“If she wasn't having a baby on Tuesday, my mother ironed."
Nothing To Do But Stay
by Carrie Young
Carrie Young is best known for her authorship of Nothing To Do But Stay (University of Iowa Press, 1991), an eight-essay “folk narrative” tribute to her pioneer mother who, at the age of 25, left Minneapolis in the early 1900s to homestead alone in the prairies of western North Dakota.
Young, one of six children raised by this remarkable woman remembers her mother, Carrine Gafkjen, as “at once the most liberated and unliberated of women. If she had considered the subject at all she would have thought it a waste of time. She firmly believed in destiny; what fate planned for her she dealt with head-on.”
Young’s characters are undoubtedly patterned after the stalwart homesteaders she remembered from her childhood who endure dust storms, grasshopper blights, repeated crop failures and near starvation of their cattle with never a thought of giving up or leaving their chosen homeland (pp. 44, 64). These are people who drive Model Ts 30 miles to make a telephone call, navigate blinding blizzards to treat scarlet fever victims and deliver babies, hand stitch elaborate baptismal gowns for babies that may never come, and celebrate (when day-to-day demands allows) with traditional foods (you can almost smell the gingersnaps baking in the oven and thick porridge simmering on the stove) and customs (folk dancing) from their beloved native land.
These are hardy people, both physically and emotionally. Even their names—Borghold, Gunnar, Ingval, Kjersten, Ragna—exude strength.
“The Skaters” is a powerful story of a love triangle involving two brothers and one of their wives who homestead together. Although Young never clarifies the extent of the relationship between Borghold and her brother-in-law, their unspoken longings are certainly felt and provide emotional depth for this story. A gift Ingval gave to his sister-in-law—a small globe featuring granules of snow whirling around a girl and two boy skaters—stands at the centerpiece of the story and becomes symbolic of the fragile uncertainty of the relationship among the three main characters.
“The Nights of Ragna Rundhaug” is a portrait of a woman “who wanted nothing more than to sit in her homestead cabin with her white dog and her chickens out back and her horse in the shed ready to be hitched up to the buggy anytime she took a notion to go to town,” but becomes a reluctant midwife simply because she is the only woman available to help a frantic homesteader whose wife goes into labor during a blizzard. The story focuses on Ragna’s coping with her “terror and guilt” after losing the first baby she delivers and the emotional strength she musters to deliver hundreds of babies after that “dreadful night.”
In “Twilight and June” a jilted finance reestablishes a relationship with the woman who betrayed him many years later after her husband has died. June believes that the man who visits her daily in the nursing is her late husband, Ralph, and Twilight maintains her happiness by never correcting her misconception. Twilight remains faithful to June, even when she confesses to “Ralph” that she was once engaged to another man but only “went along with, you might say, until my prince came along!” (p. 186).
In the title story a hauntingly beautiful and tragic pioneer woman sews an intricate, silk wedding gown that she loans to many young brides but ironically never has the opportunity to wear herself until the gown becomes her funeral shroud. A University of Iowa Press review of the collection describes Ildri’s gown as “an enduring symbol for the grace and compassion of homesteading women on the plains.”
The narrator of “Wedding Dress” describes her mother (a replica of her own homesteading mother) as a friend of Ildri’s who leaves Minneapolis to “carry out a long-held dream”:
“She boarded a train west and one cold spring day staked out a homestead for herself in northwestern North Dakota, where thousands of acres of virgin prairie rolled two thousand feet above sea level from horizon to horizon. As she lived out the required months of residence in her tiny makeshift cabin, living on potatoes and salt, carrying her water five miles from the nearest creek, barring her door against the coyotes, the big-city world with its Astrid Fjelds and watered-silk wedding dresses seemed as distant as another planet.” (pp. 21-22)
There are lighter stories that balance out the collection, such as “Sins of Our Fathers” and “Bank Night,” but they lack the depth and richness of character development that characterize the best of this collection. You may soon forget the characters in these stories, but you will long remember Ragna Rundhaug.
Young is a gifted storyteller whose carefully crafted fiction and non-fiction writings are a testament to the resilient spirit of the homesteaders who settled the North Dakota plains.
About the Author
Selected Wedding Dress: Stories from the Dakota Plains Reviews
The Wedding Dress: Stories from the Dakota Plains by Carrie Young