I am posting some excerpts from my memoir about growing up in Minnesota, titled Minnesota Boy: Growing Up in Mid-America, Mid-20th Century. This post is about the power of religion in shaping us.
See below an announcement about the book and then four of 82 sections (40, 25, 46, 41) appropriate for this theme.
The book was originally published in 1970 with the title Just 25 Cents and Three Wheaties Boxtops. Foster wrote the volume in the late 1960s when he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Stanford, studying writing and American Literature under Wallace Stegner, eventually receiving an MA Degree and completing ABD (All But Dissertation) on his PhD. Stegner liked the book and assisted Foster to get it agented and published. Stegner went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.
Minnesota Boy conveys the experience of growing up in a Minnesota mid-America that produced the sensibilities of people like Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Garrison Keillor, and Bob Dylan.
The book is not a standard chapter-by-chapter memoir. Rather, it is a collection of imagined conversations and recollections of what life was like in that Eisenhower Era 1950s, just as the times morphed into the Vietnam War and Protest 1960s. The book has 82 literary selections and 67 photos.
Minnesota Boy addresses a perennial and enduring question: What is it like growing up in America? The answer depends partly on the time and place.
The book informs about the strong hunting and fishing outdoor culture, Catholic religion sinner-can-be-saved ethic, egalitarian and inclusive all-children-are-equal spirit, progress-through-education-and-hard-work ideal, and optimism-about-a-better-future mindset that pervaded life in Mankato, Minnesota, in the 1950s. There was always, however, a nervous background worry about Nuclear Annihilation.
Black-and-white photos created by Foster in the 1960s, as he was beginning his writing/photography career, catalogue visually the now-vanished world of the child and family in that era in a Minnesota America. Visual details in the photos now have substantial archival value, with captions such as “My father’s fishing tackle box,” “Artifacts from a boy’s life in Minnesota,” “The garage at my family’s house,” and “A confessional at Saints Peter & Paul Church.”
The printed book ($14.95) and the ebook ($3.99) are available wherever books/ebooks are sold. ISBN for the print book is 978-0976084327 and for the ebook 978-0976084334.
The Amazon link is at
and on Lee Foster’s Amazon Author Page among his 20 books at
Bookstores and libraries can order the printed book through Ingram and the ebook through Smashwords.
This popular memoir book received a positive response from consumers on the day it was launched. The book ranked in sales as #65,318 of all the millions of books on Amazon, and #80 among books in a category Biographies/Memoirs.
For further information, contact:
Foster Travel Publishing
1623 Martin Luther King
Berkeley, CA 94709
Here are four of 82 sections (40, 25, 26, 41) appropriate for this theme.
The power of religion
Soft-colored light from the stained-glass windows cut the church in the oblique angles of later afternoon and fell on the boy’s face. Outside, he could hear the cries of children on the playground swings. He sat in a pew near the back. A drop of holy water dried slowly on his forehead.
Some time ago I was born.
The air smelled sweetly of rotting wood and incense. Far ahead on the altar, a cleaning lady dusted the candelabra and replaced a burnt out candle in the votive lamp. The choir master practiced his organ, rolling and dancing up and down the pipes, then catching a long pure line of Gregorian chant, “Dies irae, dies illa….”
If I had not been born, what and
A gray-haired priest in black crossed the sanctuary, reading his black breviary, and moved to the confessional in the black back corner of the church. An elderly lady in black followed him towards the confessional.
Where would I now be?
His religion was part Methodist and part Catholic, the first receding to an influence that was negligible, the second capturing all his attention.
Catholicism awakened passions that could never be satisfied and would never fall asleep. Faith bred confidences, which, when redefined into a world of myth, engaged his energies for years of recovery.
His mind was informed by the siege mentality of the Baltimore Catechism. He was told that a Savior, who loved and cared about him personally, had died for his sins, so that after his death, if he was good, he would live forever in an eternally beautiful world. Not in the lair of some red-tailed Satan with all his squalid cohorts and works and pomps. Life was to have a direction that he could call a vocation.
No one could have promised him more.
Early life became a thoroughly visualized drama of salvation and damnation. It was never clear which side won, since the outcome always depended on a deus ex machina. He could not avoid believing in the drama. The message was repeated with a frequency that made it true. His truth-tellers were all the people whom he loved and trusted. He was surrounded daily by the satisfying pageantry, music, and rhythmic habit that raised the problem of truth in Catholicism to a question of aesthetic intoxication. When he looked to the right, down the church pew, he often saw, but only later understood, Madame Bovary admiring the blue borders of her prayer book. When he looked to the left, he noticed a large number of people living out their fears as gamblers, unsure of odds always set by the house, always going for broke, the stakes nothing less than eternity. Pascal delivered most of the sermons; his subject was usually some new variation on the Wager.
What most disturbed the boy about religion was this paradox: These illusions had made beautiful, peaceful people out of those whom he knew and admired. They were filled with a compassionate humanity, like Grandmother Hamilton, whose every act was a gesture of warm charity. If mankind needed a guiding illusion to live by, he had to admit, then the completeness and wholeness of her vision was more satisfying than many other alternatives.
Yet, her illusion could never be his own. He walked deep into the woods at night to celebrate a hatch of lightning bugs.
His religious experience was an archetype for millions of his Catholic contemporaries, except that his sympathy for the drama of the faithful, his severity of reaction, and his psychic dislocation were more intense.
The boy was ordained to be one of those who lived out their lives close to their sharpest feelings, rather than absorb themselves in a world of feverish activity that shoves all the darker fantasies away.
With a quiet recitation of the Morning Offering, he began the day, on his knees.
After trudging through the snow at 7am, he sang in a choir for the requiem mass. The church was filled by people with perfect accident records and plastic Christopher statues on their dashboards. A swing of the censer, the pure tones of Gregorian chant, the hushed holiness of consecration, and the secretive murmur of Latin incantation combined to hypnotize the boy, sweeping him into a world of magical peace. God lived in the quietest house in town.
Occasionally the boy’s cracking first tenor led the group into a disastrously flat Credo, which went on and on, almost eternally, as if God were giving him a fitting glimpse of some eternal punishment. On Sundays, standing on the high wooden benches, hymnal in hand, anxious to get home and go fishing, he watched the hundred faces plod slowly out of the stuffy church as they observed his singing of the recessional.
He was a communicant trying with his tongue to move the wafer that stuck to the roof of his mouth. He did not chew his Lord, but let Him disintegrate slowly, as was advised. Heaven was slightly higher than the most recent jets could fly. A well-engineered white-fire Hell lay somewhere below him in the earth on a direct line to Australia. Girls came back from communion with their hands folded, eyes straight down, certain that they were destined to become first-class relics.
He knew his saints by name, rank, and special patronage.
A cyclopean God’s Eye, invented long before radar, spotted not only everything he did, but more, everything he thought and might do.
Non-Catholics—What were they? Potential Catholics.
Water at the YMCA pool was supposed to contain mysteriously dangerous spiritual contaminants.
Impressive statistics assured him that he would lose the faith if he went to a state university.
Priests who gave high school retreats were always the most satisfactory kind of saints—reformed sinners.
George Washington’s Birthday was nearly as important as the pastor’s.
As an altar boy he struggled to light the six High Mass candles just beyond his comfortable reach, their wicks smashed down by the last snuffer. The entire congregation, with little to occupy their thoughts before mass, rejoiced in his disasters. On hot summer Sundays in his thick surplice the chances were 50-50 that he would faint midway through the Canon, 75-25 if the service included incense. How ugly were the human tongues that shook wildly as the priest put a host on them.
At school his nun read the part-biography, part-moral lesson from a small brown book, the Saint’s Calendar for the Day. Another Christian was fed to the lions because he wouldn’t deny his God or she wouldn’t sleep with the Emperor.
He gave a penny, the sacrificed stick of gum, to save a black African soul at the uninflated price of a dollar apiece.
Secretly, he gave a dollar a month of his paper-route money to Father Guinda of the Jesuits, who sent him an envelope for the purpose from far off Milwaukee.
After licking shut the back of the envelope, and marking JMJ (Jesus-Mary-Joseph) as the return address, he reread each month a message that he suspected was more than half true, “When you give to the Jesuits, you give to Jesus.”
He dreamed of fortunes he would have given away, relishing a fierce sectarian pride in the generosity of his sacrifice.
At lunch he said the “Bless Us 0 Lord” before the meal. When especially hungry he could manage the two signs of the cross and “Bless Us 0 Lord” in just three seconds. He mumbled and hummed his way like the priests at mass.
After school he sometimes said the Stations of the Cross or went to Confession—the all-purpose detergent that could wash him whiter than slush. He had meditative meetings—no agenda necessary—with God, who always had enough free time for a good talk.
At Friday dinner there was no meat, but he was a lover of fish, relishing the variety.
His mother watched the calendar for fast days, which to the boy appeared in irrational staccato bursts among the otherwise satisfying measure of the week, the aesthetically ravishing Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter shape of the year. Only the four natural seasons recurred with a more absorbing mythic rhythm.
He might say a rosary after dinner.
He ended the day on his knees with an Our Father, a Hail Mary, and an Act of Contrition, wondering if Heaven was the gigantic largemouth bass that the old fisherman told him about, but which he would never catch. Maybe the search for God was the biggest snipe hunt ever.
Out hunting in the woods before dinner, riding his bike along the uninhabited country roads, he sometimes came upon the haunting “Christ is coming” signs of Revivalists in the spooky hour after twilight.
This routine, repeated day after day, exerted an increasingly powerful intoxication.
At 13 he became a confirmed Christian soldier, recalling for weeks grizzly Bishop Fitzgerald’s great slap on his cheek.
Then he became a high school Sodality member in a tightly knit and affectionate community, fired with parochial loyalties, attuned to the possibility that he ought to become a priest, not receiving the call because at the last minute God turned down the volume and the other stations came in stronger.
Later, he was a somewhat chagrined undergraduate, angered that he could have been so taken in by an illusion that raised one obscure political execution on Golgotha to the grandeur of a supernatural event. In his second year of college, the boy sat through a solemn proof for the existence of angels. Distressed, he looked around the room. Everyone seemed busy copying a very exact set of lecture notes.
He was a mellowed, somewhat indifferent young man in his 20s, who knew that religious discussion was a semantic maelstrom that could never satisfy and would only frustrate.
He could not look back and laugh at his former piety, however, because the bleakness of his secular vision was far less satisfying. His secular world was a painful awareness that he had no particular desire to champion.
Standing in the alley back of his house, he waited for the sun to spin around in the sky. It was the 40th anniversary of the supposed apparition of the Virgin to the children of Fatima, and Mrs. Kemp, a neighbor woman who specialized in these events, assured him that today was the time for a sign.
They waited in the hot summer sun for maybe an hour with a crowd of Catholic neighbors. He was tired and thirsty.
“Why did the Pope weep when he opened the letter early? Why, I ask you?” Mrs. Kemp inquired, aloud.
The Virgin was supposed to have given a letter to the Pope to be opened in 1960. Some people thought he had peeked.
Everyone became a little dizzy with the waiting, but no one wanted to get water for fear they would miss the precious few seconds of the miracle.
Suddenly the sun appeared to whirl. Mrs. Kemp was the first to notice it. She alerted the boy. Squinting hard through his eyes, he thought he saw the same phenomenon. The whirling sun looked striped. God must have scribbled it with a giant Crayola. Everybody saw it—Mrs. Kemp, the boy, and all the neighbors.
The boy wondered if the people of Salem, countrymen he had read about in his history book, had once observed their apparitions in the forest with the same certainty.
Everyone knelt down to pray.