In Randy Michael Signor’s new novel “Osawatomie,” homesteaders settle near the titular Kansas town just before the Civil War. This turns out to be problematic in ways that reverberate for generations (it might as well be a metaphor for America).
Being able to give a reading in his old hometown has also turned out to be problematic for Signor, who has encountered what he calls "puzzling" resistance from the local library.
Signor left Osawatomie after 6th grade, when his family moved to Overland Park. He left the Free State a long time ago, after graduating from the University of Kansas in the late 1960s, but he’s been thinking about the book’s themes all his life.
His resulting book tells the story of the Dawsons, who leave Tennessee in the 1850s and ride a wagon west, unfortunately staking their claim on the spread next to John Brown and his boys. Tensions around Osawatomie remain far from settled when we meet Dawson descendants a century later after the town’s schools have desegregated.
“One of the houses we lived in was at the tree line that separated our back yard from John Brown Memorial Park,” Signor says from his current home in Seattle. “I played in that park. There’s a statue of him holding a Sharps rifle.”
He remembers going to integrated schools and having black friends.
“Osawatomie meant something to me: That you stood up for the right thing,” he says. “That’s what I thought the world was about. I thought people went to war to fight for the rights of the oppressed. My dad was a coach and preached equality. Many years later, I realized my parents didn’t really live what they talked. The idyllic world I thought I grew up in wasn’t the true picture of how things were later.”
Signor handles that “later” part of the story through chapters set in the 1950s involving a kid named John David, whose mother is “in direct line from John Brown,” and in the 1960s when John David and his pal Woody make an ill-fated trip to burlesque joints in Kansas City.
The history of Bleeding Kansas provides plenty of ominous-ness, and Signor takes advantage of the opportunities. Darkness looms everywhere – in storms on the horizon, in John Brown’s righteous cause but murderous mind, and in everyone’s hearts.
Things are especially complicated for the Dawson family’s only daughter, the observant and imaginative Sarah. Frontier life tends to limit a girl’s choices, especially when puberty kicks in and the only boys around are her own brothers and Brown’s too-intense son Oliver.
Some readers will have visceral objections to the way certain storylines resolve; others might understand that 19th Century prairie life was rough in ways that some of us – such as Signor – can only imagine.
“I’ve had some people come up to me who said, ‘I’m halfway through and I’m loving it!’” he says. “Then I don’t hear anything, and I think, ‘Oh they got to the grown-up parts.”
The book’s structure, in which short chapters jump back and forth between centuries, means characters develop slowly and sometimes seemingly at random. But this also serves to reinforce Signor’s points about how everything’s connected and how little things have changed.
Signor, who earned an MFA in Creative Writing, ran a bookstore in Los Angeles, wrote and edited for the LA Reader, was a book reviewer for the Chicago Sun Times and edited other magazines, published the book himself after years of “coming close” with conventional publishers.
“The editor would want to buy it, but the marketing person would say, ‘I can’t sell it,’” he says. “I decided I wasn’t getting any younger, and I was tired of waiting.”
Now Signor is planning trips back to the home state where he hasn’t been for many years. He has a reading scheduled at Lawrence’s Raven Bookstore on November 30 and at Memorial Hall in John Brown Memorial Park on December 1.
The reading at John Brown Memorial Hall came about after Signor scheduled an event at the Osawatomie Public Library but, Signor says, the library then canceled it.
The librarian, he wrote on Facebook, "said she gave the book to several people to read and that no one liked it. One reader objected to all the 'sex, sex, sex,' which puzzles me as the two scenes with any sex happen off-stage. Some were offended. Many were unable to finish, she said."
A lively discussion ensued on Signor's Facebook page, which included suggestions for alternative reading venues.
“Many, many current and ex residents have stepped forward and expressed a desire for me to read there, or have read the book and were not offended and in fact thought it a good book,” he says.
Osawatomie Public Library Director Elizabeth Trigg notes that the library purchased the book and it is available for patrons in Osawatomie, as well as anyone else in Kansas, to check out through the library's shared catalog.
"While we appreciate Mr. Signor's offer to do a book reading at our library, we did indeed determine that hosting an event for his self-published book was not a good use of the libraries resources," Trigg tells KCUR in an email. Also, she notes, "We are a public library and Mr. Signor is welcome to visit the library and discuss his book with whomever he wishes, whenever he wishes, during regular business hours."
Unlikely to cause dispute are Signor’s poetic depictions of the landscape and the weather. There’s the way springtime around here is always deceptive: “I remembered a day in April,” Sarah notes, “when the air was cool but the sun fooled you into thinking it was warmer.” Or that one hard summer when “storms rolled over us like runaway boulders,” bringing a wind that could “fool you, thinking that’s a little branch flying by right in front of you except it was a whole giant oak tree a couple hundred feet away.”
“The plains resonated with me,” Signor says. “A lot of what I’m doing is just trying to create or present the majesty or elegance or beauty of this environment or its rawness. There’s something fundamental about it.”
Randy Michael Signor reads from "Osawatomie" as part of the Holiday Big Tent event with Cindy Hoedel and Dee McElhattan, 7 p.m. Thursday, November 30 at the Raven Bookstore, 6 East 7th Street, Lawrence, Kansas, 66044; 785-749-3300; and Friday, December 1, 6:30 p.m. at Memorial Hall at John Brown Memorial Park, 10th and Main Street, Osawatomie, Kansas, 66064.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.