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Report from Union College: Local Literary Wonders


Seven desks drawn into a circle, tea brewing in the background and books pulled out of every backpack. It is my turn to construct the quiz for the week so I hand it out and lean back, leaf through Plainsong and munch on an apple strudel. College classes can be confusing and stressful but this class is not. “Local Literary Wonders” is my lifeboat in a sea of science and math, a metaphorical breath of fresh air as I’m forehead-deep in verbatim memorization.

Once the last person puts down her pencil, we launch into discussion of our first book, Plainsong, written by Kent Haruf. “I couldn’t put in down, I already started on the next book,” confesses one student. “It took me a while to warm up to his writing style. Why doesn’t he use quotation marks in his dialogue?” adds another. We struggle with Mr. Blake’s question of whether there is such a thing as “Christian” literature. (What would qualify as a “Christian” book? Would it have to have the word “God” in it? If so, then the book of Esther is out.) We share the parts of Plainsong that surprised us, and listen as Mr. Blake explains the difference between “gratuitous” and “organic.” (Gratuitous narrative is violence, sexuality or language added to a story merely for shock factor. Organic narrative is necessary to the greater story arc, incorporated because it is important and authentic to the story.) 

In the following weeks we read Haruf’s Eventide (my personal favorite) and Benediction, books that cause us to ask how we can best draw close to the broken reality of our world. After finishing the last of Haruf’s books we gather around a conference telephone and talk to the author himself. We ask him questions about his characters — “Why do they feel like familiar neighbors?” — about his writing process, and tell him how refreshing it is to read his compassionate, raw, and character-driven stories.

Next, our class reads three non-fictional books by New York Times-bestselling author (and native Nebraskan) Mary Pipher. We start with Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, which completely captures the attention of our all-female class. We read The Middle of Everywhere and learn about the needs of the huge refugee population here in Lincoln, and finish with Pipher’s The Green Boat, an environmental book that teaches the best way to deal with grief or pain is to use it as motivation to take positive action. We gather for class at Mr. Blake’s home and meet with Mary Pipher around a table of hot, home-cooked food (haystacks, courtesy of Mrs. Blake), and Dr. Pipher quickly becomes one of my personal role models.

We finish the semester with three books written by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, covering a book a week, starting with Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manuel and then two of his compilations of poetry, Flying at Night and Delights and Shadows. As I read his poems I discover that Kooser is a master of metaphor. In an ordinary day he might see “a pipe that pierces the dam that holds back the universe” (Telescope), a “bright wire [that] rolls like a porpoise in and out of the calm blue sea of the cover” (A Spiral Notebook), or a tattooed old man at a garage sale, with a “heart gone soft and blue with stories” (Tattoo). His poems teach me the absolute necessity of slowing down to truly notice the world around me. For our final class we gather with Ted Kooser at a local Indian restaurant where he tells us his journey of becoming U.S. Poet Laureate and listens to poetry that our class has written.

Through a semester brimming with laughter and questions, our class grew into a community with a common theme. We became friends, learning together to live fully in the present, not an echo of the reckless, exhausted “you only live once” mantra but a reflection of the God who says, “Blessed are your eyes because they see.” I have become a better person and Christian as a result of Local Literary Wonders. Haruf inspired my imagination, Pipher called me to compassionate action, and Kooser challenged me to have eyes that see.

Sarah Ventura is a senior at Union College, pursing a degree in Exercise Science and Pre-Allied Health. She comes from a family of avid readers.

Top image: Class with Mary Pipher. 

Second image: Class with Ted Kooser.

Photos courtesy of the author.

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