Margaret's War

Way back when I was a wet-behind-the-ears cub reporter, I never told any of my colleagues on The Capital Times' staff that I admired a columnist for the rival Wisconsin State Journal, a fellow named Bill Stokes.

In those days, you just didn't say you liked someone on the "other" paper.

Stokes had been a reporter for the State Journal and exhibited such a talent for writing that they gave him his own regular column, where he was free to go searching for interesting stories to tell. And he excelled at that, too, producing cleverly creative takes on the news of the day. He described his jaunts into Wisconsin's endless scenic beauty, wrote descriptive pieces on fishing and fishermen, and described his regular visits to the Barron County farm and its "back 40" that were all part of his youth.

We Cap Times staffers got to know Bill quite well, not only from his writing (of which we were jealous) but his hanging out at the Congress Bar a few steps from the Madison Newspapers' building on South Carroll Street. Lots of characters — newspaper people, lawyers, responsible and irresponsible drinkers, legislators (was hard to tell the difference) — hung out there.

Bill and I had a favorite bartender, a perpetually happy man named "Eggs" Wiese who knew everyone in town, including Cy Butt, one of Madison's all-time characters. Eggs put up with us and Cy, who loved to drink, but was smart as a whip, and because a relative's will had given him a stipend to go to the university, he remained a student seemingly forever — an undergrad for years followed by several semesters in law school — in order to keep collecting the money. He was a regular contributor to both papers' letters pages and loved to play pranks, especially on the self-important. Bill came to know him quite well.

Truth be told, our newsroom wasn't the least bit sorry when the Milwaukee Journal dangled some extra bucks in front of Bill and convinced him to come work for them, where he could roam the state in search of column topics and display his talent to a much wider audience. He excelled there, of course, and soon the Chicago Tribune came knocking with an even bigger audience.

Well, Bill's still very much around. He's 87 now and living in a house he built on a scenic hill overlooking Mazomanie.

But, what's more, he has finally finished a novel he's been writing and rewriting, off and on, for probably decades. He's written several books during his career — "Ship the Kids on Ahead," "Hi Ho Silver, Anyway," for example — but this is his first novel. He sent me a copy of "Margaret's War" that I took to Arizona last month and couldn't put down.

A lot of it is based on Stokes' childhood and takes place during World War II. Fifteen-year-old "Billy" is the narrator of the twisting and turning plot, whose mentor in the small town of Oxbow is a hard-drinking, broken-down lawyer named — you got it — Cy Butler.

Stokes told Madison's Doug Moe that he wanted to pay tribute to Cy Butt with the novel, and to say he pulled it off is a gross understatement. Margaret is the wife of a missing-in-action soldier who's either dead or in a prison camp in Germany. When the military decides to open a German POW camp outside of Oxbow, everything in town changes. (Barron actually did have a POW camp during the war.)

Cy, Billy and Margaret hatch a plot to capture one of the POWs and get Eleanor Roosevelt to arrange for an exchange to get Margaret's husband back.

It doesn't go well. Among the twists is a devastating fire in the dry swamp outside of town. Cy eventually brings home a black jazz singer from Minneapolis and marries her while the rest of the community, which has never seen a black person, is mortified. Trouble for them is that she's undoubtedly smarter than the rest of the community.

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He captures like no one I've read the essence and culture of rural Wisconsin in those days, a talent that Stokes exhibited so well back in his column-writing days.

You have to pay attention while reading "Margaret's War." The ending may give you pause, unless you were paying attention to Cy and his mentoring of Billy.

Get this book. It's available most everywhere for 16 bucks. You'll understand why Bill Stokes made so many of us jealous.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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