Volume XVIII, Issue Two | June 2020
My Five Books
Recently, the editor of the alumni magazine at my alma mater, the University of Denver, asked several of us to list the five books we’d take if we were stranded on a desert island—or in this case, home-bound due to coronavirus.
My first thought was the Bible. What’s more comforting than that? Besides, there are Old Testament chapters that I’ve never even tried to read. But I figured everybody else would list the Bible and I ought to come up with something different. So these are the books I listed:
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. You know if you’ve read any of my book suggestions in Piecework that I love Lamott’s books on faith. They’re all good but Traveling Mercies, her first one, is my favorite. She writes for people who don’t know what they believe, which is particularly apt in these difficult times when we’re trying to figure out God’s purpose. Her favorite prayers are “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I find that pretty much covers it. I almost listed her Bird by Bird, which is every writer’s favorite book on writing, but these days, I need answers to bigger questions than how to write a book.
One Hundred and One Famous Poems. This 1928 volume belonged to my dad. When I was growing up, families had only a few books, and I read this one so often that it was tattered. I claimed it after Dad died and had it rebound. I liked to memorize poetry when I was little and loved the cadence of such poems as “The Highwayman.” At Christmas a couple of years ago, I recited Eugene Field’s “Jest ‘For Christmas” from memory. I first read William Shakespeare and Edna St. Vincent Millay in that book. And although poets such as James Whitcomb Riley are forgotten today, I still get emotional when I read his “Out to Old Aunt Mary’s.” These poems take me back to my childhood.
The Tenmile Range by Belle Turnbull. I was surprised that I picked two books of poetry, because I don’t even like poetry that much. But I love Belle’s book because it evokes the Breckenridge I knew when I moved there as a bride in 1963. The poems were about the mining town people who stayed on after the gold played out. Some of those folks were still there in the 1960s. When I wrote Prayers For Sale and The Last Midwife, I drew heavily on Belle’s poems as well as the novels of her roommate, Helen Rich. The two lived in a log cabin when I knew them and took their whiskey neat. Helen encouraged me to write about Summit County, and I did, although it took me many years to do so.
The Diary of Mattie Spenser. Well, of course I had to include one of my own books, and Mattie is my favorite. There is more of me in this book than any of my others. It’s important to me for another reason. Although I’d published two previous novels, I was having a hard time writing a third, and I thought if this one didn’t work, I’d give up fiction. So a lot was riding on Mattie. Not until this book was published did I call myself a novelist.
When I was asked to list these books, self-quarantine had only begun. Nobody realized it could last for months and that we’d be doing all sorts of things because of boredom. One of them for me was cleaning out the bookshelves. First to go were the gardening books. When am I ever going to plant a formal garden? Then there were the 30-year-old decorating books with ideas that are long out of date. I pared down the western history books, because there are subjects I’ll never write about. And I hate to say it but a lot of the quilt books went (to the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum when it reopens.). Why do I need a book on the quilts of Tennessee?
Cleaning out the bookshelves did have a nice benefit. I came across books I hadn’t read in years, among them Truman Capote’s short stories, my mom’s Zane Grey novels, The Matron’s Manuel of Midwifery and the Diseases of Pregnancy (why didn’t I know I had that when I was writing The Last Midwife?), and The Portable Dorothy Parker.
Someplace to Call Home Honored
Western Writers of America announced in March that Someplace to Call Home is the winner of its 2020 Spur Award for juvenile fiction. The book, my fourth midgrade novel, is set in Kansas during the Dust Bowl and tells the story of three orphans who are searching for a place to settle. The Spur awards were scheduled to be presented at WWW’s annual convention in Rapid City in June, but due to coronavirus, the date has been postponed to Labor Day. Three of my previous novels, The Chili Queen, Tallgrass, and The Last Midwife, won Spurs in the best historical novel category.
Much to my surprise, I’ve learned during the stay-at-home weeks that you can’t read all the time. So I did a thorough house-cleaning, one room a day—moving furniture, oiling and waxing tables and chairs, polishing silver, cleaning out and reorganizing the kitchen cupboards and bookshelves, getting rid of dust that’s accumulated ever since we moved in. I’ve given myself a pedicure; it looks like when I first tried to apply nail polish when I was 10 years old. I cut Bob’s hair, I made a skirt out of a pair of jeans, and I’ve baked.
Like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and pasta, flour was not to be found at the beginning of the pandemic. The only flour I could find was a 50-pound bag on Amazon, so I ordered it, and because I couldn’t lift it, I sat on the sidewalk scooping it into a collection of containers. I’ve always baked bread, but now I’ve started making loaves with cornmeal in them, whole wheat bread, buttermilk bread, everything in the Williams-Sonoma bread book. And I’m baking cookies, including chocolate chunk cookies with chili pepper in them. I finally tackled biscochitos, the anise-flavored Mexican sugar cookies, with a recipe from the Inn of the Governors in Santa Fe. (The secret is lard.)
The baking has had some unexpected results. We’ve been attending church services every Sunday on Zoom. Last week we celebrated communion with cranberry juice and brioche.