Yon Far Country: A Social and Personal Memoir of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Yon Far Country is a memoir of a woman born and raised in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, but it is also a memoir of a particular community. The novelist Sara Stambaugh (1936-2002), daughter of Evelyn Hershey Stambaugh and Clarence Stambaugh, was born in the town of New Holland and spent most of her childhood life in surrounding Lancaster County. Today Lancaster is known for its Amish population and attracts thousands of tourists every year. Stambaugh describes a different era in Yon Far Country, one in which Mennonites owned more of the farmland and tourists were fewer in number. The book depicts this earlier time in the rural country culture and in the Mennonite Church community in Lancaster. The book is also a fascinating window into the early life of a writer who, despite moving to Canada and living there most of her life, still felt rooted in and connected to her childhood homeland.
Yon Far Country is divided into three sections. In the first, Stambaugh describes her Mennonite forebears (Landises, Denlingers, Ebys and Hersheys) and kinship networks, nineteenth-century farm life, and her mother's childhood and teenage years. The second section focuses on her father's "fancy Dutch" (that is, nonsectarian) background, her parents' marriage, her family's job-related move to Lorain, Ohio, when Stambaugh was a young child, and the family's return to Lancaster County. The final section is about Stambaugh's growing up years in East Lampeter Township and later, the area around the town of Lititz. She also writes about her journey away from Lancaster County--undergraduate years at Beaver College in Philadelphia, graduate school in Minnesota, and her eventual relocation to western Canada to teach English literature at the University of Alberta.
Particularly interesting was Stambaugh's chapter on changes in the Mennonite Church at the end of the nineteenth century, These changes were also the subject of her first novel, I Hear the Reaper's Song (1984). Stambaugh's great-aunt Barbara Hershey was killed by an oncoming train at a railroad crossing while coming home from a party in 1896. Enos Barge, the young man who was with her, died the following day. The tragedy caused a large number of young people to join the church at a much earlier age than was customary. This paved the way for a series of revival meetings, which had been opposed by Mennonites in the early 1890s, and also ushered in stricter dress and behavior regulations. The revival's impact was not, in Stambaugh's opinion, "officially recognized" by the Lancaster Conference (84), and her older relatives and their contemporaries did not often discuss the revival, even though it greatly influenced the Lancaster Conference during the twentieth century. Not everyone had agreed with the changes the revival brought, including Stambaugh's grandfather, Silas Hershey, who was the protagonist in I Hear the Reaper's Song.
Besides discussing changes in the Mennonite Church and her family connection to them, Stambaugh portrays a different Lancaster County countryside and culture in Yon Far Country. During her grandfather's time, inns were gathering places, and moderate drinking was accepted among Mennonites before the revival and the temperance movement. As automobiles became a new mode of transportation in the late 1920s, the surface of Lancaster's roads changed. Stambaugh's father was a truck driver, and he hauled the gravel that first covered dirt roads near New Holland. He later helped the road crew7 that constructed an underpass at the railroad crossing where Barbara Hershey and Enos Barge had been killed years earlier. There were also different cultural expectations around communication devices. When Stambaugh was growing up, telephones in most homes were only used when necessary--anything more was frivolous--and some towns had party lines. Her family had a telephone, but it was for her father's business use only.
Even some place names in the county were slightly different. The town most current Lancaster County residents know as "Gap" was referred to as "the Gap" by earlier generations. 'The Gap" was short for "the Gap in the Hills" where early roads and railroads had been built. Today's Lincoln Highway used to be "the Pike" because it was once a turnpike, and Old Philadelphia Pike used to be "The Old Road." The recent changes in its countryside and culture--tourism industry, different resident cultures, renamed roads, huge volume of traffic-make Lancaster County a different place than the one in which Stambaugh grew up. In the final chapter of Yon Far Country, she notes: "More than distance separates me from the life I grew up in" (341). She also points this out in her choice of the book's title, which comes from a line in a poem by A.E. Housman. The past is a far country to which one cannot return:
Into my heart an air that kills From yon far country blows; What are those blue remembered hills, What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went And cannot come again.
Yon Far Country contains a wealth of information and is a well-researched social and personal memoir. In addition to covering some Lancaster Mennonite history, Stambaugh gives attention to the social and religious dynamics in other parte of the county, including the city of Lancaster, where she once worked as a waitress at the Hotel Brunswick. Yon Far Country is also well-crafted. The language is smooth, clear and often fun to read aloud, which brings out Stambaugh's humorous understatements. At a few places the text lags, but this may be because the book was published after Stambaugh's death, and the author was absent from part of the editing process.
Yon Far Country is about growing up and moving away from one's home community, but it is also about how the home community itself changes. Although Stambaugh lived at considerable geographic distance from Lancaster County, and wrote as its cultural distance was widening for her, Yon Far Country has surprisingly little nostalgia. While it is clear that she misses the Lancaster County of her childhood and would like to see the farmland respected and cared for, Stambaugh passes no judgment on whether or not the changes in Lancaster are good or bad; she merely says they are different. Her tone is earnest, careful and thoughtful. She understands that time passes, and changes come. Stambaugh's connection to and love for her homeland, however, remain constant in Yon Far Country, as well as in her other written works.
Quarryville, Pa. EILEEN R. KINCH
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|Author:||Kinch, Eileen R.|
|Publication:||Mennonite Quarterly Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2011|
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