Joe Moreland had an upbringing that a lot of people who didn’t know better might consider a “tough” childhood. When you hear him say early on in his memoir that most of his childhood was spent following his parents around from one shack to the next in Oregon’s Coast Range, or sometimes staying with relatives in other parts of Oregon, you can’t help but imagine the trials and travails of the Joad family in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. The Joads lose their farm to the bank and are forced to sell what little they own in order to pile the rest of it into an old jalopy and set off down the road for California. The saga was all too familiar for thousands of people displaced by poverty and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
But Steinbeck’s masterpiece was set during the height of the Depression, and Joe Moreland grew up in the 40s and 50s.
His experiences knocking around the country with his unusual family lack any of that desperate sense of poverty that the “Okies” suffered. In fact, they seem to have more in common with “back to nature” hippie movements than with the disheartened vagrants of the Depression.
On the contrary, the overwhelming mood in Moreland’s delightful memoir is the unadulterated joy of childhood. Part of what lends the book this sense of happiness is the way the extended family, scattered around the Oregon country, nevertheless seems so close-knit and fun-loving. It’s almost like Joe’s own branch of the Moreland clan decided to conduct a slow-motion family reunion by driving from place to place around the state to visit kinfolks.
The family did seem to have a kind of home base in Philomath, Ore., where Joe started (or tried to start) first grade in 1948. But then his father abruptly pulled up stakes and moved the family to a house in the woods above Creswell, Ore.
This new house was a real surprise to the Moreland kids: not only did it have a telephone, which they had never seen before, but it had running water! Of course, their stay there was shorter than imagined, and Moreland and his brothers were soon attending school with a new set of strangers.
Moreland is a natural storyteller, vividly painting pictures in the reader’s mind of the colorful characters who defined his childhood and narrating events that we all seem to have our own versions of, especially vignettes that involve learning some universal life lesson about honesty or “doing the right thing.”
At one point, for example, his father comes home on payday with a pocketful of money and wants to take the family to a movie in town. But one of Joe’s scalawag brothers, Ed, had earlier decided to prank their father by spreading tacks across the driveway.
The prank worked perfectly, but a Model A with three flat tires to repair meant there would be no trip to town to see Abbott and Costello’s latest.
Who doesn’t remember some childish stunt of our own that curiously backfired and taught us a lesson we would rather not have had to learn? “If truth were told,” Moreland writes, “I think both of us would have preferred the belt to missing the movie that night.”
In spite of, or rather, probably because of his interesting and unusual upbringing and his natural-born curiosity and intelligence, Moreland became a hydrologist with the USGS in Idaho and Montana and had a successful career, authoring over 35 scientific papers. When he retired, he made his foray into creative nonfiction.
If you enjoy a well-written tale of what life was like back in the 50s and 60s as a kid in the Oregon country, I highly recommend seeking out a copy of this book, A Place to Lay My Head (LULU PRESS, 2012). — MSN