I am in the middle of reading this fun book by Edna Ferber, Dawn O’Hara – The Girl Who Laughed. It was Ms. Ferber’s first book written in 1911 when she was working as a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee. Much of the book takes place in the Milwaukee of the time and probably was based on many of her experiences. The title character was also a newspaper reporter and the story follows her as she tries to keep her sanity through her many adventures. It gives a unique but accurate view of the city at the time:
There is a fascination about the bright little city. There is about it
something quaint and foreign, as though a cross-section of the old world
had been dumped bodily into the lap of Wisconsin. It does not seem at
all strange to hear German spoken everywhere–in the streets, in the
shops, in the theaters, in the street cars. One day I chanced upon a
sign hung above the doorway of a little German bakery over on the north
side. There were Hornchen and Kaffeekuchen in the windows, and a brood
of flaxen-haired and sticky children in the back of the shop. I stopped,
open-mouthed, to stare at the worn sign tacked over the door.
“Hier wird Englisch gesprochen,” it announced.
I blinked. Then I read it again. I shut my eyes, and opened them again
suddenly. The fat German letters spoke their message as before–“English
On reaching the office I told Norberg, the city editor, about my
find. He was not impressed. Norberg never is impressed. He is the most
soul-satisfying and theatrical city editor that I have ever met. He
is fat, and unbelievably nimble, and keen-eyed, and untiring. He says,
“Hell!” when things go wrong; he smokes innumerable cigarettes, inhaling
the fumes and sending out the thin wraith of smoke with little explosive
sounds between tongue and lips; he wears blue shirts, and no collar to
speak of, and his trousers are kept in place only by a miracle and an
inefficient looking leather belt.
When he refused to see the story in the little German bakery sign I
began to argue.
“But man alive, this is America! I think I know a story when I see it.
Suppose you were traveling in Germany, and should come across a sign
over a shop, saying: ‘Hier wird Deutsch gesprochen.’ Wouldn’t you think
you were dreaming?”
Norberg waved an explanatory hand. “This isn’t America. This is
Milwaukee. After you’ve lived here a year or so you’ll understand what
I mean. If we should run a story of that sign, with a two-column cut,
Milwaukee wouldn’t even see the joke.”
It is a fun book by a very talented writer and because it is now in the public domain, can be downloaded for free in many formats on Project Gutenburg including spoken audio files. I highly recommend anyone interested in reading home grown fiction to download this. Ms. Ferber eventually wrote many popular books, some which became famous films in their own rights such as Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant which starred three immortal film stars; Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.