Hunting for the Plot

Hunting for the Plot—Coming Soon

Hunting for the Plot, A Son's Search for His Family's Untold Story — a book by Herbert Knapp (front cover)

As my parents grew old, hints and echoes of their histories began showing up in their conversations with me. As I grew older myself, I became aware that our unsatisfactory relationship was rooted in the fact that I simply didn’t know their stories.

Not wanting to be one of those who are still twisted by teenage resentments in their dotage, I set about trying to discover their complicated histories.

They had spent their entire adult lives telling themselves (and me) that the future was what counted and the past was “water over the dam.” They thought they could put the past behind them. They couldn’t. None of us can.

My mother’s grandmother, Hannah Oliphant, was orphaned at a tender age and put into service as a scullery maid in one of England’s grand country homes.

My father’s grandfather, Cornelius Knapp, was also an orphan who grew up being shifted from one neighbor to another until, in his early teens, he ran off and went west. When the Civil War began, he joined the Second Colorado Infantry.

And that’s as far back as I was able to go. But what I discovered was that Cornelius and Hannah played a much more important part in shaping the character and personalities of my parents than I could ever have imagined.

Mary Ellen and Herb Knapp came of age during the emergence of the American middle class as people moved from small towns and farms into cities. This social movement also accounted in large part for who my parents wanted to be and in fact became. I have written about their journey towards the achievement of the American Dream in a dual biography—Hunting for the Plot—whose publication is eminent. 

Hunting for the Plot

Hunting for the Plot: Stories and Stereotypes

My parents, Herbert and Mary Ellen Knapp, standing in front of their "Tin Lizzy," 1929.
Herbert and Mary Ellen Knapp, July 13, 1924

I have finished my biography of my parents, and while waiting for it to be published, I lost my mind and changed the title from “Hunting for the Plot” to “Private Lives and the Big Picture: Rednecks, Immigrants, and the Making of the American Middle Class, 1832-1999.”One of my daughters mentioned casually that she liked it better the other way and KAZAM! I saw at once she was right. What got into me? That new title makes the book sound like another unreadable, boring textbook written by some pretentious professor. It’s not like that. It’s a story—the story of my hunt for the plot linking the lives of my great grandparents, grandparents, and parents. So, having come to my senses, I changed it back. 

Once I mentioned to a friend that I was writing about my parents and urged him to write about his. He said his parents weren’t “that important.” But “Importance” is beside the point. I have lived long enough to be able to make a list a mile long of people who were “important” in my youth who are now completely forgotten. What’s that song about making people happy? “Fame, if you win it, / Comes and goes in a minute. / Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?” The real stuff is what is personal.

The generalizers in the media and the academy can’t be bothered with individuals (Uncle Harry, Auntie Mame, etc.). They would have us all think in terms of stereotypes: white racist males, and offended blacks, of stay-at-home moms and liberated women, of students in elite colleges and those in junior colleges and trade schools, of white collars, blue collars, and pink hats. And we are supposed to assume that all the people in any category are pretty much the same so we don’t need to “know” them—which is to say, to learn their stories. But when we reduce people to stereotypes,” everything fits neatly into its slot so there’s no “real stuff” to cling to and we drift apart. 

My parents wanted our family to be seen as an example of the perfect middle class suburban family. We were all surface; there was no depth to us. I always knew there was more to my parents than they let on. But they weren’t talking. They were afraid that we, their children, would think less of them if we knew their stories. The exact opposite is true. Stories are what tie families (and nations) together. Categories and stereotypes are what keep us apart.


Hunting For the Plot

For a couple of decades, I have been working on a memoir of my parents. Not steadily of course. Sometime a year or two would go by without my touching it. Now it’s done, and we are preparing it for publication. 

As it took shape, I saw that I couldn’t explain my mother’s behavior without explaining her mother’s behavior, and her mother’s behavior didn’t make sense unless I told about her mother, my maternal great-grandmother (b. 1857). That woman was at the root of all my mother’s problems.

Brayton Hall where my great-grandmother, a scullery maid at the age of 12. scoured the pots and pans with sand.

Her name was Hannah Oliphant. She and her sister were orphans. At the age of twelve they were put into service scrubbing pots and pans with sand in a place much like Downton Abbey. It was called Brayton Hall and was on England’s border with Scotland.

Then I learned that on my father’s side, I had to go back to his grandfather (b. 1832), another orphan who grew up being shifted from one neighbor to another. In his early teens, he ran off and went West. 

As if all that weren’t enough, I discovered my parents’ stories made sense only in relation to the larger story of the emergence of the much maligned American middle class. So I changed the title from Hunting for the Plot to Private Lives and the Big Picture: Rednecks, Immigrants, and the Making of the American Middle Class. That class, as we think of it today, began coming into existence in the late 1800s as more and more people moved from farms and small towns into cities. In the 1920s, it assumed the distinctive features that its supercilious critics still find offensive.

Middle class fathers are stereotyped as being cultureless, boring, bigoted, inarticulate, sexually stifled, hypocritical, and incipiently fascist. Mothers, as repressed, oppressed, and none too bright—unless they are rebelling against the patriarchy, in which case they are brilliant. This stereotyping of people based on their “middle class values” is no less unfair than the generally recognized unfairness of stereotyping people on the basis of ethnicity, race, or religion. As is always the case with stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth involved, but there is also a “yugh” degree of over-simplification and distortion.

It is far easier to resent one’s parents than to understand them. I speak from experience.

Childhood learning · Education

How I Learned to Read


The other day in one of those internet searches that leads you somewhat astray, I stumbled down a track that dealt with the teaching of reading.

In an article titled “Yes, There is a Right Way to Teach Reading,” the author maintains that some kids are just not sensitive to the sounds of the spoken word. For example, they don’t hear that there are three sounds in the word “bag.”  In teacher-speak they lack “phonemic awareness.” Therefore what is called for is at least 100 hours instruction in phonics early on.  

This triggered a memory of how I learned to read, I was apparently one of the lucky ones to whom phonemic awareness came easily although I certainly did not get off to a good start.

 * * * * * * * * * *

Some drink, Some take drugs. I read. It’s my mother’s fault. Not that she taught me. Oh, no. That was my teacher’s job. She got paid for it. But when Miss Morgan failed to do her job and passed me on to second grade “with reservations,” Mother took charge, and the first glorious day of summer vacation just as I was on my way outside after breakfast to play sword fight with my friends, she grabbed my arm, marched me out to the squeaky glider on our screened-in front porch. plunked a stack of library books down beside me, and said. “Now read! No more monkeyshines!” (So much for Progressive education.)

I learned I was going to sit there until noon every day all summer, except to go to the bathroom. I whined. I pouted. I amused myself by turning a slow backward somersault on the glider. “Is it noon yet?” No answer. Boredom. Boredom. So I began teaching myself to read.

Mother was pleased. She looked forward to the day when “we” would “show” those old teachers of mine. Reservations, indeed!

“We” showed them, all right. But then I went right on reading.

Mother began to worry. “Too much of anything’s not good, son.”

Too late. I was hooked. Before long, when my mother started parking my sister and me at the library while she grocery shopped, I got a library card and eventually began making long walks on my own—14 blocks—to the nearest branch library. In those days—the late 1930s and early 1940s—nobody felt obliged to intervene if they saw a little boy walking alone—unless he was bleeding.

Mother wouldn’t have minded if I’d read how-to books, or inspirational books, or books about science. But all I read were stories. She thought stories were fine for relaxing. But a person couldn’t spend his life relaxing. (I didn’t see why not.)

If my teachers had known I loved to read stories, they, too, would have disapproved. In the 1930s, all the experts agreed that students who loved stories were introverts, loners. They were trapped in “the romantic realm of yesterday.” (The science was settled.) A teacher’s job was to discourage “outmoded individualism” and to focus children’s attention on the present not the past, to teach them to face facts—like dates, names, and statistics. Every “social studies” test I took in elementary school seemed to include the question, “What are the chief exports of . . . ?” The country didn’t matter. The answer was always “copra, bauxite, sisal, flax, and hemp”—whatever they are.

But my teachers could see I wasn’t one of those romantic loners. I didn’t act like a bookworm. I was simply a good reader. They approved of that. Being able to read well helped a person solve problems, and solving problems was what modern life was all about. Besides, my scores on their reading tests reflected well on their “progressive” teaching methods.

Dick and Jane

I don’t remember the names of the books Mother plunked down beside me, Ferdinand the Bull? No, I think that came later. But knowing nothing of theories of reading, she did not bring me any books with scientifically tested “age appropriate” vocabulary about Dick, Jane, and their beloved Spot. (Run, Spot, run. See Spot run.) I’m sure my poor performance in first grade was solely the fault of these boring books. Has anyone ever cared if Spot ran or not?

Books · Childhood learning · Education · Folklore

“Ladies and jellyspoons / I come before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about.”

In her last post, Mary wondered if a playground culture still exists.

Since today there are so few informal playgrounds where no adults intrude, it is doubtful.  Adults always want to organize children’s play. The assumption is that children learn only that which adults teach them. But the best laid plans of adults cannot accomplish what children used to accomplish for themselves, guided by a folk tradition that had been passed down in some cases for hundreds of years.

Still in print after 42 years.

They learned, for example, to handle conflict verbally rather than physically. When the linguistically unsophisticated and emotionally immature child was teased, insulted or ridiculed, he could choose from a number of ready made responses, for instance, “I’m rubber, you’re glue / Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you, “ or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / What you say is what you are.”

When a little girl heard, “I see London; I see France / I see Velma’s underpants,” did she run to a safe space and tell the teacher? No, she probably shouted back,  “Liar liar, pants on fire,” or maybe “XYZ!” If the boy fell for it and checked his fly, she won. The one thing she did not do was grow up to be a snowflake.

Left alone, children organized their own games, making fine juridical adjustments: one good player for this side, but three fumble fingers for that side. They learned to compromise, because they didn’t want the game to end.

And They Learned About Language

They learned that poetry could be fun. Without fear of the speech police, they could sing about their school lunch: “Great big gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts / Chopped up parakeet / Mutilated monkey meat / Pig snot and camel rot,” etc. A child who sang that song was introduced to alliteration and hyperbole early on.

And the child who recited the mock oration beginning, “Ladies and Jellyspoons / I stand before you to stand behind you / To tell you something I know nothing about / Admission free, Pay at the door / Pull up a seat and sit on the floor” experienced the satisfaction of employing rhetorical tropes that gently raised college students only learn to label.

How We Did It

In the seventies we were living in the American Canal Zone in Panama. Since almost everybody in the Canal Zone came from somewhere else, we were able to collect examples of children’s folklore from recently arrived children as it was practiced all over the States as well as in foreign countries and military bases abroad. During the summer when we were on leave from our jobs, we also did something that we couldn’t do today without getting us in trouble: we sat on park benches, taking notes while watching children at play.

We learned that what seems to be trivial and silly was extremely functional in the social development of children. We wish some young folklorists would write a sequel documenting what traditions are still around and what new customs children might be creating to help them cope with the digital world. If you have kids or grandkids, ask them about this.

You can buy One Potato, Two Potato on Amazon, but last time we looked there were 20 used copies available from for $3.50 to $4.00, free shipping. If you want to take a trip down memory lane and be reminded of things you have probably forgotten, you can get one cheap!