Reapers of the Dust
Lois Phillips Hudson is one of those North Dakota authors whom we claim as one of our own, who we think should be read, but whom few people have read. Her works dwell upon the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and family misfortune. Most who read them feel good about it in the way of a person who has taken medicine.
I met Lois Hudson only once, a quarter-century ago, here at the university, hosting her for a lecture date and having dinner with her. This experience was a privilege, but an uncomfortable one. Hudson seemed pleased that she had been invited, that her work was appreciated here, but there were recurring expressions of regret and resentment.
Hudson’s big book was the novel, The Bones of Plenty, published in 1962. She followed this three years later with a book of stories, Reapers of the Dust: A Prairie Chronicle. Hudson taught for many years at the University of Washington; she never was awarded the rank of full professor; but in 1914, four years after her death, one of her UW students decided to bring her second book back from obscurity. The lovely new edition of Reapers of the Dust, from Pharos Editions of Seattle, is a high-end paperback with French flaps. The former student who provided a new introduction to the work is David Guterson, a wildly successful novelist many people will recognize as the author of Snow Falling on Cedars.
Guterson’s introduction helps me make sense of my encounter with Lois Hudson and helps me sort out what I think of her work. Her stories are set, with vivid reality, in south-central North Dakota (until the family sold out and moved west in 1937) and in communities of farm laborers in Washington state. Hudson, says Guterson, took “scathing umbrage” when people referred to her stories as memoir—although at times even her own mother was fooled. Hudson insisted that although, like most authors, she drew upon life experience, her work was fiction.
Hudson wanted credit as a creative artist, perhaps for the sake of academic promotion, but more broadly, she wanted to be appreciated as a creator of fine fiction. Unfortunately, her writing stalled out in middle age—life got complicated, academic life got demanding—and Hudson never achieved traction to produce the body of work that would establish her as a major literary figure.
Guterson gently hints at why that was: “Hudson,” he says, “saw the moral wherever she turned.” This is to say, she felt burdened to write prose that would change the world, help the oppressed. This seldom works out well; I have known other talented authors who ran their work into a ditch by prioritizing cause over art. I think you have to make art, and then sometimes, art changes the world.
Lois Hudson shared, or perhaps just recounted, some of the bigotries of her times. She refers to her German-Russian neighbors as “Rooshians,” and she depicts Mexican laborers as knife-wielding wild men. On the other hand, she is capable of wonderfully lyric prose, sometimes bittersweet, sometimes just bitter. She also tells us things we may not want to hear, but need to—such as the lack of options for young women on the northern plains, which caused them to leave the region in droves.
When I met Lois Hudson she was perhaps too old, and I too young, for me to offer her advice about her work. I would, today, if I could. Instead, then, I take the lesson of her life to heart myself, and offer it to others in this land we share: first and always, do good work; achieving that, then see if you can do good works also.