Author: Kali VanBaale
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: June 2016
“It’s a difficult life to live so close to what you cannot have,” an old woman tells young Jean Gillman, shortly before the woman dies in a freak accident. And so death and disappointment attach themselves to Jean as she attaches herself to a small Wisconsin dairy farm and its surrounding community.
Jean learns the lessons of practicality when she settles into the life of a farmer’s wife after escaping her widowed father’s growing depression and dwindling funds. She marries the dependable Jim, but it’s not Jim she wants—it’s his brother, Tommy. Over the course of a decade, Jean watches as Tommy falls for not one but two women who are not her. Tommy lives right across the road, so they all work on the same farm and have all the same acquaintances from church gatherings and Fourth of July potlucks. Jean constantly struggles (and often fails) to accept her place in life, to heed one of her late mother’s many adages: “You cut your coat according to your cloth.”
The novel is a window into a certain time in American midwestern life, when communities swirled around the latest gossip and modern technologies worked their way into the farmsteads. The quainter aspects, like a frightened character whispering that she’s “in a family way,” are side by side with the stark realities of suffering, such as dealing with an unplanned pregnancy or covering up habitual self-mutilation.
The dramas are domestic and believable, and the book’s structure works its way toward revealing traumatic events that have shaped Jean and the people she came to call family. Only the prologue and epilogue are told in first-person by an aging version of the central woman, providing a satisfying symmetry to her journey. I wouldn’t call it one of triumph or even redemption. Just a journey of living, somehow, despite all the world tilting against her.