Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Good New Book

              AND THEY WENT OUT

 I have just read a really good book. Eric and Libby Ericson, of Boulder and Santa Fe, have joined hands to present the experience of their early lives together when they deployed their courage and devotion to go far abroad in the professional search for oil, but more deeply and truly into the fundamental strata of the human mystery of family. There were the rocks to probe, dangerous politics, strange diseases amid myriad languages-- and the children, “the boys”.
   It is a compelling look at the geology of oil and family life, all of it told in a most remarkable modesty. They never speak for their competence, but we as readers never for a moment doubt it. The book is a cultural marker showing us a model of what was once possible in America:

      An Oil Geologist Abroad: Exploration with Family:
       Bolivia, Spain and Nigeria  1956-1966   (Santa Fe, 2011)

   Built as the Ericsons have built it, their book is that rare thing, a necessary  book. Its subject has rights. It is to be written and published. It is what writing is for.
   Eric and Libby follow one another with short essay-like sketches, one after the other from field to home and back again, Eric looks for oil in structures of unexplored rocks of Bolivia, Spain, and Nigeria. Libby’s hugely devoted effort is to get that family going and make it prosper.

                       Searching and Breeding

   This book, a vivid portrait of an American family at an historically loaded moment in the nation’s life and a submission of evidence, documenting what now seems an almost magical time in our lives and our culture. It is memoir, history, sociology, science, even romance. I think it must be unique.
   The 1950’s --A time, often decried as a static culture of conformity and lack-luster pursuit of dreary middle class comforts, securities, and regularities, is something quite different in this book. There were those young people back then with a fine new, public education for the professions, who were suddenly presented with the challenge to Go Out, almost in a Biblical sense, to do good and to serve.
   And knowing what they wanted, they were ready to learn fully how to do it. They went out as young families to breed and to spread the good news of their liberal learning and vision in the wildest of unexplored places.
    I write this, of course, in the only way I can, as a man who, like Eric Ericson, was accompanied by a remarkable woman, who was at least as ready as he for anything.
   Libby Ericson, educated in fine arts, gets her say in this book of alternating essays. I think it might be read as a text in early feminism. What proves my point and is so astonishing about the book is the balance between the alternating essays. Male and female created He them.  There is not the slightest hint of male dominance or compromise anywhere in the book. The woman, at this early moment, appears as not just an equal power with her husband, but as one who has always been such. This balance between the essays is the balance between souls.

    Style? The writing is good, clear, economic, educated, and self-edited. I would call it, “American Plain”. Some sentences run urgently on under the buoyant pressure of the essential narrative, and verbs, in their hurry, can fall quickly into the passive. But, it is a style with a draw to it, meaning that it keeps pulling the reader eagerly forward with the narrative. It is rigorously anti-metaphoric, uncolored, forthright, and seemingly unconscious of itself as literature. It is just right for its task.
    But, as I write this, I cannot keep from musing on how this book clarifies and gives a local habitation to what many of us experienced and felt back then, at the center of that magnificent storm of education that was the G I Bill of Rights.
   I see a bit more clearly, from reading this book, where that education sent even me, I see that I too went out into a wilderness of exploration, in no way comparable to that wild, big, brave thing the Ericsons did, but still…. Still, I think that many of us back then (I am a couple years older than the Ericsons) went out, in the midst of what was The American Century and lived crazy, productive lives and sometimes left a mark.
   Ours was the culture of science. Even in the arts, science was a model. Bertolt Brecht, a voice for many of us, spoke of himself as “a child of the age of science”. That’s what I always wanted to be-- like Eric Ericson.
    But today it’s all gone to hell. We are threatened with the leadership of those who want only to live private lives of private wealth, oiling their hinges at the public supply-- all the while preening themselves with their religious suspicions of evolution, global warming, and science in general!
    Bad Luck! They, in their particular, are not the affirmation of humanity we thought they might become when, back then, we were teaching them. We had gone out into the wilderness of the future to do our work and look what we got!
    But, I must not loose sight of what we got in this book, a testimonial to what once was and might be again in the human family.

    Christmas, 1945: Betty and I talked of Upsula, but we didn’t go.

Gordon Wickstrom
September 12, 2011