The Bones of Plenty: Prairie, farms, Depression
5 October 2010 1 Comment
Last night I finished reading Lois Hudson’s The Bones of Plenty. I enjoyed it thoroughly, in large part because it’s probably been a couple years since I paged through a novel. Most of my reading is of nonfiction.
I picked this book up in part because it examines life on the Great [northern] Plains. Set during the Great Depression, it follows a year in the life of a farming family near a small North Dakota town. It’s well-written, poetic at times, in a format broken up by dates instead of chapters. As someone who usually needs short chapters to keep me going through a story, this could have been problematic. It wasn’t. In fact, it worked very well in the context of the novel and moved the story along at a good pace. One thing I didn’t understand, however, was the ubiquitous use of italics. Each paragraph contained multiple italicized words, and any emphasis the reader attempts to subsequently apply is strained at best after a few sections of the book.
Kathleen Norris, in Dakota, suggested Hudson’s The Bones of Plenty surpasses Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as a novel about farm families during the Depression. I’ve yet to read Steinbeck’s work.
What’s most interesting to me about this literary work is its depiction of farm life on the prairie. Hudson’s characters talk about how farming is changing, how the little guy can’t compete with the company farms any longer — even back in 1933. How prices tanked and middlemen made profits even when the growers lost money. How certain hybrids are supposed to do better than others, and about the government’s fatuous attempts to raise prices and control supply. The author employed historic figures for bushels of wheat and quoted government pamphlets from the 1930s when giving words to local officials. As a bit of a sidebar to this review, one of my favorite literary quotes talks about government involved in farming. From Joseph Heller’s Catch 22:
Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism. He advocated thrift and hard work and disapproved of loose women who turned him down. His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county. Neighbors sought him out for advice on all subjects, for he had made much money and was therefore wise. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” he counseled one and all, and everyone said, “Amen.”
This is the prairie that my wife and I grew up on. This is the prairie that, after living in the Ozarks for more than six years, covertly drew us back to it’s amber waves of grain. This is the prairie upon which we hope to establish a contemplative place for artists to come and create, learn.