Finding Toby’s House by Pamela Carter Joern
n the spring of 2001, my husband and I stayed at the Triangle Ranch B&B on the eastern edge of the Badlands in South Dakota. The Bad River wraps through the property, and in the morning we could hear wild turkeys nesting in the cottonwoods. Newborn calves and cows in various stages of mothering dotted the near-by pasture. The hosts, Lyndy and Kenny Ireland, live in a house that Lyndy’s great-grandfather ordered as a kit from the Sears catalogue in the early 1900’s. He traveled overland 45 miles to meet the nearest train and offloaded dozens of pallets onto wagons. With so little lumber available on the treeless plains, mail order houses were not uncommon, but this was no ordinary house. It was a two-story foursquare design—as high as it was wide as it was deep. The interior had prairie school elements: brick fireplace, hardwood floors, leaded glass in the sun room, oak woodwork, built-in bookcases, a wide bay window. Upstairs, four bedrooms and an indoor bath. Sears offered different designs for the outside façade, and Lyndy’s ancestors chose the Alhambra, a stucco exterior with an elaborate scalloped header named after the Spanish fortress in Granada.
The incongruity of that Moroccan/Prairie School palace rising up on
the western prairie captivated me. Those kinds of surprises are
everywhere in the contemporary rural West—old-fashioned brandings
alongside sophisticated computerized logs of rotating pasture
schedules—that sort of thing.
I went on-line and researched the Sears heyday of mail order houses.
In talking with my mother, I learned that my grandparents had built a
catalogue house in the river valley where I grew up, though it was not
a Sears house and not nearly as grand as the Alhambra.
I’d been thinking about writing a novel set in the Nebraska
Sandhills. I’d written a number of short stories placed in Nebraska,
but I felt ready to tackle a longer work. I wanted to explore the
changes sweeping across rural America and what’s happening to people
who’ve sacrificed for generations to stay on land that is now either
not wanted by their children or incapable of affording them a living. I
was interested in the coping mechanisms of people attuned to isolation
by geography. I wanted to depict my experience of the rural west, which
like the Alhambra on the prairie, is full of ambiguities and
All of these things were percolating in my head, and when I saw the
Alhambra, I knew how to begin. I sat to the book in the fall of 2001
and wrote an intricate tale about family and land that revolves around
a 72-year-old widow named Toby. Deep in the Sandhills, Toby lives in
the Alhambra with her bitter older sister Gertie whose husband is in a
nursing home with Alzheimer’s. Toby’s faced with losing the ranch
homesteaded by her grandfather unless she can come up with money for
escalating taxes. Toby and Gertie have a brother, a ruined man named
John who lives on the land in the original homestead house with George,
the faithful ranch hand who loves Toby but will never speak of it. This
mix of stagnant problems gets shaken up when Toby’s city granddaughter
shows up for the summer. Lila is 16 and pregnant, sent to Nebraska
because her parents are too caught up in their divorce to deal with
her. While Lila searches for a home for her child, she uncovers buried
family secrets that bump up against the present. Some of the problems
get resolved and other don’t, but the story is, I hope, a testimony to
courage, hard-won wisdom, and the power of love.