Eagle Book Bindery Publishing Company (ISBN 978-1-934333-75-4)
If you had been a journalist for 50 years, what stories and columns would you select for a collection of 273 pages?
That was the challenge Iowa journalist Max McElwain faced in Sharing a Napkin: Selected Writings 1969-2019. McElwain has succeeded admirably in producing this selection.
What first struck me about McElwain’s collection was the sheer audacity, assuredness and intellectual vigor he showed at age 17 in his “Up Against the Wall” selections starting in July 1969 in The Woodbine (Iowa) Twiner where he bookended his long journalism career. The last selection in the book comes from The Twiner-Herald March 28, 2018, issue.
What came between was publication in The Council Bluffs Nonpareil, The Kansas City Evening News, The Kansas City Star (where Ernest Hemingway got his start), The Omaha World-Herald and Rolling Stone, among many other papers in Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.
McElwain belongs to the fraternity of us having “ink in our veins”. No doubt his blood runs as black as tomorrow’s headlines.
McElwain’s stories and essays run the gamut from sports to columns. I was especially taken by his unpublished essay about his mother, “The school-teaching princess”.
In every high school in America, there are those students who never find a niche past their lockers. They are the ones who aren’t pretty and loud enough to be cheerleaders, not strong enough to be athletes, not popular enough to lead a club. My mother always found room for them – in a glee club, on a piano bench, in her music room. She got into trouble when students of hers checked out of study halls so they might spend time in the music room. Shy but pretty country girls, who had no place in school before, found themselves singing in my grandmother’s chorus, and they felt like somebody.
Years later, I would sit in the Corn Palace in Woodbine and girls I didn’t know would walk up to me and say, “You don’t know how much your mother did for me.”
McElwain was not afraid to challenge sacred cows. In “The Only Fun in Farmland”, published in Sport Magazine in 1985, he contrasted the farm crisis with the unfading support of the Iowa Hawkeyes football beam.
Now on these pale Saturday afternoons, as lives outside the stadium shatter, and land values and market prices tumble and debts pile up, the only numbers that matter are meaningless numbers on a scoreboard.
McElwain’s collection goes beyond one man’s journalism career. It’s a slice of American pie that we can all bite in and chew and tell ourselves, wasn’t it lovely.
(Michael Tidemann writes from Estherville, Iowa. His author page is amazon.com/author/michaeltidemann.)
Sentinel Rural News is the leading source of news for Central Wisconsin. We utilize local writers as our content creators while including contributors of expertise from across the country.