Harvest, by Jim Crace

Two fires disrupt harvest time in an isolated village, one on a nearby hill where some outsiders have camped and the other at Master Kent’s dovecot, which rapidly spreads to a barn. The latter is a bit of mischief by a couple of village lads that got out of hand, while the former “says, New neighbors have arrived; they’ve built a place; they’ve laid a hearth; they know the custom and the law. This first smoke has given them the right to stay. We’ll see.”

The narrator, Walter Thirsk, arrived with Master Kent as his manservant, when Kent came to the village to marry the daughter of the Old Master. Since then Walter has immersed himself in village life, working in the common fields with his neighbours, dancing to the pipe and fiddle, observing the age-old traditions of harvest followed by gleaning and the choosing of the Gleaning Queen to pick the first grain.

The two fires are only a foretaste of the changes coming to Walter’s village, a place where nothing has changed for as long as anyone can remember. There is the presence of an oddly shaped man who draws maps of Master Kent’s property, followed more ominously by Edmund Jordan, cousin to the late Mrs. Kent, who is laying claim to the property with the intention of enclosing the fields for sheep.

This richly detailed story immerses us in village life. Although a time period is not specified, it is most likely the late 18th century. The appearance of the strangers, most likely thrown off their land when the fields were enclosed, and the remoteness of Walter’s village lead me to think it is towards the end of the period of wholesale enclosure. Although I’ve read and thought about the changes—both good and bad—that followed in the wake of enclosure, I’ve learned a great deal from this book. It brought home to me what could likely happen during the process itself, the building distrust, the blaming of others.

It is a beautiful and disturbing book. It gripped my entire attention, immersing me in a way of life that vanished centuries ago. The portrait of that life that emerges is different from the Merrie England stereotype of singing ploughboys, an idyll of pastoral life before the Industrial Revolution swept the ploughboys and everyone else into the factories. There has been little to counteract this nostalgic view until recently when historians have begun examining the meager scrapings left behind by ordinary people, those outside the halls of power.

There is much here that speaks to our own time: the fear of change, the scapegoating of foreigners, the origins of our increasingly itinerant culture and its hordes of displaced people. Most disturbing to me is, as always, how easy it is to sway people. Walter says, “We’ve been ashamed, I think. And bewildered, truth be told. Bewildered by ourselves. These are not the customary village ways.”

I find myself thinking about how you can spend years making a place for yourself and still be an outside. Although Walter has lived now in the village for many years and married and buried one of its daughters, he is still considered a foreigner.

As my friend Laura, who gave me this book, observed, these are the effects of isolation. It is no surprise that, as Robert Reich said in a May 25 2014 Facebook post, “Liberalism thrives near oceans and major ports; conservatism is mainly inland (the same holds true for other nations and on other continents as well), because each depends on the amount of contact with others who are different. Lots of interaction with differing cultures, religions, and points of view – such as is typically the case in coastal regions with major ports – generates looser rules and greater tolerance; less interaction means tighter rules and less tolerance.”

I agree. But this is also why I've made reading and writing the core of my life because they open our lives to each other. Through literature we can directly experience another person's life, which helps us develop empathy.

What book has most disturbed you?

Myth of the Welfare Queen, by David Zucchino

Zucchino is a journalist who in this extremely well-written book sets out to explode the stereotype of the welfare queen that Ronald Reagan promulgated to persuade the public that all welfare recipients were cheating the system and driving around in gold Cadillacs collecting checks to which they were not entitled.

This was also the motive that drove me to write a memoir of my time on welfare, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother. I closed it with an epigraph from George Herbert: “Poverty is no sin.” I wrote not just about myself, but also about many of the other people I knew. The Writer's Almanac recently had a quote from Frank Capra: “I wanted to glorify the average man, not the guy at the top, not the politician, not the banker, just the ordinary guy whose strength I admire, whose survivability I admire.” I, too, admired the strength and survivability of the people around me who were bravely trying to get out of poverty despite overwhelming odds.

I also wanted to show that we were just parents and, like any other parent, only trying to do the best for our children. Zucchino does this as well by focusing his story on two Philadelphia women: Odessa Williams and Cheri Honkala. Despite ill health Odessa is the bulwark of her large extended family, the person everyone turns to for help. After taking in some of her grandchildren, she was forced to go back on welfare after many years of supporting herself and her family. Cheri is a activist for the homeless. She herself is able to rent a place for her son and herself out of her welfare check, but is dedicated to finding new ways to shame the city into providing help for the city's most vulnerable citizens.

Although the story takes place 15 years after I went off of welfare, there is much that I recognise. Odessa's daughter Elaine has tried repeatedly to get the training that would give her the credentials necessary to securing a job. When her latest training program is cancelled due to budget cuts the day before it is due to start, she says: “‘Seems like just when I start to rise up, . . . something comes along and—bam!—it knocks me back down.'”

When Odessa tells her grandson's therapist that she sometimes feels like giving up, the woman reminds her of what a good job she is doing of caring for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She says, “‘There's something good inside you—a big heart.'”

Rebecca's kind words had warmed her. It occurred to her that what she needed was acknowledgment, from someone in the world beyond Allegheny Avenue, of her deprivations and sacrifices. She did not expect it from her family; she took care of them because she loved them and because it was her duty. But to receive such reassurance from an outsider afforded her a sort of absolution for all her dark thoughts about abandoning her responsibilities.

This incident reminded me of how important my contacts with the world outside of other welfare moms were to me in my struggle to get out of poverty.

Cheri starts a tent city on the city of a former lace factory that has been burned and bulldozed. As winter falls she moves them into an abandoned church. We get to know several of the homeless folks, particularly two women with young children. Cheri's outrage reminds me of my own, especially when she is given some posters about corporate welfare, with photos of men from Disney, McDonald's and Lockheed Martin and the taxpayer money, ranging from $300,000 to $850 million, they received. “Below each man's photo were two paragraphs pointing out that AFDC accounted for less than 1 percent of the federal budget. The $14.4 billion spent on all social welfare programs in 1994, the message said, was dwarfed by the $104.3 billion spent on corporate welfare.” I especially liked the other message on the poster, which expresses a point I've often tried to make:

Everyone who drives on a toll-free highway, attends a public school or university, deducts mortgage interest payments from their income tax, or enjoys a national park is getting the equivalent of welfare from the federal government. In one way or another, we are all welfare recipients.

The truly sad part of the book is that Zucchino's portrait of the two women is just before Clinton signed the welfare reform act in 1996 that effectively removed the safety net; it “revoked the federal guarantee of welfare cash to low-income families with dependent children.” So as hard as the lives are of those portrayed in this book, we know they are about to get a lot harder.

It is almost impossible, unless you are a highly paid professional or a trust fund baby, for a single parent to make enough money to pay for even the barest living expenses plus child care. The way this country has turned its back on its children continues to shock me. Investing in our children is investing in the country's future.

What book have you read that helped you understand another way of life?

The Stone Carvers, by Jane Urquhart

Last week I wrote about a rural family where a girl leaves home—because of restlessness and a desire to see the world, as we are led to believe—while her brother stays and tends his orchard. In this story as well, set some decades later, we have a sister and brother, but here it is the brother who has the wandering gene.

In a remote village in Ontario in the beginning of the 20th century Klara and her brother Tilman are taught how to carve by their grandfather, who emigrated from Bavaria as a young man in search of better wood to carve. He makes a life for himself, working at a gristmill and carving beautiful statues for the church that a priest arriving from Bavaria decides to build in what was then barely a settlement far off in the woods.

Of course, Joseph Becker never thought that his granddaughter would be able to master carving—better for the girl to learn to sew—but he lets her tag along while he teaches Tilman, the child he expects to carry on his work, the enormously gifted boychild.

But Tilman, even as a child, wants to be off and away. He does learn to carve, but only wants to carve the small background landscape, the road leading off into the world. at first he leaves and returns, traveling with hobos, learning to ride the rails, but eventually he leaves for good, while Klara stays. She makes clothes for people in the village and works on her statue of an abbess, living a quiet life, until a young man, a neighbor, begins coming to sit in her kitchen, watching her work but—to her fury—not saying anything.

Urquhart is one of my favorite writers, and this is one of her best books. I find it hard to summarize because of its complexity, though it reads like a dream. It’s about people with big dreams: to build a huge stone church with a bell in remote pioneer settlement in Ontario, to build a huge monument to the Canadian dead at Vimy Ridge. It’s about people with small dreams: to marry and create a home, to find the next meal, to preserve the names of the dead.

Canada suffered in the Great War in ways that the U.S. did not. While this novel is about the war, it is mostly about the effects of the war on those at home and those who return, too few, as Wilfred Owen said, “too few for drums.” The book made me think about memorials and what purposes, intended and not, they serve. My local parks are crammed with statues of generals and brave men on horses, but more important for me are those which bring home the cost of these wars: the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.

The book also made me think about the parents in Canada, on this Mother’s Day. I’ve read and thought so much about this war, I didn’t think there was a new perspective. Then Urquhart wrote about the reverse migration, the parents who left war-torn Europe for a hard but peaceful life in Canada watching their sons migrate back across the Atlantic to fight Europe’s war. And I thought of a song by singer-songwriter Josh Hisle, an Iraq War veteran: “Stay home . . .”

What war memorial has moved you the most or made you think?

The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin

This stunning debut novel was my book club’s selection for this month. William Talmadge’s life is a quiet one, tending his apple and apricot trees, selling his produce in town. His movements as he inspects his trees, grafts a branch, fixes coffee are slow and deliberate, well-suited to the pace of life in rural Washington State at the end of the 19th century. When two girls show up, both pregnant and starving, he feeds and protects them. They are feral, too fearful to come close, grabbing the plates of food and withdrawing to the woods to eat.

A nurturing man, Talmadge has created this orchard starting with the two ailing apple trees that he and his mother and sister found on the land back in 1857. His mother passed only three years later, and he cared for his sister until she wandered off into the woods only two years after that, and not found again. He searched for the 17-year-old, helped by his friend, Clee, a mute Nez Perce, leader of a band of horse wranglers who stopped in Talmadge’s valley a couple of times a year.

There are many silences in this book: Clee’s muteness, the sisters’ refusal to talk to Talmadge, the secrets later that blossom and spread. Later, when Talmadge has lost one of the girls, “a kind of vacancy, a silence, hung around him, like a mantle on his shoulders.” And later, sitting at a campfire with Clee, Talmadge reflects on the sound of the horses:

The sound was loud and soft at the same time, like the sound upon which other sound was built. You didn’t hear the horses until you listened for them; and then they were very loud. Already Talmadge was becoming used to them. How that presence equated with silence until it was gone, and then you understood what silence really was.

I was entranced by the beauty and power of the prose, feeling as though I could happily drown in the luscious paragraphs, the startling turn of phrase, the unexpected thrust. Part 1, the first 90 pages, simply blew me away. After that, the story loses some momentum, but by then I wanted to follow Talmadge’s story to the end. There are some flaws in the book, which I will mention since this is a blog about the craft of writing (usually), but let me reinforce that this is a beautiful book.

Though the members of my book club disagreed about some things—one person thought the girls’ background was preposterous given the time period while others of us found it believable—we all agreed that other than Talmadge the characters were rather flat. We just didn’t see enough of them beyond a single dimension. The one other character who seems to be developed, the younger of the two girls, struck some of us as inconsistent and not plausible.

We also found the remainder of the book, after Part 1, choppy. To some extent that came from the very short chapters in the later parts, some only a page or a half page or even a quarter of a page. Even the longer chapters are only 3-5 pages. The short bursts of text advanced the plot in flashes, without the sustained narrative of the first part. In some places, it felt a bit padded, leading me to wonder if the book started as a 90-page novella that was then stretched into a book. I also thought the last part should be cut entirely. A brief summary of the orchard’s life in the following decades, it raises many questions that it does not answer. I thought perhaps the author loved the place and the characters too much to let them go.

At a book release party today, several of us authors were talking about how essential a critique group is in the development of a manuscript. We need other eyes to tell us when we are being long-winded or too much in love with our own sentences. If I were editing this book, I would have trouble cutting it (other than that last part) because of being myself so in love with Coplin’s sentences. Still, I think it would have benefited from losing about a hundred pages. To our surprise, even the slack parts maintained the suspense, but one person astutely noted that the author shows us each character’s vulnerability and how each one is at risk, making us fear for them.

The Orchardist is not just a story of silences but also a story of solitude and how we communicate and what we owe to each other. In other words, exactly the kind of story I like. I especially loved the descriptions of Della learning to ride and to communicate with the horses. It reminded me of my struggle to learn to ride in my fifties and how the great benefit to me was learning to “listen” to the horse’s language.

Despite my few caveats, I recommend this book. It will take you away to another time and place, and you will be reluctant to return.

Have you read this novel? What did you think?