Dakota State University -- NDSU Agriculture
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August 28, 2003
Plains Folk: Growing Up
"The deepest impressions" of memory, Dorothy Schwieder tells us in her book about growing up on the Great Plains, "concerned family, friendships, school, and work." Despite these emphases on family and community, she wonders, the memories "all are clothed or colored by the context of some larger physical feature of the area."
Growing Up with the Town, published by University of Iowa Press, is a surprising book in some ways. Surprising, in that some historians writing about women and family have concluded that domestic lives in, say, South Dakota, were pretty much the same as they were in, say, Indiana. Menís lives were different on the plains, because they did outdoor things, faced the elements in the field, but women did what they always had--run households. So there was nothing notable about life on the plains, as far as they were concerned.
This notion never set well with me, as it contradicted what plainswomen told me. Women of the plains, judging by what I heard, had a strong sense of place, one well rooted in prairie soils. Now Dorothy Schwieder says, "The soil of the Northern Plains was literally an inescapable part of everyday life." The West River country of South Dakota, the land of her girlhood, was about one-fifth land and four-fifths sky, but she writes, "the land plays a more powerful part in shaping and defining the experience and environment here."
She was a town girl, the child of Walter George Hubbard, the International Harvester implement dealer in Presho, S. D. I say the child of Walter, because he was the benevolent patriarch of the family, and Dorothy was her fatherís girl. She came from a big family and was the younger daughter of Walterís second wife, Emma Anderson Hubbard. Her father was of Scots-Irish stock, her mother Norwegian.
Dorothy would go on to a distinguished career on the faculty of Iowa State University. Growing Up with the Town is a retirement project for her. Like many academic and literary types from the plains, she keeps coming back, physically and, finally, historically. We are fortunate she has done so, for her book is an artful, insightful, sensible account that belongs in the front rank of regional memoir. Among memoirs of townsfolk, it is the best, I think.
It was only after going away that Schwieder "began to realize that the area where I grew up . . . had distinctive qualities and differed in significant ways from other parts of the country." Moreover, this was something that could not be captured by the social scientist or the by the objective historian, because "the Great Plains experience was an intensely emotional and personal one."
Lots of people get nostalgic and so write family histories and childhood memoirs. The difference here is that Schwieder, while delving deep into family and memory, still is able to back up for perspective, to set the particular experience into the general background.
She is much concerned with the values, the attitudes, and the "code of behavior" that characterized her home and governs her still. These include things like egalitarianism, practicality, materialism, and neighborliness well; you know the catalog of virtues and foibles as well as she or I. Schwieder believes these things all come from wrestling with the powerful plains environment.
Hard work is the greatest of the professed virtues, and the Hubbard family certainly illustrates it. Now, I have questioned, and still do question, our regional distinctiveness in such matters. The most common physical ailment on the plains, I think, is the dislocated shoulder caused by patting ourselves on the back for our work ethic and family values. Still, this is our story, this is our song, and the more we sing it, the more we prove that we have a common heritage--those of us who grew up in a little town on the plains. And Dorothy Schwieder tells our story uncommonly well.
Click here for a TIF photo of Tom Isern that is suitable for
Click here for a TIF photo of Tom Isern wearing a hat that is
suitable for printing.