Long before she grew up to become Sara DeLuca, author of Dancing the Cows Home and a new book, The Crops Look Good, young Sara Hellerud called Polk County, Wis. the center of her world.
“We didn’t travel much, so there wasn’t much opportunity to get away and compare,” says DeLuca, who lived in Balsam Lake until she was 10, then moved to Milltown.
Polk County is the setting of The Crops Look Good, an intimate portrait of an early-20th-century farm family told primarily through letters. The letters are real, written by DeLuca’s grandparents, aunts and uncles to her aunt Margaret, who moved to Minneapolis in 1923.
While the family’s reports are written in the language of everyday detail — back pain, flat tires, mending 10 pairs of overalls and dancing to phonograph music — the letters weave a story more universal in concept.
“Life is based on detail,” says DeLuca. “We don’t live generically. But from all of the detail you get a picture of more than that family. The story broadens out and you get an idea of the culture. The family is a vehicle for telling the bigger story.”
Inspiration for the book struck when DeLuca was just 12, on a family outing to Eureka, as her grandfather reminisced about growing up in a log cabin in the 1800s.
“He was telling my aunts how his family got ahead,” says DeLuca. “I was fascinated. One of them said, ‘We have to write a book,’ but they weren’t the type to sit down and do it.” DeLuca realized she’d better start paying attention and asking questions.
“I’ve been planning on doing something like this since I was 12 years old,” she says.
Perhaps DeLuca’s aging aunt Margaret knew, because 20 years ago she passed DeLuca a box of letters written over the course of more than two decades. They begin after Margaret moved from her parents’ dairy farm between Milltown and Centuria in 1923, and end when phones and travel made letter writing all but obsolete in the mid 1950s. The letters come from Margaret’s mother and siblings, including DeLuca’s own mother, who was just seven when she wrote her first letter to Margaret.
“I loved reading that first-person history, unfiltered,” says DeLuca. “Once I got those, I wanted to integrate other material I’d been collecting. I made some false starts, then these last two years really worked on it.”
DeLuca used fewer than half the letters to compile The Crops Look Good.
“I had a great editor at the Minnesota Historical Society Press,” says DeLuca. “She helped select the most important parts. … You want a cohesive theme and story.”
The book’s primary focus is the change in agriculture, says DeLuca.
“It’s just done altogether differently,” she says. “The scale of these farms [described in the book] is quite different. They had 20 cows. A hundred acres could support a family in some fashion. That has changed.”
The book also follows a change in how people communicate.
“Some of these letters were 20 pages,” says DeLuca. “Letters held these families together and getting the first class mail was probably the highlight of your day. People put thought into it.”
We don’t take time anymore to write a thoughtful letter, she says.
“There’s a skill to it. It’s much more convenient and quick now to communicate. That’s a plus, but these letters give you time to think things through. When you sit down to write, you kind of see what you’re thinking.”
DeLuca’s next project will focus on history as well. She plans to write a collection of short stories based on interviews with elders in assisted-living homes.
“Everybody has a story to tell,” she says, “but a lot of these things don’t get out on paper. History is my passion, and I want to help other people write their history.”
Though she’s lived in Georgia for 13 years, DeLuca says she still considers northwestern Wisconsin home and visits often.
DeLuca will celebrate the publication of The Crops Look Good with a book launch at Common Good Books in St. Paul on March 18. She’ll also do a reading at the Amery Public Library Sat., March 21, at noon.