Tuesday, September 18, 2007


When I was about three or four, my mother put me on her own bed when it was naptime because my two younger brothers actually slept and she herself napped on the sofa. I was a lousy napper, even in kindergarten where I vividly remember scooting my nap rug around in pursuit of Tommy Wilhelm. My mother’s bed was on the north side of the house upstairs and she kept the windows open summer and winter (this was in Portland, Oregon). It’s the summers I remember, when I lay on a yellow cotton quilt made by someone in the family -- don’t know whom -- kicking my legs and thinking about stuff.

Sometimes I even studied the wall of books next to the bed, my father’s idea. Two books were side-by-side and when I learned to read I saw that one was entitled: “My Mother Was a Violent Woman” and the other was “My Father Was a Quiet Man.” Just now I checked Abebooks but they don’t list these books. I think they were mildly popular in the Forties. I tried Googling the phrases and found 2,000 matches for “My Father Was a Quiet Man” and two for “My Mother was a Violent Woman,” one by Roseanne. Clearly many more people have quiet fathers that they want to talk about.

For my parents, awareness of their style difference was the source of many iconic jokes between them, things like their fondness for the movie “The Quiet Man,” so slow to become violent and Maureen O’Hara, the spitfire. The pattern must be pretty widespread considering the popularity of that movie. Culturally endorsed, you might say.

I have two female cousins about my age (retirement) and we’ve become close as the previous generations has slipped over the horizon. One of our abiding topics is the difference in behavior style between the other two and me. Their mothers were in-laws but best friends from way back when they were married in a double wedding ceremony. Ladylike, gifted, and gentle, they were “quiet women.” Their Scots husbands were also mild and thoughtful. My mother was indeed that “violent woman” who had to run the household alone because my father was on the road all week and whose Irish (Pinkerton/Cochran) could be roused by injustice more than anything else.

The difference for our generation is that my cousins -- confronted by tragedy and betrayal -- will withdraw and slip towards depression. But I, as described by a counselor, am counter-phobic: I fly into anger and attack the problem, often clumsily. The advantage of my style is that something happens, but the advantage of their style is that they’ve been fairly safe and successful. It’s the next generation that’s even more interesting. In my family there was none -- we didn’t have children. In their families, the results have been all over the map from high-strung and in grave danger to sweet and compliant. The next generation is still babies, but we watch to see what they’ll be like. How much is genetic? How much is the times?

Reflecting on this Festival of the Book has shone light on another angle. So many book people are like my cousins: quiet and prodigious readers. And yet so many authors are violent, like me. On the panel about memoir we had some interesting paired contrasts. The most obvious was Lynn, the outraged army screwup, and Dan, the preacher’s son Marine who colored inside the lines. (As we began the panel, one of the hosts poured us new ice water and “accidentally” spilled the entire pitcher-full onto Lynn’s lap! It is not true that Dan slipped him five bucks to do that. Lynn thought it was because he’s from California though he owns a Montana ranch now, just like Dan.)

Another contrast is between Richard S. Wheeler, author of sixty fine Western books, gentleman, conservative, product of the Fifties, a quintessential “quiet man” and myself, the violent (and often funny) woman just beginning to write. We have a friendship that teeters around reeling from our differences. I’m an admirer of Tim Barrus, the shocking Nasdijj. Wheeler’s favorite movie is “Casablanca,” tough and romantic.

The Montana Festival of the Book originated as a recognition of the many good writers in Montana. It was a celebration of achievement, a circle of the initiated that could be admired by others, and -- frankly -- a way of promoting and selling books. Definitely Wheeler turf. But the times have changed. It was a shock to count up how many of the original participating writers are now too old to attend or even entirely gone since 2000.

We’re in a new millenium: the era of the blog. One doesn’t have to live anywhere, so long as one has access to cyberspace. The books that SELL now, are violent. Sensational. Ephemeral. But the people who put on the Festival are still from the old book world. There were few young people at this Festival. Can one organize a Festival of the Blog? Invoking my favorite philosopher, Bibfeldt, I would go for the Both/And.

How do we bridge the gap? I had two ideas. One was to put up “Lucy Booths” at the next Festival and stock each with a laptop that has wifi and a ten-year-old prepared to teach the grownups how to navigate such mysteries as the Internet, Google and Wikipedia.

The second idea comes from the heartsick realization that Leni Holliman, who always taped and edited these panels and readings for radio, is too ill right now to do that. But my younger relatives and even a few outrageous writing friends have turned to YouTube, a wilder, freer medium. Why not get teens from the Montana hometowns of the Montana writers to do YouTube-style five minute stories about each writer -- maybe impressionistic images and maybe interviews. Play them on a loop at the Festival and then sell a compilation of them on DVD. Check out that Tim Barrus for ideas, if you dare. (He works with a video crew of boys in Paris and posts on YouTube.)

A high school English teacher over east already sends his students out to interview Montana writers and then puts the result online. I apologize for not knowing his name right now. Maybe someone can put it in the comments. One of the big advantages of a blog is the instant feedback.


prairie mary said...

First person to identify the teacher was Sue Hart, naturally! The teacher was Steve Gardner and the essays were archived with the National Council of Teachers of Engish:

Here's the URL for the student essay about Sue:


Prairie Mary

Richard S. Wheeler said...

Odd to be called conservative, but that's how you see me and not how I see myself. I suppose my votes for Jon Tester and the whole Democratic ticket don't count. I am not even culturally conservative. The exceptions are art and music. I love the standards.

Montana Humanities and the book festival did exactly what they are chartered to do, bring along and showcase new writers, discover talent wherever it may be. If there has been criticism of the festival in the past, it was that the established Missoula writers predominated. This year they didn't. This year there were many new people being showcased, including Prairie Mary. You should be hurrahing them for broadening their program--and making a place for you.