Kaidenberg’s Best Sons: A Novel in Stories (193) (Essential Prose Series)

Written by Jason Heit
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Heit’s interconnected eight short stories trace the fates of a group of Schwarzmeerdeutsche (Black Sea Germans) who were driven from their farms on the steppes of Southern Russia in the late 1800s. They emigrated to the Dakotas but, arriving late, got only sandy land prone to flooding. Moving again, they settle in western Saskatchewan in the early 1900s, where the small community achieves modest success in the ten years covered by these stories. The “soddies” are slowly replaced by wooden houses, a small town springs up, a priest arrives, Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp is projected on a sheet, and an astounded community glimpses the wonders of a new century.

While most chronicles of frontier life stress the challenges of nature—crop failures, pests, weather, hunger, disease—here the primary challenge is human nature, or more accurately, male nature. Individuals, families, and generations are plagued by feuds, claim jumping, alcoholism, rape, terrible accidents, domestic violence, rage, bullying, and a general bent to fight out rather than talk out differences. The major characters are male, and the females are fairly passive. While there are instances of cooperation, camaraderie, generosity, and love, good times seem fleeting, with violence only a flask of homebrew away, waiting to spark. Yet the community survives. Young couples find each other and play out the courting rituals of their elders. Old feuds wither away, and acts of pure kindness are remembered. In the end, the “best sons” endure, and readers can feel the long journey as their own.