By Ronald J. Vossler
Illustration by Andrea Trenbeath
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, North Dakota State University Libraries, Fargo, North Dakota, 2003, 270 pages, softcover
Ronald J. Vossler
Dakota Kraut, the sixth book by award-winning writer Ronald J. Vossler, a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, brings together twenty years of the author's publications in magazines, journals, newspapers, and websites. Included are also a radio-play, two poems, and one of the author's nationally award-winning documentary film-scripts. Subtitled "Collected Notes on How I Learned to Love My Accent and Ancestry, 1983-2003," this collection is a must read for anyone interested in evocative writing about ethnicity, memory, and a small-town prairie past. The book begins with a poetic prologue, "God's Eye" - given that title for the highest window on a grain elevator which overlooks the author's mid-century childhood home in small town Dakota; and ends with an epilogue which brings readers back to that grain elevator, as the author understands how his prairie hometown has become, "My Russia: a place I can't forget, nor find again."
In between the prologue and epilogue are 31 different entries, collected from the journals and magazines and newspapers where they were originally published. There are meditative memoirs, like the one in which the author, in his childhood, helps his old world grandparents with butchering chickens. ("Baptism") There is an article about high school basketball games, in which prairie gymnasiums are described as "cathedrals of our innocence." ("Hardwood Glory") Some entries paint vivid portraits of farm-work, such as rock and bale hauling. An entire section is devoted to "Forgotten Homelands," as the author seeks out his, and his own ethnic group's, ancestral past in journeys to Ukraine, Germany, and France, where in a small village he sings old German dialect songs with distant relatives.
By turns, this collection can be humorous, serious, thought-provoking, and entertaining, with its precise, and forgiving, portraits of cranky relatives and small-town eccentrics. (see "Outdoor Basketball, with Irgey") Vossler's relatives and acquaintances populate this book like characters in a Balzac novel; even when he moves away to college - in the beautifully crafted essay "Eternal Freundschaft" - he inadvertently ends up boarding with his grandfather's cousin. There are also glimpses, as well as prolonged meditations, of prairie church congregations singing old German spirituals ("Of Mother Tongue and Sorrow Song"); and of Sunday afternoons on the front lawn of the author's childhood home, when relatives gather and visit, speaking in the distinct mixture of German and English. ("Chairs")
Primarily fact, but with "some exaggerations," as the author admits in his "Introduction," this rich, wide-ranging book is a welcome addition for any reader seeking to understand the Germans from Russia ethnic group, who settled in the U.S. between 1881-1914, and whose descendants now comprise at least 35% of North Dakota's population. Dakota Kraut is a rumination on the fast-disappearing world of the prairie Germans in Dakota: it is also a literary work with power and grace and insight into the human heart - even if the heart is an ethnic one.
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