Book report: Fitzgerald diary a disappointment

I’ll probably get in trouble for kicking the hind quarter of one of Minnesota’s sacred cows, but I’ve got to express my disappointment for a book that’s getting play in the media.

It’s “The Thoughtbook of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Secret Boyhood Diary” edited by Dave Page (University of Minnesota Press, $12.95, paper).
Normally, I’m a big fan of the U of M press’s books published under the Fesler Lampert imprint.

A year or so back I enthusiastically reviewed CoCo Irvine’s diary about growing up on Summit Avenue, edited by an old friend, Peg Meier, and published under the Fesler Lampert imprint, titled “Through No Fault of My Own..”

It said lots about the privileged rich who dwelt along Summit Avenue years ago. So here comes another Summit Avenue book, this one by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a diary written when Fitzgerald was 16 years old.

Boy oh boy! What wonders will it reveal in 27 pages? Not many, as it turns out.

To put it bluntly it’s 27 pages of teenage drivel about his girl friends and which he likes best and which one’s most unpopular (Una Bachus).  About all we learn is that Fitzgerald was a poor speller (and was into his adulthood).

But in typically scholarly fashion, editor Dave Page struggles to show how these teenage maunderings presage the adult Fitzgerald’s work.

I’ll pass on this one. And I’ll wonder if Coco Irvine should have taken up novel writing.

Let’s keep this entire column regional. The next two books, although not written by literary lions probably do more to tell us about our history than a zillion teenage diaries.

Did you ever hear of Chester Hjortur Thordarson? No? Neither did I.

But know I know a good deal about his remarkable man having just read “Thordarson and Rock Island,” by Richard Purinton (Island Bayou Press, $27).

We’re not talking about Rock Island in the Twin Cities, but about Rock Island, Wis., north of Sturgeon Bay.

Thordarson was a poor immigrant from Iceland who became and inventor, a manufacturer of electrical equipment, a yachtsman, amateur botanist, bibliogphile and a very rich man.

With his riches he bought a huge acreage in Lake Michigan and began to build a compound where he could entertain friends and business associates, like notorious Chicago mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, attorney Clarence Darrow and University of Wisconsin president E.B. Fred.

His buildings are made of native stone and reflect interest in his Icelandic heritage. It’s now a Wisconsin State Park.

Purinton, a resident of Washington Island, discovered his voluminous letters and photographs and resolved to collect them, with explanations in this fascinating book about one immigrant’s success in the New World.

“A Heritage Not Forgotten,” by Marvin B. Eppard (Trafford Publishing, $17.33 – order online at – tells another immigrant story.

Eppard, a retired pastor and missionary, discovered letters and handwritten letters written by his ancestors who came from Germany in the 19th century and settled in Fillmore and Mower counties.

These were common folks, Eppard explains in a preface and writes they deserve to be remembered for their struggles and their adherence to the pietist faith.

Eppard calls his book a “novel,” but it’s not in the strictest sense.  Because it’s true.

However he has chosen to tell their true story in vignettes and created dialog that bear a similarity to a fictional story.

Some of the vignettes are charming as Eppard’s grandparents move from Germany to the streets of New York, on to places like Brandon and Princeton, Wisconsin and finally to Minnesota.

Eppard chronicles religious conversions, horse and oxen trading, courtship practices.

One of my favorites tells the story of one settle who manages a bumper crop of wheat and when he finishes placing the grain bundles into seven bundle “shocks”, he falls in bed exhausted.

The worn out farmer tosses and turns in bed and finally grabs a pillow from under his wife’s head, jumps out of bed and heads for the window, where he thinks he’s shocking wheat, treating the pillow like a bundle.

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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