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
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:
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
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
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.