Wisconsin Death Trip

I like old movies because I like seeing the differences from say the 1950s to today. I remember seeing The Seven Year Itch for the first time and being struck by the attitudes toward drinking during that time period. Three gin and tonics after work were considered normal then, but now such a habit would be viewed as dangerous and might start some people twelve stepping.

Wisconsin Death Trip, compiled by Michael Lesy, gives a picture of small-town life in the Midwest during the turn of the century in the 1890s, and with the material accumulated, there’s no way to romanticize the past. Using short snippets from the town daily along with italicized sections from the town gossips and sepia-toned photographs of the area’s inhabitants, Lesy presents a bleak picture of provincial life.

There are men’s societies proudly having their pictures taken in blackface juxtaposed alongside stories telling how the law interfered when a white woman attempted to marry a black man. Impossibly beautiful girls pose for pictures (maybe something akin to high school graduation photos?) with great hope in their eyes and then there is news explaining how a fifteen-year-old girl committed suicide by eating the tops of matchsticks–three boxes’ worth–or was the victim of incest through her father or stepfather. Hard enough to deal with the event just by itself, but when the whole town knows? I think that would be unbearable.

Though Wisconsin Death Trip is not text heavy, it took me a long time to read the book. The problem was I grew depressed after reading a few pages, and I had to put the book away. There are only so many suicides by hammer that a person can take or horse killings committed so a destitute family could claim the insurance money on their livestock.

The pictures are much less brutal than the text, but I think I found them more disturbing. There are family portraits in front of family residences where each member holds their dearest possession–a gun, a fiddle, a puppy.
There are ten children spread out about and the mother figure looks tired, worn-out, and toothless before she’s probably even forty. The book has given me good ideas for the dream sequences that take place during the same time period in The Charm Quilt.

(Here’s a picture of Kristi with our weapon and Marlin, one of our favorite possessions.)

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