The Meaning of Names by Karen Gettert Shoemaker (2014) was a nice little book, with a well-done historical setting. Stuart, Nebraska is along the northern border of the state, a bit east of center. At the time of the story, in 1918, it’s a rural farming community and small town with a rail line connecting it to the broader world.

There’s great in-depth information about the draft during World War I, (including mention of Fort Riley, Kansas, which has been mentioned in several of our other Nebraska and Kansas books) and how it affected families, particularly farming families. There was discussion about some of the exceptions that were made to the draft, as well as the startling (at least to me) assertion that sometimes those exceptions were ignored due to prejudice.

Prejudice is at the heart of the story. Shoemaker does a wonderful job setting the atmosphere and showing the small-mindedness of many people, as well as some of the motivations for their attitudes–the father who loses his son and is so embarrassed that his German neighbor saw his grief and comforted him, that he influences the draft board against the man. The fear brought on by the influenza epidemic that is so great it leads families to turn away a day-old infant.

And, of course, the meaning of names–specifically, German names.

“What does your name mean, Mr. Burke?” “Burke? I don’t really know. It’s just a name. An American name.” Gerda’s smile froze on her face. How quickly the tenor of a moment can change. Of course, Gerda thought, American names were enough in themselves. Only immigrants had names with two meanings. To be an American, your name was just your name and that was enough for America. She nodded. “Of course, American.” She vowed never to tell anyone again that “Vogel” meant “bird,” that it meant anything at all.

My mother’s father, Ernest, came to America from Germany with his parents and two sisters when he was young, and the family had two more children after they arrived in upstate New York. His father, Karl, had been a German army officer during World War I. But the terms of surrender after that war left many Germans in dire straits. My mom always said that her father refused to teach his children any German because they would mangle the pronunciation, but I’ve always wondered if there was more to it than that, given the times. Shoemaker writes, “In Iowa, men were jailed for speaking German in public.” Mom was born in 1937, the oldest of 10. I remember hearing that some of the community and church members vouched for or sponsored Ernest during the war, but I haven’t been able to find out much about that. It’s one of those things that no one from that time wanted to talk about.

“There’s a lot of Germans living around here,” the boy spoke up. “More Germans than anything else.” Aloys didn’t look at him when he answered. “Ja, but there’s getting less all the time.” He looked at Fritz again. “And ain’t nobody movin’ away.”

When I was looking into Welsh American communities (while reading Sing Them Home), I stumbled across some maps that show the most common ancestries in the United States, and, as can be seen (and as has been mentioned several times in our Nebraska books), German is one of the most common across a huge swath of the country. In the face of prejudice, however, many immigrants reject their background and attempt to blend into their new home–much as my grandfather did, and as is alluded to the in quote above. Several times Shoemaker mentions the pressure to speak only English, rather than peppering one’s speech with German words or phrases, and a feeling that having a poor grasp of English was even worse or more shameful than being illiterate.

While this story was about World War I, and my own family’s experience would have been during World War II, I couldn’t help but think of other, more modern, immigrant experiences, especially after reading the quote below.

“They quit serving sauerkraut.” For the first time he looked directly at Fritz when he spoke. “And hamburgers.” Fritz felt a tightening in his chest again; that ball of air seemed to grow. “‘ Liberty cabbage’ and ‘ground beef sandwiches’ is what they got on the menu now.”

Anybody else remember “freedom fries“? At the time of America’s invasion of Iraq, somehow we turned against France for trying to counsel more moderate action, and renamed French fries and French toast. The article linked above notes that the proponents of freedom fries invoked the renaming of sauerkraut and hamburgers during WWI, as if that renaming had somehow been a good thing. Personally, I have a hard time seeing a connection between the name of a popular food and how renaming it makes anyone more “patriotic.”

And, of course, some of the anti-immigrant sentiments sound horribly familiar from the headlines over the last couple of years, including common misconceptions that immigrants claim various benefits without becoming citizens.

“These are men without citizenship papers, immigrants, who are automatically exempt from the draft. They don’t even have to register!”

Fritz’s neighbors don’t know if he’s a citizen or not, nor do they bother to find out–or to realize that he’s been called up. When he’s trying to tie up various loose ends before reporting, even the bank asks him if he’s a citizen–as if he would have been drafted if he wasn’t.

This quote seems to sum up the issues perfectly:

It was as if all hatred and anxiety common to human nature had found a place to settle and it didn’t matter anymore what was true, it only mattered what everyone seemed to believe.

In terms of my reading challenge, The Meaning of Names has some wonderful bits and pieces about Nebraska.

The northeastern edge of the Sandhills of Nebraska was as flat as the palm of a man’s hand. Trace the contours of your own palm to know how deceptive that flatness can be. Level fields, like smooth skin, drop abruptly into gullies and draws caused by seasonal water flow. Land pillowed and sloped so gently, the horizon seemed distant on all sides, the line of it marking the empty edge of an overturned blue bowl. A short walk in any direction, however, can swallow a human figure from sight.

I love this quote, that reminds us that while small contours may disappear when viewed from above, on the ground they can make a big difference, and I think Shoemaker is saying this in a more figurative sense as well.

The Meaning of Names by Karen Shoemaker was a great addition to my reading list for Nebraska. We don’t often think of Nebraska when we think of World War I or the influenza epidemic–we tend to think of these events more broadly, rather than thinking about just how “world”-wide they and their effects really were. As in our other Nebraska books, there is a storm (literal as well as the ongoing figurative ones of the war and the epidemic), but the focus is definitely on the figurative here. Moon Over Manifest dealt with the anti-immigrant sentiment as well, including the Klan, which is not mentioned in The Meaning of Names. That town’s heritage was much more mixed, but the German meeting place was burned down by the Klan in the WWI timeline.

I mentioned quirky characters in my review of The Echo Maker–specifically that they seemed absent in most of our Kansas books, leaving behind an over-abundance of bleakness. There aren’t really any quirky characters in The Meaning of Names, and, unlike The Echo Maker, where the crane migration sort of fills that gap, Shoemaker’s book doesn’t try to fill it. The writing is more spare–like Haven’s Wake–and like Randolph’s book, The Meaning of Names doesn’t leave the reader filled with bleakness and despair. Despite its somber topics–war, prejudice, epidemic, immigration, economic hardships–there is hope. Shoemaker closes the book with a brief dedication to her mother, whose name makes us realize that this is the baby who was born, and this allows us to fully feel the hope that is a part of any birth–secure in the knowledge that this baby will grow and thrive and have children of her own one day.

This seems like a good place to leave Nebraska (I’ve finished Night of the Twisters, and just need to review it), and, for now, the Midwest and Great Plains. I’ll post soon on where we’ll be going next.

Leave a Reply




, , , , , , , , , , ,