Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Former Student Gets Me Thinking

Yesterday, a fine former student of mine wrote about how much she hated a book she'd just finished--Driftless, by David Rhodes.  Fair enough.  Not everyone likes everything.  Or should.

But let me back up a bit ...

I'd never head of David Rhodes until Christmas Day, 2008.  I was reading through the New York Times that day and came across an annual feature they'd been doing for a while--an original Christmas story by a noted writer.  In 2008, I didn't recognize the author--David Rhodes.  But I read the story, "Wearing Feathers"--and liked it. (Here it is, if you want to read it: Link)  It's sort of a light, magical, mystical thing about "the goddess of winter storms," a snow plow, and human relationships.

At the end of the piece, I saw this: David Rhodes is the author of the novel "Rock Island Line" and, most recently, "Driftless."

Hmmm, I thought.  I liked the Christmas story so much that I pasted it into an email and sent it to all of my English III students (high school juniors) that day.  I also sent them some news about my temporary (two-month) absence from the school, commencing in January.  I would be going to the Cleveland Clinic every day for radiation treatments for my prostate cancer.

Between Christmas and New Year's, I also ordered (from the Cleveland Public Library) Rhodes' two early novels--The Last Fair Deal Going Down, 1972, and The Easter House, 1974.  By January 3, I was reading the first, and in my journal, I remarked: amazing (so far) novel [that] reads a bit like Millhauser, actually.  As I read the books, I took notes, then stuffed them in a file.

(BTW: Just checked--a first printing of The Last Fair Deal is worth nearly $500 now--check it out on abebooks.com.)

I finished the first in two days, then the next.  By 17 January I was reading Rock Island Line (1975)--finished it a week later.  And by the 26th, it was Driftless, 2008, which I finished on 6 February, about a week before my Clinic treatments terminated.  My brief note in my journal says of the novel: mostly great.

David Rhodes
By then, I also knew why Rhodes had not published a book between 1975 and 2008.  He'd been a sensation at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa, had published his well-received novels, had married; he was going to be a father.  He'd moved to rural Wisconsin, and there, in the spring of 1977, he had a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed from the sternum down.  Soon, he was addicted to morphine; his family had left him.  But he struggled up out of his despair, remarried, became a father again, became a writer again.  He was in the pages of the New York Times, on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, interviewed by numerous media outlets.  On YouTube are some moments from interviews with Rhodes (Link).

When I finished all of his books, I wrote him a fan letter--but that took some doing.  He had no published email address at the time, and I had to do some googling to find his mailing address.  Which I did.  I told him about some connections (loose) that we had--my parents had lived in Iowa for a decade, my older brother had taught at the U of Iowa for a while--at the same time Rhodes was there.  And so on.  I told him I admired Driftless (which I did) and said I was looking forward to his next book.  Oh, and I also (mildly) criticized one scene in Driftless involving a militia guy--adding as a guy who's read all your books, I get to complain about something, don't I?

And that, I thought, was that.

Only, it wasn't.  

A few days later--a postcard from Rhodes, thanking me for my letter.  You're probably right about the long militia rant, he said.  It alters the pacing.  And a few other things--all kind.

That postcard is now framed, hanging on my wall.

NEXT TIME--A bit about Rhodes' novels: What does he write about? What are they like?  And--if space permits--about why we like/dislike books?

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