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.