Rural in America

T he books in this series offer both romantic and realistic views of rural life. Some writers believe that living on the land shapes a life of integrity, of oneness, with man and nature, while others see it is a life of bitter hardship not to be sentimentalized - one is always struggling to eke out a living. These six novels show what it is like to grow up and live in rural America.

Wendell Berry, one of America’s foremost spokesmen for the value of rural life, writes in The Memory of Old Jack (1999) about a man who has committed his life to working the land on a farm in Kentucky. On one day in September 1952, Jack recalls the details of a life lived farming with mules and nurturing the land through hard work, of courting and marrying a woman who cannot return his love, and finally of facing his own death. The novel is a powerful evocation of a time, its way of life, and the integrity of one very human man.

John Grisham, the author of legal thrillers, writes a novel in a different mode with A Painted House (2001), set in rural Arkansas in 1952. Narrated by a young boy, the novel portrays farming without sentimentality as it depicts the tension between the itinerant Mexican workers and the white hill people of the Ozarks who pick cotton for the dirt-poor tenants. It is a novel about poverty and hard work, the joys of baseball, and the loss of innocence.

Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong (1999) celebrates the power of landscape, weather, and rural community. Set in a small town on the Colorado plains in 1952, it tells the story of eight people whose lives converge in grief and kindness. Using prose like the simple melody of plainsong, Haruf alternates the voices of the characters - a teacher, his sons, and his departing wife, two bachelor farmers, a pregnant girl and a female friend - to blend together in a song of praise.

Originally published in 1945, The Egg and I, Betty Macdonald’s comic classic, describes her marriage and move to a small poultry farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington in the 40’s. Unprepared for rural life with no running water and no electricity, a rustic house and neighbors, she relates the rigors of their lives with humor as she and her husband raise a family and not only survive but succeed.

That Old Ace in the Hole (2002) by Annie Proulx tells the story of the Texas pan handle through the eyes of twenty-five year old Bob Dollar, who is secretly scouting to buy land for an industrial hog farming operation. In this place of extreme wind and weather, the family ranch is nearly extinct. As Bob Dollar meets the eccentric residents, the reader learns the anecdotes of their colorful lives and the forces that have shaped them.

Winter Wheat (1944) by Mildred Walker is the coming of age story of a young woman in Montana. Taking place in the course of a year and half, Winter Wheat begins in 1940 when Ellen starts college after the family has a profitable harvest. When she returns home with the man she loves, she views her parents and her previous life differently and critically. The novel examines the harsh life of dry-land wheat farming.

Retired Discussion Series

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