Heart Earth Background Notes
a life renewed in letters
To my surprise, Heart Earth took me back to where I thought I would not go again as a writer, to the territory of This House of Sky, my 1978 memoir; to the landscape of fate and family.
It was an odd gift from the past: my mother's letters from the last months of World War Two, bequeathed to me by her brother, Wally Ringer, upon his own death in 1986. My mother departed early from This House of Sky, and from my childhood knowing her, with her death on June 127, 1945, my sixth birthday. Here, abruptly, was her own voice again, in ink to Wally while he was a young sailor aboard the destroyer U.S.S. Ault in the Pacific theater of combat. The creased pages of her letters sometimes brimmed with brio ("We spent Sat. making formals and catching mice"), other times glinted sharp ("The herder we had planned on lost 30 lambs in about l0 days, so at that rate we'd have to buy him another band of lambs by fall") and throughout were individualistically deft enough to carry the story I saw in them, her story, my father's and my own.
In essence, the three of us were a rural Montana family trying to make a place for itself in the post-war America that already was leaving behind the way of life of my mother and father. That spring and summer of 1945 was our collision with the future, the season of saga from Arizona to Montana — sent by V-mail to a destroyer in the South Pacific — which bent all our lives from then on. Vital to me as a writer were the sparks of memory and imagination that flew upward out of those letters of hers, and I let Heart Earth leap every so often into "deliberate dreams," scenes and dialogue stirred in me by some mention in those ink-of-time letters—for example, our nights in a cabin in the desert outside Wickenburg, Arizona, near a German prisoner-of-war camp, the combination of isolated landscape and the spooky nearness of those prisoners, the heart-racing amplitude of the nightsounds of the desert.
I wrote once, of the pull of the past and childhood landscape, that you can't not go home again. The story I found compressed there in that half-year of my mother's last letters proved that to me again.