As I mentioned in my column in Sunday's Sun-Times Books section, I am starting a Book of the Day Club, where I’ll take one book a day off the shelves of the actual book room — where we store all the new books being published — and I’ll post some thoughts about it online.
For our inaugural entry I’ve chosen American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland (Gotham Books, 324 pages, $26) by Kristen Laine. I had never heard of the author or the book; I was drawn to it by the photo of uniformed marching band members on the book cover.
When looking for a book to read, I'll most often pick up a novel. Just as with watching movies, when I read books, I like to be transported to places I've never been before. American Band didn't do that. Instead, it took me back to place I knew very well: high school band.
Laine’s work of narrative nonfiction is so very detailed it comes as no surprise to learn that she moved from her New England home to Elkhart, Ind. (once the band instrument capital of the world) for six months to immerse herself in the small-town community that’s as big on its marching bands as the state of Texas is on its football programs.
The Concord High School Marching Minutemen won top honors in the state championship in 2003; the book details their attempt at a repeat victory the following year.
If not for the Evangelical Christian thread that runs through American Band, Laine could have been writing about my own experience in a competitive summer marching band in 1980s suburban Chicago. When she writes about shy, freshman clarinetist Adilene Corona, a transplant from California, feeling awkward and alone at the start of the summer practice sessions, I had flashbacks of myself as the “outsider.” As the lone recruit from the only Catholic school in town, I knew no one.
Similar parallel personalities pop up throughout the entire book, from the beloved band director who will let anyone join who’s willing to commit, to the born-to-be-a-leader trumpet player, to the focused and driven captain of the drumline.
Then there are the “band moms” who take care of everything from meals to uniform distribution to first aid. And the college student volunteers who teach marching fundamentals and create “charts,” which tell each band member where to move at precisely what moment in the music. I had forgotten what a technically challenging exercise these field shows were. Not only did we/they endure daily basic training-style drills in 90-plus-degree heat, but also we/they had to memorize four different pieces of music along with all the corresponding movement.
In the end, well — to quote a famous Hoosier — it hurt so good. Just as the Concord kids did, I learned about discipline, leadership, confidence and community pride.
This book may never hit the best seller lists but I do think it carries some appeal beyond Midwestern band geeks like myself. It took me back to a place that apparently still exists; a place where there are high school kids out there less concerned with fashion, popularity and pop culture and more concerned with the big picture of their lives. The intimate portrayals and passion of these high school kids that Laine is able to convey speaks to her own passion and dedication to the writing.
Which brings me back to The Book Room, where I look forward to discovering many more of the unsung authors whose works fill the shelves. As I mentioned earlier, I'll be choosing a different book every day, so come on back and see what I find. In the meantime, happy reading!