Tuesday, May 17, 2011


RIn case you can’t move to Valier, you could watch “Lark Rise to Candleford,” the BBC series about two small towns in England just before industrial revolution changed them forever.  The land has about the same ecology, windswept clay soil where grain is grown right up to the edge of the yards.  Since much of the plot line is formed by the tension between a slightly bigger and more sophisticated market hub and a smaller hamlet of people teetering at the end of poverty, in Valier you could play it either way:  Valier as the larger town compared to Heart Butte (when I taught out there, I drove in to Valier on Sunday to buy the newspaper and a restaurant breakfast, neither of which was available in Heart Butte)  or you could play it as Valier the smaller town and Conrad the larger ambitious center.  (Someone from Conrad would have to suggest which of several lady leaders might be a version of Dorcas Lane, the Candleford postmistress.)  But, of course, the writer who actually HAS written the Valier equivalent was Ivan Doig.
My kitchen cabinet peer group does enjoy “Lark Rise to Candleford,” though we had trouble remembering the name at first (one calls it “Bird Flight to Candleabra”).  We also enjoy murder-mystery series and multi-generation family sagas, treating them as though they were big fat novels.  This is possible because of digital technology which puts months and years of episodes together on one DVD as though they were chapters.  With a DVD one can stop and start in order to make coffee or answer the door, and even go back to review some clue that slipped by or to grasp a fuzzy motivation.  
With a standard movie -- one and a half to two hours long -- I find that the alternative pleasure is watching the movie twice: once for the actual experience and again with the voice-over comments of the director or actors.  It’s not much of a pleasure if they just  rave about how great everyone is and what a good time they had, but it’s a keen joy if they can explain the meta-thought that gave rise to the final product.  Sometimes I watch the movie a third time so I can watch it on several levels at once.  I don’t find that the “magic” is dispersed by knowing how the illusion was achieved.
When it comes to something like “Larkrise to Candleford,” the voice-over is usually not there but in its place is short video explanations about history and, in this case, the origin of the tales in real life.  Because -- like “Anne of Green Gables” or “Little House on the Prairie” -- this series is rooted in memoir developed from a stream of free lance works produced by Flora Thompson as she went from one post office to another.  The equivalent here might be Betsy Jennings, the postmaster (she rejected the female variation) in East Glacier who with her husband, Talbot, wrote many well-known film scripts.  But Betsy had a happy and fulfilled life (she was quite a lot like Dorcas Lane), while Flora and Lucy Maude Montgomery (the real Anne of Green Gables) were bedeviled by tragedies and unhappiness.  It’s likely that the powerful immersive pull into an Edenic earlier time is produced by the unhappiness:  the author as well as the reader/watcher feel the power of it.
It’s not the massive changes of that 1900 industrial revolution that make Valier and surroundings feel the loss of Eden, but the parallel and present post-industrial revolution: the internet, the wind farm, the infrastructure challenges both in town (sewer, water, gas and electricity) and between towns (big box stores killing county market towns, highway and bridge deterioration, genomic seeds, AI of livestock, CRP).  Computers are particlizing our lives (we stay in our separate houses, our separate rooms) at the same time as they are augmented.  The library is checking out Nooks for those whose arms ache from holding heavy books and Audible books for those who want their hands busy while they “read.”  I’m not seeking publication in local newspapers, though I once wrote “columns,” but rather “blogging” which seems like the same thing to me.
Often I’m urged to write a series like these popular series tales and maybe I will some day, but it strikes me as rather dangerous.  For one thing people tend to mistake the way they are portrayed for slander and to retaliate.  For another the real plot driver here would not be the tech revolution but the tension between homesteaders and Blackfeet, which is now managed by a glass wall everyone agrees to leave in place.  The REAL “real” issue, of course, is what Howard Bloom would rightly identify as the pecking order on which access to resources depends.  That pecking order is always a collision between the larger picture, often controlled by legislation enacted far away, and local family goals which can be VERY intense.   Every time Ivan Doig tries to write about larger issues like racism, his book sales take a dip and he is forced to back off to what I call “pinafore stories.”  That’s got to be a frustration to a man whose consciousness is historical and journalistic, but he has settled. 
I’m not ready to do that -- possibly it’s not necessary.  I stay in dialogue with people like Peter Koch in Berkeley whose roots in Montana are indisputable.  And then I co-write with Tim Barrus, who is anti-village, anti-rural, anti-busybody, conventionally disreputable and dramatically out on the edge.  There must be some balance between the sweet, sentimentally resolved worlds of reassurance stories like “Lark Rise to Candleford” with the semi-psychotic horror of historical frontier massacre and starvation.  But what does “balance” mean except arriving at a compromise that satisfies both the author and the reader?  Tim’s “The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping” did it so long as people thought his real life was like the romanticized story.  How much of “Anne of Green Gables” success was the belief that Lucy Maude was like her?  Certainly her family concealed Lucy’s suicide for fear of damaging the illusion.  My cousin was saddened that Flora’s marriage was unhappy.
So far the scales still seem tipped towards happy illusion.  Among the names of the post offices where Flora Thompson worked, Candleford and Lark Rise were good choices considering the alternatives.  What if they had chosen “Grayshott to Liphook” and the plots had taken a gothic turn?  Wait a minute!  Wouldn’t that take you from Austen to Bronte?  

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