The story of a Christian relationship, revealed in a series of letters.
Johnson’s account of his parents’ courtship and marriage opens by characterizing it as “a look into the life of two western farming communities in the late 1930s as seen through the eyes of two evangelical Swedish-Lutherans,” which might strike many readers as unpromising material for a gripping story. But through judicious quotations from his parents’ letters, couched in his own contextualization and observations, Johnson manages to create a quietly captivating picture of two deeply religious people gradually learning about each other. Walter was a farmer in Colorado, and Margaret was choral director and English teacher in North Dakota, and the initial spark of chemistry between them when they met at a church outing prompted the correspondence. Letter writing didn’t come easily to Walter, who confessed up front, “I do not know how to start one, I have trouble finishing them and I do not know what to put in between.” Margaret comes across as a more forceful character from the start, and their letters are full of topical references (as when Walter talks about freedom: “Our nation fought the revolutionary war to gain religious and political freedom. We fought to free the slaves from their bondage. Theodore Roosevelt fought to free us from the bondage of great trusts being organized at that time”) as well as abundant quotations from Scripture. The biblical quotations never feel forced or browbeating; rather, they convey a remarkably delicate impression of two strong-willed and very different personalities, growing steadily in affection for each other. Johnson smoothly fleshes out this epistolary skeleton with his own theological observations. These interjections (such as, “Helplessness and hopelessness naturally follow when we focus on the failures of others and concentrate on causes that we can do nothing about”) could easily have felt like interruptions, but Johnson makes them work, and the result is a moving glimpse into a very different time and place.
A surprisingly winning long-distance love story.