The Bohemian Flats by Mary Relindes Ellis
Reviewed by Laura Silver, Photograph by Samantha Bender
By Mary Relindes Ellis (B.A. '86) University of Minnesota Press, May 2014
It was on a walk across the Washington Avenue Bridge during her first days as a University of Minnesota student that Mary Relindes Ellis (B.A. ’86) saw a mysterious sight: 79 wooden steps leading from Washington Avenue down the face of the bluff to the riverbank. It was the former approach to the long-gone village of Bohemian Flats.
Her curiosity and her imagination were piqued. “I was entranced by that history,” she says. “I just thought how extraordinary that nobody really knows that this incredible village was across from the University underneath the Washington Avenue Bridge.”
Soon after, she saw an old photo of the buildings of the University, taken from the flats, and she found herself thinking about what that view—a dazzling symbol of the American meritocracy—would have meant to the people living there. Says Ellis, “You’re looking at the pinnacle of what you’re hoping to achieve.”
What Ellis has achieved is a beautifully written novel just released, The Bohemian Flats. One of the great pleasures of the book, a family saga about turn-of-the-20th-century German immigrants in Minnesota and Wisconsin, is her tantalizing depiction of the settlement of the book’s title. A vibrant, scrappy community of many contradictions—bleak poverty, exuberant street life, ethnic harmony—the flats were populated by immigrant laborers and their families, mostly eastern European, who built and inhabited the jumble of riverside shanties huddled at the base of the original Washington Avenue Bridge. The pleasures come partly from the mention of familiar Minneapolis landmarks like Seven Corners and St. Anthony Falls, and partly from Ellis’s descriptions of a vanished way of life.
The novel, Ellis’s second, tells the story of three young German intellectuals who leave the religious and political oppression of their homeland for opportunity and independence in the United States: Raimund Kaufmann wants to pursue the academic studies that are to be denied him by his tyrannical eldest brother; middle brother Albert Kaufmann yearns to combine his love of the land with a life of the mind and become a gentleman farmer; and Albert’s wife, Magdalena, the daughter of a prominent scholar, wants to be free from the stares and gossip her foreign-looking features have provoked her whole life. But as generations of immigrants before them had discovered, it’s hard to leave the past behind, and the three find their newly acquired freedom tempered by the far-reaching tentacles of war and family secrets.
Fin de siècle Germany and newly settled northern Wisconsin play outsized roles in this sweeping historical novel, which spans two world wars. Ellis drew from the stories she heard as the great-granddaughter of German immigrants and from growing up in small-town northern Wisconsin’s melting pot of Native Americans and ethnic Europeans. She says she was inspired to write an immigrant story—but not the typical immigrant story.
“I love history, and I’m always shocked when people think that their personal lives aren’t connected to politics,” she says. “In my family, I was raised with stories about why they left Germany; ?my family avidly paid attention to world politics, national politics; and so I was made aware that I wasn’t just this little speck.”
The Bohemian Flats is fascinating for what it tells us about the past, about the pain and pleasure of leaving one home for another, and how world events, family secrets, and entrenched prejudice can follow us from country to country—and era to era.