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Book Report: Travel back in time, in reality and fictitiously

Don Gilbertson retired as director of the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota several years ago, but that doesn't mean he's been sitting on his hands.

A few years back, he wrote a wonderful book about his hometown, Osseo. Now he's out with a personal memoir, "West of the South Forty" (Hawkweed Press, 1717 Rust St., Eau Claire, WI. 54701, $12).

It's a story lots of upper Midwestern folks can relate to. Gilbertson grew up on a small, hardscrabble rented farm, years before the advent of the factory farm, dairy herds of 5,000 cows, and cornfields that yield 200 bushels to the acre.

Times were tough, but Gilbertson has little time for whining. His work reminds me of the fine reminiscences of University of Wisconsin Emeritus Professor Jerry Apps. (In one book Apps says his father reluctantly urged him to accept a very small scholarship rather than stay on the farm because it was such a "wonderful opportunity.")

Gilbertson has the same wry sense of humor. (There must be something in the Wisconsin water.) He tells us that his mother always attempted to discipline him with threats about their preacher, Reverend Christopherson.

"You didn't fill the wood box. What would Reverend Christopherson think if he should drop in?"

"You didn't wipe your feet when you came in. What would Reverend Christopherson think if he should drop in?"

Gilbertson's comment: "Reverend Christopherson never dropped in." (Apparently the reverend had more opulent farms to drop in on.)

He's at his best when describing a Saturday night in Osseo, when the women go shopping at Bye's store and the men congregate at Beanie Bergerson's saloon.

Or when he and his father journey to Chippewa Falls to buy their first tractor, an old John Deere GP. Two are available. One has a new paint job. The other is grimy and costs less.

Guess which one Mr. Gilbertson chooses?

Scandinavian modesty lurks everywhere in Gilbertson's world, as when he wins a livestock judging contest and the family thinks it must be a mistake.

He's also very good when it comes to the one room school he attended through eighth grade. Gilbertson makes it very clear that he had a fine education at that little school house, where the teacher encouraged him to conduct experiments with simple elements that surrounded them in the countryside.

He must have learned something, because Gilbertson holds a Ph.D. in biology, did postgraduate work at Harvard and taught for years at the University of Minnesota.

All in all, "West of the South Forty" is an inspiring book, about a time long past. For some of us, it reads like yesterday.


Time travel has long appealed to writers and readers of science fiction.

One of its ablest writers is Science Fiction Hall of Fame member Connie Willis, who has made a career out of a bunch of Oxford University historians in 2060, who travel back in time to events like World War II.

A few years ago I reviewed her fascinating book "Blackout," in which three historians travel to the England of 1940 to see what it was like during the evacuation of Dunkirk; how kids felt about the war. One professor even went to work as a shopkeeper.

All manner of complications arose and the professors had a difficult time eluding Hitler's bombardment and getting back to 2060.

In her new book, "All Clear" (Ballantine Books, $26), the historians are at it again. This time they've got another problem.

For years, time travel theory has held that you can observe events of the past, but that you cannot alter those events. In the new book, our intrepid historians find out that this might not be the case.

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.