In 1903, the Carnegie Corporation awarded $10,000 to build a library in my Montana hometown — one of 750 of the original 1,689 that is still functioning as a library. All my childhood I scampered up the steps to the iconic building to write school papers and check out library books. It was an integral part of my small-town education.
Andrew Carnegie believed that libraries provided anyone with the right inclination and desire the opportunity to educate oneself. He also believed that immigrants like himself needed to acquire cultural knowledge of America, which the library allowed immigrants to do. My hometown was populated by many descendants of immigrants from Italy, Yugoslavia, Portugal, Scandinavia and other countries.
Our community is fortunate to have two libraries that provide the same opportunities that Carnegie’s libraries did and, of course, more in this digital age. When the state-of-the-art library opened a year ago in Winthrop, the keynote speaker was an award-winning author from Seattle, Timothy Egan. I was unfamiliar with him or his books at the time but took note that his speech was quickly sold out. Shortly thereafter, his New York Times Bestseller “The Big Burn” turned up at the thrift store, so I picked it up. (Another of his books, “Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher,” won Egan the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.)
“The Big Burn,” which I’m sure most avid book readers in the Methow Valley have already read, was enlightening and an easy read for such a complicated historical story. I learned more about Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, William Howard Taft, Edward Pulaski, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Great Fire of 1910 than I ever knew from history classes, or from the time spent in Wallace, Idaho, and biking the areas where Pulaski managed to save himself and most of his fire crew who were predominately immigrants.
I recently checked out Egan’s latest book, “A Fever in the Heartland,” which has been another eye-opener regarding the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in America in the 1920s. Again, Egan’s research of history is masterful in telling another complicated American story with authority and detail. “Compelling and chillingly resonant with our own time,” one reviewer wrote.
After having just written about Indiana in my last column, I was not a little aghast when the first sentence began: “The most powerful man in Indiana stood next to the new governor at the Inaugural Ball …” That man was David C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. “Charm oozed from him like grease from a sizzling sausage,” wrote Egan. What followed the first chapter, is a sordid history of the KKK in Indiana and beyond.
As is often the case in timing, a reader of my Indiana column emailed just as I was reading the “Fever” book. He wrote that his wife is a Hoosier who, along with siblings and other family members, graduated from Indiana’s flagship university IU-Bloomington. He said, “Everyone knows about the Indy 500, but IU is famous for the Little 500, a bicycle race in Bloomington (movie “Breaking Away”).” Then, he wrote what I was at that very moment thinking, “I was just reading that Indiana, unfortunately, is also known for having one of the most active KKK chapters in the North in early 1900s, which is detailed in a new book by Timothy Egan.” Full circle.
And the circle kept going round, as I was reading “Fever” and the Indiana email while at the Gorge for Brandi Carlile’s Echoes Through the Canyon music festival featuring (and honoring) Joni Mitchell. That night Joni and Brandi sang, “The Circle Game,” one of over 200 songs Joni wrote. “And the seasons, they go round and round/And the painted ponies go up and down/We’re captive on the carousel of time/We can’t return, we can only look/Behind from where we came/And go round and round and round, in the circle game.”
While at the Gorge, I was reflecting on what a spectacular, unique venue it is — the beauty of the Columbia River enhanced by the incredible clouds and sunsets — and right here in Washington state. What happened last Saturday (June 17) night with another active shooter killing two people in the campground is despicable.
When Joni wrote “Both Sides Now” in 1969, I related to the closing lines, but still feel their sentiment today: “It’s life’s illusions that I recall/I really don’t know life/I really don’t know life at all.”