22 June 2009

Last Century In Vogue

For a while, it seems that I couldn't turn around without seeing Steampunk, a mix of Victorian and science fiction sensibilities (tales available for your iPod here), or the genuine 19th century dramas of Laura Engles Wilder's Little House books, which my children so adore (just as their mother did before them). These days, however, for whatever reason, the pervasive era of the moment seems to be early 20th century.

Right at the cusp of it all is Sarah Ellerton, whose newest webcomic, Dreamless, in collaboration with the writer behind the contemporary melodramatic love story webcomic Marry Me, is the stunningly compelling love story of an American girl and Japanese boy psychically bound to each other around the time of World War II. Ellerton's other, older webcomic in progress, is the romantic steampunk drama, The Phoenix Requiem.

Also hot in webcomic land are a Tarzan/Indiana Jones era effort called The Meek, and the Sound of Music era nun tale, Sister Claire. Pregnant Nun. Holy Crap.

Meanwhile, my two children have rediscovered the Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright (featuring The Saturdays, The Four Story Mistake, Then There Were Five and Spiderweb For Two) about a large family raised by a single dad just outside New York City in the 1940s. They are also just departing an exploration of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, likewise set in the war years, and are still in their waning days of a great love for Paddington Bear, another English delight for children set just as little later in time, the creation of writer Michael Bond and illustrator Peggy Fortnum. Mid-20th century girl detective Nancy Drew has also made it into the reading cycle.

Our father's day trip to Royal Gorge, itself an enclave of the early 20th century past with its 1929 bridge, 1931 inclined railway, old fashioned passenger rail line, 1969 cable car and the trappings and feel that have imprinted on the place in its founding era, recalled The Moon By Night, by Madeleine L'Engle, a chronicle of a cross-country camping trip (including Colorado's Mesa Verde) in the early 1960s that is the immediate sequel to her novel Meet the Austins, which the children loved. Meet the Austins is one of those short, simple, clean stories of emotional grief that proves that people don't have to be advanced in age to have intense emotions and respond to them. The Moon By Night is young adult fare, featuring a first romance, so my youngest may not appreciate it quite as much. Emotions like grief, friendship and sibling love seem to come to fruition sooner than romantic love. But, both my children seem to have a keen love of the slice of life storytelling from other times and places that I didn't acquire until much later, so they may yet enjoy it.

Anyway, Royal Gorge isn't quite a kitschy as nearby Manitou Springs (something that is a testament to the power of its awesome and striking natural features), although it has some of the same Route 66 flavor. It also has a more international draw (Japanese tourists, in particular, seem to be out in force across Colorado lately, for that matter). It is ideal, at any rate, as an outing for elementary school children, who are neither to young nor too teen hormone infused to put themselves in peril, and not so cynical and jades that they discount the mild thrills and tame amusements (like a mini-zoo and classic carousel) that it offers.

The other fascination for me, although it didn't capture the kid's interest at all, with Cañon City, is the queer coexistence the place offers between being just one more quaint rural Colorado town near a decent reservoir and camping areas, and its legacy (it was the home of the territorial prison even before Colorado become a state) and present as one of the largest prison complexes in the nation, a dominant piece of the local economy (which has incidentally welcomed the prospect of more prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba). One of the other guests at Royal Gorge (which incidentally, is a city park, not a state or federal one), proudly wore her federal bureau of prisons t-shirt and remarked obliquely while being sassed at by her young son that she'd had worse things said to her by worse people. One suspects that the overabundance of motels in the area for its size reflects not just summer "tour the West" traffic, but also an all year around parade of family members visiting loved ones in prison.

Cañon City also has one more institution that completes its complex retro tapestry, Holy Cross Abbey, and its accompanying winery. The Abbey, founded in 1886, closed in 2006, and its boarding school closed in 1985. Before reaching its final destination, it periodically migrated across the state, from Breckenridge to Boulder to Pueblo. It conjures up Harry Potter-like images of what it must have been to study and live in its 200 acre estate (more acreage, in fact, that the Royal Gorge park). One also wonders if any prison guards felt the need to retire to the Abbey, either as monks or lay occupants, to come to terms with the seemingly inescapable parade of violence, abuse, injustice and wasted lives encountered during their service.

Perhaps it is fitting that Cañon City is an enclave of the past, as many of its institutional residents have never encountered our world in its more modern state, and this may help those who visit them interface with them.


Michael Malak said...

Indeed, the term "mid-century modern" has come to glorify the horrible patio blocks, glass blocks, and flat roofs that I prefer to call "Breezeway Motel archtecture".

Just because it's popular doesn't mean it has beauty.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Ahh, beauty. My wife loves that kind of architecture, I hate it. Eye of beholder . . .

Chas S. Clifton said...

To the best of my knowledge, as a former Cañon City resident, no prison officer ever entered the Benedictine order at Holy Cross Abbey.

All of the monks whom I encountered had followed that vocation their entire adult lives.

What killed the abbey's high school, in fact, back in the 1980s, was the declining number of vocations, putting the school in a vise between wanting to keep tuition reasonable and needing lay teachers who required actual salaries, because fewer monks were available to teach.