The Sunday Before Thanksgiving

The Sunday Before Thanksgiving: Two Prose Memoirs.
By Norbert Krapf. Chicago: Rain Crow Publishing, 1998. 32 pp. $5.00.

Norbert Krapf, professor of English at Long Island University, is well known as a poet, translator, and editor. The two texts of The Sunday before Thanksgiving seem to be directly autobiographical, and from the perspective of the author they are indeed "memoirs." I, however, would prefer to call them prose poems. Both in language and in structure they are unambiguously literary. Each consists of ten numbered sections consisting of a single paragraph, ranging in length from seven to twenty lines. Each tells of a death and the reaction of the first-person narrator to this death, and in each the heritage of the deceased German-American is central. The structures, too, are superficially similar, beginning in medias res and ending with the reactions of the protagonists, with flashbacks, which include the actual death, in between. Finally, spiritual values figure prominently in both pieces. In subtle ways, however, they are quite different.

In the first section of "On a Hill Near the Rhine," a man with a German name watches "a boy dressed in a Western Union uniform walking up the hill" toward his house. It is March, 1945. We know, of course, that the messenger is bringing the telegram informing the family of the death of a loved one, presumably a son. And the date immediately suggests the mood of All Quiet on the Western Front: why now?--the war is almost over. Before the telegram is actually delivered, we learn about the son. He always wanted to be a priest, and would have been the first in his family. He enters the seminary, but the religious order does not consider him ready and dismisses him ("'Maybe you can come back in a couple of years,' the abbot tells the young man"). The man is then drafted. His death on a German hill as the war draws to an end is described. A soldier who was with him will write to inform the family that one of their son's last acts was to kneel for a brief prayer. The narrator, much later, searches out the hill where his uncle died, an uncle he never knew. "Here, on this obscure piece of solid earth, which an army letter referred to as a cliche'd 'hallowed ground,' I am surrounded by weeds whose names I know neither in my own language nor the tongue of my ancestors."

There are similarities and differences between the two. The second, title story is less intense, although in this case the death of the narrator's father is the subject. Here the man has reached old age and death is not unexpected. Like his predecessor in the first text, he was a religious man: "Sometimes, toward the end, we would find him sitting alone in a room, moving his lips in silence. There was always a rosary in his pocket." The German-American element, on the other hand, is different. Both in flashbacks to the father's younger years and in the language of the mourners ("You haff my Zim-pah-tee") the importance of his German heritage, and its continuing presence in Jasper, Indiana, is kept before us.

As the quotes given above indicate, these texts are not lacking in sentimentality. But the sentimentality is no less effective than it is appropriate. The mood oscillates, as the language takes its turns, from the deathly objectivity of the telegram's capitalized message to the most subjective expressions and descriptions of loss and grief. Either of these texts would be effective additions to an English-language course in German-American Studies.

Jerry Glenn, Univ. of Cincinnati. Yearbook of German-American Studies, 33 (1998): 173-174.