23 June 2013

Unexpected story

G'pa Rohl in my memory
Back when I was a little kid in the middle of the last century (gotta get that line in somewhere), my great grandfather was in his 90s. He loved telling stories about his experiences. Some of them might even have been true. Albert William Rohl, known to friends as Willie and to family my age as Grandpa Rohl, was a carpenter. He was born in Michigan during the U.S. Civil War. That fact alone made him an intriguing figure to a kid who'd just heard about the Civil War of ancient history. What's an 8-year-old supposed to do with a 90-year-old war?

One of the stories Grandpa Rohl told was about setting off for the great American west when he turned 21 . That would have been 1883. He went on horseback, sleeping on the ground with his horse tied to his ankle. He stopped and did farm work for settlers along the way. Went out to Yellowstone, which had been named the United States' first national park in 1872. Grandpa Rohl came back and practically never left the city of Minneapolis afterward.

Young Willie
I don't remember him describing anything about Yellowstone, but I wish now that I did. If, that is, he said anything about Yellowstone. I just don't know. I do remember him saying that when he got to Deadwood in Dakota Territory, people told him to get out of town. They didn't like strangers in town after the killing of Wild Bill Hickock. Well, that seems unlikely since Hickock had been killed in 1876. But maybe...

All that is preface to my unexpected reading pleasure. One of the free things on the Nook I got for Christmas was a book by Sinclair Lewis, Free Air.

I'd never heard of it. No wonder it was free. It was probably free of copyright restrictions too. So, what's senior citizen supposed to do with a 90-year-old story?

Somewhere in the distant past I think I read a Sinclair Lews novel. Maybe Arrowsmith or Babbit. I'm not sure, but maybe... I don't remember anything about it. In my mind, Lewis was an ancient, honored novelist that literature students had to read to be considered educated. Like David's summer session programming classes, boring but important.

I do remember reading about Lewis' reputation as a cynic and critic of people's illusions about themselves -- especially small town people. It took years (a generation?) for people in Saulk Center, Minnesota to stop hating Lewis for basing his first best seller, Main Street, on their fair "city" and some of its honorable citizens.

So I'm at the lake place called Sidetrack with my Nook and its library containing Free Air. What the heck, Zane Grey surprised me. Well, Lewis surprised me too.

The story begins in the Minneapolis of 1919. The main character is a plucky young woman who is tending to her widowed father. He was a big time banker in Brooklyn and the family was part of high society there. Then he had a breakdown, and was persuaded by his daughter to move to Minneapolis and tend to the Midwestern part of his banking empire. When he had another breakdown, she convinced him that a road trip to Seattle was just the cure for his overwork. (It seems like an early 20th century version of getting the old guy off line.)

Young Sinclair Lewis
Somewhere northwest of St. Cloud, Minnesota, in Sinclair Lewis' version of Lake Wobegon, the plucky young heroine attracts the attention of the plucky young local auto mechanic. He's so enamored with the plucky young society girl on the road to the west coast that he jumps in his little ersatz Model-T and decides to follow her. Being the plucky, young, self-sufficient girl that she is (from Brooklyn high society?), she resents his attention even though he helps her out of a huge mud hole and rescues her and her father from a highwayman.

In spite of her remonstrances, he follows her at a distance, helps her adjust her car to conquer some mountain driving, and is invited by the ailing banker to join them in a tour of Yellowstone. (See I did get back to the Yellowstone theme.) The plucky youngsters are entranced by the natural beauty of Yellowstone Canyon and falls and they share a climb down the canyon to the river. (A plucky young woman from Brooklyn high society?)

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
About that point in the story I began wondering if this was written by the same Sinclair Lewis whose reputation was as a cynical social critic. He even had me chuckling out loud enough times that Nancy asked from the other room, "What's so funny?" Free Air is a romantic comedy. I'll bet Katherine Hepburn would have jumped at the role of the plucky young woman from high society. ("Could you make that Philadelphia high society instead of Brooklyn?" Miss Hepburn asks.) Sandra Bullock would probably love it if she was just a little younger. Maybe Jennifer Lawrence would be good. Jimmy Stewart would have been a good male lead. In current time, Daniel Radcliffe would stand in for old Jimmy. Cary Grant would have been great in the role of the self-important Brooklyn banker/suiter who shows up from Brooklyn high society several times in the story. Matt Damon might take that role today. Tom Hanks might pull off the role the father, although in real life he's a little too old. Ah, what day dreaming will lead me to.

This story was the big surprise. I was waiting, during the second half of the book for the taming of the plucky young Brooklyn society girl. It never happened. She's a pretty determined feminist. Lewis does a great job of skewering both the illusions of the high society characters and the insecurities of the small towners. His sympathies are all with the plucky young mechanic from the edge of the prairie. Well, other sympathies are with the democratic aspirations of the plucky young woman from Brooklyn, too. The story doesn't have a "happily ever after" ending, but it does have a "happy so far" ending.

Was this written by THE Sinclair Lewis? Yes, it was. It turns out that in the days before Main Street, his Nobel Prize, and the Pullitzer he turned down, Lewis paid his bar tab (and that wasn't small) by writing serialized stories for women's magazines. And that's where Free Air comes from. The title comes from the once-ubiquitous signs in front of gas stations. It's mentioned once early in the story. I'm not enough of a scholar to tease out further meaning from the phrase or the story. So what!? It was a romantic comedy. And it was fun to read.

Have you read Free Air? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it. Or what you think of Sinclair Lews.

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