Tuesday, January 13, 2009

On Sarpy Creek


I stumbled upon a copy of On Sarpy Creek, by Ira Stephens Nelson, at the library's used book sale. It was in my pile of paperbacks saved for travel. And I was so glad to have it on hand last week when I flew to NY. Originally published by Little, Brown and Co. in 1938, it was republished by Riverbend Publishing and Book Editions in 2003. This is a true gem, similar in appeal to the literary offerings of Willa Cather, Conrad Richter and O. E. Rolvaag. Frontier land, pioneers, hardships, farming: I'm in.

Meeting Case and Sareeny Gyler camped out under a cluster of cottonwoods, forty miles up Sarpy Creek in south-central Montana, I (like the character of Case) was "powerful worried." His wife Sareeny was just about to give birth. At first I thought the time frame was in the 1800s but as I read on, it became clear the time was post-World War I. The couple had tried farming some hundred miles from their birthplace near Sarpy Creek, but had watched their crops "wither back to upturned soil." In despair, they are moving back home. Their baby, a girl, lives, delivered by her daddy. Sareeny is glad to get back home to her mother, for they have a "silent bond of sympathy and understanding". The drought the Gylers are fleeing from follows them home. The Great Depression settles in. We step into the lives of a small band of neighbors and kinfolk along Sarpy Creek, a tributary of Yellowstone River. Families are large, and troubles plenty. In plainspoken prose, their hard times are authentically told.

There are some missing pieces as far as the life of the author goes. Ira Stephens Nelson may have slipped away into obscurity but for the efforts of publishers Scott Mainwaring and Bill Borneman at Riverbend. They found references to the novel in an old teacher's journal, located a copy at the Montana Historical Society, read it, loved it, and reprinted it. In an afterword to their reprint, they offer the few facts known about the author. Nelson was born in Hominy, Oklahoma in 1909, educated in the country schools of Montana and at the Polytechnic Institute in Billings. He was a wanderer and had many different jobs: night nurse an insane asylum, typist, truck driver, living all over the West, Canada and Mexico. On Sarpy Creek is his only novel, published when he was 29 or so. To me it reads like the novel of an older, more experienced writer. Said to have been working on an autobiography when he died in 1994 at a veteran's hospital in Georgia, no literary works of any kind were found in his wake. So for the time being and perhaps forevermore, Ira Stephens Nelson was a one book wonder. How I wish there were more titles. I will be guarding my copy whole-heartedly, lending it only to those who have proved trustworthy in the past.

If there be a book of life it is the human soul, and every long day of living is recorded there, building up and tearing down, putting and taking away, silently and ever so softly forming toward a final reckoning. - Chapter 11, p. 100, Ira Stephens Nelson, On Sarpy Creek.

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