Saturday, March 22, 2014

Meandering Through Indiana Fiction, with the Final Destination Being the Southern Indiana Forests of Brian Kimberling's "Snapper", mostly Because He's Reading at Boswell on Wednesday, April 16, 7 pm.

I talk a lot about how I was drawn to Wisconsin when I was young, but I’ve rarely talked about how Indiana played a part in where I am today. It turns out that Indiana played to supporting roles in my move from New York. My sister and her family were living in West Lafayette, which turned out to be a very long but doable bus ride from Milwaukee, and I made the trip several times in my first year, plus once we met up in Chicago. A couple of times I extended the route with a detour to Indianapolis, where I would mostly explore the aisles of the old L.S. Ayres department store. Claudia and I took one trip to Block’s too, but it was gone pretty quickly, folded into the Lazarus division of Federated Stores. Of course I own this beautiful book published by the Indiana Historical Society, and I still hope to visit the recreated tea room there.

My sister wasn’t that happy in West Lafayette, mostly because she was not working in her chosen field of Chinese, but was instead teaching English comp, and the family wound up decamping for Massachusetts. Yes, this is so long ago that a lot of schools didn’t have vibrant Chinese language departments. Can you believe there was a time? I have several vivid meomories of the Lafayettes—of shopping in Loeb’s Department Store and Von’s Bookstore, and of trying out the rabbit fast foot place called Hop Scotch. At one point I thought maybe I imagined the whole thing, but here's an article from People magazine.

But there was a second Indiana connection that brought me to Wisconsin. It turned out the person leaving Harry W. Schwartz that left an opening for me was moving with her husband to Indianapolis. I didn’t know her well, but I knew she’d settled in the Broad Ripple neighborhood. She was a painter, and for at least a time, kept a day job as gift sales rep, but I’m told she was never really satisfied until she and her husband moved to the Madison area.

Similarly, another friend of mine, also from Milwaukee left to move for a job to Indianapolis as well. She also talked about moving back, and actually did so after several years.  She lived in Fountain Square, another neighborhood that I have since explored at length, though unlike Broad Ripple, it didn’t have a bookstore, but it was also walking distance from downtown. Fountain Square did have a duckpin bowling alley and a strange old storefront library branch, which reminded me of the old Llewellyn Branch in Bay View, which is now part of Bay View High School.

My last trip to Indianapolis, by the way, was part of a Random House focus group, as they had their kids' warehouse in nearby Crawford, which, by the way, once had a branch of Loeb's.

So I suppose it’s not fair, but my Indiana stories don't match the flavor of Indiana fiction, which has a more nostalgic vibe, of folks wanting to return to a happy place. That said, there is also a darker side of Indiana fiction, with several writers drawing on noirish elements. So what could be better than an Indiana reading list. If I decided to spend the whole month reading Indiana fiction, these books would be on my shortlist. I know it sounds crazy, but when I had more freedom to read what I wanted, I found myself gravitating to obvious destinations like San Francisco, and less likely settings like New Jersey and Kentucky, usually before making a visit.
A good reading list should have an assortment of authors, including at least one who writes for kids, one nonfiction book, one mystery (because mystery writers love local color) and at least one nonfiction title. That's easy, because I never read my L.S. Ayres book cover to cover.

My kids' selection is easy too. If anyone is going to turn around Indiana (and specifically Indianapolis's ) reputation for literature, it’s the current superstar John Green. The Fault in Our Stars is set there, and sure enough, in that small towny kind of way, one of the folks I knew from Milwaukee turned out to be friends with him. it hasn't gotten us an event with the author, but you can dream, right?

For the mystery/thriller genre, you could include Frank Bill, who wrote Crimes in Southern Indiana and visited Boswell for the follow up, Donnybrook. Bill writes dark, literary crime fiction, with one novel and another highly touted collection of stories. Another author who writes in a bit noir is is Chris Culver, whose trio of Indianapolis crime novels, The Abbey, The Outsider, and By Any Means (due out in May 2014) feature one Ash Rashid.I believe they were first self-published, giving hope to all the other entrepreneurial folks who've gone the contract publishing route.

If one was going to say there was a definitive Indiana (specifically Indianapolis) writer in the classics category, it would have to be Booth Tarkington. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice, for The Magnificent Ambersons in 1919 and Alice Adams in 1922. Just look at this amazing collection of writing, which spans from 1899 to well past his death in 1946.

A close second would be Jean Shepherd, whose tales of growing up in Holden, Indiana (it’s based on the real town of Hammond) , particularly in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, is immortalized in "The Christmas Story," the film that is run continuously on Christmas on WTBS. It’s a little confusing, as Higbee’s Department Store of Cleveland is featured in the film, and they certainly never had a store in Hammond, but they’d only let the studio film there if they used the name figuring it was an excellent promotional opportunity. The nameplate was folded into Dillard’s very soon afterwards, so the whole thing becomes both surreal and confusing.

You can fill out your month of reading with the Harmony novels of Philip Gulley, starting with Home to Harmony, who got props from Ken, one of my former colleagues.  A novel I remember folks liking called The Starlite Drive In, by Marjorie Reynolds, and Haven Kimmel’s trilogy of small-town novels, starting with The Solace of Leaving Early, though folks know her best for her Hoosier memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, which I did read many years ago.

If we're talking sweet, you should add a novel from last year, now out in paperback, which I really enjoyed, The Supremes at Earl's-All-You-Can-Eat, by Edward Kelsey Moore. It brings a little diversity to the list, focusing on a trio of African American women in a small town outside Louisville. I think of it as Fannie Flagg crossed with Terry McMillan, but you can come up with your own pitch.

If you really want to dig into genre, I think you might have to tackle one of the famous Amish romances that are popular among evangelical Christians. The definitive Indiana writer of these seems to be Wanda Brunstetter. I never had a bookseller read one of these, though, so I can’t say anything more, but I should note that her new book, Plain and Fancy, is coming in May.

That’s definitely a month’s worth of reading, but I have one more to add. It seems like I might be the last person at Boswell to read Snapper, by Brian Kimberling, but with the author returning to us on April 16, it seemed like it was time. We had hosted the author for a hardcover event, but well, he’s such a nice guy and the book was so well loved that how could we say no?  The other funny thing about Snapper is that it most recalls to mind the stories I told up front of my family and friends who lived there, observant of the state's quirky nature, feeling a little on the outside looking in.

The adventures of Nathan Lochmueller, boy bird identifier, takes him throughout the southern half of the state, with his home base being Evansville, home of a small college that unlike Indiana University in Bloomington, did not have much of an effect on the city. It did, however, employ Nate's father, as well as the dad of his best friend Shane, and it was small enough that a mathematician and a poet shared an office together. Before Snapper, the main reason I thought about Evansville was imagining a trip to Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, a own that has a story of its own in the collection.

To me, it's a distinctively Indiana story, and one worth celebrating on an Indiana-themed blog post such as this is. I actually think you can make a great reading list from these titles. I dare a book club to pick eight of these books for a year and then take a road trip to Indy and eat at the L.S. Ayres Tea Room. Bookstores in Indianapolis (I don't have the energy to list the whole state) include Bookmamas in Irvington on the east side (used and new, with the new focus seemingly on regional titles), and a nonprofit second-hand bookstore called Indy Reads, which the "my neighborhood" map considers downtown. There are also two well-regarded children's bookstores in the metro,  Kids Ink in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood of the city and 4 Kids Books outside the beltway in Zionsville. Alas, Big Hat Books in Broad Ripple is on hiatus and what with its website being down, the future seems even more unclear.

We'll be hosting Brian Kimberling for a reading at Boswell on Wednesday, April 16, 7 pm. I'm not exactly sure of the recipe, so I'm not going to be able to make sugar cream pie (known as Hoosier pie in Indiana, which is a variation of the shoofly pie from my childhood visiting Amish restaurants* with my family, and really not that different from chess pie, which has the addition of cornmeal) but if you have one handy, be prepared to share.

Oh, as a final note that is sort of an addendum, I should note that while I started our writing about three folks who did not wind up liking Indiana, every place has folks that don't feel like they fit in. At the bookstore, I talk to newcomers to Wisconsin who are happy, and others who don't ever find their place. I've had friends who've moved to New York and Seattle and settled there, but I've also known folks who came back, or decided to try somewhere else. So don't read too much into that.

*The restaurant we went to most was Plain and Fancy, which is coincidentally the name of the new Amish romance I cited earlier.

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