Saturday, October 31, 2009


"ALL HALLOW'S EVE", Artist Unknown

The first time I knew there was something more to October 31st than trick or treating and Jack O'Lanterns, ghosts and witches, was when I was a teenager. I was reading the first chapters of Thomas Hardy's "The Return of the Native", wherein the residents of England's Egdon Heath celebrated the night with giant bonfires built on hilltops. It is there, after the revelers leave, that we meet Eustacia Vye, standing alone but utterly unafraid on the hilltop as the fires die down. It was a very evocative passage, and I've never forgotten it.

About 20 years ago, I really became interested in vintage Halloween items, in particular, vintage Halloween postcards. From studying about them, I learned ancient traditions and customs as practiced by Scottish and Irish peoples - for they are the ones who brought Halloween to America.

A couple of years ago, I started learning about the Celtic culture in earnest, and learned that these Irish and Scottish customs were vestiges of ancient Celtic Halloween, or Samhain, pronounced SOW-en or SOW-in, from the Old Irish language. The word means "summer's end", the end of the light half of the year and the beginning of the dark half.

"SAMHAIN/HECATE" by Wendy Andrews
(Samhain is the time of year when
Hecate, the crone, is ascendant.)

The more I read, the more I learned that the Romans, the Catholic Church and commercialized modern society reinvented this holiday for their own purposes. But traces of Halloween's ancestral past remains tucked inside the modern celebrations.

For Celts, Samhain was one of the two most important days of the Celtic year. It marked the beginning of winter, which they celebrated as their new year, November 1st being their New Year's Day. As with all Celtic holidays, the eve before is when the celebrations took place, because the Celtic "day" began at night.

It was a liminal time, when the laws of time and space are temporarily suspended. It was said that during Samhain, the veil between this world and the afterlife was especially thin or lifted entirely. The Celts felt that during this time they were privy to supernatural and otherworldly knowledge. It was a world filled with the forces of magic, a night of mystical glory. It was referred to as "Time Which Is No Time". It was very magical, but also very dangerous.


Artist Unknown
The crow is the symbol of Samhain

An important part of Samhain was the lighting of giant bonfires on hilltops. These bonfires were full of symbolism. They gave the Celts a festive feeling and a sense of warmth, both literally and figuratively. Bonfires were wonderful gathering places for storytelling, chanting and singing, and it was considered good luck to jump over the bonfire as it died down. Hilltop fires also mirrored the light, warmth and color of the sun in the sky.

Family hearth fires were extinguished, then re-lit from the sacred communal fires. These huge bonfires were thought to consume all the miseries of the past year. They were also used to secure a promise from the sun god not to disappear altogether during the cold months ahead. The Celts hoped that the tall bonfires would rise high enough to reach the tired sun, fully rejuvenating him.

In England and Scotland, Samhain or Oiche Shamhna marked the final harvest of the year, and it was a time for herding the cattle from their summer pastures. Sometimes two bonfires would be built close together and people would drive their cows and other livestock between the fires as a cleansing ritual for all.


Samhain was also celebrated as the Feast of the Dead (much like the Mexican Day of the Dead). The Celts believed that on Samhain the spirits of their ancestors who had passed were set free to once again roam the earth. Families opened east windows or doors to specially invite their dearly departed. They laid out feasts to welcome the spirits and gain their favor. Places were set at the table for them and food and wine were offered so that they could refresh themselves after their long journey from the netherworld. Apples were buried along roadsides and paths for spirits who were lost or had no descendants to provide for them. Sweets were also set out to appease wandering spirits.

To protect themselves from mischevious spirits, the Celts would dress in frightening disguises so that the spirits would mistake them for one of their own and pass them by. They would also parade around and make loud noises to drive unwanted spirits to the edge of the community.

Predictions were more powerful on Samhain, and omens were especially clear. The Druids considered Samhain a perfect time for divination. Divination is a common folkloric practice that survived well into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The most common uses of divination were to determine the identity of one's future spouse, one's prosperity, and how many children a person might have.

"SAMHAIN" by Jenimal

Seasonal foods such as apples and nuts were often employed in these rituals. Apples were peeled, the peel tossed over the shoulder, and its shape examined to see if it formed the first letter of the future spouse's name. I certainly remember playing that game as a child (not just on Halloween but whenever apples were peeled.) Bobbing - or dookin' - for apples on Halloween is a Scottish marriage divination. The first person to bite an apple would be the first to marry in the coming year. Dookin' for apples is thought to have originated from a Druidical rite associated with water.

Apples were used for divination in several other ways. A young girl was to go by candlelight alone to a mirror and eat an apple before it, whilst combing her hair. She would then see her future love in the glass over her shoulder. A girl would also stick apple pips to the outside of her cheek, with each one standing for her sweethearts. The last pip that stayed stuck was her true love.

Nuts were roasted on the hearth and their movements interpreted - if the nuts stayed together, so would the couple. Egg whites were dropped in a glass of water, and the shapes foretold the number of future children. Children would also chase crows and divine some of these things from how many birds appeared or the direction the birds flew.

In Scotland and Ireland, blindfolded girls would go to the garden on Samhain to pull cabbages and other vegetables to divine the physical characteristics of their future spouses by the appearance of the roots. If the roots had lots of earth clinging to them, then their spouse would be rich. If they later ate the cabbage it would reveal their future love's character - bitter or sweet! 

"HALLOWEEN" by Jack Burton

Traveling after dark, especially alone, was not advised on Samhain, for this was a night of magic and chaos. The Wee Folke became very active at night, pulling pranks on unsuspecting humans. Travelers carried turnips that had been hollowed out, carved, and lit with a candle to look like a protective spirit. (In America, pumpkins were substituted for the turnips, and thus we got the Jack O'Lantern).

In Scotland, people would go to a stream on Samhain and - with closed eyes - take from the water three stones between middle finger and thumb, chanting as each was gathered. They would then carry the stones home carefully and place them under their pillows. That night, they would ask for a dream that would give them guidance or a solution to a problem, and the stones would bring it for them.

In Ireland a popular Halloween game was to have a blindfolded person sit at a table on which were placed several saucers. After the saucers had been shuffled about, the person would choose one by touch. The contents of the saucer foretold the person's fate for the following year: water meant the person would travel, a coin or salt indicated future wealth, earth/clay meant someone known to the player would die next year, a bean predicted poverty and a ring meant marriage.

"ALL SOULS NIGHT" by Leanne Peters

As with so many other Celtic holidays (Yule-Christmas, Ostara-Easter, Lughnasadha-Lammas), the Catholic church borrowed heavily from Samhain. The once purely Gaelic festival became associated with the Christian All Saints' Day, November 1, and All Souls' Day, November 2 (the word Halloween derives from All Hallow's Eve), and has influenced the secular customs now connected with Halloween. It continues to be celebrated as a religious festival by some Neopagans and Wiccans.

Though I'm neither witch nor wiccan, and I wouldn't know what to put in a cauldron besides soup, I like to think of this day not as Halloween, but as Samhain. Tonight, on this Oiche Shamhna, after the trick or treaters are all tucked in bed, I will go out to the trees at the back of our lot and gaze at the nearly full moon. I will take time to honor my dearly departed, and I will stand quietly to see if I can sense the otherworldliness of this night that my Celtic ancestors once felt so keenly.

SAMHAIN" by Amy Pixel


If old Halloween customs are intriguing to you, these are links to a couple of posts I wrote in October 2007:


ADDED LATER: Leanne over at Somerset Seasons/Dorset Days ( has written a couple of wonderful posts about Halloween/Samhain. Her post for today is about Halloween Folklore. It includes some of the customs that I wrote about, and more that I did not know about/have room for. In yesterday's post she printed three poems to honor our ancestors on Samhain. I am going to recite the second one when I go out this evening.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The 15 years or so after the turn of the 20th century were known as The Golden Age of Postcards. Costing just a penny to mail (later 2 cents), "penny postcards" were used to send a quick greeting or celebrate festive occasions and holidays. Over the years, several names emerged as sought-after postcard artists. One was John Winsch, whose forte was beautiful women, including Native Americans. Another was Frances Brundage, who also specialized in beautiful women, and pretty little children.

Among the most prized postcards of all were signed Ellen H. Clapsaddle, the most prolific postcard artist of all time. She was  undeniably a master in portraying the charm and innocence of children. She created hundreds of images for all the holidays - New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. In my opinion, her Halloween postcards number among her best work.

Those of you who have been reading my blog the past three autumns know about my passion for vintage Halloween cards, and Ellen Clapsaddle is my very favorite of the postcard artists who captured the feel of long-ago Halloween. Spooky as they were, grinning jack o'lanterns, devilish imps and ghosts were the scariest creatures in Halloween postcards. There were no monsters, ghouls, werewolves, vampires, or the slashers of today's Halloween. It was a time when reading, coupled with a good imagination, provided the biggest thrills of all.

The following information on the life of Ellen Clapsaddle was taken from "The Life of Ellen Clapsaddle" by Baby Janet on

"Born on January 8th, 1863, in the town of South Columbia, New York, Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle was destined to become the most prolific postcard and greeting card artist of her time. A shy and delicate child who loved to draw, she displayed artistic ability from an early age. She was encouraged in her artistic endeavors by her parents and teachers.

"After graduation from the Richfield Springs Seminary in nearby Richfield Springs, New York in 1882, she rounded out her art education with a couple of years training at the Cooper Institute in New York City. She then returned home to South Columbia and, after placing an ad in a local paper, began offering painting lessons in her home.

"Ellen's father, Dennis L.Clapsaddle, died on January 5th in 1891. Ellen and her mother then moved in with an aunt in Richfield Springs. Ellen spent her next fourteen years giving art lessons, doing illustrations, landscapes, portraits, and some freelance work through the mail.

"A phrase taken from a poem she once wrote her mother, “My heart is a child”, typifies not only her sensitive and artistic nature but also the innocence and joy of life so vividly expressed in her artistic accomplishments. A sense of childlike happiness emanates from both the depths of her personality and its expression in her artistry.

"After spending several years in Germany at the expense of International Art Company, Ellen returned to New York around 1906 and was hired by the Wolf Company, a subsidiary of International Art Company. She soon became their sole artist and designer. Her mother, Harriet (Beckwith) Clapsaddle had died on March 2nd 1905, sadly while Ellen was in Europe.

"During her time with Wolf, her success reached such a peak that there seemed to be no limit to the growth potential for either the company or the postcard industry. Ellen invested heavily in German postcard firms on the advice of the Wolf brothers, who did likewise. The company was doing so well they sent her to Germany to work with their engravers.

"In August, 1914, Ellen was in Germany at the outbreak of World War I. Factories were destroyed, records burned, and messages never received or answered. Almost all of her original art and prints were destroyed during the Great War. It wasn't long before she became a displaced person, penniless and alone in a foreign land.

"Back in the States, the Wolf brothers had been cut off from supplies coming from Germany. Most firms, Wolf Brothers among them, went out of business or were severely financially handicapped as a result of the war. At the end of the war, one of the brothers borrowed money and went to Europe in search of Ellen, who was finally found some six months later wandering the streets. Hungry and sick, she barely recognized Mr. Wolf when he approached her. She was 55 years old.

"Wolf brought her back to New York where he could take care of her. She no longer had the ability to earn a living, and her health declined rapidly. Mr. Wolf himself died desolate and poor a few years after bringing Ellen back. She was left alone and mentally incapacitated.
Admitted to the Peabody Home in New York City in January 1932, Ellen had lost all capacity to reason. She passed away some two years later, on January 7, 1934, one day short of her 69th birthday. Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle died penniless and alone. She had never married, and had no sisters or brothers.

"It wasn't until after World War II that her body was reinterred, and she found her final resting place next to her parents in Lakeview Cemetery, in Richfield Springs. Her marker simply reads, "ELLEN."

"Ellen Clapsaddle’s artistry often evokes the innocence and purity of childhood. The artistry of her postcards brings back an era much cherished in retrospect for its civility and gentility. Her life is a story of both success and tragedy – success in the beauty, innocence and expansiveness of her artistry, and tragedy in the destructiveness of war towards all that we hold civilized and dear.

"Her story is one all too common amongst artists of all kinds: the rosy, fresh-faced innocence of her girls and young women, which has made her celebrated to this day as the greatest of the pre-war postcard artists, was a painfully ironic contrast to the tragedy of her later years. But how wonderful her work is! There is no doubt that were she alive today she would want us to accept her early images of pretty, childlike joy in the spirit in which they were painted."


World War I brought an end to the Golden Age of Postcards, although American firms continued printing excellent Halloween postcards well into the 1920s. But the end of the Golden Age of Postcards - and America's belated entry into WWI -  I think, coincide with the end of the Golden Age of Innocence in America.

Monday, October 26, 2009



By Ellen Clacy

I really appreciate all the feedback I received about my previous post. Thanks for using using such positive words as catharsis, resurrection, reinvention, insight, honesty, introspection, strong, good example and accomplishment.

I  worried about publishing the post in the first place. I am a blogger who hesitates to hang out my laundry in public. I hover somewhere in between letting it all hang out and being a Pollyanna, refusing to acknowledge that all is not well with my world.

"SUNDAY TEA-TIME" by Stephen Darbishire

I hesitated over writing the post because I did not want anyone to think badly of me. Isn't that funny, after all these years, when I thought I was finally immune to what other people think of me. But I do care what friends think of me. I once had a co-worker who was a shopaholic and a gambler, and I thought badly of her, never realizing that in my own way I was as "bad" as she.

But I would be horrified if someone thought of me as a hoarder. That, I am not. Kristen calls me a "pack rat", but I told her to watch the A&E TV show "Hoarders" to see what a real pack rat is like! I know that these people have psychological problems, and I am so glad I do not have that particular set of problems. I have enough of my own!

No, I have the ability to let go of things, but it entails so much physical work. In my case, the mind is willing, the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!

Looking over my posts this past summer, I see that few were very relevant to my daily life. Instead, I found art, poetry, and other subjects to hide behind. I guess I blog the way I clean house. I don't clean every day - some things not even every week. I let it all go for a while, and then I clean with a frenzy. So I did with airing out my problems, until this latest post. Now that my blogging "house" is clean I may go back to art and poetry for a while. Or not.

"BLUE AND WHITE CHINA" by Carol Gillot
(Blog "Paris Breakfast")

Meanwhile, I do want to say that I have not purged everything from my home. I still have artwork on my walls, accessories on my tables. I still need to have beauty surrounding me, but I have gotten rid of the mundane, the tacky, the passe, the ubiquitous, the redundant, the "what was I thinking?" - and kept the best things. Colleen mentioned in a comment that she likes to visit estate sales in order to give some things a forever home. I, too, have found some lovely things that will have a forever home with me. Too, the precious few things I have of my mother's and grandmother's will live here forever.

I won't be selling my blue and white china collection; I hope not to have to sell my collection of Roseville china. And I certainly must keep my collection of dog figurines.

Painter unknown to me

Thank you, Lila, for suggesting that I sell some items on Etsy. I didn't know that one can sell vintage items there. I checked it out, and I will be starting an Etsy shop (at some later time). Thanks to Gemma for suggesting eBay, consignment shops and Craigs List. Unfortunately, I always associate Craigs List with porn sites, never thinking that lots of legitimate items are sold there as well. I will be listing the most fragile or larger items that I don't want to ship on Craigs List Bismarck and Bismarck-Mandan Online. I will also call the antique shop to see what consignment items they are looking for.

And I already sell items on eBay. I sold most of my vintage Halloween postcard collection earlier this fall, and am listing some other vintage Halloween items now. I will also be offering some vintage Christmas items as well.

A friend sent me a note congratulating me on my efforts to de-clutter and lighten my load. I answered back with thanks for the encouragement but said that a person walking into my house would probably never know the difference. Her reply: "But you do." How true, I do. And I'm getting lighter by the minute.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


The rains finally stopped, the clouds broke apart, the sun shone once again, and Noah's ark came to rest on dry ground. Oh, sorry, that's another story.

Here's my story. This past weekend, after weeks of cold, clouds, winds, rain and snow, the temperatures shot up to 70 on Saturday and 80 on Sunday. And I held my rummage sale.

I had planned to hold this sale weeks ago but the weather held me back. I went through all the rooms and closets of our home, choosing items I wanted to sell. Dan had hauled 25 Rubbermaid tubs full of "stuff" up from the basement. I decided what to keep (very little) and what to sell (most of it). If necessary, I dusted or cleaned the items, priced them and packed them into the tubs. Dan hauled each one out to the front yard and set up the tables. I carefully set out each item, put up my signs and banner, and sat back and waited, and waited and waited.

I had very few customers. I don't know if it is the poor economy, or that the sale was too late in the year. All that work for a lousy $205.00. Yes, I know, it's $205.00 I didn't previously have, but it was a small fraction of the profits I've made from other sales. All that work for so little reward! I don't plan to ever go antique shopping again, but if I did, I would respect those dealers who post signs like this: "I found it, I bought it, I transported it, I cleaned it up, I displayed it -  and now you expect me to lower my price?"

I sit here today at my computer, looking out on a world that is cold, gray and wet once again. I am still stiff and sore, my back hurts, and I re-injured my knee. But even if I came away from my sale with aches, pains and little money, I came away with tons of insight.

I realize now that I was a shopaholic. (I say was. I never purchase anything anymore, except clothing and books from the thrift shops/used book shops.)

I've mulled it over and come up with several reasons why I turned out this way (because I wasn't that way in my 20s). First, a little background:

In June 1982, we lost our home in a fire. We came away with only the clothes on our backs, our dog and our cars. When we were finally able to get into our new house, we moved in with nothing but some clothes, a crib and a few baby things (I was 8 months pregnant when we had the fire). That first day, our bedroom set was delivered so at least we didn't have to sleep on the floor. Over the next six weeks - which also happened to coincide with my maternity leave - I was charged with furnishing and equipping an entire house. Baby in tow, I bought cooking utensils and dishes, glasses and silverware, sheets and blankets, towels, clocks and lamps. You name it, we needed it.

Because we had had a good insurance policy, I had carte blanche to spend money. And I think that sense of permission to spend money lasted me way beyond the first six weeks. It lasted for over 20 years, as a matter of fact.

Too, I had an enormous void to fill. I had lost my collection of books, my precious family photos, over 100 houseplants, certain treasures with great sentimental value. Not long after the fire, I lost one of the opal earrings Dan had given me the day Kristen was born. I broke down and wept. I felt as if I was forever more going to be losing things. I rushed to fill that void, and fill it I did.

Finally, the move into our new house marked the time I started buying decorating or "shelter" magazines. These magazines told me that I should decorate the entire house for each season, to change things up for a fresh look, to have different looks for summer and winter. And I believed those magazines. Oh, did I believe in them. I bought Halloween decorations, Thanksgiving decorations, Christmas decorations, Easter decorations. I bought accessories, I bought antiques. I bought pictures - more pictures than I had wall space for. I bought things and put them away, never to use them.

On Saturdays, Dan would babysit Kristen, and I shopped. I went to rummage sales, flea markets, church bazaars, open houses, craft shows, antique shops, gift shops, the mall. I'd load up on decorative items at TJ Maxx on Fridays, the day after they put the "new stuff" out. I carried home bags and bags of stuff. It felt good. This recreational shopping definitely gave me an endorphin high. Some people call it "retail therapy". If so, I was in therapy for a long, long time.

Over the weekend, I had many hours to sit and look at that "stuff" in the yard and was aghast at myself. Why did I think I needed all those porcelain dolls, all those angels, all those bears, all those knickknacks, all those linens I had no room to display? Yes, it's fine to have a collection, but why did I have so many collections? I wondered if our current bad financial situation is payback for spending all that disposable income instead of saving it. I thought of the grasshopper and the ant. I wondered if what goes 'round has come 'round. I wondered if my personal karma in the form of a nasty little snake had finally caught up with me and bitten me right in the butt.

Who knows? But I can't unring that bell. I do know those days are over for good. Even if I won the lottery I wouldn't buy more stuff. I know now (perhaps too late) that I am not defined by my possessions. I know that things don't matter, people do.

And I do know that I promised Dan he would never have to haul those tubs back down to the basement again. Sadly, I know there are as many tubs still down there. (As are all those magazines.) I know I will get rid of them all. I feel lighter and more free already, and soon I will be even lighter and more free of possessions. (Except my books. The books stay put.)

I am determined to live by this motto: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." ~ William Morris

Monday, October 12, 2009


I am in mourning, for a North Dakota autumn that never was and never will be. It was a balmy 85 degrees on Saturday, Sept. 26. Ever since that day, it has been cold, cloudy, windy, rainy, snowy. Yes, snowy. Southwestern North Dakota has already had snow measurable in inches. Friday morning, it snowed briefly here. And this morning, we woke to .6 inches of snow on the ground. The daily high temperatures have been hovering right around 30 degrees F.

We never got to have autumn. The leaves never turned. Instead, they died on the branch, still green. After such a horrible winter last year, we never imagined that we would have to face it again so soon. It's almost too much for me to bear. The forecasters are saying we may have a slight warmup by the weekend, but I doubt we'll have true Indian Summer this year. We won't have those mellow "bluebird" days, when the temps are in the 70s, the winds are calm and the sky is the purest blue. We won't have the glory of the scarlet sumac, the golden cottonwoods, the flaming leaves of the few maple trees that grow here.

As I watched the noon forecast today, I thought I saw the words "depressing cloudiness" on the screen. It turned out to be "decreasing cloudiness", but depressing seems more apt. This swift alteration of the natural turn of the seasons has really altered my mood as well, and not in a good way. In an effort to alleviate the gloom, I decided to put out my indoor autumn decorations.

The photo above shows what my mantel looks like in autumn (only the photo is tilted, not the mantel!). For most of the year, I leave up the ivy and cedar toparies and trellises, and the Victorian clock which was passed down from Dan's grandmother. On the left is a figurine of a sweet little girl reading, which I got from Victorian Papers years ago, and on the right is a figurine of three cherubs, topped by a candle. I round off the display off with a couple of amber goblets and a fall silk garland. On the wall to the left and right of the fireplace are leaf sconces with light orange candles. (These photos were taken a couple of years ago - I finally got rid of my husband's pheasant print and replaced it with a painting of two dogs sleeping in a basket before a fireplace.)

This sideboard is in my living room, as I have no room for it in the dining room. It was originally in my Great Aunt Jennie and Great Uncle Albert's house, until they moved in with one of their daughters. After that it resided in my Grandma's house, until I inherited it. Here I feature some real pumpkins, a huge spicy-scented orange candle and a fall swag. After I took the photo I got the male pilgrim figurine to match the lady on the right. As you can see, I still haven't been able to get rid of the duck and pheasant hunting prints on this side of the room.

This is my deacon's bench, which is in my dining room. It features a basket with fall-tinted hydrangeas and bittersweet, an amber candle holder, a black and white French etching, a basket of pears and a statuette of a lady that I purchased many years ago. I love this photo because it shows how the sun coming in the south windows highlights the honey gold of the wood.

Atop my microwave: A copper canister with copper-colored fall foliage, wheat and baby cattails; a French copper saucier; two vintage Gurley fall candles, and a basket with various (fake) fall produce.

The coffee table in my living room, topped with an autumn runner and centerpiece. Included are some pieces of my collection of leaf-shaped fall items, a box with hunting dog scene on the top, and a piece from my collection of hunting-themed pottery.

This is my secretary desk, which I inherited from my mom. It shows a very small part of my collection of autumn-themed animals such as chipmunks and squirrels. This collection has now grown larger, and I have added an owl and a set of birds perched atop acorns, fall berries, etc. The cubbies of the secretary were a cool place to store my rubber stamp collection, but I have now sold most of my stamps. (P.S. Sorry about the mirror - I clean and clean this old mirror and it never really gets clean.)

This photo is of the window seat in my dining room (never used as a window seat, as it is very narrow and uncomfortable). Here, I surrounded my windows with some draped rummage fabric in apricot, silk autumn leaf garlands and amber lights. On the window sill I laid silk sprays of apples and fall-colored roses. On the window seat, I feature a hodgepodge of fall-themed items: fruit plates and a squash-shaped gravy boat, silk autumn leaves, a turkey figurine (I now have more turkeys), a tin, a basket of silk mums, an orange watering can holding real Indian corn and miniature autumn houses.

So even though I can't enjoy a real North Dakota autumn this year, I can enjoy it in my house.


PS - I have revived my book blog, "Julie's Bookshelf" (I hadn't posted to it in over a year and a half!) and I will be writing frequent book reviews there. Go to:

Also, I have opened up a new blog, called "Poetry Fest", in which myself and other poetry lovers can share their favorite poems. I will be posting my favorites and yours, with fine art to go with them. Go to

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


"The Kitchen Boy" by Robert Alexander

As I have mentioned before, I no longer shop at Barnes and Noble (except to "window" shop). I do order used books on, at prices as low as a penny. But even with such low prices, there's always a shipping charge of $3.98.

I've found a new, cheaper place to buy books: The Owl Bookstore in Bismarck. There are actually two used bookstores in town, but the other one frustrates me because of the way it's organized. A certain book could be found in romance, or mystery, or suspense, or fiction, or new novels or god knows where else. It totally frustrates me, and I always give up before I even start looking.

What I like about The Owl - besides its massive collection of owl figurines - is that not only is it better organized, it keeps all the trade paperbacks in one place. I can almost always count on a trade to give me a good read. So that's where I gravitate first, as well as to the hardcover table, where like-new books sell for just $1.00.

On a recent trip to The Owl, I found 11 hardback and paperback books for $22.00, an average of $2.00 each. I thought that was quite a bargain.

Of my latest haul, I've read six of the books (I already reviewed "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill"). Here are some mini reviews of each:

Pictured above is "The Kitchen Boy" by Robert Alexander. I really enjoyed it, especially since I have read quite a bit about the Romanovs - Nicholas, the last Tsar of Russia, his wife Alexandra, and their five children.

This might be called an alternative history book, asking the question, "What if one of the Romanov children survived their massacre in 1918?" That question has been posed many times before, of course, and there have been several pretenders over the years; especially famous was Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia. Now we know, through DNA testing, that all of the Romanovs died together. But as Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, there are times when we give our reading selves over to "a willing suspension of disbelief."

The book, told though the eyes of the imprisoned family's kitchen boy (in real life this servant was not among the others murdered with the family), really brings the Romanovs to life, and I think it gives a fairly good picture of what the family probably endured after they were confined to house arrest.

"The Lost Painting" by Jonathan Harr

About a third of the way through this book, I'm thinking, "This isn't a very good novel. The characters are wooden, the chapters end too abruptly, there's no point in including Francesca's flimsy romance, there's so much boring detail, etc., etc." About two thirds of the way through the book, I realized it was not a novel, but a non-fiction book. Duh, Julie! But how was I to know? The back of the book is given over to praise of another of Harr's books, there are no reviewers' quotes at the beginning, and the front of the book carries only the title. Maybe the full title - "The Lost Painting - The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece" should have given me a clue, but it didn't. 

I did enjoy learning about the restoration of works of art and searching their provenance, and about the life of Caravaggio and how one of his authentic masterpieces was discovered in Dublin, Ireland, of all places. However, I still maintain that a non-fiction book can and should be as good as a novel (e. g. "Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil") and this one does not make the grade.

"The Ha-Ha" by Dave King

I enjoyed "The Ha-Ha" very much. It tells the story of a Vietnam vet whose head wound leaves him with a brain injury that renders him unable to speak. What's worse, even though he is a fully cognizant being, he is also unable to write or use universal sign language, leaving him only able to communicate with others through a few hand and body gestures and strange grunts.

Through Howard Kapostash's mind's eye, we learn what his life is like, and how it changes when he becomes a temporary guardian for Ryan, the 9-year-old son of a former girlfriend. Though he is not Ryan's father, he and the boy form a close bond and together with Howard's roommates (one female and two males), they become a real, if non-traditional, family. Through the boy, Howard's formerly narrow world opens wider and wider. However, don't expect a treacly, fairy-tale ending in which Howard ends up married to Ryan's mother and adopting him. Not gonna happen. But you'll like Howard and Ryan very much, and wish them both the very best.

"More Than You Know" by Beth Gutcheon

Since it is so difficult to categorize, I probably would have never found this novel in that other used bookstore! Because it involves an axe murder, and because it is set in New England, it reminds me of two real-life crimes: Lizzie Borden's and the infamous, sensational axe murders that took place in 1873 on the Isle of Shoals, New Hampshire. (To learn more about the Isle of Shoals murders, read Anita Shreve's "The Weight of Water" or check the Internet.)

The hateful, angry ghost, the few times it does appear, was truly frightening, but this novel can't be put into the horror category. It's also part murder mystery, but it is so much more than that. It is mainly the story of 17-year-old Hannah Grey, a summer visitor to the small town of Dundee, ME, and Conary Crocker, "the town bad boy and the love of her life."

Like Shreve's book, "More Than You Know" is set partly in the past and partly in the present. In addition to Hannah's story, we - along with her - learn about the deeply troubled Haskell family who lived on an isolated island off Dundee in the 1800s. In the end, the two stories unexpectedly and violently collide. This book is classified as a young adult novel (which I didn't know until after I read it) but it is excellent adult reading as well.

"Firefly Cloak" by Sheri Reynolds

I first learned about Sheri Reynolds through Oprah's book club. Having read her "Bitterroot Landing" and "The Rapture of Canaan", I snapped up "Firefly Cloak" as soon as I saw the author's name. but in addition to the author, I also recognized that this book is part of a larger category, that of contemporary Southern fiction. I have always loved the Southern novel, probably because of one of my UND literature professors, Mississippi native and good-old-boy John Little, who created the UND Writers' Conference and invited some great Southern writers to the very first conference. (Most unforgettable: Truman Capote).

In addition, I also love plucky young heroines, and 15-year old Tessa Lee is certainly one. She sets out alone to find her mother years after being abandoned - along with her little brother - in the care of her grandparents when she is only 8. The title of the book refers to the ratty bathrobe with the faded "fireflies" on it, revered by Tessa Lee as the last remnant and reminder of her mother. Does she find her mom? I'll leave that for you to find out.

But like Howard and Ryan, you'll learn to love Tessa Lee too. She's is, more than anything, a survivor. She joins a long long line of plucky, determined, smart, brave young Southern girls, beginning with Scout Finch in Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird", to Ruth Anne (Bone) Boatwright in Dorothy Allison's "Bastard Out of Carolina", to Ellen Foster in Kaye Gibbons novel by the same name, to Avocet Abigail Jackson in Connie Mae Fowler's "Before Women Had Wings."

Also, in non-fiction memoirs, "The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls and "The Liar's Club" by Mary Karr (set in East Texas, which is considered to be part of the Deep South).

Thursday, October 1, 2009


Grandma's house from the north (street) side

In my previous post, I wrote about my memories of my grandma's house in Crosby, ND. (Grandma Julia was the only grandparent I knew.) In this post I'm back with more of these memories.

With Mom
I remember those saddle shoes!

I treasure memories of sitting on the bench by the willow tree of a summer evening with Grandma, Aunt Mary and Mom. I'd go play for a while, then come back and find a lap to contentedly sit on while I listened to them talk. After it got dark we'd sometimes sit in the enclosed front porch, watching the soft breeze billow the gauzy white curtains in and out, the street light giving us all the illumination we needed.

I recollect having the measles and being kept in a darkened room with the shades pulled, because "measles can settle in the eyes." I got two rubber "Measle Dolls" as get-well gifts - one had a red dress with white polka dots and the other had a white dress with red polka dots. And how can I forget the two stuffed bears – black and white Handy Andy and white and black Andy Pandy – who lived in Grandma's tool box. After I got older, sometimes Mary would pay me to sort out her jewelry box or put canceled checks in order.

With Aunt Mary

I can see it all now: The "Pink Room" that hadn't been pink for years; all the brown-painted furniture and floors (Grandma was dangerous with a can of brown paint - even MY little chair was painted brown!); Grandma's flowers - moss roses and Wee Willie dianthus by the garage, dwarf irises in the tire planter and huge blowsy peonies by the front porch; the yellow shrub roses that grew everywhere in the neighborhood.

I can still see Grandma's worn calico housedresses and navy tennis shoes, her full-length aprons and old-fashioned brown wavy hairpins. I can still smell her unique scent of peanut butter and coffee. Sometime she’d let me wear her bifocals. I’d walk around high stepping, because the floor wasn't where I thought it should be.

With Second Cousin Vern.
There's that weird facial expression again!

I can still see the musical Miles Kimball lighted plastic church and the red cellophane wreath that came out at Christmas time, and the big old-fashioned bulbs and tinsel on the tree. Auntie Jennie and her husband would ship the Munros a freshly-cut tree from Montana on the train! The only time I never wanted to be at Grandma’s house was on Christmas Eve, because that’s when they feasted on lutefisk. Ishda!

I can still feel the weight and warmth of Grandma's heavy, utilitarian crazy quilt. I can still feel how sad and bare the house looked on Mondays (wash day), as beds were stripped and tablecloths removed. I remember how much I loved watching Grandma sprinkling clothes. Using a 7-Up bottle with a perforated cap, she would shake water on the clothes, then roll them up tightly and put them in the wicker laundry basket so they would become thoroughly dampened by the time she ironed them. And how good those ironed clothes smelled!

In the wagon by the back steps.
Who let those weeds get so long?

I can still smell Grandma's cooking too: Her pork mulligan stew, the mashed potato and salmon patties, her raisin brown bread (I loved to pluck the plump raisins out of the rising dough), the Sunday dinners (always roast chicken, roast beef or roast pork), her chocolate drop cookies, Denver sandwiches for Sunday brunch, Jell-O with cream on top, chocolate cake with crystallized 7-minute frosting, chicken soup with wide homemade noodles, "Ronnie's Potato Soup". (My brother Ronnie ate so many bowlsful of this soup everyone joked he must be storing it in his hollow wooden leg.)

I'll never forget dipping sugar lumps in Grandma's cream- and sugar-laden coffee, or going to the grocery store to buy her some Half 'N Half or to the bakery for some long johns. I loved playing with all the buttons in the button tray, riding my trike with the plastic ribbons in the handles, making mud pies decorated with cotoneaster berries and boxelder seeds, listening to Grandma's tales of Norway, having my special toys that “lived” at her house.

Walking down the the street.
Good thing it wasn't a very busy street.

Grandma’s house was not too far from the swimming pool. I loved walking “home” in the late afternoon, my hair smelling of chlorine and my body smelling of sun and Coppertone. I would have sprouted a million new freckles, and because we had to wear bathing caps, I would have a strip of white skin across my forehead.

Grandma’s house was the kind where “Back Porch is Best” – only strangers came to the front door. On late Saturday afternoons in summer, we’d all gather on the back porch steps and the grownups would gossip about happenings in town. Sometimes at night, I’d sit quietly on those steps and watch the red lights blink on and off over at the grain elevators humming away in the dark. I’d watch the beacon from the airport sweep the sky, around and around and around yet again, and I’d wait to hear the 10:00 curfew siren before going in to bed.

Grandma sitting on the railing of the back steps.

Grandma’s house was a “curtains and floor rugs” house, not a “draperies and carpets” house. It was a house with bluebird china and chenille bedspreads. It was a place where dinner was the meal served at noon, lunch was at 4:00 and supper was at 6:00. It was a place where we had evening snacks of plain spaghetti with butter and salt and pepper, a place where Grandma always watched Billy Graham's TV specials, where we listened to Hank Williams on the radio, where there was a bookcase full of novels by authors from the 40s and 50s - and earlier: Zane Grey, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Agatha Christie, Edna Ferber, Grace Metalious (scandalous!), Kathleen Winsor, Frank Yerby, Francis Parkinson Keys, Gene Stratton Porter, Samuel Shellabarger, A. J. Cronin, Taylor Caldwell.

Grandma’s house - yes, it's all there, still in my head, and now it’s on these pages.

The west, or front side of Grandma's house

Today, October 1, would have been my Mom's 88th birthday. I miss you and love you, Mom.