Thinking, today, of what I would have written, had I put together an essay for The Great Lakes Reader - one of a series that sprang from the publication, last year, of a great book called State By State. The original was an anthology of 50 essays, each on one of our states, a la the American Guide series of the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s. The Readers are like State By State, but produced by region, and written by writers who are also booksellers and librarians. Great Lakes is the first, and it's just out. (And full disclosure: about 70 percent of the motivation behind this post is shameless self-promotion, since I was lucky enough to have a chance to write an essay for The Pacific Northwest Reader, which comes out next year.)
[Powell's loved State By State so much we made a movie about it.]
Of course, had I written an essay for the Great Lakes Reader, it would have been Wisconsin, and it would have been circus.
So much good material:
Baraboo - home of the Ringling Brothers - and where I lived, in the carriage house of an old Ringling mansion. (And stored extra stuff in what was once a stall for an elephant.)
Delavan - birthplace/home of all sorts of circuses and circus people you've never heard of but also the place where Barnum got his show started. This was 1871, so it was called P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome. Love those old, ornate names. Here's another: P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United.
Madison, Milwaukee, Appleton - cities where I performed in all manner of shows - on fairgrounds, in one-ring tents, in three and even five ring arenas.
The Wisconsin Dells - wacky Wisconsin Dells, the Midwest's answer to Vegas for kids, where for years I worked summers in a little circus show and spun my lasso at a broken-down children's park called Storybook Gardens (and periodically had to fill in as Cinderella).
That's what's so neat about a project like this Readers series. A place isn't just a place - it's a million places. It's different for every person who sees it, smells it, steps through its streets. But. It isn't just a million places - it's one place. With its own flavor, its look and feel.
It's this duality that is so beautifully captured by State By State and the Readers. Wisconsin to me was band concerts on small town city squares, fried cheese curds at the Friday night fish fry, watching eagles in the stinging January cold, forty-minute drives to Madison following a trail of homemade signs saying "No Farms, No Future, Don't Widen Highway 12," beer and barbecues with old stag reels projected on the neighbor's garage door, and circus and circus and circus. I love that I can own this Wisconsin - but also glimpse the Wisconsin that belongs to someone else:
[An excerpt from "Life on a Wisconsin Lake," by Margie Petersen White]
...my mother spent her last days of life floating on the lake. She had a brain tumor, and by the time August came, she could barely walk or speak. My dad would lift her into her floating chaise lounge, complete with cup holders in each armrest, and she would spend hours being rocked gently by the waves. The days were gloriously hot and dry and sunny, the kind of days you would want if you had only a few left on earth. The lake was perfectly behaved, it was deliciously warm, and the waves were neither too big nor too small. I don’t remember any pea soup that August at all. At the end of each of these last days, my mother would exclaim with utterly pure gratitude: “That was another ‘triple A’ day!”
Woman at a Mirror, by Gerard ter Borch, circa 1652
21 hours ago