Kathryn Scanlan’s slender “Aug 9—Fog” begins with a note that explains how she found a diary at an auction chronicling the years 1968-1972. Although badly water-damaged and the bottom third of each page was “mostly undecipherable,” Scanlan became obsessed with the small diary, compulsively reading and re-reading it for more than a decade. She pulled sentences and edited and rearranged them, organizing them into a book.
The words of the original author, an eighty-six-year-old woman from a small town in Illinois, are presented with Emily Dickinson simplicity, capturing the changing of the seasons side-by-side with the cycle of life and death. Like the title, some entries, or pages, may start with the weather (“Terrible wind storm”) or illness (“Ruth came thru operation.”) but a narrative begins to appear. Descriptions of weather and stomach issues from fifty years ago are banal, but serve to amplify the joy she found in a pleasant day or the sighting of a particular squirrel or robin. “Sure pretty out. Sure grand out. D. making a new piecrust. All better.” Pages like that illustrate the altruistic spirit of this woman and her charming phrases. “A grand rain, it come so nice. Sun looks good. Fire feels good.” It’s easy for her to identify things both good and nice. One small but rewarding challenge for the reader is parsing the relationships amongst her large social group. This one must be her daughter, this one must be her dog. So many people remain a mystery. The local reader might hear their own Midwestern grandparent reflected in her words (“ever where beautiful”) and habits, like when she admires an old friend’s corpse, “She looked very nice.” Throughout what increasingly feels like a poetic rendering of small-town life and the changing of the seasons remains this steadfast figure of the Midwestern matriarch. She seems as invested in her own artistry and craft as she is in her larger community. She refers again and again to her paintings and photographs, that the pursuit of creativity is important to her. While her traditionally feminine skills—knitting, cooking, gardening and handicrafts—might seem mundane, here they are subtly transformed to a slightly higher art in this gentle meditation on Midwest living. (Kelly Roark)
Kathryn Scanlan discusses “Aug 9—Fog” at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 South Woodlawn, June 18 at 6pm.
By Kathryn Scanlan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 110 pages