To Catch a Star, by Florence McCarty

Review by Martha Quillen

Rural life – December 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

To Catch a Star
by Florence McCarty
Published in 1996 by High Valley Press
ISBN 0-943640-03-2

To Catch a Star is a biography, an autobiography — and a fast-paced action-adventure.

It’s the true story of Julius Hansen, a Danish immigrant who farmed in Kansas, Alamosa, Monte Vista, and Grand Junction — when he wasn’t working at mines in Creede, Cripple Creek, and Stunner.

Before fourteen-year-old Hansen even left the old country, his ship was lost at sea. Julius was packed aboard a smelly cattle boat with a horde of other people who couldn’t afford to wait for better passage. In New York, immigration officials warned the hopeful newcomers not to trust anyone. In Kansas, young Julius worked every day from 4 a.m. to bedtime for an abusive farmer who refused to pay the youngster for his first month of work.

But Julius wasn’t easily daunted. He just kept working and dreaming — about someday striking it rich in the Colorado gold fields.

It’s also the story of Edla Hedin. At seventeen, Edla left her prosperous Swedish family because her father planned to marry the housekeeper (a woman Edla couldn’t stand). Thus, Edla set off with some family friends who happened to be Seventh Day Adventist missionaries. For three weeks, Edla studied nursing at an Adventist hospital in Battle Creek, Mich.

But bed pans weren’t Edla’s strong suit. After quitting her medical studies, Edla discovered she had a real talent for cooking. In 1890, Edla moved to Denver, where she found employment as a cook and housekeeper.

Thus begins the story of the Hansen family. According to the supplemental text, the publication of this family history is the realization of a life-long dream on the part of ninety-four-year-old author Florence Hansen McCarty, the daughter of Julius and Edla Hansen.

To Catch a Star is full of amusing anecdotes, interesting characters, historical color, family values, nostalgia and sentiment. It’s an entertaining book — a glimpse into the past as endearing as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books.

(Actually, I found McCarty’s book easier going than Wilder’s works because it wasn’t written for youngsters still learning to read — although it is entirely suitable for juveniles.)

For those who loved the Little House series, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Tom Sawyer, and other tales about bygone childhoods and old-fashioned families, I highly recommend this book.

But I hope readers not inclined toward family histories will consider reading it, too — because there’s something exceptionally curious about these sentimental sagas — and it’s especially apparent in To Catch A Star.

Julius and Edla didn’t have it easy. Death visited their lives far too often, arriving with consumption, pneumonia, scarlet fever, and accidents. After their marriage, the Hansens were beset by closing mines, lost jobs, bad winters, sick children, and a chronic lack of cash.

Although Julius Hansen was skilled at farming and blacksmithing, and usually made a decent living, every spare dime he made went into his claim. For many years, Julius, Edla and their three children spent their summers near their mine in Stunner, Colorado — where they lived in a two-room cabin with one room for living and cooking and one room for sleeping.

Even in those cramped quarters, Edla took in boarders and cooked for miners. (Whenever I imagined the place, I found myself wondering whether the boarders slept outside and merely washed and ate inside, although the book didn’t say).

In pursuit of Dad’s dream, the family moved often, usually into small, inadequately heated places where pack rats had to be evicted and water had to be carried.

In Stunner, a miner gave Florence a dresser, an extremely grand present by her standards; whereupon she clean, polished,and cherished it — until the man took it back, nearly breaking her heart.

But only for the moment.

For the most part To Catch a Star is a joyous, richly nostalgic remembrance of a bygone era, as are most books about families of yesteryear.

Reading McCarty’s book at this time, however, left me with a different impression than similar works have in the past. Recently, Americans have expressed a wistful yearning for the good old days, and Bob Dole actually based much of his campaign on returning to a traditional America — where “trust, family, and sacrifice” still meant something. And those values were certainly central for the Hansens.

On the other hand, it should be noted that the farm families who nearly worked young Julius to death were not so agreeable, and that the gold camps the innocent young Julius arrived in were dominated by drunks and prostitutes.

Still, Edla and Julius did have fortitude, endurance and character galore — most of it honed by tribulation. On their good days, everyone they knew survived, the house didn’t catch fire, the drinking water stored in the kitchen didn’t freeze and crack the bucket, and no one had to wash, scrub, starch, and iron all that white linen they were so fond of wearing back then.

The Hansens picked their homes by whether they could be heated, rather than by size. For them, furniture was a luxury. Twice, they had to leave behind homes they owned but couldn’t sell because the mines had gone bust. They had eggs when the hens were laying. They had meat when a cottontail happened by.

On the other hand, Florence remembers her youth fondly. She loved to read the newspapers insulating the walls. She and her brothers rafted in the creek, played in empty cabins, and walked in the mountains. She thinks her life was better because she didn’t have expensive toys and dolls. She believes her childhood encouraged imagination and inventiveness — and she may well be right.

But beyond this sentimental journey into the past, McCarty’s book makes you realize how much America has changed. The first time the Hansen family went to Stunner, the roads were so bad Julius had to drive their wagon off of a cliff into the raging river where the horses dived and swam and drifted — while the whole family prayed as they recalled stories of people who didn’t make it across that ford.

Now, the law will punish you if you don’t wear seatbelts.

I suspect danger was accepted then because in those pre-antibiotic days when diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, smallpox and typhus raged, danger was unavoidable.

Today, school is mandatory. You can’t just keep your children home when school is inconvenient. There are building codes, and building inspectors. There are social workers. The times have changed, and our standards have changed.

And yes, the Hansens did have strong family values, and Julius was definitely a family man. But he left Denmark at fourteen, and never saw his parents again. Julius had a brother in Kansas, but since he and his brother both worked seven days a week, they went years without seeing each other — even when they lived fairly close together in Kansas.

Edla Hedin also left family and friends behind forever.

In the end, difficult and dangerous physical labor, sacrifice, deprivation, endurance, and tragedy once forged the character and closeness of the Hansen family, but those are strange things to hanker after. Instead, we should all be glad that those things are going the way of the horse and buggy (still with us, but not so common).

Besides, I suspect the Hansens made it because they shared a dream. Although it’s doubtful that Edla was always enthusiastic about sinking more money into her husband’s ventures, she went along with it, and everyone made the best of things. But a lot of families didn’t — even in those “good” old days.

In reality, Florence McCarty’s childhood is a great place to visit in a book, but we’d have to be crazy to want to go back there.

–Martha Quillen