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Sieberson’s new novel is about life in 1960s Sioux Center

POULSBO, WA—In Steve Sieberson’s new novel, the fictional town of New Holland will ring familiar to many N’West Iowa readers.

“I fictionalized everything, and especially the characters, but every character in the book reminded me or was based on somebody real who I knew growing up,” the 75-year-old Sioux Center native said. “It would be fairly difficult to read the book without picturing yourself in Sioux Center.”

“The Fifteenth Commandment” was published by North Dakota State University Press late last year, and the novel is set in the 1960s, the era of Sieberson’s own coming of age.

Like the novel’s protagonist, 17-year-old Nick Baarda, Sieberson chafed against the strictures of his tight-knit ethnic and religious community.

“It’s a coming-of-age story, and so a theme in this book is, ‘How do you fit into your community?’” Sieberson said. “And, I mean, this is a universal question, but if you are raised in a society that’s quite strict, and quite inwardly focused, then you’ve got a big decision to make. Do you stay and take your place and carry on what you’ve inherited? Or do you leave and make your own way in life?”

Steve Sieberson
Steve Sieberson

Sieberson is the son of the late Steve Siebersma, a longtime Sioux Center grocer, and Lois Siebersma, an educator. One of five siblings, Sieberson attended Sioux Center Christian School through eighth grade.

“That’s a rolling theme in my book — the idea of a Christian education,” Sieberson said.

He went on to attend Western Christian High School in Hull, graduating in 1966, a time when roiling social change in the nation was stirring small rebellions in the relatively isolated farming communities in this corner of Iowa.

“This is the 1960s, and the counterculture movement hasn’t exactly taken northwest Iowa by storm, but the county of Holland isn’t an island, either, and the challenge posed by the movement to conservative values and tradition is significant,” Sieberson said.

In the book, Sioux County becomes “Holland County,” and the novel follows Baarda and his close-knit group of friends during their last year of high school — a fictional version of Western Christian but located in New Holland and not a neighboring town.

“He has three buddies — they’re on the basketball team together — and they’re a group of very thick friends who all shared the same idea, which is, ‘We’re going to graduate and go away,’” Sieberson said. “To inject tension into that, the story begins with the arrival of a new minister in their church. And he makes it really clear that he’s not going to put up with any modernism — any nonsense of any sort.”

Sieberson’s characters are on the brink of a new but tenuous independence, eager to break free from a community bound by tradition and its peculiar variety of Dutch Calvinist pietism.

“The story is about friendship in the midst of the challenge of staying or leaving,” Sieberson said.

Sieberson left N’West Iowa right after his high school graduation, although he maintains close ties with the region, which is home to two of his siblings. After graduating from Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI, Sieberson eventually made his way to law school at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

“After law school, I moved out to Seattle immediately. Seattle has been my adopted hometown since 1975,” Sie­­berson said.

Seattle was where he and his wife, Carmel, raised their three children, and where Sieberson spent his early career in international law. Sieberson moved back to the Midwest in 2005 to begin teaching at the Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, NE, where he taught for 18 years before retiring in July, on his 75th birthday. Today, the Siebersons live in a small village named Poulsbo, WA, on the shores of Puget Sound, where he is working on his next book, a novel set in rural Iowa in the 1950s.

First book

Already well published in the field of international law, Sieberson published his first book for a popular audience later in life, after he had become well established in his teaching career. His first book, a work of narrative nonfiction published in 2014, is called “The Naked Mountaineer: Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler.” It was followed by another, “Low Mountains or High Tea: Misadventures in Britain’s National Parks,” published in 2019. Both tell of Sieberson’s adventures in the Pacific Northwest and abroad. However, Sieberson’s first brushes with the wider world took place in Sioux Center when he worked the cash register on Saturdays at his father’s grocery store along Highway 75.

“When I was young, the highway was our stage for an endless procession of cars and trucks bearing license plates from exotic places like Manitoba, Oklahoma and Texas,” Sieberson wrote in a blog post on his official author website last year.

It took him until he was 75 years old to revisit his early years and mine them for the materials of a fictional story.

Steve Sieberson as a boy
Steve Sieberson attended grade school at Sioux Center Christian School, then later graduated from Western Christian High School in Hull. He returns to the theme of Christian education in his recently published novel, “The Fifteenth Commandment,” which takes place in a fictionalized Sioux Center.

“I had a busy life, and a very rewarding and fulfilling career. I was an international lawyer. I was a law professor. I traveled,” Sieberson said. “I lived in several different countries along the way — and I had a family.”

It wasn’t just a matter of finding time to write, however. It was a matter of being ready to tackle the subject matter.

“It’s fair to say that throughout my life, I’ve been trying to get it all in perspective — my childhood, my growing up,” Sieberson said. “By choosing to write this story the way I did it, I had to do a really deep dive into my past.”

He searched the dim reaches of his memory, recalling the favorite songs of friends, the clatter of footsteps and lockers in school hallways, but he also dove deep into the textual and material history of his youth and the wider region.

“For the past 50-some years, in my boxes of books that I’ve been toting around, were all of my high school yearbooks,” Sieberson said. “Also, a history of Sioux County and a history of Sioux Center that people had given me along the way. So, I had these things. And I just consulted them over and over and over again. It was not easy to find things on the internet about Sioux Center in the ’60s.”

“The Fifteenth Commandment” takes place in N’West Iowa, but its place names are a blend of the real and fictional.

“I had a little fun because I didn’t call Orange City, ‘Orange City,’” he said. “I called it ‘Klompen.’”

Sioux City and Sioux Falls, SD, retain their names in the book, but Hull becomes “Hemel,” the Dutch word for “Heaven.”

“But this was not an encyclopedia of the Dutch culture in northwest Iowa — it’s a particular story. And less is more, often enough when it comes to that kind of detail,” he said.

Still, one of the region’s most striking topographical features — Palisades State Park in southeastern South Dakota — figures prominently in the book. The landscape, rocky and wild, creates a stark contrast with the tidy lawns and neatly cultivated fields of Sioux County.

“When I was a boy, we used to go there,” Sieberson said.

He would go on to become a member of Seattle Mountain Rescue in 1987, but he had his first climbing experiences in the Palisades.

“For the main character in the book, the place is a very big thing for him,” Sieberson said. “When he graduates from high school, he wants to move to the mountains. And the closest thing he’s got is the Palisades, where in an hour, he can get there and climb around. And so, several pretty significant scenes happen in that place.”

The True Church

Like Sieberson, the character of Nick Baarda is coming of age in a region deeply contoured by Dutch Calvinism, a flat and wind-swept place settled by Dutch immigrants who came seeking the freedom to establish churches free from the strictures of state control. Many of the churches that took root and flourished in Sioux County were stridently conservative and traditional. A high premium was placed on personal piety and scrupulous moral behavior.

“These boys want to do all these forbidden things, and the church — in the book I call it ‘The True Church’ — has four additional commandments to the original 10. ‘No dancing, no movies, no card playing and no popular music,’” Sieberson said. “Now, the three — dancing, cards and movies — that was rock solid CRC doctrine, if you will. The popular music thing was very frowned upon, but not quite forbidden.”

Sieberson grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, the real-life version of “The True Church” in his novel. As the story unfolds, it explores the mechanisms of control and repression that often are at work in small religious communities, but it also is full of humor, adolescent longings, adventure and fun. To that end, Nick and his friends devise their own “15th commandment,” a clever workaround that frees them to do as they please.

“I have a lot of fun with that in the book. Here you have these guys, and they’re all 17, heading into their last year at their very strict, parochial school. And they want to do all those things — of course, they want to do all those things,” Sieberson said. “They can drive, they have cars, they want to go to Sioux City to go to movies. And so, the early tension is a new minister comes to town and says, ‘I’m cracking the whip, and you guys are going to be under my thumb from now on.’”

The characters experiment with rebellion, dream about the future and plot their es­­capes. Along the way, Nick falls in love — with the minister’s daughter, another source of narrative conflict.

“The boys have to find a way to kind of navigate two worlds — the modern American world of the mid-’60s — The Beatles, they’re crazy about the Beatles — and the world of this new pastor and their own parents and the whole community,” Sieberson said. “Society was going through a revolution, and part of that crept into New Holland. And so, then you have here a real lure. This is modern society and rock ’n’ roll versus the chains that are binding you to the society and mores of your grandparents and parents.”

Ultimately, the choice to leave was the choice Sieberson made. He chose mountains and travel and bustling cities. But the place he was born into, with its open sky and abundance of churches, has never fully left him, either.

“There’s an awful lot of my character that was formed then. There’s so much that becomes you — you can’t shed that,” Sieberson said. “It was a warm and loving family environment. People supported each other in a small-town way. But especially my friends and I — we were there for each other. We supported each other. We loved each other. And I think the good far outweighed the bad.”

“But the tension was real,” he added. “And I think the tension made me more creative.”