Essays & a Journey Back
is shelling corn that Montag remembers. And butchering chickens. It is
the big, gaping yawn of a Sunday afternoon when time stood still. He remembers
breaking his sisters collar bone, killing rats, plowing at night.
Memory alone is not enough, though, so he journeys back to see what remains. Will he recognize anyone? Will the land rise to meet him? What will he find that he has left behind? He goes back as an empty cup waiting to be filled, he goes back expecting the world to speak to him. And it does.
Memory and the journey stand side by side. Curlew:Home is a tribute to a place most Americans only fly over, a tribute to people who work the earth and bring crops to harvest, a tribute to Montags parents and his brothers and sisters, and to all the middle western farm families who endure.
- Iowa State Historical Society
· For those of you unfamiliar with my book, Curlew:Home, it is a memoir of growing up on a farm in the northwestern quarter of Iowa during the 1950s, along with the journal of a trip I made back to Curlew in October, 2000. I never planned to write such a memoir; it was spurred by the results an interview I did with my mother in December, 1998. I got from the interview what I thought were two more among my miscellaneous essays ("Her Most Perfect Day Ever" and "Butchering Chickens). But soon I found myself working on a another piece, "Shelling Corn." I had never thought I carried around intense memories of my first fourteen years; yet when I started to list the things I could remember, I found the more I wrote, the more I remembered. Because my memory by its nature is episodic, the narrative tug in Curlew:Home comes from the journal of my trip back to Curlew.
· Since being published October 10th Curlew:Home has been enjoying good reviews and steady sales. This, despite the fact that my publisher, Midday Moon Books, is a small press with a limited budget for promotion and despite the fact that the subject - our middle western existence - is not the latest hot topic of the day.
· So far we've seen only glowing reviews of Curlew:Home - in Booklist (Oct. 1, 2001), the Des Moines Register (Oct. 14, 2001) and Creativity Connection (no. 49), etc. Nice pieces have appeared in the Sioux City Weekender and the Fort Dodge Messenger. And there was a good little notice in The Iowan magazine. I've been astonished (and pleased) by the reception the book has gotten.
· At the end of last July, Mary and I visited the Curlew Community Center to celebrate the pending publication of the book. In a town of 60-some souls, 60 people showed up to help us celebrate, including three area farmers who waited until the very end to come in because they really had to be baling hay or combining oats that fine afternoon, yet they also wanted to stop and say Hi.
· In October we toured throughout northwestern Iowa, stopping at twenty-nine independent bookstores, public libraries, and senior centers, reading and signing books, visiting and reminiscing. I met relatives of mine at nearly half the places we stopped, and talked with people who had some association to Curlew at nearly three quarters of them - they grew up at Curlew, or their grandparents had farmed there, or they'd taught school there. I've come to believe that Curlew is everywhere. At several places students showed up to hear me read: twenty-eight fifth graders in Mallard; seven journalism students at West Bend; twelve "Writing III" students and their teacher in Cherokee; and fifteen American Literature students at Ruthven.
· The Welcome Center and Chamber of Commerce in Emmetsburg, Iowa, deserves the trophy for Most Copies Sold: Anne Sween at the Welcome Center first ordered three copies, then six copies, then twelve copies, twelve more copies, twelve more copies, then twenty-four copies. Then she ordered twelve copies of my book of poems, Middle Ground, because people have started asking for it as well. Sales in Emmetsburg might have been propelled by the fact that columnist Myram Tunnicliff has mentioned the book at least six separate times in the local paper.
· This past fall Prairie
Home Companion asked me for an excerpt from Curlew:Home to post on its
web site. I authorized them to use "Her Most Perfect Day Ever."
To read the piece, visit:
· In early December
I was interviewed by "Jake the Bartender" on the Wisconsin Public
Radio program Hotel Milwaukee, and I read an excerpt from Curlew:Home
- "Why I Don't Hunt." You can listen to the interview and reading
· In November and December,
I started a series of readings and book signings in Wisconsin. The first
stops have been local - Ripon, Fond du Lac, Princeton, and Montello. After
the holidays I expect to move north and south and east and west from here
to visit other Wisconsin libraries and bookstores.
Sally Jo (Graff) Jordan, a
grade school classmate: "I finished reading your book yesterday and
enjoyed every page. The chapter about St. Mary's was quite enjoyable.
I had forgotten about the blue benches [we learned to read on]. But the
rest was ingrained in my memory. Remember Sister Phillipine? She always
took a 'nap' in class after noon recess? And all the rosaries we made
in her class for the missions?"
Ruth Koerner of Hampton, Iowa: "I don't write fan letters very often, but after reading this delightful book, I had to tell you how much I enjoyed it.... Your choice of words and phrases created instant replays for me. I also liked your 'then and now' approach to the subject. Thanks for painting such poignant memories through the beauty of words."
Darlene Hankey of Emmetsburg wrote to say she works for the dentist, Dr. Welsh (called Walsh in the book), who took 150 chickens from my parents in trade for dental work back in the 1950s. Dr. Welsh is still practicing. Hankey also said "I have coffee with a group of ladies in the mornings and have also heard them talk of your book and what interesting reading it is."
Pastor Rod Wetzig of Stillman Valley, Illinois: "I just finished reading your book Curlew:Home. Thanks for the awesome memories. You see, we were [what in the book you called] the 'Holy Roller' family who lived in the old school house! Actually, we were members of the Baptist Church in town, and that church was anything but 'Holy Roller'.... What really struck me was the fact that we could live in the same town for more than 2 years and not really know each other."
Wanda Sabby heard me reading from Curlew:Home at the Estherville Library in October, bought a book, then sent me an e-mail in November: "I have now finished Curlew:Home. As far as the content of the book is concerned, I wouldn't have needed to read it. It could nearly be my autobiography - growing up in rural and small town Iowa during the 1950s and 1960s with eight siblings. But I enjoyed the trip back all the same."
Bob Lane, Oshkosh, Wisconsin: "That's a little gem of a book you've written, Tom - a nice gentle look at a bygone time, an era, a place, a way of living, thinking, all of which would fade if not for someone to record what it was like.... I bet your dad is positively glowing about the book. What a memorable and beautiful way to mark his eightieth birthday."
Elaine Cavanaugh, another Wisconsinite: "Tom, it was a privilege to read your essays and journey. Your tribute to family caused me to think of my own grandparents and their parents.... Anyone who loves poetry, essay, and a good story will enjoy your book immensely. Yes, it is a lovely book and a little regional treasure."