My Life as an Open Book, Part 1

For years I’ve told people that writing the blog is like writing my autobiography in weekly installments. Last week I heard from someone named Jan who evidently isn’t a fan of weekly installments. Instead, she sat down and mowed through all the blog posts going back to 2012! Then she sent a long email discussing what she’d just read, and I’m taking the opportunity today to address some of her concerns in today’s blog.

She began by saying that if she could paint, this is how she would put me on canvas: “Wearing a red blouse and black slacks – hair blown back by a slight breeze – pulled off your face by glasses on top of your head – you are standing on a low desert rise – surrounded by saguaro and ocotillo. With you chin slightly lifted and your arms widely outstretched. People in the distance walking towards you. I’d call it: ‘In-gathering of the Fans’”

Based on that alone, I’d say she had me dead to rights!

As I read on, I was astonished by about how much she had learned about me, my family history, and my writing process. One of her areas of concern was the total absence of movies or television versions of my work. Various Hollywood folks have come calling over the years, but they’ve mostly been all hat and no cattle. They wanted to have first dibs on all the books in one series for remarkably tiny amounts of money. Or they wanted to take what I regarded as unauthorized liberties with my work. For instance, one of them was interested in having Beau be African American. When I mentioned that to my friend Ed James, he said, “Mickey is a mouse, Goofy is a dog, and J.P. Beaumont ain’t Black.” I declined that offer. Someone else wanted to take Joanna Brady out of southern Arizona and move her to North Carolina. I said no to that one as well.

A few years ago, back when people actually watched the Oscars, a movie based on one of Jane Austin’s works was in the running. During a TV interview, the director said, “Yes, it was really easy to do this film. The author is dead.” Indeed. Authors, the people who write books, have one idea about their characters and stories—an up close and personal point of view. I’m not altogether sure that screen writers actually read books. I suspect they make do with Cliff Notes or maybe even the flap copy on book covers.

At some point, years from now, someone will come up the bright idea of doing J.P. Beaumont, the musical. Trust me, I’ll be long gone by then. The option for that will have to be signed off by my grandkids.

One of the things Jan wondered about was this: If my father’s health situation hadn’t necessitated our move to Arizona from South Dakota, would I have become a writer anyway? There’s no way to know, of course, but somehow, I doubt it. Growing up in Bisbee, the impact the surrounding landscape had on my storytelling is undeniable. And if we’d stayed living on the farm, would I have spent five years living near and working on an Indian reservation? I doubt it. That would have made writing the Walker books impossible. Besides, someone else already wrote Little House on the Prairie!

Each week, before I post the blog I read it aloud to Bill. When he heard that last paragraph he said, “You’re a born storyteller. You would have become a writer anyway. Your invisible Lammy when you were three years old being a case in point.” So say-eth my favorite member of the peanut gallery!

Another thing Jan wondered about was why my forebears came to the US. She asked if they were escaping some kind of “prosecution.” I suspect she actually meant to use the word “persecution” and autocorrect got the better of her, but in actual fact, “prosecution is entirely accurate. According to family legend, my great grandfather on my father’s side was a colonel in the Danish army when he deserted. Although his name was originally Christiansen, by the time he reached the US he had changed it to Busk, supposedly a name that had something to do with the hedge that surrounded the family farm back home.

My mother’s father, AG Anderson left Sweden at age nineteen with a price on his head due to game poaching. He claimed that he had shot a deer well outside the king’s game preserve. Unfortunately said deer crossed into the preserve before dying. That story may or may not have been true. Once in New York City, he somehow dodged immigration, and then headed West, most likely by rail, to where many other Swedish immigrants had settled—namely the Upper Midwest.

Once AG arrived in North Dakota–Bismarck, I believe—he got a job driving a dray wagon from the railway station. In the course of that job he met a young woman named Cecelia Fromm who worked as a maid in the main hotel. She caught both his eye and his heart. They married and had five kids—four girls and one boy. In later life Cecelia developed congestive heart failure. In the summer of 1956, my mother was determined that we go to South Dakota to visit. My father demurred. In fact, one of the only quarrels I ever overheard between my parents was about whether or not we’d make that trip. His answer may have been no, but shortly thereafter Evie packed five of us kids into our Dodge Coronet, and off we went.

Soon after our arrival in Summit, Grandma Anderson ended up in the hospital in Sisseton, some twenty-five miles away. At the time, my grandparents didn’t have a phone, but the next-door neighbors did. One morning the neighbor came over and told Grandpa that he had a phone call. My brother and I were outside playing on the swing, when Grandpa returned, having just learned that Cecelia had passed away over night. His hair was literally standing on end, and the look on his face was one of utter devastation. Incidentally, my father was in the construction business at the time, and one of the reasons he didn’t want to make the trip had to do with an upcoming deadline on a big job. While we were out of town, a scaffold collapsed under him and he fell, breaking both heels. Once he heard about Grandma Anderson’s passing, however, even though he was on two crutches, he caught a train and made his way to Summit. The train no longer stopped at the station there, but the conductor pulled the emergency brake and let him off. That was the only South Dakota trip ever, where Evie drove home with Norman in the front passenger seat.

Sometime in the Sixties, my mother invited Grandpa Anderson to go on a trip back to the old country to visit his surviving brothers. His answer was a resounding NO. Some sleuthing on my mother’s part got to the bottom of his refusal. He had been in the US for decades without ever becoming a citizen, and he ended up making the trip on a Swedish passport. My aunties made sure his US citizenship status was rectified before his death. AG came to this country in search of the American dream—and he found it. No, he didn’t become rich and famous, but he lived a rewarding, successful life in household that was full of song and laughter. My whole life has benefited from the fact that he did so.

One of Jan’s concerns was that, although she had developed a very clear picture of who Evie was, she thought my father had been given short shrift. That’s probably true. Like Grandpa Anderson’s citizenship issue, that’s something I’ll attempt to correct in a future blog, but for right now, I need to sign off and go back to my real job—writing the next book.

As a consequence, the next installment of my life as an open book will just have to wait, most likely until sometime next week.