The Secret Place was the novel that brought Manfred most dishonor among the good folks of Doon, Iowa, not only because of its graphic sexual content, but because local people winced when the story line came so close to mirroring a saga many of them remembered—how a local boy got two girls pregnant in too short a span, both out of wedlock. Local people felt what the subjects of literary work have felt for centuries—used. One of their own, Feik Feikema, had taken a story that belonged to them and spread it all over as if it was the world’s business.
Susan Cheever, in an interview about her famous father, John Cheever, says that being fictionalized, as she was in her father’s work, is “ten million times more painful” than being written about in non-fiction, “much more dangerous because much more painful for the people it may be based on.” I believe her. But, back then, I had no notion of the sensitivities of the Manfred’s neighbors, nor did I have any idea there existed some kind of prototype. I really had no idea how it was writers did what they did.
I read The Secret Place during Thanksgiving break, then returned to Dordt College and told my English instructor that I’d like to do a research paper on it, a novel she’d not read, even though she knew Frederick Manfred, at least by reputation. Not long before, President B.J. Haan had buckled under to a local church group who vowed to stop giving to the fledgling college down the road if Feikema’s books were right there in the stacks of the library, no one supervising. To Haan’s credit, he didn’t toss them, but he did put them behind the desk so students had to ask.
I don’t remember what grade I received on that research paper, but it’s still somewhere in my files I’m sure, because I studied The Secret Place in a way devoted freshman college students are still asked to study literature. I read that novel closely, outlining theme and motif, in a way I’d never read anything before. I read earnestly.
Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t, even then, trying to save this man I’d never met, if not from the wrath of his villagers, then from the flames of hell others in the neighborhood were stoking. I admired his rebellion, his prophetic character. Somewhere in The Secret Place I wanted to find what people once called “socially redeeming value,” in spite of the racy cornfield passages that made my hormones pulse.
I may have wanted to baptize Feike Feikema, but it’s far more obvious, in retrospect, that with that novel Frederick Manfred baptized me. When I read certain passages—a couple of young fornicators meeting self-righteousness head-on in a smoke-filled consistory room, for instance—I felt a conflict that wasn’t at all new, but as familiar to my perceptions as church peppermints drawn discreetly from a black suit coat.
I date my own birth as a writer to that novel and that freshman English paper. Before reading The Secret Place, I had no idea my life, and the lives of those around me, was worth a story. Fred Manfred made it vividly clear to me—even though I’d never considered it before—that I didn’t have to be Jewish or urbane or sophisticated or snobbish or even particularly “literary” to write stories about real people in real time, in a landscape no more than a day’s hike away.
Fred Manfred made me want to write stories, and that may well be the most significant reason why I wanted to save him. The Secret Place, a novel also published as The Man Who Looked Like the Prince of Wales, may well be totally forgotten to everyone but me, but today that book sits in honor behind ancient glass on the Manfred shelf of our library.