Among the season’s many cancellations was a friend’s planned family vacation at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. Before their intended departure, I misunderstood him to say they would sleep in the only surviving wigwam east of the Mississippi.
Huh? The small bark winter houses of the eastern and midwestern woodlands weren’t exactly durable. Wisconsin has several replicas. If an authentic original survived, I can’t imagine tourists being allowed to sleep there. West of the Mississippi, tepees, hogans, and pueblos were more common.
Kentucky’s mis-named Wigwam Motel* is on the National Register of Historic Places, as are its two surviving siblings in Arizona and California. They’re remnants of 1930s and ’40s pseudo-Indian kitsch, akin to cigar-store Indians and now-controversial sports team names and mascots.
Preserve traces of our imperfect past, or expunge it out of respect? Souvenir war bonnets, Confederate statues, anti-Semitism in Shakespeare, gendered adventures in Peter Pan: There’s no one easy answer. Museums, classrooms, and historical parks hold thoughtful spaces to preserve and respect. I hope the Wigwam Motel stays in business, with a conspicuous historical marker near the entrance to put the kitsch in context.
* Image: The "wigwams" look more like tepees.
Whatever we think we know about this pandemic is out of date. The number of Americans with confirmed coronavirus topped 100,000 in March. Before they showed symptoms, many of them infected others, who in turn infected more. Each confirmation might mean at least half a dozen infections not yet visible, growing exponentially.
Gaze into the night sky. Your perception of the nearest visible star is obsolete. Its light began the long journey toward Earth more than four years ago.
Isn’t much of life like that? Writers chase a publishing fad only to see it pass before their work sees print. The child I last saw two years ago is no longer the child I thought I knew. Stock bubbles crash from everyone trying to cash in on yesterday’s hot tip.
I admit to having been among the skeptics who once thought coronavirus worries overblown. The numbers were tiny compared to flu. I was wrong. My data was out of date—and always will be. Barring core beliefs and eternal truths, all we can know with any approach to certainty has already passed.
In The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov, each human on Solaria stays far from everyone else. To see or be seen in person is disgusting and obscene. Instead, attended by robots, humans “view” one another remotely through holograms.
I thought of Solaria when my branch bank closed its face-to-face drive-up window in favor of video screens and pneumatic tubes, presumably for security. I think of it now as we talk to neighbors via devices instead of walking across the lawn.
One character in The Naked Sun eventually escapes to a saner, more nurturing planet. Our escape shouldn’t require leaving Earth, but there’s another possibility. How long would it take for our psyches to adapt, elevating physical closeness from risky or imprudent to a lasting cultural taboo?
What might future novelists write about the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020? Its major effects on daily life make it ripe for historical fiction. Can you suggest a one- or two-sentence summary for a plot?
For inspiration, or to fill the time offered by cancellations and self-isolation, these five novels portray ordinary folk caught up in past epidemics:
Coronavirus is respiratory; poliovirus is intestinal, with occasional spread to bloodstream and nerves. COVID-19 is new; polio has paralyzed humans for millennia. Having written about polio history for years now, I see differences but also similarities.
Both diseases are highly infectious, caused by viruses that mutate, more susceptible to prevention than cure. Both can be spread by an infected person who shows few or no symptoms. Americans in the 1950s avoided swimming pools and movie theaters for fear of polio. Many today cancel travel and meetings in response to coronavirus.
Fads fill the vacuum when scientists say, “We don’t know yet.” To prevent the spread of polio before it was understood, communities promoted fly-swatting campaigns, sprayed zinc sulfate up children’s noses, and killed thousands of cats and dogs. Alleged protections against coronavirus include hairdryers, ultraviolet lamps, chlorine body sprays, garlic, and sesame oil. Of course none of it helps.
Less colorful but wiser: Take your tips from CDC or WHO, and remember to wash your hands.
Video: A newsreel clip from 1946 boasts of spraying everyone and everything with DDT to protect against polio.
My last evening in San Antonio, the temperature dropped to the fifties. Winter raindrops dotted my hair. I wrapped my mid-weight coat tighter as I huddled at the bus stop, impatient for the warm, dry hotel.
My fourth day home in Wisconsin, the temperature rose into the fifties. I waded through snowmelt along the paved trail by Pheasant Branch, exchanging smiles with men pushing strollers and women walking dogs, drawn outside by the promise of spring.
Winter is peak writing season, free of the temptation to garden or roam forest paths. But winter is as much about expectations as about calendar or thermometer. Context is everything.
Greens and browns bring gentle interest to San Antonio’s River Walk, where I soaked up winter sunshine last week. How could you not keep going to discover what’s around the bend?
Humans want to understand and to explore, both what’s in plain sight and what may lie ahead. Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan say the landscapes that delight us—natural or designed—share four qualities:
Their framework fits more than landscapes. South Texas history and culture linked visits to the Alamo, the Mexican market, the presidio captain’s house, Spanish missions, and the Witte Museum (coherence), with easy access on foot or by bus (legibility), diverse sights and activities (complexity), and plenty to learn and discover (mystery).
Now I’m home, with a life that’s orderly and navigable, varied and filled with surprises. I think the Kaplans got it right.
Two or three times a year, someone tells me, “You know that everyone in your dream is you.” Says who, besides Carl Jung? Do night sweats running around a retirement home in my bathrobe looking for my demented mother always reflect fear of dementia? Granted, random dream figures can stimulate insights as effectively as tarot cards or tea leaves. We are the meaning makers, and new perspectives invite us to fresh meaning.
In writing, on the other hand, to some degree every character is the author. How can you make responses authentic except by putting yourself in the characters’ heads, or them in yours?
The same goes for reading. A child who becomes Pooh in imagination, then Piglet, then Eeyore or Tigger learns empathy. Mirror neurons don’t so much put us in someone else’s head as create an image of their intention in ours. In that sense, one might argue, you are everyone you see or imagine, including the characters in your dreams.
The stranger on the Appalachian Trail was as dirty and unkempt as most serious hikers, the ones who hadn’t just come out for an afternoon. He looked as though he hadn’t shaved in a month. He was wearing faded blue jeans and a University of West Virginia sweatshirt.
The author lost me right there. I grew up on and around the West Virginia University campus. The Mountaineers played and studied at WVU, never UWV. Never mind that the guy on the trail was a minor character, his sweatshirt of no significance except to make his image more vivid. An author who mistakes West Virginia University for the University of West Virginia is not one I can trust.
What does it mean for fiction to be credible, when it’s untrue by definition? Willing suspension of disbelief takes collaboration between reader and author. The reader consents to think of fictional people, places, and things as real, to care what becomes of folks who don’t even exist, to accept the presence of a street or town that’s not on any map outside the book’s covers. The author avoids jarring that suspension out of place with stilted dialogue, glaring anachronisms, or behaviors that feel unnatural in the context of the story.
Had the University of West Virginia been a major setting of the novel, located not in Morgantown but in a fictional canyon beset by mayhem unrelated to any real school, I might have kept my disbelief suspended. It was the very insignificance of the name on the sweatshirt that made it come across as carelessness rather than intention. If the author can’t even get that right, why should I go along with anything else?
In his autobiographical Permanent Record, Edward Snowden’s joy in the freewheeling, anarchic Internet of the 1990s strikes a surprising chord. Born earlier and no techie, I recall the same youthful thrill of trying on different selves where nobody knew who I was.
In summer camps far from home, I could play at being whoever I wished and none of it would follow me home. Going out of state for college allowed another fresh start. We students were all exploring, testing ideas by trial and error, with no shame in saying something stupid one day and rescinding it the next. In my twenties, moves every year or two offered a series of chances to reinvent. Only my immediate family gave continuity, and they didn’t try to box me in.
Though by my thirties I found relationships in community at least as liberating as serial anonymity, later life events renewed the freedom—and the need—to recreate who I wanted to be.
Isn’t this the best of both worlds? A few close kith or kin who not only know you deeply, but also encourage you to experiment, change, and grow.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.