Editor’s note: This new book’s author, Karen Gettert Shoemaker, lives in Lincoln. She and her husband own and operate Shoemaker’s Truck Stop and Travel Center.
Complicated American history mixes with the promise of life and the fear of human coping in Karen Gettert Shoemaker’s delightfully rich novel, “The Meaning of Names,” available from Red Hen Press. Both a historical fiction of the plains and a tapestry of human emotion, “The Meaning of Names” comes forth with purpose, showing promise to readers native to Nebraska and, plainly, to anyone interested in a good read.
The novel’s principal action takes place at the advent of U.S. involvement in World War I, with the plot coming to a head in 1918. Though the storytelling is modular, with the narration visiting different characters and describing significant scenes throughout their lives, the author has created a vivid and complete portrait of life in this early-20th-century Midwestern milieu. Shoemaker has done her homework, weaving everyday small-town life, the Great War and the influenza epidemic together into an artful sampler of love and loss, freedom and duty, faith and doubt.
Shoemaker’s novel is set in the northern Nebraska town of Stuart. In her storytelling, the author has taken care to set her scenes and situations with purpose, reflecting not a fleeting reference to life in Nebraska but a strong historic and geographic tie that binds the plot together. Perhaps the most telling allusion to the landscape is Shoemaker’s description of the Sandhills region surrounding Stuart – the land is flat, but flat like a human palm, given to subtle hills and sharp gullies that carve the horizon and divide neighbors. The author recounts the capricious Nebraska weather and features a sudden thunderstorm that so often catches the prairie by surprise.
Further, Shoemaker’s novel depends upon the German-American families who called this area home, as well as the chasm between the religious and the scientific, drawing upon the strain that occurred when the United States found itself at war with Germany and at odds with a strange, new illness. Through this specific setting, the novel agitates themes of life and death in a way that illuminates not only history but the very fabric of middle-American life. In short, Shoemaker has planted her story’s seed in the landscape of her native Nebraska and has sown an opus that yields both strong historical fruits and literary richness.
The plot has been calculated carefully, and Shoemaker’s craft as a writer is evident throughout the text. In the course of her novel, the author reveals a string of vignettes that focus primarily on Gerda Vogel, a young German-American wife and mother estranged from her parents and divided from her older sister, who in the opening scenes of the novel dies in childbirth when Gerda is still young. The passionate realities of Gerda’s familial losses resurface throughout the novel, showing how these events shape her life.
As an adult, Gerda witnesses a violent attack on a German-American man, catapulting the reader into the xenophobic world constructed by the Great War, in which the German language is suppressed and un-reasoned hatred spreads as thirstily as the strange, new disease. In telling this story with its interweaving threads, Shoemaker ventures to other characters and events, and by the final page reveals an intimacy that draws all characters and plot points in common.
While the story focuses on Gerda and the Vogel family, the theme of interpersonal tension throughout the community is central to the plot. In the novel – as in life – the ideas of life and death seem to dominate, along with allusions to the struggle for human freedom. Among the characters moving in and out of the limelight are rural physician Dr. Ed Gannoway – an educated secular humanist who ministers to the town’s bodily needs – and Father Jungels, a fresh and inexperienced Catholic minister who attends to the town’s spiritual needs. Shoemaker illustrates a clear rift between the two figures, with Dr. Gannoway planted dogmatically on the side of logic and scientific inquiry and Father Jungels residing firmly in the realm of faith and spirituality.
It’s easy to see this conflict as an outward reflection of Gerda’s own inner struggle, and the search for its resolution is as relevant today as it was in the story’s setting nearly 100 years ago. Further, the prejudice, shown throughout the story against people with German heritage, foreshadows the stigma and maltreatment of a variety of cultures during World War II and in post-9/11 Western society.
This theme of xenophobia takes on a new layer of meaning in 1918 as the influenza epidemic separates Nebraskans from their infected family and friends, creating yet another barrier to human kindness.
Also dominant in Shoemaker’s imagery is the idea of the bird, which works together with the war-churned xenophobia against German-Americans to form the muse of the novel’s title, “The Meaning of Names.” While talking with the postman, Gerda blushes and reveals that the German “Vogel” – her married surname – means “bird,” after the postman teasingly says that she resembles a delicate bird with her skirt flying behind her in the wind. Also, her father’s pet name for her in childhood had coincidentally been kleiner Vogel, or “little bird,” because Gerda seemed to glide about her life with a special grace and freedom of character that her father had admired but later came to resent.
Whenever the bird theme arises, the reader sees Gerda rising above her situation and taking flight. This is evident in her headstrong marriage to Fritz Vogel, whom she loves but whom her father had not approved, and in the way she finds feminine validation in the postman’s harmless flirtation. The bird theme is also evident in how she finds herself mired, at times, as a wife, a mother, a domestic, a German, and yearns to soar into the heavens and validate herself as an autonomous person, realizing her own passions and aspirations as part of the human story.
All in all, the specific events described so lovingly in “The Meaning of Names” are far too nuanced and artfully intertwined to recount without betraying the novel’s development and ending, so it is the task of the reader to pick up a copy and start reading. Shoemaker has here developed not only a captivating read but also a wealth of subtext that will delight history lovers and draw both critical and casual readers to tears.