Sunday, July 24, 2022

Funny Farm by Laurie Zaleski

Funny Farm by Laurie Zaleski is a well-written, interesting, and heartwarming memoir subtitled My Unexpected Life with 600 Rescue Animals. She owns and runs the Funny Farm Animal Rescue in New Jersey and tells in the book the story of her life from a young age interspersed with stories of animals on the farm.

Zaleski grew up under very different circumstances that most, with her mother at the age of 26 leaving her abusive husband and taking Zaleski and her two siblings to scrape out a living in a rented shack in the woods. Her mom, Annie McNulty, was persistent and resourceful, taking on whatever work she could get in order to have food. She also brought home animals from her job cleaning cages at the local Animal Control. The family had little money, but over time would have in and around their house animals including dogs, cats, chickens, roosters, geese, raccoons, goats, sheep, pigs, and a horse. 

While her mother was a good and kind person, caring for animals in need and raising her children well even with them having no money, Zaleski’s father was a horrible one, almost certainly killing their dogs and horse as an act of revenge for his family leaving.

Zaleski is a good writer and it’s a nice story she tells, one of grit and care. The stories of her animals at the Funny Farm rescue are great ones, including those of oddball animal friendships, with Hope the blind kitten and Jello, her seeing eye duck, Lorenzo the llama and his donkey friend Jethro, and Yogi the steer and his alpaca friend Cooper. Also wonderful are the stories of first Chucky and then Tucker, dogs with megaesophagus. It was difficult for them to keep food down so they had to sit upright in a “Bailey Chair” that induces food to slide down and actually provide nutrients to the body, rather than being immediately thrown up.

She writes how kids see the rescue animals, during school assemblies and at the farm, and hear their stories of both getting along with others different than them and helping others with infirmities. It’s a great message and also compelling reading about inner-city kids being exposed to animals and a different way of life.

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin is a solid work of nonfiction about the storm that hit the Midwest on Thursday January 12, 1888. It was known as the "Schoolchildren's Blizzard" because many of the dead were caught outside after leaving school, with estimates of the tool between 250 and 500 people.

Laskin notes how the storm came across the prairie through the Dakota Territory and into the new state of Nebraska. It caused the temperature to drop 18 degrees Fahrenheit in 3 minutes and couldn't really be said to be snowing, it was fast blowing crystals attacking people's exposed skin and flimsy clothing. In the region that would soon become South Dakota, there were deaths from the storm in 32 of the 34 counties east of the Mississippi River. Laskin provides fascinating writing on how for someone coming out of extreme cold exposure, abrupt movement can bring about cardiac arrest and death as the cold heart extremely sensitive. So many things came together for bad that day, ideal conditions for a huge storm, people exposed to it in what started as the first beautiful day in a while, and a failure of weather forecasting, done by the Signal Office, part of the U.S. Army.

The area the brunt of the storm was felt in was populated by immigrants, many German or Scandinavian. They were enticed by the Homestead Act, where the U.S. government gave adults 160 acres in exchange for five years of farming, and found a hard life, one that required their children to do a tremendous amount of labor to try to help the family scratch out a living. Along the way they encountered extreme weather, insects in the form of enormous grasshopper swarms that would destroy crops, fires that would devastate their fields, and solid ground that often wasn't conducive to farming.

In writing about the storm of 1888, Laskin provides fascinating content about the physics of weather and about the people, he tells so many interesting stories of schoolteachers making decisions of whether to send their students out in the conditions or keeping them in, or trying to take them to safety. About the stories Laskin told of people dying, he noted in the afterword using poetic license to describe what someone might have thought, said, or did prior to dying, with his choices based on interviews or accounts of people's personality. It seemed this somewhat detracted from the effort as the book contains in some parts text that it didn't seem possible to actually be known. Laskin also covers how in the aftermath of the storm, newspapers had their stories with more of a heroic bent to them, in part due to pressures to not dissuade people from moving to the region and stemming the population growth there, something which happened anyways. Drought came several years later to the area, then a financial panic and depression that caused those who had borrowed against their homesteads to go bankrupt. By the late 1890s, over 60% of the pioneer families had abandoned their homesteads. It was hard living in a region, with one of the more calamitous events to strike it chronicled well.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is a well written and interesting novel that's a surprise mega-success. Its got over 12 million copies sold as of January 2022 and came out in the summer of 2018 to little advance acclaim, written by a first-time novelist. Owens is a retired wildlife biologist in her 70s, with her previous works nonfiction accounts of the decades she spent in Botswana and Zambia.

The book is set in the marshes of North Carolina between 1952 and 1969 and covers the story of a girl born exceedingly poor, living apart from society in a shack outside of town and forced to live on her own after first her mother, then siblings, and eventually father exit her life, leaving her to fend for herself from the age of ten. Her life and fleeting interactions with other people is chronicled by Owens and it's an engrossing story, blending together family trauma, natural history, romance, and mystery, and has been made into a movie executive produced by Reese Witherspoon.

The book has so many elements I love, it's good writing from Owens, about someone with a life completely different than I'm familiar with as she's living on her own in a fringe society of people eking out a life in the swamps, with the natural world heavily featured, and written by someone who lived in Africa among animals and who wrote an unexpected bestseller. It's great stuff and I enjoyed it quite a bit.