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Saturday, November 5, 2016

Coffee with June Cleaver



Last night I dreamed I was talking with June Cleaver about American civility. I was telling her I had just finished re-reading The Garden of the World by Lawrence Coates, the next selection of Lit Youngstown’s food-themed book club.

This historic novel, circling the family of a French immigrant vintner in Prohibition-era California, unveils plenty of provincial meanness. When a young man returns home from trench warfare deeply scarred, he is both gawked at and avoided. The orchards and vineyards in this fertile landscape hire teams of fruit pickers, favoring white locals, who, even then, are increasingly hard to find. Mexican migrants get worse work for less money, and even though the growers absolutely need the harvesters, the migrants live under continuous fear of deportation, and caution their kids, American citizens by birth, not to have any aspirations. The local newspaper editor is careful to portray his town as an idealized place, filling the social pages with uplift, ignoring much of the gritty truth.

I didn’t stay in the dream long enough to hear June Cleaver’s response. I was too young to watch this white, 1950s t.v. mom in her show Leave it to Beaver in prime time, but caught up with her later, in afternoon syndication. I can’t say it meant much to me. My fantasy family was The Waltons; many tearful appeals were unsuccessful in turning my warts-and-all household into anything like them. In fact, I was not even able, myself, to rise above my squabbling, slothful, brooding soul and be like one of the Walton kids, altruistic, ambitious, and scrappy. But years later, when I watched The Simpsons with my own kids, I felt something missing, the role models that allowed us to measure our failures. We were just like the Simpsons: well-intentioned, mostly, but each week stepping in it, with some new twist.

I love it when my dreams are vignettes, little scenes staging my waking mental dramas. Presidential elections really get me ticking. One of the topics this year among my kind friends is notion that, as a people, Americans are mean as spit. They lament this change of national heart! Yet really, there’s no time when America was nice, through and through. 

Still, in The Garden of the World, Mrs. Clever will also find the good strength of community and family, people forgiving and assuming the best of others. We as a nation are that, too; sometimes we listen to our better angels. The writing is vivid and well-informed, and as I drove past the vineyards of Lake Erie's shore on a recent trip to Buffalo, I was pulled back into the scenes of testing sun-warm grapes for sugar and acidity, listening to the gurgling of fermenting wine in large tanks, leafing through notebooks written in the hand of several generations of vintners. It is a fine book, deserving of its praise.