A boy and his newspaper

IMG_2370While wandering through our local Hyde Brothers, Booksellers, I came across From Office Boy to Reporter, or the First Step in Journalism (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1907). It’s the first in an early 20th century children’s book series by Howard R. Garis, best known for the Uncle Wiggily books. This particular copy was inscribed “Edward Jackson — From father, Oct. 24, 1912.”

Perhaps Edward was a boy with a dream like 15-year-old Larry Dexter, the hero of this story, who is forced to find work in New York City to support his newly widowed mother and three younger siblings. While pounding the proverbial pavements, boyish curiosity sends him to the scene of a dramatic building fire caused by a lightning strike. There he meets Harvey Newton, a reporter from the Leader — one of several fiercely competing newspapers. In the pouring rain, Larry offers to hold the umbrella so Mr. Newton can take notes.

Impressed with the young man’s initiative, Mr. Newton helps Larry get a job as an office boy, or copy boy, at the newspaper. Larry becomes one of many boys newspapers employed (several for each department) to literally run copy and proofs within the building — reporter to editor, typesetter to composing. A copy boy would also accompany a reporter to a scene or to cover a trial, run copy back to the office, then run back to gather more from the reporter as the story unfolded. Most of the boys, if not all, are supporting themselves or their families; some attend night school, as Larry does when he decides to work toward becoming a reporter. This is a time and place when, for good or ill, teenage boys are expected to function as adults.

Garis, who himself worked for the Newark (New Jersey) Evening News, captures the hiss and thunk of the pneumatic tubes that carry proofs, the blue pencils, the clacking of the typesetting machines, the inky type, and the hustle of a turn-of-the-century city newspaper. He understood the nuances of getting a story on an evening paper’s news cycle and being able to provide details the morning papers would not. Breaking a story first mattered (a ton), but so did getting it right.

Larry, a too-good-to-be-true 15-year-old, is beset by one challenge or danger after another on the job. A jealous fellow office boy has it in for him. He gets kidnapped while helping Mr. Newton cover a strike. He takes it upon himself to keep an eye on suspected counterfeiters living in his apartment building. Always, his good nature, bravery, and dedication save the day. Finally, after a harrowing race against time, the elements, and the aforementioned nemesis to deliver copy while covering an epic flood, he is promoted to reporter.

“There have been written many good stories of newspaper life and experiences,” the author writes in the preface. “I trust I may have added one that will appeal especially to you boys. If I have, I will feel amply repaid for what I have done.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as formulaic juvenile fiction from journalism’s male-dominated dark ages. However, what sings through all the derring-do is an absolute love for news — finding out what’s happening, getting the facts, and delivering them in the most efficient, responsible, and helpful fashion to readers who want the truth. We need people who can and will do this now more than Garis could likely have imagined.

There are several more books in the Larry Dexter series, but these are just a few of the many books Garis authored, both under his own name and under several pseudonyms. He and his wife, Lilian Garis, who was also a reporter for the Newark Evening News, were considered two of the most prolific children’s authors of their time.

What our grandmothers leave us

51pCIyD8BvL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Something in Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry made me think of the classic Truman Capote short story, “A Christmas Memory.” You have a young child and an older relative who are each other’s best (or only) friend. It’s essentially the two of them against the world until they are confronted by larger forces — in the Capote story, Those Who Know Best; and in Backman’s 2015 novel, by the grandmother’s death and the puzzle she leaves behind.

This novel was translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch. Whenever I read a translation (whether it’s the Bible or anything else), the language purist in me always wonders how differently it read in its original language, and how the author meant for this word or that phrase to function. At no point does the novel read as if the translator wasn’t quite sure how to convey something in English. The language feels so authentic to the story and characters that, if I could read Swedish, I’m guessing it would be spot on.

Elsa is seven going on forty. She is different. Her teachers say she needs to try harder to fit in, and she is relentlessly bullied by other children. She lives in an apartment building with her mum and stepdad, who have a baby (whom she calls Halfie) on the way. Mum’s mum, Granny, lives in the same building. She is the kind of crazy that climbs zoo fences, shoots paintball guns at door-to-door evangelists, and more. You wonder how she’s functioned in the world for her seventy-some years, but this is a retired medical doctor who has traveled the world and saved untold lives. The building’s other tenants are an assortment of scary, mysterious, or annoying neighbors. So it seems like any urban apartment building in the world.

Granny and Elsa have their own secret language, one that stems from Granny’s stories of the mythical Kingdom of Miamas and the Land-of-Almost-Awake, places where being different is standard operating procedure. Theirs is a life that makes sense, if only to the two of them.

Then Granny dies, leaving her granddaughter with a series of apology letters to deliver. In the midst of her grief and disorientation, Elsa now has an important job to do.

Her mission takes her first to a reportedly vicious dog and a germ-phobic loner who will become the Scarecrow and Tin Man to her Dorothy. Or the Ron and Hermione to her Harry, as Elsa is a Harry Potter fan. Then, one by one, she delivers the letters and discovers not only the stunning connections among her building’s oddball residents, but their connection to Granny — and to Elsa. Their stories are much like Granny’s tales of Miamas, which at first “only seemed like disconnected fairy tales without a context, told by someone who needed her head examined. It took years before Elsa understood that they belonged together. All really good stories work like this.”

Pearls and secret family recipes are great, but a sense of connection to what was, what is, and what can be is one of the best things a grandmother can leave her granddaughter. Granny, with her messy, maladjusted life, bats this one out of the park, as does Backman with this book.



Seven Questions with Jnana Hodson

I began this blog without really knowing what I was doing, which is the only way you can start some things. The blogosphere is a diverse and often perplexing place, but you can meet some interesting, creative, and kind souls. It’s sort of like the “real” world that way.


One such person I bumped into is Jnana Hodson, who blogs at Jnana’s Red Barn — a Quaker, novelist, poet, and as it turns out, a retired newspaper editor. (His novel, Hometown News, captures the small Midwestern newspaper experience so well it’s a little scary.) At right is his novel, Promise, described as a romance that leaps from the Midwest to the desert country of the Pacific Northwest.

After graduating from Indiana University-Bloomington in 1970, Jnana’s four-decade journalism career took him to newspapers in Ohio, Indiana, upstate New York, Washington state, and New Hampshire, which is where he lives now. He was kind enough to be my first Seven Questions interview.

1. I read that your first name came from your time in a yoga ashram. What was it about that experience that prompted you to rename yourself?

The name was given by my teacher at a breakthrough in my training. It recognizes my underlying approach to the universe, that is, through the mind more than, say, the heart or devotion. A year or so ago, I was told Jnana is the root word of gnosis, which then leads to know in English. In a bigger sense, it’s not just knowledge itself but the way it fits into compassion and wisdom, if I’m faithful.

2. You’re the second Quaker poet I’ve bumped into in the digital universe recently. What is it about this particular faith tradition that fosters this creativity?

In the past, Quakers avoided fiction and many of the other arts, but poetry remained closer to “true things.” John Greenleaf Whittier is perhaps the best known, although Walt Whitman also ran in Quaker circles and, as far as some are concerned, can be considered one of us.

The key, I think, has to do with silence, which is a crucial element in a poem. Just think of line breaks or the need for reflection. Quakers (or Friends, in our more formal name, the Society of Friends) worship in what’s called “expectant waiting,” which can be an hour of silent meditation when no one is moved to rise to give a pithy message, hopefully from the heart.

Sometimes I measure a poem by how closely it fits this kind of utterance.

3. How do your 40 years as a newspaper professional inform your work as a poet and novelist?

First and foremost, the facts have to be right. A poem or sentence with factual errors will lose me. I want work that springs from deep observation rather than sloppy thinking.

Second, I have a low tolerance for wordiness. Every line counts, even every word. Space is at a premium in the news business.

Third, though, is a countercurrent that appears in a resistance to news style. I love being set free to explore ambiguity, multiple meanings, a richer vocabulary and sentence structure — even a jaggedness and sense of leaping between “finished” work and its more open reaches. Now that I’m retired, maybe I’ll set a more balanced course?

4. Of all the kinds of writing you’ve done, which is the most challenging, and why?

Oh, my! My wife suggests being flippant and saying a love letter. And, to my remorse, she’s probably right.

The biggest challenge — poetry or prose — is aiming straight for the heart and its emotions and staying true, regardless of outcome. My mind wants to wander everyplace else! Maybe that’s why revision is so important to me.

5. What do you miss about Indiana, especially Bloomington?

I grew up in Ohio not far from the Indiana border, and we spent many of our family vacations camping in its state parks. Later, I transferred to Indiana University in Bloomington, where I returned a few years after graduation (and the ashram) to work for Vincent and Elinor Ostrom in their Workshop in Political Theory and Analysis as a social sciences editor. Elinor, remember, later shared the Nobel Prize in Economics, so you get an idea of the scene I was in.

Much of that initial encounter forms the foundation for my novel, Daffodil Sunrise, set in the political turbulence of the late ’60s. But Bloomington was also magical for me in the richness of its classical music scene — opera productions every Saturday night and free recitals by faculty artists who would be presenting the same program two nights later in Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. And I was deeply in love for the first time and working for the daily student newspaper as a critic and later columnist. You get the picture. It was a frothy time at the outset of the hippie movement.

Indiana itself — in spite of its current political and economic conditions — is a remarkable crossroads of America. I could wax long on the influx of North Carolina Quaker stock (including, it turns out, members of my extended family) or the German Baptist Brethren from Ohio and their influence — but by the early 1900s, the state had an incredible radical energy. You can turn to Kenneth Rexroth’s autobiography of his youth for an understanding of some of that, with Emma Goldman as a family visitor and Eugene V. Debs out of Terre Haute. Some of that energy was still in the air.

On the other hand, there was also a kind of — I was about to call it cultural lethargy but maybe that’s not quite right — so let’s say a lack of derring-do or verve, something that I see instead as a well-worn upholstered reading chair, in its place.

What I noticed later was how different the vibe was from Upstate New York, which felt rather jittery on its progressive edge.

From what I observe at a distance, I’m cheered to see Bloomington has grown more into a Bohemian mecca than it was when I first arrived — more balanced, perhaps.

6. What are you working on now?

My big project is a novel springing from the last chapter of my Subway Hitchhikers novel, where the protagonist lands in a Greek-American family. Whatever reasons intuitively prompted me at the time to envision them this way have since expanded. How do our identities shape our actions? How much do we chose to embrace family — or turn away from it? How does faith — whether chosen or inherited — focus our lives? It’s been a fascinating project, especially as it opens my awareness to a vibrant part of the community where I now live. I might add, we Quakers could use something akin to Greek dancing, where I feel ever so more welcome in taking part.

7. Where do you see the writing world heading, especially as digital publishing grows?

When I look at the Internet, I keep remembering the time when hitchhiking opened new horizons. You could go about anywhere on your thumb. And then it all came crashing down.

I’m left wondering how long this open road will last and who’s paying for all our free rides. That’s the downside.

On the other hand, as the commercial publishing world’s contracted, we finally have an opportunity to let loose wave after wave of otherwise stifled voices. That’s incredibly exciting. The biggest challenge is in connecting these voices with a supportive audience or readership.

I don’t have a crystal ball but at least my work’s getting out there, to be discovered, if I’m lucky.

* * *


When it rains gold hoop earrings, I keep
returning to adolescence, to seek you
in a sock hop I never attended. When it

rains calculations the wild geese know,
I reach into nettles. My fingers and wrists
sting. When it rains upon my parents’

denominational traditions, we sleep as we do,
alive with points of departure. When it rains
on a muddy reservoir, you, slender lover,

remain a cipher, a case of perhaps, maybe,
what if. When it rains glances during outdoor
concerts, the past holds our future. When it

rains the skills to negotiate social intricacies,
this is not the first time you have been here.

From the Blue Rock collection by Jnana Hodson, available as a free ebook.