March 9, 2005: Reading Room
no place like home
By Maria LoBiondo
Going east for college from small-town South Dakota, M.J. Andersen ’77 could have been Dorothy landing in Oz. But while Dorothy found her way back, Andersen is still searching for the psychic feeling of “home.”
Andersen, an editorial writer and columnist for the Providence Journal-Bulletin, recounts her inner journey in Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner, a memoir published in January by Thomas Dunne Books, in which she yearns for the stability and safety of her childhood home, even as she pushes boundaries establishing a career.
At the heart of the story is Sixth Street, with its backyard views of endless fields and majestic skies. “When we said Sixth Street,” she writes, “we meant the neighborhood, which meant the world.” She fictionalized the name of her hometown, calling it “Plainville,” she says, to “give me just enough distance so I felt free to talk about it in an intimate way.”
Imagination transformed Andersen’s bike seat into a horse’s saddle to gallop across the streets and yards of Sixth Street. She attended Sunday school, joined the high school debate team, and failed when her mother tried to teach her to sew. But not all was idyllic; she also remembers her parents’ struggles to keep the family weekly newspaper afloat.
At Princeton, Andersen experienced an unsettledness that would disconcert her for years to come. But Princeton also opened her mind. She took John McPhee ’53’s nonfiction writing class and discovered Tolstoy, a writer whose life and work so fascinate her that she opens and closes her book with references to the Russian novelist.
From college on, her search for home haunts her from apartment to apartment, through secretarial jobs and graduate school at Brown, on a search for family roots in Denmark, and on a journalistic excursion to Jerusalem for the Journal-Bulletin, where she has worked for nearly 25 years. Since college, she’s moved more than a half-dozen times.
Americans tend to move every six or seven years, a statistic Andersen quotes to show she’s not alone in her search. “When I came east, I often asked where people were from, but the people I asked weren’t concerned about that, as if they were not from any place. Part of what’s going on with Americans is they want to be home,” Andersen explains, “but economic forces keep us moving.”
Throughout her memoir, and her life, she wrestles with security versus the unknown, as well as the difference between memory and experience. “Memory is no substitute for the place we have journeyed from — the actual place, with its people, sounds, and scents, its precise angles of light, its exact breezes,” she writes.
But she doesn’t resolve these struggles. “I wonder if we can ever resolve those things,” she says. Even though she eventually buys an old Victorian house with her husband in Massachusetts, she concludes that a house may be made of ordinary materials, but a home is never ordinary. It is, instead, a mystery, glimpsed clearly on occasion by the people who inhabit it.
Maria LoBiondo is an occasional PAW contributor.
Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America — Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden ’73 (Dori Lynn Shorter) (Perennial). This study shows how and why some African-American women feel pressure to compromise their true selves as they navigate America’s racial and gender landscape. They change their behavior, appearance, and speech, shifting “white” at work and “black” at home. Shorter-Gooden is a psychologist.
Sequoia, Presidential Yacht — Giles M. Kelly *51 (Cornell Maritime Press). The author documents the history of the yacht that nine U.S. presidents have used for meetings and pleasure since it was built in 1925. John F. Kennedy, for example, celebrated his last birthday on board and Franklin Delano Roosevelt fished from his wheelchair. Today the Sequoia is privately owned and docked in Washington, D.C. A former skipper of the yacht, Kelly often lectures on the Sequoia.
The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War — Andrew J. Bacevich *82 (Oxford). The author warns of what he sees as a dual obsession that has taken hold of Americans — militarism and a blind faith in the universality of American values. Those obsessions, he argues, are turning the United States into a crusader state. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University.