Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Vintage "American Austen" author discovered: Mary J. Holmes

Working with used books in a physical store, I finally read a novel of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. - Elsie Venner. I savored its depiction of New England life so when I came across another book with Holmes on its spine, and one in bad condition, I started reading it. That book was titled Cousin Maude.

The title page was missing and after the first chapter, I said to myself, “This is like an American Jane Austen. How could the author of Elsie Venner and several more philosophical works write like this?” With internet help, I found that I was reading Mary J. Holmes, an author I had seen upstairs in our store, on shelves that were lower priced vintage. I didn’t know anything about Mary J. Holmes and had confused her with a religious author, Marjorie Holmes.

Mary J. Holmes was born Mary J. Hawes in 1825. From Massachusetts, she married Daniel Holmes who became a lawyer. They lived for a few years in Kentucky, which inspired some of her 39 novels, and then moved to New York State. She traveled extensively. Her novels were best-selling, I was surprised and ignorant to learn.

Cousin Maude was both delightful and funny. Another reason I was so puzzled at thinking Dr. Holmes had written the book was its doctor character, step-father to Maude. He was plumbed after he insisted on walking to the house of his second wife-to-be, for health but suspiciously because he refused to pay a carriage driver. The second wife died too and Maude's future was designated as domestic support to the doctor and his two children, which began the Austen-like social imbroglio concerning Maude and the doctor's daughter. I laughed many times while realizing that Mary J. Holmes had a keen sense of the barriers women experienced. And she also made the doctor's servants into vivid characters, including a black couple who were hoping someday to have a place of their own. But that wasn't the end of the doctor whose next venture topped the romance of the younger set.

The book was a treat, but what I also liked about it was the detailed New England setting and the skill of the novelist in bringing these nineteenth century scenes to life.

I had to try another of her novels, available as e-books. Gretchen was a later work and it began with a sense of mystery. The rich traveler Arthur comes back to his mansion mentally tormented, though he immediately makes plans to renovate rooms for the mysterious Gretchen, a lovely person who Arthur protests is “still a child.” Again, a male character is probed and with the same acerbity that points out the pathos of neglected women when American men could rise. Gretchen became a ridiculous suspense that made me turn the pages. Even though a baby appeared instead of her and mystified the entire community with scant evidence of a German nurse, the author's handling of Arthur still kept the mystery of Gretchen going. Arthur's escape into building and planning his grounds was fascinating. America was built quickly and this character with his vast railroad fortune shows the mania for replicating European buildings and terraces. The book has its romantic twists with the grown girl, raised by a modest family after she was rescued without any acknowledgement.

I really couldn't understand how Mary J. Holmes was forgotten as a novelist. I felt that Austen fans would enjoy her American parallels. But she isn't so finely crafted as Austen and, because she was prolific and so successful in her time, she was probably allowed to draw out scenes and digress with minor characters.

Now I'm reading Bessie's Fortune. This book has a more serious vein running through it, having to do with a terrible guilt and secret event that affects a family. The plot is different from the others in that there are connections to England and Wales. Mary J. Holmes spikes her humor here with polite barbs about lifestyle differences between her British and American relatives. Bessie's family is gentry and related to a Lady Jane but they are down on their money. Her parents are desperate enough to go to Monte Carlo, splendidly described. While they cling to respectability, they gamble with a young peer who has dressed as a woman so he won’t be recognized. It looks like Bessie will be sent to America to stay with her miserly aunt.

I noticed at Amazon that reviewers were liking Gretchen as much as I had. There are others who are reading this author because of her portrayal of women, class struggles, black characters, and slavery. Though she has been called sentimental, and outcomes can be heartwarming like Frances Hodgson Burnett, her American characters might be called Dickensian in their eccentric personalities. Her books are a trip to the America of the mid-1800's.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Violence and the Imagination

Back to thoughts on imagination, I was stirred to resume on the subjects of violence and gratuitous violence. An Australian woman, engaged to a Minneapolis man, was recently shot by a Minneapolis policeman after she reported what she thought was a sexual assault in her alleyway. The accompanying officer said she ran up to the car window of the officer who fired his gun at her. She worked as a yoga instructor.
This brought back my graduate school years in Minneapolis. The murder rate was worse per capita than New York City. Residents held night vigils because the police couldn’t control the situation. In my building one winter night, the back door window was smashed by a burglar.  A female tenant found the burglar in the laundry room and luckily fled upstairs unscathed. When the police came, they actually said, “Maybe he was cold.”
We tenants learned from each other about the neighborhood milieu while there was a lack of confidence in the police. In Minneapolis today, a foreign woman would probably still need the news and the coaching that women supplied. One instance of advice: A woman should stay put if she hears violence, and if she reports it, never to reveal her role. Besides, police attitudes during a crime wave could be corrosive.
Image Stuart Miles @
During this decade of my life, I had little interest in violence or crime as reading or entertainment. I preferred literature that reflected life as it is, usually with infrequent crimes. Good authors can show the mundane day as development and make that as interesting as the action parts. I tried to do that in Tug of the Wishbone where, in the second part, my character Maureen was neighbor to a Minneapolis woman whose mother was murdered.  My book followed another theme so loss from murder and loss from divorce were perceived.
Since high school, I wondered at gratuitous violence on television. I wrote a paper on television violence in college, inquiring whether it might encourage violence in society. There wasn’t a lot of research on the subject then.
Growing up in a southern Minnesota county, I knew of one murder. A teenager shot a teacher through her living room window. In recent years, the Mower County sheriff’s office requested additional staff because of the unprecedented numbers of gun permit applications.
Last year, I watched airings of a show I liked in the 1960’s – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Clever plots, the humor of Napoleon Solo, the variety of locales all kept my attention. The same thing happened that happened when I was young. I tired of the torture scenes and the number of characters shot to death.
My second job after college was reporter for a suburban St. Paul newspaper. Every week in 1978, I visited the Maplewood police chief and every week, he had little to report except for domestic violence. Today, a reporter there would be much busier. A recent report numbers violent crime at 87 annually with 4 murders and 151 burglaries.
While sensationalism pervaded journalism, the rise in violence seems sensational in itself. What does it mean if sensationalism pervades creative writing where the sky is only the inner limit? And imaginations are used for sensationalism?
Image Stuart Miles @
It isn't that violence, a part of the human story, should not be portrayed. But when violence is described without attention to the victim and the pain it incurs, a story becomes only a partial reality. Although I had opinions about television violence, I wanted to watch many Alfred Hitchcock movies when the VHS's were available. Hitchcock gave a more complete reality to the crime setting. Instead of concentrating on police and criminals as star characters, he often gave attention to characters affected by the criminal and while they were oblivious of an ensuing crime. This went along with the definition of crime – that crime violates other people’s lives.
Some years ago, I read Ovid’s Metaphorphoses. He retold violent Greek legends and also a flood myth with pathos and conscience that, even though the stories were distant in time, conveyed their impact. Ovid was writing in Ancient Rome; I wondered how far he lived from the Colosseum. Oh, he was banished by Augustus while writing the Metamorphoses. Previously he wrote love and erotic poetry. I was stunned at the finale to the unfinished Metamorphoses. Ovid stated that the human race had become violent because a man killed an animal for food. He implored the Romans to become vegetarians.
Image Simon Howden @
Even if people don't associate the current crimes in America with the fabrications in our arts and entertainment industries, it certainly looks as if a parallel world of real crime has occurred.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Authors I Wish to Collect: Jane Austen & Mark Twain

Jane Austen? Why I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen.

I heard that quote from Mark Twain on MPR a few weeks ago. I thought, Twain and Austen have something in common. In more than twelve years of searching for collectible books, I have never found a copy of either of these authors from before 1900.  I’ve sold Twain in 1920’s editions but no Austen from before 1950. The conclusion is that if anyone has an old edition of Jane Austen, they are not letting go of it.

I scrolled through all of Austen’s editions from before 1900 on Abebooks. Yes, if I ever come across an edition from before 1920, the book is rare. An author I would like to collect just isn’t usually found. And Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn from before 1900?  Very few available.

Twain was an outspoken man about classic literature but his dislike of Jane Austen, which I don’t think is fair, reminded me of a feud in my college English department. I did student work there and heard a few of the frays. A professor that women warned was a misogynist believed that Austen had no place in a college English course. One of my favorite professors taught Austen, attended conferences on her, wrote papers on her, and avidly defended her place in the English department. My typical luck, I had been assigned to the chauvinist professor’s freshman composition course. Following advice, I took it as one of my few Pass/Fail's. I was to pass but after my final paper, he kept returning it to my mailbox with the note that if I didn't fix the errors, I would fail. I looked and looked, knowing it was probably the footnotes, until finally, I found a period missing there. I corrected it and passed the course. No kidding, he was hard on Jane Austen too.

My Jane Austen wishlist: (click on the book to see the listing)



Austen wrote a novel like no one else in her time, crafting her work with the elegance that was within her boundaries. Women then had to marry to have any kind of life, and she had a mission, wanting good matches for life. Her renewed popularity in the early 2000’s was at first puzzling. I thought it might be due to contemporary work situations and the enforced levels of communication between men and women. If there is interest in the modern workplaces, it usually has to occur within a careful framework.

I’ve relished stories about workplaces, from classics such as “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “The Catbird Seat” to our time. The workplace often has humor inherent which seems to be from personalities clicking and conflicting.

My adult novel Tug of the Wishbone has a number of scenes from work in it. I think they gave the book some balance from the relationship and interior sections. Maureen’s personal quest and her camera work led to many descriptive scenes. Finally, I had to do some cutting on the book. I had a goal after I researched women’s novels. I did not dare to sprawl like Charlotte Bronte. My goal was the length of an Austen novel which I accomplished, just about. In contemporary terms, I admired Penelope Fitzgerald’s well-crafted snug novels. Some of my cuts were offbeat scenarios and anecdotes about places and people of a region, part of a photographer’s viewpoint, but ideas for another kind of story, essay, or memoir.

Mark Twain might not have known of Jane Austen’s juvenilia.  I thought it hilarious and theorized that she was inspired by Henry Fielding. One of her characters planned an elopement during a wild carriage ride, another demanded a Blifel-like suitor to guarantee an extravagant floral conservatory and novelty carriage, another posed suggestively in acrobatics at a costume party where the rich host, dressed as the sun, sat a hallway away. The teenage Jane had the spirit of a Tom Sawyer. I imagined her clergyman father disciplining her to write an acceptable piece of fiction. I also thought that if she lived today, she might actually have become part of comedy team and never written a novel. After all, she went to a most popular social scene at Bath, and with freedom, might not have made it back to her father’s parsonage.

While I believe that Huckleberry Finn is an incredibly great book if only Twain didn’t write in dialect so much, I had to consider Twain’s female characters - Tom Sawyer’s aunt and the morbid female poet in Huck Finn, both satirized for their gullibility and sentimentality. In fact, American women poets of the nineteenth century often wrote memorial poems for funerals. Many American lives have been described in poetic form, I found in books by nineteenth century American women poets.

Maybe someday I will come across a collectible Jane Austen novel for my changing library. To think that Mark Twain would approve of my shelves because I haven’t run across Jane Austen much, and only editions like Barnes & Noble.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Authors I collect: D. H. Lawrence

Working at a used book and antiques store, my first collection was D. H. Lawrence. I bought First Editions before I set up an internet store. I was convinced that D. H. Lawrence would surmount other authors of the Twentieth Century, despite other opinions. I still feel that he was the Shakespeare of that period because of his prolific output and his “scope” as Shakespeare would put it, producing vivid books set in Mexico, the American Southwest, Australia, and Italy.

Image courtesy of dan at

He influenced me, along with other authors, while I wrote adult short stories and the book that became Tug of the Wishbone. I first read The Rainbow when my mother was reading it for a course. As a teenager, I opened the novel during summer vacation and was swept into the earthy English farm setting. Ursula Brangwen’s ill-fated romance wasn’t so satisfactory then. But the novel fascinated me for portraying a family history where characters were as human as people in my era.

When I picked up the book decades later, I remembered it as fulfilling its title. The Rainbow was number 43 in The Guardian’s 2015 list of 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century.

I’d also read Sons and Lovers and then, at college, hearing girls who were not English majors recommending Women in Love with rhapsodic adjectives , continued Ursula’s story. There aren’t many scenes that outdid the turnaround of her love luck for me – when she threw Birkin’s rings at him in the car and wretchedly complained about men being bullies. 

We lived in a world of psychology, and to me, Lawrence had the ability to show how people liberated from conventions had emerging psychologies to examine.

Books I was thrilled to find in First Edition were The Captain's Doll: Three Novelettes and Aaron's Rod. As The Rainbow was banned in England, D. H. Lawrence was published in plain bindings and, as you can see from my recent Aaron's Rod, the binding and paper were not sturdy.


The Captain's Doll must have been based on Lawrence's wife Frieda, with whom he did a lot of steep walking when they lived in Italy. I found it ironic how he could evoke the suspense of love approaching commitment during pages of walking after he was banned for sexual content. I'd never been kept reading such an interlude since a Tolstoy story (“The Snowstorm”) about a carriage ride during a blizzard which roared on for pages.

Aaron's Rod 1922 Secker edition

Aaron's Rod is about a flute player. Somehow Lawrence had divined the interior of a flute player without being a musician himself. That was especially displayed when Aaron was separated from his flute in Italy, the flute being stolen. Aaron had reluctantly walked out on his family to play the flute without Lawrence imposing any moral to his novel.

"The business of art is to reveal the relation between man
 and his environment." - D. H. Lawrence

Luckily I had read most of the First Editions I acquired. I had doubted The Plumed Serpent, Lawrence’s writings about the American Southwest, and found the same thing. Lawrence wrote about Mayan mythology mixed with Catholicism as if he had lived in Mexico for years rather than the time he spent there. His Southwest was a picture of it. If Lawrence hadn't written fiction, he might well have been famous as a poet. When I open to a poem of his, I'm struck by that and by the poem. Poem-A-Day, an emailing from the American Academy of Poets, has included poems of his lately, and they don't seem to age.

Pansies (poetry)  1929

Love Among the Haystacks and Other Stories 1930

I had relished Lawrence's short stories about England, and then found out that some wealthy people sued him for portraying them, they claimed. This was some sort of lesson. One of my first short stories was written for a high school creative writing course, the first at my high school. My story told why a school official had a scar on his forehead. Before writing it, I had been caught in the hall during class time. My punishment was to sit all day outside our tough vice principal's office. My classmates enjoyed the story but when a creative writing journal was published, my story wasn't in it, only my poetry. I still believe that fiction in good hands isn’t about specific people. 

I sold my D. H. Lawrence collection and now only have another copy of Aaron's Rod and another copy of Lawrence's poetry for young people. The books tempted me to read them again, a problem when a book dealer wants to sell their books in the best of condition. I suppose there will be another decade like the 60’s when D. H. Lawrence is the rage again, according to my opinion of him, and when the prices for his early editions will rise and I will regret selling my collection.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Real Photographs and Chicken Substitute Dishes

 A question I often have at grocery delis: What is this dish?

This is a chicken dish that I made with tempeh. From a Betty Crocker International cookbook, the recipe is Caribbean, like Jambalaya except that it includes green olives. How was it? It was OK. Tempeh is made of soybeans but soybeans don't taste much like chicken.

I bought chicken at the Whole Foods Co-op for years, and still would buy their poultry products. One year as I became more vegetarian, I decided to try meat substitutes in dishes I liked.

Backtracking into the early 1990's, I saw on PBS television how some farmers were keeping chickens in warehouses and often caged. The next time I went to the supermarket, I looked at the chicken and eggs I had been buying and walked away.

For me, it was easier to adjust the meat in my diet than for many other people. As a child, I was goaded to eat meat. There were only a few meats I liked while I cleaned up the family wooden salad bowl after everyone had taken their share. I loved tomatoes, spinach, and cheddar cheese. My mother said she craved tomatoes when she was pregnant with me.

After college, I could eat what I wanted. I remember a Minneapolis cheese market and buying fish. Vegetarianism then was an eccentric choice. I had understood that I should eat meat at least three times a week but eventually, I ate it when I wanted. Sometimes that was after days or weeks however surprisingly, I savored meat when I ate it after a hiatus. If meat lost its freshness or I felt obligated to eat it, I used to throw it out the way I once fed it to the dog under the table.

My experience in the early 1990's proved to me that a photograph can change a person's diet. In my novel, Tug of the Wishbone, this becomes a plot element in a woman photographer’s story.

At the Co-op, I wondered about the tempeh dishes in the deli. I liked tofu but ate it as traditional oriental stir-fry and sometimes vegetarian stir-fry. The next picture is of shepherd's pie made with tempeh. This was pretty good, like a ground chicken or turkey although it lacked the meat flavor. I used LightLife Organic Garden Veggie Tempeh for this.

About the time I knew that tempeh couldn’t really replace chicken, a new “fake” chicken came into the Co-op grocery. I had to try it.  Yes, it was much better in the Caribbean recipe. The Tofurky Slow Roasted Chick'n (its ingredients are on its page) separates into bite-size pieces or shreds. It doesn’t really do for recipes that use pieces of chicken. I thought it worked for Chicken Tetrazzini although the flavor is zestier than chicken, belying its non-meat processing. One serving of this product contains 27 grams of protein. The average adult needs around 40 grams of protein a day.

I felt this chicken substitute was good as a lunch or casual supper choice. For me, it was very acceptable in a cock-a-leekie soup, and in chicken salad for sandwiches, then in a Chinese stir-fry with mushrooms, snow peas, and water chestnuts. It also tasted fine to me in chicken quesadillas - chicken and cheese fried in a tamale “sandwich.”

Cock-a-leekie soup with farro 
Quesadillas with guacamole

Here I made it into a pot pie. I’m picky about mashed potatoes in that I like them piping hot, so I look for recipes where the mashed potatoes are cooked in the oven. This recipe, from a Reader’s Digest cookbook, was surprisingly tasty. The chicken gravy has a little wine in it and some yogurt added to the thickened broth at the last. It uses zucchini rather than peas. Trying it with the chicken substitute, I thought this had the best chance of fooling an unwary person that they were eating chicken.

Another recipe I tried, where the chicken substitute was blended into strong flavors, was a chicken biriyani, made with red cabbage and apples. This is a variation on a basic Indian dish, and attracted me to attempt cooking Indian-style. I hardly noticed that the chicken was a non-meat substitute, perhaps because of the Indian spice base.

While writing Tug of the Wishbone, I researched poultry and today’s farming. For someone who grew up in an agricultural region when most animal products were free range and organic, it was important to have current information. I accepted the inflation of prices for those products.

So far, I don't think chicken substitutes would satisfy meat eaters. Vegetarian delis and new vegetarian recipes might work better so that there isn’t an expectation of meat texture and flavor. I might show what I did with beef and sausage substitute “meat.”

Monday, December 12, 2016

Announcing Tug of the Wishbone, a novel

Tug of the Wishbone, a novel, is newly published, and categorized as women's fiction, literary fiction, psychological fiction, and contemporary fiction. Although there are romances in the book, they are interludes, except in Part III. Here is the synopsis:

Maureen doesn’t plan to repeat the mistakes of her divorced parents. Her 1960's experiences are presented alongside family leave-takings. When marriage seems imminent, the leave-takings are with men. Maureen’s photography proves to be a more permanent involvement. Eventually she struggles with depression and clings to her work until that is with a man that she would readily date. Outside their magazine, she defiantly exposes a large poultry farm while confronting her need for a constant love relationship. With Minnesota settings, the book covers thirty years. Its comic relief reflects that resource in Maureen.

The first review is in from Amy's Bookshelf Reviews:  "Wonderful story!...Maureen is one of those characters that you root for, you cry for and laugh along with..."

I will be doing a reading of Tug of the Wishbone at Eat My Words Bookstore in Minneapolis on January 28, at 3:00 p.m.  Click on the linked words for more information.

Tug of the Wishbone began as short stories. Five were published in literary journals such as The South Dakota Review and Frigg. I kept writing the short stories about Maureen and went from a collection to a novel. In Part I, there is time between one chapter and another, as the chapters concentrate on events. These were revised for continuity. I did not want to elaborate on Maureen's childhood because the book is for adults and Maureen's early years are overshadowed by adult issues. In Maureen's teenage years, her personal story emerges with her independence.

Here is an excerpt from Part II.

“Your parents were selfish,” was Milt’s opinion.
He had called the Wednesday after the Lammerville weekend and, following Valerie’s advice, Maureen had him over for lasagna.
“I haven’t had such a good dinner for weeks,” he complimented her and then they walked from her duplex to a bench at Como Lake.
Wondering about his mother’s cooking, Maureen said that she started cooking Italian food in junior high when her mother worked evenings at the library.
“Your parents had four children?” he asked.
“I have a sister and two brothers. I’m the youngest. My brothers were pretty much gone when I was cooking.”
Then Milt appraised her parents as selfish. That stymied her as if he had netted something from the depths of the lake. No one had ever said this and for the moment, he was a hero.
“Of course many adults are selfish. Me, for instance,” Milt laughed.
That made him more valiant. Maureen settled back against his arm and said, “Do you think that people should stay together for the sake of their children?”
Milt’s eyes glinted like the lake. “If everyone made what you did out of a bad situation, this would be a better world. But you couldn’t say it was a good situation, could you?”
Maureen wanted to sit indefinitely in Milt’s good opinion. But he might be the illusion that the city lake was to a swimmer. “If the world’s so bad, then why do you keep traveling in it?” she asked.
“To shake a pattern, I guess, and to form another pattern. Researchers have found that it’s all about patterns. What should I do? Go to medical school? Or enter a graduate program so that I can get paid to talk? So I try to get published, having the gift of gab like my father, afraid of the pattern.”
She didn’t mind being adrift with him, without a definite destination. If Milt made commitments here, he would soon be as confined as a lake within a public park.
“I had insomnia in childhood,” Maureen mentioned. “Does that mean a child of mine would have insomnia?”  She was still losing sleep because of him.
“My father would probably give you a pill and regret it later. He’s not the best doctor around, you know. But the question is, what would you do if your child had insomnia and you hadn’t solved yours?”
“My parents didn’t know what to do because they weren’t insomniacs. So do the researchers only talk to people in patterns or do they find people who broke the pattern? Like the teetotaler whose father was an alcoholic?  Or the guy whose father beat him up learning restraint?”
“The uncharted,” Milt said in a pleased, older voice. “That’s the goal, breaking a bad pattern. I’ll bet you’ve never met a researcher. I knew there was a reason why I kept calling you.”
She wasn’t configured in the patterns he was in. “I might get divorced like my parents.”
“So they say. So they say.”
“I’d wonder about you but I guess that’s nothing to worry over.”
“Too bad I don’t know.” Milt scratched her thigh. Then he admitted that his attempt to get published in the Christian Science Monitor was out of rebelliousness.  “I wanted to see my father’s face if The Monitor published me. He’s a hard man to see sometimes. It was the article about my train trip in Russia. But I was interested in the common cold and that got me wondering about a country having a national disease in the same way they have literature. The Monitor doesn’t like the word disease. The Soviet Union has good doctors but they tried to treat the sick or wrong thing about their society with Communism. That broke other patterns, like their pattern of publishing great novelists.”
“That’s like saying that Germany is manic-depressive. They make toys and had a mania for music. But their photography is severe and depressing when they aren't an impoverished nation.”
Milt laughed at that and then he asked Maureen to go on a trip with him.
 Tug of the Wishbone is now available at Amazon in both print and Kindle and at Barnes & Noble as a paperback. In February, the paperback will be available from Ingram's and other outlets.  Its stunning cover was designed by Bradley Wind.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Essay: Winter Observations of a Feral Cat Community

Here in Duluth, I observed a feral cat community for some years. I wrote an essay about it fifteen years ago, and while it made the rounds, it became yesterday’s observation and research. All of that leads up to this year although there is more documentation in, I’m sure.  A happy note is that Animal Allies, a shelter here, has reported that they are finding homes for all of their cats. Here is the essay, a story that began about the time of Halloween.


Seven years after I began observing stray cats from the second floor of a Victorian house four blocks from Lake Superior, I read news about the songbird-cides in the region. During migrations, the trees outside my windows were often feathered and joyous. A woodsy thicket at the backyard lawn’s end, edged with lilac, snowberry bushes, and sumac, overran a slope that no one would want to mow. Below were elderly bird lovers –  two sisters and a daughter - that fed the aerial visitors and also the neighborhood itinerants, stray cats.

Birdfeeders tinseled the trees behind their gingerbread-shingled house and, on the aluminum roof of their shed, birdseed was continually spread. My second summer, I watched a stray mother cat shimmy to the shed roof where she taught her kittens such acrobatics. There they sat Cheshire-like, waiting for birds.

Near-catches discouraged the young hunters. They napped on the front door stoop of the old carriage house, waiting for the old ladies to set out dishes of cat food. Eventually, the elderly ladies adopted a female kitten, leaving a calico-Siamese male for me to lure inside during the sleet of November. His tuna trail ended at a radiator where he was received by my empty-nest female cat.

The strays were said to be the progeny of his mother, a calico that was abandoned when a renter moved. Although the disillusioned female aroused the pity of the elderly women, she preferred her roving and romance outside, despite Duluth winters. She could be seen during them with one of a new litter, initiating it to the snow. Once when I neared the dishes on the door stoop next door, I had to call her “the fastest claw in the north” and knew that her invisible claw could operate like a flying fork.

Previously I spent ten years in Minneapolis, a city that loved its cats so well that kittens were given homes hours after being advertised. On seeing another kitten stumble after its mother’s prints in the snow, I discovered that the elderly women, having grown up with barn cats, were adamant about giving handouts to the cats rather than turning them in.

I introduced myself to Animal Allies in 1995, the year that researchers informed Wisconsin residents about the 114 feral cats roaming each of many square miles in the rural areas of their state. The cats were estimated to be killing at least 7.8 million songbirds per year and upwards of 20 million.

On a June day when gardeners were hoeing, my female cat, Desiree, appeared at the steps with an unmangled songbird. I wondered if I should mount it on a plaque. All month, she and the stray newcomer, Lev, had huddled at my second-story windows making decoy chirps at the birds landing on branches a few yards away.

Instead of fooling the birds, they became diverted by a lost mouse. During a two-day cartoon miles-per-hour chase, I observed what researchers had documented. The cats left their food dishes, caught the mouse while it was running to the radiator, released it, and returned to their food. When Lev could finally try his rare mouse, he couldn’t keep it down. The instinct to hunt was independent of the instinct to eat.

At an internet pet board, I asked cat owners if their pets were killing songbirds.   About half of the respondents reported a prolific hunter, gifts at their door, and bird feathers under trees. One respondent noticed that “during the summer when West Nile virus was causing many birds to be sick, cats in the neighborhood were catching more birds.” In 1998, bird salmonella spread from one birdfeeder to another, killing songbirds in at least 14 midwestern states.

Desiree at eighteen
In the year 1999, my 18-year-old Desiree died of hyperactivity and old age. About a year after her wildflower funeral, the elderly ladies next door made an enigmatic appeal to me. New strays had appeared and they were reluctant to feed them. One November night, I looked down at their shed and saw the reason for their occult attitude. A parent and its kitten, both resembling my deceased cat, had climbed onto the shed. There are many bi-color white cats with black markings but not so many with a white part in their head fur.   Rather than ponder nine-life reincarnations, I let the elderly ladies off the hook.

I was on it and within a week, I had lured the kitten to my back porch steps for closer examination. Its resemblance to Desiree had already been established one day when I walked by the gingerbread-shingled house and saw the kitten watching me from the side of the house. After only a few nights of leaving cat food on the bottom back step, the kitten ventured to the dish while its parent hauntingly hung back. The following nights, the two, perched on the shed when I set out the food, hopped down to come over for café food. One night they ignored their gourmet food. Near the bird fountain that was now wreathed like an ice rink was a dark carcass on the snow.

In that year, 2000, songbirds in Duluth had diminished from 60 to 54 species. Crow numbers were up, however, from 524 to 747. A respondent to my internet question stated, “My cat hates crows. He is black and will sit in the shadow of a tree. He wiped them out.   He never eats them though.”

Watching the kitten at the carcass in the snow, I saw other strays slinking to the yard next door. When the night leapt down earlier in the late afternoon, they came behind the visiting kitten and in inverse pecking order. I had lured my stray kitten up to the top back steps where I could watch it eat. Adult cats were showing up behind it, callow to wild.   First the kitten’s parent, Sweet-Side-Part, warily waited at the bottom step for her kitten’s leftovers or for her consort, Brown Bounder. With cat-in-the-hat craftiness, Brown Bounder interrupted the kitten’s eat-and-run meals. After that, Calico Tail, a stray that I thought was dead, began to appear after sundown.

Since Calico Tail had become a nocturnal creature, I trained my stray to come before dusk. Disarmingly the kitten peeked around the corner of the house, the only stray that chanced the porch in the late afternoon light, and then its boundary where the food dish was eventually set, the hallway carpet. I turned off the hall lights, hoping the manmade turf might seem trustworthy and that the warmth inside would be lulling. But the kitten refused to venture beyond the divide between wild and domestic.

These strays did not seem desperate for food. The stray kitten growled fearlessly if Brown Bounder nosed the food dish, never receiving a scratch or an invitation to fight. The ferals must have been relying on songbirds for at least 20% of their diet, what the records said was typical for them. I remembered a Duluth man telling me when I was in Minneapolis about the rats that boys hunted near the Duluth harbor.

Carole Hyde, founder of the Stanford Cat Network, said of cats killing songbirds, “Blaming cats is simplistic.” One of my internet respondents elaborated, “It has been my personal observation that a kid with a pellet gun can do more damage in a few hours than a bunch of cats can do in a week.” My stray probably descended from barn cats that were first brought from Europe for killing rodents and when squirrels were rife in the trees. According to the journal of a French priest, Native Americans welcomed the new species into longhouses that were built on tiers because of night-scavenging mice.

I continued to meet my stray at the porch divide, sitting now on the carpet cross-legged. When the kitten had become accustomed to my presence, I could determine her gender and see another cat from her clan ascending the steps, Gray-All-Loafer.

What happened next in the murky early evening sent the adrenaline to my hair follicles if it was no surprise to the little stray. One bushy longhair and then another ambled from around the corner of the building, presenting themselves at the bottom of the steps in the way of skunk or raccoon, like shy bystanders. They were noticeably larger than the other cats, shaggy in their survival, one a light calico and the other a black and white bi-color. They had mask markings that made my startled mind think of raccoon-cat mixes. I was sure that no one in the neighborhood had ever seen these cats. And then, as a ripping finale, another unknown feline seemed to cartwheel from around the corner. Its black hair was ungroomed and it was not as docile as the bushy masked cats. Terror-on-End, I immediately called it, putting the cat dish on the steps and closing the door to the porch.

Image courtesy of voraorn at
Even though I dreaded what might come after them, I had to have a second look at these obscure creatures before I insisted on my stray coming in the daylight. The bushy cats were as big as small raccoons, an animal that I had often seen in the backyard. Their masks were singular because one was a cream-orange and the other was black and white. Luckily, I had inspired no panic in them. Having had enough of being astounded at the longevity of cats that I thought were dead and at the appearance of tough, nocturnal cats, doubting what I was seeing, I called around about borrowing a live trap for catching the little stray.

The elderly ladies believed the outdoor cat community was diminishing from attrition or disease - feline leukemia. Yet the cats I saw did not look thin in the January weather. I speculated that the little stray, staying away during a blizzard and then appearing again, already had a benefactor. And I speculated that the bushy cats that came in a couple were well-fed fat pets, Norwegian forest cats or Maine coon mixes.   Still, a pet owner would have to like their unruly bushy hair. A study done by Alley Cat Allies in the District of Columbia found that a feral cat community took ten years to die out.

I actually hoped that my stray would weaken in the worsening weather. Not having located a live trap, I attempted an inexpensive strategy. I rigged a rope from the back porch door handle to my hands and then walked to the inside second story steps. Sitting on the steps, I practiced pulling and found that with one yank, the porch door shut.

Some days later, the little stray was blissfully eating tuna, two paws at the hall carpet, when I destroyed her trust, swinging the porch door shut behind her. She catapulted to the inside hall wall, back to the porch, and then clawed her way up and down the sides of the porch windows. She was like a ping pong ball and I was clumsy in a turtleneck, gloves, and glasses. After she scaled the wood on the porch door, she fell down on the door handle. Within seconds, she was out again. This only reminded me of my first cat, Desiree, and how she climbed curtains before she escaped into winter, liking an hour in the snow.   She must have come from barn cats, I now surmised, wanting to examine the look-alike stray further.

While I brooded over this, another phantom killer was being accused of the songbird-cides. A Wisconsin study done during the 1990’s found that communication towers had become a dark Tolkien-like force, luring songbirds to their red airplane lights like moths. Over a period of 15 years, 100,000 songbirds flew into one Wisconsin TV tower and perished.

Returning to Animal Allies, I found that they had no quarrel with the Bird Conservatory about the treatment of feral cats.  They agreed about a kindly incarceration. It was better than what my feral had been enduring – days in a cage-like space under a porch or a rotten board where the heightening snow put a heavy lock at the exit.  

My hexed project wasn’t getting the cooperation of a new landlord and a dog-preferring tenant. The old landlord was so sympathetic to strays that he and his wife had taken a kitten home. By spring, Terror-on-End was hanging around in the daytime, definitely alarming a few people on the block.

One late afternoon, the little stray found her food inside a live trap, a cage that I hastily transported up into the hallway. I was a novice with this equipment, apparently not having secured the trap door, and as the cage rocked up the steps, the wild stray shot out of it and down the steps to the basement where she hid herself. Although I called the animal shelter for help on a weekend, the dog-preferring tenant, accompanied by his dog, slyly opened the basement door that lead to the outside. Strangely, some of the other ferals appeared and waited outside the basement door.

While securing another apartment, I found out that the little stray had a beautiful litter with either Gray-All-Loafer or Terror-on-End or both. The kittens romped in a cottage garden and the elderly ladies, more housebound than ever, thought them adorable. I made one last futile effort to lure the mother and/or her kitten(s) inside during the de-thicketing of the yard. A concrete driveway was planned to replace some of the lawn.

Fewer songbirds would visit that yard, lilac-less soon. Duluth’s decrease in songbirds was reflecting the continual urban development of southern states, especially the place where songbirds wintered, Florida.

Summer evenings, I used to sit on the back porch steps and observe gulls, pigeons, and cats. Swamp buttercups, tiger lilies, hawksweed, and cornflowers were the lawn where damselflies, skunk, raccoon, marsh hawks, and even a fox passed through. In the winter, a great northern owl sailed past my windows where below, a kitten left its paw prints in the snow.

Image courtesy of saphatthachat at
After ten years of watching stray cats, I agreed with research – that stray cats will not simply die out even though they are a result of human expansion. Now they are adjusting to northern Minnesotan winters, having found new ways of surviving. The belly of a parked car is a hearth for kittens. Cats shelter themselves under porches and behind the holes-in-the-walls of deteriorating buildings. Car owners who joke about gunning cats from under their engines have probably not estimated the number of nocturnal cats that warm up after the car owners have gone inside a heated building. If the neighborhood people didn’t believe me, they only had to put out food every night and wait until just after dark. Longhaired cats, compact muscular cats, cats acting within a community, cats larger than the ordinary – all of these were surviving sub-zero nights like the shy mammals that creep about the woods and multiply.