Willmar author Forrest Peterson discusses important events and influential books


— As a former newspaper reporter and editor, and now as a published author, Forrest Peterson has opened and read many books. He also has experienced quite a few major news events. At the Willmar Community Center on Dec. 28, Peterson melded those events and books into one talk, titled “Words on Paper.”

Focusing on the 1950s and 1960s, Peterson spoke about major events from his childhood years and the influential books of those eras, along with the impact they might still have today.

“You could make an argument that books like that, from way back then, could have helped create better awareness 10, 20, 30 years later,” Peterson said.

For the 1950s, he listed historic events such as the post-World War II economic boom, the GI Bill, the Korean War, Cold War and civil rights issues such as school segregation. Another big issue was the beginning of the atomic age and fear of the bomb.

“I remember in elementary school, in the 1950s, with all the atomic bomb fears, the drills,” with kids hiding under the desks, Peterson said.

The 1960s were full of monumental events including the Vietnam War; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.; the civil rights movement; the moon landing; and the start of the environmental movement.

“I was home from school, the day of the Kennedy assassination, watching on TV,” Peterson remembered.

When you look back on the middle decades of the 20th century, it is easy to see how much societal upheaval and change took place during those years.

“Today, we think there is a lot of tumult and bad things happening,” Peterson said. “When you look back in some of these years, I think they might even have more intense stuff.”

Peterson thinks one of the reasons we feel like current events are worse than what has come before is the communication and news technology we have now. The spread of television had a marked impact on the public’s perception of events such as the Vietnam War and politics. Today, with cable television and the internet, the impact is even greater.

“If instant, 24/7 communication was available back then … these events would probably have been even more intense,” Peterson said.

Influential books of the 1950s, according to the Library of Congress, included “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury and “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. They covered issues such as race, concerns about the future, teenage rebellion, belonging and the direction of the country.

The Library of Congress listed books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan and “Unsafe At Any Speed” by Ralph Nader as a few that not only reflected events of the 1960s but even brought about change.

The book “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, was about the negative effects the unregulated use of pesticides could have on the environment. At the time of publication, Carson experienced a lot of pushback from the chemical industry and others for her views. Today, though, the book is seen as one of the first wake-up calls regarding environmental issues.

“That is one of the influences of the environmental movement,” Peterson said.

Even though these books were written decades ago, they can still shine a light on issues happening today if being viewed through a modern prism. Subjects such as race, war, the environment and equality are just as important today as they were in the 1950s and 1960s.

“A lot of the issues haven’t changed much,” Peterson said.

Books can also mean different things to different people and influence them in various ways. That isn’t a bad thing, Peterson said.

“There are different levels in any work of literature,” from the story line, to the symbolism and more, Peterson said.

While the Words on Paper presentation at the Willmar Community Center was sparsely attended, possibly due to weather and timing, Peterson hopes to bring it back at a better time.

Peterson gives talks across the region. He will be speaking with a book club in Lake Lillian on Jan. 19, and is open to presenting at other groups. Information on Peterson’s books, contact information and an events listing can be found on

Peterson’s website at forrestpeterson.com


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