Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Aman, Ray. Dakota Sky. Trafford Publishing, 2005.
I’m something of a fan of personal reminiscence books. I know they come in at the low end of the publishing scene, almost always printed at the expense of and promoted and sold by the author. Yet, when it comes to showing what it was like to live at the ground level of an age, they often shine like little jewels. This is one of those books. After a quick kiss to German Russian history, Aman, in a novelized account, traces the lives of American-born Carl and Gertrude Schultz and their children Joe and Cathy (named, if you look back far enough, for the Russian Empress herself) through the 1930s, the 1940s, and 1950s, ending the book near now. They live(d) in South Dakota, on a farm "six miles from Hosmer," with Hillsview, Bowdle, Leola, McPherson County, and Strasburg, North Dakota in their frame of reference.
Carl, the main character, takes responsibility for the well-being of his family during the incredibly difficult years of pioneering and then of the Depression, which, as most readers will know, was exacerbated by drought. Focusing so hard on survival, then on getting ahead for the eventual benefit of his children, Carl neglects to empathize emotionally with his wife and family, distancing himself ever further from them as he becomes more successful.
The German Reformed Church they attend, an institution which came into being at a time when religious authority was unquestioned, alienates the family further through its rule-ridden pastor. The author does a wonderful job of evoking the details of life on a Dakota farm during this period. Language, the rapid growth of agricultural technology, government programs, cultural quirks--they’re all here.
Where else, but in a book like this, would you learn: That we said "overhauls" instead of overalls for that ubiquitous male garment. That most farm dogs were dropped off by some passing motorist and cats just mysteriously appeared in the barn one day begging for milk. That life on the farm was innately terribly dangerous. That rural folk scrambled to acquire machines because they lost their sons and harvest workers to death or modernity and the demands of the wars of the twentieth century. That senior members of the family bobbed between their own and their children’s homes and rarely lived in a public setting. That the generation born during this period was the first ever to receive an education; that young people had no frame of reference for “school,” and adjusting to its demands was not easy. That the 1950s was a time when a hard-working, smart person, starting out with few resources, could do well.
Aman’s writing is straightforward, largely a chain of simple declarative sentences. Yet, I found myself caught up in his story as he opens to readers the changes, the stresses, the emotional charge of what it meant to live and grow up German Russian on the farms of the Dakotas during the twentieth century. This way of life, this world, hardly exists any more. It is an important part of our story, our history.