“I had the sense of sitting in a theater watching a movie about the Great Depression. Definitely a winner!” Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-founder, RootsTelevision.com, author, and genealogical researcher
“Great read on various subjects with a bit of mystery. Well written. Judy captures the lives of people and reflects with amazing detail the real past. Recommended.” Iris (Dockter) Swedlund, Librarian, Velva School and Public Library
“Evokes something rare and vital—a woman’s deep love for her childhood home. Cook has composed a love song to the Northern Plains.” Patricia Dunn M.A., M.F.T.
“Cook sprinkles just enough interesting and unusual anecdotes with the genealogy of her ancestors. If you are interested in family history, and you are thinking of collecting stories of your family, check out how Cook has documented her family history.” Rita Greff, reviewer, Bismarck Tribune
“Everyone is fascinated by his or her family history; however, Judy Cook’s family is particularly compelling and colorful. A good read.” Candy Greene, author and consultant.
Kirkus Discoveries Review
An intimate, personal exploration of early homestead life on the Northern Plains, and how the author’s ancestors not only survived but thrived for three generations.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, millions of pioneers rushed westward in search of free land, opportunity and new lives, hoping to take advantage of the homesteads opening along expanding railroad lines. In the harsh environs of the Dakota prairies, only the most hardy stood a chance of lasting a single winter. While many fell to hardship, privation and misery, others found the resources and fortitude to set down roots and begin a new life. Cook’s family was one of those hardy few, and for three generations the family held tight to its dream and to the land. The book contrasts in vivid and stark prose the struggles, triumphs and day-to-day lives of the author’s ancestors and tells the gripping story of life and survival on the Northern Plains. Cook’s frank portrayal brings to life her four grandparents who wrought a living from the forbidding land, as well as the lives of her parents who continued the tradition by farming the same ground. The author describes growing up on the plains in the 1950s, her life shaped and influenced by ancestors she never knew and by a way of life that connected her to the earth—forever making her a “farmer’s daughter.” Working off scant documentation and embellishing her true-life characters’ motivations, Cook treats readers to a historical account layered with personal speculation and conjecture as she tries to reconstruct her predecessors’ actions and interactions. But rather than undermine the book’s credibility, the author’s creative license deepens the narrative and adds a level of intimacy and drama that might otherwise be dulled by a just-the-facts historical reporting.
Intimate, compelling and wisely paced prose make this a valuable history lesson and an entertaining family saga.
“One hundred years after my grandparents arrived on the North Dakota prairie and broke the land to the plow, the land remains a constant,” writes Judy R. Cook, whose heart is as tied to the northern plains as were those of her homesteading grandparents.
Using her talents as a writer, researcher, and genealogist, Cook recounts how relatives were enticed to North Dakota through the Homestead Act, which provided free land to those who would live on it for a certain period. Challenges were great for both the American-born paternal side of the family, and those of Norwegian heritage on her mother’s side. Cook deftly brings them to life, and in so doing, provides readers with a realistic portrait of the homesteaders’ connection with the land, fellow farmers, and small towns.
Life was tough for these hardy pioneers. Though plagued by storms, drought, illness, primitive living conditions, and heartache, they also found love and community. With details drawn from family memoirs, newspaper accounts, and other research, Cook’s ancestors’ stories transcend the experiences of just her family.
Cook describes Adria Williams, her paternal grandmother who arrived in Dawson, North Dakota, in 1908, as a “petticoat pioneer.” The spunky Adria, then in her thirties, lived in an “upscale” hotel. Although a college-educated teacher, Adria worked as a stenographer for a crooked lawyer/land agent and she exercised her right as a single woman to become a homesteader, where she lived in a sparsely furnished, “crude wood and tarpaper shack . . .” She moved to Steele, worked in various government offices, then successfully ran for election as superintendent of schools. Cook notes that ironically North Dakota women weren’t allowed to vote except in school matters. “I am proud that my paternal grandmother was an early leader in women’s rights.” Unbeknownst to most people, a potential scandal caused Adria to abruptly quit her job. She and Cook’s grandfather, Tom Price, the county sheriff, left the state and married to conceal the fact that she was pregnant. Years passed before the Prices returned to the homestead during hard economic times. In 1935-36, the problems of finding adequate and immediate medical care during a harsh winter is poignantly described when Adria falls ill and dies. Equally sad is the death of Tom.
Cook completes the tale of three generations and the land by describing her own childhood tales of pets, adventures, and houses being moved, and her brother being boarded in town so he could attend first grade. She remembers electricity coming to the farm in 1950. Family pictures personalize the story and show, for example, what the homestead shacks were like.
Cook begins and ends her tale with dramatic crime stories in an area where doors were left unlocked and neighbors looked after each other. In 1973, convicts escaped and were on the lam near the family farm. Her father and brother’s role in apprehending two of the men is testimony to her inspirational family and life on the northern plains. If This Land Could Talk is a model for writing family histories. Foreword Clarion Review, 129 1/2 East Front Street, Traverse City, Michigan49684231-933-3699
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
Randy Seaver Book Review –
"If This Land Could Talk" by Judy R. Cook
Judy Cook traces the lives of her grandparents and her parents through a mixture of local history and family stories, and her own life story. Kidder County, North Dakota has a population density of 2 persons per square mile. Think about it - the neighbors were far away, it was almost always cold, roads were often impassable, electrification didn't occur until the 1950s, services were in distant towns, etc. These situations contributed to the hardiness, the sense of personal responsibility, and the feelings of satisfaction of the settlers as they created homes and businesses, and lived their lives on the prairie.
We meet the four grandparents one at a time, and learn their life stories:
* Adria Williams (born in Dakota Territory, but her family was from colonial New England) became a schoolteacher and then the Kidder County Superintendent of Schools.
* Thomas Arthur Price (born in Michigan, but his father was from England) homesteaded in 1905 and became Sheriff of Kidder County in 1915. He married Adria in 1919 at the age of 50, and they had two children, including Bruce Arthur Price, Judy's father. For a period of time during the early 1930s, they lived in California but moved back to North Dakota as the Great Depression wore on.
* Gustav Shirley (born in Minnesota of Norwegian parents) homesteaded in 1905 also, and brought his first family soon after to live in a tent. His first wife died, and he married again.
* Petra Hanson (born in Norway, immigrated alone to America) became a live-in helper during the illness of Gust's first wife, and married him in 1911, and they had nine children, including Judy's mother, Evelyn Shirley.
I really enjoyed this book. Using short chapters, Judy introduces her family members and tells their stories in a way that conveys how life was really like for the times. The reader feels a witness to local history and family history while understanding the events and forces that molded the people and their communities. Judy's early life experiences were much different from my own, and it was interesting to see how she thrived in her surroundings, and how she appreciates the life lessons learned.
The stories continue through the lives of the grandparents and then into the lives of Judy's parents, and then to Judy's life experiences in North Dakota. She says "I carry within my DNA my grandparents' love for the land. My rural heritage stirs in my soul. I am and always will be a farmer's daughter."
This is the kind of book that many genealogists wish that they could write so as to further their family's interest in family and local history. It is a fine example of what a talented writer can produce about "normal life" and "non-famous" ancestors. Randy Seaver, Genea-Musing, www.geneamusings.com
Review from the Bismarck Tribune
By RITA GREFF
Title: "If This Land Could Talk: Homesteading on the Northern Plains"
The cover of the book "If This Land Could Talk," by Judy R. Cook, sports a photograph of a group of neighbors from KidderCounty around 1910. The farm economy was good right then, and the men appear to be enjoying a keg of beer.
Farm work was difficult. Most of these farmers or their ancestors had arrived in KidderCounty in the very early 1900s, and the farmers were still breaking up sod, with horses, to make new fields.
The mood portrayed throughout the book was a strong sense of community. In countless anecdotes, Cook emphasized how the people of KidderCounty looked out for one another.
One of the opening incidents recounts a tale of a lynching that took place when an outsider killed his estranged wife and her elderly father, a respected resident of the county. The lynch mob was seeking justice for one of their own.
One of the final incidents detailed by Cook occurred in 1973, when 10 convicts escaped from the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck and traveled through KidderCounty on their way to Canada. Two of the escapees wandered onto the farm of one of the neighbors of Cook's parents.
The woman who lived there with her husband was alone and scared. She locked the doors and called her nearest neighbor, the author's father, who responded by coming to help her. That chapter was very exciting because the reader was not sure of the outcome. It does point out how closely knit this community was.
A month or so ago, The Bismarck Tribune carried a short announcement that Judy R. Cook would be signing her books in Mandan. I checked the Internet and found no reviews, but there was an image of the cover that caught my attention.
Having read many memoirs about North Dakota homesteaders, I thought I'd probably been saturated by the subject. Yet from the beginning sentences, I enjoyed the presentation of words by the author. She sprinkles just enough interesting and unusual anecdotes with the genealogy of her ancestors. Her narration flows easily even when the subject matter is serious.
Many of the anecdotes are ones Cook remembers her father telling and retelling, so they have become a part of the family's oral history. When she decided to write the book, Cook researched the lore that had been passed down from generation to generation for its authenticity. Along the way, she obtained many photographs that are relevant to her stories. She shared these in her book.
A common thread that runs throughout the book is the family's love and respect for the land. I had the sense that they thought the land would always be there for them, if they could just hang on through this or that difficult situation.
The author intimated that the land was unchanging, no matter what occurred within the families. It seemed they would do anything to save the family land. It made me wonder if they owned the land or if it owned them. There was definitely a strong bond between land and family.
In reading some of the stories of Cook's four grandparents, the writer takes us into her confidence when we find out some of the family secrets throughout the chapters. This technique keeps us interested because the reader is like a part of the community or family.
Especially for someone who grew up in North Dakota during those same years as the author, this book evokes many memories. I fully identified with the chapter about getting electricity and getting a refrigerator. I always "brag" to my friends that we got Fritz and electricity in 1950, and Ted and the refrigerator in 1952.
The start of rural electricity in 1950 was no accident. The Franklin Roosevelt administration had passed the rural electrification act as part of the New Deal in 1936. In 1949, Congress authorized the Rural Electrification Act to make loans to farmers who organized co-ops for the purpose of developing electricity service and phone service. Thus money became available for the remote areas of the Dakotas to improve this infrastructure.
This book made me feel proud to be a North Dakotan. It portrayed the strong sense of family that is so common here. It emphasized the strong sense of fellowship which has held our small communities together. It pointed out the tenacity required by the settlers to make it through tough times when no one knew what the outcome would be.
Finishing this book, I came away with a strong respect for these people who expected no help from anyone but continued to forge ahead in the face of difficulty.
For those who collect books by regional authors, this is a good one. If you want to find out about homesteaders or how people lived in the 1950s, this book is for you. The author writes about the every day life of her childhood that was so typical in the 1950s. If you are a person who reads just a few pages a day, this book will suit your purposes, because you can read one chapter each day and still keep a thread going.
If you are interested in family history, and you are thinking of collecting stories of your family, check out how Cook has documented her family history. Her style of writing is one we could all emulate.
(Rita Greff grew up the oldest of eight children in a family that valued reading, particularly fiction. She taught fifth and sixth grades for 34 years.)
Robinson Native Publishes Book
by Maralee Kalianoff, November 19, 2008
SteeleOzone & KidderCounty Press, Steele, ND58482
I have to admit, when I finished reading Judy Cook’s new book, I was disappointed. It was that familiar feeling avid readers get when they are parting company with a dear friend. I wasn’t ready to put the book down yet; I wanted MORE! That is a very good sign that the book was successful in accomplishing its mission.
“If This Land Could Talk, Homesteading on the Northern Plains”, by Judy (Price) Cook, is a well-written, well-researched account of three generations of homesteaders in KidderCounty.
That, in and of itself, constitutes a good book. What makes this a great book is Judy’s imaginative use of dialogue; you totally forget that what you are reading is history, oftentimes defined as being “boring”. Old stories, whether actually told to Judy by her grandparents, parents, or various pioneer personalities like delightful 99-year-old Mary Eastburn White, spring to life. Although the book primarily traces the genealogical path of her own ancestors, Judy ingeniously includes both noteworthy people and fascinating historical events of the period along the way, creating a book that becomes a literal gem for all proud KidderCounty natives.
Thrown into this virtual treasure chest of Kidder County history are stories of everyday life, humor, scandal (even MURDER!) which most former and current residents will enjoy reading. Judy has managed to somehow procure, during her meticulous research, over sixty great black ad white photos dating roughly from 1891 to 1990.
… “If This Land Could Talk” is a thought-provoking title. Studying the book’s cover photo, just imagine what we would learn from this picture “If This Photo Could Talk”! The photo entitled “Keg Party” was taken by Carl Wick of Robinson, North Dakota; he activated his camera with a string. From left; standing are: Carl Shirley, Oscar Madson, Andrew Stephenson, John Vallin, Tom Nelson, unidentified boy (Can anyone out there identify him?!), Harry Nelson, Gust Stenberg and, kneeling in front, Pete Konningrud, Tom Price, Ed Hermanson, and photographer Carl Wick. The dozen neighbors, posing for this picture about 1910, look confident, if not cocky. If the prosperous early years of settlement, anything seemed possible. Life was good. Optimism reigned on the prairie after an abundant wheat harvest, yet many pioneers were destined to fail on the semi-arid land. The author’s grandfather, Tom Price, has his hand on the spigot tap of the ten-gallon keg. The photo is taken BEFORE Tom’s election as county sheriff, at which time he was sworn to enforce, but not necessarily agree with, the state prohibition laws.
… Near the conclusion of her book, Judy writes, “As a family member who left the prairie, I wonder if the land had fulfilled the dreams and visions of my grandparents and provided them with a better life. Or did it simply wring the life out of them? Did their arduous labors break the land into submission, or were they broken by it? Perhaps some of each.” These words give a true depiction of Judy, the author. Not only did she harbor a deep love and respect for her ancestors, but she also exhibited that same love and respect for the North Dakota prairie, her childhood home.