New Year Reading: James Baldwin, Willa Cather, Grammy

Yesterday I read all of The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and about a third of My Antonia by Willa Cather. I have read a good deal more of the Cather today.

The Baldwin is, of course, very brilliant. There’s not real space here to unwind my thoughts about it. And perhaps my thoughts and words about it aren’t needed. Everything I think of seems too little, and also too self-centered and too big and too presumptuous. Which does not get me off the hook.

As for the Cather. I started this book years ago but couldn’t make it stick. That has nothing to do with Cather and much to do with my personality and obsessive ticks and sins of omission. I am older now, and hopefully wiser, and more disciplined. I love this book, and I can tell that I will miss it, and its people, when I finish. It reminds me on one level of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books my grandmother read to me when I was very small: the descriptions of frontier life, the harsh winters, the sod houses on the plains. It also reminds me how very close, in a real sense, my grandmother (born in the 20s) was to this kind of life. She was raised in town, but spent time with her cousins on their homestead with their heavy work and homemade toys and pig bladder balloons. I remember very vividly the story about the doll frozen in the puddle in the field. I remember very vividly my Grammy reading to me about the houses on the prairie, and the comic strips in our paper, which she called the funnies, and I remember her stories of the Depression, her impressions, later, of things like segregation. I think about James Baldwin saying that the writer’s task is to excavate the experience of the people that produced them, and about Robert Antoni’s idea that what so many of us are doing, across cultures, is preserving and re-telling our grandmother’s stories. That is very often what I’m doing. And it started with her determination that I should be read to, and that there were certain things that I should know, that certain things were good and certain things were not worth gretzing over.

I have not read Laura Ingalls Wilder ever on my own. 1983, 1984 are not so far back as I would have thought they’d be by now. Grammy’s voice and warmth still very much surround me. I am fortunate and grateful.

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