Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book Review: Look to This Day

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Look to This Day

Author: Wilma Dykeman

Publisher: Holt Rinehart & Winston

Date: 1968

Length: 342 pages

Amazon ID number: B0006BU5MQ

Quote: "We...view them from within at their very heart, these Great Smoky Mountains, this Blue Ridge country, which is the background for our own search for the whole life."

Popular in its own time, Look to This Day hasn't become rare enough to be particularly expensive or hard to find. It's a classic, though, of what was once considered liberal Granola Green thought. Although a native Southerner, Wilma Dykeman sent her son to a Northern prep school, quoted Kahlil Gibran (she called him "the Indian poet"; he was Lebanese-American), lauded Robinson Jeffers (who wrote among other things "I'd sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk"), empathized with the youth protesting against "injustice, inequity, and inconsistency," and asserted, in her gentle way, her right to socialize with people of different ethnic groups.

These controversial opinions are mixed in the book, and apparently alternated in the newspaper column where they originally appeared, with nice nature pieces that could offend nobody. Not unlike this blog, actually, although I'll agree with those who say that Look to This Day is better written. News, personal memories, philosophy, and phenology mingle.

Rather like the heroine of Christy, Dykeman grew up near Asheville but didn't consider herself as much of a real "mountaineer" as some of the people she met in eastern Tennessee. By this I'm afraid she meant that her family were wealthier; that she was able to take for granted amounts of education and travel that many of her neighbors couldn't afford. She shares the benefits of her education and travel in this book, with short essays--I'm tempted to say "posts," since they are about the length of a good LiveJournal blog post--from Wyoming, from Vancouver, from Italy, from Spain, and from England.

She defends herself gracefully against the charge of being a do-gooder: "The cure presumably is...[to b]ecome a Do-Badder...Cultivate total and undiluted selfishness. (That doesn't come very hard to most of us.)" She even puts in a good word for the less privileged: "Provincialism is not always confined to the provinces...I, for one, can hardly wonder at the chagrin and anger Appalachian dwellers have often felt in the past when they were depicted by their erstwhile guests as depraved buffoons."

Yes, sometimes Dykeman's language is annoying. "Appalachian dwellers"? "The average Indian family on a reservation," easily confusible with "Indian" Gibran? The friend of whom "the fact that she was a Negro was incidental to her essential worth"? Annoying phrases, yes. My own elders didn't talk that way. I doubt that Dykeman talked that way in the 1990s. This is the way people like Dykeman--and yes, admit it, like my parents--talked in 1968. One has to excuse these phrases, in much the same way Dykeman describes herself excusing some of the things earlier writers had famously said about women.

If the essays in Look to This Day have a single unifying motif, however, it would be "Feel good," about nature, about people, about travel, about being American, and most of the time this is still a nice pay-attention-and-be-kind-and-feel-good read, even today.