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Tom Chaney - R773: The Blue Hen's Chicks

Of Writers and Their Books: R773. The Blue Hen's Chick, a review of Kentucky & Montana's great wiiter, A. B. Guthrie, Jr. First appeared 29 July 2007 in the Hart County Herald News.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column : Tom Chaney - R771: Ireland and the Storyteller

By Tom Chaney

The Blue Hen's ChickMy first teaching job was at Lees Junior College in Jackson, Kentucky, in the fall of 1962. Since I was in my early twenties and fresh out of graduate school, I knew everything there was to know about teaching, about how deans and college presidents should behave, and, of course, about what students should know.

That year I plumbed the depth of my ignorance and innocence. Fortunately little harm was done to the students because I had a far better teacher than they.

Bill Dizney ran the English program at Lees and took me under his wing. Like a mother hen with one chick he saw to it that I did not stray far from the safe path through the swamp of my ignorance.

He had the reading program planned for freshmen with novels to open historical progression from the Etruscans, through the Greeks and Romans, into the Middle Ages with a side trip to China, winding up with the early exploration of the American Northwest.

In that final assignment I first learned of A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Our students read The Big Sky, Guthrie's fine novel about Boone a Kentucky boy who leaves home to hunt and roam in the northern Rockies with the mountain men in the wake of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Another book by Guthrie, The Blue Hen's Chick: A Life in Context, came through the store last week. Of course, I had to read it before I sold it. Anything by Guthrie, and, anyhow, you wouldn't expect me to sell a book I haven't read. Would you?

Guthrie, son of a Montana teacher, newspaperman, banker, fetched up in Lexington in the 1920's as a twenty-dollar-a-week staff writer for the now defunct Lexington Leader with one suit of clothes and shoes daily repaired with cardboard.

Advice from the YMCA led him to the boarding house of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Keating who took him under her wing, introducing him to Lexington, the Bluegrass, Kentucky, and home made wine. 'Twas the widow Keating who called him "her blue hen's chick" -- the one most favored.

Guthrie writes "In those times and for years to come, Lexington was a small and self-contained city, largely happy with the growth and marketing of burley tobacco, the breeding and racing of horses, the regional production of whiskey -- and with tradition."

In twenty-odd years as a newspaperman in Lexington, he came to an affectionate vision of the state and its tradition that is only possible to one who comes to love a place not one's own first love, that is to one who can become an immigrant willingly immersed in a new culture. That is why in the Bookstore you will find Bud Guthrie's novels, when we can keep them, on the Kentucky shelf.From Mrs. Keating, he learned the alien culture into which he plunged. Later he was neighbor to another Kentucky immigrant who became a beloved adopted son -- Thomas D. Clark, the Mississippi native who came to teach us much of the history of our place.

Guthrie was awarded a Nieman Fellowship for newspapermen at Harvard in 1944. There and later at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference his vision of the early west took form. He returned to the newspaper in Lexington for a few years, taught for a while at the University of Kentucky, and by the late 1940's, with a Pulitzer Prize under his belt, he settled in his home territory of Montana.

But the stories of Kentucky never left him. I found myself reading The Blue Hen's Chick and laughing till I thought my sides would burst at his account of a deskman or city editor for the Leader who took a story from city hall about how best to put out coal-furnace ashes for collection and headed it "City Inspector Explains How to Get Ashes Hauled."

He tells of the fledgling reporter on the morning rival paper The Lexington Herald who reported on a collision between two trucks, one filled with sewage, resulting in considerable spillage. The police blotter said a truck had hit a honey wagon. "Wally wrote the story. Honey all over one block of Walnut Street. The deskman knew the euphemism no better, either. He wrote a headline and put the story on Page One. The head read: 'Bees Will Be Busy.'"

Guthrie recounts the death of Belle Breezing, storied madam of the Bluegrass, and of the black-bordered thank-you-for-your-kindness notes that were sent to the homes of the most pretentious and pious residents of Lexington by a local trickster.

While the stories are fine, the best of The Blue Hen's Chick is its language -- spare and precise, with carefully crafted images. Together with this is a section about the writing of fiction with priceless advice for the writer: be sparing in the use of adjectives and adverbs; keep to the active not the passive voice; "use with care loose descriptions, abstractions . . . . What does 'beauty' mean or 'terrible' or 'magnificent'? Something, to be sure, and much sometimes. But illustrations and specifics are surer aids to ends."

I first read The Big Sky in 1962 -- The Way West a couple of years later. A quarter century later I got my first glimpse of Montana at dawn from the windows of an east-bound train. "I know this land," I said to my seat companion. "I've read A. B. Guthrie."

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-07-29 09:44:04
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