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.

Review of Colcorton

Colcorton, by Edith Pope

Review by Mark Munger

(New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1944)

First off, don’t rely on the book jacket description of this forgotten work of literary prose from a now-forgotten author. There is indeed a family secret, as hinted in the blurbs on the novel’s back cover that weaves its way into this story of hardscrabble existence. But unlike the depiction of the revelation of that secret in the comments from the book’s rear cover, the mystery concealed deep within the history of the Clanghearne clan doesn’t reveal itself in the opening stages of this fine story: It unravels, as Abby Clanghearne’s life seems destined to, far into the tale, long after Jared Clanghearne, Abby’s brother, has met his untimely end.

That having been said, this is one of those period novels written by an author readers haven’t heard of that is truly a “must” read for a number of reasons.

First, Pope is a quality wordsmith. That alone should be enough to compel you to search out this long out of print piece of fiction. But more importantly, I have the deep suspicion that one of our most revered and beloved pieces of Southern writing, To Kill a Mockingbird, had at least a shove at its inception, from this story, Race does play a part in this tale, a significant one. Though unlike Harper Lee’s masterpiece, where the issue of privilege and social standing due to the color of a man’s skin is tackled head-on, Southern discrimination against those of black or mixed race seeps into Colcorton like swamp water leaking towards a stream. I have no proof, of course, that Ms. Lee read and was inspired by this novel. I have only the rankest of suspicion on my side that there’s a kinship between the two tales. But I stand by my observation. I’ll leave it to scholars of the two authors to settle the debate.

More importantly, Pope paints her characters, particularly the two female protagonists, Abby Clanghearne, the surviving matriarch of a nearly extinct and once proud clan, and her sister-in-law, Beth, Jared’s widow and the mother of the last Clanghearne (Jad, the heir to the decaying mansion, Colcorton, the centerpiece of the diminished family estate) with as fine a brush as a novelist can wield. Abby’s a rough and tumble creature reminiscent of the frontierswoman Ruby Thewes in the literary and commercial blockbuster, Cold Mountain. It may well be that the similarities between Abby and Ruby are coincidence. Or it may be that Charles Frazier, another writer with Southern sensibilities, read Pope’s work before he constructed Cold Mountain. One can never be positive of the influences relied upon, consciously or subconsciously, by writers. But if you’ve seen the film version of Frazier’s masterpiece and you read Colcorton, I guarantee you’ll envision talented actress Renee Zellweger, who played Ruby in the movie version of Cold Mountain, playing the part of Abby Clanghearne.

Pope’s use of the countryside; steamy, hot, wet, and full of danger real and imagined; is one of the most compelling reasons to read this book. The swamps and beaches and tidal marshes and wild creatures of the St. Augustine area come to life, much like the human characters in the story:

Staggering, she paused to watch an osprey drop through the sky like lead, his talons curving fiercely for the kill, his wings straight up like the wings of a sphinx. He hit the water with a smack and vanished in a plume of spray. Water flashed and fell from his pinions as the hawk beat his way upward, a fish moving in his claws. “Ay-ay,” Abby groaned in admiration. “Ain’t that a fine way to git your supper.”

The land. It’s the land, as well as the family secret, that compels Abby Clanghearne to stay despite poverty, decay, and advancing age. And it is the land as depicted by Pope that forms as powerful a protagonist as Abby herself in the tale:

The sky grew pink in the east. She could tell where the ocean ended. The water no longer looked flat: she could see the scooped out shadows of the swells. Silvery beams of light ran up to the top of the sky. The sand began to sparkle. The sun came out of the ocean, burning red. The waves stopped purring; then the surf began to roar. The wind had sprung up.

Lord, to have the native or nurtured talent to write such a passage!
In many ways, this is a simple story in terms of the cast of characters who take the stage, the very parochial and condensed setting, and the moral and ethical issues that are raised by the Clanghearne family secret. And yet, as with Harper Lee’s better-known novel, there is complexity in the seemingly common and ordinary lives depicted in Colcorton. That alone makes this novel worth devouring.

Sadly, Edith Pope died fairly young and largely forgotten with but a modest body of work to her credit. There is no Wikipedia entry regarding her life or career and her obituary (,61347) reveals little about the writer as a person. The article chronicling her passing indicates that Mrs. Pope died of complications from a long illness (rheumatoid arthritis) in 1961 at the age of 53 after having created one work of note. Given how well Colcorton is constructed, perhaps that’s enough.
4 and ½ stars out of 5.

Mark Munger sits on the Advisory Board of RLR. Currently a sitting district court judge in Duluth, Minnesota, Mark is also a prolific writer in his own right. Please visit his blog and website,

You can also find Mark on Facebook:!/mark.munger.7?hc_location=stream

Review of A Son of the Middle Border

A Son of the Middle Border, by Hamlin Garland

Review by John Carbonara

The edition reviewed was published by Penguin Books USA, Inc., New York, 1995.  The original work was published in the United States in 1917 and was followed by his Pulitzer Prize winning, A Daughter of the Middle Border in 1921.

The idea of writing an “autobiography” is somewhat strange.  To write the story of one’s life, that life ought to have something very special about it, at least if one hopes to have it recognized in literary and economic circles.  It is not clear that every life is so unparalleled that it justifies being recorded for the greater public.  There must be something, not only unique about the life, but that uniqueness must have a general appeal.  In the case of A Son of the Middle Border, we find a paradigm for a period of American history.  It was the time of the great “westward migration.”  The “middle border,” that moving boundary that kept sliding westward, is the story of all those homesteaders who sought their special piece of land that was just beyond their view.  As the government opened new “sections” for homesteading, these dreamers moved their families ever westward, thus moving the boundary of the “middle border.”  The idea of “starting over again” permeates Hamlin Garland’s life.  It is a life that has no roots, for even when they stayed in one place for several years, the specter of another move was never very far out of  mind.  The twin ideas of “movement” and “expansion” are so intertwined that the reader is left uneasy from the first to the last page.  Permanence seems out of place in their lives.  Simply to vicariously experience this journey is reason enough to read the book.  The work brings into relief those dominant American traits of movement and change.

Beyond these twin themes of movement and expansion, we are treated to a writer who is, in essence, a poet.  His work begins lyrically and whenever he finds himself miles from an urban center, this lyricism exerts itself and we are invited to enter the world as Garland saw it.  Unfortunately, he says:  “It did not in truth exist–it was a magical world, born of the vibrant union of youth and firelight, of music and the voice of moaning winds…”  (p. 55)   Its reality, however, is something for the reader  to decide.  Much of it rings too true to be myth.    His descriptions of the rural landscape filled with bird calls as he plowed or harrowed the fields are jeweled moments.  There is a noticeable change in his poetic style when he is in an urban environment.  The attempt to be lyrical is transformed, for the city does not have the pastoral richness of his remembered prairies.  Of course, all is not the song of the winds and the blue skies and call of the prairie chicken.  The lyrical moments are punctuated by the difficult work of breaking sod, plowing, harrowing, seeding and harvesting.  It is important to keep in mind that this was a time before the great John Deere Combines that do everything.  This was a time when the power to farm came from the strength of a man’s arm and the endurance of his legs and of his horses.  They were obliged to walk the miles of furrows that they worked.  Imagine a thousand acre wheat farm.   Although most of his novel is about man’s work, it finally dawns on him that women, especially his mother, had burdens the equal of any man’s.  Still, in spite of these less lyrical interruptions, the emphasis in his writings is profoundly romantic and sentimental.  Nostalgia dominates in many chapters.  Yet, within this matrix there remains the disparity between his lyrical poetry about nature and his often bitter prose about the work of farming itself.  He does not attempt to ignore the drudgery of farm work.  The contrast between his appreciation of nature and detestation of farming brings both into higher relief than would otherwise occur.  Often the two coalesce:  “As I look back upon it, I perceive transcendent sunsets, and a mighty sweep of golden grain beneath a sea of crimson clouds.”   (p.139).   This is a very hard earned moment of beauty.

Eventually, the farm boy has to begin the journey that would bring us his many literary works.  Strangely, the transformation came at the hands of an “evangel” (sic).  He heard a sermon from a young preacher that truly changed his life.  Far from God despising the beauty of the world, the evangel argued that God loved beauty.  This idea was, in that era, a novel thought.  “Beauty” suggested a worldliness that was antithetical to the Protestantisms of the day.  As he left the religious service:  “I recognized in this man not only a moving orator but a scholar and I went out from that little church vaguely resolved to be a student also, a student of the beautiful.”  (p. 157)

Boston, where he believed America’s literati resided, never really became his home:  As he speaks of this time, his poetic soul turns into more of a travel log and it will be some time before he recaptures his lyrical spirit. His wandering from Boston to other places is marked by another change in his style.  His poetic form is less romantic and becomes more a form of realism.  He begins to understand the devastation that farming wreaks upon the environment and this note of realism saddens him.  It is best expressed in his own words: It seemed a true invasion, this taking possession of the virgin sod, but as I considered, there was a haunting sadness in it for these shining pine pennons [homestead stakes] represented the inexorable plow.  They prophesied the death of all wild creatures and assured the devastation of the beautiful, the destruction of all the signs and seasons of the sod.  (p. 244)

The final realization occurs when he leaves the East and heads back to the prairie.  When he reached norther Illinois “…everything became so homely, uttered itself so piercingly to me that nothing less than song could express my sense of joy, of power.  This was my country–these my people.”  (p. 286)  Painfully, for the lyric poet, he concluded that beauty must take second place to truth, the harsh ugly truth of pioneering on the “middle border.”  His realism becomes abrasive at times, but he is unstinting in his need to tell the truth of pioneering as he experienced it.  And, thus the youthful lyricism finally must give way to the profound truth of the harsh reality of life on the “middle border.”

Review of A Daughter of the Middle Border

A Daughter of the Middle Border, by Hamlin Garland

Review by John Carbonara

The edition reviewed was published by Borealis Books, an imprint of the Minnesota Historical Society, USA, 2007.  This work is the companion volume to  A Son of the Middle Border originally published in 1917.  A Daughter of the Middle Border was first published in 1921.   The work was exceedingly difficult to write, especially as Hamlin Garland was under pressure from his publishers to follow-up the success of A Son of the Middle Border.  His patience proved right, for A Daughter of the Middle Border was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for biography.  The first of several lessons a young writer will find in this work.

Although the title would suggest that the work was about the life and times of a woman who underwent the trials and tribulations of life on the middle border, the work is more about Garland’s adult life.  Several themes dominate and are developed and returned to throughout the work:  First, we need to note that Garland has become exhausted with fiction and is seeking a new theme for this writing.  Secondly there is his participation in efforts to make Chicago a literary/art center the equal of New York City.  He was one of the Vice-presidents of the Cliff Dwellers Club, a literary group of significance.  Thirdly, there is his intimate relation with his family and their relocation to the area of one of the old homesteads.  Of special concern to him is his mother, a women who did live the life of the middle border and whose infirmities give proof to the truth of those difficult times.  Finally, we come to the “daughter” who is the putative subject, indicated by the title.

These themes are developed and displaced and returned to again and again.  Zulime Taft, who became his wife and the “daughter” which Garland’s mother constantly pressed Garland to provide, proves to be a women of great industry and patience.  She was an artist and and a sculptress in her own right, although she seldom pursued any of this after her marriage.  She was a perceptive woman and where she saw a need for service, she was always ready to fulfill the task.  Most of the time this involved caring for Garland’s mother and father.  It should be noted that her lack of artistic effort was not a result of Garland’s interference.  Consequently, although Zulime is frequently part of the story, as a character she is not developed as one would hope or expect.

Garland’s decision to change from fiction to non-fiction found him again on the middle border.  He decided to chronicle the dying old west and the recent developments in the gold rush.  In addition, he was commissioned to write a history of U. S. Grant, a work which brought him much praise.  As he vacillated about what to do, after Grant, he returned to fiction, utilizing themes from the northwest. This sidetrack from his ultimate work in non-fiction has the merit of illustrating how a fiction writer works.  For any reader aspiring to write fiction, there is much to be learned by noting his methods.  In particular, there was his need to travel the actual ground and talk to the people of the area who were to be the inspiration for his fiction.  This work is rich in references to noted American Indians of the time, as well interviews with prospectors and other figures of historical significance.  In addition, young writers should attend to his copious notes and sketches which formed the basis of the stories and poems to be written when he returned to Chicago and New York.  Young writers can also profit from his continuous challenge regarding the worth of what he had written.  At one point there is an almost “Seinfeld” like answer:  His writing, he feared, was about nothing.  One supposes all writers must have such moments such as this, Pulitzer Prize winner or not.

As he grew older, he saw his world change in radical ways.  He came to acknowledge that there was no going back to the life of the middle border and all that that entailed.  He was a member of a community of writers and this group constituted his literary family.  It was difficult for him to see them die one by one.  As he said of these friends (their names are familiar yet today):  “All were hastening to be history.”  (p. 270)  Thus, there is a special sadness, towards the end of this work, that sadness which often accompanies old age.  The reviewer leaves the details to the reader.

In sum, it is a work which completes his first work.  It still contains strains of the poetical lyricism which highlighted the earlier work, but that youthful lyricism is muted.  Of course, this is a much more mature writing, with mature themes, and mature endings.  Still, if the “Son” was of interest to you, the “Daughter” will complete the story.