Fifty Years of John Gould Classics

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SOMETIME during the dark first year of World War II, a farmer from Maine sent a batch of short essays to the editor of The Christian Science Monitor down in Boston. They seemed to be light fare, a respite from the horror that was being reported on from most everywhere else. But there was more to these short pieces than that, and thus began a journalistic tradition that has continued for more than 50 years.

John Gould is well-known to several generations of Monitor readers, and to those familiar with his 25 books of wit and wisdom. In 10 or a dozen paragraphs each week, he tells a short story, sketches a local character, or recounts some bit of family remembrance or north-woods lore.

A few years after he began, Gould observed something about his writing that remains true today: ``Some stories point their own morals, and sometimes the moral has to be dragged in by the ears, and sometimes there doesn't seem to be any.'' The operative word here is ``seem,'' for inevitably there is more to be gained than some scrap of trivia about farm implements or bean baking, some bit of Yankee humor or family adventure.

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Rereading some Gould classics in ``Dispatches from Maine: 1942-1992'' confirms the judgment that there is more to the whole than the sum of its parts: a sense of place, for example, that many Americans long for and increasingly few experience in this age of relocation and family split-ups. There is an enduring worth, a rootedness in history and family that Gould has chronicled in a way that connects past with present and offers a hope projecting to future.

Reading these columns in sequence, from each year over a half century, is different from encountering them occasionally. This is more like sitting down with a good friend's album of family snapshots taken over four generations. Gould's son and daughter, for example, go from being children young enough to thrill at the wonder of a carved willow-shoot whistle or ``maple sirup right from the pan'' to being parents themselves of offspring whom Grampa observes competing in a college field-hockey match.

In this hurry-up world, Gould's tales of farmers and lobstermen and his ``Goodwife'' Dorothy, plus his goodnatured pokes at ``the absurd wonders of a new age,'' provide a much-needed and moving reminder of more enduring values. We can also be grateful that Gould's ``excellent memory flourishes on demand,'' as he puts it, to recall his own childhood. As when he was 14 and swapped ``a good bicycle and two bushels of pickling cucumbers'' for a stripped-down 1917 Model T Ford he used to haul fish to earn his college tuition.

Any veteran reporter or columnist has stories about the unexpected piece that brings a strong reader response, and John Gould has to be one of the best examples of how touching hearts skips out like a stone across a pond. Like the time in 1959 when he wrote about a three-tined fork (useful for certain tasks as no other implement is) missing from the Gould kitchen. From around the world came dozens of forks and scores of letters pouring out other families' stories.

``It is as if we had a fraternity, with the tines standing for abstractions in triple array,'' he wrote in a follow-up column. ``The whole thing has left us deeply touched and humble, and feeling very rich amongst a broad membership.''

The list of ``Books by John Gould'' at the beginning of this latest work includes the parenthetical phrase ``so far.'' One certainly hopes that is true.

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