When the burglars broke into our Bensonhurst apartment in the spring of 1979, they took a lot more than the Adler electric typewriter and a pillowcase. They also stole our sense of security. The apartment that had been home no longer was. We felt as though we lived in a hostile world of strangers: evil people ready to seize all that was ours and laugh us in the face. And frankly, I was going to miss that Adler. It and I had aced a whole slew of courses in public administration and political science, finally earning me the spot of honor on the dean’s list the last semester I attended college.
When I checked the mail that day, a strange item had arrived. A law school in Minnesota that I had applied to earlier in the year had sent us a notice that they were willing to consider my application if I sent a $100 application fee. They already had the application sent in with LSAT scores, typed up on the now stolen Adler.
Had our apartment not been broken into, I would have thought a lot longer and harder about moving to Minnesota to pursue the study of law. I didn’t realize the adjustments we would have to undergo to leave Brooklyn and live in St. Paul with its small Jewish community. My mother-in-law, who had been raised in Mississippi, tried to warn me, but I would not listen. I sent the fee. I couldn’t wait to get out of Brooklyn.
Upon acceptance, I left my position at the City University and my wife quit her job. We hired a mover and packed our goods.
The first premonition that this might not work out smoothly came the day I sat in the office of the law school to sign loan papers. I felt awful inside. Something was wrong – though I did not know what it was.
In law school, I found the work a lot harder than anything I had done in college. Even the discussion about the legal ramifications of the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior only a few years earlier found me eventually snoozing on the desk in the class on torts that covered the issue.
My favorite activity in law school was sitting in the school cafeteria, munching on a peanut butter sandwich (the only thing I trusted the cafeteria not to mess up), drinking coffee and regaling my classmates with tales about New York and Brooklyn. That wasn’t enough to get me passing grades.
So in August 1980, I found myself without a job, kicked out of school, stuck in a strange and foreign place with a wife who had found a secure job with the county and who was not moving back to New York. And I was stuck with a debt that I had to pay off.
I had no connections in the Middle West and no desire whatever to learn to talk Minnesotan or to involve myself with Midwestern culture. That day in the law school office and the bad feeling kept coming back to me. One day my former law school buddies, whom I had regaled with stories about New York, dropped by to say hello. I found myself doing the same thing in our apartment in St. Paul as I had done in the cafeteria in law school, and then the thought struck me. Why should I tell the stories for free?
So I sat down with a pen and paper and started putting to paper all sorts of things that had happened to me as a child in Brooklyn. The first thing I remember writing about was a snowball fight. But I felt I needed training of some kind, something to help me with a new and different craft. Well, it wasn’t that new a craft. A good lawyer has to be able to write a convincing brief of his case, something that another lawyer — a judge would buy. Writing clearly and convincingly is a big part of good lawyering.
Nevertheless, writing stories is not exactly the same thing as writing a legal brief, so I enrolled in an evening course at a junior high on St. Paul’s east side, a course on writing children’s books. The teacher was a cigarette smoking lady from the south who insisted on using only the kindest terms in commenting on the works of the other students in the class. She went over the things that writers need to know about getting ideas on paper and conveying them to others as stories. Here, I was not reading the works of others; I was producing work for others to read. I was expected to bring something new each week. And I did.
I learned the difference between a vignette and a story, what point of view means and how to stay within it, and ideas about plotting. This course was taught before people had come out with computer programs to produce plots. It was like learning how to do a square root on paper or figure concepts in math with a slip stick instead of using a little calculator to do all the hard skull work.
We all enjoyed Emily Crofford’s class so much that we signed up for a second course, and we were looking forward to a third, but apparently Emily was not going to be teaching at the school – for whatever reason. I suggested that we get together somewhere on a regular basis instead. She thought about it and the very next week she let us know that we were all invited to be members of her brand new writers’ group that would meet twice monthly on Wednesdays at her home.
I spent many a Wednesday evening there, munching on lemon sours or chocolates, and drinking a cup of coffee, critiquing the work of other writers or having them critique mine. The fact that I had to bring something to Emily’s house was often a motivator to write when nothing else was. Even when my marriage fell apart and I was living on the streets in St. Paul, I managed to get to her writers’ group – even if I had to walk all the way from downtown St. Paul where I spent most of my days.
It was only after I had secured a position as a manager at a Burger King that I stopped coming regularly to Emily’s writer’s group. I know it is hard for many to believe but managing a restaurant — even a fast food joint — is mentally demanding work, and I could no longer turn out stories like I had in years previous. Nevertheless, I never completely stopped and was always made to feel welcome in her home in Highland Park.
Emily had been a journalist in Little Rock before moving to St. Paul with her husband to raise a family. And she had gotten stories written and published, mostly with Carolrhoda Books. Many of her stories were stories that we heard first in her sunroom. We critiqued them. She listened and sometimes explained to us what she intended. Then she would remember what she had taught us. Your audience is not at your dinner table listening to your story. You don’t get a chance to explain the story to your reader. It has got to be clear the very first time.
Emily was also something of a mechanic. She had grown up on a farm in northern Louisiana and knew how to fix all sorts of things. Taking computers apart was nothing for her. Her intimate knowledge of how a farm operated managed to make its way into most of her fiction. So did her meticulous research into history.
I remember her reading from her manuscripts in a soft southern voice that was the voice of a story teller, a grandma who sat around the fire regaling her children and grandchildren with tales of yesteryear from around the world. She wrote a number of very good stories. In my opinion, her best stories are found in a collection, Stories of the Blue Road. She also wrote a story about the New Madrid earthquake that struck in 1811 and 1812. I still remember her telling us how she had combined the research for that story with a trip to Arkansas and Missouri, where she met longtime friends from her journalism days in Little Rock.
I would write a review of that story, but it was not her best work. A number of very good ideas that I remember from the writers’ group never made it into the story that was published in 2000. It was the only one of her books that I was able to get. When I read it, I hear Emily reading about a teenaged girl with a harelip who has to cope with the terrible earthquakes that struck her home. I hear Emily reading about a steamship that bypassed New Madrid on its way to Natchez, how the river split and ran in two directions at once, and how a man who had suffered loss asked the hare lipped girl to marry him. When I read the story, I always hear Emily talking, a sound I shall not hear again.
Perhaps the story suffered from the illnesses that plagued Emily in the year 2000. Perhaps that wonderful sense of concentration on bringing more to the reader was going. I do not know, and shall never know. She passed away in that year.
I’m glad I didn’t have to say goodbye to her when we left for Israel. I’m glad she didn’t live to see the Twin Towers fall in New York. She lived in simpler times. Dare I say this of a woman who had to struggle in the Depression ridden south? Yes. She lived in better times.
If you want to get to know this fine lady a little, listen in your mind to her words, spoken in the musical tones and soft drawl of southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana, as she set the stage for the earthquake that destroyed New Madrid on 16 December, 1811.
“Their blessings were many, but something was terribly wrong. An army of squirrels was leaving, people said, running at such a pace that when one fell, those behind it trampled it to death. Enormous gars, catfish, and turtles had come up from the bottom of the river, and snakes had crawled out of their hibernation holes. Some said the creatures sensed that the comet was about to fall into the Ohio at the point where it flowed into the Mississippi, which would set in motion Earth’s final days.”
(When the River Ran Backward
Text Copyright © 2000, Emily Crofford
Carolrhoda Books Inc., Minneapolis, MN)