Saturday Dec. 5, 2015

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     “The man of the family always carves,”
Mother rehearsed, cutting deeply into the rib roast.
She cast glances toward Father, who hunched
at the head of the table in the tallest chair,
Irish linen napkin tucked into the neck of his plaid
shirt. He claimed not to know how to carve.
     His smile was weak as water.

     “My father was an exquisite carver,”
she announced to assembled guests, or just to us
four kids waiting for interminable Sunday dinner
to end, Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” to begin.
“He had a way with joints,” she reminisced, trimming
away all fat, slices falling one after another
     like a stack of dominoes.

     “He could carve a ham paper thin.
If you held a slice to the light, you could see
clear through!” We children sniggered. Why would
anyone hold meat to the light? Why would how thin
it was make any difference in how it tastes?
She sawed away like a virtuoso cellist. Finally
     the knife struck bone.

     “He was also a connoisseur of wine,
drove the finest horse and carriage in all Roanoke.
But I have always thought the true measure of a man
was how well he could carve.” With that she lay
aside the ancestral carving knife, bestowed
a generous portion onto a Wedgwood plate, and passed
     Father the choicest cut.

"Carving” by Robert Phillips from Breakdown Lane. © John Hopkins University Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of essayist, novelist, and memoirist Joan Didion (books by this author), born in Sacramento, California (1934). She wrote about the unexpected death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2006). Her latest book, Blue Nights (2011), is also a memoir. In the book, Didion writes about the 2005 death of her daughter, Quintana Roo, just before The Year of Magical Thinking came out. Didion writes about her daughter's struggles with mental illness and substance abuse, and the guilt she feels about the ways she may have let her daughter down. "I don't think anybody feels like they're a good parent," Didion told New York Magazine. "Or if people think they're good parents, they ought to think again."

It's the birthday of Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti  (books by this author), born in London in 1830. She grew up in a large, boisterous household. She had three brothers and sisters, and her parents were Italian, so all the children grew up speaking Italian and English. Her father was a political refugee and a Dante scholar and poet.

Rossetti was a successful and much-admired poet in her own right. She published her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862), when she was 31 years old. And most people today would probably recognize one of her poems as a well-known Christmas carol.

It begins:

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

It's the birthday of travel writer Kate Simon (books by this author), born Kaila Grobsmith in Warsaw in 1912. Her father moved to America and a few years later she and her brother and her mother met him at Ellis Island. She said: "I must have started being a travel writer when we first came to America. The places I had to get to know very quickly, the languages I couldn't understand. And all that peeping in places and climbing up on the roof is part of the very primitive beginnings of that kind of curiosity. It was as if, 'How can anything happen without my being there to witness and report it?'"

Simon grew up in the Bronx, and she loved New York. She wanted to write a city guidebook that would be different from all the other books on the market, so she wrote New York Places and Pleasures: An Uncommon Guidebook (1959), which is still in print and has gone through four revisions since then. It was so successful that she started getting commissions to write travel books, and wrote about cities and countries all around the world.

And she also wrote memoirs, Bronx Primitive: Portraits of a Childhood (1982), A Wider World: Portraits of an Adolescence (1986) and Etchings in an Hourglass (1990), which she completed just before she died from cancer in 1990.

It's the birthday of Rose Wilder Lane  (books by this author), born in De Smet in what is now South Dakota (1886). She grew up in poverty with her father Almanzo Wilder and her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder. During Rose's childhood the family struggled with crop failure, terrible debt, diphtheria (which caused Almanzo to have a stroke), and a fire that burned down their house. They finally settled in the Ozarks, where Rose was mortified by having ugly clothes and bare feet, and by riding to school on a donkey.

As soon as she could, Rose left her pioneer childhood behind. She sold real estate, she taught herself languages, she got married and then divorced a few years later. She lived in San Francisco, Paris, New York City, Berlin, and Albania. She made her living as a freelance journalist and a ghostwriter. She wrote sensational stories and profiles, often enraging her famous subjects because she saw no harm in changing the facts if it made for a better story. Lane was one of the highest paid female writers in the country, although she never held on to her money for long — she spent it on travel or luxury items, or gave it away to friends. She despaired of her parents' self-sacrificing pioneer lifestyle — she insisted on building them a new, fancy house on their land, and made them move into it, which depressed both Laura and Almanzo. She gave them a car, but her father quickly crashed it.

Lane and Wilder were stubborn women with very different lifestyles, but together, they created the beloved Little House books. No one knows for sure how much Lane influenced the books — she was at the least her mother's editor, at the most her ghostwriter, but probably something in between. For years, Wilder wrote a biweekly column in The Missouri Ruralist, and in 1930 she decided to write an autobiography. Her story was originally called Pioneer Girl and was intended for adult readers, but it was rejected by several publishers. One of them suggested that she rewrite it as a children's book, and Lane decided to help her with the rewriting. She wrote to her mother about her changes: "A good bit of the detail that I add to your copy is for pure sensory effect," and Wilder wrote to her daughter "Do anything you please with the damn stuff if you will fix it up." The two argued over how to structure the books, whether there were too many characters or too few, whether they would be interesting to children. Sometimes both women would dig in their heels and insist on getting their own way, but more often, Wilder deferred to her daughter — when they were working on By the Shores of Silver Lake (1939), Wilder wrote: "Without your fine touch, it would be a flop."

In the end, it's hard to know exactly how much Rose Wilder Lane was responsible for the finished books. Some books appear to follow her mother's original text more closely, others to have been rewritten start to finish. Although Lane worked so hard to leave behind the subsistence life of her parents, without her, the Little House books would probably not exist.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®