Red Chair Reads: Another Place and Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plains

Every two years, I play “literary critic” by volunteering as a preliminary reader for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.  Sounds grand, doesn’t it?  Actually, the long list takes all comers, which is how I ended up reading the totally execrable 33 Bits a few years back.  I may never recover from that experience.  Anyway, nothing since has even come close to being as bad as that book, but I keep thinking there must be a better mechanism for slamming the door on delusional writers.  Cross my fingers, but I have not encountered another Jane Bash since the 33 Bits debacle.

This year, my nonfiction choice was Another Place and Time: Voices from the Carrisa Plainsby Craig Deutsche.  I picked this book because I think local histories can provide wonderful material for literary nonfiction works, but the genre requires someone who not only knows how to write but who also understands that organization and ruthless editing are absolutely essential when dealing with oral histories.  Oral histories provide valuable glimpses of the past, but they can be difficult to handle.  Sometimes, boring stories are just boring stories, and putting them down on paper does not make them any less boring or repetitive. This book could have benefited from an editing that asked the critical question: Does this anecdote add to, or detract from, the main narrative?  Craig Deutsche is a reasonably competent writer with a natural, folksy style that worked well with the stories in the book; unfortunately, in his eagerness to tell us how he got from point A to point B, his voice began to compete with the “voices from the Carrisa Plains.”   Somewhere near the middle of the book, he made a too-many-pages detour into a seemingly endless search for the recorder of some oral history tapes he found.  It was ultimately a fruitless search, and the person he thought had made the tapes turned out not to be the recorder after all.  This section, as well as the “pause for assessment” interlude, seemed a self-indulgent chapter that should not have been included at all.  Neither of the chapters added anything substantive to the book.

Another problem with the book is the organization.  Craig Deutsche made a point of telling us that his book is not meant to be a straight history.  Fair enough.  I admit it, the historian in me thinks the book would have been more valuable if it had foot notes or end notes, a better index, a better reference section — in other words, more rigorous documentation.  But I can overlook all that, if only he had found a better way to organize the subjects.  I understand the difficulties of artificial boundaries: cowboys, shepherds, ranchers — there are overlaps in roles, in places, in time.  But it was frustrating to be reading about a particular person or family, only to have the subject be dropped with the note that “so-and-so” will be encountered again at some later chapter.  This was particularly glaring when Deutsch embarked on the search for the Van Mastre family, and wrote about the beginning of the journey in the chapter on the search for the oral history tapes recorder.  And then, for some inexplicable reason, he dropped the family until the end of the book.  Perhaps it was meant to be suspenseful, but it just added to the impression of disorganization and the feeling that perhaps the author should have been less ambitious with the scope of work.  The Van Mastre family could indeed have been the subject of a monograph all by themselves, a lens through which to view a particular history of agriculture in California.

I quibble about the scholarship but not the intent: the book is important for shedding light on a little-known piece of California history.  The author has made a truly remarkable effort to gather in one place the stories of a people and place, stories that highlight the resilience of pioneers as well as the sometimes ephemeral nature of human settlements.   And, perhaps unintended, the book is also a celebration of the life of the land, its resilience and its ability to absorb, and cast off, the efforts of man.  Someday I will go to the Carissa Plains;  perhaps I will hear the voices, but more likely, I will feel merely my own puny mortality.

Red Chair Reads: Medicine on the Santa Fe Trail

During my last trip to Santa Fe, I found Gunstock Hill Books, bookstore for rare and used 1st editions.  I spent an interesting hour talking to the proprietor, Henry Lewis, bibliophile and retired M.D.  It’s a good thing he made plenty of money before opening a bookstore: it is absolutely an act of foolhardy love.

Old medical texts are always interesting; when I hold one in my hands, I feel this kinship — usually tenuous, but nevertheless present — with the generations of doctors/healers who went before.  This kinship holds even when I read, in appalled fascination, the advice and practices of a bygone era.  So I made an impulse buy:  Medicine on the Santa Fe Trail, by Thomas B. Hall, Jr., M.D.

Dr. Hall may have been a good physician, but he was a lousy writer.  I thought the book might have been a vanity press book (limited edition of 1000 copies, of which I now own #542, signed by author), but it was not.  It was published in 1971 by the Friends of Arrow Rock, an organization dedicated to preserving and telling the story of historic Arrow Rock, Missouri.  The standards for a “local history” book is not usually high, and this book was no exception.  For non-fiction works, I like to know why the author wrote the book.  I read the acknowledgments, the introduction, the 11 pages on Dr. Thomas Bryan Lester, and realized that although Dr. Hall wanted to present a history of disease and trauma on the trail through the eyes of a physician who traveled with army units in 1847-48, he simply could not organize his material into a cogent narrative.  The introduction should have been an overview, but was all about Dr. John Sappington, who became “America’s strongest quinine protagonist and its largest user,” and ends abruptly with a sentence about the importance of buffalo robes on the trail.  The next chapter was on Thomas Bryan Lester . . . .  why?  Why did Dr. Hall choose Dr. Lester as the focal point for the book?

The internet to the rescue!

Dr. Lester (1824-1888) was the brother-in-law of Dr. Matthew Walton Hall, who, as it turned out, was the grandfather of the author.  The lineage itself probably is not all that important, but it was important enough to the author that he constructed his micro history around it, and I wish he had clarified it.  Dr. Hall’s narrative truly was excruciating, but I don’t suppose medical school was/is the place to learn the finer points of grammar, punctuation, and essay writing.  I am guessing either no one edited the book, or no one had the gumption to really go at it with a red pencil.  However, Dr Lester’s diary as well as the various tables and data the author gathered from archival sources were fascinating and would be of special interest for those researching life (and death) on the Santa Fe Trail.  I would love to have known about this book a few years back when I was working on my environmental history project.