Difficult men, part 1

Feodor Rojankovsky, Frog Went A-Courtin, winner of 1955 Caldecott Medal for Best Children's Picture Book. Source: animationresources.org

Feodor Rojankovsky, Frog Went A-Courtin, winner of 1955 Caldecott Medal for Best Children’s Picture Book. Source: animationresources.org

Often these days the novels we pick up tell of people we would wish to be, or at least spend time with. They might have flaws and failings, they may not rise to the potential we are induced to see in them, they may have the odds stacked against them, but at heart they are good, well-meaning. We relate to them. We feel their pain.

Allow me to introduce you to Leo Krauss, one of the main characters in Jacqueline Baker’s engrossing novel The Horseman’s Graves (HarperCollins, 2007). As a boy in 1909, Leo journeys with his family from Odessa to the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, where his father sets up a homestead on “a hundred and sixty pitiable acres tucked right up against the Sand Hills,” in “the worst possible corner of that parched, sifting region.” Old Krauss, Leo’s father—a nasty specimen who makes Leo’s mother run to catch up with the wagon if she needs to go to town—is known to one and all as the embodiment of meanness: “Mean in the old country, mean over here.” “Mean as crossed rattlers, those Krausses.” “Can’t shake that kind of thing out of the blood.”
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Eventually young Leo, thusly cursed and all grown up, is the only Krauss left on that desolate property. He ventures forth in search of a wife. I am reminded of the folk song “Froggy Went A-Courting,” though even that ill-fated frog, “with his pistol and sword by his side,” seems better suited to the task. For one thing, in Miss Mousy, Froggy has an object in mind. Leo Krauss, on the other hand, rides systematically from one farm to the next, knocking on the door, sitting at the kitchen table, eyeing the resident daughters with a “greasy kind of look,” and getting up to leave without saying a word. He does this week after week until he starts turning up drunk, and then just shouting from his wagon in the yard at whatever girl he’s come to ogle.

When he finally gives up, there is widespread relief. But that’s not all there is, and herein lies the hard beauty of this novel. Baker writes: “But soon his absence became more of an outrage than his presence had ever been, as if he stayed away just so they would notice, and wonder about it, in spite of themselves . . . So after months of suffering bitterly his presence, they found themselves having to suffer his absence.”

The local people tell themselves they should be happy. “‘Ach,’ some said, ‘Be glad he is out of our hair.’” But no one can rest easy knowing Leo is in their midst. Is he OK out there, on that godforsaken piece of land? They’re Christians, they ought to care whether Leo has drunk himself to death, no? Surely someone should ride out and check on him. They gallantly elect the priest, for “what is the church for if not to look to the low and the fallen?”

I love this: how all that concern is deep-fried in plain old curiosity. There is so much about human nature that Baker captures in her portrayal of the community’s relationship with Leo Krauss—a relationship at times harrowing, at times hilarious—that I hardly know where to begin. The people of this isolated German community revile Leo: his behaviour is offensive, unfriendly, appalling. Yet how is it he dares put himself beyond requiring their approval or even their participation in his life? What is he capable of, this man who seems to have no sense of social mores or norms? What might he do next? And how might it affect them? Leo is a puzzle, and a potential threat, both. Because he follows none of the ordinary rules of engagement, people are confused by him, thrown off course. They also feel guilty about their own judgement of him. At the end of the Valentine’s Day social, after watching Leo suffer ridicule and rejection from the local girls, widower Mike Weiser thinks to himself that perhaps “Leo did have a heart there after all. Even if it was fed and pumped by Krauss blood, it was still a heart and he was still a man, not?”

Despite the evident hardship of their lives you get the distinct impression that without Leo and the small struggles he ignites in their minds and in their souls, the people here might grow bored; they might ease into a dangerous complacency. There is no comfort allowed when it comes to Leo. His existence stirs and ruffles the air.

The tale of Leo Krauss—not the whole or even the central tale here, though it is tied to everyone’s fate—makes me wonder about the true impact of an apparently negative presence. Do the Leos in our midst, much like a devastating storm, temporarily (or intermittently) create common cause? Does the instinct to work out the “problem” of Leo bring people together in a tense but unified (and sometimes comical) front? Does Leo simply give everyone a story around which to gather and reflect? “Leo” has so affected me that I feel a twinge of my own guilt writing this: am I suggesting we use the Leos of this world for our own betterment? What I can say for sure is that, unpleasant and confounding as he is, he matters. Like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita—who I found so repulsive I nearly gave up on that book in the first chapter—he is the stuff of real literature (and life).

This is a novel about the immigration experience, after the fact. The people in The Horseman’s Graves have left much behind, most of it willingly: there’s a “good riddance” vibe to their survival ethic. What choice do they have? But some things can’t be shed. The Krausses and what they represent are eternal, and add layers (and perhaps generations) of difficulty to breaking in a new life, in a new place: the taint of bloodlines, the lingering power of old grudges, that whiff of the old country and its dark secrets, the day-to-day ups and downs of simply getting along with the people who live next door.

In the real world I’m lucky to know many people I’d be happy to have as neighbours (including my actual neighbours!). But I also know people who leave me at a complete loss, who remind me of Leo Krauss. I am almost always uneasy about my interactions with them. I think of Baker shaping the fictional world of The Horseman’s Graves, and all the time she spent in the company of Leo Krauss. I think of Baker holding the idea of Leo Krauss in her mind—of the building, scene by awkward scene, moment by uncomfortable moment, of Leo Krauss and all the people whose lives and consciences he infiltrates. Am I glad she’s created this ornery, disagreeable character, and stuck him in my mind? Glad is not the word. But Baker has done some hard labour here, some heavy lifting, the kind required for meaningful art to emerge. Leo is not the guy most of us want to hang out with over beers; but he’s among us. His presence, and our reaction to it, is impossible to ignore.

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Here is a profile of Jacqueline Baker from Quill and Quire magazine.

And here’s a blog entry by Kerry Clare on Horseman’s Graves from back when the book was released.