Friday, September 10, 2010

Books About Home

The vast expanse of country from the Colorado to the Rio Grande, from El Paso to Houston, has inspired many writers to feature Texas as a setting or even as an integral character in their work. Texas stars in such varied works as the timeless and classic westerns of Elmer Kelton, Larry McMurtry, and Edwin Shrake; the humorous adventures of Ben Rehder's mystery solving Blanco County Game Warden, John Marlin; Sarah Bird's delightfully tongue-in-cheek social commentary; Shanna Swendson's tales of magic and romance; the bleak depressing hopelessness of Cormac McCarthy; and the sweeping family saga of Leila Meacham's Roses.  Roses, whose cover is misleading, made me nostalgic for the grand multi-generational epics of the 1980s - the ones that were always turned into miniseries, another grand 1980s tradition!  Just from this brief review of a few authors, it is easy to see how literature set in and about Texas is as varied as the geography of the state.

Most of the books about my home state, Illinois, are set in Chicago. One of my favorite "Chicago" books is Eric Larsen's The Devil in the White City. Larsen blends together the true stories of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the Colombian Exposition, and its architect Daniel Burnham with the serial killer Dr. H.H. Holmes, who used the Fair to lure victims. This is a book that is both creepy (no better word for it!) and engrossing-a great book to read around Halloween. I have always admired Larsen's ability to bring together seemingly disparate and random narrative threads of the people, places, and history of a time into one beautifully cohesive woven work. 

Michael Harvey is another master storyteller and his Michael Kelly series (The Chicago Way, The Fifth Floor, and The Third Rail) combines the tough, smart working class reputation of Chicago along with its rich and powerful history of a town with a strong political dynasty (sometimes corrupt, but always interesting) with intelligent noir mystery.

I also love Susan Elizabeth Phillip's Chicago Stars series, my favorite is Natural Born Charmer. Have I already mentioned in this blog how much I love the beginning of the very first chapter of this book?  You see, the lead female character, Blue, is walking down the road in a beaver costume...Phillips writes some of the wittiest dialogue in chick lit (read the chapter I am talking about)!  This series by Phillips and its characters are also related to the series and characters of her books set in Wynette, Texas-a fictional Hill Country town near Austin and San Antonio.  So, a connection between my two home states!

I love the city of Chicago and have spent a fair amount of time there (visiting the Impressionist Collection at the Art Institute is one of my absolute favorite things to do on the planet, the peace and beauty of those rooms...).  We even honeymooned there.  However, I am from a much different part of Illinois, a very small town (approximately 800 people) in far, far Southern Illinois, Dongola.  I miss is the physical beauty of Southern Illinois, particularly in the fall when everything is a riot of glorious color!  

Thanks to a geological gift of nature, glaciers from the last ice age made it two-thirds of the way through Illinois, scouring most of it flat, luckily their progress stopped short of the southern end of the state.  The glaciers helped to create and preserve spectacular scenery.  The two photos above are pictures of Southern Illinois during the wonderful days of fall.  The bottom picture is the famous Camel Rock from Garden of the Gods, part of the Shawnee National Forest, which covers extensive parts of Southern Illinois from the Mississippi to the Ohio River.  

After several digressions and a few rambles, I am finally getting to the impetus for this post, two books that are actually set in Southern Illinois.  Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland by Jeff Biggers is a historical, but poetic, examination of the soft coal industry across the nation and the toll it has taken on people and land as personified by this particular region.   The book is also deeply personal as Biggers, a Southern Illinois native describes how coal mining has effected his family.  I think that the memoir aspects brought the larger story down to a personal and relatable level. 

 Here is a link to a great interview with Biggers as he talks about this book, which focuses on past and current mining activity and the resulting social implications (union wars, slavery, environmental destruction, political maneuverings, contribution to global warming, etc.) of coal mining in the area immediately surrounding the Garden of the Gods.  All the soft (bituminous) coal underneath Southern Illinois is partially a result of the same glacial legacy that helped shaped the geography of the region.  I always like to think that the glaciers gifted Southern Illinois with a "beauty and the beast" of a gift.   Reckoning at Eagle Creek is an engrossing read that helped me to better understand the region I was born in and the many forces that shaped it.

I do love reading about places I know but it also breaks my heart knowing that these gorgeous, important, and biologically unique areas are being destroyed.  I also sympathize with the miners and their families (and indeed with those dealing with the colateral damage caused by shoddy coal mining practices:  houses that are caving in due to mine subsidence, contaminated, etc.).  Not only because of their health problems but because they working are caught in such a quandary between needing a decent job and being hurt by that same job.  The  coal industry is one of the small number of jobs that actually pay a decent and real living wage in an area that is economically disadvantaged.  A perfect example of a Catch-22 scenario and yet even these jobs are disappearing because of a number of factors-mining mechanization, reduced reliance on soft coal, etc. 

The second book about Southern Illinois, Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga is not out yet, it will be published on September 14 and  I am anxious to read it because of a several factors: I enjoy Hellenga's work; the reviews have been wonderful; this story of reinvention and redemption sounds fascinating; and once again I may recognize places and people in the story.  So if the story is about Southern Illinois why is Little Egypt in the title?  Are there deserts, a sphinix, or some really great pyramids?

Convergence of the Missippi & Ohio Rivers
 So glad you asked these questions!  While I've seen no evidence of any sphinx, etc. (although I do admit that Cahokia has some huge mounds that are pyramid like) many of the towns have Egyptian names, although non-Egyptian pronunications: my very own Dongola, Thebes, Karnak, and Cario, like Karo Syrup.  One explanation for the term Little Egypt is that Southern Illinois was a "promised land" for those leaving other less hospitable places although I doubt this is the reason because in the Bible the "promised land" is sought by those leaving Egypt.  Another is that the area contained fertile land due and/or a delta like region at the convergence of the Mississppi and Ohio Rivers. 

Heron Pond
Again I doubt the validity of this explination as while the land is good for some types of farming the early settlers found that they had quite a bit of swamp land to drain or rocky hills to tackle before they could begin substantial farming operations.   The most likely and historically accurate reason for this name is that in the 1830s the settlers in Northen Illinois experienced several years of very poor harvests due to droughts and that they had to travel south to purchase grain from an abundant harvest just, according to the Bible, as some ancient people had been forced to travel to Egypt to do.  

Ever since I first saw Cario and Cape Girardeau, Missouri (another old stomping ground) mentioned in Mystery on the Missippi (Trixie Belden #15) I am thrilled to read about places that I know well and have actually been to.  I hope that I discover additional books written about Southern Illinois or that more are written in future.  In the meantime, there are lots of books set right here in Central Texas that give me that little thrill of reading about home.

Happy Reading,
Fort Kaskaskia - We were married right here

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