Author and poet Brox speaks
On the evening of October 24th, a small crowd gathered in Searles to
hear author and poet Jane Brox read selections from her latest book Five
Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History.
In an introduction, Professor Franklin Burroughs commented that while
there are many personal and natural histories of New England, Brox's "effortlessly
remarkable" language delivered stories with "precision, modesty,
and accuracy", setting it apart from the many others that he has
Five Thousand Days Like This One is a collection of essays focusing
on Brox's family farm and the local history of the Merrimac Valley in
Massachusetts. "Influenza, 1918", the first selection that Brox
delivered, recalled the oft-forgotten 1918 flu epidemic that ravaged the
world near the conclusion of World War I: "It had started as a seemingly
common thing", she read, "
something that would run its
course in the comfort of camphor and bed rest."
The story then contrasted the quiet routine of countryside life with
the swift and decisive manner that the influenza epidemic invaded. Brox's
farmhouse was a fortunate oasis of wary health amid a "city"
of quarantines and sickness, and her father was compelled to assume the
chores of his ill aunts, uncles, and cousins. Though the epidemic began
at the end of summer, Brox's words and steadily consistent voice illustrated
a town so paralyzed and frozen with fear that all details seemed to have
occurred amidst two feet of snow.
The epidemic finally subsided by the end of October, however, and the
"predictable quiet" of the countryside returned. The ending
of the story mentioned that the ensuing winter was so cold that the dam
in Lawrence iced over and "had to be dynamited". "Influenza
1918" concluded with a recollection of father as he gazed out to
the overgrown horizon from their farm, and how "once in a while out
of nowhere he'd mention the lights of the tent hospital as if he could
still see them, strange and clear."
Brox continued on from the ending of "Influenza 1918" with
excerpts from "Storm", a story written shortly after her father's
death in 1995. Recounting an early- winter blizzard that shut down the
Merrimac Valley one December, it centered on her family's attempt to cope
with the recent death of her father and the fate of the family farm. In
her father's absence, Brox assumed the role of caretaker, ensuring that
a fire stayed warm for her mother and aunt, that the necessary bills were
paid, and all medications were administered. But it was this new role
that made the death of her father so much more acute, and an instinctual
longing for the past and the old established responsibilities of mother
and daughter: "Sometimes I wish she wouldn't tolerate my care",
she read, "I wish she could break out of the place death's aftermath
has consigned to her."
The selections Brox chose to read illustrated her family's farm as a
sort of fortress surrounded by the various events of time and history.
But they also played a part in a larger theme to which she alluded before
reading, that of her family's farmhouse as one of the last strongholds
against the epidemic of developmental sprawl that has besieged our nation's
landscape. Often, she said, she is implored by people in her community
to ensure that her family's homestead is preserved against development.
Here, she identified a large gulf between the town that looked at her
farm as an idyllic landmark of the rural countryside and everything else
that went on inside the house, including the decisive realities that her
family faced in maintaining it.
Following the reading, questions arose from the audience about Brox's
writing methods and sources of information. Brox responded that much of
the information collected for "Influenza 1918" was obtained
through oral recordings and medical records held by the town of Lawrence,
as well as through her father's own memories. It was a task that served
as a "constant revelation", she conceded, as the Great War often
eclipsed recollections and records of the influenza epidemic.
This considered, Brox's reconstruction of detail and sensation in her story is quite noteworthy. A question also arose about the future of her family's farm, which is now under the care of an overseer who leases the house and land to grow vegetables. She replied that the answer was still unclear, and while she always hopes the farm will remain productive and within her family, change is inevitable. Brox's stories, while at once preserving a place and a family history in her words, also strongly illustrate this all-too-true fact of life.