A short story, "A Start in Life," was in the anthology I was given to teach from, almost forty years ago, when I began my life as a professor of English. I'm not sure who told me, but I was aware, back then, that the author, a woman named Ruth Suckow, had been born in the county, out west along the river, in Hawarden. The story had a familiar feel because it's setting was a familiar place, a small Midwestern town not unlike the two I'd lived in for most of my life back then. But I was too busy to take note--two kids and a new career.
I've gone past her house dozens of times actually. It's now part of a little historical village in Hawarden, Iowa, the preacher's house, because her father was a Congregational parson at the turn of the 20th century, when Hawarden, and most of Sioux County, was little more than adolescent.
Let me put it this way--for years, I've eyed her from afar, but never really approached her with any determination, until last summer when I read a book of her stories, one of which just jumped out at me as something that could be brought to stage. Then, yesterday, just before a reading break, I went to the college library and took out Some Others and Myself, a collection of short stories and a memoir.
Last night, half asleep from a long drive up north to Minnesota, I started in on the memoir, and heard a voice I could have listened to all night. Her mother, she tells us, had difficult medical problems that left her--Ms. Suckow, then a little girl--alone with her pastor father. When he'd attend the problems of his parishoners, she'd go along, she says, in a little basket he fashioned on handlebars of his bike. Here's how she describes her world, which is my world:
That was when I came to know the deep brown loessal soil of that semi Western prairie region as my native earth--when the wild roses became my "favorite flower," and the meadow larks nesting along the bare roadsides my "favorite bird." The whole impression of this great open, rolling region on the edge of the West was of breadth and freedom under the immensity of the blue sky.
Sometimes I think I picked up this crazy passion to write because, years ago, I stumbled on the work of Frederick Manfred, from Doon, Iowa, whose work I read for the first time just at the moment when I was a kid who had to determine what I was going to become. I picked up The Secret Place in a bookstore in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, after Iowa friends told me about this giant guy who offended the heck out of local townspeople. I wanted to know that story better. When I read the novel, a whole new world opened up, but, ironically, it wasn't a whole new world at all--it was, instead, the actual world I lived in. It had never dawned on me that you could be a writer if you knew the people I knew. My people were way too ordinary, way too plain, way too unoriginal. Not for Manfred.
But Manfred made those people real in a fashion I'd never considered possible, and when I put down that book I told myself that it would be an incredible joy to be able to write stories about people, maybe even people I knew, but people who I knew weren't flashy or exotic or even, but were still very much worth a story. Manfred did it.
And last night, in the silence, I heard another very similar voice, this one a woman's. In her childhood memories of Hawarden, Iowa, Ruth Suckow reminded me gently, sweetly, of a truth I'd learned more than forty years ago when I finished The Secret Place, that there probably isn't a soul under heaven who isn't worth a story, and there probably isn't a place on earth that doesn't shine with the glory of the Creator.
Ruth Suckow died in 1960. For years I've lived in her own neighborhood and passed her house a hundred times. But last night, maybe for the first time, in a memoir of her childhood in northwest Iowa, I heard her voice, and it came to me as revelation.
This morning, that voice is reason enough for thanks.