Review of O Clouds, Unfold! Clara Ueland and her Family

by Phil Johnson

O Clouds, Unfold! Clara Ueland and her Family, by Brenda Ueland, Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 2004, 284 pages hardbound, $25.00

People who have been inspired by the books If You Want to Write and Me or have enjoyed Mitropoulos and the North High Band or Strength to Your Sword Arm will be delighted to hear that the manuscript of another great piece of Brenda Ueland’s writing has been discovered and published. In fact, the book which is available at fine bookstores everywhere for $25 can be purchased, postage paid through Pietisten for $20 (see order form).

O Clouds, Unfold is the story of Brenda Ueland’s mother Clara Hampson Ueland (1860-1927) and her family whose impact on life in Minnesota during a formative time (the last decades of 19th century and the first decades of the 20th) was very significant. Clara was instrumental in securing women’s suffrage and better child labor laws and she started the Minneapolis kindergarten system.

Few people can write as well as Brenda Ueland and fewer can come close to her in making clear the blessing of a positive attitude. Here’s an example.

“…Clara then [a young girl living in poverty], as ever afterwards, was undismayed. She seems to have transfigured the mood of a gloomy and sparse childhood into something confident and tranquil, beautiful, intelligent and aristocratic. …Her pervading spirit was characteristic of her—not to mind being poor. She was always serenely gay as a little girl. …She was always transparently interested in all, hopeful and appreciative.” (18)

Clara Hampson Ueland was born in 1860. She read Greek plays, knew Dickens, Ibsen, and Shakespeare cold, and taught herself to be a schoolteacher at age seventeen by reading Plato. There is a plaque at the Minnesota State Capitol honoring her for the much time and work she put in lobbying for the causes of women and children. She was active on many cultural fronts. For example, she arranged for distinguished lecturers like Jane Addams and Roald Amundsen to come to Minnesota. Often she picked them up at the train station with a horse and carriage.

The book is a testimony to Clara Ueland’s personal and political commitments and it opens a window in time. Former Governor Elmer L. Andersen, a Regent of the University of Minnesota and literary figure himself wrote the following about O Clouds, Unfold. “This is a wonderfully rich, detailed account of a Norwegian-American family from 1860-1927. It could well become the classic account of Minnesota life during that colorful period.”

In the Introduction, Bruce Carlson, Brenda Ueland’s literary executor who discovered the manuscript, made this observation and interesting contrast.

Memoirs are an engaging way to look back in history and find out what really happened. O Clouds, Unfold! tells a rich, urban story (in contrast to the pioneering life depicted in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books), and takes today’s reader back a hundred years to feel the atmosphere of that day and the currents of thought and action that animated an exceptional woman and her remarkable family. (xi)

If you have not read a book by Brenda Ueland, here’s a good opportunity. I am confident you will find it a treat.