Missaukee County, in the heart of the lower peninsula of Michigan, is perfectly flat and perfectly rural, its farms possessed by Dutch Calvinists. When first I, aged 17, traveled across the county, every farmhouse and every barn was ornamented by conspicuous lightning rods, the rustics having been duped by some ingenious salesman. When I inquired after the county courthouse (seeking for a county roadmap), everybody directed me to “the country barns.” “Beast is more than man in Meath,” the Irish say. So it is, or was, in Missaukee County.

Dr. Ronald Jager, sometime professor of philosophy at Yale, was reared on the eighty acres of a subsistence farm in that simple and honest county; he was sent to study at Galvin College, and that made all the difference; he and his brothers, once grown, never followed the plow. But he is blessed with total recall of his boyhood. His little book, at once realistic, amusing, and pathetic, adds mightily to the corpus of literature of what we may call the Northern Agrarian School. In several ways it parallels Curtis Stadtfeld’s From the Land and Back (Scribner’s, 1972), of which the setting is Michigan’s Mecosta County, somewhat south of Missaukee, and less fertile: the county of Stadtfeld himself and of this reviewer.

Although in these United States nobody calls himself a peasant, actually the Jagers and their neighbors were a peasantry, living very close indeed to the soil, wasting nothing, close-knit in family, hardworking, pious. The narrowness of their life only half a century ago—indeed, right up through the Second World War—will seem almost medieval to some readers; and that life’s simplicity and lack of conveniences will startle people who always have taken for granted running cold and hot water, indoor plumbing, electric lighting, central heating, and all manner of comforts. Such readers will think the Jager family very poor; but the Jagers never thought themselves so, any more than did this reviewer when he spent his summers at his archaic ancestral house in Mecosta County. It did not seem at all dismal to pump one’s drinking water by the hand-pump outside the pantry door. (At Mecosta, that pump still functions—the only one in the village still in use.)

It was no easy life, for farmer, farmer’s wife, or farmer’s progeny. Although not plaintive, Jager offers an instance:

I look at the summer of 1942: my mother had four children under fourteen; she had no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no refrigeration; and she was pregnant, hemming diapers in her spare time. To keep washing, cooking, ironing, sewing, cleaning, and mothering from becoming overwhelming, she sometimes had help on Wednesday or Thursday afternoon from my cousin Gertrude, and that gave her a midweek break to attend meetings of the church Ladies Aid Society or the neighborhood Home Extension group.

Yet it was a life of many modest satisfactions, healthy, innocent enough—and of independence. Nobody grew softbrained watching television; boys then read books; indeed, they bought books. How did they contrive to pay for books? Why, Father paid his sons, when they pumped water for the animals, the garden, and the family, a penny for every 333 strokes of the pump-handle: at a thousand strokes a day, the minimum permitted, a lad could earn nearly a dollar a month.

Ronald Jager’s son does not pump, nor read the sort of books the father read; the son “has not had the advantages of certain deprivations.” Jager comments on this in a passage as wisely moving as Gissing’s Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft or Alexander Smith’s Dreamthrop:

It’s my fancy, or literary conceit, that there are mythic streams of human consciousness that you can best tap into if you know the special feel of blisters earned from a pump handle. Be that right or wrong, it is a fact that our literary culture, from the Bible to Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, is alive with springs of water as symbols of life and spirit. [Young Jager bought Verne’s Mysterious Island with pump-money.]


So, we continue drawing from old wells. We keep the experience of certain privileged books, like sounds of sighing windmills turning, safely stored in memory. We linger to savor the luminous hoarfrost that wraps the brittle morning farm with meaning, like memory of mist frozen, and keep watching the night sky for blazing rocks, aware, reluctantly, that there are more rocks up there than balloons. We still rely on unseen angels to keep us from the edge. It’s a mysterious island, this earth, this life.

The reality of the pump-handle and the fantasy of Jules Verne conducted Ronald Jager into young manhood: he writes of that process with skill and affection. The eighty-acre farms, most of them, have been absorbed into larger holdings nowadays, or else lie derelict, and Jager himself dwells in New Hampshire. But if latter-day Detroit is the alternative to those stubborn eighty acres and the frozen pump-handle in winter—why, give us again the deprivations of Missaukee County.


[Eighty Acres: Elegy for a Family Farm, by Ronald Jager, Foreword by Donald Hall (Boston: Beacon Press) 257 pp., $15.00]