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Wilderness Plots


Scott Russell Sanders by Steve Raymer

Wilderness Plots cover

On the Writing of Wilderness Plots

“It would be difficult to find richer, more concise prose than that employed by Scott Sanders in this collection. ... Most of these tales resonate with the force of fine lyric poetry, and they come together beautifully to project aspects of the epic—an American epic. ... [Wilderness Plots] is a stunning achievement.”
—The Georgia Review

“Sanders’s skillful writing makes these Ohio Valley pioneers come alive. He has written vignettes of two or three pages each about the odd and memorable people, and incidents that were talked about for years; the sort of thing that never seems to find its way into history volumes with any regularity. ... This is one of the best books of folk history around.”
—Sacramento (California) Bee

“The language of these tales is chiseled, spare to the point of folklore: every word carries a lovely weight. ... Seldom has America’s early story been so beautifully told. ... The book should appeal to anyone interested in Americana. It almost demands rereading: some may find its cumulative effect similar to that of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.”
—Publishers Weekly

Wilderness Plots is made up of fifty brief tales that chronicle the period of settlement of the Ohio Valley, roughly 1780 to 1850. Beginning with the “discovery” of the Ohio River by La Salle and ending with the Civil War, this region was the West, the exciting new frontier. Written with the power and compression of folklore, these tales bring to life the unmemorialized common folks who carried out this epic adventure. 

In these pages, you will meet preachers and profiteers, the boy who saved Cleveland, a love-crossed carpenter, generals and journalists, a hermit and a lawyer, farmers and bone collectors, lovers, layabouts, and a host of other high-spirited characters—the kind of people who, in all ages, have made history.

These stories, which condense entire lifetimes into single paragraphs, come out of a distinctive tradition in American literature. For this book reflects the experience of settling our entire wild, raucous, dangerous, and glorious continent. Our ancestors went through very much the same trials everywhere, from New England to California and Alaska. They wrestled with the land and its inhabitants for more than two centuries before there were any cities or industries to speak of, and since we have all been shaped by that prolonged wrestling, this encounter with the wilderness is one of the deepest, truest, and most abiding subjects in our literature.

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From the Afterword:

Like the characters they commemorate, these tales have a curious history. They began as research notes for a novel I was writing about a murder that occurred in Ohio during the War of 1812. My research was haphazard, the browsing of a storyteller rather than a scholar. In my reading, I kept an eye out for revelatory figures and episodes, memorable gestures and sayings, any detail that shone with the promise of story. I found plenty. Unsure which of these luminous characters or incidents would eventually make their way into the novel, I decided to store them in the form of brief narratives, which could be expanded later on. But after I had written five or six of these condensed stories, I realized that each one had a satisfying shape of its own, a sense of integrity and completeness. I liked the swiftness of narration, the focus on essentials, the compression of language, all qualities I had learned to admire in folktales and folksongs. And so I kept writing until I had accumulated fifty tales, which, taken together, roughly traced the history of settlement in my part of the country. 
            Unlike a historian, who swears allegiance to fact, I followed the lead of imagination. I tried to be accurate in my references to public phenomena, such as wars and railroads and slavery, and I preserved what details I could find about individual lives. But the blank spaces surrounding these facts I filled in with hunch and invention. Since much of the past is hidden from us, our only alternative to imagination is silence. Most of the names of people and places in these tales come straight from the historical record, but a few have been changed. In particular, the county called “Pilgrim” and its county seat of “Roma” are loosely based on Portage County in northeastern Ohio, where I grew up, and its county seat of Ravenna. The murder case I was researching occurred in Portage County, the first one recorded there, and the resulting trial took place in Ravenna; by altering the names I gave myself freedom to invent as need be in the novel, which came to be called Bad Man Ballad
            Ironically, these tales that began their life as research notes for Bad Man Ballad were published first, in 1983, and the novel appeared in 1986. Soon after the publication of Wilderness Plots, an editor named Richard Jackson read the book, liked what he found there, and called me one night while I was washing dishes to ask if I would put my storytelling to use in writing for children. This invitation led to our doing three books together, beginning with Hear the Wind Blow, a collection of stories inspired by American folksongs. Later in the 1980s, another editor, Barbara Lalicki, also read Wilderness Plots and wrote me to propose our making a children’s story out of the tale called “Aurora Means Dawn.” This led to a picture book with the same title, published in 1989. Three years later, working again with Barbara Lalicki, I adapted the tale called “The Multiplication of Wool” to make a second illustrated children’s book, Warm as Wool
            Over the next dozen or fifteen years, many children wrote me letters about Aurora Means Dawn or Warm as Wool, often enclosing picture books they had made themselves, and grownup readers sent me letters about Wilderness Plots, often telling me of their connection to some person or place I had sketched. As happens with most books, however, sales gradually dwindled, and by 2005 all three were out of print. Then in the summer of 2006, an Indiana singer-songwriter named Tim Grimm came upon a copy of Wilderness Plots, read it, and set about making songs inspired by various tales. He soon persuaded the other four members of his songwriting group to get hold of the book and begin composing songs of their own. That fall, the five musicians—Tim Grimm, Carrie Newcomer, Krista Detor, Tom Roznowski, and Michael White—recorded a “Wilderness Plots” album, which they released in the spring of 2007, and they began a series of group performances, occasionally with me on stage to read the tales that gave rise to their songs. 

Meanwhile, David Wiesenberg, the devoted bibliophile who runs The Wooster Book Company, noticed and regretted that Aurora Means Dawn, Warm as Wool, and Wilderness Plots had fallen out of print, and he offered to revive them. I gladly accepted his offer, as did the illustrators of all three books. Dennis Meehan has not only granted his permission for the reuse of his handsome illustrations in this new edition of Wilderness Plots, but he has redrawn some of the images in light of his more recent knowledge. This new edition has given me the chance to make many small adjustments in the language, tightening and clarifying, and also to thank the people named in this “Afterword.” Readers, editors, singers, illustrators, all have enlarged the life of these tales. I’m grateful to them, and to the person whose name appears on the dedication page, my wife, Ruth Ann McClure Sanders, who believed in my work even when I doubted. 

On June 24, 2011, the original cast of the "Wilderness Plots" show reunited for a performance on the campus of Indiana University. A film of the concert, made by our local PBS station, WTIU, premiered in the fall, and the film is being released nationally by PBS in 2012. You can see a preview of the film here. The DVD can be ordered here.

"In Warm as Wool," so the dust jacket says, "Scott Russell Sanders encourages us to understand history as he does, by imagining past lives. He was fascinated by a fragment of information that he found in a nineteenth-century record book, about the first pioneer to own sheep in Randolph Township, Portage County, Ohio. The pioneer was a woman, Betsy Ward. Her story has inspired this one, and Helen Cogancherry has illustrated it with deeply affectionate, richly textured scenes that show the promise of opportunity, the hardships that seem to keep coming, and the strength of a mother’s love. Offering a vivid picture of life on the frontier, Warm as Wool is intimate and emotionally involving. Superb storytelling and artwork bring us the past afresh while inspiring our appreciation of the vital and largely unsung role women have played in our nation’s growth."

From the dust jacket of Aurora Means Dawn: "With bold strokes of color and detail, Scott Russell Sanders and Jill Kastner offer children a rich opportunity to participate imaginatively in history. Focusing on the hopes and hardships faced by one family, they provide a story that echoes the experiences of countless pioneers—men, women, and children—who left their homes in the East to travel to largely unknown and unsettled lands. On the Ohio frontier in the early 1800s, with help from folks in a neighboring village, the Sheldons began a new settlement, which they called Aurora, the Latin word for dawn. There are many towns and great cities across America that arose, like Aurora, from such hopeful beginnings. This resonant picture book gives children a vivid, personalized understanding of how our nation came to be."



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