Otto Neumiller, the patriarch of a German Catholic family. He immigrates to North Dakota in 1881, when he is twenty-four years old, marries Mary Reisling, and fathers Lucy, Augustina, and Charles. Energetic and civic-minded, he farms, donates to the church, and serves on the county commission and the school and grain elevator boards. Concerned for the welfare of others, he loses all but his original homestead in a failed attempt to keep the elevator operating during an economic downturn. His rise in life and subsequent decline are recalled by his son, who travels to Mahomet in 1935 to bury him on his homestead, as he requested.
Charles John Christopher Neumiller
Charles John Christopher Neumiller, a carpenter, farmer, and school janitor, born in 1891 to Otto and Mary. He is dedicated, solemn and taciturn, generous, community-oriented, and a conscientious Catholic. With his wife, Marie, he fathers Martin, Elaine, Vince, Fred, Jay, Emil, Rose Marie, Tom, and Davy. A controlled man, he tenderly, but in a businesslike manner, prepares his father for burial in a homemade coffin. He feels chastened by the open expression of affection written in a birthday letter from his oldest son to his deceased father, and he wonders why he seldom thinks of the past. He admits that he can best express emotion in song, and his children remember his deep bass voice and wish for a pipe organ in their church. When he sells the North Dakota farm in 1938 and moves Marie and the younger children, his attachment to his farm animals prevents him from watching the sale. He has to be busy, frequently consults his watch, and with sons Fred and Tom operates a contracting company in Illinois. His grandson Jerome recalls that he always seemed prepared for any situation that arose. Together with his father, he represents the root and potential of a family from which later generations draw strength, but from which they also drift.
Marie Neumiller, the wife of Charles, described by her grandson Jerome as “such a bulwark of authority it seemed she was carrying within her a part of the country of Germany and a great deal of the Catholic church.” Proud that her family produced a cardinal and a scholar of ecclesiastical law, she cannot tolerate the drunken behavior of Ed Jones, whose daughter her son Martin marries.
Augustina Neumiller, a sister of Charles, born in 1888. Out of fear, she never marries. She is high-strung, terrified of strangers, subject to spells, and tirelessly devoted to her father. Following his death, she remains on the North Dakota farm with hired man Clarence Popp.
Martin Neumiller, a teacher, principal, life insurance salesman, plumber, and handyman, born in 1913 to Charles and Marie. In the late 1930’s, he marries a non-Catholic, Alpha Jones, with whom he has five children: Jerome, Charles, Timothy, Marie, and Susan. He shares his father’s work ethic but is more introspective, enjoys telling stories of his past, and hopes to write a book about his life. He practices his faith more loosely than do his parents, and without compunction he promotes life insurance by using a picture of the holy family. He ignores Alpha’s questions about faith, preferring simply to believe. Although he is talented and diligent, his life is more disappointing than successful. To earn more money, he gives up his principalship and eventually follows his parents to Illinois, where financial considerations force him to move his family into his parents’ basement, then into an old garage, which he converts into a home between jobs as a plasterer. the move contributes to his wife’s death, at which time he contemplates suicide. His resolve to keep his family together ultimately sustains him. Eventually, he remarries and moves to Eglington, Illinois, to work as a guidance counselor. His own life experiences call into question his ability to guide; although he keeps his children together, they grow up haphazardly, and four of them suffer terribly from the loss of their mother. Emblematic of Martin’s inability to fully manage his life is his struggle to make sense of it by writing about it; he feels overwhelmed by all the material that he wants to include.
Alpha Jones, Martin’s wife, born in 1916. Big-boned and...