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Writer Explores Drama Of Ordinary Midwestern Life In Extraordinary Ways

Hildebrand Pens Book 'The Heart Of Things: A Midwestern Almanac'

Photo: John Hildebrand

John Hildebrand first existed to me as a voice: a voice on the page and a voice in my ear when he came to our studio in Eau Claire to record a radio essay for “Wisconsin Life.” Technology allows us to sound like we’re in the same room even when we’re 178 miles apart. Technology doesn’t explain the connection I feel to him even though we didn’t meet face-to-face for another year.

It is the words.

“The job of the essayist is to notice the things we don’t notice because they are so common as to avoid notice,” Hildebrand tells me in the Wisconsin Public Radio lobby before his appearance on “The Larry Meiller Show” a few months back.

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Hildebrand, professor emeritus of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, is a master of the everyday. His latest book, “The Heart of Things: A Midwestern Almanac,” features 52 essays grouped by month that manage to engage all your senses in three short pages on such familiar topics as football games, family reunions, compost piles, and the end of gardening season. And yet, this familiar Midwestern terrain turns to magic in his hands.

“What remains memorable after a journey are the things that went wrong,” writes Hildebrand in a piece about vacations gone awry. “There’s no narrative to lovely sunsets or waiters who aren’t surly. Misfortune, on the other hand, has a way of making the world feel strange and new, and isn’t that the point of travel? Forget where you’re going, says the blown tire. Look where you are!”

Or skating on the neighborhood ice rink: “One of the stranger pleasures of parenting is making children re-enact tableaus from your own childhood. And nothing is rigged with deja-vu like a skating rink at night. It’s one big memory sink.”

I read that Hildebrand tells his university nonfiction class, “You don’t have to live an extraordinary life – you just have to make it interesting.” Anyone who doubts how much he means it will find a masterclass in the art of the simple yet powerful here.

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