Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lone Tree and Junction

Some months ago I noticed at Second Story Books a novel or two by Wright Morris, and have since found and read more. All involve Nebraska, but four in particular involve Lone Tree and Junction, Nebraska, towns said to be about 20 miles east of Grand Island: The Home Place, The Field of Vision, The World in the Attic, Ceremony at Lone Tree. In Field of Vision and Ceremony at Lone Tree the people who count most are of the families of Gordon McKee and Lois Scanlon McKee, with the outsider Gordon Boyd. In The Home Place and The World in the Attic it is the families of Clyde Muncy and (in the latter) Bud Hibbard.

The details of the lives of the McKees and Scanlons have the comfortable inconsistency of legend. In The World in the Attic it is Tom Scanlon who died with ash-filled cuspidor balanced on his head; in Ceremony at Lone Tree it is his father Timothy Scanlon. In The Field of Vision, the younger Gordon McKee, aged about 6, is the oldest of the four children of Walter McKee's son Gordon; in Ceremony at Lone Tree, he is the baby of his family, with a much older brother. Tom Scanlon's hotel is the New Western Hotel at the west side of Junction in The World in the Attic but the Lone Tree Hotel of Lone Tree in Ceremony in Lone Tree. For that matter, Will Brady from The Works of Love gets a mention under his own name in Ceremony in Lone Tree, but his son goes by W.B. Jennings.

Railroads still shape the world. Scanlon's hotel is beside the tracks in Lone Tree (or Junction), where it catered to travelers.Will Brady begins as a railroad clerk, and becomes prosperous selling eggs to the railroad. Clyde Muncy, the narrator of  The Home Place and The World in the Attic, is the son of a station agent; Walter McKee is the son of a railroad worker. The Union Pacific and C.B. & Q railroads divide the town of Junction, just a little way from Lone Tree; Junction reveals the geography--and sociology--they impose only from the grain elevator. No native much notices the sound of a passing freight, though it wakes visitors. In fact, Clyde Muncy finds electric locomotives troubling for their lack of smoke and sound.

Morris's Nebraska is a dangerous place. A number of the men of Lone Tree have departed this life when they failed to notice an oncoming train. Will Brady's father died falling from a windmill he was repairing. Gordon Boyd's father died crushed by cargo he was unloading by the tracks. Young men commit unmotivated murders by gunshot or by car. Older men end up in Chicago, imagining impossible things. The women wear out from drudgery and from putting up with the men formed by and suited to such a land, Other women take a look at the town or the homestead they've married into, and disappear next day.

There is a dignity to those who have learned to live with the land on its own terms, notably on the farms:
Character is supposed to cover what I feel about the cane-seated chair and the faded bib, with the ironed-in stitches, of an old man's overalls. Character is the word, but it doesn't cover the ground. It doesn't cover what there is moving about it, that is. I say these things are beautiful, but I do so with the understanding that mighty few people anywhere will follow what I mean.
(The Home Place) And there is beauty here and there in the landscape, for all the "too much sky, ... too much horizontal, too many lines without stops":
I had heard so much talk, in the last twenty years, of the dreary flatness of Nebraska, that I had come to think of it as flat myself. Perhaps I had never known the land could be beautiful.
  "You ever see--" Bud said, propping his foot on the fence rail, "anything prettier than that?"
  Well, maybe I had. But I wasn't sure. I had seen country like that in France, but that was long ago, I was an exile, and I thought it was France--in country like that--that appealed to me.
(The World in the Attic)

The University of Nebraska Press publishes Morris's work under the Bison Books imprint. Kramerbooks was able to order The Home Place for me, and received it in a week.

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