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Used to Daydream In That Small Town

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Marjorie, Curtis Sr. and Curtis Jr.

Marjorie, Curtis Sr. and Curtis Jr.

Certain people in the family tree capture my imagination – my husband’s maternal grandmother, Marjorie Barton Townsend Williams is one of those enigmatic people. Born in 1890 in Overbrook, Penn., to prominent blue-blood parents at the cusp of the new century when women were venturing further from Victorian sentiments and sensibilities, she left the enclave of mansions owned by her grandfather, father and uncles to serve as a Red Cross volunteer aid in France during WWI. She arrived as the war ended, tending to those men who were injured and help others transition back to the States. Under these circumstances, Marjorie met her future husband, one-time Minnesota lumberjack, then audacious soldier Curtis G. Williams. Enamored, he followed her back to Philadelphia upon his US Army release to rekindle the romance and finally won her father’s approval to marry her after some months.

From there the newlyweds traveled via train to his natal Minnesota to start their new life. His diary – more a collection of humorous stories than anything – has been passed down to the grandchildren. In it, he describes Marjorie only near the end of these reminisces. Other than this, I can only suppose her reaction to moving half-way across the country to live at first in International Falls (on the boarder to Canada) and later to Duluth.

Main StreetSo when I recently read Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Marjorie grew in my mind to be main character Carol Milford Kennicott. Also a new bride, Carol and husband Dr. Will Kennicott arrive via train in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. She looks out the window at the flat dingy landscape and reacts:

“That one word—home—it terrified her. Had she really bound herself to live, inescapably, in this town called Gopher Prairie? And this thick man beside her, who dared to define her future, he was a stranger! She turned in her seat, stared at him. Who was he? Why was he sitting with her? He wasn’t of her kind! His neck was heavy; his speech was heavy; he was twelve or thirteen years older than she; and about him was none of the magic of shared adventures and eagerness. She could not believe that she had ever slept in his arms. That was one of the dreams which you had but did not officially admit.”

Did Marjorie feel this way?

So much of Lewis’ book deals with Carol’s tilting at windmills – trying to change this town, revolt against what she views as provincialism attempting to bring in culture, refined architecture, educational reforms only to be rebuffed by tradition and complacency.  Carol endeavors by turns to fit into established cliques and then break away to blaze trails of originality and single-minded leadership. Lewis’ social satire about small towns was the first to expose certain narrow attitudes and this bewildered readers who commonly idealized American small towns.

But far more than the town and its inhabitants stifling her, Carol feels most misunderstood by her own husband who though he loves her, cannot understand her restless nature.

Was this Marjorie’s experience too?

Or was her life one of isolation – raising three sons while her husband caroused as though still single?

Of note, the book Main Street was published in 1920, the year Marjorie and Curtis married. The book became a modern best seller, with the exception of some small towns in Minnesota because of the book’s genesis from Lewis’ hometown of Sauk Centre, Minn.

Did Marjorie read this book? And if she did, what would she have said? — That she identified with Carol? Or that her life shared nothing with a character living in similar time and place?

We do know that she was not happy. Unlike Carol in Main Street who was able to make a peace, eventually, with Gopher Prairie, Marjorie ended her life at age 47 leaving her sons ages 12 to 16 to cope with the loss.

When researching ancestry, even the lives of those who lived not that long ago, mysteries abound. Through literature it’s interesting and instructive to imagine Marjorie’s life as it might have been, how she felt, what she saw and the choices she faced. Reading something that may have mirrored her life has helped me to understand at least some of the undercurrents in a life that was too short.

Bearing An Untold Story

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To impart realism in idiosyncratic detail, authors Willa Cather and Ernest Hemingway drew on real people for their enduring World War I characters. In her book One of Ours, Cather took letters from a soldier-cousin to impart real-to-life traits on characters Claude and David who fought the Germans in France. Of course, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is in-part based on his own tour of Italy during that same war and his love of character/nurse Catherine Barkley.

Grandpa Bill on right circa 1917.

So as I read these classics over the summer I thought a lot about my own grandfather, Bill Royle, and my husband’s grandfather, Curtis Williams, who were young volunteer soldiers overseas far from their US homes fighting the Kaiser in France.

Since yesterday was Ancestor Appreciation Day, (I know, there’s a holiday for everything!) they’ve slipped back in my consciousness.

As with the characters in these prize-winning books, Bill and Curtis (who we have no reason to believe ever met, however they joined within two weeks of each other in 1917) came from rural America – Nevada and Minnesota – and like Claude in Cather’s classic, viewed the war as a way to break away from their quiet lives and see other parts of the world. Akin to Hemingway’s Frederic Henry, my grandfather worked on the field of battle in the ambulance corps. While Grandpa Curt, a rough fellow who didn’t garner much love later from his three sons, mirrored Hemingway in that he did actually meet his future wife, Marjorie, in France while she was a Red Cross worker.

It was the first modern war: my mother remembers that her dad’s uniform and gas mask hung in the back closet of her childhood home for years, a silent reminder of his past. Back in the 1970s my gramps gave an oral history about his life and extolled in great detail his times with  family, at various occupations, described friends he had made and lost in his 89 years, but when it came to the war, he outlined just minute facts then summed up, “That’s all I have to say about that.” No amount of asking could make him share his experience. Family lore has it that the dents on his helmet are from bullets and that he had to have killed a couple Germans.  One story he did tell was that he made the effort to see his English relatives, but they turned him away thinking he was there for their food.  Fifty years later, that was still a raw report.

Curtis circa 1921

My grandpa –in-law, on the other hand, had a raucous experience from the time he left Minnesota with his comrades, carousing from ship to shore in Scotland and continuing on to France. His memoir passed through the family details many riotous and unruly times which ultimately had him near-court martialed for leaving his unit that was brought over to clear forests for fighting. He definitely had the Hemingwayesque, brash attitude that he could obliterate the war through binges of alcohol and sex. Somehow the young Curtis seemed to believe in the transformative power of love and viewed Marjorie as his own Catherine, someone who could save him from his past.

Both young men were born after the taming of the American frontier and brought their American restlessness to a frontier far bloodier. They never met Hemingway or Cather and their stories will never be fully told. We don’t know and never will, what they saw, smelled, felt, experienced, only that each man became stoic in his own way and crawled into the bottle a fair amount, perhaps to help themselves forget. The connection between literature and life helps us to know the interior lives of those we love. “Life was so short that it meant nothing at all unless it were continually reinforced by something that endured; unless the shadows of individual existence came and went against a background that held together.”— Willa Cather (One of Ours)

Fifty is Nifty in My Book (list)

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I’ve just rounded on the big 5-0. Sure feels good!

No, I’m not celebrating my  age – that’s a few years off – it’s my goal of reading 75 books in one year. In seven full months I’ve read 50 books and if all goes well I should clear my New Year’s goal and perhaps then some.

In looking at the list of books that I’ve thus far got under my belt – or at least filtered into my brain – it’s quite an eclectic list. But then it would be, considering that I was challenging myself to read the many books that I’ve got in bookcases around the house that I’ve been meaning to read. Along the way, though, I picked up a couple from the used bookstore, from the new books store, through my audio book collection and from friends who have kindly given me some of their favorites.

Here how the books stack up thus far:

30 fiction

20 non-fiction

Nine of the books deal with Nevada and the West because I am admittedly a genealogy nut and several of the books on hand are those that have been given to me or purchased by me to learn more about the land my two sets of great-great grandparents emigrated to in the 1860s. Those titles include:

Comstock Women: The Making of a Mining Community Edited by Ron James and Liz Raymond; Saucer Eyes by Eulah Croson Lauckes; The Deep Blue Memory by Monique Urza (Laxalt); The Money & the Power by Sally Denton & Roger Morris; The Mountains of California by John Muir; Where Are All the Magpies? By Patty A. Melton; William Morris Stewart (various authors- Nevada Historical Society); The Ox Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark; Sun Mountain by Richard S. Wheeler.

Thirteen of the 50 I consider literary classics. Though an English major many moons ago in college, the emphasis was on writing, not literature, so these remained unread until this reading binge came on. In alpha order they are:

Candide (Voltaire)

Emma (Jane Austen)

Fairy Tales (Hans Christian Andersen)

O! Pioneers (Willa Cather)

One of Ours (Willa Cather)

Roughing It (Mark Twain)

Short Stories (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (unk)

The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton)

The Legend of Sleepy Hallow (Washington Irving)

The Odyssey (Homer)

The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriett Beacher Stowe)

OK, I admit, I did read the Odyssey back in the day, but it is very much worth the re-read.

A few spiritual ones – or at least books that explore other religions — sped on my reading bender: Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, and Postville by Stephen Bloom. Bloom’s book is not actually spiritual, or religious, but is a study in Orthodox Jewish-Midwest Iowa relations. Still, educational in terms of orthodox beliefs. One other self-help book to add to the melting pot was The Majesty of Calmness by William George Jordan.

Biographies. Oh, I’ve read a few. Eight people who probably seldom if ever met – Steve Jobs (by Walter Issacson); Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer (Irene Gut); Then Again (by Diane Keaton); Chronicles I (by Bob Dylan); Killing Bono: I was Bonno’s Doppelgänger (Neil McCormick) and the three bios from my Nevada list. Now, tell me, should I have Walden by Henry David Thoreau in with biographies or under classics? Maybe that one can be termed classically autobiographical. But by that standard, so then would be Roughing It, by Mark Twain.

Along the way, I read a few “juvenile” books that our daughters have wanted me to check out. The Indian in the Cupboard (by Lynne Reid Banks), The Book Thief (by Marcus Zusek) and the Secret Dragon Society (by Adeline Yeri Mah).

I like my historical novels by the wheelbarrow load. So far, besides those mentioned above,  my list includes Brighton Beach Boys in the Radio Service about World War I, The Dovekeepers set in the first century in Israel, The Other Boleyn Girl occurring in 16th century England, Mary Barton set in 19th century England’s Industrial Age, and I Heard the Owl Call My Name about Canadian Native life. One further book that is actually non-fiction, but reads like a novel because it’s knitted together so well, was Manhunt, about the quest to track down John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

I threw in two Arthur Connan Doyle Sherlock Holmes books: A Study in Scarlett and The Hound of the Baskervilles. And one science fiction – the Invisible Man by H.G. Wells.

Human beings need their comedy – though these are plainly outdated,  I do enjoy PG Wodehouse and therefore read My Man Jeeves and the Adventures of Sally.

Two disappointments (and this is why I avoid a lot of best sellers) were The Mermaid’s Chair by Sue Monk Kidd (so sad, because The Secret Life of Bees was exceptional) and Wicked by Gregory Maguire. Truly insipid.

Rounding the 50 out were two books on economics that I do so highly recommend: Boomerang by Michael Lewis and Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Do I have a favorite? I cannot choose from one of my “children,” though a couple will be relegated to the attic and some of the others may get a further review on this blog. So far, it’s been a fun and rewarding book journey. I’m proud of myself for setting this goal for 2012 and honestly looking forward to augmenting this list with oodles of titles in the next five months of the year.