Review: So Long, see you Tomorrow, by William Maxwell

Take away the pitcher and the bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats.  Take away the horse barn too — the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the open door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead. (p. 113)

Life can change dramatically and irrevocably in a split second.  This happened to Cletus Smith when his father, Clarence, a tenant farmer, shot and killed his friend and neighboring farmer, Lloyd Wilson.  In imagining the impact of this event, William Maxwell goes well beyond the obvious (a man dead, a family in mourning), to understand how the murder came to happen in the first place, and how these factors would have affected Cletus.

The narrator of this story was Cletus’ childhood friend only briefly, just before the murder.  And children, as we know, are highly unreliable narrators.  Many years later he gained access to newspaper accounts, and developed a more complete picture.  And yet, he understands even this view is unreliable:

What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw. (p. 27)

Despite this acknowledged flaw, our narrator reconstructs the events that led to Lloyd Wilson’s murder, and tells an emotional story of two families, a friendship, and marriages gone sour.  Our narrator is also not immune to tragedy and its aftermath: he lost his mother at a young age, and saw the devastating impact on his father.  Children are but observers of this drama, and are powerless to influence it.

Maxwell writes with such economy, packing surprising emotional depth into just a few sentences.  Take, for example, the quote that opens this review: can’t you just feel Cletus’ entire world crumbling around him?  A few pages later Maxwell describes the family dog’s response as her world also changes forever, and instead of appearing silly or superfluous, it reinforced the weight of the tragedy that befell this family.  And always, running through the story like a current, is the narrator’s guilt over how he treated Cletus later on.  He keeps trying to “rearrange things to conform to this end,” and simply cannot.  This is a powerful story; highly recommended.

A special thank-you to Rachel @ Booksnob for recommending this book.  In her review she wrote, “the sparse words slowly wind their way around your heart, squeezing it until you are overcome with emotion for the men in this novel, whose lives gave them so little, and for whom happiness was never quite achieved.”  That’s so true, and I’m only sorry it took me over a year to get around to reading this gem.

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Review: Homestead, by Rosina Lippi

There’s a surprising amount of depth and meaning in this slim novel, that builds slowly and quietly through each of its 12 chapters.  The story is set in a remote region of the Austrian alps, and told in the voices of women from 1909 to 1977, who managed life, love, and family on their rural homestead.

Life was hard: subsistence farming, few “modern conveniences,” limited educational opportunities, and a clear but restrictive definition of a woman’s role.  Most women made do and were happy; some worked hard to escape.  In the opening chapter, Anna, a young mother, receives a mysterious postcard which appears to be from a long lost lover.  The post-mistress makes sure everyone knows about it, causing much gossip.  Anna imagines the writer and his lifestyle and composes an elaborate reply, which she later abbreviated to a simple acknowledgement and apology, because his card has been misdirected.  As this unfolds, the reader is also introduced to Anna’s husband and children, characters who will figure prominently in later chapters.

In a rural area such as this, everyone seems to be related to everyone else.  Thankfully Rosina Lippi included clan charts showing the genealogy of each homestead.  While careful study of these while reading reveals small spoilers, I found them invaluable to keep track of generations and relationships.

Every one of these women was amazing, in their capacity for physical labor, and their commitment to families and to one another.  Each chapter reveals details about those who came before, some of which were closely guarded family secrets.  This provided the depth I mentioned before, and usually sent me off to re-read earlier chapters, taking new facts into account.  When I reached the end, I felt like I had an incredibly rich tapestry in my hands, and I stood back to admire Lippi’s achievement.

Review: The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

Americans had become a force of awful geology, changing the face of the earth more than ‘the combined activities of volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, and all the excavations of mankind since the beginning of history.’ (p. 127)

In the 1930s, the American prairie was repeatedly subjected to dust storms: huge clouds of dirt that moved across the land.  The storms made roads impassable, filled homes with dust, suffocated livestock, and infiltrated people’s lungs.  Many died from what was called “dust pneumonia.”  This was initially thought to be a freak of nature, a rare meteorological happening.  But as the storms pummeled the plains day after day, the government commissioned experts to investigate.  They soon learned the storms were the result of human behavior going back to the turn of the century.

The explorer Stephen Long wrote about the Great Plains, “I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”  Nevertheless, after the US government ousted the Native Americans from their lands, a syndicate sought to make a buck by offering cheap land and promises of prosperity.  They distributed attractive brochures across the eastern part of the country, and to immigrants at major entry points.  The people came, and they farmed.  But agricultural success was short-lived.  Extensive farming and over-plowing, coupled with drought, weakened the soil system and sent it blowing up into the air.  As the dust storms became a daily occurrence, along came the Depression, and by 1940 the Great Plains were a very different place indeed.

Timothy Egan tells the story of the dust bowl through the lives of those who survived life on the plains during that time.  These survivors were still living, and his direct access resulted in a vivid, realistic, and very human portrait of this period in American history.  His accounts of dust storms are real page turners — narrative non-fiction at its best.  Egan had access to historical records too, of course.  Don Hartwell’s diary was one of the most moving parts of this book, recounting the decline of his farm, his livelihood, and his community in spare sentences, like these from 1939:

Feb. 5

I have felt lost lately — not knowing where to turn or what to do. In fact, if one hasn’t ‘got’ anything, there is not much he can do.

July 10

The same clear, glaring sky & vicious blaze killing sun. Cane is about dead, corn is being damaged; it will soon be destroyed. Those who coined the phrase ‘There’s no place like Nebraska’ wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don’t have to die to go to hell.

Sept 18

There are no dances here anymore — nothing but silence, emptiness, ‘respectability.’

It’s positively heart-breaking, and with growing concern about climate change today, I couldn’t help but wonder if humankind is heading down a similar path.  Have we learned from past mistakes?  It gives one pause.

Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

These days, human society faces increasingly complex food choices: low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, organic, etc.  What does “cage-free” or “free range” mean?  Which alternatives are better for you?  And where does your food come from, anyway?  In this book, Michael Pollan set out to trace three basic food chains: the industrial, the pastoral alternative, and the old-fashioned hunter-gatherer.  Along the way, he made some important discoveries about our food supply, most notably the consequences of oversimplifying nature’s principles in pursuit of industrial efficiency.

Written in an engaging, narrative style, the reader follows Pollan as he traces a steer from birth to plate and discusses the surprisingly pervasive role of corn in our food supply.  He then travels to an innovative farm, managed as a complex ecosystem producing meat for local consumption. Finally, he treks into the forest to hunt game and gather wild mushrooms.  Each of these adventures is described with a balance of personal experience and primary research.  Somehow it makes it all more digestible (pardon the pun) to read the facts and figures even as we learn that Pollan didn’t like waking up early, and often overslept.  But despite this being a very accessible read, it had a tendency to stray into personal memoir.  Towards the end, I began to lose interest.  In part, I just didn’t want to read about hunting with a firearm.  But I also didn’t enjoy Pollan’s navel-gazing about the experience, nor did I really care about Pollan as “foodie,” preparing a special meal for friends.  That’s why this book earned only three stars from me.

And yet. Pollan’s message is incredibly important.  Pollan writes, “Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting.”  (p. 84)  I chose a vegetarian diet four years ago, because I am unwilling to play a personal role in the slaughter of animals for food, I prefer not to contribute to the environmental impact of the fossil fuels used in industrial meat production & transportation, and I could no longer look at supermarket meat without a keen awareness of what it once was, and the path it took to get there.  I respect each person’s right to make their own decision in this regard, and highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma as essential reading to understand where our food comes from, examine your values around food production, and begin to make choices aligned with those values.

On a related note, visit Marie @ The Boston Bibliophile, and read her excellent review of Fast Food Nation.

Review: The Crowded Street, by Winifred Holtby

Winifred Holtby was such an advanced, groundbreaking voice for women in the 1930s.  In The Crowded Street, her second novel and one of her most successful, Holtby gives us Muriel Hammond: smart but shy, unable to attract male attention and overly concerned about “doing the right thing” in the eyes of her parents.  Early on, Muriel’s academic ambitions are thwarted by the headmistress at school:

Then, with a kindliness that Muriel found consoling even though it sounded the death knell to her hopes, Mrs. Hancock explained how there were some things that it was not suitable for girls to learn.  Astronomy, the science of the stars, was a very instructive pursuit for astronomers, and professors (these latter being evidently a race apart), but it was not one of those things necessary for a girl to learn. ‘How will it help you, dear, when you, in your future life, have, as I hope, a house to look after?’ (p. 29)

On leaving school, Muriel returns home out of some sense of obligation to her mother, who invests considerable time and effort in finding her a suitable match.  Muriel has feelings for Godfrey Neale, a local landowner, but he seems to always be just beyond her reach.  Muriel’s younger sister Connie, tired of the stifling home environment, strikes out on her own to work on a farm but her independent life is far from trouble-free.  As Muriel reaches her mid-twenties, popular opinion has it she will never marry.  She fears becoming like her spinster Aunt Beatrice, who paints a bleak picture:

‘But even more for your own sake, dear. You will marry, I am sure. Marriage is the — the crown and joy of woman’s life — what we were born for — to have a husband and children, and a little home of your own. Of course there are some of us to whom the Lord has not pleased to give this. I’m sure I’m not complaining. There may be many compensations, and of course He knows best. But — it’s all right while you’re young, Muriel, and there’s always a chance — and when my dear mother was alive and I had someone to look after I am sure no girl could have been happier. It’s when you grow older and the people who needed you are dead. And you haven’t a home nor anyone who really wants you — and you hate to stay too long in a house in case somebody else should want to come — and of course it’s quite right. Somebody had to look after Mother. Everybody can’t marry.’ (p. 223)

Most stories from the early 20th century would tackle this problem Jane Austen style, with the perfect man appearing on the scene to rescue the young woman and offer her a life of security, if not happiness.  But Holtby has other ideas, ultimately giving Muriel the strength to forge her own path, one that is not exactly what her mother had in mind but is thankfully vastly different from Aunt Beatrice’s experience.  Between The Crowded Street and her masterpiece, South Riding, Holtby showed early twentieth century women a new path, with new options, and paved the way for social change.

Review: My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

While the train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything.  The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the colour and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and grey as sheet-iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it.  (from the Introduction to My Ántonia)

If you didn’t grow up in a little prairie town, the next best way to experience it is through Willa Cather’s writing.  Set in late 19th century Nebraska, My Ántonia is narrated by Jim Burden, a young man who comes of age on the prairie and forges a lifelong friendship with a slightly older Bohemian immigrant girl.  The novel moves at a leisurely pace, as life probably did in those days.  Farm life is filled with hard labor.  Town dwellers are considered of a higher class, with more social and educational opportunities.  Jim experiences both lifestyles, beginning on the farm as a young boy and moving to town when he reaches school age.  Ántonia also eventually comes to town, to work in service for a local family.  There’s a strong bond between the two, but one limited by age and class.

Cather paints a vivid portrait of frontier life.  It’s easy to visualize the landscape, to feel the dust on your arms and legs, and the cold wind blowing around the house on a winter night.  And as she describes the seasons, you feel like you’re right there:

There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only — spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind — rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I would have known that it was spring. (p. 120)

My Ántonia is deceptively simple.  Cather recounts the simple events of prairie life:  the harvest, tent dances, and town gossip.  Years pass and events unfold with few plot twists.  But as the novel moves toward its conclusion, there are moments of surprising depth and emotional impact which landed this book its 4-star rating.


Review: The Land of Green Ginger, by Winifred Holtby

Joanna Burton was born in South Africa but raised in Yorkshire, and as a young woman had dreams of traveling around the world.  But then she fell in love with Teddy Leigh, and married in haste because of the war.  When Teddy returned, she realized how little she knew of him and came to understand the life that awaited her.  Teddy was in poor health, and unable to follow his early dream to become a minister.  The couple had a small farm but were not  successful farmers.  They could barely provide for themselves and their two daughters.

When a group of eastern European laborers establish a camp on the outskirts of their village, Joanna and Teddy befriend one of their leaders, Paul Szermai.  They offer him lodging in their home as a way to bring in extra income.  Paul’s presence is welcome at first, but then causes a rift between Joanna and Teddy.  Joanna tries to meet the needs of Teddy, her daughters, and Paul, as well as keep up with the farm and household chores, but it all proves a bit much.  She imagines correspondence with old school friends, who have long since stopped sending letters:

She used at first to write long letters to her friends, Agnes Darlington and Rachel Harris.  But as the chickens increased and the prosperity of the farm decreased, she had less and less time somehow to answer letters. Therefore the letters which she never answered dwindled and dwindled.  She seemed utterly removed from the world she had known before her marriage.  (p. 38)

Winifred Holtby paints a portrait of Yorkshire village life, with a rich cast of characters from all classes.  She shows the stark economic divide between the upper and lower classes, sometimes by describing them directly and sometimes through witty descriptions of a scene:

The passengers on the crowded tender living Tilbury dock buttoned their coats tightly against the keen October air. Third- and first-class passengers, huddled together, regarded each other with the suspicion that precedes the separation of sheep from goats by the unequivocal barrier of a steel railing. 

Holtby also depicts most of the villagers as small-minded and cruel.  Rumors about Joanna and Paul abound, especially after Teddy insists they attend a dance together when he is not well enough to go.  And even though there is a scene, Joanna still doesn’t quite grasp how she is perceived by others.  When Joanna is finally forced to face the reality of her situation she says to herself, “Bidgood had been right. It was not the truth but people’s idea of the truth which made it possible for one to live in society.”

Circumstances force Joanna into a dramatic decision, but one left me hopeful that she would one day realize the dreams of her youth.