Stegner’s “The Question Mark in the Circle”

Though I was proud of having scored higher than anyone in my high school on a National Constitutional Test, generally the only thing I find more boring than history is geography, and the only thing I find more boring than memorizing state capitols or countries in the world is memorizing the dates of battles. What’s the using of having books, or computers, if you have to fill your brain with historical trivia?

Thus, it’s rather remarkable that Wallace Stegner can interest me in the history of Wolf Willow, a place I’ll never see. The catch is that it’s really not a history book at all, though it is. It’s probably closer to being an autobiography, though it’s more historical than that. No wonder, then, that the book is entitled Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier.

Whatever it’s called, it has managed to hold my interest for several days now, and given me more to write about in the first thirty six pages than I like to cover in one blog entry. So, I’ll limit myself today to the first chapter entitled “The Question Mark in the Circle” which seems to explore why it is worthwhile to write this sort of unconventional book.

He begins by describing the significance of Wolf Willow:

It is the place where I spent my childhood. It is also the place where the Plains, as an ecology, as a native Indian culture, and as a process of white settlement, came to their climax and their end. Viewed personally and historically, that almost featureless prairie glows with more color than it reveals to the appalled and misdirected tourist. As memory, as experience, those Plains are unforgettable; as history, they have the lurid explosiveness of a prairie fire, quickly dangerous, swiftly over.

Stegner’s combination of the personal and historical — how he is able to relate the history and geography of the areal to his own development and to the history of his family — is what most appeals to me in the book.

And, of course, the naturalist in me loves his descriptions of Wolf Willow:

The drama of this landscape is in the sky, pouring with light and always moving. The earth is passive. And yet the beauty I am struck by, both as present fact and as revived memory, is a fusion: this sky would not be so spectacular without this earth to change and glow and darken under it. And whatever the sky may do, however the earth is shaken or darkened, the Euclidean perfection abides. The very scale, the hugeness of simple forms, emphasizes stability. It is not hills and mountains which we should call eternal. Nature abhors an elevation as much as it abhors a vacuum; a hill is no sooner elevated than the forces of erosion begin tearing it down. These prairies are quiescent, close to static; looked at for any length of time, they begin to impose their awful perfection on the observer’s mind. Eternity is a peneplain.

He transforms this natural setting to an abstract beauty that is hard to resist, even if I do prefer mountains to his prairies.

In these memoirs Stegner explores the very nature of memories:

Who in town remembers Phil Lott, who used to run coyotes with wolfhounds out on the South Bench? Who remembers in the way I do the day he drove up before Leaf’s store in his democrat wagon and unloaded from it two dead hounds and the lynx that had killed them when they caught him unwarily exposed out on the flats? Who remembers in my way that angry and disgusted scene, and shares my recollection of the stiff, half-disemboweled bodies of the hounds and the bloody grin of the lynx? Who feels it or felt it, as I did and do, as a parable, a moral lesson for the pursuer to respect the pursued?

Because it is not shared, the memory seems fictitious, and so do other memories: the blizzard of 1916 that marooned us in the schoolhouse for a night and a day, the time the ice went out and brought both Martin’s dam and the CPR bridge in kindling to our doors, the games of fox and geese in the untracked snow of a field that is now a grove, the nights of skating with a great fire leaping from the river ice and reflecting red from the cutbanks. I have used those memories for years as if they really happened, have made stories and novels of them. Now they seem uncorroborated and delusive. Some of the pioneers still in the telephone book would remember, but pioneers’ memories are no good to me. Pioneers would remember the making of the town; to me, it was made, complete, timeless. A pioneer’s child is what I need now, and in this town the pioneers’ children did not stay, but went on, generally to bigger places farther west, where there was more opportunity.

Perhaps we’re more apt to return to our roots to connect with the past and with old acquaintances as we get older because we feel the need to reconnect with ourselves, to assure ourselves that what we know is indeed the truth.

Sometimes in rediscovering the past we may realize that we have focused too much on bitter memories and in doing have forgotten more positive experiences:

Even the dreams of murder, which were bright enough at the time, have faded; he is long dead,, and if not forgiven, at least propitiated. My mother too, who saved me from him so many times, and once missed saving me when he clouted me with a chunk of stove wood and knocked me over the woodbox and broke my collarbone: she too has faded. Standing there looking at the house where our lives entangled themselves in one an other, I am infuriated that of that episode I remember less her love and protection and anger than my father’s inept contrition.

Only by exploring memories can we hope to put them in the proper perspective. Sometimes it takes an adult perspective to accurately judge what has happened to us.

Standing outside his childhood home, Stegner resists going in:

It is there, and yet it does not flow as it should, it is all a pump ing operation. I half suspect that I am remembering not what happened but something I have written. I find that I am as unwilling to go inside that house as I was to try to find the old homestead in its ocean of grass. All the people who once shared the house with me are dead; strangers would have effaced or made doubtful the things that might restore them in my mind.

Sometimes in re-examining memories I find that it was impossible that events happened exactly as I remembered them. In fact, I often suspect I’m remembering things as they were retold to me rather than as they really happened. In fact, I had one particularly vivid memory of watching a cowboy hat float downstream, until I remember that I was the one who was supposed to be inside that hat.

For Stegner it is the country itself, not his home that restores old memories:

It is wolf willow, and not the town or anyone in it, that brings me home. For a few minutes, with a handful of leaves to my nose, I look across at the clay bank and the hills beyond where the river loops back on itself, enclosing the old sports and picnic ground, and the present and all the years between are shed like a boy’s clothes dumped on the bathhouse bench. The perspective is what it used to be, the dimensions are restored, the senses are as clear as if they had not been battered with sensation for forty alien years. And the queer adult compulsion to return to one’s beginnings is assuaged. A contact has been made, a mystery touched. For the moment, reality is made exactly equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied. The sensuous little savage that I once was is still intact inside me.

This seems remarkably similar to the tentative conclusion I’ve reached in my ongoing exploration of what “home” means to me. As I noted previoiusly, I have very little recollection of most of the houses we lived in but extensive memories of areas around them.

Though I’ve only finished about two-thirds of the book, Stegner has already made a rather convincing argument that:

It turns out to have been a special sort of town — special not only to me, in that it provided the indispensable sanctuary to match the prairie’s exposure, but special in its belated concentration of Plains history. The successive stages of the Plains frontier flowed like a pageant through these Hills, and there are men still alive who remember almost the whole of it. My own recollections cover only a fragment; and yet it strikes me that this is my history. My disjunct, uprooted, cellular family was more typical than otherwise on the frontier. But more than we knew, we had our place in a human movement. What this town and its surrounding prairie grew from, and what they grew into, is the record of my tribe. If I am native to anything, I am native to this.

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