Bemidji author Will Weaver’s work now on the stage in St. Paul
ST. PAUL - A grandfather's tale, drawn from memory and re-imagined by author Will Weaver, became a short story entitled "A Gravestone Made of Wheat."
That story has been adapted into a musical, "Sweet Land."
Weaver, of Bemidji, attended the show's premiere April 29 in St. Paul at the History Theater.
The musical opened with full houses, Weaver taking a bow with cast and crew. He also participated in a Q & A with audience members.
Weaver's original short story is set on a Hubbard County farm a century ago.
As a young boy growing up on the Ponsford Prairie, Weaver heard his grandfather tell about a red-haired woman who came over the from the "old country" to be married to a local farmer. She had troubles with her immigration papers and met with opposition in the community.
As an adult writer, Weaver crafted that story fragment into creative fiction.
Readers meet Inge Altenberg, a young woman sent to Minnesota for an arranged marriage. Upon her arrival, she and Olaf Torvik, a Norwegian bachelor farmer, apply for both her American citizenship and marriage license at the Hubbard County Courthouse in Park Rapids.
But Inge is a German.
In the wake of World War I, anti-German sentiment remained. Olaf and Inge must brave a small town's intolerance while forging their new life in America.
"A Grave Stone Made of Wheat" became Weaver's first published work.
"When I finished it, I knew it was a good and true story, an honest and important story, trying to capture that time in the Midwest," Weaver said. "It's a family story, in a way."
His grandparents both hailed from Norway, his grandfather arriving in 1896 as a little boy.
As a writer, Weaver identifies as a sort of "record-keeper" about Midwestern life.
It's his goal "to capture the rhythms of the upper Midwest and small-town life because they're getting steam-rolled by pop culture and the Internet. I felt a real calling to get that down on paper, what that was like, especially the small farm because the small farm is over."
This is not the first time that "A Gravestone Made of Wheat" has been adapted.
"The story has had several different lives, including NPR did a radio production, Ali Selim directed the movie 'Sweet Land,' and now there's the musical, so it's a story that doesn't go away," Weaver said. "My joke is 'I'm going to draw the line at a video game.'"
Initially involved with the screenplay, Weaver says he grew to trust independent film director, Ali Selim.
"I came to see a film needs a single vision, so I sort of stepped back and said, 'I trust you with my baby,'" Weaver recalled.
"Sweet Land" debuted at the 2005 Hamptons International Film Festival, winning audience approval. Accolades followed at other film festivals.
Weaver purposely was not involved with the adapting the film into a musical production, saying he had "a good feeling" about the Twin Cities-based creative team.
"They just did a wonderful job. They understood the story, the emotion," Weaver said.
"Sweet Land: The Musical" was developed by three women: producer/director Perrin Post, writer Laurie Flanigan Hegge and composer Dina Maccabee.
"The same spirit, same heart is still beating in the movie and the musical," Weaver said.
He's also pleased that the musical retains two or three references to Park Rapids and Hubbard County.
Performances run through Sunday, May 28.
"There is a universal value to this because it's an immigrant story," he said of its enduring longevity. "The nationalities might change, but their problems are the same: overcoming barriers with language, culture. One group replaces the next. Scandinavians in the first wave, then Germans, Hmong, Somalis. These people face the same challenges. That's why that story is hanging on. Plus, it's a love story. Everybody loves a love story."
Weaver retired as an English professor at BSU and is now a full-time writer.
Having written a number of young adult books in recent years, he is currently working on an adult novel set in the Midwest.