Review of The Emigrants

The Emigrants, by Vilhelm Moberg

Review by Mark Munger

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951) 

 There is a lot of sex in this book. I mean it. For a novel published during the more sedate and less titillating 1950s, The Emigrants references the act of lovemaking, coitus, or, if you prefer, samlag (Swedish) innumerable times throughout the novel’s 366 pages. Now, to be clear, Moberg doesn’t toss graphic descriptions of carnal knowledge onto the printed page. Rather, as a true gentleman, the author of this initial installment in an emigration/immigration trilogy depicting the lives of a schooner full of Swedes fleeing poverty, religious persecution, and landless futures carefully alludes to sex throughout the story, never really painting a word picture of the mechanics of such physical connections. Some of the references to sexuality are humorous. A graphic description of the permanently aroused state of a dead Lutheran pastor’s manhood, which befuddles his survivors as they prepare his body for the man’s funeral, comes to mind. Another tidbits of carnality include glimpses of the sexual prowess of one the great prostitutes depicted in literature, Ulrika of Västergöhl. None of the passages depicting Man’s basest desires are offensive. But they are indeed prevalent, sprinkled by the author throughout the narrative like naughty exclamation points.

But this isn’t a story about sexual repression in mid-19th century or even mid-20th century Sweden. It is, in the end, the story of Karl Oscar Nilsson, his wife Kristina Johnsdotter, and their young children who, as the inherited family farm of Korpamoen sinks deeper and deeper into debt, leave their Swedish homeland for America. The writing in the first one-third of the novel, the section that depicts all the adversity and travails that afflict the young couple (and the other characters, including Ulrika) is crisp, descriptive, and spot-on. Moberg’s ability to weave history, geography, and character together to create believable fiction is well served in the early portion of this tale. The author also adroitly captures the fear, trepidation, and hope that must have been experienced by uneducated emigrants about to embark on a three-month voyage across a vast boiling pot of water, bound for a land that they had only the vaguest of notions about. The tension between tradition, such as Karl Oscar revealing his plan to sell the family farm to strangers, uprooting his young family, and leaving his ailing mother and father behind; Karl Oscar’s younger brother Robert deserting his laboring job, employment little better than slavery, without notice to join Karl and Kristina on their voyage; Kristina’s uncle, Daniel Andreasson, a religious zealot in danger of a prison sentence for preaching the Gospel without the blessings of the state church; is palpable and real during the first section of the novel. Based upon the beginning of The Emigrants, I had high hopes that Moberg’s writing would continue to be clever, commanding, and intriguing throughout the remainder of the novel.

The remainder of the book depicts the voyage of the brig Charlotta, a sailing vessel 124 feet long, packed with 15 crewmembers, and carrying a contingent of 78 emigrant passengers from Sweden, including Karl Oscar and Kristina. It isn’t that craft deserted Moberg during the last two-thirds of the story: It is that, in an effort to render an authentic depiction of the harrowing passage experienced by many immigrants to America during the 19th century, the author spares no detail regarding the illnesses, agony, boredom, frustration, and fear experienced below the decks of the Charlotta. What the reader is left with is nearly two hundred pages of well-written narration and dialogue limited in geographic scope to the forty-pace by eight-pace deck of the brig. Moberg’s descriptive powers are adept. His word choice is concise. He instills emotive fire in his writing. And yet, in the end, unlike the middle passage scene from Roots, the best depiction of a similar oceanic transit in all of literature, Moberg’s attempt to make the reader feel and care about the emigrants and their suffering falters. Why? Scene after scene of billowed sails, gray seas and skies, storms, sickness, and death may well mimic the reality of what the emigrants experienced. But such repetitive prose, even when well written, becomes, and became in this case, redundant.

In a nutshell, Moberg didn’t provide enough variety in the last two-thirds of this novel to keep up the heady pace, the internal steam of narrative and dialogue that made the first portion of this book so compelling.
Despite the criticisms leveled above, The Emigrants has value for anyone interested in understanding the motivations and desires of Scandinavians who immigrated to North America during the last half of the 19th century. While the sections portraying the passage of the brig Charlotta across the Atlantic may be a tad overdone, the overall impact of the characters and their struggles remains powerful enough to label Moberg’s initial offering in the trilogy a “good read”.

Review of Take All to Nebraska

Take All to Nebraska, by Sophus Keith Winther

Review by John Henry

(New York: Macmillan Co., 1936)

Rat-infested housing squalor. Raggedy-clothes poverty. Infant sickness, suffering, and death. Unceasing farm-work. Schoolyard bullying. Schoolhouse whippings. Social isolation. Economic exploitation. Business fraud and usury. Marital infidelity. Animal cholera. Sadism to pets. Melancholy and longing for the old country. Family alienation and disintegretation. And, finally, an almost unfathomable hopefulness in the promise of early 1900s America.

These are the elements in the story of the Grimsen family, the Danish immigrant farmers who are the main characters in Take All to Nebraska, by Sophus Keith Winter. Peter, Meta, and their five small children come to Nebraska on a frigid January night in 1898 after a miserable three-day train ride from Massachusetts. They do not speak English. They have neither friends nor family in Nebraska. Their only guide is The Danish Pioneer, an immigrant newspaper that claims that there is land and Danish settlers living in Weeping Willow, Nebraska. And so they go to a strange land to live amongst strangers, with only enough money to rent a run down farm with a dilapidated house.

The suffering and tragedy of the Grimsen family is caused by the trap of their economic condition. Peter and his family work hard year after year. They are good farmers and achieve good yields, even with the vagaries of nature and markets. But Peter is always borrowing to buy more equipment, or build new granaries, or purchase more animals, or rent more land. And so Peter has no reserves to weather the storm when farm trouble hits at crucial times, or when he is cheated by unscrupulous townspeople or greedy neighbors. The Grimsens have enough to cover most of their debt and get more credit, but they never have enough to get ahead and buy their own land. So they struggle on and on for seven hard years. Poverty and social isolation take their psychological toll. The eldest son rebels and turns to alcohol, gambling, and prostitutes. The younger children turn cold toward their father and his unrelenting work and chores. Husband and wife become estranged. Both Peter and Meta long to return home to Denmark with its hospitable neighbors, school, church, language, family and friendships. I won’t spoil the ending!

This is the story of Take All To Nebraska, written in 1936, the first novel of Winther. It is a book that is swiftly plotted. The writing is tight and descriptive, which on occasion achieves a sad lyricism. The depiction of farm work and life in early 1900s seems (to this non-farmer) deeply true. It is a farm novel where the drama and struggle of work is put at the center of the story. The depiction of childhood, schooling, and growing up as isolated strangers in a harsh land is very well done. Also, the emotional life of Meta, her longing for Denmark, her bonding with her children, her abiding sadness for her losses, her growing isolation from Peter, are noteworthy and moving.

About the Author. Sophus Keith Winther was born in Denmark in 1893. He came to the United States with his family when he was two years old. His family lived in both Massachusetts and Nebraska before settling in Oregon. He was educated at the University of Oregon and did his Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of Washington. He taught at the University of Washington from 1922 until 1963. His wife was Eileen and they had no children. He died in 1983.

He was friends with Eugene O’Neill. Their families visited together every summer for twenty years.

In 1948 he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his short time in the Communist Party USA. Here is a link to the transcript of his testimony:

A 1976 wonderful interview with Winther about his life is available here:

Winther wrote two other books about the Grimsen family: Mortgage Your Heart, 1937. This Passion Never Dies, 1938. Also, another novel Beyond the Garden Gate 1946. His non-fiction writing includes: The Realistic War Novel (monograph), 1930, and Eugene O’Neill: A Critical Study, 1934.

Review of Sod and Stubble

Sod and Stubble: The Story of a Kansas Homestead, by John Ise

Review by John Carbonara

Sod and Stubble, written by John Ise, was copyrighted in 1936 by Wilson, Erickson, Inc.  The cloth edition was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1968, with a second printing in 1972.  It was also published by Bison Book Edition and went through four printings from 1967 to 1972.  The number of printings alone is testimony to the literary and historical value of this work.

This is the story, told episodically for the most part, of the Ise family (German immigrants) who homesteaded in western Kansas in the eighteen hundreds.  The tale is told by one of the sons of that family as recalled by his mother, Rosie, and supplemented by such recollections as he, himself, can add.

This was the era of the homesteader and the “sod buster.”  Most readers are familiar with the Okie version as portrayed in Steinbeck’s admirable work, The Grapes f Wrath.   This is a far more “gritty” version of that period, primarily because it is far more realistic and spans nearly the entire married life of the mother and father.

This is not the story of a tragic history.  This is a story of lives lived by many and who endured “that which was not to be borne.” Yet, somehow, many managed to bear it, while making a life for themselves and their family.  Although the Ise family did not live in a “soddy,” many of their neighbors did.  Most of us would find it quite disconcerting to have friends over for dinner and have a large bull snake drop from the sod roof onto the dining table.  But that was part of the life of the “sod-busters.”

The story opens on June the 3rd, 1873, on a moderately positive note, almost idyllic, but the knowledgeable reader is already primed for what is to follow.   All of the tragic events which beset the homesteaders of that period are fairly common knowledge and each in turn takes their place upon the stage:  The droughts that crack open the earth, the dust storms that blind and invade every corner of the “home,” the death of children by accident and illness, the field-devouring grasshoppers, the searing one hundred degree plus temperatures that refuse to end, the loans whose interest (fifteen percent) ate up all of the earnings, the tornadoes that tore apart what they had so laboriously just built and prairie fires that consumed all in their path, each make their entrance and exit.

In contrast, there were neighbors who came to each other’s aid as best they could in these times of trial.  What is different about Sod and Stubble  is that it alternates between the bad times and the good.  Where The Grapes of Wrath  begins in misery and goes down from there, Sod and Stubble alternates between recurring trials and times of relief and near prosperity.  How the story of the Ise family ends I leave for the reader to discover.  The journey to the last chapter inexorably draws you on.  The anticipation of what comes next makes it difficult to put down the work.

 This preamble aside, the story is really about a woman.  It is the mother who is the generative force of the family.  Henry, her husband, is a hard-working ex-Civil War veteran who returns with injuries that last his lifetime.  He is goodhearted to a fault, much to his wife’s distress, but, Josie, his bride of seventeen, endures all, manages all, solves nearly all.  She is one of those who “bear what cannot be borne.”  And she bears it heroically.  She is both a Stoic, in the modern sense of being able to quietly bear these difficulties (most of the time), but is an “anti-Stoic,” from the philosophic sense.  She does not accept that there are things not in her power.  She strives to overcome what few others would attempt and she is more often successful than not.  Rosie is materialistic by necessity (she produced twelve children, eleven of whom survived).  And, the reader should know that this was a time when large families were desirable because necessary.  The extended family was the foundation upon which survival depended.  This meant that the costs of food and clothing, the children’s education, of keeping a roof over their heads, medical bills and necessary farm supplies had to be managed.  Anyone with sense would find this more than daunting.  And think of the chores!  The lack of money meant that she had to make all the clothes, the bedding and other household needs.  It was the eggs she gathered and the butter she churned daily that kept the family in ready cash until harvest time (if there was a harvest).  Just think of making three meals a day for a family of thirteen or fourteen, plus visitors or strangers who passed by and begged for a meal.  There were plenty of the latter in the hard times.  Henry could never say “No” to anyone in need, even to the detriment of his own family.  And not only did she feed them, but visitors and beggars often stayed the night and beds had to be made up on the kitchen floor and breakfast made to get them on their way and then to scour the house for the fleas and dirt those “on the road” left behind.  Couple these concerns with the shear mass of other chores necessitated by such a large family. Consider, for example, darning and patching socks till midnight and doing the laundry for fourteen without the “modern” convenience of a wringer washing tub.  The reader is fatigued by the mere thought of this and the manifold other chores.  Add to this her role as family manager and one is awed that she did not simply break under the strain.

Yet, we do not find an embittered nag and complainer, but a woman of determination filled with love, readily dispensed, and a trooper one is proud to stand beside in the fight to survive.  Many of the “soddies” did survive and eventually the times became better and life more manageable.  It is a period of American history that bears telling and retelling, for it is in the cauldron of the searing droughts that so many Americans were made.  This work is an exceptional narration of how they forged a culture that is self-reliant, resilient and confident that difficulties can be overcome.

Lost in the struggle to physically survive is the depth of thought in Rosie’s thinking, even though expressed in less than formal terms.  For example, she questions how God could allow the animals to suffer during times of drought, she was pained by their bawling through the night as they died from hunger and thirst.  It is a telling twist on the thought that somehow the suffering of the innocent does not square with a benevolent deity.  The minister was made more than uncomfortable by such comments.

Rosie has a sense of fairness that all her children should be treated equally, loved equally,. cared for equally.  A characteristic, the reader will discover, she sometimes carried to an extreme.

And finally, Rosie has a well-developed sense of aesthetic appreciation that is also easy to overlook.  Her love of flowers, trees and other plants is central to her nature and should not be missed.  This aesthetic dimension, which so many of us take for granted, cannot be appreciated without the backdrop of a parched and cracked earth.  Both she and Henry loved birds, not only for their beauty and their singing, but because they were a sign that the times were alright.  Birds do not survive droughts any better than humans do.

It is unlikely than anyone of the twenty-first century can even imagine what life must have been like for homesteaders, especially the sod-busters of the Midwest, but this narration brings us very close to understanding some of the most trying aspects of such a life.  It is a read that today’s children could profit from, but only if they understand that it happened to people just like them.

Review of River of Earth

River of Earth, by James Still

Review by John Carbonara

River of Earth, A Novel, authored by James Still, was copyrighted in 1940, but the edition reviewed was copyrighted in 1978 by the University Press of Kentucky. As a son of a first generation immigrant family, the reviewer believed that he had some knowledge of lean times and what it meant to go without. He was seriously mistaken.

It might seem more appropriate to review the excellence of the prose, the wonderful use of color, the development of the characters from the first to the last page, but the reviewer does not believe that that was what Mr. Still wanted us to understand. And, other reviewers have dealt with these aspects better than this reviewer could ( for example, see Time review). One comment about the writing seems appropriate: The work is filled with the jargon of the times and these lexical items are not  always easy to interpret.

Of more import is the life told. During one of the frequent periods in which the father was laid-off from his work in the mines, husband and wife had one of their recurring discussions. It was neither a fight nor an argument, it was a conflict of ideologies. The husband feels obliged to feed his kin who have come to him out of their own desperation . The wife cannot see beyond her own children. He thinks that perhaps he can get some food on credit from the company story. She responds:

“Her voice was like ice.”… “They won’t let you have it on credit. You’ve tried before. We’ve got to live small. We’ve got to start over again, hand to mouth, the way we began.” (p. 8):

And so the novel defines itself in the first few pages. This is not a story of a family, so much as it is a narrative of the times. The backdrop is the strip mines in Eastern Kentucky.   When the mines were running, life was different. It was not good , it was simply different. When the mines were running there was plenty of money and plenty of food., but, inevitably, a six day week became four and then two or three half days and then the lay-off.

The first part, when the mines were going full tilt, may seem the up-side of life for the miners and their families, but it wasn’t. To pay for the food and other “luxuries” upon which they spent their money, they had to live in a “coal town.” They had to live with slag heaps, dirty, soot-ed air, the lack of a tree or a flower or patch of meadow. They did not see a bird or hear its song, Dad and the boys did not wander afield for squirrel or possum or fish the local un-fishable streams. They had to endure the chaos of the “boom” times, the fear of mine accidents and the uncertainty of what the boss-man would have to say tomorrow. It was a dirty, worrisome, unhealthy and ugly life.

When the mines shut down, as they frequently did, what was one to do? They knew the mines would start again and then the “money times” would return, but in the interim they still had to find a way to survive. Thus, we have the other half of the life of a mine worker’s family. The only option was to rent a small piece of land with a shack on it. There the family could scratch out crops for family use. There one could endure poverty in the midst of the beauty of the countryside. One could breathe fresh, clean air. One could have some fresh fruits and vegetables. One could see the sun come up (not often possible in the strip mines). Birds and squirrels sang and chattered. It was an idyllic life save for the fact that there was never enough food to feed the family and their omnipresent kin. Mother became too emaciated to produce milk for the newest baby.

Thus, this is a narrative of the two prime dimensions of a miner’s life:   Life was dominated by hunger, impermanence, uncertainty and anxiety. They shuttled back and forth from impoverished rural holding to coal dust company house, and, neither life was worth living. The husband had no choice but to go when the mine’s called, the wife had no choice but to argue that life is better for her children in the country. The conflict was ideological and irreconcilable. Prudential values collided with aesthetic alternatives and prudence always won.

There is no story here. Don’t look for any romance, they simply did not have time for it. This was life one step above “life in extremis.” The novel begins in mid-stream and ends in mid stream, but, for all that, it is an important piece of literature. The novel portrays a life and people so different from most of our experiences that we are often unable to connect in an emotional or intellectual way. The reviewer could not put the book down for fear that the he could not again enter into the world of the Baldridge family. To become an inside observer, if not a ghost-like participant in a novel, is what reading novels is about. To remain outside the story is an indication that the work is not well written, or, that it has devolved into just a piece of history. In some way one has to fear the “boss man’s words,” has to feel the anguish of searching through the salt of the “meat box” only to find a small string of some unidentifiable animal remain and nothing else. (The husband notes that it is too small for them to eat and advises his wife to make a bit of broth with it and give it to the baby.) This is a work in which one cannot simply jump in and out of at will. Hunger, uncertainty and the fight against despair must become a part of the reader.

James Still has done his work well. It is difficult to say how important this novel is in the history of American literature, but it is easy to say that it is a slice of American life of which no thoughtful reader of American literature would want to be ignorant.

Review of O River, Remember!

O River, Remember!, by Martha Ostend

Review by Maureen Theobald

(New York: Dodd Mead, 1943)

Once again, Martha Ostenso has managed to take me into another era, another time and place that makes me crave the simple, but extremely rich life she writes of with such precision. In this classically told story of “power and greed” verses “purpose and good,” Ostenso introduces us to a family dealing with those conflicting agendas under their own roof. Magdali marries Ivar Vingue, and agrees to join him in Northwest Minnesota, in the Red River Valley. Having come from a fairly prosperous farm family in Wisconsin, Magdali is driven and hard-working to a fault. Her quest for power and money is at odds with Ivar’s genuine love of the land and his altruistic nature. They raise a family of five children, each struggling through their lives having to please Magdali, and being controlled by her overbearing personality. Ivar’s tolerance of her and her equally greedy brother is always for the sake of his beloved children and farm. Paralleling his difficult marriage is the constant, and ultimately life-long, love of a beautiful woman who he knows and accepts he can never have.

The story is rich with details and situations involving the Vinge children and their lives as they grow into adulthood, under the constant cloud of Magdali, but fortunately, having their loving father to turn to when she becomes unbearable.

After decades of hurt caused mainly by Magdali’s need for control, healing comes when her great nephew meets up with the great niece of the woman Magdali despised throughout her life. Norma Shaleen is the great niece of Kate Shaleen, the secret love of Ivar’s life. He took the secret to his grave, suffering silently, as was his nature. Brill Wing (Wing being the name that Magdali eventually chose to replace the more immigrant-sounding and embarrassing name of Vinge), and Norma Shaleen return to the farm years later to try and unravel the bits and pieces of the stories handed down through the generations. What they find are the fascinating tales of the two pioneer families, the Wings and the Shaleens, and how the love they have found together will finally bring years of misunderstandings to an end once and for all.

Review of Mortgage Your Heart

Mortgage Your Heart, by Sophus Keith Winther

Review by John Henry

(New York: MacMillian Co., 1937)

Mortgage Your Heart continues the story of rent-farmers Peter and Meta Grimsen and their six sons. The book opens in 1907 and the Grimsens have recently moved to a better farm on the northwest side of Weeping Willow, Nebraska. The novel ends in 1917, during the great farm prosperity brought on by World War I.

The economic fortunes of the Grimsens have greatly improved on the new farmstead. They have good land and better buildings and are able to expand their acreage through additional nearby rental land. There are no total crop failures brought on by weather. Crop prices are rising throughout the time of the story and prices eventually boom, brought on by the war need and speculation. The three oldest boys (Alfred-19, David-17, and Hans-15, at the beginning of the story) work hard for their father, even though they occasionally rebel and are often bitter with resentment over Peter’s hard driving ways. The book contains many moving depictions of farm work: eighteen-hour wheat harvesting days in the July heat; picking sharp stalks of milkweed in the heavily-mudded cornfields; heroic night rescues of farm animals from flooding washes.

Despite the rural setting, the focus of the book is not the farm and the associated way of life. Rather, Mortgage Your Heart is a growing-up story centered on the development of the three oldest boys, Alfred, David, and, especially, Hans. The story chronicles how the boys move away psychologically and morally from their parents and their farm and become men in the larger world. The boys struggle for independence from the strong patriarch Peter, who himself gradually moderates and becomes less old-country Danish and more “American.” The boys go off to work in Omaha meat packing plants but return to Weeping Willow. They learn about baseball and July Fourth celebrations. Buggies overturn and a girl is tragically crushed. Religious revivals sprout up in town. A girl becomes pregnant and is abandoned by her lover, so she is driven to suicide. Alfred marries well and begins farming for himself, still plagued by alcoholism. David becomes a master at farming but marries poorly, mostly out of sympathy to Maren Serbak, the daughter of a violently abusive, miserly Danish farmer. Her horrific childhood has left her with growing psychological instability and David with children and a farm to care for often without a mother’s help.

But the central character of the novel is Hans, who is fifteen when the story begins and twenty-four at the end. Of the three boys, Hans is the one who is able to move furthest away from the rural farm life because of his educational success, first in the religiously affiliated high school in town; then at the University in Lincoln.

Hans’ is a deeply romantic consciousness. From beginning to end he is in “love” or longing for love. But romantic love is deeply tied to a religious sensibility in Hans. His idea of love and his actual love for Fayne Stanwood are always connected with religious experiences: either an Irish Catholic funeral, a Methodist revival meeting, or Sunday evening youth services. And in college when Hans gradually abandons his youthful religious fervor, he loses the love of his back-home fiancée, who is unable to see herself married to a non-believer.

The novel traces Hans’ evolution from a romantic and religious youth, to a young man concerned about social injustice, politically astute, and religiously agnostic, if not atheistic. For those who know their James Joyce, Hans’ story in Mortgage Your Heart is sort of like “A Portrait of a Socialist Intellectual as a Young Farmer.”

For the most part the writing is unobtrusive and well paced. But there are occasional passages of excessively romantic over-writing: shooting stars through the prairie sky as the young lovers fall into their first kiss, etc. and etc., and so on. The characters and plot maintain reader interest. Yet there are a few clunky authorial intrusions where Winther pedantically points out that some event or idea will be of great importance later in the book or the in final book of the trilogy.

But my most serious criticism is that Hans’story is the least interesting – but gets the most pages. Peter and Meta’s struggle with the farm. Alfred’s lost weekends and his strong wife who tries to hide her husband’s illness. David’s deteriorating wife and her cruel father. I found these stories inherently more interesting than Hans’ adolescent loves and his growing Socialist consciousness. However, I look forward to reading the third book in the family trilogy and finding out how things end with all the Grimsens.

Review of Milk Route

Milk Route, by Martha Ostenso

Review by Maureen Theobald

(New York: Dodd Mead, 1948)

As events unfold in this post WWII novel, it becomes abundantly clear what effects war can have on a small Midwestern town. While most of what I’ve read of Ostenso’s collection has been about the lives of farm families and their rural communities, in this novel she has captured the emotions of small town neighbors with the same intimacy. Her descriptive narratives of the characters’ joys and sorrows, and their often painful entanglements with one another, come alive in the mind of the reader. From the shattered hearts of young war widows to the collapse of profitable war-dependent small town industries, the collateral damage is felt by almost every member of the community.

As milkman Ben Stuart makes his deliveries in Wahwanissa Creek, Minnesota, we are introduced to the central characters behind the doors of addresses on his route. Each one, in his or her own way, has been affected by the war, and we begin to make the connections between the neighbors and their community. Ben and his new wife Inga are some of the more fortunate citizens of the small town, having not been directly affected by the ravages of the war. As they await the arrival of their first child, theirs is a story of hope that prevails throughout the novel, which is ultimately the direction the story takes. With the passage of time, emotional and physical wounds are healed, and lives slowly mend. Martha Ostenso’s Milk Route is an engaging novel somehow much more intimate then the more popular Sinclair Lewis novel, Main Street.

Review of Late Harvest

Late Harvest: Rural American Writing, edited by David R. Pichaske

Review by John Henry

(New York: Paragon House, 1992)

Late Harvest is an anthology of rural American writing originally published in 1992.  The editor, Professor David Pichaske, has chosen thirty-six short works: stories, poetry, and non-fiction essays.  All but five of the works were originally published between 1960 and 1987. The vast majority of the selections are post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War era. The book, therefore, presents a mostly contemporary view of rural writing and thinking.

Of the historical writings, the oldest is an excerpt from Jean de Crevecoeur’s Letters From an American Farmer, published in 1781 while de Crevecoeur was a loyalist exile in London during the Revolution.  Thoreau’s “Solitude” was part of Walden, 1854.  Truman Everts’ account of the first non-native expedition to Yellowstone was first published in Scribner’s Magazine, 1871. The final two non-contemporary selections are short stories: Sherwood Anderson’s “Adventure” from Winesberg Ohio, 1919, and Zona Gale’s Friendship Village, 1908.

Pichaske organizes the book in three parts: writing about farms, small towns, and the wilderness.  All three parts include poetry, short fiction, and essays.  The geography of the selections is varied.  Maple syrup harvesting in New England.  Cowboying in Wyoming and Montana. Cattle ranching and fighting range fires in South Dakota. A bar fight started at a pool table in small town Illinois.  Solitude in the desert badlands of Utah.  A corporation farm in California during the industrial harvesting of one mile square of tomatoes.  Fur trapping families in the lonely marshes of Louisiana.

As the locations are varied, so to are the themes and genres of the selections. Wry satires on cowboys, bar-girls, and one-night stands.  Stories about death: of beloved farm animals, of hired hands, of a dying farmer mending a fence line for the final time.  Stories about leaving small town life for the city.  Stories of leaving the city for the solitude of remote cabins–at Walden Pond, Tinker Creek, or Crater Mountain ranger lookout. Silly sketches about boys catching bats with fly-fishing rigs, or a man who kept skunks and owls under his cap. Poems about shooting rabbits with a 12 gauge and a small child dying.  Other poems about shooting an Oldsmobile with a 12 gauge and a marriage dying. A young girl, maybe an incest victim, maybe not, runs away from home and shelters in a cave dug out by neighbor children–a symbol of a tomb? or a symbol of a womb and new life?

Given the variety of themes, genres, voices, locales, I will not try to give an assessment of all thirty-six selections. However, I will say that almost all the writing in this book interested me.  I need to read Walden again, and maybe Lake Wobegone Days, and maybe even the poetry of Gary Snyder, and absolutely, certainly more Donald Hall.

There is one aspect about this anthology that deserves special mention: that is the editorial apparatus that Professor Pichaske provides.  There are succinct but informative biographical sketches of each author at the end of the book.  But more impressive and useful are the introductory essays for each of the three sections (farm, small town, wilderness) and the general introduction to the whole book. Pichaske not only brings out the significant qualities of each individual selection, but more importantly he fills out the landscape of the larger historical, philosophical, and sociological picture.  He shows how the specific ideas and images within each work connect with broader and more general movements of thought and feeling.

Let me end with an example of Pichaske’s writing from the introduction to the farm section which shows how he draws connections between story and deeper historical and moral concerns:

It is Wendell Berry’s “The Boundary,” however, which most perfectly articulates the old values continued into a twentieth century context.  The story is a kind of parable containing a modern American agrarian idyll, Berry’s depiction of farm life as it ought to be.  The very repetitiveness of farm work, so irksome to others, becomes a virtue: in the act of walking fence one more time, Mat confirms his relationship with the land, the legion of those who have walked this line before him (his younger self included), and those who will walk it in the future.  The small job well done becomes, like the small life well lived, a measure of blessedness. . . . Mat tends his land–a sense of custodianship is present, and a sense of order and stability.  Marriage symbolizes that custodianship to Berry, as do the smaller ceremonies of tending the symbolically broken but not yet lost stone grail, of recreating imaginatively the past within the present, of dining, of tending garden and house, of carrying on through hardship.  Berry sees virtue in the simple, the repetitive, and the familiar.  There is nourishment–water, garden, produce, a waiting meal–in little things well tended.  The farmer is absorbed into his community and is blessed, even his death.
Especially in his death.

And money is not even a consideration.

Review of Jacoby’s Corners

Jacoby’s Corners, by Jake Falstaff

Review by Sue Cullers

(New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1940)

Herman Fetzer, born in rural Ohio in 1899, used Jake Falstaff as his pen name. He wrote a newspaper column, “Pippins and Cheese,” that was published in the Akron and Cleveland newspapers, and he gained a national reputation while writing for the New York World. Two books, “The Book of Rabelais” and “Reini Kugel: Lover of This Earth,” were published during Falstaff’s lifetime. A book of poetry and Jacoby’s Corners were published after his death from pneumonia in 1935.

Jacoby’s Corners, set in 1911 or thereabouts, is Falstaff’s nostalgic look back at the farms and small towns that he knew in his childhood. It is the story of the summer that a twelve-year-old boy from New York, Lemuel Hayden, spent visiting with, and getting to know, his maternal grandparents and extended family, in the farm country of Ohio. Lemuel’s grandparents, Grandma and Grandpa Nadeli, had emigrated from Switzerland in their youth. The book is dedicated to the memory of Falstaff’s grandmother, represented in the book as Grandma Nadeli.

Although he was homesick when he first arrived in Jacoby’s Corners, Lemuel soon settled into the pattern of life there, including

• The Saturday evening shopping trips that all the local farmers made to Kerriston, the county seat;
• Cultivating cornfields to control weeds;
• Milking cows by hand and then running a hand-cranked separator to separate the milk and cream;
• Buying medicines and spices from the Watkins or Raleigh man who came to the farm;
• Celebrating the fourth of July with ice cream and fireworks;
• Harvesting oats with a threshing machine;
• Fighting the fire that destroyed a neighbor’s barn;
• Hosting a sweet corn festival.

The book is rich in description of Lemuel’s family members and their neighbors, their homes, the foods they ate, farming practices, and recreation of the time. Falstaff’s humor and use of figures of speech (such as “raining cats and dogs” or being “madder than a wet hen”) add to the pleasure of reading Jacoby’s Corners.

Any reader who has lived on a farm and is old enough to remember some of the farming activities described in Jacoby’s Corners will reminisce pleasurably while reading this book. Other readers will learn and appreciate what farm life was like in earlier and simpler times, when farms truly were family farms. 

Review of In Search of Kinship

In Search of Kinship: Modern Pioneering on the Western Landscape,
by Page Lambert

Review by John Henry

(Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1996)

In Search of Kinship is the story of woman uncovering and building connections: to a rural way of life on a small ranch in eastern Wyoming, to her and husband’s family histories, to nature around her and within her, and to a spiritual life based partly on Christianity, partly on “sacred ecology,” and partly on Native American wisdom.

Interwoven within the family’s story are Lambert’s observations and reactions to many topics: land-developers versus family ranchers and farmers; cattle-ranchers versus environmentalists; the morality and politics of hunting and meat eating; the history of Native and non-Native Americans in the west; landowners resisting government bureaucrats; our love of kittens, dogs and horses; how family relationships and work have been transformed by the economic revolution of the last two-hundred years; the difficulties of raising children when both parents work. But family, family history, traditional forms of rural life, and a spirituality that connects the natural and human worlds are Lambert’s main concerns

The story is told through short episodes, almost like a memoir which follows Page and Mark Lambert through courtship, marriage, finding a place, building a home, raising two children, and caring for pets, horses, sheep, and finally the start of small herd of cattle. There is a worrying tragedy of rabies with a family cat. There is the joy of a shivaree for the new neighbors. Saying “no” to a son who wants a video game machine. There is the time that family missed Palm Sunday church while waiting for the sheep shearer on his first visit to a new flock of ewes, but then conducted their own service in the family barn in the late afternoon. A litter of kittens is lost to a raccoon, or maybe to a marauding tomcat. Sheltered under a picnic table that is beneath a tree in the yard, the old family dog slowly dies, and a father and young son dig his grave, and a mother and her young daughter wonder if dogs can play fetch in heaven. Calves are born. Fences are mended. A wife worries about a husband working a fire-line for days and nights on a fire crew made up of both women and men.

But embedded within each episode of family and ranch life are wonderings about bigger things. While nursing a crippled calf that surely faces a short and difficult life, Lambert wonders about the insecurity of our own life and whether our time is spent in vain. A young daughter cherishes a factory-chiseled arrowhead and her mother sees the connection between Moses, the prophet of the stone tablets, and the Brule Sioux creation story, “Stone Boy.” Lambert reads in Black Elk Speaks where the great medicine man saw the sacred tree dying and his nation broken. And she wonders if her children will appreciate the life, and the vision, and the land, which she and her husband value so much. Lambert remembers her days as a girl riding her beloved horse, Romie, days when she began to understand freedom and womanhood; now her horse, twenty-five years later, is so old that he can barely step, and the woman wonders if part of own self will die with her horse, and if something new will be born in her soul.

So there are small stories of everyday ranch and family life in this book, and there are careful excavations into deeper and bigger things: living on the land, living with nature, passing on values and traditions from one generation to the next, seeking wisdom that only comes from the conversations between many generations and between many peoples, trying to live a unity between the spirit and the body, trying to keep faith between the past and the now, trying to find ways to see human life and the natural world not as enemies. I am skeptical about some of her answers, but in a quiet and noble way Page Lambert asks ambitious questions.