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Nowhere Else on Earth

Nowhere Else on Earth

4.7 3
by Josephine Humphreys

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In the summer of 1864, sixteen-year-old Rhoda Strong lives in the Lumbee Indian settlement of Robeson County, North Carolina, which has become a pawn in the bloody struggle between the Union and Confederate armies. The community is besieged by the marauding Union Army as well as the desperate Home Guard who are hell-bent on conscripting the young men into deadly


In the summer of 1864, sixteen-year-old Rhoda Strong lives in the Lumbee Indian settlement of Robeson County, North Carolina, which has become a pawn in the bloody struggle between the Union and Confederate armies. The community is besieged by the marauding Union Army as well as the desperate Home Guard who are hell-bent on conscripting the young men into deadly forced labor. Daughter of a Scotsman and his formidable Lumbee wife, Rhoda is fiercely loyal to her family and desperately fears for their safety, but her love for the outlaw hero Henry Berry Lowrie forces her to cast her lot with danger. Her struggle becomes part of the community's in a powerful story of love and survival. Nowhere Else on Earth is a moving saga that magnificently captures a little-known piece of American history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Humphreys has always been a master of telling a larger story through a deceptively intimate narrative, and Rhoda's tale, with its clear, distinct voice, is no exception." The New Yorker

"A novel so compelling works a kind of magic, casting a spell. . . . She has distilled to a splendid coherence the complexities of history and the human heart." —The Washington Post

"With fluid writing, nuanced characters, and a suspenseful pace, Humphreys blends historical romance with a meditation on the ambiguities of race and morality." —Time

"Josephine Humphreys has always been a very, very, good novelist...with Nowhere Else on Earth...[she] has taken a quantum leapfrom very, very, good to extraordinary." —The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Though I loved her three previous novels, Nowhere Else on Earth ... the narrator, Rhoda Strong, belongs to the ages, a fabulous creation." Pat Conroy

Based loosely on actual events, this sprawling and ambitious novel by the author of Rich in Love takes us into the South during the last days of the Civil War. As fighting elsewhere throughout the country winds down, tensions in Robeson County on North Carolina's Lumbee River have reached fever pitch. In this hybrid community, Scots and Lumbee Indians have lived side by side for generations, making their living farming or working in the local turpentine distilleries. But with Union invasion imminent, ancient resentments have resurfaced, and the county finds itself ravaged by a miniature civil war of its own. At the center of Humphreys' story is sixteen-year-old Rhoda Strong, on the brink of womanhood and desperate to find love and normalcy. Told from Rhoda's point of view as she looks back thirty years later, the story unfolds in a series of vivid episodes. This is a rich and compelling portrait of the ways war can infiltrate the most intimate parts of our lives.
—Nicole Graev
While this historical novel of Rhoda and Henry Berry Lowrie begins slowly and confusingly, it quickly becomes addictive. The story, told through Rhoda's voice, is beautifully written. Humphreys states that she read letters from the time and region in order to capture the tone, the language and the style that Rhoda would have used. The result is that she creates a voice that resonates in the reader's mind. Rhoda's story begins just as the Civil War is nearing its completion and Sherman is beginning his march through the South. Up until the arrival of the Union Army the war's impact on the Indians had been limited to that of the local militia, who with the aid of the sheriff were rounding up Indians not to fight but to serve on a chain gang. The Lowries, the wealthiest of the Lumbee Indians and Union sympathizers, defy the local authorities by refusing to hand over their renegade sons. Henry Berry Lowrie, their youngest and most respected son, attempts to round up all the young men of the settlement and hide them from the law. As a consequence they and anyone who joins them are outlawed and hunted by the sheriff. It is when Henry comes looking to hide Rhoda's two brothers that she begins to fall in love with him. From that moment on her fate is tied to his. The story of Rhoda and Henry echoes Romeo and Juliet as well as Robin Hood. Rhoda's decision to leave with Henry results in a break with her mother, who disowns her for choosing a life with an outlawed man. And this outlaw's gang resembles Robin Hood in their stealing from the wealthier Scots in order to help the people of their settlement. And like Robin Hood, every crime, no matter how small or how out of character it may seem,is attributed to Henry and his boys, making him a legend at the young age of 19 or 20. The lives of these people were neither easy nor beautiful. They were poor, and when the Civil War came it made them even poorer. The descriptions of the hunger, violence and dirt make this at times a difficult and disturbing story to read. For that reason this book is better suited to older YAs and adults. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Penguin, 342p., $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Debra Mitts Smith; YA Libn., Glenview P.L., Glenview, IL SOURCE: KLIATT, March 2002 (Vol. 36, No. 2)
Library Journal
Humphreys (Rich in Love) sets her new novel in the swamps of North Carolina at the end of the Civil War and pervades it with mystery. The location, Scuffletown, is itself uncertain: both large and vague (even the postmaster can't locate it precisely, and lost would-be visitors simply give up), Scuffletown is home to people who don't want to be found (outlaws, escaped slaves, Rebel stragglers, Union prison-camp escapees) and people others don't choose to find (the Lumbee Indians, about whom this book has much to say and about whom the reader will probably know little if anything). The narrator, Rhoda, is Lumbee, the action is episodic, and quaint local color is less the order of the day than violence and turmoil--the by-product of an uncertain terrain where neither Union marauders nor Confederate conscriptors are trustworthy. There's also a love story involving the narrator and one of the local heroes, and, as one might guess, it's not a simple one. The writing is superb. Highly recommended for mid-sized and large collections.
Michele Orecklin
Humphreys blends historical romance with a meditation on the ambiguities of race and morality.
Time Magazine
New Yorker
Humphreys' latest novel—at once a brutal tale of the Civil War and a subtle exploration of developing American identities—is an unusual sort of epic, the great sweep of history writ small...Humphreys has always been a master of telling a larger story through a deceptively intimate narrative, and Rhoda's tale, with its clear, distinct voice, is no exception.
Kirkus Reviews
Another character-rich, atmospheric, thematically complex tale from Humphreys (The Fireman's Fair, 1991), set in a "piney lower corner of North Carolina" during the Civil War era. Narrator Rhoda Strong, daughter of a Scots immigrant and a Lumbee Indian, lives in Scuffletown, a multiracial community forged by the Indians. Scuffletown's gentle patriarch is Allen Lowrie, whose son Henry leads a band of men hiding in the swamps to escape forced labor during the hunger-ravaged summer of 1864. Rhoda is 15, longing for the kind of love that sustains her parents in an unjust world subject to the arbitrary incursions of "macks" (whites) like Brant Harris, the drunken head of the Home Guard; and Deputy Rod McTeer, who orders the brutal execution of Allen Lowrie. Rhoda and Henry have just made love for the first time when they witness this execution, and their subsequent marriage is haunted by its consequences. Driven to acts of deadly revenge for the macks' crimes, Henry remains an outlaw after the war; he makes stolen visits while Rhoda raises their children alone in Scuffletown, whose inhabitants are still feared and persecuted by the defeated whites. When Henry is finally forced to flee North Carolina in 1873, Rhoda chooses to stay behind, and it's a tribute to Humphreys's artistry that we understand that decision despite the passionate marital love the author has depicted. The many full-bodied characters, from Rhoda's proud mother to the white lady who proves a loyal friend despite her prejudices; the loving evocation of local customs and practices, including a bravura description of making turpentine; the detailed life of a people engaged in daily moral resistance to a diseased socialorder—all create a bond of community that Rhoda (and the reader) cannot think of shattering. Though the story is at times almost unbearably sorrowful, it is too richly full ever to be bleak. A remarkable achievement from a writer who just keeps getting better.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.76(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


I begin with an afternoon in the summer of 1864, a season of bad heat and rain. War raged somewhere and probably love too, but I was safe from both, I thought. I didn't know they were sneaking up to storm me by surprise and wreck me. There had been signs-mud snakes in the well, thunderbolts cracking our nights like warning shots-but I was fifteen. I read things wrong.

We had spent the morning sweltering behind a barred door, with daylight only through chinks and our one high window in the gable. The Home Guard was on a tear again, so Cee wouldn't let us out. She was the kind of mother who might sometimes risk her own neck but never ours.

I was sick with the heat and confinement. After six hours of it I broke.

"I can't breathe!"

"Lie down by the cat hole," she said.

So I got some air there, with my nose next to the little cutout square at the bottom of the door, hoping Cee would say, You poor thing, which she didn't. Under the floor our gold dog, Girl, snuffled and whined, scratching out a hollow to lie in. Through the cracks I could smell the turpentine we rubbed on her for fleas and yellow flies, and probably she could smell me, I was so sweaty. Whispering down to her, "Poor thing, poor you," I spied out the cat hole, but all I saw was a patch of the ordinary world.

Nothing moved in the drowned cornfield. Rainwater stood in pools like flat tin, and no birds flew. It didn't look like danger, it only looked like home, still and beautiful and scorching green. Now and then a dry pod snapped in the chimney vines, flinging seed across the roof like sand. Deep in the matted honeysuckle on the porch a lizard hid, and suddenly his throat bubbled red.

I said, "There's nothing out there but the usual."

"What did I teach you? Before you take a chance, you figure your what?"


"You mean to tell me they turned in our favor?"

"No, ma'am."

"Sit tight then."

In the early afternoon Henderson Oxendine came to tell us the Guard had been seen on the Lumberton Road heading our way. Eleven horsemen riding hard, Brant Harris in the lead. Henderson said we better let him take Boss and Andrew out to the swamps to hide with the young Lowries. At first I wasn't paying close attention to what he said, I was noticing how both his pants legs were worn through to his scrawny knees.

Cee thought Andrew and Boss too young to let go, only seventeen and fifteen.

"And if I can't protect my own boys against a half-blind bunch not even fit for the Rebel army then what am I good for?" she said to Henderson, still a boy himself not yet twenty but serious as a preacher, born that way. I'd known Henderson all my life, he was my childhood favorite up until I was thirteen, when Margaret Ransom came along, frisky and pretty and down-to-earth as a turnip, and a lot easier to talk to than Henderson. Besides, Cee thought it was time I had a girl for a best friend instead of running down to the fish traps with that boy every day, so Henderson and I drifted apart, me with Margaret and him with his brother Calvin.

But when I saw him again, with his bare knees and his knowing eyes, I was a little sorry I had swapped him for Margaret in the first place. If I'd stuck with Henderson, I told myself, things might have turned out different. His appeal went beyond the ordinary, to something in the spirit realm. He had a gift of music that could move the doubtingest heart. Whenever there was a brush-arbor preaching, or a husking or a picnic, someone would call on Henderson for a hymn. His face was narrow and bright, his eyes deep with the true, mysterious, hopeless love of things that can't be seen. The times I heard him sing, I said to myself it was too bad a boy like that couldn't be traveling the world, singing the praises of the Lord in his sweet, sad voice to the heathen.

But under the present circumstances-hunger and peril-Henderson wouldn't be singing for a while. He and his brother Calvin and their cousin Steve Lowrie and some others were trying to dodge the Guard and not get conscripted to Wilmington for forced labor at the salt factory or the Fort Fisher earthworks. The macks had decided they'd rather not send any more slaves for work that broke them or even killed them, so the solution was "Send Scuffletown." They wouldn't have our boys as soldiers but they grabbed them quick enough for slave labor. Word was that Steve Lowrie's brother Henry-the great Henry, who nobody could outrun-had been caught and sent.

But the truth was, when boys went missing like that you couldn't be sure what had happened. They would vanish off the lane on a quiet morning, and no one knew their fate or if we would ever lay eyes on them again. It is terrible to hope your boys are slaving somewhere, but that was what we had to hope.

"There's no end in sight," Henderson said. "And Harris is taking boys younger now, to fill the requirement. Somebody's helping him, writing up a list and telling him where to hunt. We think it might be the postmaster."

"James Barnes?" Daddy said, and Henderson nodded.

The postmaster knew us. He lived down the river half a mile.

Henderson offered to take Andrew and Boss to where the Lowries were lying out, but he wasn't allowed to say exactly where that was, for our own safety. Nobody was to know, not even mothers, not even Preacher Sinclair, who was passing information to the lie-outers. Sinclair and Dr. McCabe and Lawyer Macmillan were three among a handful of macks who took an interest in the settlement-all of them good-intentioned but one way or another troubled in mind and therefore not to be confided with the whole story.

"I brought a little something," Henderson said, and he put three eggs on the table. I never had seen anything so pretty. Eggs! I'd forgotten how they looked. The way they sat there, smooth and perfect, gave me a shiver of pleasure.

"Did you get you one?" Cee asked him.


"Well, here."

But, thank goodness, he shook his head.

"And how did you come by these eggs, Henderson?" she said.

"Some folks still has hens. Mr. Allen's got his underneath the floorboards, trained to hush when someone comes. He closes the trapdoor, and there's not a peep."

"Allen's playing you along," she said. "Chickens don't fuss in the dark anyway. They think they been swallowed, they think it's doomsday."

From my corner I said, "Swallowed alive. Never again to run free or see the light of day or breathe the sweet air of God's green-"

"You didn't swipe them, did you?" Cee said.

"No'm. They were given to me to give," Henderson said.

"By Allen?"

"In a way of speaking."

"-swallowed into the pitch black dark, no ray of hope..."

Finally she looked at me and saw my puffed face, my damp curls clinging to my neck.

"Bless your heart," she said, and meant it. She held out an arm and I went to sit by her knee so she could fan me.

Daddy said let Henderson take the boys. "I've done some lying out myself, in my time," he said. "It ain't nothing to be ashamed of when your life is on the line." He told Henderson, if the Lowries were at Devilsden in Back Swamp like he'd heard, and if they had as many guns as he'd heard-he paused but Henderson didn't say yes or no-then Boss and Andrew should go.

"It's Lowries and you two Oxendines out there, I believe, along with one white one, McLaughlin, and one black one, Applewhite. I have it on good authority. Am I right, Henderson?"

I smiled to hear Daddy quote me as a good authority.

"I've given my oath not to say, Mr. Strong," Henderson answered.

I said, "I guess Steve Lowrie didn't give his or if he did it's bum. He came in Pate's last week telling everyone Henry was taken off to Wilmington but Applewhite joined in his place. Steve said they have five revolvers, ten shotguns, four Union rifles, and a plan to get a bunch more."

To gain Henderson's attention I may have left the impression I'd been at Pate's store myself to hear this when really it was something I had overheard said between Cee and her friend Nelly Gibson the day before. I thought I might impress Henderson with my up-to-the-minute knowledge. But he was keeping his eyes off me. I wasn't playing the flirt, all I wanted was to be seen as another human being in the room. I wanted to say, It's just the same old me, Henderson, but suddenly I wondered how true that was. Time had been at work on me since our childhood days.

Looking at his shoes, Henderson said, "If Applewhite's with us-and I'm not saying he is or he isn't-then we're lucky to have him."

This was George Applewhite, who had once been a slave in the Marion District but found the life not to his taste and made his way to us, dodging the catchers for so long now-five years at least-they would soon surely have to declare him dead or northernized.

"Ap can keep the boys safe," Daddy said.

Cee said, "And I can't?"

"I don't mean you aren't a strong woman, Celia Ann," Daddy said, his tongue rolling with the sound of his childhood home. His Gaelic was long gone, since Cee never let him talk it, and sometimes you could have thought he was settlement-born, he came so close to what was called the long talk, the Scuffletown sound. But his burr crept back when he was anxious. Then you heard Isle of Skye coming through.

"You're the strongest in the world," he said to her ("sdungest in the wudduld"), "but how could you hold off the Guard? Or how could I? And suppose Harris starts thinking, 'Well, he's halt but he's a digger, ain't he?' Barnes gave me a hard look at the post office last week, he might put my name down. But I don't want to be took, Cee. My knee, my constitution...Maybe we all ought to go with Henderson and lie out till the war ends. Wilmington would be the end of me. I'd not survive the climate, I don't have the strength of the rest of them-"

"Johnny, that's why you won't be took."

"You don't think they'll come for me?"

"Not an old bustard like you. You got my word, it's the truth if I ever told it. Besides, you forgot, you're not the shade of color that's preferred for fort work."

That settled his mind, and he quieted down. Half her time was spent calming him, keeping his thoughts off the subjects that could plow him under (jail, death, and my bleak future). Ever since the day they met she had been his guarantee against despair, and if she had her own share deep down, she hid it. I wondered if other marriages worked by the same arrangement, wives shooing off husbands' gloom by teasing, soothing, badgering, any trick in the book to bolster them.

Cee said thank you to Henderson but she would keep Andrew and Boss at home, and he could have the pail of potatoes by the hearth. They were resin-baked, a specialty from the old days when Dorcas, my grandmother I never met, cooked for the turpentine woods crew. You dig a hole and bury the potatoes under a thick layer of wet moss, add your lightwood and a ladle of gum, stand back and throw in a match. This is best done at night, to see the flare whoosh up toward the stars and then settle back to a long steady burn. By the time it's down to a flicker, the potatoes are done, and you spoon them out of the ashes. Then you cool and peel and eat them. The taste of the resin isn't strong, it's more like a tinge, a something, that bumps your memory back to other times and your thoughts back to times even before memory. Resin-baked potatoes was my only knowledge of Dorcas Sweet aside from her death by suicide.

Henderson looked in the pail, and I hoped he would decline but he took out two-my mouth watered just to see the charred papery skin and orange flesh showing through popped blisters-and he lingered by the door with the potatoes in his hands. He seemed to have something else to say, or maybe he misunderstood my longing gaze. Don't take them, I was thinking, even though his bony knees proved he could use some fattening up.

I wasn't as generous as my mother, and I hadn't yet learned how to kill hunger by force of will, as she could, or the even better trick of holding it and using it as a power. I was always famished. But sometimes my belly wanted something more than ordinary food. It wanted a food like fire, like iron, or earth itself in fistfuls. People do sometimes crave things that don't make sense, they will eat clay and swallow swords for no earthly reason. But it could be they've learned food only feeds hunger. To kill it, you need something stronger.

Suddenly I noticed, and my mother noticed, how Henderson was looking at me now. He started to say something, but then he thought better of it. He took his leave and backed out, and Cee bolted the door with the new iron rod Boss had just added to replace the thumb bolt he said was too puny now, in these times.

We had a new key lock, too, that Boss had put together from parts collected off the locksmith's trash pile in Lumberton. Boss was the promise of the family, the one I put my hopes in. We were close, Boss and me, less than a year apart, alike in features and complexion-but he was slight for his age, and I felt motherly to him more than sisterly. I had decided I wouldn't give him up to the Lowries or the Home Guard. The Lowries would have to take me too if they took him, and the Guard would have to kill me. Boss was my darling, my little man. He didn't let me cuddle him anymore, but I could at least throw my arm around his shoulder and he would lean against me. He was who I loved most on earth.

Others loved him too-his blue-gray careful eyes, his slow deliberate talk, and his singing voice, second only to Henderson's. But Boss's own passion was for locks and clocks and springlatches, anything that had a mechanism of little parts. He could make gadgets work after other people had given up, using needles and a punchbelly file to fix the inner workings, those springs no bigger than a grain of rice and cogwheels smaller than a wedding ring. For our lock, he made a key from a spoon. He was an uncommonly directed boy. The pleasures young men often care for, drink and revelry, shooting and whoring or knocking women about, Boss showed no interest in. He never even wrestled Andrew-I did, and I was good at it.

But I don't mean Boss was scaredy or girlish. He only had his mind on other things, and his way was to watch and listen. Someday, he was going to be-well, I hesitate even now to say my plans for Boss. I had hopes for him so high that to tell them then would have made me sound crazy and still might. He was born for something more than ditching and chopping-and the future I dreamed up for him was work I'd never known anyone to aim for. I wanted him to be a poet. I wanted him to adventure out into the world and learn its ways, not losing himself in the jumble of life but seeing it with a poet's eye, and withdrawing later to a library room where he would write his poems of revelation. He would tell what he had seen. This was my big plan, one that today seems both a pipe dream and a prophecy. Boss never wrote a word in his life. But he did see.

—Reprinted from Nowhere Else on Earth by Josephine Humphreys by permission of Viking Publisher, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Josephine Humphreys. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

What People are Saying About This

Sue Halpern
It is one of those rare books -- wholly original and so resonant that its voices linger long after the last page has come and gone. (Of course this may have something to do with the fact that the novel, once finished, compels you to begin it again.) The inevitable comparisons come to mind - Lonesome Dove, Cold Mountain, much of Faulkner, the masterful literary histories -- but comparison, even to books as wonderful as these, diminishes Jo's accomplishment here. Shot through with quiet wisdom, funny, imbued with love, she has managed to put on the page the kind of storytelling that used to be the province of the front porch or of evenings before the fire, when time collapsed and long ago drew so near it was palpable.
Alfred Uhry
Nowhere Else on Earth absolutely throbs with passion. It moved me to tears. It's honest, it's gripping and it's exquisitely written. What an accomplishment!
From the Publisher
"Humphreys has always been a master of telling a larger story through a deceptively intimate narrative, and Rhoda's tale, with its clear, distinct voice, is no exception." —The New Yorker

"A novel so compelling works a kind of magic, casting a spell. . . . She has distilled to a splendid coherence the complexities of history and the human heart." —The Washington Post

"With fluid writing, nuanced characters, and a suspenseful pace, Humphreys blends historical romance with a meditation on the ambiguities of race and morality." —Time

"Josephine Humphreys has always been a very, very, good novelist...with Nowhere Else on Earth...[she] has taken a quantum leap—from very, very, good to extraordinary." —The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Though I loved her three previous novels, Nowhere Else on Earth ... the narrator, Rhoda Strong, belongs to the ages, a fabulous creation." Pat Conroy

Kaye Gibbons
Josephine Humphreys has written a masterpiece, a story of a rare woman, of time and place that achieves, somehow and most miraculously, more power as the pages are turned. Nowhere Else on Earth should be read immediately and for ever.

Meet the Author

Josephine Humphreys is the author of Dreams of Sleep, which won the 1985 Hemingway Foundation Award for a first work of fiction; of Rich in Love, made into a major motion picture; and of The Fireman's Fair (all available from Penguin).

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Nowhere Else on Earth 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read but a few historical fiction works that have propelled me in time and space to another world, but Nowhere Else on Earth grabbed hold of me, shook me and launched me into Civil War North Carolina. This is the kind of book that writers read for inspiration. From the inside jacket where a huge family tree depicts the lines of all the families in Scuffletown, North Carolina--the Lowries and the Oxendines--to the last page of the epilogue where the aftermath of the heroic tale is laid bare, this book took my breath away. I simply could not put it down. It is a huge creation.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1864 Scuffletown, many mixed-breed descendants of the native Lumbee Indian Tribe laboriously toil at the turpentine business. The group is extremely poor but work hard to help their families survive. Living nearby is wealthy and powerful Scottish plantation owners who still own black slaves. As the Civil War winds down, the residents of Scuffletown struggle with the Home Guard that conscripts their young males into building for the Confederacy. The Union soldiers are as ugly to town residents. The townsfolk want the war to go away so they can move on with their lives.

For defying the Confederacy, local citizen Henry Lowrie and some other men hide in the nearby swamps to escape his fellow Carolinians wrath. Eventually, Henry turns to robbery to survive and ultimately is accused of murder. As Henry makes love with teenager Rhoda Strong, his gentle father is hung as retribution for Henry's actions. He seeks revenge, but finds time to marry his beloved Rhoda before fleeing from the area during Reconstruction.

NOWHERE ELSE ON EARTH is an incredible accomplishment that showcases the talent of Josephine Humphreys. Rhoda narrates the story line as she looks back over the years to the havoc caused by the Civil War and the Reconstruction on her indigent people. The characters are fully developed especially the interrelationships in which race rules even amidst the Northern Army. The insightful plot provides a unique look at the Civil War that allows readers to grasp the torment yet valor of a small group under siege from all sides. Ms. Humphreys uses historical facts to bring to life a People during an era when the rights of a small minority are trampled.

Harriet Klausner