Life Is Short But Wide (Cooper)

Life Is Short But Wide
J. California Cooper, 2009
Knopf Doubleday
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781400075690

Beloved writer J. California Cooper has won a legion of loyal fans and much critical acclaim for her powerful storytelling gifts. In language both spare and direct yet wondrously lyrical, Life Is Short But Wide is an irresistible story of family that proves no matter who you are or what you do, you are never too old to chase your dreams.

Like the small towns J. California Cooper has so vividly portrayed in her previous novels and story collections, Wideland, Oklahoma, is home to ordinary Americans struggling to raise families, eke out a living, and fulfill their dreams. In the early twentieth century, Irene and Val fall in love in Wideland. While carving out a home for themselves, they also allow neighbors Bertha and Joseph to build a house and live on their land. The next generation brings two girls for Irene and Val, and a daughter for Bertha and Joseph. As the families cope with the hardships that come with changing times and fortunes, and people are born and pass away, the characters learn the importance of living one’s life boldly and squeezing out every possible moment of joy.

Cooper brilliantly captures the cadences of the South and draws a picture of American life at once down-to-earth and heartwarming in this—as her wise narrator will tell you— "strange, sad, kind’a beautiful, life story." It is a story about love that leads to the ultimate realization that whoever you are, and whatever you do, life is short, but it is also wide. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
J. California Cooper is the author of four novels, including, most recently, Some People, Some Other Place, and six collections of stories. She was honored as Black Playwright of the Year, and has received the American Book Award, the James Baldwin Writing Award, and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association. She lives in Portland, Oregon (From the publisher.)

J. California Cooper first found acclaim as a playwright. The author of seventeen plays, she was named Black Playwright of the Year in 1978.

It was through her work in the theater that she caught the attention of acclaimed poet and novelist Alice Walker. Encouraged by Walker to turn her popular storytelling skills to fiction, Cooper wrote her first collection of short stories, A Piece of Mine, in 1984. Called "rich in wisdom and insight" and "a book that's worth reading," A Piece of Mine introduced Cooper's trademark style: her intimate and energetic narration, sympathetic yet sometimes troubled characters, and the profound moral messages that underlie seemingly simple stories.

Two more story collections followed on the heels of A Piece of Mine. In 1986 came Homemade Love, winner of an American Book Award, and, in 1987, Some Soul to Keep. (Author bio from thhe African American Literature Book Club.)

Book Reviews
Gutsy and familiar.... [Cooper’s] power comes from sticking to her instinct, which is to tell a story, plain and simple.
Washington Post

Exuberant.... Cooper’s stories reveal a meticulous attention to the nuances of African-American life.
San Francisco Chronicle

What a voice.... Cooper celebrates family, freedom, perseverance, life, and…powerful voices finally heard.
Atlanta Journal Constitution

Cooper brilliantly captures the cadences of the South and draws a picture of American life at once down-to-earth and heartwarming in this—as her wise narrator will tell you—“strange, sad, kind’a beautiful, life story.” It is a story about love that leads to the ultimate realization that whoever you are, and whatever you do, life is short, but it is also wide.
African American Literature Book Club (

With another multigenerational, wonderfully crafted Midwest ensemble cast, Cooper (Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns) presents the town of Wideland, Okla., through the eyes of folksy nonagenarian Hattie B. Brown. This community sentinel, though sometimes short on memory, acts as tour guide and historian, introducing the town at the beginning of the 20th century, when the railroad first arrived and, with it, a growing population. Among the new residents, Hattie introduces the industrious, loving African-American cowboy Val Strong and his Cherokee "brother-friend" Wings; Val's hardened but beautiful wife, Irene Lowell; and their two strong-willed daughters, Rose and Tante. Following the Strong family and their associates through the better part of the 1900s, Hattie finds history running roughshod through their lives, crushing some and strengthening others, introducing new generations and obstacles to love, home and happiness. Cooper's characteristic motherly wit carries an appealing raft of characters through a world tougher than it is tender, but touched with beauty and wisdom.
Publishers Weekly

Reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston's groundbreaking 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, this story chronicles the lives of impoverished blacks in the town of Wideland, OK, from the early 20th to the 21st century, as told by the town gossip, Hattie Brown. Narrated with gentle wit and humor, the book explores the importance of love, religion, redemption, and family. Cooper allows the characters to speak in the African American Southern dialect, a technique that lends veracity and texture to their personalities. The pace of the plot is like a slow-burning fire: there's time for rumination, but readers won't be bored. Some, however, may be irritated by frequent references to the Bible and the Christian overtones throughout.
Orville Lloyd Douglas - Library Journal

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Life Is Short But Wide:

1. Talk about the hardships encountered by the two couples: Val and Irene, and Bertha and Joseph.

2. How do the the two sisters, Tante and Rose, differ? Which sister do you most admire?

3. Why does Cooper choose 91-year-old Hattie to narrate the story? What does she bring to the narrative?

4. How does Herman Tenderman's return complicate the events of the story?

5. Which characters in this multi-generational saga do you sympathize with most...and least?

6. What is the significance of the novel's title?

7. Ultimately, what lessons in life do characters learn? What are the messages that Cooper works to convey in her novel?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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