Larry Aasen has just written his 4th book about North Dakota.
That may be a world record.
“Very few people write books about North Dakota,” the Peace Garden State native and longtime Westporter says modestly.
“Then again, very few people live in North Dakota, period.”
At 96 years old, Aasen still has all his wits — and his wit.
So I should note here: Very few 96-year-olds write books, period.
Aasen’s oeuvre includes “North Dakota 100 Years Ago,” “Images of North Dakota” and “North Dakota Postcards 1900-1930.” The postcards are fascinating — some are from his parents’ collection (they corresponded that way when they were courting, and lived 30 miles apart) — and so are the photos his mother took using a new-fangled camera (they were sent to Minneapolis to be developed, and arrived back 3 weeks later).
His latest book — “North Dakotans Never Give Up” — goes beyond images, postcards and history. It’s a personal memoir, weaving together Aasen’s youth in the still-pioneer state with the inspiring story of residents who overcame great adversity, and achieved big things.
(Eric Sevareid, Lawrence Welk and Peggy Lee, to name 3.)
“The Depression was a terrible time,” Aasen says of his youth. “Many young people in North Dakota today have no idea. There were grasshoppers, drought — you name it.”
Those North Dakotans who never gave up survived by raising cows, turkeys, chickens and pigs. They made their own food. They built chairs and benches out of wood they chopped. They were self-sufficient. They had to be.
“Winters were tough,” he says. “Kids really did walk to school in the snow.”
He was one of those kids. And he’d go to school after milking cows. “We smelled. The town kids teased us,” he recalls.
Aasen’s grandparents were certainly tough. All 4 lived into their 80s. Their stories form an important part of the new book.
“Weak people died,” Aasen says. His grandparents never went to the hospital. They didn’t even have medical care.
“It cost $1 for the doctor to come to the farm. That was too expensive.” He doesn’t remember ever seeing medicine in the house — “except maybe cough syrup.”
His mother kept a diary, which he still has. “She would talk about whatever happened that day,” Aasen says. “‘Today an airplane flew over the farm.’ ‘We butchered a pig.’ ‘Hoover was elected president.’ There were a lot of bank robberies too.”
Aasen is an assiduous researcher. He spent 9 months writing the most recent volume — and did all the layout too. (His son-in-law got it copy-ready.)
“I’m 96, but I’m too busy to be a senior citizen,” Aasen — whose Mississippi-born wife Martha, 89, is equally active — says.
Aasen’s books sell well — and all over the country. They’re bought by libraries, universities, people who live in North Dakota, and those who have left.
They’re reviewed regularly in publications like the Bismarck Tribune, Grand Forks Herald and Forum of Fargo.
Aasen promotes his books himself, partly through direct mail. After 4 volumes, he’s built up a robust mailing list. (Robust by North Dakota standards, anyway.)
He used to go back every year. His trips now are less frequent.
“I had 31 cousins there. Now there’s 1,” Aasen says. “My classmates, my Army mates — they’re all gone.”
Larry and Martha Aasen moved to Westport in 1963. They’ve been involved in town life — too many activities to count — ever since.
But nearly 6 decades later — after nearly a century on the planet — Larry Aasen still loves his home state. And he’s proud to honor the people he grew up with there.
“A lot of people today, if they can’t get a job they sit around feeling sorry for themselves,” he says.
“In North Dakota, you couldn’t do that. You’d starve.
“You had to be tough, and figure things out.”
Like his book title says: North Dakotans Never Give Up.
(To buy a copy of Aasen’s book, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 203-227-6126.)