Wish you were here: Fictional stories flesh out real 1900s postcards
Special to The Seattle Times
Robert Olen Butler most likely called his latest book "Had a Good Time" because each story in the collection is based upon the pictures and scribblings of circa-1910 American postcards, and that phrase, in its present-continuous tense, is one of the most ubiquitous in the history of postcards.
Oddly, it never appears in any of the postcards featured in "Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards" (Grove Press, 267 pp., $23). Because people weren't having a good time? Back then, as Butler shows, there were still vast inequities in wealth, and kids dying of influenza and cholera, and women didn't have much societal influence or the vote. Black men had the vote (technically) but even less societal influence. At the same time, magical newfangled things abounded: the automobile and aeroplane, for starters.
One gets the feeling Butler likes to dig around in this period, not only for the forgotten phrases and products and places ("Bugs" as an epithet; the Singer Building as the highest building in the world ) but for the optimism of a new century that wasn't weighed down yet by two world wars and a cold one.
Who knows? Maybe he called the collection "Had a Good Time" because he had a good time writing it. Or because he hopes you'll have a good time reading it.
Might I suggest reading it aloud? The stories are all told in the first-person, generally in dialect, and they sound better if you don't keep them to yourself, particularly the best ones like "Hiram the Desperado." Each story begins with a reprint of the actual postcard, and in April 1908 someone named "Chas." sent a postcard of a public school in Charleston, Washington (of all places), to Panama (of all places) and wrote, "This is the school where Cousin Hiram reigns supreme and curries the town ruffians." From that line Butler constructs the story of a kid who keeps an eye on the easy chance and another on a favorite schoolteacher, Miss Spencer. Some of his thoughts, as he carries his father's beer pail down to Front Street, highlight just how little we've learned in a century: "And I dream a little, too, about the Great White Fleet that our president has sent off to circle the world and show them all who's boss. ... "
Many postcards back then were personal rather than generic; people would create them from their own photos rather than buying off the rack. One postcard consists of a man walking past several dead bodies in Mexico, and Butler imagines a know-nothing journalist and his relationship with his Mexican laundress during "Woody Wilson's little escapade in Vera Cruz."
An old black man stands by a Southern fence ("Good old 'Uncle Andrew'," he's called), and Butler imagines a former slave. Two women sit in the back seat of a 1906 Mitchell automobile, and Butler gives us a daring afternoon adventure. (This particular postcard was sent to Mrs. Frank Jobst in Seattle, so if you know any Jobsts with Seattle connections, drop them a line.)
That's part of the appeal of this collection. These people — these lives — really existed, and the fictional component Butler adds resonates emotionally if not always intellectually. A few endings, for example, feel contrived: the cork leg in "The Ironworkers' Hayride"; the Richard Cory-esque lesson of "Hotel Touraine."
But there are gems: "Mother in the Trenches," about an American mom during WWI; and "Up By Heart," about an illiterate Tennessean who takes the Bible too literally. One postcard message even feels like a poem in itself: "This is Earl Sandt of Erie Pa in his Aeroplane just before it fell."
In 1996, Butler created a book of stories from tabloid headlines, and here it's antique postcards, but this is no mere writing exercise. He's chronicling the American experience — from Ellis Island to San Francisco — and resuscitating an entire century.
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