Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Nonfiction Files

The Nonfiction Files is a weekly journal of my adventures reading my toppling piles of nonfiction books. I won't be posting reviews, but rather my thoughts about what I'm reading, while I'm reading it.

I'm joined in The Nonfiction Files by Jehara. If you would like to play along with us, let me know!

My current read is Nothing To Do But Stay: My Pioneer Mother by Carrie Young.

Synopsis from publisher:

Carrine Gafkjen was, as her daughter remembers, at once the most liberated and unliberated of women. If she had considered the subject at all she would have thought it a waste of time. She firmly believed in destiny; what fate planned for her she dealt with head-on.

In the early 1900s the twenty-five-year-old Gafkjen boarded a train from Minneapolis to claim a homestead for herself on the western North Dakota prairies. She lived alone in her claim shack, barred her door at night against the coyotes, existed on potatoes and salt, and walked five miles to the nearest creek to wash her clothes. A decade later she had, by her own ingenuity, doubled her landholdings and became a secure women of property. Then, at an age when most other women would have been declared spinsters, Carrine Gafkjen married Sever Berg and had six children.

Nothing to Do but Stay tells the story of this uncommon woman with warmth and good humor. It gives testimony to the lasting spirit of our pioneer heritage and, in these uncertain times, to the staying power of family and tradition. This book will appeal to all those with an interest in the settlement of the West, the history of the Great Plains, women's studies, and the perseverance of the early-twentieth-century farmers.

My thoughts:

Normally I read nonfiction books over the course of a few days to a couple of weeks, but I gobbled this small book up in one sitting. Less a linear narrative and more a series of essays about life as a pioneer, this is a quiet testimony to a type of strength we just don't see anymore.

I knew I would like the author's mother from the first sentences - "My pioneer mother was wild for education. She firmly believed that young people given enough schooling and using the brains they were born with could rise above themselves as far as they wanted to go, the sky the limit." She lived that belief, giving each of her 6 children a high school and college education during a time when many had to stop going to school to help support the family.

Carrie's mother was strong - there is really no other way to describe her. She was strong of back, strong of mind, strong of purpose. She moved to North Dakota, bought her land with cash, worked and saved and made herself a prosperous farm - alone. She didn't have a family to support her, or husband to depend on - she made her own decisions, bore the consequences, and became extremely successful. Then, when she decided to have a family, she committed completely to the changes that life brought, and had a loving marriage and raised 6 happy, intelligent and well-adjusted children.

The author has a clean, simple way of telling a story. She doesn't create drama where it doesn't exist, but allows the reader to experience the struggle and joy of life as a homesteader as it happened. One of my favorite examples is this story of her mother's weekly laundry routine:

"My mother spent every Monday from dawn until late afternoon doing the family wash. It was probably no accident that four out of six of her children were born on Tuesday.

If she wasn't having a baby on Tuesday, my mother ironed. She had three flatirons, which she heated on top of her kitchen range and which she lifted with a detachable handle. She changed irons about every ten minutes as they cooled off. When I awakened on Tuesday morning, I could hear my mother ironing. The handle squeaked as it was pushed against the flatiron moving across the ironing board. One Christmas my father bought her an outsized gasoline iron, which was equipped with a small gas tank on the back; it had to be generated like a gas lamp before being lit. My mother loved that iron. It had such a large smooth surface, and she didn't have to heat up the coal range as she did with her old flatirons. But all day the carbon monoxide fumes drifted up in her face, and by the end of the day she had a splitting headache. Still, she refused to give it up; she thought the headaches were worth the time it saved. One Tuesday, however, she was in a hurry, and she didn't generate the iron long enough. It started to puff, and she hurled it out the kitchen door a second before it burst into flames. It couldn't have happened to a nicer piece of equipment."

If I have a quibble about the book, it's that I was expecting a bit MORE about the author's mom - while she is certainly featured, the story is as much about the entire family as it is about one person. I did enjoy the family vignettes, but found Carrie's mother to be the most interesting, and would have loved to read even more about her.

This is a quick read, and I think it would have wide appeal. It would be a good book for someone who doesn't have a lot of time to read - each chapter is basically a complete story, and this would be a volume that could be dipped into if you only have a few minutes to read each day. I think it would also be appropriate for young adult readers. It's not story-driven, but rather glimpses of a lifestyle that has passed us by.

Finished: 1/9/10
Source: my shelves
Rating: 8/10

This book counts toward:

Women Unbound Reading Challenge - book 1/8

The 4 Month Challenge - book 2/20

No comments: