Monday, December 20, 2010

The reliable harshness of life

A woman who gave her name as Wilson died in Chippewa Falls from a criminal operation performed upon herself. Her parents live near Eau Claire...her brother took charge of her remains. The woman was young and pretty and visited every physician in Chippewa Falls to accomplish her object, but without success. [4/6, State]

This weekend, I finished reading A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick. I highly recommend the book about a psychologically-scarred rich man and his mail-order bride during a bitter, rural Wisconsin winter in the early 20th century. Ralph Truitt, the book's anti-hero is obsessed with the oft-hidden realities of life: The sex and madness and sickness and death and betrayals that lurk behind the curtains of his his town--any town, really. Life is harsh, but it was particularly so 100 years ago. 
Goolrick has written that A Reliable Wife was inspired, in part, by Wisconsin Death Trip, a nonfiction book published by Michael Lesy in 1973. 

Wisconsin Death Trip uses news clippings (like the ones above and below), local gossip, snatches from period literature, records from the Mendota "insane asylum" and images from glass-plate negatives taken by Charles Van Schaik in the small town of Black River Falls, WI, to illuminate the harshness of Midwestern life in the late 1800s/early 1900s. The collection includes post-mortem photography--popular at the time--placed alongside more benign images.

The double funeral of two children of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hopke of Racine was held Thursday, this making three out of the family that have died of diptheria in the two weeks, and there are two more lying at the point of death. [11/6, State]

If you know me, and the fact that I am enthralled by "morbid history" as my husband says, then you know I immediately got a copy of Wisconsin Death Trip. It is an engrossing reminder that life was not always as it is today. That nostalgia for "simpler" days is often a sign that we do not really remember those days at all--that we have sanitized history and memory to forget that once diptheria could erase every child in a family or that good people sometimes went mad in isolated, rural areas. And that once we were much more comfortable with mortality, perhaps because death came so often and remorselessly.

The book inspired me to return to some of my genealogical research and those ancestors who lost multiple children in the early 1900s. Parents who died leaving older children caring for young. Brothers who shot brothers. Soldiers who never returned from foreign wars. In addition to the inspiring stories, there is a level of hardship our ancestors endured that seems unthinkable to most of us today.

See images from Wisconsin Death Trip and hear commentary from Michael Lesy in the video clip below.


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