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.