When I left work yesterday, I noticed a crow on the curb near the parking lot, which was unusual. I wondered what he was doing, and as if to answer my question, he bobbed his head to the ground, stuck his beak in a small red bag, and pulled out a tidbit of food. He chewed the morsel and plucked another one out of the bag. Someone had dropped the food, and crows are opportunists. I stopped at the side of the driveway and watched, trying to figure out what he nibbled, but I couldn’t read the words on the shiny red package.
“What are you eating?” I asked. Yes, I said it out loud. Of course, I looked around first to see if I was alone.
If the crow could’ve talked, he probably would’ve said, “Move on, lady. Nothing to see here!” He kept bobbing, pecking, and munching.
But I wanted to know what he was eating, so I stepped toward him. He grabbed the bag with his beak and flapped his wings, taking flight. He landed on the roof of the building. The crow’s whole I-can-fly-and-you-can’t maneuver made me laugh at myself. Because he was right, and because what made me think he’d let me get close enough to read the label on the package. Up on the roof he continued to eat, safe from me and my prying eyes.
“I wasn’t going to eat your food,” I told him, again out loud. The crow might eat food he found on the ground, but I wasn’t going to.
I got into my car and started it. The radio came on. National Public Radio was airing a story about a drought in a country, whose name I’d missed. Not an ordinary drought, a drought brought on by global warning, said a man. Crops had failed, and hunger was growing. People were starving.
And I thought about the crow eating food off the ground that I would turn my nose up at.
And I thought about books. Because that’s what I do, I connect to stories.
Young Elie Wiesel in a concentration camp with other prisoners, all starving, becoming bones, eating scraps riddled with mold and bugs.
The starving North Koreans in the 1990s described by Barbara Demick in her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. One-fifth of the North Koreans perished. Others survived by eating anything they could, stripping the land of edible vegetation. Their bodies deformed from lack of nutrients, forever announcing the hunger they endured.
Lev and Kolya, characters from the novel City of Thieves by David Benioff, imprisoned in Leningrad, awaiting execution, but given a chance to save themselves by finding a dozen eggs needed to bake a cake for the wedding of the daughter of a Soviet colonel, while thousands of Russians are starving, eating pigeons, dogs, cats, and eventually leather and glue from the binding of books.
I think about the crow eating junk food he found on the ground, something I claimed I wouldn’t do. I think about wars and drought, and crop failure, and food shortage, and hungry people. And I realize crow and I are lucky–crow because he lives in a land where people drop food and can afford to leave it on the ground; me because I live in a land where I don’t have to challenge a crow for scraps of food found on the ground.
Finally, I think about the Ukrainians, who last year at this time didn’t have to worry about food or heat or shelter. About the Pakistanis and the floods that decimated their crops. I think about people living through droughts and disasters. And I think about people in our country who go hungry. I remember an eighth-grade girl from years ago, who was caught stealing packaged cupcakes from the grocery store and arrested. Turned out she’d been stealing food from the store to feed herself and her little sister because the only parent in their life was an alcoholic who often had no money to buy groceries.
And I wonder . . . what I might eat or steal if disaster upended my world.
In her memoir Gravedigger’s Daughter, Debra Raye King writes about growing up in a rural farming community near Menomonie, Wisconsin. Her father, John Edward Torgerson, was both a farmer and the local gravedigger–jobs he inherited from his father. In a series of essays, King reminisces about her childhood, which was both normal and unusual. In the 1950s, small rural farms were more plentiful than today, and King’s essays will resonate with readers who grew up on farms or in rural communities. But a small community usually had only one gravedigger, and that part of King’s childhood was unusual.
In the book’s first essay, “Shoveling Eleven Tons by Hand,” King describes her father’s gravedigging duties and how she and her sister eventually assisted him. She skillfully weaves facts, reflections, and anecdotes together, and after reading her first essay, I was amazed by her father and how he approached his duties of gravedigging with dedication and kindness. The essay also teaches readers about a part of death that most of us never think about–the actual process of how the dead are buried in a cemetery. The themes of community, family, and hard work revealed in King’s first essay continue throughout her book.
I’m enjoying King’s book because her essays are heartfelt, because I am learning about a way of life that has mostly disappeared, and because King’s writing is a joy to read.
The novel Double Exposureby Jeannée Sacken is a sequel to her novel Behind the Lens. I’m reading Double Exposure because I enjoyed Behind the Lens, which is a well-written, fast-paced story with engaging, memorable characters, and captivating story arcs. I also appreciate the dedicated research Sacken did for Behind the Lens because I learned something about Afghanistan and its struggles. To read my review of Behind the Lens on Good Readsclick here. [There are no spoiler alerts.]
Annie Hawkins, a war photojournalist, is the main character in both novels. Double Exposure opens with Hawkins in Qatar waiting for a flight back to the United States. She longs to see her boyfriend U.S. Navy SEAL Finn Cerelli and her daughter Mel. However, her boss, Chris Cardona, demands to see her first when she arrives in Washington, D.C., then he informs her that she and their news organization are being sued by a rival news organization. Her ex-husband calls, concerned about their daughter Mel. Soon Annie will need to return to Afghanistan to cover the peace talks between the Afghani government and the Taliban, but she also hopes to find a young woman named Seema who disappeared in Afghanistan. And Annie has secrets she needs to keep from Cerelli. Author Sacken weaves all the action together with snappy dialogue, intriguing twists and turns, and superb storytelling. I started reading Double Exposure last night, and kept promising myself–just one more chapter and then I’ll go to sleep.
The first story in Chai’s collection is “Tomorrow in Shanghai.” I liked this story so much I read it twice. The main character in the story is a young doctor, who entered the medical profession with great expectations for his future. But like Pip in Dickens’s Great Expectations, the young doctor discovers youthful dreams and adult realities are often at odds.
Snow began falling around 8:00 a.m. today. The forecast predicted a trace to one inch, but it snowed all day, and four fluffy inches covered the ground, roads, trees, and cars. Snow can be that way, making weather forecasters look foolish.
This isn’t the first snow of the year, but today’s snow has a good chance of staying on the ground, making it a white Christmas. That’s why I call it the first real snow of the year.
I loved snow as a child, and I haven’t grown old enough yet to resent or fear it. The first real snowfall of the year evokes childhood memories of snowballs, snowmen, snow forts, and sledding. Swaddled in snow pants, jackets, hats, scarves, and mittens, our joyful shouts, squeals, and laughter bounced off the trees and houses.
I love to walk my dogs, Ziva and Cabela, in the evening after a fresh snowfall when the air is still. My dogs love the first real snow too. They prance. They stuff their noses in the snow, tossing it in the air or eating it. Sometimes the snow tickles their noses, and they sneeze. Even Cabela, who’s now fourteen-and-a-half, becomes youthful. When they were puppies, the first snowfall of the year gave them the crazies. They pounced and dashed and rolled in it, creating doggie snow angels. They reminded me of a gaggle of children unleashed into the first good snow of the year.
Perhaps snow sparks something primal in my dogs and myself, something that lights up ancient places in our brains, something that is more complex than our happy memories of youthful frolics in the snow.
My husband likes pumpkin pie. I do not. For more than twenty years we cooked a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for a big group of people. But not pumpkin pie. Someone else always brought pumpkin pie. I baked a cake or cheesecake.
This year we’re having a nontraditional Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey, no stuffing, no mashed potatoes, no pumpkin pie. There will be four of us. We’re having a roast, baked potatoes, and green beans (not mixed with cream of mushroom soup). I’m making a chocolate peanut butter chip cake. My husband is happy to skip the turkey and other fixings, but he mentioned twice that he was going to miss the pumpkin pie. Yesterday, I decided to bake him a pumpkin pie before Thanksgiving.
I called Aunt Coralee. She bakes smack-down, grand-champion, blue-ribbon, best-of-show pies. I asked her how she makes pumpkin pie. She starts with a homemade crust. Her crusts are flakey, tender, rich and golden brown, and if her pie filling mysteriously evaporated, her crust could carry the day on its own. I told her that was an art form I did not have time to master. She told me to buy a premade crust at the store. All I had to do was unroll it and put it in the pie pan. No rolling pin required. I could do that. She told me to use canned pumpkin and follow the recipe on the back of the label. I could do that, too. Off to the store, I went.
My second call to Aunt Coralee was from the grocery store. “Do you bake your pie in a glass or tin pan?” I asked. She uses glass or ceramic. “Cool,” I said because I had a glass pie dish that I used for quiche.
“Don’t forget the whipped cream,” Aunt Coralee said.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I’d thought about whipped cream in produce, but breezed by the dairy cooler in pursuit of refrigerated pie crust. “If you want to see a grown man cry, just hand my husband a piece of pie without whipped cream,” I said. Aunt Coralee and I had a good laugh–everything’s funnier in a grocery store when you’re buying ingredients to bake a pie you’ve never made before.
Back home I unrolled the pie crust and placed it in the glass pie pan. I mixed the filling and poured it into the crust. Baking time: fifteen minutes at 425° then thirty to forty minutes at 350°. Thirty to forty minutes! That’s a big spread of time, like across a few time zones. The instructions said the pie would be done when a knife inserted into the center came out clean.
After thirty-five minutes at 350°, I did the knife test. It came out clean, except for three tiny, wee specks of pumpkin. That had to be considered clean, but the center of the pie was jiggly. I baked it another five minutes. Then tested again. Just a few tiny, wee specks of pumpkin, but still jiggly in the center. I was up to forty minutes but decided the pie needed five more minutes. When the timer binged, I pulled the pie from the oven and set it on the stove. The center was still a little jiggly. I called Aunt Coralee for a third time.
I worried the pie wasn’t done but also worried I’d cooked it too long. Aunt Coralee assured me it would be fine, that I couldn’t really overcook the pumpkin by adding an extra five minutes. But she explained the center of a custard pie will be jiggly when it’s done cooking and will set up as it cools. The pie did look lovely as it cooled and the center set up.
After work my husband discovered his pumpkin pie on the stove, he smiled, and stated the obvious, “You made me pumpkin pie. Thanks.” He kissed me on the cheek. Smart guy.
Next year I’m going to make him another pumpkin pie. I’ll stop baking it when the knife comes out clean, and I’ll remember the center will be jiggly. And even though I won’t eat a slice, I’ll admire it as it cools on the stove.
My short story “Maginot Line” took second place in the Hal Prize Fiction Contest. It appears in the 2022 8142 Review. The names of other fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and photography winners and honorable mentions are listed at “2022 Hal Prize Winners Announced.”
Carol Dunbar lives in northwest Wisconsin like I do. We live in separate towns, but they are close enough for me to be excited because an author near me has been published by a New York publisher. Also, in May 2022, Dunbar spoke at our local writers’ association. She was a warm-hearted and engaging speaker. After the meeting, I preordered her novel, The Net Beneath Us. And while you should never judge a book by its cover, the artwork on Dunbar’s book is stunning, and I have to admit that also influenced me.
What’s this book about?
Elsa lives with her husband, Silas Arnasson, and their two children, Hester, a first grader, and Finn, a toddler, in rural northern Wisconsin. They live in the basement of their future house, which they continue to build as time and money allow. Life in the woods is challenging. Weather and wildlife present difficulties as they build, haul water, and maintain a generator for electricity. But Elsa and Silas are partners, working together to achieve their dreams. They are happy and very much in love. Then everything changes.
Silas has a devastating logging accident. Elsa is determined to keep her family warm and safe during the approaching winter in a home without running water, central heat, or electricity, a home without Silas to help. Shrouded in grief, she isolates herself and her children from family and friends. She rebuffs help from Silas’s family, believing they already see her as incompetent and because they had envisioned another type of woman for Silas.
What makes this book memorable?
People experience loss uniquely, making it hard to understand each other’s grief. Family members overwhelmed by their own sorrow, struggle to comfort each other. Dunbar’s use of multiple points of view allows us to experience, firsthand, the heartache of Elsa, Hester, and Ethan and Luvera, Silas’s uncle and aunt. Additionally, Dunbar’s novel explores our need for self-acceptance and acceptance by others; and our wish to belong to a place, the land, a community.
Loss and grief are somber themes and make for heavy reading. But Dunbar’s use of beautiful imagery, sustained metaphor, and lyrical prose gives us hope as she guides us through a heartbreaking story, transporting us with her exquisite writing through darkness to a place of better understanding of both her characters and ourselves.
Sinclair Lewis said, “People read fiction for emotion—not information.” With The Net Beneath Us, Dunbar underscores the power of fiction as she draws us into an emotional story of loss, grief, forgiveness, and understanding, immersing us in a world of human nature that nonfiction cannot match. And, even though Dunbar’s story is fiction, it rings with truth.
[This essay was published in Red Cedar Review, Volume XXIV in the fall of 2022. Red Cedar Review is published by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire through its Barron County Campus. It’s a print- only journal, and its editors and staff consider art, prose, and poetry from northern Wisconsin residents.I decided to post this essay in honor of Thanksgiving because when I reflect on my childhood, I’m very thankful for our old farmhouse and our wonderful neighbors.]
Wrapped in thin white clapboard, the two-story farmhouse built in 1907 was 57 years old when my parents, my two sisters, and I came to live there in October 1964. It looked older to my five-year-old mind, much older, in the way a person of thirty or forty seems very old to a small child. My parents sold their duplex in Milwaukee where rows of houses sat a handshake apart, fronted by sidewalks and busy streets lined with parked cars. They moved their dysfunctional marriage and children to a country road with a smattering of houses fronted by rural mailboxes and a narrow road, on which no one parked. From age five to seventeen, I lived there with my parents, two sisters, and a brother, born in 1967.
A week after we moved into our farmhouse, a knock rattled the front door that opened into our large kitchen, the kind where a farmer’s wife could cook a hearty meal to feed her husband, their children, and the farmhands all in one shift. Mom was working in the kitchen while my sisters and I played on the floor. She was twenty-four. Her face, scrubbed clean of makeup and her chestnut-brown hair pulled up into a pony tail, made her look far too young to be the mother of three small girls. She gave birth to me, the oldest, when she was eighteen.
Mom opened the old wooden door and on the other side of a modern aluminum screen door stood John Giese, Sr., whom we’d soon come to refer to as “Old Man Giese,” distinguishing him from his son, John Giese, Jr.
Old Man Giese stood on our front stoop, clutching two dead chickens by their feet, one in each hand. He and his three grown children, John Jr., Mildred, and Leona, lived across the street in a white farmhouse as ordinary as ours. But the Giese farmhouse, surrounded by fields to be planted and harvested; by cows and chickens to be fed and tended; by cherry trees, blackberry bushes, and current bushes bearing fruit to be picked and preserved, appeared grand. Our farmhouse, surrounded by two acres of mowed grass then acres of overgrown farmland, looked tired. Giese’s bright red barn stood proud in contrast to our barn layered with various shades of washed out red, which made it appear mostly pink.
“Ma’am,” began the old gentleman, for although he wore a frayed cap and shabby blue denim overalls, he exuded a dignity the two dead chickens and his working clothes couldn’t erase. Old Man Giese was the first real farmer I ever met. My previous knowledge of farmers came from watching Mr. Green Jeans on Capitan Kangaroo, and in my five-year-old mind, Old Man Giese was the opposite of Mr. Green Jeans in every way.
Mom, a city girl, gawked at his welcoming gift of two dead chickens. She knew nothing about cleaning them.
“Your dog,” Old Man Giese continued, “killed my chickens.”
Fritz, our six-year-old German shepherd, lay on the family room floor and made no move to join the conversation.
“I’m so sorry,” Mom said. “Can I pay you for the chickens?”
“No, just keep the dog off my farm, ma’am.” Old Man Giese put his back to us. A lifeless chicken in each hand, he descended our front stairs and returned to his farm. He never called on us again, and a few years later he, too, would be dead, gone to join his wife who died before we arrived.
Mom, relieved she wouldn’t have to clean chickens but mortified Fritz might have killed them, shut the door and strode into the family room. “No chickens,” she yelled at Fritz. “Never again.” He understood and stayed away from the Giese farm, but he still ran loose, up and down the country roads, chasing female dogs in heat.
That evening at dinner, she told Dad, “At first I thought the chickens were an apology for his cows chomping on our lawn the morning after we moved in.” But the chickens had been an indictment, not an apology.
In our new neighborhood, Fritz had committed the first faux pas, setting the standard by which my family’s behavior could be explained. When my parents fought in the middle of warm summer nights, their shouts crawling in and out of open windows, the neighbors could say, What do you expect? Their dog kills chickens. When my sisters and I threw apples at passing cars, but the parents of two older, well-behaved children, from down the road got a visit from the police, their parents could say, They can’t control their dog either. When Dad sped down the country road or set off cherry bombs in our yard, the neighbors could say, What do you expect from a man who lets his dog ignore good-neighbor etiquette?
Our existence in the neighborhood was like a hoppy beer—an acquired taste. Some people come to love the taste of hops, but others can’t force it past their taste buds. Most of the families up and down our sparsely populated road came to accept us, and we were welcomed into their homes and yards. Only two families never warmed to us, not bad considering our parents’ occasional nocturnal fights, dad’s shenanigans, and our string of dogs that never stayed home.
Dad, despite his bad-boy-James-Dean manner, was handsome and charming. An excellent mechanic, he was always willing to lend a hand to neighbors and offer them a beer. Mom was hard-working and friendly, and if she borrowed a cup of sugar or a roll of toilet paper, she always repaid her debt. My siblings and I stopped throwing apples at cars, and we behaved ourselves so no one had to call the police on us again. We were polite or Mom would’ve walloped us or grounded us for life, depending on the prevailing winds of her mood that day. Most of the neighbors decided we were okay.
And the Gieses? They didn’t hold Fritz’s chicken incident against us. After all, their cows had grazed in our front yard the day after we’d moved in. Old Man Giese and his son fixed their fence, and the cows stayed home. Fritz defied fences, but he obeyed Mom’s command and stayed out of their yard and away from the chickens, easy for him because they didn’t own dogs. To prove there were no hard feelings, when my siblings and I were old enough to cross the road, the Gieses gave us an open invitation to play in their yard, to eat fruit from specific trees and bushes, and to cross their fields in winter to ice skate on the frozen river running through their property.
None of Old Man Giese’s children had youngsters of their own. Looking back, I believe they enjoyed seeing us run through their yard, roll down the hill by their barn, and eat the fruit they grew. I believe they smiled when they heard our voices on the winter wind, echoing through the trees as we skated on the frozen waters just behind their fields. And I wonder what they thought, when as a teenager, I sat on a large tree stump near the barn and talked to their cows, who gathered by the fence, eager for gossip about my teenage troubles.
[I want to thank the editors and staff of Red Cedar Review for selecting my essay for their Fall 2022 issue. The ending of this essay is slightly different from the version that appears in their 2022 issue. I added the last two sentences because I felt the ending was too abrupt. As a writer, I often see ways to improve something I’ve written, even after it has gone to press.]
. . . when you squat down to get a frying pan out of the cupboard and rip your one-and-only pair of awesome flannel pants (which you’ve had for fifteen years) from mid-shin to mid-thigh, a split so long and jagged you can’t mend them, sending you on a search for a new pair, but only finding fleece (so second-rate) or flimsy flannel (so short-lived), then your husband joins the quest, and after searching online he announces that the outdoor retail store where you bought your awesome flannel pants still carries them, so you drive to the store and purchase a velvety-soft, blue-plaid pair; returning home, you slip out of your jeans and into the softest caress of flannel, and you know true love isn’t a bouquet of flowers, but a husband who wants you to have dreamy flannel pants.
Second, the title, Not the Camilla We Knew, captured my attention. Camilla grew up in Minnesota, and as a young woman she joined the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), an organization of domestic terrorists. Hanel’s book title promised to give me the rest of Camilla’s story. Camilla died in a shootout in Los Angeles in 1974. The SLA and the events before and after that shootout were widely reported in the news. People involved in tragic events are often vilified or exalted, but reality is often murkier.
Hanel doesn’t excuse Camilla’s behavior, but rather tries to understand why someone who grew up middle class with so many options available to them decided to join a domestic terrorist group. While Hanel’s book focuses on Camilla, I’m also learning more about the SLA. Hanel spent twenty years researching and writing this book. I’ve read almost half of the book, and I have to say that Hanel’s dedication pays off. The book is well-written and it’s a page-turner.
I’m reading Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures because I read a review about it onAngry Angel Books, a blog by Amanda Nissen. She raved about the book so enthusiastically that I had to check out a copy from the library. Nissen likes books “about women, especially older women,” and so do I. Older characters who are fully developed resonate with me, perhaps because I’m an older character. But also because older people are complete people, with all the thoughts, hopes, desires, and feelings of younger people. Often society wants to see older people as one-dimensional, as a stereotype. I’m about one-fourth into the book, and Van Pelt’s seventy-year-old character Tova, a widow, is a well-rounded, and I like her a lot.
But I was convinced that I absolutely had to read this book when Nissen described Marcellus, a remarkably bright octopus, who lives in the aquarium where Tova works. I find octopuses fascinating. Marcellus and Tova become friends. Readers meet Marcellus in short chapters, which are told from his point of view and interspersed among chapters told from the human point of view. His cantankerous voice is engaging and sarcastically witty as he describes his life in an aquarium, nudging readers to reflect upon how they interreact with nonhuman creatures.
Nissen’s review crackled with 1,000-watt-electric enthusiasm. Leaving no room for doubt, she discusses this book like one talks about a new love who is so perfect that there is nothing negative to be said. When someone touts a book or a movie in such glowing terms, there is always a chance that reality won’t match the hype. Nissen states that the book is “as bright and full of life as its cover.” And so far, I agree, wholeheartedly.
Yesterday, my dog Ziva and I walked a different direction, not to seek adventure but to find warmth. Every block we put between us and Lake Superior meant more houses to deflect the wind coming off the lake. It helped, but not much. When a cold wind rumbles off the lake, it finds you.
On our walk I saw a long-stemmed rose, and my first impulse was to smell it. Because you should stop to smell the roses, even when it’s 28 degrees and overcast and the sky is sprinkling snowflakes like salt from a shaker. The rose smelled sweet, like the roses my nana grew in the front of her 900-square-foot home, the smallest house by far on her street. Nana prized her roses and tended them with great care. They signaled that she, too, was a lady, even in her tiny home. Her long-stemmed, red roses announced that she had left behind her childhood of deep poverty and great difficulties.
My next impulse was to take a picture of the rose, which looked remarkably good. Amazing because this week’s basket of weather contained strong winds, drenching rains, and even some snow.
But sometimes survival is about luck.
This rose was blessed because its owners planted it in front of their house which works as a shelterbelt, saving it from the worst of the icy winds and horizontal rains that blow off the lake. It was fortunate because it bloomed at the end of a long stem, keeping it off the ground where colder air settles. It was spared because this week’s snow was light and melted quickly, postponing it’s red, velvety petals from freezing and turning brown.
It’s 23 degrees this morning, so the rose’s good fortune won’t hold much longer. But with care and some luck, new roses will bloom again next year.