draft of synopsis for the house of order

Thankful for D and her writing up of this synopsis. I have a new respect for those who write these:

“Neto told me the residents named the building the Highland, after the street it was built on in downtown Colorado Springs, and that later, in the 70’s, some state agency changed it to Pikes Peak Health Horizons. But Neto always referred to it as the House of Order. The place to get your habits straightened out.”

One habit Relles “Manito” Ortiz acquires from Tio Neto and his dead father’s family is the ability to push down pain and emotion. Abandoned by his mother and living with his Abuelos and Tio Neto, who’s currently between wives, Manito does not so much come of age in these sixteen composite short stories as he comes to terms with his family “crash sites,” which stretch across at least three states, as far away as Vietnam, and that follow the Ortiz family over fifty years.  Some of the stories are Manito’s, told in first person.  The others he has to pull from his family, usually his Tio Neto:

“I ask, “What did my father think of all this?”

“Well, I say Goddamn. Now I know you’re growing, Manito. Now I know you’re nearly what a man should be. A man has got to know about his family.”

Then he ignores me.”

Manito grows up with little family context, unable to sort myth from fact, and abuse from love. He understands that being in a family is not necessarily the same thing as belonging.

Thirty years earlier, Cordelia Ortiz, family matriarch and “Jefita” explained to her small son Ernesto “Neto,” that transients are not men to be admired. “No place in the world will keep men like those,” the Jefita warned. “They have no place.”  The Jefita’s goal was to build a real home for her husband, sons, and fosters.  But Santiago is laconic and unfaithful.  He finds release from the constant scramble for money and long hours at the mill by bullying or ignoring his family, by “throwing palo” with neighborhood women in the garage late at night. It’s all part of his vision of manhood, a vision that will both attract and repel the next two generations of Ortiz men.

Southern Colorado’s Huérfano County infects the area, hangs metaphorically over the Ortiz family as isolation and abandonment.  Neto explains to Manito that where they live, “deserted” means many things:

It means losing a ride out to the lanes for work in the onion fields. Quitting school to work and contribute to the mortgage. Ignitions that won’t fire and friends who won’t come around. . . .Fathers who die.

The Ortiz family stories presented in The House of Order reflect heartbreak and bleakness, but they also mirror strength and resiliency. Manito does not simply recover painful memories from his family; he begins to re-envision them. It is how Manito finds his own way to manhood and a glimpse of life outside of the county of orphans.


jacqueline dougan jackson interview

Jacqueline “Jackie” Dougan Jackson is the author of over a dozen books, including three about the family dairy farm in Wisconsin that her grandfather began at the turn of the 20th century. The Round Barn, volume one, is at the culmination of years of dedicated collection, research, and synthesis using family materials, historical sources, and cultural artifacts. In this interview, taped in Jackie’s home in Springfield, Illinois, the author discusses the origins of the book and history of the Dougan farm, the organizational strategies for each volume, and her decision to self-publish. Part two will continue the conversation about The Round Barn books and also delve into Jackie’s long career as novelist, poet, professor, and mentor to dozens of writers.

free writing–on why tell stories

I’m thinking lately about the reasons for writing short stories—for writing fiction. An old teacher of mine once asked me why I would want to write made up stories. Who cares? Who could be listening? Also she mentioned why I would want to send work out and receive the compulsory rejections. This is something I still wrangle with.

After an MFA program and hours at my desk revising and then sending out the material. I have to remind myself it is about representation. I am thinking of Carol Manley author of Church Booty and her comment in an interview I had the pleasure of recording. She mentioned her own concerns on this question. She described a trip to a bookstore and wondering what she had to contribute after all these books and words have been put together. And I have to agree. But again I am thinking more and more about representation. I’ve written on this blog exploring the low numbers of Latino professors and low numbers of literary fiction audiences.

In my mind I come back to the Grandmother’s kitchen and the old man who wasn’t my Grandfather. Sitting there early in the morning as Compadres barged in for breakfast and then later in the day the family who came over to talk and play cards. The old folks would talk and talk for hours. Always on the past and always intimately about their lives and experiences. With the Grandfather it was the worksites and the pool halls around Huerfano County. With the Grandmother it was always her father and his experiences—the way he treated women. Again these stories were always intimate and animated. As time went on I reveled in these kitchen talks. I sought them out.

I think of this because I go back to those stories and use them for my own writing. I want to represent the old folks lost to me and my current life as a teacher and writer. The only way to connect to them anymore. The old photos and the old stories coming together in my notes and thoughts and then down onto the blank page. It seems to be my only way to honor them.

I think of the Grandfather in particular. The man’s sole pleasure seemed to be to follow guests outside as they smoked and as he smoked to keep that story of the mill or world war II going for just a bit longer. The Grandmother would always yell for him to let those guests be. But he loved to tell stories. He would stand and sit for hours with Compadres and nieces and nephews to recount past cars and loves. I can’t help but think how most of those stories find their way into my stories. I think of how he would stand to emphasize a scene or a moment for those listening to him. How he flailed his hands about for the old folks and how he tried to get one last laugh out of his audience. How he tried to put the old folks in his shoes. He told stories of being on leave in New York City in the 1940’s as well as his life as a medic in Burma. His trip on the Queen Mary and also the story of opening a bar and gambling hall illegally in Huerfano County.

Those stories kept the old folks entertained for hours and kept me wanting to continue listening…