Books

Pa and Ma and Me

I probably shouldn't start this with, "What is revisionist history?" or, "Whose 'truth' is more true?" or, "Does deleting all mention of something mean it didn't happen?"

These are just some of the questions that have been passing through my mind over the past 48 hours or so, since I learned that the Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association, has renamed the 64-year-old Wilder Medal. It shall henceforth be called the Children's Literature Legacy Award. 

Now, let me be clear about something. Until Monday, I couldn't have told you there was a Wilder Medal. I don't have kids, nor siblings, nor nieces or nephews. I do come from a family full of readers and I have an aunt who somewhat recently retired from a career as a librarian. Needless to say, my own childhood bookshelves were filled with loads of European and American classics. And I still have some of them.

Among those are most of the tomes from the series of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books. Every Christmas season, I revisit the arrival of Pa and Mr. Edwards with the sticks of candy and small sugar cakes and the shiny tin cups and the pennies and the tale spun about meeting Santa Claus. Cap Garland is still, in my mind's eye, the handsomest town rescuer there ever was. Handsomer, even, than Almanzo Wilder. 

I vaguely remember that there was some interaction with the original residents of the Plains, but I couldn't have told you off the top of my head what the author's lexicon was in those scenes. I could tell you that my recollection was that the appearance of the locals made the Ingalls characters feel either curious or scared, and ultimately turned out to be fairly benign. I pictured it as somewhat akin to my feeling that there might be folks around the corners during my family's long-ago visits to gold-rush and silver-rush ghost towns.

My parents (christened "Pa" and "Ma" around the same time we read the Little House series) and I spent lots of times at historic sites and in the woods and at museums learning "stuff" when I was a kid. I wasn't reading the books in a vacuum that assumed they were my only exposure to "frontier" history or to history in general. Which, I think, is likely why the specific terminology Wilder used only added to my picture of a complex interaction among people. Over time, I would learn about the nuances of those interactions and the actual historical context for Wilder's mostly autobiographical work of fiction.

It also helped that I was raised as a Baha'i, so Ma and Pa worked hard to be sure that I understood that all people are one. That viewpoint is central, but not unique, to Baha'is and it certainly colored how I absorbed information about different cultural groups, including stories, from a very young age. 

All of that being said, when I initially saw the Wilder Award name change announcement, I was annoyed. That is, in part, because the ALSC also awards the Carnegie Medal. Wilder's name was removed from her medal because the language she used in a work about her family's experiences is no longer considered acceptable in literature. Shouldn't Carnegie's name be removed from his medal because his company manufactured something like 90 percent of the steel rails that facilitated the rapid and total disenfranchisement of the very people Wilder described?

But that won't happen. Because Carnegie was male. And rich. And because when he'd used every possible robber-baron trick in the book to gain more money than he could spend in a lifetime, he endowed libraries. So that people could read about the people who no longer lived where his rails ran, I imagine.

In other words, seek a reason why someone's work is inadequate and ye shall find.

After I calmed down, I remembered a conversation I had last summer with the education director of one of the pre-eminent native culture museums in the country. He was hard at work with a team of brilliant specialists developing a completely revamped way of incorporating a balanced history of the continent's indigenous population and European interactions into school curriculum. The concern he raised about the status quo is that American Indian children, both on reservations and integrated into the general population, learn from the same curriculum, use the same library books, and observe the same stereotypes as every other American kid. 

What does that mean? Well, for one, it means that the narrative typically relates how hostile indigenous groups for no reason at all attacked nice white folks who were just minding their own business and building this fort, or house, or what-have-you on this prime stretch of river. Flip the script and you have this nice group of indigenous residents who went out to the grocery store, came back to find an armed gang piling up a bunch of logs in their living room, and took steps to remove the gang forthwith. Both behaved in ways that made sense from their own perspective. But the group with the written language got to perpetuate their side of the story.

Can you imagine? Generations of kids being told in classrooms that Columbus discovered America ...

"But we were already here."

"No, you weren't. I mean, you were. But you didn't matter."

"What?"

Or, you know, what do you do when the cowboys always win in the movies and the Indians have to be stoic? Yes, I am citing Smoke Signals

So, doing my best to look at the situation from that perspective, I considered how Wilder's words might strike the impressionable mind of a young Osage kid. If Laura and her family were on the prairie, then I imagine the Osage on whose land they were illegally living probably had a family, too. (Now that would be a fascinating book.) Despite the nuances that I may find in Wilder's depictions, because of my own background and exposure to critical sources, I get the problem. 

Then I read up on the longstanding concerns about this literary classic (yes) also being considered a historically accurate record (no). 

Still, though, something about changing the award name irritated me. So I went to see what the ALSC had to say. I found the wording of the newly renamed award's criteria suspect. It sounded a bit too au courant to have been in place when the award was first presented to Wilder (and named after her) in 1954. So I read into the organization's task force recommendation regarding the name change.

And I was right. The criteria statement was amended when the name was changed, to reflect the organization's values in 2018, as opposed to its values in 1954 when it created the original award. What I find interesting about this is that the ALSC, by changing the name, condemns the author for deviating from the ALSC's current norms ... but by changing the criteria, avoids drawing attention to itself for having held those norms. In other words, if Wilder's work contains "racist" and "derogatory" language (which, it does, by today's standards of speech) and the ALSC awarded it the medal in 1954, then the ALSC by its own definition was racist in 1954.

Needless to say, I have a problem with the picking and choosing and revising of the past. Apparently, the ALSC had to decide between renaming the Wilder Medal or ending it and introducing a new award in its place. In my opinion, they made the wrong choice because, by renaming it and changing the criteria, the organization makes it appear that Wilder never deserved the award for her work. By ending the award and creating a new one, the organization could have taken responsibility for its own role in mid-century America's racial and ethnic struggles, while recognizing its evolving knowledge.

'With Fire We Test the Gold'

Fire has been on my mind a lot lately. Not because my neighbors have been burning leaves and I've been wondering when an errant spark will bring down the entire pine-encrusted neighborhood. That idea never occurred. No, I've been thinking about fire in a figurative sense. 

That is, fire as a metaphor. Over the last couple of years, as I started taking bigger and bigger risks, I realized that I've come to relish the times when I might get burned. They're not always pleasant. In fact, they can be scary and make me question what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, who it's serving, and whether I've gotten myself in over my head. 

They're a lot like the sessions when my trainer bumps up the intensity of my workouts. I suddenly find myself doing shoulder presses with a 15-pound dumbbell in each hand and struggling to push through 10 reps on the fifth circuit. Or I'm holding a low plank position and shaking like mad by the time 40 seconds has passed. In those moments, the signs of weakness show me that I'm building strength.

It's the same way with spiritual, emotional, educational, professional, financial, or other types of tests. Sometimes, I've found, it's actually best to light a fire and just see how I handle it.  

The title of this post comes from a Baha'i quote: "With fire We test the gold, and with gold We test our servants." It's a metaphor for the relationship between spiritual and material realities. In a physical sense, fire is used to test and refine the purity of gold as a precious metal. In a spiritual sense, this material life is used to test and purify the character of a human soul. In both senses, as I understand it, the goal is to emerge from the test stronger.

That perspective gives the process of facing challenges such purpose that I find it hard to get bogged down by difficult things. Acknowledging they're difficult is fine. But staying stuck in that place holds no allure. Everywhere I look, it seems I'm finding confirmation that it's time to press onward, whether in this fire analogy, in the metaphor of a gardener pruning plants to improve their growth and future yield, or in real world acceptances, rejections, and communications.

Standing in the fire is a very good place to be.

PS: Funny coincidence, but if you're looking for an actual fire-related thing this week, bookmark Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir, launching this fall. The author, Aaron Williams, has a direct, wry voice that is sure to make this a thoroughly enjoyable read. No tangents of unnecessary literary decoration. Just straight-up, solid writing about real people doing real things in the real world. Aaron's been my classmate in the University of King's College MFA program these last two years, so I'm super excited to see this hit the shelves!

Yeep! Yeep!

Ramona Quimby had it right. "Yeep" is a perfectly joyful noise. I was reminded of that fact last week when I learned children's book author Beverly Cleary had turned 100. Given that she was in her late 60s and I was about 7 when I read her books, I suppose I can be forgiven for thinking she was always elderly and must already have turned 100. As one might imagine, "late 60s" seems significantly less elderly now than it did then, however.

In any case, I've long had etched into my mind the scene from Ramona and Her Father in which Ramona is making her Christmas list full of exotic birds, while yeep-ing and contemplating the likelihood that her father's payday will lead to a trip to the local hamburger joint for perfect burgers and fries. When her mother asks why she's yeep-ing, Ramona says she's "making a joyful noise until the Lord," as instructed in Sunday school, and had made up her own noise since one wasn't specified.

Even at a young age, I caught the until/unto switch. But, skimming over that as a characterization device, which I can now call what it is (thank you, MFA), my focus was on the description of the french fries, the events that happened on payday, and the yeep-ing.

I didn't develop a taste for fries until several years after I read the book. My family didn't eat out frequently, and when we did, I usually chose a burrito or an open-faced turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy. I still remember eating an acceptable-quality burrito at the A&W in Laramie, Wyoming, on one of our cross-country treks. Yes, Virginia, A&W sold foods other than burgers and chicken once upon a time. Still, the description of the perfect fries made an impression. Whenever I come across one now, I think of Ramona.

In my family, too, Dad's payday meant treats. Living in western Nevada, we had limited shopping choices for a while. It took some time for a "real" grocery store to set up shop in our farm town. So every two weeks, Mom, Dad, and I (often with Bingo, who was an excellent traveling pup) would load up in the car and drive the hour and a half into Reno. A chiropractor appointment with a great family friend and fellow Bahá’í. Carefully rationed extra-crispy KFC for dinner. And then the trek through the grocery store before we drove home. Later, when groceries came to our corner of the desert, payday might mean pizza or a chocolate Italian ice with Gummi Bears.

Then, of course, there was the yeep-ing. I can't say I ever made that particular noise until I read about Ramona's use of it. I've held onto the sound ever since, though. It works for me. In my own head, when things go well and cheerfulness is in order, I absolutely yeep a little.

In fact, this past weekend was definitely yeep-worthy. For the first time in quite a while, some Bahá’í friends from my area got together to study and compare notes about life and service. We were gathered in the home where many of us had taken part in study circles through the years, as commemorated in staged photos with artfully Photoshopped heads inserted to include people who weren't present for whatever we were celebrating. The hostess has always blended American and Ghanaian traditions with ease, charming her guests at every turn. And music often kicked off our study sessions a decade ago.

So it was that Saturday afternoon, after quiet, reverent prayers in English and German and Spanish had filled the breezy, light room with a peaceful calm, we found ourselves following our hostess as she taught the simple words to a call-and-response song shared by English-speaking Bahá’ís all over Africa. We stood, shoulders rubbing against one another in the living room, learning the motions that accompanied the words. Stepping and stomping, bending low to the floor and reaching high above our heads, we sang the easy lyrics in full voice, faces flushed with happiness at the joyful noise and the company of friends.

Yeep! I thought to myself. Yeep! Yeep! 

Research Isn't Always Pretty

"You should blog your misadventures in writing." I'd pinged my friend Abby with my latest foray into the wilds of Google, in which I strung together words I'd never felt the faintest urge to assemble. This was her reply. It's good to have friends who know gallows humor is a thing.

You see, over the last eight weeks, I've been reading books on subjects similar to my own work, books that use literary techniques I should add to my toolbox, and news of current and past events that form the backdrop for my project. It's been ... enlightening.

Youngsters, turn away now.

Frankly speaking: I've spent the last two months reading nonstop, graphic descriptions of physical and psychological torture, execution, and death. It's grueling stuff. My first reaction was horror, as anyone's likely would be. But then, as it often does when something is emotionally overwhelming, my brain switched to autopilot and I absorbed all of the information as practical, rational data. My memory tends toward the eidetic, so almost everything is logged in precise detail and available for recall later. 

When I reach back into the shelving unit that is my brain, though, rational thought and emotion collide. Poor Abby had just received my explanation that I was writing my report on Maziar Bahari's Rosewater when I found myself Googling "term for anal rape with a foreign object" to be sure I clinically and correctly identified one of the forms of torture used against a group of protesters. Thankfully, Abby is one of my posse of friends-like-family. She understood that my inappropriate giggling was not triggered by the phrase I'd typed, but by the absurdity of having to type it at all. "Who," I was thinking, "does things like that?" (And by the way, "rape" covers all the details. Good to know.)

That brings us to the great challenge of research. The goal is to learn things we don't know. The conundrum is that we're likely to learn things we'd rather not have to know. Or in many instances, things that we'd rather no one experience, ever. The specifics of torture and rape have that effect. Sebastian Junger takes us to the brink in The Perfect Storm, with a victim's perspective on the clinical events involved in death by drowning and a scientific detailing of what happens to a rescue diver's body when he hits a rough ocean from 70 feet up.

It's hard to read. Numbing, even. The kind of thing that most of us will never, in our lifetimes, experience firsthand. The fact is, though, someone did experience it. And if people don't read and absorb, then how does anything change?

That's a lesson I learned years ago. For a couple weeks straight, on 12-hour shifts, starting at noon on 9/11, one of my bandmates at the time led a rescue and recovery team at Ground Zero. When he finally rejoined us for an event, he pulled us all in at the end of the day and told us what he and his team had seen, because he needed to know that people far away from the pile would spread the word. He didn't hold anything back. Not about the condition of the bodies, the heat of the fires, the contents of the dust his team breathed in. And not about the small kindnesses of strangers that made their job bearable, either.

So, no, research isn't always pretty. But it's necessary. Because unless someone goes looking for the information, how will anyone else know it exists? 

My Summer Reading List

My friend Stephanie, over at Sailshaker, challenged me to post my summer reading list. I'm taking her up on it because it's been a very bookish summer, thanks to my incredible friends and faculty in the MFA Creative Nonfiction at the University of King's College (Halifax).

Here is the list:

I should point out that, due to a favorable exchange rate, having a car onsite, and a class scouting trip to Chapters, I came home from my two-week residency with a grocery bag full of books. All but two were solidly related to my own project. Still: grocery bag. 

And on that note ... there's a book calling me.