On Spooky Stories

When I was a young girl attending one of the many camps I enjoyed, I loved sitting around a campfire telling stories. One of my favorites is a mildly spooky tale that I can’t quite remember the origins of, though I suspect it came from a Girl Scout leader or text at some point.

Half of the fun of telling spooky stories is the ambiance. When telling stories around a campfire, the circle can be big or small, but the warm light from the fire casts deep shadows, as only faces are lit up. Woods or fields surrounding the fire seem darker, and deeper. As a storyteller begins to share a tale, everyone hushes, and the quiet is only broken by the breaking of a log, the snap of pine pitch crackling in the flames, or the call of a night bird.

Perhaps it is a night Iike this where you might hear me tell this story:

Once there was a couple from the Twin Cities named Jane and Martin Hill. They were newlyweds, and in the time-honored tradition of the Midwest, decided to take a road trip for their honeymoon, heading up North along back roads they’d never been on before, just for the adventure of it. One evening, they were driving as dusk was falling, and it started to rain.

It came down in great sheets, making it hard for Martin, who was at the wheel, to see the road, which had gone slippery. He slowed the car, but a shadow ran in front of it without warning, and he swerved. The car flew into a series of rolls, ending up in the ditch with the headlights pointing skyward.

Martin must have fallen unconscious for a moment, but when he came to, he noticed his wife was gravely injured. The rain had lightened up a bit, and there was just enough light from the dashboard that he could see she was bleeding.

Now this was in the days before cell phones, so Martin had no way of contacting an ambulance, and he, himself, knew very little about first aid. He was frantic, trying to think what to do. He managed to get himself out of the car, then to her side, which was crumbled. Something gave him tremendous strength, and he was able to pull her caved-in door open, and take her into his arms. All he could think to do was to get to the road and start walking toward the last town, which they’d passed several miles ago. 

He gathered Jane up, stumbled up the wet, slippery ditch, and made it to the road. He began walking, holding on to his wife and looking for any sign of assistance. His patience was rewarded after a time, and he spotted a light off the road, in the distance.

Martin looked for some kind of path or road that would take him to that light. In the dim light of the rising moon, he saw what looked like a footpath in the underbrush, and he took it, stumbling his way down the path, holding Jane carefully, and looking ahead to a large house that appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, with light emanating from its bay windows. He carried Jane up the steps to the front door, and used his foot to kick it harshly.

He heard footsteps from within, and the door opened with a creak. An old, decrepit man appeared, his long gray hair thinning over his scalp, and his walk marked by a heavy limp.

“Yes?” The man looked Martin and Jane over carefully.

“Please, do you have a phone? My wife, and I, well, we’ve been in an accident and she needs help. Please?”

The man pursed his lips, then nodded. “The Master is in.” He gestured. “Bring her inside.”

Martin entered the house, still holding onto his wife as the other man closed the door behind him and guided him into an old-fashioned looking parlor, gesturing to the settee. “Lay her there,” the man said. “I’ll get the Master.”

Martin lay his wife down. She looked pale and bloody, and he worried it was too late to help her. 

The man came back, and with him, he brought a tall, elegant-looking man in what seemed to be an old-fashioned suit, whom Martin thought was likely this “Master” of which the former had spoken. “Please,” Martin said. “Can you help me?”

“We haven’t a phone,” the Master said. “But I am a physician, of sorts. Let me see what I can do.” 

Martin stepped back, and the Master rolled up his sleeves as he knelt next to Jane. He checked her breathing, listened to her heart, and sat back heavily. “I’m sorry to tell you this, sir, but your wife is already dead.”

Martin felt faint.

“She can’t be! She can’t!”

“There’s nothing more we can do for her.”

Tears fell from Martin’s eyes, and for the first time, he noticed blood dripping down his own arm to the floor below. “Oh,” he said faintly, and fell, before the Master or his servant could catch him.

The Master checked Martin’s pulse, and shook his head. “He’s gone, too.”

“Master, what shall we do with them?” The servant asked.

“Lay him out on the other settee,” The Master directed, going to his parlor organ. He sat at the instrument as his servant laid out Martin on the other settee, and began to play a few chords.

“Master?” The servant asked.

“Just watch, Igor.” The Master began to play, deep rolling chords in flats and trills, a music none had ever heard before that night, and none would ever hear again. As he played, the bodies on the settees began to shake and shiver. He continued to play, the music reaching a fever pitch as the bodies sat straight up, and their eyes opened.

“Master!” The servant called out.

“Yes, Igor, yes!” The Master cried, then sang: “The Hills are alive, with the sound of music.”

A beat. A pause to let the truly terrible pun sink in.

Perhaps the Hills left.

Perhaps they stayed. 

But the power of music saved their lives that night. And when this story is told around the campfire, the “boos” are truly fun for the storyteller. Which was often me, with my terrible sense of humor.

Listen to me tell the story:

on-spooky-stories.mp3

Continue reading “On Spooky Stories”

October snow reminds me of The Long Winter

In the last five days, we’ve gotten several inches of snow in Southern Minnesota. Some of it has melted off as fast as it arrived. But the early arrival of the white stuff has made me think about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, The Long Winter.

Of all the Little House books, The Long Winter is the one I’ve read the most. It was something of a comfort book for me when I was growing up. That might seem a little odd; the book details how the Ingalls family survived the winter of 1880-1881, during which months of successive blizzards kept trains from running to the new town of De Smet, South Dakota. By May, when the first train came, the town had run out of food. Many had been surviving on sourdough bread made from crushed seed wheat. They had no wheat left to plant for crops in the spring.

I think the reason this one was my favorite is because it deals with the struggle. It shows how the family was resilient, how they pulled together to survive, and how even when the days were darkest, they could sing to bring cheer to the long nights. It’s about survival. It’s about rising up to meet life’s challenges. And in my own darkest days, it’s been a comfort to see the Ingalls thrive despite the length of that terrible winter.

The mantra Laura uses in the story is one I’ve come to use myself. “February is a short month, and March will be spring.” It’s a reminder that we can get through anything, and there is light, and spring, on the other side.

I truly hope that my own October snow does not indicate a winter that lasts till May. Even if it does, I will remember that February is a short month, and March will be spring. This, too, shall pass.

On comfort food: Semi- homemade chicken pot pie

I’m sad. The weather is turning, we’re mourning the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and the pandemic is in its sixth month. I felt the need for some comfort food today. So, using a little help from the grocery store, I made a comfort food classic: chicken pot pie.

This is the first time I tried this concept out, but it turned out so well, I think I will be making this many more times.

Things you’ll need:

One deep dish pan. I used an 8 in. square brownie pan, but if you have a deep dish pie tin that would work too.

Frozen chicken tenderloins.

One can mixed vegetables.

One can cream of chicken condensed soup.

One roll refrigerated piecrust.

Seasoning to taste.

Preheat your oven to 400°. In the pan, spread half the can of soup. Layer 3 to 4 chicken tenderloins over the soup. Spread half the can of mixed vegetables over the chicken. Add another layer of soup, another layer of chicken, and another layer of vegetables, finishing with whatever soup is left. If you wish, use a little onion powder, and a little salt and pepper, on each layer. Thaw and unroll the refrigerated piecrust, and then spread over the top layer, and crimp the edges. Cut holes in the top of the pastry to vent. Bake at 400° for one hour. Make sure the internal temperature of the chicken is 180° minimum before you take it out. The crust will be golden, and sauce will be bubbling. Let stand for five minutes before cutting into it with a big metal spoon. Serve in bowls.

This made enough for four people for lunch. Stay well, everybody.

On Midwest Food

Today I’m introducing my new podcast: Tales from the Midwest. The first episode focuses on Midwest food, and I’m talking to Dr. Kimberly Wilmot Voss, a Milwaukee native and expert on food journalism. We had a great conversation about food, home economics, and our hopes for a Midwestern cuisine movement.

For every podcast, I’m going to include links to favorite places discussed on it right here. Kim named Kopps Custard in Milwaukee and State Street Brats (aka The Brat Haus) in Madison, Wis. I’m adding Mader’s Restaurant, The Spice House, and Usinger’s Factory Outlet on Old World Third Street in Milwaukee.

Tales from the Midwest: Episode 1, with Kim Voss

Have a listen. The podcast is also hosted on BuzzSprout.

On Rose Wilder Lane: Good news

The University of Missouri Press will be re-releasing The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist, in paperback in in September.

I couldn’t be more thrilled. This is a book that I put together while simultaneously working on my dissertation (which later became More than a Farmer’s Wife). It’s essentially a labor of love for Lane, who in life partnered with her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, to produce the Little House series of books for children. I’m honored that others have enjoyed it, too.

Lane’s always been a bit of a controversial figure in the world of Little House. Driven by arguments over how much she contributed to Wilder’s books, the controversy also extends to Lane’s apparent disdain for her home town of Mansfield, Mo., her tendency to be mercenary in her pursuit of paid publications, and her apparent inability to be personally tactful.

The controversy also extends to Lane’s political ideology. Her political thoughts, best expressed in her 1942 book The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle Against Authority, make it clear that she believed American ideology to be best expressed through the concept of freedom FROM government interference in the lives of everyday Americans. I can say, with certainty, that Lane did not then, nor would she now, support a police state.

While her work does not explicitly challenge the complications of race in American society, her steadfast belief in individualism, and the rights of individuals to have and use the tools at their disposal to their benefit, permeates much of her popular work as well. I’m currently working on research that analyzes race within her political framework, because it is significant that such an individualistic approach tends to “erase” the societal challenges of race.

The Rediscovered Writings offer readers a glimpse at Lane at her best, and her closing work, an article written from Vietnam and published in December 1965, appropriately finishes on a note that encapsulates her political ideology as well.

Lane remains relevant to the twenty-first century, and I hope this work finds a new audience as it heads into paperback.

On a bit of virtual summer: Walnut Grove’s pageant goes online

News from the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder today: Walnut Grove’s summer pageant will be online, starting tomorrow, July 10.

Alison Arngrim, who played Nellie Oleson on the TV show, tweeted an announcement about the pageant’s virtual show this morning. Guests at tomorrow’s first performance, via Zoom, will be Dean Butler, who played Almanzo Wilder, and Dale Cockrell, a music scholar whose work focuses on the music of the Little House books. I’m very excited to see it.

More information can be found on the Walnut Grove web site.

On Favorite Black Authors

I’ve written before about some of the seminal influences on my writing, but I want to focus today on work by black authors I’d consider critical to my understanding of race, culture, class, and narrative. Regular readers know that, as an historian, I consider history to be something of a symphony, where all cultures and voices need to be present in order to make the music.

As a child growing up in a predominantly white area, my first exposure to African-American culture came through my television set. The first book on my list is one I first listened to on PBS’ Reading Rainbow, read by LeVar Burton. The book, Striped Ice Cream by Joan Lexau, was about a little girl who, like me, worried that she wouldn’t get the birthday present she wanted because her family was poor. I related to her on that level, and only peripherally noticed that her skin color was different from mine.

As I grew older, my aunt, who lived in and among the historically black neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, introduced me to one of my favorite authors: Maya Angelou. The first work I read of hers was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I rank it as transformative for me. I inhaled every other book and work I could get my hands on by Ms. Angelou, and I grieved when she passed. Her stories about growing up as a black woman, living as an artist, and working as an activist electrified me.

I already knew I wanted to be a journalist; Angelou’s work made me understand that the stories I told needed to come from all segments of society. She opened my eyes to the assumptions I’d internalized from my limited interactions with people from other backgrounds, colors, creeds, and cultures, and in demonstrating how she found her voice, I learned to find mine.

From there, it was Alice Walker. Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Alex Haley. Ralph Ellison. bell hooks. Zora Neale Hurston. It was Oprah, whose rise as a journalist offering space for her viewers to tell their own stories was stunning to witness. I read the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I started to read an up-and-coming columnist from the Miami Herald named Leonard Pitts, Jr.

I have been extraordinarily busy in the last five years, personally, but my original passion to find my own voice, and now, as an educator, helping others find theirs, remains. Education doesn’t stop as we get older. On my to-be-read list right now are works by former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and novels by Pitts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004. His latest novel, The Last Thing You Surrender, is on my e-reader right now.

I can’t honestly say this is a comprehensive list, in any fashion. In thinking about this topic, I Googled “favorite works by black authors,” and my list of new works to read easily tripled. As we move forward in this moment, let’s remember the importance of making our voices heard, and elevating those voices that could otherwise be lost.