Monday, October 26, 2020

A Tale of Miracles

Peace Like a River
Peace Like a River 

“Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave - now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.”  ― Leif Enger, Peace Like a River

Once upon a time
there was a young boy who was born with asthma. That is, he  almost died, as his birth was something like a miracle; maybe it was one. Thus the story of Reuben Land, as narrated by himself, begins. His story and that of his family is one filled with miracles and stories within the story. It is both the story of the rite of passage of the young boy and his journey from young life through adventures that are in many ways as magical as a fairy tale.

Peace Like a River is a strange but pleasing book, containing echoes of the picaresque novel and the archetypal quest, with passing references to Homer, the Bible, and historical figures of the American West. The author immediately establishes a winning voice for his eleven-year-old narrator, Reuben Land, which alternates with the adult Reuben’s omniscient but equally relaxed voice. He is a perceptive character, although admittedly self-critical, “beyond my depth and knowing it, yet unable to shut up.” He reminded me of one of my favorite literary narrators, David Copperfield.

To begin with, Reuben was born “a little clay boy” with ominously swampy lungs, unable to draw breath until his father, Jeremiah, rushed into the hospital room and commanded him to breathe. Even though the infant was without oxygen for twelve minutes, he miraculously suffered no brain damage; but his lungs remain weak into adolescence. Ironically, while Reuben has watched his father walk on air and heal a man’s raw face with a single touch, his own asthma remains uncured. Jeremiah can only steam him with salt and baking soda or thump his back to loosen the congestion. Reuben fully believes he has survived such an inauspicious beginning in order to bear witness to his father’s unexplainable miracles, since “no miracle happens without a witness.” He does not use the word “miracle” lightly, for real miracles bother people. He is never certain whether his father prays for miracles or whether they just happen. 

His father works as a school janitor in the small town of Roofing, Minnesota, and is plagued by frequent headaches. A mild man of conscience, he reads his Bible daily, silently, and without ostentation. A man of prayer and intense conversation with God, he at one point literally wrestles with the Almighty. Davy, Jeremiah’s older son, is in some respects already an adult at sixteen, but unfortunately he is hot-tempered and unlike his father, he prefers to act rather than wait. He is very protective of their little sister, known only as Swede, a precocious and endearing young girl. She is a widely read and literate child but blunt with the artlessness of childhood. A passionate fan of Western novels, Swede is in love with the legendary Old West. Her real-life hero is the young Teddy Roosevelt, who ranched in North Dakota before becoming president. Reuben, too, admires and envies Roosevelt for his triumph over asthma.

Two young thugs attack Swede and later provoke Davy, and when they break into his home with a baseball bat, Davy shoots them both. Although he is arrested and jailed for murder, he refuses to plead self-defense, insisting that he intended to shoot. Reacting to the scandal, the school superintendent decides to “scour that janitor’s teeth” by first humiliating Jeremiah and then publicly firing him in in front of a lunchroom full of children. At Davy’s trial, a reluctant Reuben testifies as an eyewitness to the shootings until, carried away by self-importance, he unintentionally strengthens the case against his brother. There is little hope that the jury will release Davy, who promptly breaks out of jail, escaping with a horse and a revolver. No one knows where he has gone.

On Christmas Eve they receive a mixed blessing—word that an acquaintance has died, bequeathing his brand new Airstream trailer to Jeremiah. After a friend in North Dakota reports that Davy has been seen, the Lands determine to find him. The rest of the story becomes a modern odyssey. They tow the shiny Airstream trailer with their old station wagon and the novel expands its mythic dimensions. A detective follows them across the Great Plains in bitter winter weather to a small city park, where a severe headache forces Jeremiah to camp overnight. . Well into the Badlands, a notorious area of bleak buttes and mesas in the western part of the state, they come to a farmhouse with two gasoline pumps in front and a propane tank. The self-reliant owner, Roxanna Cawley, greets them with a newborn goat in her arms. Earth mother and impressive cook, she soon offers them a place to stay the night. As it turns out Davy is holed up with another fugitive, Jape Waltzer, not too far away. The denouement of the story, however, yields some twists that were surprising for this reader.

Enger’s vivid imagery is an attractive feature of Peace Like a River. There are also Reuben's dreams and mythic legends. The book describes some of literature’ s most accurate and claustrophobic descriptions of severe asthma. As Reuben explains, “Sometimes when the breathing goes it goes like that—like smoke filling a closet. . . Your breaths are sips, couldn’t blow out the candle on a baby’s cake.” In lyrical passages, Enger evokes autumn and winter on the Great Plains (“skies so cold frost paisleyed the gunbarrels”). Here the land itself is always a presence, a sharp reminder of a power far beyond human limitations—immense sky, sweeping prairie, the cold, clean Dakota wind—even the boundless desolation of the fabled Badlands, where the ground is eternally on fire.

One might be tempted to allegorize this novel, for it could easily slide into abstraction: Jeremiah as the good Christian, a saint; Davy as the archetypal rebel, beloved even as he sins; the fugitive Jape Waltzer, who is always accompanied by the odor of sulfur, as the Devil. To limit the book in this way would be doing it a disservice, for its very human characters are beautifully drawn. While there are many motifs in Leif Enger's Peace like a River, three of them are consistent, unmistakable, and connected. The first motif is breathing, and the other two—miracles and dreams—At its center it revolves around the nature and power of love—divine, human, and brotherly love, perfect and imperfect—the love that binds this small family together.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Enchanting Poetry

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments
Stung with Love: 
Poems and Fragments 

“Some call ships, infantry or horsemen
The greatest beauty earth can offer;
I say it is whatever a person
Most lusts after."

While the title of this collection highlights the erotic attitude of the poems of Sappho, there is a wonderful fragment of a poem entitled "Troy" that presents a mythic narrative. In doing so she veers away from the emphasis of the Homeric epic and focuses on a conventionally 'feminine' theme, a wedding scene. She elevates the wedding to epic magnitude, all the while featuring excellence rather than the morality of good and evil.

Other poems and fragments present themes of goddesses, desire, girls and their family, and marriage. The result in an excellent translation is a delightful selection. Here is a typical quatrain:

Untainted Graces
With wrists like roses,
Please come close,
You daughters of Zeus.

Sappho lived in a time of transition for Greece, after the Homeric era but before the more famous Golden Age of Athens. I, like others, find her language enchanting, and the gathering of poems and fragments by subject lends an order to this collection. Her passion shines through both the millennia and the translation to charm the reader while leaving a bit of sadness that we do not have more of her oeuvre.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

The Framework of Literature

The Educated ImaginationThe Educated Imagination 
by Northrop Frye

“I feel separated and cut off from the world around me, but occasionally I've felt that it was really a part of me, and I hope I'll have that feeling again, and that next time it won't go away. That's a dim, misty outline of the story that's told so often, of how man once lived in a golden age or a garden of Eden or the Hesperides ... how that world was lost, and how we some day may be able to get it back again. ... This story of the loss and regaining of identity is, I think, the framework of all literature.”   ― Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination

Tuesday, October 06, 2020

A Philosophical Mystery

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the DeadDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead 
by Olga Tokarczuk

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we're living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what's good and what isn't, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves... And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”  ― Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

The title comes from William Blake’s Proverb’s of Hell. It’s a philosophical novel masquerading as a kind of mystery – although it is much more than that.

Because there are so many ideas and themes in the novel, at least for those with a philosophical bent, it became endlessly readable. From the first page we are presented with an examination of the process of aging, astrology references and readings, the impact of drugs - natural and otherwise, and omens - both ill and good. The psychology of madness and losing one's consciousness is explored along with the poetry of William Blake (further shades of madness). But above all there is nature and a lonely cold climate filled with many animals and few humans. It is the isolation of the cold climate that comes to the fore as the story begins, and the wonderful narrative voice of Janina Dusejko, whose story is one of a nonconformist whose metaphors are a delight and whose imagination makes this story one that seems almost dream-like at times.

The story is portrayed as a mystery and there is a dead body almost before you are out of the starting gate, yet it is nothing like any mystery I have ever read. It appears to be a character study of its quite quirky narrator who valiantly tries to convince the police that all four deaths are the result of animals taking revenge against hunters. However I believe it is about the mystery of life.

"But why should we have to be useful and for what reason? Who divided the world into useless and useful . . . Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? Whose intellect can have the audacity to judge who is better, and who is worse?"(p 248)

The lack of detailed investigations and the absence of a plucky detective putting the pieces together is another of the book’s oddities. In doing this it redirects the focus from the typical concern for justice and human lives, and instead allows Janina to unfurl her life story—as an engineer of bridges turned schoolteacher turned caretaker of summer houses, vegetarian, astrologist, co-translator of Blake’s poetry, and devoted animal lover—and her dislike for hunters of all stripes, especially one particular group of poachers, whose connections to the local law enforcement and politicians takes on a conspiratorial air.

A great believer in the power of the planetary configurations on human life, Janina spends her free time with an Ephemeride drawing up cosmograms of people she knows and trying to lend credence to her theories about the influence of stars on human life. She believes order in events are determined by stars. “The stars and planets establish it, while the sky is the template that sets the pattern of our lives."

Janina is also a great lover of Blake’s poems and helps her former student Dizzy, who now works part time as an IT specialist for the police department, in the translation of Blake’s poems. An ardent believer in the rights of animals, she periodically writes letters of protest to all concerned departments to draw their attention to the illegal poaching and hunting of animals that take place in the region. She firmly believes that “Animals show the truth about a country. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going help them, in fact nothing will at all.”  But unfortunately her letters go unanswered and her personal visits to the City Guard’s office turn out to be equally futile. After all, who would take the apparent ramblings of a quirky old lady seriously? But Janina believes that one day the animals will take revenge, because contra humans, animals have a keen sense of justice and an excellent sense of the world.

When there is a spate of mysterious deaths in the valley, all the dead people have a history of hunting or poaching animals and in all the deaths there are signs of animals present in the vicinity. Janina conjectures that the animals are taking their revenge from the humans who harmed them. The police department scorns at her theory but, undeterred,  she works on the cosmograms of the victims and concludes that for each death there is significant astrological proof that points to the involvement of animals. She calls it her “project without funding from the European Union. A kitchen-table project."

All her efforts to present her hypothesis to the police go in vain and she is slotted as just an old eccentric. The police chalk up the murders to internal conflicts between corrupt people. Dejected, Janina concludes that "people are only capable of understanding what they invent for themselves. The idea of a conspiracy among people from the provincial authorities, corrupt and demoralized, fitted the sort of story the television and the newspapers reveled in reporting." Neither of them are interested in animals, unless a Tiger escapes from the zoo. But after three more deaths when the president of the Mushroom pickers society is found dead under mysterious circumstances, his body covered with a unique species of flat bark beetle, the police finally start paying attention to Janina. 

Under the garb of a mystery novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is a combination of philosophical and astrological commentary on the current state of human society. This commentary underlines the battle between free will and determinism as humans are caught in the nets of the great cosmic scheme. There is even a moment when a writer comes to visit and I could not help but speculate that the author had, anonymously, inserted herself into the story. Janina comments, "If I hadn't known her so well, I'm sure I would have read her books. But as I did know her, I was afraid to open them." (p 51)

Ultimately a unique and brilliant novel, one that questions the importance of man in nature and the nature of man. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk is a book I heartily recommend to all.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Personal Notes

 Three Blocks from the Harbor

Today's post will be a little different. While I have sometimes posted comments on ancillary reading activities, this entry will be personal notes from my post as unofficial Bibliophile of the Belmont Harbor neighborhood in Chicago. The pandemic has taken a bit of a toll on my lifestyle, but fortunately I have not succumbed to the Covid virus (or any other virus or disease).  

Reading is certainly a comfort, more than ever, and while it may not be apparent from the quantity of entries on my blog I am reading more than ever. Zooming is another pastime that has become de rigueur for my schedule. Over the course of a month I average at least two zoom sessions per week between book discussions, the Great Connections discussions, my Online Great Books session and a monthly Henderson family get together among my first cousins. 

In the past two months, as the quarantine has eased a bit I have gone out to lunch (outdoors mostly) with friends about once per week. This is done behind the safety of a mask, which I wear everywhere. I have been going to the gym several times per week, again behind the mask and with suitable confirmation that I do not have a fever.

I have been able to get my annual medical checkups completed and received a flu vaccination two weeks ago. As part of the medical checkup I also obtained my first of a two-part shingles regimen. The previous year I had received a pneumonia vaccination. I have not received so many different vaccinations since I was in grade school sixty years ago. 

With the new month I have resumed classes in the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago. This term we are discussing the novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Over the past two years I have done the same with Moby-Dick and The Brothers Karamazov. Currently the discussions are held via Zoom, thus adding to my zoomable activities. 

I guess zoom has become one of my most frequently used words in all of its many formats; the proper name Zoom, to zoom, zooming, zoomable, et. al. What a delight to always discover new words whether from the world of technology or from a welcome discovery in my daily reading.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

America's Favorite Humorist

Will Rogers: His Life And Times 

I grew up in Wisconsin, but my mother was originally from Oklahoma and we would go there most summers to visit my grandmother. One of the highlights of our trips was more than once visiting the Will Rogers memorial in Claremore, Oklahoma. He was one of my mother's favorite celebrities from when she was a young girl. We shared a bit of Cherokee blood through my mother's great grandmother; thus spurring my interest in Will and the heritage of the Cherokee Nation. So, in addition to Claremore we also visited Talequah, the home of the Cherokee Nation, more than once. 
This book has a wealth of photos from Will's life which was quite eventful, both as a humorist and a movie star in the early days of the "talkies". Unfortunately, his life was cut short when his plane crashed in Alaska. This is a great book for anyone interested in the sayings and events of one of America's greatest humorists. 

Will Rogers' quotes:  

"I never met a man I didn't like".
"My ancestors didn't come on the Mayflower but they met the boat"