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

By Paul Theobald

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

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

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

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

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

A Review of Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home

By Maureen Theobald

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

Welcome to the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. Initiative

There is a saying:  “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”

Out of print for decades, and long-since discarded from all but research university libraries, wonderful works of rural based literature are disappearing every day.  Variously called “farm novels,” “regional novels,” or “local color fiction,” these works portray farm life, and just as importantly, American life, perceptively and in great depth.  Written before the age of digitization, these works are being lost before they can be saved.  To lose them is to lose a piece of our collective history; a piece of who we are, as a people and as a nation.

The Rural Lit RALLY Initiative, from its inception as a tangible effort in April 2011, has worked hard to renew interest in this important part of our nation’s memory.

We have established the Rural Lit Library, which currently holds over 100 volumes of these rare manuscripts.  We have established collaborative efforts with similar organizations, such as the Ruth Suckow Memorial Association, Bess Streeter Aldrich Foundation, Mari Sandoz Heritage Society, Norwegian American Historical Association, and the Danish American Archive and Library.  We have partnered with the Redmond Historical Society, Redmond Library, and Buena Vista University to hold exhibits dedicated to spreading the word about our homegrown rural authors and their works.

We have teamed up with those who are also reading and writing about this almost-lost literature, such as Nancy Gluck and James Rosenzweig, as well as those currently working and writing in related genres, such as Page Lambert and Linda M. Hasselstrom.

We have been able to get young adults reading and writing about rural literature through a grant funded program; we currently have three reading groups in place, with an average of 19 students reading one rural novel in each of the two academic semesters.  We are always looking for new reading groups – if you are a teacher (or know of one) who might be interested in supervising a student reading group, please contact us for more information.

We are honored to be partnering with Susan Taylor Chehak and Foreverland Press in our newest venture – re-publishing some of the out of print farm novels in e-format, making them easily accessible to all while also preserving them for future generations.

We are pleased with the results of our efforts to date, but realize that much more work needs to be done!

We ask YOUR help, as someone with an interest in preserving Americana in the written word.  Whether you are a reader, a writer, or an educator, please share with us any ideas that you may have for restoring these works to our collective memory and use.