The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth
by Bill Holm
Milkweed Editions, reissued 2000
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After living all over the United States and teaching in China, Holm reapplies himself with gusto and grandiloquence to life as lived in his hometown, the minute Minneota, Minnesota. "The Music of Failure," the book's centerpiece essay, showcases most of Holm's themes: the values of the local past, the particulars of family chronicles, the uses of memory, and, in contrast to these qualities, America's rootless lack of history and its obsession with individual success.
Having met with failure, however, the author argues that failure is as American as success, and that memory, to be complete, must include those whose failures generally relegate them to obscurity. Holm focuses on the Bardals, a family of Icelandic immigrants who were never an all-American success story, dying out in rural poverty after a century in Minnesota. Pauline Bardal, the last survivor (whom Holm knew as a boy), nonetheless had her own virtues: laconic stoicism, natural charity, and even a minor talent for playing the organ. The author sketches two further examples of virtue in failure: Sara Kline, the town bag lady, to whom the young Holm was still required to show courtesy, and his Aunt Ole, whose romantic cheerfulness prevailed over genteel poverty. And he celebrates the qualities his austere Icelandic ancestors brought to the New World, including a love of literacy and hidden sociability.
Holm occasionally provides some interesting contrasts with these musings on family and small-town characters and events by juxtaposing several of his experiences in China. But his exhaustive reaffirmation of his own "from-ness" curiously cuts out his experience of the rest of America in a sometimes ostentatious localism. Holm's frequent invocations of Walt Whitman and Tom Paine sometimes overtax the small-town context, but at their best, these essays make a virtue of parochialism.
About the author
Though born in the middle of the North American continent, Bill Holm (his last name means "island" in Old Norse) is a devotee of islands as well as an essayist, musician, and poet. His books include Eccentric Islands, The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth, The Dead Get By With Everything, and Boxelder Bug Variations.
When he is not island-hopping, he lives in Minneota, (in a house that cost $5,000 in 1977 and has since steadily declined in value) and teaches at Southwest State University.
The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth (Milkweed Editions, 2000)
Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary (Milkweed Editions 2000)
Coming Home Crazy: An Alphabet of China Essays (Milkweed Editions, 2000)
Boxelder Bug Variations: A Meditation on an Idea in Language and Music (Milkweed Editions, 1985)
The Dead Get By with Everything (Milkweed Editions, 1991)