Jean Gandesbery's book describes 1950s Minnesota

June 18, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Jean Gandesbery never had the opportunity to find out how her book "Seven Mile Lake" was received by her friends in Davis and elsewhere.

Gandesbery and her husband, Bob, were killed in the Alaska Air crash off the coast of California in January.

But an event celebrating the publication of her book took place as planned at The Avid Reader bookstore in April, with three of Jean's friends (Margaret Eldred, Dorothy Gilbert and Harriet Blodgett) reading portions of "Seven Mile Lake."

"It is still hard to believe that they're gone," said Blodgett, who earned her Ph.D. at UC Davis at about the same time Jean studied there.

Blodgett said she found it very hard to reread "Seven Mile Lake" since the story is a thinly disguised description of Jean's own high school years in a small town in Minnesota.

"The writing sounds very much like Jean's voice," she said. "It is essentially her story, told with her wry sense of humor."

Blodgett said Jean wrote the manuscript more than 20 years ago and put it away. But recently she began work on it again and this time she found a publisher, Minerva Press in London.

"She was very excited," said Blodgett. The Avid Reader special-ordered copies of the book to be available for the April reading and still has about a half-dozen copies of the book for sale.

In reality, Jean was the youngest of three girls. Her father was a banker and her mother was an English teacher.

In "Seven Mile Lake" Jean casts herself as Joan Nelson, an only child to a banker and a social-climbing stay-at-home mother.

Margaret Eldred said Jean wrote in a descriptive narrative style about her years growing up during the 1950s.

"It's very evocative of the time and place," said Eldred.

It also describes in great detail the social layers in the town: farmers vs. townsfolk, Catholics vs. Protestants, drinkers vs. non-drinkers. In some ways, Joan Nelson, whose family was new to the town, acted as a sociologist exploring the unwritten rules that governed the way New Bonn judged its inhabitants.

When Joan was a senior in high school, she had a serious flirtation with a boy named Ronald. There were two kinds of males in New Bonn, she wrote, boys and men.

"The boys were those who went to school, regardless of their age," she wrote. "The men were simply all those who weren't in school. That these men could be chronological boys was unimportant to the distinction; thus a farm boy who had quit school at 16 was considered a man. Ronald was definitely a man; although he did occasionally attend a nearby junior college. He also had been in the Army, which was enough to qualify him for manhood.

"Joan knew that her parents would consider him unsavory. He had little ambition, his father was an acknowledged loser, and he was a Catholic. Any one of these details was enough to condemn him in the eyes of the Nelsons. Had they known that he was actively engaged upon a campaign to rid their daughter of her virginity they would have packed her off to boarding school," she wrote.

Joan's parents decided that the family would take a vacation to Estes Park, Colo., and that such a trip would interrupt Ronald's quest. But en route Joan's father died of a heart attack. A short time later, Joan married a local farmer. It was a disastrous, short-lived marriage.

Jean Gandesbery's son Peter said one of his last conversations with his mother was about the publication of "Seven Mile Lake," which he hadn't finished reading by the time his mother died. He found himself wanting to ask his mother questions about her childhood.

In fact, anyone who reads this book, which ends with the fictional Joan enrolling in college (a divorcee at age 19) will wonder: "What happens next?"

It's too bad there won't be a sequel.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
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