Trial Balloon

Trial Balloon: February 27, 2009 Archive

R.I.P. Bill Holm

Posted at 5:05 AM on February 27, 2009 by Dale Connelly (21 Comments)

It is fitting that a good old fashioned winter storm struck the Twin Cities as word began to spread that Minnesota writer Bill Holm had died. Bill appreciated genuine things like prairies and snowstorms, and if it wasn't already on it's way, he might have sent this one as a gift - an experience troublesome enough to be memorable.

Bill Holm was a Morning Show correspondent for a time in the late '80's, when he was on a teaching fellowship in China. It was still unusual and exotic for an American to be in China back then, and Bill regularly sent cassette tapes back in the baggage of friends who came to visit him. We put those tapes on the air and then passed them along to his publisher. We never knew when something interesting was going to show up, sent by special courier from the other side of the planet.

He came from the prairie and loved it. In an essay titled "Horizontal Grandeur" he drew this distinction -

"There are two eyes in the human head - the eye of mystery and the eye of harsh truth - the hidden and the open - the woods eye and the prairie eye. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity and darkness."

He goes on to identify himself as a person with a prairie eye.

Looking through Bill Holm's 1985 book "The Music of Failure", I came across a section of an essay titled "Icelanders, Boxelders, Soybeans and Poets" that tells part of his life story, beginning with his birth on a farm established by his Icelandic grandfather, 8 miles north of Minneota, Minnesota.

"At 18, what I wanted most to see in the world was the Minneota city limits receding, for the last time, in the rear view mirror of an automobile driving east, to New York, Boston, Washington, where men didn't spit snoose into brass spittoons, wore suits instead of clean bib overalls on Saturday night, where women did not wear shapeless print dresses, or discuss egg prices and the newest hot dish recipe, but were elegant and witty with painted eyebrows and long black gowns.

By gradual steps, I made my way east, through college, graduate school, and into a teaching job next to the Atlantic Ocean, as far east as American consciousness moves. However, a strange thing happened. In addition to the urban culture of martinis and pate', conversation about Italian movies and liberal politics, I found empty-hearted rootlessness, books used as blunt instrument, a sneering disbelief that hayseed farmers had souls, much less intellects. So I began - much to the skeptical amusement of easterners I knew - to tell Minneota stories about fierce winters, eccentric old Icelanders done in by broken hearts, treeless wildflower-covered hills in Lincoln County, pioneer graveyards with peculiar names in Norwegian, Polish, Belgian, or Icelandic; pitching out a ripe hoghouse; soaking tired bones in the claw foot bathtub; country school with brass bell, glass-doored oak bookcase, and half-mooned outhouse; and most of all, the rich variety of characters in small towns, whom one could know, tolerate, and forgive in ways not available to the guarded privacy of the big city.

As my mother used to say, Minneota is just like that book by Grace Meticulous (sic) - Peyton Place - only better; the stories were true, and you knew all the actors."

Rest in Peace, Bill Holm - a man with a genuine Minnesota voice, a warm Icelandic heart and a keen prairie eye.

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