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Don KurtzDon Kurtz

Hoosier Connection: Don Kurtz spent one fall and three springs working for his uncle's farming operation in northern Indiana. His novel, South of the Big Four, takes place in a fictitious town in northwestern Indiana. It makes strong references to the surrounding areas of the state.

Works Discussed: South of the Big Four

Don Kurtz was born August 1, 1951, in Urbana, Illinois, where he stayed until after finishing college at Illinois University. He then went to New Mexico University for his master's degree. While obtaining his degree, he published his first work, a guidebook titled Trails of the Guadalupes with William D. Goran. He currently teaches Spanish at New Mexico State University. Kurtz is a member of the American Association of University Professors, PEN New Mexico, and Writers Guild.

Kurtz got his inspiration for South of the Big Four, his one novel to date, from the Midwest farmlands where he grew up. He thoroughly researched the topic of farming by spending a fall and three springs working for his uncle on a large farming operation in northern Indiana. Kurtz also interviewed people who might fit into situations similar to those of his characters, adding depth to the characters' personalities. The result is a novel not so much about the environment as it is about the fading occupation of independent farming. Still, there is a great sense of place and an attachment to nature evident in his work.

South of the Big Four is about the declining occupation of independent farming in northern Indiana, specifically the fictitious city of Delfina in northwest Indiana. The premise for the title comes from a rule for the bankers of the area. They were not to make any farm loans south of the Big Four Railroad because the land there was wetland that would not provide crops good enough to sustain the farmer. The main character, a thirty-year-old resident from Delfina named Arthur Conanson, returns home to make amends with his family and find an occupation that fits him better than working on a ship. He takes up residence in his father's old home and hires on with an independent farmer named Gerry Maars, who is in his late fifties. Arthur had grown up on a farm himself, so he feels right at home with his new job.

The land that Maars owns is south of the Big Four Railroad, so it was once wetland. Only through extremely hard work and extended planting and harvesting seasons is he able to get good crops from the land. For one plot of land, he has the soil tested at the Purdue Extension in West Lafayette, Indiana. The results show a great need for nitrogen in the soil, so Maars has nutrients shipped in by the truckloads. There were other problems with the land, too. After wet winters, the land held the water like a sponge, making it very hard to till and plant. When it did rain, the land filled very quickly, showing how land that was once wetland will continually try to return to its original state.

Arthur's original intention to work for only one season ended up lasting an additional year. During that time, he found peace in working the land and was of great help when Maars ran into trouble, first when he had a stroke and then when the bank called their loans on his farms.

Connection to place is strong throughout the book. Relevant places are named that provide essential goods, materials, or services to the farmers. References are made to all of the land surrounding Delfina and its impact on the town. U. S. Highway 31 is essential for the transportation of the crops. Rivers that feed into the area affect the amount of water in the land. The relationship of these places to one another creates a functioning, interconnected web of land, society, and crop productivity.

South of the Big Four explores a dying profession— independent farming, which cannot compete with industrial farming. Only industrial farmers can afford to take the losses that accompany faltering crops due to the unpredictable flooding of the land. The novel also looks at the attachment of people to the land. Arthur Conanson and Gerry Maars both grew up in farming families and farming communities. They have a connection to the place where they farm, and they rely on the land for their livelihood, necessarily respecting its importance.




Gillespie, Gilbert W., Jr. "Kurtz, Don. South of the Big Four." Rural Sociology 1 (1997): 139-43.

Kilpatrick, Thomas L. "Kurtz, Don. South of the Big Four." Library Journal 12 (1995): 121.

Kurtz, Don. South of the Big Four. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1995.

Leber, Michele. "Kurtz, Don. South of the Big Four." Booklist 21 (1995): 1860.

---. "Word of Mouth." Library Journal 15 (1995): 120.


University Communications. New Mexico State University. 10 Nov. 2002. <http://www.nmsu.edu/~ucomm/Releases/ 1999/Oct99/sos.html>.