JOLIET – After publishing a collection of essays based on her formative years in Joliet, poet Francine Tolf of Minnesota realized she had more stories about her hometown clamoring to be written.
Tolf’s first memoir, “Joliet Girl,” took a decade to write. Likewise, Tolf’s second book, “Joliet in My Blood: Essays on Growing Up in Joliet, Illinois,” also became a 10-year-project.
But Tolf – who has a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota and has received several grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board – was in no hurry.
“I didn’t choose ‘it.’ It chose me,” Tolf said. “I didn’t feel it was overkill. This is simply ‘me.’ This is my life.”
Although Tolf enjoyed hearing feedback about “Joliet Girl” from Joliet-area people – as well as readers who simply enjoyed the stories – she said she learned two things in the process.
One is that memories are subjective. Tolf’s said her memories comprise the truth of Joliet for her, while others recall different “truths” about the city.
“People might read it and say, ‘That’s not how I saw the town,’ and that’s OK, too,” Tolf said.
Secondly, while Tolf’s recounting is set in Joliet, the essay themes – the grammar school bully, piano lessons, cheerleading and the first boyfriend – are relatable to many.
“I didn’t realize this when I was younger,” Tolf said.
Tolf’s feelings regarding Joliet are mixed. Tolf said she felt “dirty somehow” when people commented, “Wow, you’re really from a prison town?” She called it a place of “damaged beauty” and cited her memory of the creek in Pilcher Park being polluted, how the advent of Interstate 80 ravaged West Park and the mansions on the “seedy part of town” being riddled with graffiti.
She also feels that the city’s many bridges symbolize a persistent racial and socio-economic divide. She saw racial prejudice in Catholic schools, where “nuns taught us love and peace.”
But Tolf also feels a sense of stubborn pride about her working-class roots and identifies strongly with working-class people. Unlike some authors, Tolf tried hard not to censor herself or inflate her image. She believes readers can identify with – and be forgiving of – fallibility.
And Tolf, who works as a receptionist in an executive suite, can return to poetry with a sense of completion in her work where Joliet is concerned.
“I’m very grateful I have a lot to show for my writing because I’ve worked very hard,” Tolf said, “but I’m slowing down now and that’s good now.”
The following are excerpts from Francine Tolf’s “Joliet in my Blood: Essays on Growing Up in Joliet, Illinois.”
To read an entire sample essay – “Religion Class” – and for more information, visit www.francinemarietolf.com.
• If I walk past the Princess – the B movie theater, the dirty theater – its lobby is a black cave, a mouth.
• I can still feel the cool silence that enfolded me as I walked into St. Patrick’s Church after school to say the Stations of the Cross.
• Joliet was factory towers and steel bridges and coal-laden barges, but nestled in its heart was my neighborhood. Its borders were Raynor Avenue on the west; Hunter on the east; Marion on the north; and Morgan on the south, with Willow Avenue dissecting the rectangle.
• Before visiting the Boston Store or Lawrence’s, which sold holy cards and statues of Jesus you plugged into the wall so his sacred heart glowed red, we would stop at the piano store to visit Mom.
• The bell clanged. The siren screamed. The fifty-year-old steel moaned as guard rails lowered and Jefferson Street Bridge split open, its jaws wide and gaping as any monster.
• We did everything together. We walked up to Skylark restaurant after school for chocolate Cokes. We picked out forty-five singles together at Selzter’s drugstore.
• The Beach Club was really a water-filled quarry with truckloads of sand brought in to make it look like a beach. ... Michigan Beach, people called it then, after Chicago’s Lake Michigan.
• The City of Joliet had razed a number of downtown structures throughout the mid-60s to early 70s. The old Courthouse with its green-domed clock tower was torn down in 1969, and the Woodruff Hotel – once one of the most opulent hotels in the state – was demolished in 1971. There was even talk of replacing Union Station.
Works by Francine Tolf
• “Blue-flowered Sundress” – poems, Pudding House Press, 2007
• “Like Saul” – poems, Plan B Press, 2008
• “Windy City Fragments” – poems, Pudding House Press, 2009
• “Eighteen Poems to God and a Poem to Satan” – Red Bird Chapbooks, 2012
• “Shadow Town” – essays, Green Fuse Press, 2013
• “Joliet Girl” – a poet’s memoir about growing up in Joliet, Illinois, an aging steel town, in the late sixties and early seventies, North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2010
• “Rain, Lilies, Luck” – poetry, North Star Press of St. Cloud, 2010
• “Prodigal” – poetry, Pinyon Publishing, 2012