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By Olivia Boler
If it weren't for his grandmother, Noe Valley author Lloyd Zimpel probably would not have written his second novel, A Season of Fire and Ice (Unbridled Books), published in May 2006. The story takes place in the 1880s and is set in the harsh landscape of the Dakota Territory, in what is now South Dakota just north of the Black Hills.
As a child, the 77-year-old author spent summers on his grandmother's Minnesota farm doing chores without the help of indoor plumbing or electricity.
"I found out how life was in the 1880s because my grandmother had transported that way of life to the 1930s," explains Zimpel.
A Season of Fire and Ice is about two neighboring homesteaders whose lives are starkly different. One is a loner named Beidermann, who seems to experience nothing but good luck. His cattle thrive, and he's able to locate water in a bone-dry land. The other is Gerhardt Praeger, who farms the prairie with his wife "Ma" and their seven sons but who struggles to survive. Most of the story is told through Praeger's journal, which relates the hardships his family must endure. Though he tries to maintain his faith in God and the land, Praeger is overcome with envy over Beidermann's good fortune. Inevitably, friction develops between the two men, building to the story's climax. Wrote a reviewer in the Denver Post, "Zimpel has crafted a bone-chilling ending worthy of the likes of Cormac McCarthy."
Zimpel's characters had been simmering in his mind for a long time. Back in 1995, he began to write a series of stories about Beidermann, publishing them in various regional literary journals like Missouri Review, South Dakota Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and Whetstone. The stories tied together nicely, so he decided to put them together in novel form.
"At first, Beidermann was considerably larger than life. He transcended the problems of the Territory almost by magical means. But as I wrote the stories, he became more an ordinary man who had a lot of luck," Zimpel says.
Fate and an unforgiving environment play an equally significant part in his own family's history.
Zimpel's grandparents tried to farm the Dakota Territory, but they couldn't make it work and left in 1889, the year it was split into two states. They settled in central Minnesota, in an area where the closest town, Greenbush, was about seven miles away.
During the Great Depression, Zimpel's father's farm was "sold out from under him. He went broke a couple of times." Also, Zimpel's mother died of cancer when he was 4. By the time he was 8, his family had settled in Little Falls, Minn., and while his father looked for work, Zimpel helped out on his grandmother's farm. He says his grandmother bought very little at the country store in town. She lived off the land, baking her own bread, curing ham, churning butter, making soap, tending an enormous garden, and "canning endlessly." She and Zimpel's uncle, who lived with her, bartered too, taking their wheat to the local mill and trading it for sacks of flour. The one thing they did sell was cream from their cows' milk.
Zimpel was put to work "tracking down chicken eggs, tethering up the bull calf, splitting wood." He learned to drive a tractor, and helped bring in the harvest. "It was a learning experience. I didn't care for it at all," he says with a wry chuckle.
But decades later, the memories of his grandmother have found their way into A Season of Fire and Ice. There's a scene in which Ma Praeger sits on her porch ripping pieces of cloth to make quilts and rag rugs. This is something Zimpel recalls his grandmother doing. "Ma also has geraniums, and those were my grandmother's favorite flowers. She was a kindly old woman, but she rarely spoke to me. She had her preoccupations, I suppose."
Eventually, Zimpel's grandmother had to sell her farm, which was heavily mortgaged, and she went to live with Zimpel and his family.
Zimpel recalls discovering his love of literature at the public library in Little Falls. It was an ornate Andrew Carnegie building, and kids would congregate on the steps and talk. "That was our idea of raising hell," he says. The books that influenced him the most as a 12-year-old were Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, and Roughing It by Mark Twain. In his teens, works by John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner gave him "great delight."
When he was about 16, Zimpel sold his first short story to a magazine called Open Road for Boys.
"It was three pages about a track runner, and I got $25 for it. It confirmed that I could do what people all around me were doing. So I kept working at it."
After a stint in the Army, Zimpel graduated from the University of Minnesota and spent a year in the prestigious University of Iowa Writers Workshop. He made his way to San Francisco in the 1950s, landing a job with an insurance company in advertising and settling into a home at 28th and Sanchez streets with his wife. They moved to Liberty Street, and after their divorce, Zimpel moved to Valley Street, where he still lives after 15 years.
In 1963, Zimpel got a job with the Fair Employment Practice Commission (FEPC). The FEPC advocates for those who are discriminated against in the workplace. Zimpel's title was information officer, and he co-wrote two books about minority employment and wrote speeches for the officers. Some of his writing even appeared in a few of Gov. Pat Brown's speeches. At the same time, Zimpel was writing freelance for publications like the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and The Nation.
In 1971, he published his first novel, Meeting the Bear: Journal of the Black Wars (Macmillan), which was inspired by the race riots in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. He received a coveted National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and decided to write full-time, retiring from the FEPC in 1980.
Since A Season of Fire and Ice came out last spring, it has garnered many glowing reviews, including one that likened Zimpel to Edith Wharton. New York reviewer and novelist Carey Harrison wrote, "It's...not only the suspenseful writing that makes 'A Season of Fire and Ice' so hard to put down. This is a splendid book, and it belongs on every reader's bookshelf as a reminder of the forging of America." In December, the San Francisco Chronicle book review section honored the book as a notable book of 2006.
Zimpel says his three sons and one daughter are all grown and scattered about the Bay Area, but they often visit their dad and their old neighborhood. He's still friendly with his ex-wife and walks her dog Roscoe every day. And he doesn't neglect his writing.
"I went to school with E. V. Griffith," he says, referring to the poet and editor. "He said we should write a page a day, and that's what I do."
A Season of Fire and Ice is available at Cover to Cover, Phoenix Books, and Bird & Beckett Books and Records. The paperback will be released in April.
An excerpt from
by Lloyd Zimpel
By God, says Beidermann, but you are a tough customer to please. You do not like my team and you do not like my dogs. Is there anything else about me that you do not like? But if he wants an answer he does not wait for it.
He turns away to tie his handsome team to a sapling, and retrieves his ax from the sledge, and hefts it from hand to hand as its flared blade glints: he has shown it to me before--a tool from the Old Country, he claims, in a manner as if to say it has magical quality.
Throughout the forenoon the clouds lower and the weather grows gray. We sit on the trimmed logs to take our dinner of the wurst and cheese and hardboiled eggs Ma has packed. Beidermann eats his meat and bread with lard without talking and, finishing, wipes his mouth with the back of his mitten and pronounces: It will snow some.
The twins receive this with the gravity they give all Beidermann's opinions, even ones as unremarkable as this, and stop kicking snow at one another to cast sober eyes to the sky and to Beidermann and to me--as if I might challenge Beidermann's certainty, as I am often more than willing to do, if only to deflect somewhat the twins' excessive admiration of him: and while I have not been much successful at this before, I lose more ground now; for Beidermann flatters them by requesting they take his team--his mighty Percherons!--to skid out the logs that remain. To be offered the reins of Pegasus would thrill the lads no more; as with dwarf hands on the leviathan's bridles, into the woods they plunge, and with manly cries come thundering forth, a snubbed log pitching behind in a rain of scraped bark and ice, as the two leap nimbly through the whipping hazelnut branches and dead blackberry vines.
Beidermann's snow comes; with little wind the large flakes, fat with wetness, descend through the still sky in such abundant quantity as to obscure us from each other and muffle the sound of Beidermann's steady ax....
His sledge is near loaded; and I go to bring my team forward, to take on the last load, as the snow falls near as thick as fog, to mute the sound that now comes to my ears: a queer, grunting bellow, like the belly-deep groan of a man wrenching himself from a nightmare. (I have heard it since, in my mind, often.) I cannot see Beidermann; and the twins, at a distance into the brush, draw up at the ugly sound and look back to me, knowing I am not its source, but for assurance that no threat lies in it.
I cannot offer it; for I am no less alarmed than they, and it is with dread that I push through the brush to where the sound of Beidermann's ax has ceased.
He lies an arm's length from its bloodied blade; upon his side, on one elbow, like a man reclining at a Sunday picnic. But he lies on no pretty blanket upon shaded grass; but instead in a bed of trampled, dirty snow and torn branches, and he twists his face around through a screen of falling snow and in a quiet rage says, Now I have done it, for damned sure.
Printed with author's permission from A Season of Fire and Ice by Lloyd Zimpel, published May 2006 by Unbridled Books, www.unbridledbooks.com.