This year saw the release of a trilogy of books from Minnesota-born author Margie Haack. The Place Trilogy are memoirs that trace the work of God in Margie’s life, through the lens of the homes where she lived. Book One, The Exact Place, tells the story of Margie’s early years growing up on a poor farm with a stepfather who did love her. Book Two, No Place, picks up her story as she and her husband Denis are married and begin life together on a Christian commune in New Mexico. Book Three, This Place, is a collection of essays which reflect on spiritual and quotidian truth during the years of raising children. For many decades, Margie and Denis faithfully discipled people through their ministry Ransom Fellowship and their journal Critique. The entire library of their journals, newsletters, and other essays, as well as recent works, can be found at ransomfellowship.org.
TCP: Each book in your trilogy focuses on a different place in your life, in both the physical sense—as each one focuses on a home that was significant for you—and in a broader sense, as you describe your own spiritual journey from place to place. How does the importance of place hold your story together?
MH: I don’t know that everyone shares this, but whether we are consciously aware or not, the places where we have lived, especially those of our childhood, have roots that shape us. They have voices that speak to us through the years, through the land, the plants and animals, the houses we lived in, and the people of our neighborhoods. My roots in northern Minnesota were deep enough so I could be in southern California, hear someone speaking at a table next to me in a restaurant and immediately recognize the local accent of my Scandinavian people. I loved the land where I grew up and my childhood home but when I returned as an adult something was missing. I was longing for something more perfect, a fact I had not yet faced.
…whether we are consciously aware or not, the places where we have lived, especially those of our childhood, have roots that shape us.
As I matured I had to accept those imperfections and the sadness that came from acknowledging them. I think it’s a common longing we share, whoever we are. We want home to be a place of safety and beauty and love and work and joy. Often it is the opposite of those things. C S Lewis wrote about how we live downstream from Eden and will never quench this longing to get back to the Garden. He insists it is proof we have been created by God because what we really desire is to be at Home with him. So in all the places I have lived, a sense of rootedness and appreciation for its beauty has grown up and yet there is a piece that is missing, and I long for something more perfect, more permanent. This is one reason why in the first two books of the trilogy I began each chapter with some part of the geography or biology of the area. In each of them I found metaphors for my own life and something that shone in creation that spoke to me of a creator.
TCP: As you wrote your story, you were so open and honest about some of the suffering you endured, both through your own sin and through the sins of others. You do this especially well in the first book, The Exact Place. How did you approach sharing those painful stories? Why did you feel it was important to share them?
MH: As a child and a young teen I believed in The Victorious Christian Life. These were ideas I picked up from Christian radio, sermons, books, and camp. I believed that if I was a good girl and always did the right thing life would work out and things would be great. The problem was that however hard I tried, I simply could not keep my own standards, let alone God’s. For example, I was instrumental in killing my own dog who I loved to death (Ironic, don’t you think?) and then lied about it. I didn’t confess it to my family until I was an adult. These ideas pervaded and complicated my understanding of God’s love and forgiveness. I almost shipwrecked over them. When it came to writing my book, I wanted to be brutally honest about my failures so that if others were grappling with similar problems, they would know they were not alone. And more than just not being alone, a reader might find this marvelous grace God extends to both children and adults.
TCP: In the second book, No Place, you write about a time when you and your husband were newly married and felt displaced, yet you opened your home to many of the hippies passing through New Mexico on their way to California. Your affection for and sympathy toward your guests is so evident through your writing. Why did you think it was important to tell their story now? Was there anything that surprised you as you revisited that time in your life?
MH: An important reason might be because the hippie movement in general had an enormous impact on our culture. Everyone alive today has some memory or ancestor who experienced the cultural shifts of those years. We all carry memories and knowledge about the use of psychedelic drugs, music, demonstrations, and even the clothing fashions of that time. This history and the lessons we learned from it might hopefully be of interest to our grandchildren or even our children. My story is only a tiny light cell into what life was like during that time.
What surprised me as I wrote is how consistently the practice of hospitality became a part of our life from very early on. Although it is obviously an important part of the Christian’s walk, we loved welcoming people into our home from the beginning of our marriage. We somehow sensed the importance of it even during our darkest hours and at our most immature.
TCP: The first two books contain short interludes describing the natural geography of the place you’re writing about. These elements anchor your stories in a physical landscape and allow the reader to better visualize the surroundings for each story, yet many of them also offer an additional layer of meaning to the narrative. How did you arrive at the idea of including these interludes? What did you look for when deciding which natural features to describe?
MH: I love this question. You are right when you speak of them as an additional layer of meaning. Those interludes, or frontispieces to chapters, allowed me to write in an entirely different voice which was challenging and fun. Long ago, I was intrigued by what Annie Proulx did at the beginning of each chapter in The Shipping News. She included an illustration of a sailing knot along with its name and an explanation of how it was used. Each knot had a deeper meaning when a reader thought about it. The knot was prophetic to a characters or event in the chapter. I stole this feature, but rooted mine in the natural landscape, the flora, and fauna that surrounded me. I wanted them to capture a specific characteristic or feeling if the reader thought about it. I was also inspired by Kathleen Norris’ book Dakota: A Spiritual Biography. She writes about how the spare land of the Dakota prairies shaped her attitudes and beliefs. I immediately realized this was also true for me. From the forests and lakes of northern Minnesota to the high, dry deserts of New Mexico I felt an awareness of the land. Its seasons and all its living features drew from me a love of God’s creation.
TCP: One of the big themes that runs through all three books is the idea of hospitality. As a child, you experienced what it was to be denied hospitality by your stepfather, while as an adult, you made it your life’s work to extend hospitality to those God brought to your doorstep. What does hospitality look like in your life today? Did you view writing these books as a way of showing hospitality to your readers?
MH: It’s true that in a sense, my stepfather denied me hospitality. But what he lacked, my mother’s example and mentoring made up for it. I think as a child, I couldn’t have identified it as such, but her love for people and her welcoming them into our tiny home under what would now be seen as such limiting circumstances was never a deterrent to her. This was evident even in the way she kept our three-room home where eight of us lived under one roof. That did not stop her from keeping our home warmly decorated and as clean as possible. Best of all, the food that came out of her kitchen was always plentiful and delicious. I often observed how visitors loved to be in our house. Because we were poor in many ways, as a child, this often puzzled me, and even annoyed me. Why did they want to be with us? As an adult, I understand more of those reasons.
As a Christian, there is also a scriptural mandate to practice hospitality. No one escapes this responsibility. Men as well as women. It has been practiced by God’s people throughout the centuries. Jesus himself did hospitality in so many ways—from picnics on the mountain side to intimate meals with his disciples—it was always a part of his life and practice. As I have aged, I have less energy and need to assess more thoughtfully what I can do. The rewards are still so great, I never want to quit. During the pandemic we had to be creative in finding ways of reaching out to people. Since we were limited in having people in our home, we often made “Cinnamon Roll Drive-bys” to folks we thought could use the encouragement. On a Saturday morning after pulling rolls out of the oven, we packaged them up and dropped them off to friends as we stood in their driveway and talked. The delight of doing this was more rewarding that I could have imagined. If readers see something of the importance practicing hospitality when reading my stories, and if it encourages them in their own efforts, what a gift that would be to me!
As a Christian, there is also a scriptural mandate to practice hospitality. No one escapes this responsibility. Men as well as women. It has been practiced by God’s people throughout the centuries. Jesus himself did hospitality in so many ways—from picnics on the mountain side to intimate meals with his disciples—it was always a part of his life and practice.
TCP: Each book is sprinkled through with recipes—a clear invitation to readers to gather together and share in good food. Why was it important to you to include these recipes? How do you hope these recipes—and these books—will shape the way readers see their own places?
MH: There is the matter of sheer delight in food that is both nourishing and simple—which is why many of my recipes are quite easy. I want readers to feel confident that a meal does not need to be featured on America’s Best Chefs. Over the years my husband and I have noted again and again how meaningful it can be to gather around a table, eat a simple supper together, and have a conversation that sets us at ease and opens the door for deeper matters to be discussed. We often joke between ourselves that we have the gift of making people cry. We always keep a box of tissues handy because you never know as you tend to others’ souls with hospitality and kindness in a safe space what it can do to unburden their hearts. I hope it is clear that the practice of hospitality is something any of us can do anywhere; woman or man, single, married, rich or poor, and that it need not be expensive, complicated, or lavish. Remember Jesus’ breakfast by the sea? It was bread and fish roasted over coals. Wouldn’t we have loved to be there?
This interview was originally conducted by Théa Rosenburg for Square Halo Books, a publishing house “devoted to publishing works that present contextually sensitive biblical studies, and practical instruction consistent with the Doctrines of the Reformation.” We thank Théa for interviewing Margie, as well as Leslie Bustard of Square Halo Books for sharing this interview with us.
Featured image of Margie Haack, her book covers, and her personal photographs are used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Leslie Anne Bustard takes great joy in loving people and places, whether at church, around her kitchen table, in a classroom, or traveling around. She delights in words, and marvels at the beauty found in the details of ordinary life. Reading, writing, teaching literature, baking, producing high school theater, and museum-ing are some of Leslie’s favorite things. Leslie is the host of The Square Halo, a podcast for Square Halo Books and is developing a book titled Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to the Best Children’s Books. She and her husband Ned have been married for 30 years and live in a century-old row house in Lancaster City, where they raised their three daughters.
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