Linda Lein is a journalist
and poet from western Minnesota, a former English teacher, a farm wife now enrolled in the writing program at Minnesota State University-Moorhead. She is also a biographer and in Hannah Kempfer: An Immigrant Girl she tells the story of one immigrant girl who went from "ordinary" to "extraordinary" on the strength of her personal drive, her determination, and her shrewd native intelligence. Hannah left an unpublished autographical narrative that Lein makes use of. Lein quotes from the manuscript quite extensively but always keeps the blocks of Hannah's words in italic, which I find suitable in a work that relies to this extent on the subject's own words. Hannah's telling is, as Lein suggests, "conversational;" and though she wants Hannah to be able to speak for herself as much as possible, Lein summarizes and lays in transitions to keep the story moving along. In addition, she expands on Hannah's material, adding information from other sources.
Why bother to tell this story?
Well, for one thing, everyone has a story, and we get a distorted view of past and present if we hear only about the figures who "make history," or only about the flash-in-the-pans during their fifteen minutes of fame.
For another thing, this is the quintessential immigrant story and it may be useful to remind ourselves that groups who are now prosperous and think of themselves as the true Americans were once looked down upon as they struggled to make their way in a new land.
Hannah Kempfer's story is particularly interesting in that it was her own burning drive which propelled her from her poverty-stricken beginnings into the Minnesota House of Representatives where she served for nearly twenty years. Hannah died in 1943 at age 62 of ill-health related to a tumor on her aorta.
Hannah was the illegitimate daughter of a stewardess on an English sailing vessel, born in December, 1880, while her mother was at sea. The desperate woman intended to throw the baby overboard in the dark of night. Not a great beginning, is it? Fortunately an older woman onboard the ship intervened and "to her I owe my life," Hannah recorded.
The new mother learned to love her daughter and took the baby with her on her next voyage out. However, the woman found she could not care for a baby and do her job at the same time. When the ship docked in Stavanger, Norway, the director of a children's home accepted Hannah from her mother's arms; and even before the baby reached the door of the orphanage, she was placed for adoption with Ole and Martha Jenson.
In 1885 the Jensons emigrated to the United States, stopping first in New York and then traveling by train to Mower County, Minnesota. Life in the new country was hard. Instead of being "the happy, jolly woman she had been in Norway," Hannah's adoptive mother "became sulky and sullen." The Jensons moved from Mower County to Ottertail County and "were squatters, not homesteaders." They settled on public land and did not have title to it.
And later, barely twelve years old, Hannah was sent by train to work in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. She had only fifty cents with her and did not have an employer lined up; when she got off the train, Hannah went from house to house all day looking for work. Twelve years old - think of it.
Well, find a job Hannah did. She found herself many jobs and sent money home to her parents. She managed to continue her education, too, and became a teacher at age 17. She taught school for ten years, and also worked as a correspondent for Wheelock's Weekly, a newspaper in Fergus Falls.
In May, 1903, Hannah married Charles Kempfer, a farmer. Shortly after the couple was married, Hannah learned she could never have children.
Hannah began her political career in 1922 and served in the Minnesota House every term but one between 1923 and 1943.
I'm certain that all of us are put here to do something. And many of us hold up every excuse we can find so as not to do it. Hannah Kempfer's story is different; she couldn't be stopped from doing what she was put here for.
And perhaps that's the third reason for telling this story - so we can see such a woman throw excuses aside and do what needed to be done. I'm always saying that in life there are the do-ers and the done-to. Hannah was a do-er.
Linda Lein's Hannah Kempfer: An Immigrant Girl (2002, 154 pp.) can be ordered from Annika Publications, PO Box 264, Fergus Falls, MN 56538-0264. Inquire about price. Also available from Amazon.com, here.