Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: Wisconsin Death Trip, by Michael Lesy

There is a tendency, I think, for people to idealize the past, not to mention the people that lived in it. One example from my recent reading is the depiction of Pa Ingalls, both in the books written by his daughter Laura, as well as the Michael Landon version in the 1970s Little House on the Prairie TV show.

I always wonder about this as I go through my own family tree. Simply put: my people didn't seem to live that way. What I've got is spouses that ran off, bankruptcy, illegitimate babies - and death. And more death.

I have exactly no idea how Wisconsin Death Trip appeared on my radar, but as soon as I saw the title, I knew I had to check it out. Published in 1973, the author has gone through a collection of historic newspapers and antique photographer's plates from turn of the century Jackson County, Wisconsin, and presents the past that we generally prefer to forget.

The images are unsettling, ranging from small children in their coffins to curious groups of people. The author often zooms in on a particular person in a group, such as the woman on the cover, who on closer inspection, "may not be quite right," (as my grandmother would have said). We are presented with no information about the pictures from which to draw any inferences. Some of the photos are downright funny; one that struck me was a photo of a group of musicians, carefully posed with their instruments, yet half the faces were obscured by instruments. It's all just a little bit off.

The text is also alternately brutal and creepy, and occasionally hilarious in a Fargo-esque kind of way. For example:
Mrs. Leiniger ... was recently arrested and charged with poisoning her husband. Leiniger found her in the poorhouse from which he took her to be his bride.
Or this one:
A farmer of Buena Vista buried $2,600 in gold under his doorstep. When he went to dig it up, it was gone. It turned out his wife, who had been allowed to wear nothing except calico dresses for 14 years and had been compelled to work on the farm like a common hand, had taken the money ... everybody in the neighborhood is glad of it.
You can open the book to any page and be treated to an array of news items just like that:  despondent suicides, bands of arsonists, and regular admissions to the Mendota State Insane Asylum. The cumulative effect is a picture of a harsh, desolate life and a social fabric that was coarsely woven and frayed easily and often.

Fortunately, Wisconsin Death Trip is the sort of book you can simply pick up and read a bit here and a bit there. It's not a happy read, but it's well worth the time.

The author's website is here: Wisconsin Death Trip.

FTC Disclaimer: I checked this book out of the library.

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