Review: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

midnight at the bright ideas bookstore

Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMatthew Sullivan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Summary: When Joey the Bookfrog commits suicide at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Lydia Smith’s ordered life is overturned as she discovers a connection between his death and buried memories from childhood that had marked her life ever since.

Lydia Smith seems to finally have found the haven she was looking for as a bookseller at the Bright Ideas Bookstore. Surrounded by books, an interesting collection of fellow booksellers, and the “Bookfrogs,” street people who spend their days in the recesses of the store, life is pretty good. That is, until the night she finds Joey, one of the Bookfrogs with whom she had a special connection, dead by suicide in the store. In his pocket is a picture of Lydia blowing out candles at her tenth birthday with two friends, Raj and Carol. A picture she had not know existed. How could Joey have gotten it? A picture taken just before that terrible night.

Lydia had been brought up by her father, Tomas, a librarian. One night, she and Carol, the new friend who was crowding out Raj Patel, at whose parents’ gas and donut shop she used to go after school to talk with Raj, were to have a sleepover at Lydia’s. Tomas had totally forgotten about taking a bookmobile to a remote location outside Denver and his boss insisted he drive there that night, in a snowstorm. Carol’s parents, the O’Tooles, offer to host. That night, “The Hammerman” brutally murders all three O’Tooles. Lydia, hiding in a cupboard under a kitchen sink, is spared. The Hammerman is never found, though at least one detective, now retired continues to suspect Tomas, who was having an affair with Dottie O’Toole, and when he came for Lydia in the morning, had compromised the crime scene. Tomas and Lydia flee Denver for a small town, Rio Vista, changing their last name. He became a prison guard, and slowly he and Lydia grew estranged, resulting in her eventual return to Denver.

In addition to the photo, Joey has left her a collection of books, all of which have little windows cut out of them, and a sale label for a different book. When the books are matched up, page for page, they reveal messages that point Lydia to the reason Joey took his life. The messages and a picture taken of Lydia watching Joey’s body being carried out of the bookstore lead to connections back to her father, to Raj, and ultimately to the identity of the Hammerman.

This mystery is a bibliophile’s dream. Set in what sounds like a dream of a bookstore, with the main character a meticulous, quiet but caring bookseller working with a quirky cast of fellow booksellers, it is a story a bibliophile can find oneself within. As we follow the twists and turns as Lydia tries to unravel Joey’s messages, the mystery of his last days, and his connection to her, her father, and that terrible night, we feel with her the choice of both wanting to know, and not wanting to know; of wanting to know the truth of that night and what her father’s part was, or just wanting to get on with her life with him out of it.

The book is well-paced, getting each piece of the puzzle in place, and moving to the next, even while several pieces seem to remain hidden. While this is not an edge-of-your-seat suspense thriller, I found my interest and curiosity building until the final pages where all the connections become clear including what happened on that terrible night.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — William H. and Mattie Kilcawley

Kilcawley House

Kilcawley House through the trees. Photo: Robert C Trube © 2010

 

I probably spent more time in Kilcawley Center as a student, and later for a time in the 1980’s as a campus minister at Youngstown, than any other place on the Youngstown State campus. I had several good friends who lived in Kilcawley Dorm (now Kilcawley House) and attended a Bible study group there. I went to various meetings in meeting rooms, listened to music in the music listening room, where I first heard the classic Buckingham-Nicks album, used to love all-the-spaghetti-you-could-eat Wednesdays, bought books in the bookstore, typed papers on typewriters (and had textbooks stolen from me), went to free movies, and probably bought beer from Ed O’Neill in the Pub.

I never knew until writing this post that I had William H. and Mattie Kilcawley to thank for this gathering place. I learned that they had a close connection to two other families whose names appear on Youngstown State buildings. In 1914, William H. Kilcawley joined Leon A. Beeghly and William E. Bliss in forming the Standard Slag Company. Slag is a stony or glass-like by product resulting from the smelting or refining of iron ore. At first glance, this sounds like waste material, but there are a number of uses of slag in concrete, road bases, railroad ballast, waterway construction, and even for soil amendments in agriculture. Obviously the steel industry of the Valley furnished an ample supply. Kilcawley was the secretary-treasurer of the company.

In 1945, the Kilcawleys bought Red Gate Farm, a 290 acre property at US Route 62 and Leffingwell Road. Previously, they lived at an estate called “Raccoon Acres” on Raccoon Road, and in a home on High Street in Canfield. The Kilcawleys raised sheep and cattle on the farm. Their agricultural interests also led to William’s involvement as president and treasurer of the Canfield Fair, and one of the gates to the fair is named in his honor after William died in 1958. The Kilcawleys had one daughter, Anne, who married Byron Christman. They lived in Illinois until returning to the farm in 1967, raising pigs, sheep, and grain. Anne was involved on the board of the Butler, and a trustee of the Stambaugh Auditorium Association. Anne and her husband had no children and she died in 2002.

Mattie was a member of the Youngstown State Board of Trustees. It was in this capacity that she arranged a $300,000 gift from the family trust for the construction of Kilcawley Center. She never saw the full complex, dying in 1972 before the second phase of its construction. The William & Mattie Kilcawley Foundation has give over $1 million to Youngstown State as has the Anne Kilcawley Christman Foundation.

Since the 1970’s students have gathered to eat, study, meet, and relax at Kilcawley Center. All this goes back to a successful company that processed a waste product of the steel industry, and the generosity of the wife of one of its founders, Mattie Kilcawley. Thank you, Mrs. Kilcawley for all those great memories from times at student center that bears your name!

Sources:

Joseph G. Butler, History of Youngstown and Mahoning Valley, Ohio, Volume 2 (Chicago: American Historical Society, 1921), pp. 192.

History Red Gate Farm, The Vindicator, May 18, 2003.

Notable Giving Societies,” Youngstown State University

Susan Tebbe, “Canfield Still Paying for Redgate Farm, Despite Lack of Development,” The Vindicator, March 27, 2013.

 

Learning Questions

Question Mark Questions What Why How Where WhoI sympathized with a Facebook friend who posted the other day a statement that said, this is not for “discussion but for declaration” and that he wished there was a feature on Facebook that allowed for turning off comments. I have wished for that feature many times!

There are times when I’ve posted a comment, sometimes on a controversial issue, or an article, that reflects my own thinking and convictions, and immediately it is beseiged with arguments or counter-posts or even hi-jacked. Trying to engage in an intelligent fashion often seems futile. I honestly feel the commentators just want to shut me down. Sometimes they succeed. I understand why many people only post pretty pictures and cat memes on Facebook!

Frankly, I think it is rude to assume that I am inviting an argument. Sometimes, I just want to express what I am thinking or feeling or share something that I believe is reflective of my convictions that says it better than I could. I see plenty of things I take issue with on others’ profiles. If it is an article, sometimes I stop by and read. Sometimes I learn something. I guess I’ve never assumed the person was inviting an argument, unless they explicitly say so. However, the capability built into Facebook invites argument, wanted or not. Most of the time, it accomplishes nothing except inflaming the feelings of all involved.

I’ve seen a few places where this works, mostly closed and moderated spaces with clear ground rules for online discussion. One of the differences between the futile arguments that proliferate on so much of social media and healthy discussions, is that healthy ones are characterized as much by questions and listening as by statements and speaking. These discussions don’t always exclude efforts to persuade, but do so from a foundation of respectful listening and learning and questioning, and an openness to learning from another, even if this means change. It’s rare, and it leaves space for people to make up their own minds without rhetorical bludgeoning.

One of the marks of such conversations is that they are characterized by learning rather than leading questions. Learning questions are genuinely curious and really want to understand what a person thinks and feels and values and why. Leading questions are trying to maneuver a person into a place where one can assert the superiority of one’s own ideas and beliefs. Learning questions are open and open-ended. You really don’t know what the other will say or where the conversation will go. You might even discover something that changes you. Leading questions have already decided where you want things to go and what you want the other to say.

While I think it could happen in a Facebook comment box, I think it is far better face to face. Here are some of the kinds of questions one might ask:

“I’d love to know how you came to think the way you do about this question?”

“This is something I didn’t quite understand. Could you tell me more?”

“That’s really interesting. Could you say more about the basis for this idea?”

Who or what has been most influential in leading you to these conclusions?”

What has your way of thinking about this meant for how you live?”

So what should you do if you still think differently and would like to have a conversation about that difference?

First, a good test of whether you’ve really understood the person is that you can re-phrase what they think and they say, “yes, that’s it.”

Second, ask yourself if you really want a discussion of your thoughts in the same way you’ve been learning from your friend. Are you willing to be asked questions and to explain yourself so another can understand.

If so, then I think there is one more learning question that might be something like this:

“I think we differ about what we’ve been discussing. Would you be open to discussing how we might differ?

We cannot assume that another wants to have this discussion. Here, too, it seems we need to learn. We are inviting someone into a situation where we are having a good argument, one in which we differ, and are seeking to understand the difference and whether one of these is superior to the other (it could be that there is another way of thinking that has occurred to neither of us!).

Theoretically, one might do this on Facebook, but it would take a lot of typing! I think that is one of the problems with the format. It is designed for the quick response, not the deliberate step-by-step process by which two people understand each other. It is often a free-for-all with many people who know nothing of each other throwing in their two cents worth. No wonder it is usually a hot mess.

I do think Facebook can be a place where we learn something about what each other think. What would help me, and perhaps help this space, would be that if we disagree with what we’ve read, we ask first, would you be willing to discuss your ideas about this? That’s a learning question, as well as a courtesy. Then, if we want to, we can figure out the best way to do that, which might not be on Facebook. Would that be so hard?

 

 

Cozy Mysteries

Cozy mysteries

Screen capture of cozy mystery covers from an image search on Google

I never knew “cozy” mysteries, or “cozies” were a thing until recently. I discovered recently that these are a sub-genre of mysteries/crime fiction that enjoy a dedicated following.

So what characterizes a “cozy mystery” for those of us who are among the uninitiated:

  • Usually, the crime-solver is an amateur sleuth and most often, a woman. Think Jessica Fletcher.
  • Cozy mysteries are usually set in a small town or village. The more charm the better. Think Cabot Cove. This creates a situation where people readily talk to each other including our amateur sleuth.
  • The sleuth usually has a well-connected friend who can help fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
  • Many of these are part of a series, and one of the draws is likable, interesting characters, beginning with the sleuth. Think of the Amelia Peabody stories (I didn’t realize they could be characterized as “cozies”).
  • Often the cozy theme is connected in some way to the sleuth’s job, hobby, or pet, especially cats, it seems. I’ve even found some with booksellers as the sleuth!
  • Cozies assume readers who love to solve mysteries along with the sleuth. You join the sleuth in trying to make sense of the clues while recognizing the red herrings.
  • Generally these mysteries are “gentle” in de-emphasizing profanity, explicit sex, and graphic violence or descriptions of murders. Some more recent cozies do have some profanity and adult situations.

These characteristics are not absolute and it seems that what may be “cozy” for one is not for another.

The classic cozy is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. Among more recent cozy mysteries are the Aunt Dimity series by Nancy Atherton, Lillian Jackson Braun’s “Cat Who” series, and several different series by Rita Mae Brown.

There are some great and far more extensive lists online that go far beyond the few examples I’ve offered. Here are some to get you started if you think you might like to read some cozies, or would like to find a new series:

45 Best Cozy Mystery Novels: Essential 2019 Guide to First Book of a Series

A Guide to Cozy Mysteries

Cozy Mystery List: Most Popular & Recommended Cozy Mystery Series

25 of the Absolute Best Cozy Mystery Series

Looking over this list, I realized I had read and enjoyed and recommended several of these. One page had this statement:

Cozy mysteries have become a booming business. Many cozy mystery readers are intelligent women looking for a “fun read” that engages the mind, as well as provides entertainment… something to “look forward to getting back to.” This is not to say that intelligent men don’t read cozies…they do!

I guess (and hope) that I qualify as one of those “intelligent men!” Sometimes a ” ‘fun read’ that engages the mind” is just the thing.

Airport Bookstores

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Renaissance Books Used Book Store location in General Mitchell International Airport; Milwaukee, WI. Photo by Captison [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been writing about books and bookstores for over five years, and I have to confess that until the other day, I’d never thought about writing about bookstores in airports. It’s not for lack of experience in airports during that time.

This crossed my radar in the form of an article about W.H. Smith opening its largest The Bookshop at Gathwick Airport in the UK. The company won a British Book Awards “Book Retailer of the Year” for 2019. The store sells everything from mass market best sellers to children’s books and features destination country books on their “Read Around the World Shelves.”

I started thinking about this and asked the Bob on Books gang over at Facebook about their experiences at airport bookstores. First of all, there are a number like me who come prepared to the airport with their own books, including having loaded some on their e-readers, which save weight when you travel. One person observed, “I figure if I have time to browse an airport bookstore, I have time to browse the Kindle store on my tablet.” Others remarked that airport bookstores are over-priced (like most things at airports) and mainly seem to have the mass-market best-sellers (which often aren’t bad airport or plane reads). One exception I found on my travels was Book People’s store in the Austin-Bergstrom airport in Austin near Gate 20, a reflection of the cool place the main Book People store is.

Others have had some great experiences. Some airports apparently have stores where you can purchase and return books for a discount on other books. Sky Harbor in Phoenix Airport is reported to have a store that does this. Some have found some great books in these stores: The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Dovekeepers, Gunslinger Dark Tower: Book One, Salt and Cod by Mark Kurlansky, The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium – An Englishman’s World by Danny Danziger and Robert Lacey. Another wrote: “I found a book on heroes from WWII who saved many from the Holocaust at a bookstore in Brussels recently. They had separate sections for books in English, French and Flemish.”

I heard from three different people about a great store at the Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. Renaissance Books, located in the main terminal, features an extensive selection of used books as well as new, packed into 1,000 square feet, so like some classic used book stores, things can be stacked up. There is literary fiction, non-fiction, and even some antiquarian books near the checkout counter. One customer on Yelp wrote about spotting a whole shelf on Churchill. I’ll have to try to schedule a flight through here just to check it out!

The major bookseller in the US market is Hudsons, which may be found in many of the major airports, sometimes in multiple locations in different terminals, three for example in the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Hudsons also has a healthy online site, including downloads of audio books in Libro.FM. My sense is that Hudson’s tries for a wide selection of books for different audiences, focusing on the more popular in each topic area, as well as current bestsellers. For someone with a long layover or stranded due to delayed flights, this can be a lifesaver, if you haven’t come prepared.

Most of us don’t go the airport to buy books (except maybe in Milwaukee), but most of us who love books sooner or later wander into one of these stores. I’d love to hear about your experiences, particularly if you’ve found a really good store!

Review: Campus Life

campus life

Campus Life: In Search of CommunityEdited by Drew W. Moser and Todd C. Ream, Foreword by David Brooks. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An expanded version of a 1990 Carnegie Foundation report on the basis for community on college campuses, with contributions from pairs of academic and student development leaders at six Christian universities.

Ernest Boyer, from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, published several important reports roughly thirty years ago on higher education. Perhaps one of the most profound of these that expressed a concern for the soul of the American university was Campus Life: In Search of Community. Out of his research findings he elaborated six principles that characterize flourishing learning communities on campus:

  1. Purposeful community: where students are intellectually engaged and where academic and co-curricular aspects are integrated.
  2. Open community: a place where freedom of thought and expression coupled with an awareness of the power of words to heal or hurt, a “sacred trust.”
  3. A just community: where dignity, equality, and equity are affirmed and practiced in bridging widening gaps between rich and poor.
  4. A disciplined community: where university governance protects the common good. Boyer advocated for clear codes of conduct developed by the community.
  5. A caring community: places where every student is supported, and where there is opportunity for engagement across generations.
  6. A celebrative community: a place held together by more than complaints about food or parking, but by remembering and celebrating traditions, including the traditions and contributions of its diverse student population.

Many of us who work around universities would concur that this still serves as an outstanding vision for and description of healthy university communities, and an agenda worth pursuing by all those who are stakeholders in an academic community. Thankfully, we don’t have to search online or in libraries for copies of this report. It has now been reprinted as part of an updated and expanded version, directed particularly for those working in the Christian college context but relevant as well, for both student life and academic professionals more widely.

The update includes six chapters, each co-written by a student life and an academic leader from the same Christian college. These parallel Boyer’s six principles, updated and contextualized to Christian colleges, and framed by a prologue by the editors on the search for renewal, and an epilogue, describing the challenging work of walking the “narrow ridge” of Christian calling and academic excellence.

A few standout ideas:

  • In the chapter on “open community” the tension of academic freedom and Christian orthodoxy was acknowledge. The writers proposed a distinction between “core beliefs that the college affirms and must be shared by educators and “privileged beliefs” affirmed by the college, but on which educators may disagree while being supportive of the college. They also acknowledge neutral beliefs on which the college has no stance. It would seem that clarity on which is which prior to faculty hiring is key.
  • Under “just community” the writers talked about the importance in seeking diverse, multicultural communities that this cannot be an instance of “you are welcome, but don’t move the furniture.”
  • The chapter on “caring community” had what I thought a helpful discussion of faculty and staff awareness of student health, and a constructive section on what happens when uncaring moments occur on campus.
  • On “celebrative  community,” there was encouragement both to learn from institutional history and tradition, and to developing celebrations that reflect the current student body.

So why is David Brooks, The New York Times columnist writing a foreword for this book? In addition to affirming the communal values outlined in Boyer’s original report and their elaboration by these higher education leaders, Brooks believes Christian colleges uniquely help students flourish in the committed life. He comments:

“When I go to Christian colleges, the students there strike me as especially adept at making commitments–sometimes too adept; they want to make all their commitments by age twenty-two. But they know how to commit, and they’ve been taught how to think about commitments” (p. xii).

This contrasts with the “expressive individualism” Brooks observes in the wider culture and he attributes the difference to the formative communities he sees at Christian campuses where he has spoken.

Whether one accepts the Christian premises of the contributors in this expanded edition, Boyer’s six principles of community remain a challenge for all higher educators. These principles also provide a bridge for Christians working in public higher education to connect with what may be shared aspirations among student life and academic leaders. When Christians affirm purposeful and integrated learning, open and civil engagement, commitments to justice and equity in the university, to a disciplined yet caring community, and to sharing in and contributing to the celebrations of university life, they not only contribute to the communal health of their institutions, but they bear witness to the Christian distinctives that have helped shape flourishing institutions throughout history.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Violence of the Biblical God

the violence of the biblical god

The Violence of the Biblical GodL. Daniel Hawk, foreword by John Goldingay. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2019.

Summary: A study of the narratives of violence in scripture and the multiple perspectives one finds in the text regarding God’s involvement in that violence.

The incidents of violence in scripture, and particularly those where God commands, or actively participates in that violence, pose a great challenge for any thoughtful believer both in his or her own reading of scripture, and in discussions with skeptics who point to these passages, and especially the book of Joshua. Does not this deeply conflict with the New Testament witness to the love of God in Christ?

L. Daniel Hawk takes a different approach than others who I’ve seen address this question who either rationalize the violence of God against the Canaanites, or in various ways argue that it actually wasn’t nearly as bad as it appeared. Hawk’s approach argues that “it may be more important to think biblically than to seek biblical answers” (p. xiv). He proposes that one of the reasons there are so many different responses to this question is that the canon itself speaks with multiple voices that do not all agree. He seeks to take an approach that sees all of the canon as authoritative scripture without muting portions that are in conflict with others.

His work begins with a survey of the approaches taken to this question through church history, and then outlines his own narrative approach, eschewing the “quest for a Theory of Biblical Everything” (p. 18) to listen to the biblical narrative in its complexity as it tells in multiple voices the story of God’s work to redeem a fallen world that is violent by “coming down” and entering into that world. He traces this through the fall, the slaying of Abel, and the flood as an accelerating death spiral that God sorrowfully brings to conclusion with the flood, while saving both creatures and one human family to begin anew.

With Babel, Hawk sees a new approach of a God who “comes down,” first confusing the languages of those who would make a name for themselves, and then coming down to make great the name of Abram (Abraham) through whom he begins a redemptive work. He consults with Abraham in his plan to violently destroy the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, and honors his plea for the righteous. To stand with Abraham means to stand against others, as in the case of Abimelech, who Abraham had deceived. As evident in the deliberation between Abraham and God regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, violence is not a paroxysm of anger but what it means to do what is needed within the context of fallen creation to set things to rights.

He then studies the narratives of God’s descent into Egypt to break the power of Pharoah that held Israel in slavery. Only through violence will Pharoah recognize a power greater than his, and to create a new people through the overturning of the power of Egypt. Hawk notes that no emotion or expression of caprice or anger is evident in these episodes, but rather God doing what was needed to deliver and establish this people of the promise, to show God supreme over all other powers. The narrative then continues with this new people as he establishes this covenant, deals with the disobedience of his people (an incident that evidences God’s anger), and the violence that both responds to sin, and yet restores his relationship with the people to whom he has committed himself.

Before turning to the text of Joshua, and Israel’s conquest of Canaan, he jumps forward to God’s assent to give Israel a king like other nations. God first commits himself to Saul, and then to David and his family. His work in the nation becomes taken up with the power dynamics and violence of these kings while acting as a check against their ungodliness and injustices. With the fall of Israel comes an end to this way of working in the world through the instrumentality of the nation as a political entity. His approach will still work through human agents but in another way.

Finally, Hawk comes to Joshua. He contends that exodus and conquest are inextricably connected to God’s decision to renew the world by forming a people. He states, “No exodus, no conquest. No violence, no Israel” (p. 165). He demonstrates the focused character of the invasion against the kings of Canaan that arises neither from caprice or judgement to establish a space in which Yahweh alone, and not the gods of the kings is worshiped. In this book there are narratives both attributing violence to God and counternarratives in the latter part of Joshua that indicate this is not God’s “preferred mode of working in the world.” Hawk notes that while God’s coming down and entering into the making of Israel as a nation involves God in violence, this is not a warrant for other wars.

With the fall of Jerusalem and the exile, Hawk sees a move of God “to the outside.” Instead of working in and through human systems, God refuses to meet violence with violence, or engage the earthly powers, but takes the violence of the world upon himself in Christ, and in the resurrection, establishes a rule outside the world’s systems.

The conclusion Hawk reaches from this narrative survey is a call to move from debates over who is reading scripture rightly to a dialogue that listens to the full complexity and the biblical text. He doesn’t argue for “anything goes” but sets interpretive parameters that include an understanding of divine violence that doesn’t arise from petty caprice, that often God does not use violence in judgment but to accelerate already evident deterioration (as in Sodom), that biblical accounts are testimonies, not templates, and cannot be use to justify wars advancing national or group agendas. Yet Hawk also seems to recognize that the diverse voices of God’s work inside, and from the outside, create the basis for respectful dialogue between Christians who base a peace stance on the narrative of God’s work from the outside, and Christians working “within the system” who face the choice of engaging in state-sanctioned violence in the resistance of evil.

For me, Hawk’s work challenged a long held assumption of how we read scripture. Do we believe that the Spirit of God speaks with one voice. Or does our understanding of scripture allow for a complexity of voices that reflect the complexity of being both in and not of a fallen world? Where one comes down on this may well affect one’s response to Hawk’s reading. What commends that reading to me is that it does not gloss over or mute the hard passages or seemingly conflicting testimony (for example, the commands to utterly devote to destruction the Canaanites and a strategy of gradually supplanting the people).

More profoundly, we see a God who neither remains aloof in the face of human evil and violence nor acts with petty flashes of anger, but rather a settled purpose to redeem through a covenant people, one that involves God in that violence, yet ultimately ends with the taking of that violence on God’s self in Christ. We also find in Hawk a model of an interpreter of scripture taking the text as it stands, listening humbly, and promoting dialogue between different perspectives rather than ruling everything not one’s own out of court in a “Theory of Biblical Everything.” Such models are all too rare and greatly needed in a time where people seem to polarize around everything.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Austin Log Cabin

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Austin Log Cabin. Photo by Jack Pearce [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

You probably drove by it on South Raccoon Road on the way from Austintown to Canfield. For many years it was the eyesore at the corner of South Raccoon Road and Burgett Road, just north of where Raccoon takes a bend to the right. It was an old home covered with fake brick shingles that sat vacant between 1964 and 1973. In that year, St. Andrews Episcopal Church, located next door to the property, acquired the property and started tearing down the house, until they discovered the log beams beneath the layers of siding. The log beams were joined at the corners by what was known as a “steeple notch,” a technique only used before 1824. Clearly this was a building that went back to the very earliest years of Austintown Township.

A title search on the property traced it all the way back to Calvin Austin, a land agent for the Connecticut Land Company, and later a judge, residing in Warren, then the county seat for the area that included Austintown and Youngstown. Austintown is name after him. In 1814, he sold just over 150 acres to John Packard for $500. It is likely he built the cabin the same year. Here is a brief history of the ownership of the cabin:

1827: Upon John’s death, the cabin was willed to William Packard, his son.
1828: William and Martha Packard transfer 30 acres to Samuel Dorwat
1829: Samuel and Sarah Dorwat sell 10 acres, including the house to Henry and Polly Lawrence for $50.
1845: The Lawrences sell the property to Abraham and Rebecca Dustman for $406. The Dustmans built a barn on the property that burned down in a fire.
1850: The Dustmans sold the house and property to Henry and Margaret Wehr for $510. The Wehrs added a hog shed and dug wells.
Date unknown: Levi (nephew) and Emma Wehr acquire the property. Levi builds a second barn in 1910.
1940’s: Willard Wesley Stricklin owned the home, digging out the root cellar under the kitchen.
1948: Joseph Hanko acquires home, digs out cellar under main house and adds small bathroom extension.
1964: House vacant.
1973: St. Andrews Episcopal Church acquires property.

When the cabin was discovered beneath the siding, the Austintown Community Council came together to raise funds to restore the cabin. A fundraiser was staged at the intersection of Mahoning Avenue and Raccoon Road. School children and PTAs chipped in. Bake sales and book sales were organized. This all-volunteer effort raised $50,000 that was supplemented with a Bicentennial grant of $2500. Working with an architect familiar with historic preservation, the roof was removed and replaced with a wood shake roof, interior walls were removed, windows replaced with those from a hundred year old school house. The chinking was replaced with a cement mixture and the logs were sealed. A restored fireplace was built with one hundred year old brick. A new furnace and plumbing were added. During the restoration, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 30, 1974. This became Austintown’s Bicentennial Project and was dedicated on July 4, 1976 after a parade down Raccoon Road to the site.

The Austintown Historical Society was formed the same month to maintain the cabin, which it has done since that time. The cabin serves as a historic museum for Austintown Township. Period furnishings include a bed Frank Ohl slept in, a spinning wheel and a yarn winder. The upstairs has been set up to resemble a one room school house and contains various memorabilia pertaining to John Fitch, who donated land for Austintown’s first high school, which bore his name as does the present high school. The basement contains a collection of farm implements, meticulously labeled as part of an Eagle Scout project. Also onsite is a family genealogy of Calvin Austin and his wedding certificate. Outdoors, there is a corn crib brought from another location, a three-seat outhouse, a smokehouse, a coal car, and various farm implements.

The late Dr. John White, an anthropology professor from Youngstown State supervised archaeological digs on the site. He located evidence of a multi-purpose shed used as a chicken coop, a stock well, a chicken house, two other outdoor privies, the foundations of the first and second barns on the property, a hog shed, a house well, a cistern, and a summer house. A book, The Archaeology of the Log House, written by Dr. White, along with various artifacts are on display at the house.

The Austin Log Cabin is located at 3797 S Raccoon Rd, Canfield, OH 44406. The phone number posted online is: (330) 799-8051. It is open for free tours on the first Sunday of each month from 1 to 4 pm, and other times by appointment. The cabin offers a combination of local history and captures what living conditions were like in the early years of the Western Reserve when the area was slowly becoming dotted with cabins like this one. As I write, the upcoming Sunday is the first of the month. This might make a great afternoon outing!

Sources:

Austin Log HouseWikipedia

Joyce Hunsinger Pogany, “History of Austintown and the Log Cabin” The Town Crier, March 10, 2017.

Vision of the Valley – Austin Log Cabin” YouTube video.

 

Review: Desert Solitaire

desert solitaire

Desert SolitaireEdward Abbey, illustrated by Peter Parnell. New York: Touchstone, 1968.

Summary: The author’s account of spending six months as a park ranger in the Arches National Monument in southwest Utah.

This book was unlike other environmental or nature writing I’ve encountered. Sure, there are descriptive passages, some powerfully evocative, but nothing of the lyricism of tone of a Rachel Carson or an Aldo Leopold. Perhaps it is the landscape–stark but beautiful wilderness that has so many ways to kill the unprepared, or even those who think they are. Perhaps it is the personality of Abbey, who does not sound like a particularly nice person. My hunch is that it is likely both.

Desert Solitaire is Abbey’s account of six months as a seasonal park ranger in the Arches National Monument, as well as some of his other wanderings in the canyon lands of southwestern Utah. During this time, he basically lives alone in a trailer (or outside of it in warm weather) near the park entrance. His routine duties consist of visiting the different camping areas, replenishing firewood, and looking for tourists in need of help. The account begins with solitary life in the trailer, his immediate environs and extends out to the creatures, the arches and rock formations that make up the park, the mountains and canyons of the region.

His narratives convey the peculiar beauty of this land and Abbey’s desire that it would remain undisturbed. It feels at times that he wants this land for him and his friends alone and that everyone else are unwanted tourists that are the threat, in their “motorized wheelchairs” and “industrial tourism.” Some of this is a legitimate concern over the commercialization that leads to paving over dirt roads and all sorts of tourist facilities that compromise the landscape, turning it into a kind of wilderness Disneyland.

He also helps us grasp how unforgiving the landscape is. He chronicles the search for an older man whose car sat abandoned for a couple days. They assume he is dead, and indeed, that is how they found him, carrying him back with crude jokes and matter of fact comments, even while a relative walks nearby. A fall, too little water, going into an area one can’t get out of, a vehicle breakdown all can be fatal. Particularly in the heat of summer, or winter snow storms, and a journey into the unique beauty of this place might be the last one takes.

One of the most striking parts of the book is Abbey’s description of taking boats through the Glen Canyon before it was dammed to build a reservoir and recreational lake. He describes a landscape soon to be submerged and transformed. He narrates descents into canyons he is not sure he can get out of, a descent from a summit madly sledding down the side on a rock. I honestly was surprised he lived to tell of some of these episodes, and maybe he was as well.

What Abbey does is capture the mysterious draw that wilderness holds for many. He observes:

The desert is different. Not so hostile as the snowy peaks, nor so broad and bland as the ocean’s surface, it lies open–given adequate preparation–to leisurely exploration, to extended periods of habitation. Yet it can hardly be called a humane environment; what little life there is will be clustered about the oases, natural or man-made. The desert waits outside, desolate and still and strange, unfamiliar and often grotesque in its forms and colors, inhabited by rare, furtive creatures of incredible hardiness and cunning, sparingly colonized by weird mutants from the plant kingdom, most of them as spiny, thorny, stunted, and twisted as they are tenacious.

At the end, all he can do is say there is “something” about the desert, but never can quite find a name for it.

Abbey clearly evokes a sense of the peculiar beauty of this land. But, apart from the description, I found his narrative unsatisfying. Many have gone into the wilderness and come out of it transformed. I’m not convinced this was the case with Abbey. He definitely comes out with descriptions of its character, with a set of experiences, and a passion that it not change. But I wonder if he changed. He does not seem to have greater compassion for either visiting tourists or the clients he will serve as a social worker. It all seems a bit self-absorbed and hedonistic. One wonders how this can be when one glimpses such rugged grandeur…