An Examined Life: A Review of Linda Hasselstrom’s Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal

By Paul Theobald

This book is a journal–no mistaking that.  It consists of an entry for each day of an entire year, although the entries may refer to one of several of years.  Uniquely, however, it is also a treatise on the very act of journaling, of putting down words in an effort to create a record of one’s life, or perhaps to make sense of one’s life.  Throughout the year, Linda examines journals of her own from many years earlier, as well as those of her deceased mother and father. The book ends with an examination of a journal Linda found among her father’s papers, a journal that belonged to Bill Snable, a pioneer who settled close to Linda’s ranch in 1912.  Linda’s recollections of going into Mr. Snable’s abandoned cabin as a child were riveting.

All of these journals are profoundly concerned with the particular place on earth where these people lived their lives, did their work, and shared the joys and sorrows that define life itself.  Journaling is, of course, an aid to memory because, inevitably, time outlasts memory. But, in thinking about this book, as all readers will do, I couldn’t help wondering about the Native peoples who inhabited this same physical space years earlier, who did their journaling orally.  Was it in The Laws, or another of Plato’s works, where he shares the story of the ancient Greek King, Thamus, who beheaded the inventor of the pen, first telling him that he had created an instrument for forgetting?  The story resonates with my understanding of Native cultures.

But, if this were true, would we know about King Thamus today?  Certainly, if it were true, I would never have known about Bill Snable.  That would have been a loss.  No, I think Thamus was wrong about the inventor of the pen, and he was wrong to take his life.  The pen is an instrument for remembering, not forgetting.  I am grateful that the Hasselstroms were seemingly never very far from one.

Sharing this latest journal, as Linda does, gives the reader insight into her own intellectual journey of introspection, her own well-examined life.  Everything is in this book, from childhood memories, to serious family discord, to the impending decisions one faces nearing the end of life. The writing is graceful and compelling.  It was impossible not to react emotionally when Linda decided she would never ride a horse again, when she gave away saddles that had been in the family for decades, when she sells the 1951 and 1962 pick-ups her father used to operate the ranch.

There is pain in this book, but there is also healing.  Its greatest contribution, I think, will be the way it pushes the reader to examine his or her own life and legacy.  The book is a roller coaster, however, be prepared for that.  Linda moves the reader from St. Augustine to Wendell Berry, from Dylan Thomas to Bob Seger.  The intellectual flexibility exhibited in these pages is reminiscent of Emerson or Thoreau.  It is first-rate American literature.  As one reviewer put it, “Linda Hasselstrom is a national treasure.”  It is a joy to read this book.

A Review of Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home

By Maureen Theobald

Editor’s Note: Kirkland’s A New Home was originally published in 1836. In 1953, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, of New York, reprinted the book in a hardcover edition. This review utilized that edition. Kirkland is sometimes referred to as the founder of Midwest rural literature, largely as a result of the publication of A New Home.

If there’s one thing I love more than an old homesteading novel, it’s one so obviously based on real events.  This latest read, by Caroline Kirkland, was somehow more enjoyable knowing that the little town of Pinckney, Michigan, was the actual place where she settled with her husband and two children in 1836.  I’ve read so many novels of settlers in the American frontier, most of them taking place on the central Midwest plains.  Iowa and Nebraska’s climates were, and are, so much more extreme than Michigan’s.  The moderate temperatures there seemed to make settling a bit more tolerable, at least as it is portrayed in A New Home.  It made for more enjoyable reading, without as many traumatic, often tragic events.  The flora and fauna were also very different than those of the central plains states.  Her fascinating descriptions of the trees, flowers, fruits and vegetables that were native to the area were interesting and educational.

The back story of the Kirkland’s novel is also entertaining, considering it’s a thinly veiled account of the citizens of Pinckney.  What Caroline often deemed endearing and innocent behavior of her many cohabitants in the tiny village, they would eventually see as a betrayal.  Her letters, written to her family and friends back east, were eventually woven into the novel, and when the people of Pinckney discovered that she had written about them, they found the stories to be insulting and offensive.  Hard feelings prevailed toward Caroline by the simple folk in the village.  They felt as though she had mocked and ridiculed them, and most of them never forgave her.  She and her family eventually moved back to New York, and she struggled knowing the people she had loved as friends in Pinckney, now thought ill of her.

Her stories, while under most circumstances would be considered almost boring accounts of a mundane life in very modest accommodations, come alive with wit and humor.  Her quirky and complicated use of prose, while sometimes difficult to decipher, made for very interesting and entertaining reading.  While she is definitely one of the most poetic writers I’ve encountered, I am not too proud to admit that oftentimes I would find myself rereading a paragraph once or twice in order to fully comprehend it!

How I would love to read a novel about the settling of my own home town, complete with interesting characters as in Kirkland’s tales.  It makes me wonder if the residents of this area of east-central Michigan are aware of this book, and the woman who stirred up so much controversy when she wrote the stories of her neighbors and friends.  I hope they are. What fun to read about people who may very well be ancestors of some of them! 

Gathering from the Grassland, a new book by Linda Hasselstrom

Gathering from the Grassland: A Plains Journal was released this summer by High Plains Press.  Chronicling Linda’s life over the course of a year, during which, among other things, she studied the journals left by her deceased parents–the book is a deeply moving account of a family wedded to the plains, to a particular place on earth, and to the kinds of economic activity best suited to it.

This is Linda Hasselstrom’s 17th book.  A review will follow shortly on this website!

A Review of Laban Smith’s No Better Land (Macmillan, 1946)

By Paul Theobald

No Better Land is the story of a large Wisconsin farm family just after the turn of the twentieth century. The author, Laban Smith, was born and raised in Wisconsin and knew the subject well. Smith graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1932 and after teaching for just a year, he returned to the university and acquired a doctoral degree. He then taught at Stout Institute in Menomonie and, briefly, at Alabama’s Polytechnic Institute. During World War II, Smith served as a naval reserve lieutenant at a training base in Texas. During that time he began working on what would become his only novel. It was published in 1946. The record of what became of Smith after the war is very sketchy. An internet search revealed his name as a part of a special collection at Indiana State University’s library, books published by emeritus faculty. It could be that Smith completed a professorial career at Indiana State.

Abel Elliot, the main character in No Better Land, left his parents and siblings on the family farm in upstate New York to strike out on his own in the new state of Wisconsin. Through hard work and dogged perseverance, he established a successful farm. He then married a woman twenty years younger than himself. Marie Elliot would eventually give birth to nine children. Reflecting on his life in his later years, Abel told a daughter, “And then, when I had a good farm and a woman and some of you young ones, I began wantin’ what my pa wanted, and his pa, too, I suppose. I began wantin’ ‘em all to stay right here under my eye. I begun tellin’ you young ones there’s no better land nowhere but here.”

Life didn’t unfold the way Abel initially envisioned it. For one, he suffered from a debilitating eye disease and eventually went blind. As if that were not enough, he suffered a serious stroke that thereafter hindered his mobility. There were sons and hired men to carry on the work of the farm, however, and Abel made contributions as he could. As he grew frail, his vision for his kids changed. He softened, and tried to help them with the life plans they wanted to pursue. This sometimes brought him into direct conflict with his wife, who opposed her daughters marrying local farmers and wanted them, instead, to pursue a college education. The husband-wife conflict makes up a large part of the story, and it highlights and age-old dilemma for many farm families. Who should be allowed to acquire the farm? Who should be encouraged to leave? When Abel finally succumbs to pneumonia, not much has been settled, although he did purchase a house in town where his wife could live after his death. The reader is left to speculate about the fate of the farm itself, and that of the many kids.

I found a brief review of No Better Land online in the Kirkus Review. It wasn’t very complimentary: “All in all, a pedestrian, amateurish handling of a mighty dull story.” I find this sort of review to be all-too-common of early twentieth century reviewers, mostly college professors without a rural background, who were unable to understand the rural experience, and all-too-quick to condemn it as uninteresting and unimportant. No Better Land is, nevertheless, a considerable achievement for a first, and ultimately, only novel.

A Review of Edith Pope’s Colcorton (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944)

By Paul Theobald

Colcorton is clearly Edith Pope’s greatest literary achievement. It is an engrossing novel with a strong female protagonist—one who was compared to Ma Joad by a contemporary reviewer. The book delves into taboo subjects for its time, like interracial marriage, and the psychological burden of hiding partial Black ancestry from White society. Before going into more detail, however, I’d like to share a little about Edith Pope.

A native of St. Augustine, Florida, Edith was sent to Baldwin Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, for her high school years. She returned to Florida for college, attending Florida State. Her first book, a collection of poems, was published during her junior year. Her first novel, Not Magnolia (1928) was published just a year after graduating. From Florida State, Edith went back north and in 1931 she received a master’s degree in English at Columbia University. Edith’s first three novels were published under her maiden name, Edith Everett Taylor. In 1938 she married Verle Pope, who served for a time as a state senator in Florida, and as president of Florida State University. Some reviewers were confused by the name change, and when Colcorton was published in 1944, they thought they were reading a first novel. In all, Edith published six rural novels, three under her maiden name, and three under her married name. Edith enjoyed modest success as a novelist, and today there is a major thoroughfare in St. Augustine known as Edith Pope Boulevard. But like so many novelists who chose to write about the rural experience in this country, her work has long been out of print, and her reputation never garnered the acclaim it deserved.

Colcorton is an impressive novel. By all contemporary accounts, it narrowly missed receiving the Pulitzer prize in 1945 (which went to a WWII novel called A Bell for Adano). It’s the story of two children, heirs to a pre-Civil War plantation called Colcorton. The parents died young and, unbeknownst to the children, their patriarchal grandfather was a successful and rather large slave trader who was involved in a long-term relationship with a slave. That slave was a grandmother to Abby and Jared Clanghearne, although they never knew this. Abby was several years older than Jared and after the death of their parents, she eked out a living on the few acres left of the once large Clangherane plantation. Through hard work and dogged perseverance, she made enough to send Jared through college and law school. There is no happy ending to Colcorton, however. Jared marries, but is murdered after a night of drinking. His wife was pregnant at the time and Abby helps to raise the child. In many ways, Abby shifts from a life of toil to promote Jared, to a life of toil to promote Jared’s son.

There are many twists and turns in this book, and the characters are very well developed. Always in the background there is the secret partial Black ancestry that burdens Abby and Jared after it was discovered. Rural coastal Florida is almost a character in itself in this book. The countryside, and the ocean, are described in painstaking, and beautiful, detail.   Colcorton is an excellent novel and deserves the attention of contemporary readers.

A Review of John T. Frederick’s Green Bush (Knopf, 1925)

By Maureen Theobald

Frank Thompson’s love of his hometown and his father’s farm were overshadowed by his mother’s deep and passionate love of her son, and what she wanted for him. She knew how creative and intellectual he was, and she desperately wanted him to make the most of those God-given talents. Although the tension between them lasted a lifetime, he was able to come to a place of peace in his final days, knowing that she would ultimately want happiness for her only child.

Frank seems to struggle emotionally at times, not necessarily more than what one might expect, considering some of the circumstances that befall him. Indeed, he has concrete reasons for many of his struggles. But, at the same time, he has been fortunate. He was born into a well-to-do family as an only child, was privy to a good education, and had the opportunity to access higher education at the University of Michigan. As many people of privilege do, Frank often took for granted some of the luxuries he enjoyed. But because of an affliction he may have inherited, he was prone to bouts of depression. Fortunately, for him, he was able to work through these episodes, and with the passage of time and patience, he would come out of them to see clearly again.

The beauty of his home town, Green Bush, Michigan, was a recurring theme throughout the novel. On the shores of Lake Huron, his family not only owned a lovely farm, but also had a home in town, where Frank’s father owned and ran the local newspaper. Frank loved both, and when his mother sells them after the death of his beloved Dad, his bitterness towards her grew. She wanted him to continue his studies at Ann Arbor, ultimately leading to a professorship at a major university. He did enjoy his scholarly years, but the pull of rural life was stronger, especially when he falls in love with Ruth, a farmer’s daughter he meets when selling subscriptions in the nearby counties surrounding Green Bush.

When Frank’s mother dies after a period of estrangement between the two, he goes through another difficult phase struggling with the guilt he experiences stemming from their contentious relationship. Ultimately he grows content knowing that her decisions concerning his life, and what it should be, came from a place of sincere love and devotion.

The purchase of a small farm near Ruth’s family, along the birth of his daughter, proved to be the medicine Frank needed to come to a place of peace. Life was not without its setbacks, however. He was severely injured by a stump puller while clearing his land, which caused him to live with excruciating pain in his hip and legs for years, setting back his progress on the farm, as well as causing devastating financial burdens. That, and other issues, however, weren’t enough to tempt Frank into considering a job offer from the University of Michigan. He was held in high esteem by several faculty members, and when they offered him a full professorship, he knew in his heart what was most important to him. Ruth, baby girl Rose, and the farm would always be his first choice. They were his passion, his priority, and his much needed source of peace and contentment. Green Bush is a wonderful farm novel.

Rural Literature and the “Rural Question” Elevated by the Election of Donald Trump

By Paul Theobald

For the past thirty-five years I have been a student of rural history and rural literature. But as a Midwesterner, like so many others of my ilk, I’ve never been inclined to wear my accomplishments, such as they are, on my sleeve. Today I’m going to make an exception, because the election of Donald Trump via the electoral college and the sweep of states that might be labeled, at some level, rural, has left people everywhere asking why rural people feel such an affinity with the Republican Party? On the surface, it makes no sense.

I have published well over 50 journal articles and book chapters, plus several books, and almost all of that work has focused on the rural experience in this country. I bring this up merely to point out that what I have to say has more warrant than most of the answers you will hear from high-profile journalists, living in the nation’s urban centers, who wouldn’t know how to begin a conversation with a farmer to save themselves.

Let me start with a typical disclaimer, rural America is not monolithic, there are differences that stem from history, geography, demography, ethnicity, religion, etc. For example, there are Progressives living in rural America. Indeed, rural America was once the heart and soul of Progressivism in this country, among Democrats and Republicans alike. The Great Plains, in particular, served as the democratic conscience of the nation in the early years of the 20th century. Simply put, the great-grandparents of the current generation of voters would have never countenanced the near-total capitulation of the Republican Party to the whims and desires of the corporate elite. But the current generation has. Why?

The question seems more acute when you look at the socio-economic make-up of rural America and the agenda of the Republican Party. Rural people love their public schools and will steadfastly defend them, yet the Republican Party wants to do away with public schools. Rural dwellers are disproportionately dependent on Medicare and social security, yet the Republican Party wants to do away with these programs, or, short of that, dramatically decrease the cost through benefit reduction. Rural dwellers are disproportionately represented on ACA roles, yet the Republican Party wants to do away with Obamacare. In my state, Nebraska, the construction of a foreign pipeline threatens the state’s largest resource, the Ogallala Aquifer, something absolutely pivotal to successful farming and ranching here, but Nebraskans elected Republican Congressional leaders who support the pipeline.

Rural dwellers, in the main, are not wealthy. In fact, the median welfare recipient in this country is rural, white, 40 years old, and male, not a black “welfare queen” living in the inner city. The nation’s poverty rate is highest among rural dwellers. The “get big or get out” philosophy that has driven agricultural policy in this country for the past 50 years, orchestrated by the Republican Party on behalf of agribusiness behemoths like Con Agra and Monsanto, has left rural communities reeling, struggling to keep their schools, their hospitals, their newspapers, and other businesses. Despite decades of slow community erosion, a process that has enriched mega-corporations, and not just agribusinesses, but also box-stores like Wal-Mart; rural people continue to vote overwhelmingly Republican. Again, why?

The answer is not an easy one. There are historical forces at work in this, and they are not directly observable. One of my greatest laments concerning many excellent rural novels is the off-hand way characters refer to Native Americans as “savages,” clearly a class of people far beneath hard-working white farmers. Natives were a nuisance to be cleared away from the advance of white, Christian settlement. Anyone who has read the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder will have a good sense for this. This sentiment didn’t appear naturally, but was in fact cultivated by western philosophy concerned with advancing free market capitalism. John Locke famously defended the process of enclosing the commons and dispersing tens of thousands of rural dwellers, arguing that they simply must muster the requisite “industriousness” to make their way in the world. Max Weber and R. H. Tawney documented the ideological fit between Locke’s emerging capitalism and Protestant Christianity. Anyone unwilling to labor in the earth and render it productive was ignoring the will of God, and under such conditions they should fully expect to have God’s earth taken from them. All of this legitimated the dispossession of Native groups and the settlement efforts of white Christians. Once again, sadly, you can see this sentiment clearly in the nation’s rural literature.

But I want to stress again, the subtle racism represented in the rationale for white settlement, for manifest destiny, was not something sewn into the very nature of humankind, but rather was something to which humanity could easily fall victim. While there can be no denying that ease, the sweep of rural history in this country, as mentioned earlier, was typically on the side of justice, at least outside of the South. The success of Progressive Era reforms were largely attributable to the success of America’s first rural populist moment during the 1890s. Also noted earlier, the rural focus on justice, on checking corporate power, dominated political discourse among rural dwellers early in the twentieth century.

Where is all of this leading? I believe the subtle racism cultivated specifically to legitimate the dispossession of Native Americans has been cultivated again, only this time it is blacks and Hispanics who are not doing Christ’s will. It’s blacks and Hispanics who are aborting babies, who are hanging around inner cities unwilling to lift a finger, waiting in line for their welfare checks, or worse, waiting for the right moment to commit a violent crime. Somehow or another, these are the people who are responsible for community erosion, for low paying jobs in rural America, for taxes being too high, etc.

Again, humanity doesn’t “naturally” develop this kind of racial explanation for one’s circumstances, this kind of racial explanation has to be cultivated. The Republican Party, having made the decision to capitulate to the super wealthy, had a problem on its hands. They needed people to vote for them. Thus the campaign of misinformation intended to lure rural dwellers into, or keep them in, the Republican fold. Corporate America, that is to say huge corporations owned and controlled by a tiny sliver of the population, orchestrated this campaign through “the nightly news,” with a constant barrage of coverage detailing black urban crime, lazy black welfare recipients, with coverage that made the Republican Party out to be the party of family values, the anti-abortion party, the party of guns: the party that would support any and every wedge issue that might generate a vote from someone who would otherwise be a victim of Republican policy.

Huge sums were devoted to this campaign, even the creation of a new network, Fox, dedicated to ramping up racialized explanations of why America’s middle class was shrinking, why a sense of community was eroding. The Republican Party became the defenders of white America, the anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-minority party. And since through misinformation and outright lies rural Americans came to believe that immigrants and minorities are diminishing their life prospects, that Muslims are out to kill Americans, they chose to vote Republican—even while recognizing that Republican politicians work against their interests. They believe that if the Republicans can stop immigration (which, of course, they have never had any intention of doing, immigrant and refugee labor is crucial to maximizing corporate profits), protect them from Muslim terror attacks, and punish minority free-loaders, their lives will improve to the point that they can make up for the lost social security and Medicare benefits, the lost schools and hospitals.

Of course, Donald Trump is something different altogether. In just his first week he created a diplomatic mess with one of our nation’s largest trading partners—the largest trading partner for the state of Nebraska—a circumstance that has upset many farmers and ranchers who no doubt voted for this man. Inside that same week, Trump vowed to renew construction on the Keystone Pipeline, an effort that leans on a weak legal argument: namely, that a foreign corporation can declare eminent domain in the United States. And then, of course, there’s the perhaps the stupidest diplomatic idea of all time, asking a foreign power to build a wall to keep out its own citizens. The problem with this last blunder is that Donald Trump has never shown anything remotely like the courage required to admit that he made a mistake, meaning that US taxpayers may have to spend $27 billion on a wall at a time when illegal immigration rates have been steadily declining.

The question regarding the fidelity of rural dwellers to the Republican agenda depends largely on how aggressive the party is with respect to legislating ever greater economic inequality by cutting the programs on which rural people rely. There is undoubtedly a tipping point and the Republican leadership knows this. Some believe they should merely come as close to that point as possible. Others believe they should grasp for everything while they can, regardless of the political consequences. The outcome of that debate will likely determine how long rural dwellers will vote against their own self-interest.

New Nonfiction Rural Title

Will Gillespie, a southern Illinois farmer and coal mine inspector, has written an interesting and entertaining book called Cows I Have Known.  It is available in a kindle edition and in paperback.  Check it out on  In 374 pages, and 45 short chapters, Will brings readers into the everyday life of livestock farming, introducing them to the idiosyncrasies of cows in an often humorous, and always very informative, manner.  Worth a quick read!

A Review of Jonathan Fields’ The Memoirs of Dunstan Barr

(New York: Coward-McCann, 1959)

By Paul Theobald

This is a broad, sweeping account of a rural family in Illinois, covering over 100 years and multiple generations. It appears to be a bit of a “one hit wonder,” since I can find no other published work by Jonathan Fields. Further, there is no biographical information shared, in the book or on its cover, about the author. There is a contemporary Jonathan Fields who seems to be an accomplished self-help, power of positive thinking, psychologist; someone who has published several books. But there is no indication that he is related to the author of The Memoirs of Dunstan Barr.

The story is told through the voice of the great grandson of Christopher Barr, who settled on the family farm after serving as a soldier in the War of 1812. This great grandson, Dunstan Barr, late in his life, ends the novel writing his memoirs, thus the book’s unusual title. At the outset, the reader learns that Christopher Barr left his farm to his son, also named Dunstan, and that this Dunstan leaves the farm to his son, also named Christopher. This Christopher leaves the farm to his son Dunstan, and at the novel’s end, Dunstan’s daughter, Sylvia, is pregnant and plans to name her child Dunstan, if it’s a boy. This family was very big on keeping family names alive.

After recounting the early family history, the story begins in earnest in 1890 when Dunstan is 20 years of age and attending a state university, studying agriculture. Over the course of the next 45 years, the novel is a psychological portrait of Dunstan Barr—his aspirations, motivations, disappointments, relationships, and family. In the telling, Fields provides an insider’s view of how American history unfolded locally, and how it affected the lives of Dunstan Barr and the residents of “Barfield,” the small Illinois town that is home to the large Barr clan. The name of the village was connected to the prominent role played by Dunstan’s great grandfather in its founding.

All of the larger outside forces, beginning with the Depression of the 1890s, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and the Depression of the 1930s, play a role in this story—but the book is anything but predictable. Nor does it sugarcoat the struggles of farm and small town life. There is joy in this book, but there is also misery. There is small-town gossip that does real damage to people. There is alcohol abuse, and attempts to swindle. War touches families in profound ways. For example, Dunstan’s oldest son dies fighting World War I (and his youngest daughter dies in car crash while under the influence of alcohol). There is also rampant speculation, and the dramatic rise and fall of fortunes in an unregulated finance environment. The Memoirs of Dunstan Barr exposes the genesis of a cultural shift during the first half of the 20th century, a slow but recognizable trend toward deriding small town life, and the farming life, as fundamentally backward, as the kind of life reserved for those without the gumption required to see the future and move to the city. Dunstan’s first love, a girl he met at college, eventually rejects him because he wants to be no more than a farmer.

For all of that, Dunstan Barr is a man of integrity. He’s the kind of individual that made farming communities strong, decent places to live and work. As Fields put it:

Dunstan Barr was born to lamplight; to absence of, or primitive, plumbing; to the familiar use of the horse; to the education of a one-room school; to the inborn belief that the farm was the base of life, the major way, and work an end in itself, with idleness tinged somehow with immorality; to a belief in the fundamental equality of men which did not for a moment overlook a scale of difference in ability; and to a real belief in freedom which permitted people to speak their piece, or work out their own destinies, as they saw fit (p. 261).

Dunstan Barr is a character very much like Wendell Berry’s Mat Feltner. A thoughtful, hard-working man devoted to family, past and present. The book is a literary look at American rural history and sadly it, like so many other first-rate rural novels, has been long out of print.