A couple of years ago, I needed a picture of a country graveyard, so early one Saturday morning I headed out to Doon, where the cemetery hugs the rolling hills of the Rock River, a setting that offers a graveyard even more wordless gravitas. I can understand why Feik Feikema wanted to be buried there, looking down at his beloved Doon to the east, and across the spacious fields of corn and beans to the north, fields that, even in winter, don’t shed their spacious grandeur.
That morning I wasn’t looking for his grave. It was cold—January—and I was looking for a photo that would feature the long shadows laid across stripes of snow and columns of stone by an early morning sun—just looking for something touching, really, trying to get something visually stunning.
That’s when I stumbled on the grave stone of a woman whose story I would know absolutely nothing of if I’d never read the novel, The Secret Place, a novel I bought four decades ago in a bookstore in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a novel that in many ways changed my life. Here it is.
I know that good people felt used by that novel, even though the young woman buried beneath this stone probably suffered no abuse at all from Frederick Manfred, years later, when The Secret Place was published.
I met that woman, a prototype, in the pages of a book. She died at just 21 years of age, the stone says, way back in 1920. Still, that morning, it seemed to me that I knew her, or at least of her; and I couldn’t help wondering how many people on the face of the earth, even among her own descendents, had any inkling of her story.
“Till we meet again” the stone says, in mossy text.
I stood there beside that grave, sorry that she’d died so young, and sorry too that Feik Feikema caught all that rage from the town he loved when he was just trying to tell a story. On the other hand, that some people would be enraged at his using them made good sense to me. Their anger wasn't unreasonable.
That was a half-dozen years ago, at least. Eventually, that moment developed into a short story, something titled "January Thaw," a story which imagines what might have occurred at the moment when Frederick Manfred's mortal coil was returned to the earth in that same cemetery just outside of Doon, Iowa. "January Thaw" is a story about Fred, a story about a writer, a story about what a writer chooses to tell once the stories tumble out of the imagination and how those he talks about might feel about being used.
At the time, that story was the only one I'd ever written that was anything other than old-fashioned realism--this young woman, quite dead, taking on the venerable writer who had just been buried beside her, at a time when celebrity and magnetism and IQ, or even sheer physical power means nothing at all. She tells him she has a score to settle with the old novelist who told her story in his own way.
A year passed, or two maybe, and I started to believe there were more haunting stories in the cemetery where Fred Manfred is buried, a cemetery just up the hill from the town he loved, even if that love was greatly unrequited. Soon after the publication of The Secret Place, that very novel, vandals brought down the sign along highway 75 that once read "Doon--Home of Frederick Manfred."
"January Thaw" will be published soon, again, in a collection of stories titled Up the Hill: A Collection of Fables (New Rivers). Feike Feikema may be gone now, up there, in the cemetery in Doon, but Fred Manfred is certainly not forgotten.
The morning I bumped into Jennie Van Engen's stone in the Doon cemetery, I couldn't help but be thankful for a story that made that very site alive with this even bigger story I’m telling, a sprawling yarn that will end only when the sun sets forever over the open spaces of a landscape Frederick Manfred loved and called Siouxland, a real tome that won’t be finished until the very last story of this broad land has finally been told.
This too is what I've learned from Fred Manfred.