Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Life is Short But Wide / by J. California Cooper
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)