Wednesday, November 11, 2009

William Least Heat-Moon

A year or two ago I discovered William Least Heat-Moon's book, "River-Horse: Across America by Boat," which is just what it seems, an attempt to cross America by boat. I loved this adventure because of his descriptions and his storytelling ability. It's said that everyone has a story. This writer must be an excellent listener; people he meets from all walks of life tell him their own story and that of the place he finds them. I've been watching for his books at book sales ever since.

I'm reading him out of order but it simply doesn't matter. I just finished reading "PrairyErth," a book I thought would appeal to me A) because William Least Heat-Moon wrote it, and B) because I grew up in Illinois. Actually the book is about Chase County, Kansas. Just that one county. I can best describe it by telling you it is 624 pages long and not a dull page in the book.

William (as I'll call him to save time) divided the Chase County into 16 grids and wrote a section about each section. It took me a long time to read this long book because the melody of his writing makes me read it slowly in order to savor his prose. He spent time in the county over a period of several years, getting to know the people, the history, the topography. He sought out the answers to puzzling features, investigated mysteries, and hiked a good portion of the land which, as he reminds us, is not as flat as people think Kansas is.

He has a wonderful sense of humor. One delightful passage is from a night he spent walking around one of his grids trying to see it in a different way and thus sort of get a handle on it. He rested in the grass at one point, listening to an owl, watching shooting stars, and feeling a grasshopper land on his leg. As he walked on a car pulled up driven by a sheriff's deputy who wondered if he had trouble. Learning it was just that "writer fella" who was widely considered to be about a half bubble off plumb, he drove on. When William was driving back to his motel, he heard a sudden scrabbling noise and saw a mouse dash across the dash :-) and then sit on the back of the passenger seat. A mouse at eye level freaked him out and sent him on another adventure trying to get rid of it. It's really fun.

I was kind of frustrated being stuck on one book for so long, but no way would I deny myself the pleasure of reading the whole thing. His writing just blows me away. Now I must find a copy of his first book, "Blue Highways."

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