So Harry and I followed another long gravel road to the site where Fred was, once again, building a house—and there he was, expecting us. He put down the axe he had in his hands—he’d been chopping wood—and walked through the sticky topsoil, the driveway not having been graveled, straight up to the car. By that time in his life, Harry Abma could barely walk. Beside him in the front seat sat his oxygen tank.
Fred didn’t wait for us to get out of the car, although I stepped out quickly, thinking it decorous to make formal introductions. Manfred didn’t stare warily or expect genuflection. He simply walked over to the passenger side, ignoring me, swung open the door, and thrust that huge hand inside. “Well, I’ll be,” he said. “Harry Abma. I’ve read your poems for years in the Doon Press. I’m so happy to meet you.”
Abma was speechless, but only for awhile. Soon enough, the two of them were talking and chatting, using their beloved Frisian tongue to swap jokes they wouldn’t have told in Sunday School. I didn’t know Frisian so I didn’t catch the punch lines, but the chortle is a universal language.
I don’t know that, here below, Harry Abma could have been the recipient of a greater blessing late in his life than Feik Feikema knowing his name, praising his poems, and shuckin’ and jivin’ in the Frisian tongue. I’m not sure he needed the oxygen once we started back up that gravel road.
But the amplitude of the old man’s emotions was extraordinary, and we were barely out of earshot when he broke into tears. “Here in all that time that he and I talked together, I never once brought up the state of his soul,” Harry told me, sobbing. It wasn’t the first time that I tried to drag him out of despair, and I did again, with lines he would have expected—“salvation, Mr. Abma, belongs to the Lord.”
Not long after came the publication of Green Earth (1977), Manfred’s chronicle of life among the Dutch Reformed in the early decades of the 20th century. I’ll let others declare on the novel’s success, but I’ll offer this: in no other book ever written can one get as abundant an account of northwest Iowa life among the Dutch during those years. Love it or hate it, Green Earth tells a Siouxland saga; and if anyone would like to walk that ground again, it’s the first book one ought to read.
Harry Abma was gone by the time Green Earth was published, so, soon after its publication, I wrote a long review of that novel, a review Harold Aardema stuck in the Doon Press. I addressed the whole essay to Mr. Abma, without using his name, tried to convince this man in glory that Fred was doing all right, that things were okay with his soul. A paragraph or two of that review was quoted in People magazine soon thereafter, when they did a feature on this giant, small-town novelist whose chronicles celebrated the lives of people who despised him. Most-read words of my life, I believe.