North of Hope-A Daughter’s Arctic Journey

North of Hope“The plane fell from the clouds toward the dirt airstrip in the Inupiat village of Kaktovik, Alaska… Windows aged and opaque blurred the borders of ice and land, sea and sky…Kaktovik perched on Barter Island, a barrier island shaped like a bison’s skull just north of the Artic Coastal Plain…The Beech 1900 touched down with all the grace of a drunk…

As I walked off the plane down the rickety stairs, the Arctic wind cut through my fleece…It was the end of the world. The ultima Thule” (19).

These paragraphs begin Shannon Huffman Polson’s memoir North of Hope. It’s a paragraph full of information and questions. Polson is in an airplane battered by its circumstances—the windows are difficult to see through and the stairs are of questionable stability. She’s in a small Native village “at the end of the world.” The airstrip is dirt and the cold knifes through her clothing. Boundaries blur. Its obvious Polson has traveled to a place far off the usual Alaskan tourist path; this is not a place for the casual visitor. It’s a hard land; a desolate one.  All of these details lead the reader to a question: why is she here?

Polson answers that question throughout the rest of her book. She is here to repeat the last journey her father and stepmother started a year ago, but never finished; they were mauled to death by a rouge grizzly bear. Her memoir is also a story of her journey through grief; a journey she started by singing Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor with the Seattle Symphony “every Monday…after Dad and Kathy’s funeral” (43).

Polson’s writing brings the reader alongside as she undertakes her parents’ last journey through a harsh, fragile, and beautiful land; a place most people will never experience. Her memoir is about loss, the difficulty of grieving as she chooses to embrace the pain, and hope as she finishes the journey—both down the river and through her grief.

I took this book on vacation with the intention of reading it, but then my husband, who is not a reader, picked up North of Hope, and I didn’t see it again until he was done. It’s a book that has stayed with both of us.

Read the first two chapters here.

Polson, Shannon Huffman. North of Hope. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2013. Print.



All That Was Faked Turned Bad: Hemingway and the Gift of Unruly Prose

by Matthew McEver

Have you heard about the new Hemingway App? Inspired by an abundance of poor writing in the business world, brothers Adam and Ben Long developed an online editing tool that will analyze your text, flag problems in your prose, make your writing “bold and clear.”

Here’s the rub: the app dislikes anything written above a tenth grade reading level. The algorithm flags passive voice, adverbs, polysyllabic words, and complex sentence structure. Pasting in my own text, the app judged everything I’ve written to this point as “hard to read.”

The New Yorker had some fun with this invention, submitting Hemingway’s own writing to the online editor. Alas, according to the Hemingway App, the bullfighting scenes from The Sun Also Rises should be rewritten. The app flagged the following excerpt for its passive voice and extraneous adverbs.

Afterward, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero’s bull-fighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time.

I remember Marlin Barton once saying, “You have to know the rules before you can break the rules,” which is what Hemingway does in the cited passage. No question, when severed from a larger body of text, this passage is grammatically awkward. In context, though, there’s something exquisite and unsettling in the wording. Ian Crouch of The New Yorker says that the beauty in that phrase, “all that was faked turned bad,” feels like an elegy, appropriate for this novel. “Emotional uncertainty,” Crouch calls it. Of course, “quietly” and “calmly” are effective because we don’t associate calmness and quietness with bullfighting.

Great writers have a flair for knowing how and when to break the rules. One of my favorite examples is the juxtaposition of two run-on sentences in the third chapter of A Farewell to Arms.

I had gone to no place where the roads were frozen and hard as iron, where it was clear
and cold and dry and the snow was dry and powdery and hare-tracks in the snow and the
peasants took off their hats and called you Lord and there was good hunting. I had gone
to no such place but to the smoke of cafes and nights when the room whirled and you
needed to look at the wall to make it stop, nights in bed, drunk, when you knew that that
was all there was, and the strange excitement of waking and not knowing who it was with
you, and the world all unreal in the dark and so exciting that you must resume again
unknowing and not caring in the night, sure this was all and all and all and not caring.

You’d never get away with this winding verse in Comp 101. Hemingway, who knows what a run-on sentence is, gets away with it because the writing style earns its place. The run-on sentences not only break the rhythm of the prose; they also tell me something about the narrator. Given the erratic nature of these sentences, I have no doubt that our narrator is spiritually lost.

Grammatical evils—passive voice, adverbs, winding verse—have their place in creative writing when gracefully executed and thematically appropriate. Breaking the rules is fine, but only if you do so with a higher purpose. And like many aspects of the writing life, possessing a knack for such things, knowing when and how to break the rules, is mastered through ceaseless practice until it becomes second nature. There are no shortcuts, and there is no online tool that will turn your work into A Farewell to Arms.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Not Just Another War Story

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a story about the firebombing of Dresden, but there is a catch. It’s funny. Vonnegut uses humor and the absurd nature of the story (Billy coming unstuck in time, his time on Tralfamadore, and the structure of the narrative) to make Slaughterhouse-Five more lighthearted and entertaining. The novel is still very grave and serious, but way the story is narrated makes the events seem more distant and muted. It is the combination of the humor, absurd events, and the narration which prevent Slaughterhouse-Five from being a ghastly, depressing tale of the horrors of war. In fact, they make it a funny, entertaining novel which is able to address these serious events and not lose the reader in the absurdity of the tale.

The actual story in Slaughterhouse Five doesn’t begin until chapter two, with the first chapter being written from Vonnegut’s point of view and about events that happened to him. He then segues into Billy Pilgrim’s story by saying: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” (29). This is the real introduction to the story, as the first chapter is background into Vonnegut’s reasons for writing the novel. It is in chapter two that the narrator gets into the surreal humor which defines Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim becoming unstuck in time forces him to randomly jump to various points of his life, from his birth to his time in the war to his death. This random walk through time allows Vonnegut to still present the horrors of the war to the reader, but by jumping from the war to later points in Billy’s life also gives the reader a reprieve from the depressing conditions of the war. “The Americans’ clothes were meanwhile passing through poison gas. Body lice and bacteria and fleas were dying by the billions. So it goes. And Billy zoomed back in time to his infancy,” (107). Billy coming unstuck in time and his experiences with the Tralfamadorians are certainly not regular experiences. They are fantastic, unbelievable events. However, Vonnegut doesn’t let himself get carried away with them, and he keeps the focus on the horrid conditions of the war. He uses the absurdity to strengthen the narration instead of overpowering the narrative.

The narration in Slaughterhouse-Five is third person, but it is close to Billy Pilgrim. Vonnegut does an excellent job of structuring the narrative so that it emphasizes the distance between Billy and the events of his life. I think the best example of this is repeating of the phrase “So it goes”. This phrase often follows a tragic event or description of something terrible, e.g. “…Edgar Derby, the high school teacher who would be shot to death in Dresden. So it goes,” (125) or “In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.” (182). This phrase adds distance to the events, and allows Billy (and the reader) to detach himself from what his happening around him. It emphasizes the general apathy of the narrator, who treats the events involving Tralfamadore with the same tone that he treats the events in Dresden and those of Billy’s time in the optometry practice. This narration is consistent throughout the story, which is important because the story can be difficult to follow. I think if the narration were too emotionally charged and Vonnegut tried to emphasize the drama of every war scene, then the reader would be exhausted after reading and the book wouldn’t flow well. As it stands the narrative does a good job of presenting the fantastic nature of the story in a way which makes the events and timeline clear and also reflects Billy’s character.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a novel that uses fantastic elements and a very fitting narration to tell the story of Billy Pilgrim’s time as a P.O.W. in Germany during World War Two. The narrator never steals the spotlight or shifts the focus away from the actual story. The fantastic elements are not the object of the story, but simply a way to tell it. Slaughterhouse-Five expertly weaves the narrative into the events of the story to create a tale which is believable yet fantastic, absurd yet grounded, and horrific yet engaging.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughter-Five. New York: Random House, 1969.

Just Right Love Poem

Because it snowed over four inches here in Eastern North Carolina, and because it never snows here, my family and I had two days together in the house, watching the snow fall, listening to the ice pellets hit the thick layer of snow, and playing My Little Pony Monopoly. The ponies teach about the power of friendship and love, and so those things should have been on our minds, but we all managed to still forget that tomorrow was Valentine’s Day, and so it came about that, after working a nine hour day, I found myself at the Walgreens picking out Valentines I thought my son would like and choosing some decent candy from the little that was left.

 I picked two packs of Valentines: cute baby animals and Spiderman. My son chose the Spiderman ones so that he could keep the cute baby animals for himself. My daughter chose to make Valentines for her classmates. And as I watched her draw a unique animal complete with caption for each of her friends (Sssleepy Sssnake says You’re Sssweet!), I thought about what Valentine’s Day has meant to me.

 I can remember my dad leaving small, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates outside my brother’s and my doors when we were little. I can remember wanting to receive sucker-grams in junior high and being largely disappointed. I can remember in high school and college vaguely wanting something lavishly romantic, though I wasn’t really sure what. Now, I’ve been married for twelve years, and I really just want the house to be cleaned by magic, some good food I don’t have to cook or clean up after, and my kids to have good memories, to have fun, and, above all, to feel loved.

And I want to tell you about love poems. How they encapsulate ache, ecstasy, romance; how they reach in and twist, and make you want to come back for more. I remember reading Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins to Make Much of Time” in my Norton Anthology when I was seventeen and thinking, yes. That’s right. And I remember reading Karyna McGlynn’s “When Someone Says I Love You the Whole” on my smart phone several weeks ago and thinking, yes. That’s right. 

For today, I want to share this: “The Shirt” by Jane Kenyon. “The shirt touches his neck / and smooths over his back. / It slides down his sides. / It even goes down below his belt— / down into his pants. / Lucky shirt.” 

That’s it. And, yes. That’s just right.

Kenyon, Jane. “The Shirt.” Collected Poems. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005. Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 13 Feb. 2014.

Lit mag roundup

Support literary magazines–they need you!

River Teeth Journal–publishes non-fiction

Wips Journal-Works (of fiction) in Progress–focuses on fiction.

Superstition Review-publishes art, poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction

New Ohio Review-publishes fiction, poetry, and non-fiction

Contributor Gabrielle Freeman has started her own website–Lady Random. Her tagline: “Writing is your mistress. Submit!”

Also check out Rocko Rocket–creation of contributor Yolande Clark-Jackson