The One Room Schoolhouse: Stories About the Boys.
(C) 1993 by Jim Heynen
My recommended reading list stretches from here to ya-ya. I haven't, since I was a kid, wandered into a library, poked around for a bit and walked home with a book I've never heard of before. With one exception.
When I was 15 I spent most of my free minutes after lunch wandering in the library. I was shy. It saved me from socializing (and mortifying eye contact). It saved me from navigating the crowded halls. I read the backs of books on the paperback rack or looked for books like The Catcher in the Rye, which of course I already loved which had been stolen.
I stumbled on The One-Room Schoolhouse by accident. I pulled it off the shelf and eyed it suspiciously, with its so-literary cover art (a well-spaced photograph of an old toy tractor) and blurbs from Robert Bly and an astronaut (!). Then I scanned its table of contents and discovered it contained a story called "Dancing With Chickens." At that point I bolted for the checkout desk.
I do not want to tell you what this book is about. Really. It is about Midwestern farmboys who have lots of mundane, transcendent natural adventures and no names, but so what? I want to shove your nose in the pages and beg you to inhale. I have read it four times and am working on a fifth. Far too few. By way of explanation (and for review purposes only), I give you the title story. It is an arbitrary choice. Jim Heynen makes your book bag a satchel of diamonds, each perfectly and uniquely cut; when I use the word "breathtaking," which I do in connection with this work, I use it literally.
The week before the auction the youngest boy walked to the one-room schoolhouse
just before sunset when the barn swallows were swooping over the grass for gnats and the chickens were starting to roost and the cows were starting to chew their cuds
- at that time of the eving when nobody paid any attention to where anybody else was. He kicked the schoolhouse coal door the way he'd seen the older boys do it and the way they must have seen the older boys before them do it. It was the secret coal-door kick and was as good as a key to the front door.
He knew this was his last chance to be in the schoolhouse before it was torn down or turned into a grain bin. It still smelled the same, which was bad, as if the last person to study here had opened the door to let in the smell of the neighborhood hog yards and then locked the smell in forever. Nothing looked any better, not the out-of-tune piano or any of the carved-up desktops. He opened the door to the library and found it about as small and interesting as the inside of a privy. He pulled out the bottom drawer of the teacher's desk and in it were the spelling, arithmetic, and history answer-keys for books that nobody wanted the answers to anymore.
No wonder nobody cared that next week some strangers would come and buy the seats and the recitation bench, maybe even the piano and the library stand. The farmer whose property bordered the playground would get the land and the schoolhouse. Nobody would bid against him. They wouldn't dare. Let him have the land, make it part of his cornfield, which is what it should have been a long time ago.
The boy slipped out of the coal door and headed toward home. Grasshoppers too big for swallows fluttered up from the playground with their sounds that always reminded him of shaking a dry twig. He tripped on a pocket gopher mound and remembered that he never trapped pocket gophers because their mounds made such nice soft bases for softball. I wonder where the Gypsies will camp when they're heading up for the big harvests. I wonder where I'll go for my first picnic when I'm old enough for a girlfriend.
The stories are all about that length - one to three pages - and might remind you of some of the finer subjective writing on this site, both in terms of length and scope. In fact, this book has been my secret for years and years and years, but y'all strike me as just the crowd to share it with. They are longer than haiku, but remind you of it. Here, Jim Heynen is saying. I have taken this little moment like an ant and stuck it in amber. And now it is yours.
I love The One-Room Schoolhouse so much that I can't talk about it like the grown-up, bespectacled English major type that I am. I can't bear to use words like pastoral nostalgia (though it is most certainly present), or defamiliarization (though it wouldn't be inappropriate) in connection with this book. Trust me. I am not any kind of sentimental maniac - not about most things, even books - but fancy literary words would be far out of line here. It's like calling your favorite sassy younger brother a Product of Postmodern Hyper-Ironism with a Deconstructionist Sense of Style and Wit to his face, instead of using his name.
It's possible that I only like this book because it reminds me of the childhood I only had on weekends, when I went to visit my grandparents' farm. I sang into echoey grain silos and caught pollywogs in the irrigation ditch and played on dangerous farm equipment. When my grandmother remembers the same spot of land, she thinks of dusting knickknacks.
And these boys, by the way, live even before that; one of my favorite stories (though they're all my favorite story) is about getting electricity. I won't give away the ending, but I think I may have heard it elsewhere (maybe from my grandmother, speak of the devil twice, or maybe in a film). It's not a slight to Heynen's originality; of course nobody's prose reads like his. It's quite possible, especially if you have farming in your recent family background, you've heard a few of these yourself - that in fact Heynen collected them from family and local lore. It's quite possible you will recognize yourself or your favorite boys in these boys, and walk away grinning like one who's gorged on sweets. And then, I hope against hope, you will go back for more.