It was their ordinariness that made them matter. . . . Individual life was by its very nature a tragedy; it came to an end; for all of us it was going to be a short way to that grave. But the ordinary life of a society was a comedy that just kept going on. What was at the heart of those days?

This is a book I wish I’d written, a love story of the largest and best kind. Like most people, I remember my childhood, that eternal summer, in a glow of happy forgetfulness, simply out of pleasure. Richard Critchfield “remembers,” as if he had been there, his parents’ lives and society before he was born, and shows why it’s important to remember and to go back even further than our own birth: Because like it or not, we are attached. We are not historyless like Adam, breathed out of nothing; we’re drawn from the narrow end of a real and compelling vortex—history—vivid with blood and bone, passion and fear, as it touches down to make us in the here and now. Part of everything that was and will be, we move up the funnel of history to make room for those whose history we will be. It was and is all real, all immediate in its time, and Richard Critchfield has the skill and insight to make it seem real and immediate.

In simple, exquisitely appropriate language, much of it taken from letters and newspaper accounts and interviews over many years, he introduces his mother, Anne, her family, the Williamses of Iowa, old Quaker stock, and his father’s, the less respectable Critchfields of North Dakota. We witness his mother’s less-than-perfect wedding day (her father said to her, hours before the ceremony, “I wish you were marrying Forrest [Claxton] instead”). Jim Critchfield, the author’s father, brings his new wife to live in Hunter, North Dakota—she would write, “I was to hate wind for the rest of my life”—and they began their family in 1915; the author was the last of five children, born in 1931.

Anne held the home together; Jim stirred things up, made them interesting, committed bigger, heartier sins (that eventually killed him in his 40’s), and was just as heartily sorry. A gentle, skilled doctor, and a doctor’s son, he spent each day up to his elbows in the real life of the community. Even though this book begins and ends with Anne, it feels as if it’s about Jim.

Interviewing old-timers who knew his parents, Richard Critchfield lays image upon image in language so inviting that it seems like fiction, and we come to know intimately not only his parents and family but also the entire society and era they inhabited. This is no vague nostalgic trek back to the nonexistent “good old days” or mere homage to a loved mother, but a gifted writer’s careful examination of all available resources, to reconstruct the rhythm and immediacy of the past—its sounds and smells, human passions and disappointments. Critchfield has resuscitated those days, given them breath and pulse, and made their relevance to us, now, evident.

“What was at the heart of those days? Things like the taste of bread right out of the oven when you were good and hungry . . . The way the late, flat sun sent long slants of light across the prairie grass . . . Those times. They’ll never come again. But somewhere . . . Somebody was always going to be swinging a golf club or a baseball bat or playing a piano or cracking a joke. Or taking a deep breath and drowsing off to sleep or dreaming or waking up. Or passing from youth to old age, and hardly knowing where all the years went. Time, in the instant, in the irrecoverable passing moment, time continuous and remembered, going on and on . . . I wish I’d known them better.”

Dying at the age of 95, nearly half her lifetime lived after the death of the husband she loved even through his long affair with a young girl (“I never wanted to marry her. She was just a girlfriend. You were my wife,” he said as he lay dying of alcoholism), Anne Critchfield asked her youngest son, born only a few years before his father’s death, to write about their life, about North Dakota and Iowa in those days. Critchfield thought, “What to say? And what if I did as she said? How could I write about Father? I asked her, ‘How can I write about somebody I can’t remember at all? I mean, say of all the people we know, who is like him?'” And his mother answered, “You are.”


[Those Days: An American Album, by Richard Critchfield (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday) $19.95]