Gottlob 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 Dakota plains.

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 Dakota.

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 and elsewhere.

Appreciation is extended to Doug Bieber for this book review.

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