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The Dance Hall at Spring Hill

When I was eight my Aunt Suzanna died. My sister Eva and I started crying at her funeral and we couldn’t stop. I remembered the uneasy looks we got from relatives, all dry-eyed, as if there were something wrong with us for crying at all. By the time we got control of ourselves, I couldn’t tell if I was crying for Aunt Suzanna or out of shame for my own tears.

The Dance Hall at Spring Hill, Duke Klassen

The German Catholics of Spring Hill are the near neighbors of Bill Holm’s Icelandic Lutherans. Like those Icelanders, they’ve wrestled a living from the harsh prairie of western Minnesota, and in the process have become as hard and cold, at least on the outside, as the stones and ice of their landscape. There’s little room for sentimentality on the prairie: kittens are drowned, dogs are run over, mothers are buried, houses are burned. Klassen’s stories are stark and unadorned, only rarely taking lyrical flight; life and death on the prairie is a matter of fact affair.

Not that there isn’t room for some humor and magic, though, in these interlinked stories. In “Mrs. Cabot and Mrs. Abernathy,” the school board is forced to hire a Protestant teacher when no Catholic is willing to work for the salary offered. The schoolchildren, who until then had only encountered Protestants when Lutheran farmers (uncles and cousins of Bill Holm, perhaps) came over from a neighboring dry county to buy booze, discover that Protestants have a strange obsession with oral hygiene. They are ordered to get their own toothbrushes (no sharing) and visit the dentist, which they do with the resignation of Catholic martyrs. In “Rimpel-Zimpel,” a boy, his father, and a hired hand challenge property lines and a fearsome storm to fish a secret lake, and are rewarded with “pails … so full that fish flop out as fast as we throw them in.” And in “Below the Surface,” two blows to the head transform a boy first from a stoic farmer to an awe-struck romantic, then back again, but not without a painful sense of loss.

The fifteen stories in The Dance Hall at Spring Hill drift back and forth over about thirty years, from the 1920s to the 1950s, chronicling the transformations in the place and its people: railroads come and go, farming practices change and shape the landscape, generations come and go. But abiding through all the change are the tough but not joyless people on their bleak prairie, as impossible to root out as the rocks in their fields.

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