A Story of the Swiss in Oregon
One of my friends, Linda Stephenson, who is a former elementary teacher told me of a middle-grades historical novel she’d just read about the area in which we live, Tillamook, Oregon. The title is Tidewater Valley, published in 1949, by Jo Evalin Lundy. It is the story of two Swiss children, a teenager and her brother, who travel from Switzerland to come live here on the farm with her Swiss uncle and his wife. Linda liked it and recommended it, so my husband sent for it from Amazon. (Tillamook County Library also has a couple of copies.)
After reading it, I have to say I think every 4th grader in our county should read this book or have it read to them in order to understand the history of where they presently live. This novel should also be sold through the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum, the Tillamook County Historical Society, and The Tillamook Creamery. The writing is not old-fashioned and the feelings and motivations of the main character and her brother fit what any young persons in their situation would go through moving to a new country, even now. The story is compelling considering that aspect of the story alone.
What readers learn
In addition, history of this area is referred to throughout the novel. Readers learn how the cooperative cheese factory came to be and how Tillamook became a place to make cheese. Front street along Hoquarton Slough was the main street of town back then because boats like the Sue Elmore brought goods, provisions, and passengers into town that way, before there was a connecting road to Portland or a railroad. Lisi and her brother Chris come to Tillamook another way, by stagecoach and then wagon from Sheridan. They have to stay overnight at Dolph (which is now only a bend in the road) in the hotel. There’s a mention of the brand new courthouse which is what we now know as the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum. One of the characters is a Native American who resides at Grande Ronde. He drives the wagon that brings them from Dolph to Tillamook, befriending Chris along the way. He and his family feature largely in another part of the novel. Readers from Tillamook County will see family names they recognize, such as Naegli, Zweifel, Jackson, and Steiger. Others are close, like Leuthi and Wysinger.
Besides these facts, however, plenty of other truths are told in this story, such as the tension and conflict, the distrust between “Americans” and the Swiss newcomers.
Lisi is harassed by some men at the general store when she goes to buy provisions. Then she sees that her uncle wants nothing to do with the “American” woman who helped her find her uncle’s farm when she first arrived. She doesn’t understand this enmity. Here is an excerpt from page 106, where Lisi’s Aunt Rosa is explaining to her: “The Americans look around and they say, ‘The Swiss are taking the valley.’ They say we came here to make money—for no other reason. They say for us to learn the language, to be American if we want to live here. Lisi, we did come here so that we would have more than we had at home. But that is the reason the Americans moved to this part of the country, too. Why should they blame us more than themselves because everybody is still poor?
“She answered herself triumphantly, ‘Because, like I said, we do not know each other; and the strange one is always to blame. It is too bad.’”
It would be good, indeed, for school children (and some adults as well) to consider these words. In the past twenty-five years, even more immigrants have come to this valley to live and work, hoping to prosper, and like the Swiss of the past, they, too, have been harassed and treated poorly by those who already lived here. The same things have been said to them: “Learn the language!” for example. The same blame has been laid on them: “They are taking away our jobs and not paying taxes so it’s making us poorer.”
I know from reading other research that those who were Catholic, as were the Swiss in this novel, also have suffered prejudice in our area. That’s why there are two cemeteries, and why when I first came here there were two funeral homes and two schools.
What I wonder is how can those who were harassed in the past and know how it feels then turn around and do the same thing to the next wave of newcomers? What I’ve heard as a citizen living here is exactly that. I’ve heard similar prejudicial comments from former students and from adults as well. I think reading this book might prompt a discussion among readers of any age about such prejudice and how to deal with those who lack the emotional maturity to feel compassion and be empathetic to those trying to make a better life for themselves. In this novel, some of the characters make an effort to learn the language of each other. How many of us, here and now, have bothered to learn the language of the present immigrants? That leads to understanding other cultures which erases many fears. Besides, it’s fun.
There has been some talk about looking into reprinting this book and making it available at the Pioneer Museum and through the Historical Society. I think that’s a good thing.