Karen Hesse, A Needed Break

Sometimes my middle finger has a hard time typing the letter “I.”  I’m sick of myself, my point of view, my memoir, and I just need to rest my middle finger, ironic though it is, from its incessant “I-ing.”  I want to hop to my other novel in progress, or work on a poem, but how do I finish anything if I’m leaping to and fro to avoid the nasty parts of manuscripts?  These nasty, dry days grip me, though.

I was reading about the fiftieth anniversary of the Phantom Tollbooth in The New Yorker.  The entire book was recounted to me in my older sister’s fanciful and brilliant recollected chapter summaries.  I hated reading when I was seven, and my sister kindly obliged my abhorrence by summarizing books.  The Phantom Tollbooth was told to me this way, as well as The Black Stallion, Julie and The Wolves, and the Witch of Blackbird Pond.  I never did read those titles, but I know them through the chosen details that my sister deemed important.

When she wised up and stopped being my reading slave, I had to pull out a book.  My eyes, both flattened by astigmatism, grew new muscles as I laboriously read.  The first book that I remember reading from beginning to end was Treasures of the Snow (Patricia M. St. John), a heavily Christian-messaged book, but with surprisingly elegant characters who trounced around in the Swiss Alps, conniving, cajoling and finally coming to terms with themselves and God.

After jumping to Du Maurier and all of Shakespeare’s works in eighth grade, I was still a slow reader, but considered books, like the Simon and Garfunkel over-sentiment, my friends.

Working in a bookstore throughout my undergrad (West Side Books, Denver) afforded me callywumpus influences.  From clientele who lived in cars by day, read under parking lot streetlamp by night, to Professors, students, and then  books that ejected themselves off shelves in the UFO section, delving into the W section of Fiction, I read as fast and as wide as I could.  Everyone should be so lucky.

Then, I discovered YA, again.  We’re in the Young Adult generation, where Phantom Tollbooth is not the exception but the rule.  My goal that year was to read through some recent Newbery Award Winning Young Adult books I missed, not being a young adult, nor having young adults in my house.  I can only thank the Reading Gods and the owner of the bookstore for this decision because she brought me to Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust.

Recently, in my other blog Under 200o Lbs., you can read about how I moved with Matt for his job and only brought belongings that weighed under 2000 lbs.  We’re camping, essentially.  I was forced to choose my “Desert Island” books.  Out of the Dust not only made the cut, but stays close to my pillow.  I’m surprised its pages don’t turn to veins in my body, I’m so enmeshed.

Every chapter, Hesse writes in prose poem form.  It’s the kind of book you can open randomly, read a page and a half, and be filled with that expanse that a poem proffers.  That kind of expanded moment you walk away with after reading Mary Oliver, or Czesław Miłosz.

I’ll give you a taste.  On page 46.

“Dust and Rain.”

On Sunday,

winds came,

bringing a red dust,

like prairie fire,

hot and peppery,

searing the inside of my nose,

the whites of my eyes.

And as the dust left,

rain came.

Rain that was no blessing.

It came too hard,

too fast,

and washed the soil away,

washed the wheat away with it.

Now

little remains of Daddy’s hard work.

And the only choice he has

is to give up

or start all over again.

At the Strong ranch,

they didn’t get a single drop.

So who fared better?

Ma looks out the window at her apple trees.

Hard green balls have dropped to the ground.

But there are enough left;

enough

for a small harvest,

if we lose no more.

June 1934

Part William Carlos Williams, part Kevin Henkes, Hesse delivers a style that reveals the Oklahoma Dust Bowl without gritting us out, or submerging us in too much hardness (even through all the tragedies).  Notice the “like prairie fire, hot and peppery.”  A small girl can make this likeness, and yet it is spot on.  Hesse supports theme while developing character.  Also, the apples are then referred to as “hard green balls” where they are lucky enough to have left “if we lose no more.”

I am never weighed by the heat, dust and tragedy that comes off of this well written prose because it is delivered on a doily laden plate, the dregs of the fridge, offered to me in the just-swept living room of this Oklahoma family.

I guess I can type “I” again, now.  I just needed that little breath of difference, the washing away of my topsoil.

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