Born in the South and raised in the East, Harvard-educated John Whitttum was drawn to the West in 1963 to teach at the experimental Whiteman School in the Northern Colorado town of Steamboat Springs, where he added basal folk wisdom – things like never picking a fight with an old-time rancher on the subjects of water or cows, and the identification and correct diagnosis of his neighbors’ long-held personal quirks through their behavior in a case of unsanctioned grazing and assumptive blame – to the store of knowledge acquired in the Academy.
His book, Reflections from Northwest Colorado, is a collection of essays, journal entries, short stories and poetry written over the course of his decades in Steamboat Springs as headmaster of an experimental school during extremely turbulent years of social change in the United States, meanwhile venerating Thoreau’s example, being, himself, a voluntary transplant from more urban environs. His prose style is captivating without being gimmicky or anxious, often including an effective undertone of satirical flavor. His characterizations are illustrative more than the characters described, as when he notes, concerning one, that he is known for speaking with all the courtliness of the Old West. His writing employs an able-minded and canny precision of description, with engaging word-glyphs like “voracious cows” and “snaky blonde gum chewing female who never got out of the truck” like tiny poems making up the prose.
“The protest began, [Vern] often remarked, at exactly the same time as the arrival of the suits. Anyone familiar with the traditions of our small cow town would not have expected the offices of the courthouse to be invaded by people wearing suits (and white shirts with white ties, for that matter) when presenting their business to the public’s representatives, any more than they would have expected the streets of the little town to suddenly become paved . . . The new real estate promoters, and the straight faced attorneys who often accompanied them, had apparently decided, long before departing their bases in Denver, or Houston, or wherever else their money was generated, that their apparel was in no way going to be subject to criticism.”
The final story recounts the school’s seventh year, during which its students defiantly march away in a Lord of the Flies-style abnegation of their customary subordinate status.
The rebellion at Whiteman School in the spring of 1964 may well have been one of thefirst student protests, and more than likely, the very first at the secondary school level . . . I recently decided to articulate in print form my take on that tumultuous year. Everything I write I believe to be true, and while I know memory bends, all I recount I believe to have happened. (from “Teenager Rebellion”)
As well as first person narrative of remembered experience, Reflections also contains examples of Whittum’s fiction, and his poetry is skillful and impactive, as in the brilliantly titled “Panic in the Pasture,” a poem of extreme linguistic economy, a simple graph of a very few words, which may be interpreted in a number of ways, all productive of different reactions.
Despite having taken some classes a long time ago, this reporter is unfamiliar with the rules and laws of the various poetic forms – in which Mr. Whittum is likely well-versed, considering his background and the nature of his chosen career. This reporter has always preferred think of composition as an unpredictable adventure in a jungle, but he will say – as one who has come far enough, using that approach, to have develop a fairly reliable gauge of what he likes, that some of these lines, like “The children overtake the dark / They rush the stars, they push the moon“ from “A Sparkle From the Heart” (another poem later in the book commemorating Whittum’s observance of one of his daughters’ first encounter with the joy and brilliance of fireworks), are indicative of the author’s inherent skill at exactly the kind of strong, deep phrasing required for powerful verse, in this reporter’s opinion (cough), which aptitude remains consistent in all the poems here. In such Blakean couplets like, ”Can I surmise how winter will restore / what summer similarities ignore.” (from “Spruce and Pine in Winter Time”) or “A distillate of all experience / Into one moment of infinite joy.” (from “Day of the Badger”), for example.
Reflections from Northwest Colorado by John Whittum is notable among new books by local authors for a number of reasons, chief among them that his memoir serves as a pole for the history of development in that region over the last half-century. Whittum will be celebrating the release of his book, Reflections from Northtwest Colorado at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore, 68 9th St. in Steamboat Springs, CO (80487) on Friday, May 6 from 4 PM to 6 PM.