Lerch: A Story
Book review by Doug Bieber
Urban, F.B. Gottlob Lerch: A Story. Translated by Ingesborg Wallner Smith. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2003.
Gottlob Lerch was a simple, hard-working man who migrated from
the Kuban Region of Russian Empire to the plains of North Dakota
to make a new life for himself and his family. From this book the
reader learns about the natural obstacles and financial challenges
a German Russian homesteader encountered in trying to make a go
it on the vast, dry prairies and semi-arid climate of the North
We know very little about the origins of this book or its author.
Hopefully publication of this book by the Germans from Russia Heritage
Collection may help to flush out some more information about this
long forgotten book and its author. We cannot even be certain that
Gottlob Lerch was an actual person or a composite made up in the
mind and memories of its author, F.B. Urban. However, based on the
histories of other German-Russian pioneers to the Dakotas we can
deduct from this story that the experiences of Gottlob Lerch, whether
based on fact or fiction, tell an authentic and unique story of
one particular German-Russian immigrant family. From the scanty
clues Urban gives us as to the time and setting of his book, we
do know that the German Russian community was located somewhere
west of the Missouri River at a time before the northern and southern
branches of the Northern Pacific Railroad had been built from the
main line in Mandan.
We can also assume that the story takes places sometime after North
Dakota entered the Union in 1889 as the author always refers to
the setting as North Dakota rather than Dakota Territory or simply
The main character, Gottlob Lerch is not depicted in the most favorable
light by the author. In fact, Urban is quite critical of Lerch’s
obstinate personality, domineering nature, and unrelenting greed
for land, the most coveted possession of the typical German immigrant.
With revealing and insightful detail the author describes Lerch’s
quarrels with his neighbors, his wife, and his fellow Lutherans,
especially in regard to matters of land and money. At the end of
the tale we witness a sort of metamorphosis in the subject’s
character after he nearly loses the one thing more important to
him than land, his only son and heir.
When I first began work with this book I was not overly impressed
by it. At that time, the translation was a little rough, perhaps
too literally translated for my tastes. It was difficult to read
and follow the story. To me it seemed the story was too fragmented,
chopped up, filled with too much colloquialism and too many little
proverbs which I did not understand or see the importance of. It
also made too many assumptions about the reader’s knowledge
of what was going on in this German Russian community which I believed
needed to be filled in with editorial notes and additions.
Ingeborg Wallner Smith who translated this book from German into
English and I had a few differences of opinion as to how the translation
of the story should be interpreted and written, particularly in
regards to terminology and phraseology. Mrs. Smith believed that
I wanted to use too many present day, scholarly, sophisticated terms
which the author, F.B. Urban would likely not have used. She thought
that my recommended changes to the wording of the text would have
been foreign to German Russians of that time, and even our own time,
and would cause the story “to lose its flavor.”
With the benefit of hindsight, and some discussions with Mrs. Smith,
I now think that she was right, at least in part. After working
with Mrs. Smith I came to appreciate the subtleties and nuances
of this little tale. I now understand that the author purposely
plays on some words in this story to be ironic, witty, even sarcastic.
Perhaps if I were a person with more literary background these subtleties
would have grabbed my attention sooner.
In defense of my contributions to this book, I think I did help
to improve some of the translation, but more significantly the framework
and organization, making it a little easier for the present day
reader to follow and understand.
While editing the English translation of Gottlob
Lerch I relied somewhat on personal experiences of growing
up in a German Russian farm community in western North Dakota in
the 1960s and 1970s, taking into account that the Lerch book was
written during the “horse and buggy days,” some 60 to
70 years earlier than my own experience. Still, I don’t believe
that the North Dakota German Russian families of the 1950s and 1960s
were all that much different from the families of Lerch’s
time. The German Russian dialect was (and still is) spoken by my
parents and many of their German Russian neighbors. When I was growing
up, the origins of your national or ethnic background and your religious
faith still “mattered,” but surely did not matter as
much as it did in the 1890s or early 1900s.
Today, in America, at the onset of the twenty-first century, one’s
religious affiliation does not make as much difference to most Americans
as is did at the beginning of the last century. For good or bad,
we today are a much more secular, material, and religious tolerant
nation. To the main protagonist in this little tome, Gottlob Lerch,
his religion, and that of his neighbors was a matter of great importance
in his everyday relations and dealing with neighbors. It did matter
if his neighbor was a Baptist, Methodist, Congregationalist, or
a Lutheran, like himself.
Urban does a nice job of tying together the importance of religion
to his main character with his obstinate and quarrelsome personality.
For example, there is the practical matter that the pond Lerch used
to water his livestock had dried up due to a midsummer drought.
His nearest neighbor, a Baptist named Henzel, had water on his land,
“not because he was Baptist, but because a fresh spring bubbled
in his garden.” [p.23] Lerch, however hesitated to ask his
neighbor for help because he recently had a squabble with him after
his calf had found his way onto the neighbor’s land. When
Lerch came to claim his calf, Henzel felt that he should pay him
some sort of a “grazing fee” for keeping the animal.
With indignation Lerch exclaims, “For the grass that grows
on our Lord’s earth?” The neighbor relents with the
admonishment that Lerch should pay more attention to his animals
next time. After the incident with the calf, Lerch and Henzel “kept
out of each other’s way.” Lerch’s water problem
is finally solved by a Congregationalist neighbor by the name of
Finkle (again, note author’s emphasis on religious affiliation)
two miles to the southwest of his farm. Although Lerch lacks the
courage to ask the neighbor himself, he sends his son, Gottlob Jr.
to ask for him. Neighbor Finkle answered, “There is enough
water for you and for us.” [p.24]
The fact that Lerch and his Lutheran neighbor Rappert were very
determined to organize a Lutheran congregation reveals the importance
the German Russian settlers placed in their faith. Lutherans were
few in number and widely dispersed over the vast plains of North
Dakota, and in the words of Rappert, “Lutherans are weak in
this area.” Like his neighbor, Lerch does not feel comfortable
surrounded by Baptists and Kongressors (Congregationalists). They
yearn for their own Lutheran community.
Lerch’s wife, Christine, also welcomes the idea of organizing
a Lutheran congregation. The German Russian homesteaders like other
pioneers to the American West, had to endure the physical and social
isolation of frontier settlement. Understandably, Christine looks
forward to the personal interaction that a church community will
provide for her and her family. She is concerned that her children
will not be properly confirmed and married in the Lutheran faith
and worries about the influence of religious “sects”
in America. Her husband, however, was confident that his influence
as a paterfamilias would protect his children from the evils of
proselytizing. When discussing with his wife the matter of Gottlob
Jr.’ confirmation Lerch says “If I tell my boy this
you are and this you will remain! Then no Baptist will wash him
and no Congregationalist [will] convert him.” (p. 9).
This is a charming little story about the particular experience
of a German Russian homesteader, his struggle to economically survive
as a farmer on the marginally productive prairies of the Great Plains,
and his relations with family and neighbors.
The German Russians have often been criticized as being an ethnic
group that lack “culture” in the traditional sense because
of its paucity of noted writers, scholars, and artists. This early
literary of F.B. Urban provides evidence to the contrary. The dialogue
in the story is short and direct, what you might expect of a North
Dakota immigrant and homesteader. Yet, the author manages to interject
as sense of realism, humor, and irony into this story--- something
that is essential for any well crafted tale.
F.B. Urban leaves out of his account of Gottlob Lerch a lot of
descriptive details and clues in regards to the setting and background
of German Russian community which this present day reader finds
frustrating, other readers might not find this as important and
simply enjoy the book for the charming little tale that it is.
It is my hope that publication of Gottlob
Lerch will bring about more information as to who F.B.
Urban was and possibly reveal if there are other little treasures
hidden out there in the small town libraries and attics of homes
in German Russian communities which might provide us further glimpses
into the everyday lives of our German Russian ancestors in the Dakotas
Appreciation is extended to Doug Bieber for this book