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.
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
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
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/