Several years ago I flew to Aberdeen, South Dakota, to report a story about a vinegar museum in nearby Roslyn (pop. 183). The curator arranged for me to stay with a couple who’d retired from farming and rented out rooms. The sturdy, big-boned pair was of German and Scandinavian descent, with families that had been in the area for more than a century. Their forbears had come as homesteaders, receiving federal grants to settle the prairie. One afternoon they took me around the grounds and stopped by what looked to me merely like a big dirt mound. This, I was told, was the original homestead.
They also insisted I join them at church on Sunday. It was a Lutheran service and though they knew I was Jewish (and asked me what food I avoided, but nevertheless served me quiche with bits of sausage in it), it meant a lot to them to have join them. They wanted to share their joy in faith. I obliged; they had opened their home to me, after all. They said there was a Jew who lived nearby but it was obvious that, by and large, the area was not home to a significant community and, as far as I assumed, the history of the Jews in South Dakota was not nearly as long as the history of northern European Lutherans.
Then, this past weekend, I picked up The Little Bride, the debut novel by Anna Solomon, after having seen her, last week, read excerpts alongside the singer-songwriter Clare Burson. (They reprise their dual performance later this month at the JCC in Manhattan.) The novel tells the story of Minna Losk, a 16-year old mail-order-bride, purchased by a 40-year-old Jewish homesteader in the Dakota territory in the 1880s. (Perhaps the most prominent fictional Jew of that time in place is Sol Star of HBO’s Deadwood.) Though Jews in the desolate place where Minna lands are few and far between they do exist there—struggling to farm and endure the brutal winter just as their recently-arrived Christian neighbors are doing. She lives, with her new husband and his two sons, in a tiny mud house, which, I imagine, ends up in a state similar to the mud hut remains I saw in Roslyn. Minna’s is an unenviable life full of hardship and she understandably questions whether she’s better off in America after all.
Solomon’s novel is based on fact, as she herself reported in a Tablet Magazine article. The likes of Minna—Jews in the middle of what looks like nowhere homesteading, tilling, escaping persecution—existed. They were trying to build a new homeland, even if it was diasporic. This knowledge adds dimension to the predominant historical narrative that the journey of Jews from Eastern Europe to the United States 100-plus years ago landed them in big cities. As Minna Losk’s story shows, the American dream can frequently be a living nightmare, and Lower East Side tenements were not the only hell.