Today I was locked out of the house. Keys inside. Two house-mates on the road. One busing tables at a floating restaurant down on the river. But what a day to be locked out! Eighty-five degrees. Everything blooming. First hot day of the new spring. And I was prepared—just back from a long bus-ride to town that had acquired me four cans of Dr. Pepper—my favorite—and one slightly used paperback copy of James Michener’s Centennial, his Colorado book.
I grew up in Southern California but I spent every summer of my kid-life with my grandparents in Colorado. Theirs was the Colorado Michener writes about in Centennial; cattle land, Indian land, a good place.
My grandparents lived in a well-kept farm house on the outskirts of a town called La Veta, which is in Huerfano County at the foot of the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the northern edge of the Cuchara River Valley. The town covers approximately 1.2 square miles and, as of 2007, it had an estimated population of 856 people, which is small even for small towns.
Local legend goes that around the time La Veta was incorporated, the people of the Ute tribe put a curse on it that said the town would never gain or lose population. And from what I’ve seen, it hasn’t.
Now, as kid-memory goes, La Veta is only available for reference in flashes of imagery, sounds or smells. Grasshoppers the size of your finger. The poultry and Kool-Aid smell from the pantry. Guinea hens pecking in the yard. The grassy plateau above the house where my grandfather found arrowheads. I can see the stump where they killed the rooster for supper and I can see the hen house, which was always clean and had a smell like fresh straw and sawdust. I also remember the voice—but not the face, for whatever reason—of my summertime-best-friend, Jace, who would later assume a kind of mythical childhood heroicness in my memory. He’s a cowboy now. Still lives in town.
I remember the grownups sitting around the porch slapping mosquitoes and talking about the violent war between the bottling plants (where’s the history of this?) And I remember the air, fragrant with grass clippings, dust, and livestock. I’ve lived in a lot of places, but La Veta has stuck with me all these years—and that’s why I picked up Centennial.
Starting a new Michener book is a good moment. If you’ve read his work, you go into it knowing you’re about to be plunged into LIFE, generations of it, usually a thousand pages plus. Of course Michener isn’t high literature. It’s storytelling, and it’s history—on equal terms. Which isn’t to say it’s badly written. Just don’t go in expecting Proust. (And, let the record show, I’ll take Michener’s endless fiction over Proust’s endless remembrances any day.)
Michener’s good because he gives me what I need. I ask a lot from the books I read. I want solid, natural writing and not a lot of art. I want visual imagery, believable dialog (it has to read like people talk) and an engaging story that tells me something about why we’re here, how we got here, who we are, what we’re doing. Just like Sophocles did with Antigone—illuminating his own nation’s problems by digging into antiquity—I want to be given answers and truth.
Sitting on the bus home I imagine I looked insane getting through the first few pages, laughing out loud—not because it’s funny, and it is, but because Michener set it up so well, and so accessibly considering the very un-pop-literature turn I knew it would take. And you know this if you read enough Michener. You know he’s going to sabotage the narrative with dense, slow-plodding, highly-detailed history. You have to be ready for this, and if you are, it’s as rich and decadent an experience as reading somebody artsy like Nabokov or the Symbolists.
Centennial begins in Georgia. Dr. Lewis Vernor, a professor of history at an unnamed university, gets a call from one of the section editors at US Magazine in New York who—I’m condensing 37 pages here—commissions him to spend a few months in the small town of Centennial to research its history as factual backing for a double-issue article on the place that will embody “nothing less than the soul of America… as seen in a microcosm.”
At this point I’m hooked. I’m hooked because I can guess what happens next. Vernor will fly to Centennial and then suddenly we’ll rocket back into the past—in this case three billion, 600 million years—and then we’ll start—methodically, patiently—working our way back to the present.
The book’s acknowledgment section is divided into categories of researchers Michener tapped for the book, and it gives a good overview and syllabus of what you’re about to read. They are, in order: geology, paleontology, early man, flint knapping, Indian life, early St. Louis, Old Lancaster, Oregon Trail, Fort Laramie, cattle trails, ranch life, sugar beets, birds, Denver Stock Show, Mexican-Chicano problems, dry-land farming, cattle industry, guns, railroads, irrigation, and Appaloosas.
After the introduction it begins with the land: “When the earth was already ancient, of an age incomprehensible to man, an event of basic importance occurred in the area that would later be known as Colorado. To appreciate its significance one must understand the structure of the earth, and to do this, one must start at the vital center.”
After a general geological breakdown of the entire effing planet (seriously, right?) we begin following the area’s early inhabitants—prehistoric mammals, proto-horses, dinosaurs, mammoths, beavers—and then the Indigenous people and European settlers. And that’s where it really gets good. Because how big do your problems feel when you see people dealing with the same B.S. hundreds of years before you were born? But see, that’s a trick question. The natural inclination might be to say they feel smaller, and maybe they do. But maybe they feel bigger. Maybe you feel connected to everything and everyone in this great, sad, long-running narrative and struggle of being HUMAN and LIVING and LOVING and DYING while the world goes about its business around you. And isn’t that what we’re all here for anyway? To find some commonality and meaning in the midst of meaninglessness? I love it! It kicks me in the teeth and re-writes my inner-plan and I love every minute!
So, Michener, this one’s for you; for your wit and eye for detail; for your patience and for your love of AMERICA. I love it too. It’s who we are.
BIO: Adam Gnade's (guh nah dee) work is released as a series of books and records that share characters and themes; the fiction writing continuing plot-lines left open by the self-described "talking songs" in an attempt to compile a vast, detailed, interconnected, personal history of contemporary American life. Check out recent writing here and songs here. Contact: email@example.com