Hardship and bigotry for an Iowa farm family in ‘Bottomland’
There are many compelling things about Michelle Hoover’s potent new novel, “Bottomland,” not least of all her austere style and its visceral punch. Seriously, you might feel a few chills run up your spine while reading, as Hoover delivers stark passages about the frigid desolation on an Iowa farm in winter. Consider just one scene, this involving a dead cow, caught on a barbed-wire fence, frozen solid, her hungry calf crying out in a nearby barn.
But what struck me repeatedly is the way Hoover’s story, set largely in the immediate wake of World War I, has so much contemporary resonance. “Bottomland” is transporting, for sure, as it travels back to a world where home-heating pipes were a novelty, where poor farm families had little to eat, less to say, and even less to celebrate. But the hatred and xenophobia that mark Hoover’s plot aren’t distant at all, and as I read, I found comparisons to America’s current muddle over immigration and, in particular Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslim travel to the United States. As much as “Bottomland” evokes a grim American past with enough mastery to justify comparisons to Willa Cather, it also speaks of our present tense.
The story revolves around the large Hess family, and it begins with the disappearance of the two youngest daughters, Esther, 16, and Myrle, 14. Did the girls run away to Chicago? Were they abducted? Murdered? Are they lost? While the Hesses’s fears multiply, others in town demonstrate little concern. Julius and Margrit Hess, the father and mother, are German immigrants, and to their neighbors, many of whose sons were damaged or lost in the war, they and their children are the foes. Never mind that Lee Hess, the younger of the two Hess sons, served overseas and was gravely wounded. The Hesses are to their ignorant community what Muslims are to many present-day Americans — the enemy.
At one point, their neighbors, the Elliots, post a sign: “Shouldn’t we be concerned . . . about the enemy living among us.” Later, townspeople show up outside the Hess home like the KKK, with torches that sloppily spell out KRAUT. At still another point, Lee mentions having been forced to kiss the American flag at school. Dealing with an unforgiving natural world in threadbare clothing is only one of the giant forces working against this hard-working family. “Though we were born in this land and a part of it,” the oldest Hess sister, Nan, says of her siblings and herself, “still Father and his accent made traitors of us.”
“Bottomland” is broken into five sections, each narrated by a different Hess, beginning with the dutiful Nan, who has essentially given up her own youth to care for her younger siblings. The mystery of Esther and Myrle runs through each section, but all together, the novel isn’t at its heart a thriller. It’s more of a lyrical family saga, with a rushing undercurrent of secrets and lies that emerge slowly. As Nan puts it early on, “For so many years, I had worked and lived close enough to my siblings I could name their breathing in the dark, but now in every quiet face, I sensed something hidden.” The section narrated by Lee, who suffered brain damage from an explosion in the war, is poignant, as he falls into reveries of his service marred by memory gaps. At one point, he wanders aimlessly through Chicago trying to find Myrle and Esther like a lost dog.
The novel moves back in time during Julius’s narration, as he recalls immigrating by ship to the United States in 1892, using a dead woman’s ticket. Hoover beautifully captures his sense of isolation, having turned away from his family in Germany but failing to feel welcomed in Iowa. As an old man, Julius realizes, “My ease with the old tongue is fading, and I am left only with this English. Its many contradictions. Its twenty ways of saying one thing.” The story eventually moves forward into the passing of the 20th century, the series of hard choices made by various Hesses, and the answers to the questions about the missing sisters.
I don’t want to spoil any of the plot turns, since Hoover is strategic in her release of pieces of information throughout her group portrait. Part of the great pleasure of “Bottomland” is discovering where the story goes, always knowing that you’re in the hands of a writer who won’t disappoint.
By Michelle Hoover
Grove Atlantic, 294 pp., paperback, $16