Cover image for Life is short but wide
Life is short but wide
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2009.
Physical Description:
317 p. ; 22 cm.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available

On Order



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.

Author Notes

J. California Cooper was born in Berkeley, California in 1932. She was an award-winning playwright, novelist, and short story writer. She wrote 17 plays and received a 1978 Black Playwright Award for Strangers. She wrote several short story collections including A Piece of Mine, Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns, and The Future Has a Past. Homemade Love received the 1989 American Book Award and Funny Valentine was made into a 1999 TV movie. Her novels included Family, The Wake of the Wind, Life Is Short but Wide, and Some People, Some Other Place. She received the James Baldwin Award and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association in 1988. She died on September 20, 2014 at the age of 82.

(Bowker Author Biography) J. California Cooper is the author of five collections of short stories, including Homemade Love, winner of the 1989 American Book Award, and the novels The Wake of the Wind, Family, and In Search of Satisfaction. She lives in northern California.

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

This is a story about love: hard-to-find, hard-to-get, hard-to-keep love.  The narrator is 91-year-old Hattie B. Brown, who, along with her 105-year-old mother, relates the saga of a family that begins with Val Strong, a Native American cattle driver, and Irene, the African American woman he comes to love. Between them they build a life in Wideland, Oklahoma, with a house and some land. Their daughters, Rose and Tante, want different lives. Tante gets her PhD and moves to Paris, while Rose stays in the home she grew up in, continuing to teach poor children. Another family story, that of Herman Tenderman, emerges parallel to this one. It is when the two stories, or families, come together that the hard love story begins and winds its agonizing way to happiness. Cooper tells her story with simplicity and grace. No apologies are made for the foolishness or baseness of any of her characters, and she freely sermonizes and moralizes whenever she feels it is called for. The result is a poignant and often-funny story of people trying to survive and find someone to love.--Dickie, Elizabeth Copyright 2009 Booklist

Kirkus Review

This multigenerational saga about African-Americans in a small Oklahoma town covers a large chunk of the 20th century. The novel's 91-year-old narrator, who plays no active role and has no viable reason to know the intimate details of the characters' stories, allows Cooper (Wild Stars Seeing Midnight Suns, 2006, etc.) to adopt a folksy, sometimes preachy tonewith a decided sympathy for Jehovah's Witness theologyand a casual approach to dates and facts that might be considered sloppy otherwise. Hattie B. Brown explains that her story is shaped like a "Y," two strands coming together. The "Strong" line is much more substantially developed. In 1910, Val Strong, a cowboy of mixed African and Native American parentage, marries teacher Irene Lowell and builds her a house in Wideland, Okla., where they raise two daughters. Independent Tante leaves for college back East and never looks back, but passive Rose stays in her parents' house after their deaths. A teacher like her mother, Rose marries smooth-talking Leroy and has a daughter, Myine Wee, but Leroy takes up with an old girlfriend. Evil Tonya poisons Rose, then knocks off Leroy for good measure so she can claim possession of the house. She turns Myine Wee into a Cinderella stepdaughter servant. Eventually Myine Wee hears from Aunt Tante, now living in France, who swoops into town to save the house and give Myine Wee start-up cash to finish her education and become a teacher. Meanwhile, one of Rose's best students, Herman Tenderman, is making his way in the worldgetting a college degree, joining the navy, working as head mechanic in a garage where he's paid less than the less-skilled whites, marrying a floozy he eventually leaves. As the years speed by, along with the chaptersand they do speedHerman and Myine Wee cross paths frequently. Although they are obviously made for each other, not until they are approaching their 60s do they acknowledge their love and complete Ms. Brown's "Y." Cooper's manufactured folktale pulls all the expected strings too hard. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

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 (A Piece of Mine) 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. Suitable for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/08.]-Orville Lloyd Douglas, Brampton, Ont. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 * Occasionally, actually quite often, someone will refer to a family or person as dysfunctional. Which, I believe, is a sign of ignorance, for the obvious reason that 70 or 80 percent of all the people who have ever lived were dysfunctional. The other 20 or 30 percent tried to be, or had sense enough to be, a little wiser. Among them, the greatest were disliked, hated, killed, or crucified. And they weren't even perfect, except one. For instance they crucified Jesus of Nazareth, and all his disciples, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and others. People who thought as much or more of others than they did of themselves. People killed the people who seemed to wish good things for mankind. Throughout the history of mankind the struggle for survival on this earth has been extremely, horribly intense and never ending. Wars have been fought, almost continually, when there were enough people to pick sides and fight; and enough dispensable men to be called on to die for their leader, country, or the current god. Then there was slavery; every country or body wanted a slave. Someone to do their work or make money for them. Sometimes slaves were all a war was about. And, if not a whole war, then groups, communities, families, and friends would fight and kill each other. Ain't that interesting? Not just African slaves; every nationality alive has been a slave, at some time, for some other nation. Believe me. It would seem most of mankind likes killing. For Greed of something, for Gold or financial reward. They doing it now! You probably know all about history so let us skip, for my purpose, to the twentieth century. People are still fighting slavery in one form or another. In many parts of the world women are fighting for food or medicine, a roof for their children, or some way to keep from being raped, while some other females fight to be able to show their naked behinds, breasts, and everything else they can get out in front of somebody. In several other parts of the world people are being denied their life, or stolen from their life to be sold. Children are being stolen, every day, killed or given away. Everything I can think of, you already know. I believe all anyone wants is to be "happy." Everyone just wants to be happy. Why are they not happy? Other people. Black people, Brown people, Native Americans are treated abominably. White races are not excluded. Poor white people have a struggle to survive also, no matter what they may think. Poor is the operative word. And yet . . . No one wants to leave this earth. Hate to die or scared to die. I am trying to say too much, and don't know how to say it. But I have often wondered at the Cain and Abel murder. I have wondered who Cain's progeny are. He and the wife he took to the land of Nod had children; and so on and so on, until today. There must be millions of them now. Sometime I think I recognize one on television; they would be the ones trying to run the world. When you look at history and life, you know the rich, and most anyone in high places, did not get there by being honest or good . . . a few, maybe. If not they, then an ancestor lied and deceived, even murdered. You may believe me or not. I don't mind. The truth is not popular. I truly marvel at the struggle for Love. Parents, children, relatives, all people are part of it. I'm leaving out the insane or mindless; but they, too, usually respond to love and kindness. Some people think this struggle for love makes the doing of all mean, petty, even evil things necessary. Why? Stupid and mindless is my guess. Because it ain't going to turn out right for them. Sometimes it's a struggle to get over self-love first. Sometimes in this struggle for love, we give up, or lose, everything, and we still don't achieve love. Some people don't even recognize real love when it comes without being called or sought. Well, I want to tell you this story: this strange, sad, kind'a beautiful, life story. I want to speak about Love, chile. Chapter 2 * In the early twentieth century Wideland was an ordinary, small town in Oklahoma where the ordinary people were beginning to prosper a bit, and the town was expanding. The railroad came in 1907, and by 1910, the steady building-up, all the activity and prosperity, had drawn people of many backgrounds to Wideland. Local calamities, diseases, floods, hurricanes, famine, also sent many people out of their lands, or homes, to seek something better. In a restless, young country there are many poor people seeking a place where they might find riches, if possible, labor, surely, and pursue some happiness. As usual, there were small investors seeking a better start where everything was needed; items and services were bought and traded briskly. The mentally crooked always follow, bringing hurt and pain for someone. Wideland was a nice little town grown up from a village with a good reputation. People came seeking to make a home for their family and future. Large enough to have several churches, two pharmacies, and two doctors, one good one; they both served the small hospital that was for emergencies. A variety of small clothing stores for men and women; working clothes, nothing too grand. Small secondhand shops for everyone. Wideland even had two small banks, whose owners created the Society, those that considered themselves the elite. There were lumberyards, a hardware store, and a few good-sized stores for buying food and necessities. Farmers and others provided a place for people to bring things to sell or barter; things someone else invariably needed, for most all the people were the striving poor. A small police station, a small shack for the post office, and a new courthouse to be proud of were built near a large creek diverted off the Long River that ran alongside Wideland. There were many whites, some Blacks and Native Americans, a few Asians. For a long time there was one lawyer, now there were two. More people meant more problems, so the attorneys made a living. Wideland had good weather and bad weather, none was extreme except occasionally. It was an easy town to live in. An African American cowboy, Val Strong, and his Native American Cherokee brother-friend, Wings, came to town to find, or build, a house for the pretty young woman Val had recently married, Irene Lowell. They rode in on horses they had caught, broken, and trained themselves. That was their way of life. Val's mother was a strong, lovely Native American. His father, an African, Black and roundly muscled, strong. He had escaped from his slave-master and lived with the Indians for years. He had been killed in one of the wars or skirmishes the U.S. fought against the Indians. For the land the Indian was born in, and the land the white man had sailed into. Val had been raised with the Native Americans and in his heart he was a young, strong Brave. Wings had been his friend of his youth, and indeed, he was a young strong Brave. They wore cowboy hats, and leather pants and boots, even with spurs on their boots. They were handsome, indeed! They worked together running cattle for anyone who had cattle to run from one destination to another. Sometimes they crossed several states: New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, Arizona, even New Jersey, and farther. They had driven cattle as far east as they cared to go. They were leery about people who were too strange. They were quiet and kept themselves apart, except from the men they worked with whom they liked. Herding cattle paid good money. Val had saved all his working life, about fifteen years. Now he had a sizable sum to purchase a house for his new wife; she did not want to live on a reservation. He was eager to start his new life. He was in love. As he had passed through Wideland many times, he observed the town and the people. The sky was deep blue and stretched to far, far yonder, and was full of enchanting voluptuous clouds. Plenty of pretty birds, fish, and animals lived there. He loved all the natural beauty of God's creations. He also wanted to stay near the reservation. He didn't know how deep the little town was, but he knew it was long; it stretched a long, long way to the north and south, following the river. He decided his wife, and later, children, would be safe when he was away on a cattle drive. It seemed a town where a family could live in contentment. The handsome dark-brown sunburnt man, Val, was around thirty years old when he married Irene. Irene was from a little town near Wideland. She had learned to read, write, and cipher, and shared her knowledge in a little shack with a sign nailed over the door saying "School." She had no teaching certificate, but taught all ages and colors. She dearly needed the money for she meant to be independent, and had no help. There weren't many students in her classes at a time; who had the money? Older people knew the advantages of being able to read and count; they came, and brought their children and grandchildren. She charged a pittance, and that was all her living. She helped serve two meals a day at Mz. Shaw's rooming house, where she lived. Irene also helped clean the other guest rooms in exchange for her own tiny room, and the small shack she used for a teaching classroom. Mz. Shaw owned the room and boardinghouse. There weren't many boarders at Mz. Shaw's, and they were most all men. Irene kept her eyes down in the dining room as she did her duties. But when Val came through the town on a cattle drive and stayed overnight at Mz. Shaw's, she had noticed him. She saw that whenever she raised her eyes, he was always looking at her. After the first time he saw her, he returned about every two weeks. He changed; he did not sleep out in the fields under the stars with his herding partner, Wings (sometime called just "Wing"), as had been his habit. He slept at Mz. Shaw's when in Wideland. Mz. Shaw's was not the best place to stay in Wideland, but colored people were not allowed to stay everywhere, and Val would not spend his hard-earned money just for a place to sleep. He was used to sleeping outdoors under the stars until winter moved over the land. Mz. Shaw's was honest, clean, and cheap, and the food, cooked by Mz. Shaw, was good, better than that at the "best" houses. Irene had tried to pay as little attention to Val as necessary, except a few quick glances across the table. She thought he was handsome, but she was looking for a better job or way to make a living. She would rather have a good job than a poor husband. "He probably already married anyway," she thought, and put him out of her mind. "No time for that foolishness!" She thought a lot about a husband; someone to help her, protect her. She prayed a lot at night, asking, "Lord, please direct my feet cause how can I know what to do?" But Irene had good sense, and the Lord probably let her lead her own self; because how else is a person going to learn? Val had asked Mz. Shaw if Miss Lowell was married, and when he found out she was not, he thought of her even more often. After he had that information, on his next trip he brought her an ocean-colored turquoise flower. He gave it to her, saying, "That's what color the ocean look like." She could only sigh, "Ohhhhhhhhh," with a smile. Irene loved the lovely little jewel. It was her first real gift from a man she did not think could be expecting anything from her. She looked into his face, still smiling as she thanked him, and walked away. She had not had so many experiences that she knew exactly what a person did in "courting," she had learned mostly what not to do. But she remembered to smile at him again as she placed his gift gently and firmly in her apron pocket. Irene was a medium-sized woman, bright and healthy. She had smooth brown_gold skin and clear, hazel eyes like dusky sunshine. Even though they were sad eyes, they were bright and honest, seeking some happiness, yet reserved and subdued. Irene was twenty-two years old. She had been struggling to survive ever since she could remember. She had run away from a motherless home, at last, five years ago. Running from her father, brothers, uncles, and white men pulling after her body. Irene, clean, mannerable, and presenting herself well, had found work as a servant to a family with three children. It was a fairly wealthy house, and they spent good money on the children's education and tutors. Irene always sat in on all their classes for the five years she was there. She had learned to read and write and more, along with the children. She was alert to life's demands. Her learning was her tool for her living. Now she taught what she had learned. She still had her same books, loved, worn, but very well cared for. She taught from them, sometimes copied from them for her students, but seldom let anyone touch them. No, sir! Now, Val thought of her very, very often. He loved his mother and his Indian family, but sometimes he had looked at American houses in passing. He wondered at the privacy and quiet inside those rooms. Native Americans lived in many types of structures. Some even built low, flat houses similar to the white man's before the white man came. But those were Indians who worked the land, not migrating with the seasons and animals. Val, being a young healthy man, looked at all women, their clothes, their ways. He was handsome, and they looked at him, too. He did not like the white women because of his family's history with white men, but he knew there were Brown women, and women who were Black, like his father. And now, he had met one. He liked the women on his reservation, but felt like they were sisters. "Oh, Irene, Irene." It had taken a few months, though he asked often, before Irene allowed him to take walks with her. She knew about men and how they could be. She had a healthy and wise fear of them. Val, with good sense, was patient. He was a thoughtful man, and discovered she liked books and learning. He could not read, but he had brought her a few books here and there, wherever he could find them. Spelling books, simple reading books, and even one from Europe he had found in a bartering shop. The books pleased her; that made him happy. Excerpted from Life Is Short but Wide by J. California Cooper All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.