December 22, 2013

Light is returning.

We celebrate family and friendship, and honor all those whose lives have led to ours, have touched ours, or will follow ours.

What a joy to be alive in this moment, in this particular place.

With their permission, I’d like to share two emails I’ve received recently from friends who have known me for a long time and understand my life work.

From Jeff Gundy, poet and essayist, friend for 20 years:

“I just finished SALT, and thought I’d write you a few words while it’s fresh in my mind. I liked it very much, troubling as the story is, and am struck again by just how much this mode you’ve found suits your gifts and your commitments. You’ve figured out how to tell stories, long stories, in a series of short poems, and how to engage younger readers without patronizing them, and how to deal with serious, painful issues and realities, and how to embed your narratives in authentic history and traditions from a whole range of cultures and places . . . and, maybe most important, how to write out of your beliefs about peace and justice without sounding preachy or judgmental in the least. I’m just really struck by how much skill, craft, patience, and moral energy it takes to write a book like this one, and how once again you’ve pulled it off.”

And from Don Mager, a graduate student poetry teacher at Syracuse University when I was an undergraduate, and friend ever since:

“Hello Helen,

Are you besieged by a blizzard? Has ice pulled down your trees and wires?

SALT did not wait long at the top of my stack of books to read. What a marvel! You have mastered the verse novel for adolescents and do it better than anyone I know. What amazing achievements each of your books is.

As a kid and teenager I was an insatiable reader. In my small Iowa farm town of 2000, the children’s room of the library was pretty skimpy. But on the wall of middle-school age books, there were some gems that I read over and over. Biographies of Luther Burbank, Marie Currie and Akhnaten. A wonderful illustrated book called Tim The Dog of the Mountains about an Afghan boy with his herd of mountain goats and his Afghan hound named Tim. He would build a fire and sleep on the mountain while his dog kept the goats from straying. The pictures of the rugged barren mountains and Tim with long silk mane in the wind set my imagination on fire. I named my boyhood dog Tim and for years dreamed of getting an Afghan hound someday. As for poetry, there was scant to none. I read illustrated eidtions of Evangeline and Whittier’s Snowbound. Something strong must have resonated because I can still picture those books. But that was about it for poetry.

Had SALT come in into my hands at, say, age 10 or even 13, I can only imagine how quickly I would have taken it into my heart. There is so much about it that my boyhood imagination would have gobbled up. I was not much of a fantasy reader and I’m sure Harry Potter would have bored me. The Lord of the Rings might have spellbound me. In general, I liked stories about “real ” people, but a touch of historical, cultural or geographical strangeness fascinated. A. E. Rolvag’s Giants In The Earth about Norwegian homesteaders in Minnesota was my favorite book for several years.

Here are some of the things that an 11 year old Don Mager would have loved in SALT. The story unfolds swiftly and with astonishing suspense for as little actual action as there is. Each couple poems is a leap forward in the narrative. So many gaps to fill. So much good work for a young imagination. I love your mastery of what to tell and what to leave untold. 11 year old Don would have loved it too. The brushed in strokes of another language and the vast cultural difference another language forces one to confront. 11 year old Don would have worked to get his pronunciation of those magical words down pat. Some he would have memorized and repeated in his mind while riding his bike delivering papers on his early morning paper route. The map and the historical events would have sent him to the encyclopedia, and as with wikipedia’s version of the Battle of Fort Wayne, he would have been offended by the “American” bias. He would have loved walking along in his mind through the woods, hearing birds, watching for deer and losing all track of time. And most powerfully, he would have been fully engrossed in the mystery, suspense and sadness of friendship with its attempts at connection and mutual understanding and failures of communication and painful misunderstandings. The actual language barrier between Anikwa and James is such an amazing metaphor for all the fraught communication issues of adolescence.

The boyhood Don would have had this book on his favorite book list for quite awhile. I am sure that there must be thousands of similar boys now who will do the same if they are fortunate to have Salt come into their hands by some inexplicable serendipity.


The 71 year old Don”

Don’t I have good friends?

To each of you, coming to this little corner of the internet universe, by whatever search has brought you here, I send love and gratitude, and wish you well in everything you do. May you find vitality in your work and play, and may your friends and family love you more than you think you deserve, which I hope is a lot!