiving federal money herself. Just as many of the people today who hate the government are the ones themselves receiving the most assistance.

Before reading Fraser’s book, I was unaware of the influence of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, on the books and on her mother. It was Lane, already a journalist, although one who larded her stories with fictional elements, who pushed her mother to write the books. It was Lane who first edited them, with the two wrangling over changes. Lane also wrote her own books, appropriating some of her mother’s stories and penning a thinly-veiled Mommy Dearest novel.

Fraser treats Lane fairly, acknowledging her strengths while not hesitating to point out her weaknesses. She presents her as emotionally unstable, with several nervous breakdowns, and increasingly prone to paranoid conspiracy theories. Lane was part of the triumvirate of Founding Mothers of the Libertarian movement, along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson. She also pushed her mother to join her in her angry rants against the government, adding political screeds to some of her mother’s later books.

Of course, we are still struggling with the effects of Lane’s work. Many of today’s politicians criminalise the poor, condemning them for needing assistance. Many demand that the federal government be downsized, if not disbanded, while living high on the hog on federal money themselves, ignoring the hypocrisy. An egregious example is Maryland Republican Andy Harris who campaigned on doing away with the Affordable Health Care Act, which would take away heath care from up to 10 million citizens, complaining when elected that his taxpayer-funded health care wouldn’t take effect for a month.

It is no wonder that during the Great Depression and WWII people flocked to Wilder’s simple tales of a loving family, enduring hard times together, as embodied by a line from a hymn that recurs in the books: “We are all here.”

The Little House books are lovely fairy tales for children, but not something to base a nation on. However, even if we question the myth of a self-sufficient, rugged individual, many of us today embrace other values extolled in Wilder’s books: the importance of family, being happy with simple things, pulling together and being brave when things go wrong.

Even if you’ve never read the children’s books, this biography is essential to understand how we in the U.S. have gotten to where we are today.

What book have you read that illuminated an historical era and its effects on us today?

Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

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As children, we find it hard to imagine that our parents had lives before we were born. However, as we grow into the ages at which we knew them, it’s not uncommon for us to wonder what our parents’ lives were like, what they felt, what they dreamed. Perhaps we compare ourselves to them at the age we’ve now gained. Perhaps we use our own experiences and insights to illuminate what once seemed so mysterious.

Ivan Doig was hampered in doing this by his mother’s death from asthma when he was only six years old. His slim memories of her didn’t stretch very far. That changes when he inherits a collection of letters from his mother to her brother Wally while he was stationed in the Pacific during the last months of WWII. Doig was estranged from his uncle, something he regrets now that Wally is gone, so was unaware of the letters.

His mother’s words not only anchor his own memories, but give him a rare insight into her thoughts and feelings. This poignant and lyrical memoir, a prequel to his memoir This House of Sky, traces what he knows of Beneta Ringer Doig’s short life combined with his own recollections as they move from a ranch in Montana to a factory boomtown in Arizona and back again.

His evocation of the harsh reality of life in rural Montana combines love for the rugged beauty of the landscape with respect for the grit and determination of its people. The area is only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression, not yet sharing the wartime economy. They move to Arizona hoping the desert air will help Beneta’s asthma and the work improve their financial outlook.

I love the way Doig combines the larger picture of what is happening in the country with his own family’s experiences. His memories of playing war in the dusty factory town and drawing pictures of airplanes and Uncle Wally’s ship remind me of my own childhood a decade later. As writers we sometimes forget to include the social context of our stories, the political and cultural trends that help form our characters. This memoir is a good model for how to do that well.

I love, too, his description of his parents’ relationship, filtered as it is through his child’s eyes, family stories, and now his mother’s own words. They move back to Montana, hoping a higher altitude will help her asthma, and dreaming grand dreams of finally succeeding at making the land pay off. Their struggle reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilders’s family fifty years earlier each year looking ahead to finally getting a good wheat harvest to pay off their debts.

Part of why I enjoyed this audio book so much is that it is narrated by Tom Stechschulte, one of my favorite narrators, not only because of his laconic yet engaging voice, but also because his accent reminds me of my friend Frank. I relaxed into the rhythm of his speech, barely noticing the sometimes overwritten passages that might have bothered me if I’d been reading the book.

I think I’d still have enjoyed this portrait of family life in a particular time and place. I would also have loved the portrait of Beneta, a lively, determined and passionate woman whose steadfast spirit seems to capture all that is best in our image of the American West.

What memoir have you read that vividly captures a time period through the lives of ordinary people?