Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Books books books

I am reading as much as I can during the semester break. It seems like such a luxury not to have to study or complete writing assignments for school. Here's a quick run-down of what I've read lately.

The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman. I had a hard time getting my hands on this book and finally had to resort to intralibrary loan. Why was I so determined to get it? Because it is on my list and so I must read it. I suppose comparisons with Little House on the Prairie are inevitable, only this little house is on the prairie of the Texas Panhandle. Bethany and Wade Cameron begin their marriage as homesteaders in the 1880s, moving to Texas from Missouri in a covered wagon. The usual things happen: drought, fire, death. I liked this book, but reading it was an uncomfortable reminder of my former delusions about character. Bethany is the typical model pioneer housewife. She is the plain cousin, and Wade's second choice for wife after the beautiful cousin, Rosemary, rejects him and marries a banker instead. Bethany keeps the dugout clean and comfortable, she gives the Bible pride of place on the center table, she makes herself pretty for her husband, she is spunky when she needs to be, and won't truck with any ungentlemanly behavior: "Why, Wade Cameron! I ought to wash your mouth out with soap!" She defers to her husband's wishes in all things. Sometimes I felt impatient with Bethany, but sometimes Erdman's writing makes the pioneer experience seem very real and Bethany-as-caricature becomes someone truly admirable. Particularly when she faces the loneliness.

The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. What struck me most about this book was the condescending blub on the jacket. "Most readers" the blurb informs, will read this and think they've read an exciting Western novel. "A more thoughtful type" will realize they've read something really special. "One in fifty" will recognize that this novel is about the psychology of the mob and how mankind caves to mob rule. Finally, "one in ten thousand" will see the Ox-Bow incident as a parable for the entire nation and the crack up of civilization. Oh really? Of course I had to know if I would be the "one in ten thousand" and didn't look at the blurb again, hoping to forget what I'd need to recognize in order to be included in that exalted group. The mob psychology bit is easy to see. This book is about a lynching. A group of men, in a town in Nevada some time in the 1800s, hear about a murder and cattle rustling and go off to take care of justice on their own. Certainly a thoughtful, well-written piece of literature, although not something with which to read yourself to sleep. Looking back at the blurb after finishing the novel, I can't honestly say that I saw it as a parable about our entire country. I can see how a case could be made for that arguement, but I didn't see it myself and I still don't regard The Ox-Bow Incident as a novel about the crack up of civilization as we know it. I guess I belong to the "one-in-fifty" crowd. Oh well.

Roughing It by Mark Twain. Mark Twain is funny. He really is. There are a few lines in this book which made me laugh out loud. It's a memoir of the time he spent in Nevada, California, and later, Hawaii, as a young man in the 1860s. The best bits are when he is describing things that actually happened to him. He does insert anecdotes heard about other people, and these fall flat. Some of the incidents have a disappointing "guess you had to be there" quality, and others are truly fascinating.

In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden by Kathleen Cambor. This is a novel about the Johnstown Flood, something I've been interested in ever since my parents watched a PBS documentary about it when I was a child. Later, I read The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough--a book I can not recommend highly enough. Cambor used McCullough's book as a basis for her novel. The Johnstown Flood is one of the worst natural disasters in US History. 2,200 people were killed, and the only disaster in the United States that has a higher confirmed death toll is the Galveston Hurricane in 1900 (8,000 people). McCullough's book describes how the flood happened--a mountain lake, created for Pittsburg's industrial rich, was held back with a faulty earth dam. This was a large lake--large enough for sailing. The dam broke and the entire lake washed out into the valley, destroying the city of Johnstown.

Cambor's novel is about the people--both the people of Johnstown and the people of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club. I enjoyed it, particularly her depictions of industrial Johnstown and its iron works and the danger of working in steel. The people of Johnstown lived with danger every day. Diptheria killed their children, the steel mill killed their fathers, and far above them, the faulty dam threatened them all. Also fascinating is the Johnstown people's consciousness of the danger of the dam. They felt it as a menace. It had become a sort of boogy man: "Ooh, watch out! The dam might break!"


  1. That first book sounds like The Diary of Maddie Spencer--my book club read it and marveled at the life of pioneers. Amazing what they endured. The Ox-Bow Incident is on my bookshelf, inherited from my father, but I've never read it. Hm. I adore Twain. So funny. glad you're getting some down time to enjoy this break!

  2. I wrote a post on what I'm reading today, as well. Reading your post makes me even feel worse about my reading habits.