Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1914-1994 (i)

It's now been twenty years since Frederick Manfred died, a "force of nature," some called him, a celebrated American novelist from Siouxland, who never really left the region of his birth.  In his honor, I'm reprinting an old essay of mine that outlines his influences on me. He was a friend.

I met Frederick Manfred in a bookstore in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in late November of 1966. I wasn’t looking for him, but I stumbled across his name, a name I wouldn’t have recognized a couple months earlier, before my first trip to northwest Iowa, a region Manfred, a native, loved to call “Siouxland.” I don’t know what I might have been looking for that day, but it wasn’t his name or the book I found, a paperback novel titled The Secret Place. I bought it, then left the store, that book in an inconspicuous brown paper bag, its own secret place, you might say.

Just a few months earlier, I had gone to northwest Iowa and enrolled at Dordt College, in Sioux Center, primarily because I thought I wouldn’t be quick enough to make the Calvin College basketball team. At Dordt I thought I had a shot. In 1966, college choices—at least in my family—were considerably narrowed by tribal identity: Dordt, like Calvin, was one of our schools, a place where good Christian Reformed kids were encouraged to attend, sometimes even required. For me, high school classes in literature or history or foreign language had been little more than starting blocks to get to the gym or the practice field. When I left for college I had no greater aspirations than to become a coach someday—teaching, well, whatever.

In a dorm room full of rowdy guys, I heard the man’s name for the first time—“Manfred,” some guy said, sneering a bit because he claimed the name was phony. “His real name is Feikema,” alocal kid said, “Feik Feikema, and the guy writes dirty books.”

Adolescent male snickering.

“There was this sign along 75—used to say ‘Doon—home of Frederick Manfred,’” another kid said. More snickering. “Somebody cut it down. They don’t like him much.”

How come?

Shrugged shoulders. “You know—dirty books.

He’s from here? I said.

“Yeah, from Doon.”

Where’s Doon?

Thumbs up and over the left shoulder, pointing north.

I’d never heard of a writer, a novelist, actually being born and reared someplace close. Besides, writers lived in books and novels, not in dirt and harvest and the shady ambience of compost. Writers were city folks—educated. Snobs. The best ones were prophets. Writers didn’t milk cows.

Then I went home to Wisconsin, waltzed into a bookstore, and found this novel, The Secret Place. “Frederick Manfred.”

I’m sure I didn’t show my parents, who wouldn’t have understood the attraction; if they had, they wouldn’t have approved. They likely would have seconded the hostility of those upstanding, sign-dumping Doon-sters because my parents preached righteousness as fervently as they opposed dirty books. Meanwhile, their son was 19, and the Sixties were happening all around me. I had my own enthusiasms. 
Tomorrow: The Secret Place


jdb said...

Thanks for remembering Feik Feikema. Living just up the road from the house he built north of Luverne, MN in what is now Blue Mound State Park, we do remember him and his contributions to this part of the world. I remember back in the 60s when his name was the answer to a "knowledge bowl" question at SDSU and I could only come up with Feik Feikema, not his pen name.

Anonymous said...

When I was a high school senior, I asked the librarian at the Orange City Public Library if any of Manfred's novels were in the fiction collection because I didn't
see any of his works on the shelves. The librarian smiled, reached under the counter, and gave me the trilogy. Later as an English major at Calvin College, Manfred came to Calvin and gave several lectures.