Book Review: The Settlers

Five StarsthesettlersThis is a longer than usual book review. It is also unusual for its content. This review is more about the relevance of the story for what we need to know about our own ancestors than it is about the story itself. Let me explain:

Forty-five years ago, two elderly women in the church where I worked in Berkeley, California, paid me to type their father’s journal entries so that they could print copies and share his stories with their younger relatives. As I typed, I was surprised to learn their father hadn’t planned to remain in America. He came to California from Sweden, intending to make his fortune and then return. When it took longer than he had expected, he traveled back to Sweden to marry and then brought his new wife to America. Still he hoped they would return to Sweden. But in the end, they remained here.

Thirty-five years ago, I married a man whose parents immigrated to Canada when he was three years old. His grandparents had moved to Canada in 1927 when their oldest child, my former husband’s father, was three years old. They had left him behind in Yugoslavia with his grandparents because they only planned to remain in Canada long enough to make their fortune and then they would return. Timing was against them. The stock market crash, the depression, World War II, and the Communist takeover of Yugoslavia prevented them from both making that fortune and returning. Instead, in the 1950s they sponsored their now married son, his wife, and their three oldest children as immigrants to Canada.

Thirty years ago, I worked as a consular officer in Stuttgart, Germany. Time and again I had to explain to a visa applicant that I could not issue a visitor visa because it was clear the applicant wished to work in the United States. For that, I explained, they needed immigrant visas. These applicants expressed universal surprise since they all said they had no plans to remain in the United States. They only wanted to work long enough to make their fortune and then return to Europe.

This has always been the dominant immigrant story: the foreign-born generation comes to America to make their fortune. Most fail. But once there are children, there is no turning back. Even the first generation born in American often struggles without finding success.

Recently I have heard a number of Americans who are two or three generations away from their immigrant ancestors explain that they want all today’s immigrants to follow the path they believe their ancestors followed: intentional assimilation into the American community. But they don’t know what they are talking about. They are too far removed from the experiences to know what their ancestors intended.

That’s why it is important for those of us several generations away from our immigrant ancestors to read stories such as Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants saga or O.E. Rolvaag’s trilogy ofGiants In The Earth, Peder Victorious, and Their Fathers’ God. We are too far removed from our ancestors’ experiences to realize not all immigrants of the nineteenth or early twentieth century shared the enthusiasm for assimilation the progency of their future generations now attribute to them, the same enthusiasm they now proclaim they expect all future immigrants to embrace.

In most cases, only one adult in each couple was enthusiastic about the move. Most often, the husband. The women and children came along because they had no choice. The children were more likely to catch the assimilation bug, but not even all of them were destined to succeed.

In The Settlers, the third in Moberg’s four-book series, he extends the story of the band of emigrants from Sweden in eastern Minnesota, focusing primarily on the family of Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson. We get glimpses of those who are likely to succeed in the new world. The pressure to remain connected among other Swedes weighs heavily on some, especially Kristina. The vision and promise of quick wealth in the gold fields of California tempt others. Those known as thieves and whores in the old world find blank slates in the new world, blank slates on which they can begin again.

Later arrivals reveal the emigrants did not escape all forms of religious intolerance by leaving Sweden; some who left Sweden to escape the government’s strict religious boundaries brought equally inflexible strictures they were ready to impose on those in the new world. And while Karl Oskar continued to see promise in the new world, Kristina saw bleakness and separation. And the birth of more children did not bring a sense of renewal for Kristina; each child’s birth felt like the small death to Kristina.

At the end of Unto A Good Land, the second volume of Moberg’s saga, Robert, Karl Oskar’s brother, along with his friend and fellow farmhand Arvid Pettersson, had left Minnesota to seek fortune in the gold fields of California. In The Settlers, Robert returns alone, his pockets now full of paper money but his heart still full of pride. The brothers each ponder whether the other might have chosen the wiser path, at least until Robert’s paper money turns out to be worthless. Karl Oskar remains convinced Robert will never stop lying, and Robert realizes he had let himself be tricked out of the fortune he had stumbled upon in spite of his never having reached California.

This volume is not full of optimism, at least not on the surface. It depicts the weariness of the hard work those early emigrants spent for their children’s and their children’s children’s futures. Too few of us understand our family history. Nonetheless, optimism is the back story for this saga. We are the beneficiaries of our ancestors’ hard work and the separation from family they endured. My hope is that we will keep that in mind when we encounter the current group of immigrants, that we will recognize the separation and hard work they are willing to endure for the sake of their children, and that we will be tolerant of their attempts to retain their traditions, just as our ancestors did.

  • Genre: Family Saga, Historical, Literature & Fiction
  • Print Length: 399 pages
  • Publisher: Borealis Books; Revised ed. Edition (September 15, 1995)
  • Original Publication Date: 1956

Book Review: A Fireproof Home for the Bride

Five StarsafireproofhomeforthebrideI don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading a book more than I enjoyed reading Amy Scheibe’s A Fireproof Home for the Bride. The story is fiction so it didn’t happen, but, as is always the case with good storytelling, it could have happened. I know because I was there at the time of the story—1958—in the place of the story—Fargo, ND, and its twin city, Moorhead, MN. So I knew many of the people Scheibe included in her novel. And the events that were true—it is fiction, so not all events were true—happened to me as well.

First, let’s get the storyline out of the way.

In this coming-of-age story, Emmy Nelson, a Minnesota farm girl, breaks away from her Lutheran parents and their plans for her to marry Ambrose, the son of their wealthy farming neighbor, a plan she is happy to follow until her family moves to the nearest town, Moorhead, Minnesota, before her senior year of high school. In Moorhead, Emmy meets Bev, a member of the in-crowd, who introduces her to another possible future, causing Emmy to realize she wants more from life than settling into a predictable routine as farm wife and mother for the rest of her life. She realizes the marriage to Ambrose would secure the financial future for both families, but she isn’t aware of the full range of reasons her parents are eager for her to marry as soon as she graduates from high school.

As she begins to explore other options for her future, including the attention a Catholic boy from Fargo, ND, is paying her, she learns her parents and grandmother, her fiancé and his father, have been keeping secrets from her that threaten to destroy her happy childhood memories and even her life.

I loved reading this story because I recognized so much of my own coming-of-age experiences in it. While I am ten years younger than Emmy, so many of the details are mine.

The story takes place in 1958, the year after a family of killer tornadoes destroyed the Golden Ridge housing development in north Fargo as well as many farm buildings along what is now I-94 across North Dakota and US Highway 10 continuing east into Minnesota. I remember sitting in the basement of our house, convinced that we were all going to die as we waited for the tornado to hit. And in the days afterward, I remember adults talking about how sad it was that six children in one family were all killed by the tornado because none of them knew they should open a door or window so the tornado wouldn’t cause the house to implode. Scheibe changed the details of the family in the novel, but the emotional impact of reading about them brought back real memories.

One of the characters who helps Emmy adjust to her new, much larger, high school is the guidance counselor, Reinhold Utke. By the time I reached junior high school, Mr. Utke had been moved into the principal position at North Junior High School where I saw him every day for three years and then again seven years later when I completed my student teaching at North Junior High. I remember being called into his office one day in ninth grade. I didn’t think I had done anything meriting being called to the principal’s office, so I went there apprehensively. He was smiling when I arrived. He explained that my English teacher, Mr. Tangen, had shared with him an essay I had written about an upcoming school bond issue, based on Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Mr. Utke wanted my permission to send the essay on to The Fargo Forum, the paper where Emmy worked in the novel. The Forum printed it, and I learned years later that my father carried a copy of it in his wallet to show others I had written it.

In the novel, Mr. Utke found Emmy her first job at the Moorhead Theatre. My first job in high school was also at the Moorhead Theatre, though Emmy’s starting salary as candy counter attendant in 1958 was five cents more than mine as usher was in 1965.

Scheibe also used a word to describe the Texas farm workers who traveled each spring to Minnesota to work in the sugar beet fields that I doubt most people in Moorhead had ever heard: betabeleros. It sounds like a Spanish word, but it isn’t in any Spanish dictionary. Betabel is the Spanish word for beet. Farmers and the Texas workers added “eros” to refer to those who worked with betabel, just as vaqueros, Spanish for cowboys, is based on the Spanish word vaca, or cow. I only know the word because I spent a summer translating for a Bolivian sponsored by the Lutheran church to minister to the families of the betabeleros in 1973.

I love this level of detail in the novel. But I loved the story on its own merits as well. The major tension in the story centers around a charismatic Chicago man who manipulates men into joining the Citizen’s Council, a xenophobic organization that uses fear of foreigners, especially the farm workers, and raises the specter of a changing demographic destroying the community. The Council’s goal: take over local government. Unfortunately, we see some of those same tactics being used by politicians today, another reason I love this book.

Genre: Family Life, Historical, Literary
Print Length: 384 pages
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: March 10, 2015

Book Review: The Bonfire of the Vanities

bonfireofthevanitiesFour starsBecause of the length of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, I was willing to read the first 75 pages to get to the heart of the story. After all, Wolfe writes very well. When I reached the inciting incident, what the Amazon summary calls “a freak accident in the Bronx,” I thought I was at the beginning of an important story, one that would explore the disparity in the conditions of life for the rich vs. the poor, for whites vs. persons of color and even, perhaps, begin to explain the source of the inequities. Instead, the inciting event, the “freak accident,” serves only to point out exactly what the title promises—that all is vanity.

While Sherman McCoy may be the central character in this novel, and the only character whose life at the end differs significantly from what it was at the beginning, he is no more likable than any of the other players, each of them involved only for what they can get out of life to polish and prop up their images and reputations.

He makes a wrong turn after picking up his mistress at the airport and ends up in the Bronx, a part of New York that he knows little about and even less about how to get out of. His bossy mistress badgers him, figuratively poking his ego, questioning whether he really knows what he’s doing or where he’s going. In this haze of dealing with his wounded pride, he jumps to a conclusion about the intentions of two young Black men he encounters as he searched in the dark for a ramp to a road back to Manhattan. To his credit, he quickly realizes he may have misjudged the two men, but instead of insisting on reporting the incident, he allows his mistress to win the argument as she replays his original assumptions and flatters his male ego by pointing out his heroism at saving her from a terrible situation.

Tom Wolfe paints memorable word pictures of the characters, complete with the idiosyncratic dialects of McCoy’s southern mistress and the New Yorkers of various ethnic stripes. He went overboard in his attempt to render dialogue according to dialect, making me thankful that he didn’t try to stick with the non-standard spellings throughout. After getting enough of a sense of the differences in the dialects, I skipped over the transliterations. That cut down a bit on how much I had to read to finish the novel.

My specific copy also contained eight entirely blank pages, beginning with page 535 and every three or four pages thereafter until page 563. I didn’t feel I missed anything by skipping those pages.

I wish the novel had dealt more seriously with the inciting incident and that more of the characters were changed. But that’s a judgment from 30 years after this book was written. Hopefully, such a story won’t need nearly 650 pages to tell.

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Print Length: 623 pages
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux (November 1987)
Publication Date: November 1987

Book Review: Light on Snow

Five StarslightonsnowIn Light on Snow, 12-year-old Nicky Dillon and her father, Robert, struggle to set up a new life in a new place after having left New York two years earlier. Her father could no longer tolerate living in the city where Nicky’s mother and her infant sister, Clara, were killed in an auto accident, turning their world upside down.

One winter evening before Christmas, Nicky and her father take a walk in the woods behind their remote and isolated home. While walking, they hear a cry her father recognizes as a baby’s cry. They find an infant girl abandoned in the snow, wrapped in a sleeping bag. They rescue the baby and bring her to the local hospital. But they cannot leave behind their thoughts about the baby.

The mother of the baby, Charlotte, appears at the Dillon home, intending to thank them for saving the baby, but her arrival angers Nicky’s father while sparking a connection for Nicky who sees Charlotte as a replacement for her mother and the baby as a replacement for her sister. A storm isolates them, preventing Charlotte from leaving and putting Nicky and her father at risk of being considered her accomplices. Eventually, they both accept Charlotte’s explanation for the circumstances of the baby’s abandonment and begin thinking of themselves as her protector.

Both Nicky and her father need to find a way forward, first in the situation they find themselves harboring Charlotte, and then in life on their own. The encounter with Charlotte serves as a catalyst to break their pattern of hiding from life.

The novel raises questions about what it takes to make up a family. Are Nicky and her father a family? Or are they the remnants of a family that was broken when Nicky’s mother and sister died? Does a family need both a mother and a father? Can a broken family be fixed? Or are these questions about what makes up a family just devices to represent the denial Robert is still caught up in regarding the death of his wife and child?

The novel doesn’t answer these questions. But it catches the reader in its simple language, told from 12-year-old Nicky’s viewpoint, though 18 years later when Nicky had reached 30 years old. Is the story appropriate for a 12-year-old reader?  I think so.

  • Genre: Literary, Contemporary Fiction
  • Print Length: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1st edition (October 1, 2004)
  • Publication Date: October 1, 2004

Book Review: Unto a Good Land

Five StarsuntoagoodlandVilhelm Moberg’s Unto a Good Land continues the story of Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson’s band of Swedish emigrants from Småland, southern Sweden, from New York where the group landed at the end of the first book in this series to Washington County in Minnesota, near Stillwater. The group make their way by riverboat, train, steamboat, and oxcart through northern New York, the Great Lakes, and through the upper midwest by water and then to their final destination at Taylor’s Falls by ox cart and on foot. For only a portion of the journey, until they reached Detroit, did they have a Swedish-speaking guide.

Moberg’s descriptions of the challenges the group faced–to communicate with others, to find food and other essentials with the little money they had, and to discover what they must do to claim land in order to establish themselves–effectively put the reader in the settlers’ shoes. I felt the hunger and pain Kristina felt when she had little to give her children to eat on the journey. But the challenges didn’t end even when Karl Oskar found land for them to settle. The group arrived so late in the summer, there wasn’t enough growing season left for crops. There was only time to build shelter to protect the family from the cold of the winter just ahead.

The core group of settlers who had gone through so many hardships together did not remain together once they reached Minnesota. Karl Oskar’s brother, Robert, and his friend, Arvid, set out for California, leaving Karl Oskar’s family behind with one fewer farmhand to break up the land. The different images each of the immigrants had of America’s promise began to separate, rather than unite, them.

Even those who chose to remain to claim land to farm in Minnesota ended up at a distance from one another, which brought another challenge, loneliness.

Moberg’s story continues in two more volumes, Settlers: Book 3, and Last Letter Home: Book 4 . The first volume in the series, The Emigrants, details the conditions of life in Sweden that led to the Småland group deciding to make the long and dangerous journey by sea to New York.

Moberg intended the four volumes to be read as one continuous story. Having read two of them, I am impressed that Moberg manages to tell a complete story in each, allowing the reader to begin with either The Emigrants or Unto a New Land without the feeling that something has been left out. Nonetheless, I plan to read all four books to see how the story ends for each of the original emigrants.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Family Saga
Print Length: 412 pages
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press; 1 edition
Publication Date: June 30, 2009
Original Publication Date: 1952

Book Review: Sumerland

Five StarssumerlandIn Sumerland, M. Lee Buompensiero tells a fascinating tale that makes the case that family secrets are best uncovered and allowed to breathe. When secrets are stifled, the results are often worse for those the secret-keepers imagine they are protecting than would be the truth. This is the case for Kate Post, Sumerland‘s protagonist. The tension Buompensiero creates kept me turning pages and wishing for more when I reached the end.

After her parents die suddenly, Kate learns she has inherited a grand house from her mother, a house neither she nor her father knew anything about. The need to make decisions about the house, including whether to keep or sell it, keeps her in San Diego, away from her San Francisco home, longer than she expected. So long, in fact, that she begins to notice ghostly visions in the house that both repel and intrigue her, especially after she discovers a scribbled inscription in the sidewalk, under a bush, with initials, a date, and the misspelled name, Sumerland. Long enough also to meet Jack, whose presence further complicates her decisions.

Kate’s curiosity about both what led to her mother’s acquisition of the house that had for most of the previous 30 years had been a rehabilitation hospital for veterans and the ghostly images that interrupt her sleep lead her to discover family secrets that bring her together with family members she didn’t know she had at the same time as answering questions from her childhood that she never dared ask.

• Genre: Ghosts, Teen and Young Adult, Teens
• Print Length: 270 pages
• Publisher: Grey Castle Publishing
• Publication Date: July 27, 3016

Book Review: Revival

revival
Five StarsI am in awe. I want to give this book more than five stars, but I don’t want to have to recalibrate my other reviews. Five stars mean I love it, and I loved Revival.

Revival is the first of Stephen King’s book I have read. After having seen several movies based on his books, I had concluded I wouldn’t enjoy his books. Horror stories just aren’t my thing. Thankfully, I recently read his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which he introduces readers to his thought process when deciding what to write about as well as tips to those who wish to become better writers. From it, I learned that King observes the everyday and ordinary around him and then figures out how to create a riveting story around them. I knew I wanted to read them, not rely on a Hollywood rendition of his stories. And now I know I want to write like him, too.

Everything about Revival delighted me. It’s the story of Jamie Morton, an ordinary six-year-old boy living in a small town in Maine, and Charles Jacobs, a young adult, a newcomer in town who arrives with his wife and young son to take up the vacant Methodist minister position at the church just down the road from Jamie’s home. Rev. Jacobs  introduces the boy to wonder, a metaphorical breathing life into him. Though tragedy strikes Jacobs, causing him to leave town after only three years, the connection between the two remains, bringing them together 30 years later and then again in another 20 years.

Initially King surrounds the story and characters with innocence and wonder, characteristics of an idealized happy childhood. But it is no fairy tale; it is simply a well-written story with just enough hooks and teasers to keep the reader turning the pages to figure out what sadness awaits Jamie as well as what in the world the title of the book means.

I had expected to read a horror story; eventually it appeared. But everything leading up to it kept me smiling in recognition of what the passage of time does to tease, punch, and kick us as childhood blends into youth and then into adulthood, middle age, and finally into that age King describes as “how the fuck did I get old so soon?” King includes just enough stories of love–first love, later lust, even a case of abusive love–to keep the larger story moving forward.

Revival is a story about relationships and what makes–or breaks–them, and why they are important to us. It is a story of love, dependence, independence, and redemption as well as including just enough mystery to keep the reader turning the pages to see what else is in store. King uses the analogy of cooking a frog by placing it in a pot of cold water and then gently applying the heat so the frog doesn’t notice the water getting warmer to explain Jamie’s transformation through the story. King does the same for his readers with the horror story in Revival. By the time the horror appeared, I felt satisfied, not shocked or frightened. I didn’t notice the water getting hotter at all.