The Beauty of What Remains (review)

The Beauty of What Remains (NetGalley)
Susan Johnson Hadler
She Writes Press

Writer Susan Johnson Hadler’s father died in WWII when she was only three months old.  Because he was killed in a mine explosion, there were no remains to inter and his wife was sent only his personal effects: socks, glasses, a sewing kit, a few snapshots, a bible, and $38.67.  Hadler’s mother remarried a few years later, and the three-year-old was folded into a new family that had, it seemed, no room for her father’s memory. But Hadler always wondered about him, in part because the welcome letter he had written when she was born was taped inside her baby book. Full of his love for her mother and hopes for her future, the letter was something at least–but not enough.

In her twenties, Hadler dared approach the subject of her dad. “What was he like?” she asked her mother. Put the past behind you, her mother implied–“You have everything you’ve ever needed.” The past is the past. Except for Hadler, it wasn’t.

And so when she’s nearly fifty, Hadler begins to unravel her father’s story. She gets a copy of her father’s war records, contacts some of the The Beauty of What Remainsmen he served with, attends a reunion of the 782nd tank battalion, and finally travels to Mechernich, Germany with her husband to put all the pieces together. They stand in the woods where he died and take in the countryside he saw in his last days and weeks.

David Johnson was a “fine gentleman, good officer.” He was “firm” with the men under his command. David Johnson was “lighthearted, carefree. Nothing bothered him.” Her father was “a quiet man. Kind. Respected.” A good man.

Even Hadley’s mother begins to open up a bit about their brief life together. How the couple was the first of their friends to marry, how their friends gathered at their apartment before leaving for the war, how angry she was at his death. But Hadley also heard love in her voice, the love that became her.

Hadley petitioned and received a memorial marker for her father in Arlington Cemetary, where the family gathered for a brief ceremony, and she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Finding My Father” in the Washingtonian Magazine.  And with that, the family wagons circled around Hadley’s mother who felt as though her privacy had been violated.

Shuffling through all those family photos also led Hadley to finding her mother’s estranged sisters: Dorothy, a lively octogenarian who lived in Brooklyn, New York; and Elinor, sent away in her twenties to a mental hospital, and … well, you’ll just have to get a copy of The Beauty of What Remains to turn that page in Hadley’s family album.

I think what appealed to me most about this memoir was the author’s navigation of all things family. Navigating the waters of family secrets and wading through repressed memories, Hadley speaks her truth–painfully, cautiously, but always honestly.

The Beauty of What Remains is a beautiful story, compellingly told.

Destination: Little House In the Big Woods, Part I

I have long wanted to visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House sites scattered around the Midwest and decided this summer was the time to start with a quick trip to Pepin, Wisconsin—which also, coincidentally enough, is the closest to my West Michigan home.

One thing you should know about Little House Wayside, as the Little House In the Big Woods site is known, is that it’s in the middle of nowhere. Another thing you should know about this part of Wisconsin is that it’s Little House Waysidegorgeous. This post will be about the Laura connection, my next about Pepin.

I started planning my visit by reading parts of Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life. McClure tried out all things Wilder from the Little House books, like grinding her own wheat and mixing up sourdough starter and churning butter. She also traveled to a number of the Little House sites. In some ways, her trip to Pepin was much like mine—quick and thrown together at the last minute. But McClure traveled to Pepin on a dreary March day, and I visited in August. So while she noted bare trees, gray skies, and Lake Pepin iced over, I saw lush green everywhere, brilliant blue sky, and sailboats dotting the lake.

Little House WaysideAnd maybe because I read as much as I could about this Little House site before I visited, I wasn’t disappointed. I expected a reproduction cabin circa 1978. I expected the small, we-did-it-ourselves kind of museum. Laura, after all, was only five when she lived in the Big Woods, so she certainly didn’t leave a mark on Pepin, and the Ingalls family didn’t either.  I don’t think I was quite as  disillusioned disappointed as McClure seemed to be after her visit to Pepin.

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum might better be called an interpretive center. Its recent expansion includes four rooms: a model kitchen, a room filled with household items from the era, a school room, and a room that houses a play area for small children and a covered wagon. There’s also a bookstore with the requisite Christmas tree ornaments, calico bonnets, coloring books, and postcards. I toured the rooms in fairly short order (no kids begging for a Little House book; no little ones to drag away from the play kitchen!) and wasn’t disappointed. I purchased a book (what else?!) titled Becoming Becoming Laura Ingalls WilderLaura Ingalls Wilder about the writer Laura—only two chapters are devoted to her childhood and courting years. Most of the book is about the adult Laura and her writing career. Can’t wait to start reading.

The collection of artifacts is impressive for such a small place, but the only items having any personal connection to Laura are a quilt from her teacher in the Big Woods and a donated quilt that had once belonged to Wilder. The docent explained that the entire museum is pretty much the efforts of a local artist couple who does the collecting, displays, and signage—and their love of All Things Laura shows. I wondered, however, what the efforts of an enthusiastic historian from a nearby university might add to the museum. What a great Master’s project for a budding curator.

The Little House Wayside is seven miles out of town on Country Route CC. It’s a beautiful drive through the winding roads of Wisconsin farm country. The Big Woods have made way for corn and beans. While the roads aren’t canopied by old growth forest, plenty of woods are left so that if you squint out the farm fields, you can almost imagine the miles and miles of forest that was just being tamed in the mid-nineteenth century.

My biggest surprise were the hills. Known as the Driftless Area, this part of Wisconsin remained untouched by glaciers during the last ice age. The gorgeous landscape is one of rolling hills and rocky bluffs, which I don’t remember being mentioned at all in Little House In the Big Woods. Pa, remember, walked the seven miles to town (Pepin) to sell the furs he had collected trapping all winter and I’m guessing the hike was made quite a bit longer in order to go around those hills.

The cabin itself is surrounded by cornfields. Built in 1978 it is an unfurnished replica of the Little House: a main room, small store room, and the loft. When I read the Little House books, I always wanted to sleep in tPioneerhat loft—and when I saw it, I still thought the same! Even though far from the fire, I’m guessing that loft was pretty snug and warm with the heat rising to the top of the cabin.

One of my school’s-out-for-the-summer gifts to myself was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. The book, published by South Dakota Historical Society Press, is the definitive book for readers who enjoyed the Little House books as children and want to read what is basically Wilder’s first draft of those books.

The night before I visited the sites in Pepin, I read the chapter “Wisconsin, 1871-1874” from Pioneer Girl. Sitting in a cozy B & B, the sun was setting over the river which was just visible from my window. Trains rumbled by every so often. A sprinkler hit the side of the house in perfect swish swish rhythm. I had chocolate buttercream pie left over from dinner and a stack of books by my side … a perfect way to end a long day of travel and get ready for a day visiting the Little House Wayside.

Cider With Rosie (review)

Cider With Rosie
Laurie Lee
Open Road Media

When I opened the email last month, it was clear I’d missed out. According to Amazon’s Daily Deal blurb Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie was “an instant classic when it was first published in 1959 [and] one of the most endearing and evocative portraits of youth in all of literature”.  Now because I worked for several years in a book store, I’m at Cider With Rosieleast familiar with many more titles and authors than I’ve read.  So one would think I’d at least heard of this Laurie Lee who “learned to look at life with a painter’s eye and a poet’s heart—qualities of vision that, decades later, would make him one of England’s most cherished authors”.

Of course, I had to remedy this oversight, so one-click order I did and was soon settled into a memoir of one of England’s beloved sons I hadn’t even known existed. But after the first chapter, I admit I didn’t know if it was love or hate.

Three-year-old Laurie sits on the floor of his new home amidst the chaos of moving a family of seven into a new cottage in the village of Slad.  Little Laurie was surrounded by “glass fishes, china dogs, shepherds and shepherdesses, bronze horsemen, stopped clocks, barometers, and photographs of bearded men”. His sisters and mother bustle in and out of the house; his brothers help unload the handcart. Lee’s prose was over-rich, I thought—awash in adjectives and adverbs; drowning in lists. I almost put the memoir aside.

But after another chapter, Lee grew on me. His rich narrative seemed to mirror the lush countryside and the hub-bub that was his home. I settled into those lists and that descriptive prose. Like this: “That kitchen, worn by our boots and lives, was scruffy, warm, and low, whose fuss of furniture seemed never the same but was shuffled each day” and this: “These were the … rocks of our submarine life, each object worn smooth by our constant nuzzling, or encrusted by lively barnacles, relics of birthdays and dead relations, wrecks of furniture long since foundered …” It’s definitely not my style and not what I’d usually choose, but I’m happy I did.

Cider With Rosie let me peek into a world that no longer exists—grannies who lived as neighbors for decades, yet

Rosebank Cottage, Slad
Rosebank Cottage, Slad

never spoke; sisters who decorated their hats with bits and bobs; a picnic caravanned to a just perfect spot in the woods; a school teacher quick to smack boys upside the head; sleeping five to a room in quilt-deep beds; a bottle of shared cider and a stolen kiss under a field wagon.

Lee went on to write two more memoirs of his life and a few books of poetry. I was able to find a wonderful interview with Lee on the BBC—his recollections follow the book closely—which makes a great companion listen.

Cider With Rosie should probably be read when the time is just right, like a hazy summer afternoon or a blustery winter night … or anytime, really, when the edges of the world outside become blurred and you could oh-so-easily fade into the English countryside.


A Million Miles In a Thousand Years (review)

A Million Miles In a Thousand Years
Donald Miller
Nelson Publishing

Most people assume that as a teacher, I’m the one who instructs. And it’s kind of implicit in the teacher-student relationship, I agree. But as I move into my twenty-third year of teaching (good heavens!), I find that dynamic is often flipped, and it’s my students who share their wisdom with me.A million miles in a thousand years

During one of my Advanced Placement students’  Socratic Seminars this year, one of the students, Matt, remarked, “Donald Miller once said your life is a story” (this in a discussion of death and dying) and I was intrigued. I’d never heard of this Donald Miller fellow, and who was he that a sixteen-year-old would quote him?–about ‘story’, no less.

After a quick Google search,  A Million Miles In a Thousand Years  popped up and the subtitle “What I learned while editing my life” spoke to my heart. It didn’t take me past reading the author’s introduction to decide I needed the Kindle edition delivered post haste to my reader

The book goes like this.

Miller gained some fame after his first book Blue Like Jazz, and there was interest in a film based on the memoir, even though since writing Blue, he was stuck and had no motivation for much of anything but watching TV.  As Miller and the film makers began writing the screen play, they broke it to him not-so-gently: his life was too boring to be a film. While Miller himself wanted his life to be an “easy story …  [he knew that] nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That’s what makes a story good.”  Artistic license was necessary to make the memoir appeal to filmgoers who would want that good story—in the same way, Miller himself begins to re-write his own reality to follow more closely “the essence of a story”. Try putting these on your Life’s “To Do” list: reunite with a long-lost father, ask the girl out, hike to Machu Picchu, cycle across country. Life got interesting real fast.

This is a journey that, at its heart, is spiritual—but with a small “s”. While Miller is a Christian, there’s nothing holier-than-thou here, which is refreshing. But what an incredible vision of God he has here:If I have a hope, it’s that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story, and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as though to say, Enjoy your place in my story, and you can create within it even as I have created you.

And this:There is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.

While much of the book is focused on the author’s own transformation, he also introduces us to other “characters” he has met who epitomize living a good story. Talk about inspiration, dear reader! My only reservation is that I found myself most moved by the first two or three sections of the book– the ones where Miller confronts that his tendency to let life happen to him; as he checks off his “To Do” list, the narrative becomes a bit less compelling. Overall, I think Miller’s story metaphor will especially resonate with readers, but is a great read for anyone who wants to live more deliberately.

You shared some pretty incredible wisdom, Matt. Thank you.

The Lady In the Van (review)

The Lady in the Van
Alan Bennett

After I read Alan Bennett’s delightful The Uncommon Reader (review link here) I do what all readers do, I assume—I ran to get my hands on another of the author’s works. The library had a copy of a two-fer: The Clothes They Stood Up In (another novella) and The Lady In The Van (a non-fiction narrative); both pieces center around how the stuff in our lives can entrap us. The novella is about a couple who returns from a night out to find their flat bare, stripped of everything right down to the toilet paper and curtain rings. Now the Ransomes are a proper English couple, and LadyVanmuch of their life is spent keeping up appearances—but Mrs. Ransome finds that in shedding her possessions (albeit unwillingly), she gains a new sense of freedom and independence.

The book’s companion piece is the non-fiction The Lady in the Van.  Miss Mary Shepherd is a homeless (sort-of) elderly woman forced to move the van-which-was-her-home from spot-to-spot only to park at last on the writer’s street. Concerned for her safety, Bennett invites her to park in his yard—presumably for a short time. But days became weeks became months and we watch the relationship between the writer and Miss Shepherd develop with a kind of tumultous tenderness that changed them both. This is a story about mental illness and community and one would assume the story’s focus would be the Crazy Lady. And to some extent it is, of course. But it’s also a story (and I would contend it’s the real story here) about how reaching out to others often transforms us more than it does those we “help”.

The Lady in the Van was a 1999 theatrical production in London and is now a film to be released sometime this year  starring the inimitable Maggie Smith, who also starred in the original play. I had no idea this was in the making until my husband shared a film trailer he thought I’d like. “Of course I like it,” I said after watching, “ Considering I read the book several years ago.”

There’s little of Maggie Smith’s work that I haven’t adored and from what I can see in the trailer, she’s made for The Lady in the Van. I think you might agree.