The Long Tomorrow, by Evelyn Voss Wise
Review by John Henry
(New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1938)
The Long Tomorrow tells the story of Father Pierre, an immigrant Roman Catholic priest, who comes to a farming hamlet in an isolated part of rural northwestern Minnesota. The locale is so small that it is never given a name, just called “The Corners.” He arrives in the early summer of 1881 to build a church, a house, and ultimately a community. The story follows his work and life within the growing and eventually prospering village until his death in 1929.
Father Pierre has an unusual perspective on his work as a priest. Pierre believes that he must help all the people, not just the Catholics of his parish, develop “materially” as well as “spiritually.” And so the story focuses almost exclusively on his efforts on building the physical, economic, and social resources for the people of The Corners. We see him helping with the repair of dilapidated farmhouses. He acts as community veterinarian and doctor. He is the first schoolteacher. He gives career and life guidance to the young people of the hamlet. He is a social worker when “Kelly the bad” drinks and beats his wife. He is the sheriff, judge, and parole officer when chickens are stolen. He protects the naive young women of his community from the sexual predations of the railroad workers. He acts as matchmaker; he helps the farmers’ children get into college and find jobs in the city. His large front parlor becomes the town hall for important meetings, and he hosts the community celebrations in his yard.
But the chief contribution that Father Pierre makes to the progress of The Corners is, early on, to persuade the farmers to form a cooperative and then to build a cheese factory. The cheese business is a great success and Father Pierre becomes the manager of the factory and the cheese is sold throughout the Midwest and beyond. Over time the farmers of this remote county become the most prosperous in the state, all because of the cooperative and the cheese factory. And even the most skeptical and anti-Papist, Scandinavian Lutheran farmers come to consider Father Pierre a friend and trusted leader.
Of course, all this sounds like a pastoral fantasy of the most rosy type. Except, it is a story largely based on fact.1 One model for Father Pierre was Elie Theillon, an immigrant priest who came to Gentilly, Minnesota, from France, via Quebec, in 1888. Fr. Theillon served as pastor of St. Peter’s Parish until his death in 1935. Theillon also served as business manager of the Gentilly cheese factory, with a special permission from the Vatican to operate a commercial business while serving as a pastor. Gentilly’s was a prize-winning cheese and was sold from Chicago to Montana and points south. A significant difference, however, between the real village and the fictional one was that Gentilly, unlike “The Corner,” was much less diverse in its ethnic and religious make-up. Gentilly was mostly Catholic and mostly French-Canadian. No Irish, Dutch, or Scandinavian inhabitants. And no “anti-Papists” in Gentilly.
A second model for the priest in The Long Tomorrow came from Evelyn Voss Wise’s own childhood. In 1945 she wrote a short autobiographical piece for the book Minnesota Writes.2 She relates that she grew up in St. James, Minnesota, and lived across the street from a “fine” priest who she trailed after with the other neighborhood children. Father Pierre exhibits a kindly love for the children who often accompany him on his visits through The Corner. Also, morning after morning, from her front window, Voss Wise watched her neighbor priest as he worked in his garden. Her fictional priest also was a diligent a gardener.
Regardless of how much is “true” and how much “fiction” in The Long Tomorrow, the book raises a couple of serious issues about how we build community and how we live together.
First, and most obvious, there is the issue of the relationship of religion and society. In the fictional world of The Long Tomorrow, the vision of Fr. Pierre is to build up the material well-being of “The Corner” prior to attempting to work on the spiritual progress of his neighbors. He comes to the parish already planning the farmers’ co-operative and the cheese factory. Yet it is not just in fiction where religion and social change are wedded. Throughout U.S. history we see this same pattern: whether it is the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Catholics in Maryland, the Mormons in Utah, or the mission system in California. Further, one thinks of the important relationship between religion and social change in the Abolition, Temperance, and Civil Rights movements. Religion, for better or worse, is a powerful motivating force in human affairs. So The Long Tomorrow’s Fr. Pierre, a religious leader active in social change and community building, has many models in history.
A second issue that The Long Tomorrow raises concerns authority, leadership, and democracy within a community. Fr. Pierre comes to The Corners with a preconceived plan for development and progress. And while he does not have the power to implement his plans without the consensus of the farmers, he does guide and, in a sense, manipulate the decision making process within the community. In effect, he functions as a benevolent over-lord. The Corners is not a democracy; rather it is ruled, clandestinely, as a hierarchy. Fr. Pierre functions as a philosopher king, a kindly and self-sacrificing king, but a king nonetheless. Some of the more successful farmers have influence. But Fr. Pierre is the hidden driver of all important communal decisions, and his planning and influence sometimes intrude into the personal lives of the people of The Corner. By the end of the story, even the originally anti-Catholic farmer Oscar Carlson admits–much to the disgust of his still anti-Papist wife–that Fr. Pierre has been the real “father” to the whole community.
Other themes that The Long Tomorrow raises include the social condition of women in rural society, and the relations between the European-American settlers and the few Native-Americans left in the nearby woodlands. These are only minor topics in the book, but they are of some import during the course of the story.
The Long Tomorrow presents an image of farm life mostly positive, mostly happy. The bountiful land, the hard work and dedication of the farm families, the wise and forward-looking guidance of Fr. Pierre all combine to produce a way of life that is materially successful and socially harmonious. There are no great droughts, no plagues of insects, no banks fail. No one is seriously injured in a farm accident or faces debilitating sickness. Perhaps it is an overly idyllic vision of rural life, yet perhaps in the case of Gentilly, Minnesota, the real was something like the ideal of “The Corner.” At least Evelyn Voss Wise thought it so.
About the author.
Evelyn Voss Wise was born in 1899 in St. James, Minnesota. She attended the University of Minnesota but took her degree from the University of Missouri in 1921. After her marriage to Charles Edward Wise she moved to the East, living in New York, Washington, D.C., and eventually Baltimore. She began writing in 1932, first with articles for the newspaper, then short stories, and finally novels. Besides The Long Tomorrow, she published As the Pines Grow (1939), Wheels in the Timber (1941), Mary Darlin’ (1943), Light of Stars (1946), Of Wind and Song (1956). Voss Wise died in 1956.
1 Virgil Benoit, “Gentilly: A French-Canadian Community in the Minnesota Red River Valley,” Minnesota History, Winter 1975, pp. 279-289. Available on the web at http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/44/v44i08p278-289.pdf
2 Minnesota Writes: A Collection of Autobiographical Stories by Minnesota Prose Writers, ed. Carmen Nelson Richards and Genevieve Rose Breen, The Lund Press, Minneapolis: 1945, pp. 60-61.