Monday, August 17, 2009

Congratulations, ALO

As I was ready to shut down my computer for the night, I did the same thing I often do at the end of the evening. I went to the website of newspaper that was Abraham Lincoln's friend, The State Journal-Register. I usually check to see if my fellow blogger, Mike Kienzler, The Abraham Lincoln Observer (ALO), has posted a new article.

Tonight, I found not a new blog post, but breaking news on the home page, reading, "SJ-R metro editor wins senior spelling bee at fair." Now, considering that Kienzler isn't much older than I am, I was hoping it wasn't him. I'm not ready to be called "senior" any more than I have to. I knew, though, that it was surely my ALO buddy. He's the most eagle-eyed editor I've ever known. In fact, he's so good, he can almost find a typo before a reporter's fingers hit the wrong key.

And, he'd recently advanced through his local and regional contests to reach the state contest. So, it came as no suprise that this wordsmith and editor extraordinaire is a champion tonight. Read the breaking news about his championship and the article on the paper's special state fair blog.

You know what, though? Mike Kienzler is champion every day. We can count on him to keep the legacy of Lincoln alive. That makes him a winner in my book, no matter how well he can spell.

If you follow the ALO blog, too, be sure to drop in and leave a comment to congratulate him. I'm going to leave mine right now.

© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Three degrees from Lincoln

When I started this blog, it was to honor the life and the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in celebration of the bicentennial of his birth. That mission hasn’t changed. You may wonder, therefore, why I would use Lincoln Buff 2 as a forum to tell you about a novel that has nothing to do with the 16th president.

Bear with me while I explain. Then, after I do, if you understand, please read about this marvelous book – and the author who so handily crafted the story.

The way I see it, we can make a connection between this novel and Lincoln. They’re just three degrees apart:
  • One degree from Abraham Lincoln is his biographer, Carl Sandburg
  • Two degrees away is Carl Sandburg biographer, Penelope Niven
  • Three degrees away is Jennifer Niven, Penelope’s daughter and author of Velva Jean Learns to Drive

I’d like to use this interconnectedness to justify this blog post, but first let me tell you why.

Penny’s talk
Two decades ago, I was the front-end manager of a supermarket in Galesburg (Ill.). I’d left college midstream nearly twenty years earlier to get married and raise a family. One evening, sometime around 1990 or so, Penelope Niven was speaking at Carl Sandburg College on the most obvious of subjects, her upcoming Sandburg biography.

If you ever get a chance to meet Penny Niven, you’ll find her, as I did, to be one of the most charming and upbeat people you’ve ever met. You will find it hard to leave the encounter without catching the enthusiasm she radiates.

As I was at a turning point in my life, longing to return to school and share what I learned, either as a teacher or a writer, a number of things about Penny’s speech struck a chord with me that night. The strongest, though, were two comments that originated with Jennifer.

The first was the answer a pre-teen Jennifer gave when asked to share with her class her parents’ occupations. Jennifer’s response went something like this, “My father is a teacher and my mother is obsessed with a dead guy.”

The second happened a few years later. As Penny was lamenting the time it was taking to do her 800-word biography, the writer quipped, “I’ll be fifty before I get this book done!”

Her wise daughter responded, “Mother, you’ll be fifty anyway.”

So why does this matter? Well, maybe because after that talk, I finished college, turned fifty, and am now obsessed with the dead guy with whom Penny’s dead guy was obsessed. Jennifer’s words and her mother’s wisdom in passing them on have motivated me to pursue my dreams. But, I’ll likely be 60 before I get my book done!

The least I can do for Jennifer, though, is tell you about her book. It’s certainly not hard to say good things about Velva Jean.

Jennifer learns to read – and write
Jennifer Niven is a striking young lady – very photogenic. Yet, in spite of all the photos I’ve seen of her, one of my favorites is of her as a little girl with her nose between the pages of a great big book.

I imagine it taken was about the same time Jennifer crafted her own first book. Twelve years ago, I was there when she shared the volume with a Hendersonville, N.C. audience as she and her mother spoke about their careers. The young author’s early effort didn’t look much different than those many of our children designed in their early school days, but my bet is that Jennifer knew who she was as soon as she created it. She was a writer.

I first encountered Jennifer’s work in her non-fiction books about Arctic exhibitions, The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack. Jennifer’s research and storytelling skills are phenomenal. She brought those long gone explorers to life. Both books held me spellbound as I waited on pins and needles to see how things turned out.

Velva Jean is born again
Yet, even before these books, young Jennifer had reached a pinnacle few writers ever do. She was awarded an Emmy for her screenplay of a film titled Velva Jean Learns to Drive, which she wrote in 1995 while still a student at the American Film Institute.

Velva Jean was born on the pages of a short story Penny wrote, resurrected on screen by Jennifer and is born again between the covers of this new book.

What a glorious rebirth it is! Not only is the story reborn but, in the book, the character is reborn through a religious conversion.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If I were to describe the book in one sentence, I’d say this: Velva Jean Learns to Drive is a coming-of-age story about a girl in the 1930s and 40s from the Appalachian hills who dreams of becoming a singer in Nashville.

It’s that and much, much more.

The characters in Jennifer’s book really are so believable you think you’ve known them all your life. They’re people you can love, hate and feel real pity for. She draws you into the story so well that you truly can sense a panther on your heels, feel the exhilaration of a wild ride down the mountain in a bright yellow pickup truck, smell the putrid fumes of a train wreck.

Not your mama’s mountain tale
Some might argue that certain aspects of this book could be stereotypical – a mountain family with an ailing mom, a wandering dad, a big sis who married young and had a brood of kids, a traveling preacher man, a family-owned store and people who’ve never left their small town.

Yet, that’s what makes this book worth reading and significant historically. The scenes Jennifer paints really are the past as it was in the rural south – and not so different from the rest of the country at the same time. We can read her book and climb back into the limbs of our own family trees. In fact, some of the stories spring from the branches of her own.

From that angle, we can see much more. In her characters, we see ourselves and those around us. Families in her book are dysfunctional. Whose aren’t? People in her book have hopes and dreams for themselves or others. They love intensely and hate immensely. They propel each other and hold each other back. They want the best for their community and they want to fight progress. Some have all they’ll ever need or want, while others spend each day dreaming dreams they fear will never come true.

The appeal of Velva Jean is not that Jennifer Niven has blazed a new trail through those mountains of old. It’s that she’s taken the personalities we all know, the experiences we’ve all lived and she’s brought them to life anew. In Velva Jean Learns to Drive, we all see a little of ourselves and our pasts. As Jennifer tells Velva Jean’s tale, our stories, too, are born again.

She’s not done yet

There are few authors who grab me and hole me spellbound, so strongly that I can’t wait for their next book. Penny does, Richard Bach does (I want to soar like Jonathan. What’s wrong with that?) and Jennifer does.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wait long for her next one. The Aqua-Net Diaries, Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town, the memoir of her high school days in Richmond (Ind.) is due out soon. The title alone should give you a hint why she could write about Velva Jean so well. Now, Jennifer’s hard at work on her fifth volume.

Who knows? At this rate, Jennifer might just catch up with my friend, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who’s pounding out his 34th book, And, I’m sure I’ll love every one of her books as much as I do his.

Another Lincoln link
Oh, and that whole Lincoln connection thing? There are two more. Velva Jean’s dad and brother shared the same first name – Lincoln. So, if you decide to do as I did and drop all things Lincoln to read this book, it’s okay. Really, it is.

© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Poet paints lyrical Lincoln portrait

Do you remember when you were little and you cherished that time with a favorite bedtime story, not only because of the tale, but also because of the time alone with the loved one who told it?

Do you ever have that feeling still? You cherish every page of a book you’re reading and you don’t want it to end – either because of the story, the characters, or the way the author paints word pictures upon each page and draws you in.

I had that feeling recently.

Before Lincoln’s 200th birthday in February, I began a book, The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by Daniel Mark Epstein. I was moved by Epstein’s lyrical style and reminded almost immediately of the work of an earlier Lincoln biographer, Carl Sandburg.

Written as only a poet can
Like Sandburg (who, by the way, is from my hometown), Epstein is a poet. Believe me, this poet’s ability to weave words, craft colorful character cameos and draw dramatic dioramas places his presidential portrait on a plane with few others.

Because of this, on one hand, I didn’t want to put the book down from the first day I opened it; yet, on the other, I never wanted to have to stop reading it. Due to other demands on my time, I was lucky to have Epstein’s words with me for a very long time.

Portrait became not my bedtime story, but my lunch time treat. On weekdays when I didn’t have other plans or commitments, I’d go to my van, push the seat back from the steering wheel and spend my lunch hour with the Lincolns, viewing them through Epstein’s eyepiece. I looked forward to the time alone – with the President, Mrs. Lincoln, Epstein and his cast of characters.

I finished the tome today, and I hope what I have to share will inspire you to take a look at this tale, too.

Why this book stands alone

The story Epstein tells is the same one we’ve heard time and again. Lincoln meets Mary, dumps Mary, marries Mary. They have two sons, one dies. They have two more, another dies – this time in the White House. Lincoln the lawyer becomes Lincoln the legislator, then Lincoln the President. They move to the White House, where Mary overspends on her wardrobe and “flub dubs for that damned old house,” while Union soldiers do without the essentials they need. The South surrenders and days later John Wilkes Booth snuffs out the light of the Great Emancipator.

Same old story, right? Why would it be different this time than the many other times we’ve read it? I like to think one reason is because, with a poet’s insight and sensitivity, Epstein shows us a different Abraham and Mary.

He shows us Abraham as a father who has a love for his country and compassion for its people as powerful as for his tag-a-log buddy, Tad. Epstein also shows us the Mary others fail to, a woman who loved her husband, loved her children and suffered in ways few can understand – and he does it with a caring and compassion unparalleled in other works.

Many historians have taken Mary for face value – focusing on all the obvious faults manifested through her mental state and the difficulty it caused in her relationships. Others have painted her a victim, nearly glorifying her. Yet with Epstein, it’s almost as if he’s on the inside looking out, feeling her pain, sensing her rage and understanding her love. I like to think the portrait he paints is more balanced, homing in on the good, but not dusting away the bad as if it never happened.

He shows us a marriage that endured – through it all, until death came between them. Appropriately enough, Epstein’s story stops there.

A taste of the poet’s imagery
Throughout the book, Epstein’s words worked together to pull me in and keep me coming back, but I have to share just a couple of my favorite lines to give you a taste, too.

You may be familiar with James Shields, the man Lincoln was set to duel in the early days of his relationship with Mary. Epstein’s introduction of Shields in the book will always be one of my favorite passages.

James Shields was a short man, with a square jaw, jutting chin, and deep-set eyes under a broad brow. Nevertheless, he got one’s attention when he walked into a room, limping slightly, pressing on as if against a headwind on the deck of a ship.

The passage above is just the beginning of Epstein’s colorful description of the Irishman who came by seafaring vessel from Belfast as a youngster. You’ll find the continued imagery which makes this my favorite when you turn to page 37 in the book.

Epstein’s work will endure
In this volume, just like in those familiar bedtime stories, I knew the characters, I was touched by the beginning, and the ending was as sad this time as it was the first time I heard it.

Yet, Epstein’s portrait of the Lincoln marriage is crafted so that it sheds light on those corners of the image where the sun rarely reaches. You know how Thomas Kinkade can make a painting look as if the light is glowing right through the canvas? Epstein gets this effect with his words. In so doing, we see the marriage, the President and Mrs. Lincoln as never before.

The Lincolns’ marriage may have been cut short on that fateful day in 1865, but Epstein’s panorama of it will bond to the walls of his readers’ memory long after the last page is turned, allowing the legacy to live on.

As for me, I’m thinking it may be a very long time before another luncheon dessert satisfies me like this one.
© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.