Plains and Prairie Chronicle: STRADDLEBUG

by Nora Fladeboe Mohberg

STRADDLEBUG, the third of Nora Mohberg’s Mead-Hill Plains and Prairie Chronicles, provides a wide-screen cinematic view of the prides, prejudices, people and events that powered forward the settlement and expansion of the Dakota Territory. In doing so, it provides a wealth of accurate information about homesteading and the homestead claim process, about the political machinations the region juggled on its way to statehood.

Some characters cheated on property lines, ran roughshod over their children, and double-dealt over livestock, all the while evading creditors and stuffing ballot boxes. Still, people of the region would rarely cheat on wives (or husbands); went to church regularly; and surfed an endless wave of faith, hope, and perseverance – all the while building, by hand, the great American West, building, in fact, what much of the world thinks of when they think of “America” at all.

While chronicling the development of that wide and difficult region, the sprawling saga provides a close-up of the migration of one family from their secure and comfortable Scandinavian life, over a long perilous sea voyage, and across 2000 miles of unsettled land, to arrive at last at the rough and raw Dakota frontier. To put in perspective how dangerous this was, keep in mind that traveling those miles without modern technology, these people, without speaking the language, arrived at nothing but wide, empty grassland, and that the last bloody skirmishes with the native people of the prairies – soon to take place at Wounded Knee in South Dakota – did not happen until a full NINE YEARS AFTER the novel’s main character, John Boyum, set out his “straddlebug,” the wooden tripod that staked his claim to the homestead he was planning for his family.

Although clearly a novel, a work of historical fiction, Straddlebug is a book about character. John Boyum is clearly self-absorbed, yet it is impossible not to recognize in him a good dose of the bumptious quality useful in settling that endless expanse of treeless, windswept prairie F. Scott Fitzgerald once called “the ragged edge of civilization.” Though now one of the world’s premiere breadbaskets, the effort needed to turn Fitzgerald’s ragged edge into this significant other was not for the faint of heart, and no one ever accused John Boyum of being faint of heart.

Bristling tensions between John and family can found on every page; thus “the book does a good job of demonstrating the folly of enabling a difficult person.” That is, enable him though they did, two sons were driven to leave home (separately over time) by sneaking out an attic window in the middle of the night, while his wife eventually turned into Boyum’s carbon copy; worse yet, though another son came within inches of having it out with his father, he drove himself to an early death instead.

Regardless, the book never falters in its storytelling. Readers will come upon scores of unlikely events, watch John Boyum rush up to surveyors still out mapping the land, learn what he sought to learn from them, then break off without ceremony to strike out and claim his homestead. Meanwhile, bears, bison, and displaced native settlers still roamed the land, quite a few of them angry. And there were no trees to hinder the wind.