Wednesday, June 01, 2016
Human stories set right here
I shouldn't be surprised, I guess, that the world just outside my window plays such a major role in each of the three novels I (and others) have been reading in the last year, all three set close by and written fifty years or so after the homsteading each of them describe. "Major role" actually misses the mark; in all three the region where I live isn't just another character; it is the primal force with which each novel's protagonist has to find atonement. In one way or another the prairie is the antagonist in each of the novels.
Really everything goes wrong for Nell O'Connor, in Josephine Donovan's Black Soil, a novel set just a bit west of here among the region's early Yankee settlers. She remembers the fine life of Amherst, Massachusetts, where she and her family lived before her husband began to dream of a new life out west. She sees herself as a pilgrim out here beyond civilization, someone who will, who must eventually return. On the prairie, even her most compassionate work--adopting a forsaken child--turns to grief when that young lady runs off--even farther west!--with an Indian boy.
What saves Nell O'Connor is her seemingly invincible dedication to the notion that God's will for her, for her husband and her family--no matter what that will may bring--is fashioned from his stedfast love for his own. Of those, she is convinced she is one. The prairie throws everything it has at her, but she continues to stand in the might afforded her faith.
It's a more complex force in Walter J. Muilenburg's Prairie. The world Elias Vaughn is committed to conquer has similar weapons--hail, heat, cold. It's a landscape that won't be broken easily. On the other hand, this wide and yawning world outside my window casts a remarkable sublimity that Vaughn finds mysteriously seductive. It's incredible beauty, despite its bad behavior, creates so profound an awe in Vaughn that he seems to forget those around him, those he should love, had he any love left. Elias Vaughn wrenches a livable space out of a prairie world that somehow steals his humanity and leaves him as alone and loveless his father ever was.
O. E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth has two pioneer protagonists, both giants really, whose love for each other is tested by the new world of the American prairie. One of them, Per Hansa, finds this new world an adventure, a test of his manhood. Out here, the other, Beret, his wife, feels bereft of everything that has given her life meaning. She is as ardent a believer as Nell O'Connor, but Nell's faith gives her life. Beret's inflicts guilt that eventually breaks her.
Rolvaag's interest is a study of emigration itself, of the way European immigrants learn to live in a world that offers nothing of the tradition or mythology that gave real meaning and purpose in the old world. Emigration, Rolvaag suggests, is not only perilous but potentially fatal.
The prairie is a different kind of antagonist in Giants in the Earth. It's danger is only partially the wind and hail and fire it can so callously create. What endangers the settlers is their removal from the wellsprings of meaning that gave them life in the old country. In the emptiness of the prairie they go hungry with it comes to spiritual sustenance.
All that history is behind us, really. Down river from here, the Floyd has been managed by flood control plans that bulldozed an expansive channel wide and deep enough to weather the kinds of floods the river once mustered almost annually. Most all weather comes in spades out here--cold is deadly, winds are constant, heat is unbearable, storms are preposterous. But life is pretty much under control. The power of the plains seems managed, the world outside my window domesticated, like the river. Where once there was poverty, wealth is more than abundant.
We've come and we've conquered. I should be thrilled.
This morning three or four dozen Canadian geese are trekking across the open field between me and river. I have no idea why they've undertaken the pilgrimage that's come all the way across the field, west to east. They're a stumbling herd, the moms and pops shepherding children who not yet old enough to fly. None of them are particularly good at walking.
But right now they remind me of what life might have looked like 150 years ago, what the Yanktons must have seen happening all around, masses of strange-looking people, heads down, bound and determined to find something somewhere they could call a world of their own.
It is a great story, and a sad one too, a story told in part in three novels, each of them written fifty years after the homesteading each of them document.
In all its elements, with all its variations, its separate triumphs and tragedies, it's the human story set here, right outside my window.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 7:09 AM