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  • On a Clear Night: Essays from the Heartland by Marnie O. Mamminga
  • Paula M. Nelson
Marnie O. Mamminga, On a Clear Night: Essays from the Heartland. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2017. 243 pp. $20.00.

We live in a noisy world. Many forms of entertainment shout for our attention and our dollars. Endless advertisements sell, sell, sell. Higher, faster, louder are cultural watchwords; new, different, and profane are cool. The [End Page 195] satisfactions, comforts, and serenity of the routine no longer have appeal, especially to the young. The secular, cynical, and iconoclastic, however, provide few answers, and little comfort, in times of trial.

Marnie O. Mamminga, Illinois writer and former English teacher, hopes to remind us of the power and meaning found in ordinary lives. A native and lifelong resident of the western suburbs of Chicago, her terrain is the physical geographies of home in Illinois and the lake in northern Wisconsin, and the geographies of the heart found in family relationships, ties of friendship, in love, loss, and the passage of time. In her autobiographical essays, change is constant, death wields its scythe, but the search for beauty, hope and new challenges, remind Mamminga, and her readers, to move forward with grace and optimism. Even when her elderly mother died after eighteen months of decline in a nursing home, Mamminga is able to see the warmth and love they shared during that time. She concludes the story with her mother’s favorite quote: “Happiness was ours.” It was the truth.

On a Clear Night is divided into six loosely thematic sections. “Oh, Youth,” for example, has vignettes of Mamminga’s experiences as a child or teen, as well as tales of her three sons’ adventures, personalities, or lessons. The remaining sections of the book are structured in the same way, with general themes: friendship, family, age, loss, the lessons learned at the lake. Some essays are funny, many are poignant, and all are relatively brief. Mamminga subtly and skillfully highlights the deeper meaning of her stories in each case, weaving them into a broader message, even when the specific subject matter ranges over time, place, or characters. She explains her intended lessons poetically: “Often, in the quiet of that gathering twilight, the moments of the day that brought us joy or sorrow or laughter begin to take on more significance. . . . [T]hough we were not seeking those moments, . . . they reflect who we are, where we’ve been, and, most importantly, what we were thinking. . . . [T]hose seemingly ordinary experiences often transcend into moments of unexpected grace” (xi).

Mamminga is not Pollyanna. She emphasizes beauty, hope and optimism because she knows how hard it can be to keep those lodestars front and center. With her essays, she hopes to “dispel the shadows, illuminate our paths, and remind us that we are not alone, that we do not walk in darkness” (xi). Her title, On a Clear Night, reminds us that we can look up and see the stars. Her essays teach us that the stars remain in the heavens even when the clouds [End Page 196] are thick and gale winds are blowing. That we, her readers, keep seeking the joy, beauty and possibilities that stars represent, is her fondest hope.

Paula M. Nelson
University of Wisconsin– Platteville
Platteville, Wisconsin