Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Turkey Red by Esther Loewe Vogt (1975)

If you know me, you know that I was a fan of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I’m not exactly sure why I loved them so much as a kid.  In fourth or fifth grade (I think it was fifth), Mrs. Stoppel, our fifth grade / social studies teacher, told me that the books took place in Kansas, and I remember being amazed by that. She either told me - or I misunderstood - that On the Banks of Plum Creek took place in Kansas; I now know that Little House on the Prairie took place on the Kansas / Oklahoma state line. I had most likely already at least the first few books in the series at least once by this point.

Probably because my family watched the television show together was when I started reading the books (much of my early reading was based on television shows:  The Hobbit, Narnia, Little House, Miss Switch).  Actually, I don’t even know if that is true.  I remember watching the show. I suppose my mom was watching too.  My brother, was he watching with us?  We only had one television, so I guess so.  My father was probably not even home, as Little House aired on Monday nights; he was probably at school coaching some sport.

Our public library was really small - Lang Memorial Library.  I don’t know who Lang was; some old Wilsonian who left a bunch of money or land for the library, I guess.  The football field at the high school was Lang Memorial Field.  Richest man in town? The Old Man Potter of Wilson, Kanass,  Dead long before I was born.  The library was - and is - a square red brick building, not imposing, but not particularly comfortable either.  The librarian was Mrs. Stadelman and she wore a wig.  Her husband taught shop at the school and was friends with my dad (I later took wood shop from him, and drafting; I sucked at both). I read everything I could get my hands on in that library.  We had no books in our house, or very few I wanted to read.  My mom bought us books, and I had a small personal library that grew over time.  I spent money on books when I could, and sometimes got books as gifts.  We got free books from the school library, Reading is Fundamental books, or library discards (some of which I still have). I ordered books from the Weekly Reader too.  I have those books as well, or most of them.

I don’t remember being afraid of Mrs. Stadelman, but I also don’t recall being all that close to her and well.  It was old fashioned library land - the books were still stamped (maybe they still are?) and there was a beautiful card catalog.  Everything always smelled so good in there: old, musty book smell that only strange people don't like.  I read all the Little House Books for summer reading club one summer - either before or after fifth grade.  Summer reading was some sort of map that you got stamps on for reading books; I suppose we got some sort of prize.  I still have it somewhere (note to self:  go look for this !).  

I bet this was the summer that Mrs. Stadelman suggested I read Turkey Red by Esther Loewe Vogt.  Maybe she asked me what I liked about Little House on the Prairie.  I sincerely doubt I asked her.  I rarely remember discussing books I was reading with adults; certainly when it happened they initiated the conversation.  Reading was (and maybe is) a very private thing, something I had to do (like drinking water or eating) but not something to be shared.  For one thing, no one read as much as I did.  I would check out huge stacks of books, often the same ones, and then return the next day and check out more (at one point, I must have been asked if I had actually read them, but I had - I was a fast reader, actually faster then than I am now, although I can still read a children’s book in less than an hour).  I never, ever wanted to be caught without a book, so I made sure I had a large selection.  

Mrs. Stadelman said - I'm paraphrasing here - “If you like the Little House books, we have this new book, Turkey Red.  It’s about a pioneer girl from Kansas.  I think you will like it.”  

I did like it, in spite of myself and what it was. Because it was a Christian fiction book. Christianity disguised as a book (like Narnia was!). Plus,  Martha Friesen, the main character, was no Laura Ingalls.  Laura Ingalls was bad ass, and she knew it, even if she felt guilty about it.  Nelly Olsen was her nemesis, and sometimes she got even with her.  In better ways on the show (pushing her down that hill in her wheelchair, for example) but in gross ways in the book too (leeches).  Martha was more of a cardboard character than Laura, who is far better edited and written and thus feels more real.  But I still liked Turkey Red.  You could only read Little House so many times, and Turkey Red was fun.  It was about Kansas in the olden days, the days when my grandparent’s parents were little kids.  I also knew about Mennonites too, and the Amish.  My dad grew up near Amish farms and we would go eat at a restaurant called The Dutch Kitchen (Pennsylvania Dutch, Deutsch, Germans) when we visited my grandma and grandpa.  The women all wore white lace caps, and I’m sure my brother or I rudely asked aloud what those women were wearing.  At some point, I even understood that the Mennonites and Amish were related but not the same thing; that the Amish drove buggies (always exciting to see) and the Mennonites drove cars (not exciting to see).  

In The Dutch Kitchen was this paperback rack of books for sale, and I always looked at these  books whenever we went there.  They were Christian fiction and inspirational fiction, from Mennonite and other publishers.  My other grandmother gave me a set of this Christian fiction by Janette Oke one time (later than this, but not too much later); I don’t quite understand why she thought I would like these books. They were prairie love stories about Jesus.  Not really my cup of tea.  Yet I kept them for years, even though I never read them.  They looked way too be mushy.  Maybe those Janette Oke heroines kicked ass like Laura Ingalls, but somehow, I doubt it.  Laura Ingalls was religious, but she didn’t wear her religion on her sleeve.

Martha Friesen did, and re-reading this book almost 40 years later, I realize that Mrs. Stadelman essentially gave me one of those Christian fiction paperback spinner books (she wasn't Mennonite either, as far as I know she was Presbyterian).  Vogt stops to inject Jesus and his saving power and grace many times int eh book.  Always abruptly too.  She puts proselytizing it the mouths of Martha, her father, her cousin from the Ukraine.  There is a prodigal son in the book too, Martha’s brother Jake, who goes away to the big city (which one?  Wichita?  Kansas Ctiy?  Hays?  How did he get there?). because he hates Kansas.  SPOILER - he returns on the last chapter, on Christmas Day no less, and has found Jesus (although not from Mennonites, which was interesting).  You know what happened to Laura Ingalls brother Albert when HE went to the big city?  HE BECAME A DRUG ADDICT.  (As everyone knows, this was only in the television show).  Martha Friesen and her Mennonite life could never compare to Laura’s pioneer life.  Martha was a nice break between Little House books.  But Laura could always take Martha Friesen in a fight.  Actually, Nellie Olsen could take Martha Friesen in a fight too. I don't think Ma would have let Laura and Martha become friends either, although perhaps she would have (she did let a black doctor in their house to save them once).  

Turkey RedTurkey Red by Esther Loewen Vogt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In fourth or fifth grade, the children's librarian at our small town public library suggested I read this book because it took place in Kansas and I liked the Little House books. I liked it, in spite of myself, and in spite of it being pretty obvious Christian fiction. Jesus is everywhere in this plot, and in the most unlikely forced kinds of places. Every chance Vogt gets, she has someone talking about Jesus.
The clunkiness of this bothered me as an adult, and I suppose it annoyed me a young reader too - but not enough to forget the book. Re-reading it almost 40 years later, I still remember how exciting it was for Martha to see President Hayes (I wanted to see a president too) and the prairie fire (just like LIttle House!) and the tornado. And the Native American who appears mysteriously to save them all the time (which made me the modern reader squirm). I still think Laura Ingalls Wilder could take all of the girls AND boys in this book in a fight; Nellie Olsen could too. Little House will always be better, but way back in the day, I could only read and re-read the Little House books so much, especially if they were checked out when I went to the library, so Turkey Red would have to suffice.

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