Let’s be honest: When our elders tell us stories about growing up, we aren’t always the most respectful. We don’t pay close attention. We think: That was so long ago. What does that have to do with me?
As Iowa native Chris Baker came to find out: plenty.
After interviewing his grandmother for a class assignment, he handed her a notebook and encouraged her to write down stories of her childhood. Ten years after her death, Baker found the notebook and her 29 page manuscript.
“Others had it Worse” is an unusual collaboration between Baker and his deceased grandmother, Vetra Covert. Baker organized Covert’s writing and separated each story onto its own page so her manuscript reads more like a collection of short prose poems than a memoir.
The effect is startling, akin to flipping through a pile of old photographs and having a relative share the accompanying (unedited) story. Suddenly we are back in another time. In her spare language, Covert captures not only the day-to-day life on the prairie, but the joy, loneliness, and curiosity of youth.
There is snow on her blanket in the morning, thanks to a faulty roof. One of their cows gets into her father’s mash (he was a bootlegger) and Covert has to lead the drunk cow home. There are annoying neighbor girls, raucous house parties, and great adventures, such as going into town for supplies and riding her horse to school.
Since Covert wrote the stories, which cover her childhood in the 1920s, it’s a bit confusing that the photograph on the book’s cover is of Covert’s mother in the 1940s, especially when there are plenty of photos of Covert inside the book.
However, it’s Covert’s memories — not the photographs — that take hold of the audience. As Baker explains in the introduction, the book “is a collection of family stories (but) I like to think of it as an excerpt from an ongoing folk song passed from one generation to the next, a song that would make Woody Guthrie proud.”
“Others had it Worse” serves as a wonderful historical document that will certainly make Baker’s family — and Iowans — proud.
What: Chris Baker reads for “Others had it Worse”
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Barnes & Noble Bookseller, 333 Collins Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids