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Life Is Short but Wide

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2010-04-06
  • Publisher: Anchor

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Like the small towns J. California Cooper has so vividly portrayed in her previous novels, Wideland, Oklahoma, is home to ordinary Americans with big hearts. Among them are newlyweds Irene and Val, who graciously allow their neighbors, Bertha and Joseph, to build a house on their land. Together the couples have three daughters, all who struggle to find love and success in the changing world. But although the years may bring hardship and heartache, they also teach the importance of living one’s life boldly and squeezing out every possible moment of joy.

An irresistible story of faith and family, Life Is Short But Wide proves that no matter who you are or what you do, you are never too old to chase your dreams.

What a voice . . . Cooper celebrates family, freedom, perseverance, life, and . . . powerful voices finally heard.” —Atlanta Constitution

Cooper’s work reminds us of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston…. It’s a delight to read.” —Alice Walker

J. California Cooper is my favorite storyteller. What songs she sings.” —Nikki Giovanni

“Yes, life is short. Luckily, its also filled with the magic of beguiling and provocative books like this.” —The Newark Star-Ledger

“J. California Cooper is absolutely brilliant. One of the best writers of all time.” —Jill Scott

“My fifth-grade teacher . . . one day said, ‘Instead of calling and asking me for advice, try reading J. California Cooper.’” —Halle Berry

“Wonderfully crafted. . . . Cooper’s characteristic motherly wit carries an appealing raft of characters through a world tougher than it is tender, but touched with beauty and wisdom.” —Publishers Weekly

“A genius storyteller.” —The Boston Globe

Author Biography

J. California Cooper is the author of four novels, including, most recently, Some People, Some Other Place, and six collections of stories. She was honored as Black Playwright of the Year, and has received the American Book Award, the James Baldwin Writing Award, and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association. She lives in California.

Supplemental Materials

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The New copy of this book will include any supplemental materials advertised. Please check the title of the book to determine if it should include any access cards, study guides, lab manuals, CDs, etc.

The Used, Rental and eBook copies of this book are not guaranteed to include any supplemental materials. Typically, only the book itself is included. This is true even if the title states it includes any access cards, study guides, lab manuals, CDs, etc.


Chapter 1
Occasionally, actually quite often, someone will refer to a family or person as dysfunctional. Which, I believe, is a sign of ignorance, for the obvious reason that 70 or 80 percent of all the people who have ever lived were dysfunctional. The other 20 or 30 percent tried to be, or had sense enough to be, a little wiser. Among them, the greatest were disliked, hated, killed, or crucified. And they weren't even perfect, except one.
For instance they crucified Jesus of Nazareth, and all his disciples, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and others. People who thought as much or more of others than they did of themselves. People killed the people who seemed to wish good things for mankind.
Throughout the history of mankind the struggle for survival on this earth has been extremely, horribly intense and never ending. Wars have been fought, almost continually, when there were enough people to pick sides and fight; and enough dispensable men to be called on to die for their leader, country, or the current god. Then there was slavery; every country or body wanted a slave. Someone to do their work or make money for them. Sometimes slaves were all a war was about. And, if not a whole war, then groups, communities, families, and friends would fight and kill each other. Ain't that interesting?
Not just African slaves; every nationality alive has been a slave, at some time, for some other nation. Believe me. It would seem most of mankind likes killing. For Greed of something, for Gold or financial reward. They doing it now!
You probably know all about history so let us skip, for my purpose, to the twentieth century. People are still fighting slavery in one form or another. In many parts of the world women are fighting for food or medicine, a roof for their children, or some way to keep from being raped, while some other females fight to be able to show their naked behinds, breasts, and everything else they can get out in front of somebody.
In several other parts of the world people are being denied their life, or stolen from their life to be sold. Children are being stolen, every day, killed or given away. Everything I can think of, you already know.
I believe all anyone wants is to be "happy." Everyone just wants to be happy. Why are they not happy? Other people.
Black people, Brown people, Native Americans are treated abominably. White races are not excluded. Poor white people have a struggle to survive also, no matter what they may think. Poor is the operative word. And yet . . . No one wants to leave this earth. Hate to die or scared to die.
I am trying to say too much, and don't know how to say it. But I have often wondered at the Cain and Abel murder. I have wondered who Cain's progeny are. He and the wife he took to the land of Nod had children; and so on and so on, until today. There must be millions of them now. Sometime I think I recognize one on television; they would be the ones trying to run the world.
When you look at history and life, you know the rich, and most anyone in high places, did not get there by being honest or good . . . a few, maybe. If not they, then an ancestor lied and deceived, even murdered.
You may believe me or not. I don't mind. The truth is not popular.
I truly marvel at the struggle for Love.
Parents, children, relatives, all people are part of it. I'm leaving out the insane or mindless; but they, too, usually respond to love and kindness.
Some people think this struggle for love makes the doing of all mean, petty, even evil things necessary. Why? Stupid and mindless is my guess. Because it ain't going to turn out right for them.
Sometimes it's a struggle to get over self-love first. Sometimes in this struggle for love, we give up, or lose, everything, and we still don't achieve love. Some people don't even recognize real love when it comes without being called or sought.
Well, I want to tell you this story: this strange, sad, kind'a beautiful, life story. I want to speak about Love, chile.
Chapter 2
In the early twentieth century Wideland was an ordinary, small town in Oklahoma where the ordinary people were beginning to prosper a bit, and the town was expanding. The railroad came in 1907, and by 1910, the steady building-up, all the activity and prosperity, had drawn people of many backgrounds to Wideland. Local calamities, diseases, floods, hurricanes, famine, also sent many people out of their lands, or homes, to seek something better.
In a restless, young country there are many poor people seeking a place where they might find riches, if possible, labor, surely, and pursue some happiness. As usual, there were small investors seeking a better start where everything was needed; items and services were bought and traded briskly. The mentally crooked always follow, bringing hurt and pain for someone.
Wideland was a nice little town grown up from a village with a good reputation. People came seeking to make a home for their family and future. Large enough to have several churches, two pharmacies, and two doctors, one good one; they both served the small hospital that was for emergencies. A variety of small clothing stores for men and women; working clothes, nothing too grand. Small secondhand shops for everyone.
Wideland even had two small banks, whose owners created the Society, those that considered themselves the elite. There were lumberyards, a hardware store, and a few good-sized stores for buying food and necessities. Farmers and others provided a place for people to bring things to sell or barter; things someone else invariably needed, for most all the people were the striving poor.
A small police station, a small shack for the post office, and a new courthouse to be proud of were built near a large creek diverted off the Long River that ran alongside Wideland. There were many whites, some Blacks and Native Americans, a few Asians. For a long time there was one lawyer, now there were two. More people meant more problems, so the attorneys made a living.
Wideland had good weather and bad weather, none was extreme except occasionally. It was an easy town to live in.
An African American cowboy, Val Strong, and his Native American Cherokee brother-friend, Wings, came to town to find, or build, a house for the pretty young woman Val had recently married, Irene Lowell. They rode in on horses they had caught, broken, and trained themselves. That was their way of life.
Val's mother was a strong, lovely Native American. His father, an African, Black and roundly muscled, strong. He had escaped from his slave-master and lived with the Indians for years. He had been killed in one of the wars or skirmishes the U.S. fought against the Indians. For the land the Indian was born in, and the land the white man had sailed into.
Val had been raised with the Native Americans and in his heart he was a young, strong Brave. Wings had been his friend of his youth, and indeed, he was a young strong Brave.
They wore cowboy hats, and leather pants and boots, even with spurs on their boots. They were handsome, indeed! They worked together running cattle for anyone who had cattle to run from one destination to another. Sometimes they crossed several states: New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, Arizona, even New Jersey, and farther. They had driven cattle as far east as they cared to go. They were leery about people who were too strange. They were quiet and kept themselves apart, except from the men they worked with whom they liked.
Herding cattle paid good money. Val had saved all his working life, about fifteen years. Now he had a sizable sum to purchase a house for his new wife; she did not want to live on a reservation. He was eager to start his new life. He was in love.
As he had passed through Wideland many times, he observed the town and the people. The sky was deep blue and stretched to far, far yonder, and was full of enchanting voluptuous clouds. Plenty of pretty birds, fish, and animals lived there. He loved all the natural beauty of God's creations. He also wanted to stay near the reservation.
He didn't know how deep the little town was, but he knew it was long; it stretched a long, long way to the north and south, following the river. He decided his wife, and later, children, would be safe when he was away on a cattle drive. It seemed a town where a family could live in contentment.
The handsome dark-brown sunburnt man, Val, was around thirty years old when he married Irene. Irene was from a little town near Wideland. She had learned to read, write, and cipher, and shared her knowledge in a little shack with a sign nailed over the door saying "School." She had no teaching certificate, but taught all ages and colors. She dearly needed the money for she meant to be independent, and had no help.
There weren't many students in her classes at a time; who had the money? Older people knew the advantages of being able to read and count; they came, and brought their children and grandchildren. She charged a pittance, and that was all her living.
She helped serve two meals a day at Mz. Shaw's rooming house, where she lived. Irene also helped clean the other guest rooms in exchange for her own tiny room, and the small shack she used for a teaching classroom.
Mz. Shaw owned the room and boardinghouse. There weren't many boarders at Mz. Shaw's, and they were most all men. Irene kept her eyes down in the dining room as she did her duties. But when Val came through the town on a cattle drive and stayed overnight at Mz. Shaw's, she had noticed him.
She saw that whenever she raised her eyes, he was always looking at her. After the first time he saw her, he returned about every two weeks. He changed; he did not sleep out in the fields under the stars with his herding partner, Wings (sometime called just "Wing"), as had been his habit. He slept at Mz. Shaw's when in Wideland.
Mz. Shaw's was not the best place to stay in Wideland, but colored people were not allowed to stay everywhere, and Val would not spend his hard-earned money just for a place to sleep. He was used to sleeping outdoors under the stars until winter moved over the land. Mz. Shaw's was honest, clean, and cheap, and the food, cooked by Mz. Shaw, was good, better than that at the "best" houses.
Irene had tried to pay as little attention to Val as necessary, except a few quick glances across the table. She thought he was handsome, but she was looking for a better job or way to make a living. She would rather have a good job than a poor husband. "He probably already married anyway," she thought, and put him out of her mind. "No time for that foolishness!"
She thought a lot about a husband; someone to help her, protect her. She prayed a lot at night, asking, "Lord, please direct my feet cause how can I know what to do?" But Irene had good sense, and the Lord probably let her lead her own self; because how else is a person going to learn?
Val had asked Mz. Shaw if Miss Lowell was married, and when he found out she was not, he thought of her even more often. After he had that information, on his next trip he brought her an ocean-colored turquoise flower. He gave it to her, saying, "That's what color the ocean look like." She could only sigh, "Ohhhhhhhhh," with a smile.
Irene loved the lovely little jewel. It was her first real gift from a man she did not think could be expecting anything from her. She looked into his face, still smiling as she thanked him, and walked away. She had not had so many experiences that she knew exactly what a person did in "courting," she had learned mostly what not to do. But she remembered to smile at him again as she placed his gift gently and firmly in her apron pocket.
Irene was a medium-sized woman, bright and healthy. She had smooth brown_gold skin and clear, hazel eyes like dusky sunshine. Even though they were sad eyes, they were bright and honest, seeking some happiness, yet reserved and subdued. Irene was twenty-two years old. She had been struggling to survive ever since she could remember. She had run away from a motherless home, at last, five years ago. Running from her father, brothers, uncles, and white men pulling after her body.
Irene, clean, mannerable, and presenting herself well, had found work as a servant to a family with three children. It was a fairly wealthy house, and they spent good money on the children's education and tutors. Irene always sat in on all their classes for the five years she was there.
She had learned to read and write and more, along with the children. She was alert to life's demands. Her learning was her tool for her living. Now she taught what she had learned. She still had her same books, loved, worn, but very well cared for. She taught from them, sometimes copied from them for her students, but seldom let anyone touch them. No, sir!
Now, Val thought of her very, very often. He loved his mother and his Indian family, but sometimes he had looked at American houses in passing. He wondered at the privacy and quiet inside those rooms. Native Americans lived in many types of structures. Some even built low, flat houses similar to the white man's before the white man came. But those were Indians who worked the land, not migrating with the seasons and animals.
Val, being a young healthy man, looked at all women, their clothes, their ways. He was handsome, and they looked at him, too. He did not like the white women because of his family's history with white men, but he knew there were Brown women, and women who were Black, like his father. And now, he had met one. He liked the women on his reservation, but felt like they were sisters. "Oh, Irene, Irene."
It had taken a few months, though he asked often, before Irene allowed him to take walks with her. She knew about men and how they could be. She had a healthy and wise fear of them.
Val, with good sense, was patient. He was a thoughtful man, and discovered she liked books and learning. He could not read, but he had brought her a few books here and there, wherever he could find them. Spelling books, simple reading books, and even one from Europe he had found in a bartering shop. The books pleased her; that made him happy.

From the Hardcover edition.

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