Last year I was surprised to find a book by a Nebraska author on the "Staff Picks" shelf at my Barnes and Noble. I took the book home and read it slowly to savor every chapter, and to delight in the sense of the seasons and the gentle wisdom on its pages. I was compelled to share it with two friends who also loved it. That author, Ted Kooser, was named the U.S. Poet Laureate this week. That book is Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps; 2002, University of Nebraska Press. It is not a book of poems, but a journal of a year in small-town Nebraska. The words made me slow down, pay more attention to small things, remember, and heal.
Some books have healing properties. Sometimes authors become dear family friends. When my oldest son was high-chair age, I was reading Margaret Truman mysteries and James Herriot books checked out from the old-timey Benson Public Library in Omaha. Sometimes I would put little Jeffy into the stroller and push him the two miles to the library up Sixtieth Street, since I was a stay-at-home mom with no car. Jeffy, who just turned twenty-two, loved being read to. If I was reading while the two of us were eating lunch, he would say, "Read me a murder." I admit this is an odd thing for a child sitting in a high-chair to say, but this is the kid that also said, "I believe I have a fork in my diaper," while sitting in that same high-chair. Jeffy didn't care what I read, as long as I read. He loved the sound of the words. His gift is his amazing verbal memory. He was soaking it all up and storing it. So I read him the "murders". More especially I read the James Herriot stories, and we laughed about Tricky Woo going flop-bot.
Whenever Jeff was sick as a kid, I would read James Herriot to him. The stories are so kind and gentle, observant and funny, that they are good medicine. In return, when I became very ill with pleurisy in late 1995, thirteen-year-old Jeff read those stories to me when the pain and cough medicines had me too loopy to read. Although it hurt when I laughed, it also healed. Herriot had died earlier that year, and Jeff had told me he felt he had lost a good friend.
Ted Kooser's stories in Local Wonders have many of the same qualities, and I celebrate that a "good friend" is our new national poet laureate. I hope this honor will bring his books to many new friends.