Really? Twenty-five years have come and gone since this was first published, and I still hadn't read this remarkable book? I'd better offer up thanks to the wonderful people at the University of Minnesota Press, who asked if I'd like a review copy of the recently reissued classic. I mean, it's not as if I didn't know about Bill Holm, or hadn't read some of his work, or didn't feel sad when he died last year.
Still, I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting when I cracked the (lovely) cover of this slim volume, a collection of essays Holm wrote on many topics: life on the prairie, the evolution of immigrants in Minnesota, why failure is not necessarily failure--or why it may turn out to be better than success--and a brief history of Minnesota political opinion.
None of which sounds all that great when I describe it, but let Holm do the talking, and it's a different matter. At turns reverent about the world of beauty surrounding him and wryly chuckling over human nature and immigrant assimilation, he's never at a loss for words:
"As a mountain is high, a prairie is wide; horizontal grandeur, not vertical."
"When people we love die, we swallow them down inside us, and speak with their voices. Those who love the dead are mediums already, move tables around in darkness everywhere they go."
"Catholics married in mysterious and interminable ceremonies with incense, bells, and gold robes, conducted in smoky southern language no one understood. Married in the morning, they drank whiskey, ate ham, told stories through the afternoon, and finished off by hiring a band, drinking more whiskey, dancing the polka, schottische, and old time waltz all night, ending up at dawn with hugging, lovemaking, well-wishing, and a divine ecstatic hangover. When Lutherans married, they read St. Paul, issued warnings, drank coffee in the basement, shook hands, and went to work the next day. That, presumably, was why so many more Catholics were always getting born."
"Strangers complained about the prairie's boring monotony, mile after mile of flat farm fields, but to a native even a single section of land was a microcosm of the continent: a cornfield, cultivated, civilized, straight, and square, next to a stony pasture full of those strange visitors from another planet--cows; next to that, a rolling gully, or cattail slough, and if you were lucky, a coffee-colored river with its dark willow, cottonwood, and boxelder grove along the bank; then a blue-blooming flax field stretching up to meet that intimidating, magnificent sky full of tornadoes, thunderstorms, stars clear as sword points heading toward earth on summer nights."
I don't think this is a book of interest only to Minnesotans. It's very specific to time and place, but anyone with any interest in the natural world, or immigrant history, or human nature--and anyone who appreciates beautiful writing--would love this book.