Historical fiction about a Minnesota farm girl’s life in 1877 that celebrates the opening of the Gibbs Farm for the season and a novel that reminds us the past is a prologue. Both will be launched at separate events this week.
“Grasshoppers in My Bed: Lillie Belle Gibbs, Minnesota Farm Girl, 1877.” Written by Terry Swanson, illustrated by Peggy Stern (Ramsey County Historical Society, $20)
I have discovered one way that Frank is not anything like Tom Sawyer – he does not seem to be very interested in girls. Yet, Tom Sawyer had been engaged to be married twice by the time he was just twelve years old! I cannot imagine Frank ever kissing a girl.
On this May day 145 years ago, Lillie Gibbs might have speculated in her diary about the doings of her brother, Frank. This is one of 138 fictional diary entries in this slender paperback, which chronicles Lillie’s life from December 1876 through December 1877, written for middle-grade readers.
Lillie didn’t leave a diary per se, says author Swanson, but the book is based on primary source material at Ramsey County Historical Society archives, including photographs, maps, programs, a personal Bible, Lillie’s dictionary and a few of her school notebooks full of essays, spelling words, and penmanship assignments, along with historical accounts from Lillie’s brother and her father’s accounting books.
Lillie was the daughter of Herman and Jane Gibbs, who acquired the land north of St. Paul in 1849. In 1949, local citizens and Gibbs family members saved the 100-year-old property from demolition, and the newly created Ramsey County Historical Society worked to preserve, study, and document the Gibbs family history. (The farm is at 2097 W. Larpenteur Ave., Falcon Heights.)
Swanson knew her subject well, because she was program and site manager at the farm for 10 seasons. Lillie loved to sketch, and Swanson felt it important to incorporate illustrations into the book. Local artist Peggy Stern sketched and painted more than 200 individual images that enliven the pages.
Lillie was obviously an observant 11-year-old, telling her diary about her week of cleaning out the chamber pots, her parents’ sadness at the loss of a son, summer heat, grasshoppers, the Easter table loaded with dishes of all kinds, Attending the Independence Day celebration at Lake Como, and how sad she feels about having a fight with her best friend.
Swanson hopes this book answers the question she heard when she worked at the farm: “What was it really like to live on this farm back then?”
Swanson and Stern will be at the Gibbs Farm Opening Day Saturday, May 28, beginning at 10 am There will be author talks, activities, and book signings in the Red Barn at 10:30 am, 12:30 and 2:30 pm Guests can also take farmhouse and Dakota lifeways tours, see farm animals, and participate in farm chores. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for children over four. Pre-registration is recommended but not required. Go to [email protected]
“The Moments Between Dreams” by Judith F. Brenner (Greenleaf Book Group Press, $17.95)
‘You know how you act sometimes. How you get me real mad.’
‘I don’t irritate you on purpose, Joe.’
‘I haven’t hit you in a long while. I don’t think I have a problem.’
‘It’s an anger problem, Joe. Would you want Ellie to marry a man that beats her? Think about that. You’re a role model.’
‘Your dumb a- sets me off.’ There’s always a reason.’
It’s the summer of 1943. Carol’s husband, Joe, is in the military when their little girl, Ellie, is diagnosed with polio. It was the worst fear of parents, this epidemic for which there was no vaccine and, at first, no treatment. Alone in Chicago with her daughter and older son, Carol will do anything to help the child recover from painful surgery and learn to walk with braces.
Joe comes home, and at first, things are fine as they move into a new house. But gradually Joe’s temperament changes and he begins abusing his wife to the point where he breaks her ribs and blackens her eyes. She has no idea what sets him off, so she is walking on eggs constantly. Whenever his temper takes over, Joe says it’s something she did. He refuses to let her drive their car or see her sister and brother and his wife. She can’t wear makeup and he wants to know where she is at all times. She can only leave the house to go to church functions.
At first, Carol believes him when he says her bad behavior sets him off. After all, her Catholic faith and society in general hold that the wife must do everything to please her husband. Even her priest is unsympathetic, although he can see her bruises. He just tells her to have her husband come see him and they will pray. Then, he hurries out of the room because he’s training a new altar boy. Later in the story, that priest is quickly sent to another parish. In 2022 we know what went on with the priest and the boys but, like wife abuse, nobody talked about that particular sin in the 1940s and ’50s.
Much of the book is dedicated to Carol’s passionate need to help her daughter live a full life. When Joe almost kills her, she makes a get-away plan for her and Ellie, escaping to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. Remember, these were the days when there were no hotlines or safe houses for abused women. If Joe finds them, Carol might lose custody of her children to their father, whom they love because Carol has kept the worst of his abuse out of their sight.
When a tragedy happens, Carol hardens her heart and loses the respect of her son and, briefly, her daughter.
A pandemic. An abused wife. Fear of the disabled. Things aren’t much different now, in 2022, even though we know more now about the signs of a controlling man.
It isn’t a spoiler to reveal that the book ends on a hopeful note as the country enters the post-war era and Carol begins a new life.
Judith Brenner owns and operates Creative Lakes Media, an editing services company. She is the author of non-fiction books, another novel and essays. She earned her MBA in marketing from the University of St. Thomas.
The author will launch “The Moments Between Dreams” at 6 pm Tuesday, May 24, at Edina Senior Center, 5280 Grandview Square, #101, Edina. It’s free, but registration is required at: judithbrenner.com/events.