Monday, January 09, 2017

"MINING THE PAST" by Susan Bartsch Backer

People of all kinds and classes are always saying they’re going to write a book, but few of them ever do.  We live crowded lives and so put it off until it’s late and we discover that in retirement there’s no more time than there was earlier.  But now that self-publishing has become such an attractive reality, some people begin to actually do it.

Susan Bartsch Backer was a primary school teacher, a willing and protective wife, and a resolute Unitarian-Universalist congregation member in Bozeman, MT.  After her husband’s death, when the grief began to ease, she saw that she had the resources to write a book about a little detective work she’d done in 1977.  In her beloved grandmother’s old age, the lively woman had painted a word picture of a time at the turn of the 19th century when she was a child near a coal mine her father managed.  But the exact location of the place was a mystery.  It was not on a map.

With her husband’s encouragement, Susan had packed the car and set out to scour the territory east of Casper, WY — she knew at least that much.  The book is an account of that trip.  She traveled by herself, though she was never alone because she’s the kind of person who makes friends as she goes.  In the end she found the now abandoned and unrecognizable mine and understood why it was so elusive.

Woven into the account of the trip are a series of stories told by her grandmother that amount to local history, but also a standard of behavior we sometimes seem to have lost.  Susan has folded that into her own standards.  At first glance she seems to be the best of all possible primary teachers: pretty, encouraging, funny, and resourceful.  It’s not until you’ve known her a while that you begin to understand that there is a steel scaffolding under that merry laugh.

I know Susan and Marvin Backer (maybe he’s not living, but I still “know” him) because of serving the congregation to which they belonged.  I lived in a van, but when it was very cold, I accepted home hospitality.  I stayed in a lot of homes and had the kind of adventures with different life-styles that one might expect, but my “best” place to stay was up Bear Canyon with the Backers.  Their guest bedroom was the safest, most quiet, darkest (no windows because it was on the bottom floor in a hillside house), place I ever stayed.  When they had to move into town, I was sad.

Once I was there over New Year’s Day and I’ve blogged about how we sang old Scots folk songs around the piano, and then bundled up to walk down the access road to the little trout pond surrounded by brush and how when we walked back up to the house, we discovered that a moose had walked over the top of our imprints in the snow.  We never saw the moose itself — just felt it out there in the brush.  We kept silent in case the stars were singing.

When I just now googled “Mining the Past” I discovered that many sites offered a free copy of this book.  I don’t know how Susan felt about this or whether she gave permission.  I don’t suppose she expected to make a lot of money by selling this book, though it’s on Amazon which is where I bought my copy.  Sometimes I just like having something “real” in my hands instead of font on a screen.  The cover is beautiful and I like picking it up to look at now and then as I rearrange shelves.

There is an ethic forming in the Internet world that things should be free, memory should belong to everyone.  Music was the first to feel the impact of this as soon as it was possible to record concerts or download sounds.  Print and image came tumbling after, wiping out incomes.  I buy into this, pretty much, but it is not always comfortable to see my books pirated rather than formally sold.  On the other hand, it evades all the secondary people out there insisting that everything be happy and easy, for the sake of sales.  (I personally do not BUY happy and easy.)

At the moment, Susan is visiting old friends throughout the hemisphere.  In the end she may return with the next book.  Previously she has sold small pieces to “Ranger Rick”, a beguiling children’s nature magazine.published by the National Wildlife Federation.  She is observant and open.

Most women (this may be a fundamentally false assumption) who aspire to write are thinking in terms of romance novels, but Susan is not likely to do this because she really lived out her romance.  She satisfied that yearning.  But I think that writing may continue to be her path, maybe continuing in a children’s context.  I do not think of writing for children as “easy” or “trivial.”  

Bozeman is a university town with a strong attachment to land because it was meant to be the ag school.  The sidewalks ring with the jingling of spurs as cowboys stride by.  In winter one sees people skiing down the snowy streets.  But this is not an unsophisticated town.  I know Susan participated in a writer’s support group and felt she benefitted.  I don’t know who the members were, but I suspect they were pretty high-grade folks who did not meet in order to swap gossip.  

Two former faculty members and their families have been members of this UU congregation, both of them published professors of religion.  Lynda Sexson’s “Ordinarily Sacred” is a personal favorite.  Marvin Shaw’s “The Paradox of Intention: Reaching the Goal by Giving Up the Attempt to Reach It (AAR Studies in Religion)” is a challenging and rich contribution to liberal religion.  Susan is writing on a far more popular level — one might call it “practical religion.”  Or some at universities would call it “story theology.”

No matter.  Just take Susan's work for what it is, a cherishing, an acceptance of the passing of time, a reaching out and sharing.  And that means for everyone.

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