She holds this single dream. She remembers life in Amherst, before her husband caught a madman’s urge to go west and start a new life on soil no white man had ever farmed, a dream that possessed him like a demon. She dreams of sending her children back east because life on the frontier means back-breaking work and worthless schools in a kingdom of grasshoppers. Her solitary dream is that they tame this Siouxland wilderness and make enough money to send their kids back to civilization. That’s all she asks of God.
Instead, at the end of the novel the daughter she doted over goes west, not east, with a man her mother would never have chosen. The mother is Nell Conner, and she is the study at the heart of Black Soil (2310), Josephine Donovan’s largely forgotten farm novel of the early days in Sioux County, Iowa.
You can’t help but feel for this Madonna of the Trail. She is the heart of the family as well, and her dreams are her sustenance. She strikes a deal with the Lord God almighty: she’ll stay here on the edge of the frontier, if he’ll send her children back east for a good education.
That dream crashes when her daughter goes west. When Nell hears the news, she locks the door of her bedroom, lies down on the bed, “her eyes unseeingly fixed on the wall with the broken plaster.”
No single act of God—not even a tornado—could have wreaked such damage.
But then the gospel truth comes to her. “In her calm she realized that in this as in all other things she must be reconciled to His indomitable will. Her spirit of fight was of no avail; she must accept fate.”
This reader wishes Nell Connor hadn’t given in so quickly and so thoroughly; but Josephine Donovan bestowed upon Nell Connor, both of them Irish Catholic, a level of piety that makes her sudden acceptance of her daughter’s leaving at least somewhat plausible.
Me? –I’d have preferred Nell shaking her fist into an endless prairie sky, throwing a spiritual fit. Instead, she plays that same old hymn, “Thy will be done,” and just like that she’s energized. “Her recent flash of anger went out like the lightning of a storm. She got up from her bed with a feeling akin to that experienced after the birth of her children here in this very room. She had been down in the valley for a while, but now she was up in the heights again.”
When she unlocks the bedroom door, and one of her little daughters barrels in. She remembers, “It’s God will.”
Ms. Donovan may well have been a better Catholic than novelist. She turned choreographer, designing a dance far more theologically sound than believable. Black Soil is not a great novel because, after all, it’s a little hard to believe that a simple mantra can walk us through our darkest nights: “it’s God’s will.”
Last Sunday in church, on my hundred thousand-eth reading of Luke’s Christmas story, I was struck again by Mary’s simple acceptance of the divine proposition: “Be it unto me according to thy word,” she says in several translations (ASV and NRSV and KJV) of Luke 1:38. Here it is from the Easy Reading Version: “Let this thing you have said happen to me!” The Living Bible struggles a little, but concedes just as greatly: “I am willing to do whatever he wants,” Mary says. “May everything you said come true.” She quite simply throws in the towel. Total, unquestioning faith is what makes the conception she undergoes “immaculate.”
Really, can there be any more profound testimony under the sun than the one the Schaaps and countless others repeat at their dinner tables: “Thy will be done.”
Seriously? Do I honestly believe that?
Do we simply accept what arises on the other side of hills we blindly climb on gravel roads? Do we say, with Mary’s selflessness, “May it be as you said.”
Nothing could be so antithetical to the human spirit, the American spirit especially. We’d rather not be someone’s tether ball; we want to do things, earn things. We like doers; we roll our eyes at pathetic passivity.
Yet, the essence of faith is Mary’s testimony, isn’t it? “Let this thing you have said happen to me.” Which is to say, “Thy will be done.”
Friends of ours headed south early this year, so they sent out a note to a book club who’d been reading Black Soil. “Some of you know Herb is fighting a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, something called myocosis fungoides–four out of a million people have it,” Herb’s wife said in the note. He’s been using steroids, she said, but “he’s ready to graduate to the second type of treatment, which is AVA or AVB light treatments, three times a week for three or four months.”
They’d left Iowa early for Arizona because they can get treatments just down the street and avoid the long winter drives to Sioux Falls–or worse, Rochester. So Herb and Marj had missed the discussion of the novel. “We’re going to have our own little journey out of our comfort zone,” she wrote. And then, finally, this sweet line tacked on to the bottom: “P.S. I loved Black Soil. Hope to be as brave as Nell.”
As brave as Mary.
Thy will be done.
Lord Jesus, this Christmas and every morning may it be as you said.