How to Speak Midwestern
By Edward McClelland. (Belt, 147 pages, $16.95.)
Not sure what’s behind a sudden flush of books about how we talk, but here’s guessing that Edward McClelland’s is the quirkiest. McClelland, a longtime political journalist in Chicago, divides a region where no one thinks they have an accent into three sections: the Inland North, the Midland and North Central, wherein lies Minnesota. There is scholarship here, a deep understanding of grammar and ethnic history, as he traces certain speech patterns down to a single city. But McClelland, a Michigan native, also has a voice, opinions and a few punchlines. In the South, he writes, “every compliment is an insult. ‘Well, aren’t you kind?’ In the Midwest, you’re never sure if you’re being complimented or insulted,” due to passive-aggressive natures. Midwesterners will quibble about some conclusions, of course, partly because lifetime residents are dwindling. Fewer know that “Jeet?” means “Have you had your supper yet?” But that’s the point of this slim, fascinating volume: to document singular speech patterns that often convey more than the actual words. This is a book for the cabin, or the bathroom. If you can’t find it for sale, hey, I’ll borrow it to you.
Alice in France: The World War I Letters of Alice M. O’Brien
Edited by Nancy O’Brien Wagner. (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 176 pages, $17.95.)
In her first observation of World War I France, Alice O’Brien wrote to her parents: “Paris looks just the same, except that the lack of traffic seems queer and so many of the shops are closed. We have already noticed how black prevails — so many widows.”
O’Brien grew up on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, the daughter of lumberman William O’Brien. She had a genteel upbringing and attended finishing school out East. But she also had a strong sense of independence and adventure, and when World War I began, she joined the American Fund for French Wounded and set off for Paris.
This collection of letters home, edited by her grandniece, starts out sedate (“Here I am out on deck in my steamer chair and leather coat just as cozy as can be”) but quickly grows more exciting. Over the next four years, O’Brien worked as a truck driver, mechanic and nurse, moving from place to place and often in the thick of things. (“The offensive is on again,” she writes in July 1918. “The Hospitals will be crowded to the doors again.”)
Her letters are measured and sensible and often show flashes of humor. “The fly season is here, and, I regret to say, the French fly is even more persistent than his American brother.”
These charming letters open a window into the important work that women did during that war. They also give us a St. Paul woman who was observant, interested, intelligent and brave.
Nancy O’Brien Wagner will read and sign books at “The War That Changed Us: Songs and Stories From World War I America,” 7 p.m. April 7, Fitzgerald Theater, $25-$30, and at 7 p.m. April 11, Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, free.