RICHARD CRITCHFIELD is a seasoned and respected journalist with assignments in Vietnam and the White House who has written extensively on peasant life in the Third World. His books on this subject have been several; most notably Shahhat: An Egyptian, a recreation of the life of a young fellah living in the upper Nile Valley. He now turns his investigation and his reportorial skills upon several generations of American rural inhabitants in North Dakota and Iowa who also happen to be members of his own family. The book's subtitle, "An American Album," is very appropriate for it is neither a memoir nor a biography.
What seems to have been a lifelong interest in family letters and memorabilia was focused by his mother's dying request. "I wish you'd write this, Pat. You're used to writing now. I wish you'd write about North Dakota -- " A pause. " -- and Iowa." So, Critchfield began to assemble a staggering amount of material from interviews, newspaper accounts, school records, club and professional minutes, diaries, motion pictures, university archives, photography collections -- probably the most comprehensive list of resources ever assembled to recreate the lives of ordinary people. "It was their ordinariness that makes them matter," Critchfield says toward the end and he speaks of the Williams of Iowa and the Critchfields of North Dakota and all the children, relatives, neighbors and acquaintances.
Grandfather Williams was a rural doctor and a Methodist minister, a follower of Dwight Moody, whose daughter Anna took up school teaching in North Dakota and married Jim Critchfield who also became a country doctor. Thus the two families were joined and it seems to be the author's intention to portray their lives and times by a meticulous reproduction of his prodigious research.
Samuel Johnson, in The Rambler essay No. 60, spoke of biographers who "rarely afford any other account than might be found in publick papers but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments." Critchfield seems to have taken this route, for the reader is overwhelmed by the routines of farm and house chores, exhaustive inventories of country stores, book titles, popular song lyrics, picnic fixings, car makes -- an enormous pile of facts (even the specific dimensions of a camping tent) as if the sheer weight of these artifacts will convey the truth of the lives they furnished. True, these are the facts of ordinary people, but they remain ordinary because they have been compiled with no selection and no attempt at interpretation.
Unhappily, what matters in art -- and biography should try for the title -- is the extraordinary that can be made from the ordinary. A common bowl of apples is transformed into an unique vision by the interpreation of a C'ezanne. Why else would we bother to look at it again and again and again? But reading Those Days is like leafing through the kind of huge family album that is to be found in attics and cellars all over America, all interchangeable, and to claim a distinction for any simply because the collection is exactly like all the others is to risk a fatuity. What would make the album different, make it matter, is the bold if not perceptive imagination of an editor.
The voices that Critchfield uses to tell the stories of these four lives, and their families, also are not distinct. Opening the book at random, it is impossible to tell from the first person accounts whether the speaker is Grandfather Williams, Grandmother Williams or Dr. Jim Critchfield or Anna Williams Critchfield. Curiously, in an earlier book, the author invested himself, used his imagination and perceptions, to create the person of the young Egyptian peasant, Shahhat, to produce a remarkable portrait full of life and complexity. However, he is reluctant to make the same transference with the members of his own family, to risk opinion, speculation or even judgment, so these "voices" become interchangable in the unremarkable notation of their hours and days and years.
The book is designed around these four principal speakers, Critchfield's voice throughout, supplemented by actual quotations from diaries, journals, newspaper accounts and excerpts from interviews with relatives and acquaintances. These asides sometimes interrupt the narrative only to repeat the same information in a different voice but more times than not they offer a refreshing pause to the ongoing monologue.
Three-quarters of the way through its 419 pages, Those Days is greatly benefited by the appearance of Norma Thorson, not her actual name -- her real identity protected by the author. She came to Dr. Jim Critchfield after a botched country abortion. He helped her. He also fell in love with her and they sustained an affair for several years that eventually became known to the village gossips and family members. The small town girl with dreams of singing and the middle-aged country doctor elicit an appealing pathos, a drama, that the book has needed, and Critchfield's prose takes on a sparkle and pace at this point as well. His persona speaking through Dr. Jim is imbued with the melancholy and sympathetic reflections of that unhappy man. It is easy to recognize his ordinary condition while being moved by his singular personality as recreated by his son. Perhaps, this may have been the true story of Those Days -- this commonplace romance with all of its particular sadnesses and heedless joys with the rest of the family histories summarized; reduced to a background like the wall paper on those farmhouse walls in Fargo, North Dakota -- all pretty much alike in pattern and color but made fresh, given meaning by the extraordinary life taking place within them.
The attention and love lavished on this book by Critchfield influence a reader to like it, to admire and respect his mission fulfilled. That he seems to have been fearful of leaving anything out, makes it difficult to see the mementoes in this album that might be significant.