books, literature, Uncategorized, US history

Book Review: Wisconsin Logging Camp, 1921: A Boy’s Extraordinary First Year in America Working as a “Chickadee”

That’s quite to book title, isn’t it? Well, it’s an interesting book and worthy of a looooong title. Here’s another of my Historical Novel Society reviews.

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Wisconsin Logging Camp, 1921: A Boy’s Extraordinary First Year in America Working as a “Chickadee” by James Bastian. Trails, 2015. ISBN 9781934553541; $18.95, Paperback.

Will Heinlein is only eight years old when he finds himself an orphan. Suddenly he is a new immigrant to the United States with no family nearby and no prospects. How will he survive, much less live up to the promise of the book’s subtitle?

The narrative opens years later when Will is a wounded soldier in World War II, and then backtracks to Will’s childhood. It takes a while before he becomes the promised Chickadee, or a boy who was given the job of helping the loggers by tending to the trails of their horse-drawn wagons. First, though, the reader is taken on an engaging trip through the struggles of American immigrants and European soldiers and country people. When Will finally does get to the logging camp, his experiences are well-detailed and immerse the reader in the personalities, dangers, and concerns of the workers.

The book is an unusual mishmash of fiction and nonfiction. The title and black and white photographs point toward nonfiction while the storyline and characters are fictional. The narrative reminded me of an oral interview with an irascible old World War II veteran. Well-researched without being pedantic, it gives a good look into the challenges of the era: war, disease, and economic devastation. Similarly, it shows how hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit helped America to thrive even before the explosion of prosperity that World War II engendered.

The author has a strong voice and a good hand with characterization. Despite this, though, it was sometimes hard to accept that an eight-year-old protagonist would speak and behave in the manner portrayed. If you can overlook this flaw, however, the story will take you on an entertaining journey.

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cats, humor, travel memories, writing

Traveling With Cats


Okay, the subject line of this post is perhaps a little misleading. The only traveling WITH cats I’ve done is short jaunts from home to the vet’s office, which invariably results in an unhappy moaning type noise coming from the cat carrier both there and back. Although, before we actually owned a plastic cat carrier, our vet advised us to stuff poor kitty in a pillowcase and carry her that way. That actually worked better than the carrier – it was quieter, in any case. The vet said they tend to feel safer that way. More secure, I suppose? But, I digress.

These two really bear little resemblance to Uncle Joe and Aunt Gladys, so I have no actual excuse for putting this picture in here except that I’m twisted that way.

The title of this post should more accurately be “Traveling AND Cats.” The first travel adventures I can recall which involved cats occurred when our family took one of several jaunts in the family Datsun (complete with an outrageously huge overhead camper), from Arizona to Wisconsin, at the home of Uncle Joe and Aunt Gladys, two sturdy Mennonite dairy farmers. They lived in a rambling wooden house shaded by huge oaks. Across the yard stood the Barn (yes, it has to be capitalized. I was a little kid – the Barn was a humongous, utterly fascinating, rather odoriferous place), where the dairy cows spent their evenings mooing away in contentment. Or whatever they were doing – to be honest I really didn’t pay that much attention to them. Why? Because there was always – and I do mean ALWAYS – a litter of kittens in the barn. My brother and I delighted in spending hours playing with the kitties, giggling and running around and accidentally dropping a kitty or two into the running channel of water that flowed into the barn, attached to some mysterious milking apparatus. Every time we visited the farm we ran for the cats, and spent many happy hours amusing ourselves with them. I have vague memories of clambering all over tractors and seeing goats standing atop the roofs of storage sheds, and shelling peas in the yard when we were there as well, but the cats stand out above all else.

Farmers and cats – a smooth, well-milked machine since the dawn of time.

Barn cats were a necessity on farms, to keep the rodents at bay. Hardy, intrepid souls, the last barn cat I saw was a few years ago on a horse ranch in Southern California. It ran by me with a loudly shrieking baby bunny clamped in its jaws. Ah, nature. How you suck sometimes.

As is to be expected by someone who wrote a book entitled The Cat’s Guide to Human Behavior, I tend to notice cats where ever I go.

Cats are everywhere in Rome – running along the sidewalks, jumping in and out of trash cans, sleeping in view of ancient buildings, kicking back on the seats of motorbikes; like I said, everywhere. People usually just ignore them and that seems to be fine with the cats, who are naturally independent anyways.

Forum of Caesar, site of Caesar's murder.
Site of the cat sanctuary … er, I mean, Forum of Caesar.

When our family visited Rome a few years back, my daughter was 12 years old. We, of course, dragged her around to museum after museum, but we also made sure to do some activities that she found interesting. The main one seemed to be eating gelato every day, but in addition to that, we visited a cat sanctuary located in the heart of Rome.

It turns out that Rome is home to around 300,000 feral cats. Because the archaeological sites are occupied, people who find themselves wanting to rid themselves of cats often dump them at such sites. At one of those sites, the forum at which Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, volunteers established a sanctuary to care for homeless cats. Called Torre Argentina, it is sunken beneath the street level. At first, when approaching the ruins, you see nothing but columns and tumbled stones and weeds sprouting, as weeds do, where ever they please. However, looking closer, you begin to see the cats roaming among the columns, sitting on stairs, sleeping and playing and doing miscellaneous feline things. Quite a lot of cats, actually. At least several dozen. The sanctuary itself is located down a set of stairs and inside a small underground area filled with medical facilities, cages, and storerooms for food. Dedicated Gattare – Italian for “crazy cat women” – see that injured and sick animals are helped and spayed and neutered whenever possible. Volunteers sell shirts such as the one my daughter is wearing in the photo to support the organization.

Girl with Roman cat sanctuary shirt.
Photo of young Brandy taken with a slightly defective but beloved Canon AE-1.

You can visit the sanctuary yourself by watching this video. In recent days the sanctuary has been threatened with closure, as detailed here. If you’re interested in a visit yourself, learn more about the sanctuary and the plight of Roman cats here.

We did not spend a lot of time at Torre Argentina, but it was a memorable visit nonetheless. In Rome there is always something to do, some other centuries-old architectural wonder to behold. Perhaps sometime I will be able to live in Rome and explore its many nooks and crannies. What was my daughter Brandy’s verdict about the visit to the cat sanctuary? “Awesome!” she enthused, in no uncertain terms.

Since that trip to Rome, we’ve seen cats in Turkey, and Greece, and Spain, and the Caribbean. I don’t doubt that I will also look for them at our next destination, where ever that might be.