Book Report: Wonderful memoir of a home town

I was very happy to receive “Walking the Rails,” by Ethel Erickson Radner (available at; or, $13.95 paper; $23.95 hardcover; $3.99 e-book).

It’s always interesting to read a memoir by someone you know because you normally find out that you didn’t know as much about the person as you thought.

Ethel Radner, nee Erickson, grew up a block from where I spent my youth.

In a small town like Whitehall, even little kids think they know what’s going on.

But I didn’t know Ethel Erickson very well. She was a year older than I.

She was very bright; I was pretty dull. She was earnest; I wasn’t.  She was a Baptist; I was a Lutheran.

In high school she didn’t dance; dancing was all that I did.

Her father Arvid was an important man in town, the depot agent; my father was a bartender..

And now she’s written this wonderful book, her fourth, about growing up in our town in a loving household with mom and dad and six brothers and sisters.

Of weathering the tail end of the Great Depression and the hardships of World War II.

Ethel has plumbed the family scrap books, her father’s diary, her own diary, photo albums and all manner of memorabilia to come up with a portrait of life in small town America in the middle of the last century.

Everyone in my hometown should read this book.

In fact, when I’m finished with this review, I’m sending it to the archives at Whitehall High School, so today’s kids can read about what it was like for their great-grandparents when they were kids.

They’d learn about canning vegetables from Victory Gardens, about Memorial Day Parades, about friends and foes and cliques and loners. (I’m even in the book.

When, in social problems class, our teacher Mrs. Keeler says I’m being “asinine.” I ask her what that means.)

There are glorious moments when her father takes Ethel, his youngest, for rides in the Pontiac through the coulees that punctuate the Trempealeau County landscape.

Mr. Erickson is a free thinker and is enthralled with the beauty of their surroundings and Ethel brings his enthusiasm to life with exquisite descriptions of places like Dissmore Coulee, Steig Coulee and Irvin Coulee, the latter at its most glorious.

Ethel’s mother is hardworking, capable and, thank goodness, keeps a diary.

She’s a staunch Baptist and the kids have to do without makeup, dancing, movies and the like.

Even in grade school Ethel has her doubts, especially about the new preacher who makes Rick Santorum sound like a raging atheist.

In an especially poignant passage, Ethel is not permitted to go to the prom and spends the day before making corsages at the Baptist floral shop for her Lutheran girlfriends.

Her siblings grow up and a highlight of Ethel’s youth is a trip to the big city of Minneapolis where her older sister Avis takes her to hear Yehudi Menuhin play his violin.

She also journeys to Madison where she plays her French horn at state music contests.

At book’s end, she’s off to North Park College in Chicago and a career and marriage, a long way from the rails of the Green Bay & Western RR’s steel rails she teetered on as a youth with her pal and mine, Rita Olson.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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