“Ruth Suckow is a living answer to those critics who have damned the small town as a place where no artist can flourish.”

 Yes, I love this, too.  This dramatic quote appears on one of the back pages of my 1930 copy of Ruth Suckow’s The Kramer Girls.  Pasted on the opposite page is something so charming I felt the need to photograph it:  an index card labeled “Portage Book Club” with a list of names and dates of members who borrowed this novel in 1930 and 1931.

Portage, Wisconsin, is a small town of 9,000, located north of Madison. I love to think of the Portage Book Club passing around this book in 1930. Suckow, a minister’s daughter and beekeeper who lived in Iowa for many years and wrote short stories and novels about small towns in Iowa, was encouraged to write by H. L. Mencken. Born in Hawarden, Iowa, and raised in small towns, including Grinnell, where she went to college, she was living in New York when this novel was published in 1930.

 There are 20 names on the Portage Book Club index card.  Seven of them borrowed this book.  They are (I’ve guessed at some of the names that are illegible with age):

  • Margaret R.J.  1/24-1/31/31
  • Ethel Kerr  Oct. 18, ’30
  • Mattie K. H. Oct. 25, ’30
  • Narisa  K. S. Nov. 1, ’30
  • Ethel Klemment Nov. 8, ’30
  • Mamie Mae G. Nov. 10, ’31
  • Metu H. J. Nov. 25, ’30

 I will write more about this charming novel later.  It’s very complex, despite Suckow’s very plain style–plainer than her 1942 novel, New Hope, which I would recommend you start with.  The Kramer Girls tells the story of three sisters, of whom the older  two, the dominating Georgie and the good-natured Annie, sacrifice themselves to care for their paralyzed mother at home so the youngest, Rose, can go to college.  

This novel must have meant so much to women of my grandmother’s generation.  Like Rose, my grandmother taught school.  Suckow describes in detail social events like church suppers, Rose’s dates with a “bad” boy and later reluctance to marry, her receiving the Phi Beta Kappa key, Georgie’s envy and thrill at vicariously living through Rose.   

 Wouldn’t the book club’s descendants be thrilled by this book?

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It’s Not about the Books

There’s always a place for a new book, right? Only sometimes there isn’t. My husband stumbles upon my Amazon boxes or Abebooks packages before they are recycled and sighs. He does not share my passion for owning books. His call for frugality should be printed on a ball cap.

“No more books.”

I sometimes feel like the woman standing beside the farmer with the pitchfork in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Then a new unsolicited review copy arrives and suddenly I, too, am dismayed by the plethora of books.

There are bookcases in every room except the bathroom. If a guest feels like reading Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons over dinner, it’s right there on the second shelf of the cabinet to the left of the table. Maybe he/she wants to read The Diary of Virginia Woolf over coffee. That would be in the third box on the left on the porch.

I now have two tables covered with books because I honestly can’t think of anywhere else to put a shelf. Unless I get rid of the TV.

So I’ve made a temporary vow. It’s the kind of vow that all of us make from time to time to the household gods. I WILL stop buying new books. And I WILL be taking estimates on that addition to the house, by the way.

How did this new mysterious unsolicited book end up here? A publicist got my name somewhere–I don’t remember dealing with this publisher before so it’s probably from a very old list. Alas, I don’t want the book. It doesn’t look good, it doesn’t look bad, someone’s going to love it, but I cannot accept more books from publishers.

“It was kind of you to send an advance copy of _____, but I have a backlog of books to review. Please take my name off your publicity list.”

That’s the note going out to publicists. I’m not on that many publicity lists, am I?

Meanwhile, it’s time to get back to Mrs. Oliphant, Ruth Suckow, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and some of the other hard-won old favorites.

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