That Saturday morning what me and my camera wanted to get was a couple of fine shots of gravestones adorned in the long, early morning shadows. I headed out to the Doon cemetery, where the stones hug a rolling hill above the Rock River, a setting that offers a cemetery more wordless gravitas than graveyards ordinarily have.
Frederick Manfred, a prolific American novelist, wanted to be buried up there on the hill above town, as if he could look down at Doon, the beloved village of his birth, and across fields of corn and beans to the north, fields that even in winter don’t shed their spacious grandeur. That’s where his grave stone stands today.
It was cold that morning, and I was looking for a particular image, something visually stunning—a new sun, an old grave.
That’s when I noticed the stone of a woman whose name I recognized immediately, someone whose life I would otherwise have known nothing of had I never read an obscure Frederick Manfred novel, The Secret Place. There she was. It was as if I knew her, and she died already in 1920.
I read The Secret Place when I was 18 years old, and like nothing else in my life, it made me think I’d like to write stories too someday.
But Manfred’s novel wasn’t all that popular in his own hometown. Back then, I only partially understood why not. It’s taken me most of a lifetime to see that good people from Manfred’s own hometown felt used by his writing that story.
After all, some of it is true. Even though Jennie Van Engen was forty years in the grave when The Secret Place was published, that novel was based, in part, on her sad, short life, more particularly, on the story of her husband.
When she died, she was just 21 years old, or so the stone says, 96 years ago. Still, the morning I stumbled upon that stone, it seemed I knew her, or at least of her. And I couldn’t help wondering how many people on the face of the earth, even among her own descendant family, had any inkling of who she was or the dimensions of her tragedy.
“Till we meet again” the stone says, in lichened text.
I stood there beside that grave, sorry that she’d died so young, and sorry too that Fred Manfred, then named Feik Feikema, caught all the anger he did from the town he loved when he was just trying to tell a good story, part of it hers.
The first time I’d ever heard of Manfred occurred in a dorm room at Dordt College, when some guys from Siouxland were talking about this long, tall novelist from just down the road, a man who wrote dirty books. I was interested. I was also skeptical.
But I went home to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and there, front and center in a bookstore I frequented stood The Secret Place, a novel by a name I remembered from that dorm room session. They weren’t wrong, after all.
I bought that book—hey, a dirty book written by a Dutch Calvinist? How many of those can you list right off-hand?
Seriously, reading that novel changed my life. It became the subject of my very first English class term paper, even though Manfred’s novels were behind the desk at the Dordt College library, and you could get them only by asking, which required some kind of guilt bath when you stepped up to the library’s front desk.
Reading that novel affected me in two ways: first, it made me an English major; I’d never tangled with a text like I did with that novel, never attempted a survey of major themes. It gave me a profession and a passion, because, second, The Secret Place made me want to write. What I recognized in that novel was characters I knew, characters who made it clear to me that I didn’t have to have a New York address to write novels. You could write about people and things you knew and still be a writer.
No, Doon, Iowa, wasn’t forever changed by the publication of The Secret Place. What people recognized was a sad story that, back then, no one talked much about but everyone knew—how a community hot shot got two young ladies pregnant (not at the same time) and then lost, big-time. Jennie, the one he married, is the one I speculated was buried beneath that grave. She died in childbirth.
Now once upon a time just outside of Doon, Iowa, a large sign stood proudly along Hwy 75, heralding the town with a sub-title that said, just as proudly, “Home of the novelist, Frederick Manfred.”
When The Secret Place came out, that sign came down, brutally, I might add. Someone did it in with a chain saw, middle of the night, a kind of literary vigilantism.
I assumed, back then, my own Puritanical people were the culprits. Manfred didn’t write dirty books, but he did write at the advent of a time when a far more open portrayal of sexuality began to be not only allowed but encouraged. When the Doon town sign came down, I figured it was the work of the strict Calvinists who ran the place, the same people who made sure Manfred novels weren’t on the shelf of the college libarary.
That was an attitude I carried for most of the next 40 years—vengeful Calvinists hated all that sex--until a moment years later when I was in Doon, helping the sister of a friend of mine who’d died. She asked if I’d come over and help her determine what to do with her brother’s extensive library.
We were talking about Manfred because her brother owned a complete collection, all of them signed, a shelf of volumes she was going to keep, she told me. Manfred was long gone by that time. We were talking about my friends’s appreciation for him when the story of the sawed off town sign on HWY 75 came up. I mentioned it because to me dropping that sign seemed was an act infused with equal portions of pitiable sadness, cartoon humor, and, for a Dutch Calvinist like myself, cultural shame.
“Well, you know who sawed it down, don’t you?” she asked.
To me, it was “the town.”
“You never heard about that?
I shook my head.
She seemed dumbfounded. She squinted at me. “Why, it was the family,” she said, shaking her head, as if cause/effect was in clear operation here.
“The family?” I said.
“Of the girl—her family. They’re the ones who sawed it down.”
Some years later, there I stood, camera in hand, between two graves, one of them Fred Manfred’s, the other one belonging to someone named Jennie Van Engen, 1899-1920, a young bride who died, the novel claimed and the stone suggested, in childbirth.
And if the two of them were there, if the two of them would sometime that night simply walk out of their graves, wander over to where each other was and talk, what would they say?
That’s what I thought that morning, looking for the morning sun in the graveyard.
Ode presents an evening of true stories, told live in the lower level of Iowa State University Design West, 1014 ½ Design Place, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 25. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Storytellers will share personal essays crafted around the theme of "Wherever you go, there you are: Giving an ode to travel and inescapable truth.”
For your listening enjoyment, we'll also have music by Northcutt.
Freewill donation. Give what you can.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. Sioux City Journal features reporter Ally Karsyn is the founder, producer and host. For more information, visit Ode on Facebook. Listen here to stories from past events, recorded and broadcast by Siouxland Public Media.