Review of Unto a Good Land

Unto a Good Land, by Vilhelm Mobert

Review by Mark Munger

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1954)

This second novel in the “Emigrant” series written by Swedish author, Carl Artur Vilhelm Moberg continues the story of a small band of Swedes who leave their native land for the United States in the early 1850s. Whereas the first novel in the series, The Emigrants, was entirely set either in rural Sweden or aboard the brig, the Charlotta that journeyed from Europe to North America with a cargo of pig iron and humanity aboard, Unto a Good Land is firmly set on the shores of the brash and newly constituted republic of the United States of America.

Moberg does a yeoman’s job of depicting the overland journey of Karl Oskar Nilsson, his wife Kristina, their children, and the divergent band of immigrants that accompany them from Manhattan to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, an isolated lumbering town located on the wild and scenic St. Croix River. The timeframe, as I’ve said, is the 1850-1851. Wisconsin, on the eastern banks of the St. Croix, has attained statehood (1848). Minnesota, which occupies the eastern banks of the river, is part of the Minnesota Territory, created in 1849 and destined for statehood in 1858.

The author makes the plodding, tedious, harrowing journey of the émigrés aboard river packet, canal barge, railroad car, paddle wheeled riverboat, and finally, on foot from Stillwater to Taylors Falls come to life, casting the iron-willed former prostitute, Ulrika of Vastergöhl as the foil to Kristina Nilsson’s motherly virtue for the majority of the trek. The cast of characters also includes Karl Oskar’s impetuous and truth-challenged younger brother, Robert, whose dreams of California gold fields make his dedication to aiding his older brother’s homesteading ambitions problematic. There’s trouble in the wind whenever Robert takes center stage in this familial drama but the tension between Karl and Robert isn’t overt: Moberg deftly creates his characters of whole cloth, giving them real-life motivations and actions, rather than instilling his creations with stereotypical feelings and emotions. This having been said, the tension between the brothers is palpable and real despite the cleverness of Moberg’s prose: you anticipate a break and indeed, it occurs.

The details that one would expect in a fine settlers’ accounting of felling trees, grubbing soil, and building cabins are well described and historically accurate. A childbirthing scene, where Kristina demands that Karl Oscar deliver the prostitute Ulrika to the Nilsson cabin to assist with the birth of their son, is poignantly tense and tender, with the reconciliation of the two women entirely believable and well wrought.

As he did in The Emigrants, Moberg spends much time chronically the faith of the immigrants, taking the prophet-like Danjel Andreasson from the heights of evangelical zeal to the depths of despair. Danjel fled Sweden under the threat of excommunication from the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the national church of Sweden, for ministering to his flock without proper education or ordination. Moberg casts the itinerant pastor as a sort of modern-day John the Baptist or Martin Luther; a man so convinced of his direct connection to God that he forswears the rigor and organization of the state church to the jeopardy of his soul. But though the preacher discovers that he is free, once in America, to speak his mind and search for his vision of heaven, Moberg portrays Danjel as dejected, fallen, and unsure: it is a marvelous change in character that is entirely believable given the pastor lost his wife on the Charlotta, her body having been buried in the cold waters of the North Atlantic after being wracked with disease.

Unlike the first novel, which seemed to be inordinately preoccupied with, well, procreation, Unto a Good Land is far less titillating in its carnality and far more educational and interesting as a piece of historical fiction. Not that sex is necessarily a bad thing in a historical novel but here, Moberg puts the desires and physical intertwining of his characters in the background and lets their work ethic, spirituality, and interpersonal connections shine through.

A well-written and insightful story of Scandinavian immigrants coming to my “neck of the woods.”

4 and ½ stars out of 5.

Review of The Passion Never Dies

This Passion Never Dies, by Sophus Keith Winther

Review by John Henry

(New York: Macmillan Co., 1938)

The final act in the Grimson family trilogy, This Passion Never Dies, begins in the late spring of 1920 and ends in the late summer of 1923. Much like the previous novel in the series, there are two main plot threads of the story. One thread follows the aged and worn Peter and Meta Grimson as they struggle to hold on to the farm in Weeping Willow, Nebraska, which they now own. The second thread follows their third son, Hans, as he finishes college in Lincoln, searches for romantic love, and faces the trials of early adulthood.

World War One had brought boom times to Nebraska farmers, and the Grimsons, caught up in the prosperity, had bought their farm at high-times prices. Falling crop prices after the war and throughout the time of the novel makes every successive year a struggle for Peter and Meta to hold out against bankruptcy. Their two oldest sons, Alfred and David, have both married and left the farm. Hans is away at university much of the time. Karl leaves for California and truck farming; Frank for Omaha and business. Only the youngest son, Bryan, is left for farm work, and he wants to finish high school in town and work less on the farm. Without the fulltime help of his boys, Peter’s physical and economic strength wither away, year by year. By 1923, the farm economy is in depression. The result for Peter and Meta is predestined. Along the way: deeply unhappy marriages, the death of two wives, spousal abandonment, orphaning of grandchildren, alcoholism, stealthy big-city land speculators, heartless small town bankers, abortion, violent hailstorms, bankruptcy auctions, violent death, falling, falling farm prices, and sundry other calamities.

Hans, who graduates from the University of Nebraska as the story opens, is torn between his deep love for his mother and loyalty to his aging father, and the opportunity to return to the University and continue his studies in graduate school. Further, Hans experiences both the confusion of sex without love which ends in tragedy, and he also experiences the longing for a love which seems always beyond his reach.

For this book, Winther is able to nicely intertwine the two story-lines: the failing farm and confused young man. Hans’s conflicted romances drive him back to the farm where he loyally struggles to the end with his parents, but he always hopes to return to the University and his intellectual destiny. So the two stories work together and make a whole.

There is some very fine writing in this book. One instance concerns Hans’s search for an abortion “hospital”, located in the neighborhood of the Omaha meat-packing district, a frightening vision of a human-made hell, complete with tormented bodies and degraded souls:

“On each side were the tall, dark walls of the packing houses. The air was dead, motionless and heavy with the smell of decayed meat. The sidewalks were crowded with workers—there seemed to be hundreds of them. To Hans they were masses of men with no individual character to distinguish one from the other. They all wore aprons and they were all bespattered with blood. Their hands were bloody, there were blood stains on their faces, their aprons were dotted with dark, red clots. Flies were everywhere. There were millions of them crawling on the sidewalks, clinging to the windows and doorways, but most conspicuous on the men’s clothing. Every movement that a man made to light a cigarette or to make a gesture raised a cloud of flies. The men sat listlessly on the curbing or leaned against the walls of the buildings. They were tired, dull masses of human beings, apparently insensible to the hopeless filth of the street, and the unbearable stench. Hans saw only one man clearly. He was a Negro who sat flat on the sidewalk, his back against the wall and his legs stretched out before him. His eyes were closed, and the flies were crawling over his mouth which was open, his lower jaw hanging down loose, like an unlatched granary door.

On the other hand, there is some silly writing in this book, which usually occurs when Winther is describing Hans’ romantic episodes. An example:

“What are you talking about?” she answered.
“You. Your body. I want to look at it forever. Janice, I did not believe I could ever love anyone as I love you this moment. I love your feet, your ankles, that little dimple right there on your knee, this soft curve of your thigh which clings to the palm of my hand as though both hand and thigh had an individual, conscious love of their own apart from our consciousness.”

. . . Then she lifted her hands to his face and held it while she looked into his eyes. “Even our thoughts are united.” she said almost in a whisper. “You could not desire anything of me that I would not wish you to have before you could put your hope into words. These long weeks have taught me what life and death mean. I know what life is and I have experienced all that death is except its one boon, forgetfulness.”

To me this passage seems over-wrought. I can’t see that worldly and sexually experienced twenty-eight year olds would, at the moment of long awaited passion, speak to each other like this. I am, I admit, old, slightly cynical, and long-married. So perhaps I am forgetful of the follies of young love.

But the good writing and the workman-like writing strongly overbalance the weight of the few clunker sections in This Passion Never Dies. The pacing of the plot is usually exciting. The fates of the characters, especially the long suffering immigrants Peter and Meta Grimson, grasp the imagination. We know them. We come to love them as their sons loved and respected them. The Danish immigrants who left everything behind and came to this country, who worked honestly and unceasingly, who stoically faced tragedy after tragedy, and who never, never, lost hope in the promise of America.

Review of The Years of Peace

The Years of Peace, by LeRoy MacLeod

Review by John Henry

(New York: Century, 1932)

(Warning: Tyler Peck is an advocate of the South during the Civil War. More significantly he on occasion uses highly offensive racial epitaphs. His remarks are mildly censored by other characters in the book. And it is clear that the author himself does not endorse Tyler’s racism.)

The Years of Peace tells the story of two families who farm in the Wabash River region of western Indiana. The novel begins in the final weeks of the Civil War, just before Lincoln is assassinated, and ends ten years later on the last day of 1875.

The first family, Lafayette and Mary Ferguson, had come to the Wabash valley in the 1830s. They were not pioneer settlers but arrived early enough to become the most prosperous farmers in the Sycamore Creek neighborhood. Lafayette had once been a senator in the Indiana legislature and at the start of the novel is the Justice of the Peace. He is known as “the squire,” not only because he is one of the oldest farmers of the area, but more significantly because he has acquired great land holdings, buying up the land of his less successful neighbors.

The Fergusons have plenty of good land, a prospering farm, and sharecroppers and renters on their excess land. But what they don’t have are the human laborers to carry on with the farm work. Lafayette and Mary have only two children. Alan, their son, is off fighting in the Civil War, and after the war he will drift through the West, soldiering for hire or seeking riches in the goldfields, and drinking. Lucy, their daughter, is a strong and handsome woman. She works hard on the land and in the house. But she never marries.
This brings us to the second family. Tyler Peck is the young nephew of Lafayette. He is only nineteen in 1865. He was been prevented from fighting in the war so he can care for his widowed mother and work their farm while his two older brothers are off fighting. The Pecks are a well to do and “blue blood” Kentucky clan. Tyler is hot-tempered, impulsive, given to wanderlust, and sympathetic to the South, even as his brothers fight for the North.
Evaline Weller is from a poor, lower class family. Her father is known to drink heavily. But she is pretty and twenty and Tyler is attracted to her despite his mother’s strong disapproval. Tyler, after another argument with his mother and after an evening of drinking, proposes to Evaline. And though she doesn’t love him, Evaline wants to marry up and into wealth. She accepts Tyler’s proposal.

All this is the back story of the novel. As the novel opens, Tyler and Evaline have moved north from Kentucky and are working land for “Uncle Laf” and “Aunt Mary.” The story follows the two families as they build their farming empire during the ten years after the Civil War. But most importantly the novel is centered on the marriage and family life of Tyler and Evaline, who, despite their farming successes and the fecundity of their marital bed, have a deeply unhappy marriage. Tyler longs to escape to the west, or to war, or to adventure in South America. But he stays and instead finds his excitement in a long term and clandestine sexual liaison with a neighbor’s wife. Evaline’s heart grows harder, year by year, towards her husband, but she reveals her sorrows only in her prayers and her conscience, not to her husband, not to her diary.

The Years of Peace is a subtle and complex story of a decidedly “unpeaceful” marriage. The characters are all farmers and their day-to-day lives are ruled by the cycles of nature and the rhythms of farming life. Yet their psychological, intellectual, and spiritual lives are as developed as the inner lives of the characters in a Russian novel. They read Emerson and Goethe. They have heard of Marx and follow the revolutions and wars around the world through newspapers. They have nuanced political views. They experience anguish, guilt, and loneliness, and feelings of spiritual emptiness. But they also work the land. They hunt and fish; they put up preserves and patch their children’s clothing. They plow and plant, harvest and slaughter. They struggle against cold, drought, and thunderstorm. They feel the beauty of the sky at sunrise and sunset. They face the sudden pain of childbirth and the slow struggle of death.

On the surface, The Years of Peace is about farm families in a remote and rural countryside. At its core, it subtly portrays the complexity and depth of human life: the economic and political, the social and religious, the psychological and spiritual, the joy experienced in the beauty of nature, the satisfaction in hard work well done, and the sadness of two people who are bound to a common life, but not by love.

I’ll end with a passage from the book. The scene is the childbirth of the Pecks’ second child. Those present are Aunt Mary, the doctor, Tyler, and his laboring wife Evaline:

The room lightens towards noon. Yet the new life will enter by a shadowy door like the one by which it will one day depart. For although this woman survive, she must stand a while in the doorway of death, that the child may enter.

 Two hours ago she walked about. Now she is like one mortally ill or wounded. She lies under a sheet, for all the world like one of the men brought in from a battle, from one of those conflicts still raising a faint din away south, out of hearing. Should they die in their beds and she in hers, the sheets would have to be pulled up only a little to cover the faces.
Tyler sat with one hip on the edge of the bed, gripping Evaline’s hand; on the opposite sat Aunt Mary, holding the other hand. At the spasms of labor they pulled against her pull.

. . . . The face on the pillow was greasy with sweat and unutterably wan. The gray eyes stood out like two spirits separate from the face. Aunt Mary took time to wipe the full forehead, the cheeks and mouth.

. . . . Tyler wiped his sweaty hand and Evvie’s so he could hold better. The spread legs stiffened again. She grasped frantically for the hands to pull on, bit her lips till they trembled, let out her held breath in pitiful grunts.

The doctor ducked his head under the sheet. ‘Fine! . . . That’s it! That’s it!’ he encouraged, his voice muffled.

Tyler and Aunt Mary had to stand, Evvie pulled so.

Then in spite of her utmost resolve, and in spite of her prayer, she did cry out. A long-pent scream escaped from between her lips and teeth. She shuddered the whole length of her body.

Under the sheet Doctor Baker worked fast–he threw the sheet angrily out of his way. . . . And now a thin gulping cry pierces the warm blood smell, as if the new life called back an answer to that scream from the pillow. 

Review of The Old Ashbury Place

The Old Ashburn Place, by Margaret Flint

Review by Maureen Theobald

(New York: Dodd Mead, 1936)

A small rural community in Maine is the backdrop for this moving novel. In it, Margaret Flint very capably chronicles the lives of the Ashburn family in the late 1800s. In a beautiful setting on the side of Pigeon Mountain, the hard working farm Ashburn family struggles with the common problems of agricultural life, particularly those associated with maintaining a small dairy operation. As is a common theme in many Midwest rural novels, the trials and tribulations of dealing with nature’s fickle moods is an issue the family deals with day in and day out. Although the severe extremes of hard Midwestern weather don’t exist in the more moderate climate of central Maine, farm families everywhere must deal with weather-related exigencies.
Pa and Ma work hard and raise to raise five children, three boys and two girls. The two older boys work the farm with their father, while the family hopes the youngest boy will concentrate on his education; and indeed, he eventually becomes the only member of the Ashburn clan to attend and graduate from the state university. The two girls grow into women with lives and families of their own, while the drama with Pa and his two eldest sons becomes the main focus of the story.

When Ma dies in middle age, Pa settles into a state of moderate melancholy for the remainder of his life, while tolerating the annoying, but helpful neighbor, Alviry. She insists on moving in to help the family with housework, child care, cooking, etc., however her true motives are in claiming Pa for her own. She accepts the roles she takes on with enthusiasm until she realizes Pa has no interest in her other than that of a hired woman. She stays on with the family, but her bitterness and resentment slowly grow.

Morris, as the eldest son, decides he should do what is expected of him and marries Elsie, a neighbor girl who wants nothing more than to be a wife and mother, and is content to settle into the Ashburn household, and become the “woman of the house.” With this event, Alviry accepts the fact that she has been “replaced”, and leaves in despair, finally admitting to herself that there is no hope for her in terms of a relationship with Pa. Elsie makes a good attempt at being the wife and mother that Morris deserves, but soon grows more and more dissatisfied, as her neglectful husband realizes he has no sincere feelings of love for the mother of his two children.
Charlie, the second son, works alongside his Pa and Morris. Women don’t seem to be a priority in his life, and he continues to be the good brother, son, and uncle to Morris’s two children. When Pa dies, the family is shaken, but they know they have no choice but to carry on, and the household dwindles to Morris, Charlie, Elsie, and the children. The Saturday night dances held in town are one of the few escapes most of the rural families can take advantage of, and it is at these dances that young men and women can sometimes find their only chance for romance. When Charlie is nagged into going into town with Morris and Elsie, he is pleasantly surprised to find that Marian Parks had grown into a lovely young woman, and although the little neighbor girl from over the hill was from a much wealthier family, he feels completely comfortable approaching her. He finds her “coquettish” behavior encouraging, and they enter what becomes over the years, a frustrating and painful relationship for Charlie. She comes in and out of his life when she visits “back home” from the State University, teasing him with her flirtatious personality, but departing each time with an air of aloofness and barely a “good-bye” for the frustrated and confused Charlie. To add insult to injury, Morris, too, becomes smitten with Marian, as she seems to enjoy seducing him on the dance floor. Not only does Elsie notice the attention that Marian gives to both brothers, she becomes spitefully jealous and hateful of all three. The drama that unfolds under the roof of the Ashburn household eventually leads to a sordid affair between Elsie and Charlie, and the eventual break-up of the once happy home.

The common theme of unrequited love that runs through the novel sets a tone of sadness that many farm novels seem to share. For instance, the process of settling into marriages that aren’t always based on sincere love, but rather a basic need for survival, is described quite often. The Old Ashburn Place is certainly an example of this. The need to raise large families to simply provide a “labor force” seems to lead to lives of “acceptance,” although not always contentedness.

The book did provide for me some of the enjoyment I’ve come to look for in most of these older novels. My love of nature is often the reason I find the most memorable part of these books to be the descriptions of the simple pristine countryside, the clean blue lakes, the icy cold streams that are safe enough to drink from, and wild berries and fruit free for the picking. As “progress” has eliminated many of these simple joys, and rolling hills have been replaced by concrete, it’s nice to know that we can let our imagination be entertained by saving and savoring these wonderful old books.

Review of The Long Tomorrow

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.

Notes
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.

Review of The Long Lane

The Long Lane, by Phil Stong

Review by Maureen Theobald

(New York: Farrar and Rinehart, Inc., 1939)

The Long Lane by Phil Stong is a rich and fascinating novel that took me by surprise. Dramatic events that led to a deeply layered story of family, betrayal, loyalty, acceptance, and survival made for a wonderfully enjoyable read. As a family falls apart, a new one is born, and as family members become disillusioned and overwhelmed, they learn that the cliché, “time heals all wounds,” is accurate.

Young Kenneth Brubaker’s life is shaken to its core when his mother leaves him and his father to live with his uncle Merritt, her true love. He and his Dad must learn how to deal with her abandonment, while trying to remain stoic and save face. The shock and embarrassment proves to be too difficult for Ken’s father, Albert, and he decides to leave the “fish bowl” that is their small town in Iowa. He moves to Des Moines, where he has started a small business with a friend. Here, he slowly heals, while building his business, although struggling with the difficult decision to leave Kenneth behind on the farm with the hired hand and his wife.

The theme of maternal abandonment is painful to read about, let alone having to actually live it. Ken deals with his pain with a maturity far beyond his twelve years. He becomes fascinated with his father’s cosmetic company , is taken under the wing of two of the chemists, and before long finds a new passion. Many of the people who come into their life in the city are extremely colorful characters, who enrich not only their lives, but also the lives of the small farm community members when Albert and Ken eventually persuade them to visit back home.

Eventually, the city and country are brought together in a heartwarming ending, and prejudices between the two disappear, as love proves to be stronger than any differences they may share. As difficult a situation as it is, Ken’s mother and father come to a place that is best for his welfare, and the love of new friends and family help everyone heal. Faith, hope and love . . . the ingredients for a great “feel good” novel.

Review of The Emigrants

The Emigrants, by Vilhelm Moberg

Review by Mark Munger

(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951) 

 There is a lot of sex in this book. I mean it. For a novel published during the more sedate and less titillating 1950s, The Emigrants references the act of lovemaking, coitus, or, if you prefer, samlag (Swedish) innumerable times throughout the novel’s 366 pages. Now, to be clear, Moberg doesn’t toss graphic descriptions of carnal knowledge onto the printed page. Rather, as a true gentleman, the author of this initial installment in an emigration/immigration trilogy depicting the lives of a schooner full of Swedes fleeing poverty, religious persecution, and landless futures carefully alludes to sex throughout the story, never really painting a word picture of the mechanics of such physical connections. Some of the references to sexuality are humorous. A graphic description of the permanently aroused state of a dead Lutheran pastor’s manhood, which befuddles his survivors as they prepare his body for the man’s funeral, comes to mind. Another tidbits of carnality include glimpses of the sexual prowess of one the great prostitutes depicted in literature, Ulrika of Västergöhl. None of the passages depicting Man’s basest desires are offensive. But they are indeed prevalent, sprinkled by the author throughout the narrative like naughty exclamation points.

But this isn’t a story about sexual repression in mid-19th century or even mid-20th century Sweden. It is, in the end, the story of Karl Oscar Nilsson, his wife Kristina Johnsdotter, and their young children who, as the inherited family farm of Korpamoen sinks deeper and deeper into debt, leave their Swedish homeland for America. The writing in the first one-third of the novel, the section that depicts all the adversity and travails that afflict the young couple (and the other characters, including Ulrika) is crisp, descriptive, and spot-on. Moberg’s ability to weave history, geography, and character together to create believable fiction is well served in the early portion of this tale. The author also adroitly captures the fear, trepidation, and hope that must have been experienced by uneducated emigrants about to embark on a three-month voyage across a vast boiling pot of water, bound for a land that they had only the vaguest of notions about. The tension between tradition, such as Karl Oscar revealing his plan to sell the family farm to strangers, uprooting his young family, and leaving his ailing mother and father behind; Karl Oscar’s younger brother Robert deserting his laboring job, employment little better than slavery, without notice to join Karl and Kristina on their voyage; Kristina’s uncle, Daniel Andreasson, a religious zealot in danger of a prison sentence for preaching the Gospel without the blessings of the state church; is palpable and real during the first section of the novel. Based upon the beginning of The Emigrants, I had high hopes that Moberg’s writing would continue to be clever, commanding, and intriguing throughout the remainder of the novel.

The remainder of the book depicts the voyage of the brig Charlotta, a sailing vessel 124 feet long, packed with 15 crewmembers, and carrying a contingent of 78 emigrant passengers from Sweden, including Karl Oscar and Kristina. It isn’t that craft deserted Moberg during the last two-thirds of the story: It is that, in an effort to render an authentic depiction of the harrowing passage experienced by many immigrants to America during the 19th century, the author spares no detail regarding the illnesses, agony, boredom, frustration, and fear experienced below the decks of the Charlotta. What the reader is left with is nearly two hundred pages of well-written narration and dialogue limited in geographic scope to the forty-pace by eight-pace deck of the brig. Moberg’s descriptive powers are adept. His word choice is concise. He instills emotive fire in his writing. And yet, in the end, unlike the middle passage scene from Roots, the best depiction of a similar oceanic transit in all of literature, Moberg’s attempt to make the reader feel and care about the emigrants and their suffering falters. Why? Scene after scene of billowed sails, gray seas and skies, storms, sickness, and death may well mimic the reality of what the emigrants experienced. But such repetitive prose, even when well written, becomes, and became in this case, redundant.

In a nutshell, Moberg didn’t provide enough variety in the last two-thirds of this novel to keep up the heady pace, the internal steam of narrative and dialogue that made the first portion of this book so compelling.
Despite the criticisms leveled above, The Emigrants has value for anyone interested in understanding the motivations and desires of Scandinavians who immigrated to North America during the last half of the 19th century. While the sections portraying the passage of the brig Charlotta across the Atlantic may be a tad overdone, the overall impact of the characters and their struggles remains powerful enough to label Moberg’s initial offering in the trilogy a “good read”.

Review of Take All to Nebraska

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:

http://depts.washington.edu/labhist/cpproject/images/hearings/canwell/4%20Sophus%20Winther.PDF

A 1976 wonderful interview with Winther about his life is available here:

http://content.lib.washington.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/ohc&CISOPTR=132&REC=3

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.

Review of Sod and Stubble

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.

Review of River of Earth

River of Earth, by James Still

Review by John Carbonara

River of Earth, A Novel, authored by James Still, was copyrighted in 1940, but the edition reviewed was copyrighted in 1978 by the University Press of Kentucky. As a son of a first generation immigrant family, the reviewer believed that he had some knowledge of lean times and what it meant to go without. He was seriously mistaken.

It might seem more appropriate to review the excellence of the prose, the wonderful use of color, the development of the characters from the first to the last page, but the reviewer does not believe that that was what Mr. Still wanted us to understand. And, other reviewers have dealt with these aspects better than this reviewer could ( for example, see Time review). One comment about the writing seems appropriate: The work is filled with the jargon of the times and these lexical items are not  always easy to interpret.

Of more import is the life told. During one of the frequent periods in which the father was laid-off from his work in the mines, husband and wife had one of their recurring discussions. It was neither a fight nor an argument, it was a conflict of ideologies. The husband feels obliged to feed his kin who have come to him out of their own desperation . The wife cannot see beyond her own children. He thinks that perhaps he can get some food on credit from the company story. She responds:

“Her voice was like ice.”… “They won’t let you have it on credit. You’ve tried before. We’ve got to live small. We’ve got to start over again, hand to mouth, the way we began.” (p. 8):

And so the novel defines itself in the first few pages. This is not a story of a family, so much as it is a narrative of the times. The backdrop is the strip mines in Eastern Kentucky.   When the mines were running, life was different. It was not good , it was simply different. When the mines were running there was plenty of money and plenty of food., but, inevitably, a six day week became four and then two or three half days and then the lay-off.

The first part, when the mines were going full tilt, may seem the up-side of life for the miners and their families, but it wasn’t. To pay for the food and other “luxuries” upon which they spent their money, they had to live in a “coal town.” They had to live with slag heaps, dirty, soot-ed air, the lack of a tree or a flower or patch of meadow. They did not see a bird or hear its song, Dad and the boys did not wander afield for squirrel or possum or fish the local un-fishable streams. They had to endure the chaos of the “boom” times, the fear of mine accidents and the uncertainty of what the boss-man would have to say tomorrow. It was a dirty, worrisome, unhealthy and ugly life.

When the mines shut down, as they frequently did, what was one to do? They knew the mines would start again and then the “money times” would return, but in the interim they still had to find a way to survive. Thus, we have the other half of the life of a mine worker’s family. The only option was to rent a small piece of land with a shack on it. There the family could scratch out crops for family use. There one could endure poverty in the midst of the beauty of the countryside. One could breathe fresh, clean air. One could have some fresh fruits and vegetables. One could see the sun come up (not often possible in the strip mines). Birds and squirrels sang and chattered. It was an idyllic life save for the fact that there was never enough food to feed the family and their omnipresent kin. Mother became too emaciated to produce milk for the newest baby.

Thus, this is a narrative of the two prime dimensions of a miner’s life:   Life was dominated by hunger, impermanence, uncertainty and anxiety. They shuttled back and forth from impoverished rural holding to coal dust company house, and, neither life was worth living. The husband had no choice but to go when the mine’s called, the wife had no choice but to argue that life is better for her children in the country. The conflict was ideological and irreconcilable. Prudential values collided with aesthetic alternatives and prudence always won.

There is no story here. Don’t look for any romance, they simply did not have time for it. This was life one step above “life in extremis.” The novel begins in mid-stream and ends in mid stream, but, for all that, it is an important piece of literature. The novel portrays a life and people so different from most of our experiences that we are often unable to connect in an emotional or intellectual way. The reviewer could not put the book down for fear that the he could not again enter into the world of the Baldridge family. To become an inside observer, if not a ghost-like participant in a novel, is what reading novels is about. To remain outside the story is an indication that the work is not well written, or, that it has devolved into just a piece of history. In some way one has to fear the “boss man’s words,” has to feel the anguish of searching through the salt of the “meat box” only to find a small string of some unidentifiable animal remain and nothing else. (The husband notes that it is too small for them to eat and advises his wife to make a bit of broth with it and give it to the baby.) This is a work in which one cannot simply jump in and out of at will. Hunger, uncertainty and the fight against despair must become a part of the reader.

James Still has done his work well. It is difficult to say how important this novel is in the history of American literature, but it is easy to say that it is a slice of American life of which no thoughtful reader of American literature would want to be ignorant.