Where the
Sky Began:
Land of the
Tallgrass Prairie

John Madson
(University of Iowa)
John Madson was a man born in the prairie (or better, in the three prairies: the mixed grass, the short grass, and the tallgrass). It covered much of the American Middle West --- Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Nebraska, all the way down into Texas.

    An incredibly rich region of deep, fat soils, it had analogs in other parts of the world: the pampas of South America and some western parts of the Russian steppes.

But, he tells us, the main tallgrass prairie of North America "stood apart from all other grasslands --- unique in form and mood, and in their impact on a people."

Nowadays you may be traveling along Interstate 70, or 80, or 90, or up through Iowa on I-29 or I-35, and you go on for a day or so, and you think, "My god, how boring." The flatland just goes and goes, and you feel like those who passed through the same area 200 years ago, traveling by horseback or wagon, and you think, as one pioneer did, "A prospect more bleak and lonely, when night is closing in, and you press towards some distant grove whose treetops cannot yet be discovered above the monotonous plains, is inconceivable."

Or C. Atwater, in 1818, who wrote,

    He may travel from morning to night, and make good speed, but on looking around him, he fancies himself at the very spot whence he started.

The prairie that earlier visitors saw is, of course, no more. Something revolutionary happened between then and now, being the land rush that took place between 1820 and 1875, funded by the federal government --- land to be sold to all comers for $1.25 an acre, or given free as payment to those who had served in the army.

"In one lifetime the great tallgrass reaches of middle America had been opened, broken, and inked into deeds," Madson reports.

    It was all deceptively swift and easy; in reality, it was one of the world's great revolutions --- a vast reordering of what men felt they knew about land, a discarding of old traditions and methods, and a painful learning process in which men adapted to a new system of grassland existence.

In those years, settlers often chose to stop in the woodlands --- which were part of the prairie --- where they could find fuel, building materials, game, and shelter from blizzards and fires. Water was readily available, either in streams or in the shallow wells of flood-plain water tables.

From these wooded areas, settlers would move further and further into the prairie, slowly begin to dismember the grassland which had produced the intricate root systems which protected the plants from the two great enemies: drought and wind.

§     §     §

This could be a textbook but, fortunately, Madson isn't interested in scholarly writing. He is a man who has a deep love for the prairie and for the culture that evolved --- so much so that he was, during his lifetime, able to find bits and pieces of the original prairie that had not been destroyed by the pioneers, or the farmers who came later with their oxen, or the John Deere special plow that, he tells us, was specifically designed to cut through the complex root system, to reach the rich soil underneath. It was the beginning of the end.

Too, Madson is not your sour eco-conservationist --- at least not overtly. He is rather a master of the facts of what constitutes "prairie." For example, his listing of the plants that grew --- and continue, in places, to grow. It's a listing that, at times, sound like something else. There are plants that sound like something out of Larry Flynt ("Hoary Puccoon"), or Victorian literature ("Bastard toad flax") or a traditional song from Doc Watson ("turkeyfoot grass.") Then, there's

  • Sneezeweed
  • Fleabane
  • Ripgut
  • Coralberry
  • Smartweed
  • Compass plants
  • Hackberry
  • Boxelder

§     §     §

Madson's knowledge of the world of those who settled the plains 150 years ago is so detailed that if any of us were to undertake the foolish notion of writing a novel about prairie days, one could find all the detail one needed by studying the chapter "Grandfather Country:"

    In summer of course, children never wore shoes except when going to meeting or to a settlement. Like that eminent son of the Missouri, Huck Finn, the boys usually went unshod from spring thaw almost to the first snowfall --- often walking barefoot over frost-whitened barnyards to do the morning milking.

This writing implies that Madson had intimate personal experience of how not to live with the agony of bare feet in the frost. "There was a trick to that," he tells us:

    If there was no stanchion to confine Old Bossy, you roused her carefully so that as you milked her you could put your cold feet on the patch of warm earth where she had slept.

Madson, as we say, is no dry teacher; nor is he a man who weeps noisily over the end of prairie days. But he confesses to the continuing love of that huge expanse that knitted together a country, became a central symbol of the richness and force of American landscape, and its people.

"There are only a few tall prairies left today," he tells us, "but they are worth seeking --- worth going to and being in. They are the last lingering scraps of the old time, fragments of original wealth and beauty, cloaked with plants that you may never have seen before and may never see again."

    If you are a man, stand in such a place and image that you hold your land warrant as a veteran of the War with Mexico, looking out over the fields of lofty grasses on your own place at last, you own free-and-clear quarter-section share of the richest loam in the world.

"If you are a woman," he adds, "watch you children at play in wild gardens of strange flowers, and imagine your nearest neighbor twenty miles away."

--- Frederick Rutgers

Home Bound:
Growing Up with
A Disability in America

Cass Irvin
(Temple University)
The only difference I can see between the lives of disabled people and those of the able-bodied is one of intensity. Both groups suffer the slings and arrows of daily life, the victories and defeats. By the end of life, probably, both groups have learned to have profound respect for life's richness: respect for the depths of the horror and the peaks of joy, which come to intermingle into a kind of wisdom.

It is my experience that disabled people gain this wisdom sooner and more intensely than do the able-bodied. A sterling example of this can be found in the recent autobiography, Home Bound, by Cass Irvin. Cass contracted a vicious case of polio at the age of twelve. This left her badly paralyzed, subject to years of painful and continuous physical therapy as she grew to be an adult. Throughout her life she has been dependent upon the fidelity of personal care attendants to get her up, toileted and bathed, dressed and at the end of the day, put back to bed.

This is what she has coped with every day of her life. In the process, Cass has learned a lot about people and, more importantly, about herself. Unlike so much of disability literature, she is emotionally honest from the get-go. Her book shows us how Cass has learned to retain her sense of dignity and self worth in the wake of abuse after abuse, abandonment and humiliation, social oppression and indifference.

I too am severely disabled. As I read Home Bound I discovered myself saying, Yes, this is the way it was. Yes, I felt that.

Her parents were emotionally unable to help her cope with her disability. She was emotionally humiliated by her physical therapists. Society's attitudes shamed and devalued her for needing personal care attendants. The same social attitudes taught her to devalue and shun other people with disabilities.

When Cass ventured out in her power wheelchair she was too embarrassed to ask for help from strangers when her chair was stuck or stranded. When she entered public life she found it unbearable when people watched when she was lifted in and out of cars or carried up a stair case. She had to fight for admission and acceptance in school, college and the job market. She had to prove her worth repeatedly.

§     §     §

Cass Irvin met and dealt with these feelings and situations. She did not conquer them so much as learn to drag them around with her as she went on to live a full and productive life. She is now an outstanding leader in the fight for disability rights; her business, Avocado Press publishes books and magazines. Most of all she has love and satisfaction.

This is not an inspirational book. There are no hearts and flowers here. It is a hard life lived well. This is what makes it an important book.

--- Hugh Gallagher

You Remind Me
Of Me

Dan Chaon
Jonah almost gets killed by his grandfather's Doberman when he's six, so now he goes about with a hunk of his ear missing and a long scar down his face from eye to lip. His mother was fun: She told him to shut up when he asked what happened to his younger sister. "Why do you do this to me?" she would say, the perfect double-bind.

Jonah was born in "Mrs. Glass House" --- get it? --- where Mum and the other "unwed mothers" were advised not to talk to each other. Many years later, when she finally up and dies, he dumps her ashes at the side of the road as he drives to Chicago.

When people peer at his scar, he says, "Car accident." After two years, he finds befriends a couple with child, but when he suggests that he be godfather to their baby because they might die, they dump him. He calls their answering machine, doesn't understand why they won't pick up the phone.

On the other hand, Judy is fat and pale and lives in Nebraska. Her daughter is doing drugs somewhere out in Nevada. Her son-in-law Troy grew up in a house of cocaine dealers. Being a chip off the old block, he now deals for his friends and others at the bar where he works the swing shift.

He takes son Loomis --- he calls him "Little Man" --- out to Granny Judy's so he can go to work. One day when she isn't watching, Loomis gets kidnapped.

§     §     §

It's stolid, squalid heartbreak and woe from the get-go in You Remind Me of Me. I tried to think of novels that had moved me and changed me over the years that didn't have at least a smidgen of humor somewhere in them. The only ones I could come up with that were nakedly, garishly humorless, were War and Peace and An American Tragedy. That's it in the sourpuss book list.

Now no matter how many starred reviews Chaon gets from Publishers Weekly (one), Kirkus (one), Booklist (one) and raves from The New York Times (two), The Washington Post (one) --- and, god forbid, Ha Jin (one) --- he ain't no Tolstoi nor Dreiser.

When Jonah calls the answering machine of his one-time friends, he says, "Hey, guys." He was awkwardly speaking as he imagined the bland slow turning of a recording tape. "I was just checking in ... to see what was going on."

And then he calls an hour later, just in case. One week, he leaves fifteen messages. At work,

    He could picture himself as a center point in expanding space --- the other cooks moving past him in their hair nets and white aprons, the swoosh of waiters and waitresses passing through, the chatter of diners at their tables, the skyline of the city, the suburbs, the great silent fields that trailed their long emptiness all the way back to Little Bow, South Dakota, where no one who had ever loved him was alive.

"Where no one who had ever loved him was alive."

Mercy me, Chaon. Can't you do better than that?

--- W. F. Franklin

Total pages in book: 356
Total number of pages read: 101
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