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.

Review of One of Ours

One of Ours, by Willa Cather

Review by Mark Munger

(New York: Alfred Knopf, 1922)

Most of us at one point or another in our reading careers have read Death Comes for the Archbishop, O Pioneers!, and My Antonia by acclaimed American Plains and Western novelist, Willa Cather. But few of us, I am fairly certain, outside of serious students of Cather’s work, have heard of, much less read, One of Ours, a tale that straddles two genres, that of Plains hardscrabble fiction and war novel. At first, attempting to meld those two distinct brands of invented lives might seem a bit awkward, forced, or even foolhardy. But in the end, in the hands of a master storyteller like Willa Cather, One of Ours satisfies both as to craft and plot.

Set in pre-Great War Nebraska on the Wheeler place, a farm owned by Nat and Evangeline Wheeler, a large spread where the parents have raised their three boys: Bayliss, Claude, and Ralph, One of Ours isn’t the stereotypical novel of hard luck and tragedy that we’ve come to expect from farm stories of its time. Though Nat Wheeler is a big, powerful man who owns much property, he is content to allow others to work his land, renting pasture and cropland to local farmers who are down on their luck. Cather’s construction of the fictional patriarch of the Wheeler clan is nuanced. One expects, at every turn of a phrase, to find some evil lurking in Nat, a man who is far more wealthy and prosperous than his favored mode of transportation, a rickety old horse drawn cart, lets on. But such revelations never occur. In addition, it’s not that the Wheeler patriarch spurns technology: he owns motor cars and uses the services of mechanized harvesters and, in one brief reference, even flies between Nebraska and Colorado to visit his youngest son Ralph, who has been installed as the head of the Wheeler ranching operations in the foothills of the Rockies. But despite his reluctant embrace of technology, in many ways Nat Wheeler is a throw back to another age, another time, when immigrant men busted sod, lived in earthen dugouts, fought nature, and tried to make a living on 160 acres of homestead land.

Evangeline, the matriarch of the clan, comes off as loving, if a bit stereotypical. She is the devoted mother, the glue that keeps the family unit humming despite Nat’s sometimes indifferent and distant approach to child rearing. Mahailey, the Wheeler housekeeper, a Southern refugee from the Civil War living in the Wheeler home, is the tale’s comic relief. By dialect and attribute, she reminds me of Prissy, the servant in Gone with the Wind even though, somewhere in the text, we finally come to learn that Mahailey isn’t black but a poor white woman.

But by far the most interesting female character in the book is the asexual Enid, the woman that Claude ends up “settling” for when the true love of his life, Gladys, the local school marm, appears destined to marry Bayliss Wheeler, the frugal, passionless eldest Wheeler boy. Whereas conventional storytelling might turn Enid’s coyness and reluctance towards physicality into eventual fondness and love for Claude, Cather avoids such scripted prose. Cather’s Enid stays true to her nature, which in large part, is driven by religious faith. Over time, Enid’s recalcitrance towards intimacy bedevils Claude to the point where he is on the cusp of enlisting in the Army to fight in the Great War. But before Claude can make such a bold and clear statement against his wife, Enid abandons the marriage to undertake a missionary journey.

Cather then weaves, upon the twin departures of her main protagonists in the prairie tale—Claude to France and Enid to China—a fine depiction of trench warfare. The author’s descriptive powers capture the brutality, filth, danger, and respite of the latter months of the Great War, a conflict that introduced the world to poison gas, tanks, dogfights, submarines, and a host of other dastardly inventions bent on the destruction of fighting men. In many ways, the storytelling in the last third of the book, the portion devoted to Claude’s experiences in France, is reminiscent of Hemingway’s best: terse, manly, bold, and descriptive in a minimalist way. There are no excess adjectives or adverbs lurking in Cather’s prose, no embellishments or flourishes to wow the critics: Just plain, simple god-awfully good writing.

This is a strong willed, well-told tale that melds the two genres of its theme into a cohesive story of family, love, angst, honor, and duty. My only critique of the book is that a story of this standing and caliber deserves far better formatting and editing than is provided in the current edition from Forgotten Books. The edition is replete with typos and errors in typesetting that diminish one’s ability to enjoy one of Cather’s least known, and best-written novels. Btu that having been said, it is a true joy as a writer and a reader, to explore, even in its diminished form, writing that delivers art and wonder in equal measure:

Claude lay still, his arms under his head, looking up at the hard, polished blue sky, watching the flocks of crows go over from fields where theyfed on shattered grain, to their nests in the trees along Lovely Creek. He was thinking about what Dan had said while they were hitching up. There was a great deal of truth in it, certainly. Yet, as for him, he often felt that he would rather go out into the world and earn his bread among strangers than sweat under this half-responsibility for acres and crops that were not his own. He knew that his father was sometimes called a “land-hog” by the country people, and he himself had begun to feel that it as not right they should have so much land—farm, or to rent, or to leave idle as they chose. It was strange that in all the centuries the world had been going, the question of property had not been better adjusted. The people who had it were slaves to it, and the people who didn’t have it were slaves to them.

Though I am not a huge eBook fan, preferring to consider my prose in the old fashioned way, I have read both the Kindle version and the trade paperback version of One of Ours. Given the formatting issues addressed above, I’d recommend the eBook version of the novel as the better choice.
4 and ½ stars out of 5. This book holds up well across time.

Review of O River, Remember!

O River, Remember!, by Martha Ostend

Review by Maureen Theobald

(New York: Dodd Mead, 1943)

Once again, Martha Ostenso has managed to take me into another era, another time and place that makes me crave the simple, but extremely rich life she writes of with such precision. In this classically told story of “power and greed” verses “purpose and good,” Ostenso introduces us to a family dealing with those conflicting agendas under their own roof. Magdali marries Ivar Vingue, and agrees to join him in Northwest Minnesota, in the Red River Valley. Having come from a fairly prosperous farm family in Wisconsin, Magdali is driven and hard-working to a fault. Her quest for power and money is at odds with Ivar’s genuine love of the land and his altruistic nature. They raise a family of five children, each struggling through their lives having to please Magdali, and being controlled by her overbearing personality. Ivar’s tolerance of her and her equally greedy brother is always for the sake of his beloved children and farm. Paralleling his difficult marriage is the constant, and ultimately life-long, love of a beautiful woman who he knows and accepts he can never have.

The story is rich with details and situations involving the Vinge children and their lives as they grow into adulthood, under the constant cloud of Magdali, but fortunately, having their loving father to turn to when she becomes unbearable.

After decades of hurt caused mainly by Magdali’s need for control, healing comes when her great nephew meets up with the great niece of the woman Magdali despised throughout her life. Norma Shaleen is the great niece of Kate Shaleen, the secret love of Ivar’s life. He took the secret to his grave, suffering silently, as was his nature. Brill Wing (Wing being the name that Magdali eventually chose to replace the more immigrant-sounding and embarrassing name of Vinge), and Norma Shaleen return to the farm years later to try and unravel the bits and pieces of the stories handed down through the generations. What they find are the fascinating tales of the two pioneer families, the Wings and the Shaleens, and how the love they have found together will finally bring years of misunderstandings to an end once and for all.

Review of Mortgage Your Heart

Mortgage Your Heart, by Sophus Keith Winther

Review by John Henry

(New York: MacMillian Co., 1937)

Mortgage Your Heart continues the story of rent-farmers Peter and Meta Grimsen and their six sons. The book opens in 1907 and the Grimsens have recently moved to a better farm on the northwest side of Weeping Willow, Nebraska. The novel ends in 1917, during the great farm prosperity brought on by World War I.

The economic fortunes of the Grimsens have greatly improved on the new farmstead. They have good land and better buildings and are able to expand their acreage through additional nearby rental land. There are no total crop failures brought on by weather. Crop prices are rising throughout the time of the story and prices eventually boom, brought on by the war need and speculation. The three oldest boys (Alfred-19, David-17, and Hans-15, at the beginning of the story) work hard for their father, even though they occasionally rebel and are often bitter with resentment over Peter’s hard driving ways. The book contains many moving depictions of farm work: eighteen-hour wheat harvesting days in the July heat; picking sharp stalks of milkweed in the heavily-mudded cornfields; heroic night rescues of farm animals from flooding washes.

Despite the rural setting, the focus of the book is not the farm and the associated way of life. Rather, Mortgage Your Heart is a growing-up story centered on the development of the three oldest boys, Alfred, David, and, especially, Hans. The story chronicles how the boys move away psychologically and morally from their parents and their farm and become men in the larger world. The boys struggle for independence from the strong patriarch Peter, who himself gradually moderates and becomes less old-country Danish and more “American.” The boys go off to work in Omaha meat packing plants but return to Weeping Willow. They learn about baseball and July Fourth celebrations. Buggies overturn and a girl is tragically crushed. Religious revivals sprout up in town. A girl becomes pregnant and is abandoned by her lover, so she is driven to suicide. Alfred marries well and begins farming for himself, still plagued by alcoholism. David becomes a master at farming but marries poorly, mostly out of sympathy to Maren Serbak, the daughter of a violently abusive, miserly Danish farmer. Her horrific childhood has left her with growing psychological instability and David with children and a farm to care for often without a mother’s help.

But the central character of the novel is Hans, who is fifteen when the story begins and twenty-four at the end. Of the three boys, Hans is the one who is able to move furthest away from the rural farm life because of his educational success, first in the religiously affiliated high school in town; then at the University in Lincoln.

Hans’ is a deeply romantic consciousness. From beginning to end he is in “love” or longing for love. But romantic love is deeply tied to a religious sensibility in Hans. His idea of love and his actual love for Fayne Stanwood are always connected with religious experiences: either an Irish Catholic funeral, a Methodist revival meeting, or Sunday evening youth services. And in college when Hans gradually abandons his youthful religious fervor, he loses the love of his back-home fiancée, who is unable to see herself married to a non-believer.

The novel traces Hans’ evolution from a romantic and religious youth, to a young man concerned about social injustice, politically astute, and religiously agnostic, if not atheistic. For those who know their James Joyce, Hans’ story in Mortgage Your Heart is sort of like “A Portrait of a Socialist Intellectual as a Young Farmer.”

For the most part the writing is unobtrusive and well paced. But there are occasional passages of excessively romantic over-writing: shooting stars through the prairie sky as the young lovers fall into their first kiss, etc. and etc., and so on. The characters and plot maintain reader interest. Yet there are a few clunky authorial intrusions where Winther pedantically points out that some event or idea will be of great importance later in the book or the in final book of the trilogy.

But my most serious criticism is that Hans’story is the least interesting – but gets the most pages. Peter and Meta’s struggle with the farm. Alfred’s lost weekends and his strong wife who tries to hide her husband’s illness. David’s deteriorating wife and her cruel father. I found these stories inherently more interesting than Hans’ adolescent loves and his growing Socialist consciousness. However, I look forward to reading the third book in the family trilogy and finding out how things end with all the Grimsens.

Review of Milk Route


Milk Route, by Martha Ostenso

Review by Maureen Theobald

(New York: Dodd Mead, 1948)

As events unfold in this post WWII novel, it becomes abundantly clear what effects war can have on a small Midwestern town. While most of what I’ve read of Ostenso’s collection has been about the lives of farm families and their rural communities, in this novel she has captured the emotions of small town neighbors with the same intimacy. Her descriptive narratives of the characters’ joys and sorrows, and their often painful entanglements with one another, come alive in the mind of the reader. From the shattered hearts of young war widows to the collapse of profitable war-dependent small town industries, the collateral damage is felt by almost every member of the community.

As milkman Ben Stuart makes his deliveries in Wahwanissa Creek, Minnesota, we are introduced to the central characters behind the doors of addresses on his route. Each one, in his or her own way, has been affected by the war, and we begin to make the connections between the neighbors and their community. Ben and his new wife Inga are some of the more fortunate citizens of the small town, having not been directly affected by the ravages of the war. As they await the arrival of their first child, theirs is a story of hope that prevails throughout the novel, which is ultimately the direction the story takes. With the passage of time, emotional and physical wounds are healed, and lives slowly mend. Martha Ostenso’s Milk Route is an engaging novel somehow much more intimate then the more popular Sinclair Lewis novel, Main Street.