Book review by Alice Morgenstern, Munich, Germany
Vossler, Ronald J. Why I Never Called Death the River, and Other Voices from the Valley of Hope: A Prairie Album. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2003.
I find that books gain their true value for me, when I read them a second time. Then I know that I will take them up again, and they will accompany me in future years.
This is one of them.
This book is the story of the early settlers in the Dakota Prairies, people of German-Russian origin who left the Ukraine in the late 19th century in search of the Land of the Free. In the history of immigration they remained unknown for a long time, because they were mute and didn't even speak to their children about their beginnings. They wanted to forget.
But Ron Vossler has given them voices. His story of a fictitious township "Valley of Hope" (Hoffnungstal) is based on truth. There are the experiences of farming families beginning to make a living from a barren soil in a hostile climate. 52 different voices - old and young - from both sides of "River Death" reveal what their lives were like. The glimpses we get from snatches of memory form an elaborate pattern of many colors and shades. In its simplicity the language is authentic and poetic.
There are the god-fearing, the law-abiding and the betrayers. They tell about faith and doubt, toil and labor, little pleasures and deep sorrows, happy hours and untimely death, and there is always the homesickness for the land and people they left behind. But there is also the process of their becoming American citizens. The old generation clings to a quaint German dialect and old methods of farming, the young have a different outlook.
That choir of voices creates the true Prairie Saga of the time before the first World War.
As a German who has been gradually learning something about this history, I am fascinated and moved by what I find in this small volume. And I am convinced that it will not only be appreciated by the old who wish to remember, but by the young who wish to know what their sources were.
And I hope that it will be taken as a set book in high schools,
not only in Dakota, but wherever American pioneers will be remembered.