The Power of Wonder


This morning we jumped out of bed at o-stupid thirty for a book talk in town. It was for a Rotary Club’s weekly sunrise breakfast gathering. The meeting quickly came to order, beginning with the Pledge, a brief prayer and a Rotary song. Then the agenda moved quickly to business.

These people seem to pursue all sorts of public service endeavors: literacy programs, charity work, and supporting community health projects. It was quite impressive to think that these folks could have stayed in bed an hour longer, and not involve themselves in public service, but they choose otherwise to make a difference.

When my slot came up in the program, my husband pressed the power button on the projector, and the show kicked off with alacrity. You see, I love not only talking about the book, River of January, but the process behind the writing, as well. On this occasion, I shared the story of Helen’s father writing and producing a comedy, “Where’s Your Wife,” at the “Punch and Judy” Theater in New York. Now I knew from family records that Floyd Thompson had indeed written and produced the work, but still felt a shot of adrenalin when an internet site for the now-defunct “Punch and Judy” verified the production’s debut in 1919. That one moment of outside validation was thrilling, and I couldn’t help but gush to this group my still bubbling reaction, and with many other, similar discoveries.

I suppose much of my willingness to tell the tale of River to anyone, anytime, anywhere, stems from the hours of piecing through materials, and squaring family mementos to well known events of the past. Wonder doesn’t begin to describe the sensation when family incidents fitted neatly into the historic record.

Another example was an extremely fragile clipping of Helen and her sister in a publicity photo for some Universal Studio musical. I have yet to locate the film, but in my hunt for the unknown movie, I accidentally found another glossy of Helen in another film! She really was there, in Hollywood around 1930, and made more film appearances than we initially believed.

I can only describe my reaction to these revelations as that portrayed by Chazz Palmenteri in “The Usual Suspects.” If you have seen the film you may recall the ending when the police detective has his moment of epiphany. After questioning and releasing a primary suspect, the cop looks around his office casually, (at first) reading the names and labels of his room furnishings. Catching on, the policeman comprehends that the now-released suspect used those same names to weave a big pile of phony information. The look on the duped detective’s face reflects utter astonishment. The power of this clarity leaves him momentarily stunned, as if hit over the head by a sledge hammer–then running in pursuit.

Certainly my moments were more celebratory than the cop’s, but my astonishment, over and over, was just as powerful. There is nothing like unearthing and revealing a true story, with all the names and places falling into place, leaving a much clearer, and ultimately more fascinating story.

River of January is available at   and Ebay 

A New April


Right now, in classrooms across America, and overseas, thousands 17-year-olds are preparing for the AP US History exam. They, and their instructors are obsessed with cause and effect, analyzing, and determining the impact of events on the course of America’s story.  Moreover, they are crazed beyond their usual teen-angst, buried deep in prep books, on-line quizzes, and flashcards. As a recovering AP teacher, myself, I can admit that I was as nuts as my students, my thin lank hair shot upward from constant fussing.

My hair fell out too, embedding in combs and brushes, as I speculated on essay prompts, that one ringer multiple choice question, and wracking my brains for review strategies. The only significance the month of April held was driving intensity, drilling kids on historic dates; Lexington and Concord, the firing on Fort Sumter, the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, President Wilson’s Declaration of War in 1917, the battle of Okinawa, MLK’s murder, and the Oklahoma City bombing, That was what April meant in April.

To quote John Lennon, “and now my life has changed, in oh so many ways.”  Today April holds a whole new definition. My husband rises first in the morning, putters in the kitchen, fetches coffee, tends to the dog, and is back in bed, back to sleep. Big plans for my morning include writing this blog, making some calls related to book talks, a three mile walk through the Idaho mountains, then working on Figure Eight, the second installment of River of January. What a difference!  Nowadays, getting manic and crazy is optional. My hair has grown back in, standing up only in the morning, and the only brush with AP US History occurs in my dreams; the responsibility passed on into other capable hands.

This month, at least here in the high country, has been especially beautiful. We have already enjoyed a few 70 plus degree days, and the green is returning to the flora. Our sweet deer neighbors are no longer a mangy grey, emerging from the trees wearing a warm honey coat. With a little snow still on the peaks, the sky an ultra blue, and the pines deep green and rugged, I think sometimes this must be Eden.

My years as a possessed, percolating history instructor provided a gift of passionate purpose that enriched me more than depleted.  But, now . . . I wouldn’t trade this new phase of my life for all the historic dates in April.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January also available on Kindle.

A 1040 Kind of Day


Lola is not a good traveler. She slept all day in the backseat of the car, and decided to impersonate a hood ornament at the foot of the bed all night. Lola is our little dog, and we were driving to Spokane for a book talk at Aunties Books.

Needless to say, I was pooped.  If I got four hours of sleep I’ll jump the Snake River Canyon on a Vespa. Finally around 9:00 A.M. I gave up and dragged myself out of bed, careful not to wake the poor thing as she was exhausted from posing all night.

Chad and I threw ourselves together and with my folks went to lunch at the Kalispel Casino in West Spokane. My 81-year-old father steered his sedan into one of about a billion handicapped parking spots. The Kalispel Indians clearly know their clientele.

We fell into the cane and wheelchair race to the front double doors, and stepped inside the vast, carpeted lobby. Immediately my ears picked up the ching-ching of the slot machines, and my nose, the scent of cigarette smoke. It was good to be back in the world of hedonistic excess.

Ahead of us, about a dozen people were queued up before a kiosk where a lone employee frantically tapped on her computer. Without looking up from her keyboard, she repeated the casino’s policies and benefits to each patron at the counter. I figured that the folks waiting patiently and politely, listening to her officious chatter had forgotten more about casino gambling than she knew. Still, to her benefit, she kept the line moving quickly and no one fell from their walkers, or canes, collapsing onto that smoky carpet.

Soon, resting my elbows on that granite counter, the receptionist rapidly tapped on the computer keys with her acrylic nails, explaining, “It’s tax day, so I am applying 1040 points to your card.” She continued to add more points for this and for that until I had about a million points. She then ended her spiel by concluding, “You must use up these points by tomorrow at this time, or lose them.”

First of all, I had no idea what reward the points represented. It sure didn’t go to money in the slots, (I tried that angle right away). Second, we were only visiting for maybe an hour, and the phantom points, representing some unknown prizes, were superfluous anyhow.

After eating in the buffet, my husband, my mother, and yours truly, headed for the bling-bling, ching-ching of the casino floor. Now that experience added another layer to this make believe universe. We were searching for those slots that promised extra spins until winning. Scouting the islands of “Double Diamonds,”  and “Pirate Heaven,” my husband located a cluster of “penny” machines. I place penny in quotes because it takes a dollar’s worth of pennies to play each spin.  Clever casino slot machine designers! And I won on that thing. I won. I had no idea how I’d won because the icons of Thor, Freya and the rest of those Norse big shots appeared to have been thrown together with no order at all. But I didn’t argue with the falling-change sound effects racking up the dough.

But the biggie of the day came as we were about to head to the parking lot. We turned a corner of blinking, noisy electronic poker machines to an extraordinary tableau. On the end, nearest to me sat an elderly woman.  Her legs were crossed, she wore a red pantsuit and full makeup.  Her dark hair was neatly arranged and a cigarette hung from her lips at a jaunty angle. One upholstered stool down from her, sat an obese younger man in a t-shirt and sweats, both stretched over his shapeless girth. I couldn’t make out his face because it was covered in an oxygen mask, connected to a case-style tank. They paid no attention to each other, though both were certainly on two ends of lung disease.

An art house Fellini movie wouldn’t have touched this patchwork of weirdness.

We returned to my folks house, where I wisely took a nap.  At six we arrived at Auntie’s Bookstore, where I gave my talk on River of January. With my feet firmly grounded in reality, I signed books for my friends, some strangers, and my wonderful former students who came from their colleges to see their old teacher.

It was a taxing day in many ways, but it was a good day, too.

Books are available at

Vision and the Bottom Line



It was early September, and the high school was holding our annual open house. The idea behind this yearly ritual was to prove to the parents that we teachers were educated, human, and approachable. I must confess that I hated coming back to work after a long day, but when it was over I was always glad I came. 

One evening stands out distinctly among the others. Blabbing away about some Civil War general, or Cold War president, the last bell rang, closing the evening program. One father wanted to continue the history discussion, despite the PA thanking the public for attending. In a clear cockney accent he called out across the rising crowd, “William Wallace (Braveheart) was actually an English nobleman!”

“Oh. I never heard that before,” I hollered back, thinking people sure love salacious rumors. But I was wrong about the parent as a rumor-monger, and over the course of the school year we became good friends.

Now, I’m not going to reveal names because I don’t have his permission, but he was hiding away in our little corner of Idaho. And as we became further acquainted I found out, to my astonishment, that my friend worked as a tour director for a famous, very famous, and venerated guitarist.  Yup, that’d be the one.

My friend explained to me that his path was set early 1960’s London, when, as a young man he stumbled into the growing music scene. He became a driver for a new English band, which over time introduced experimental symphonic touches to their music. (A-choo Moody Blues, gesundheit!). When my friend motored around with Justin Lodge and the boys, they played clubs out of their beat-up van. He recalled rolling that old van onto a Channel ferry for engagements on the continent. As he reminisced about his early days, his voice grew sentimental and affectionate describing his starving days with an emerging English band.

Telling his story, still in his cockney dialect, my friend’s tone suddenly turned cooler. Explaining how the group finally signed their first record contract he came to realize that that event marked the end of the magic. Once the “suits” took over the music business the wonder evaporated, the energy deflated.

It’s Friday morning here in the beautiful mountains of Idaho. We have five hundred copies of River of January in the back of my car. We have sold a few, and buyers have emailed me about how much they enjoyed the read.

Writing this book felt a lot like love. Finishing the manuscript and holding the volume in my hands was a powerful moment. So where does the heart turn the work over to the bean counters who are only interested in money? I can’t seem to bring myself to Barnes and de-Noble-ize my work.

Book publishing is a fixture of the real world, and I understand that fact. But is it still possible to “mom and pop” creative projects in a corporate universe? Can business savvy folks appreciate the beauty and the passion expressed by a hungry band or in my book, River? Do they even give a damn? Surrendering control of the fruit of my intensity to cold, indifferent hands feels like negligence and abuse.

This writer can’t seem to shake the message of that transplanted Englishman from the East End. Is turning over my passion to decision-makers seated around generic oval tables the beginning or the end of creativity?

Consider purchasing River of January today. 


What’s My Motivation?




Alfred Hitchcock answered his actors succinctly when they posed the above, titled question.  The film maker glibly snapped, “your salary.”  Witty, yes, charming, of course–it’s vintage Hitchcock.  But he held a director’s secret, he understood his own vision and the contribution each player made to the overall story.  

In the midst of promoting River of January, I have been trying to find moments to scratch out ideas for the sequel. The effort isn’t as easy as I hoped. Attempting to work out the characters choices and actions has become puzzling and complicated. It’s not difficult to track what they did and when they did so, but the why is shrouded in speculation. This mystery is annoying, because I am the writer and need to fully understand the ‘why’s” behind the protagonists behavior. And, well, honestly I sometimes don’t know why I do what I do, today. The human heart frequently confounds reason.

So, Hitchcock’s snide retort isn’t very helpful to my current situation. The passionate nature of the characters in River have dropped a monumental job on my thinking processes. I assumed that prior patterns of behavior in the first book, continued into the second. But the archives indicate another story.

The first act in book one, is only a prelude to the intensity of book two, and I need to get a handle on these people before they push me over the edge.

So, what was their motivation?  I’ll let you know when I know.

The Free Market of Ideas



I belonged to the National Education Association for nearly the entire run of my teaching career. At first, when I started work in the classroom, two considerations drove my membership: potential lawsuits from parents, and because I came from a union household.

Born and raised in the second half of the twentieth century–I came of age during the halcyon days of blue collar workers across the United States. The burgeoning middle class had grown profoundly, sparked by the break-neck industrial production of World War Two. My father, in particular, was a steelworker, laboring over pots of bubbling aluminum alloys, a dangerous task, but made safe by mutual negotiations between labor and management. 

Teaching is a different kind of work, yet still requires extraordinary vigilance and management skills to ward off problems. The public can be brutal to teachers, especially when they believe their kids are mislead, or mistreated. For example, in my very first year in the classroom a parent called me out for teaching that the Electoral College actually elects the president. This father accused me of being a liar. Stunned, the episode taught me a more powerful lesson–simply because adults produce children, that does not guarantee worldly wisdom. So I joined the union for academic protection.

My only fear in the three-plus decades I worked with teenagers was censorship. That one day my principal would walk into my classroom and say, “Gail, you can’t talk about that.  Parents are complaining.” Smothering truth, glossing over unsavory events, or avoiding topics altogether is a sobering prospect. At best this renders schools no more than fast food joints, where you can “have it your way.” At worst censorship is an Orwellian nightmare where truth is subjugated for political reasons.

Last night the board of my old district voted to ban a book. In a split vote the board ruled for a full removal of the novel from a sophomore elective reading list. A grandmother did not like the “f-bomb” used in the manuscript, nor the sexual elements in the work.  She cried for the cameras. Now all of the Sophomores, (thousands of them) in the district are denied the benefit of learning this author’s thoughts and ideas, a chance to empathize with the writer’s struggle. Because a grandmother doesn’t like the content of the book. What power.

The kicker is that one can’t kill ideas. And valid ideas, well written and heartfelt, are enormously powerful too. (Maybe more powerful than a weeping grandmother.) No one individual should be able to make that decision for the vast numbers of students whose parents want their children well-rounded and compassionate.

The notion that a miniscule voice can leverage wide-reaching censorship chills me to my core. As a new writer, I must express my truth as I have experienced it. If a person, such as a grandmother doesn’t like my message, or any other writers, don’t read the book. Don’t let your kids read the book. There is more harm inflicted on society, when in the free market of ideas, the tough ones are oppressed.