A Season Of Fire And Ice


Zimpel conveys a strong sense of place in a novel based partly on his grandparents’ lives and pioneer journals. Praeger, the narrator, is the father of a large family of sons in 1880s Dakota Territory. He and his neighbors are jealous of a new settler who seems to have more than his share of luck. Biedermann discovers a well on his property and so escapes the worst of a drought. A plague of grasshoppers strips Praeger’s land bare, but largely bypasses Biedermann’s. The newcomer’s blunt manner and unruly dogs do little to smooth things over. Praeger’s young twins idolize Biedermann, but son Harris, goaded by jealousy, is suspected of poisoning the dogs and setting fire to Biedermann’s barn. The resulting tragedy is the sort that can set families and neighbors against each other for generations.

The author incorporates some vivid, sense-evoking descriptions into his story. The sky is a “slate dome,” the wind “a fierce, bucketing blast,” and “the air snapped in Harris’ nostrils.” The point of view alternates between extracts of Praeger’s journal and third-person “inter-leaf” intervening chapters. The characters weren’t exactly endearing, yet I was compelled to find out what would happen nonetheless. Readers of this book will intensely experience the anguish of the 19th century high plains farmer, constantly in danger of being frozen, burned, or eaten out of a living.

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