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

Guardian Angel III

At the end of my first semester at California State University, I traveled back to Minnesota for the summer. I had hoped to find either a summer job or a volunteer opportunity, but by the time I arrived, car troubles had drained my financial resources, and I knew I needed a job.

Instead, however, I learned Mom had worked on my other option: she had volunteered me to drive and translate for a Bolivian lay minister as he met with sugar beet farm workers who traveled from Texas to Minnesota each summer. The minister, Ruben, spoke no English and didn’t know how to drive. He had assumed he would be able to walk from farm to farm. The distances between farms in the US astonished him, as did the fact that, while the farm workers all spoke Spanish, almost none of the farmers or those working in businesses did.

Much as I thought I should find a job, I agreed instead to honor Mom’s commitment because of her conviction that something good would come from it. I also knew that if I really needed more money, all I had to do was ask her. I didn’t want to, but I could.

The churches who arranged for Ruben’s mission told me they couldn’t pay me for the work; they would reimburse me for my gas.

I spent the next six weeks filling the tank each morning, then driving the 60 miles to the farm where Ruben stayed. Each day from that point I drove more than a hundred miles on gravel county roads in four counties, Cass and Traill in North Dakota and Clay and Norman in Minnesota, so that Ruben could meet with the families of the farm workers. My tank was nearly empty each evening when I returned home.

One afternoon, Ruben pointed out a group of workers in a field. He asked me to pull over so he could talk with them. Usually he only met with the families of those who worked in the fields, in the cabins the farmers provided for them. I should have told him we shouldn’t stop them from working. But trying to figure out how to say that in Spanish was difficult. So I gave in. We were on a gravel county road with what looked like a wide, grassy shoulder. I pulled over and immediately felt the car begin to roll. Within seconds, the passenger door rested against a sign warning of a curve in the road ahead. The only sign for miles. Let me repeat that: the – only – sign – for – miles on that road.

Ruben, in the passenger seat, couldn’t get out, and the car tilted enough to make it difficult for me to open my door.

The workers saw what happened, ran from the field to the road, and pulled and pushed my car back onto the road. Shaken by what had almost happened, I silently thanked my guardian angel and told Ruben I needed to go home early that day. He understood.


Guardian Angel II

angel by maphler, on Flickr
angel” (CC BY 2.0) by maphler


The summer following my first semester at California State University at San Francisco proved to be a real test for my guardian angel. I had no classes in the summer so I set off for Minnesota, to spend the summer with family and relax before returning in the fall. I hoped to find either a summer job to earn money or a volunteer opportunity to get experience working with Spanish-speaking families who moved from Texas to Minnesota each summer to work in the labor-intensive sugar beet fields.

I had very few possessions, nearly all of which fit inside the trunk and on the back and the passenger seats of my VW Beetle. My bicycle fit on a rack in the back, over the engine. I took off on the nearly 2,000-mile drive and ran into a little trouble on my first stop to fill my tank, at the intersection of I-80 and I-505 at Vacaville. Once the gas tank was full, I tried to start the engine. The car didn’t fire up. I had experienced this before and knew what usually worked. I removed the bike from the rack and opened the engine cover.

Once the gas tank was full, I tried to start the engine. The car didn’t fire up. I had experienced this before and knew what usually worked. I removed the bike from the rack and opened the engine cover.

I was about to remove the distributor cap and poke around the points with a screwdriver when a young man wearing a cap with the station’s logo walked towards me. When he got close enough to see what I was doing, instead of offering to help, he said, “Well, it looks like you know what you are doing,” turned around, and headed back to the station.

After poking the points as a friend had shown me in the past, I replaced the distributor cap, closed the engine cover, and then tried starting the car. This time, it fired up as expected. After repositioning the bike rack and wrapping the bike tightly, I took off again.

The drive from San Francisco to my parents’ home took three-and-a-half days. I made it to western North Dakota before I had to play around with the points again. Then, smooth sailing–until I got to the Highway 75 off-ramp from Interstate 94, only two miles from my parents’ home. When I reached the stop sign at the top of the ramp, the car stalled and wouldn’t move one more inch. I engaged the emergency brake, removed the bike, pumped up its tires, and rode three blocks to a gas station on Highway 75 where I arranged to have my car towed to my parents’ home.

AAA paid for the towing. I had $240 in my pocket. I knew I would need $60 for gas and motel rooms to get back for the next semester. The estimate for repairing the engine was $180. I did the math: I needed a job. No volunteering for me. At least I had a no-cost roof over my head while I waited for the car to get fixed.

But this was just my guardian angel’s first job that summer.

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

L is for Lake Winnibigoshish

I thought I was too old for family vacations. I wanted to stay home, alone, while my parents took my five siblings. Dad wouldn’t say where we were going. He had never done that before–not told us.

But Mom insisted I not stay home alone. I don’t think she thought I was going to do something stupid–I wouldn’t have dared do anything I knew would make Mom and Dad angry. But to me it was a matter of whether or not they trusted me. I would turn 16 in the fall. I had been babysitting for my brothers and sister for six years. Surely I could take care of myself for a few days.

But Mom insisted.

Somehow we squeezed all eight of us into the car. Mom and Dad and my youngest brothers, the twins, in the front seat. The rest of us kids–all four of us–filled the back seat. There was no room to spread out. We were shoulder to shoulder, me at one end, sulking.

Every summer Mom and Dad took us on a camping vacation. It was the only way to afford putting up two adults and six kids overnight for a week at a time. Because we filled the seats, Dad built a box for the car top carrier to stow the tent, stakes, camp stove, and other items that could survive both rain and sun beating down on them. After the first trip, he modified the front of the box so that it slanted towards the back, to improve its aerodynamic qualities.  A single-wheel trailer held whatever clothes we needed. Food–prepared at least a week in advance and much of it frozen to keep from spoiling–stuffed in freezer boxes and thermos containers filled the trunk.

We almost never went the same place twice. And that’s why I was sulking. We had already made a trip to Lake Winnibigoshish, Lake Winnie for short, at a time when my mom’s sister’s family was also there. That meant I was able to spend my time with my cousin Lois instead of my younger siblings. Lois’s parents and a couple of their neighbors had bought an old school bus and transformed it into a camping van. The families that shared the ownership also shared the use, one family at a time. But even with those constraints, many times the bus was not used. All the owners were farmers who didn’t have the luxury of being able to pick any week to go off fishing. The cows and crops needed tending on their own schedule.

That first week at Lake Winnie, Lois and I also spent time with Dale, the son of the family who owned the resort where we rented camp sites by the week. Another teenaged boy worked at the resort, too. In the evenings, the four of us played cards in the A-frame building that served as the office as well as the summer home of the owners.

I wanted to go back to Lake Winnie. I told Dad that’s what I wanted. But Dad wouldn’t tell us what his plans were. The direction we headed out and the highway our trip started on weren’t clues either, unless we headed west into North Dakota, which was not a destination but rather just a state we had to get through on our way to somewhere else.

Dad headed east and then north. I’m sure the boys–two in the front seat and two in the back–found some excuse for poking one another, provoking a response to which “he started it” could be declared. And still I sulked.

An hour passed and still Dad kept driving. We were deep into Minnesota lake country by this time. With more than 10,000 lakes in the state, I still didn’t know where we would end up. Dad could turn off the highway at any time. But he kept driving.

Another half hour passed before Dad headed off the State highway down a county road. At that point, things began to look familiar. We had been here before. And it wasn’t long ago. Dad had turned down the drive leading to the Lake Winnie camping area we had been at earlier that summer.

I smiled. Dad smiled. Mom smiled. I may even have thanked Dad. I hope I did.