The Prairie Fellowship, a beloved Unitarian community that provided me in anchor in my peripatetic years, used to spend a weekend every October in the Wisconsin Dells. One year I was asked to read autumn poems out of doors and so, on a warm-enough sunny morning, I sat under the forest canopy all ablaze in gold and crimson to await any participants who might come.
One of my former professors at the University of Wisconsin, now retired, and a dear friend, Annis Pratt, has written a very positive review of my new book Merrickville Days, for the book’s page on Amazon, and she is allowing me to also share it with you here. Annis is also a writer, the author of the four-volume Eco-Fiction series Infinite Games, and her web site and her own blog are at http://www.annispratt.com. Her review follows:
How can we really get a grasp on history? Is it possible to achieve a truly “insider” understanding of the minds of people from another place and another century? When we read about historical periods or about the lives of particular families, it is always at one remove, through the eyes of someone whose insight is necessarily skewed by a different time and a different world-view from the world they are trying to depict.
Diaries are different because they take you right inside the head of the person experiencing life in their times, as they understand them. That’s why, in adhering closely to diaries that her grandmother and grandfather kept in 1907 and 1908, Eleanor Wilson, in Merrickville Days, achieves such a deep and detailed portrait of life in rural New York State.
Rather than offering the diaries themselves (which are included, in full, at the end of the book) Wilson’s technique is to develop a third person narrative line closely adhering to their content. The dialogue, which is oddly formal to our ears (though genial and, sometimes, humorous) is adapted from the way Wilson heard her grandparents (who were both alive when she was growing up) actually speak, so that they tell you about their lives in their own way of speaking.
The result (once you get used to it the oddities of diction) takes you right into the hearts and homes of farmers in the early twentieth century and to a discovery of interesting aspects of their life style. We know, of course, that farm life of that time involved crushingly hard work, but Wilson’s grandparents, while chronicling their day in day out mucking of stables, milking of cows, struggling with laundry, rearing of children, sewing their own clothes, all amid constant and often massive cooking sessions, undertake all of this with pleasure in what they accomplish on a backbreaking, daily basis. The men work hard, the women work hard, the children have chores, they get tired out and go to bed for a nap or a whole day, all amid a genial tone of mutual appreciation.
Another surprising phenomenon, which Wilson comments on, is that far from being isolated on their farmsteads they are extremely social and cannot live without visiting each other on a constant basis. Any rainy day or a few hours free of chores and they get into their wagons to visit friends and relatives in the surrounding area. Their doors are open, anyone is welcome to drop in, pick up and help at any chores going on, and have a good catching up session; visitors who turn up from further away often stay for weeks.
What was the rural life of our farming ancestors like? Merrickville Days is a good way to find out!
It is hard to act on climate change when its impacts reduce us to feelings of hopelessness and doom, the kind of “planetary anguish ” that Liz Cunningham starts out with in Ocean Country.*
When I sat down to write The Marshlanders I had been canoeing and kayaking for years and taking lots of notes about the flora and fauna of the East Anglian fens; my head was chockablock with cattails waving in the wind, green sedges along river banks, and mist over meres, not to mention cavorting otters, busy muskrats, and herons flying low over the water.