Book Review: Remember Me As You Pass By

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Remember Me As You Pass By: Stories from Prairie Graveyards

Written by Nancy Millar

Remembering that we all die has the power to put our small discomforts and minor disputes automatically into perspective. The fact of death is the truest thing I know. And nothing drives the truth of mortality home like a stroll through a peaceful cemetery on a sunny summer day. Each of the folks represented by those bronze plates, concrete markers, and granite headstones experienced their own small discomforts and minor disputes. This was called “life.”

One day a couple years back, I noticed through the large glass window in our front door that something was hanging from the exterior door handle. There was a note with the book, Remember Me As You Pass By: Stories from Prairie Graveyards. It read: “I was doing some house cleaning, found this and thought of you.”

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I was very touched by the gift but apparently not touched enough to read it until recently when provided the quiet by the coronavirus pandemic. I’m so glad I took the time to open up this paper copy and to savour its contents. This is an extraordinarily well-written and well-researched book. Besides knowing how to write and how to unearth some great stories, Nancy Millar is also pretty funny!

She writes about the “real” Sam McGee, a customer at the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse, Yukon, where the fledgling poet, Robert Service, worked as a teller, and how Sam brought a bag of his own ashes home during a return trip to the North.

“When he visited Whitehorse at the end of the prospecting trip, he discovered that his old cabin there had been spruced-up as a tourist attraction and one of the items being offered for sale in the gift shop was “Genuine Sam McGee ashes.” Not only had he died, according to the tourist bureau of Whitehorse, but he had been such a massive man that his ashes would apparently supply tourist demand for some time.”

I also enjoyed how Nancy Millar describes Canmore, Alberta:

“Canmore is a pleasant mountain town on the edge of Banff National Park. Part of it wants to be big and rich like Switzerland; part of it wants to be small and modest like Canmore.”

There are a few really good chuckles in this read and they are placed alongside heartbreaking tales of tragedy that brought tears to my eyes for people long dead who I never knew. In the introduction, the author tells of a young couple who homesteaded in the early 1920s in the Innisfail, Alberta area. To earn money to help get them established, the husband went to work in Innisfail for a few months, leaving his newly-pregnant bride at home. He never did return. When his work at the brick plant in town was done, he started out on the twenty-mile journey on foot. He was robbed and killed along the way, his body left in a ditch.

“When the police found him in the spring, after the snow had melted and revealed his body, they rode out to tell his wife. But she had died too, in childbirth. Her twin babies were dead beside her.”

This book isn’t only about death and cemeteries. Instead, the graveyards and grave markers serve as jumping off places for Nancy Millar’s explorations of Canadian prairie history. It’s also a book that makes me want to explore prairie cemeteries even more than I have prior to reading Remember Me as You Pass By. At the end of the book, Nancy Millar includes a practical section called “How to Explore a Graveyard.” Handy! She reminds us to visit respectfully and to close gates. Then she goes into more detail for those readers interested in doing further exploration and maybe conducting some research.

If you love Canadian prairie history, old places, and colourful stories, then you will thoroughly enjoy this 1994 publication.

 Then think as soft and slow we tread

Among the solitary dead

Time was, like us, they life possessed

And time shall be when we shall rest.

~ from the Calgary grave marker of George Park

 

Book Review: A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories

A Good Man is Hard to Find

When 2020 dawned, I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. Instead I promised that I would nurture some positive habits and choose some activities that would improve my life in small ways. One of the small changes I promised myself was to read at least one of Flannery O’Connor’s works.

Years ago I loved reading Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner and Mark Twain. They took me right to the edge of the mighty Mississippi and there I sat listening to the river boat’s whistle blow. They all showed me the darker places in the human spirit and flavoured their words with the hope that maybe, just maybe, our species can rise above our basest nature. This is the quality I was hoping to find in O’Connor. She did not disappoint.

Listen to me read this review:

A decade ago I was fortunate to visit Savannah, Georgia, and a trolley tour took us right by the childhood home of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor. In 1938, when O’Connor was a teenager, her family, mother Regina (Cline) and father Edward, moved from Savannah to Andalusia Farm near Milledgeville, GA. Mary Flannery O’Connor was the couple’s only child.

When Mary was fifteen her father died of systemic lupus erythematosus, more commonly known as lupus. This same disease would afflict Mary at the age of 27 and finally end her life at 39 years old.

Following her father’s death in 1941, Mary and her mother stayed on the farm at Milledgeville. There, Mary attended Georgia State College for Women (GSCW) where she edited Corinthian, the college’s literary quarterly. It was during this time that Mary’s talent became obvious. She wrote fiction, essays, and sometimes poetry which she contributed to this publication.

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Andalusia Farm, Milledgeville, from: http://www.exploregeorgia.org

At GSCW, Mary majored in the social sciences and took several English courses besides. Her classmates remember her as being very shy. When Mary completed her studies at GSCW, she received a scholarship to study journalism at the State University of Iowa. After Mary’s first term in that program, she asked Paul Engle, the head of the Writers’ Workshop at the university, if he would allow her to enter the creative writing program. From there, O’Connor went on to establish herself as a strong voice in American literature.

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.
― Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor was a delicious surprise to me. Her writing is dark and her characters, twisted. She spices up plotlines with dashes of sudden violence and pinches of unexpected humour.

I started with Wise Blood, O’Connor’s 1952 novel. It is strange in the best way, filled with creepy people that exist on the social fringes and stare for uncomfortably long periods of time at normal life as it passes them by. It’s this gothic quality that has me in suspense and keeps me reading on. Everyone and every situation in which O’Connor’s creations find themselves feels so tenuous, so tightly stretched that I’m just waiting for something to snap. And snap it will. I got halfway through a digital copy of Wise Blood before a paper book arrived for me from the Edmonton Public Library.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories is a collection of O’Connor’s short stories published in May, 1955 by Harcourt, Brace and Company. I set down my tablet, picked up that book, and began turning those good old paper pages.

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Flannery O’Connor

A few years ago when I first opened up Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, I recall feeling like his work was a literary vitamin, something I should swallow not because I’d like it but because ingesting it would be good for me. Admittedly, I felt mildly the same way about Flannery O’Connor’s writing.

Imagine my delight when she took me on a wild ride with men who steal women’s glass eyes and wooden legs; with outlaws who shoot children and women just to get them to shut up; and people who kill out of fear but lacking a real reason to be afraid.

No, O’Connor doesn’t reveal the best in folks. Instead she shines a light on all our human pettiness, prejudice, neuroticism, and racism. Somehow, though, hope of redemption is there in her work, a theme as silent and as strong as the Mississippi’s undertow. Grace is offered to her misguided and profoundly-isolated characters if they would only choose to accept it. Mostly, they don’t.


An excerpt from A Good Man Is Hard to Find

Here I am reading an excerpt from the title story of O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories. The story begins with a bickering family in the living room of their home preparing to leave for a short vacation. The grandmother is telling the family about The Misfit, an outlaw she’s just read about in the newspaper and how he’s on the loose in the area. The children’s father, Bailey, is grouchy and his wife is quiet and seems disengaged. The children are complaining and disrespectful.

The grandmother doesn’t want to leave the family cat alone for three days because she is afraid he would miss her too much and not be safe in the house alone. She smuggles the cat in a basket that sits with her in the backseat. All is well with this arrangement until it isn’t.

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Mistfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”

– The Misfit, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories

I start reading the story after the family has been on the road for a while. They’ve already stopped at a restaurant for lunch and are continuing their journey when the grandmother remembers a plantation she used to visit as a girl. She convinces her son to turn back a ways and head down the dirt road where she is certain the house still stands. Before they reach their destination, the grandmother realizes that the house she recalls was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.

Listen to me read this excerpt:


I wanted to include a little bit about my mother’s experience with an autoimmune disease that’s related to lupus. This personal information didn’t suit the book review format and so I created a page here where you can read that story.

Take care and thanks for visiting.

~ Lori

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”
~ Flannery O’Connor

Can’t Stop the Train: A Review of Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Walden

I think I may’ve read Walden or Life in the Woods in university. It rings a bell. It was a text that I was told I should read. Now, years later, I decided to read Thoreau’s best known nonfiction work for very much the same reason. I thought it was something I should read, something like taking literary vitamins or running on a brain-growing treadmill. Many of the writers I read and listen to these days quote Thoreau, and especially Walden, extensively.

I ordered the book from our interlibrary loan system and it arrived just before I was scheduled to fly off to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for a little R&R. (I don’t recommend taking library books on vacation. That being said, I do it all the time.) I started reading Walden a little reluctantly. Published in 1854, the language is a bit different than today’s, but I found Thoreau’s style to be unencumbered and clean, easy to read. ten or so pages in, the reluctance dropped away, and I found it hard to leave the book alone. I’d become invested in Thoreau’s adventure and philosophy.

As I read on the sunny hotel balcony in the shady breeze, I was reminded of a phone conversation I’d had with my dad before leaving for Mexico. He’d said something like, “Things are changing too fast. Cell phone use is destroying us. It’s tearing people apart.”

I’ve heard nearly the same sentiment expressed by many people. Some of them are my older friends and some of them are younger than me. Henry David Thoreau thought something similar. He wasn’t yet concerned about cell phone use, but he did think that new technology, especially the railroad, would change people and society as a whole, irrevocably. He was right.

Here’s what Thoreau has to say about the railroad and how he perceives that it changed life in Concord, Massachusetts:

          “Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office? There is something electrifying in the atmosphere of the former place. I have been astonished at the miracles it has wrought; that some of my neighbors, who, I should have prophesied, once for all, would never get to Boston by so prompt a conveyance, were on hand when the bell rang. To do things “railroad fashion” is now the byword; and it is worth the while to be warned so often and so sincerely by any power to get off its track.” 

The clanging of the bells and the prompt train schedule that Thoreau writes about caused me to consider our bleeping phones and how, to folks like my dad, owners of those phones seem to be quite ruled by the technology they own just as Thoreau thought that people were becoming governed by the railroad. I’ve heard it said that we are talking and thinking faster than ever before, like in Thoreau’s train station, or not talking at all, but typing faster than ever before.

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Anglin’ Lake, Saskatchewan, one September.

Either way, both Dad and Thoreau agree that all this technology is leading to a communication breakdown. And as Thoreau states that we should get off the railway’s track, Dad and others proclaim that we should get off the track of internet-based technology use. But time marches on and things change. For better or for worse, neither Dad nor Thoreau can halt the train of technology.

Talking to my dad and reading the timeless words of Henry David Thoreau, it became evident to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Living in the countryside and quite a distance from larger city centres, I think about my experience of traveling into the city to shop. There’s a general store here, and a bank, a hairdresser, an insurance agency and a daycare centre. It’s pretty quiet, somewhat like Thoreau’s woods. I can’t help but compare my trips into the city to Thoreau’s experience of going into town. He calls it “running the gauntlet of businesses.”

          “…so that every traveler had to run the gauntlet, and every man, woman, and child might get a lick at him. Of course, those [businesses] who were stationed nearest to the head of the line, where they could   most see and be seen, and have the first blow at him, paid the highest   prices for their places; and the few straggling inhabitants in the     outskirts, where long gaps in the line began to occur, and the traveler could get over walls or turn aside into cow-paths, and so escape, paid a very slight ground or window tax.  Signs were hung out on all sides to allure him; some to catch him by the appetite, as the tavern and  victualling cellar; some by the fancy, as the dry goods store and the  jeweller’s; and others by the hair or the feet or the skirts, as the barber, the shoemaker, or the tailor.”

By this account, the way businesses lure and seduce customers has changed very little since Thoreau’s time. After all these years, businesses provide the same basic type of services and merchandise as they did in the mid-1800s. After spending half a day running from store to store, bombarded visually and auditorially by products and advertising, I feel exactly as if I’ve run a gauntlet. I hear you, Henry David Thoreau, and I share your pain.

One thing I never knew about Thoreau or expected to discover is that he is the king of the backhanded compliment. I mean, I should’ve guessed. In Walden, he doesn’t always come across as a great lover of the human race, and he is obviously a skilled wordsmith. I like how he describes this guy, the ill-fated Colonel Hugh Quoil, a resident of Walden Woods who died shortly after Thoreau began his stint there:

          “All I know of him is tragic. He was a man of manners, like one who had seen the world, and was capable of more civil speech than you could well attend to.”

I’ve run into a few folks capable of more civil speech than I could attend to. I’ve sat there bored stupid, praying that God would strike either the speaker or me dead, and past the point of caring which. Just shut-up already! Thoreau says it much more eloquently than I. I am, alas, not the queen of the backhanded compliment. Sadly, I’m both a bit too kind and a touch too straightforward to reign, but I appreciate how Thoreau sits on that throne.

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A loon on Anglin’ Lake.

It took about five hours to fly home from Puerto Vallarta. Now usually I drug myself into a semi-stupor with a couple Gravol, a strategy I highly recommend to make any flight fly. It’s not the first time an old guy has sat pretty much in my lap for an entire flight, but those other times were due to the closeness of the seats and the girth of the guy. This last flight, with Thoreau in my lap, the journey was smooth and enjoyable.

I didn’t quite finish reading Walden on the plane. When I’m enjoying reading something, I read it slowly, I savour it. I like to give the words time to sink into my brain and often I’ll read certain passages over. There are lots of books I skim. Walden is philosophy and Walden is poetry. These words deserve to be tasted and remembered.

Back at home in my recliner I discovered that, besides being the king of backhanded compliments, Thoreau wins the prize for most anticlimactic ending I’ve ever read. True, it’s not quite the ending, but it’s the ending of the account of his time spent on Walden Pond at the end of the second last chapter called “Spring”:

          “Thus was my first year’s life in the woods completed; and the second  year was similar to it. I finally left Walden September 6th, 1847.”

I can’t say exactly why the understatement of this ending, this big finish, struck me as so funny, but I just howled with laughter. “Similar to it.” That’s a good one. Sure, all my recent years in the same location are similar to one another, as well, but I try to pick out a few unique events from each as story material, a tidbit or two to tell about later. Not Thoreau. I guess he was done the book and, after reading the conclusion, so was I.