Saturday, October 4, 2014


I found this book, the full title of which is River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll Amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa, while browsing the local section in my Davenport, Iowa, Barnes and Noble. I love to learn the stories of places by visiting historical museums and reading books. When I started reading the Prologue and recognized the names of some of the people mentioned, I had to buy it.*

River Bend Chronicle is a memoir starting in approximately the late 1960s or early 1970s after the author came to Davenport. I call it a literary memoir because of the detailed, vivid, colorful and fresh, almost poetic, descriptions and writing style. The text is filled with subtle humor. If we're talking English composition, the long, somewhat drawn out style is inappropriate. But for a literary piece, it fits perfectly. Some of the expressions reminded me of A Christmas Story: ornate, musical, and subtly humorous.

Parenthesis were numerous in the book, especially more toward the beginning. Sometimes they added to the story, so the parenthesis marks weren't necessary. At other times, they were distracting or didn't add to the story and could've been eliminated. The book also included photographs that I recognized as subjects around Davenport but I would've liked to have seen captions. These are minor issues, however, and never tempted me to stop reading.

The book is not just a memoir or a life story; it's a study of the author's life to find meaning and the cause and effect of how and why it turned out as it did. And really, it is the story of a writer and how this particular writer came to be from despair. It seems that, like a lot of writers, the writer was always within Ben Miller waiting to get out, and thankfully it did. I can relate; in all my young experiences, especially despair, I turned to words to cope.

In addition to the content, the words themselves evoke sad overtones of something lost and missed. It's an insightful, thought-provoking journey of a life from point A to point B.

There seems to be several, weaved-together layers in this memoir. The story is also about a boy's tumultuous, complicated relationship with his family that reflects in depth on being the eldest sibling amid a dysfunction that seemed to be rampant in families during the 1970s.

The story was engaging, but heavy, taking me a couple of weeks to read so on a can't-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn't even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I would give it a six and a half.

If you're looking for a light, beach read, this book is not for you. If you like to study people and delve into their minds to find out how they tick, you would enjoy this book. It shows that we Iowans are more than farmers living ideal, rural lives but that many of us live in real cities with real hurts.

Source: Miller, Ben. 2013. River Bend Chronicle. Lookout Books: Wilmington.

*These people were associated with The Midwest Writing Center, a non-profit organization in its pre-infancy (and maybe infancy) during the time period the book covers. I volunteer for MWC and serve on its Board of Directors.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A FAMILY APART by Joan Lowery Nixon

I found this book on Amazon when I was researching for my pre-civil war era historical novel. The story takes place in 1860 and involves (at least partially) the Midwest so it fit in with my subject's time and location. And I wasn't disappointed - this book provided a lot of good information about the appearance of the rural Midwest and about how people lived in their farm communities. As I researched, I also discovered that there are many, many stories taking place during the dawn and the active civil war, but not a vast amount about the pre-dawn years so it was a good find in that regard as well.

A Family Apart is one of a series of seven books about the orphan trains and their passengers. It won the Golden Spur Award and is suitable for juveniles; with the historical information and story structure, it would be a good read for them.

A Family Apart opens in modern times when the grandmother of bored visiting kids in Missouri pulls out their great-great-great grandmother's, Frances Mary Kelly's, diary. It then jumps to showing Frances Mary Kelly's difficult life in New York City helping to support she and her five siblings after her father dies. As an author, I'm not sure I would've included the beginning and ending modern times because it didn't seem to really add anything significant to the story. However, the inclusion doesn't detract from the story at all either. Plus, since it was published in 1987, approximately 26 years ago, perhaps it was the norm for historical fiction at that time.

The story was engaging; I read it in approximately two days so on a can't-put-it-down-scale of one for I couldn't even finish it to ten for I was up until the wee morning hours, I would give it an eight. It was a quick, easily digestible read.

After giving a vivid sense of financially struggling to survive in New York City, the story transitions into Frances' travel on the orphan train with her siblings to be adopted by families in and around Missouri. I could feel Ma's desperation and hurt when she sends her children west as well as the anger and confusion in her children who each react in their own way. Even though I knew essentially how the story must end - after all, the great-great-great grandchildren are reading the diary and discovering the story - there was enough tension, action, and conflict motivating me to keep reading to find out exactly how the story gets to that end.

I appreciated this book more because it was based on the true experiences of children being sent west to join new families on the orphan train. The characters and plot points were true to life; it's an all around well developed engaging read.

Source: Nixon, Joan Lowery. 1987. A Family Apart. Bantam Doubleday: New York.