Salutations from the Windy City

Most of you (All of you?) who read my blog know that I have recently undergone a great transition—specifically, I have moved from the Pacific Northwest, the region I have lived in all my life, to Chicago.  This move affects me in a myriad of ways: not simply a new job and a new city, but new weather, new transportation, new accents and languages in the air around me, etc.  I’ll be recording my thoughts and reactions to the move in a lot of places, and this blog will be one of those places.

“But wait!” you may say, “isn’t this blog about Pulitzer Prize winning novels?  Or wasn’t it supposed to be?  You’ve lost your way, O traveler, and are not sticking to the strict boundaries of the blog!”  And I reckon there’s a kind of accuracy in your comment.  But of course I make the rules here, and on a deeper level, what I’m doing is consistent with why I started this, about 2 years ago.  I read the Pulitzers, as opposed to the Man Bookers or the Caldecotts or the MLA’s list of the 100 greatest novels, because they purport to tell me about the nation in which I live.  And I think my adjustment from Pacific Northwesterner to Old Northwesterner, from PST to CST, from the Mariners and the Seahawks to the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears, from the Space Needle to the Willis Tower, from Guterson to Bellow, from Roethke to Sandburg, will be a transition that impacts my ideas about my country, its art, and who I am as an American.  This post is the first, therefore, of what I expect to be a goodly number of musings on the journey I’ve taken.

Opening thoughts: this country is enormous.  It is more varied than people will tell you—to hear folks talk, I thought the road from Ellensburg to Wisconsin would be straight, flat, and featureless.  But it’s not: Montana and South Dakota are different places.  Heck, western and eastern South Dakota are different places.  And though most of the land east of Bozeman is flatter than Seattle’s surrounding terrain, almost none of it is pancake-like.  There is a special and remote beauty to the great plains, the clouds hanging luminous and pink above your head as the sun slips behind the Rockies, the lightning crackling ahead of you as you make slow gains on a storm that dwarfs all human scales.  You feel every rise and fall of the road, longing (at least I did) for the little river valleys, peering into stands of trees to see if farmhouses still nestle there.  I confess no real desire to stop and live in those places, but harbor a real fascination with what it must be like to live and work and hope and dream in a world as enormous and confined as those prairie small towns look from the road.  I had the good fortune to stop and visit with a friend who has done just that—live much of her life in a small town—and I saw how truly happy that life can be.  It is a kind of living I doubt I will ever really know, and so I wonder how much of it I can reach vicariously through art, how much of it I can incorporate into my idea of my country by hearing about it and trying to imagine it.  It makes me curious about a couple of the novels I have already read (Willa Cather’s in particular), and interested in what lies ahead in the upcoming books.

Chicago is impossible to capture in any kind of detail.  My one trip to the Loop thus far impressed on me one major realization—no matter how many times people say it, no matter how much you read about it, you cannot fathom until you are there the bigness of Chicago.  Not just the size of the city itself (which sprawls across the landscape like the descriptions of Mrs. Manson Mingott’s obese frame in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence) but the size of the individual buildings.  Walking around downtown, time and again I saw a building in the distance and thought “oh, that’s large”, and then, as I walked nearer it, gradually realizing that holy mackerel this is a building built on the scale of Olympus scratch that Zeus himself would throw his back out lifting it wow I wonder if the thing creates its own weather downwind of itself.

I say this with a certain amount of pride, tempered with my usual skepticism about the American fascination with the “bigger is better” approach.  I’m seeing a lot to love about this city, which is American in a way I haven’t experienced before.  The diversity of my neighborhood combined with a sort of raw energy makes you feel the melting pot’s sides rising around you—it’s not what it was in 1910 (and thank goodness for that) but I start to get the feel for what it might have been to grow up in that world.  How it might have been for a young Pole or German or Swede, and how it may be today for a young Arab or Latino or Korean or Ukranian, to come to this city and say “I’m making a fresh start here”.  Many of the people I encounter in the city are immigrants, and some of them share a little of their stories.  The Iranian cab driver who fled the revolution in 1979. The young African woman at my college’s info desk whose parents had to decide, more than a decade ago, whether they would settle in Chicago or Seattle.  The Muslim baker down the street staying open late for Ramadan so that the community can get something sweet after they break their fast.    I don’t know if I can become a Chicagoan like they are—whether the roots soaked in that Pacific drizzle and shaded by evergreens will ever feel at home in Midwestern soil.  But they’ve come farther than I have, and know more than I do about what it means to make a home.  I like living in their city, and maybe one day it will be mine too.

This is rambling and less detailed than I’d intended.  That would probably make a decent description of 90% of my blog posts, I know!  But I’ll leave it here.  I’ll say more about Chicago, and what I think it may be telling me about America’s meaning for me.  And I should probably note, since I’m now a professional, that this blog often carries personal opinions of mine on a range of topics, but it is in no way affiliated with my work for my employer, and of course my opinions are in no way a reflection of the opinions of my employers.  I don’t think I’ll say anything truly unfair here, and hopefully little that is unwise, but it seems prudent to me to issue some kind of disclaimer.  Now to serve up a piping hot dish of Poetry Friday—my best to you all, wherever you may be scattered across the wide world!

“There was pork for supper. She was to learn that there always was pork for supper.”

It’s tough times for our little Selina, whose gambler father was killed by a stray bullet fired by a jealous wife, as she heads off into the prairies at the age of nineteen to teach in a one-room schoolhouse and live with a Dutch immigrant family.  Well, “tough times” is a bit of an exaggeration.  Selina, whose imagination always runs away with her (“It was after reading Pride and Prejudice that she decided to be the Jane Austen of her time.“), had envisioned a life as a sort of transplanted Katrina von Tassel in a Midwestern version of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  As it turns out, life among Dutch farmers has a lot more to do with dried blood fertilizer and cabbages than it does Gothic horror/romance (at least for now).

It’s a fun little book…we’re still light-years away from the title character, Dirk “So Big” De Jong, who is as yet not even a twinkle in Selina’s eye.  Still, I’m happy following her around in this light little story.  I can’t pretend that Ferber is breaking new ground with the plot—naive young schoolteacher from the big city comes to the farmland to find that there is much her sophisticated education hasn’t taught her…gee, do you think these simple rural folk will grow to love and accept her, and that one of their strapping young lads will sweep her off her feet in rugged yet sentimental fashion?  But Ferber is good at other things, particularly creating believable and interesting characters, and writing decent dialogue.  She manages to write fractured English for these Dutch immigrants that sounds very believable (not like the faux Scottish brogues that Margaret Wilson slathered all over her novel….which I have to stop talking about, or my blood pressure will never drop back down to normal), and makes them quaintly amusing without (quite) turning them into caricatures.

It’s another book whose real point is obscure at the outset.  I’d suspect the simplistic plot I mentioned above, but that’s clearly only going to be enough to get her married off.  How does she end up a washerwoman back in Chicago, raising a ten year old boy (apparently alone)?  Ferber’s given me just enough to pique my interest, and not enough yet that I can connect the dots.

What’s odd to me is that the family doesn’t speak much Dutch at home, as far as I can tell.  I’ve heard that immigrant parents were pretty militant about enforcing English on their children to hasten assimilation, which makes sense in a diverse urban environment, but was it really also the practice out in a rural community where seemingly most of the inhabitants share a common ancestry?  Perhaps I need to read a bit more about this prairie society before jumping to any conclusions.