Review 1692: The Horseman

I was in the midst of putting a hold on Tim Pears’ The Redeemed to read for my Walter Scott prize project when I noticed that it was the third in his West Country Trilogy. The prize judges have an annoying habit of picking books for their shortlist that are well into a series, and I have paid the price before of trying to read just the nominated book, which you would assume would stand on its own. But sometimes not, so I went ahead and got the first two books of the trilogy as well. The Horseman is the first.

It is 1911. Leo Sercombe is the son of a carter on Lord Prideaux’s country estate in Western England. Leo is twelve and speaks seldom, but he has a strong love for and interest in horses. He frequently slacks off from school to help work on the various farms that make up the estate, and he is beginning to attract the attention of the estate’s head groom for his talent with horses.

Sharing his love of horses is the lord’s twelve-year-old daughter, Lottie, whom Leo occasionally encounters.

The novel minutely observes everyday life in an early 20th century rural setting, particularly the work. Although it is occasionally lyrical, the writing is mostly spare. I wasn’t sure how much I was enjoying it but somehow kept reading, even though terminology and process sometimes escaped me. I was actually intending to read a completely different book next, as I often do with series, but the ending, which is sudden and unexpected, made me want to read the next book immediately. If it’s a fast-paced novel you are looking for, this one is not for you, as it is more concerned with detail.

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Day 1052: A Farm Dies Once a Year

Cover for A Farm Dies Once a YearA Farm Dies Once a Year is Arlo Crawford’s memoir of growing up on his parents’ organic vegetable farm in Pennsylvania. It focuses particularly on a summer and fall when Crawford returned to the farm as an adult.

Crawford had been living in New York and then Cambridge, Massachusetts, for years before he decided to return home to the farm for a few months before relocating with his girlfriend, Sarah, to San Francisco. Although he was never interested in farming, he found himself at a loss for what he wanted to do with his life.

In between descriptions of hard work and uncertainty on the farm and his father’s worry and fits of anger, Crawford tells the story of his parents’ decision to become farmers. He talks about the first years of difficult life in Appalachian Pennsylvania, his boyhood on the farm, and significant episodes, particularly the senseless murder of a family friend and neighbor when Arlo was 12.

This is a well-written account, evoking both the beauty of the countryside and the sheer hard work of farming a large operation and marketing the produce. It reflects Crawford’s ambivalent attitude toward his home and his parents’ legacy. I enjoyed it very much.

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Day 1031: A Country Marriage

Cover for A Country MarriageMary Springer marries George Strong even though she hardly knows him. She has been raised with the idea that a good marriage is her only option in life, and George is a good catch. His family owns the farm of Summerleas, and even though he is not the oldest son, she will be provided for. What Mary doesn’t know is that someone else wants her new husband, Annie, his brother Tom’s wife.

Mary has other surprises in store. She is not to live at Summerleas after all, because the farm will not support the two youngest sons. Instead, she and George will live at dark, damp Keeper’s Cottage. Also, George has only one idea about their intimate life, and it doesn’t include affection or companionship.

George is also involved with a group called the Radicals, who are working for better pay for farm laborers. But they use extreme tactics, like destroying farm machinery and burning hayricks.

This novel conveys the difficult life of rural workers in the early half of the 19th century and covers an important issue of the times. I sympathized with Mary’s plight, but felt that some of her behavior later in the novel was completely out of character.

At some point, the plot devolves into a focus on two illicit love affairs. I didn’t find this plot line interesting, nor do I care for three-page-long sex scenes, although some may think they’re romantic. Goddard has given this novel a subtitle “A Summerleas Novel,” so she seems to be planning a series about the family. I didn’t have enough interest to continue, however.

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Day 685: A Thousand Acres

Cover of A Thousand AcresBest Book of the Week!
A Thousand Acres is a powerful novel set mostly in 1979 rural Iowa. It evokes a completely realized world that is complex and secret.

Ginny Smith has lived on the family farm all her life. Her husband Ty farms alongside her father, Larry Cook, and she and Ty live on what used to be their neighbor’s property, which Larry has bought to make his thousand acres of land. Ginny’s sister Rose also lives on the farm, and her husband Pete works with Larry as well, a bit less comfortably. The women’s youngest sister Caroline is a lawyer in Des Moines.

Ginny is proud of her family’s accomplishment in creating a fine, well-run farm out of the swampland her great-grandparents bought sight unseen. It soon becomes clear that the farm and the relationship to the land is the most important thing to her family—to all of the families in the area.

At a local barbecue, Larry makes an unexpected announcement. He will create a corporation of the farm and hand it over to his three daughters. Ginny, who is mild-mannered, is taken aback and has doubts, but she does not say anything. Rose seems to be enthusiastic. Caroline simply says “I don’t know,” at which point, Larry petulantly cuts her out. When she tries to approach him later, he slams the door in her face.

Harold Clark, another older farmer, has his prodigal son Jess return after an absence of many years. Almost immediately, he begins to favor Jess over his more loyal and hard-working son Loren.

If this all is beginning to sound familiar, it should, for A Thousand Acres is a modern re-imagining of King Lear. This novel, however, turns the original on its head, for we see it from the point of view of the two “greedy” sisters. In fact, Smiley accomplishes a rather clever trick, because while the neighbors and townspeople see events occur that, from their points of view, seem parallel to those of the play, the readers of the novel are conscious of a whole new layer of information, about how two old men lie and exaggerate when they don’t get their way, and how family secrets fuel Ginny’s timidity and Rose’s rage.

This novel presents complicated, flawed characters in a fully realized setting. It is really excellent and thought-provoking.

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Day 628: Anne of Green Gables

Cover for Anne of Green GablesI have not read Anne of Green Gables since I was about ten, and I’m delighted to report that it is a book that offers as much enjoyment to an adult reader as to a child. As a child, I threw myself wholeheartedly into Anne’s delights and misfortunes, but as an adult, I am more able to appreciate the abundant humor of the novel.

Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert are an elderly brother and sister with a farm in Avonlea on Prince Edward Island. They have taken a momentous decision to adopt an orphan boy to help Matthew on the farm. They sent word to an acquaintance who went to adopt a girl, and she has brought an orphan back for them on the train.

But when Matthew arrives at the station, he finds not an orphan boy but a girl, a funny looking, skinny, red-headed girl. Matthew is a shy and reticent man, and he sees nothing to do but take the girl home and let Marilla break the news that there’s been a mistake. So, they set off home for Green Gables, the excitable Anne Shirley prattling all the way back.

When Anne learns she isn’t wanted after all, she is devastated. But when Marilla takes her to see another woman who might want an orphan girl, she can’t quite bring herself to leave Anne with the mean-mouthed woman with a reputation for mistreating the help (as an orphan would often be regarded at that time, not as a member of the family). Despite her better judgment, Marilla decides to keep Anne.

Thus begins this delightful novel about a young, imaginative girl who is always running into trouble. For Anne is romantic and dreamy and full of big ideas that often go wrong. The delight for me as an adult in reading this sentimental tale is the dry humor of Marilla, as she learns to love Anne and all her mischief. This is a lovely and fun book to read, particularly if you love any other volatile little red-headed girls.

Day 615: The Rural Life

Cover for The Rural LifeThe Rural Life is a collection of essays, more like musings by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a writer of the editorial board for the New York Times. Most of the essays were previously published in the Times and are related to his rural life, whether through his family history on an Iowa farm, his own farm in upstate New York, his father’s ranch in the Sierras, or travels to various western states.

I thought this would be an interesting and perhaps informative book, as I plan to be leading the rural life within a couple of years. Certainly many of Klinkenborg’s essays struck a chord with me. I liked best the pieces that do not go far from nature, whether he is discussing the care of bees, the lushness of his farm in the summer, or the beauty of a snow fall. Occasionally, he gets a little more philosophical than I am interested in.

The book is beautifully written. It occasionally confused me because it is ordered in chapters by month, and in the summer months he seems to be hopping back and forth between his farm and Wyoming. It wasn’t until a paragraph at the end that I discovered the book combines essays written over several years.

Day 453: Burial Rites

Cover for Burial RitesBest Book of the Week!

Based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Burial Rites is an unusual and original novel.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir has been found guilty of the murder of her employer, Natan Ketílsson, and another man when the novel begins. There is no doubt that Fridrik Sigurdsson committed the act, but Agnes and her fellow servant Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir have also been found guilty on little more evidence than that they were present at the scene. The younger, prettier Sigrídur, who was Natan’s mistress and Fridrik’s fiancée, is being considered for a pardon, but Agnes is not.

Because Iceland does not apparently have facilities for housing criminals at the time, the District Commissioner Björn Blöndal decides to lodge Agnes until her execution at Kórnsa, the farm of the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, Jón Jónsson. Agnes has requested that the young Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, newly ordained, supervise her spiritual welfare.

Jón Jónsson’s wife and daughter are horrified to learn they are to have a convicted murderess in their house. Reverend Jónsson, known as Tóti, is confused, feeling insufficiently experienced for the task and unaware that he has already met Agnes.

We first see Agnes on her way to Kórnsa. She has been kept in a storeroom, living in filth and seldom fed, since her conviction. When she arrives at the farm, she seems almost subhuman, grimy and greasy and so thirsty that she gulps down some dirty dishwater given her to wash in. Slowly, through her hard work and unobjectionable demeanor and their own basic decency, the family comes to believe Agnes may not be guilty of the crime.

Although the focus of this novel is the life on the farm and the evolving relationship between Agnes and the family of Jón Jónsson, we eventually learn the truth about the crime, as Agnes confides it to Tóti and the family.

Kent’s gift is for depicting the hard life of 19th century Iceland—the merciless fate of itinerant servants, the prevalence of gossip and superstition, the brutal conditions and physically demanding work. Kent also describes the mental landscape of Agnes, her memories, thoughts, and nighttime dreams, and less frequently those of Margrét, Jón Jónsson’s wife, and of Tóti.

This novel is evocatively written in beautiful, spare prose. It tells a heartbreaking and haunting story.

Day 300: The Land of Green Ginger

Cover for The Land of Green GingerJoanna Burton is a naive girl with a huge sense of adventure who has always wanted to travel the world in this most touching of Winifred Holtby’s books. Born in Africa but brought to England as a small child, Joanna has never felt like she quite fit in and has always wanted to return to the “land of green ginger.” During World War I she meets a young officer, Teddy Leigh, who tells her he is going to give her the world as a golden ball, and she believes him.

Several years later, however, she is living on a Yorkshire farm with two little girls and an ailing husband. Not only was Teddy gassed during the war, but he hid from her his history of tuberculosis.

As Joanna struggles to deal ineptly with the farm, her husband, and her children, a nearby landowner asks if they could take a Hungarian man in as a roomer. Joanna is so preoccupied with her troubles that she doesn’t notice her husband’s irrational jealousy or the rumors starting up in the village about her relationship with the Hungarian.

This novel is beautifully written and painful to read at times, as the readers see Joanna unconsciously make misstep after misstep and the neighborhood gossips become vicious indeed. Holtby only wrote a few books before she died at the age of 37, but she was a master at depicting life in the Yorkshire countryside and small towns.

Day 255: Anderby Wold

Cover for Anderby WoldMary Robson is a young married woman who has been working for years to save her family farm, Anderby Wold. She even married John, her much older husband, whose hard work has kept it going these past years. She is a managing woman who thinks it is her duty to oversee the welfare of the village, making herself disliked by many. Because of her preoccupations, she seems much older than she actually is.

One day she encounters David Rossiter, a young radical journalist who disagrees with everything Mary believes in. David is trying to get farm workers interested in unionizing, and Mary becomes unsuitably obsessed with the younger man. The schoolmaster, Coast, becomes involved in the unionization issue expressly to make trouble for Mary, whom he detests.

Anderby Wold is an interesting slice of Yorkshire life in the 1920’s. It reflects the issues of the times, when farmers were facing increased demand for workers’ rights. Another of Winifred Holtby’s consistent themes that appears here is getting on with life after the death of a loved one. This novel is Holtby’s first, and its realistic depictions of village life of the times reflect her background as a journalist.

Day 199: South Riding

Cover for South RidingI had never heard of Winifred Holtby until I watched the excellent Masterpiece series South Riding. I enjoyed it so much that I picked up several of Holtby’s books. Holtby published 12 novels in the 1920’s and 1930’s, as well as pursuing a successful career as a journalist and nonfiction writer. She is known for regional fiction about Yorkshire and has a prize for regional fiction named after her.

Set post-World War I, South Riding is the story of the conflict between the landed gentry and social progressives in a Yorkshire town. Sarah Burton comes to town as the headmistress of a girl’s school. She has many progressive ideas and wants to improve the school and the quality of education provided to the girls. To accomplish her goals, she asks the town to invest more money in the school.

She immediately runs afoul of Robert Carne, a local landowner. He has very conservative ideas about the town and school, but he also has some heavy concerns. Previously prosperous, he has spent all his money on care for his mentally ill wife. He also has the care of a young daughter who is having her own problems.

Unlike the television series, the novel has a huge sweep and does not concentrate on Sarah, but presents the stories of about fifteen other major characters. It deals with issues like education, poverty, and governmental corruption as well as family relationships. The characters are all carefully delineated so that you feel that you know each one.

The novel is beautifully written, although it gets just a little preachy at the end. Some reviewers have compared Holtby to George Eliot because of her interest in local social issues and her breadth of scope.