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Gottlob Lerch: A Story

Book review by by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Urban, F.B. Gottlob Lerch: A Story. Translated by Ingesborg Wallner Smith. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2003.


When I picked up this book, I thought I was about to read a pioneer narrative, but I soon found myself immersed in a delightful little novel based on persons the author knew during the time of immigration of German Russians to America. The introduction says that little is known about the author, and that its old German script presented daunting problems for the translators. Yet the details of the novel ring true to common experience and it is a jewel both of history and character development.

Gottlob Lerch, the main character, who hails from the Kuban region on the Sea of Azov, comes to North Dakota via Canada because the Canadians are a bit less persnickety about eye disease than are the Americans. Having said the usual painful goodbyes and arming himself with a book of sermons by his beloved Lutheran Pastor Rev Bessermann, Lerch sets out to satisfy his number one obsession: land. Once in North Dakota, he is careful of his money, but the pressures are on him to build a barn (constructed of wood by professional carpenters) and after that a house (quickly assembled of sod by family and neighbors). Then he must spend more money on the church and its inevitable chain of pastors, the much-longed-for son, and the three daughters who must be clothed and later married off.

The author, with a wry sense of humor, weaves into the story the Bible verses and aphorisms that guide Lerch¹s life, his ambivalence about religion versus the practical, his relationship with his wife, the adjustments to a freer culture, the hardships inflicted by the plains, and the pattern of attitudes that existed within families and among neighbors. A good read.

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