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: http://ruralschoolscollaborative.org/   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.

Review of The Years of Peace

The Years of Peace, by LeRoy MacLeod

Review by John Henry

(New York: Century, 1932)

(Warning: Tyler Peck is an advocate of the South during the Civil War. More significantly he on occasion uses highly offensive racial epitaphs. His remarks are mildly censored by other characters in the book. And it is clear that the author himself does not endorse Tyler’s racism.)

The Years of Peace tells the story of two families who farm in the Wabash River region of western Indiana. The novel begins in the final weeks of the Civil War, just before Lincoln is assassinated, and ends ten years later on the last day of 1875.

The first family, Lafayette and Mary Ferguson, had come to the Wabash valley in the 1830s. They were not pioneer settlers but arrived early enough to become the most prosperous farmers in the Sycamore Creek neighborhood. Lafayette had once been a senator in the Indiana legislature and at the start of the novel is the Justice of the Peace. He is known as “the squire,” not only because he is one of the oldest farmers of the area, but more significantly because he has acquired great land holdings, buying up the land of his less successful neighbors.

The Fergusons have plenty of good land, a prospering farm, and sharecroppers and renters on their excess land. But what they don’t have are the human laborers to carry on with the farm work. Lafayette and Mary have only two children. Alan, their son, is off fighting in the Civil War, and after the war he will drift through the West, soldiering for hire or seeking riches in the goldfields, and drinking. Lucy, their daughter, is a strong and handsome woman. She works hard on the land and in the house. But she never marries.
This brings us to the second family. Tyler Peck is the young nephew of Lafayette. He is only nineteen in 1865. He was been prevented from fighting in the war so he can care for his widowed mother and work their farm while his two older brothers are off fighting. The Pecks are a well to do and “blue blood” Kentucky clan. Tyler is hot-tempered, impulsive, given to wanderlust, and sympathetic to the South, even as his brothers fight for the North.
Evaline Weller is from a poor, lower class family. Her father is known to drink heavily. But she is pretty and twenty and Tyler is attracted to her despite his mother’s strong disapproval. Tyler, after another argument with his mother and after an evening of drinking, proposes to Evaline. And though she doesn’t love him, Evaline wants to marry up and into wealth. She accepts Tyler’s proposal.

All this is the back story of the novel. As the novel opens, Tyler and Evaline have moved north from Kentucky and are working land for “Uncle Laf” and “Aunt Mary.” The story follows the two families as they build their farming empire during the ten years after the Civil War. But most importantly the novel is centered on the marriage and family life of Tyler and Evaline, who, despite their farming successes and the fecundity of their marital bed, have a deeply unhappy marriage. Tyler longs to escape to the west, or to war, or to adventure in South America. But he stays and instead finds his excitement in a long term and clandestine sexual liaison with a neighbor’s wife. Evaline’s heart grows harder, year by year, towards her husband, but she reveals her sorrows only in her prayers and her conscience, not to her husband, not to her diary.

The Years of Peace is a subtle and complex story of a decidedly “unpeaceful” marriage. The characters are all farmers and their day-to-day lives are ruled by the cycles of nature and the rhythms of farming life. Yet their psychological, intellectual, and spiritual lives are as developed as the inner lives of the characters in a Russian novel. They read Emerson and Goethe. They have heard of Marx and follow the revolutions and wars around the world through newspapers. They have nuanced political views. They experience anguish, guilt, and loneliness, and feelings of spiritual emptiness. But they also work the land. They hunt and fish; they put up preserves and patch their children’s clothing. They plow and plant, harvest and slaughter. They struggle against cold, drought, and thunderstorm. They feel the beauty of the sky at sunrise and sunset. They face the sudden pain of childbirth and the slow struggle of death.

On the surface, The Years of Peace is about farm families in a remote and rural countryside. At its core, it subtly portrays the complexity and depth of human life: the economic and political, the social and religious, the psychological and spiritual, the joy experienced in the beauty of nature, the satisfaction in hard work well done, and the sadness of two people who are bound to a common life, but not by love.

I’ll end with a passage from the book. The scene is the childbirth of the Pecks’ second child. Those present are Aunt Mary, the doctor, Tyler, and his laboring wife Evaline:

The room lightens towards noon. Yet the new life will enter by a shadowy door like the one by which it will one day depart. For although this woman survive, she must stand a while in the doorway of death, that the child may enter.

 Two hours ago she walked about. Now she is like one mortally ill or wounded. She lies under a sheet, for all the world like one of the men brought in from a battle, from one of those conflicts still raising a faint din away south, out of hearing. Should they die in their beds and she in hers, the sheets would have to be pulled up only a little to cover the faces.
Tyler sat with one hip on the edge of the bed, gripping Evaline’s hand; on the opposite sat Aunt Mary, holding the other hand. At the spasms of labor they pulled against her pull.

. . . . The face on the pillow was greasy with sweat and unutterably wan. The gray eyes stood out like two spirits separate from the face. Aunt Mary took time to wipe the full forehead, the cheeks and mouth.

. . . . Tyler wiped his sweaty hand and Evvie’s so he could hold better. The spread legs stiffened again. She grasped frantically for the hands to pull on, bit her lips till they trembled, let out her held breath in pitiful grunts.

The doctor ducked his head under the sheet. ‘Fine! . . . That’s it! That’s it!’ he encouraged, his voice muffled.

Tyler and Aunt Mary had to stand, Evvie pulled so.

Then in spite of her utmost resolve, and in spite of her prayer, she did cry out. A long-pent scream escaped from between her lips and teeth. She shuddered the whole length of her body.

Under the sheet Doctor Baker worked fast–he threw the sheet angrily out of his way. . . . And now a thin gulping cry pierces the warm blood smell, as if the new life called back an answer to that scream from the pillow. 

Review of The Old Ashbury Place

The Old Ashburn Place, by Margaret Flint

Review by Maureen Theobald

(New York: Dodd Mead, 1936)

A small rural community in Maine is the backdrop for this moving novel. In it, Margaret Flint very capably chronicles the lives of the Ashburn family in the late 1800s. In a beautiful setting on the side of Pigeon Mountain, the hard working farm Ashburn family struggles with the common problems of agricultural life, particularly those associated with maintaining a small dairy operation. As is a common theme in many Midwest rural novels, the trials and tribulations of dealing with nature’s fickle moods is an issue the family deals with day in and day out. Although the severe extremes of hard Midwestern weather don’t exist in the more moderate climate of central Maine, farm families everywhere must deal with weather-related exigencies.
Pa and Ma work hard and raise to raise five children, three boys and two girls. The two older boys work the farm with their father, while the family hopes the youngest boy will concentrate on his education; and indeed, he eventually becomes the only member of the Ashburn clan to attend and graduate from the state university. The two girls grow into women with lives and families of their own, while the drama with Pa and his two eldest sons becomes the main focus of the story.

When Ma dies in middle age, Pa settles into a state of moderate melancholy for the remainder of his life, while tolerating the annoying, but helpful neighbor, Alviry. She insists on moving in to help the family with housework, child care, cooking, etc., however her true motives are in claiming Pa for her own. She accepts the roles she takes on with enthusiasm until she realizes Pa has no interest in her other than that of a hired woman. She stays on with the family, but her bitterness and resentment slowly grow.

Morris, as the eldest son, decides he should do what is expected of him and marries Elsie, a neighbor girl who wants nothing more than to be a wife and mother, and is content to settle into the Ashburn household, and become the “woman of the house.” With this event, Alviry accepts the fact that she has been “replaced”, and leaves in despair, finally admitting to herself that there is no hope for her in terms of a relationship with Pa. Elsie makes a good attempt at being the wife and mother that Morris deserves, but soon grows more and more dissatisfied, as her neglectful husband realizes he has no sincere feelings of love for the mother of his two children.
Charlie, the second son, works alongside his Pa and Morris. Women don’t seem to be a priority in his life, and he continues to be the good brother, son, and uncle to Morris’s two children. When Pa dies, the family is shaken, but they know they have no choice but to carry on, and the household dwindles to Morris, Charlie, Elsie, and the children. The Saturday night dances held in town are one of the few escapes most of the rural families can take advantage of, and it is at these dances that young men and women can sometimes find their only chance for romance. When Charlie is nagged into going into town with Morris and Elsie, he is pleasantly surprised to find that Marian Parks had grown into a lovely young woman, and although the little neighbor girl from over the hill was from a much wealthier family, he feels completely comfortable approaching her. He finds her “coquettish” behavior encouraging, and they enter what becomes over the years, a frustrating and painful relationship for Charlie. She comes in and out of his life when she visits “back home” from the State University, teasing him with her flirtatious personality, but departing each time with an air of aloofness and barely a “good-bye” for the frustrated and confused Charlie. To add insult to injury, Morris, too, becomes smitten with Marian, as she seems to enjoy seducing him on the dance floor. Not only does Elsie notice the attention that Marian gives to both brothers, she becomes spitefully jealous and hateful of all three. The drama that unfolds under the roof of the Ashburn household eventually leads to a sordid affair between Elsie and Charlie, and the eventual break-up of the once happy home.

The common theme of unrequited love that runs through the novel sets a tone of sadness that many farm novels seem to share. For instance, the process of settling into marriages that aren’t always based on sincere love, but rather a basic need for survival, is described quite often. The Old Ashburn Place is certainly an example of this. The need to raise large families to simply provide a “labor force” seems to lead to lives of “acceptance,” although not always contentedness.

The book did provide for me some of the enjoyment I’ve come to look for in most of these older novels. My love of nature is often the reason I find the most memorable part of these books to be the descriptions of the simple pristine countryside, the clean blue lakes, the icy cold streams that are safe enough to drink from, and wild berries and fruit free for the picking. As “progress” has eliminated many of these simple joys, and rolling hills have been replaced by concrete, it’s nice to know that we can let our imagination be entertained by saving and savoring these wonderful old books.

Review of The Long Tomorrow

The Long Tomorrow, by Evelyn Voss Wise

Review by John Henry

(New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1938)

 The Long Tomorrow tells the story of Father Pierre, an immigrant Roman Catholic priest, who comes to a farming hamlet in an isolated part of rural northwestern Minnesota. The locale is so small that it is never given a name, just called “The Corners.” He arrives in the early summer of 1881 to build a church, a house, and ultimately a community. The story follows his work and life within the growing and eventually prospering village until his death in 1929.

Father Pierre has an unusual perspective on his work as a priest. Pierre believes that he must help all the people, not just the Catholics of his parish, develop “materially” as well as “spiritually.” And so the story focuses almost exclusively on his efforts on building the physical, economic, and social resources for the people of The Corners. We see him helping with the repair of dilapidated farmhouses. He acts as community veterinarian and doctor. He is the first schoolteacher. He gives career and life guidance to the young people of the hamlet. He is a social worker when “Kelly the bad” drinks and beats his wife. He is the sheriff, judge, and parole officer when chickens are stolen. He protects the naive young women of his community from the sexual predations of the railroad workers. He acts as matchmaker; he helps the farmers’ children get into college and find jobs in the city. His large front parlor becomes the town hall for important meetings, and he hosts the community celebrations in his yard.

But the chief contribution that Father Pierre makes to the progress of The Corners is, early on, to persuade the farmers to form a cooperative and then to build a cheese factory. The cheese business is a great success and Father Pierre becomes the manager of the factory and the cheese is sold throughout the Midwest and beyond. Over time the farmers of this remote county become the most prosperous in the state, all because of the cooperative and the cheese factory. And even the most skeptical and anti-Papist, Scandinavian Lutheran farmers come to consider Father Pierre a friend and trusted leader.
Of course, all this sounds like a pastoral fantasy of the most rosy type. Except, it is a story largely based on fact.1 One model for Father Pierre was Elie Theillon, an immigrant priest who came to Gentilly, Minnesota, from France, via Quebec, in 1888. Fr. Theillon served as pastor of St. Peter’s Parish until his death in 1935. Theillon also served as business manager of the Gentilly cheese factory, with a special permission from the Vatican to operate a commercial business while serving as a pastor. Gentilly’s was a prize-winning cheese and was sold from Chicago to Montana and points south. A significant difference, however, between the real village and the fictional one was that Gentilly, unlike “The Corner,” was much less diverse in its ethnic and religious make-up. Gentilly was mostly Catholic and mostly French-Canadian. No Irish, Dutch, or Scandinavian inhabitants. And no “anti-Papists” in Gentilly.

A second model for the priest in The Long Tomorrow came from Evelyn Voss Wise’s own childhood. In 1945 she wrote a short autobiographical piece for the book Minnesota Writes.2  She relates that she grew up in St. James, Minnesota, and lived across the street from a “fine” priest who she trailed after with the other neighborhood children. Father Pierre exhibits a kindly love for the children who often accompany him on his visits through The Corner. Also, morning after morning, from her front window, Voss Wise watched her neighbor priest as he worked in his garden. Her fictional priest also was a diligent a gardener.

Regardless of how much is “true” and how much “fiction” in The Long Tomorrow, the book raises a couple of serious issues about how we build community and how we live together.

First, and most obvious, there is the issue of the relationship of religion and society. In the fictional world of The Long Tomorrow, the vision of Fr. Pierre is to build up the material well-being of “The Corner” prior to attempting to work on the spiritual progress of his neighbors. He comes to the parish already planning the farmers’ co-operative and the cheese factory. Yet it is not just in fiction where religion and social change are wedded. Throughout U.S. history we see this same pattern: whether it is the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Catholics in Maryland, the Mormons in Utah, or the mission system in California. Further, one thinks of the important relationship between religion and social change in the Abolition, Temperance, and Civil Rights movements. Religion, for better or worse, is a powerful motivating force in human affairs. So The Long Tomorrow’s Fr. Pierre, a religious leader active in social change and community building, has many models in history.

A second issue that The Long Tomorrow raises concerns authority, leadership, and democracy within a community. Fr. Pierre comes to The Corners with a preconceived plan for development and progress. And while he does not have the power to implement his plans without the consensus of the farmers, he does guide and, in a sense, manipulate the decision making process within the community. In effect, he functions as a benevolent over-lord. The Corners is not a democracy; rather it is ruled, clandestinely, as a hierarchy. Fr. Pierre functions as a philosopher king, a kindly and self-sacrificing king, but a king nonetheless. Some of the more successful farmers have influence. But Fr. Pierre is the hidden driver of all important communal decisions, and his planning and influence sometimes intrude into the personal lives of the people of The Corner. By the end of the story, even the originally anti-Catholic farmer Oscar Carlson admits–much to the disgust of his still anti-Papist wife–that Fr. Pierre has been the real “father” to the whole community.

Other themes that The Long Tomorrow raises include the social condition of women in rural society, and the relations between the European-American settlers and the few Native-Americans left in the nearby woodlands. These are only minor topics in the book, but they are of some import during the course of the story.

The Long Tomorrow presents an image of farm life mostly positive, mostly happy. The bountiful land, the hard work and dedication of the farm families, the wise and forward-looking guidance of Fr. Pierre all combine to produce a way of life that is materially successful and socially harmonious. There are no great droughts, no plagues of insects, no banks fail. No one is seriously injured in a farm accident or faces debilitating sickness. Perhaps it is an overly idyllic vision of rural life, yet perhaps in the case of Gentilly, Minnesota, the real was something like the ideal of “The Corner.” At least Evelyn Voss Wise thought it so.

About the author.  

Evelyn Voss Wise was born in 1899 in St. James, Minnesota. She attended the University of Minnesota but took her degree from the University of Missouri in 1921. After her marriage to Charles Edward Wise she moved to the East, living in New York, Washington, D.C., and eventually Baltimore. She began writing in 1932, first with articles for the newspaper, then short stories, and finally novels. Besides The Long Tomorrow, she published As the Pines Grow (1939), Wheels in the Timber (1941), Mary Darlin’ (1943), Light of Stars (1946), Of Wind and Song (1956). Voss Wise died in 1956.

1 Virgil Benoit, “Gentilly: A French-Canadian Community in the Minnesota Red River Valley,” Minnesota History, Winter 1975, pp. 279-289. Available on the web at http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/44/v44i08p278-289.pdf

2 Minnesota Writes: A Collection of Autobiographical Stories by Minnesota Prose Writers, ed. Carmen Nelson Richards and Genevieve Rose Breen, The Lund Press, Minneapolis: 1945, pp. 60-61.

Review of The Long Lane

The Long Lane, by Phil Stong

Review by Maureen Theobald

(New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1939)

The Long Lane by Phil Stong is a rich and fascinating novel that took me by surprise. Dramatic events that led to a deeply layered story of family, betrayal, loyalty, acceptance, and survival made for a wonderfully enjoyable read. As a family falls apart, a new one is born, and as family members become disillusioned and overwhelmed, they learn that the cliché, “time heals all wounds,” is accurate.

Young Kenneth Brubaker’s life is shaken to its core when his mother leaves him and his father to live with his uncle Merritt, her true love. He and his Dad must learn how to deal with her abandonment, while trying to remain stoic and save face. The shock and embarrassment proves to be too difficult for Ken’s father, Albert, and he decides to leave the “fish bowl” that is their small town in Iowa. He moves to Des Moines, where he has started a small business with a friend. Here, he slowly heals, while building his business, although struggling with the difficult decision to leave Kenneth behind on the farm with the hired hand and his wife.

The theme of maternal abandonment is painful to read about, let alone having to actually live it. Ken deals with his pain with a maturity far beyond his twelve years. He becomes fascinated with his father’s cosmetic company , is taken under the wing of two of the chemists, and before long finds a new passion. Many of the people who come into their life in the city are extremely colorful characters, who enrich not only their lives, but also the lives of the small farm community members when Albert and Ken eventually persuade them to visit back home.

Eventually, the city and country are brought together in a heartwarming ending, and prejudices between the two disappear, as love proves to be stronger than any differences they may share. As difficult a situation as it is, Ken’s mother and father come to a place that is best for his welfare, and the love of new friends and family help everyone heal. Faith, hope and love . . . the ingredients for a great “feel good” novel.