Wednesday, November 25, 2015
The beauty of literature
What she said in the note was that she and her husband had headed south early this year. They're snowbirds, and the organization I was leading is a circle of retired folks, many of whom depart the cold of winter once the leftover turkey disappears from the sandwiches. This couple does too, but this year they packed their bags early.
So she sent out a note that came a day after the meeting when we'd discussed Black Soil, a dusty old 1930 novel by an Irish Catholic, one-time novelist named Josephine Donovan. Ms. Donovan's parents homesteaded maybe ten miles east of here, and she used her father's memoir to create this old, pretty-much-unread novel.
In order to get enough copies, the local library worked overtime; there just aren't many around. It's not a great novel. Giants in the Earth is a great novel. Black Soil isn't, but it's rich if you live on the same black soil.
So the next day she sent out her note explaining their absence. "Some of you know Herb is fighting a rare form of non-Hogkin's lymphoma, something called myocosis fungoides--four out of a million people have it."
There's more. "Herb has been using steroids, the first line of defense, and he's ready to graduate to the second type of treatment, which is AVA or AVB light treatments, three times a week for three or four months."
They'd left for their place in Arizona, she wrote, because in the Valley of the Sun they can get treatments just down the road and avoid having to drive to Sioux Falls over and over again--or worse, Rochester, in the winter.
So they'd missed the discussion of Black Soil, which went very well, if my unused teaching faculties for assessing such things are still worth anything. Lots of comments, lots of questions, lots of amazement at the way Ms. Sullivan describes a time when Sioux County, Iowa, was dangerous wilderness.
Black Soil is a novel whose central conflict is rare these days--will they make it out here, or will nature itself spit them out and send them back east, will hoards of grasshoppers, raging prairie grass fires, and blinding blizzards the like of which people never, ever forget send them packing? Believe me, "can they survive the prairie?"is a question no one asks on the very same rich ground 150 years later.
And it's not really "they" who is at issue--it's Nell, wife and mom, the New Englander who remembers too fondly the good life in Massachusetts, the abundance that "back home" offered, so much that simply isn't here well beyond the edge of civilization. Nell is a wonderful character, not unique to prairie writing; menfolk, like her husband, tended to love pioneering, women not so greatly. Living in a soddie wasn't easy because you never knew what kind of vermin might crawl out of the ceiling. Women felt the pain of separation from family more than men, the books say. Under this broad dome of heaven, they often felt isolated and vulnerable in a land so bare naked it could hold no secrets.
Donovan's novel is something of rarity among "Middle Border" literature because it features a woman as a central character--and she's Catholic, which would have been something of a rarity in 1870 Sioux County too. But Nell is worthy; she bears her suffering by reminding herself of a God of love who's ever vigilant.
The group liked the old novel, and I was relieved because it had been my idea to read it. For a long month before the discussion, I was sure they were all bored and weary. I was wrong. Black Soil was a hit.
But Herb and Marj had missed the discussion. "We're going to have our own little journey out of our comfort zone," she wrote, and then ended the note with their cell phone numbers.
And then, finally, this line tacked on to the bottom: "P.S. I loved the book Black Soil. (Marj) Hope to be as brave as Nell.
Long, long ago, on a sidewalk in front of the classroom building, I remember telling myself before American lit class that the idea of doing this literature stuff for a living wasn't all that bad. We were doing Emerson that day, of all people; but there was something charming about "Self-Reliance" in the late 60s; and it simply hit me all of a sudden that teaching literature was something I could see myself doing.
That was a half-century ago. There have been tons of wonderful moments. But that little note on the bottom of an email explanation typed by a woman trying to find comfort in her own wilderness, that single line has to rank right there with the sweetest and is reason for thanks.
"Hope to be as brave as Nell."
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:41 AM