Friday, July 6, 2007

Thelma Jones

You just know a real writer when you read one, don’t you?
by Charlie Leck
[6 July 2007]

You know, when you pull a book down off your library shelf early in the morning – one that has been there, untouched and unread, for about 20 or 30 years – and you crack it open and begin reading , and, you shuffle and shift your body into a more upright position and keep reading and turning page after page, and forget the time or where you are or what you have to do, and suddenly your back begins to ache and you realize that you haven’t stirred in 3 or 4 hours, and so you get up to stretch and hold the book out before you and realize you’ve nearly read it through and haven’t enjoyed anything so much in years and years, it’s a really wonderful way to begin a day.

Such it was yesterday when I grabbed this old faded copy of a book by Thelma Jones, Once Upon a Lake. Who’s Thelma Jones? Duknow! She says in the book she was a librarian right here in Wayzata for years. She wrote another book that I did read years ago, called Piety Hill. It was nothin’ to write home about, believe me!

But this book – this wonderful book about Lake Minnetonka – well, it is just so beautiful that I can’t quite believe a hoard of people haven’t told me about it. From the opening sentences of the Preface to the delightful closing lines, it is just marvelous: “What was left to Lake Minnetonka was domesticity. From shore to shore she was ringed with domesticity, substantial, devoted – and tame. But she had her memories.”

This librarian was a writer. She built these incredible pictures in my mind by swirling together words in the most delightful and delectable manner. Why, Hemmingway couldn’t have carried her jock stra…. Oops, that must be some other kind of undergarment worn by woman about which I do not know… That’s how wonderfully she writes. You know, I don’t know anything about her. I think I’ll stop in at the bookstore today – the one that faces out over the lake – and I’ll ask Peggy about Thelma and just who she was – other than a librarian, of course! It doesn’t appear she wrote any other books. Why, for heaven’s sake, why?

Let me read to you just these opening paragraphs and, then, you see for yourself…

“In May 27 of 1852, as the northern hemisphere of earth tilted toward the direct rays of sun, beams of light fell upon a United States that was exuberant, questing and quickened with the sense of its own power.

“As earth turned upon its axis, the sun’s rays touched the free state of Maine, fell like a warm promise upon the bundles and boxes of herded, expectant people at the Port of New York, sped over the Appalachians, dyed gold the Great Lakes and the rivers braiding down to the Gulf of Mexico, and lit the patterned green of the Ohio
Valley, where for the first time in creation land had been measured and staked into true squares for man to own and husband.

“In Michigan, Iowa and the slave state of Missouri, that May sun beamed upon whiskered crews with surveyor’s chains and tallymarkers tattooing such six square mile squares upon the body of the continent, and the boss men among them, cheered by the sun, shouted carelessly, 'Oh, tie down your corner marker, boys. Blaze your witness trees. If it ain’t accurate, we’ll be the last white men to see it, anyway.'

“In New York, the sun’s first light touched the curly head of an exhausted little State of Maine woman who had just prepared a time-bomb called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly, and in Illinois the sun fell upon the shambling figure of a lawyer who could not stay out of public life and illumined it and stretched his long shadow to infinity – but no-one much except a few abolitionists were too worked up. For the most part the country was oblivious to the threats of disunion; it was a buoyant era.

“Before the sun’s rays crossed the central sea of grass and the Rocky Mountain snow to start sweat upon the backs of possessed men sluicing gold in the valley of the free state of California – before that, the sun’s rays gilded the top of a rectangle of hardwood forest dropping, remarkably, down into prairie land. This watchfob of forest, forty miles wide, a hundred miles long, lay in the Territory of Minnesota at a latitude exactly equidistant between the equator and the North Pole, lay, one might say, upon the solar plexis of the continent. So thick-bolled and tall and compact were the trees of this peninsula of forest that though in May the leaves were mere pencillings of green, the sun did not penetrate to the forest floor. At its center, the land rose and the forest upon it surged in waves over hills and down into valleys that were always dark with dampness. Here, in this rippling forest, like a sunburst of jewels, glittered an enormous and beautiful and strangely-shaped lake. Its shoreline was so cut into bays, straits, channels and long, reaching headlands that it appeared to be not one but sixteen bodies of water.

“There were a number of islands in the lake, and upon the lee side of the largest one, several young men sat about the ashes of a fire. They were eating fish which they had wrapped in wet paper and baked over the dying coals, and their spirits were as high and as bold as the national mood.” [Jones, Themla: Once Upon a Lake, Ross and Haines, Minneapolis, 1957, pps 15-16]

I’m sorry. I can’t write anymore today. It would be disrespectful!


  1. I too love this book. ANyone familiar with Lake Minnetonka shoudl own this book!
    Corinne Carlson Shinozaki

  2. I read this book just 2 or 3 years after it was published in 1957, the same year we moved to Greenwood on Lake Minnetonka. It was a very moving book to have read at that young age.

  3. I read this book just 2 or 3 years after it was published in 1957, the same year we moved to Greenwood on Lake Minnetonka. I recall it made quite an impression on my young mind.

  4. I read this book as a child, growing up on Shady Island in the 1970's. I checked it out of the library at Shirley Hills Elementary School. Today, I ordered another copy and look forward to revisiting it.