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Thursday, March 27, 2008

YOU MAY PLOW HERE - Traveling back in history

Sometimes a national treasure is not something we can keep in a museum. Instead it may be part of an oral history we’ve somehow archived. That's the case when we read Sara Brooks’ story, primarily in her own words, in this interesting book You May Plow Here by Thordis Simonsen. Sara Brooks' story opens up a world we didn't learn about in school, a world barely touched even in fiction or in the movies but which, through Sara's vivid recollections, reveals a world that no longer exists. It's a perfect travel book. As you take your own trip, you'll travel Sara Brooks' life as well.

Sara entered the author's' life when Thordis Simonsen was four, and for the next 37 years, a trusting and loving relationship developed. This book results from hours of recorded reminiscences, stories about family members, circumstances and growing up Black in rural Alabama. It's a heartwarming monologue, full of love, determination, evaluation of the times and the values. Nothing is glossed over, and Sara frankly discusses her own triumphs and failures.

The unique beauty of this book is that it is in Sara Brooks' own words--her cadence, her vocabulary, her vernacular. Thordis Simonsen changed very little--changes for the sake of clarity. She also arranged some of the events chronologically, again for the reader's clarity--as the interviews lasted over a period of years, and stories were not necessarily given in chronological order. Despite the changes, the voice is Sara's, and as you read, you come to respect what she has to say.

The world has changed considerably since Sara Brooks was born in 1911. Throughout her story, she comments on those changes and reflects on what they mean: having toys, having free time, being taught about growing up, sex and marriage, values, having little to eat, providing for a family, having fun, being exposed to very little of the outside world, racism, religion, children, caring for others, self-sufficiency, etc. Sara deals with them all, and in the course of her long life came to timeless conclusions about how to live.

One very important aspect of her reflections is how hindsight enters into our lives--often that 20/20 vision occurs too late to rectify our mistakes--and often we come to realize how right were those who we chose to ignore or against whom we rebelled. Even while Sara ignored advice or teachings, she eventually found her way because what we are taught finds a place in our brains, and when the time is right, we are able to recall it, bring it front and center, and use it in the way it was originally intended.

I finished You May Plow Here with several strong feelings.

1. Preserving our history is essential, and Sara Brooks' story is an American story, part of who we all are.
2. Despite our differences, we are the same. We share common wants and needs and desires. We rise and fall.
3. We get through life better if we have a goal and if we have and give love, and not necessarily in that order.

When you finish reading You May Plow Here, go back to the cover and closely examine the photo of Sara Brooks--her eyes and her fingers, particularly her fingernails. I think that says it all.

Through a grant, shortly I am leading a discussion of this book. I contacted Thordis Simonsen to see if she could offer any additional insight, and we've emailed a bit. I asked about the photo she speaks of in her afterword, the one of her and and Sara Brooks. As it turns out, she did not keep that photo because it did not capture Sara's spirit. I doubt if anything could.

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