Jimmie is the young narrator of Vencil — a novel by local author Frank Shima. Against the rural background of mid-20th century southeast Minnesota, Jimmie’s favorite Uncle Vencil disappears, and Jimmie leads his family on a picaresque journey to find him.
Here are a few things I had never thought about before reading Vencil:
• It’s not just Scandinavians who immigrated to Minnesota — there were enough Czechs who settled an area south of the Twin Cities to name the local town “New Prague.”
• As recently as the mid-1950’s, it was not uncommon for Czech families to live on farms in the New Prague vicinity without indoor plumbing or electricity (let alone TV).
• Some of them were recent-enough immigrants at that time that they spoke only Czech (including Uncle Vencil).
• A young boy born on such a farm could arrive at the age of six never having seen an African-American and believing New Prague to be the “big city.”
Jimmie is just such a six-year-old farm boy. Through his eyes, we are not only exposed to this Czech subculture, but we experience his wonderment as he starts school, sees his first indoor toilet, learns of the advent of a mysterious force called television and travels to Minneapolis and St. Paul — a metropolitan environment that dwarfs New Prague.
Mr. Shima has a delightful ability to put us into the head of a six-year-old boy seeing for the first time many aspects of the world that are otherwise familiar to us and even banal. In addition, he had me completely caught up in the suspense of learning what had happened to Uncle Vencil. I looked for whatever opportunities I could to get back to this slim novel until the mystery was unraveled.
Note: The first chapter of Vencil, entitled “Superfarmer,” won the 1987 Lake Superior Writer Series Competition for Fiction. The whole book was published in 2005. Mr. Shima is currently working on a sequel.
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