I have a stack of books waiting to be reviewed… Let me knock out two of ‘em in this one post. Both of these books I read the other week while on train to and from Chicago, and they couldn’t be more dissimilar, the only similar trait being the first name of the authors. Someone had recommended that I read Richard Ford as an example of a post-modern writer (a term that is about as easy to define as existentialism). The other by Richard Peck is written for a younger audience. His book was a Christmas gift I’d purchased for my daughter because of the trip we were taking and I felt it would be good for me to read it too. For those of you who want to know why I occasionally read books for 9-12 years olds, it’s so I can converse with her about what she’s reading.
Richard Ford, Rock Springs (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), 235 pages.
Rock Springs is a collection of short stories based in the American West. The stories are told through a host of characters, all who have experienced loss. There are boys whose mothers have run out on them, men and women who have been betrayed by lovers, young girls trapped by the poor decisions they’ve made. All the characters are down on their luck. Some are out of work, one has car problems, one lost the use of his legs, and they all have relationship issues. The setting, mostly small towns with seedy bars and cheap hotels, cold winters and sad train yards, emphasize the loneliness of those whose stories are being told. Yet, in all the stories, there’s a glimpse of grace. It feels as if Ford uses the rail lines, the rivers, the highways and the hopeful destination of Florida as reminders there is something better somewhere else. In a Kafkaesque sense, none of the characters are able to escape even though a few find peace, such as a man and wife still being devoted to one another even though their future is bleak. “Nobody dies of a broken heart,” (33) one of the characters, quoting his ex-wife, tells his son. In a way, that’s true. These characters all seemed trapped in their own personal hell and are unable to escape; in many of the stories, death might be a welcome release. My favorite sentence in the book: “Trouble comes cheap and leaves expensive” (150). This certainly rings true in all these stories.
Richard Peck, Fair Weather (New York: Puffin Books, 2001), 130 pages
Its 1893, and three children who have grown up on a farm in Southern Illinois are going on the trip of their life. The story is told through the middle child, Rosie. She has an older sister and a younger brother. Their aunt has sent then tickets on the Illinois Central so that they could come and stay visit her in Chicago and attend the World’s Fair. Their mother was supposed to go with them, but she sent her ticket back, putting the girls in charge of their older sister. On the train, they find their eccentric old grandfather had stolen his daughter’s ticket (he was supposed to mail the ticket back, put kept the letter). Grandpa along with his dog also goes to Chicago. The three of them, two girls, a boy, and a crazy old man, along with their widow aunt who’d married well (the old man’s daughter), spend a week seeing the sights at the fair.
I love the grandfather character. He meets the mayor of Chicago, a Democrat, and introduces himself in an obvious reference to Lincoln as a “Republican from the day we put that rail splitter in office.” He sings all kinds of little songs; his favorite I may take as my own theme song:
Beefsteak when I’m hungry
Corn likker when I’m dry
Pretty little gal when I’m lonesome
Sweet heaven when I die…
As they make their way through the fair, the kids who have already been surprised when grandpa brought along his dog are in for another shock. They see a marquee advertising a show by Lillian Russell, the name of Grandpa’s horse. Buster thinks Grandpa has managed to also bring his horse to the fair, only to discover that Lillian Russell is, at least according to their aunt, a risqué actor. Their aunt is livid; gramps is excited to get to see the woman of his dreams. He also wants to see the belly dancers, providing another shock for the kid’s aunt who is trying to protect them from the seedy side of the fair. As is often the case in these younger “fairytale” novels, gramps turns out to having fought with Buffalo Bill in the Civil War and becomes quite a celebrity, allowing the kids to have all kinds of experiences.
I like historical books for children and would recommend this one for younger readers. For adults wanting to know about the 1893 Fair, I’d recommend Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003). This is a well researched book that weaves together the fair and the story of Dr. Holmes, who may be America’s first modern serial killer, a man who committed many of his murders in Chicago at the time of the fair.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.