Nothing to Do but Stay:
My Pioneer Mother

by Carrie Young


Delta Books, 2000. ISBN 0385313659.
Reviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 01/08/2001

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Teen/Girls

It often happens that our own stories are intimately entwined with someone else's story, and that to understand who we are, we have to tell another person's story first. I suspect that this is true for Carrie Young, who has written a marvelous memoir of her mother. This warm, hopeful testament to a woman's courage tells the story of Carrine Gafkjen, who—all alone, and with the single-minded, strong-hearted independence that is often obscured in men's stories about women—homesteaded 160 acres of North Dakota prairie. That was in 1904, and Carrine Gafjken spent the next eight years working for money in the winter and returning to her homestead in the summer. By the time she was thirty, she owned 320 acres of productive land. In 1912 she married Sever Berg. They sold his homestead and took up residence on hers, and over the next decade she bore six healthy children, the last of whom has told us her story in a style that is as strong, clear, and direct as Carrine herself. This is a story with no frills or fancy lace, a story of hard work and tough times, but through it all runs hope and love for the land and a firm belief that perseverance will win out in the end.

As a memoirist yourself, you will learn several things from Carrie Young's splendid little book, besides the rich detail of women's lives on the northern prairies in the early years of this century. You will see how a daughter can tell her mother's story without sentimentalizing it. You will learn how to show women (and men) being heroic, not by describing them as heroes but by detailing the daily work of their lives. And you will find out how to shape little fragments of a mother-daughter relationship (like the chapter called "The Last Turkey") into a collection of stories. You may also learn something about style: Carrie Young writes simply and cleanly, telling a bare, spare story without ornament. Take, for instance, this small story.

My mother spent every Monday from dawn until late afternoon doing the family wash. It was probably no accident that four out of six of her children were born on Tuesday.

If she wasn't having a baby on Tuesday, my mother ironed. She had three flatirons, which she heated on top of her kitchen range and which she lifted with a detachable handle. She changed irons about every ten minutes as they cooled off. When I awakened on Tuesday morning, I could hear my mother ironing. The handle squeaked as it was pushed against the flatiron moving across the ironing board. One Christmas my father bought her an outsized gasoline iron, which was equipped with a small gas tank on the back; it had to be generated like a gas lamp before being lit. My mother loved that iron. It had such a large smooth surface, and she didn't have to heat up the coal range as she did with her old flatirons. But all day the carbon monoxide fumes drifted up in her face, and by the end of the day she had a splitting headache. Still, she refused to give it up; she thought the headaches were worth the time it saved. One Tuesday, however, she was in a hurry, and she didn't generate the iron long enough. It started to puff, and she hurled it out the kitchen door a second before it burst into flames. It couldn't have happened to a nicer piece of equipment.

If that isn't a story about sheer, indominatable courage, I don't know what is. To my mind, the best books are like this one, valuable in ways too many to count. I not only learned important things about life on the Dakota prairie, but I learned some very good ways to tell a story, to give voice to someone who can no longer speak for herself and who must live—if she continues to live—chiefly in the words of a writer and the heart of a reader. Carrie Young is a fine teacher for any aspiring writer, and her mother's life is an instructive example of story-telling at its best.

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