Homegrown Literati

by Ida Fogle, Library Associate
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.

Beginning with Mark Twain's river adventures, described in "Life on the Mississippi" (1883), a number of Missouri authors have embarked on journeys of exploration, both literal and literary. They've traveled on trains, waterways and roads, with the hope of discovering something about the world and themselves.

Blue Highways

Thirty years ago, William Least Heat-Moon's travel book, "Blue Highways" (Little, Brown, 1982), introduced a new phrase into the American lexicon, the title words having come to be known as a reference to back roads. Heat-Moon's trip through small-town USA was undertaken in his Ford Econoline van. He describes an array of landscapes, from the hills and hollows of the Appalachians to the seemingly endless Montana plains. In Indiana, he found a road "so crooked it could run for the legislature." Even more memorable are the people he met in places such as Dime Box, Texas, and Bad Axe, Mich. — café owners and fishermen, a Franciscan monk and a runaway teen. In sharing their stories, Heat-Moon helped America rediscover itself.

Three decades later, readers might wonder what has become of the people and places Heat-Moon described. Edgar Ailor III and his son, Edgar IV, catch us up in "Blue Highways Revisited" (University of Missouri Press, 2012). They retraced Heat-Moon's route, visiting many of the same people mentioned in the book. The result is a volume full of remarkable photographs that take the reader along on the adventure. As an extra treat, the authors will speak about their experiences at 7 p.m. tonight at the Columbia Public Library.

Journey Man

Just as Thoreau famously "traveled a great deal in Concord," Gary Dietrich has traveled a great deal on the 8.9-mile MKT Trail. In "Seasons of the MKT Trail" (AKA Publishing, 2010), he shares photographs he has taken over the years. These pictures give a feel for the immeasurable wonders of nature that can be found in one small area. Wayne Anderson's voyages have taken him around the world. In "Offbeat Travel" (AKA Publishing, 2011), he offers glimpses of unusual places he has seen. He shows a penchant for ghosts, mummies and anything underground. Above-ground attractions include the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsdale, Ariz. William Claassen is another world traveler who calls Missouri home. His book, "Journey Man" (Cornel & Williams, 2012), recounts decades of adventures and education, beginning on a kibbutz in Israel and wrapping up at an American Indian ceremony in the United States.

"Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip" (Terrace Books, 2008) provides a fun account of the metamorphosis from potato to munch. Author Dirk Burhans digs into the origins of potato farming and the transformation of the chip from a localized restaurant specialty to a multimillion-dollar snack food industry.

The Ruins of Us

"The Ruins of Us" (Harper Perennial, 2012), a novel by Keija Parssinen, tells the story of Rosalie, an American expatriate living in Saudi Arabia. She believed she was building the life she wanted, but now her son is distancing himself from her while falling in with a crowd of zealots. Her daughter spends her days publishing a blog that could get the family in trouble. And Rosalie's husband has taken a second wife.

Lise Saffran chooses a very different setting for her novel, "Juno's Daughters" (Plume, 2011). Each summer, Jenny Alexander's island community near Seattle plays host to a traveling Shakespeare troupe. One year, the acting company brings a production of "The Tempest," and that's not only the name of a play. Jenny and her daughters, Lilly and Frankie, become involved with the play and the actors. Relationships are frazzled when Jenny and Lilly fall for the same guy, while Frankie develops an infatuation with the idea of leaving the island.

Bridget Bufford's novel, "Cemetery Bird" (Casperian, 2011), also looks at family dynamics. Twenty years ago, Jay Aubuchon's drug-addicted mother disappeared. To understand why, Jay traveled to Arizona to find her Apache relatives, and she stayed on to work as a "hotshot," battling forest fires. Now, with physical injuries that mirror her emotional wounds, she's back in Missouri, caring for a nephew who has autism.

"Almost Perfect" (Delacorte Press, 2009) sums up 18-year-old Logan's opinion of Sage, the new girl in town. Brian Katcher's award-winning young-adult novel examines the reactions of a typical small-town teen when his girlfriend reveals a big secret—she is biologically male.

A Good American

Taking a big picture approach to the novel, Alex George considers what it means to be "A Good American" (Amy Einhorn Books, 2012) through the story of four generations of the Meisenheimer family. In 1904, Frederick and Jette leave Germany for the United States to get away from Jette's parents. Life deposits them in Beatrice, Mo., where they put down roots and strive to be good citizens in their adopted home. George shows how the United States both shapes and is shaped by the immigrant experience.

For readers who like poetry, homegrown options also abound. Former Missouri Poet Laureate Walter Bargen has penned many volumes. "Theban Traffic" (Cherry Grove Collections, 2008) is a melding of the mythological and the modern, as seen through the eyes of two characters, Jake and Stella.

If you'd like to learn more about area literati, click the "New and Local" link at www.dbrl.org/books-more or check out the website of the Columbia Chapter of the Missouri Writers' Guild, http://ccmwg.org.

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