Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Life is Short But Wide / by J. California Cooper

Author Joan California Cooper, known to readers as J. California Cooper, was born in Berkeley, California and divided much of her younger days between Northern California and rural Texas. She began writing a performing plays as a very young child and even though much of her earlier work was done in private and hidden from public view, she succeeded in quickly gaining esteem for her scripts like "Strangers", "Loners" and "Everytime It Rains" which have been widely performed in a variety of platforms. As well as a playwright Cooper is a successful short story writer and novelist. Her 1986 book Homemade Love won an ABA prize and she's been honored with the American Library Association's Literary Lion and James Baldwin awards. Considered a bit of a recluse who prefers to keep her whereabouts as well as her age a secret, Cooper has been characterized as an author whose deceptively simple style evokes a wide range of deftly portrayed themes and ideas. Among her latest novels is Life Is Short But Wide (2010), about a small rural Oklahoma community whose simple family and generational personalities evoke an often overlooked place and time.

In early twentieth century America, rural Wideland, Oklahoma is home to a handfull of hard-working African American families struggling to eke out a living and live out their dreams. With the railroad station has come some prosperity and a few newcomers, but very little has changed from how Hattie B. Brown, the local octogenarian and storyteller, remembers it. Though at a loss for memory some times and never quite as surefooted as she used to be, Hattie relates the comings and goings of the folks of Wideland. Among the new residents, Hattie introduces the gregarious cowboy Val Strong and his part-Cherokee friend Wings, both of whom work to keep their head of cattle well-fed and well-stocked. Then there's Val's beautiful but less-friendly and sometimes bitter wife Irene who takes care of the couple's two daughters Rose and Tante, both of them stubborn and often bickering but not without their joy and good times. Alongside the Strongs are Joseph and Bertha, another couple and their daughter Myra. As the families cope with the hardships that come with changing times and fortunes, and people are born and pass away, the characters learn the importance of living boldly and squeezing out every possible moment of life, love and ambition.

Cooper is very good. Her portrait of American life, at once tender-hearted and down-to-earth is as heartwarming as it is poignant, is every bit as truthful to life as Willa Cather, Jane Smiley, Larry McMurtry or even Ernest Gaines (Life is Short But Wide will remind more than a few readers of Gaines' The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman). The trials and hardships, ambitions and setbacks of each of the characters in the novel can't help but captivate the reader as they share lessons and sidenotes on living life to the fullest and appreciating those who make you what you are. Those who've read Cooper's work before will recognize familiar voices in this book. The characters don't differ too much from previous protagonists and supporting cast where the actions and reactions to the changing times and new challenges offer a coherent blend of sage-like endearments and charming authenticity. (FIC COOPER)

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