Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: The Credit Union Lady by Paul Thompson

For those seeking an introduction to the origins of the credit union movement, the general dearth of contemporary literature on the topic can be quite frustrating. Given the available resources, it is often necessary to either settle for the overly-simplistic thumbnail sketches that can be found in CUNA publications such as People, Not Profit, or commit to the dense and slightly out-of-date academic histories of Ian MacPherson or Moody & Fite. Fortunately, retired CUNA speech-writer Paul Thompson's recently published book, The Credit Union Lady, offers a new medium through which prospective students of credit union history might become acquainted with the field: historical fiction.

Thompson's novel traces, from 1927 to 1956, the experiences of three generations of a German-American family in the fictional industrial town of Brighton Falls, Wisconsin, whose lives are intimately bound up with the development of the credit union movement. Over the course of these decades (and in less than three hundred pages), Thompson weaves a truly impressive depth of historical information into his narrative. Not only does he get the "big stuff" such as the emotional and populist atmosphere of one of Roy Bergengren's rallies in the 1930s, but The Credit Union Lady also teases out some subtle dynamics (such as the importance of payroll deduction for early credit unions) that only became apparent to me as significant after many hours spent poring over credit union board of directors meeting minutes from the 1940s and 1950s.

Furthermore, Thompson's book does not simply paint an interesting portrait of the development of the credit union movement itself, but he also connects it to the larger historical trends of the period. The Great Depression looms large in the section set in 1934, serving both as an impetus for the main female character, Nancy, to establish a community credit union, and as the instigator of a strike that tests the loyalties of an employer-based credit union. A decade later, the effects of the Second World War (during which the number of credit unions declined from 9,891 to 8,683) are demonstrated in both the sale of war bonds and the troubling effects of wartime regulations, and racial issues (which are present throughout the book) take center stage in the final act. Set in 1956, Nancy's journalism student son travels to Montgomery, Alabama, to cover the legendary bus boycott led by Martin Luther King, Jr., which Thompson uses, among other thing, to note that the organizers applied for, and were denied, a federal credit union charter.

From a literary perspective, The Credit Union Lady is not a particularly innovative work. At times it is predictable, the exposition occasionally becomes a bit too straightforward, and some of the characters (such as Nancy's on-again, off-again love interest, Frank) are under-developed. Nonetheless, Thompson's solid writing skills, extremely finely-wrought settings (the descriptions of rural Wisconsin life at mid-century are particularly well done), and sympathetic protagonists serve, in combination with his masterful historical craftsmanship, to make for a pleasurable read.

As such, I strongly recommend The Credit Union Lady to anyone interested in credit union history. It serves as an excellent means for easily communicating our movement's legacy to newcomers, while also offering interesting challenges and insights to those of us who are already familiar with its history. When a character states in 1956 that, "we know the mechanics of a credit union ... But what we need to know is, the spirit," Paul Thompson raises an issue that credit union people will likely have to wrestle with as long as there are credit unions.1 The "spirit" of credit unionism is the product of a long and continuing conversation that stretches far back into the misty origins of co-operation, to which The Credit Union Lady is an extremely valuable contribution.


1Paul Thompson, The Credit Union Lady (lulu, 2009), 261.


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