Tri-City native returning for Oct. 6 booksigning

Dori O'Neal, Herald staff writerOctober 5, 2012 

Roger Burke might have grown up in the Tri-Cities, but he calls Europe home these days.

His life has been a mix of writing and philanthropic work since 1973, when he published his first book, The Last Cowboy.

On Oct. 6, Burke returns to the Tri-Cities for a booksigning for his latest book, Riding A Gray Ghost Over America.

The event is from 2 to 4 p.m. at Hastings on George Washington Way in Richland.

Though Burke hasn't lived in his hometown for many years, he still has family here.

"My dad was in the construction trade, and I grew up in Eastern Washington, mainly in Pasco," Burke said. "I have an aging mother who still lives here and is suffering from dementia. Once she is gone, there will be no more connection."

There is a reason Burke prefers to spend most of his time in Europe.

"What appeals to me about parts of Europe is that it retains a rhythm of life that is slow enough to allow for thinking," Burke said. "Which parts I prefer is complicated by memories of old friends."

Burke started a library in Bohemia years ago and continues to support it through his nonprofit Project Plzen library fund.

His motivation behind the library was to ensure the veterans of the Army's Second Infantry Division who liberated Plzen, Czechoslovakia, in 1945, were never forgotten.

"It is a sad reality that even the younger Czechs have no understanding and little interest in what communism did to their country because it happened before their birth," he said. "To them, it is a kind of fantasy history."

Burke also authored the book, Freedom Book, an essay of photographs he took of Americans he met.

"The design was to have (Freedom Book) on display in the library so all the Czechs who visited (Plzen library) or even some of the multitudes of foreign visitors who pass through Plzen could see the library was a product of the generosity of ordinary Americans," Burke said. "In the same way the Statue of Liberty was a product of the generosity of ordinary French people."

His latest project, the Gray Ghost story, is perhaps more a kind of autobiography of his travels -- written in the same fashion as John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley.

"My motivation behind Riding A Gray Ghost Over America was after a whole lifetime as a novelist and writer, I found my native country had changed so much in a spiritual sense I had to re-establish contact by talking to everyday Americans," Burke said. "And the land itself has a spiritual reinvigoration on the soul, which I needed.

"I still have some hope at some later date to have my collection of essays, The Age of Incompetence, in print," he said. "(But) unless some miracle comes about, I am one of those writers who is on his way out, which is why I see the library in Bohemia as a kind of sanctuary. What better place to intern old writers and soldiers than a library surrounded by great books and inquiring minds who love great books."

In a literary world where Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy and Stephanie Meyer are at the top of their game, Burke understands not all people are interested in reading about ordinary Americans.

"So be it," he said. "As one of the (people) in my book, the late Harry Burns, a confidant of Hemingway's, told me in a late night speakeasy in Seattle decades ago, 'You're a dinosaur, you know?' "

And Burke doesn't disagree.

*Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; doneal@tricityherald.com

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