Hearing from Home
real-life letters tell farm family’s tale
In an era of text messages, emails, and Snapchats, it’s becoming increasingly uncommon to pen the long, detailed letters of decades past. Communication is snappier, broader and, as former-local author Sarah Deluca argues, not as deep.
But her latest book, The Crops Look Good, brings that bygone trend back to life, following a Wisconsin farming family from the 1920s to the 1950s through the correspondence between the author’s aunt, Margaret – who left their small farming community in Polk County for Minneapolis – and the rest of the Williamson clan, namely Margaret’s mother and sisters. The book was published in March by the Minnesota Historical Society Press.
Some of the letters are updates on the daily goings-on of the farm: canning, laundry, baking, plowing, planting, and harvesting the crops. Others share news of births and deaths, triumphs and tragedies. Together, they weave together a chronological tale, guiding the reader through the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the eventual decline of the family farm.
That family farm and those historical events lend themselves to each other throughout the book, each becoming characters of their own. The many historical events mentioned throughout the book give context to the farming story. Deluca cites one brother’s memory of killing so many animals during the Depression years, where he said they weren’t worth the feed they put into them as “just one example of personal experiences within the framework of national and global events.”
Deluca described the men and women behind the raw, original letter prose as “resilient, tenacious, determined, devoted, and home-loving people.”
“Willie, Margaret, and Donald probably had the keenest sense of humor,” she explains. “There was a sadness in Olava, a craving for an easier life, that was never fulfilled. Helen and Wilmar were much alike, born farmers like their father, taking great satisfaction from healthy crops and cattle. Adele crabbed love and acceptance. The primary traits of their early years remained to some extent throughout their lives.”
For Deluca, the most striking letters were those that spoke of her Aunt Adele’s heartbreak due to her painful marriage and her grandfather’s regret over his son’s suicide and his feeling that he might have somehow saved him.
She was gifted with tins of family letters – bundled and organized by date and tied with ribbons – in 1996 by her aunt, but she said it took years until she felt up to the task of creating something anew with them.
“She charged me with preserving the letters for the younger generation so they would understand their heritage,” Deluca said. “And maybe I should write a book. That was a big assignment, and it took me nearly 20 years to get the job done.”
Margaret had saved the family correspondence through many decades and several relocations, beginning with her move to Minneapolis in 1923 when she was 19 years old.
Deluca said that there are several gaps of time – sometimes just a few months, sometimes entire years where the family was likely communicating – though those gaps may have aided in the curating process. She ended up only using one-third of the letters. “I wished for another hundred pages, and could easily have filled them with lively writing by these women who shared their hopes and concerns with one another so freely and directly,” Deluca said.
Deluca said she hopes younger readers will compare and contrast their lives to the lives of those who came before them, and to appreciate the health, leisure, and material advantages they enjoy today. For older readers who have lived through some of these times, she thinks they may reflect on their lives with some nostalgia.
“The world around us has changed so remarkably; yet our hopes and needs are remarkably constant,” Deluca said. “Our personal stories continue to demonstrate this. I hope my book might inspire some older readers to put their own experiences on paper and pass them on to coming generations.”
Deluca, who has already published a memoir and a collection of poems, said her next writing goal involves helping other seniors write their own unique stories. “We need to enter into that pact, for the benefit of future generations,” she said.
The Crops Look Good can be purchased online from the Minnesota Historical Society (shop.mnhs.org) or at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., Eau Claire.