It is 1893 and the first generation of immigrants who came to America for the promise of free land and a good life for their children have finally achieved their dreams. They labored hard on the land and now have a bountiful heritage to pass on to the next generation. However, many of the young people aren't interested in becoming farmersthey have aspirations of their own.
Thorliff Bjorklund has been writing stories and plays since he was a young boy and longs to attend college to study journalism. But his father has other plans for him and refuses to agree.
Thorliff is torn between love for his father and the pull of his dream. Must he choose between the two?
About the Author
Lauraine Snelling is the award-winning author of over 60 books, fiction and nonfiction, for adults and young adults. Her books have sold over two million copies. Besides writing books and articles, she teaches at writers' conferences across the country. She and her husband live in Tehachapi, California.
Read an Excerpt
Blessing, North Dakota
"I'm afraid to open it."
Ingeborg Bjorklund stared at the letter her tall, sometimes awkward son laid on the table. "Looking at it won't make it change, Thorliff."
"I know, but ..." At seventeen years of age Thorliff Bjorklund had yet to fill out the shoulders of his full-sleeved white shirt. The sweater vest in shades of natural wool, knit by his grandmother, hugged a chest that promised breadth. He sighed. Bjorklund blue eyes stared at the envelope as if afraid it might bite.
"Open it, son. It could be wonderful news." Ingeborg, enveloped by a white apron, gripped the back of the handmade oak chair.
But what if they don't like my story? It won't be the first time, but ... Taking his pocketknife from his pocket, Thorliff opened the blade before reaching for the envelope. The hiss of sharp knife through paper sounded loud in the kitchen that also seemed to be holding its breath. The crackle of papers extricated from a paper womb and then unfolded filled the silence. Thorliff closed his eyes, sighed again, and opened them to read the letter. His hands quivered, shaking the missive like a breeze rattling cottonwood leaves. He read, stopped to glance at his mother, then read swiftly to the end, his breathing keeping pace with his eyes.
He clutched the letter to his chest, his face shining like after the first summer sunburn. "They like it."
Ingeborg pulled out the chair and sank onto it. "Read it aloud."
" 'Dear Mr. Bjorklund ...' " Thorliff paused and grinned at his mother. "Theycalled me mister, can you believe that?" At her nod he continued.
"We are pleased to inform you that we would like to publish your story, The Long Winter Night, in an upcoming issue of Harper's Magazine. Your attention to detail and evocative wording made us wonder if perhaps this event had happened to you, since you hail from North Dakota. We will be pleased to pay you the sum of ten dollars upon publication of your story. Please keep us in mind for any further submissions.
Michael Smith, Editor
Harper's Magazine ..."
Thorliff's voice trailed off at the end.
"I knew that one day someone would like your stories. I always have."
Thorliff could feel the embarrassing heat start in his neck. "But you're my mor. You have to like my stories."
"True. But some I like better than others, and this one was the very best you have ever written."
"Mange takk." Thorliff scanned through the letter again. "Ten dollars." The awe came through in his voice.
"Tante Kaaren is done with classes now, and since she was the heroine of your story ..." Ingeborg's voice trailed off as she remembered that frightful event. "Uff da. Such a freak blizzard that was, and it could have been so tragic if you all hadn't stayed at the school." She shuddered. "By the grace of God, it wasn't." She paused, caught in the memory before continuing. "I know how much Tante Kaaren would love to hear your good news right away." Ingeborg clasped her hands on the red-and-white checkered tablecloth. "Perhaps this will help your far understand how important it is for you to go to college in the fall."
Thorliff made a sound deep in his throat. His going to college might be important, but the past years of drought had them all tightening their belts. They hoped that was over, but everything depended on the harvest. Some of the Bonanza farmers had given up and sold their land. Nils Haugen, south of town, had sold out and gone back to Norway.
It would take more than one little story being published to change his stepfather's mind. Thorliff had replayed their last discussion over and over in his head until he had every word and gesture burned on his brain. Haakan Bjorklund believed clear down to his bootstrings that his sons should stay home and help with the farming, especially the eldest son. With the added acres and the new addition to the cheese house, they needed every hand they could get. After all, farmland was the reason they'd emigrated from Norway. When his sons married, they would build another house on the land and, please God, if they could afford it, buy more land. Always it was buy more land. Think land, not college.
How do I make him understand that Andrew is the one who loves the farm? Just because he's not the eldest should have nothing to do with it. Thorliff refolded the paper and inserted it back in the envelope, taking care to see no corner was bent. He placed it in his shirt pocket, covering the pocket with one hand.
"I'll cut you some bread and cheese to eat on the way." Ingeborg stood and, rounding the table, laid a hand on his shoulder. "If it is God's will that you go to St. Olaf, you will go."
But what if it isn't? And I want to go so desperately. Thorliff sighed and nodded. Sometimes understanding God's will took more time than he believed he had or wanted to spend waiting.
Ingeborg lifted a towel off freshly baked loaves of bread and sliced off the heel and another slice of one. Lifting the glass dome from over the cheese, she cut thick slabs of their own cheddar and layered the pieces between the bread. She poured a cup of buttermilk from the crock and handed cup and sandwich to her son. "You go on now. Kaaren will be so excited."
"Andrew and Astrid are bringing the wagon. I left school early to run an errand for Pastor Solberg and then ran all the way home. I couldn't wait." He glugged the buttermilk and set the cup on the drainboard by the dry sink. "Mange takk." Ripping a bite off the sandwich, he strode out the door, the screen door banging behind him.
Looking off to the west, he could see his stepfather, Haakan, riding the sulky plow behind three across of their heavier horses. To the north his uncle Lars used the same. They would expect him to yoke up two span of oxen and take out the third plow as soon as he came home from school. With the early warmth of spring, fieldwork had started early also.
Father God, if you can find it in your will to let me go to college, I promise I'll work so hard all summer that they won't miss me so bad come fall. He set off at a fast jog to the house on the other side of the short pasture. The wing added on to his aunt Kaaren and uncle Lars's house to make a school for the deaf made it look as big as many barns. That, along with the extra barn for the horses, the machine sheds, and the granariesnow nearly emptytook up better than an acre. Thorliff had heard people around say if you wanted to see a couple of prosperous farms, go by the Bjorklunds'.
The two brothers, Roald and Carl, had immigrated to the area in 1880 with their families. But both had died one terrible winterCarl in a flu epidemic and Roald in a fierce blizzard. Thorliff remembered some of those days, since he'd been through it all.
He stuck his head in the back door of the house and called, "Tante Kaaren?" When no answer floated back, he headed for the school entrance. This time when he called her name, she answered from the classroom on the first floor. Upstairs, the dormitories housed fifteen students ranging in age from ten to twenty. He paid no attention to the living room, taking the hall to where he could hear people talking.
Aunt Kaaren, her golden hair worn in a braid wrapped around her head like a crown, stood talking with Ilse Gustafson, another immigrant and orphan, who had become her assistant in teaching sign language to the deaf students. "Thorliff, is something wrong?" Aunt Kaaren asked.
"You've been running."
"Oh no. I have good news." He pulled the letter from his pocket and waved it as he crossed the floorboards painted a deep blue. "Here, you read it."
"Can't you just tell me?" Kaaren stared at the return address. "Harper's Magazine. They bought your story?"
Thorliff could feel his face about to crack from the width of his grin. "Read it."
Ilse stepped closer to peer over Kaaren's shoulder. "You sold your story about the night we all spent at the schoolhouse in the blizzard?"
"Ja, that's the one." Thorliff drew closer to Kaaren's other side. Kaaren smiled up at him and read the letter again.
"This is the most wonderful news. Thanks be to God, others see your talent besides us." She reached up to pat his cheek. "I am so proud of you, I could just burst." She waved the paper. "And to think, ten dollars. That can help you buy books at college. What else do you have out to publishers?"
"Not much. I got three others returned in the last couple of weeks."
"So you must send them out again." Kaaren folded the letter and handed it back to Thorliff. "Have you told Haakan yet? And Pastor Solberg?" She glanced at the clock on the wall. "And how come you are home so early? Teacher get mad at you?" The three of them laughed. If anyone got sent home, it was Andrew for fighting, and always at the behest of someone less fortunate. Pastor Solberg, who doubled as teacher of the one-room schoolhouse, had been forced to discipline Thorliff's younger brother more than once for using his fists before using his mind.
"I must get out in the field. I will show this to Pastor in the morning." Thorliff tucked the envelope back in his pocket and, once out the door, leaped the three stairs to the ground. While he'd earned money working for neighbors at times in the past, this was his first money from his writing. And to think it was for a story he almost didn't write. Another thing to be thankful to Pastor Solberg for. And Anji Baard.
The thought of Anji slowed his feet. Ah, if only he could run back across the fields and tell her. She would dance around the room, laughing and calling out the good news to her entire family. Anji never could keep a secret. Somehow in the last year they'd taken to walking home together from church and school rather than riding in the buckboards with their families. The Baards, who had homesteaded soon after the Bjorklunds, lived only one section over. If Thorliff worked until dusk, maybe he could run over there before supper.
Once back home he bounded up the stairs to change into his work clothes, carefully hanging his school clothes on the pegs along the wall. He tucked the precious envelope into the collection of Dickens' stories he'd received for his seventeenth birthday, clattered back down the steep stairs, and with a wave to Ingeborg, who was now folding clothes out at the clothesline, he whistled for Paws. Paws, their caramel-colored watchdog, had been a member of the family since their second year in the new country and was now getting up in years.
Plowing to a stop, Thorliff turned around. "Mor, where's Paws?"
"He must be out with your far. Haakan said he waits for the mice to run out of the furrows and then tries to catch them."
"Has he gotten any?"
"I don't know." She snapped a sheet to get the folds even. "But I've not known him to bring any home."
A meadowlark sang from the fields and another answered. Thorliff cupped his hands around his mouth and whistled again. Paws had gotten hard of hearing lately too. It looked as if he'd have to round up the oxen by himself. He flipped the bail off the gate by the barn, swung the three-pole gate open just enough to slip through, and headed across the pasture. The sun felt warm on his face and shoulders, not like the sun of winter that glistened so bright on the snow it hurt your eyes but had no warmth for the body. Green shoots spread a haze across the land, poking up through the brown leftovers of last year's grass and reaching for the sun. Dandelion and plantain leaves spread broad enough for harvesting, if only he had time. He'd tell Mor about them so Astrid could come picking. Fresh greens cooked with bacon would taste mighty good after all the canned food of winter.
By the time he'd reached the oxen lying down chewing their cud, Paws caught up with him, leaping and yipping as if apologizing for his tardiness. Thorliff reached down and ruffled the dog's ears, then thumped him on the ribs and back. "Good dog, even if you are a bit slow." He waved his arm in an arc. "Go get 'em, boy."
Paws barked and darted at the animals. General, the red-and-white lead ox, hoisted his rump in the air with no show of hurry, then unfolded his front legs and rose, arching his back and stretching, tail curled around his haunches. When he'd finished to his satisfaction, he turned and ambled toward the barn, the others repeating his actions and falling into line. The milk cows grazed in another pasture, where it would be Astrid's job to bring them in for milking.
By the time Thorliff had the oxen yoked and harnessed to the plow, the wagon arrived with the schoolchildren. One of Kaaren's deaf students drove the wagon and waved at Thorliff.
"How come you got home early?" Andrew, six years younger and a shade blonder, leaped from the tailgate and charged across to where his brother was just climbing on the plow.
"I'll tell you later. Tell Astrid there are greens ready for picking in the pasture."
"I wanted to go fishing, but I'll be out in the field with the other team as soon as I can."
Thorliff shrugged. "See you." He slapped the reins on the oxen backs and headed for the field. With the days getting longer, he might get a couple hours of plowing in before dusk.
While the oxen were slower than the horses, he didn't mind. The fragrance of rich dirt, the earth curling over alongside two straight furrows behind him, the sun on his shoulders, the grunt of the brown ox behind General, a crow cawing from a willow in the boggy section of the pastureall announced the arrival of spring. Andrew wanted to go fishing, but he'd rather be huntingor writing. Baptiste was most likely already down at the river with fishing pole and rifle both at his side.
Thorliff turned the oxen, slowing them enough to keep the furrows even on the turn. The fields needed to be tilled, then disked and harrowed so wheat could be sown. The better the harvest, the more chance there would be money for his schooling. Unless the railroad raised their shipping rates again. Over the winter, there'd been heated discussions of how to keep the rates within reason.
His hands burned by the time he followed his father's team into the barnyard. Like a fool he'd forgotten to take his gloves. Winter hands, that's what he had. Soft and white, or red in this case. Blisters squished in the palm. He'd have to take a needle to them tonight so they'd drain.
"You got out there mighty early." Haakan helped him raise the yokes off the oxen's necks.
"I know." It was all he could do to keep from blurting out his surprise. "Pastor sent me on an errand and said I didn't have to go back today."
"You that far ahead?"
"Ja. I usually help some of the others." He hefted the yoke and heaved it up onto the peg rack built into the barn wall just for that purpose.
Haakan followed him and draped the horse harness over its pegs. By the time all the animals were unharnessed and let loose in the pasture, peeper frogs were singing their evening medley, and a lamp glowed in the kitchen window. Haakan and Thorliff, with Andrew right behind them, headed for the milking barn, where two of the deaf students, along with Astrid, were sitting on three-legged stools, their foreheads leaning into cow flanks and milk streaming into buckets.
Haakan nodded to the students as he passed them and stopped by Astrid. "How many yet to go?"
"Four. The milk cans are nearly full." Astrid nodded over her shoulder. Three cans, one with a strainer atop it, sat among an eager assortment of cats, some cleaning, some crying, and some pacing. "I fed the cats, but I think they want more."
"Looks like it. I'll take the next one. Thorliff, you take the Holstein. When you're finished, bring in another can."
Thorliff grabbed the handle of a bucket, flinching at the cold metal against the blisters on his palm. Milking was going to take real strength of character tonight. "Easy, boss." He settled his stool, brushed the grass off the cow's udder, and set his bucket in place. Hands on the two front teats, he squeezed and pulled in the ancient rhythm that drew milk from a cow, setting his hands to screaming. Thorliff bit his lip but kept on milking.
The cow swished her tail, the coarse fibers catching him on the side of the face. "Hold it. You got no flies to swat now." Fool critter. He blinked his eyes, fighting the watering, grateful he didn't need to see to keep milking. When the last drops hit the foam, he lifted the bucket off to the side where the cow couldn't kick it over and rose, one knee cracking as he did so.
"I'll let 'em out. You boys go on up to the house." Haakan poured his full bucket through the strainer and slopped the last of the milk into the flat pan for the cats.
Thorliff sighed in relief. "Mange takk, Pa."
"And get Mor to take care of your hands." Haakan took the bucket his son had filled and poured the milk into the strainer.
"H-how'd you know?"
Haakan clapped a hand on his son's shoulder. "No gloves when you drove in. You won't forget 'em next time, you know?"
The deaf students and Astrid had already left when Andrew stripped the last cow and poured his bucket into the strainer. Haakan slammed the lids on the cans, and Andrew took the wagon handle to pull the rig over to the cheese house. In spite of what Haakan had said, Thorliff started lifting the drop boards that held the stanchions closed at one end of the barn while Haakan did the other. One by one the cows backed up, turned, and followed one another out of the barn and into the star-studded night.
"I got a surprise up at the house."
Haakan slung an arm around his son's shoulder. "What?"
"I'll show you."
Thorliff ignored the burning hands and took the stairs to his bedroom two at a time, gasping for breath at the top of the steep stairs. He grabbed his letter and, hands bracing on the narrow walls, clattered back down. Back in the kitchen, he handed his father the letter.
Haakan cocked an eyebrow as he took the envelope.
"Hurry, Pa." Andrew stopped at Haakan's side.
Haakan tapped the edge of the letter on his finger. "Good news, right?"
Thorliff sketched a nod. Hurry. He glanced from the letter to catch the smile dancing in Haakan's eyes.
"Haakan, don't tease the boys so." Ingeborg joined the trio. Her smile widened in the lamplight, her hand settling on Thorliff's shoulder.
Haakan slid the paper from the envelope and unfolded it. He nodded as he read. "Good. Very good." He looked from the letter to his elder son, who had shifted from foot to foot the whole reading while. "It will be a pleasure to read your story in a magazine. And to think you will be paid for it." He handed the letter to Andrew.
"Ten dollars!" Andrew's jaw hit his chest.
"I think that when the money comes, Thorliff should put it into his college fund." Ingeborg raised her gaze to meet her husband's.
"Thorliff doesn't need college to farm. You know how I feel about that." Haakan turned away, a mask dropping into place as he did so. "Let's get washed for supper."
Thorliff closed his eyes. Far certainly hadn't changed his mind, no matter what anyone said. But Thorliff knew so much depended on the harvest. Already they were praying for a good harvest this year.
A Dream to Follow (RETURN TO RED RIVER) by Lauraine Snelling
Copyright © 2001, Lauraine Snelling
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