Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Green Stamps & Necker Knobs

For one who enjoys reading, the best times come when stumbling upon a book and writer you never suspected would knock your socks off and realizing he has authored a long list of titles you can look forward to reading your way through. Always late to the party, such was the case with me and Ivan Doig who passed away this past April leaving behind thirteen novels and five books of non-fiction. His last novel, published this month is a combination coming of age and road story titled Last Bus to Wisdom. The protagonist of Doig’s tale is an 11 year-old boy named Donal “Red Chief” Cameron who just might be one of the freshest and most memorable juvenile characters in fiction since Huckleberry Finn.

In the summer of 1951 Donal unwillingly leaves Montana and his beloved Gram when she has some “female trouble” requiring surgery and is unable to look after him during her time of recuperation. Donal boards the dog bus, a Greyhound bound for Manitowoc, Wisconsin and the home of his great-aunt Kate. The trip is a memorable one for him, including a first kiss, a run-in with a thief and a scare from one ornery sheriff. He arrives in Manitowoc and is met by the odd couple of all time, Aunt Kate and Uncle Herman. It isn’t long before Donal catches on that his aunt is none to happy with him around and suddenly she is sending him back to Montana and into an orphanage. Donal boards another Greyhound, head filled with nightmares of life in a state home, but looks up to see the person sitting next to him is none other than a runaway Uncle Herman. Together they head west on the road to fun and adventure.

On the road together the two encounter a good sampling of both delight and disaster. Uncle Herman is a great fan of the wild west and anything related to cowboys and Indians and Donal assures him of finding a lot of both. Soon enough they are thick in the middle of it, decked out in Stetson hats purchased with the H&S Green Stamps Donal got for all his Greyhound miles—the 1950s answer to frequent flyer miles. They meet plenty of Indians and a rodeo full of cowboys where Uncle Herman discovers the thrill of wild bronc riding. With their money lifted by a pickpocket on one of the bus rides, the only choice left to them is signing on for ranch work cutting and baling hay along with a family of hoboes. The two are living the life of their wildest dreams until the sheriff turns up looking for an absconded husband and runaway boy.

There are more than a few things to praise about Doig’s novel but at the top of the list is the very particular and colorful idiom of all the characters. Donal has a way with words that never fail to surprise and the German Uncle Herman speaks a language all his own that few outside of Donal can follow. But language and style are only two of Doig’s big guns. The characters in this novel—and there are many—are each wonderfully drawn, men and women who walk off the page to sit beside you. There is as well, the character of place and location that revives mid-twentieth century towns and locales so tangibly. 

One of the most enjoyable reads of the year. Easily among this reader’s Top Three.

I never knew before reading Last Bus to Wisdom that the knobs often seen attached to steering wheels in the 1950s were known as “necker knobs.” It made one-handed steering easier so the right arm could go snugly around your girlfriend’s shoulder.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Act of Survival

This past Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. How pale those words seem in describing an event that in its first moment incinerated 80,000 people and left thousands more to die in the coming days and weeks. For many of us the reality of that iconic Monday morning is far removed and almost impossible to imagine. Details about the annihilated city and its population were for a long time sketchy at best to everyone but the few officials who visited the aftermath. It wasn’t until a year later that a full picture of the tragedy in human dimensions was offered by John Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer who published his account in The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. 

William Shawn, managing editor of The New Yorker, discussed with Hersey his astonishment that in the millions of words written about the bomb there was nothing that told the story of what happened through the eyes of who it happened to. Hersey spent three weeks in Japan doing research and interviewing bomb survivors in Hiroshima. His goal was, “…to write about what happened not to buildings but to human beings.” The result was Hiroshima, a 31,000 word story published first in The New Yorker and later by Alfred A. Knopf as a book. Hersey chose a dry, calm style free of emotion, allowing the survivors’ stories to speak for themselves. He said in a letter, “The flat style was deliberate, and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator; I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader's experience would be as direct as possible.”

The book begins:
1 A Noiseless Flash
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.

The story continues to follow these six survivors as they make their way through the aftermath of a broken and scorched city. Though the writer’s aim was to keep his own emotions at bay, this new style of journalism nevertheless tips the reader headfirst into the heart and mind of his subjects. The bravery of these six people in the face of such utter loss and defeat makes for a remarkable story.

                            Toshiko Sasaki                       Masakazu Fujii

                   Hatsuyo Nakamura                   Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge

                          Terufumi Sasaki                     Kiyoshi Tanimoto

Realizing this past August 6 was the Hiroshima anniversary, I pulled from a bookshelf my old and carefully preserved first Knopf edition and stood for several minutes rereading the first pages. Hardly raising my eyes, I settled into a chair for the next hour and read the book’s 118 pages with the same fervor of my first reading years ago. This small but powerful book is not one to miss.
John Hersey’s Hiroshima at Amazon

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America