The Book of Famous Iowans, Douglas Bauer explores the life of Will Vaughn, a man of late middle age living in Chicago with his second wife, remembering the month of June 1957 in his hometown, the rural village of New Holland, Iowa. More precisely, Will remembers just a few days of that month and the quick sequence of astonishing events that have colored, ever since, the logic of his heart and the moods of his mind. He tells of his stunningly beautiful young mother, Leanne, who liked to recall the years of the Second World War, during which she sang with a dance band in a lounge in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He tells too of his father, Lewis, a soldier in the war who one night saw the "resplendently sequined" Leanne step onstage and began at that instant to plot his courtship of her.
I learned about my mother's search for work not from her or my father, but from my grandmother one evening as the two of us sat in her upstairs kitchen. I remember that the heat in her apartment that night was a stunning, sodden thing. I remember we had, my grandmother and I, tried and failed to eat our supper, so she'd made us ice cream floats to fill our stomachs.
Before she told me my mother's secret, she'd recalled my parents' arriving from Cheyenne and how, with a determined buoyancy, she and my mother had spent several days complimenting and deferring to one another while at the same time each was taking the other's measure. She said, "The first thing you noticed, of course, was her looks. I said to your father, 'How did you manage this? You're a handsome boy, honey, but the two of you together, it looks like the princess hasn't got around to kissing the frog!'"
But, she said, while my mother's beauty was something to admire, what there was to like was her intelligence; that she was smart enough to know she should be scared to death and strong enough to do all she could to hide her fear. Still, my grandmother said, when she looked back, she wished my mother had been able to say she was frightened; perhaps then she wouldn't have felt "she had to have her dukes up all the time."