Review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Mueller, Tom. The Last Link, Dakota Territory Logan County 1887. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2004.
In a series of 45 stand-alone essays, some originally printed in other works, Mueller skillfully connects 21st-century readers to a time of pioneering on the North Dakota prairie. My stomach tightened as I recalled living many of his stories of hard work on the farm: making things yourself and doing without modern amenities, caring for animals and eating what you produced yourself, haying and harvesting, milking and attending a little one-room school. There are oddities in his stories, things that may have been unique to his family’s experience, but most of his stories have a rough equivalent in other families’ experience. Examples: The practice of witching to find graves that even determined the sex of the person buried. A white rock that was special. A woman who practiced brauche and healed his ringworm.
Books like this have proliferated--thank goodness--as many sit down to pass on the story of a way of life lived during days that have vanished. So you might ask, why would I want to read this book when I know (or have read about) others who have experienced a life similar to the one the author describes? Because Mueller projects an unusually powerful sense of family, of connection to his forebears and relatives, and to place. He listened carefully to oral histories passed by his family concerning the very earliest settlers of his family who came from the Russian steppe to the plains of North America. He also visited the site of the old home place and identified the old clay house and the other buildings where his pioneering forebears homesteaded. Mueller includes biographical sketches of family members and the local country doctor and describes a 1903 wedding dinner. He doesn’t have "women’s work" very well in focus, but he has proved to be a much better writer than he dreamt he could be when he started writing these essays, and he has made a fine contribution to the personal-reminiscence literature of the Germans from Russia.