Little Year

My goodness, there is a lot of good press about Anna Keesey's novel, Little Century.

My goodness, there is a lot of good press about Anna Keesey.

There is a very good reason for that: Little Century is great, and Anna ain't so bad herself.

I'll start with the book, commenting on some things I noticed about it that have not been commented on elsewhere. Sure, the sentences deserve all that praise, and I will get back to one of them in particular—but first:

Esther Chambers, a young 18, loses her mother and is orphaned. She flees the city and goes out into the rural wilds, where it is animals as much as humans who inhabit the landscape. I'm looking at the archetypal story here and thinking fairy tale, and in fact the spare wind-swept landscape of eastern Oregon is so richly described it may as well be dense forest. But then hard facts, and careful depiction of hardscrabble frontier life get in the way of this reading. I quickly had to abandon that approach to the narrative and get used to the idea that the abandoned homestead Esther takes on will provide, but there will be no magic there. The work will be real, difficult, and largely lonely.

It was a comfortable enough transition for me to live in Oregon's high desert with cattle ranchers competing with sheep farmers for what merely appears to be unlimited space and resources. Esther is a saint, a young innocent of the prairie when she arrives. She grieves over her mother properly and only expects the best when she encounters the locals, who are scarce by comparison to her native Chicago. Her distant cousin, Ferris Pickett ("Pick"), is her guide to the area. It is he who arranges her homestead—a shady deal—and her horse and her cabin.

From here the story is a slow build, not that there is anything wrong with lush description of local scenery and characters. A longish first act of the book is devoted to setting this scene before things  get juicy, starting with some good old-fashioned prairie sex and developing love interest(s) for Esther. But soon our burgeoning Romance-on-the-Western-Plain novel gives way to a rather dramatic clash between the sheepmen and the cattle ranchers. With Pick, Esther has family and love interest with the cattle ranchers, but her other interest is in a shepherd. She's our central figure, she's the one we go with, and thus we, too, straddle the divide.

It is hard to say more about the story that develops from here without ruining it for those who will be reading it. I'll hold back on specifics, but I'd like to inject something that I have not seen in other reviews—the mystery that develops is worthy of the best of the genre: Ruth Rendell, Ross MacDonald, you know the type—the humanity of the characters drives each revelation, and the complexity of the story rewards you for having paid attention to details earlier and punishes you for lapses. Esther's coming of age as a detective with intuition to match Philip Marlowe's is a surprising and delightful turn. When she loses her homey, sewing-and-farming-and-cabin-tending ways, when she quits just going gooey when she gets to know a Real Man Out West, she turns into her real, far more interesting and clever self. And so, when she enters an empty store she should not and later is hunted by a killer while she melts away ice to reveal a final clue to his guilt, the earlier scene-setting and character development pay off in this later real, dramatic tension.

So there you have it—I offer a little Dashiell Hammett to the mix of writers Anna has been compared to. Willa Cather seems straightforward enough, given the setting, and Marilynne Robinson is also there, given the sentences and the poetic denouement-by-negation that echoes the final sentence of Housekeeping (but because of the drama in the story, Little Century will make a better movie, alas). But don't be fooled by the sentence-praising masses: by the time you get to the end of the story, the pages cannot be turned quickly enough and the delicate construction of the prose is the last thing on your mind.

But let's stick with sentences for now, because I would like to say that I wrote one once. It was, oh, several years ago, let's just say. It involves Anna, her novel, and Merlin Olsen. It was, if you follow the resume presented for Anna in the press, her lost year, the unassigned time between the two degrees in her mini-bio: "Anna Keesey is a graduate of Stanford University and of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop."

Among many other things that year was for me, it was the year I got to know Anna Keesey. A more general description would call it the year after we had finished those commercially useless undergrad English lit degrees—I at Berkeley and Anna at Stanford—and parlayed them into something they really were never meant to be: A Marketable Commodity, a teaching credential—in this case issued by the Bay Area Writing Project at UC Berkeley. We were among a coterie of 30 young student teachers—many of them bright and some like me—all fulfilling the California state requirement of a fifth year (yes, it is actually referred to as a "fifth year"; it is that thing with no degree title attached to it, required after four undergraduate years in some states, including California, for acquiring teaching credentials). In some ways, I like how this phrase mirrors another: "fifth wheel."

Anyway, we spent the year taking a variety of education courses and going out to local schools to work with mentor teachers and subject unsuspecting local middle- and high-school students to the missteps of a recent college grad. There was also a writing workshop sandwiched between the two semesters. In the course of that workshop, I wrote my sentence.

I was lucky with my writing group in that workshop. I was with Grant, a natural writer and intellect with a genuinely enviable easy-going demeanor; Pamela, Patti Smith–obsessed at a time when that had some teeth to it, dammit; and Anna, someone I had already made pals with but whose writing revealed depth that sort of surprised me. I sat there among this talent. I wrote one piece about a foam bed I bought—it was a scream, let me tell you—and then I had to produce something else.

Trouble is, I didn't have a clue what to write for my second piece. I just kept thinking about that great foam bed. It was winter break. I had just gotten married. I was into lounging, not writing. It was January, and I was still in college. I was watching TV . . . the NFL playoffs. And then something hit me: "Hey," I said, "I've got a great idea. I will write about the NFL broadcast I'm watching and thus combine the thing I want to be doing with the thing I have to be doing." Man, that was original—what a creative thinker I am!

I thus produced a first draft for my writing group that was certainly not any better than you are imagining it could have been. I filled it with remarks about the TV commentary—pithy, disparaging remarks about the inanity of sports broadcasting. I bet you're sorry you missed it.

But there, somewhere in this mess of a thrown-together piece, was what I wrote to describe my response to a particularly vapid comment by one of the broadcasters: "I knit my brow at Merlin." Now, I knew when I put that down that it was a cheapie—it doesn't work at all if the broadcaster isn't named Merlin—but why do I care? Brow-knitting writes the check that "Merlin" cashes. That, I said (and still say) to myself, is a sentence.

The next day, after reading my new piece to the group and some obligatory and genteel remarks from those fine people and my pretending I was interested in hearing how to revise that drivel written solely—solely!— to fulfill a requirement, came the last word on it, from Anna. She  chuckled and looked down at the page, letting out the sentence while shaking her head and smiling: "I knit my brow at Merlin."

Kinda made the whole thing worth it.

Much time has passed since that year we started out as Tom and Anna, recent lit grads, and left as Mr. Sumner and Ms. Keesey, ready to report. I never actually taught in high school other than that student teaching gig and a little subbing; I ended up overseas teaching ESL/EFL at colleges. Anna got one of those prime Bay Area English teaching gigs with, if I remember it right, five preps for six classes.

And then more time passed and we sort of stayed in touch and sort of didn't. Anna always maintained her post as a teacher and writer (but for post-Iowa teaching moved on to creative writing courses at different colleges), but I fell out of it entirely to do this book editing job I still do. At one time I asked Anna to review and help edit a book, which she agreed to do. I also remember talking over dinner one evening, after she had begun to write seriously, about a book she was working on about a family leaving Missouri for Oregon in January 1900. She mentioned them seeing New Year's fireworks while they were traveling. That was more than ten years ago, and now there is Little Century. There is no family, but there is Esther, and Missouri is Chicago. I have no idea what other details remain from that distant past. I think I mentioned that we sort of didn't stay in touch, did I not?

But all of this is why, reading Anna's book, I focused on one of her own sentences with particular interest. It falls on page 239, and somewhere else for the e-book edition: "She wipes her knit brow with her golden little hand."

When you read a book by an old friend, arbitrary little connections can come up, and so for me I naturally thought back to a younger Anna having a laugh over "I knit my brow at Merlin," though the context and gravity of Anna's sentence could not be farther from the one I had, well . . . crafted. Still, I felt that knit-brow connection and devoted a little thought to this sentence, coming away thinking that, holy cow, Anna's book really is jam-packed. I picked this sentence, but any reader could pluck any one of a any number of sentences and see how things just really fit together.

So what is so good about "She wipes her knit brow with her golden little hand"? A couple of things, but start with the obvious: "golden little" is miles better than "little golden," though I'm certain I would probably put down "little golden" and move on, figuring that would do. But that is hardly the end of it, since "golden" itself is a bit curious until you come to know, a few pages later, that the girl thus described, Marguerite, has a previously unknown connection to Pick, who himself has a mustache that is described here and there as golden. Earlier, Marguerite herself had playfully taken a strand of her own hair and drawn it across her lip like a mustache. Such exploration into the text takes me right back to my lit-majoring days, perhaps not so wasted after all.

And Little Century proves to be a complete novel again and again. You will, for example, be rewarded if you take up Anna on her invitation to contemplate the significance of the war in the Philippines, which operates in the background throughout the story. Yes, the Philippines can be subjugated, but we know now that the U.S. will not win anything by it. Cattle ranchers can likewise successfully drive out the sheep but lose the railroad when chaos ensues. Are there other events over the past hundred years that have similarly refused to produce "winners"? Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan to quickly dash off some obvious ones in the arena of politics and war; it has certainly been an extremely little century.

And that year I met Anna, and the long time between then and now? Well, that was very little, too.

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