12 June 2012

Book Review: 'The Smell of the Soil'

"The Smell of the Soil: Writing Your Stories"

Former Eastern Iowa newspaper reporter Dale Kueter, 74, is author of 2007's "Vietnam Sons," the non-fiction story of how one veteran struggled to reconcile whether his test-firing of a machine gun indirectly resulted in an Iowa friend's death.

More recently, Kueter has written ""The Smell of the Soil: Writing Your Stories" a memoir-by-example through which Kueter expresses the hope that the musings of one man might prove to be a personal history-writing Muse to others.

He pairs each chapter's title with a writing prompt, helpfully engaging readers in easy conversations, posing questions and cues to inspire readers toward their own explorations and revelations. The format is similar to that of a blog, easy to digest in whole or in random parts. This is a book for would-be writers and self-proclaimed non-writers alike.

With a story titled "Finding Marvin's Ring" (Chapter 23), Kueter asks, "Who was your favorite teacher?"

After "Rained out Baseball" (Chapter 63), he prompts: "Write about trips gone awry."

"I have no war stories," Kueter claims in the title of Chapter 76. He then proceeds to deliver a few pages not only about his own experiences in Iowa National Guard, between the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam, but also about the service of other members of his family. The lesson at hand? "Write about your military service."

Kueter joined in the Iowa Army National Guard in 1959, and served until 1965. He was a member of "A" Battery, 185th Field Artillery Battalion (185th F.A.)—a unit then headquartered in Clinton, Iowa. The battalion was historically affiliated with the 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. (Note the "Red Bull" shoulder patch incorporated into the 185 FA's unit crest, at right.)

Stories of service need not be heroic or dramatic, Kueter suggests, to be one day be considered valuable insights into family and history. Consider, for example, how being a citizen-soldier in the 21st century compares with Kueter's description of Cold War duty:
[My service] entailed a six-year military obligation: six months of active duty and the rest inactive. There would be weekly training (every Tuesday night for several hours) and two weeks during the summer. Clinton had two units of Army artillery, and I landed in "A" Battery. Able to type, I finagled my way to eventually be company clerk.
In his book's introduction, Kueter cites as a touchstone Tim O'Brien's "The Things they Carried," a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories regarding the Vietnam War, published in 1990 when O'Brien was 43 years old. Kueter quotes O'Brien:
Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
Veterans: Remember your story. Record your story. Tell your story.

"Attack! Attack! Attack!"

*****

Later this week, more of Kueter's chapter on military service will appear as a guest-post on the Red Bull Rising blog.
"The Smell of the Soil" is available as a trade-format paperback and in Amazon Kindle format.

A two-time survivor of colon cancer, Kueter is donating proceeds from the sale of "The Smell of the Soil" to cancer research.

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