Forest Park is the second largest city in Illinois – if you count the 680,000 souls residing in our cemeteries – and many of those at rest have amazing stories to tell … if they could somehow find a voice to tell them.
At Centuries and Sleuths book store on Friday, July 12 at 7 p.m. the voices of thirteen of those graveyard residents will be heard in the form of one to two page “soliloquies” which will be read in the free verse form of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. These pieces will appear in the forthcoming volume published by the Forest Park Historical Society entitled The Des Plaines River Anthology. Included in the book inspired by Masters’s classic will be a contribution by Jay Bonansinga, author of The Sinking of the Eastland, in which he imagines how engaged young people Mary Manthley and James Justin, who died in the 1915 Eastland ship tragedy, would tell their story. Here’s an excerpt:
We was engaged to be married when it happened.
Ain’t that right, Mary?
As I said, she’s a meek one,
Don’t talk too much.
I knew she was the one for me, though.
The instant she came into the lunchroom. . . .
Thing is, it happened in a blink.
The bad thing.
We was all set to ride the big boat called the Eastland.
Had our picnic basket up there on the promenade with us.
Chicago-area mystery writer Frances McNamara will perform the voice of Haymarket anarchist publisher Albert Parsons. Sheila Reynolds Trainor will read her piece on Philander Walker Barclay, a photographer who documented Oak Park’s history in photographs during his lifetime. Amy Binns-Calvey will read her contribution in the voices of Paul and Barry Winder, two brothers who died as children in the Chicago Iroquois Theater fire, 1903.
Richard Lindberg, author of Heartland Serial Killers, will read in the voice of Belle Gunness, whose headless corpse—or was it really the decapitated body of her cook? —resides in Forest Home cemetery.
It was at the Forest Park Centennial celebration in 2007 that Augie Aleksy, the owner of Centuries and Sleuths and the president of the Forest Park Historical Society, thought of the concept of using the format of the Spoon River Anthology to capture in a literary form part of the history of not only Forest Park but the whole Midwest and to raise funds for the historical society while doing it.
“Everyone knew about Michael Todd [one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands buried at Jewish Waldheim cemetery],” said Aleksy, “but the longer I’ve had my business in Forest Park the more I became of characters buried in our cemeteries. I don’t write well, but I know people who do.”
Chicago film-critic and journalist Robert Elder, author of The Best Films You’ve Never Seen, will read his vignette in the voice of Todd.
Aleksy has been amazed at how readily and enthusiastically the authors, editors and journalists he asked to contribute to the anthology have responded, especially because they are not being paid for their work.
“Augie has done such a wonderful job here of creating a community for writers and authors,” said Emily Victorson who is editing the book and is the publisher of Allium Press. “He’s been so supportive of them that they are willing to do things for him. I think part of it was that these are short pieces so it wasn’t an enormous time commitment.”
Aleksy said the book will be ready by Oct. 26, because that is the date of the second annual casket races sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and for the staging of The Des Plaines River Anthology in the form of a play at the Park District.
Amy Binns-Calvey, the co-author of the long-running play Flannagan’s Wake, is writing and directing a stage version of the anthology which will be accompanied by original music composed by Forest Park singing historian Kathryn Atwood.