In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Book Review: Pioneer Family

I recently finished reading a book that Mom loaned me a few months ago, Pioneer Family by Michel Oesterreicher. It's one of those books you never forget, one that so effectively pulls you in that you feel as though you lived in the times and events described, and know the characters personally. And in the timeless lessons it imparts, the book leaves you a little wiser and richer in understanding than before you read it.

The author, a lifelong resident and teacher in the Jacksonville Beach area, interviewed her parents, Hugie and Oleta Oesterreicher, about their past and the origins of their families over a number of months before they died in the late 1980s. The Oesterreichers and Browns (Oleta's) lived in rural northeast Florida, between St. Augustine and Jacksonville, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when most of that area was still an untamed frontier. The Oesterreichers lived in a cypress cabin on the edge of a great swamp, and there Hugie learned to herd cattle, hunt wild hogs and deer, cut palms (ever wonder where our Palm Sunday palms come from?), fight rattlesnakes and bears--and do everything he needed to survive and raise a family in this tangled wilderness. Oleta Brown grew up on a dairy farm near Pablo (now Jacksonville) Beach, and learned what it meant to sacrifice one's own dreams for the sake of the family. The book traces their lives from earliest childhood through adolescence and adulthood, and explores how even the joy of their marriage was fraught with difficult choices about their families and futures. In the course of the book you experience with them sickness and death, endless work, and the wonders of nature; how clothes were made and cleaned; how food was prepared; how to apply a poultice of boiled onions and make a soothing broth from dried chicken gizzards; and how you never went into the woods without a firearm with which, if you were quick enough, you could kill any rattlesnake you might step on. You also experience the miracle and agony of childbirth; the passing of parents; and the privations of the Great Depression (including how to make bootleg whisky with which to pay your family doctor). Through the book you even learn how the Oesterreichers and Browns experienced two world wars (including the sinking of a freighter by a German submarine off the Florida coast); coped with the end of the Florida wilderness; and adapted to vanishing ways of life, over and over again.

Pioneer Family is written in a rich and often poetic, but very readable style. Its descriptions of woods, swamps, beaches, animals and people are remarkably vivid, and pull you into the wold of northeast Florida in its waning, but still wild, wilderness days. If you seek inspiration in your own, modern, life, you'll ironically find it in this book about those who lived it to the fullest a century and more ago.

You can order the book directly from

1 comment:

It's A Wonderful said...

Interesting, Mom never told me about this book and story...she must love you more than she loves me! It looks like a great book! There's a similar story about a family near Gainesville, the Dudley's. The road from Lake City to Jacksonville cut through their farm, which was instrumental during the Civil War. You have to walk through the woods to get to the farm. It's a charming place. I'll see if I can't find you some links. I have some pictures I took of the farm I would love to buy but will never have the chance to.