Gifts from the UI Press: Iowa History and Cultural Archeology

It’s time to look into Santa’s sack for some great new regional books from the University of Iowa Press that will be sure to delight Midlanders everywhere.

My favorite new item is the beautiful—and understated—Iowa Nature Calendar ($15.95). Becoming native to place means knowing your co-habitating flora and fauna. This lovely calendar helps you celebrate the seasons and make life-place connections. As a perpetual calendar, it  simply lists the days by number, sans days of the week, for each month. A line follows each date, but rather than noting your doctor’s appointment or child’s band concert, I’d suggest jotting down the first snow, the first spring cardinal in your backyard, that big hailstorm, the night you saw the Northern Lights, and so forth.

Authors Jean Prior and James Sandrock have already given you many natural events to observe and honor. You’ll learn Native American names for each month’s full moon (here in December it’s the Long Night Moon), animal behavior (meadowlarks, bluebirds, and others may overwinter in December if the weather is mild), significant dates (the Winter Solstice is December 21 or 22), and good things to do (this month, make a winter wreath of berries, fruit, and suet for the birds; also look for river otter slides along muddy banks of creeks and rivers).

Each month features a gorgeous woodcut-style illustration of an Iowa native bird by award-winning artist Claudia McGehee(like the illustration at right). If your gift recipients don’t love this delightful little item, they must be robots.

In more traditional book form, but no less enchanting, is Tom Savage’s A Dictionary of Iowa Place-Names ($19.95, paper), a perfect book for pure reading pleasure, place-based education, conversation with family and friends, and, honestly, “throne room” reading (I consider that an honorific!). What it probably isn’t good for is argument-settling—say, if you’re fighting over whether Ionia is a name imported from Michigan by way of Asia Minor, or from a guy who told a railroad official, “I don’t care what you call it, I own the lumberyard, I own that land, I own that building.”

This is not to say that Savage hasn’t done his homework—these origins of place-names for Iowa’s counties and towns have been meticulously documented. Many of these sources, though, are not scholarly. Some tales of nomenclature documented in community histories, old newspaper articles, and emails from city clerks might be just as folkloric as asking Ol’ Zeb down at the coffee shop.

The stories behind many names are pedestrian (“transfer names,” like Lansing, are just imports from other states, and there are lots of names that come from big shots’ kids). A number are exotic (Elkader is named after Abd El Kader, an Algerian emir who resisted French invaders). Many are charming (Primghar is an acronym of the town’s founding fathers, complete with a poem memorializing the origin; I would have loved to have met “Albright, the joker, with his jokes all at par”). No matter the verifiability of the information, the book offers a delightful and enlightening glimpse into the culture and history of the state.

Although killing one’s spouse isn’t exactly a cup of Yuletide cheer, I know there are plenty of you who like a good murder mystery or true crime story. Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland ($19.95, paper), by Patricia L. Bryan and Thomas Wolf, is no lurid potboiler, but rather a well-documented true story told in narrative form by a University of North Carolina law professor and her husband, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum.

In the middle of the night on December 1, 1900, John Hossack, a well-respected farmer near Indianola, was axe-murdered in his bed. His wife, Margaret, was accused of the crime—the family had a history of conflict and abuse—and brought to trial. In good Dick Wolf fashion, we are told the story of the crime and its courtroom prosecution in equally wonderful detail.

But this story is multifaceted. Midnight Assassin is also a fascinating study of Midwestern farm community life at the turn of the 20th century. For example, despite the widespread knowledge of the Hossack family’s penchant for inter-familial violence, few people asked questions or interfered. When a community “intervention” of sorts occurred, the advice to the family was to stop telling everybody about their problems, because such disputes are private matters.

Gender issues underlie everything. Was this a woman who had little other choice than to kill her abusive husband in such a cultural milieu? How can a woman receive justice when she is judged by a jury of his peers?

And for those with a literary bent, one of the important “plots” of the book is the reportage of one Susan Glaspell, who is early in her career and covering the story for the Des Moines Daily News. Glaspell’s most well-known work, the play Trifles, is based on the Hossack murder story, as is her classic short story “A Jury of Her Peers.”

This is an excellent book of Iowa history, cultural archaeology, literary history, and narrative crime journalism. It can serve as a wonderful gift for several readers on your list with different interests.