Andrea Reads America: Ohio

Andrea Reads America map of Ohio books
Andrea Reads America: Ohio

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.

Winesburgh, Ohio book coverBook: 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.

At the Edge of the Orchard book coverNovel: 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.

Everything I never told you book coverNovel: 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.

Andrea Reads America: North Dakota

Andrea Reads America map of books set in North Dakota
Andrea Reads America: North Dakota

As I thought I would, I loved North Dakota reading. The people are quiet, solid, and deep. The winters are harsh, and the light is golden on the prairie. I love prairies, and I love reading about winter, and North Dakota has both in spades.

The Round House book coverNovel: The Round House
Author: Louise Erdrich, raised in Wahpeton, North Dakota
Setting: 1988 on an unnamed North Dakota reservation

Part coming-of-age, part rape mystery, and most interestingly, part study of tribal jurisdiction, The Round House is a masterful blending of the devastation and destruction sexual assault has on the victim and her family, the intricacies of law that prohibit justice from being done, and the innocence of a 13-year-old boy who cannot stand by as his mother’s attacker goes free.

Erdrich has written a beautiful novel that is about all of these things. It is a rich, full story that is multi-layered to pull the reader in and keep you engaged. At its core it radiates two important messages: the rape of Native women by non-Native men continues to be a massive problem and “the tangle of laws that hinder prosecution of rape cases on many reservations still exists.”

They’d built [the Round House] to keep their people together and to ask for mercy from the Creator, since justice was so sketchily applied on earth.

In The Round House, Joe learns from his dad the details of the case. His father is a tribal judge. The intricacies of the law, of where the crime occurred, and therefore whose jurisdiction it would be, ultimately sets the perpetrator free. And as so often happens with men in fiction, the young son takes matters into his own hands when he sees the law and justice system will fail to bring the attacker to account for his crime.

Prairie Silence book coverBook: Prairie Silence: A Memoir
Author: Melanie Hoffert, raised on a farm near Wyndmere, North Dakota
Setting: Wyndmere and the Hofferts’ farm, North Dakota

Growing up gay in a land where nobody talks about feelings, nobody was (publicly) gay, and where everyone is Christian is… hard. Prairie Silence is Melanie Hoffert’s memoir of being pulled to the land of North Dakota, back to her childhood farm, the golden prairie, and the solid people of her home to finally break her own silence. She describes the landscape in the exact ways I love to read.

The flat land is not dry, not dark, not lifeless. Instead, North Dakota is a painter’s palette where all of the earthly colors settle. The light changes minute by minute, following unassuming subjects: a wheat field, a gravel road, a gray grain elevator.

Hoffert’s book is a tender account of her struggle to reconcile her love for women with her love for God, who her Bible camp co-counselers assure her hates homosexuals.

The God I talked to as a child, the God my mom relied on to soothe my pains, the God Jessica and I had championed as teenagers was not my God, but the God of the people I met at camp. And those people introduced me to judgments about the world I couldn’t accept. The most painful judgment was about the way I could love another person.

I really loved this book, and especially Melanie’s descriptions of her gayness: it’s not about sex but about the pure connection with, understanding of, and love for another person. This whole book radiates love. It is a love letter to her home of North Dakota. Through her writing it is clear how warm her heart is for the land, the people, and the God of her childhood.

Peace Like a River book coverNovel: Peace Like a River
Author: Leif Enger, lives in Minnesota near the ND border
Setting: Minnesota and the badlands of North Dakota

Set in 1962-1963 Minnesota and the badlands of North Dakota, Peace Like a River is a beautifully told tale of a family — our narrator Reuben, his sister Swede, and their father Jeremiah Land — who take to the badlands of North Dakota in an Airstream camper in winter to find their outlaw brother and son, Davy. Like Joe in The Round House, the teenaged Davy takes matters into his own hands when he sees attackers going unpunished.

And then he is on the run on horseback, just like the heroes of the Western novels young Swede is constantly devouring.

The title is perfect for this narrative, for despite the harsh conditions of the characters, I felt a peace reading it. There is light in this book, a wholesome goodness, especially through the humble and remarkable father, Jeremiah Land, who has a deep relationship with God, and who sometimes very quietly performs miracles. I also adore Reuben’s sister, 8 year-old Swede, who is a young writer who sits her saddle on a sawhorse in the Airstream and types rhyming verse of her hero Sunny Sundown as they hurtle down the highways of North Dakota searching for Davy.

And finally, I loved the scenery. Enger, a native of the Minnesota/North Dakota border area, writes the land, the grain, the sky, the wind, and of course, the snow, beautifully. The setting is another character in the book, and a strong one.

Andrea Reads America: North Carolina

Andrea Reads America map of books set in North Carolina
Andrea Reads America: North Carolina

I’m back in the South for a spell. North Carolina neighbors our home state of Virginia. It is a state we’ve visisted often, and whose climate, history, culture, and people are intimately familiar to me after growing up in Georgia and living here in Appalachia. The Appalachian mountains of Robert Morgan’s are particularly similar to our current home in the hills of Southwest Virginia, and the gardens of Garden Spells overflow with the flowers of my southern homes.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl book coverBiography: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Author: Harriet Jacobs, slave in North Carolina
Setting: 1870s North Carolina

What an amazing book. This biography of Harriet Jacobs and the Underground Railroad was published in 1861 — 1861! before the Civil War! — under the name Linda Brent.

Like so many books written by women, this one told a new (to me) perspective. I’ve read Roots and A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, along with other heart-wrenching accounts of slavery, but not with a focus on what it was like to be a female slave. This one is a woman’s account, including her living for 7 years in a cramped, unlit, unaired space where she could not even stand up. Seven years without going outside, without walking, without stretching, without seeing or talking to anyone except her grandmother who hid her in the same town as the master she had fled from. He traveled multiple times to New York to try to hunt her down. She lived in her hole under the same roof as her children for 7 years but could never speak to them for fear they’d reveal her hiding place; they didn’t even know she was there.

Jacobs lived this way to be free from her master’s lasciviousness. She lived this way rather than have him force himself on her — she was his property and he could do to her as he pleased — using her to breed more slaves he could then own. Her children, his property.

The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children?

An unexpected insight this book exposed is Jacob’s observation of how slavery debased everyone. Slave girls who came of age under their masters’ roof were chased by the white masters and reviled by the masters’ wives. Wives seethed in jealousy of fifteen-year-old slave girls who were desired and raped by the masters.

Slavery is a curse to the whites as well as the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched. And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.

I feared the heaviness of this book. I often tell my mom I don’t like to dwell in the past. But this book is important. It is important to know these stories to understand our present, and to improve beyond the vile ways of our past. It’s also important because Harriet Jacobs is a strong and admirable woman. I would have crumbled in her circumstance. Jacobs was fiercely committed to being free, to not standing for the abuse, and for quietly fighting for her and her children’s’ freedom.

Gap Creek book cover
The Truest Pleasure book coverNovels: Gap Creek and The Truest Pleasure
Author: Robert Morgan, born Hendersonville, NC
Setting: western North Carolina

I’ve read Gap Creek twice, and now I want to read The Truest Pleasure again as well. Gap Creek explores the rawness of life in the Appalachians.

I reckon there’s nothing awkwarder in the world than the sight of two women in long dresses at either end of a crosscut saw.

In Gap Creek, protagonist Julie Harmon moves down the mountain from her family’s home, where she did the hard labor after her father’s death, to a home in the valley with her new husband.  There, she works harder than ever, navigating a new marriage, butchering hogs, collecting chestnuts from up the mountain when they had no other food to eat, and birthing her baby alone on the kitchen floor.  The first time I read Gap Creek was before we had children, and the childbirth scene was one I carried with me through labor, delivery, and to this day.  Morgan’s is the truest account of childbirth, from the laboring mother’s perspective, that I have ever read.  Likewise, his prose took me into the grease fire, the flooding creek, and the way of life of a hard-working, no-money, living off the land existence that I have not seen since Little House on the Prairie.  Only Morgan’s story is a grittier one, told from the perspective of an adult instead of a child.

Like Gap Creek, The Truest Pleasure also takes place in the western mountains of North Carolina.  It has been a few years since I’ve read it, and honestly, given the stoic nature of the husband in it, I remember it feeling more Midwestern than Appalachian.  But what sticks with me about The Truest Pleasure is that the protagonist, Ginny, is a Pentacostalist who speaks in tongues, to the shame of her husband.  I remember that Morgan did a brilliant job of putting the reader inside Ginny’s head, and like Dennis Covington’s account of snake-handling in Salvation on Sand Mountain, Morgan writes the Pentacostalist’s faith beautifully and convincingly, allowing an outsider like myself to understand the power of Ginny’s convictions and the bliss of her salvation.

Garden Spells book cover Novel: Garden Spells
Author: Sarah Addison Allen, born and raised in Asheville, NC
Setting: early 2000s North Carolina

I love this book so much. Garden Spells is the story of the Waverly women, each of whom has a gift: creating foods from flowers and herbs that, when eaten, make certain wishes come true; understanding, or bringing out, a person’s essence through the way they wear their hair; and knowing exactly where things belong (and who belongs together). The Waverly garden is home to plants that bloom out of season and apples that tell people’s’ destinies. The book is magical, includes charming characters and the love among women, and has a touch of romance. It’s one of those books I wanted to skip work for so that I could read it cover to cover in one sitting.

Me Talk Pretty One Day book cover Book: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Author: David Sedaris
Setting: Raleigh, NC (and later, other cities)

This is possibly the funniest book I’ve ever read. I remember eight years ago, when we lived near St. Paul, MN, while our daughter was at skating lessons on the ice below me, I passed the time in the rink stands with tears streaming down my face as I read this book. I kept closing it because the pages were riddled with swearing and all sorts of offensive language that I didn’t want any of our Minnesota-nice neighbors to see me laughing so hard at.

David Sedaris makes me laugh until I hurt. He’s crass, irreverent, makes hilarious fun of himself, and he is a master of the written English language. Me Talk Pretty One Day is my favorite collection of his, and since the first half of it takes place in North Carolina, I had to include it here.