Friday, November 01, 2013

Let us now praise Enfys McMurry

Enfys McMurry's wonderful "Centerville: A Mid-American Saga" gives regional expression to the old term "weighty tome," and that's a wonderful thing. I've been hauling this big book around the house for a couple of weeks now, since finally getting around to buying a copy at Prairie Trails Museum, and absorbing its chapters in consecutive order.

McMurry traces the history of our county seat neighbor to the southeast --- and by extension Appanoose County --- from 1846 through World War II in 518 detailed pages, then adds more than 200 pages of footnotes. Footnotes are a secret vice. I read them as additional chapters and it's always a treat when there are many of them.

Reading consecutively is a necessary discipline because it's tempting to skip from chapter to chapter exploring topics of particular interest --- the underground railroad, for example, since two of my families were early arrivals at the little town south of Centerville called Cincinnati, a hotbed of abolitionist fervor; and the Ku Klux Klan, because that dreadful organization was extremely active in Lucas County, too, for a time.

McMurry, who lives in Corydon, is a native of Llwynypia, Wales, who taught multiple subjects at Indian Hills Community College between 1979 and retirement in 2002. Indian Hills, formed from three smaller schools --- including the old Centerville Community College --- but now headquartered on the old Ottumwa Heights campus in Ottumwa --- also maintains a substantial campus in Centerville. It was that link that first roused her interest in the city's (and Appanoose County's) fascinating history.

Local history is a disrespected field, principally I suppose because many feel its scope is too narrow to be of general interest. By McMurry has demonstrated how that perceived limit can be overcome. 

And Centerville, a relatively small town with a great big town square, has a fascinating story to tell, one that incorporates considerable diversity. A vibrant black community that produced among others Simon Estes once flourished here; the Jewish community was large enough to support its own synagogue (and cemetery). And men and women of many nationalities were drawn to Appanoose County by the coal mines, adding more flavor to the mix.

So McMurry's book is well worth the modest investment of cash and more generous investment of time and attention needed to read it. Copies are available, among other places, at Prairie Trails in Corydon and The Next Chapter in Knoxville --- as well as online. Read it!


I posted a Facebook link this morning to author Allan Gurganus's piece in The New York Times entitled, "The Man Who Loved Cemeteries." This is a great read, too --- seasonal and compact.

This North Carolina native, and current resident, is perhaps best known as the author of "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All." He can be claimed by Iowa, too, since he studied with John Cheever and Stanley Elkin at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop.

So it's a great morning for Iowa authors.

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