‘6 Brothers’ screening here: Documentary features story of family during the Depression
Finding a treasure trove of letters written during World War II prompted University of Jamestown alum Daniel Stenberg to share his family’s story in the form of a documentary — “6 Brothers: A Story of Hope, Loss and Perseverance on the Northern Plains.”
“It focuses on what it was like growing up in the Great Depression and after the Depression, World War II happens,” Stenberg said. “Two brothers were drafted. One served in Europe, one in the South Pacific.”
About three and a half years ago, Stenberg found letters his grandfather, Chris, had written during World War II. He found the letters interesting, and shared them with family, and then a Toastmasters group in Bismarck. Then Stenberg spoke with Prairie Public Broadcasting about the story’s potential.
Prairie Public did the technical work on the hour-long documentary, and Stenberg worked on its content and on telling the story.
That story, Stenberg said, is that of a North Dakota homesteader family, but rather than focusing on the Norwegian homesteaders, “6 Brothers” focuses on their sons — the next generation.
“It’s not so much war history, it’s how did it affect the brothers personally, and the family. Also, what life was like back in North Dakota during World War II,” Stenberg said.
Through letters written when his grandfather was a young man, Stenberg learned more about him — his questioning of the world leaders who had sent him to war, his time in a jungle in the Philippines and his desire to come home and be a rancher.
“He was disappointed that one of the girls that he was interested in got married, and then he mentions my grandma’s name in passing, as he had gotten a letter from her,” Stenberg said. “As I knew the rest of the story, I was like ‘This is a good one, grandpa, don’t be disappointed!’”
Because they knew their letters were being read by censors, the brothers were generally careful about potentially sensitive information about the war. Many of the letters focused on the mundane, Stenberg said — the cows, the neighbors and eating mashed potatoes for lunch.
“But every once in a while you’d get kind of a glimpse — ‘I wish things were different,’ or ‘I just don’t understand why things have to be that way.’”
Last year, Stenberg found another set of letters that his great-grandparents had written to their sons overseas.
That set proved a challenge, as they had all been written in Norwegian, but after an appeal on Facebook to people who might be able to translate 1940s-era Norwegian, Stenberg was able to include some of those letters in the documentary as well.
As part of the documentary-making process, Stenberg also read regional newspapers from the war years.
“About 90 percent of the articles and ads in the paper had something to do with World War II,” Stenberg said, noting that at the time, everyone appeared to be behind the war — buying war bonds, planting victory gardens or helping with scrap metal drives.
Stenberg said people who lived through the Great Depression or World War II might find his documentary especially interesting, but so might people from the baby boomer generation whose lives were shaped by the “Greatest Generation” before them, and younger generations too.
“I think it should have a pretty broad appeal,” Stenberg said.
The documentary premieres on Prairie Public Television at 8 p.m. Wednesday, but it will also be screened live in three locations across the state. “6 Brothers” will be shown in Jamestown at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Reiland Fine Arts Center. Admission is free.
Sun reporter Kari Lucin can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org