Friday, April 9, 2010
Book Review: Good Times All Gone
The Good Times Are All Gone Now. Author: Julie Whitesel Weston. Publishing: University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. © Julie Whitesel Weston, 2009. [All images from the book.]
Catalogs and reviews bill this book as a “memoir of place,” which is certainly accurate. Still, in the end, it’s the people in a place that really make it memorable. (You may recall the buildings or landscaping where you worked before. But what you remember most, for good or ill, are your former co-workers, and bosses.)
We do read passages about rusty junk, tumble-down structures, polluted ponds and streams, and heaps of toxic waste. Only shrubs grew on the mountainsides. The timber was cut for lumber or scorched by forest fires, and never grew back. Constant (but largely ignored) swirls of acrid smoke and pollution blighted the growth of new trees.
I started the book with a misconception. The publicist’s e-mail asked if I’d like to review a new release from the UO Press. From the brief description, I expected a history of the Kellogg, Idaho, mining area. Since what I “do” is Idaho history, that sounded great to me.
When the copy arrived, I plunged right in, expecting a “normal” history approach. I missed that phrase about “memoir of place.” Thus, the mix of anecdote and commentary was somewhat off-putting. Despite that, the stories drew me in. Stories about people, sometimes told in their own interviewed words.
They resonated with me for two special reasons. First, the author and I graduated from high school the same year. Perhaps more importantly, we both grew up in small towns. (Actually, I spent those years in the country, or in towns even smaller than Kellogg.)
However, you don’t need to be older or a small-towner or a country boy/girl to get something from these narratives. For, in the final analysis, these are tales of human courage and endurance. But the funny thing is: they, by and large, did not view themselves as courageous or enduring. They were not “coping” with brutally dangerous working conditions or a degraded, harmful environment.
No, this was simply life – some good mixed with some bad – and they were just living it. I myself knew many individuals like them.
Do not think, however, that these people did not feel the pain. They did, as anyone would. Still, while some might not even know the word “stoicism,” they displayed it. Nor were they blind to the occasional hard times. They “muddled through” as best they could, and were later proud of having “made it.”
Back then, “No one locked their doors.” Like Weston, I clearly recall my mother sticking her head inside a front door and calling, “Yoo-hoo. Anybody home?”
Along with many fascinating stories, we learn of Julie growing up. You sense a certain wonder from her present self at what her younger self accepted as “normal.” Children only avoided the most poisonous soil and water; they swam in and played on the rest. And only outsiders reacted to the acidic smog. Her father, a physician, treated a steady flow of injured miners. She only knew that all those cases kept him late at the hospital.
Consider that hospital. Almost universally, commentators frame the term “company town” in a pejorative sense. “Sixteen tons and deeper in debt,” goes the song lyric. In that view, the company store in the company town turned men into wage slaves.
That is not how the folks in Kellogg saw it. “Uncle Bunker” provided the hospital, and also built a new high school gym. It bought uniforms and instruments for the band, awarded numerous scholarships, and distributed other perks.
Cynics will say, “They just wanted to keep those poor deluded employees happy, so they’d work harder.” Perhaps. But, for many reasons, most would have stayed and worked hard even without those extra benefits.
In any case, we also learn much about Julie’s tangled view of her father. A god to the townspeople, “Doc” was subject to angry, hurtful flare-ups at home. Still, she longed for his approval. It’s not clear that she ever really got it. He supported her education, but she describes their later relationship as “an uneasy peace.” His approval was, I infer, grudging at best.
We can all relate to her high school years: a town mad about the local sports teams, seeking peer group approval, boys, trying to build a unique “personhood,” and all that. One story was rather sad, but telling. She studied hard and excelled in the school’s band ensemble. That should have been worth some praise from her music-loving father, a skilled musician himself. Yet she gave that up to join the drill team. Her point: “Excellence and intelligence didn’t matter. I wanted to be pretty.”
As I asserted above, “place” is really about people. This book chronicles the stories of those who lived in Kellogg during its mid-century prosperity as a mining town. It also suggests how life there shaped Julie Whitesel Weston’s character and expectations. By the final scenes, however, most of the people she knew were gone. New hotels and condos dwarfed most vestiges of its mining history. She ended on a hopeful note, but also admitted, “Kellogg was no longer my town.”