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Critchfield Writes Family Album : Book Chronicles Dark, Light Sides of American Dream

August 25, 1986|HARRIET SWIFT | Swift lives in Oakland. and

BERKELEY — Shortly before his biography of his Midwestern family, "Those Days: An American Album" (Anchor Press/Doubleday, $19.95), was published in February, author Richard Critchfield predicted that it would have an instant audience.

"Everybody wants to write a family history," he said.

With only a hint of a smile, the 55-year-old Berkeley writer envisioned hordes of would-be family chroniclers descending on him for advice and to press their own stories on him. He predicted: "This book is going to ruin my life."

'Minor Celebrityhood'

Six months later, the book is selling at a brisk pace; paperback rights have been sold and feelers have been sent out about television possibilities, fulfilling the first part of Critchfield's forecast. As for ruining his life, he is finding his "minor celebrityhood" an interesting change from his years as a respected but little-known journalist specializing in the effects of late-20th-Century life on Third World villages.

His story of three generations of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants living rather ordinary lives in Iowa and North Dakota between 1880 and 1940 has touched a nerve among American readers. "I've gotten a lot of emotional letters," Critchfield said recently at his brother's Berkeley town house, the closest thing the much-traveled bachelor has to a stable home. The story that Critchfield wove together from old family stories and his own investigative reporting is at once specific and universal while being profoundly American. He set out to write something like his acclaimed books tracing the effect of 20th-Century technology on rural life in developing countries, "Villages" (1981), "Shahhat: An Egyptian" (1978), "The Golden Bowl Be Broken: Peasant Life in Four Cultures" (1974) and his first book, "The Long Charade" (1968), which was drawn from a stint as a Washington Star reporter in Vietnam.

Critchfield wanted to write about America's conversion from an agrarian society to a technological one using his family's experience as a touchstone. Instead, the family story took over.

Tracing Family Roots

Using first-person narratives that are sometimes taken from recent interviews, sometimes extrapolated from newspaper accounts and letters, Critchfield traced the intertwining story of his father's family, robust frontiersmen descended from an English convict, and his mother's clan, hard-working, pious Quakers and Methodists who retained their New England values even on the rough Ohio frontier of the 19th Century.

"We were classic," Critchfield said of his parents' match. "The Midwest--and America at that time--was essentially made of up two strains. The Yankee-New Englanders who were always trying to legislate morality and the Mid-Atlantic Southerners, the frontiersmen who just wanted to be left alone."

His mother, Anna Louise Williams, was a young schoolteacher raised in sedate Iowa parsonages who was anxious for adventure.

"Now people join the Peace Corps," Critchfield said, "then you went to North Dakota."

Jim Critchfield was handsome, athletic and known as a hell-raiser. He was also the son of a doctor who planned to become a doctor himself if he could ever make enough money from farming to finish medical school. He married Anne, as he called her, in 1913.

The young couple set up housekeeping on Jim Critchfield's North Dakota farm, weathering sickness, crop failure and back-breaking work. High farm prices in World War I gave the Critchfields enough capital to send him back to medical school while also supporting their little family, daughter Betty and son Jimmy.

The smoothly written tale follows the family through the '20s when he became a country doctor, the sort of tough but sensitive character who has always been a staple in American literature. The doctor's wife is a charming, unstuffy saint who runs a household, fills in as nurse and has three more children--Billy, Peggy and Pat (Richard Critchfield's family nickname).

The dark side of this American Dream unfolds with Jim Critchfield's increased drinking as he patched together one mangled farm laborer after another and watched all manner of sickness kill and maim his patients, the townspeople who were his friends and the rural people he loved. At 40 he fell into a disastrous affair with an 18-year-old woman who came to him with a botched abortion.

The Great Depression

The family moved to Fargo in 1932 to end the scandal and try to start over. But the Depression was in full force by then and it was too late for Jim Critchfield, who sank steadily into more drinking and was plagued by worse health. When he died in 1937, the family was left almost destitute.

While Critchfield calls his father's experience typical of what happened to many men in the Depression, the book shows how magnificently his mother coped. The family, who laughingly referred to themselves as "The Five Little Peppers," lived in a small house near the North Dakota State University campus.

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