By Paul Theobald
No Better Land is the story of a large Wisconsin farm family just after the turn of the twentieth century. The author, Laban Smith, was born and raised in Wisconsin and knew the subject well. Smith graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1932 and after teaching for just a year, he returned to the university and acquired a doctoral degree. He then taught at Stout Institute in Menomonie and, briefly, at Alabama’s Polytechnic Institute. During World War II, Smith served as a naval reserve lieutenant at a training base in Texas. During that time he began working on what would become his only novel. It was published in 1946. The record of what became of Smith after the war is very sketchy. An internet search revealed his name as a part of a special collection at Indiana State University’s library, books published by emeritus faculty. It could be that Smith completed a professorial career at Indiana State.
Abel Elliot, the main character in No Better Land, left his parents and siblings on the family farm in upstate New York to strike out on his own in the new state of Wisconsin. Through hard work and dogged perseverance, he established a successful farm. He then married a woman twenty years younger than himself. Marie Elliot would eventually give birth to nine children. Reflecting on his life in his later years, Abel told a daughter, “And then, when I had a good farm and a woman and some of you young ones, I began wantin’ what my pa wanted, and his pa, too, I suppose. I began wantin’ ‘em all to stay right here under my eye. I begun tellin’ you young ones there’s no better land nowhere but here.”
Life didn’t unfold the way Abel initially envisioned it. For one, he suffered from a debilitating eye disease and eventually went blind. As if that were not enough, he suffered a serious stroke that thereafter hindered his mobility. There were sons and hired men to carry on the work of the farm, however, and Abel made contributions as he could. As he grew frail, his vision for his kids changed. He softened, and tried to help them with the life plans they wanted to pursue. This sometimes brought him into direct conflict with his wife, who opposed her daughters marrying local farmers and wanted them, instead, to pursue a college education. The husband-wife conflict makes up a large part of the story, and it highlights and age-old dilemma for many farm families. Who should be allowed to acquire the farm? Who should be encouraged to leave? When Abel finally succumbs to pneumonia, not much has been settled, although he did purchase a house in town where his wife could live after his death. The reader is left to speculate about the fate of the farm itself, and that of the many kids.
I found a brief review of No Better Land online in the Kirkus Review. It wasn’t very complimentary: “All in all, a pedestrian, amateurish handling of a mighty dull story.” I find this sort of review to be all-too-common of early twentieth century reviewers, mostly college professors without a rural background, who were unable to understand the rural experience, and all-too-quick to condemn it as uninteresting and unimportant. No Better Land is, nevertheless, a considerable achievement for a first, and ultimately, only novel.