WorldView: A Language Blog

WorldView is a place for leaders in the fields of language education, global citizenship, immersion learning and other topics central to the Concordia Language Villages mission to address issues important to their fields.

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Book Review: Winter Wheat

By President William Craft, Concordia College | Published: May 7, 2014

UNESCO designated April 23 as World Book Day to celebrate the importance of books and publishing. To recognize World Book Day 2014, Concordia Language Villages is posting five book reviews over the next several weeks from a wide range of contributors.

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By President William Craft, Concordia College

A young Montana woman who dreams of studying languages at the university finds herself alone, teaching school children in a harsh, wind-wracked winter landscape, her fiancé having left her, and her family unable to send her back to study after a mind-opening first college year. This is the figure at the center of Mildred Walker’s Winter Wheat, first published during WWII and published again by the University of Nebraska Press in 1992.

When my family and I first moved to Iowa in the summer of 2000, I began reading Midwesterns to get a feel for our new place in the world, a place that seemed so different from the Appalachian foothills of our Pennsylvania childhood. Louise Erdrich, Havel Kimmel, Marilynne Robinson, Leif Enger, Ethan Canin and more recently, William Kent Krueger of St. Paul and Lin Enger of Moorhead—they have given us narrative roots in our new home.

Like us, the novelist Mildred Walker was transplanted to the Midwest, having grown up around Philadelphia and having graduated from college in New York.  With her husband, a physician, she moved first to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and then to Great Falls, Montana, where she lived until her husband’s death, returning then to teach at her alma mater, Wells College. Winter Wheat, a Literary Guild selection in 1944, is one of her best, along with The Body of a Young Man, which earned a National Book Award nomination. It’s a pleasure to imagine that if the National Book Awards at Concordia had been in place back then, Ms. Walker might have come to read and teach on our campus.

Walker’s Ellen Webb grows up on a dry-land wheat farm, her father a wounded WWI vet from Vermont and her mother a Russian nurse who brought him back to health before they married and moved from her country and his New England to the mountains and wide spaces of Montana.  Ellen hopes to study Spanish at college and is enthralled with her first year there. But the family wheat crop fails, and her university dreams with it. Instead, she moves to live in a “teacherage”: a one-room school with a small apartment attached, her only companions—at first—the children in her charge.

If ever there were an example of immersion learning, Ellen lives it, and in that isolated setting discovers more about her family, about herself, and about the world than she had ever imagined. Unlike the Concordia Language Villages, Ellen’s immersion is not one she sought, but like those villages her “teacherage” becomes a place where she finds a larger identity and depth of capacity that she might never have known.

Fictions make a world, as do the Language Villages of Concordia College. How lucky are those who have the chance to live and learn in both.

About President William Craft

William Craft began serving as President of Concordia College on July 11, 2011. Prior to his election as President, he served as the Dean of Luther College and Vice President for Academic Affairs, holding a faculty appointment as Professor of English. Craft earned his doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has been a Fellow of the Newberry Library and the American Council on Education. In the summer of 2008 he completed the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University.

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