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Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards

Overview

For many years Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler has collected picture postcards from the early twentieth century-not so much for the pictures on the fronts but for the messages written on the backs, little bits of the captured souls of people long since passed away. Using these brief messages of real people from another age, Butler creates fully imagined stories that speak to the universal human condition. In "Up by Heart," a Tennessee miner is called upon to become a preacher, and then asked to ...

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Had a Good Time: Stories from American Postcards

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Overview

For many years Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler has collected picture postcards from the early twentieth century-not so much for the pictures on the fronts but for the messages written on the backs, little bits of the captured souls of people long since passed away. Using these brief messages of real people from another age, Butler creates fully imagined stories that speak to the universal human condition. In "Up by Heart," a Tennessee miner is called upon to become a preacher, and then asked to complete an altogether more sinister task. In "The Ironworkers' Hayride," a young man named Milton embarks on a romantic adventure with a girl with a wooden leg. From the deeply moving "Carl and I," where a young wife writes a postcard in reply to a card from her husband who is dying of tuberculosis, to the eerily familiar "The One in White," where a newspaper reporter covers an incident of American military adventurism in a foreign land, these are intimate and fascinating glimpses into the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary age.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
After years of collecting early 20th-century postcards, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Butler (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain) takes 15 choice missives as inspiration for his latest volume of short stories an ambitious writing exercise that even in his assured hands yields mixed results. The stories range in tone and substance, from the humor of "The Ironworkers' Hayride," in which a man lusts for a sassy suffragette despite her wooden leg ("her mouth is a sweet painted butterfly"), to the melancholy of "Carl and I," about a woman who pines for her consumptive husband ("I breathe myself into my husband's life"). A few stories amount to little more than vignettes or reveries: in "No Chord of Music," a woman takes her husband's car for an empowering ride, and in "Sunday," an immigrant at Coney Island feels blessed to be in America. Other postcards trigger more fully realized stories. "Hurshel said he had the bible up by heart and was fixing to go preaching," reads the card Butler takes as his cue for "Up by Heart," a funny tale that addresses questions of faith and fundamentalism. "My dear gallie... am hugging my saddle horse. Best thing I have found in S.D. to hug," wrote a woman named Abba, inspiring Butler's poignant "Christmas 1910," which evokes the loneliness of a young woman homesteading on the Great Plains. Though many stories are as slight as the postcards themselves, the collection as a whole adds up to a thoughtful commentary on America at the dawn of a new century: while some Americans were buoyed by their confidence in technology and progress, others, at the mercy of a disease-ridden, hardscrabble existence, could trust only in their faith in God. Agent, Kim Witherspoon. (Aug.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A wonderfully varied third collection from Pulitzer-winner Butler (Fair Warning, 2002, etc.) investigates diverse lives-and deaths-early in the 20th century. Each of these 15 stories opens with a reproduction of a vintage postcard, including its handwritten message, and from these often cryptic texts the author imagines an entire fictional world. Whether describing a hostile bellhop and an unhappy aristocrat ("Hotel Touraine") or following a woman to France to visit her son at the WWI battlefront ("Mother in the Trenches"), Butler faultlessly captures the plainspoken, springy cadences of American speech a hundred years ago. It's a quieter time than our own, though no less complicated. In 1914, an American journalist covering the US occupation of Vera Cruz walks by corpses without a thought ("My business is getting stories. You're dead, and your story's over") but is brought up short by his laundress, "The One in White," who scorns his feeble excuse that the Marines are here to liberate her country, pointing out that all the dead are Mexicans. "Hiram the Desperado" terrorizes his classmates and swaggers with 12-year-old toughness, but he's still naive enough to miss the fact that the unmarried schoolteacher he has a crush on is pregnant. Death haunts every tale: young husbands die of TB, aviators crash their fledgling planes, a 48-year-old man dies of a heart attack while reading the Sunday New York Times at Coney Island. Yet there's delightful humor in stories like "The Ironworkers' Hayride," where an absurdly self-conscious narrator meets his match in a self-confident beauty with a wooden leg; or in "I Got Married to Milk Can," about a new bride renouncing her romantic dreams of runningoff with an artist when he proves to be an "advanced" painter of the Ash Can school. There's plenty of sorrow, but plenty of exhilaration too, thanks to these characters' grit and full-bodied humanity. Assured, accomplished, and another intriguing change of pace from an adventurous writer who refuses to be pigeonholed. Agent: Kim Witherspoon/Witherspoon Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802142047
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/9/2005
  • Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 818,883
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.26 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Table of Contents

Hotel Touraine 3
Mother in the trenches 19
The ironworkers' hayride 35
Carl and I 59
This is Earl Sandt 73
The one in white 93
No chord of music 113
Christmas 1910 129
Hiram the desperado 145
I got married to milk can 163
The grotto 179
Up by heart 201
Uncle Andrew 231
Twins 243
Sunday 257
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