Wow: it’s been a while. I feel as if I’ve mentioned it before– or maybe the comment is so banal, it just seems to be a given that it should have been made– but I’m amazed, every time I emerge on the other side of work-centered tangles and melodramas, just how much energy and will are sapped, thanks to the needy shenanigans of one’s employer. And amid the latest round of spreadsheet generation, my reading has been limited to 1) those precious, unlikely interludes on rush-hour trains when there’s actually room, in between someone’s armpit and another rider’s intrusive backpack, to hold a piece of literature in front of your face; and 2) the latter half of lunch hours, after having stared mindlessly into the river so that phantom numbers and budget jargon are able to dissipate from one’s vision.
It was mostly thanks to this latter window of relaxation– and to a disturbingly prolonged period of temperate weather– that I was able to wend my slow way through Wisconsin Death Trip, historian Michael Lesy’s curated collection of newspaper items and photographs from a certain portion of 1890s Wisconsin. Even before the author’s recap at the end of the book, it was bizarre, in a not-unpleasant way, to be reminded of just how close to, or maybe better, hand-in-hand with, death our (great-)grandparents lived, what with all the arsonists (usually dubbed “incendiaries,” a term I find strangely endearing), suicides, disease-borne wipe-outs of entire families within a day or two, citizens sent up to the madhouse, and general and sudden failure of everything that made life even a tad bit more than a pure fight for bare survival.
Lesy lets this particularly located time speak for itself, instead of summarizing a contradictory-laden decade in the usual manner of historians who’ve only lived very far outside of the period they’re describing– and maybe it’s due to this manner of presentation that gave me such a stark impression of entire communities living without the luxury of full feeling, even within expressions of grief. When your children were likely to die without warning, or full-time drudgery could do nothing but drive you and those around you to murderous and/or suicidal despair, allowing a glimmer of hope to lodge itself somewhere inside was at best a foolish waste of time and at worst a chunk of soul-crushing error.
What I think in the end is this book’s real gem is its ability to present a situation about which this reader, at least, was already well-informed on a factual level– and to confront the onlooker– unavoidably– with a sort of existential experience of that situation. It’s been at least a couple of weeks since I finished the thing, and some of those stern, glassy eyes are still staring out at me, while the accompanying newspaper phraseology that sounds so corny on its own keeps turning into something both distanced and sinister at the same time.
A darkly lovely book, this– and now I’ll have to dive into Lesy’s other work, and hope for more strange revelations. But even though the season has been waning all too slowly for my taste, I’ll soon have to find a new place to bring my sanity back to semi-healthy levels over the noon hour. Either that or invest in some massively expensive arctic wear. We’ll see how things with my day job progress, and how much that communion with the river, whether flowing or frozen, is needed.