Those Days: An American Album is an account of the marriage of Anna Louise, or Anne, Williams and Jim Critchfield. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister in Iowa; he was the son of a country doctor in North Dakota who later became a country doctor himself. They reared five children. There is nothing about their private or professional lives that is spectacular or even particularly unusual, but their story is extraordinarily interesting because it is in many respects typical of the lives of ordinary people who lived in small prairie towns in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The author of Those Days is Richard Critchfield, the youngest of Jim and Anne’s five children. Those Days is nonfiction, but as the author notes in his prefatory comments, “the distinction between fiction and nonfiction doesn’t always work well” when one is writing biography. The main lines of the story are solidly based on letters and interviews, but the author acknowledges that he “had to do a certain amount of imagining to put together what seems most likely to have happened.” Some of the author’s excursions into his imagination are more evident than others, but Those Days as a whole conveys a strong impression of authenticity. The author’s stated purpose—“to portray the full life and character of these people, but as persons whose individuality and destiny is seen within the setting of the changing technology and culture about them”—is surely fulfilled.
Excepting some introductory overviews of the history of the Williams and Critchfield families, most of the chapters in Those Days are told in the first person, using Anne, Jim, and sometimes other members of their family as narrators. These first-person narratives, however, are supplemented by comments taken from interviews with other members of the family, friends, and contemporaries; by quotations from letters and journals; and by material taken from newspaper accounts and other documents. This combination of views contributes to the fullness and authenticity of the picture.
Those Days opens with the wedding of Anne Williams and Jim Critchfield, a marriage which, the author notes, united two very different strains in American culture. Anne’s ancestors were Quakers from New England and New York State who had moved west in search of a simpler, purer life that would accord more closely with their understanding of the essential Quaker mode of worship. Her father, Hadwen Williams, was graduated from Iowa State University in 1882 with a degree in medicine. After his marriage to Jessie Johnston, he became more active in the Methodist church and, influenced in part by the evangelical preaching of Dwight Moody, abandoned his medical career to become a Methodist preacher. Although he thought that he had a call to become a medical missionary in China, he spent the remainder of his life serving in a succession of small Iowa towns, preaching a fundamentalist doctrine, often in revivals held in a tent he had made himself.
In contrast, Jim’s first ancestor in America was an impressed seaman, Amos Whitfield, who jumped ship and took the name of Critchfield. Amos’ descendants settled in Ohio after the Revolutionary War, where members of the family became prominent lawyers, prosperous enough to indulge an enthusiasm for horse racing. Jim’s father, Henry Critchfield, took a medical degree at the University of Minnesota and was offered 640 acres of land in the newly created town of Hunter, North Dakota, to set up a medical practice there.
Anne and Jim met when she abandoned a secure teaching position in Iowa—as well as a fiancé clearly destined to become prominent in the social establishment—to take a job in Hunter: an indication, perhaps, that the pioneer spirit in the nineteenth century United States was as strong in the women as the men. Her decision to marry Jim, a young man with only doubtful prospects as a farmer, no instinct for piety, and a reputation for drinking, was not one that was welcomed by her father.
Jim was an excellent athlete, an enthusiastic amateur musician, and a gregarious young man, but his family’s prosperity had ended abruptly when his father died of pneumonia at the age of forty-three. Although his older brother was able to complete medical school, Jim had to turn to farming on some of his father’s acreage. When he married Anne, she worked with him on the farm, but the generally low farm prices prevented their attaining any measure of prosperity. When a hail storm destroyed most of their crops, they had to abandon farming and convert the large Critchfield family home into an inn to support themselves. The sudden increase in farm prices caused by World War I saved them economically and enabled Jim to complete medical school and establish himself as a doctor in the town of Maddock, which had a population of six hundred. Later they moved to the somewhat larger town of Fessenden.
The account of a country doctor’s practice in the 1920’s and 1930’s is one of the most interesting...
(The entire section is 2083 words.)