If you're looking for a pot boiler, grab the next one off the shelf. If you're looking for apocalypse, sci fi or fantasy, you're in the wrong section of the bookstore. Inspiration?--don't make me laugh. A how to?--nope. This one is straight-up realism with never-ending jolts of earthiness that make you scream or at least look away. There are moments along the line when you speak to Frederick Manfred, the author, when you say, "Dang it, you honestly didn't have to include some of the stuff because, doggone it, I really didn't want to know."
But if you like museums, pick up Green Earth and start into one of Frederick Manfred's thickest tomes--over 700 pages of a kid growing up amid endless farm life minutia in Siouxland (he always claimed to have given the place its name) in the 1920s. No one else tells that story. No one else could.
Manfred wanted to tell at least two stories during his writing life. One was regional, a story he told in five "Buckskinman" novels, the much-heralded Lord Grizzily, Conquering Horse, Scarlet Plume, Riders of Judgment, and King of Spades, each of which explores an era in the history of section of nation he lovingly chose to call his home.
The other story was his own, a story he told in novels he called "rumes," from rumination (he rather liked making up things, even words). A writer ruminates about himself and his world and tells the story using those materials. When Green Earth appeared (1973), the age of the memoir hadn't. He was himself rooting around for a way to tell his own story. Not content with calling what he does in Green Earth plain old autobiography, he wants to create a hybrid all his own borne from the freedom to take what he wants from what actually happened and refashion it into what he would happily and even blessedly call "art."
Whatever that is.
Today, we baptize everything with that word. Good autobiography, like good memoir, is "art," right? "The Art of Reality Television"--someone had to have written that essay already.
Green Earth, a "rume," chronicles the life of Free Alfredson, although any fool knows it's really about a kid named Feike Feikema, a tall, gangly farm boy who loved baseball and wasn't afraid of a little hard work because, back then, hard work simply came with the territory. Fred's family moved around a lot, so did Free's. Fred's family included six knock-around boys; so did Free's. Fred's mother was deeply religious; so is Free's. Fred's father, a good man, wasn't; neither was Free's, who was also a good man.
Just about every inch of Green Earth is Fred Manfred's story. What isn't is up for grabs.
When it comes right down to it, Green Earth tells the stories of two people--Free and Ada, which is to say, Fred and his mom. For Free, the story is the passage from childhood into adulthood. Green Earth begins with Ada's tragic love affair with a man who got another woman pregnant and therefore, by community custom, married the girl with child. The novel tells the story of her romance with a kind and hard-working Frisian boy from a town up the road, their marriage, Free's birth, Free's childhood, and Free's high school years. Free's story is all of our stories--how we grew from innocence to experience.
But the unique story at the heart of Green Earth belongs to Ada Engleking, Free's mother, a woman whose deeply religious heart colors the emotional tone of the novel the way a Siouxland dawn in June colors the never-ending sky. Her story is a love story in every way--how she learned to love her husband, how she learned to love the world around her, and, most specifically, how she learned to love her son, a son who was not like any other in the neighborhood.
In a deathbed scene that's unforgettable, Free is freed to think and imagine and even write. It's hard to believe from a Dutch Reformed point of view, but meant to be definitive by the emerging writer. "I'd rather have you in hell than a hypocrite in heaven," Ada tells her son, freeing him, just moments before she dies.
Did that conversation actually happen? Did a deeply religious woman who becomes, in Green Earth, almost divinely sympathetic actually tell her son when he was 17 and she was dying, that he should follow his heart and his dream, even if that road brought him away from the salvation she had to have wanted for her first-born son?
Manfred would say that isn't the question you should ask. The question is, is Green Earth art?
Talk amongst yourselves.
I love the novel, loved it more this time, thirty-some years after I read it before, despite the fact that as a novel it's wearying. It plods through years as if pulling a plow. It's 700+ pages. A thousand loosely fitting anecdotes. Endless specificity about a way of life that's gone. It's a chronicle--a chronological biography of a tall kid with literary aspirations in a specific time--the 1920s--and place--the rolling hills around the Rock River and town named Doon, Iowa.
But it's a museum between covers, an anthology of rural life, a how-to of farming with horses. It's all in there, Manfred would say, everything he ever knew as a boy on a farm. It almost makes holy a way of life that's now long gone from ground people like the Alfredsons--which is to say, the Feikemas--once worked so hard.
We visited Manfred's grave last night in the Doon cemetery. It's adorned with a quote. Here it is.
If you want to know what made Fred Manfred write Green Earth, he might say himself, "It's all here." It's all in the line on his stone. Everything--even the pain and the hunger--was life, "and all moments of life are very precious."
It's all there in Green Earth. If you're looking to turn pages, look elsewhere. But if you've got the time to wander through a rich adorned museum, then take it off the shelf and tell the librarian you want an extension even before you get out of the library.
And if you can, read it here, in Siouxland. You'll probably love some moments; others you'll hate. I'm sure some moments will disappoint, others will disgust. Trust me.
But that's life, Fred would say. And it's all there. It's all in the book.