Breaking Sioux County prairie
You sometimes wonder—or at least I do—if there will come a time when Sioux County, Iowa, has enough hog confinements. Industry is the name of the game here; the descendants of all those Dutch Calvinists could write primers on how to work, how to farm, and how to make money.
Confinements sit on every available hill, more than any other adjacent county, but then agriculture is a huge business here, empowering everything, keeping life afloat and a culture intact. It’s nearly impossible to picture the region when it was wild out here, almost impossible to imagine the natural world as antagonist. There’s still hail and even a tornado or two; almost unendurable winters come and, finally, go, (like the last one); and torrid summers still blow hot winds that once upon a time laid standing corn to waste in just a few days.
But to think of the world outside my window as untamed, as a mean and angry force that must be broken, is simply not possible in day when the finest tractors are steered through the fields by satellites. In many ways, we got the job done. Doggone it, we've subdued the earth all right.
Maybe that’s why it took me half a novel to figure out the central conflict of Josephine Donovan’s 1930 novel, Black Soil, an engaging rendition of the soul-trying settlement of this corner of the region Frederick Manfred named “Siouxland.” It’s just flat-out hard, 150 years later, to think of what she calls “the prairie” as if were a bleak and pitiless enemy.
Once upon a time, it was. Once upon a time, grasshoppers darkened the sky and devoured just about every living thing, engorging whole sections of land. The earth seem crawled with 'em. Once upon a time, their devastation created brutal poverty no descendant 140 years later can begin to imagine. Once upon a time, prairie fires ritually consumed the region. Once upon a time, life-and-death drama occurred out here. Once upon a time, white folks were scared to death of the Native people their own new homesteads so unkindly dispossessed.
If you’ve read Giants in the Earth, the O. E. Rolvaag classic set not so far from here, nothing in Donovan’s Black Soil is going to be new or visionary. The gender differences are classic in what some call “Middle Border Lit”: men like Per Hansa and Black Soil's Tim Collins loved the adventure, loved opening the earth and making it abundant with flourishing row crops.
Meanwhile, women often felt abandoned beneath a gargantuan sky on land so barren there seemed no place to hide. Frontier life required abandoning families back home, meant endless sweat and none of the blessings established communities offered.
Nell Connors, the woman at the heart of this 1930s novel, is just such a pioneer woman. She’s neither Dutch or Luxembourgian, traditional Sioux County ethnics, but, oddly enough, Irish Catholic and a Yankee. Her roots are back east in Massachusetts, where she remembers tea at the most honorable Dickinson family in Amherst, the ethereal Emily acting so very, well, poetic.
Her husband, Tim, has a so huge heart it may not be suited to the frontier. He doesn’t lack ambition, but he’s not dedicated to making the farm work—or farming as a profession. His eye is elsewhere. More than once I’ve heard old Iowa men talk about brothers who were sent off to school for the ministry or education once Ma and Pa realized they didn’t have the wherewithal to farm. Tim Connors doesn’t either.
But it’s not her husband’s misguided predilections that brings Nell Connors grief; it’s that her children walk off to school in bare feet and, once there, get a third-rate education at best in a world where its far more important to milk cows than read poems.
It’s the sheer force of “the prairie” that she fights, that makes her wonder if Siouxland can ever become a home. When she sees a boy with artistic talent return from working cattle “out west,” swaggering like some chaw-spewing cowhand, she fears the power of open spaces. “A sadness came over Nell Connor as she walked back to the house,” Donovan writes. “Does the country make the man, or the man make the country?”
Nell Connors regrets what her children won’t have, what they’ll never experience out here on the hard-hearted Siouxland prairie.
The Dutch fare well in Black Soil. The novel is set somewhere near Primghar, where the Connors watch immigrant Hollanders arrive in waves at the western reaches of the county (“the Dutch are coming in thicker than hops!” someone reports).
Nell says, they're clannish, more so that the Germans and Luxembourgians; but they keep their towns and themselves clean and tidy, just like their farms. They work hard, and, in the novel at least, the occasional Hollander who wanders away from the colony and into foreign Siouxland regions always makes a good neighbor.
In a blizzard reminiscent of the famous Children’s Blizzard of 1888, a little Dutch boy dies when the kids are sent home as the snow begins to fall. Then, when the blizzard unfurls its anger, Little Benny Hurd leaves the Connors kids because his home is in another direction.
People die on the prairie. Ms. Donovan tells the story of Johann Hoepner, an aristocratic young German, who is just what Nell wants in a neighbor—he’s upper class, well-educated, and can speak seven languages. A sweetheart back in Germany awaits his signal that a new home awaits her in a new land.
But things don’t work out for Johann Hoepner. He doesn’t appear able to escape the mud soddie people helped him build when he arrived. When the woman he loves stops writing, Johann takes out a rope and ends his prairie life beneath a cottonwood.
Nell is heartbroken, not only because the community lost one of its own, but also because his death kindles once more her grievous fear that this place can kill, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
If there were a church fight or two, the novel could well have been written by a Dutch Calvinist. There isn’t. The Connors are Roman Catholic, and Nell is bountifully religious, close to God, constantly in prayer.
For years, Nell insisted that when their foster child, Sheila, was of age, she’d be sent back east for the kind of education her children were sadly missing. It’s her dream. It’s the vision that allows her to live out here at the edge of the frontier. But when that time comes, Sheila decides otherwise.
Her mother's heart is broken. Her only comfort is that her sadness is God’s will. She goes alone to her bedroom, bearing the burden of her failure, then lies there quietly, admitting no one, seeing no one.
In her calm she realized that in this as in all other things she must be reconciled to His indomitable will. Her spirit of fight was of no avail; she must accept fate. Her recent flash of anger went out like the lightning of a storm. She got up from her bed with a feeling akin to that experienced after the birth of her children here in this room—she had been down in the valley for a while, but she was up in the heights again.Then she says, “It’s God’s will.” And with that, “Nell bathed her face, combed her hair, changed her wrapper, and rattled up some custard pies for the men’s dinner.”
It’s the railroad that saves Nell Connors, because it links her with her childhood and the blessings of a community with good schools and endless opportunities. When the railroad comes to town, Nell Connors finds herself ready to settle down.
Black Soil is not a great novel. Donovan’s power of description occasionally shines in portraits of prairie beauty that belie Nell’s great fears; but Josephine Donovan wanders through several characters’ perceptions with an annoying and unsteady omniscience, and the perils of the prairie—grasshoppers, prairie fires--are no more or less than what one might expect.
Still, for those of us who live here, Black Soil is a great read, even if it’s not great literature. It brings us back to a time we need to remember. It wasn’t always easy here, farming wasn’t always a business, and opportunity was abundant as a bin-busting harvest.
That we don’t know our history better allows, even generates a certain kind of arrogance. To read Black Soil today, 150 years after white folks like the Collins came to Siouxland to seek a better life, is humbling, something to think about when you pass some huge, tech-savvy John Deere this spring, something to consider when you look up and down endless rows of corn and beans stretching into a horizon that never ends.
Wasn't always this way.