Book Review: On Sarpy Creek

I was captivated by this story of a little farming community located in southeastern Montana. By the third chapter I felt as if this was a real community – I still feel that way. And perhaps it was a non-fictional community. Could any author so astutely describe and tell the story of these characters without having known some of them in person, without having lived a part of their lives, without experiencing their empathy, fallibility, and deep, personal relationships to each other? It doesn’t seem possible.

Near the end of this book I was enthralled and sympathetic with the uniquely described character of Hosea, so much so that I looked down at the bottom of the page and realized it was drenched in my salty tears. Damn you Ira Stephens Nelson! You reached ahead into the future seventy-six years and forced another reader to cry, to weep uncontrollably and he, I, couldn’t stop it – the author had completely taken over my emotions.

Each one of Nelson’s characters were so well-developed, so human, identifiable, so flawed, they simply jumped out of the book like spirits from the past, haunting the reader with their oh so recognizable human characteristics, foibles, and circumstances. What more perfect time and place for them to exist than during World War I, The Great Depression, on the edges of the Dust Bowl, on homesteads in a seldom visited corner of the most isolated region of Montana. I’ve walked some of this land, some that held homesteaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – walked along the washouts, ravines, hillocks, and hummocks on current day Bureau of Land Management soil, sauntered along with my dog Sunny as we searched for sharp-tailed grouse, and the elusive sage grouse. Among the dust, horned toads, sage brush, and sandy loam, I saw prostate, gray fence posts, remnants of windmills, and stone foundations fallen in on themselves. Then I thought, What about the people who lived here; who had tried but failed to produce a living in this dry, dusty, windy clime? Ira Nelson answered that question!

In addition to the captivating series of events and relationships and well-developed characters, Nelson offers something additionally special and personal. Throughout much of the book he offers up a dose of homily – many reflections upon life, death, the human character, and God and his earth. Each of these seems to explore the depth of Nelson’s thoughts; and those thoughts are sublime, uncertain, and most of all revealing.

It is unfortunate that Nelson only published one book. With his unprecedented talent, mankind could be a better place if he had continued to publish. This book was widely hailed in 1938, but the publisher went out of business during World War II, and there was no follow-up printing. This book was lost to the public for over seven decades. Like a buried treasure, it has been uncovered and I’m confident that it will touch many lives. Nelson spent the remainder of his 85 years scrounging to make a living, moving from one unskilled or semi-skilled job to another. There is rumor of at least one more manuscript, possibly an autobiography, but none was found upon his death. Perhaps there is a manuscript out there in some attic, in some dresser drawer, or trunk; I hope there is and I hope someone finds it – someone who recognizes what they have. Yes, truly a treasure no doubt!

I must recommend this book to all of you; and you must read it, and I ‘m confident you will recommend it to all you know as well. Thanks to the publisher and printer, both of Helena, Montana, a deep appreciative thank you for revealing this buried treasure of literary genius and artistry!

Pungky Dwiasmoro Hiswardhani

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