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Bending the Twig: A Memoir

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Goetz, Kenneth. Bending the Twig: A Memoir. Bloomington, Indiana: 1st Books Library, 2002.


Most Dakota memoirs that date from about 1933 to near the present are written by persons who grew up on farms. Kenneth Goetz tells about growing up in this time and place in a family that lived on the fringes of the farming community. His father George was kicked off the farm by his abusive German Russian immigrant father and had to fend for himself thereafter.
George married and had 4 children, the eldest of which was Kenneth, the author of this book.

Jobs were scarce during the 1930s and 1940s and the resulting stresses battered the marriage and home life of Kenneth's family. His father managed a sheep ranch, worked intermittently at a grain elevator, insulated houses, worked as a movie projectionist, and took jobs provided by the WPA. They moved again and again, living in Onida and Java, South Dakota and on farms
in the area. After awhile, his father developed a taste for hanging out at the bar and gambled away some of the precious few dollars he earned.

Kenneth's mother was ill of a kidney disorder that dated to childhood diseases. Her health deteriorated with each of four pregnancies, but she passively accepted what life handed her. Kenneth recalls her hard, meticulous work on her family's behalf as she made optimum use of what meager resources came their way. He recalls often being hungry and still squirms when he remembers the humiliation of having to take his wagon and get the commodities that helped keep them alive. When Kenneth's mother died, her children aged about 3 to 12, his maternal grandparents welcomed the youngsters. An aunt and uncle, who saw how difficult it was for their parents, raised the two little girls. Again Kenneth recalls the unrelenting, patient work, careful use of money, and clear sacrifices it took to raise a family in those days, and he admires the character of families that accepted the responsibility of caring for children not their own.

This is a clearly-written, readable story, of interest to the many who enjoy Dakota rural social history. Goetz enlisted his siblings and other relatives in recalling their growing-up lives and he rummaged through back issues of newspapers, yearbooks, letters,... to help him bring into focus
events he had long blocked from his memory. He recalls events in a roughly chronological order, with some flashbacks and some anticipation of later happenings. About the time I was ready to accuse him of rambling, he told something that elicited a guffaw. He tells of his sex education, including youthful awkwardness and longings that were frustrated because of lack of money for dating.

Kenneth had a desultory go at college, supporting himself by house painting. He had a fine mind but lacked the direction he needed to make the most of it. It was the time of the Korean War, and he enlisted in the Air Force. When he got out, he found a focus. He went to medical school, earned Ph.D. and M.D. degrees, and did award-winning work in cardiovascular research.

Though Kenneth is of German Russian ancestry, this book is only incidentally tied to his ethnic background. His maternal grandparents spoke German and served ethnic dishes, but assimilation proceeded apace during this period. It seemed everyone was too absorbed with survival to pay much attention to maintaining the old culture. More than tying into cultural
themes, Kenneth reminds his readers of the importance to society of easing stresses on children, educating them well, and providing opportunities for the flowering of their talents. He, as it turned out, made use of what was available to him, and it's good he took the time to write it all down.

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