Sunday, June 15, 2014

Let's Eat Grandma (or why punctuation is important and you shouldn't move cross-country)

This year we had a poster in the English hallway that hyped the importance of punctuation. It said simply "Why punctuation is important: knowing the difference between 'Let's eat, Grandma' and 'Let's eat Grandma." It might be an extreme example, but honestly it's the kind of mistake I see pretty regularly. Kids love to say "You know what I mean," and if I saw this my answer would be, "Yes, I do. You intend to chop your grandmother up and make her into stew, which is not only diabolical, but impractical, because I've met the lady and she's pretty skinny."

On the heels (preferably uneaten heels) of removing this poster at the end of the school year, I scored a nice big pile of books from the school library's purge.  The librarian was distraught; she didn't want to get rid of books but had to make room.  One teacher's tragedy is another's windfall and I wound up with some really cool stuff.  

Not the least of these was a historical novel about the Donner Party.  Since tales of the gruesome fascinate me to no end, I scarfed that one up like a cannibal at a retreat for overweight missionaries. 

Snow Mountain Passage turned out to be a passable, if not wonderful, read.  I'm not sure that I really want to recommend it; the most compelling aspect was the subject matter.  An inherent issue with historical fiction is that, if based on actual events, you pretty much know how everything turns out and that was the case here: settlers make long series of incredibly bad decisions, encounter insane difficulties that they really should have known about, get stuck in twelve feet of snow and end up eating dead folks.  It takes a pretty skilled author to put a new spin on this sort of thing and I felt, here, that author James Houston relied upon the fascinating grue of the facts without adding much to it. 

In the modern era of four-hour flights across the United States I understand that I'm a bit of an anomaly; I just don't really feel the need to leave Richmond that often.  By "that often" what I actually mean is "ever;" travel is fun and God knows I love my trains, but it just seems a lot of effort when I am perfectly happy to stay right here on my porch with gin-and-tonics and a stack of good books. Therefore, I am at a loss to understand the motivation of people in the 1840s to make that trek to California.  (Please note that I did not use the expression "arduous trek," two words that seem to be inevitably paired.  I'm assuming you already know that the trek would have been arduous without having to resort to an irritating cliche.)

It is particularly noteworthy, I think, that the vast majority of people who did make that trek in the mid-nineteenth century were not poverty-stricken.  They couldn't have been, really: the cost of equipping yourself and your family for what was, at least, a four-month journey through completely unsettled territory was exorbitant.  The sale of your land would probably cover it, but you'd need to have a pretty heavy asset base to even think of the undertaking.  

And I simply can't imagine why anyone would want to do it.  The prospect of leaving a comfortable home in the East where you have things like, you know, other people and cities and department stores, just to piss off on a four-to-six month trip without roads, through deserts and over mountains, only to live--not visit, live--in a place you've never seen and really know nothing about does not strike me as a particularly brilliant venture. 

It says something about either the uncrushable spirit, or perhaps the sheer insanity, of the people who did make the move that their accounts after settling indicate that they found the ordeal to have been completely worth it.  I don't buy it, but that's probably because I'd get there after all that desert and mountain crap, discover that there wasn't one decent bar in the whole place, and become rapidly suicidal.  

Adventure is all very well and good but I'll take mine onscreen at the Byrd Theatre.

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Thanks! Now, go get a drink, sit down and enjoy the show.