Northern Lights, Southern Lights: A Memoir of Writing Parents
Pros: interesting characters and situation as writers, photos
Cons: too many repetitions, too little of Susan Eisele’s writing
Like Albert E. Eisele, my father was transported as a baby from rural Illinois to Faribault County in southern Minnesota. Like Albert A. Eisele (sixteen years my elder), I graduated from Blue Earth High School, and shared the same family doctor as the Eiseles. I remember Susan Frawley Eisele, wife of Albert E. and mother of Albert A., seeming to wrestle with a bulky camera taking pictures (including some that I was in) at Blue Earth High School for the Blue Earth Post, the weekly newspaper for which she also wrote a homespun miscellany of a column for decades.
I’m not sure whether those close parallels and glancing intersections makes me more or less sympathetic to Albert A’s joint biography of his parents. I never met him, don’t remember ever talking to his mother, and was born in the same year his father died. I read the book with some familiarity with the setting and a few persons mentioned in passing, but was probably more disappointed at the failure of the book to be what its subtitle advertises — a memoir — than readers from elsewhere are likely to be. (I hoped to learn something of what it was like to grow up in/near Blue Earth a decade and a half before I did.)
There is exceedingly little of memories from Albert A. in the book. Almost everything in it derives from manuscripts and clippings from newspapers and magazines by or about his parents. Their careers as writers for rural newspapers (syndicated columns) and in the case of Albert E. as a contributor of close-to-the-earth stories published in American Catholic periodicals while farming and raising children (three boys of whom Albert A. was the youngest survived childhood). Susan wrote fast, her husband slowly. Alas there is not the slightest indication of how Albert A. or his older brothers felt about the time their parents’ writing took — or how they felt about their parents’ minor fame in rural northern Iowa and southern Minnesota and in national Catholic periodicals, along with something of a fifteen minutes of national celebrity Susan had, being named the country’s outstanding rural journalist for 1936 and invited to New York City and D.C. with the newly born Albert A.
The book needed a copyeditor to point out (and/or cut!) repetitions. Albert A. runs through statistics on Albert E’s publications five or six times and says that Susan never traveled to the East Coast again after 1936, though there is not only discussion but a photo of her with Jimmy Carter in the White House in 1977 (Albert A. was press secretary for then-Vice President Walter Mondale). An editor might have suggested changing “’The Brother Who Came’ was described by literary magazine editor as ‘one of the finest short stories ever written” from passive to active as well as supplying an article before “literary.” This is quite aside from the unsupportability of the estimation by David Marshall (founder of something called A.D.): there are two or three better Eisele stories included as an appendix to the dual biography, and “Brother” exemplifies the superfluous dialog for which a critic quoted in the text faulted Albert E’s fiction.
The six stories by Albert E. Eisele are Chekhovian, though didactic and more sentimental as Chekhov’s were not, with occasional odd (or mistaken) word choices and sometimes awkward syntax. Unfortunately, Albert A. includes only two of his mother’s thousands of columns, including both an image of the original appearance and the text. I wish he had included the one (or the whole set of five submissions) that won her the best rural journalist of 1936 recognition. It seems that both of his parents chose to ignore the censorious backbiting of busybodies in rural communities, including the one in which both Albert A. Eisele and I grew up —in contrast the earlier representation of Sauk Centre, MN in Main Street, which Susan told a NYC interviewer in 1936 (after publication of Babbit, Dodsworth, Arrowsmith, The Man who Knew Coolidge, and Elmer Gantry) was the last good book Sinclair Lewis wrote… or the bitterness of the Spoon River Anthology and the despair of Giants in the Earth.
Despite the disappointments I have mentioned, I found the story of writers from Faribault County, Minnesota struggling for attention interesting. Susan, who was born on the coast of South Carolina and moved to Tennessee observed some of the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925 and remarked about some other Tennesseans that “they are fundamentalists because they have not the courage to look beyond their own narrow horizons and see that the other fellow has the same protection under the laws of this country as they have,” an observation that is particularly apposite to the fundamentalist reaction to same-sex marriage and to Minnesotan as well as Tennessean fundamentalists (and not a few Catholic priests, as well).
BTW, Albert Eisele wrote a much longer dual biography of Minnesota senators Eugene J. McCarthy and Hubert H. Humphrey who vied for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, Almost to the Presidency)