Lights On A Ground Of Darkness, by Ted Kooser
I must admit I was surprised by this book. I expected (perhaps not unreasonably) that because the previous books by the author I had read were all books of poetry that this book would be a collection of poems as well. Only this book wasn’t a poetry collection at all, but rather a memoir of the author’s mother’s family, which appears to have been a rather small and obscure family. Although this book was certainly an unexpected one, it was not an unwelcome one, as the author has a winning way of talking about his family even if he does not show himself to be all that sympathetic himself–the author’s discussion of his own political worldview and his awkwardness dealing with conservative relatives does not make him come off very well, for example. It is touching and hopefully appreciated that the author chose to write some deeply personal stories about his family, though, as well as their background and context in an area of the world that I must admit I am not very familiar with at all. Nevertheless, I suspect that most of us could write a similar sort of memoir about our family and the quirks of the stories, even if most of us would be hard-pressed to say it so well.
This book is a short one at just over 50 pages, but it certainly has a fair amount to say despite its short size. The book begins with a poem written in honor of the poet’s mother, who died after a life of almost 90 years. After this comes some black and white pictures, and then a preface that explains why the author put off writing this book and then why he ended up writing it anyway. Finally, after all that the author takes on the task of writing about his family and setting that story in a place–near the little town of Guttenburg, Iowa, and a time, starting in the middle of the 20th century. There are looks at the shops, including the gas station that the author’s maternal grandfather ran for many years after his retirement, and a look at the history of the area, which includes one of the more obscure battles of the Revolutionary War. There are also plenty of memorable characters, among whom are a bachelor named Joel, Harvey and Helen, who traveled to Europe before dying close to home, a career in music ending in destitution through illness. There is also the author’s uncle, a kind but simple-minded man, who serves to reveal the character of those around him as is so often the case.
The author’s revelation of the life of his mother’s and grandparent’s families and the area where they lived is an interesting picture of a sort of world that many people are unaware of these days. We see a rural word where minorities are nearly absent, where habits and patterns of existence go on for generations, where the importance of having sons to keep up the family name and help out with the family farm are of critical importance, and where a great many cruelties as well as kindnesses linger on for a long time. We see how people choose to avoid tormentors in an area where being close to one’s enemies would be intolerable, and see how little the arts of civilization are regarded by those who trust what is close to the land and mistrust anything that is not particularly tangible. The author conveys a limited world with perhaps limited sympathy, but not without some insight at least, insight readers would do well to examine and critique for themselves.