But who is Ruth Suckow?
I’m glad you asked!
Ruth Suckow is a writer who died 61 years ago. She is largely (not entirely by any means!) forgotten now, but she had her day of fame and success. Her writing was even championed by H. L. Mencken. She was born in Hawarden in northwestern Iowa on August 6, 1892. She died in California on January 23, 1960, at the age of 67. However, she was buried in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She had come home to be buried.
She was and is associated with Iowa, and deservedly so. Iowa was where her character was formed, and Iowa was frequently the location for her stories and novels.
I was alerted to the existence of Ruth Suckow when rereading Bill Kauffman’s excellent Ain’t My America. Mr. Kauffman had a quote from Suckow’s novel Country People, which inclined me to seek out that novel.
I did seek it out, and I’m glad I did. Country People (1924) was Ruth Suckow’s first novel. It is short–213 pages with large print–and is a quiet book which held my interest well. I read it in three sittings.
There are not a lot of exciting things going on in the book. Suckow’s characters are country people. They work hard. They court and marry. They have quite a few children. Some of the children flourish better than others. Change comes, and the change is not always for the better.
The two main characters are August and Emma Kaetterhenry. They are German Methodists. When we came to southern Indiana six and a half decades ago, we immediately began to get to know German Lutherans. When I hear Mrs. Kaetterhenry say ‘”a’ready,”‘ I remember hearing the same word often among our German Lutheran friends! They too were hardworking people. In fact the German Lutheran presence remains strong in our area. Their children are strong in scholarship–and in athletic ability, to the benefit of our local high school sports teams.
August Kaetterhenry has a rude awakening when the U.S. entered the (First) World War against the Germans.
“Then the taunts, the talk about Huns and Boche, made farmers like August for the first time actually realize their German ancestry. August had always taken it for granted that he belonged in this country. They awoke a deep racial resentment that could not come flaring out into the open but had to remain smoldering, and that joined with the fear of change, the resentment at interference, into a combination of angry feelings.
“This centered in a deep opposition to the draft. To have someone tell his boys to do this and that! To take away his help on the farm just when he needed it most! To have somebody just step in and tell them where they had to go! Was that what happened in this country? Why had his people left the old country, then, if things were going to be just the same?” (pp. 102-103)
Two of August’s sons are drafted. They return from the war, one seemingly unaffected, the other somewhat harmed psychologically, never quite the person he could have been.
We learn when reading about Ruth Suckow’s life that she found World War I profoundly disturbing. In fact her relationship with her father, a Congregationalist pastor, was damaged because of his activities in support of the war. Later in life, in World War II, she established contacts with conscientious objectors, and she joined the Quakers in California. It is good to hear that she did not swallow the warmongering spirit of far too many American Christians. The way American Christians, in their idolatry of the U.S., have baptized all the idiotic American wars, is a disgrace to the name of Christianity.
Ruth Suckow does not idealize her country people. Far otherwise. She is trying to paint an honest picture of their lives. A second reading of the book may cause me to revise my evaluation, but what I see from this first reading is a lot of people who have a sort of subdued Christianity that does not really apply to all of life. That hampers their ability to act with biblical wisdom. Sound familiar? What else do we have in this country, for the most part, but a sort of quasi-Christianity which seldom encourages us actually to apply what the Bible teaches?
The marriage of August and Emma is good–but we get hints that it could be so much better. This is indicated subtly. Near the end of the book we have a contrast between August Kaetterhenry and his father-in-law Grandpa Stille. Grandpa Stille had not been as great a success in life as had August.
Now, late in his life, Grandpa Stille is mostly confined to one room. He often can be heard praying. He can be heard singing old German hymns. He is not demanding of his daughters or of life. Emma, lately made a widow by August’s death, ponders all this in what for me is the key passage of the book.
‘Emma thought about it as Carl was driving her home between the September fields of dusty gold in the late afternoon. She could still hear those faint, far-apart, devout German words. August had always said that if her father had been more of a farmer and less of a preacher, he’d be better off today. August had despised him in a dispassionate way. But the old man had had something, she hardly knew what, that had lasted him when his work was over.
‘”He’s got something to think about,” she thought.
‘It was that something, she could not name it, which she had missed all her married life.
‘She remembered the pathos of August, coming in from the farm and saying bitterly that everything had to go Carl’s way now; of him sitting about the house, trying to look at the farm journal, not knowing what to do with himself. Her father, what a frail man he had been when he had first come to live with them years ago! And here he was living still, contented with the little that he had, and well, and August was the one who was gone.’ (pp. 197-198)
Her own life no doubt nearing its end within a few years, Emma is vaguely conscious that there was something “she had missed all her married life.” Something which her father’s more committed brand of Christianity had given to him. There is sadness in this book, and a clear-eyed honesty. We respect and admire August and Emma. But Emma understands, to some extent at least, that things could have been better.
This is the first Ruth Suckow book I have read. I plan to order another later today. Country People is not inexpensive on the Internet. The best price I could find today was about $19.00 (shipping included, but sales tax extra). I saved my money and read the book through inter-library loan, but that keeps me from underlining passages.
Other books by Ruth Suckow are less expensive. If the second one I read is as good as the first, I will be encouraged to keep on reading. In Country People, Ruth Suckow has given us an admirable, honest, moving, thought-provoking book. It is a superb first novel.
Ruth Suckow shared one interest with Sherlock Holmes. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, she became powerfully interested in bee keeping. She even ran an apiary for part of her life.
Ruth Suckow, at age 37, married Ferner Nuhn, but they were childless. Their marriage seems to have been happy. To read more about Ruth Suckow, follow the link below.