by William V. Timmons (Niger 1965–67)
Create Space (Booksurge)
Reviewed by Darcey Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)
BECKER’S FARM, BY WILLIAM TIMMONS, is a gratifying transformation story. A young German soldier is captured during World War II and sent to a POW camp in the United States. Through circumstance and by asking Jesus into his life, he is born again and effects major changes on the people and town around him. The glaring weakness in this otherwise good story is Timmons’ lack of proficiency in the use of quotation marks, which caused me to reread often. Timmons should also proofread for typos and verb tense errors.
The protagonist, Helmut Sommerfield, is a prisoner in Camp Alexis, Nebraska. The prisoners are treated well, yet Helmut has no idea what the future will bring. When will the war end? Will he ever get back to Germany? What’s more, he has heard that his family has been killed in an air raid back home. We can’t see the future either, but Helmut is a good man. He is also the star of the book, and Timmons here begins to pepper the text with Bible phrases and the German “Gott ist gut!” We suspect nice things will happen to him.
As part of his off-camp work detail, Helmut befriends the Schmidt family and gradually becomes part of their lives. At the story’s turning point, he is seriously injured in a barn fire and, through a deception I cannot divulge, takes on a new life.
Other readers may find it implausible, as I did, that nobody in town recognizes the new Helmut though he speaks with a thick German accent and is virtually unchanged physically. The writer also gets too close to the story when he preaches to us through Helmut: “Our religion tells us to love one another, but for some reason we don’t. We kill people we don’t even know for reasons we really don’t understand. We kill other people’s sons, and for what purpose?” I had thought Helmut was smarter than to ask such a naïve question. Has it just occurred to him that war is immoral?
The religious message in Becker’s Farm becomes tedious. Helmut repeats tirelessly that he must use God’s gifts for others and not himself. I found myself wishing he would put down his fresh lemonade — of which he drank a lot — get bombed on Rupert and Ross’s moonshine, and tip a cow or two.
It would appear that one of Timmons’ aims in writing the story was to implant this verse from Corinthians in the minds of his readers: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things are passed away and new things have come.” Helmut’s transformation hinges largely on this, and it is reiterated throughout the book. Timmons also overdoses on the phrases “God’s work,” “God’s plan,” and “God’s will be done!” If a reader likes this sort of thing, the book should please him.
On the positive side, Becker’s Farm has a nice circularity. The book opens and closes at the same railroad station in winter-frozen Nebraska. Timmons also builds suspense well; he writes with a fine balance of tension and relief, injecting gentle humor at the right places to counterbalance the drama. I also enjoyed watching Helmut grow into a man and put his myriad skills to use for the town.
And there’s a lot to do! Timmons depicts 1940s America when small agrarian towns were blooming into modern cities. He nostalgically highlights small-town American pastimes like summer baseball games and church picnics, and virtues like helping one’s neighbors. The Nebraska town in Becker’s Farm has a Mayberry-minus-the-war feel.
I learned from Becker’s Farm that during the second World War, more than 300,000 German prisoners-of-war were brought to the east coast of the United States on the same ships used to ship American soldiers to Europe. Soldiers who had farm experience were then sent to work on farms in the Midwest to make up for labor lost to the war. Prior to writing the novel, Timmons visited a number of the abandoned camps where these German POWs were based and talked with dozens of farmers and camp workers who were a part of the system. He said that on the whole, these people had positive things to say about the prisoners and staff, and that he did not find any instances of inhumane treatment or anti-American feelings. Timmons wrote that “A primary theme [of the book] . . . was that the American people, regardless of recent indictments and atrocities, are good people. Even in the presence of their enemies, they manifest the values deeply embedded in their faith.”
I enjoyed reading Becker’s Farm. However, I would advise Mr. Timmons to get down on his knees and search for much needed punctuation.
Darcy Munson Meijer edits the Gabon Letter, the quarterly newsletter of the Friends of Gabon. Darcy currently teaches English at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.