Pushcart XL: Anthony Doerr, “Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul” (non-fiction) from Granta, #128

The O'Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

The O’Farrell cabin, Boise, Idaho

I am driving my twin sons home from flag football practice. It’s September, it hasn’t rained in two months and seemingly half of the state of Idaho is on fire. For a week the sky has been an upturned bowl the color of putty, the clouds indistinguishable from haze, enough smoke in the air that we tasted in our food, in our throats, in our sleep. But tonight, for some reason, as we pass St. Luke’s hospital, something in the sky gives way, and a breathtaking orange light cascades across the trees, the road, the windshield. We turned onto Fort Street, the road frosted with smoldering, feverish light, and just before the stoplight on Fifth, in a grassy lot, I notice, perhaps for the first time, a little house.
It’s a log cabin with the swayback roof and a low door, like a cottage for gnomes. A little brick chimney sticks out its shingles. Three enamel signs hang on the south side; a stone bench hunkers on the north.
It’s old. It’s tiny. It seems almost to tremble in this strange, volcanic light. I have passed this house, I’m guessing, three thousand times. I have jogged past it, biked past it, driven past it. Every election for the last twelve years I voted in the theater lobby three hundred yards from it.
And yet I’ve never really seen it before.

Anthony Doerr gets me every time. I start out thinking, well, this isn’t going to be anything I’m interested in, the history of Boise, Idaho. And I end up in tears, and I’ve made a new friend named John and his new wife Mary, and it doesn’t matter that they’ve been dead over a century; they are part of my life now, and I’ll think of them whenever I see an old cabin in some corner of a nothing town somewhere: someone was here. They had a story, and now their story is part of my story.

Doerr interweaves present with past with distant past as he remembers Boise before “eighteen Starbucks, all twenty-nine playgrounds, all ten thousand streetlights” and thinks about his own road to parenthood, the process of preparing a nursery for twins just as John had prepared his cabin for Mary, on her way from Colorado, back in the mid-19th century when Idaho was still a territory. He uses this concept of preparing a welcome as a connection: “When you prepare a welcome, you prepare yourself…. You say: Here. This might be humble, this might not be the place you know. This might not be everything you dreamed of. But it’s something you can call home.”

And he brings in storytelling – the theme I’ve sensed for several pieces now in this anthology, the theme dear to every writer and every reader – as a beautiful close to the story, a close that loops back to the opening:

What lasts? Is there anything you’ve made in your life that will still be here 150 years from now? Is there anything on your shelves that will be tagged and numbered and kept in a warehouse like this?
What does not last, if they are not retold, are the stories. Stories need to be resurrected, we’ve typified, reimagined; otherwise they get bundled with us into our graves: 100,000 of them going into the ground every hour.
Or maybe they float a while, suspended in the places we used to be, waiting, hidden in plain sight, until the day when the sky breaks and the lights come on and the right person is passing by.

Like I said, he gets me every time. He makes me want to tell someone’s story, quick, before it’s too late.

Pushcart 2013: Anthony Doerr, “Two Nights” (non-fiction) from Fugue #38, Winter/Spring 2010

Photos by JP Everett

Photos by JP Everett

Welcome to Idaho. We have ten major rivers, eighteen ski resorts, and fifteen people per square mile. We have hidden valleys where the wind pours through seams of aspens and makes a sound in the leaves exactly like the sound of rain falling on a pond. We have forests where the growing season is so short that fifty-year-old trees are only four feet tall, and get so rimed with ice in January that they look like gardens of oversized, glittering cauliflower. We also have an escalating methamphetamine crisis, looming water disputes, massive agribusiness feedlots, and hour-long lines to eat dinner at the Cheesecake Factory.

I’m very fond of Anthony Doerr’s fiction; he has a way of blending science, place, and humanity into gripping stories. And now I find his non-fiction does the same. You can read this essay online (it’s on Page 45 of the magazine, but it’s page 59 of the Issuu document).

I was a bit thrown by the changes in focus. We start out with a long view: Idaho. He zooms in close very quickly to the small, reclusive, and obscure band of Native Americans who lived with nature in these very parts, a hundred and twenty-eight years before:

They’ve been known by lots of names: Tukudeka, Sheepeaters, Toyani, Snakes, Arrow Makers. There probably weren’t ever more than a couple of thousand of them. They lived in caves, in clefts in the rocks, and in wickiups made of sticks. They wore snowshoes in winter, and their furs were expertly tanned. Sometimes, supposedly, they hunted while wearing the decapitated heads of animals. Their bows, painstakingly crafted by heating and laminating sections of sheep horn, were renowned; one witness describes one of these bows sending an obsidian-tipped arrow through a nine-inch pine tree at a distance of fifteen paces.

This particular group, related to the Shoshoni, are yet another tragic chapter in the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of the expanding United States. I’m taking a World History course at the moment, so I’m recently steeped anew in the arrogance of the nineteenth century Caucasian taking what is desired from whoever might have it. But while this article does describe the conquest of what was likely the last free group of Native Americans in the Lower 48, Doerr looks a lot closer. And he looks at both sides, from an equally personal distance.

The diary entry of a soldier – one Private Edgar Hoffner, probably a very young man – notes his burial of one of his comrades, and his casual report of the burning of everything in a small Tudukeda settlement. Doerr reflects on this:

How do things get to the point where a person would think so little of burning the possessions of eight or nine families?
Any time you look for evil in an individual person, though, you’ll almost never find it….

And what about the settlers who demanded the Tukudeka be brought in? Isn’t it folly to judge them, too?… All their lives they’d pumped each other full of terrible stories: Indians were attacking wagon trains and burning children in front of their mothers; Indians were ruthless and inhuman assassins. By the late 19th century, the Tukudeka were probably more legend than reality, anyway; they were yetis, sylphs, bogeyman. Anything happened – a rancher was murdered, a horse was stolen, a pie disappeared off the windowsill – and who are you going to blame?

While this may seem the story of something that happened a long time ago, it doesn’t take much consideration to bring it into the present. At the time, the soldier didn’t think he was committing an atrocity. To the contrary, he probably felt he was helping out the settlers, acting in the service of his country and the grand and glorious thing called Manifest Destiny, something that seemed like a good idea at the time.

What is it that we’re doing, right now, that someone fifty or a hundred – or ten – years from now will look back on, and wonder how we slept at night? My in-laws, who were staunch liberals (they’ve now passed), used to tell me about how it seemed prudent, even necessary, to them to imprison (and that’s what internment was) Americans of Japanese descent during WWII. Not so long ago I was uncertain about whether maybe there really were WMD in Iraq. Things look different when everyone’s scared, or caught up in the fervor of mass patriotism. Does that excuse the excess committed in the name of safety? And when do we finally admit that perhaps what we’re calling “safety” is merely “expediency”? And that no one wants to be the one who goes down in history as the one who got it wrong, so everyone errs on the side of paranoia?

Doerr shifts focus again at the end of this very moving section, this very personal look at both the Tukudeka and Private Hoffner, zooming out to Idaho again, and even further:

Every life here, no matter how sequestered, no matter how impounded, is still informed by the land, for better or worse. And that for me is what Idaho continues to be about, this territory, this state, this country, the stripe of the Milky Way printed across a velvet sky and the silhouettes of mountains strobing in and out of view during lightning storms.

Everything – mammoths, short-faced bears, western camels – eventually goes extinct.… And there’s no reason to think it won’t happen to us, too; that, someday, some final band of humans will build signal fires among the rocks, and looked down at who or what ever has come to finish us off.

To be honest, I think the connection of the two ideas is tenuous. But maybe that’s because Doerr did such a great job drawing me in to the lives of the Tukudeka and Private Hoffner; I didn’t want to leave, to return to the present, to zoom out. Or maybe, not being nature-minded, I just went in a different direction from where Doerr went. Maybe that’s what a great essay is: it lets you live in a place you don’t want to leave, and links together the long shot and the close-up – the personal and the universal, or the inward-view and the outward-view – in ways that let the reader go far. Exactly where the reader goes, is up to her.

PEN/O.Henry 2012: Anthony Doerr, “The Deep” from Zoetrope All-Story, Fall 2010

Claire B. Cotts: "(untitled) girl with red hair"

Claire B. Cotts: “(untitled) girl with red hair”

Tom is born in 1914 in Detroit, a quarter mile from International Salt. His father is offstage, unaccounted for. His mother operates a six-room, underinsulated boardinghouse populated with locked doors, behind which drowse the grim possessions of itinerant salt workers: coats the colors of mice, tattered mucking boots, aquatints of undressed women, their breasts faded orange. Every six months a miner is laid off, gets drafted, or dies, and is replaced by another, so that very early in his life Tom comes to see how the world continually drains itself of young men, leaving behind only objects—empty tobacco pouches, bladeless jackknives, salt-caked trousers—mute, incapable of memory.

What might your life be like if you were born with a hole in your heart, back before open-heart surgery was possible? If you learned, at the age of four when fainting spells started, that your life expectancy was sixteen; eighteen, if you’re lucky? If the doctor advised against any excitement – your heart only had so many beats in it, after all – so your mother moved your bed into a closet away from lights and sound, then handed you the mop and steel wool to do your chores with the warning to “Go slow”? If the salt mines – what an image, those salt mines, a frequent metaphor for hard labor – were part of your minute-to-minute life:

Every day, all day, the salt finds its way in. It encrusts washbasins, settles on the rims of baseboards. It spills out of the boarders, too: from ears, boots, handkerchiefs. Furrows of glitter gather in the bedsheets: a daily lesson in insidiousness.

You might spend your heartbeats on a red-haired girl at school named Ruby, who brings to school a book about sea creatures, all the mysterious ways of the sea, the salt calling to your senses, maybe, from three million years ago. Even when you have to stop going to school because of all the fainting, Ruby might stop by with a jar of tadpoles because she noticed you’re interested in sea creatures. Your mom would throw them out, of course, but your friendship with Ruby could blossom anyway to include heartbeat-expensive clandestine meetings and explorations of the marsh and books and the world – “Everything, Tom thinks. follows a path worn by those who have gone before: egrets, clouds, tadpoles. Everything.” – might culminate in one single kiss before the Depression hit and nothing would be the same; Ruby disappears from your life, your mother dies, the boardinghouse is foreclosed, and you move downtown to find Mr. Weems, one of the boarders who was like a grandfather to you; he gets you a job in the maternity ward of the hospital, where you encounter Ruby, now a Mrs., again.

Who knows, you might live to be twenty-one, in spite of all the profligate heartbeating. And that might be just long enough for one ineffably sweet trip to the aquarium with Ruby and her baby.

For a moment Ruby is being slowly dragged away from him, as if he were a swimmer caught in a rip, and with every stroke the back of her neck recedes farther into the distance. Then she sits back, and the park heels over, and he can feel the bench become solid beneath him once more.
I used to think, Tom says, that I had to be careful with how much I lived. As if life wa a pocketful of coins. You only got so much and you didn’t want to spend it all in one place.
Ruby looks at him. Her eyelashes whisk up and down.
But now I know life is the one thing in the world that never runs out. I might run out of mine, and you might run out of yours, but the world will never run out of life. And we’re all very lucky to be part of something like that.

A trapdoor opens in the gravel between Tom’s feet, black as a keyhole, and he glances down.

Anthony Doerr has a way of melding setting with character and plot. The salt mines fade into the background as the story goes on, as the sea receded from Detroit, but salt remains as the tinder that starts the ball rolling and in Tom’s ongoing fascination with the sea. In his Contributor note, he recounts how the story came alive: he started with an interest in the life in the oceans, life we’ve only known about for a tiny fraction of our intellectual history; that story was, he says, “heavy on atmosphere and light on humanity.” He put it aside until a television news report compared the current recession to The Great Depression, at which point he researched the era to see how similar or dissimilar it was. Eventually the two ideas came together in one story, with Tom’s heart condition bringing “the right pressure.”

Ann Graham made an observation that added to my enjoyment of the story: “The present tense seems like it would make the story feel close and immediate but it doesn’t feel like that. But, what I think is the theme, living in the moment, the present tense is perfect.” I wouldn’t have thought of that. But she’s right: it is perfect.

This story won the prestigious (and valuable) London Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. You can watch a lovely reading of a significant excerpt (about six pages) by Damian Lewis from WordTheatre’s Sunday Best from the Oxford Literary Festival, part of the lead-in to the announcement of the winner of the Award.

Anthony Doerr – Memory Wall: Six Stories

I decided to read this book because one of the bloggers I follow* decided to read it this month. Six stories, most fairly long. I’ll confess, one, “Procreate, Generate” did not interest me in the slightest, though I read it through, hoping it would be an infertility story worth reading. Forgive me if I sound heartless. I’ve read many, many stories, true and fictional, about infertile couples doing dramatic things to have babies, and I have some thought on the matter, and I’m just not interested in reading another account unless it’s handled differently or brings something new to the table. This one didn’t, at least not to me. YMMV. I also pretty much ran through “The Demilitarized Zone” without really registering what was happening. I’m not sure if that was because I was distracted or if some sentence put me off or if it just didn’t interest me.

The other stories more than make up for these two disappointments, however. A lot is made of the common link of memory in all the stories. The title story, “Memory Wall,” includes a science-fiction element which I find interesting and positive; it’s always nice to see someone include a little SF in literary fiction. I’ve tried to imagine the story without the memory machine and the cartridges; it would be very different, because the subculture of “memory tappers” would not be included, and this is a key idea of the story: what would happen if this machine existed, how would it be exploited? Everything that has value has the potential for thievery and exploitation, and this machine is no different. It was a lovely story, with many relationships that were complicated and sometimes a little obscure. I wonder what memories I would like to relive, which one I would tuck away as special, which ones I would want to lock up and never see again. There is an up side to dementia, after all. I just heard this on Jeopardy the other day, it never occurred to me before, though of course, it makes perfect sense – “amnesty” is from the same Latin root as “amnesia”. Amnesty is a forgiveness so deep, it is forgetting of the wrong. The nature of amnesty, of forgiveness, the link to forgetting – it’s not possible to voluntarily forget – interests me and some day I want to explore this. The concept of forgiveness is not explored as much as memory in this story, and I wish it were, since Alma, the woman at the core, could stand to be forgiven of some things, as could we all. Is forgiveness possible if one forgets? Forgiveness is a process that is ongoing, eternal, unlike forgetting. Ah, but I keep getting away from the story, but not really. Doerr’s shtick, if you will, is the world stage, the variety of locations he uses for settings, and he’s placed this in South Africa: does this perhaps have anything to do with memory, amnesty, forgiveness? Could it be set in the US? Of course, but would it lose some of the power? I’m not so sure, I think there’s plenty to forgive here as well. It’s beautiful, it’s a little strange, it’s lush, it’s sad. It’s a little heavy on the symbolism. The last sentence, for example. But very, very enjoyable, full of people who want something and go after it full throttle.

“Village 113” is another beautiful story. I’m a bit of a sucker for stories about Asian folklore, and the seed keeper of this story, with her engineer son and the schoolteacher, does not disappoint. It’s a little heavy-handed on the memory theme, but still beautiful. This story won the 2008 O Henry prize, so of course it’s wonderful, and that’s another series I need to start reading more regularly (I have 3 of the past 10 years). In an interview Anthony Doerr explains it was inspired by the building of the Three Mile Dam, and though he never went to any small villages, he spent some time in Hong Kong doing research. I have no idea what a small village in China is like, or what happens when a dam is built (or, for that matter, why a dam is so important) but it reads as absolute authenticity to me. I’d like to know what someone who has more actual knowledge than I thinks.

“The River Nemunas” turned out to be the big surprise. A 15-year-old girl from Kansas is sent to her grandfather’s in Lithuania after her parents die. Forgive me if I slip into teenage snidery: oh, really? And what Child Services worker ok’d that one? What, the only place worse than Kansas is Lithuania? Ok, snap out of it! Because, in spite of several leaps of logic, it turned into a really beautiful story that had me in tears over… a sturgeon. Yep, the fish. No one eats sturgeon any more, they’re endangered, I don’t even know if they’re available. I remember reading FDR was fond of sturgeon and eggs for breakfast, and I always wanted to try it but I’ve never encountered it on a menu or in the supermarket (or on Top Chef, Iron Chef, Chopped, Julia Child, or any other cooking show where I’ve encountered things I never knew existed). Now I’ve encountered one, albeit a fictional one. The story goes for memory, of course, in the tours of now-abandoned Soviet missile sites and a dead river that isn’t quite dead yet, in a child’s sorrow that surfaces in strange ways, in an old woman who has lost most of her memory, in a Grandfather who becomes a believer. It’s a wonderful story.

I was looking forward to “Afterworld” perhaps the most: the blurb described it as “a woman has seizures that return her to her childhood in Nazi Germany and her escape.” But I found it too jumbled to be enjoyable, more of an academic “hey, what if we do it this way” than a story I could lose myself in, so it was disappointing. The time shifts – epileptic seizures in two time periods – were just too difficult for me to follow, and it became a struggle rather than a pleasure to read. I would like to try this one again later, see if I find the experience better.

All in all, not bad: about a 50-50 ratio, and the hits were hits out of the park.

* I don’t remember which blogger. I follow over 20 blogs. People who don’t understand blogs, or who follow “pop culture” blogs or personal blogs, think that’s impossible. I suppose it would be if every blogger I follow blogged every day, but of course they don’t. I follow one blog that hasn’t been updated in almost two years (I keep hoping…. Binny, will you ever start blogging The West Wing again?) and several that haven’t been updated since October of last year. Most post one or two entries a week. Most of the entries are short. Some of the entries are not of particular interest so I just skim the entries when they appear on my Dashboard or in my mailbox. But then, someone says, “I think I’ll read Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall” and I type out a library request which comes in at an unpredictable time, so I have three weeks to finish it and I’d better get cracking, because another library book came in at the same time and I have three weeks to finish that one, too, and decide if I want to buy either of them, though I think I’ve already decided Memory Wall is a keeper… and in the meantime I really want to continue with Ha Jin and the Madras Press series 2 and the Ken Kalfus novel I just bought on the strength of the stories I just read… excuse me, I have to go read. I suppose at some point the blogger who started me on this journey will post an entry about Memory Wall. If not, I’m glad I read it, anyway.