Category Archives: Biography

New Movie: “The Theory of Everything”

I had the chance to attend an advance screening of a new movie set to open this weekend.  “The Theory of Everything” is the life story of physicist Dr. Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane.  It is a tribute to Hawking’s determination to persevere despite being paralyzed (he has ALS), his wife’s courage in accepting and accommodating his handicaps, and an intimate look at the tender love between them.  He had already received the diagnosis of his disease at the time they fell in love as college students, but she went ahead and married him anyway.  The film explores how their feelings change over time.

We need more stories of patience and love in the face of adversity.  “Theory” is beautifully acted by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones– watch the trailer here.

Ogallala Road

The Ogallala Road; A Memoir of Love and Reckoning, by Julene Bair.  Viking, 2014.

I was delighted to discover this exceptional memoir about how powerfully our loved ones shape our lives, be those loved ones family members, lovers, or the land we call home. Here the prairie landscapes of western Kansas come alive in exquisite beauty, along with an unsettling concern for the future: the huge Ogallala aquifer beneath them is being pumped out at an alarmingly unsustainable rate to irrigate crops that could never be grown there otherwise.  It’s not a case of outside developers coming in to exploit the land’s resources, as happened in Appalachia, for example.  On the prairie the long-time residents who love it the most are responsible, whether they fully realize it or not, for robbing their descendants, and many species of indigenous wildlife, of a future there.

As I read I was reminded of another skillful and moving book I loved about the prairie ecosystem: PrairyErth, by William Least Heat-Moon.  But Julene Bair has the advantage of having grown up on the land she describes, telling the story as only a native can do.  She went away for some years, then returned to the farm with a young son to raise. She develops an environmental awareness that puts her at odds with the locals.  Later on, her family must decide what to do with their land after the patriarch dies, his son is ready to retire, and none of the younger generation wants to farm.

Bair combines the sensibility of a poet with an activist’s command of the facts, but neither side runs away with the narrative.  The prairie is not just a place on the map to her, but inhabits her mind and heart, allowing her to persuade readers to care more deeply.

Midnight Rising

Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, by Tony Horwitz.  Henry Holt & Co., 2011.

Having grown up in eastern Kansas, I’ve been fascinated by John Brown ever since I saw, as a school child, the stunning mural of him in the Kansas State Capitol building. (The painting is “Tragic Prelude” by Kansas artist John Steuart Curry.) When I learned that Horwitz, one of my favorite historians, had taken up Brown’s story, I knew I had to read it, and what better time than on the anniversary of the Harpers Ferry raid Oct. 16? Horwitz presents thorough and impeccable research, gives his readers the necessary background, and then relates events simply and clearly. Continue reading Midnight Rising

The Spirit’s Pilgrimage

The Spirit’s Pilgrimage, by Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade).  Great Ocean Publishers, 1960.

Mirabehn was a British-born close associate of Mohandas Gandhi, working with him from 1925 until the end of his life. She was not just a secretary or assistant, but a diplomatic adviser and project manager. On occasion she was even sent by Gandhi to represent him in negotiations with British officials. She stayed on in India until 1959, continuing her work to improve the lives of the poor.
As a young adult, she had been told by a mentor that Gandhi was “another Christ,” and from then on her mind was made up to go and work for him. Her dedication was rock-solid, as it required her to face a much harder life than she would have had at home in England: stressful political situations and imprisonment, extremely hot humid climate, poor sanitation, typhoid and repeated bouts of malaria, living in mud huts with scorpions and ticks, hard daily physical labor, language and cultural barriers, etc. She was tough, too–after all this, she lived to be nearly 90! This is her story in her own words, told as though the reader was sitting in front of her, and builds a solid on-the-ground foundation under other more philosophical commentaries about Gandhi and his work.