If you don’t live in the Midwest, you probably don’t know who Ruth Suckow is. If you do live in the Midwest, you probably don’t know who Ruth Suckow is.
So who is Ruth Suckow?
- A wealthy farmer who invented a hybrid corn in Hawarden, Iowa?
- A folk artist from Hawarden, Iowa?
- A writer of novels about small-town life in Iowa?
If you picked the last option, you are right. Ruth Suckow (1892-1960), born in Hawarden, Iowa, in 1892, was a popular writer in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Her fictional chronicles of small-town Midwestern life are quiet, simple, not very dramatic, but astonishingly apt even in the 21st century. They are reminiscent of the novels of Bess Streeter Aldrich and Maud Hart Lovelace, and her two most famous, The Folks and New Hope, are available as e-books from Google Books.
I didn’t discover Ruth’s work till I moved here and began to collect various discarded library books by Suckow at sales. I was utterly charmed by her 1942 novel, New Hope, a fictional account of Hawarden at the turn of the century.
When I learned that Ruth Suckow’s house had been restored, I knew I had to take the tour. On the long drive, I read aloud parts of New Hope to my chauffeur-husband, who probably daydreamed about baseball or bicycling as we drove to Hawarden, a lovely small town in the Missouri River valley near the Loess Hills.
Our kind guide, who wore a Ruth Suckow t-shirt and gave us a Ruth Suckow bookmark, told us she was reading New Hope in preparation for the book discussion at the annual Ruth Suckow Memorial Society meeting.
She said it had taken volunteers 20 years to restore the house, and they had just refinished the floors and hung the lace curtains from a thrift shop. It was the parsonage for the Congregationalist church, where Ruth’s father was the minister.
Ruth was an expert on church-centered social life in small towns. Her father’s work took the family to pastorates in Hawarden, Le Mars, Algona, Manchester, Grinnell, and Earlville. While her father wrote his sermons, she spent lots of time playing in his study, where you can now see her typewriter and the desk her husband gave her.
You can also see Ruth’s father’s typewriter. There is a poem on the sheet of paper in the typewriter, and I think it’s by Ruth’s father, but I forgot to ask…maybe it’s hers. At any rate, his own interest in writing may have influenced her.
The six-room house is tiny from the outside, but inside it seems spacious. (We noticed this same phenomenon in Red Cloud, when we visited Willa Cather’s house.) There are high ceilings and lots of light from floor-to-ceiling windows. These days it is hard to believe a family could be comfortable here, but the quiet–no electronic diversions, no three-car garages, no expensive hobbies–may have nurtured creativity. People who like to write will always write, but how much easier to do it when there are few distractions.
There are displays of her books, clippings and pictures…
We loved our visit there, and it is definitely worth the trip. There are no books or t-shirts for sale–it’s totally uncommercial. In some writers’ museum-houses–I don’t mean commercial places like Mark Twain’s house in Hannibal, or even Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord–I often feel I get to know the writers.