Meeting Conan on the Trail to GRS

As you wade into the writing of a book, you realize you’ve begun walking down a new trail, unlike any you’ve known.  The trail will lead you to pain — as author Rinker Buck says, “It’s a total pain in the ass to write a book” — but also to encounters  beyond your wildest pre-writing imagination.
The writing of the Stewart biography led to meetings with several best-selling authors (Greg Bear, Kim Stanley Robinson, Poul Anderson, William Least Heat Moon, Ivan Doig),  scientists including James D. Burke, composer Philip Aaberg, and others.
One of the most interesting meetings was with prolific author Leonard Carpenter.  Leonard wrote many of the Conan The Barbarian paperbacks, and a treasure trove of science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels.  We met on a beach near San Luis Obispo, a stretch of sand on the edge of sea otter water — a good place to run, swim, and relax from the work of creating literature.
Leonard invited me to his writers’ group.  I joined, meeting others who had written themselves into some small fame and fortune — inspirational and encouraging to an apprentice wordsmith. Leonard critiqued our writing.  When he sent my manuscript back,  with many deletions and suggestions, my first thought was “Leonard’s turning the GRS biography into an exercise in Conan prose!”  But after thinking it over, I realized he’d taught an important lesson – “Lean up that prose!  Cut to the chase!  Move the narrative along briskly!”  I took his advice, and the book is better for it.
Leonard’s latest book moves him away from fantasy, SF, and horror, into speculative historical fiction.  It’s the tale of the sinking of the Lusitania, based on recent research which indicates the British wanted the vessel sunk,  to create a casus belli that would bring the USA into the war on the British side.  I found the well-written book provocative, and was inspired to review it on Amazon.  Here’s my review:
Leonard Carpenter has combined his excellent wordsmithing skills with thorough research to create a partly-fictional, partly real historical novel about the sinking of the Lusitania. As always, he writes a page-turner. Once a reader is into the story, the book hard is to put down. His research and his story lead to a disturbing conclusion: The people who died on the Lusitania were purposefully sent to their deaths to create a casus belli to bring the US into World War I – one of the most useless military tragedies in a century of military tragedies – on the side of the Allies.
Carpenter personalizes his story with subplots about two American journalists, two American nurses – one of whom is actually impersonating a nurse – and their nursing colleagues traveling to Europe to aid in healing the wounded, a thug pursuing the nurse impersonator, a “Dutchman” (not what he seems), and brief sketches of others. His scope is broad, and he includes short chapters focused on British war personnel and others told from the viewpoint of soldiers in battle. The effect is to give the reader an understanding of the vastness and complexity, and the human tragedy, of World War I.
His characters are generally not given depth or rich histories so to some extent they’re one dimensional. (After all, this is not so much a character study as a book of historical adventure and action.) But the main characters have brief moments of exposition which lead readers to a deeper understanding of their personalities.
Several of the greatest historical mysteries of recent times have to do with the convenient attacks on the US, which become casus belli for undeclared (and thus unconstitutional) wars. They take tens of thousands of lives, even after they’re proven to be based on untruths. There was no incident in the Tonkin Gulf, but 50,000 Americans and untold thousands of Vietnamese died because of that untruth. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (except for the poison gas which George H. Bush gave the Iraqis), and, besides, most of the supposed attackers in the September 11th incident were Saudis, but Iraq is as destabilized as Southern Sudan, the carnage has spread, and the US is suffering the longest – and for the war profiteers, most profitable – war in US history.
The implication in Carpenter’s novel is that the sinking of the Lusitania was facilitated by the British as a casus belli. The book’s opening quote, from Churchill, in News of the World, seems to make that clear: “In spite of all its horror, we must regard the sinking of the Lusitania as an event most important and favorable to the Allies.” On the other hand, if it was intended as a casus belli, it wasn’t very effective. The sinking took place in 1915; the US didn’t enter the war until 1917.
Whatever the true story may be, the book makes for wonderful reading. Its characters are generally likeable, the history is intriguing, and the amount of Carpenter’s technical research about the ship and the era brings the age, its technology, and the sinking to vivid life.
Be forewarned – the book’s ending will leave readers up in the air. But since that seems a sure sign that Carpenter is planning a sequel, it’s the right way to end the book.
Buy, it, read it, think about it. Then speculate about what really happened to the Lusitania; and wonder where Carpenter’s next book in the series will take his characters.
lusitania lost cover
If you ever write your book, remember how interesting and painful the task will be.  But like raising a child, writing a book, if you are ethical in the task, will take you to many extraordinary encounters.  It is a great gift of the adventure.

Page Stegner Has Passed Away

Page - outposts


Page Stegner, who knew the Stewarts, was a distinguished and award-winning author with literary interests similar to those of George R. Stewart.  Page wrote about the environment and the West,  books which have become classics, like  American Places, which also included the work of legendary photographer Elliot Porter and Page’s father Wallace Stegner.  He passed away just before Christmas of 2017, in the quintessenial Western town, Reno, about 30 miles away from where this is being written, in Carson City, in the middle of a “March Miracle” of a heavy snowstorm.

Page Stegner wrote fiction and non-fiction, reviewed books for leading magazines, edited some of his father’s work.  He also helped run the Peace Corps in Latin America for a time, took his students on river-runs in the west, and played bluegrass.   Like Stewart, he was a true polymath.

He was also a great help in the writing of the George R. Stewart biography.  When his father was fired at Stanford, the two families often visited each other.  Jack Stewart remembered driving from Berkeley to Palo Alto down the rural two-lane highways of the day (the 1940s and 1950s), to the Stegner hamburger barbeques.  Jack attended Stanford, sometimes visiting the Stegners while he was there.  I wrote his memories into the biography.

Page Stegner was kind enough to answer emailed questions about family visits to the Stewarts in Berkeley.  He gave a good sense of those more formal days, when children of academics did not necessarily eat at the same table with parents and thus did not feel themselves a part of the adult world.

During the research for the George R. Stewart biography, we were able to arrange a reunion between Jack Stewart and Page Stegner.  The original photograph was included in the biography.

Jack and Page

Dr. John H. (Jack) Stewart  and  Page Stegner reunion at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park

Jack and Page suffered from the same fate – children in the long shadows cast by famous fathers.  Yet, Jack and Page were as accomplished as their fathers – Page through his writing, teaching, and other creative work;  Jack through his brilliant work as the USGS geologist for Nevada, and as the creative geologist assistant to his father on the writing of some of GRS’s novels.

Here’s an Amazon link to the books which Page Stegner wrote, co-wrote, wrote the introductions for, or edited:

It was an honor to know Page Stegner.  I  recommend his books; American Places is one of the best books about this land.

Wolf Willow, for which Page wrote the “Introduction,” has a special meaning to me.  The book, by Wallace Stegner, is about his boyhood in the town of Eastend, Saskatchewan, which he calls “Whitemud” in the book.   Page and other members of the Stegner family were instrumental in helping the town of Eastend, the Province of Saskatchewan, and the nation of Canada, preserve the Stegner House as a Canadian Heritage Site.  The Eastend Arts Council manages the house as both a Memorial and a residence for writers and artists.  I was fortunate to be one of those selected to work there, I researching and writing the Stegner chapters in the book.  Including the climactic chapter, where, during a major prairie thunderstorm, I found the truth of George R. Stewart’s life and work.

Grateful for Page’s help with the book, I am as grateful for his work on the Stegner House program.






The 198th Post, in Honor of 98 Nations

The first post on this weblog was put up on December 15, 2011.  It was short.  The post suggested that early pioneers who’d found this George R. Stewart weblog visit Michael Ward’s fine GRS Wikipedia page.  Since then, posts have grown in length and complexity, but the emphasis is still on Stewart’s fine work, and the network of people influenced by him, or interested in his life and work – like you, reading this, and all those who’ve read these pages for more than 6 years.

WordPress is a fine way to distribute a weblog.  WP lets a post’s administrator review statistics in time periods from one year to all time.  The number of viewers from each country is listed, with flags of their nations attached, and all of the countries viewing the site are color-coded on the world map which heads that particular set of stats.

Today, I’ve gone through the weblog’s statistics on WordPress.   On this date, February 2,  2018, residents living more than half the nations on planet Earth have viewed the GRS/Earth Abides weblog:  Residents of 98 nations, from a total of 195 nations.  Nations which include small ones from the contintent of Africa, like Zimbabwe South Africa, and Nigeria; from the continent of Europe, like Russia, Britain, Latvia, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Germany.  From Asia, including India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong.  In North America, including Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and the USA, et al.  South American visitors include residents of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, et al.   New Zealand and Australia.  Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and others.  Even tiny Bailiwick of Jersey, the small island dependency of Britain in the English Channel where some inhabitants still speak the ancient Norman language.  I heartily welcome all of them, and all of you.

Here’s a portrait of our home, which we all share together


Finally, this is a thank you, to all of you, for visiting, reading, and following this post.  It makes the writing seem worthwhile.

There’s more to do.  97 nations are yet to be heard from.  Nor has Antarctica visited; nor the International Space Station.  And with more and more to share about George R. Stewart, I’ll be writing this for another 6 years, or more.

For those who want to see all the nations who’ve sent representatives to this page, here we go:


United States  11428

United Kingdom         894

Canada            450

Germany         221

Brazil   190

Australia          188

France 108

India    73

Italy     50

South Korea    49

Spain   44

Romania          40

Japan   34

Switzerland     32

Netherlands     32

Indonesia        29

Mexico            28

Sweden           28

New Zealand  27

Denmark         26

Argentina        26

Austria            26

Philippines       26

Croatia            25

Yemen 24

Israel   21

Russia  21

Taiwan            20

Czech Republic           20

Portugal           18

Pakistan           17

Belgium           16

Ireland 14

Thailand          14

Finland            13

Poland 11

Colombia         11

Morocco          9

Ecuador           9

European Union          8

Hong Kong SAR China          8

Turkey 8

Singapore        8

Greece 7

Bangladesh     7

Norway           6

Hungary          6

Slovakia          5

Bulgaria           5

Kenya  5

Sri Lanka         4

Malaysia          4

Cyprus 4

Ukraine           4

Saudi Arabia   4

Uruguay          4

Puerto Rico     4

Iraq      3

Paraguay         3

Egypt  3

Trinidad & Tobago     3

Luxembourg    3

Serbia  3

Venezuela       3

Uzbekistan      3

Costa Rica       3

Slovenia          2

Chile    2

South Africa   2

Guatemala       2

Djibouti           2

Dominican Republic   2

Kazakhstan     2

Georgia           2

Algeria            2

Bosnia & Herzegovina            2

United Arab Emirates 2

Latvia  2

Kyrgyzstan      2

Vietnam          2

Peru     1

Kuwait            1

Macedonia      1

Lithuania         1

Zimbabwe       1

Nigeria            1

Brunei 1

Armenia          1

Bahrain            1

Mozambique   1

Bahamas          1

Bolivia 1

Tunisia 1

Namibia           1

Guernsey         1

Nepal   1

Panama            1

Jersey  1

Total 2-18        14486






A Suggestion: “First Stewartians”

Paul F. Starrs is a distinguished, award-winning geographer and beloved teacher  at the University of Nevada, Reno.  He is one of the few who’ve attended legendary Deep Springs College.  He has also been a GRS follower and supporter for decades.

In a recent email, Paul referred to those who GRS has influenced so deeply as “First Stewartians,” meaning, I suppose, that we who have discovered and preached about GRS for decades will be the Wise Old Men and Women when Stewart is widely-discovered and lavished with praise, even by the NY literary establishment.

At this writing, there is no formal GRS study or appreciation group.  There have been two:  The George R. Stewart Fan Club and The Friends of George R. Stewart.

Vic Moitoret survived the World War II sinking of TWO aircraft carriers.  Inspired by Stewart’s Storm,  he went on to become Chief Meteorologist of the U.S. Navy.  (A small black book listing books which most influenced him – Storm being at the top of the list – survived both sinkings with him, because he wouldn’t leave it behind.)  After retirement he founded The Friends of George R. Stewart and began setting up correspondence with others who felt the same passion for GRS.

When Vic left the scene, Bob Lyon stepped in.  I had not been involved in the Fan Club; but Ted – Theodosia –  Stewart connected me with Bob.  He introduced me to other GRS followers, like distinguished San Francisco Attorney Frank Sloss, Historian Ferol Egan, and The Pilgrim – Stewart Scholar Steve Williams of England.  Bob put together some important and wonderful events, including a special GRS Symposium at the Western Literature Association Conference which resulted in a fine collection of papers.  But chili called. He bacame a master participant in chili cookoffs, and the Friends faded away.

With the publication of the George R. Stewart biography (two biographies, in fact; the other, by Dr. Fred Waage, is reportedly more academic but gets the nod for being the first), the possible production of a film or mini-series based on Earth Abides,  and the simple accrual that happens when individuals snowball into a group, there seems to be an increasing number of people who might be interested in a few, informal meetings or events related to George R. Stewart, his life, his family, his work, his places.

So here’s to the possible “First Stewartians.”   If you have any interest, even in informal gatherings or an online community of some type, feel free to send a comment.

News About U.S. 40 and Earth Abides

Christmas and New Years are over, so there’s time to bring everyone up to date about recent George R. Stewart-related events.  The Donner Summit Historical Society reports some major work on US 40, a Route 66 leader has connected with this site through his interest in U.S. 40,  and there’s a new French translation of Earth Abides.

In the January issue of the Donner Summit Historical Society’s excellent online magazine, Donner Summit Heritage, Editor Bill Oudegeest includes articles on U.S. 40; one carries news about plans to upgrade the Historic Route over Donner Summit.   On page 14, there’s a review of a book about early travel over the road; on page 18, various items about U.S. 40, which begins with the notice of the road upgrade.    The current issue isn’t yet posted on the main DSHS pages; but will be soon.  However, if you become a paid member – and you should! – you’ll get the Heirloom every month.

U.S. 40 was, if any road was, the George R. Stewart Highway.  He hitchiked the eastern section in 1919, when it was still the National Old Trails Road, often drove it across the country, and finally wrote a classic book, the first popular “odology” (road geography) book, U.S. 40.  Stewart’s book led to another classic, Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today:  Thirty Years of Landscape Change in America; the authors followed old U.S. 40 in 1983, re-photographing as many of his original locations as they could, describing landscape change in the thirty years since Stewart’s book was published.  A few years later Frank Brusca posted his wonderful U.S. 40 pages, with even more information about the historic highway and its current character.  Recently, in Roads To Quoz, William Least Heat Moon includes an entire section on Stewart and U.S. 40, opening the section with a quote from Stewart.

Finally, earlier this month, Fred Cain contacted me via Michael Ward’s wonderful George R. Stewart Wikipedia pages.  Fred is working on a plan to re-authorize U.S. 66 as a marked highway, not simply a series of older sections of the now-deauthorized highway.   As it turns out, Fred is also a great fan of Stewart’s U.S. 40 and Vale and Vale’s U.S. 40 Today.  We’ve been in an email conversation which includes Bill Oudegeest about getting better signage for the historic U.S. 40 Route.

Here’s a bonus for U.S. 40 historians and fans – a test photo for the book, never published. It’s from the Anna Evenson/George R. Stewart Family Collection, published here with permission.  (Please don’t republish it without Anna Evenson’s permission.  I can forward a request to her if you wish to use the photo.)

us 40 trials 187


GRS used a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex to take his photos.  The Rolleiflex is one of the great cameras of a great era in photography, when Edward Weston and Ansel Adams were creating their best works.  Stewart knew Adams, and there’s a letter in the GRS papers from Ansel Adams to Stewart.

The Rollei’s format is square, 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inch, so the photos in the book are in that square format.  (35 mm and most digital cameras have a format that is longer than it is high.)


Here’s the cover page of the new French translation of Stewart’s great novel, courtesy of Philippe Grand.


Earth Abides, abides.

The End of the World, Past and Future

George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides has been named (by James Sallis, among others)  one of the finest dystopian, after-the-fall novels of all time, and one of the finest American novels.  Its long history of popularity —  never out-of-print (thanks to Alan Ligda), for nearly 70 years — shows the influence of the work.  Recently I read two books which, to me, stand alongside Earth Abides in the ability to inspire thinking about the possible end of human civilization.  One, a novel, is told from the point of view of an Amish farmer.  The other, a history and adventure, looks to a past collapse to speculate about how civilizations have ended just as Stewart foresaw – due to disease.

When the English Fall is David Williams’ novel about Pennsylvania’s Amish country after a massive solar storm destroys all things electrical.  There’s no power to run vehicles, freezers, hospitals, lamps, washing machines, or radios and computers.  The Amish are not much affected by the end of industrial civilization – at least not initially.  They send their surplus food to the starving people in a nearby city, continue to farm and can, and pray for strength and deliverance.  But soon the city’s population runs out of food, and begins to move toward the Amish community in often-violent raids.   The Amish must face the possibility that they may have to choose between their peaceful ways, and the survival of their friends and families.  Their choice is not for me to reveal here. But the book’s ending is hauntingly similar to that of Earth Abides.

The novel is written in the first person – pages from a journal found later.  It feels Amish in style – gentle, reflective, spiritual, loving.   While Earth Abides has a power sometimes called Old-Testament biblical and intersperses the narrative with short poetic passages that can feel like  psalms,  the quiet style of the journal supposedly written by a deeply religious person feels more like the quiet New Testament conversations Jesus has with followers.

Author David Williams is a Presbyterian minister who enjoys hoppy beer and dirty motorcycles – sounds like someone worth meeting.  But he understands his hero, Jacob the Amishman as a man of belief, and is able to communicate Jacob’s ideas in a way that will reach all readers.

The Lost City of the Monkey God is NOT fiction.  It is a journalistic report of a real expedition to discover lost cities in Honduras.  But it is written by someone who is an experienced and best-selling novelist,  who knows how to keep his audience involved to the point of reading into the early hours of the morning.  Douglas Preston tells the story in good journalistic fashion combining the space-based perspective of LIDAR with the grungy, dangerous, slow cutting  through a snake-infested jungle so dense that an expedition member could get lost within a hundred yards of the others.

Then,  in an interesting finale inspired by what happened to the explorers after they left the jungle,  the book becomes an ecologically-based work which in the best STEAM manner weaves together archaeology, history, pre-history and speculation to suggest a reason why these cities – and perhaps other ancient Latin American cities – were so quickly and inexplicably abandoned.  Again, this is no place to spoil the book’s conclusion.  Yet, like When the English Fall,  it is powerfully evocative of Stewart’s great work.

In fact, it is almost as if The Lost City of the Monkey is a prequel to an ancient version of Earth Abides.

Like Earth Abides, these two books are ecological works which look at the interconnections between humans and the ecosphere.   I highly recommend them  to anyone influenced by  George R. Stewart’s  Earth Abides.  And to anyone who enjoys a smashing good read.

Of FIRE and Flu

George R. Stewart was always interested in how humans react to ecological events, because he saw those reactions as defining human character.   Two of his best novels, FIRE and EARTH ABIDES, focus on such events – FIRE, on a great forest fire (and fire ecology); EARTH ABIDES,on a planet-wide disease epidemic which nearly ends the human species.

This last month California experienced fire, and some Californians had a lesson about disease.  There were massive and destructive fires, and a literary discussion of an epidemic which references Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.

Build a home in the woods and, sooner or later, fire will come.  Defensible space is a great help; but in suburbia’s tiny lots, there can be none.   The fires of 2017 burned through the house-stacked neighborhoods so quickly that – as in the recent Oakland Hills fire – many people died trying to flee.   Entire neighborhoods were burned to cinders.   And it was lesson about the fragility of stuff – one video shows a classic, restored ’57 Chevy wagon, burned into eternity.

Anyone familiar with George R. Stewart’s work has probably read FIRE.  The novel of fire ecology, history, and fictionalized fire drama is one of his best – it, STORM, and EARTH ABIDES are probably his greatest ecological novels.  STORM ends with a reference to California history.  FIRE, with a beautiful passage about the role of fire in the ecosystem.

FIRE opens with a lightening strike in a mythical national forest set just to the north of the Tahoe National Forest.  Stewart’s forest is so well-developed – thanks to the help of his brilliant son, Jack, map-maker and geologist, and a colleague, a famous impressionist painter — that for years readers of the book would drive into that area, looking for the fictional National Forest.  In the same way, his story is developed.  It centers around people who seemed non-fictional – a young woman in a fire lookout, an old Ranger, and a young Forest Superintendent, and all those who fight the blaze – so the people read true, like the forest, and their drama brings us into the power of a California forest fire like the ones of this autumn of 2017.  By choosing rangers as key characters, Stewart is able to integrate the human drama with ecological science.  And, in his usual way, he also includes myth, broad science, place-naming, and history.

Walt Disney later filmed the novel for television, as “A Fire Called Jeremiah.”  It’s somewhat Disneyfied, but follows the novels ecological and human themes closely. Today, it seems somewhat old-fashioned and crude; but it shared Stewart’s dramatic presentation of fire ecology with millions of Disney TV viewers.

The TV film, like Disney’s TV version of Stewart’s STORM, is not available today.  When I asked old family friend, Disney Legend Bob Broughton, about the chances of getting a copy,  he said, “Don, the film is in The Vault.  And if it’s in The Vault, Walt himself can’t get to it.”  Needing to view the films for my George R. Stewart biography, I went on a quest – and actually found a copy in a university library (which shall be nameless); the university kindly set up their old Bell and Howell 16mm projector, and, after decades, I again saw Stewart’s work come to life.  There’s now a clip online, probably pirated, but you can watch it here.  (Paramount also made a version of the film – changed so much it bears no resemblance to the book. Here’s a clip, again probably pirated, so view at your own discretion.)

Fire appears in several George R. Stewart novels.  In EAST OF THE GIANTS, a cleansing fire provides closure to the chapters of the novel set on a Mexican rancho.  In FIRE, of course, a massive fire is the protagonist of the work.  And in Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES, a fire ends the story of Ish, and moves the story of The Tribe into some unknown, post-novel, new territory.

EARTH ABIDES‘s protagonist is a disease, a kind of super measles which wipes out most humans.  In these days of AIDS, Ebola, and the other plagues, the story has as great an impact on readers as it did in the days it was published or in the intervening near-70 years.

Stewart himself was the victim of a plague – the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918.  AIDS is a killer, with 38, 000,000 victims.  But the flu killed many more – perhaps 100,000,000 worldwide.  Stewart should have been safe – he was young, in excellent health, and isolated in World War I training camp where he was preparing to go overseas in the Ambulance Corps.  But the flu, ironically, hit the young and healthy with more fatal force than it hit the elderly or those in poor shape.  GRS got the flu.  He recovered enough to hitchhike halfway home from the East Coast to Pasadena.  But for the rest of his life, his lungs were always weak.

Much of EARTH ABIDES is set in the Berkeley hills and the UC Berkeley campus.  So it is appropriate that Pat Joseph’s fine recent article, “In Flew Enza,” in the California Alumni Association magazine,  CALIFORNIA, describes the effects of the 1918 flu on the UC campus.  Murphy ends the article with a reference to Stewart’s novel, setting it in the context of Stewart’s experience with the flu.  Since Murphy has kindly allowed this post to link to the article, I encourage you all to read it.  Here’s the link

As Murphy writes,  Stewart always found hope, an optimism, even in the greatest of events called disasters by humans.  Whether he wrote about the benefits of fire to the ecosystem, or indomitable will to persevere after disease had wiped out most humans, Stewart always gives us hope.