Archive for September, 2012

True Grit / Charles Portis

When the movie based upon this novel came out in 1969, starring John Wayne, I dismissed both as not worth my time.  This had everything to do with my dislike of John Wayne (he represented the “establishment” to me at the time).  While I am still not interested in seeing the first filmed version of True Grit, I’m happy that I overcame my prejudice about reading the book itself.  The narrator of the story is Mattie Ross, a spunky fourteen year old, and she informs the reader this is “my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw nation when snow was on the ground.”  Frank Ross, her father, was shot by Tom Chaney and robbed of his life and his horse and $150 in cash plus two California gold pieces.  Mattie is from Dardanelle, Arkansas and the time is the 1870s.  Swearing revenge, she leaves her grief-stricken mother in the care of younger siblings and sets out after the hired man who killed her father.  Mattie is no fool, she knows help will be needed to seek Chaney out, who has since fled to the Indian Territory and joined a band of outlaws.  She hires Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, a lawman with a checkered past.  He is considered to be a “pitiless” man, and fearless.  He also has a reputation for “pulling the cork.”  While Cogburn is happy to take her money and seek out her father’s killer, he is adamantly opposed to her accompanying him on the hunt.  But Mattie is stubborn and determined not to be outfoxed when he tries to leave without her.  Another party joins them in the chase, a young Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf who has been tracking Chaney for shooting a Texas state senator in a dispute over a bird dog.  The story that follows, as they bicker and then bond as a relentless force, is a delight to read.  What makes it special is the voice of Maggie throughout as she recounts the events as an old woman.  While naïve to the ways of the wide world, she is hardheaded and has more than enough “grit” to match the two lawmen she rides beside.  Portis is an economical writer and not a word is wasted as the story unfolds.  He shows an appreciation of the place and the subtleties of the time he is writing about.  Thanks to the Coen brothers’ movie remake, True Grit has been introduced to a new generation.  It deserves the praise it has received, John Wayne or no John Wayne.  The book is a classic and deserves to be added to the list of “must reads” in the cannon of American literature.


An October Vignette

Although ineffectual, a bright sun rests,
perched at treetop level.
Golden-hued, like the butternut squash
I will harvest later today.
A touch of frost has brought me out
with pitchfork in hand.
Despite full daylight, another celestial
guest is observing me.
Leaning over my fence, ruby-cheeked,
is an attentive moon.
Rumor postulates it is a distant cousin
of the potatoes I seek.
Red-skinned, shy of inquisitive eyes,
theirs are turned inward.
All summer long they’ve felt the tug
of this very same lantern.
As sunset does the stars, my task now
is to coax them visible.

Every forkful mining for russet gold.

All Fools’ Day Prank

Enough leaves swirling
to be mistaken for mid-October.
Heavier coats replacing
jackets not quite up to the task.
The furnace recycling
a winter’s worth of stale air.
Snow flakes falling
in the place of white blossoms.
A determined wind
pushing the geese south again.

Overnight, a ticking
clock has tocked backwards.
No blushing suitor
as promised in the forecast.
Opening the door,
it stands, frostbitten instead.
Silly us, falling for
an All Fools’ Day prank twice.
A heedless arriving
May has brought no bouquet.

Freedom / Jonathan Franzen

This novel was an Oprah’s Book Club selection for 2010 and I can understand why.  Its contemporary examination of love and marriage is a topic that would appeal to her primarily female audience.  Patty and Walter Berglund are the couple under the microscope here.  By the book’s end, there is not a stone left unturned in their lives.  The novel traces their romance from college days through the compromises and disappointments of middle age.  Along the way, the author devotes separate chapters to family members and friends.  Richard Katz, a college friend of Walter and a rock musician with a passionate cult following, plays a big part in the Berglund’ s life together.  As is often the case, there are numerous rough patches as conflicts and other love interests threaten to derail the marriage.  While Franzen is gifted author, I have mixed feelings about this particular book.  Its main characters are not just flawed individuals, they are down right unlikeable at times.  The author takes far too long to reveal their redeeming qualities.  I was also troubled by the ending, which wrapped things up a bit too neatly for my taste.  Nonetheless, this long novel kept my interest throughout and I found myself thinking about the characters between reads.  There are numerous subplots to provide additional color, everything from suburban sprawl, corporate greed, and the declining bird population, to name a few.  Still, it is Patty and Walter who dominate the spotlight.  By the end, whether I liked these characters or not was beside the point.  Thanks to the author’s depth of characterization, I found myself caring about them despite myself.

Empire of the Summer Moon : Quarah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History / S. C. Gwynne

Gwynne’s epic saga chronicles the rise and fall of the Comanche nation.  While presenting the tribe’s history through the centuries, he personalizes it by highlighting the story of Cynthia Ann Parker.

Her part in Comanche history began on a May morning in 1836 when a large band of Indians rode up to the family property.  She was nine years old at the time and her family had recently come to the Texas frontier.  Unbeknownst to them, the land they were trying to farm was located on Comanche hunting ground.  The braves attacked, and while most of the adults were killed (some were tortured first), Cynthia, along with her brother and older aunt, was kidnapped.  The Comanches were a masterful fighting force and rightfully feared by both settlers and other Indian tribes in the area.  One reason for this is that the adult prisoners they took were usually tortured and killed.  Rape was a common practice as well.  Cynthia’s aunt was tortured, raped, and killed several days after the kidnapping. Children, however, were often adopted into the tribe, and this happened in the case of Cynthia and her brother.

As a young woman, she married a high-ranking chief and bore him two children.  Then in 1860, Cynthia was “rescued” by soldiers, as was her infant daughter Topsannah (Prairie Flower).  In the years that followed, she continually tried to escape and return to tribal land.  After her daughter died of influenza in 1864, she became extremely depressed and finally succeeded in starving herself to death in 1870.  But that is only the first half of the Parker family saga.  Her son, Quanah, was to become the last and perhaps greatest chief of the Comanches.

Just as interesting is the broader history that the author presents on the rise and fall of the Comanche nation.  Its braves were considered by many to be the best horsemen who ever rode.  They were masters of warfare, had stopped the northern drive of colonial Spain from Mexico and halted the French expansion from Louisiana.  They also successfully blocked the expansion of the new American nation for four decades.

The history that Gwynne presents here is eye opening, brutally honest, and skillfully told.

Cleaning Out The House

Paying no heed to
familiar landmarks, head north.
Turn onto the I
and begin the slow countdown
of mile markers.
For the last forty-some years
you have driven this
route to the same destination.
That first time,
sticking your thumb out into
a cold March wind.
Later, bumming countless rides
with college chums.
Then risking a fiery explosion
in a rusty Pinto.
Now you simply let the past’s
tractor beam lock on,
rewind you all the way back.
After four decades,
the terrain is unchanged, with
that same driveway
waiting for you to pull into.
Yet following today,
who you once were-in photos-
won’t be displayed
on that living room mantle.
When a home isn’t,
will it matter that you can still
get there from here?


Just as the budding moon
Full of itself
Needs an admiring lake

So too the swollen heart
Its own mirror
A lover’s enamored eyes