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.

Harvard’s Robert Putnam Delves into the Lives of Public Schools

By Paul Theobald

I closely follow the work of Harvard political scientist, Robert Putnam.  From time to time I have taken issue with his arguments, but generally speaking, I find him to be thorough to a fault and always writing about matters of critical importance to humanity.  He is probably best known for Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of Community in America, published in 2000.  The book is an exhaustive chronicle of the demise of citizen participation in all manner of community clubs and associations across all regions of the country, and across all demographics.  But it was really his prior work, undertaken with a team of researchers in Italy, that set up Bowling Alone for the huge scholarly impact it had.

In Making Democracy Work (1993), Putnam and his team set out to solve a puzzle:  How could two regions of the same country have such starkly different levels of economic vitality?  Why was northern Italy prosperous, while southern Italy languished?  To uncover the answer, no stone was left unturned.  Putnam’s team analyzed everything, from early feudal traditions to the emergence of the mafia.  In the end, however, Putnam argued that northern Italy was able to “make democracy work” because of the high level of citizen participation in local associations.  This conclusion dovetailed with what came to be called “communitarian theory” emerging in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s in the work of such scholars as Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Robert Bellah, Alisdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and others.

Making Democracy Work helped to make the communitarian case that there is a pivotal link between community and democracy, that you can’t have one without the other.  Charles Taylor famously entitled a 2003 journal-length essay, “No community, no democracy.”  Bowling Alone, charting the collapse of community in America, helped to explain America’s continuing retreat from democracy and the appearance of organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a consortium of large corporations dedicated to propagating corporate-friendly legislation, including voter suppression laws.

But Robert Putnam is not one to merely identify a problem, he also suggests solutions.  Following Bowling Alone, he offered a much less popular book (co-authored with Lewis Feldman) Better Together: Restoring the American Community (2003).  The book provides example after example of emerging associations and clubs, people trying to reverse the trends identified in Bowling Alone.  But the George W. Bush years were hardly good for anyone trying to promote a revival of community in America.  The book had little impact.

In the years following Better Together, Putnam tackled the question of increasing diversity and its impact on community, or perhaps said more accurately, its impact on the strength of communal bonds.  What he found was that increasing levels of diversity had a negative impact on the existence of trust within communities.  Putnam reported these findings in his 2006 John Skytte Price Lecture entitled “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century” adding that he believes the decline in communal bonds accompanying the increase in diversity is a short-term dynamic, and that over the long-haul, those communal bonds will be strengthened by diversity.  Conservative pundits, as one might expect, jumped all over this conjecture and he found himself ridiculed on talk radio and in other venues.

Putnam next turned to religion in America, publishing American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us in 2010.  The book won the Woodrow Wilson Award of the American Political Science Association.  Like all Putnam’s work, the research undergirding American Grace is exhaustive.  It points to an interesting fact: the increasing secularization of American citizens has left the religious scene extremely polarized.  Putnam argues, essentially, that religious moderates are no longer around; they simply abandoned religion, leaving a large gulf between secular liberals and conservative fundamentalists.  Needless to say, this gulf inhibits the effective functioning of democracy.

And now Putnam has turned to the world of America’s public schools: Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015).  Some minor quibbles notwithstanding, I think this is very good work and I think it is on par, in terms of potential impact, with the contribution he made through Bowling Alone.  Putnam demonstrates that there was more opportunity for American youth to achieve the “American Dream” in 1959, when he graduated from high school, then there is today.  Why?  Because America has become increasingly divided along class lines, with a huge and ever-growing inequality gap.  Put simply, Putnam argues that the children of the poor experience the world in markedly different ways from children of the affluent.  These differences negatively and powerfully affect the odds for social mobility among the poor.  Putnam doesn’t mince words—inequality is condemning millions of American youth to a bleak future; a circumstance, he argues, that renders America’s future as a democracy tenuous.

True to form, Putnam tries to present some potential solutions and, thankfully, he doesn’t drag out the tired and obviously self-serving cant about school choice and charters.  He argues that earned income tax credits could put more money into the hands of poor families—a circumstance that demonstrably (and undeniably) improves student achievement.  He proposes parental readiness and coaching (some of which, if not handled appropriately, could be seriously problematic—although his lack of familiarity with professional education issues, I would argue, should qualify him for a pass here).  He recommends better school funding, extending school hours, improving teacher training, and creating a tighter school-community connection through place-based curriculum and instruction (although he doesn’t call it that).

To be sure, there’s nothing path-breaking here.  He identified a problem that a large segment of the professional education community was already painfully aware of, and his suggested solutions, too, are not new.  But Putnam is a world-class scholar with an enormous following.  What this means is that many more Americans will come to understand the dramatically negative impact of ever growing levels of inequality, and the degree to which the lives of children are constrained and limited by our current conditions.  Perhaps that will make a difference.


Rural Schools Collaborative Making Headway

In the wake of all the noise surrounding “standards and testing” in American schools, a small, loosely-knit organization is doing its best to cut through the hype and strengthen the bonds between rural schools and communities.  Check out the work of the Rural Schools Collaborative:   Their emphasis on place-based student engagement helps open the door for the return of rural literature in rural schools . . .

A Review of James Still’s River of Earth

A Review of James Still’s River of Earth

(New York: Viking Press, 1940)


Maureen Theobald

In James Still’s dark novel of the coal mining community on Little Carr Mountain, the bleak existence of those who made their lives there was obvious. Although the Brackstone family managed to avoid living in the mining camp a good share of their lives, they were forced to eventually move there when life on their small acreage became too difficult. Mother tried her best to keep a garden for the family of six, but between moles, grasshoppers, hungry birds, and drought, it wasn’t easy. In order to keep Mother on the farm and out of the mining camp she detested, Father walked the two miles there and back as long as he could, until it took such a toll on him, they were forced to move into Blackjack camp.

Although this story is one of hardship and poverty, the rich dialect of the Appalachian mountain folk makes the reading experience interesting and fun. Deciphering the conversations is somewhat of a challenge, but adds to the enjoyment of the novel. Eccentric characters come in and out of the family’s lives often providing entertainment, like Uncle Jolly, who provides humor on his surprise visits. Between his incarcerations at the county jail and state prison, he comes around just enough to delight the children with his wild tales of adventure, most of which include out-running the law at every turn. In spite of his attraction to trouble and breaking the law, he has a warm heart and is a loyal son to his mother, who still lives alone on her farm. When not in jail, he takes care of Grandma Middleton and helps run her place. Nasty cousins, Harl and Tibb Logan, force themselves on the family from time to time, frightening the children and infuriating Mother, but Father can’t turn away kinfolk, no matter how dark and dismal they are.

The theme of living off the land with an abundance of nature-filled descriptions made this story endearing to me. The deeply detailed struggles and thrills of making the most of what their rugged soil could produce, and the meager few chickens, cows, and wild animals they survived off of was fascinating.  Any story line that includes history, farming, nature and family reels me in and puts the decadence of modern life into full relief. Yes, oftentimes harsh, the issues that plagued our ancestors weren’t for the faint of heart, but the pristine lakes, rivers, and streams were the trade-off. Imagine a clean planet, where carcinogens and toxins weren’t destroying the air and soil. Imagine growing food in soil so pure that every nutrient possible could be absorbed naturally. Some would, of course, argue that “progress” has allowed for a much better way of life, but I would argue that ease, comfort, and greed are hardly sustaining qualities. As a result, I love disappearing into a world where the outdoors is as natural and beautiful as it once was, if even for a few short hours.

Ironically, the contrast between the pristine environment and the discovery of one of the worst eventual human polluters, coal, is interesting to me. I’m certain that not everyone would agree, and I’m quite sure the author had no intention of making such a contrast when writing the story of coal miners and their families in the late 1800’s. But these are things that jump out at me whenever I read these old, seldom read novels. There is much we can learn from them.

Community-Based Education and Rural Literature

Community-Based Education and Rural Literature

I’ve been asked many times if I would define “community-based education,” as it’s a phrase heard more and more these days, despite the fact that what it means is hardly self-evident. So I’m going to attempt a little essay/definition that deals with the topic and uses rural literature as an example.

First, I think it’s important to note that there’s a long scholarly tradition related to the intersection of community, education, and, ultimately, democracy. For example, it’s not a coincidence that the world’s first documented experiments with democracy in Greece were simultaneous with the world’s first public schools. Likewise, the fall of democracy coincided with the end of public education and the onset of the “dark ages.” But there’s a missing piece in the democracy = education analysis, and that’s the role of community. Socrates, the famous Greek educator, serves as a good example to demonstrate the significance of the concept of community to the emerging democratic world view. As most will recall, he was found guilty of treason for encouraging critical thinking on the part of his students. What many are not aware of is the fact that he had ample opportunity to leave Athens before being forced to drink the hemlock. He refused. He believed that a life outside of his community would not be worth living.

I don’t want to put too much emphasis on antiquity, but it’s worth recognizing that cultural conceptions about community, democracy, and education are very old—and the fact that they never “disappear” for very long suggests that they are at some level fundamental to the human condition. In fact, they are consistently found in answers to key questions that every society, every group of people, must answer, including:

  1. The economic question: How folks will make a living?
  2. The political question: How will folks govern themselves?
  3. The education question: How and what will youth be taught?

Many philosophers, starting with Plato, have argued that the education question is most important, for what’s done in the educational arena can profoundly affect what’s done in the other two. Clearly, if citizens are not well educated, there will be no democracy, or as Thomas Jefferson put it, educated citizens “are the only sure reliance for the preservation of liberty.”

The community piece of the puzzle was not well articulated in antiquity, nor during the Enlightenment period, when the United States was born. There are reasons for this, most stemming from the fact that the world was profoundly local, and people had no particular basis for anticipating a world that wasn’t adequately defined as a collection of communities. Forces were in motion, however, the old feudal structure was crumbling, and the sort of “mass society” that we know today was becoming increasingly visible.[i] Recognizing this trend, the French philosopher, Montesquieu, wrote of corp intermediare, or “intermediate bodies” in all communities (clubs, associations, church groups, any type of organization that brought community members together) could serve as a catalyst to democracy in the coming mass, urban society. In other words, Montesquieu was the first to clearly articulate that schools were not enough to sustain democracy. Vibrant communities, animated by active citizens participating in local associations of all sorts, were also needed.

During the last thirty years, more and more scholarship (sometimes labeled “communitarian theory”) has illuminated the community piece in the success or failure of democracy.[ii] One journal-length essay by one of the world’s best-known philosophers, Canada’s Charles Taylor, has a particularly descriptive title: “No Community, No Democracy.” By fits and starts, this trend in political philosophy has been buttressed by emerging educational theory—that is to say that, increasingly, educational theorists have argued that strong communities are required for successful educational efforts, and successful educational efforts are needed to produce strong communities. Anyone who has read John Dewey extensively can see him in this emerging educational theory, but much work has gone considerably beyond John Dewey. An internet search of “community and education” will quickly reveal that something is afoot—something is happening in the world of educational theory.

It’s not well organized at this point, and it certainly is not well-defined, which partially explains why the emerging theory has only infrequently been converted to pedagogical practice. But the general idea is this: community-based education is at once about improving student achievement in our schools and improving the communities that support our schools, both of which, in turn, will improve the overall effectiveness of American democracy. Community-based education, therefore, is an idea with far greater substance than the merely preparing kids for their “occupational destiny,” a phrase used by long-time Harvard president Charles Eliot. As long as preparing kids to take up roles in the existing economy is prevailing wisdom, we will see very little rural literature in America’s schools. But if we embrace a more substantive end for education, we may see rural literature re-appear in schools.

If part of the nation’s educational agenda is enculturating students into vibrant community life, and if vibrant community life is recognized as a catalyst to effective democracy, then students will need to understand their community, and the forces that have shaped it for the better or worse, at a deep level. Few things would aid that process more than high-quality rural literature written by authors from the community, or from a community very much like it.

Community-based education is very often project-based, although the project is not arbitrary or strictly “academic,” but connected to some aspect of community life or community improvement. Another similar, and growing, curricular trend goes by the name of “place-based” education and it is essentially the same idea—the community in a particular place becomes a curricular lens for learning traditional school subjects. Community elders are often utilized as instructional resources. It should be noted that entire school districts have embraced project-based or place-based pedagogy and they have not found the regulatory demands for meeting standards to be a significant impediment in terms of what they want to achieve, although the number that have done so is quite small. But the failure of the “standards and testing” school reform is becoming increasingly evident. Perhaps community-based education will grow in its wake. If it does, there may yet be another life for forgotten rural authors.


[i] In 1770 Oliver Goldsmith published what many believe to be one of the most haunting, poignant poems in the English language, “The Deserted Village.” It spoke of the decline of communities in the face of new economic arrangements and a new social order that was increasingly urban. With the specter of community erosion coming into view, the community element to the democracy = education intersection also began to appear.

[ii] I can provide more information on this to anyone who is interested, but the list of contributors includes Robert Bellah, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, Robert Putnam, Charles Taylor, and many others.

Review of Unto a Good Land

Unto a Good Land, by Vilhelm Mobert

Review by Mark Munger

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954)

This second novel in the “Emigrant” series written by Swedish author, Carl Artur Vilhelm Moberg continues the story of a small band of Swedes who leave their native land for the United States in the early 1850s. Whereas the first novel in the series, The Emigrants, was entirely set either in rural Sweden or aboard the brig, the Charlotta that journeyed from Europe to North America with a cargo of pig iron and humanity aboard, Unto a Good Land is firmly set on the shores of the brash and newly constituted republic of the United States of America.

Moberg does a yeoman’s job of depicting the overland journey of Karl Oskar Nilsson, his wife Kristina, their children, and the divergent band of immigrants that accompany them from Manhattan to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, an isolated lumbering town located on the wild and scenic St. Croix River. The timeframe, as I’ve said, is the 1850-1851. Wisconsin, on the eastern banks of the St. Croix, has attained statehood (1848). Minnesota, which occupies the eastern banks of the river, is part of the Minnesota Territory, created in 1849 and destined for statehood in 1858.

The author makes the plodding, tedious, harrowing journey of the émigrés aboard river packet, canal barge, railroad car, paddle wheeled riverboat, and finally, on foot from Stillwater to Taylors Falls come to life, casting the iron-willed former prostitute, Ulrika of Vastergöhl as the foil to Kristina Nilsson’s motherly virtue for the majority of the trek. The cast of characters also includes Karl Oskar’s impetuous and truth-challenged younger brother, Robert, whose dreams of California gold fields make his dedication to aiding his older brother’s homesteading ambitions problematic. There’s trouble in the wind whenever Robert takes center stage in this familial drama but the tension between Karl and Robert isn’t overt: Moberg deftly creates his characters of whole cloth, giving them real-life motivations and actions, rather than instilling his creations with stereotypical feelings and emotions. This having been said, the tension between the brothers is palpable and real despite the cleverness of Moberg’s prose: you anticipate a break and indeed, it occurs.

The details that one would expect in a fine settlers’ accounting of felling trees, grubbing soil, and building cabins are well described and historically accurate. A childbirthing scene, where Kristina demands that Karl Oscar deliver the prostitute Ulrika to the Nilsson cabin to assist with the birth of their son, is poignantly tense and tender, with the reconciliation of the two women entirely believable and well wrought.

As he did in The Emigrants, Moberg spends much time chronically the faith of the immigrants, taking the prophet-like Danjel Andreasson from the heights of evangelical zeal to the depths of despair. Danjel fled Sweden under the threat of excommunication from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the national church of Sweden, for ministering to his flock without proper education or ordination. Moberg casts the itinerant pastor as a sort of modern-day John the Baptist or Martin Luther; a man so convinced of his direct connection to God that he forswears the rigor and organization of the state church to the jeopardy of his soul. But though the preacher discovers that he is free, once in America, to speak his mind and search for his vision of heaven, Moberg portrays Danjel as dejected, fallen, and unsure: it is a marvelous change in character that is entirely believable given the pastor lost his wife on the Charlotta, her body having been buried in the cold waters of the North Atlantic after being wracked with disease.

Unlike the first novel, which seemed to be inordinately preoccupied with, well, procreation, Unto a Good Land is far less titillating in its carnality and far more educational and interesting as a piece of historical fiction. Not that sex is necessarily a bad thing in a historical novel but here, Moberg puts the desires and physical intertwining of his characters in the background and lets their work ethic, spirituality, and interpersonal connections shine through.

A well-written and insightful story of Scandinavian immigrants coming to my “neck of the woods.”

4 and ½ stars out of 5.

Review of The Passion Never Dies

This Passion Never Dies, by Sophus Keith Winther

Review by John Henry

(New York: Macmillan Co., 1938)

The final act in the Grimson family trilogy, This Passion Never Dies, begins in the late spring of 1920 and ends in the late summer of 1923. Much like the previous novel in the series, there are two main plot threads of the story. One thread follows the aged and worn Peter and Meta Grimson as they struggle to hold on to the farm in Weeping Willow, Nebraska, which they now own. The second thread follows their third son, Hans, as he finishes college in Lincoln, searches for romantic love, and faces the trials of early adulthood.

World War One had brought boom times to Nebraska farmers, and the Grimsons, caught up in the prosperity, had bought their farm at high-times prices. Falling crop prices after the war and throughout the time of the novel makes every successive year a struggle for Peter and Meta to hold out against bankruptcy. Their two oldest sons, Alfred and David, have both married and left the farm. Hans is away at university much of the time. Karl leaves for California and truck farming; Frank for Omaha and business. Only the youngest son, Bryan, is left for farm work, and he wants to finish high school in town and work less on the farm. Without the fulltime help of his boys, Peter’s physical and economic strength wither away, year by year. By 1923, the farm economy is in depression. The result for Peter and Meta is predestined. Along the way: deeply unhappy marriages, the death of two wives, spousal abandonment, orphaning of grandchildren, alcoholism, stealthy big-city land speculators, heartless small town bankers, abortion, violent hailstorms, bankruptcy auctions, violent death, falling, falling farm prices, and sundry other calamities.

Hans, who graduates from the University of Nebraska as the story opens, is torn between his deep love for his mother and loyalty to his aging father, and the opportunity to return to the University and continue his studies in graduate school. Further, Hans experiences both the confusion of sex without love which ends in tragedy, and he also experiences the longing for a love which seems always beyond his reach.

For this book, Winther is able to nicely intertwine the two story-lines: the failing farm and confused young man. Hans’s conflicted romances drive him back to the farm where he loyally struggles to the end with his parents, but he always hopes to return to the University and his intellectual destiny. So the two stories work together and make a whole.

There is some very fine writing in this book. One instance concerns Hans’s search for an abortion “hospital”, located in the neighborhood of the Omaha meat-packing district, a frightening vision of a human-made hell, complete with tormented bodies and degraded souls:

“On each side were the tall, dark walls of the packing houses. The air was dead, motionless and heavy with the smell of decayed meat. The sidewalks were crowded with workers—there seemed to be hundreds of them. To Hans they were masses of men with no individual character to distinguish one from the other. They all wore aprons and they were all bespattered with blood. Their hands were bloody, there were blood stains on their faces, their aprons were dotted with dark, red clots. Flies were everywhere. There were millions of them crawling on the sidewalks, clinging to the windows and doorways, but most conspicuous on the men’s clothing. Every movement that a man made to light a cigarette or to make a gesture raised a cloud of flies. The men sat listlessly on the curbing or leaned against the walls of the buildings. They were tired, dull masses of human beings, apparently insensible to the hopeless filth of the street, and the unbearable stench. Hans saw only one man clearly. He was a Negro who sat flat on the sidewalk, his back against the wall and his legs stretched out before him. His eyes were closed, and the flies were crawling over his mouth which was open, his lower jaw hanging down loose, like an unlatched granary door.

On the other hand, there is some silly writing in this book, which usually occurs when Winther is describing Hans’ romantic episodes. An example:

“What are you talking about?” she answered.
“You. Your body. I want to look at it forever. Janice, I did not believe I could ever love anyone as I love you this moment. I love your feet, your ankles, that little dimple right there on your knee, this soft curve of your thigh which clings to the palm of my hand as though both hand and thigh had an individual, conscious love of their own apart from our consciousness.”

. . . Then she lifted her hands to his face and held it while she looked into his eyes. “Even our thoughts are united.” she said almost in a whisper. “You could not desire anything of me that I would not wish you to have before you could put your hope into words. These long weeks have taught me what life and death mean. I know what life is and I have experienced all that death is except its one boon, forgetfulness.”

To me this passage seems over-wrought. I can’t see that worldly and sexually experienced twenty-eight year olds would, at the moment of long awaited passion, speak to each other like this. I am, I admit, old, slightly cynical, and long-married. So perhaps I am forgetful of the follies of young love.

But the good writing and the workman-like writing strongly overbalance the weight of the few clunker sections in This Passion Never Dies. The pacing of the plot is usually exciting. The fates of the characters, especially the long suffering immigrants Peter and Meta Grimson, grasp the imagination. We know them. We come to love them as their sons loved and respected them. The Danish immigrants who left everything behind and came to this country, who worked honestly and unceasingly, who stoically faced tragedy after tragedy, and who never, never, lost hope in the promise of America.