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Friday, 15 April 2011

Welcome to Nebraska - and a springtime blizzard




Somewhere yesterday (Thursday) I got a note from a friend. It was on Facebook – which I am growing to enjoy hugely. (I was even able, this morning, to see up-to-date photos of the garlic row I planted in our allotment ten days ago.)

Anyway, Linda Acaster is a novelist, mentor and all-round talented writer who is constantly buried in nurse-maiding other writers through their work – and explaining to dummies like me how to manage modern technology. She remarked that I seemed to be getting on top of this blogging caper, was being very productive, and added some remark like, “Don’t you do anything else out there?”

Well, yes, I do – and I will do more as the weather opens up and I get properly settled in what is, for me, a radical change of environment. But, as to being productive, I am a writer. I think like a writer – at least, I presume I do. I store up images, sounds and impressions in my head; characters, conversations, sensations, moods, events; and all the time, as I go about my daily business – writing things for other paymasters, for example – all that I see and hear on an hourly basis is fermenting at the back of my head, waiting for a chance to be expressed.

So here I am in the American West – on a cattle ranch for goodness’ sake - free to spend six months giving utterance to my thoughts on a subject that’s been close to my heart for a lifetime, a subject I’ve studied, taught, and written about, for thirty years and more. Hell, it takes very little effort for me to bang out a few hundred words a day on top of any other task I might set myself. There’s an awful lot to say, and don’t need much prompting.

Okay. I was going to introduce Mari Sandoz – or at least trace my involvement with her work. It started some twenty years, when I was teaching a course on the literature and history of the American West, and working on a PhD in the same area. I’d read Willa Cather, a Nebraska writer of course, who grew up around Red Cloud, in the southern part of this state. I thought she wrote sublimely about the landscape down there.

In 1991 I had the chance to take a western trip by car. I decided to explore the Santa Fe trail, travelling from New Mexico back east to its starting point, then heading west on the Oregon Trail, which took me along the Platte River and gave me a chance to visit Red Cloud and Cather’s old home. There’s a whole other story attached to that, but the significant thing is that someone from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln – I suspect it was the late Susan Rosowski – suggested I read Sandoz’ story of her father’s pioneering days in the Sandhills, Old Jules.

I did just that, and was mightily impressed. To this day I occasionally re-read the opening paragraph. It’s up there with the beginning of Moby-Dick as one of those passages that thrills me every time I return to it. It’s as good an introduction as you’ll find in any writing about the West.

Two years later, when I was over to give a paper at the Cather conference in Hastings, Nebraska, a marvellous white-haired old couple, Frank and Charlotte White, pressed me to venture into the Panhandle and call on Mari’s youngest sister, Caroline. They even `phoned and told her I was coming.

I drove west, stopped for the night at Hyannis (barely an hour’s drive south of where I am right now) and asked where I could camp. The guys in the bar (was it the Longhorn?) told me to pitch my tent on the lawn outside the American Legion, which I did. There was fellow there who’d just finished sprinkling the grass. He wished me a good night and showed me how to turn on the water so that I could get a wash in the morning.

I was up around six, on the road not long after, and was soon heading north along Highway 27, looking for the trail up to Caroline’s place.

Picture me, a Tenderfoot in a shiny new rented sedan, nosing my way warily along a six-mile track marked by two wheel-ruts filled with talcum-fine dust, my path obstructed by knots of inquisitive cattle.

I got there, eventually, and was pretty pleased with myself, until my hostess greeted me with, ‘Where ya been all morning? It’s eight thirty already.’

Caroline was in her early eighties at this time. She’s 101 now, or coming up to, and the last I heard was still alive, but not fully in command of her mental faculties. She sure was back then, though. She kept a .410 Winchester propped against the door – ‘to pepper those darned deer that keep eating my trees.’ She treated me well. Fed me, led me down into her basement where she kept a lot of her sister’s effects and papers at that time.

And so I was privileged to see, and read, what I understand to be the first typescript version of what was to become, after fourteen re-writes, the western classic that is Old Jules. Intemperate, self-centred, full of the indiscretions we make as young writers, The Ungirt Runner (I believe the title comes from a line of Walt Whitman’s) is her honest attempt to get down the story of a girlhood spent on the farm frontier. I’ll maybe talk some more about this unpublished piece a little later, but I’m short of time right now – frying sausages and making onion gravy, forsooth! – and I don’t want to ramble on interminably.

In fact, in the interests of keeping this within bounds I’m opening a bottle of the Odell Brewing Company’s splendid India Pale Ale (7% alcohol!) to warm the cockles of my heart as the snow drives against the window, the onions turn brown and the temperature dips below freezing point.

Let me wrap up that first visit to Caroline, though, by saying that it set me on a twenty-year mission to learn about her sister’s extraordinary writing career, and to understand the nature of her love affair with the Sandhills. Because, like so many frontier writers – Laura Ingalls Wilder, Hamlin Garland and Willa Cather are the ones I know best – she couldn’t wait to get the hell out of here, but once she’d departed, guess what? The very best of her writing – without exception, I’d venture to say – came out of the elemental, often harsh experiences that coloured her early days.

Next up, a report on the onion gravy, sausage and mash; a tally of the mice I catch in the three traps I’m setting tonight; a weather update, and, with luck, a few lines about my hike yesterday. And maybe some more about Mari Sandoz. It may be a turn-off for some of you, but one of my aims out here is to turn on a British readership to her work. Otherwise I fear I will have misspent my time.

And let me add a footnote to the glib reference, above, to ‘other paymasters’. It is thanks to the work I do for Hodder that I was able to consider taking this time out from the daily round. That first, then the generosity of the Wingate Foundation. Another very good friend of mine, Glenn Norman of Albuquerque, NM, himself an extraordiarily able writer who decided some time ago that he’d make a better living in IT, insists that many a would-be writer ‘out there’ will be fascinated to know what a pro’s life is like. Ha! Until the Mike Pannett books came along, yes, I was a pro – had been for fifteen years or so, and among the most successful I know in terms of making a living of sorts, but I was constantly holding things together with odds and ends of work, staggering from crisis to crisis. So, yes, the fact that I am now writing a series of books, with Mike, that pays my bills… do I call that dumb luck, or a fair reward for the time I’ve put in? My brother has the answer. He says it’s called good fortune.

Grub time!