Authors: Michelle Hoover
Additional Praise for
is a rare jewel of a novel: an elegantly structured page-turner driven as much by its exquisite lyricism as by the gripping story at its core. It wondrously weaves a riveting half century of American Midwestern history through the sensual, intimate, often strange details that make up a life. Michelle Hoover is a stunning writer, and this is a fierce and beautiful book.”
—MAUD CASEY, author of
, through its carefully wrought, precise prose, builds with a heartrending power that lingers long after the final page. Michelle Hoover is a writer to watch.”
—DON LEE, author of
Wrack and Ruin
“From the opening pages of this beautiful novel, I found myself immersed in the lives of these two farm women between the wars and their struggles with their families, themselves, the land, and each other.
is such a fully realized, sensually vivid, psychologically intelligent novel that it’s hard to believe it is a debut, but it is, and a sparkling one.”
—MARGOT LIVESEY, author of
The House on Fortune Street
“Just as the women and men in this strikingly assured debut novel wrest life out of the land they work, Michelle Hoover wrests from her characters’ hearts, and from this heart-touching story, understandings rich in complexity and compassion. She paints the intricacies of their interiors as skillfully as she does the details of the world that surrounds them. What a gift she has given us in this wise book that lets us so vividly experience both.”
—JOSH WEIL, author of
The New Valle
For my mother, Loren,
her mother, Angelie,
and her mother, Melva
(Summer 1913–Spring 1914)
My boy, you might think an old woman hasn’t much to say about the living, but your grandmother knows when a person does right by her and when they don’t. In this bed, I have little else to do but scratch my life down with this pencil. And I have little left to me but the thought of you my grandchild who I’ve known only in the warmth of your mother’s belly under my hand. Even if you never come home, you should understand the way our life once was, your grandfather, your mother, and I, and all the little things that make its loss so very terrible in my mind. The Morrow family, they were a worry to ours from day one. And once you know what they took from us, you might just understand the kind of people you come from.
It wasn’t until late in the summer of 1913 that your grandfather and I began to work this farm from the acres of weeds and grasses it was to a fine place. A place where we could earn a living. That’s what a beginning is. My father and his father and his father before that had lived within the same ten square miles of land. Even after I married, I didn’t move farther from home than a day’s wagon ride. I’d seen no other landscape as a child. Had never dreamt of it. A farm is where I was born. Where I would always live. I’d known it from the day my mother walked me through the
fields and rubbed her fingers in the dirt, putting her thumb to my mouth so I could taste the dust and seed we lived on. She said this was home. When I asked her if there was anything else, she shook her head. “Nowhere you need pay any mind to,” she said. “Not for the likes of us.”
It was only a month after I’d lost my father that Frank and I first came to this place. We married on a Sunday, as Frank thought right, the chapel holding only our families and a few friends. There we stood, both in our thirties, Frank the older by eight years and graying at the temples. He wore a borrowed suit that showed his ankles and wrists, I in a dove-colored dress, my red hair combed smooth to lessen my height. Afterward we ate cake and berries and they tasted too sweet. We opened our gifts. My mother swept a spot of frosting from my chin and drew out my arms to look at the fit of my dress. I’d always been a big woman, suited more for the farm than for marrying, an old bride as I was back then. My cousins had to squint to find the ring on my hand.
Only late did we return to what Frank had made our home. This same house, with borrowed furniture in the rooms. The house smelled of earth and smoke. Frank had polished the wood and swept the floors, leaving the broom to rest on the front porch. He’d spent most of his years working to buy the house and land, much of it still in sorry condition. Though he didn’t speak of it, his family were croppers. He’d seldom had a thing of his own. Now the both of us had a fair bit, and after the loss of my father, I was as determined as Frank to keep it. When I hurried in, Frank took that broom
under his arm and strummed me a song, a sorry frown on his face when he pretended the broom had snapped a string. I grinned, dropping a penny at his feet. This was my husband, a string of a man himself with a good bit of humor in him. He was fair-skinned with black hair and long limbs, his eyes fainter than any blue I’d ever seen. If anything, I knew him to be kind and hardworking, and that was enough. Behind a curtain of chintz was the bed he’d made. The sheets were white and damp with the weather, and in the night they proved little warmth. Outside, the animals in the barn were still. I could smell them through the window. But inside, this was what marriage was.
I’d left those ten square miles and moved to the next county over, a place that looked and smelled the same as my father’s land. The difference was my part in this place. I was a wife, and not until that night did I know what the word meant.
It was still dark the next morning when I carried water back from the well, wearing the whitest skirts I owned. I filled a large basin in the smokehouse, dunked the bed sheets in. The water in the basin reddened. The stain on the sheets loosened and spread. It was the same that had stained me in the early morning and sent Frank hurrying away to milk. My mother had told me if a husband was easy, if he was a good man, the first night wouldn’t be trouble. “Maybe it will be better,” she’d said. But she hadn’t said a word about this. In the smokehouse, my hands puckered from the long time I scrubbed. The sheets turned a muddy pink, my chest and arms wet. The light of my kerosene lamp fell against the skin
of hogs hung to smoke, a gift to us, their torsos stripped and twisting slow on the hooks caught in their spines.
Outside I kicked the basin over, let the bloody water sink into the dirt. There were fewer trees around the house then. They did not make much noise in the wind. Gnats and midges circled my feet, a knocking in my chest. A good man, I thought. But Frank was nearly a stranger to me, as I was to him. Beyond that stain, a mist crept over the fields. The land seemed barren in the early morning, not another living creature. In only two months was the harvest and we would be planting late. We wouldn’t have much to keep us through winter. The night before had given me a full-up feeling, a kind of lightness and pain. But with the smell of meat from the smokehouse and the dark-wetted dirt, that feeling turned into misgiving. When finally I’d gathered myself, I pinned those sheets to the line where they whipped together and I left them for the sun.
In the kitchen I fixed a pot of oats and filled a pan with milk, the milk trembling around my spoon as I stirred. At the door of my parents’ house, my mother had waited only days before with a jar of jam under her arm, raising her chin to see us go off. With my father gone, she rented out the land and kept the house to herself, an arrangement that would agree with her for many years more. She was a small woman, my mother. Her skirts she hemmed nearly twice as high as my own and still they grew ragged from the ground. But she had a steadiness to her and a strength that made her larger in that doorway than most men. My mother wouldn’t speak of her worries about me. She wasn’t the kind. Still, that jar of rhubarb jam seemed as red as her cheeks just then,
and the sky, she said, it didn’t look right. When I took it from her, the jar was warm, but as I held it close to me in the wagon, it cooled. I had my bedclothes and pillows with me. I had a trunk full of notions. But with that jam, I knew I could carry my mother for only a short while. Now opening the jar again, my eyes teared as I brushed my thumb through. The jam tasted grainy and thick. When I let it hang on the tip of my thumb and tasted it again, it soothed the cracks of my skin and filled my mouth with sweetness.
Outside, the sheets clapped together. If I squinted right, I could imagine a child playing between them. In the wind, the sheets caught the child up and lifted him giggling from the dirt. If I could have squinted well enough, I’d have brought that child straight into this house. I’d have heard him stepping in, boots on his feet. With Frank’s black hair and blue eyes I imagined him, and the heavy hands that were his mother’s, suited more to a boy than any young woman. Children are a way of keeping things, or so I once believed. They plant you to this earth, give you roots to stay a while. Now in the kitchen, I wondered just how long it would be until I had one of my own. With that boy stamping his feet on our floor, I’d have asked if he wanted some jam. If he opened his mouth, I would have held my finger out.
The wind rose. Like a clock the sheets ticked against their line, counting the time I would sit and wait for Frank to return.
In the fall we spent mornings in the barn. Back then we had a dozen cows, sixteen hogs, four hens, and two horses.
We had a few tons of hay and fifty bushels of corn. When the light came, we worked the fields and saved what we’d planted from rot, late in the season as our planting was. Our farm was a hundred and eighty acres, straight and fine as you could want with hardly a tree or stone to break it, as most of it was bottomland. The sky here was low and wide. A place you could spy the weather from a good ways off. Our house sat like a small wooden marker in the countryside. Stooped and curiously held together, hidden by the shade of trees. The porches lay level to the dust and fields. Acres of farmland stretched in every direction, gray-green and buzzing. The gravel road that cuts across our yard, it did so even then. Most of it was mud and stones and suited more for horses than the trucks that rumble past now. The sharp, sweet stink of mud and pigs rode the wind, our barn alone against the distance. Splitting the chores between us, Frank and I often worked without sight of the other until evening. That’s where I was then, out weeding the rows by hand with the shoots I pulled my only company. The Morrows were our only neighbors for miles.
“Hard work,” a voice called out. I turned my head. A woman stood stalk-straight in my field. She was nearly my own age but pale-skinned. The shawl over her shoulders was the color of gold. Our house lay at her back, a path between her and it, as if she’d just walked from the place herself. A spirit, I thought, drifting as she seemed and too delicate for such country. The way she twitched reminded me of a bird.
“Wouldn’t be work if it wasn’t,” I answered.
“But it’s awful hard, isn’t it? And hot as a buzzard. I don’t think I’ve ever seen dust like this. Like it’ll never wash off.”