Lerch: A Story
Book review by Ingeborg Wallner Smith, Western Springs, Illinois
Urban, F.B. Gottlob Lerch: A Story. Translated by Ingesborg Wallner Smith. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2003.
We first meet Gottlob Lerch, the son, at age eleven, as he is
lying in the grass, dreaming, herding cattle on his father's homestead
on the Great Plains of North Dakota. He is unhappy with his fate.
In Russia, from which the family has recently immigrated, the land
was fenced in, and poorly paid farmhands were available to herd
the cattle. The author, Mr. Urban, sets an idyllic scene with bees,
honey, flowers and oxen.
After the birth of three daughters, Gottlob Lerch finally had
a son. He was so happy that he cried out, "Praise God",
(in German Gott Lob), and that, naturally, became the son's name.
He was not named after his father, but to thank God that the son
had finally appeared.
Now that he has emigrated from Russia and is homesteading in North
Dakota, the welfare of his son and heir is the most important thing
to Lerch. While sons-in-law can shift for themselves and make their
own way, the son must have it easier than the father, and should
start out with his own house on his own acreage. The free land available
in North Dakota fit right in with Lerch's plans, and was one reason
the family left Russia.
This is a homesteading story with a twist. This homesteader is
not only an immigrant from Russia, but is the descendant of the
German farmers invited to Russia by Catherine, the Great, to populate
and cultivate her new southern lands. After numerous broken promises
over the years, many Russian Germans left for the American Great
Plains. A number of them went to North Dakota. The best-known descendants
of these Russian Germans in the U.S. have been the bandleader, Lawrence
Welk of North Dakota, and Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
"Lerch wa a proud countryman, massive and gnarled like an
oak. He could count up his forefathers unto the fifth generation,
and was convinced that man's destiny was to cultivate the land and
to preserve it."
He not only has to cope with the usual problems of most homesteaders,
he has the language problem and needs to get used to unfamiliar
laws and customs, including a ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages.
No beer garden here. We get the flavor of the difficulties encountered
on the prairie, with drought, hail, snow and disaster, not to mention
misunderstandings within the family, and with the bank and the real
estate salesman. We hear about the even harder struggles of earlier
homesteaders; in South Dakota one heated with cow dung. North Dakota
is lucky to have brown coal, or lignite.
Interwoven with the happenings on the farm and within the family,
is the story of the founding of a Lutheran congregation together
with the neighbors. There are many crises in both stories. Lerch
shows himself to be a hothead and to have a great hunger for land.
There are discussions about what to expect of a pastor, where to
build the church and preacher's house, who will join and what about
synods. We also hear about their arguments and irritations.
The author's prose is beautifully compact. It contains humor and
is charming with an old-fashioned lilt. The farmers speak colloquially
among themselves; with the preachers their language is more formal.
The main character, Gottlob, Sr., is fully developed, his wife,
Christine, less so; we are fairly well-acquainted with the son,
Gottlob, Jr., but scarcely get to know the girls at all. We know
the neighbors better than we know Dora, Jakobine and Marie.
Like many a man today, Lerch gets himself into hot water by overextending
himself in land deals. As in all good stories, we have suspense,
tragedy and near-tragedy. The plot resolves itself in a happy ending.
While this story seems to be about the elder Gottlob, the fates
of both Gottlobs, father and son, are intertwined. Each has his
crisis and overcomes it. In the end they "go off into the sunset
Sometimes a book about the olden days transports us back to simpler
but harder times. Having hoed thistles in the cornfields of my father's
Wisconsin hobby farm, I felt right at home with this story and found
it fascinating. I would recommend it to both older and younger readers
because of it univeral themes: family feeling, greed, competitiveness,
ambition, piety. They obviously won't have any personal memories
of the 19th century, but will enjoy the book because they like interesting
stories from long ago. Gottlob Lerch, the book, is relevant today
for its inward truths: "It is better to get rich slowly,"
and: "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."
How true! Small acts cast long shadows.
This is a charming short piece, a novella, long out of print,
probably found in someone's attic. It was written in Mr. Urban's
native German, apparently in the late 1800's. He is obviously familiar
with his subject. Perhaps, like Gottlob Lerch, he was also a "German