Not so many years ago, I wanted to see if I could get a couple of sharp pictures of gravestones adorned in long early morning shadows. I headed out to the Doon cemetery, where the graves hug a rolling hill above the Rock River, a setting that offers a cemetery even more wordless gravitas than most already have.
Frederick Manfred, a prolific American novelist, wanted to be buried up there, to watch over the beloved village of his birth, while sitting up close to fields of corn and beans that, even in winter, don’t shed their spacious grandeur.
It was cold that morning in January, and I was just looking for an image that would catch the drama of a new sun on an old grave.
That’s when I noticed the stone of a woman whose name I recognized immediately, someone whose life I would otherwise have known nothing of if I’d never read Manfred’s, The Secret Place.
I read that novel when I was 18 years old, and it made me think I’d like to write stories too someday. But The Secret Place wasn’t all that popular in Doon. Back then, I only partially understood why not. It’s taken me most of a lifetime to see that good people from Manfred’s own hometown felt used by his writing that story.
After all, some of it at least was true. Even though Jennie Van Engen was forty years in the grave when The Secret Place was published, the novel was based, in part, on her sad, short life.
She died way back in 1920, when she was just 21 years old, or so the stone says. Still, the morning I found that stone, it seemed as if I knew her, or at least of her. I couldn’t help wondering how many people on the face of the earth, even among her own descendant family, had any inkling of who she was or the dimensions of her tragedy.
“Till we meet again” the stone says, in mossy text.
I stood there beside that grave, sorry that she’d died so young, and sorry too that Fred Manfred, then named Feik Feikema, caught all the rage he did from the town he loved when he was just trying to tell a really good story, part of it her story. But that some people would be enraged at his using her and them, I understood. Their anger wasn’t unreasonable.
Eventually, that moment in the cemetery developed into a short story, the story in this volume titled “January Thaw,” a story that imagines what might have been happened when Frederick Manfred’s mortal coil was returned to the earth in that cemetery just outside of Doon, Iowa, the same one where I literally stumbled upon the stone marker for Jennie Van Engen.
If they both were there in the Doon cemetery – if something of both of them were residents – what might their spirits say so to each other so many years later? That is what I asked myself.
That story was the only one I’d ever written whose texture was anything other than old-fashioned realism – this young woman, quite dead, taking on the venerable old novelist who had just been buried beside her. Jennie Van Engen’s spirit has a score to settle.
After “January Thaw” I started to believe more haunting stories were awaiting me in the cemetery where Fred Manfred is buried, a cemetery just up the hill from the town he loved, even if that love went quite unrequited.
There was, and still is, something magical about being there, or really in any graveyard. The morning I bumped into Jennie Van Engen’s stone, I couldn’t help but be thankful for a story that made that cemetery alive.
This collection of stories is already dedicated to Frederick Manfred and his Doon friend, Harold Aardema, both of them writers, both of them friends.
But I think it only right that here at the very end I should add yet another to the list of those to whom I dedicate this story, a young woman who died in childbirth almost a century ago, a woman otherwise totally forgotten, known only to those few who’ve read an obscure novel by long-deceased writer who, with her, is buried in a cemetery up a hill above the Rock River.