Plains Folk

Going Home


In a couple of recent columns I have talked about the relationship between Eric Sevareid—World War II correspondent and later, more famously, nightly commentator on CBS Television News—and his old home town of Velva, North Dakota. Many Americans have read Sevareid’s memoir, Not So Wild a Dream, which contains substantial remarks about Velva and North Dakota. Far fewer have read his remarks of 1933, the first time the adult reporter returned to his boyhood home, which I discussed here.

Now I turn to the most significant of all Sevareid’s writings about Velva and North Dakota—his 1956 article for Collier’s magazine entitled, “You Can Go Home Again.” This essay is his most direct and thoughtful confrontation with his prairie past, and it deserves direct and thoughtful consideration.

Alighting in Minot on the Empire Builder, Sevareid makes the drive to Velva in a rented Studebaker. A middle-aged man is coming home to settle something, that thing being his relationship, if there is one, with his boyhood home. Sevareid is roasting that old familiar chestnut, the identity question. “Where are we here on the cold, flat top of our country?” he asks. “What am I doing here?”

Sevareid prowls around the town, noting all the things that have changed, as well as those that have remained the same. He stays with Bill Francis, former editor of the Velva Journal, and his wife, the former Mrs. Beebe, whom he had known as “Aunt Jesse.” He chats with Oscar and Gertrude Anderson, who are retired from running their business and living comfortably. Oscar is truly vested here in Velva, leader of all sorts of community activities, and just the year previous published a history of the town.

Most affecting for Sevareid, there is a reunion with the beautiful Helen Bloomquist (now Kramer), the girl of his dreams, who introduces her husband and children. He writes of Helen, “She had stayed and she was happy, as she had been fashioned from childhood always to be.” At the recent Sevareid symposium in Bismarck I met Helen’s son Mike, who handed me a framed photograph of his mother at about the age Sevareid would have known her in Velva. She was indeed a memorable beauty.

Sevareid stumbles along the Mouse riverbank and tastes the tangy skin of a red haw. Finally, crossing the North Bridge, he gives in to his senses and sentiments. “I understood then why I had loved it so and loved its memory always,” he writes; “it was, simply, home.”

These prairie memoirists such as Sevareid, no matter their sentiments about the old home town, are determined to make something of their childhood experiences. Sevareid, in somewhat self-centered fashion, concludes that the significance of country towns like Velva to the greater world is that they produce and export such men as he. “That is what my home town and yours really are in the American story and system,” he writes; “not stagnant plants at all, but seedbeds, ceaselessly renewing the nation . . . pulsating with the lives that come to them and the lives they give away.”

This statement strikes me as rather colonialist. I would like to think that the communities of the plains have aspirations and destinies of their own, and are not mere brooder houses for the benefit of other, supposedly more important places. I’m not sure we should let memoirists such as Stegner, who have their personal agendas, tell the story of Velva. Who should tell the story, then? I vote for Oscar Anderson. I wish Sevareid had taken a little time to find out about Velva from the guy who knew its history.

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