Gottlob Lerch: A Story

Book review by Ingeborg Wallner Smith, Western Springs, Illinois

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.

We first meet Gottlob Lerch, the son, at age eleven, as he is lying in the grass, dreaming, herding cattle on his father's homestead on the Great Plains of North Dakota. He is unhappy with his fate. In Russia, from which the family has recently immigrated, the land was fenced in, and poorly paid farmhands were available to herd the cattle. The author, Mr. Urban, sets an idyllic scene with bees, honey, flowers and oxen.

After the birth of three daughters, Gottlob Lerch finally had a son. He was so happy that he cried out, "Praise God", (in German Gott Lob), and that, naturally, became the son's name. He was not named after his father, but to thank God that the son had finally appeared.

Now that he has emigrated from Russia and is homesteading in North Dakota, the welfare of his son and heir is the most important thing to Lerch. While sons-in-law can shift for themselves and make their own way, the son must have it easier than the father, and should start out with his own house on his own acreage. The free land available in North Dakota fit right in with Lerch's plans, and was one reason the family left Russia.

This is a homesteading story with a twist. This homesteader is not only an immigrant from Russia, but is the descendant of the German farmers invited to Russia by Catherine, the Great, to populate and cultivate her new southern lands. After numerous broken promises over the years, many Russian Germans left for the American Great Plains. A number of them went to North Dakota. The best-known descendants of these Russian Germans in the U.S. have been the bandleader, Lawrence Welk of North Dakota, and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

"Lerch wa a proud countryman, massive and gnarled like an oak. He could count up his forefathers unto the fifth generation, and was convinced that man's destiny was to cultivate the land and to preserve it."

He not only has to cope with the usual problems of most homesteaders, he has the language problem and needs to get used to unfamiliar laws and customs, including a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages. No beer garden here. We get the flavor of the difficulties encountered on the prairie, with drought, hail, snow and disaster, not to mention misunderstandings within the family, and with the bank and the real estate salesman. We hear about the even harder struggles of earlier homesteaders; in South Dakota one heated with cow dung. North Dakota is lucky to have brown coal, or lignite.

Interwoven with the happenings on the farm and within the family, is the story of the founding of a Lutheran congregation together with the neighbors. There are many crises in both stories. Lerch shows himself to be a hothead and to have a great hunger for land. There are discussions about what to expect of a pastor, where to build the church and preacher's house, who will join and what about synods. We also hear about their arguments and irritations.

The author's prose is beautifully compact. It contains humor and is charming with an old-fashioned lilt. The farmers speak colloquially among themselves; with the preachers their language is more formal. The main character, Gottlob, Sr., is fully developed, his wife, Christine, less so; we are fairly well-acquainted with the son, Gottlob, Jr., but scarcely get to know the girls at all. We know the neighbors better than we know Dora, Jakobine and Marie.

Like many a man today, Lerch gets himself into hot water by overextending himself in land deals. As in all good stories, we have suspense, tragedy and near-tragedy. The plot resolves itself in a happy ending.

While this story seems to be about the elder Gottlob, the fates of both Gottlobs, father and son, are intertwined. Each has his crisis and overcomes it. In the end they "go off into the sunset together."

Sometimes a book about the olden days transports us back to simpler but harder times. Having hoed thistles in the cornfields of my father's Wisconsin hobby farm, I felt right at home with this story and found it fascinating. I would recommend it to both older and younger readers because of it univeral themes: family feeling, greed, competitiveness, ambition, piety. They obviously won't have any personal memories of the 19th century, but will enjoy the book because they like interesting stories from long ago. Gottlob Lerch, the book, is relevant today for its inward truths: "It is better to get rich slowly," and: "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." How true! Small acts cast long shadows.

This is a charming short piece, a novella, long out of print, probably found in someone's attic. It was written in Mr. Urban's native German, apparently in the late 1800's. He is obviously familiar with his subject. Perhaps, like Gottlob Lerch, he was also a "German from Russia."

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