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Growing Up in North Dakota: A Memoir

Book review by Carol Just Halverson, St. Louis Park, Minnesota

Pritzkau, Philo T. Growing Up in North Dakota: A Memoir. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 1996.


There once was a person who grew-up in North Dakota and dreamed about traveling to places with a different landscape of mountains and valleys, lakes and trees and bustling cities where excitement waited at every turn. That person left the prairie in search of place, found a new geography and settled down. After a few years, memories of the broad North Dakota horizon with it's trademark golden grain fields and stands of sunflowers in tall salute beckoned that person to listen once again for the distant call of the Western Meadowlark.

Whether you are the person longing to revisit the North Dakota prairie, or you are lucky enough to live there, plan to read Philo T. Pritzkau's recently published novel, Growing Up in North Dakota: A Memoir.

Pritzkau, retired Professor of Education at the University of Connecticut, is the son of German-Russian immigrant parents who homesteaded near Burnstad, Logan county, North Dakota in 1886. Born in 1902, Philo T. Pritzkau's first twenty years were spent on his parent's homestead and, while the text is written in the 1990's, it is the memory of Pritzkau's prairie youth that supplies every detail in this narrative of life in the first decades of the 20th century on the North Dakota prairie.

Anyone with the mildest curiosity about rural life at the turn of the century will not only enjoy, but can expect to learn a great deal from this memoir. Pritzkau doesn't assume his reader knows or understands farm or ranch life and painstakingly describes every step of rural life as he knew it. He includes details of the planting to harvest cycle, identifying various crops and their planting sequence, the haying and raking process, threshing, hauling, storing and selling grain, care of livestock, breaking horses, bartering eggs and cream, and the importance of the family poultry, garden and canning regimen. I value my rural North Dakota roots and the experiences of my ancestors more after reading Pritzkau's first person account of farm life.

Pritzkau doesn't stop there. He pays homage to both parents of their role in shaping his life, their support of his desire for higher education and keen interest in local and national politics. He also writes about his rural school experience and the mentors within his community who encouraged him to learn the critical thinking and debate skills that prepared him for a life-long career in the academic community.

Lest you think this memoir paints a portrait of a charmed life, think again! Pritzkau does not "sugar coat" rural life. He tells of year-round hard work from dawn to sundown, but there is no "poor me" message here, rather a dignified acceptance of his life as it happened.

The Pritzkau household was a dedicated partnership with a firm commitment to the land and each other. Father Pritzkau's dreams for his farm were balanced with mother Pritzkau's conservative opposition to debt, mirroring many successful farming endeavors across the prairie where partnership meant husbands and wives had a voice in the decision making process.

My favorite chapter, "Building the Granary" takes the reader from father Pritzkau's earliest dreams of a new granary to the finished product that remains standing today. While describing in detail the building process from start to finish, Pritzkau emphasizes the teamwork required by the entire family and the pride the family took in the finished product. He writes, "the basement walls are as strong today as they were when built over seventy years ago. That granary is really a monument to Dad's determination to build something that would last."

Root cellars, butchering, food ways, repairing harness, religion, hilarious tales of early family automobiles all await Pritzkau's readers. It is no surprise that his daughter, author Patricia Pritzkau MacLachlan, most famous for her novel Sarah, Plain and Tall and made-for-television movie of the same name, credits her father as the inspiration for many of the prairie stories in her own writing.

Perhaps all who read this book will be inspired to identify and share their stories and like the author will feel the life and landscape of the prairie in their soul. Philo T. Pritzkau shares his soul in Growing Up in North Dakota: A Memoir. It is good reading.

Carol Just Halverson, storyteller, writer and oral historian, grew up on a farm in LaMoure County, ND. Her company, LIFETIMES, a video-communications business, helps others identify and document their family stories.

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