NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
April 27, 2000
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University
©2000 Plains Folk
In the extension literature they refer to it as "inter-generational transfer," which makes it sound like a hereditary disease. The subject is how farms and ranches may be passed along from one generation to another. Attorneys and social scientists study the question. Youth and family specialists try to get families together to talk about it. Getting together and talking like that is something we're not really good at in this part of the country.
Linda M. Hasselstrom's new book from Lyons Press is "Feels Like Far: A Rancher's Life on the Great Plains." The book is about ranch life, her life, modern life, traditional life--and in the middle of it, a difficult case of inter-generational transfer (and I promise that's the last time I'll use the awkward phrase).
Hasselstrom grew up on a ranch near Hermosa, in western South Dakota, brought there as a result of her mother's second marriage, adopted by her stepfather, the only child of the household, doing man's work, never really taking to girlish things the way her mother might have liked, but never quite accepted as a legitimate heir by her father.
Right here I'll break in to say that Hasselstrom's personal story is her own, but it ought to cause us to think more generally about girls becoming women on farms and ranches. Since at least the days of Ezra Taft Benson we've bragged in this country about the competitive nature of agriculture, how it is a matter of survival of the fittest. What gives the lie to all this talk is that with rare exceptions, we have assumed that boys will farm, girls do something else. Half the time, I'd say, the fittest person to carry a farm or ranch into the next generation is a girl.
In Hasselstrom's case she is the only potential heir, and still there are problems. It doesn't help that her first marriage ended in divorce and her second in widowhood, and her current relationship is with a man living in Cheyenne. She hasn't fulfilled that traditional only-daughter pattern of bringing home a man to run the place (not that she needs one, but others think so).
She also has pursued a writing career (readers may know her earlier works, such as "Land Circle" and "Going Over East," or if not, they ought to check them out). While critics like me judge her literary career a success and call her a blessing to the country, the job title "celebrated regional author" does not catapult a person into a high salary bracket. At home she remained a prophet without honor.
If you believe it takes suffering and tension to make great writing, then maybe there is the basis to Hasselstrom's wonderful lyric prose of ranch life. Her descriptions are less than idyllic, and more, too. The "Deer Harvest" chapter is an example. It describes what I would call a tacky deer hunt: riding around in a pickup, taking shots, shooting game with poor prospect of retrieval and, a peeve of mine, poor handling of meat. Running through the account are elements of traditional craft that might redeem the enterprise; it's just that they have gone soft and seedy, and Hasselstrom never gives us that mushy moment to feel good.
The "Badger's Business" chapter is a gem. It builds on the badger lore endemic to farm and ranch people and without belaboring the metaphor, burrows deeper into the workings of a ranching clan and burials.
In fact most of these chapters are about one thing on the surface and other things underneath. "Climbing into the Bull Pen" is about a bad bull, a man who is losing his strength and judgment, and a ranch in danger of going under.
So by now you may be wondering what became of the ranch and its would-be heir. If you really want to know, I suggest you get hold of the book.
Source: Tom Isern, (701) 231-8339
Editor: Dean Hulse, (701) 231-6136
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