Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A look at Michelle Hoover's The Quickening

The setting for Michelle Hoover’s The Quickening caught my attention because it resembles the surroundings I drive past every day – farmhouses and cornfields in the rural Midwest – and because some of my ancestors, six generations back, were farmers in western Iowa. To some, this is flyover country, but the experiences of the area’s inhabitants form an important part of America’s history, one worth delving into and exploring.

Two women of opposite appearance and character take turns narrating this short novel, which spans from 1913 through 1950. Enidina “Eddie” Current is hardy and big-boned, a thirty-year-old bride most comfortable in male company and inured to the hardships of a farmer’s life. Her nearest neighbor, Mary Morrow, a town-bred newcomer who moves to the country to please her husband, is delicate, birdlike, devout, and occasionally thoughtless. While the house Enidina shares with her kindly, strong-but-silent husband, Frank, is squat and functional, that of the Morrows appears ornate and overlarge in comparison. But despite their differences, they share some traits in common: both are plain-spoken, stubborn, and quick to defend their own actions.

Out of necessity, they develop a friendship of sorts, though each remains cautious of the other’s ways. Over the years, Mary comforts Eddie about her difficulties carrying a child to term, and Eddie helps out when Mary's short-tempered husband takes his anger out on her. Then the reality of the Depression forces each woman into her own corner. The choices they make drive them apart from one another and also from the many unnamed, close-knit families populating the rest of the area.

The Quickening, replete with authentic pictures of farm life, presents a carefully functioning system in which the weather, land, animals, and people all play their part, and where any one of these can turn against you without warning. Hoover’s literary impressions of the landscape, with its “acres of farmland stretched in every direction, gray-green and buzzing,” crackle with life and color. The action is both external and internal, and some major happenings are left for the reader to infer. While this sometimes results in a lack of clarity, I can understand Hoover’s reasons for depicting her protagonists in such a way. While these self-reliant, self-contained Midwesterners might be outwardly stoic, their accounts are anything but unemotional. Mary and Enidina each reach out for connections that prove heartbreakingly elusive, and it’s their way to leave some important things unsaid.

Without naming an exact geographic location, Hoover establishes a strong sense of place, and this table-flat region of weeds and grasses offers both opportunity and despair. The characters are powerfully rendered, and the plot unfolds out of their unique situation. With insight and sensitivity, The Quickening depicts how two strong-willed farm women endured their isolated circumstances and reacted to what their environment required of them.

On her website, Michelle Hoover has examples from her great-grandmother’s journal, which served as inspiration for her story.

The Quickening was published by Other Press in July at $14.95 (pb, 224pp). This was one of my historical fiction finds from BEA.

7 comments:

  1. This sounds really interesting. I rarely read books about farm life (not that that is a conscious decision) plus you made this sound really good, so it's added to my wishlist.

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  2. This does sound really great, I agree with Iris. Great review, it's great when books have a personal connection like that isn't it :)

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  3. I love the concept of this book, and as a Midwesterner married to a farmer, I understand the personal connection. Thanks for the suggestion.

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  4. Thanks for all of your comments!

    Iris, I haven't read many novels about farm life either. Aside from Willa Cather's books, there don't seem to be many set in the US Midwest. It's a neglected area (and Hoover's written about this as well). I wouldn't mind reading more literature of this type.

    Amy and Trisha, yes, I especially enjoy books that have that personal connection! I have old photos of my ancestors from Iowa and have copies of some of their letters - it's fascinating to read what their lives were like, and I saw some similarities between them and the women in the book.

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  5. There is nothing better than an afternoon by beautiful water with a great book to read. Your vacation sounds lovely!

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  6. This book is on my TBR. I like books about farm life, especially an historical.

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  7. Your farm ancestors were in Iowa; mine were in Texas. And I just couldn't leave their story alone.

    Beautiful cover on that book.

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