Accompanied by Dorette’s son-in-law, Paul Kuhns, I’m heading to Paris next week to attend the International Hemingway Conference. I also expect to visit again the most famous graveyard in the world, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, established by Napoleon in 1804.
The cemetery is huge ― 110 acres ― with more than 1 million individuals buried there. Most were ordinary folks. But people from around the world come to see the final resting places of an unusual number of famous artists, writers, musicians and other public figures.
No, Hemingway is not there (look for his grave in Ketchum, Idaho). But Marcel Proust, the author of “In Search of Lost Time,” is. Dorette took this picture in 2005 of me paying respects at his grave.
I’ve long been fascinated with both of them. Hemingway goes back further in my reading history.
As for Proust, I took John Updike’s advice that it’s best to read him in your 40s because it takes that long to accumulate experiences that will make the novel most relevant to your own inner life.
And it was, in fact, at about that age I became obsessed with all 1,267,069 words of the “Search,” all of which I still compulsively read once a year in English translation.
There are many interesting graves in the cemetery. American authors Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright are there, as well as U.S. rock star Jim Morrison, who receives more public attention.
Nearby is Irish writer Oscar Wilde.
Among others are Sarah Bernhart, Frederic Chopin, Georges Bizet, Isadora Duncan, Eugene Delacroix, Dominique Ingres, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known by his stage name Moliere), Sidonie Colette, Amedeo Modigliani, Yves Montand, Nadar, Edith Piaf, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat and Simone Signoret.
Tourists receive a free map. I like its closing comment, presented in seven languages:
“And now, let the pages of history turn to the rhythm of your footsteps, and the baroque monuments still you with their gentle poetry, leading you into a quietness propitious to meditation.”
Difficult as it may be to believe, Red Oak House is holding a book sale June 2, starting at 9 a.m.
A couple of winters back, I cataloged our collection and culled about 200 books, mostly duplicates as well as books we’ve read that don’t fit in the scope of our permanent collection. For a while, I toyed with the idea of selling these online, but I don’t want to have to deal with issues like sales tax and such, not to mention that I have much better things to do with my time, like writing the book we are working on!
Our friends Ken Rogers and Kevin Carvell are going to add some of their books to the sale, so there should be some real treasures — that is, if we don’t buy all of these from each other before we open for business. (Could happen!)
So please stop by, under the spreading branches of the champion Red Oak Tree next Saturday at 920 Arthur Drive in Bismarck. Linger to admire the flower beds if you wish. Sip on a cup of cold lemonade.
Help your fellow bookworms make room on our shelves for new books. You’ll be doing a good deed.
One of my favorite places is the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Dorette and I are frequent visitors. She’s out of town, so I drove to the MIA on Saturday and wandered around for a couple of hours.
It’s truly a world class institution.
Photography is allowed, not the case in many museums.
Among the works of art I’m most drawn to is this one of Little Crow, painted in 1863 by Henry H. Cross, 1837-1918. Little Crow was the leader of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
I was reminded of the fairly recent series about the war by Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Curt Brown. It was titled “In the footsteps of Little Crow 150 years after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.”
Powerful stuff that ends with the chief’s remains being returned from South Dakota to Minnesota many decades after the conflict.
As the procession began, one of the Elders pointed upward and a murmur rose from the mostly Native American crowd. A huge flock of birds was circling overhead, then headed east. Many of those present believed they were accompanying Little Crow’s spirit home.
I searched Amazon today, but a print version of Brown’s history is unavailable. It is on Kindle, however, now on my “to-buy” list after I upgrade my device .
Amazon did display a few pages from the book, including one with this photograph of Little Crow.
Reading has been important to me since I was a first-grader at Fram Township School No. 3 in Wellsburg, N.D. My teacher, Sylpha Hovland, inspired me. I still have my “report card” from that year long ago — the marks were great for reading, not so hot for “deportment.”
Here are the first lines of 10 of my favorite novels. The answers are at the end of this blog. Add your favorite book or books in a comment if you wish. (Don’t worry: this post is not like one of those Facebook “quizzes” that allowed Cambridge Analytical to influence the presidential election).
(1) “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.”
(2) “Laura was washing the dishes one morning when old Jack, lying in the sunshine on the doorstep, growled to tell her that someone was coming.”
(3) “For a long time, I went to bed early.”
(4) “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
(5) “Call me Ishmael.”
(6) “I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house.”
(7) “On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
(8) “In the year 1896, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to his parishioners that they should gather at Saint Joseph’s wearing scapulars and holding missals.”
(9) “Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon.”
(10) “In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father give me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
(1) Ernest Hemingway.
(2) Laura Ingalls Wilder.
(3) Marcel Proust.
(4) J.D. Salinger.
(5) Herman Melville.
(6) Robert Louis Stevenson.
(7) Thornton Wilder.
(8) Louise Erdrich.
(9) O.E. Rolvaag.
(10) F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I can’t resist a used bookstore. On Saturday, I picked up a volume that tells the story of the cruiser U.S.S. Indiana, sunk by the Japanese in World War II after delivering the atomic bomb that would end the conflict.
The book, “In Harm’s Way,” reminded me of the description of the disaster that the character “Quint” (Robert Shaw) provided in the 1975 movie “Jaws,” still one of the most popular films ever made.
Here, slightly edited, is how Quint described what happened.
“Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, chief. Our ship was comin’ back from the island of Tinian to Leyte, just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes.
“Didn’t see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer.
“You know how you know that when you’re in the water, chief? You tell by lookin’ from the dorsal to the tail. What we didn’t know was our bomb mission had been so secret, no distress signal had been sent. They didn’t even list us overdue for a week.
“Very first light, chief, the sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups.
“You know it’s kinda like ol’ squares in battle like you see on a calendar, like the battle of Waterloo. And the idea was, the shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’ and sometimes the shark would go away. Sometimes he wouldn’t go away.
“Sometimes that shark, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’. Until he bites ya and those black eyes roll over white. And then, ah then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’ and the ocean turns red and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’ they all come in and rip you to pieces.
“Y’know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men! I don’t know how many sharks, maybe a thousand! I don’t know how many men, they averaged six an hour.
“On Thursday mornin’ I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland. Baseball player, boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep, reached over to wake him up. Bobbed up and down in the water, just like a kinda top.
“Up ended. Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist. Noon the fifth day, Mr. Hooper in a Lockheed Ventura saw us, he swung in low. He’s a young pilot, and anyway he saw us and come in low.
“And three hours later a big fat PBY comes down and starts to pick us up. You know that was the time I was most frightened? Waitin’ for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.
“So, 1,100 men went in the water, 316 men come out, the sharks took the rest, June the 29, 1945. Anyway, we delivered the bomb.”
Friends know I enjoy used bookstores. There are many within easy driving distance of our place in Bloomington, Minn.
I recently purchased the above book for $1.50 at a Salvation Army resale outlet near the place that sells me Starbucks Italian Bold coffee.
“What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?” was self-published by Gordon C. Krantz, who like Dorette and me is (or was) a resident of Bloomington, Minn. It is subtitled “The Reminiscences of an Ordinary Draftee in World War II.”
Krantz was a member of the 537th engineering company, involved in combat during 1944 and 1945 after shipping to Europe aboard the passenger liner “Queen Elizabeth.”
The book describes his wartime experiences (as well as a tour of the battlefields he took with his wife many years after the war).
Here’s a brief excerpt, apparently from his diary:
“I don’t expect to come back. In a war you get killed. The ways things are going in Europe, we are in for a grim time. We know how to kill the other guy and he knows how to kill us. I may be alone in this expectation of getting killed, but I don’t think so. We have a song, a parody of the WWI song “over there.” It ends with ‘We’ll be over, we’re going over, and we’re all coming back in wooden underwear.’ Wooden underwear is a pine box.”
The 16.1 million veterans of World War II are rapidly disappearing. Only about 3.4 percent of those who served are still alive.
The book has a warning notice on its title page: “This version is a private publication for family use only — Not for sale.”
If my calculation is correct, Krantz would be 93 years old. Not impossible, of course.
But given the fact his request that the book not be sold was ultimately ignored (recall that I bought it used at the resale store), Krantz may have crossed to the other side.
“Operation Snowbound: Life Behind the Blizzards of 1949,” by David W. Mills. North Dakota State University Press, c2018 (260 pages, photos)
How’s this for timing? I finished this interesting new book, one of the many excellent books being produced by North Dakota State University Press, just as the biggest winter storm of the season is upon us.
This is the story, as described in the subtitle, of the 1949 blizzards that nearly paralyzed a portion of the United States, specifically the northern Plains and the intermountain west, including North Dakota.
The writer and historian, David W. Mills, tells this vivid tale using a rich array of source material, dotting the story with vignettes of individuals who had to cope with the effects of these storms, and the many heroes who played their role in the response. The accompanying photographs enrich the text.
“By the end of January, the devastation was staggering. The western United States had suffered through one of the worst winters on record with at least another month to go. Roads blocked with mountains of snow prevented travel throughout Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Snow isolated farms, ranches or entire communities for weeks at a time. Livestock losses were staggering, but the extent of the catastrophe remained uncertain until the snows melted and the carnage lay bare.” (pg. 211)
I learned a great deal about a chapter in North Dakota history about which I’d known almost nothing, and I’m eager to share this book with my mother, who would have lived through this ordeal in Slope County, and to hear her personal stories. That is the magic of books and history, well told. This book falls into that niche and I tip my hat to the author and the folks at the NDSU Press.
The mailman brought me a small package this week, book-sized, postmarked and with a return address from the town in which I grew up, Hettinger, N.D.
Well, it was obviously a book, and I love it when people send me books, so I opened it immediately. It was indeed a book, a very special book, with a letter tucked neatly into its pages, which said:
“I don’t know if you remember me, but I was in high school the same time you were. … We moved back to Hettinger about three years ago and have been getting the Bismarck Tribune. A few weeks ago, I read the article about the Red Oak Tree in your yard. … I had just finished the children’s book “The Wishing Tree” for my grandchildren. It’s about a red oak tree. I’m sending it to you because I thought you might like it for your grandchildren, and maybe your tree is a wishing tree, too.”
Isn’t that wonderful, and just truly amazing?
Her name in high school was Valerie Lindquist, and I think she was a year ahead of me in school. Her brother, Ron, and I used to play sandlot baseball. He was a year younger than me, I think. We all moved away from Hettinger after high school, and our paths have not crossed since, more than 50 years.
The book is titled “wishtree,” one word, small letters and written by the noted children’s author Katherine Applegate, who’s had a number of children’s books on the New York Times best-seller list. This is a good one. And it’s beautifully illustrated by children’s book illustrator Charles Santoso. You’ll like the art, too.
It’s a delightful story about Red, the talking Red Oak tree. Actually, it’s a story BY Red, the talking Red Oak tree, a story of Red’s history, told by Red himself, a wise 200-year-old resident tree in a small town somewhere in America.
But Red is not just a tree, he tells us. He’s a home, a community. At any given time, his branches, leaves, roots and hollows are home to all manner of wild critters, all friends — crows, salt-and-pepper chickadees, raccoons, foxes, opossums, mice, skunks, porcupines, woodpeckers …
The book tells the story of Red’s newest friend, a little girl named Samar, whose Muslim family has moved into the neighborhood, and is shunned by the other residents.
Late at night, Samar would come to visit Red, to snuggle up against his sturdy roots, and soon all the residents of Red’s leaves, branches, hollows, and roots came to know her as a friend.
Let Red describe her for you:
Samar has the look of someone who has seen too much. Someone who wants the world to quiet itself.
She moved with her parents into one of the houses I shade, a tiny blue house with a sagging porch and a tidy garden. She is perhaps ten years old or so, with wary eyes and a shy smile.
Samar would venture out in her pajamas and robe and sit beneath me on an old blanket, spattered with moonlight. Her silence was so complete, her gentleness so apparent, that the residents would crawl from their nests of thistledown and dandelion fluff to join her. They seemed to accept her as one of their own.
If this were a fairy tale, I would tell you there was something magical about Samar. That she cast a spell on the animals, perhaps. Animals don’t just leave their nests and burrows willingly. They are afraid of people, with good reason.
But this isn’t a fairy tale, and there was no spell.
And then we learn that Red is a Wishtree.
Wishtrees have a long and honorable history, going back centuries. There are many in Ireland, where they are usually hawthorns or the occasional ash tree. But you can find wishtrees all over the world.
For the most part, people are kind when they visit me. They seem to understand that a tight knot might keep me from growing the way I need to grow. They are gentle with my new leaves, careful with my exposed roots.
After people write their hope on a rag or piece of paper, they tie it onto one of my branches. Usually they whisper the wish aloud.
It’s traditional to wish on the first of May, but people stop by throughout the year.
My, oh my, the things I have heard:
I wish for a flying skateboard.
I wish for a world without war.
I wish for a week without clouds.
I wish for the world’s biggest candy bar
I wish for an A on my geography test.
I wish Ms. Gentonini weren’t so grumpy in the morning.
I wish my gerbil could talk.
I wish my dad could get better.
I wish I weren’t hungry sometimes.
I wish I weren’t so lonely.
I wish I knew what to wish for.
So many wishes. Grand and goofy, selfish and sweet.
It’s an honor, all the hopes bestowed upon my tired old limbs.
Although by the end of May Day, I look like someone dumped a huge basket of trash on top of me.
And then Red tells us the story of Samar.
One night, not long ago, Samar came out to visit. It was two in the morning. Late, even for her.
She had been crying. Her cheeks were damp. She leaned against me, and her tears were like hot rain.
In her hand was a small piece of cloth. Pink, with little dots. Something was written on it.
A wish. The first wish I’d seen in months.
I wasn’t surprised she knew about the wishtree tradition. I’m kind of a local celebrity.
Samar reached up, gently pulled down my lowest branch, and tied the fabric in a loose knot.
“I wish,” she whispered, “for a friend.”
I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story, other than it is timely. I want you to read it yourself. And then read it to your children and grandchildren.
It’s a magical story, and it was the magic of my having grown up in a small North Dakota town, where these kind of things happen, that brought me this story, from an old acquaintance who read a story about our big, state champion Red Oak tree, and thought I would like this book.
Well, she was right. I wish that she will come and visit us, and our tree, on May Day, or any other day. I want to get reacquainted with this thoughtful person who was kind enough to send this book.
And as for our North Dakota State Champion Red Oak tree, well, I suppose it needs a name, and I suppose Red is as good as any. Actually, the book’s Red tells us that all Red Oak trees are named Red. So that’s it, I guess. If you don’t know about our tree, you can read about it here.
If I thought it was a Wishing Tree, I, too, would probably wish for a new friend. Actually, that wish has already been granted. Thank you, Valerie Lindquist Braun.
“The Prairie Post Office: Enlarging the Common Life in Rural North Dakota.” K. Amy Phillips and Steven R. Bolduc, history by Kevin Carvell. North Dakota State University Press, 2017, 102 pages, color photographs, maps and other illustrations.
Box 172, Rhame, N.D. That was my childhood address in Slope County. Our school bus driver was also our rural mail carrier, driving the route on gravel roads twice most days and once Saturdays. Our mailbox on the main road was mounted on a decorative iron piece that my father made in his GI Bill welding class in nearby Bowman, N.D. Somewhere I have a picture of my younger sister, age 4, standing on that mailbox.
What takes me down this particular memory lane is my recent reading of the beautiful and interesting book, “The Prairie Post Office,” published last year by the NDSU Press, sent to me in Bismarck via, what else but the mail.
This book describes in rich detail how the community post office is the linchpin of the rural town in which it is located. We all attend different churches and shop in different establishments (now frequently online). Many North Dakota towns do not have clinics or hospitals or even schools. But what many do have is a post office. It is what remains in the town as its beating heart. Here neighbors meet and chat. Here the diligent postal staff sees to it that everyone in their respective communities receive their mail, no matter its importance. And the potential loss of these rural post offices causes tectonic shocks to reverberate throughout these communities.
The book opens with a top-notch history of the postal service in Northern Dakota Territory and North Dakota by the inimitable Kevin Carvell, of Mott, N.D. Thereafter the chapters include highlights of the public service that the post offices fulfills and the social, economic and symbolic role of these places.
Each chapter is filled with photographs of the post offices and the people who keep them running, as well as citizens’ thoughts on their local post office’s importance. The layout is pleasing and the writing compelling — all the elements of the book make for a fine reading experience.
“As with areas elsewhere in the United State, rural North Dakota reflects the dynamics of change and continuity. … In our interviews, the prairie post office was referenced as representing and supporting this rural way of life. … Rural community members view the local post office as a symbol of social connectedness … important indicators of the community’s place in the body politic.” (pg. 85-6)
When I finished this book, I found I had a strong desire to see a picture of that old-fashioned metal door with Box 172 stamped on it. Sadly, I learned in a phone call to the current Rhame postmistress that progress had built a new building in Rhame and the old boxes were gone. Where she did not know. She remembered me though, and I knew who she was. This is the link that bonds us as North Dakotans, as Americans. Here is a photo from the book that took me down this memory lane.
When I was first married, we lived in rural Dunn County. One of the most thoughtful wedding gifts we received was a good old-fashioned mailbox, the kind one can buy at Menards or Ace Hardware.
Our routine, like every other citizen in the state, was to stop at that box each day and collect our mail. Oftentimes, we indulged in a long walk (about a mile, one way) to the mailbox. The elderly gentleman from whom we bought the place expressed shock at this, telling us that in the more than 50 years he lived there he never once even considered walking to the mailbox. In that time period, Jim took a part-time job as a rural mail carrier and often said that one really gets to know the neighbors by delivering their mail.
When we moved to Medora, we rented a post office box, and the post office there was definitely a hub of the town. Medora still has those old-fashioned metal PO box faces as it happens and a colorfully decorated exterior of the building, complete with a western theme.
These days, here at Red Oak House, we have a red mailbox of Scandinavian origin mounted on the front of the house. I’ve seen these for sale at the Norwegian store at Kirkwood Mall in Bismarck. I’m on a first-name basis with my mail carriers, sometimes handing them a popsicle on a hot August day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Read this book and I promise you many happy thoughts about your connection to the prairie post office, the glue of our communities. Thank you to the authors and to NDSU Press for capturing this in a charming book.
Thank goodness for winter, a time here at Red Oak House for us to catch up on reading.
About a year ago, I bought myself the book “The Wonder of Birds: What They Tell Us About Ourselves, the World, and a Better Future,” by Jim Robbins (Spiegel & Grau, c2017). I tucked it away, waiting for an opportune time to read it. This week was that time.
Robbins, a Helena, Mont., native, is an accomplished and respected writer. He has written for the New York Times for more than 35 years and for a variety of other magazines, covering environmental and science stories. He is also the author of the books: “The Man Who Planted Trees, Last Refuge: the Environmental Showdown in the American West,” and “A Symphony in the Brain.”
In this book, “The Wonder of Birds,” he wanders through a wide variety of locations, from wild places all around the world to a business that creates feather clothing and costumes of all varieties, the Mother Plucker Feather Co.
He writes of the transformative and healing powers of birds, something I can attest to from decades of birdwatching.
“Walking across the broad sweep of grassy prairie of northern Montana day after day is an immersion into a starkly beautiful landscape. On the days I hunt I become a predator, and the experience touches some deep and ancient part of my psyche, a calm, though vigilant, deeply felt energy, providing me with the stamina to hike mile after mile along creeks and down one-lane dirt roads, all but oblivious to distances covered or the hours passed, consumed only with thoughts about in which patch of chokecherry, cattails, or thick grass the birds might be hiding” (pg. 104).
My husband, Jim, recounts that he also has a greater ability to walk without tiring when in the wild than when he is at the YMCA, much like Robbins describes. Speaking for myself, I get bored walking around the track but can walk for miles on a hiking trail. The presence of the birds is a part of that.
Robbins meets with Cagan Sekercioglu, an associate professor of biology, who says, “Even if you just look for birds, you’ll see the best parts of the planet. Not just landscapes and biodiversity, but some of the last remaining interesting cultures.”(pg.115)
Each chapter begins with a lovely pen and ink illustration by DD Dowden. The chapter devoted to ravens and crows is particularly delightful.
Again, from the book:
“If we can learn how to move beyond the subconscious terror we all carry and the emotional numbing we take on to shield ourselves, if we can tap into the extraordinary power of birds and bottle this lightning, if we learn from our relationship with birds to fully understand our nervous system and the full range that we are capable of feeling and sensing in the world, we will find something inexhaustible and profound, even life-changing” (pg. 280).
In this, the “Year of the Bird,” this book was worth every penny and a delight to read. I give it my highest recommendation. If you Google the title, you will see that many other reviewers agree with me.
While you are at it, do check out this delightful issue of National Geographic magazine.