Novel set in Fargo-Moorhead reveals the dangerous power of family secrets
There is a tendency in some parts of the country to view Midwestern life in the 1950s as a golden time, the kind of revisionist history that led to the 1970s sitcom "Happy Days."
Amy Scheibe aims to remove some of that polish from stories about the era with her new novel "A Fireproof Home for the Bride." Set around Fargo-Moorhead in 1958, it's a story about a farm girl whose life changes when she uncovers family secrets.
Scheibe was born in Minnesota and grew up in the Red River Valley on the North Dakota side. She left for college in New York, and has lived in Manhattan ever since. The idea for the novel came to her a few years ago as she nursed her mother back from an illness.
"Then she started telling me things from when she was growing up," Scheibe said. "And Fargo seemed to be such a nondescript place to me, and the more she told me the more interested I became, and I thought, 'Well, we can build a story into this.'"
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"A Fireproof Home for the Bride" centers on Emmy Nelson, a high school senior whose family owns a farm near Glyndon, just east of Moorhead. She's smart and opinionated, but her conservative Lutheran family plans for her to marry Ambrose, an older man who can take over the farm.
Scheibe said Emmy faces the limited options experienced by most women of the time, including her mother.
"Housekeeping or teaching. Or nursing, or being a nun," she said. "Those were pretty much the things that women could do in the Upper Midwest."
But the world was changing and Emmy, again like many other young women of the time, seeks more from life.
"They just did it by instinct and by necessity," Scheibe said, "and that's what happened with Emmy."
After a date with Ambrose goes horribly wrong, Emmy breaks off their engagement. She gets a job at the Fargo Forum, where she falls for Bobby Doyle, a boy whose charm and good looks seem to offer so much.
As they move around the floor to "Satin Doll" at a Fargo Armory dance, Emmy is swept away by the experience.
She let go of all her thoughts and wrapped her senses in the moment, the throb of the standing bass, the salty taste in her mouth, the scent of Bobby, the softness of his hand in hers. She opened her eyes and knew that she could live here, right here, under the light-splitting scales of the rotating crystal ball, even if it meant never again knowing anything or anyone familiar or safe.
But for Emmy, the safety of her surroundings is not guaranteed, because it turns out that many of the people around her, especially members of her family have some dark secrets.
Scheibe said there was a culture of secrecy at the time — a legacy from the horrors of World War II.
"Many people actually needed to obscure their past in order to move into the future," Scheibe said. "And that's what fascinates me. When you put that on top of the Midwestern reticence, you find a tremendous amount of power in that silence. And Emmy needs to push through the silence, whenever she can, even though she is raised within it. And as soon as she starts tipping over one teakettle, they all go."
Forbidden relationships, religious intolerance, ugly politics and hidden violence all spill out as Emmy desperately seeks the truth.
Scheibe said some have questioned how her story line piles on, but she believes crises seldom erupt alone. Through extensive research, she bases her fiction on historical fact. She then spent eight years writing and revising the book because she wanted to make sure she got it right for the hometown audience.
"I love Midwestern readers because they are so specific," she said, "And I love the challenge of having to live up to that."
For Scheibe, one dividend from all her work on "A Fireproof Home for the Bride" is the collection of back stories she developed for all her characters. Some, she said, might become novels in their own right.
Now she's facing the challenge of satisfying Midwestern readers head on. She'll read at 7 p.m. at the Magers and Quinn bookstore in Minneapolis and at 7 p.m. Friday at the Barnes and Noble in Fargo. Three additional readings will occur over the weekend in North Dakota communities where Scheibe has lived. She's looking forward to sharing her book with a lot of old friends.
"I am not envisioning anything but gratitude for the people who made me who I am," Scheibe said. "So it's going to be nice to thank them in person."