When German immigrants settled on midwestern farms during the 19th century, they must have experienced culture shock. After all, they were used to living in close-knit villages with friends and family within walking distance. In America’s farm country, they often did not have neighbors nearby and had to rely on their own resources to maintain social contacts and to keep in touch with the outside world.
I will let Martin, protagonist of my immigrant novel “Shiloh Valley,” tell you how he felt after arriving in the Midwest:
I came to America to find freedom from the oppressive government and my monotonous existence as an office apprentice. But when I parted ways with a young man I met on the ship, I became very lonely. In St. Louis, I had to endure back-breaking work until I found a position at an inn. The owner and patrons were mostly Irish. I could barely understand them, adding to my feeling of alienation. I never expected that I would miss hearing German sounds much, but when two Germans visited the inn, I knew that I wanted to live in a community of German immigrants. I found it first in Belleville and then in Shiloh Valley.
Even though I wanted to be my own master, I often crave the company of others, especially during the long winters. I think my interest in politics grew partly out of my desire to add some excitement to my life. I needed a cause to give my life meaning beyond the demands of my farm.
Katrin doesn’t talk about loneliness often, but she lights up whenever we have guests or chat with a passerby. Pragmatic as she is, she knows that she might have had to work as a maid or hired hand all her life. I’m sure she misses her friends from back home, but she has seldom talked about homesickness, unlike her brother.
Nikolaus is more social than I am and has often been unhappy about living on an isolated farm. That’s why Katrin and I were thrilled when he finally got married. Hopefully, their children and ours will have an easier time adjusting to life on the prairie than we have had. After all, they don’t know any other life.