Friday, February 24, 2012

From the Tyrol to Southwest Wyoming: Learning to Fit In

Today the cultural emphasis in America is on diversity.  My daughter the curator has been uploading pictures to the museum’s Black History Month posts on Facebook.  I sent her an obituary for a modern-day vaquero from southwest Wyoming who still braided his own rawhide cowboy gear while working for the railroad: I hope that his family might donate some pictures of him for inclusion in the posts for Hispanic Heritage Month.

In the Union Pacific coal camps in the 1920s and 1930s, the emphasis was on fitting in and becoming American.  When my mom started school, she didn’t speak English.  Her parents had immigrated to this country from the Tyrol region of what was Austrian territory before World War I and Italian afterward.  The Union Pacific had recruited from middle and northern Europe, so these elementary school classes included students whose parents – especially the stay-at-home mothers – in most cases spoke only their native language.  The kids picked up English where they could, from older siblings, at school (pity the teachers who somehow managed the polyglot!), and from in-home tutors.

In this excerpt from my novel Willow Vale, the story of an Austrian immigrant to Wyoming after World War I, my heroine Francesca Sittoni is teaching herself to read from a newspaper about a strike at the coal mine which threatens her family:

Their situation resembled too much the one they had left. Where was the promise of America here, eh? If their wives or children took sick, they had their pay docked to reimburse the company doctor. The U.P.’s tentacles probed every aspect of their lives: they were all in debt up to their grimy ears to the company store, for everything from the clothes on their backs to the food they put in their mouths. They were free now to shop elsewhere, but the privately owned stores didn’t extend credit toward the next paycheck, and all of them were constantly short of cash.

Most of them felt a strong obligation to the relatives they’d left destitute in Europe, but few of them had anything left over these days to send home. The newspapers were full of the Colorado min­ers’ discontent spreading as far as Hanna, Cumberland, and Reliance in Wyoming, and as Francesca practiced her reading with the local paper she grew terrified of what loomed over them.

Later in the novel, Francesca leaves the coal camp after her husband is killed in a cave-in and goes to live with my hero, Kent Reed, who in this excerpt is teaching Francesca’s daughter Elena to read:

Yet she caught him looking at her sometimes, smoldering smoky eyes glinting in the lamplight, one broad shoulder thrust forward to support his arm on the table, his chin propped in his hand. He’d be­gun to teach Elena to read, and as the relationship between the man and the little girl grew into love and trust, the mother couldn’t help but feel a part of that family intimacy. Her attention in the evenings divided between a week-old newspaper and Elena’s lessons, Franc­esca’s English also subtly improved.

But if the immigrants had to adapt, they also brought with them much-needed skills.  In the wet years of the early 1920s, homesteaders in much of normally arid Wyoming were able to dry-farm, a method of raising crops utilizing only natural rainfall.  In the much drier 1930s, those farmers without access to irrigation were mostly witness to their farms being foreclosed. 

In the coal camps, fresh produce from the garden was a rare treat.  There were a few women from the Tyrol who brought with them their green thumbs, and their skill in the garden was welcome.  This is a picture of my grandmother in front of a flourishing garden in Superior, Wyoming, probably in the 1940s or 1950s.  I think gardens in the rocky, alkali soil of southwest Wyoming were rare in those days.

Certainly I don’t remember lawns in Superior by the 1960s when the town was closing down and even the houses were getting moved out.  After all these years, it’s debated whether my Nona or her sister-in-law actually kept the pictured garden.  But even if it was a joint effort, they accomplished a notable feat, winning a prize for best yard in town.

Yesterday’s immigrants were not hyphenated, not Austrian-Americans or Italian-Americans.  In most cases it took everything they had to come to this country, and they worked hard to be American.  But just as proud as they were of blending in to the American melting pot, yet they remembered fondly their homelands and the dear ones they left behind.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Southwest Wyoming: A Tough Place to Live

The story of southwest Wyoming is the history of the Union Pacific Railroad.  Civil War veterans and Irish immigrants built the road.  Card sharps, ladies of the evening, and entrepreneurs headed west to seek their fortunes as the road opened.  European immigrants rode the rails west to farm or build new lives. 

My maternal grandparents were immigrants after the devastation of World War I on the Tyrol region of the Dolomite Mountains on the Austrian/Italian border.  They landed in Wyoming, my grandfather going to work in the Union Pacific coal mine in Superior.  Coming from a high green alpine land of white chalk cliffs and remote monasteries clinging to the cliffs, the women fled hunger and poverty in their homeland to seek passage on refurbished troopships to come to America as coal camp brides.  A large contingent of the Tyroleans settled in Pennsylvania, some in Colorado; some went to Mexico and South America.

It was a tough life for my grandmother in Wyoming’s high desert.  Cold and windy, the treeless, rocky landscape offered little except solitude and hard work. Only a special kind of woman could survive and thrive and raise a family in that tough landscape. 

The picture below shows the house my dad’s family occupied in Superior, from the 1950s rather than the 1920s, but you get the idea. 


Here’s an excerpt from my novel Willow Vale, describing what my heroine, Francesca Sittoni, found upon alighting from the train:

They halted in front of a tiny clapboard house sprouting from the powdery dust.  Cheek-by-jowl with its mirror-image neighbor, the collection of little houses formed a tiny, dirty neighborhood set flush atop a coal mine. 

Every couple of houses shared a water pump in the dirt yard.  Francesca was soon to find if she wanted to cook or heat the house, she hauled her own coal in all kinds of weather from a shed in the back yard next to the outhouse.  Everything, the floor and the rude table and chairs, the painted countertop in the minuscule kitchen, the bed, the walls, and the windows, bore a fine coating of coal dust.

Despite her constant effort to abolish it, life in Hawk Point, Wyoming, meant everything always would be covered in coal dust.  Elena’s clothes were filthy, whether she played inside or out; Cesare’s, of course, were permanently saturated with fine black powder.

This is a picture of part of the coal tipple at D.O. Clark mine in Superior, again probably from the early 1950s.  My paternal grandfather worked in this mine.  The picture came to me as part of my dad’s estate from his grandmother.  My dad’s mother had probably sent it to her mother in Kansas, trying to illustrate where and how the family lived in Wyoming.  Her mother, even after living through the Dustbowl years of the 1930s, was probably disturbed by these images of the stark daily lives of her daughter and her grandchildren.

As the railroads transitioned to diesel engines from steam, the Union Pacific no longer needed coal.  The younger generation raised in the coal camps sought jobs elsewhere as the mines began to shut down in the 1950s, and Superior became almost a ghost town.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

February 7, 2012, Celebrate the Bicentenary of Charles Dickens

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Passing by one of our numerous bookshelves the other day, my husband asked how many books I had read.  Stupefied, I inquired, “In my whole life?”  He nodded.  “Thousands!” I said.
“Well, which is your favorite?”
With no hesitation, I said, “A Tale of Two Cities.  Dickens.  I’ve read it five times.  There isn’t another book I’ve willingly read more than once.”
Perhaps it was easier to become a famous author in Dickens’ day, when it took almost 70 years for 60,000 novels to be published.  In our modern era of infinite numbers of words being published in gazillions of hardcovers, paperbacks, and e-books (okay, I exaggerate: according to Time Magazine it was only 30,000 in the U.S. last year) most people can still name at least two Dickens characters: Scrooge and Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol.  Many more are almost as famous, even to non-readers who only watch PBS: Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist. 
Charles Dickens started writing in installments: the serials.  He knew how to grab his audience, how to keep his readers interested, and how to furnish them an appropriate conclusion.  He invented unforgettable characters.  He painted vivid pictures of his society and his times.  He wrote regularly, every day—and he wrote to make money.  He had all the modern concerns of “building his platform.”  I think he would have been at home in this age of social media and showmanship as part of being a successful writer. 
In Chatham, England, there is Dickens World; I think he would be pleased.
I can invent no greater tribute to the Inimitable Mr. Dickens than the fact that people all over the world still read, and re-read, his books 132 years after his death.  I expect people will still be reading Dickens at his tricentenary on February 7, 2112.
Question: Do you read Dickens?  It was pointed out to me that he was paid by the word.  Is his writing too slow and wordy for the modern reader?  Are you familiar with his books, or only the video adaptations of his work?