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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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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