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.