Sunday, June 24, 2012

Celebrating the fortieth anniversary of "The Donner Party"


George Keithley's "The Donner Party" ($16.95 in paperback from George Braziller), first published in 1972, is a "lean, taut, narrative poem" (to quote the New York Times). The Chico poet produced an American masterwork, a haunting eulogy for the company, led by George Donner, bound for California in April of 1846. More than half would not survive.

Lyon Books in Chico is honoring Keithley at a book signing and reading Tuesday at 7:00 p.m.

"I am George Donner a dirt farmer," the poem begins, "who left the snowy fields / around Springfield, Illinois / in the fullness of my life // and abandoned the land / where we had been successful / and prosperous people // and brought a party of eighty men / women and children / west by wagon."

Along the route most everything except food is left behind. It's not the "established trail," and weeks are wasted hacking a path. One might wonder if the land was abandoning them.

"Jacob's oldest son / let the sweat run // from his blond beard / as he halted there / in a trance. He left // his hand on the haft / of his ax and stood / staring up the slope // where he was to cut / but his mind was gone-- / a man may see a valley // overgrown with trees / or a simple stream / struck by sunlight // and in the cave of his chest / his heart falls / because he loves // the land too much with his eyes / and he feels unneeded / he is jealous // of the generous nature / of all things, whether / they are large or small // vegetable or mineral / and the wild life / and the long lights of space // so he cannot / move on nor come / deep into the place."

Bad timing and bad directions prove their undoing. Earlier, Donner remembers, "we were still bemused / by the myths of maps. ... But that was before / we came // to feel / the slow intelligence of the snow / groping over the ground. ..." Grisly events mingle with dreams of a better land.

The immense sadness here encompasses us all.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Letters from wartime California


"For over 50 years," writes Gridley resident Joan Brock, "Rigmor, my grandmother's niece, lovingly kept Helga's notebooks safe in her home in Copenhagen." Those notebooks contained letters that Helga, then living in Palo Alto, wrote to her family in Denmark during World War II. Because of the Nazi occupation the letters could not be mailed, but Helga continued to write them anyway, filling five notebooks during wartime. "Rigmor told me she had saved these letters and wanted to give them to me, but she just could not bear to part with them." Eventually she made copies and sent them to Brock "in 2005, just prior to her death. I found the letters so compelling, I published them."

The collection, lightly annotated, is called "My Dear, Dear Rigmor: Helga's Letters Written During WWII" ($19.99 in paperback from Xlibris; also in Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook e-book formats). Nancy Wiegman interviewed Joan Brock for Nancy's Bookshelf, which airs on KCHO (Northstate Public Radio, 91.7 FM) Friday mornings at 10:00 a.m.; the archive is found at

Helga's letters are a profoundly human mix of family minutiae and geopolitical reflections. "Coffee goes on rationing next week--one pound per person from 15 years old and up--every 5 weeks. That's still enough" (November 25, 1942). "For the first time, millions of people in the U.S. are paying income tax" (March 12, 1944). "All the years I lived here, I can't see a good-looking head of cauliflower, that [I] don't want it, and every time I do buy it, I am disappointed. It never did taste good like they did at home" (May 14, 1945).

She grieves for her family in Denmark. Her characterizations of the Germans and Japanese (especially the Japanese) are brutal. December 7, 1941 is seared in her memory. "But that was their first mistake, that unforgettable sneak punch, because it united every man, woman, and child in the United States. And believe me, nobody in the world can fight us down. This is still the land of liberty, the land of the free, and will always be so." Her surviving son, Ralph, is fighting overseas; her thoughts are never far from him.

Helga is by turns resolute, cranky, tearful, opinionated, patriotic. In this book she still speaks.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Local essayist on roads taken and not taken


"I was a senior in high school," writes Daniel Thomas, "when Dwight Eisenhower was elected to a second term, the musical Carousel was playing at local theatres, the stock market had surpassed 500 for the first time, and Elvis Presley was singing 'Heartbreak Hotel.' It was also the year my dad asked me if I would be interested in becoming a full partner in his neighborhood grocery store, Tommy's Superette."

Taylor said no because he wanted to teach. "Looking back," he says, "I suppose that it was jut as well that I was ignorant of the struggles my parents were having, or I might never have left Willows."

"Wanderings: Book Five In A Series Of Essays" ($9.95 in paperback from Stansbury Publishing) presents brief reflections on some of things that happened next, including an Army stint in Germany. Thomas' previous books ("Essays From The Ten," "Evening Country," "100 Miles," and "Pastiche: An Essayist In Search Of A Theme") have looked outward. "Wanderings" looks back and takes stock.

It was a circuitous route to a career as a teacher and high school principal, winding through marriages and divorces, Amtrack travels ("an opiate separating me from a reality that I chose to ignore"), bouts with the bottle and ill health, and feelings of worthlessness and loneliness.

Yet resilience pervades these essays, especially in a piece called "Hey, He's Seventy!!" "As my life continues to unfold," Taylor writes, "I find myself focusing more on what is good and less and less about my setbacks. I had my first heart attack when I was forty-seven and retired from my professional life much earlier than most. I consider myself fortunate that, by moving away from what was a hectic, demanding lifestyle, I was able to 'reboot' my goals in life." Though increasingly suspicious of those who "gain immense power however and wherever fear is pedaled for their own aggrandizement," he can still pause to celebrate a rainy Valentine's Day with his wife, Marilyn, at Broadway Heights.

He ends with questions: "Who called me to be seduced by ambition?" "Who called me to discover the gift of adversity?" "Who calls me now that I, a season older, want far more than to silently expire from the starvation of an undernourished soul?"

Sunday, June 03, 2012

A change-of-pace novel from Doug Keister


"Somebody's gotta pay for this." Those were the words from the Berkeley mayor as he confronted two Cal Bears quarterbacks in the coach's office. First stringer "Dapper Dan" Daniels and second stringer Percival (Percy) Peabody had cavorted with the mayor's twin daughters who said they were 18. Only they weren't quite. The twins were not quite virginal, either, but since the mayor had the concession license for the games, Daniels stayed but Peabody was shipped off to a firefighting crew in Winnemucca, Nevada. But instead of the larger-than-life shenanigans as in Doug Keister's first novel, "Desiree," something different is about to happen to Percy. Her name is Autumn.

"Autumn in Summer" ($12.99 in paperback from CreateSpace; also in e-book format for Amazon's Kindle) marks new territory for Chicoan Doug Keister as he explores the inner landscape of love, loss and identity and wraps it all in a family mystery in which a cemetery plays a prominent role. The story is well plotted.

That waitress in the Winnemucca bar. "'They call me Autumn,' she said, running her fingers through her red hair and inspecting it, showing off a bit. She cocked her head and smiled that big smile." Percy (well, here he goes by "Pete") is smitten. And then there's Autumn's strange tattoo, a code, a reminder of a puzzle left by her grandmother.

Then Pete is called away to fire duty. He returns a hero, but Autumn has vanished. The search is fruitless--perhaps Autumn doesn't want to be found--and eventually Percy returns to the Bay Area. Autumn is a dream but life moves on. Percy marries Dapper Dan's sister, Barbie.

The marriage drifts. One summer Percy is dragged by his wife to Italy for a summer course on classical sculpture and a visit to Verano Cemetery. "On a slight rise near the edge of the cemetery grounds, I stopped dead in my tracks. Tucked into a small outdoor gallery was a sensual white marble angel. It was Autumn. Autumn with wings and curls. Autumn as an angel."

Something re-ignites in Percy, and the reader follows the twists and turns of a heart wracked by guilt, determined to know: Is Autumn still out there? Has she left word? What is the price to pay for love?