Essay

The Ruth Suckow Park, Earlville

By October 25, 2019 5 Comments

One of the cement plates standing in the park holds an image of the house she lived in here in Earlville, a little white house long gone, although things likely haven’t changed much in the small town where Iowa novelist Ruth Suckow once lived. Today, what’s on the lot is a little commemorative park someone keeps up. Doesn’t require much, I suppose. 

An old-fashioned merry-go-round sits just beyond the picnic tables, the kind of thing that scared me when I was a boy, when some big kid would push and push and push until we’d sail around so fast I started to believe that if I didn’t fly off, my stomach would. 

There’s almost nothing of a path around it, where a perfect circle of muddy ruts ran around the one in the park I remember. Not so here. Looks unused.

Behind it, barely visible, is an old pump just waiting to find its way into a lawsuit. It might well have been the very pump Ruth Suckow used to get water a century ago on this street, in this place. 

There’s no handle. To say the poor thing is useless seems somehow unfeeling. Once upon time it had an identity. Today it’s an iron thing city workers might just as well jerk from the well beneath it.

The Ruth Suckow Park reminds me of a story of hers that nobody who’s reading this ever read or heard of–“Home-coming,” the story of a woman named Bess Gould, who’d grown up in a town named Fairhope and returned for a reunion of the burg’s first settlers, having been gone for most of her life. That whole story feels as if it’s magically here in the Ruth Suckow Park, Earlville, Iowa.

“Home-coming” exquisitely captures the moments our childhood reminiscences return in dreamy, lingering pastels. At first, Bess is delighted, lost in the parade of old-timers, each of whom prompts a memory she can’t help but think might otherwise have been lost. 

Then, unexpectedly, she runs into her “old flame,” Charlie, a man no longer the young man without whom she once could not have imagined her life–or any life at all. For a time, Bess moves almost hopelessly back in time to a homecoming meeting she had neither planned or anticipated. 

Charlie’s wife happens to be gone, which gives Ruth Suckow some space to develop what she wants to examine: the sheer delight of nostalgia; even more, the near impossibility of ever really forgetting first love. Bess is drawn back into a blessed childhood relationship that is completely and forever gone. She knows it but she loves it, relives it with equal doses of childhood joy and middle-aged sadness. She knows it’s fantasy. 

But she also knows that those childhood memories are hers alone and therefore somehow sacred. Fairhope has not forgotten the initial chapters of Bess Gould’s life–including her childhood Charlie; but all of that is something her loving husband will never know or understand. “She felt lost and all alone,” Suckow says at the end of the story, “and her heart was wildly begging [her husband] to come. . . .”Take me away with you,” she demands of him in the dream she creates in her mind. “Be everything. Make it up to me. Don’t let me die away from home.” 

Ruth Suckow’s “Home-coming” ends with Bess’s painful assertion that she is not home in Fairhope, even though something very close to the heart of who she is and always will be quite magically remains right there along the crick where she and Charlie fished minnows. Childhood Fairhope is a blessing and a treasure no one else knows, nor ever will–not even her husband. 

But, how does one care for a precious thing no one else will ever know? 

In Earlville, Iowa, Ruth Suckow’s little park somehow reminds me of that story, and of Ruth Suckow herself. To sit at one of the picnic tables felt like a “home-coming,” even though I’d never been there before. It was a return to Suckow’s small-town Midwest realities, most of which have lost their savor among today’s reading public. H. L. Mencken, her first editor, claimed to discover her and was first to publish her stories. For a decade or more, she was a Book-of-the-Month Club star, even anthologized.

But all that glory is gone. What’s left is a little park in Earlville, Iowa, and, here and there, an dog-eared copy of a novel. Aficionados like me can still sit here on a bench on a warm summer day and read a story or two or three or four–maybe more, right here where she drew water a century ago.

Even though I think I’d be alone if I did, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a joy. 

It’s not a big park. But then, neither was the lot. Still, it was good to sit there for a time and think through the kinds of thoughts that can’t be shuffled quickly through, thoughts of numbering our days.

If you’re coming across Iowa, the park is two minutes off Highway 20. Won’t cost you much time. Who knows? You might like it, might even like her.

Do me a favor. If you stop, give that merry-go-round a spin, okay? Put some ruts in that thick grass again. Make the place look lived in. That’d be nice.

_____________________________________________

“Ruth Suckow loved the Iowa countryside near this site. The rolling farmlands, woods, streams, and wildflowers. She called the little house that stood here, “My house.” Ruth was unknown when she came to Earlville in 1920. By 1926, she had published two novels and many short stories and was recognized in this country and abroad as the author of a fresh kind of realism. Her work tells in rich detail the life of middle-western communities in the earlier part of the 20th century. The family gatherings, church suppers, holiday celebrations, school commencements. Born in Hawarden, Iowa, on August 6, 1892, Ruth died in Claremont, California, January 25, 1960.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

5 Comments

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Interesting story, Jim – and you tell it well.

    I’m curious: do you generally search these stories out, or do they find you? Perhaps some of both? I get the sense you spend a lot of time on backroads.

    • The question you ask is not particularly easy to answer. Monday night I heard someone who wrote a book on POWs in Iowa during WWII talk about the Algona Nativity. I’d never heard of it. It’s a nativity scene carved by German POWs who were once in a 3000-person POW camp just outside of small Iowa town. Can you imagine? I told myself I had to get there. And I will–soon.

      Thursday night I was speaking at small town library about a half hour from here, when a man told me about a set of grasshopper crosses planted in eastern South Dakota soil as if to fend off the plague of locusts that hit here for three years straight. If tomorrow there wasn’t church, I’d be gone.

      I’ve been helping a Lakota woman write her life story–she recently turned 100 years old. To help her, I had a fill those ever-widening crevices in my brain with everything I could about Native American history–How should I say it? “a much forgotten subject” among Euro-Americans. There are stories about every foot and half along that trail. There’s no end to them

      I happen to be a member of a society that exists to try to keep the name of Ruth Suckow alive. At 71, I may well be among the youngest. So I stopped at the park on my way home from something–hence, the essay.

      I don’t believe you really have to ask my wife if her husband spends a lot of times on back roads. YOu can bet what she’d say–and she’s right. Frequently, people ask me–a retired guy–whether we traveled much last summer or last year. I usually shrug my shoulder. But I was raised with Thoreau, who said, unmistakably, “I have traveled a good deal in Concord.” It’s a joke, but it isn’t. Yeah, I’ve traveled a lot and will continue to, but to places no one else goes–and I’m not complainin’.

      There is a kind of purpose to all of it. I do a public radio feature on KWIT, NPR in Sioux City, Iowa, and have for three years. You can hear and see all of them–more than you’ll ever care to–here, if you’d like: http://www.floydriverpress.com.

      Sorry this response got so long! But thanks for asking–
      Jim

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Poignant, painful, and powerful– precious memories, how they linger! Thanks again, Jim.

  • Thanks for these reminders. Who will remember us when we are gone (from this earth)? How many Ruth Stuckow’s are out there, worth remembering but largely forgotten? Will all of those forgotten memories return to us someday in eternity?

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