Ohio was a mixed bag of books that surprised me. The first, Winesburgh, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, is a book of short stories that probably provided the best sense of place for early small town Ohio. The stories felt lacking to me in a way I can’t put my finger on, though, and I wasn’t a fan.
The next book was the most surprising because it was the first I’d read set in Ohio during the westward expansion of the United States. There were apple orchards, swamps, and what seemed like Southern dialect, and while the apple orchards fit into my image of Ohio, the swamp, land claim, and the dialect did not. They all make sense — Ohio’s northern border is a Great Lake, Ohio was once unsettled land west of the eastern cities of the time, and Ohio’s southern border is with Kentucky and West Virginia. I just never put it all together until I read Tracy Chevalier’s At the Edge of the Orchard.
And finally, Celeste Ng brings us into the 1970s, where the prejudice and slurs against Chinese Americans in the small town her book is set shocked me and made me sad (that’s not what Everything I Never Told You is about, it is just the part that surprised me). The book is amazing. It is smart, compelling, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages. It was one of those treats of my reading project.
Book: Winesburg, Ohio
Author: Sherwood Anderson, born Camden Ohio
Setting: Late 1800s small town Ohio
This book gets wild acclaim, but it was a total snoozefest for me. A compilation of short stories of odd and lonely characters in a small town in northern Ohio, it reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s stories (though it predates her), but not nearly as good. It lacked something. I kept wanting it to be better, to go a little bit further with the characters, but it never did, and therefore was a disappointment. It ended up being a bunch of sad, lonely characters who all end up raving in the woods, running down Main Street shouting, or ripping off their clothes and running around outside (or if they haven’t done any of these things, they really want to).
It sounds like it would make for good reading, but it just didn’t for me. Even though they each got their own short story, the characters were sad and lonely in the same way, and they all tried to free themselves by running out of their skin or shouting out of their minds.
Though I didn’t enjoy spending my time on this book, I do understand why it is remarkable. There are some gems that sparked me out of my boredom, like this hopeless moment of self-realization:
I am a lover and have not found my thing to love. That is a big point if you know enough to realize what I mean. It makes my destruction inevitable, you see.
Or this advice to the town’s aspiring writer:
You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.
It is a relatable and very human book. Throughout the stories the characters feel trapped by the dullness of their small town life and their dislike or lack of connectedness with the people around them. They want to go on adventures. They have deep desires and feelings that they cannot articulate. And they drive themselves mad with their inability to be bigger, to achieve their desires, to express themselves, and to be understood.
Novel: At the Edge of the Orchard
Author: Tracy Chevalier, attended Oberlin College in Ohio
Setting: 1838 Black Swamp in northern Ohio
During the land rush of the westward expansion of the US, the Goodenough family went west from Connecticut with a pocket full of apple seeds to claim a plot of land. The stopped moving west when they got stuck in the mire of the Black Swamp in northern Ohio. Wresting a living from the muck was a hard life: they lost six of eleven children to swamp fever during their time there.
With each grave he’d had to clear maples and ash to make space to dig. He’d learned to do this in July, before anyone died, so that the body did not have to wait for him to wrestle with the trees’ extensive roots. Best to get the wrestling out of the way when he had the time.
This is no Little House on the Prairie. There’s an ugliness to the harshness of the Goodenoughs’ lives. But there’s also a beauty, especially in the mens’ love for the trees — their apple orchard in Ohio, and later the redwoods and Sequoia of California.
The Goodenough orchard was not spectacular, but it was proof to James that he could tame one small patch of land, make the trees do what he wanted. Beyond them, wilderness waited in the tangled undergrowth and sudden bogs.
The reverence for the trees, and the descriptions of them, were what I enjoyed most about this book. I could see their blushing fruit, smell their blossoms, and hear their leaves rustle in the wind, and the author made me want to touch the bark and taste the apples.
Novel: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng, grew up in Shaker Heights, OH
Setting: 1970s Ohio
Shocking in its descriptions of prejudice, Everything I Never Told You is about a mixed race family in 1977 in a small Ohio town. The husband and children are the only Asian people in town (“Oriental” in the book), and everyone else makes a point of showing them they will never fit in.
But the book isn’t just about that. When the book opens with the death of their daughter, Lydia, the mixed race part of their story is more of a backdrop — believable, layered, and chewable context — for what I think was the author’s real interest in crafting this novel. This book is about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories that frame our experience of the people and the world around us. When Lydia is found dead at the bottom of the lake, whether murder, suicide, or accident, nobody knows, everyone goes deeper into their own stories as they try to make sense of what happened.
These are the stories the characters see as their truth, and therefore believe as the only truth, like that James is sure his white wife can no longer cope with their differences, that she regrets marrying him because he’s Chinese and that’s made life harder for all of them. The fact that he is Chinese doesn’t enter the story she tells herself at all; her story is about giving up her dreams to become a doctor, and that sacrifice is what she can’t cope with.
The characters don’t tell these stories because they’re their deepest pains, and it is hard to voice them. They don’t tell these stories because they don’t experience them as words they can articulate, or that need to be told: they just experience them as their truth. These stories are so obvious to them, the take it for granted that everyone else sees the situation the same way.
The stories they told themselves, and that they didn’t tell each other, were often wrong. And telling themselves the wrong stories without sharing with anyone had devastating consequences.