Writers and writing teachers speak longingly and lovingly about a thing called “voice.” “Voice” is that almost intangible thing that makes a writer’s work stand out, giving him or her authenticity. An author with a clear, distinct voice sounds genuine, reachable, touchable. A writer’s voice can draw an audience into a story so that the story seems to be happening in real time. Those of us who attempt to write are actually trying to develop a voice that connects us with an audience. Not everyone who writes, however, is fortunate enough to have a voice that reaches a large, eager audience. But those who are fortunate – ah, those people are writers.
By those standards, and by many others, C.W. Gusewelle was a writer. A graduate of Westminster College, Mr. Gusewelle wrote for the Kansas City Star for decades, winning a raft of impressive awards over the years. But I knew him as a columnist. I read weekly about his family, his cabin in the woods, his love of hunting and clear wide-open spaces, his cats, his bird dog Rufus, and Rufus’s sons and grandsons. I also read about his perspective regarding political and social issues; he had a way of writing about complicated problems, breaking them down into the simplest of ideas – usually about how we must find a way to live in this world together.
I looked forward to hearing Mr. Gusewelle’s voice in the paper. He took me down the Lena River in Siberia, on a trip to Paris, and on an adventure in Senegal. I devoured his words, placed artfully just so, making sentences sound more like enchanting melodies than a pedantic string of syllables.
I got to meet him a couple of times. Max and I happened to run into him at a now-defunct restaurant in Lone Jack – the Periwinkle Café. I was hesitant, but Max encouraged me, and so I took a great breath, marched over to his table, and told him how much I admired him. With a rough, gravelly voice that belied his gently written words, he accepted my compliment with humility and self-deprecating humor, and then we briefly discussed how I loved his Rufus as I had also loved mine.
He also came to Sedalia in 1994 to promote one of his books: “A Paris Notebook,” a collection of the essays he wrote from Paris about 10 years before. I told him that I had never been to Paris, and if I never set foot there, his columns had made me believe that I had actually strolled along the avenues in the City of Lights. I told him about how I cried buckets when I read his beautifully heartbreaking story about his Rufus’s death. I also told him that I stood in awe of his daughters, who, in 1991, had traveled the more than 2000-mile Lena with him, living with the barest of necessities, exploring a different world with their favorite adventurer.
Over his many years at the “Star,” Mr. Gusewelle wrote a variety of stories – some humorous, some touching, some seriously analytical – but he wrote them all in the same voice: clear, succinct, melodic, direct. And that is the voice we have lost, as Mr. Gusewelle died earlier this week at age 83 (http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/article115072728.html).
I read again the first essay in “A Paris Notebook,” where he and his young daughters, through no real fault of their own, arrive at their hotel three hours late, only to find that their room has been given away. Taking pity on them, the night clerk offers them his own tiny apartment so they can sleep after their long journey. Of course, after that, the travelers and the night clerk become
good friends. But here is how Mr. Gusewelle relates what happened that night: “ … I know that my daughters will remember their first night in Paris … Not for anything it told them about this city or the French, but for what they learned about the surprising, the saving, decency that is still possible in the world.”
Those of us who believe in, and hope for, that surprising, saving decency will certainly miss the voice of one of its champions.
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.