A Dash of Election Perspective

Others have said it so well. I’m reblogging the best of them.

adoptingjames

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I think most people are shocked from last night’s election results. I couldn’t stay awake long enough to see the results, but my wife was kind enough to wake me up at 3:00 AM and report them to me. She knows, as a compulsive worrier, I was stressed about the election, even though I didn’t vote for either candidate. I voted third party, something I never thought I’d do. But knowing one of the two would win, I did have my preference.

But like so many early November Wednesdays in our country’s history, we as a people are prone to gloat, to bemoan, to judge, and to fight and accuse.

I’m sorry to those who didn’t get your choice. But just remember, those who got what they wanted today were just as devastated for the last two elections as you are today.

But we’re all still here. The world didn’t end for…

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Book Review: The Settlers

Five StarsthesettlersThis is a longer than usual book review. It is also unusual for its content. This review is more about the relevance of the story for what we need to know about our own ancestors than it is about the story itself. Let me explain:

Forty-five years ago, two elderly women in the church where I worked in Berkeley, California, paid me to type their father’s journal entries so that they could print copies and share his stories with their younger relatives. As I typed, I was surprised to learn their father hadn’t planned to remain in America. He came to California from Sweden, intending to make his fortune and then return. When it took longer than he had expected, he traveled back to Sweden to marry and then brought his new wife to America. Still he hoped they would return to Sweden. But in the end, they remained here.

Thirty-five years ago, I married a man whose parents immigrated to Canada when he was three years old. His grandparents had moved to Canada in 1927 when their oldest child, my former husband’s father, was three years old. They had left him behind in Yugoslavia with his grandparents because they only planned to remain in Canada long enough to make their fortune and then they would return. Timing was against them. The stock market crash, the depression, World War II, and the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia prevented them from both making that fortune and returning. Instead, in the 1950s they sponsored their now married son, his wife, and their three oldest children as immigrants to Canada.

Thirty years ago, I worked as a consular officer in Stuttgart, Germany. Time and again I had to explain to a visa applicant that I could not issue a visitor visa because it was clear the applicant wished to work in the United States. For that, I explained, they needed immigrant visas. These applicants expressed universal surprise since they all said they had no plans to remain in the United States. They only wanted to work long enough to make their fortune and then return to Europe.

This has always been the dominant immigrant story: the foreign-born generation comes to America to make their fortune. Most fail. But once there are children, there is no turning back. Even the first generation born in American often struggles without finding success.

Recently I have heard a number of Americans who are two or three generations away from their immigrant ancestors explain that they want all today’s immigrants to follow the path they believe their ancestors followed: intentional assimilation into the American community. But they don’t know what they are talking about. They are too far removed from the experiences to know what their ancestors intended.

That’s why it is important for those of us several generations away from our immigrant ancestors to read stories such as Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants saga or O.E. Rolvaag’s trilogy ofGiants In The Earth, Peder Victorious, and Their Fathers’ God. We are too far removed from our ancestors’ experiences to realize not all immigrants of the nineteenth or early twentieth century shared the enthusiasm for assimilation the progency of their future generations now attribute to them, the same enthusiasm they now proclaim they expect all future immigrants to embrace.

In most cases, only one adult in each couple was enthusiastic about the move. Most often, the husband. The women and children came along because they had no choice. The children were more likely to catch the assimilation bug, but not even all of them were destined to succeed.

In The Settlers, the third in Moberg’s four-book series, he extends the story of the band of emigrants from Sweden in eastern Minnesota, focusing primarily on the family of Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson. We get glimpses of those who are likely to succeed in the new world. The pressure to remain connected among other Swedes weighs heavily on some, especially Kristina. The vision and promise of quick wealth in the gold fields of California tempt others. Those known as thieves and whores in the old world find blank slates in the new world, blank slates on which they can begin again.

Later arrivals reveal the emigrants did not escape all forms of religious intolerance by leaving Sweden; some who left Sweden to escape the government’s strict religious boundaries brought equally inflexible strictures they were ready to impose on those in the new world. And while Karl Oskar continued to see promise in the new world, Kristina saw bleakness and separation. And the birth of more children did not bring a sense of renewal for Kristina; each child’s birth felt like the small death to Kristina.

At the end of Unto A Good Land, the second volume of Moberg’s saga, Robert, Karl Oskar’s brother, along with his friend and fellow farmhand Arvid Pettersson, had left Minnesota to seek fortune in the gold fields of California. In The Settlers, Robert returns alone, his pockets now full of paper money but his heart still full of pride. The brothers each ponder whether the other might have chosen the wiser path, at least until Robert’s paper money turns out to be worthless. Karl Oskar remains convinced Robert will never stop lying, and Robert realizes he had let himself be tricked out of the fortune he had stumbled upon in spite of his never having reached California.

This volume is not full of optimism, at least not on the surface. It depicts the weariness of the hard work those early emigrants spent for their children’s and their children’s children’s futures. Too few of us understand our family history. Nonetheless, optimism is the back story for this saga. We are the beneficiaries of our ancestors’ hard work and the separation from family they endured. My hope is that we will keep that in mind when we encounter the current group of immigrants, that we will recognize the separation and hard work they are willing to endure for the sake of their children, and that we will be tolerant of their attempts to retain their traditions, just as our ancestors did.

  • Genre: Family Saga, Historical, Literature & Fiction
  • Print Length: 399 pages
  • Publisher: Borealis Books; Revised ed. Edition (September 15, 1995)
  • Original Publication Date: 1956

IWSG-October

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Here we are at the first Wednesday of the Month where many of us bloggers write about our hopes and fears in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more info and a list of participating bloggers, to join, or offer encouragement.

This month’s question is “When do you know your story is ready?”

My only relevant experience with determining whether something is “ready” is with submissions to anthologies. As a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, I have been submitting short pieces (the limit for the first three years was 1,500 words; this year’s was increased to 2,500 words) since I joined in 2013. In each case, I decided my story was ready when the deadline for submission was upon me. This year I took the additional step of having one of my read-and-critique groups review it with me as part of the revision process. The result was a much stronger story.

Read-and-critique groups are great!

At the same time, however, I have been struggling to determine just when to ignore the well-intentioned advice from my read-and-critique groups with my larger project. Ignore is not the right word, but I can’t come up with a more precise one. What I mean is that I realized recently that I have been adjusting my goal (an admittedly amorphous goal never committed to paper) as I have received feedback. For example, my original vision of my memoir was a single book packed full of stories of the many adventures I encountered while living in 11 foreign countries over a 30-year period. I had an elevator pitch to describe my project: My journey from seeking adventure to finding a mission. And I had lots of first drafts of the subplots and vignettes. I just needed to find the right order for them. At least, that’s what I thought.

After trying out a number of read-and-critique groups, I found two I felt fit me. I read with one group and then take the feedback to revise the pieces to read with the second group. That way both groups hear the whole piece. The feedback has been fabulous, except for one thing: I allowed the enthusiasm of the participants to make me think I should break up my story into separate books for each country.

And that’s when I got stuck. I don’t have a whole story for each country. And while I perhaps could squeeze out enough from my memories for a whole book on the first country, I don’t feel that wouldn’t make a very satisfying story. At least not for me. Because the story of my experiences in my first country is a story of failure.

I allowed myself to be lured down a path I hadn’t intended to go. But this does not mean I should have ignored the feedback. I needed the feedback to make me realize that I hadn’t done the groundwork to define my whole story. I thought the route would become clear once I began writing. Instead, I should have spent the time drawing the map so that I wouldn’t be tempted down another road.

So I’m backing up. I’m re-reading Marnie Freedman’s 7 Essential Writing Tools: That Will Absolutely Make Your Writing Better (And Enliven Your Soul) (I told her I would never finish it because there is so much in it worth another look) to help me draw my map first. Then I’ll get back to writing the story.

In the end, I hope I will know that story is ready when it fits the map I have not yet completed.

 

 

 

Book Review: X


Five StarsxI’ve been a fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series since I first read K is for Killer in the early 1990s and discovered there were ten books written before it for me to read. I went back and read them all in order and have been grabbing the new ones as soon as they are published. Grafton doesn’t disappoint in X.

I noticed immediately that the 24th book in her Millhone series doesn’t follow her naming pattern. The title is simply X, not X is for something that starts with X. The inside page explains it all, though I didn’t realize it until I reached the final page.

X: The number ten. An unknown quantity. A mistake. A cross. A kiss. X marks the spot.

Grafton’s X is all of the above.

Three quite different stories weave through this novel. Contrary to what I expected, they are not all neatly tied together at the end.

First there is the mystery of Teddy Xanakis, the revenge-seeking ex-wife of Ari Xanakis, a successful and wealthy businessman whose generosity to the community ended at the same time as his marriage to Teddy. Why was she so eager to get in contact with a small-time bank robber recently released on parole? Does X refer to the Xanakises?

And there is the mystery of the assignment of Pete Wollinsky, a PI who was killed during a robbery gone wrong. He died before he had time to deliver a package he had collected from Father Xavier who had held it for safekeeping for more than 20 years. What was Pete’s motivation in hiding both the package and a list he felt compelled to encode to keep its contents secret? Does X refer to Father Xavier?

Finally, Kinsey and her landlord, Henry, draw very different conclusions about their new neighbors, Edna and Joseph Shallenbarger. Which of their conclusions were more accurate?

Grafton tantalizes the reader with these questions, allowing Kinsey to reveal her assumptions and conclusions along the way. But as is always the case with Grafton’s mysteries, there are twists and turns in each of the sub-plots, revealing unknown quantities, mistakes, crosses, and kisses. Assumptions are overturned. Behind each mystery hide even more mysteries.

I regret only two letters remain for Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. It has been too long since the most recent one, and I fear the final one will be here too soon.

• Genre: Private Investigators, Women Sleuths, Suspense
• Print Length: 512 pages
• Publisher: G.P/ Putnam’s Sons; Reprint edition
• Publication Date: August 2, 2016

Book Review: A Fireproof Home for the Bride

Five StarsafireproofhomeforthebrideI don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading a book more than I enjoyed reading Amy Scheibe’s A Fireproof Home for the Bride. The story is fiction so it didn’t happen, but, as is always the case with good storytelling, it could have happened. I know because I was there at the time of the story—1958—in the place of the story—Fargo, ND, and its twin city, Moorhead, MN. So I knew many of the people Scheibe included in her novel. And the events that were true—it is fiction, so not all events were true—happened to me as well.

First, let’s get the storyline out of the way.

In this coming-of-age story, Emmy Nelson, a Minnesota farm girl, breaks away from her Lutheran parents and their plans for her to marry Ambrose, the son of their wealthy farming neighbor, a plan she is happy to follow until her family moves to the nearest town, Moorhead, Minnesota, before her senior year of high school. In Moorhead, Emmy meets Bev, a member of the in-crowd, who introduces her to another possible future, causing Emmy to realize she wants more from life than settling into a predictable routine as farm wife and mother for the rest of her life. She realizes the marriage to Ambrose would secure the financial future for both families, but she isn’t aware of the full range of reasons her parents are eager for her to marry as soon as she graduates from high school.

As she begins to explore other options for her future, including the attention a Catholic boy from Fargo, ND, is paying her, she learns her parents and grandmother, her fiancé and his father, have been keeping secrets from her that threaten to destroy her happy childhood memories and even her life.

I loved reading this story because I recognized so much of my own coming-of-age experiences in it. While I am ten years younger than Emmy, so many of the details are mine.

The story takes place in 1958, the year after a family of killer tornadoes destroyed the Golden Ridge housing development in north Fargo as well as many farm buildings along what is now I-94 across North Dakota and US Highway 10 continuing east into Minnesota. I remember sitting in the basement of our house, convinced that we were all going to die as we waited for the tornado to hit. And in the days afterward, I remember adults talking about how sad it was that six children in one family were all killed by the tornado because none of them knew they should open a door or window so the tornado wouldn’t cause the house to implode. Scheibe changed the details of the family in the novel, but the emotional impact of reading about them brought back real memories.

One of the characters who helps Emmy adjust to her new, much larger, high school is the guidance counselor, Reinhold Utke. By the time I reached junior high school, Mr. Utke had been moved into the principal position at North Junior High School where I saw him every day for three years and then again seven years later when I completed my student teaching at North Junior High. I remember being called into his office one day in ninth grade. I didn’t think I had done anything meriting being called to the principal’s office, so I went there apprehensively. He was smiling when I arrived. He explained that my English teacher, Mr. Tangen, had shared with him an essay I had written about an upcoming school bond issue, based on Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Mr. Utke wanted my permission to send the essay on to The Fargo Forum, the paper where Emmy worked in the novel. The Forum printed it, and I learned years later that my father carried a copy of it in his wallet to show others I had written it.

In the novel, Mr. Utke found Emmy her first job at the Moorhead Theatre. My first job in high school was also at the Moorhead Theatre, though Emmy’s starting salary as candy counter attendant in 1958 was five cents more than mine as usher was in 1965.

Scheibe also used a word to describe the Texas farm workers who traveled each spring to Minnesota to work in the sugar beet fields that I doubt most people in Moorhead had ever heard: betabeleros. It sounds like a Spanish word, but it isn’t in any Spanish dictionary. Betabel is the Spanish word for beet. Farmers and the Texas workers added “eros” to refer to those who worked with betabel, just as vaqueros, Spanish for cowboys, is based on the Spanish word vaca, or cow. I only know the word because I spent a summer translating for a Bolivian sponsored by the Lutheran church to minister to the families of the betabeleros in 1973.

I love this level of detail in the novel. But I loved the story on its own merits as well. The major tension in the story centers around a charismatic Chicago man who manipulates men into joining the Citizen’s Council, a xenophobic organization that uses fear of foreigners, especially the farm workers, and raises the specter of a changing demographic destroying the community. The Council’s goal: take over local government. Unfortunately, we see some of those same tactics being used by politicians today, another reason I love this book.

Genre: Family Life, Historical, Literary
Print Length: 384 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: March 10, 2015

Guardian Angel III

At the end of my first semester at California State University, I traveled back to Minnesota for the summer. I had hoped to find either a summer job or a volunteer opportunity, but by the time I arrived, car troubles had drained my financial resources, and I knew I needed a job.

Instead, however, I learned Mom had worked on my other option: she had volunteered me to drive and translate for a Bolivian lay minister as he met with sugar beet farm workers who traveled from Texas to Minnesota each summer. The minister, Ruben, spoke no English and didn’t know how to drive. He had assumed he would be able to walk from farm to farm. The distances between farms in the US astonished him, as did the fact that, while the farm workers all spoke Spanish, almost none of the farmers or those working in businesses did.

Much as I thought I should find a job, I agreed instead to honor Mom’s commitment because of her conviction that something good would come from it. I also knew that if I really needed more money, all I had to do was ask her. I didn’t want to, but I could.

The churches who arranged for Ruben’s mission told me they couldn’t pay me for the work; they would reimburse me for my gas.

I spent the next six weeks filling the tank each morning, then driving the 60 miles to the farm where Ruben stayed. Each day from that point I drove more than a hundred miles on gravel county roads in four counties, Cass and Traill in North Dakota and Clay and Norman in Minnesota, so that Ruben could meet with the families of the farm workers. My tank was nearly empty each evening when I returned home.

One afternoon, Ruben pointed out a group of workers in a field. He asked me to pull over so he could talk with them. Usually he only met with the families of those who worked in the fields, in the cabins the farmers provided for them. I should have told him we shouldn’t stop them from working. But trying to figure out how to say that in Spanish was difficult. So I gave in. We were on a gravel county road with what looked like a wide, grassy shoulder. I pulled over and immediately felt the car begin to roll. Within seconds, the passenger door rested against a sign warning of a curve in the road ahead. The only sign for miles. Let me repeat that: the – only – sign – for – miles on that road.

Ruben, in the passenger seat, couldn’t get out, and the car tilted enough to make it difficult for me to open my door.

The workers saw what happened, ran from the field to the road, and pulled and pushed my car back onto the road. Shaken by what had almost happened, I silently thanked my guardian angel and told Ruben I needed to go home early that day. He understood.