Jun. 18, 2010

My Ancestral Home

by Louis Jenkins

We came to a beautiful little farm. From photos
I'd seen I knew this was the place. The house
and barn were painted in the traditional Falu
red, trimmed with white. It was nearly mid-
summer, the trees and grass, lush green, when
we arrived the family was gathered at a table
on the lawn for coffee and fresh strawberries.
Introductions were made all around, Grandpa
Sven, Lars-Olaf and Marie, Eric and Gudren,
Cousin Inge and her two children… It made me
think of a Carl Larsson painting. But, of course,
it was all modern, the Swedes are very up-to-
date, Lars-Olaf was an engineer for Volvo, and
they all spoke perfect English, except for
Grandpa, and there was a great deal of laughter
over my attempts at Swedish. We stayed for a
long time laughing and talking, It was late in
the day, but the sun was still high. I felt a won-
derful kinship. It seemed to me that I had
known these people all my life, they even
looked like family back in the States. But as it
turned out, we had come to the wrong farm.
Lars-Olaf said, "I think I know your people, they
live about three miles from here. If you like I
could give them a call." I said that no, it wasn't
necessary, this was close enough.

"My Ancestral Home" by Louis Jenkins, from European Shoes. © Will O' the Wisp Books, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It is the birthday of musician and songwriter Paul McCartney (1942), born in Liverpool, England, where he picked out chords on a family piano. When he was 14, he learned to play a left-handed guitar and met a local art student named John Lennon.

It is the birthday of novelist Gail Godwin (1937), (books by this author) born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her first big success was the novel A Mother and Two Daughters (1982). Godwin's next two novels were set in the South and drew upon her own life experiences. A Southern Family (1987) was based on the suicide of her half-brother Tommy, and Father Melancholy's Daughter was based on the depression that plagued Godwin's father for most of his life.

It's the birthday of novelist Richard Powers, (books by this author) born in Evanston, Illinois (1957). He's the author of 10 novels, including the National Book Award winner The Echo Maker (2006), which also was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

He started college as a physics major, but switched to English and ended up graduating with a degree in Rhetoric and a concentration in math and physics. While he was working on a Master's in Literature, he spent his free time at the university's computer lab where he'd sit and learn complex computer programs to relax and blow off steam. He said that after he graduated in 1980, he realized that the most "saleable" job skill on his résumé was that he could program computers. And that's just what he got a job doing.

Meanwhile, he devised an ambitious and wide-ranging reading program for himself, and after coming home from a day of typing commands into computers, he would read books about politics, theoretical physics, world history, sociology, and all sorts of fiction and poetry, which he called "random pleasures, all over the map." He'd go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston every Saturday morning, because that's when admission was free. One Saturday morning, he saw a photograph that stopped him dead in his tracks. The photograph was a black and white one of German farm boys, taken in 1914 by August Sander. Powers said, "All of my previous year's random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to [be] the birth photograph of the twentieth century." Within two days, he'd quit his job to devote himself to writing full-time his first novel. He worked on it for two years straight, a fictional tale about the boys in the photograph embedded with a story about a modern tech magazine editor intrigued by the photo. When the novel, entitled Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, was published in 1985, it was a huge success.

Powers' other books include Operation Wandering Soul (1993), Galatea 2.2 (1995), Gain (1998), Plowing the Dark (2000), and The Time of Our Singing (2003). His latest novel, Generosity: An Enhancement (2009), about an ecstatic Algerian woman and her writing teacher, came out just last year. He's an English professor at the University of Illinois, where he teaches a class on the mechanics of narrative.

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