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A classic expression of American values

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Posted: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 8:14 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Now, Tucsonan Glenn Boyer is well known for his historical research on the Earps, George Custer, and for a long series of western novels. With the release of "Where The Heart Was," he breaks new ground, not only for himself but for the historical novel itself.

Here he gives us something more like a novel about history where the characters are displayed against a background of America. It's sweeping in the broadest sense, partly autobiographical, partly oral history, and even more parts I have yet to classify. Many who have read it find his format unique – and his writing superb.

We have a standard joke in political circles where the candidate opens with "I was born in a small log cabin." Glenn Boyer actually was, in rural Wisconsin in 1924. Its picture is on the dust jacket. He is Bennie Todd, the principal character, and you follow Bennie from the great depression to flight training in WW2. Boyer is also a retired USAF Lt. Col.

While we currently attempt to define poverty by including lack of cable TV service, read the first few chapters of "Where The Heart Was" to discover what real poverty actually was. Pouring kerosene on the bed springs to eliminate vermin. Meals that consisted of fried corn meal mush. No school bus and no school close enough to walk to.

You get the first hint about how Boyer will tell more of the American story when Bennie notes a bunch of old men wearing distinctive clothing on a visit to town. They were what remained of the Grand Army of the Republic – G.A.R. Bennie, like Boyer, got to know them and hear their tales of the Civil War. And he discovered that when they were kids they talked with veterans of the American Revolution.

There is an incident described about George Washington in combat that Boyer tells me was told him by a GAR vet who was told it by a soldier who was there. The time span between our wars — Revolution, Civil and WW2 – makes that probable. Academic historians will cluck and ask for the footnote, but the too many such bits of oral history have been neglected for far too long.

Boyer then moves back and forth in history through characters around Bennie, starting with his parents and flashbacks into the 19th century. Uncle Newt takes him to the Custer battlefield and relates what Bennie's Sioux great-grandmother said. A recent Lakota author put it well: "we know what our grandfathers were told by their grandfathers."

Some are bawdy tales – this is not a children's book. But whether describing a childhood adventure in the woods or a male loss of virginity, Boyer makes it thoroughly believable. And amusing – his card sharp grandfather/school administrator is a character difficult to invent.

I learned much real history from great fiction. The Age of Fighting Sail is accurately portrayed in the novels of C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, early America by Kenneth Roberts, Medieval Europe by Thomas Costain. Billy the Kid and Jesse James by Johnny Boggs, Big Nosed Kate and Pearl Hart by Jane Coleman, the Apache by Lucia St. Clair Robson and the US Cavalry by James Warner Bellah.

There are other examples of great American fiction, but  Glenn Boyer's "Where The Heart Was" belongs on the shelf with "Gone With The Wind" and "Huckleberry Finn" as a classic expression of American values.

"Where The Heart Was" went many years before it found a publisher. Legendary Publishing. www.LegendaryPublishing.com is a firm actually formed for the initial purpose of presenting it. You can meet Glenn Boyer and purchase a signed copy at Barnes & Noble, 5130 East Broadway, 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Feb 21.

 

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