Writing at 98: hard work, hard times

November 30, 1997|By Pia Nordlinger | Pia Nordlinger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Any Given Day: The Life and Times of Jesse Lee Brown Foveaux," by Jesse Lee Brown Foveaux. New York: Warner Books. 287 pages. $19.95.

My hat is off to Warner Books. It published an author who draws so much sympathy from me that I can hardly do my job. The fact that "Nebraska" is the longest word in Jesse Lee Brown Foveaux's memoir "Any Given Day" would normally be cause for mockery. But Foveaux never intended to be a writer. It would be wrong, and just plain mean, to judge her book as a piece of literature.

At age 80, Foveaux took a senior-citizens' writing class and wrote the story of her life, largely at the behest of her children and grandchildren. Eighteen years later, a copy of her manuscript crossed the desk of a Wall Street Journal reporter, who wrote a front-page story about her work. By March 1997, a bidding war broke out for the rights to publish the book, and the 98-year-old woman ended up with an advance of over $1 million.

Jesse Lee's story is one of hard work and hard times. Missouri and Kansas were her stomping grounds. She kept her family together during two world wars and deep economic depression. Her fianc died in World War I, and she later settled for a man who was a severe alcoholic. She attended high school, but marriage, children and the obligation to work prevented her from continuing to college.

Warner touts the book as "A Memoir of Twentieth-Century America." Although Foveaux has lived every livable year of the century, she is not quite qualified to write a memoir for the century. She writes as a woman on the homefront, now a popular angle on American history. In order to be compelling, however, the hometown voice should be rich and descriptive. Foveaux's is not - her reactions and emotions are banal. Events that could bring great joy or deep sorrow, she recounts flatly.

The book does work, however, in one way. The reader is forced to compare his own quality of life to the author's. For example, I was comfortably sipping a latte while I learned that Jesse Lee folded laundry all day for soldiers during World Wars I and II. A writer she isn't, but her saga makes us thankful.

It can even make a skeptic appreciate the good that feminism has accomplished. Foveaux's life is defined by her family: first her father's, then her husband's. This is a woman who bore eight children and had no idea why she was getting pregnant. During her first pregnancy, she was too ashamed to ask what to do when she felt labor pains. It's a long road from Jesse Lee to "Our Bodies, Ourselves."

"Any Given Day" brims with simple prose and common-sense advice. Foveaux's lack of self-pity is astonishing, and her patriotism refreshing. "I would like to see our world become more like it used to be," she writes. "Please wake up, America." This is a book for those who think their life is too hard or too busy. Jesse Lee will remind you to count your blessings. She falls short of creating a portrait of lively characters or colorful small-town life but she succeeds in awakening her audience's humility and gratitude.

Pia Nordlinger, a reporter for the Weekly Standard, writes about feminism. She has studied at the Claremont Institute for the study of statesmanship and political philosophy.

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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