The title and not the author first caught my eye--Prairie, by someone named Muilenburg, not an unfamiliar name here. I found a copy (they're rare), bought it, read it, and was greatly moved, not by the power of the novel but by what it says about him. And about us.
The novel's roots are here. Walter J. Muilenburg was born on a farm just outside of Orange City, and his Prairie is definitely local, its characters pioneers not unlike Walter J's own parents, who homesteaded a couple miles north after moving from the Pella area in 1872.
Now get this. In the early decades of the 20th century, a pioneer, immigrant family, rural folks, have three sons: one of them becomes a novelist, and the other two earn Ph.D.s., both of them in theology.
But the novel suggests Walter J likely had little confidence in "the faith of our fathers," or at least the faith of his brothers. A couple of minutes of googling turns up all kinds of information about the novelist's brother James, a distinguished prof at Union Theological Seminary, New York City, a colleague, in fact, of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, both of whom had prominent national reputations.
When some of the trails leading toward Walter J disappeared in a fog, I wondered if I'd get to know his brother better I might just learn more about Walter J. James left a legacy wide enough to shelve. James has to rank among Northwestern Academy's most distinguished early graduates.
A Northwestern archivist alerted me to the fact that James Muilenburg was the subject of a profile penned by Frederick Buechner, one of America's finest religious writers. "But for me, as for most of us studying there in those days," Buechner writes in his memoir Now and Then, "there was no one on the [Union] faculty who left so powerful and lasting an impression as James Muilenburg."
Maybe if I get to know brother James a little, I thought, something in him may throw some light on his novelist brother--and what his novelist brother believed or didn't.
"He was a fool, I suppose in the sense that he was an intimate of the dark," Buechner says of brother James, "yet held fast to the light as if it were something you could hold fast to." Buechner goes on to open that metaphor as wide as he can. "[He was a fool] . . .in the sense that he wore his heart on his sleeve even though it was in some ways a broken heart; in the sense that he was as absurdly himself before the packed lecture hall as he was along in his office; a fool in the sense that he was a child in his terrible candor. A fool in other words, for Christ."
Buechner quotes him thusly:
"Every morning when you wake up," he used to say, "before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again."A fool, Buechner says, a man who likely wouldn't be.
On the paperback cover of Buechner's Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, the editors inscribed a line from the goods inside, a line they found fitting: "Listen to your life, see it for the fathomless mystery that it is."
That's Buechner, but if you look again at the way he describes the prof who left "so powerful and lasting an impression," perception at the bottom of that judgment and in his teacher's theological direction is one and the same--life itself is a mystery.
And it is, isn't it? Almost 125 years ago now, three boys (on land not so far from where I'm sitting) are starting to think about picking corn, hoping the weather holds because picking it's no fun when the snow flies. Probably to them, picking corn by hand is no fun any time, really.
Not one of them will stay on the home place; each one will leave for higher education. All three will achieve some significant prominence, two of them theologians, preachers, one I think quite certainly not.
None of them came back to live here, but only one is buried here: Walter J, the one who perhaps went farthest away.