Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Snowstorm (vii)

The story you're reading is just about forty years old. This version differs immensely from the original--not in substance, but in style. There are things I just wouldn't do anymore, things I changed because I couldn't live with what I'd written that long ago--changes in point of view, for instance, and a stilted style I chose back then because I wanted to sound as if I were writing this at the turn of the 20th century. Those things are gone. 

What hasn't changed is the story line: how a young teacher dealt with the reality of a brutal and dangerous storm just outside her door--and the mischief of an older boy within. There are two sources for the story--one is a yarn I found in an old history book and the other is my mother, who was a young schoolteacher long, long ago in a country school. She never forgot how one day an older boy made her so angry she could hardly go on. That's a story she told me years and years go. We've now come to my mother's story of the storm-within-the- storm. 

Miss Baarman had determined that the children would inevitably ask her to read something too, once all of them had had a turn. She thought of Whittier. It was a gamble, she knew, but they’d loved the story when first she’d read it, and something about reading it again now, putting them in the middle of a world just like the one they’d see just outside the windows—if they could see anything at all. Reading that old poem might just bring comfort, she thought. 

"I thought it might be fun today especially,” she told them, “to read 'Snowbound' again."

All assented, all around.

"I know we read it about a month ago, but with snow falling so beautifully outside our windows right now, it’s just a natural, don’t you think?”

"Read it, Miss Baarman."

"Yes, read it!"


If any kid weren’t interested, they weren’t speaking up. Besides, Teacher wasn't always willing to read to them.

She began slowly. The girls loved it, but they loved almost anything she’d read. Dirk sat up straight, all ears, arms up on the desk, head in his hands, eyes bright. The whole Whittier portrait was not only enticing, but enchanting, even though, all around, swirling winds whipped across the Iowa prairie.

The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm.

No one looked out the window. Whittier's words were just too good, she thought, the reading weaving a spell for all of their vivid imaginations.

In those moments she’d look up, she did notice that the oldest boys were not as fully taken. Johnny Mulder’s hands were up in front of his as if to cover his eyes. He chewed at the cotton sleeve of his shirt, seemingly distracted.

Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door.
While the red logs before us beat
The frost-line back with tropic heat.

The rest of the children were lost in a dream, and it thrilled her because somehow she understood that their listening to the inside story made what was happening outside far less frightful than it could be. They were soaring along through their own imaginations, up so high that all the world was with them.

And melt not in an acid sect
The Christian pearl of charity!

Then Johnny Mulder grunted as he raised his hand to get her attention.

"So days went on: a week had--"

Made her downright furious. She couldn’t believe he wanted her attention. The kids were spellbound. Her eyes stabbed into his. "What do you want?" she said, the book still up in front of her eyes.

The whole class turned. His voice was cocked with politeness and mock respect. "I dropped my bookmark by the stove," he said, as if it were of grave importance. "May I please retrieve it, please?"

She burned at his ridiculous, impetuous rudeness. She wanted to say, "No, of course not!" but she didn’t. "Yes, and hurry, please!" 

She looked down at the book, refusing to watch him carry the kids’ attention to him. Most of the others turned with her, anxious to hear the end.

She resumed reading the moment Johnny rose from his seat and took a few steps to the bricks around the stove. She started again because she knew it was a fight she had to win—it was going to be her reading of the poem against whatever mischief Johnny Mulder could muster, whatever attention he craved, no matter what kind of show he would create. She put her finger up to the text as if she was herself a grade-schooler and threw herself into the reading. She heard him blow his nose ridiculously loud, but she refused to acknowledge the silliness or anything about the boy, refused even to look.

Within our beds awhile we heard
The wind that round the gables roared,
With now and then a ruder shock,
Which made our very bedsteads rock.
We heard the loosened clapboards tost,
The board-nails snapping in the frost;
And on us, through the unplastered wall,
Felt the light sifted snow-flakes fall.
But sleep stole on, as sleep will do
When hearts are light and life is new;
Faint and more faint the murmurs grew,
Till in the summer-land of dreams
They softened to the sound of streams,
Low stir of leaves, and dip of oars,
And lapsing waves on quiet shores.

She could feel—and it made her furious—that the kids were distracted. Something rolled innocently across the hardwood floor so loud a resonant hum drew confused stares from students on both sides of the middle aisle. She stopped reading. It kept coming, kept rolling through the silence all around.

She glanced momentarily at the marble and closed the book, keeping a finger in the page, then faced the class with a smile meant to be sweet and nice. What she saw, however, was a crowd of faces tense with anticipation. Somehow, it never dawned on her that there might be a relationship between that marble and the tension she couldn’t help notice on all of their faces.

When finally it banged against the front of the room, she walked over,stooped down, and picked it up—ready to explode at Johnny Mulder. There was no reason for him--

She could not have held the marble for more than a fraction of a second. It was almost aflame. She shrieked and flapped her hand above her head, making her limp fingers fly as if to shake off the burn. Then she jammed her thumb and forefinger into her mouth and closed her eyes, all of this without getting up from her haunches. There she sat, cowering in hurt, wounded and angry. It was all done deliberately. He meant to hurt her. He meant only to hurt her.

"Why? Why now?" she said, fighting back tears she knew she shouldn’t let fall.

No one moved.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Snowstorm (vi)

It had become clear that no one will be leaving the little country schoolhouse as long as the storm roared away outside the windows. The question Katharine Baarman needed to answer--as did hundreds of young teachers in hundreds of country schools--was what then? How could she manage their time, keep them warm, and hold fear, even panic, at bay?

A half hour later the bin at the rear of the room was full of logs, many of them layered with melting snow. More were neatly stacked beside the box.

School ran along smoothly by recitation time, she thought, the class quiet and quite unusually interested in what was going on. The older children knew the readers nearly by heart, but even they appeared interested in "The Battle of Waterloo" and the old favorite, "Prisoner of Debt," when those old selections were read and recited by classmates. Their close attention she used to advantage, going beyond the normal time as long as the interest remained high.

She called on Henry, whom most respected as the best reader in school; she had him read "Regulus Before the Carthaginians," a favorite of his. Henry turned in his chair and looked back at Johnny, whispered something she didn’t hear, something Johnny Mulder responded to by a kind of insistent nodding.

Johnny shut the book he’d been reading and looked toward the front of the room, then sat up in his chair as Henry began to speak. Something was going on—she didn’t know what, but something was. For a moment their eyes met, and she couldn’t help thinking Johnny looked remarkably mature, even concerned, so much so in fact that she told herself she had no reason to worry.

They’d gone almost all the way up the grades, so when Henry finished she looked at the back of the room, then announced, "Johnny, are you going do it?"

Henry laughed, which surprised her somehow since there was nothing particularly funny about him reading.

"Ja," he said, "of course I'll do it!"

Outside, the daylight had all but disappeared behind the mantle of darkness. Scattered lamps lit the room. Here and there a left-over Christmas candle sent shadows dancing on the walls and over the students, for the most part in an enchanting way all the kids seemed to love. She could see well enough to know that the children liked it all, especially Johnny’s being up there, his being the only deep voice in school.

Johnny Mulder turned abruptly when he got to the front of the room, opened the book he was holding to the story he had chosen, and looked out over an audience at full attention. 

Emma, who was almost dreamy. Mary wore a smug look, as if there was nothing the pest could do that would move her. 

Johnny waited, looking at her as if for permission, very unlike him.

“You may read,” she told him, smiling. "And what may we be hearing, Mr.Mulder?"

"'General Putnam,'" he stammered, "'General Putnam' is the story I will read."

Everyone knew it and loved it. Emma inched up closer in her chair, smiled way all too charmingly, Katharine thought.

"There once lived in Connecticut... " he began, his low voice rolling evenly through the old story of Israel Putnam and the wolf in the cave, the last wolf in Connecticut.

"The wolf was very angry,' " he read, looking around menacingly. “'She growled in a way that would have frightened most men. But Putnam was not afraid.' "

Little Dirk shifted fearfully in his seat, looked up at her to make sure all of this was okay. Katharine nodded, even winked.

Johnny fell far more deeply into the story. She had no idea he could recite as well as he could because he’d never done anything like it. The kids were perfectly still, rapt up totally in the danger in the cave. Then, when the Indians tied Putnam to the stake and piled dry sticks around him, Johnny let them down graciously: “’But Putnam did not show any signs of fear’ with so much conviction, it seemed almost like majesty. He’d become the General himself. In a few minutes both he and his men were out of danger,” he said, and just like that the entire student body leaned back in their chairs and sighed, then applauded.

Even Mary was moved. Emma was lost in her own sweet fantasy.  Most importantly, no one was thinking about the blizzard.

Johnny held his head high, shoulders back squarely, in the palpable admiration of all the other pupils. When he was passing the stove, he pulled out a bookmark from his reader, and with his left hand, dropped it on the bricks around the stove, his back to her. Then he took his seat.

She let them go on—more and more readings—their enthusiasm hadn't fallen at all. One of the younger girls had a second turn, and when she had completed her recitation, Mary insisted the teacher read. "Your turn, Miss Baarman," she said. "Please?" and soon enough she was joined by an entire chorus of beggars.

"Miss Baarman, how about you?"

As long as the storm raged outside, keeping the children calm was her great concern. If any of the little ones came to understand their danger, began to catch on to the fact that they simply couldn’t be going home, panic could set in, something she didn’t want to happen. As long as she could keep their minds off of the danger they were actually in, she could keep fear away. 
She stood up from her chair up front and selected a book from the shelf behind her, boldly, as if she had prepared something herself just for this moment.



Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Snowstorm (v)

Outside, the storm continues to worsen. Katharine Baarman knows that she is facing more than one enemy here--the blizzard, but also the kids' fears.
The boys came in together. They hadn’t been called.

“That's a big storm, ma'am!" Henry was adamant. 'That wind just about takes your head off."

"We're gonna’ get a ton, sure."

"It’s a real bad one."

For a moment, snow flew in through the doorway thick and heavy as sawdust. The little girls jumped to their feet and ran to the windows, blurting out bluejay warnings, little shrieks of excitement. The whole school looked into the shroud of snow that seemed to overwhelm them and just about swallow the whole schoolhouse in a cloud of streaking silver/gray.

The whole drama was scary and thrilling simultaneously. The littlest children jumped and hurrahed. Katharine sensed for the first time that the lives of her children might well be subject to the gale of snow outside, to the God who controlled it. With her eyes wide open, she placed her hands on the shoulders of little Nick and breathed a prayer, twenty young lives dependent on her wisdom, her strength.

"Going to send us home, Miss Baarman?" Henry said.

She smiled as calmly as she could and messed Nick’s fine. "I don’t know—maybe it’ll break. Let me go outside for a minute and check. We'll see."

The children continued to celebrate the storm, running, shouting, holding hands, and dancing about as if it were the last day of school. She walked through the middle of the room, passing each row, passing Johnny Mulder who sat in his chair at the back, looking intently at her, saying nothing.

When she got to the door, she opened it quickly and stepped out into the full violence of the blizzard. She could not see the outline of the privy or the pump. Icy snowflakes bit into her skin. There was no way she could let them go home. No way at all. 

Soon--if not already--their parents would be worried sick. She wondered whether some were on their way, trying to get out to the school. They likely were putting up ropes between house and barn. If they had left, if they were somewhere outside in this--she didn't want to think about that at all.

When she stepped back into the room and wiped the snow from her blouse and sweater, Dirk looked up and into her face.

"Well, it’ll break, I’m sure. We’ve still got lots of work to do,” she announced, moving resolutely to the front of the room. Her confidence was hollow, and she knew it—what mattered was keeping her fear from the kids.

"Are we going home?" Nick smiled darlingly, no sense of the gravity of what was happening outside—or in.

"I doubt this will last too long,” she told him and them. “In an hour, it will probably be all over, skies will clear. You’ve got boots and mittens. The weather is lots different than it was this morning—remember that? But all the way home you came make snow angels.” She hugged him gently. “Won’t that be fun?”

The children plodded grudgingly toward their seats, groaning and muttering, and the afternoon session began. She could barely read. She didn’t remember the room ever being so dark, so she asked Johnny Mulder to light the lanterns and a few candles. He was—and it thrilled her--very considerate and efficient; not a word of smart mouth, and he didn’t even attempt to get the attention of the class.

Just as she concluded the Bible story, Johnny Mulder finished lighting the room—almost as if it was Christmas once again. She looked around and tried her best to engineer the biggest smile she could. But she couldn’t help notice that the bin at the back of the room was low on wood, and linked it right then with Nick's mysterious noon-hour appearance.

Once more, she asked Johnny to come to the front of the room, then turned to three other older boys, while holding Johnny's arm. She wanted to let him know she was making him some kind of captain of things, let him know she needed him to be a grown-up.

'This morning," she said, "it was obvious that you three didn't know your lessons in multiplication."

When she noticed the children’s attention, she understood that they were surprised because what she was doing was something that didn’t normally get done just then. Arithmetic was over—that was morning stuff.

"I think you need extra practice.” She tried to play a sterner teacher than she was—and that they knew she was. “Each of you three, with Johnny, who knew his lesson, will go to the woodpile and get several logs. Then, when you come back, Johnny will count the stack while you put a multiplication problem on the board to explain to us what the correct total should be--"

The boys stood and pranced to the back like show horses, wrestled on their jackets and caps, and were gone. “Stay with me, you guys,” Johnny said, and they were gone.

Meanwhile, she started them on penmanship and spelling, and, once more departing from routine, she wrote new words on the board: "Snow," "drift," "storm," "flake”; and for the older children, "moisture," "crystallize," even "precipitate.”

Outside, the wind continued to roar and the snow seemed to pound against the windows. '

Only a short time passed before the boys returned, their arms loaded with logs.

"Henry, come up front and write it out." Henry peeled his coat off as if it were burning and marched to the front of the room.

"We took--"


"Um, we brought in twelve logs, ma'am."

"Then write that number on the board and tell us how you came to that conclusion, Henry--or better yet, show us."

"We took in-"

"Brought in."

"We brought in four logs each, ma'am." He wrote "3x4" leading up to the "12" that he had already put there, then turned in triumph.

" Johnny, you count them,” she insisted.

Henry stood at the front of the room, rocking confidently from his toes to his heels.

"There's 17, Miss Baarman."

"How did that happen, Henry7"

He shoved his hands into his pockets, and looked down at the floor.

"Willem? Peter?"

His friends were equally speechless.

"I brought in five, ma'am," Johnny said.

The laughter all around was a good thing, she thought. "Very well then,” she said, “your punishment is to go back and do it again."

The rest of the kids howled.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Snowstorm (iv)

At literally hundreds of rural schools, the blizzard made teachers, most of them young women barely any older than their oldest students, make a life-and-death decision: should they keep their students out of the storm and risk all kinds of things, or should they send them home, if the closest anyone lived was almost a mile away? The time has come for Miss Baarman to make that decision. 

By dinnertime, the storm had begun to prove itself massive. The boys were gobbling down their buttered bread, anticipating a game of "dare-goo!" in the snow. She let them out early after telling them they shouldn’t eat their whole lunch—she had started to worry about what might just happen should they have to stay and not go home at all. The older girls took one look at the snow and chose to stay inside and do some tatting.

Heavy snow was not an immediate cause of concern to her or to the kids. Maybe once a week, gusty snow would brush off the windows or accumulate in drifts on the glass around the playground. The wind blew just about everyday. To look out the window and see sideways snow wasn’t at all unusual, so Katharine wasn’t panicked. But she was concerned. Very concerned. This wasn’t just any prairie storm—the morning had opened with a beautiful early spring thaw that had turned on a dime and rode the darkness in like something evil.

"When will school be over, Miss Baarman?" Mary asked. Wood cracked from the roaring fire in the stove, making some of the timid children jump in their seats.

"End of this month probably—when field work starts."

"I for one am not anxious the teeniest bit." Mary looked around for approval, then glanced up at Miss Baarman, who stood at her desk, looking through the east windows.

"Miss Baarman! --"

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I'm just worried about the boys getting so wet and dirty."

That was an unsettled lie.

"Don't worry about them, ma'am,” Mary said. “They'll take care of themselves. I was saying that I'm not anxious for school to get out.”

"Oh, really, why not?" Katharine asked, totally distracted.

"We like school,” another of the girls said. “Besides, I only got to work at home."

"And you’re saying school isn't work, I suppose?" she carried on conversation.

"Ja, this is work, but it just ain't the same."


“Pa says isn’t all the time,” Mary said.

“You don’t look like your pa, you don’t dress like your pa, you don’t sing like your pa, you don’t smoke like your pa,” she told them, wearing an innocent smile. “What is it that makes you think you should talk like him?”

"Just isn't the same." The girls worked on their tatting; some were busy with schoolwork, as the conversation idled on.

"You mean you like schoolwork better than housework, Mary?"

They all chuckled at the ridiculous question.

That’s when Nick Oldersma opened the door and peeked in. The girls turned quickly. It was too early for the boys to come in, and besides they always had to be told.

"Something wrong?" Miss Baarman asked Nick.

"No, ma'am."

Seemed puzzling even to her. On the other hand, Nick wasn’t as old as the other boys. "Is there something we can do for you?" All his layers of clothes made him look like a miniature man.

"Not really, ma'am. It's just that, well, we were wondering if maybe you need some wood from out back."

The bin in the back was full enough for the afternoon.

"I don’t think so, Nick,” she told them. It was big of him—of them—to think of what they might need inside. She looked out again at the storm. It was only getting worse, but she didn’t want to alarm them. “I think we'll get along just fine on what we have."

Nick swung the door shut behind him, happy, it appeared, to be leaving. But he’d been sent. There was no doubt about that. The little guy hadn’t come in because he was the one concerned—someone was out there.

"Nick." She tried to stop him, then, but he was gone.

While the girls continued to work, she walked to the window and watched Nick Oldersma race across the ground that had been slick as ice this morning, watched him run toward the boys who were playing some schoolyard game. They stopped their competition and trooped around him. That Johnny Mulder towered over the rest, Nick related what had happened, and Mulder hunched his shoulders and waved the boys back to their game.

“That Johnny is growing up, I think,” she said to the girls.

Emma Westerbeek blushed.

“I think he’s just a --, just a something-or other,” Mary said, and then as if she simply had lost all control, she blurted out, “I think he’s just a big fat turd.”

Everyone—absolutely everyone shrieked at the naughty word.

“Mary Boersma,” Miss Baarman said. “If I had soap—well, tell you what. You must go outside yourself and grab a whole handful of snow, a big snowball, and put it in your mouth to clean up all everything that naughty word left behind.”

Worse things had happened, Miss Baarman thought. Besides, there were times in the school year when she couldn’t have agreed more.

Mary didn’t look one bit guilty. She put her things down on the desktop, threw her shoulders back like royalty and walked out of the room and through the door without even pulling on her coat.

It was difficult for some of the girls not to giggle, and some did. Katharine tried hard not to break and almost made it, when Mary came back in with a big chunk of snow in her hands, but not her mouth.

“It’s really bad, Miss Baarman,” Mary said, standing at the door. “It’s a blizzard.” And then, “What are we going to do?”



Monday, December 26, 2016

Snowstorm (iii)

The sense that the storm outside is ominous is something Katharine Baarman can't escape as she tries to keep her schoolchildren preoccupied with their lessons.

Whatever smile had appeared earlier in the morning on Katharine’s face was nearly erased by the realization of her fears, fears she tried hard to mask. Three of the children were working at the board, the others—all sixteen—seemed absorbed in their work.

"That’s very good, Nick,” she told him. “You may sit down.” She spun around in front of the class with maybe a little more dramatic flair than usual. “So, does anyone else notice any errors?"

Hands went up, and some students added a muffled grunt she normally didn’t tolerate. She called on MaryJane, a quiet little girl, to correct the work, and, a bit sheepishly, she made her way to the front of the room.

That’s when the outside door opened, and Johnny Mulder walked back in, in strange and uncharacteristic silence. Just about everyone turned to observe his entrance, and for a moment, the room somewhat fearfully silent. He pushed his fingers through his windblown hair, removed his heavy coat, and then sat down without making any wild appeals for attention.

As always, she pretended she wasn’t watching. But it never worked because everyone else in the room was aware of the drama that in the offing, drama that this morning didn’t get staged.

She hated to admit it to anyone, even herself, but there were times when his absences dragged on for almost an hour. This time, the whole school was mystified—as she was—to see him return so quickly. What’s more he didn’t pinch anybody, didn’t say a word, just came in and sat down. Things got back on track without a problem.

The wind kept growing in strength, shaking the windows as if they were afraid. It seemed to find every hole and crack in the building. The roof had seemed a host of tea kettles, a whole chorus. Most children seemed unaffected. They kept up their work as if unaware of the pounding the storm was inflicting.

"Johnny, you take number 51, please. Henry, 52. Dirk, 53. Margaret, 54." The arithmetic lesson for the older children's began, the younger kids working on other assignments or watching the old ones.

Johnny Mulder strutted toward the front, down the center aisle. He faked tripping on one of the little pile of bricks around the old box-stove and fell on the floor, arms and legs splaying. It had happened before. Often, in fact. In a way, it was free entertainment she’d learned to tolerate, as long as things didn’t get out of hand. She simply looked away and let him put on the show.

“I don’t see why you like him,” Mary Boersma insisted to Clara Eggink. “I don’t think he’s funny at all.”

“Oh, shush,” Clara said. “You don’t know him and I don’t like him.”

“Do too.”

“Do not.”

“Do too.”

“Girls,” Katharine said, rolling her eyes. She looked over to where the two of them were quarreling.

Meanwhile, Johnny rose very slowly and stood, just for a moment, beside the stove. What she didn’t see was that the moment she turned her attention away from him, he dropped a marble as big as a crow's egg into a crevice of the stove, a move his buddies did see.

Then he composed himself again and came up the middle aisle to the chalkboard and proceeded to divide 4,360 by 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. His answers were wrong only when he wanted them to be, and this time he seemed to work harder at them. In less time than it took for the others to finish, he had his work down and right. The children watched him closely, but some of his buddies were taken only by another calculation Johnny Mulder had made. A dark blue marble sat in the stove, absorbing the intense heat.

Meanwhile, Katharine looked once more through the shivering windows. Those thick, low cloud before school were gone now, the sky gray and dark and uneven, almost purple, moving fast from the northwest. Flecks of snow were bounced like dust off the windows, like spies, she thought, to plan the attack of the storm looming powerfully. She stared out at the prairie, looked for a wagon maybe, someone coming, but saw nothing in a landscape that seemed clearly to be closing in on her and the children.

“Miss Baarman,” Mary said. “Mother says that she saw talking with Marvin Fedders after church.”

“Oh, Mary,” Clara said. “Can’t you possibly keep your mouth shut?”

“--She says people say you’re seeing him—that he’s your beau.”

“It’s so embarrassing, Miss Baarman,” Clara told her. “Mary has such a big mouth.”

“True?” Mary said.

“We talked before—didn’t we? —about believing everything you hear,” Miss Baarman said, smiling just a shade devilishly. “Besides, don’t you think I’d tell you girls if I had a boyfriend?” She surprised herself at what she’d said because she’d never said anything close to that before, and she knew Mary would certainly let her mother know the moment she got home. But somehow, she knew that she had to things today that she wouldn’t have otherwise. There was this storm outside, and it was building, building.

"I think he's very handsome, " Mary said. 

Katharine looked at Clara, expecting some kind of comeback that didn't happen. It wasn't like her to play this the way she did, and she knew it herself. "Well, Clara?" she said, almost demandingly, but smiling.

"I think he's handsome too," Clara said. 

"Well, maybe we'll just have to see," she told them.

Three kids worked at the board. She looked around. The others seemed absorbed in their work. Only Johnny Mulder seemed preoccupied, looking out the window to the west, intent on different thoughts. She wondered if he was a little scared himself.


Friday, December 23, 2016

Snowstorm (ii)

The drama building outside the walls of the country school is only beginning--and Katharine can't help but read it in the changing weather. Meanwhile, inside, the shenanigans continue, as if this is simply another day at school. Katharine Baarman knows she's part of two stories, one a great deal more ominous than the other.

"I know it's too early," Johnny Mulder snarled as he walked up to the door.

"You’re not wrong," she said, "but I don’t want the younger children getting themselves full of mud."

He straightened his shoulders a bit, proud to be recognized for what he was, then walked in and took his seat at the back of the class, leaving clumps of mud on the floor with every step. His sidekicks, Dirk and Henry, wanted badly to do the same, she knew, but scraped their shoes and took their seats right in front of Johnny Mulder.

She looked once more over the open prairie and into the rampage of clouds above her, then turned and entered the room, walking slowly past the straight rows of children to the desk at the front. The children rose quietly as she entered, hands folded, watching and waiting for the morning prayer.

The sky, she told herself, was troubling. She looked over the heads of twenty of her little scholars, twenty shaggy-haired kids who stared at her, who expected her to lead. She fumbled with a wisp of hair that had fallen from the bun at the back of her neck, then stared down at Edgar, the youngest, then followed the rows back to Johnny, who waited just like always, his hands behind his head. Then, she prayed, hoping for a good day.


In less than an hour, Johnny Mulder rose and marched out of the schoolhouse. He hadn't asked, but he never did. Other children had to request use of the privy, but Johnny had special freedoms, freedoms he’d simply taken earlier in the year when Katharine had simply determined that it was a concession she could give in their daily tug-of-war. He had a habit of staying outside longer than anyone else would have dared, but that was the part of the game. When he’d return, he’d stroll in as if he owned the place. The boys loved it, and the girls hated it, in great part, she knew, because they loved her. And so it went.

And the truth was, Katharine didn’t really mind his absence all that much because whenever he left, the curtain went down on his dramatics. Henry turned around completely in his seat and got to work because there was no show to watch behind him. For those ten minutes—or a half hour, whatever it was—Katharine’s rule was wonderfully unquestioned. She’d come to think that the rest of the kids smiled more readily and responded more freely in recitation. Truth be told, there were days when she hoped he’d simply stay out there, maybe walk home.

Four of the youngest skipped to the front of the room, anxious to share their slate work in arithmetic. Katharine sat behind her desk, turned her chair to watch both the class and the students at the chalkboard. They were busy, some with slates, others watching their friends and checking their work. The little school was humming.

Outside the window she spotted Johnny Mulder walking ever so slowly toward the privy. Then he stopped, his hair flying back from beneath his cap as he looked up into the sky. What she recognized is that what she had feared had occurred: the wind had changed, even grown stronger. She could see it. Johnny pulled the collar of his woolen shirt more closely about his neck.

Mary Boersma was the first to finish her work at the board. She walked past the window, taking her teacher’s attention with her. Katharine got to her feet and walked down the aisle, checking the work of the students with their slates. Dirk looked back to her, then smiled, and without thinking at all about it, moved closer to the stove in the middle of the room. A chill hadn’t been there when they’d all come in.

"Any mistakes?" she asked when the children had returned to their seats. 

Hands shot into the air as the last of the boys sat down. She pointed at Nick, who took a thousand tiny steps to the front of the room.

"19=4 x 4 + 3,” he stated, erasing Mary’s final seven, "and 19=3 x 6 + 1, not 4." He glanced almost shyly at the class, his bright blue eyes gleaming.

"You may sit down, Nick—very good work. Anyone else notice errors?"

More hands. In the battle for attention, some students leaned forward and added a grunt they weren’t supposed to do. She let it pass this time.

When Johnny Mulder walked back in, he was careful to shut the door quietly behind him. In the classroom, everything stopped, as it always did because often enough he’d use his own grand entrance to pull some kind of show.

This time, thankfully, not. He pushed his fingers through his windblown hair, took off his coat, and sat down. The children were mystified, and so was she, surprised to see him back already. Not only that, but he pinched no one, didn’t say a word, and Katharine went back to the arithmetic, greatly thankful there was no big show.

The wind seemed to find every hole and crack, the roof a chorus of tea kettles, the windows rattling as if they were afraid. She heard it all, but wind was no stranger outside. The kids seemed oblivious. She swore she heard cold toes bump drum-taps on the hardwood.

"Johnny, take number 51, please. Henry, 52. Dirk, 53. Margaret, 54." And so the lesson continued

Johnny Mulder walked down the center aisle to get to the front, then faked tripping on one of the little pile of bricks around the old box-stove in the middle of the schoolhouse, an old joke he pulled at least once a week. He fell on the floor, arms and legs splaying out to the amusement of all the other children; and Katharine scolded him for his clumsiness, all part of the act.

What she missed when she turned away, as she always did, was the way he dropped a marble, big as a crow's egg, into a crevice of the old stove. She’d missed it, she told herself later. But a half dozen others—the older kids—hadn’t.

Johnny Mulder stood up front and proceeded to divide 4,360 by 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. His answers were usually correct, but the rest of the students were far more interested in what else he might do up front than they were in his arithmetic. Many of them had seen the dark blue marble rest comfortably in the stove, absorbing the heat.

She looked once more through the shivering windows. Those thick clouds were gone now. The sky turned an uneven gray, almost purple, moving slowly from the northwest.

Tiny flecks of snow were already noticeable in the air; they bounced like dust off the windows at her elbow, coming like spies. She stared out at the snowy countryside and into the ominous sky.

Next: As the weather changes, difficult decisions have to be made.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Snowstorm (i)

Charles Ephram, Country School in Winter (1918)
Long before I knew anything about the Blizzard of 1888, I wrote a story based on a tale told by Charles Dyke in The History of Sioux County, the tale of a young teacher in the middle of a blizzard that came up suddenly during an ordinary school day.

Lately I've been reading more about that incredible blizzard, a horrible storm that killed somewhere between 250 and 500 homesteaders, most of them children. David Laskin tells the tragic story in The Children's Blizzard, and Ted Koozer's collection of poems, Blizzard Voices, uses the remembrances of people who lived through it to tell it from the inside.

It's an embarrassingly long story, but what did I know about writing forty years ago? What I knew was that I'd stumbled on a terrific story I thought I'd like to try to write. Last week, temps fell so low no one who didn't have to went out, and I was reminded of the danger we live with here on the northern Plains.

This is "Snowstorm," from my very first book of stories, Sign of a Promise

There was no sun that morning, but the day held the promise of warmth, that was itself a relief from winter. A southern breeze spread comfort over the prairie, melted what snow remained, and loosened the grip of frost. The ground around the schoolhouse began soften already the day before; and when the night failed to bring its ritual frost, by morning, the topsoil warmed into a lake of mud. The children splashed through it along the paths they daily took to school. By the time they arrived, everything was layered with the wet black earth.

Katharine Baarman knew the warm weather would make recess even more inviting to the children, but better judgment insisted she call them in early because the floor would be a mess. It would be her luck to see the county superintendent open the door today and find the place a barnyard.

So she called the children early, interrupting a slip and slide game of "pom-pom-pullaway.” The careful kids were happy. Little Nick looked almost relieved when she rang the bell. He tiptoed like a ballerina, trying in vain to avoid the splattering mud to get to the front door. Most girls, wanting no part of the dirt, were already inside. They peeked out the door from behind her and looked sternly at the boys.

A familiar voice, deep and rough, shouted from across the playground. "Way too early, Miss Baarman!"

“That John Mulder," one of the girls said. "He has already pushed some little kids in the mud—and school hasn’t even started."

"It ain't time yet!" John yelled.

Five or six boys, half his size, crowded him, his foot soldiers, Katharine thought. Even though Mulder was sixteen and other boys his age stayed on the farm and worked with their fathers, he remained in school, at least when he wasn’t needed at home.

"Baarman," he yelled, surrounded by hero-worshippers, "we ain't comin' yet, hear?"

"John Mulder, I’m not going to say it again,” she insisted. It was far too early for a fight they’d likely have anyway sometime throughout the day. "Listen to me now!--and bring those boys in with you.”

Dirk and Henry and a couple of other squirts looked at their hero, then to their teacher at the door of the schoolhouse. Their courage was draining.

"John Mulder, you come in-now!" Mary Boersma said.

Katherine turned and gave Mary a reprimand with her eyes. She didn't need help.

Three little boys zipped across the slick ground and came up the steps. But Dirk and Henry didn’t move. They pulled their rabbit-skin hats over their eyes, pushed their mittened hands into their pockets, and stood their slippery ground.

Mulder stood there in the silence he knew was a test of wills, then, reluctantly, started walking, and swore just loud enough for her to hear, "Ach, verdomd,” he said and then mumbled something about her, something she didn't want to hear when she saw his little troopers jerk their hands up to their faces.

"That John Mulder. If his papa wasn't so rich... "

"Now, Mary, John is here to learn too, just like you." Katharine turned back into the doorway while the kids were cleaning their shoes.

"But he don't care nothing--"


"... doesn't care nothing--"


"... doesn't care anything about... " Mary had almost forgotten what she was going to say “--about learning things, ma'am. You know that's true."

"You girls take your seats now, and I'll be right in." She turned back to the door to make sure the insurrection was dead, then looked out over the empty prairie to the sky, thick, this morning, in a quilt of bluish­ gray that rolled past, heaving like locomotive steam on a cold day, clouds so close their turbulence was almost frightening.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Joey's grad shoot

It was the kind of little shack that had no use whatsoever. It stood behind their house, just off the alley out back, and when the old retired farmer and his wife decided, once and for all, to get rid of the thing, someone came along, picked it up, and hauled it off.

Unearthing thereby a nest of opossums suddenly turned up, four or five joeys (little possums) totally incapable of escaping the back of the old lady's spade. Our kids were kids, and they were out back, witness to the carnage. The old woman showed no mercy. They came home heavy with grief, anger, and total disbelief.

Me? They were only opossums.

I hit one with our brand-new, silver '64 Impala, just weeks after getting my license. I was driving a party of teenagers around to school that night, on our way to the prom, specially selected as cool sophomore servers. I know exactly where I hit that beady-eyed beast--it was just a couple miles from Hingham. Whack! Thump! All night long I heard that sound. That death haunted the prom. And it was only an opossum.

Truth is, I've often wondered what kind of joke the Lord perpetuated on us when he created the opossum, ugly rooters with eerie pink hands and a fleshy pig snout to match. What a mistake. 

When I was no older than my kids were that day in the alley, I saw one shot dead. I was out on a trap line with a loving man the prototype for the father in my first novel, Home Free
His father gave him the flashlight, aimed, and squeezed the trigger of the .22. The shot was muffled, silenced. They stood there, waiting for the motion to cease. The animal pawed at its forehead, at the perfect hole between its eyes, as if somehow it could scratch out the lead. "Possum," his father had said, as if it were some kind of eulogy.
My words, my sentences, 36 years ago, drawn from my childhood experience of the first murder I'd ever seen. But it was only a 'possum.

So 'possums and me, we've got enough of a history, enough for me to recognize this little one coming up the trail toward me yesterday (see him up top?) on a sunny winter solstice afternoon. I knew 'possums didn't see well, and the wind was at his back, not mine. So I stood still, camera in hand, while Joey snooted around along the well-traveled back road along the river. 

In fact, kept coming at me as if I weren't there, kept coming until I barked at him to let him know that I wasn't just some cottonwood. He snarled a little and wiggled off--opossums come from the factory with only low gear. 

So I shot this little one with a camera, walked back home, and opened the files. 

Now pardon me for giggling. But what I found is a regular portrait gallery. It was as if Joey is coming up on graduation, and he or she wanted a senior portrait. I might not have chosen the season (first day of winter) or the place (a foot of snow on a river bank), but this Joey in buffalo coat was determined. I don't know why I say it, but this he has got to be a she

So here's Joey, class of '17, River Floyd High. She needs something comely for the high school annual. I'll send her proofs today. I know where to find her. 

Got a favorite? Here's a sexy little peek-a-boo.

This one left her a bit more exposed. Darling pose though, isn't it?

Got a couple of her outside the weeds too.

Tried something full body, with less than wonderful results. That winter fur makes you think her roots are gray. They are, I guess. But I'm thinking there's something in this pose a little cheeky for a high school girl, don't you think? But then, nowadays. . .

My favorite? Something close up, even though I think I'd have preferred a bit of powder on her nose.

Now at least she's got possibilities. I hope she's not too picky--she didn't seem to be yesterday. 

I swear I always thought the Creator of Heaven and Earth simply released possums out into the world about a week or so before he had the design down. 

But I've got to admit it--this Joey is almost cute. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Kill

Kim Hiss, avid back-packer, went to work as an editor for Field and Stream, and decided, with some prodding from friends, that she really ought to try hunting, the very heart of things in the magazine that paid her bills.

That story of her first deer hunt is a story she tells on To The Best of Our Knowledge (and you can find it--and listen--here). I would guess that all of us who've hunted have our own first story. I certainly do, even though I wasn't the trigger-man. 

Kim Hiss's first kill was what I would certainly consider a long shot--something in the area of 250 yards. She and an experienced guide spotted six or seven including two bucks. They determined which of the bucks she'd shoot, and she pulled the trigger. The buck went down, but was not out; so she ran towards him and took another shot when she came closer. That was all. It was over.

Ms. Hiss says she's always been a meat-eater, but she'd really never taken responsibility for what was on the plate before her. She'd never killed anything and loved Bambi as a kid. Constitutionally, she wasn't sure she was cut out for killing a deer--or anything else, for that matter. 

The shots she took, she says, were, obviously, deadly. "It happened as cleanly as it could have," she says. What she means is that when the deer was killed there wasn't a great deal of suffering.

"I had a very mixed reaction," she says, to what she'd done, a very different reaction than her guide had, a guy who took the whole thing rather matter-of-factly. "My reaction was very sober," she says. "There was this feeling of relief that he'd gone down quickly," but, she says, "I cried a little, trying to come to terms with it," with what she'd done. For a moment she stood over that deer, then went to the ground herself and cradled the creature she'd killed.

The interview goes on to talk about the responsibility every meat-eater has to consider where food comes from and the slaughter every Hardee's half-pound Angus burger requires. Right now, as I'm writing, there are probably at least a couple of livestock trucks on highways no more than a half mile from where I'm sitting. If I look out the window, I'll see their Las Vegas lights.

I've never shot a deer, but I could be talked into hunting very, very easily. I've shot all kinds of things during my life, including a goose from the back of a motor scooter along a Lake Michigan beach and a ground squirrel eating our lettuce. I'm not pure, and this isn't a anti-hunting screed.

But Kim Hiss's story reminded me of another story I just love, and it goes like this: two white kids are out in the wilds hunting with a buddy who is Zuni. They're all church-goers, all good kids, all good hunters, all associated, one way or another, with a small Christian school.  All of them love hunting.

There are plenty of elk to harvest out there in New Mexico, so it isn't particularly difficult for them to down a buck a piece. But when the Zuni kid shot his, when they come up on the animal and take out their knives to dress him, the Zuni kid--an evangelical Christian--takes out a fetish, a little stone-carved animal he had on a string around his neck, takes out that fetish and washes it in the blood of the elk. Doesn't say anything really, just does this ritual-thing, ritually.

It was, the two white boys thought, a perfectly pagan act from a nice Christian kid. That's how it was I was told the story, in a kind of bewonderment--"how could he do that?"

Honestly, I couldn't help thinking, "Wow--how could he not? why would he not? And wasn't that beautiful?

Really, all I've got to do is swing this chair to the window right here beside me, and I swear soon enough one or two or three of those livestock trucks will fly by, each of them all lit up and loaded in the morning darkness.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Pups in Siouxland

The very first ground my wife's Van Gelder immigrant ancestors worked out here in northwest Iowa sat twenty miles or so west of us down what became Highway 10, then south over the Plymouth County line in the neighborhood of McNally, a town whose remains today are skeletal at best. No more than a month ago we drove up close, and my father-in-law, who's 97 years old, mentioned something I didn't know. "Got the land from the railroad," he said. I hadn't heard that bit of his family story before.
The U.S. of A. was so anxious to strap together this sprawling, endless country with railroads that they gave away huge portions of it to John J. Hill, Jay and George Gould, a Dutchman named Cornelius Vanderbilt, and an assortment of other Trump-types, who figured out the financing, then sent thousands of grunts out to do the dirty work.
We're talking big, big chunks of land, millions of acres, sometimes swaths 20 miles wide on both sides of the track, land that ran all the way west. Other financiers got rich on the railway barons' good fortunes, real estate people who brought up big chunks of the railroad's big chunks and peddled them out in 160-acre plots to America's huddled masses yearning to be free.
That's where the Van Gelder family comes in, families most of us who still live on this good land come from. The Van Gelder family's first American ground came from the railroad, my father-in-law told me last week. Whether or not they paid the railroad for the place, I don't know. But that it was railroad land is almost certain.
Some 19th century immigrants weren't dirt poor. Hundreds of them, Brits--hard as this is to believe--came to America with huge, bulging wallets. A few of them bought all kinds of land in big chunks from those bigger chunks owned by the railroad, then sold them to people like the Van Gelders. The biggest of the Brits was the Close Brothers, Inc., one of the biggest land agents and financiers in all of North America, whose eccentric colony of landed gentry young Brits—“pups” they were called--had its heart just down the road in LeMars, Iowa. I'm not making this up. There was big money here long before Blue Bunny, and a passle of rich kids having afternoon tea.
That's the story--it's long and detailed and very European--that Curtis Harnack tells in Gentlemen on the Prairie (Iowa State University Press, 1985). Not new at all. Harnack is gone, as are the Close Brothers and almost everything they built, including polo grounds--seriously! --just down the road. Cricket anyone?

Curtis Harnack
Gentlemen on the Prairie sat fallow in my library for 30 years. The outline of the story I knew because Harnack, who was born just south of Remsen, came through northwest Iowa when his book was published and did a reading and presentation at Dordt College, then stopped off for tea and crumpets at the Schaap house afterward. My copy is signed with a nice little line of appreciation, by the by; but it took me all of those thirty years (and retirement) to open its cover.

What a story. One of the best books I've read all year. 

Is that a recommendation? Sure, if you make it such. 

Gentlemen on the Prairie is not for everyone. You probably have to be from here, and you probably have to care about the ground you walk on because it all happened right here. The Brits named Paullina, Larchwood, and Sutherland, as well as some towns that are no more. They built mansions and barns and raced horses born and bred in England. One of the Close Brothers famously went on a fox hunt that lasted sun up to sun down, so long they finally quit the chase, even though their blessed hounds didn't. Who knows where they ended up? 

All of that right here.

Fred Manfred once told me how, when he was a kid, he finished milking one night and sat out on the back step for a while, looking over the fields west. He told himself that there had to more to the ground his father was working than a seed bed for their corn and soybeans. "What happened here anyway?" he asked himself. "What did I miss?"

Those kinds of questions led to a whole shelf of his books. 

If you think there's more to the story, there probably is, and Curtis Harnack's Gentleman on the Prairie will tell you things about this ground you wouldn't believe if you didn't know it was true. Took me decades to read it, but it's a great book--if you really want to know. 

If you'd like a much quicker intro to the era of the British invasion, you can get Jacob van der Zee's The British in Iowa, a University of Iowa publication in 1922, for a buck on a Kindle. Otherwise, you can pick up a pdf version free at a variety of sources on line. BTW, van der Zee was, I'm told, from Sioux County :).

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sunday Morning Meds--Spiritual Discipline

“He wraps himself in light as with a garment; 
he stretches out the heavens like a tent 
and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. 
He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.”
Psalm 104:3

There’s an oddly discordant shift in pronoun number in this beautiful psalm—I’m not sure why (and I’m sounding like an English teacher). The poem begins by addressing God face to face (“O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty”), and then shifts rather inexplicably into a third person portrait of the God the psalmist had just been addressing (“He wraps himself. . .”). Why the change? It’s as if, in two verses, the poet is addressing two different listeners—first, God, very much in prayer, and then us—or at least someone other than God.

Scholars can probably suggest an answer, but I’m wondering if the psalmist isn’t really addressing his soul. The first line of the poem is a command, after all. The psalmist points a finger at his own soul. “Praise the Lord, O my soul,” he orders.

Is his soul bored or lazy? Maybe. Some are. Mine is. Sometimes. Often maybe. More than it should be anyway. Seems to me that souls need to be exercised, don’t they? Get a little out of shape otherwise.

Experience says yes—at least my experience does. Hence the words appearing from the blinking cursor as it charges across a line on a white screen before me.

Maybe this succession of inspiring, royal images, mythic in character and extravagance, is a form of rhetoric designed to convince the poet’s own niggardly soul that God is, in fact, to be praised. It’s a pep talk, an interior monologue, a rallying cry for the soul. Perhaps these royal metaphors are more about the psalmist than about the God he wants better to serve.

And why, after countless mornings spent with the psalms, do I still find that possibility so odd? Why does it feel strange to think that what’s behind the heavenly imagery of this gorgeous psalm has more to do with a mulish soul than a mighty God? Why should that surprise me, shock me?

In his “Introduction to the Wisdom Books” in The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “There is a distinctive strain of writing in the Bible that more or less specializes in dealing with human experience—as is,” which is to say, some biblical lit focuses on what we are: flaccid souls in dire need of enrichment, of pep talks. “The Wisdom writers [by which he means the writers of Jobs, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs] keep us honest with and attentive to the entire range of human experience that God the Spirit uses to fashion a life of holy salvation in each of us.”

Here’s what excites me this morning, as my fingers tap the keys: that in this exercise—simply thinking about what the Bible says—I’m doing at least something of what the psalmist is, that is, doing the spiritual discipline his soul appears to require, refreshing himself—as I am and you are now--with what I can know of the reality of God’s love in the world, a world he fashioned, and runs, and gave us for our joy.

In the opening chorus of Psalm 104, the blazon of royal metaphors may well teach me more about myself than they do about God.

That’s half-truth. In teaching us more about ourselves, this psalm—and all of them—finally teach us more about “a life of holy salvation in each of us.”

Friday, December 16, 2016


He sat in the back, way in the back, left side. Didn’t say much, but that he wasn’t dumb was somehow clear. He had a problem with getting work in on time—that I remember, the kind of student you’ve got to bug to stay tuned. But then, so was I.

I got roped into sponsoring the soccer club that year, my first year of college teaching. I knew nothing about soccer except that it was a game with astonishingly little scoring. It seemed an exercise in futility at times, but I’d coached before and I enjoyed the camaraderie.

This tall kid was one of them, quite talented too, a freshman who played a ton that year, even though he was one of the new kids on the block.

I don’t think I had him as a student after that, but some kids you don’t lose sight of—probably because they don’t lose sight of you. This one I remembered, too.

He became a teacher, and an artist with exceptional talent. When I’d visit the place he and his wife lived, I’d run into him, a guy with a pony tail shaped like an artist's brush halfway down his back. He’d put on weight, enough to square him up. Even in a crowded room, you didn’t look past him.

And he did well as an artist, well enough to be noticed, well enough to have his work purchased. That’s one, above—a woman somewhere in the middle of a tragedy at Chernobyl--that one is his.

Last weekend I saw him and couldn’t help but notice the half-dollar-sized spaces in that thick head of hair. He has brain cancer.

Twice, he and his singing group sang for big crowds. It was obvious he was having trouble holding up his share of the bass line. At times, he was behind a step or two, but he stood there—sometimes sat—with his gang. Just seeing him up there was, to me and others, more than enough to make people wipe their eyes. Me too.

Twice, I saw his wife reach for hers, even though she tried to fight the tears. That's the picture I'm left with, his wife alone in a chair or pew, losing a battle with him and her tears.

I gave two speeches during that convention, speeches that had me scared spitless for more than a week because I wanted them to go well. What I hadn’t imagined is that the story of the weekend was a tall, skinny kid I had in class almost 35 years before, a 50-year-old man in the prime of creative life, a pony-tailed painter, a husband and a father being taken slowly, painfully, from those he loves because nothing less than evil eats away at those acute perceptions that made him an artist he'd become.

I wish I could write a thoughtful homily I could put in an inside pocket, close to my heart, something that would stanch the bleeding from my own soul.

Later today I'll face another class full of students. I’d like to tell them, if I could, that, quite honestly, nobody knows what life holds for them. I’d like to say a lot of things, but I won’t. Maybe one of those kids will be an artist too—who knows?

We’ll go on. We’ll read a story about a father’s loves for his daughter, a father who talks to God. That’s what we’ll be doing. We’ll go on. As we always do.

It’s all around us, really. There's never an end to funerals. But we go on. Grab a Kleenex maybe, howl some.

The human story—our need for love, God’s love—just keeps playing, doesn't it? Just keeps running.

Not unlike soccer, a game—or so it seems to me this morning—with not much scoring.

Or that crumpled picture of Christ just beyond the woman's hand in his painting. See that? It's what we've got, all we've got really.

But I don't want to be without it--and neither did he.

*From the files, November, 2008

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Siouxland Yankees and Brits

A Yankee looks upon a horse or any animal simply as a machine out of which to get as much profit as possible at the smallest possible cost and trouble, and also as something which is meant to be ill-used. The way some of them treat their horses is simply atrocious and makes me so savage sometimes that I can hardly control myself. If we had a Yankee on the place here, I know I would kick him till he could not stand, within a week of his coming, for ill-using something. p, 167
Despite the fact that the man who wrote this note, James Cowan, was talking about people who lived right here, and despite the fact that my own great-grandparents may well have been among Cowan's neighbors, the truth is, I've got no dog in this fight.

Had he said "A Hollander" rather than "A Yankee," I might have. But the ingrate horse beaters are people he calls "Yankees." In all likelihood he didn't mean my great-grandparents. I've got no idea how my forbearers handled their horses--I know they had them because they appear on their standard homesteading portrait. What's more, I know my great-grandfather, a North Sea sailor, didn't make it as a North American farmer. The path he left all over the upper Midwest makes clear he didn't set down the roots immigration brochures promised. At best, he was a tenant farmer; at worst, something of a failure.

But Mr. Cowan's ire has been raised by other Americans, among whom Cowan doesn't count himself. James Cowan was landed British gentry, one of hundreds who live in northwest Iowa in the 1880s, upper-class Brits--"pups," they called themselves--who left England and Scotland to learn farming in an area only recently inhabited by white men and women. For the most part, they were here to waste time, to learn something before returning England. And, oh yes, to make money in real estate. For a time, they owned millions of acres and made millions of dollars. 

The James Cowan who spewed hate in that quote above was "upper-class" in an old-world fashion that kept him forever disdainful of the Yankee masses, the human beasts of burden he needed to turn his soil and harvest his grain, but not to drink his blessed tea. 

Before Cowan ever got here, he'd likely never put a horse to work breaking ground. The steeds leisurely housed in his country estate were for hunting fox or pulling a carriage. He hadn't worked. He never needed a horse to make a living.

But then maybe he was right. Maybe those grimy yankees he and the Brits needed to help with harvest all too regularly beat-up horses. Maybe the locals were the earthy turds, potato-eaters who didn't know their place. Northwest Iowa looked nothing like Downton Abbey in 1880.

The word "yankee" was, once upon a time, an ethnic slur against Hollanders, who some New Yorkers liked to call "John Cheese," the New Amsterdam Dutch being the very first American cheeseheads. Eventually, the word came to any hyphenated-American from the huddled masses. What James Cowan means here when he designates "Yankees," is 19th century white trash, and certainly not his high-and-mighty Brits.  

I may think my own ethnic heritage escaped his indictment, but James Cowan was without a doubt talking more about me and my people than he was himself and his. 

I suppose we all need someone to beat up. James Cowan needed Yankees and those untidy Yankees needed the beasts of the field. 

Seems to me, the truth of this and every Christmas season is there is a much better way.