Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still

Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still

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by Kent Nelson

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With crystalline prose that evokes with equal power the sweat of hard work and the complexity of human foibles, Kent Nelson's novel is destined to earn him many new fans. When Haney Remmel dies in an accident, he leaves to his wife Mattie an alfalfa farm in the plains of South Dakota and a devastating secret. Mattie must wrestle with both, deciding to keep the farm


With crystalline prose that evokes with equal power the sweat of hard work and the complexity of human foibles, Kent Nelson's novel is destined to earn him many new fans. When Haney Remmel dies in an accident, he leaves to his wife Mattie an alfalfa farm in the plains of South Dakota and a devastating secret. Mattie must wrestle with both, deciding to keep the farm running even as she deals with the discovery that her husband's life had been a lie. She enlists the help of two women who are just as embattled: daughter Shelley, an insecure college student, and Dawn, a handywoman with a past that's closing in on her. A young runaway Native American boy joins them, and together they forge an unlikely family, relying on each other to cope with a western landscape that is as cruel as it is profoundly beautiful, and a violent threat born of revenge that will challenge the bonds they have made.

Author Biography: Kent Nelson's books include the novel Language in the Blood and the story collections Toward the Sun and The Middle of Nowhere. He has worked as a tennis pro, city judge, ranch hand, and university professor.

Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
Nelson won an Edward Abbey Prize for an earlier novel, Language of the Blood, and the same easy intimacy with the Western landscape that permeated that novel is once again to be found in Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still. His characters sweat when building barbed-wire fences during the day, and they sweat when steamy sex monopolizes their nights. Kent Nelson writes about the elemental without sentimentality or fakery -- and in the process we learn to trust his firm sense of how place and people interact. — Sanford Pinsker
Publishers Weekly
The bleak landscape of South Dakota comes alive in this absorbing novel, the affecting tale of three women at life's crossroads. Mattie Remmel is the protagonist whose life is transformed by tragedy when her husband, Haney, dies in a farming accident. That shock is followed by another when Mattie goes through Haney's letters and discovers his secret life as a gay man. Although she's devastated, Mattie is strong and decides to try to keep the family's alfalfa ranch running with her daughter, Shelley, who has returned home from college, and the help of a mechanically adept handywoman named Dawn whose chaotic past casts a long shadow over ensuing events. The emotional arc of the novel builds slowly, so that Mattie's stoic character is well established by the time she discovers Haney's true sexual orientation, and her stifled, anguished reaction rings true. There's also credibility in Shelley's sudden breakup with her boyfriend and a subsequent affair with her old English teacher, Bryce Adler. The novel gains a piquant edge with the arrival of a reticent teenaged Native American runaway named Elton, who becomes indispensable to other characters' lives and whose loyalty nearly leads to tragedy. Nelson (Language in the Blood) gracefully weaves the plot threads with his earthy writing about farm life on the Western plains. His skill in delineating three different, complex female protagonists is remarkable, and many of his precise, dialogue-driven scenes are little gems. Yet this is not frothy woman's fiction, but an authoritatively controlled tale with mounting suspense and violence that builds like a thunderstorm in the Black Hills. Combining quirky charm and matter of fact detail, the novel is a heartwarming portrait of an unusual kind of contemporary family. (July 28) Forecast: Booksellers could have a steady seller in Nelson, who writes in the tradition of Kent Haruf and Ivan Doig. 5-city author tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Family is traditionally defined as a social group consisting of a man, woman, and their offspring. This novel challenges that definition by presenting the story of an unusual family comprising three women and a boy. Mattie Remmel lives on a large, sprawling farm in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Having recently lost her husband in a tragic farm accident, she asks her daughter, Shelley, to come home from college and help her keep the alfalfa ranch running. Mattie advertises for a hired man and ends up hiring Dawn, a woman running from her own recent past and a whiz at fixing machines. While working, the three women discover a teenaged Native American boy hiding in the barn, and this runaway turns out to be a hardworking asset. The four bond against many hardships: fire, attempted rape, bar brawl, sabotage by neighbors, and more. Mattie and Shelley also discover a secret about Haney, their ex-husband/father, that causes them to question their previous life together as a nuclear family. As spare as the land, the language of this book paints a realistic picture that offers readers a close look into this unique family. Nelson, who won the Edward Abbey Prize for Ecofiction, gives the reader much to think about the meaning of trust, loyalty, love, and faith among human beings. Recommended for fans of Kent Haruf's novel Plainsong and Judy Blunt's memoir Breaking Clean. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/03.]-Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Men are more trouble than the land for the three women working a ranch. It's four thousand acres in South Dakota, mostly corn and alfalfa, with a sinkhole that interests archaeologists; maintenance (cutting, irrigating, fence-building) is a major theme. Former sculptor Haney Remmel and his sharp-tongued wife Mattie have been working the ranch for 15 years as their marriage slowly ossifies. When Haney dies in an accident, Mattie has to hustle, hiring a mechanic, the strikingly beautiful Dawn, and a 14-year-old runaway Indian boy. Daughter Shelley returns from college to help out, and Dawn, for all her New Age flakiness, is a whiz with machines. The four manage okay. Then the first of two time-bombs explodes. Going through some old letters, Mattie discovers that Haney had gay lovers. So he was a liar and a cheat. Mattie is devastated. Shelley is equally upset, hurling his sculptures into a ravine, dumping her slob of a boyfriend and "sportfucking" a local stud. But it's Dawn's past that almost puts them out of business. On breaking up with her last boyfriend, a con man called Styver, she stole his car, and now he appears out of the blue, breaking Mattie's jaw and about to kill Dawn, except that Elton (the Indian boy) shoots him dead first, then vanishes. Mattie, acting like a surrogate mother, tracks him down in Wyoming, where he needs eye surgery after a vicious attack by his alcoholic father. Still, not to worry: Elton returns to the nest, Shelley finds a fabulous lover in her old English teacher, and Dawn hooks up with their upstanding Mexican neighbor Hector. As for Mattie, thanks to that old standby "healing," she puts Haney behind her and opens up to archaeologist Lee, the obvious Mr.Right all along. Goodhearted if directionless ramble over land charted meticulously-and through emotional terrain where Nelson (Toward the Sun, 1998, etc.) is much less sure-footed. Agent: Sally Wofford-Girand

Product Details

Viking Adult
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.28(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

Part I

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

—W. B. Yeats

Chapter 1

From the edge of the mesa, Mattie Remmel heard meadowlarks and the riffle of the river below and the wind sighing in the grass. The sweep of sky was more than seemed right—too blue overhead and paling toward the Lakota reservation in the east, where the cirrus brushed the distant plains. To the west, the first storm clouds of spring spilled upward over the Black Hills.

The river curved directly beneath them along the base of the mesa, pooled in gray and blue reflection before the plank bridge, and then ran swiftly over rocks and downstream into the cottonwoods. In April the trees were leafless still, gray trunks and upper branches ragged from wind and age. Across the river was the 135 acres Haney had plowed in a circle. An unattached pivot sprinkler lay across its radius like a huge silver mantis with two dozen pairs of symmetrical legs. Around the plowed ground was what the land had been before: sage and rabbitbrush and prickly pear, switchgrass, prairie dog mounds, and rocks. To the north, hills and gullies and more mesas were layered in shades of blue and gray.

In the scrub cedar was a line of wooden fence posts canted at odd angles in the clay bank. The barbed wire was loose, disappearing into the eroded gully or caught in tangled coils around itself. The fence stopped where Haney had cut the road to the bridge, then continued to a corner cedar post braced with braided wire. From the corner the fence turned east and petered out into the floodplain.

“That old fence,” Mattie said, “dividing what from what, do you think?”

“Nothing from nothing,” Haney said. He was standing shirtless in the ditch and lifted one end of a thirty-foot section of aluminum pipe. “Help me here, will you?”

Mattie came around the Toyota pickup and stepped down into the ditch at the other end of the pipe, and together they hoisted the pipe onto the mound of earth parallel to the ditch.

“Maybe they ran sheep,” she said. “That explains Sheep Table and the erosion of the hills.”

Haney didn’t answer. He heeled his shovel into the ground and lifted earth. His shoulders and neck were muscled from work, and his sinewy wrists and forearms shimmered with sweat. His graying ponytail was wet on his back.

They’d been married twenty-two years, and she loved him still, but felt sorry for him, too, less for his age—forty-eight—than for his intractability and silence. He hadn’t expected to be farming. He’d inherited the ranch fifteen years ago with his brother, Earl—four thousand acres, mostly dry mesas and hills. Eight hundred was irrigable, two-thirds in alfalfa, one-third in corn and Sudex. Haney had been sculpting in Maine when his parents died, and he’d agreed to take the place on, at least for a few years. At first he’d worked with a fury, building fences, buying equipment, learning about crops. But in the last several years his stamina had waned, and she sensed he wished for a life he didn’t have.

Haney would have denied his unhappiness. He’d have said he chose his life and had no regrets. But she understood his unease in other ways—from the ponytail he’d let grow, from what he said to Shelley on the telephone, from the projects conjured up to absorb his time, the pivot sprinkler among them, the latest and biggest.

Last fall he’d pulled the biggest rocks out with the tractor, scraped away the sage and rabbitbrush, and plowed the ground. In winter he’d moved the pivot piece by piece, dangling the sections from the bucket of the front-end loader and hauling them across the river ice. In March, in terrible wind, while the ice broke up, he assembled the pivot, and now he was trying to get water to it.

The sun went under a cloud, and the shadow was cool. Storms normally drove to the north, but in spring the air was volatile, and already a dark curtain of rain obscured the hills. “Why don’t we stop for the day?” she asked. “Let’s ride up and see where the museum people want to dig.”

“I know where they want to dig,” he said. He leaned on his shovel, breathing hard, and looked west. “We could use half an inch of rain on the pivot. I seeded it last Sunday.”

“I thought there were rocks to pick up.”

“The hired man can pick up rocks, if we get one from the ad.”

Lightning flashed, and Mattie counted six seconds to the thunder. Haney reached up and rolled the aluminum pipe back into the trench.

The idea was to take water from the main ditch, run it through the pipe he was laying now, and let gravity take it from the mesa to the river. Somehow the water had to go over the river, or under it, and uphill again to the pivot intake. Haney had explained the physics. “It’ll work,” he’d said, “because gravity is more powerful than your imagination.”

Lightning flickered down again into the Black Hills, and the thunder was closer. The pipe still wasn’t right, and Mattie climbed down and they lifted it out again. “I’m going down to the house,” she said. “I’ll leave you the truck.”

“You could ride the ditch on the West Main,” Haney said. “See if we’re getting water from the district.”

“All right.” She tugged her shovel from the pile of earth and slid it under the rubber straps on the front of the Honda four-wheeler.

“Take the rake,” he said. “If the water’s coming down, there’ll be weeds.”

She leaned into the truck bed, jostled a rake from among the tangle of barbed wire, boards, and tools, and strapped it beside the shovel. Then she swung her leg up and over the seat and started the engine. Thunder boomed again, and without either of them touching it, the pipe rolled off the mound of earth into the ditch.

“Fuck Jesus Christ,” Haney said.

She downshifted and waved, but he was struggling with the pipe and didn’t look up.

She steered off the mesa and down the rutted road along the edge of a dry ravine. During the winter the road had washed, but it was passable, and with spring rain still to come, there was no point yet in filling the ruts. Cedar and chokecherry grew in clumps along the hillside, and at the curve, a doe jumped from cover and white-flagged away.

At the bottom of the ravine, the land opened out a little where Haney had built a runoff pond. A shallow quarter moon of water lay in the bottom of it, and two avocets, black and white with pinkish heads, stirred the water with their bills. As she drew closer, they flew, trailing their blue legs and chattering, though above the noise of the four-wheeler she barely heard them.

The pond was another of Haney’s projects she thought unnecessary. Haney’s contention was that rain was free, so why should he pay the district for water? But building the pond wasn’t free. He’d bought pipe, put in a gate and an overflow valve, and spent two weeks shoving and carrying earth in the loader. They could have bought water for thirty years for the cost of the pond.

She supposed the real reason for the pond was the Pollards, though Haney had never said that. The Pollards were mean and unpleasant. The father, Lute, shot hawks and coyotes and about anything else that moved, and from years of riding the school bus, Shelley knew the son, Jimmy, and stayed clear of him. Haney’s rights were prior on the ditch, but it ran through the Pollards’ property, so they took water whenever they wanted. Haney had had several run-ins about the stealing and even sued them once, but he couldn’t prove damages. How could you show what your crop might have been?

A few raindrops blinked in the pond, and she curved past it and dropped down the next steep pitch to the West Main. The alfalfa was only a few inches high, but was brilliant green against the drab gray cottonwoods and the paler hills beyond the river. She rode through the dry weeds along the ditch and saw water, but there wasn’t enough flow to flush the ditch. She pulled a few tumbleweeds out by hand, then felt a few more drops of rain. To the west all she saw was gray.

She crossed the four-wheeler bridge at the West Main and came out onto the lane adjacent to the horse pasture. Tom Mix and Dale Evans grazed the far end of the pasture fence and, when they saw her, galloped partway across the field. But she didn’t stop. She rode along the fence, descended into the swale and over the creek culvert, and accelerated up the hill toward the greenish halo of a single cottonwood.

At the crest of the hill the house appeared—her place in the world. The house wasn’t fancy. The kitchen sagged off to one side and had a leaky roof, and the living room was sterile for her taste, but overall the place was large enough. Upstairs were two gables, one for each of the children’s rooms, though neither was occupied now. Shelley was a junior at college, and Loren had died seven years ago, when he was nine. At odd moments like now she still grieved for him.

Besides the house, there were several outbuildings—a wooden barn not in good repair, several smaller storage sheds, and a huge, garish, white aluminum Morton shed where Haney fixed machinery. It had been expensive, too. The sin of money was indulgence, though Haney called it investment.

She coasted up under the cottonwood tree beside Haney’s Lincoln and turned off the four- wheeler. Wind whined under the eaves and rattled the dry cornstalks in the garden. Singular heavy raindrops dinged on the car and thudded on the ground.

She liked weather, especially the dark brilliance of storms. She liked not controlling what was going to happen next. A gust of wind lifted the blue tarp from a pile of lumber near the barn, and she walked through blown-up dust to her garden. It was bordered by a six-foot chicken wire fence that kept out the deer and loose cattle, but now it was fallow. Three rows of dried cornstalks and the rotted leaves of cantaloupe and squash and tomatoes were all that remained after the winter.

Her gaze shifted to a movement by the Morton, a shape passing behind the International tractor and moving toward the jellyroll bales in the hay pen, a shadow with substance. Dark. But she wasn’t sure she’d seen anything.

The rain suddenly came harder, and in seconds she was soaked. Drops stung her face, dripped down the back of her neck; her blouse clung to her skin. As she walked toward the house, she took apart her braid and spread the wet hair with her fingers. Then on impulse she unbuttoned her blouse and held it open so each raindrop was a needle on her skin, a pain lasting until she felt no pain, but only reveled in the rain’s washing over her.

A bolt of lightning snapped her from her reverie, and she covered herself, half expecting to see Haney splashing along the lane in the truck. But the lane was empty. Gray rain rushed across the fields, and she went inside, trailing water through the kitchen.

She dried her face and hair with a dishtowel, then sat and unlaced her work boots, pried the left one off with the heel of the right, and wrenched the right off with two hands. Wet socks dangled from her toes.

The telephone rang.

“Hey, Mom, it’s me,” Shelley said.

“Hello, sweetheart.”

“You sound out of breath.”

“I just came inside. It’s pouring rain.”

“I guess you can use it.”

“Your father wanted half an inch on the pivot, but we’ve already got more than that.”

“He told me he seeded the field already,” Shelley said.

“He didn’t tell me till today. How’s school? How’s Warren?”

“I have a midterm in journalism tomorrow. Warren’s okay. He wants to go to Kenya this summer.”

“Alone, or with you?”

“I don’t think he knows. But I’d rather stay in Boulder.”

“To do what?” Mattie braced the receiver against her neck, peeled off her wet jeans, and carried them to the laundry room.

“Maybe get a waitressing job. The ranch isn’t exactly a place to come to.”

“Your father doesn’t make you do chores.”

“You know what I mean, Mom. It’s the middle of nowhere. And I don’t have any friends.”

Mattie took off her blouse and underwear and put everything into the washing machine. Out the laundry room window a lake had formed in the yard, and the fields beyond seethed in rain. “Listen, Shel, I have to put on some dry clothes. Let me call you back after supper.”

“Whatever,” Shelley said.

They hung up, and Mattie walked through the living room and climbed the stairs. Shelley wasn’t much help on the ranch. She irrigated some and weeded the garden, but Haney had never taught her to run machines. Still, Mattie didn’t like the idea of Shelley’s wasting her summer in Boulder. Maybe Boulder was more fun than Hot Springs, but why wouldn’t she want to go to Kenya?

The upstairs hall was dark. She passed Shelley’s room and Loren’s closed door. Theirs, opposite Loren’s, was ajar, and she pushed it open and went in. The bedroom had space enough for two bureaus, a soft chair no one ever sat in, and a Nordic-Trac. There were paintings on the walls; Haney’s artist friends shared their work. Mattie liked Arlo Smith’s gouache of a woman sitting with her eyes closed, asleep or not, as the viewer chose.

The bed dominated the room. In the angle of light from the window, Mattie noticed the two pale indentations in the beige quilt, one on either side of the middle—shallow, shadowed depressions made by their separate bodies.

The rain slacked on the roof, and she went to the window. A wedge of turquoise was emerging from behind the clouds, and the storm was moving east. From the mist and rain, the gullies and mesas re-formed themselves.

She turned away to the mirror across the room and measured her naked reflection. Physical work so dominated her days she never thought of being incapable of anything. Still, her body’s aging disheartened her. Her skin, lightly freckled, was beginning to soften, but at least she was blessed with tight cheekbones so that as she’d grown older, her face had held its shape and texture. And her hair was beautiful, dark chestnut brown, which in a certain light shone red. When it was wet, as it was now, it looked almost black, and when she pulled it back, her face had an uncommon, angular look.

Instead of getting dressed and starting dinner, she pulled back the covers and lay down on her side of the bed. She didn’t think she’d sleep, but she closed her eyes and was aware of her body’s radiating heat. What would Haney think if he found her in bed?

It was dark when she woke. She listened for Haney downstairs, as if perhaps his footsteps had wakened her, but the house was quiet. That wasn’t unusual. After his field work, Haney often went to the Morton until she called him. She rose and looked out, but the truck wasn’t there.

She put on a flowered housedress and descended the stairs with some disquiet, as if her sleeping required apology. Being late with dinner was her only acknowledgeable sin, and the person who would eat it wasn’t there, so there was no one from whom to ask forgiveness. Haney wasn’t at his desk, and the truck wasn’t in the yard, either. Just the Lincoln. Maybe he’d gone to borrow pipe gaskets from Sigurd Olafsson or to talk to Sam Appleton about something.

She turned on a lamp in the living room. The blue sofa faced the fireplace, and on one wall was the glass cupboard with the china her aunt from Phoenix had given her. On one side of the fireplace was the piano that had come with the house, and on the other, Haney’s rolltop desk. A piece of paper protruded from a closed drawer. She went through the room and turned on the light in the kitchen.

She took chicken from the refrigerator, spilled five potatoes into the sink, and set the kettle on the gas burner. She peeled a potato, and as the skin fell away in her hands, a preternatural feeling came over her so intense she took a deep breath to calm herself. She set down the half-peeled potato and listened. Water still dripped sporadically from the eaves. Out the window was darkness—nothing to see, no hills, no trees, no light from another house. No headlights.

She called up to the Olafssons’, but there was no answer, and then the Deckers. One of the boys answered. “Is Haney up there?” she asked.

“No, ma’am.” It was Keith.

“Is your mother home?”

“She’s in the shower.”

“It’s all right,” Mattie said. “Don’t bother her.”

She hung up and went to the vestibule and put on her rubber boots and a down jacket and a red plaid hat with earflaps and stuck a small flashlight into the pocket of her coat. As she went out, she turned on the porch light.

The storm had left cold in its wake, and a wind blew from the north. The jagged black mountains rose against the stars. Mattie revved the four-wheeler and turned on the single headlamp and gave gas, shifting quickly from first to second to third as she splashed out of the yard. She tilted her face sideways to the wind and, heedless of the puddles, ran the straightaway past the horse pasture, crossed the four-wheeler bridge, and gave gas on the hill to the pond. She hoped momentum would be the answer to the slick gumbo, but the four-wheeler lost traction anyway, and she had to angle it into the grass at the side of the road.

She scrambled off and climbed on foot. She could barely see anything, even with the flashlight. The gumbo was slippery, and she walked at the edge of the track on rocks and clumps of grass. When she reached the pond, she shone the light around, but the beam petered out into dark.


Cold air washed into her lungs. She climbed above the pond, her boots muddy and heavy, her heart drumming, her breath loud in her ears.


Water roared in the ravine to her left, though she couldn’t see it. Halfway to the top of the mesa, she made out the pale outline of the truck on its side in the gully.

The spray of the flashlight didn’t reach. She scrambled down the hill at an angle, sliding, catching herself on thorny brush. She fell headlong and got up blindly. The truck was on its passenger door, wheels tilted uphill. She shone the light in through the windshield. Haney wasn’t in the cab. She went around the tailgate, and there he was, pinned under the right front wheel, already dead.

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Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
tchrreader More than 1 year ago
This was a good story, I liked it. Not the best but also not the worst by far. This is the story of Mattie, her husband dies in an accident. She is left to run the farm with her daughter Shelly. They find out that their dad (husband) was a homosexual man. She hires a handy woman to help her, Dawn and they end up finding an Indian boy hiding in the barn that ends up joining them to help out too. It is a good story, a lot of sexual content. I thought it was a bit strange but entertaining. I liked the characters.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this book for a book club and thought it was going to be the same old poor me story and it turned out to be a very interesting, surprise filled, thought provoking book. I enjoyed the characters and most of all found the daughters escapades very...lets just say...HOT! I kept reading to find out what would happen next! Great book!