Reflections on Louis Bromfield, hospice & great indie bookstores.The Ohioana Library Association has just announced that Shepherd: A Memoir is one of five finalists for the 2015 Ohioana Book Award in Nonfiction. I was and remain surprised and grateful. The north doesn’t get behind its books, not the way the south does, but the Ohioana Library Association has always been a shining exception to that feeling.
The association established its awards in 1942 for fiction, nonfiction, books about Ohio or an Ohioan, poetry, and juvenile literature. Even if your book is not eventually nominated for an award, the good folks at Ohioana will note it in their Ohioana Quarterly if you or your book touches on the Buckeye State. When I was marketing manager at Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, I sent Ohioana a boatload of books. Our authors received thoughtful reviews in return.
I treasure Shepherd’s review in Ohioana Quarterly last October, especially its phrase, “The ups and downs of Gilbert’s farm projects coincide with a deeper reflection on the poignant dilemmas common to all humankind.” Above all, a memoirist likes being told he’s not narcissistic.
The Ohioana honor caps a season of firsts for me and Shepherd. This struck me in May, driving into northern Ohio to give a reading. I had just received the “Spirit of Hospice Rookie of the Year Award” from Hospice of Central Ohio. I’d undergone training as a patient companion the previous spring, and my bedside visits had changed me. At first it surprised me that no one seemed curious about my work with the dying. I’m sure I was the same way. Death is messy and scary, and my own issues with it were one reason I volunteered. And what I’d learned is that helping in hospice isn’t depressing. That the dying are still just people, no different from you or from me. Except a doctor has made official their imminent mortality.
One reason for my hospice work had been to widen my sphere—in a time when my life and my wife’s seemed to revolve exclusively around our work at Otterbein University. And Hospice was a natural venue because of its service during my mother’s terminal illness. I was beginning to see another connection between joining hospice—just as my book was published—and my mother. She did not live to see Shepherd, but she had helped me with it. I read passages to Mom in her hospital bed. Ever the sharp editor, at one point she said, “There’s something wrong with that sentence.” She was right.
A great indie bookstore in Mansfield, OhioAs I drove that glorious afternoon on the way to the bookstore, I savored the season. It was May 1, neither early nor late spring. As always I marveled that the trees weren’t yet fully leafed. But a golden-green haze blurred the domes of the woods. After months of looking at gray-brown bark, my eyes lingered on the soft new buds adorning the roadside trees. I was bound for my book’s ultimate venue: Mainstreet Books, in Mansfield, Ohio. Mansfield’s most famous native son, Louis Bromfield, was a hero to me as I grew up in Satellite Beach, Florida. He showed me how I might redeem the loss of our family farm in southwestern Georgia. I write in Shepherd about stumbling across reprints of his books as a teenager:
Though the Pulitzer he won as a young man was for fiction, Bromfield’s books on farming in tune with nature, especially Pleasant Valley (1945) and its sequel Malabar Farm (1948) are Bromfield’s literary legacy. He won an Ohioana Career Award in 1946—just as his farming phase got started and ten years before his death.
Sometimes, curled up with the chunky mass-market paperbacks in an overstuffed chair in our Florida room, I ached with my sense of loss. When I excitedly showed Dad my books, surprise flickered across his handsome, impassive face—The Great Stone Face, a brother would one day call it—and he pointed out the hardcover originals in his library. Bound in black cloth, they were embossed with a red Harper & Brothers logo that showed a torch being passed from one had to another.
Ohioana’s web site offers a fine essay, “Louis Bromfield’s Cubic Foot of Soil,” by David D. Anderson, about the writer-farmer-conservationist’s career and importance. Anderson pegs Bromfield’s appeal when he calls Animals and Other People, published in 1955 when Bromfield was ill with the cancer that would kill him the next year, “a remarkable re-creation of Malabar, its people, and its animals, and the mystic rather than rational ties that unite them.”
Bromfield wrote impressionistically, with sensory details and bold strokes, as if painting murals for friends in a cozy bar after a few drinks. The roots of his hunger for a bountiful, holistic life are explored in Ellen Bromfield Geld’s memoir The Heritage: A Daughter’s Memories of Louis Bromfield. It is lyrically written, a loving yet honest portrait of a man with epic ambitions and a forceful personality. These qualities both attracted and alienated others. The Heritage won an Ohioana Award in 1963, and Ohio University Press returned it to print in 1999 when I worked there.
Driving into Mansfield in the glory of Ohio’s burgeoning mid-spring, now pushing my own Bromfield-esque book and hosted by an independent bookstore, my belly was full of good fortune. Arriving early for the event, I ate a piece of blackberry pie in the diner beside Mainstreet Books. The old downtown and the diner took me back to the first job I landed after college, as a newspaper reporter in the north Georgia mountain town of Dalton. There were two eateries in downtown Dalton, the U.S. Café and the Oakwood, each with its loyalists.My sense of déjà vu deepened when I met Llalan Fowler (“Laylan”—the name is Welsh, after a great aunt who lived in Scotland) and Ben Madden, the bookstore’s young managers. Bromfield had excoriated Mansfield in fiction for its money-grubbing crudity, and now their bookstore is a cultural oasis there. I felt nostalgic. If you are doing anything interesting and creative in such a place, you meet everyone else who is. I’d been an actor in Dalton Little Theatre—“entertaining Georgia since 1869”—and from that, my newspaper work, and classes at a karate dojo, I knew an interesting bunch of people. Here in Mansfield was a sense of young folks lined out on good paths. And making a difference in their town. It felt good to think of such people busy in burghs across the republic.
The shelves of Mainstreet Books hold a thoughtful and surprising selection; the store regularly hosts authors, musicians, and ice cream socials. Llalan and Ben made their way back to Mansfield after college and various jobs—he started at Ohio State, went to Oklahoma and Denver, and she studied English at Ohio University and worked in bookstores in DC, Boston, and New York.
Llalan’s parents attended my reading, along with some of her friends from high school days—others who had returned to Mansfield after college. One young woman listened thoughtfully, eating her takeout pizza while taking notes—clearly for her own work, clearly a writer. Another woman was interested in gardening and animals and finding a paying farming sideline for the acreage she’d inherited. A clergyman wandered in and asked me about agrarian author Wendell Berry.
As Bromfield himself said in one of his farming books, it’s amazing what people can accomplish when they finally settle down and dig in. We seldom see our glory days as they happen. But if we’re lucky, one day we know they’re always happening now.