Earlier this week, the latest title from the South Dakota State Historical Society Press arrived on the loading dock here at the Cultural Heritage Center. Packed inside the heavy boxes that we transferred to the warehouse shelves were copies of “Dear Unforgettable Brother”: The Stavig Letters from Norway and America, 1881–1937. Having gone over the manuscript several times in the course of editing the book, I continue to be struck by how poignantly the collected letters of Lars and Knut Stavig convey the course of life as it passes from the possibilities of youth to the infirmities of old age.
Lars Stavig emigrated from western Norway in 1876 and eventually settled with his wife and children on a farm in Day County, Dakota Territory. Back in Norway, Lars had left behind many family members, including a half-brother, Knut Stavig. Over the next fifty years, the two corresponded—sometimes frequently, sometimes waiting months between letters—sharing news of life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Their descendants collected and translated their correspondence, which is published for the first time in “Dear Unforgettable Brother,” compiled and annotated by Lars’s great-granddaughter Jane Torness Rasmussen and her husband John S. Rasmussen.
Readers of the brothers’ letters learn of the births of children and then grandchildren, of weddings and funerals, of business successes and failures, of the loneliness of living without a spouse, and, finally, of life dependent on others in a world that seems foreign once again. They also learn of family ties that have endured over time and distance and how the brothers’ letters have brought together new generations of Stavig descendants.
To hear the Rasmussens discuss their new book and have your copy signed, make plans to attend the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood September 20–22.
From a need for creative expression . . . to figuring out what my “voice” was and what I wanted to say . . . to countless writing groups, writing workshops, writing conferences—the process of creating Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey has been exactly what the book’s title implies: a circle, a journey, a coming home.
I began writing as a teenager, working for our local newspaper, the Timber Lake Topic, as a feature writer. I measured the column inches of anything I wrote, kept track in my own ledger, and received my compensation twice a month. I eventually “graduated” from being a freelance feature writer to being the paper’s student employee. I still wrote stories, but I also took photos and learned to set type. It’s both ironic and rewarding to me that, recently, that same newspaper ran a feature article about me, my writing, and my work since leaving Timber Lake—just one of the circles that has been part of this process.
When I was in my mid-twenties, actively involved in a teaching career, a marriage, and motherhood, the itch to write continued. My first attempts at writing sounded much like whatever author I happened to be reading at the time, and I struggled with the concept of finding my “voice.”
Wonderful, invaluable mentors appeared during those years. I joined the Wyoming Writers and began learning all I could from conferences and newsletters. I spent an intensive four-day weekend with Linda Hasselstrom and other writers in Hermosa, South Dakota, during the summer of 1998, and some of the essays in Circling Back Home began incubating during that time. Linda encouraged me to work with the essays I’d written to find my writer’s voice. It was during that struggle that I realized that the storyteller’s voice in my head sounded a lot like the people around whom I’d grown up. As I listened, wrote, and honed that voice, the stories of those people began flowing from my black ink pen. I went back to Linda’s during the summer of 2011, as I was preparing the complete manuscript for publication, and hers is the voice of the book’s introduction—another circle.
Another writer friend, Page Lambert, introduced me to the idea of a story spiral—the way good fiction, and nonfiction, spirals around and touches certain themes over and over. As I read the seemingly disjointed essays I’d been composing for writers’ groups and contests, I realized that my spirals kept touching on home, on family, on my agricultural roots. As I looked at those spirals, gradually a book took shape within their coils. Although I had started writing for myself, to understand my own life experiences, eventually I was writing out of great respect for my ancestors, for the prairies, and for the heritage that came from growing up in South Dakota. Because our modern world is so disconnected from the natural world, I found I was writing to preserve traditional values and a lifestyle rooted in agriculture.
In the process of writing, submitting, being rejected, and rewriting this work, I have learned much about my ancestors, my chosen lifestyle, and myself. I wrote the actual essays in Circling Back Home over a period of about eight years, working on the book when I could—during my kids’ naptimes, when I had breaks from my teaching job, on occasional writing retreats. Although my busy life seemed to impede my writing career, in truth the rich experiences of motherhood, teaching, and ranching gave me something to write about when I returned to my desk. I took a lengthy break from this book to work on another manuscript and then picked it up again in early 2011. By that time, of course, some of my perceptions had changed; the final publication has actually gone through several edits over the last two years.
I am still writing, though not involved in any book-length projects at the moment! I write two blogs. “The Back Forty” continues to explore the connections between humanity and the natural world. My other blog, “Teen Lit Talk,” is written as part of my current career as a youth-services librarian.
Whatever writing I’m doing these days, I’ve finally found that my writer’s voice is less an expression of my unique individuality and more a blend of the enduring influences of my family, my heritage, and my South Dakota culture. This foundation has taught me a deep reverence for the land and for traditional values. My husband, Shawn, and I work to pass those values on to our own children. We still live on a ranch in northeastern Wyoming, and our children keep us active. I am so glad that I have been able to see Circling Back Home come to publication, and I look forward to meeting you online or at writing events and to visiting with you.
Thank you for your interest in Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey!
The book Circling Back Home: A Plainswoman’s Journey is NOW available through most independent and retail booksellers. Darcy Lipp-Acord’s book can also be ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 605-773-6009. Visit www.sdshspress.com for more information about this book or talk with the author at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood, 19–20 September 2013.
My daughter, Sarah’s, first day in art class this year brought a chuckle from her teacher. He held up a picture of the South Dakota prairie at sunset and called on my daughter to describe to him how it made her “feel.” While you or I might have commented on the sunset or the peaceful feeling it invoked, Sarah looked at it for a moment and answered, “It makes me feel bored because it is just flat and boring.” I looked at the picture from her youthful perspective, and, I guess, I have to agree with her assessment!
By contrast, the pictures in Greet the Dawn: The Lakota Way by S. D. Nelson are anything but flat and boring! This morning I was looking at the very first illustration in the book. The reader, or the one being read to, is treated to a scene showing a school bus stop complete with a scruffy dog who looks as though he’s just about to attempt to board the bus with his master. The artist did a great job of capturing the different attitudes of the kids who are about to get on that bus. Some are running excitedly, although one little sister is tugging on her big sister—I imagine she might be saying, “No! I’m not ready to go to school! Let’s go run through the prairie and play some games!” The boy in the back might be the one imagining the very images that the artist has painted across the sky. The school bus and children are not all you will be treated to in this illustration, though. The background is literally filled with images of the present, past, and future. Etched in the sky are buffalo hunters, totem poles, a Native American Indian in full headdress, a variety of animals and designs. Below the children’s feet is “mother earth,” and the artist truly makes her come alive, clothed in the beautiful colors of the native prairie grasses. If a teacher asked me how this illustration made me “feel,” I would reply that it makes me feel happy and encouraged and content, all at the same time. S. D. Nelson captioned his illustration perfectly by writing on that very page: “We greet the dawn with a smiling heart, for all is beautiful at the beginning of a new day.”
You will find many attention-getting illustrations for your young ones in our children’s books, and when you read to them this fall, please take the time to ask, “How does this picture make you feel?” The perspective of our young people may surprise you.
The start of this week seemed to revolve around budgets. Diving right in from my excursion to the University of Oklahoma Press last week—where I worked with an amazing marketing team learning new strategies for national marketing and other processes the SDSHS Press can utilize as we grow and expand—I began developing new materials for our future book releases and upcoming conferences. With numbers from the Oklahoma trip still zooming around my brain (“How many for how much?”), I also pulled together the final expenses for a South Dakota Humanities Council grant. Earlier this summer, SDSHS Press author Fraser Harrison journeyed back to Yankton to conduct research for a contemporary profile of the river town—read the Press and Dakotan interview with Harrison here to learn more.
From turning in my trip receipts to tallying up final expenditures, all of these dollar signs reminded me of the new bargain book section on our website. Containing award-winning literature for readers of all ages, sdshspress.com is worth visiting to learn more about the bargain books you see below. Perhaps then you can answer questions such as, Where is the Hidden City? What is better, wealth or happiness? Who was the first woman umpire? When is the best time to explore the woods?
The following books are being offered at amazing discounts. They can be ordered by calling (605) 773-6009 or emailing email@example.com.
Baum & Conahan
A story about making and living with tough decisions. At a young age, Zikky the Gopher must leave his mother’s burrow and choose his path into the future. Riches abound, adventure beckons, and danger lurks around every corner. Ultimately, wisdom is hard earned in this allegorical story.
Umpire in a Skirt
Kratz & Curriel
Just over one hundred years ago, women did not play baseball, and they certainly did not umpire the games. But one young woman in South Dakota changed all that in the summer of 1904.
Waiting for Coyote’s Call
“Waiting for Coyote’s Call is rooted in the river hills of South Dakota, but it speaks to wild places everywhere. If you are in love with the natural world, you will want to read this inspiring book.”—Candace Savage, author of Prairie: A Natural History
“There is much to learn, admire, and envy here: clear summaries, apt quotations, amusing anecdotes, and a depth of research that extends beyond Rushmore’s well-worn ground to lesser-known attractions such as Hisega and the Hidden City.”—Great Plains Quarterly
School opens this week in Pierre. Like so many other parents in town, I’ve been shopping for school supplies, filling out forms, and meeting teachers these past few days. My son Jacob has been looking forward to his first day of school in our new hometown, and he was happy to find the names of some friends from summer day camp on his second-grade class list. This morning, Jacob was telling me how much he likes to read—music to the ears of a parent who works in publishing! It looks like Jacob is ready for another year of learning, but he isn’t the only one in our house who’s learning new things.
I’ve been with the Press for almost two months now, and I’ve learned a couple of key lessons already. Lesson number one: there is a lot more to learn. Lesson number two: learning is one of this job’s best perks! Since my arrival, I’ve had the chance to evaluate a few book manuscripts and help out with the editing of articles that will be appearing in future issues of South Dakota History. Each manuscript is different, and you never know what you might learn while in the process of checking an author’s references. My disaster preparedness has surely improved since I started working here. I’ve studied droughts, rattlesnakes, locusts, and anthrax spores. I’m better at geography, too. I now know what “East River” and “West River” mean—not to be confused with “Jim River,” of course! I was born in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and now I can carry on an intelligent conversation about the life and times of my birthplace’s namesake. All this knowledge comes courtesy of the authors who publish their work with us. And unlike Jacob, I won’t have any tests to take.
One of the South Dakota State Historical Society Press’s upcoming books is “Dear Unforgettable Brother”: The Stavig Letters from Norway and America, 1881–1937, compiled and edited by Jane and John Rasmussen. The book spans fifty years of letters exchanged between two brothers and other family members. One brother, Lars Stavig, emigrated to the United States with his family in 1876, and the other, Knut Stavig, stayed in Norway. The book is a touching, moving account of their lives. More than just reporting how their crops did that year or how the fishing was, the brothers put their heartfelt emotions down on paper—what a treasure the Rasmussen family has, and how fortunate we are that they shared it with us!
Today, my own family keeps in touch with e-mail and text messages—in other words, short communications. My mother never joined the “computer age” and still sends the occasional handwritten letter (which I keep). She is the youngest sibling of a family of six and kept in contact with her brothers and sister through a “round robin” letter. One sibling wrote a letter, put it in an envelope, and mailed it to the next, who added a letter, and so on. My mother’s siblings and their spouses have now passed on, and she is the only one left with the memories of their youth, my grandparents, my father, stepfather, and others. She tends to forget things that happened yesterday, but she is starting to open up more about her childhood and her life as a young wife and mother, telling stories we have never heard before—some that she found difficult to share. I have asked her many times to “write it down,” and she does keep a “journal,” she says, with notes about the weather, books she has read, and so forth. None of her children (there are seven of us) have ever seen it. It will be something we will read after she is gone, much like the families of Lars and Knut Stavig did with the brothers’ correspondence. Perhaps, the Stavig letters can inspire us to fill in the blanks, to “write it down” for our children, before it is forgotten.