How the North Dakota prairie shaped one family's life

Those Days, by Richard Critchfield. New York. Anchor Press/Doubleday. 419 pp. $19.50. During the chilly night of May 9, a cloud of atomic radiation from the disaster at Chernobyl passed over Massachusetts. That same night, I was deeply engrossed in Richard Critchfield's recently published ``Those Days.''

I was reading, in fact, its account of a turn-of-the-century camp out on the nighttime North Dakota prairie, describing how you could ``. . . lay back with your head on your arms and [take] in the whole star-sprinkled sky, immense and limitless out on the plains, like a sky at sea. Or the aurora borealis, the northern lights. . . . They came in shimmering flashes -- mainly green, but also yellow, red or purple -- rippling across the northern sky like a big gust of wind through a curtain. It was worth living for.''

What have we come to? we ask, prompted by the profound juxtaposition of a cloud of nuclear residue and memories of a time when the air was so clear stars seemed to hang just beyond arm's reach. It is such contrasts -- sometimes painful, often inspiring -- that Critchfield captures in this story of a family -- his own.

How did Anne Louise Williams and Jim Critchfield -- the parents of author Richard Critchfield -- come to be married at the Methodist parsonage in Sumner, Iowa, on the 19th of April, 1913? Why did they settle on the bleak North Dakota prairies? Did they help shape their age -- or did it merely shape them? Finally, one might ask, is there anything of interest in a detailed examination of the lives of two such ordinary people?

The answer to the last question is a assured ``Yes.'' Author Critchfield artfully blends letters, clippings, photographs, diaries, and comments from those who knew his mother and father -- and other relatives -- back in ``those days.'' Further, he has carefully absorbed the ethos of an era.

A convenient ``fiction'' shows us what the records can't: the inner thoughts of several of the ``characters,'' but chiefly those of Anne and Jim. Assuming the role of these people, the author recounts in the first person their view of the Critchfield history. The result is an exciting, thoughtful, often profound, and always moving story.

It is acted out against the backdrop of the North Dakota prairie, which is as significant here as the heath is in Thomas Hardy's ``The Return of the Native.'' It is a character of vast, shaping force; powerful, but indifferent. It has two faces: the cruel face of burning summer and freezing winter; the benign and inviting face of peaceful, innocent solitude.

At first Jim farms but later, having completed medical school, he and Anne and their small family move to Maddock, North Dakota, where Jim begins his rural practice. We see, as do the Critchfields, that the governing force is the prairie, and that it works on and with human strengths -- and weaknesses. There is no refuge in town. While the farmer may wrestle directly with the elements, the country doctor deals with their aftereffects. We watch as Anne and Jim and their growing family are molded by the powerful elements and by less subtle traits of character. The interplay of Anne's strengths and Jim's weaknesses with the elements of earth and season is gripping; it takes us, era by era, right up to the present.

This interplay is the book's great strength: Set off against the sweep of historical events, the lives of ordinary people take on a larger meaning. We know where history is going; we wonder how these people will deal with it. We know depression and drought will come to North Dakota and we know what it did to the lives of thousands. But what will it do to Anne and Jim Critchfield? By their response we more accurately and painfully judge what we would have done or, perhaps, have already done.

Throughout the book we sense echoes of the great myths: Edenic innocence; loss of innocence; the flight from Eden. Indeed, as the book jacket reminds us, ``Those Days'' is in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson and Willa Cather, but more specifically it echoes a book now almost forgotten: Ole Rolvaag's ``Giants in the Earth.''

And, finally, to every reader -- but especially to those few of us who grew up on the North Dakota prairie -- it is a reminder that not all the drama of our nation's acquisition of identity or of the molding of its peoples took place in the Colonial Northeast, the antebellum South, or the gold-rush West. For an engrossing account of the forces that shaped the Middle West, look no further than ``Those Days.''

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