Tonawanda News

January 7, 2013

BOOK NOOK: Niagara County, seen through a very special lens

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — The book “Niagara Digressions,” by E.R. Baxter III, is definitely about Niagara County -- the author’s love of place comes through admirably -- and is definitely about digressions.

A poet and former English professor, Baxter is a storyteller, with the Niagara River, Indian tribes, factory life, what’s wrong with the City of Niagara Falls, indigenous wildlife and the chemical residue of local life on his mind. He mentions friends, plenty of them, and incidents, adventures and observations.

As a collection of anecdotes, they are well-constructed views of how time and other things changed northwestern New York State, and not for better, but plowing through one after another could be regarded as a tough slog for a reader. Not every story has a punchline or a moral; they are simply comments on what happened in the author’s life.

The reader will identify with some, but not all of them, and therein, I suspect, is a problem. His thoughts on rabbit hunting did not engage me, but those on working in a factory, in his case “International Graphite Electrode where they manufactured graphic electrodes for arc furnaces,” did, simply because this reader does not do the former and did a lot of the latter. As he writes about several dozen fields of interests, Baxter seems like an engaging friend who can veer off to opine on topics the listener patiently endures, awaiting something more interesting.

So it goes here, chapter after chapter of short narratives about what happened to the game, the fresh water, Niagara Falls’ Shredded Wheat Factory. It’s barroom conversation from a skilled talker and phrase-maker. Fascinating, but it can get tedious in print.

Baxter knows his history, fortunately. Many of his stories have dates and names attached to the circumstances -- the year something happened, a factory closed, another opened. This alone is useful to better understand his tales and opinions, helpful if the reader lived through Baxter’s years in Niagara County. Personally, I’m from Erie County, and treated the book more as a one-man history lesson than any roll down memory lane.

He also knows his memory. He can spin seven hundred or so words out of reading the side of a pencil. “Ticonderoga No. 2” is enough to get him started on elementary school days, and how pencils handed out by the teacher could reside in the tiny hands of the next Harriet Beecher Stowe or Jack London. “Probably not, but still,” the teacher says.

The reminiscences are relatively common; Baxter is not telling state secrets or tales of heroism here. Common stories uncommonly told have a virtue of their own, and the book offers regular examples of that sort of truism.

It could have used a wide-awake editor, though. “Niagara Digressions” could have been shorter, tighter, more of a pleasure to read than one observation after another with the reader waiting for one with some impact on his or her own life or thoughts.

It should be pointed out the book is no mere internal travelogue of Niagara County. The author recounts hitchhiking around the American South and points west, offers comments about friends from afar, the Hudson River and other things in and on his mind. While it brought on a certain monotony as I awaited something to which I could relate, the thought arose that anyone of sufficient age and experience could write a book such as this, but few do and fewer have the gift of observation and wordplay Baxter has.

The guy is a poet, after all, and while poetry is an undervalued art these days, any attempt to muse about one’s past, without a proficiency in word-slinging, is just someone’s boring stories about the old days. Baxter indeed has stories. Some are better than others, but boy, are there stories here.

* WHAT: "Niagara Digressions" * BY: E.R. Baxter III * GRADE: B

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at