Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Just strange


I'm not proud of it really, and I certainly don't understand it. I may be the only one who feels this way too--some strange confluence of pride and stubbornness and yearning, perhaps a refusal to believe in what is. I don't know what it is.

It's now two years since I walked away from the place where I worked for almost forty. I'm there every once in a while and was again just a few nights ago, but I can't return without a certain chill coming over me, something unfamiliarly cold, something discomforting. 

I wish it weren't true, but it's never a joy for me to go back there, and I don't know why.

It was easier a couple nights ago. And this week I signed up to march with the other codgers at the college commencement ceremony, even though I had told myself last May I'd never do it again. For me at least, it's as if there's a strange vacuum on that campus, something no one feels but me. Whatever it is is not as deep as it was last year, but it's still there. I can't identify it.  Maybe if I could, I'd understand it and it would go away. Maybe time itself will do it.  I hope so. 

Forty percent of the student body changes every year when a new freshman class finds their ways to empty dorm rooms. A percentage don't return, but a couple hundred stay. What that means is that, in the two years that have passed, a great majority of the students don't know me. By next May, no more than forty kids will have had me as a teacher; some, I'm sure, don't even remember the class. 

Really, that's plain old wounded pride speaking. Maybe that's all it is.

I don't miss teaching. I'm not pining away for someone to ask me to return. I spent a lifetime in front of a chalkboard. I like free mornings.

I don't miss the place either. Maybe just being forgotten is at the heart of this annoying discomfort. I've become a stranger at a place I've always considered home. Maybe there's more to it--maybe what I begun to feel is that this world is not my home. 

That's age speaking.

So we drove home that night, all the way back to the country place we just built. We came up Hwy 10, and I put on the blinker to turn left down the gravel, then waited for a school bus just then coming towards us off the viaduct.  It was ten or so, maybe a little later. High school kids were coming back from a ball game. That's what it had to be.

Just like that, seeing that bus coming at us, I was a kid again fifty years ago, sitting on a leather seat after a win, after a loss, a persistent ring of sweat still there behind the collar of my shirt.  I could have been there, I'm sure--I remember those buses, those dark and quiet nights on a team bus.

There we sat in the left hand lane of Hwy 10 waiting for a school bus that somehow drove into my life like a totally unforeseen blessing. 

I don't understand any of that; but for some reason just then, after leaving a place that's no more a home, meeting that yellow school bus coming down off the viaduct from somewhere east felt vaguely like greeting the dawn. Honestly. 

Don't know why. Don't begin to know why.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review--The Risk of Returning


Just a short chapter into Rudy and Shirley Nelson's richly furnished international thriller, The Risk of Returning, Ted Peterson, who calls himself a "lost child," is on the streets of Guatemala City, having undertaken a trip "home" to the place where he was born and reared. He's gawking, a typical tourist maybe, when he spots a young kid, "walking quickly, close to the buildings, head down, shoulders heaving, as if he had been running."

A moment later the kid is gone, disappeared, simply not there.  The incident, hardly remarkable, begins and ends in half a page. That kid's appearance and disappearance is a key to the wherewithal of this complicated novel, an event that seems a trifle but will, for certain, come back to haunt us. People disappear in The Risk of Returning; they're gone suddenly, almost as if they weren't there at all, and the effect is eerie.

But the Nelson's new novel is, first of all, a search for father. Teddy's parents were missionaries who sent him back to the States for boarding school once he became old enough to begin to understand what was going on around him, once his own life became threatened by forces he never understood or even recognized.  He barely remembers his father, who never returned from Guatamala, died there a short time after Teddy himself was sent away. 

He undertakes this age-old quest not simply because he doesn't know much about his father, but also because he's run afoul of meaning in his own life. His marriage is whimpering to a sad close, his career is in a stall, his life seems purposeless. He returns to Guatemala, hoping, most pointedly, to locate his father's grave. He has no suspicions, no designs on discovering what lies behind mysteries or what happened. He's not sleuthing, but he is looking for some kind of cure to whatever it is that ails him.  

Halfway through the novel he finds his father's grave, the substantial purpose of the trip. What's left of the story opens up to much greater value, even though he wasn't looking for it. What remains of the novel is the untangling his father's life.

But there's more.  The Risk of Returning is also a love story. Teddy takes a week-long language-immersion course once he arrives, where he meets his teacher, a tough, tall widow who was born in Milwaukee, but became a Guatemalan when she married a native, a good man. Catharine O'Brien, even more deeply bruised than he is, isn't on the lookout for another mate--and neither is Teddy; but the two of them find each other inescapably and intimately linked by the horrors of a civil war whose battle lines can't be traced on a map. 

A secret war, a wicked war, is being waged all around them. All too frequently, men and women the government doesn't trust disappear from busy streets or are murdered in out-of-the-way rural villages.  Many are tortured and then killed, sometimes in car wrecks that aren't accidents at all. Amid the bloodshed, Teddy and Catharine, almost against their will, fall in love. Returning is a love story.

But it's also an international thriller that takes surprisingly little background to enter. Not long into the novel a reader feels the maze all around, even though it's set meticulously a quarter century ago in a Central American country few of us know much about. We're there in a moment because the plot's own generosity creates a setting so fraught with danger.

Strangely enough, it's also a novel about mission work, about Christians, about work in and for the Kingdom. On the plane to Guatemala, Ted Peterson is accosted by a pushy, well-meaning American kid in a t-shirt that proclaims "Gringo for Jesus." The kid asks him where his soul is bound if the jet they're in should crash--you know, one of those kids and one of those questions. Still, that moment keys a major theme, not because Ted is determined himself to bring Guatemalan souls to Christ, but because he is himself a lost soul who needs badly to find his way in the darkness.

I like Ted Peterson because he's neither the true believer nor the the angry soul whose mother and father loved the Lord so deeply that they had nothing left to give their children. He is not a tortured MK, but he is an MK, have no doubt. He is not searching for God or looking to bury him; he simply wants to know what he missed when his father died a thousand miles away. What he discovers is father's martyred selflessness, the greatest gift he or anyone could offer those he loved and served, the Mayan people. 

Really, in its own subtle way, The Risk of Returning defines mission work in a way that's a blessed antidote to the poison of The Poisonwood Bible. Like Bo Caldwell's City of Tranquil Light, it commends mission work by redefining it in its broadest, its most comprehensive and most dangerous way.  

A warning: only attentive readers need apply. I'm not kidding: the Nelson's have created a page-turner in Returning, but you turn pages quickly at your peril. Read too fast and you'll miss the labyrinth they meticulously create. In addition to everything else, Returning is a murder mystery so intricately engineered it should come packaged with its own GPS.    

And don't miss this either.  The Risk of Returning is a political novel, not at its base because at its foundation it's so much else. But don't miss the fact that the political right and left play roles here, that Godless communism often seems a straw man and the Christian right, linked inexorably with fervent patriotism, is anything but heavenly. 

Guatemala has long been a passion for Rudy and Shirley Nelson, who years ago funded and accomplished their own documentary on politics and anthropology in the region. Writers might well ask themselves an obvious question:  how on earth could the two of them write a novel together--and stay married? The answer to that question may well be that they've been married for over sixty years. 

What the two of them have created together is, first of all, a terrific read, but--and I say this as a believer--more importantly, a story of grace, given and received.  I really loved The Risk of Returning.
_________________
You can read a fascinating discussion of things-Guatamalan here, in Books and Culture, a discussion/interview with the Nelsons and with Paula Huston, who has also written a novel about the nation, also published just recently.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Dark nights in the sand dunes


It was a wonderfully starry night for our campout so we took a hike away from the site, walked north, across the park's main road and into those bountiful sand dunes.  I have no memory of how many guys went with us, but a few of us, no adults, hiked out into the night in a state park we thought we knew.

Except not in the darkness. Once out in those rolling dunes, we got lost.  I honestly remember thinking that we couldn't be really lost because the lake--we could hear the waves lapping--was a constant. I mean, we couldn't mistake Lake Michigan.  As long as we knew where the lake was, we knew east.

But we didn't either. In the dark, every last sand dune looked and felt like the last one. Whenever we expected to find lights just beyond the next hill--and didn't--fear climbed up my spine, my stomach falling away. I was 12 maybe, and really, really scared. 

And then there was the time we went grouse hunting--a perfectly bright afternoon in the endless Kettle Moraine woods, nothing anywhere but hardwoods. Somehow we got lost in a place where there was no Lake Michigan, no ready reference, only what seemed unending wilderness.  I was 17 maybe, and not about to broadcast my fear to the gang I was with, but we were lost and we all knew it. 

In my memory, we wandered aimlessly until, fortunately, serendipitously, providentially, we simply stumbled on our car. No one fell to their knees and gave thanks. We were men. We carried loaded shotguns, for pity sake. But I remember dragging my stomach along ominously through those unfamiliar woods--I remember real fear.

Both of those moments have stayed with me for more than a half century. Just bringing them up makes stomach bottom out. I'm serious. 

Prof. Katie Davis, in The App Generation, says that as long as people these days have their smart phones they really can't get lost. Some seventh grader in an endless roll of sand dunes will always know exactly where he is and where to tell someone else to find him. "Hansel and Gretel" will make no sense. A generation of kids won't know what lost is. 

What's even more interesting, one reviewer says, is what a GPS does to our perception. Think of it this way: is a forest really a forest if you can't get lost in it? For good reason the Puritans feared what lay west of the colony, a primeval wilderness teeming with who-knows-what kind of monster deviltry. 

Seriously, what if, in life, we lose the ability to get lost? What if, in life, we really can't get away? What if, in life, there's no such thing as being alone?

Last night at church, I sat around a coffee table with a bunch of guys who talked about planting corn and beans--it's that time of year--and how new technology does absolutely everything for the farmer, the entire tractor and planter guided by satellite. Do farmers experience the earth the same way when a guidance system reads the ground beneath their tires for them?

Do we live in the same world our parents did?  No way.

Years ago, Abraham Kuyper attempted to assuage the fears of ordinary folks who were thrown into a tizzie by brand new technology they believed was going to alter their lives. What's it going to do for neighborliness?--they must have asked. Will people ever leave home? 

Kuyper tried to settle their nerves.  Now, now, he told them, think of it as a blessing, even a new way to spread the gospel. What exactly were they scared of?--the telephone.

Connectivity is a brave new world we'll simply have to experience, something we'll continue to explore, a space in which, even armed with our own personal GPS system, some of us will have no problem getting helplessly lost. 

Yesterday, I dropped in to see my father-in-law, who's just about 95. He was eating what seemed a rather unbecoming supper at the counter in his apartment in the Home, but I could hardly talk because that boom box of his was blasting some age-old men's quartet on a hymn no one has sung in church for since 1955. Blasting.  Seriously. Technology?! Ugh.

It's a brave new world all right. Always was, always will be.

And something tells me there will always be dark nights in the sand dunes.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Dawn



“He will make your righteousness 
shine like the dawn,. . .” Psalm 37

We were standing atop a miniature mountain, looking out over the Big Sioux River Valley from a bluff that’s not more than ten miles from the junction where the river beneath us empties into the Missouri, at Sioux City, Iowa.  There was no one else there.
 
Behind us, darkened prairie grasses ran up to the edge of the hill and a horizon that, right then, couldn’t have been more vivid.  Through the lens of my camera, the earth was black to the east, the sky so triumphantly showy that it was hard to look clearly into the face of what was coming. 

When I swung back west, I saw what we’d come to shoot, a yawning valley whose scattered farm places—shadowy, colorless clumps of trees and buildings—created the only visual difference between what this landscape looked like that morning, and how it might have appeared 200 years ago, when Lewis and Clark was in the neighborhood.  From where I stand, I could almost see them, I swear.

We were up on a swell on the northernmost reaches of the Loess Hills, looking over an endless russet landscape of open fields and only occasional trees in the golden breath of the breaking dawn.

On the broad land before us there was not a door in sight; the open world was all window.  Here and there on the echelons of gravel and pavement laid out every mile beneath us, an occasional truck moved toward the city, its funneling headlights out front like the long snout of hound.  Otherwise, we were alone, waiting for the dawn. 

Painted up against the flat-line clouds, sunrise was coming, not so much in some luminous yellows, but in a rich caramel, a long swath of butterscotch that ran for miles across the eastern horizon, at its heart a brilliant smudge of gold. 

But nothing ever stays the same; blink and the hues have shifted.  Turn away for ten seconds, and a new painting stretches across an endless sky.  A photograph doesn’t catch the dawn any more than a story captures life; a photograph is a glimpse, one fleeting fraction of a second, one frame of a film that re-runs every morning, but has never, ever been exactly the same.

Still, the sun was not quite up.  The broad plain that filled half the frame was already beginning to glow.  Just above it, the ridge of clouds at the western horizon had reddened in sunlight that hadn’t yet fallen below.  We were caught in a fleeting moment that is neither night nor day, but something almost richer than both—a dim-lit zone that can be experienced only for a few seconds each glowing morning.  On those fields across the river west, silver barn roofs began to shine as the curtain of dawn opened, not as sunlight rose, but as it fell over the land. 

And then, suddenly, in a magician’s flick of a wand, all around us the prairie grass was sheathed in bronze, as if taken from the fire.  Down at our feet, the world turned to Oz, the big bluestem, golden rod, and blazing stars burnished as if sacred.  We forgot the sprawling open miles west because the show right there beneath our feet made us feel, honestly, that we were standing on holy ground.

I’d like to think that’s the light that’s promised in this line of David’s poem—that shimmering gold that spreads like bronze gossamer over the land at the moment the sun rises.  The word is shine, but reality is glow.  Dawn’s early light is heavenly alchemy.  Think of it—everything we do, shining with the radiant gold-blessed touch of dawn.


Unbelievable.  But it’s a promise.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Red-blooded American idiocy


Honestly, if it wasn't downright scary, this snapshot could become a poster for American madness. Here's a dude wielding a weapon nobody outside of the military really needs, except, he'd say I'm sure, people like him who are ready for a moment just like this one, when the federal government's jackboots, descending from black helicopters, appear as if out of nowhere to take away God-given American rights. Listen, this guy's a real patriot because he'll kill rather than give up the freedom the founding fathers gave him, thank the Lord. He's a true American.

The woman behind him, imperiled by government thugs, looks on anxiously, sure as anything that Obama's secret police are out to destroy hard-working, white Americans who love this country, brave men and women who dare to take on the socialists, who are really, down deep, nothing more than communists. Behind her, a whole bunch of patriots snap pictures, because someday soon some scrulptor will create a great tribute to the man with rifle, an image just as heart-stirring as the one of those GIs raising the flag on Iwo Jima. They'll have pictures. They'll be able to tell their children and their children's children that they were to witness a true American ready, willing, and able to die for freedom.

It's scary. It really is.

The left has its own gallery of rogues. Jeremiah Wright didn't help Barack Obama a whole lot and said some downright stupid things I'd likely think a whole lot less stupid if I were Black; but I don't remember ever seeing him in a flak jacket, poking a machine gun between concrete barriers, armed and ready to hold off the American government.

I was watching Fox News a few nights ago when Shawn Hannity baited Cliven Bundy, the rancher from rural Nevada, who, for a time at least, was the hero of the kind of folks who created Tim McVeigh. I heard Hannity ask the man ridiculous questions meant for an audience just hoping for some thick raw meat. This man Bundy complied, gave him everything Hannity hoped his audience was looking to hear.

And honestly, I couldn't help think, right at that moment, that this ten-gallon hat of his had absolutely nothing beneath it.  

Look, let's assume Cliven Bundy employs, say, twenty cowhands, ten of whom are African-American. He doesn't, but let's just assume that he might. Let's assume, in other words, that the man isn't racist.  He says he isn't, after all--just as he says he doesn't believe in the federal government. He's a God-fearing American; I say, just for a moment, we take him at his word.

Let's assume he's a good man, but just, well, rough around the edges. Unquoth maybe, so sheltered in the back forty that he has no clue about political correctness, okay?

Here's just part of what he said:  

And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.
Even if he's not a racist--and he obviously is--those three sentences are spectacularly stupid. Slavery made family life impossible, as I think--I hope--most grade school kids understand. Slavery destroyed families. Even if Mr. Bundy isn't racist--which he is--he's a moron.

And it's only right that people like Shawn Hannity get shit on 'em when they cozy up to men and women like Cliven Bundy, men and women who end up being their own worst enemies. The best thing to happen in this whole sordid range war is that Sean Hannity went face first in bullshit.

And what about this guy with the assault rifle?  I bet he's still there, watching for black helicopters, ready to die for freedom. 

Bundy is, that's for sure. He's got a head full of steam now; after all, he was crowned into celebrity status by people like Rand Paul and Shawn Hannity.  In fact, everyday at four he holds a news conference because he's the right's latest Joe the Plumber or that old guy from Duck Dynasty. Heroes all. Be there.

Wait! Let me get my camera.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sioux County History: Law and Order: Orange City


(continued from yesterday)

Now the town fathers were no pushovers. Their strong desire for this new settlement to be cleansed from hard liquor was not easily thwarted, not even by a woman who kept a business people had real trouble imagining as scandalous. Hadn't she gone the extra mile for people in need, after all? Hadn't she brought people into her own barn out back when there was no room in the Inn, when some, down and out, had real need? Hadn't she even checked on them one cold night in the middle of a blizzard? 

Still, the law was clear. The  town fathers couldn't back down or bend it to suit their own whims--what kind of justice would that be, after all?  Thus it was observed that should the Widow Masman not comply, she should, as any law-breaker would, be sentenced to spend time in jail. When she didn't comply--she refused, of course, just as she'd told Elder Jongewaard--the town deputy was to given the thankless job of plucking her from her own Main Street business and hauling her off. As an officer of the law, he complied.

Now Charley Dyke says nothing about the size of Mrs. Masman, whether or not she might have been, let's say, especially meaty or big-boned. It would be good to know whether the constable (Charley doesn't name him, but let's just call him Vander Stadt) worried about having to throw her over his shoulder. Somehow, I'm guessing he did. 

What he encountered when he came to arrest her, however, was a wholly different burden. Mrs. Masman didn't refuse to arrest, but she did tell Vander Stadt in no uncertain terms that it was unthinkable for her to go off to jail without her Bible. Vander Stadt obliged. What's more, she told him, she could not leave her dog behind--who would look after him, after all?--would he? Vander Stadt likely gulped some, but told her he thought that request wasn't beyond reason. The widow was, after all, a respected figure, a woman of means and not without her advocates.

Widow Masman was on a roll. There was simply no way a proper woman such as herself could sleep on those wee straw beds the jail kept for common criminals. Vander Stadt likely choked a bit at that because the next request--well, demand--was for her own precious featherbed.  "I cannot sleep on anything less than my own," she must have told him, her Bible firmly under her arm, her dog curled up in her lap. 

What Vander Stadt knew--as did all of proper Orange City--is that the Widow Masman had, in fact, fed "the honest wayfarer" and others who had not the money to pay for food. She may well have come closer to those righteous that Christ himself takes to his own in Matthew 25 when he separates sheep from unfeeling goats. Calvinists, good Calvinists anyway, don't lack for guilt.

Vander Stadt complied with all the Widow Masman's demands, so it had to have been a memorable day down Main Street, Orange City, that afternoon, when Vander Stadt hoisted the Widow Masman's feather bed up on the back of the wagon, then helped her get up into the seat at the front, her dog in one hand, her Bible in the other.  Wasn't quite the picture of righteousness Elder Jongewaard and the vice squad may have been looking to create, but there it was for all to see--the town's own Antigone. They had looked diligently to restrain evil on the streets of their fair city but in the process created something of a martyr.

'Twas a sad and remarkable day in pioneer Orange City.

Jelle Pelmulder himself, one of the original Pella emigres, a man of unquestionable reputation, highly respected, was selected, a week later, to try to talk some sense into Mrs. Mesman. The situation was untenable: a woman--and a woman of her reputation!-- sentenced to the dank dungeon, day after day after day.

Charley Dyke says, "When Pelmuder stepped into the jail, Mrs. Masman was sitting on her bed, with her Bible on her lap and her little dog by her side.

"You're doing well?" he asked.

"Paying my fine and studying God's Word," she replied.

Pelmulder told her that not paying the tax was a crime most people understood, but he wanted her to know that the they were all so very sorry she had to be there and wanted her out, and if she would only refrain from selling liquor in the Inn he would see to it that she would be released in a moment.

"While he was talking she pretended to read her Bible," Charley Dyke says, "but he noticed tears welling in her eyes which blurred her vision, and she took off her glasses to wipe them, and while she said nothing, she sighed deeply."

And thus ended the standoff and liquor by the drink on Main Street in Orange City, Iowa--at least for the time being.

Pelmulder let Vander Stadt know that he should usher the widow home, that he should put her, once again, aboard the buckboard with him, Bible and dog in hand, bed behind, and bring her back to the Inn she'd run so reputably.

Here's how Charley Dyke ends the story of the Widow Masman [not her real name, he says] and the evils of liquor:
And her Inn became a veritable Mecca for the settlers, who were served a real meal or a cup of delicious coffee with St. Nicholas or other cookies, for which the Inn became famous.
So on that unforgettable day, the town must have watched yet another parade, their own esteemed Innkeeper, sitting straight and proud on a wagon, being taxied home down Main Street, a moment in Orange City's history that somehow isn't celebrated each year at Tulip Time, as it might be, maybe as it should be, a story of its very own. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sioux County History--Law and Order: Orange City, Iowa



It may well be hard to believe, but there was a time in Sioux County frontier history when righteousness went to war with sin right here in town taverns, and won. Well, most of the time.

Those immigrant Hollanders were not tee-totalers, never had been, no matter how tight their Calvinist collars. Prohibition was a peculiarly American phenomenon, and sometimes absolutely necessary to sustain the common weal of pioneer communities. Even in Sioux County (early Alton had six taverns, Hospers four), boozing could get way out of hand, especially during elections, Charley Dyke says in his great old History of Sioux County.

[My mother-in-law, who knew Mr. Dyke, always said old Charlie really couldn't be trusted.  I wouldn't know.  I'm just glad he's the one who wrote the early history of Sioux County and not some saintly elder.]

Charley Dyke says elections brought out the worst in the electorate--that would be males, of course; women's suffrage would take another forty years. Crooked pols had only to offer free hooch at the county watering holes to get votes. Their shenanigans were both colorful and frequent.

Enough is enough, the good Calvinists said. A congregation of the upright determined local pubs should pay some kind of tax, as exorbitant as they could hike it. The goal was clear: to run iniquity out of town.

And it worked. Sort of. 

One woman, a Mrs. Masman, Dyke says, ran the local Orange City inn, a place not known for moral horrors, but a place where a man (I'm not sure about a woman) could buy a draft or a shot of whiskey on a hot July day (or a cold January morning, for that matter). Mrs. Masman, a widow, did not take kindly to this appalling new tax. What's more, she understood the method in the mad crusade. Her place was no den of iniquity, and she wasn't riff-raff.  Among the Sioux County tavern-keepers, you might say she was the white sheep, and she'd have nothing of this wicked tax that would, hands down, wreck her business. Simply stated, she wouldn't pay.

Other liquor joints folded quickly, but Mrs. Masman wouldn't pony up or shut down.

Now the town's upright fathers couldn't countenance that kind of resolute law-breaking, so they sent the esteemed Elder Jongewaard to Mrs. Masman to try to talk some moral sense into the law-breaker. Elder Jongewaard, Charley Dyke says, may not have been much of a farmer, but he "loved to discuss theology with his cronies, especially about the millennium, which was then much the vogue."

Jongewaard stepped into Mrs. Masman's sitting room as politely as a good Christian should; but when he got to his subject, full of himself and his Godly mission, he got to the sermon he'd fully intended to bring. Mrs. Mesman simply wouldn't respond. Her grim silence likely set off his righteous indignation and turned his fire and brimstone perfectly volcanic. 

Mrs. Masman said absolutely nothing, but rocked back and forth ever more dangerously in her old sitting room rocker, as if the very floor beneath her were aflame.

Once Jongewaard's preaching ended and the terms of her iniquity were clearly explained, Mrs. Masmen stopped abruptly, sat up in her chair, and then exploded in a unrighteous tirade old Charley claimed he couldn't quote in a keepsake Sioux County history suitable for women and children. What he figured he could say, he did. It goes like this: "Ye pharisee and scribe, ye hypocrite. You sit there and wink your eyes and groan and grunt like an old sow in heat. Get out of this house or I'll hit you over the snout with this stick."

Jongewaard stood, shocked and offended, snorted a little, I suppose, and then promptly departed, Dyke says, "as quickly as his dignity would permit."

Soon enough, I'm sure, he reported back to the vice squad. It was awful, he must have said--it was a sinful horror. All agreed that something had to be done to Mrs. Masman.

Stay tuned.  There'll be more from Law and Order: Orange City tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review--Small-Town Dreams


In Willa Cather's My Antonia, as elsewhere in her stories, small towns don't fare well. What thrills her heart and soul is the country she remembers as a child, the land she calls "the Divide," an area of immense proportions peopled amicably by immigrants from all over the country and the world. Life was a joy out there in the wilds.

If you have ever visited the place where she grew up, rural area largely deserted by the throngs of homesteaders who once made the whole country a community, you'll know it's hard to believe her reverence.  Most people wouldn't want to live there; few do.

But to her, Red Cloud, Nebraska, the small town where she moved when she left the Divide, was nowhere near as fulfilling. When the immigrant people moved to town, they moved into a place far more sluggish and stultifying, far more narrow, and less--far less--ripe with adventure.  Small towns, in Cather's book, had a distressing habit of taking the shine off really interesting people, pushing them through conformity apparatus created by gossip and nosiness and preening self-righteousness.

She left, of course. For a time in her life, Willa Cather watched joyously as Red Cloud disappeared in her rear view mirror, as had literally millions of others back then. The First World War changed a ton of things in world history, but it certainly had an effect on thousands of doughboys from America's small towns. "How you going to keep 'em down on the farm, now that they've seen Paree?" wasn't just a cute little post-war ditty, it was a virtual summary of American behavior. 

In a fascinating compilation of distinguished biographies, Small Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys who Shaped America, John E. Miller documents a shift which emptied Main Streets throughout the Midwest, closed down schools and businesses, and left an abundance of what seem ghost towns all over the landscape.

America's heartland, in actuality, is, today, its cities, not its small towns or its still vast rural areas. The population shift has left its small towns gasping for life, really, and made them little more than dots on blue highways only journalists on the lookout for eccentrics (oddly enough) ever travel, otherwise little but fly-over country.

What's worse, Hollywood seems to relish dramas in which plain-old ordinary people, city folk, wander out into rural backwaters only to encounter hellish creatures, retards and idiot savants (think Deliverance) or loveless, luckless parents (think Nebraska--not the state, the movie). What our polished stories offer us is the image of ghost towns full of zombies or closeted criminals, as the world of the back forty is just a sprawling Bates Motel.

What Miller shows, clearly and proudly, is that in its hay days, America's small towns birthed generations of men of influence. I'm not exactly sure why he chooses men only, but he does, citing his list of prior publications as being perhaps unequally weighted with women. He begins with Frederick Jackson Turner, who, more than anyone, touted the powerful effects of white America's burgeoning spread into the what white America considered the continent's open spaces, as if no one else was there.

Turner grew up in Portage, Wisconsin, during the 1860s, when that small town at the confluence of two Wisconsin rivers was, in fact, the edge of the frontier. The man sometimes cited as the first American of significant authority in its own history began his work by studying his neighborhood, Miller says, and then simply stayed with the thesis throughout his life: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development."

Miller's gallery includes 21 portraits of individuals, most of whom need no introduction--William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ford, George Washington Carver, Bob Feller, James Dean, Walt Disney, Lawrence Welk, John Wooden, and Ronald Reagan; and ends with America's wholesale leviathan, Sam Walton.

A few along the way aren't necessarily household names.  I'm ashamed to admit I never heard of plainspoken Alvin Hansen, who grew up on a farm three miles west of Viborg, South Dakota, just an hour or so away from my home. Had I taken an economics class somewhere along the line, I'm sure I would have run into him; but that he isn't celebrated regionally today may well be because he is still referred to as "the American Keynes," and thus generally disdained by the robust voting blocks right here in his neighborhood.

Nor had I heard of Oscar Micheaux, the African-American who spent some time homesteading in South Dakota, then wrote a novel or two about it (The Homesteader is now on my Kindle), but whose fame and fortune was far more celebrated in the nation's Black community because he was the foremost African-American film maker before integration. Micheaux was the first African-American to create a feature-length film, a piece of work that he created based upon his own experiences homesteading near Gregory, South Dakota. I had no idea.

Small-Town Dreams is a really fascinating read, especially if you like biographies, as I do. Just about everyone between the covers is a household name, but few of us, I'd guess, know their stories--and they're interesting and enlightening. 

I kept thinking there was an argument forming, that the arrangement of bios would eventually encourage a thesis to the effect that the Midwestern small-town had some kind of important influence on the character of these accomplished American boys. I wasn't wrong--it did; but the argument I expected was never advanced. Miller steps back several times in the book to make very clear that while it might be nice to think that small-towns had significantly similar effects, those effects simply aren't there. 

Some of these men couldn't leave the small-towns of their childhoods fast enough. Some looked back with feverish disdain. Some worshiped their boyhoods from afar, really never returning. Some worship was pure fantasy. Some, as Americans did for a time, created myth. Some claimed great allegiance, yet, like Henry Ford and Sam Walton, did more to destroy small-towns than keep them vigorous.  Some hated their boyhoods and, like Sinclair Lewis, said it aloud as he did in Main Street, then, when the spit and vinegar died away, backed off later in life.

The real thesis here, and Miller admits it freely, is that any attempt to explain behavior on the basis of some single feature of a biography--like one's small-town past--is impossible. The human character is just too complex. With that admission, Miller steps back and talks somewhat about the importance of "place" in our lives and, perhaps, the withering away of place in a culture so mobile, so connected, so media-driven. "There is no there there," Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California. 

I don't know that Miller would agree, but he would be tempted. When mirroring strip malls adorn the environment of all of our lives, we're not doomed, but we may well have become little more than a huge small-town, 300-million strong, most of whom carry the stultifying sameness Cather disdained. 

That would be sad. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Morning Thanks--"Were You There?"



Handel was playing in our house, The Messiah, as it does every Christmas and every Easter.  My granddaughter pulled up her nose and asked her dad what on earth kind of music her grandpa had on. I'm glad she asked. Now she knows.

But the music that stole away my heart yesterday, Easter morning, was a quiet rendition of the old Negro Spiritual, "Were You There?" done by a choir of eight or nine folks in a small church in a small town where we worshiped. The soloist, who, en-robed, reminded me of the late Orson Welles. He took the lead on one of the verses, in the fashion that most people believe those old spirituals used to be sung: the preacher leading on the verses, the congregation filling with the doleful chorus--"sometimes. . .it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. . ." 

I don't think I've ever heard or sung that old spiritual as richly as I heard it yesterday, offered in worship by a few white folks in a yea-big church.  

It was the sheer power of that old hymn that had me thinking there was something oddly discordant in the verses. The first three feature nothing but the horrors of the crucifixion and the title's ludicrous question: well of course we weren't there at Christ's agony; we were in rural Iowa. But the resounding effect of those three verses is the inescapable acknowledgement that we were there, all of us, which is exactly why, "sometimes, it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. . ." In human spirit we were there, even if, like Peter, we try to deny it. The music's own tribulation ushers us up the mountain to the doomed horror of Golgatha.

But the final verse that small choir sang was something else altogether: "Where you there when God raised him from the dead?" The sheer terror of Golgatha evaporates with the dawn come Easter morning. There is no cause to "tremble, tremble, tremble," at least not the way one does before that sunrise because with it, our mourning turns to dancing.  That last verse seemed somehow not to fit yesterday.  I'd never thought of that before.

So I tried to find the history of "Were You There," and what I discovered is that the most "traditional" versions of that old spiritual make no reference at all to Easter morning. Go to You Tube and look for yourself. Mahalia Jackson doesn't include the resurrection, nor does Paul Robeson or Marion Williams or Leotyne Price, even Three Mo Tenors--they all end that old hymn with our Savior sealed away in the tomb. They all document our trembling at what, on Saturday, we couldn't help believing--that He was dead.

No one knows who wrote "Were You There." Just like the whole hymnal of Negro Spirituals, it hails from a mixed marriage--Black slavery and what was back then white Christianity. They are, along with any version of the blues, America's only unique art form. Since "Were You There?" was likely never rendered on paper when first it was sung, it's likely that from its very creation somewhere down South, it left all kinds of room for impromptu verse-making. There are dozens of versions.  We white folks didn't do anything that hasn't been done for more than 150 years.

Still, just like all Negro Spirituals, "Where You There?"arises most uniquely from the anguish Christian slaves could feel in the horror of the Savior's death, a horror they knew in their bodies and souls from the slavery of their own lives. And maybe--just maybe--when first it was sung, it wasn't about the resurrection. Maybe it was only about suffering, His suffering, which is to say, ours.

I'm not sure there's anything inapropos about adding that last verse about the resurrection. After all, we certainly can tremble at that mighty stone rolled away.  If we don't, we risk belittling Easter morning.

But here's the triumph, or so it seems to me. Easter makes our singing that song possible, even a blessing, as it was yesterday when one sweet tenor voice in a choir of maybe ten white folks, none of them thinking about the institution of slavery, made beautiful its preposterous truth: on Easter we all own that old slave song.

What I'm saying is yesterday I got moved right off the map by that old spiritual's sheer beauty, maybe the best live version I'd ever heard, right there in a 120-year old church in a small Iowa town. 


"Were You There" was a triumph, a blessing on Easter morning because it did what it promises--it brought me there. 

For that, this morning after, I'm greatly thankful.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--"Unexcuseable uncharitableness"


“Commit your way to the LORD; 
trust in him and he will do this”  Psalm 37

I suppose we can, without pause, make the claim that we’re better than the 17th century at making pictures. Ours is, after all, a visual age.
But one can sometimes be blown away by the manner in which ye olde English folks used ye olde English language. I ran across this paragraph of gorgeous rhetoric in Spurgeon’s Treasury. It’s all but lost today, I imagine; and yet it’s truly perfect, part of a sermon Mr. Robert Baylie preached before the English House of Commons in 1643.
When a hard piece of work is put into the hand of an apprentice for the first assay of his skill, the beholders are justly afraid of a miscarriage in his young and unexperienced hand;
[My computer red-pencils “unexperienced” and offers “inexperienced.” But what does Microsoft Word know about ye olde English language?]
But when the worker is an old master of craft, none are afraid but his cunning hand can act again what so oft it hath wrought to the contentment of the beholders.
[I love the suggestion of God as a master craftsman—we are, after all, his workmanship.]
Were our God a novice in the great art of governing the world, and of the church in the bosom thereof; had he to this day never given any proof of his infinite wisdom, power, and goodness, in turning about the most terrible accidents to the welfare and joy of his saints; we might indeed be amazed whenever we feel ourselves sinking in the dangers wherein the practices of our enemies oft do plunge us over head and ears;. . .
[I’m already convinced, and he hasn’t yet sounded the whole argument.]
but the Lord having given in times past so many documents of his uncontroverted skill and most certain will to bring about all human affairs, as to his own glory, so to the real good of all that love him, it would be in us an impious and unexcusable uncharitableness to suspect the end of any work which he hath begun.
I’m not sure a picture can compete with that, and I fancy myself a photographer. Almost 400 years later, I’m speechless. 

 Well, not totally. Four hundred years ago God almighty had a track record you could take to the bank, as we might mixed-metaphorically state. In the years since, that record has grown only more substantial. Our anxiety, our worry—and if you’re like me, you’ve got lots of it—is simply "impious and unexcusable uncharitableness" in light of the centuries’ long story of his gracious love.  

It’s that simple.

And, on Easter morning especially, that beautiful.

Friday, April 18, 2014

"The Long Obedience"


I have to admit it. I was distracted at last night's Maunday Thursday worship service, not because the worship was somehow off-key or because I was out of sorts. We celebrated communion, as did Jesus on the night he was betrayed; and it was moving, more so maybe than ordinarily. Once upon a time I thought it was gimmicky to walk to the front of the church to receive the elements; now I think passing them out in the traditional manner is nowhere nearly as effective as our having to walk up front to receive Christ (as our Roman Catholic friends might say).

The pastor talked almost exclusively about the Passover meal, reflected on what was happening that night as Judas took the bread furtively and drank the cup with the others. The Passover itself, bloodiness and all, has always seemed a triumph of the ages to me--free at last, great God a'mighty, free at last. The liberation of God's chosen people sets hearts on fire.

There's a scene in Gone With the Wind that stretches our understanding of the great appeal of human liberation. Is it after the war?--I don't remember when it happens, exactly--but a group of freed slaves are on the move somewhere outside Atlanta, apparently unsure of where they are going and what they are to do, suggesting that freedom is one thing, but knowing what to do may well be another. 

Now Gone With the Wind has been greatly criticized for its romantic depiction of slavery, including the charge that the movie perpetuates an image that freed slaves had no clue what to do with their newly discovered freedoms.

But the story of wandering ex-slaves is repeated in a thousand circumstances, or so it seems; the wicked witch is dead, but that doesn't mean that with the next dawn life gets rosy. Get rid of a dictator, get liberated; but, often as not, old rivalries and conflicts raise their ugliness because the recently liberated, no matter how happy, have to find their way in a brave new world--which isn't easy.

Once the Berlin wall fell, I remember good Christians making the case that Russia was ripe for the love of Jesus because the Russian people were clueless about how to live in open society. With despotic communism gone, they needed to know how to be.

I was thinking about the character of Passover because David Brooks spoke so eloquently about it in the New York Times this week, in a piece he titled "A Long Obedience."  If you have the time, I think you'll find it interesting. What Brooks argues is Americans scratch an itch when we think of the Passover because getting freed mixes so richly with our national narrative. 

But there is another side to the biblical account, forty years worth, in fact. For an entire generation, a mightily generous God determined that his people needed to learn how to be a people before they were ready to alight, as a people, on the land of promise. The Pentateuch isn't always exciting reading because so much of it is the new code for a freed people, a thousand laws that require obedience. A new nation had much to learn about how on earth they were to be a godly nation. They had to learn a "long obedience."

I think Brooks has a point, quite frankly, and I'm not sure it was in the mix last night at the Maunday Thursday service--which, as I can't say enough--was perfectly wonderful. I was the one distracted. Brooks distracted me.

But honestly, He knew, didn't he?  As he sat there with the troops at the table, as he broke the bread and poured the wine, Jesus Christ knew it wouldn't be long and the whole bunch of them would desert, turn their backs on his naked self nailed to a blasted, crooked tree. In fact, they'd be gone long before he hung there.

It was being freed that He and the disciples celebrated that night, freed at last; but Jesus knew painfully that an immense price for freedom would have to be paid because he understood that those who promised their allegiance, knowing nothing about obedience, would, in a twinkling of an eye, get lost into the crowd.  

Life is a long obedience, a long and mostly often difficult obedience. 

That's there too, in a cross, this Good Friday.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Main Street empties


Once upon a time, my father-in-law says, there were more farms just outside our windows, more families and bigger families living right out here. Once upon a time, country schools dotted the townships, one every couple of miles, schools that became less viable as sections of soil slowly were emptied when people left. Those schools are long gone, but here and there some of the better ones still stand, even though they haven't been schools for close to fifty years. The rural Midwest, save for the North Dakota oil fields, sometimes feels more like an open-air museum than any kind of brave new world.

It just so happens we live in a bona fide anomoly, Sioux County, Iowa, where somehow the populace is capable of keeping its kids at home, not shipping them out like its numberless cattle and hogs. Sioux County, Iowa, boasts a median age that's among the lowest in the state, topped only by counties that are home to the state's major universities. Why do they stay here?--is a good question.

Most of the rural Upper Midwest looks as if it's lost heart, thrown in the towel--downtown businesses departed, streets and avenues gapped by emptied lots where once upon a time real families lived in thousands of tiny frame houses. 

Factors too abundant to mention created the demise of an active rural culture, and of small-town life, which is not to say such things don't exist here and just west on the Great Plains. Instead, the broad and seemingly endless place where I live is called "fly-over country."

People still live here. I do. When I die, I will have lived in small towns for a lifetime, minus four years.

I've been reading John E. Miller's Small-Town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America, a title so old-fashioned and politically incorrect you might wonder whether anyone will read it save those who, like me, got one free. If you like history, it's a marvelous book because it tells you more than most of us know about household names--Henry Ford to Sam Walton, Bob Feller to John Wooden, James Dean to Meredith Wilson, small-town boys who made it big in the city.

Carl Sandberg is here, a token writer (although most all of these people did some kind of autobiography), as is, as you might guess, Sinclair Lewis, a novelist who may well have done more to bury small-towns than anyone else wielding a pen. Miller claims that Sherwood Anderson was complicit in the war against small towns; Winesburg, Ohio is hardly celebratory. But no one's pen was as icy as was Sinclair Lewis's. Main Street (1920) didn't just pillory the sheer little-ness of rural folk, but pinned them (us) up before the world as if we were a donkey's behind.

Miller commends Lewis's sophisticated wit when he tells the story of Main Street, a true publishing phenomenon, "one of the most sensational publishing events of the twentieth century," he says, and he's right. What the novel features is "droll depictions of the stultifying conformism and the mindless complacency that characterized small-town living." 

And America's reading public, including many residents of its own then still-plentiful small towns, ate it up.  As did the world. Ten years after the publication of Main Street, Sinclair Lewis became America's first Nobel Prize winner, which is more than a little odd today, given Lewis's near disappearance from the canon.

Miller tries to save the man by saying that such acidic reportage was undertaken by a man who really loved what small towns could be, which is to say Lewis was bringing 'em down just to build 'em up. I don't know if I'd call that analysis sweet or silly, but I don't buy it.

He also says that that novel was everywhere, and it was.  In 1966, my high school English teacher, a woman we called "Granny Goehring," assigned it to our senior English class. The fact that I didn't read it wasn't her fault or Lewis's; I didn't do my work. I didn't feel like it, I suppose. But I don't remember reading a word--and I still haven't.  

Here it is, my own high school copy--I kept it because I defaced it, not because I didn't like the novel, but because I was a senior in high school who could care less about English class. (Not all the handwriting is mine, by the way.)


But I do wonder, now, so many years later, why Granny Goehring determined that if we were to read one contemporary novel during our senior year, it should be Lewis's bitter Signet Classic diatribe against small towns exactly like the one in which we all were living. She wasn't critical of her world. I don't remember cynicism or irony or anything less than a desire to communicate what she thought of as the blessings of literature.  

Why would she require a novel that made us look really stupid?

I'm guessing it's because, as Miller says, Main Street was a phenomenon.  And even English teachers can succumb to a real, tsunami-like phenomenon. 

Lewis isn't responsible for the death of hundreds of small-towns in the Upper Midwest. It would have happened without him or his Nobel Prize. He didn't empty our streets.

Maybe today I should read the novel. After all, I spent 40 years teaching literature, not Main Street but other Lewis novels. Granny Goehring, I'm sure, would be shocked to know I may well be her only graduate who spent his whole professional life doing her own work.

I've got the old copy right here. Who knows what I'll learn? Might be fun. Millions thought Lewis was fun. Millions.

Once upon a time Main Street was an assignment. Maybe it's time I get down to work.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Not so secret sin


A phone call from my mother years ago--I think I was in college--included other news, I'm sure, but what she said after a deep breath is something I've never forgotten, even though it was then and it remains today something of a cliche: a pastor in town had run off with the organist.  

My mother's piety created no shadows. I lived most of my life simply assuming that I never could be as holy as she tried to be, and she had lots of not-so-subtle ways of letting me know that it was, to her, quite evident.  But this scandal had her brow-beaten, even though it hadn't happened in her own church. The whole town felt sunless, darkened. When a man of God breaks trust, things fall apart, she said. What's damaged can't be mended easily, so the holy fortress around God's people felt to her somehow left unguarded.  

I may be wrong, but I think I remember her breath staggering when she told me all of that. I'm not even sure she knew the preacher. No matter. The heart of the community was staggering in an unholy atrial fibrillation. 

Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale uses the potential plight of the community as an excuse for not owning up to what he did with Hester Prynne, a lonely and vulnerable young woman who came to him in the night for love-making Hawthorne tastefully keeps in the antecedent action of Scarlet Letter. Hester suffers very publicly for what the two of them did, but Dimmesdale appears to get away with it and tells her that he really can't confess because of the moral pain the community will suffer. That's why he keeps his blasted mouth shut.

I rarely if ever stumbled on a student--especially female--who bought Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale's community-ethos excuse, and I'm not sure my mother would have either. But she would have understood what Dimmesdale argues: that him--the preacher--confessing his sin publicly would have violated trust and faith itself among the people.

Similar stories occur with such regularity that they can't really be considered news, and it's now happened again in Florida, this time to a preacher with a church of almost 20,000 members. I'm sure it happened more than once in the last month, but most fellowships don't have that many souls, and most of those who preach-and-cheat don't write hot selling how-tos about sweet and holy marriage. This man knows what God wants in a marriage. He wrote the book on it, authored a series titled Building a Godly Marriage. You can probably still pick it up at your local Christian bookstore. Stimulating reading, I'm sure. 

It's almost impossible not to say, what the hell does he know?

My mother would cry. Maybe I should.

Hawthorne found it rather interesting that phony-baloney Dimmesdale gets better in the pulpit after his secret sin, an effect which is understandable because once his own heart knows its own darkness, he speaks more vividly into the hearts of others. 

Becoming a more effective preacher is not a reason for any Rev. John Doe to look up a woman's skirt of course, but Arthur Dimmesdale becomes the finest preacher in town, gets the nod for the Election Sermon, and does it all because he damned well knows how damned he is. Seriously.

According to Christianity Today, this Florida preacher's sin created a run on his holy podcasts until his church pulled them off the web site because some sinners were already starting to use them sinfully--think, say, of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. But CT claims that many who were requesting the preacher's how-tos, post-revelation, still felt them current and even beneficial. Maybe even more so. Isn't that interesting?

What was true for Dimmesdale may well be true for the mega-pastor, after all. I wouldn't mind reading through his godly advice on your and my marriages, knowing that when he wrote them his heart had to be wrenched into something grotesque by his own blessed guilt. He probably wasn't lying one bit. He simply wasn't living by the principles he was telling the rest of us to take to heart. 

"How to's" sell today.  As a culture--as a Christian culture especially--we simply can't get enough advice from between the covers of the books we buy and read by the thousands. This fine Florida preacher--he had to be terrific from the pulpit as well as from the podcast--authors an entire course titled Building a Godly Marriage at the same moment in time he's screwing up his own. 

Amazing.

Still, what I remember best about that long-ago phone call is my mother's hurt.  Seriously.  I don't even remember the preacher's name. 

And this is Easter week, as my father used to announce at our family devotions. It is Easter week and that may well be the best reason for me curb my sharp tongue and try to imagine instead what Jesus Christ our Lord would almost certainly say about the hypocrite preacher caught in the wrong sack.  

I think I know, and this is no how-to.

He'd point gently and tell Florida's Dimmesdale to go and sin no more. I bet he would. He did it before after all.

He'd probably turn to me too, pull up an eyebrow, and say, "Let him who is without sin--." Then he'd get down on his haunches, grab a handful of gravel, and give me a lordly smile, maybe a little bit wry, because he'd know very well that I know and you know too.

Holy Jesus. When he walked the dusty streets, and when he hung there on that cross of shame, he had to be divine.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review--Orphan Train


Often enough, what you read in reviews of Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, is that readers, totally taken by the two narratives so perfectly twined in this wonderful novel, say they simply don't want the book to end. Well, I did, not because I didn't like the novel--I did; not because I thought the novel sometimes stepped over the edge--I did; but because I wanted, so badly, for the two young women at the tender heart of this novel to find, well, sigh, happiness.

Both are orphans, both have suffered immensely, both show immense intensity that make them really compelling.  Molly, a high school senior whose been tossed carelessly between foster homes, is saddled with a public-service rap for stealing Jane Eyre (yes, you read that right) from the local library (she took the oldest copy, a worn-out paperback, and the dumb library had three anyway--how can anyone foist punishment on that crime, pray tell?). 

Her public-service hours will be spent helping an old lady clean out an attic full of life's memories she hasn't aired out for years. This old woman is not shrewish or bitchy or in the least demented, but a perfect sweetheart who, decades ago, was one of thousands of street urchins from New York City and/or somewhere out east, to be taken, by train, out to the Jeffersonian Midwest, where all the close-to-the soil farmers are saints, and sunsets glow in skies that never end. 

Well, sure.  Many of the children's very strange placements ("come to the Grange Hall on Saturday morning and pick up a free kid!") didn't, as they say, "work out." Some did, I'm sure. Christina Baker Kline, in one of her historical asides, generalizes that many of the kids ended up working in the same fashion as biblical Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, only to become Secretary of State. Okay, that's an exaggeration.  But late in the book, Kline asserts that many orphan train stories have similar trajectories--lots of initial, pitiable, horrible suffering, but eventually a good,good life.  

Such is the story if Vivian, the child of Irish immigrant parents, a father who found it difficult to leave a tavern and a mother as brow-beaten as any one might find in D. H. Lawrence. Vivian's first Minnesota placement should have been outlawed by even the most lenient child-labor laws; her second thrusts her back into a family as sordid (no Minnesota-nice here, btw) as her own, the mother a despairing monster, the father a backwoods bloody hunter who terrorizes Vivian sexually.

The sweet, sweet irony of the story is that Vivian, the old lady, tells Molly, the second orphan in the novel exactly the medicine young Molly the goth (with a Native American heritage), needed to hear. Solomon couldn't have devised a better punishment for Molly's unthinkable crime of stealing Jane Eyre.  It's perfect.  Maybe a little too. More than a few things are perfect in this novel.

Somewhere in the John Gardner scripture of good writing he says that the finest fiction around always comes something like a fingernail away from gushing, overwrought sentimentality.  It flirts with syrupyness so seductively that we can taste it, but it refuses finally to dip itself in because sentimentality, in literature, can be a killer. Sentimentality does our emotional work for us, bulldozing us into emotional reactions when the very best writing prompts us to do the emoting for ourselves.

There were times in this novel when I heard the diesel engine of some piece of  heavy equipment telling me what to feel. More often than not, it seemed, characters were altogether too evil or too good; I couldn't be one of the faithful. I couldn't suspend my disbelief. 

That having been said, the book holds us, stem to stern, in part because of Christina Baker Kline's ability to create lively characters. Molly is really fun, a joy, despite her own clear desire to be more wretched than she is. She's Huck Finn with a nose ring, a heart of gold beneath all the trappings of her well-earned anger.  And Vivian is what Anne of Green Gables would have been at 91, still just about perfect.

Sometimes too much. Sometimes too over the top. Sometimes I couldn't help rolling my eyes.

But there's no accounting for taste. When this novel shifts gears and becomes "inspirational," it makes me wince a little.

But it's worth reading. It's mightily worth reading. Let me just say this, I don't have to type in  "spoiler alert" to suggest that, in Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, all's well that ends well. It's a terrific read, but not a great book.