Review by Rita Greff
Kraft, Bill.Kaleidoscope: Shapes and Colors of Childhood. Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, Gorham Publishing, Centralia, Washington, 2010, 162 pages, hardcover.
As soon as I picked up Bill Kraft’s book of memories, I wanted to read it. The cover is bright, glossy and inviting. The pages, too, send an invitation to read with their smooth sheen, fonts large enough for elderly eyes, personal photographs and original drawings. These characteristics seem designed to bring about an impression that I was entering Kraft’s personal diary.
Kraft was born and grew up in Strasburg, the youngest of 11 children. His family owned a general store there until 1970. In 2009, the Emmons County Record published a column entitled “After the Mall” which was penned by Kraft. This article alludes to the necessity of Kraft’s writings.
“The recent razing of what was Kraft Brothers Store for half a century on Main Street in Strasburg marked the end of an era. The building on the south side of Main Street was a landmark in this small community of German Russians. Its demise takes with it a part of history worthy of preserving for posterity, for if we do not write, then future generations will not know who we were. Part of Strasburg itself was rooted in a business that served the community for almost three generations.”
Kraft’s collection of columns, which appeared in several prominent newspapers, including the Bismarck Tribune, has been coupled with other anecdotal observations. The result is a treasure of history from a primary source.
One of the strengths of the book is the author’s optimistic voice. Kraft’s writing shows traces of the security felt by sons who grew up in small town North Dakota. They belong to those towns, their success is the town’s success, and those towns are fondly etched in their memories.
“… it is the writer’s responsibility to find what’s good in human nature, to celebrate the fundamental decency of people. My book was written from that point of view. It was written with a very specific tone in mind. I want people who read the book to feel good about human nature.
“I hope the book is an homage to my hometown, to a time less complicated than the present, to a time when I found a joy and innocence in simple games, boyhood friends and decent people. I tried to do it by shaping a kaleidoscope of experiences into a valentine, an affectionate tribute to things since gone and people never forgotten.”
The book is structured by seasons. Anyone who has lived in North Dakota knows that our seasons have unique activities both indoors and outdoors. We try to survive the extremes, and glory in the pleasantries, no matter how few they might be. That in itself, may bring forth optimism. Kraft’s accounts view even the extremes with a light spirit.
In the winter section, Kraft recalls how he and his teammates risked a trip across the ice on the Missouri River to play basketball at Fort Yates in spite of storm warnings.
“…we did so (crossed the river) without incident on the way over (which) may have encouraged a foolish hubris that we were invulnerable to the threats of nature. At first, on our return, no one seemed alarmed by the snowflakes dusting the windshield of the car. It wasn’t until the dusting turned into drifts and the huge canopy of night fell over us that we felt suddenly small. And frightened.”
“Kaleidoscope” is a part of the Germans From Russia Heritage Collection. No other ethnic group in North Dakota has worked as hard to preserve their culture. They certainly should be a model for the rest of us who have latent cultural pride.
Who should read this memoir of Strasburg? If you are a nostalgic person who grew up in rural North Dakota, this book will dislodge some of your own hibernating memories. It would be a great book for reading in a stop-start fashion to your elderly relatives, thus jogging their memories, too.
When you hear of the city of Strasburg, who is it that always comes to mind? Curiously, Kraft does not mention the name Lawrence Welk! Perhaps, he makes the point that there was more to Strasburg than old-time music.
(Rita Greff grew up the oldest of eight children in a family that valued reading, particularly fiction. She taught fifth and sixth grades for 34 years.)
Printed with permission of The Bismarck Tribune.