Postcards

( 6 )

Overview

From the bestselling author of The Shipping News comes Postcards, the tale of the Blood family, New England farmers who must confront the twentieth century — and their own extinction. As the family slowly disintegrates, its members struggle valiantly against the powerful forces of loneliness and necessity, seeking a sense of home and place forever lost.
Loyal Blood, eldest son, is forced to abandon the farm when he takes his lover's life, thus beginning a quintessentially ...

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Overview

From the bestselling author of The Shipping News comes Postcards, the tale of the Blood family, New England farmers who must confront the twentieth century — and their own extinction. As the family slowly disintegrates, its members struggle valiantly against the powerful forces of loneliness and necessity, seeking a sense of home and place forever lost.
Loyal Blood, eldest son, is forced to abandon the farm when he takes his lover's life, thus beginning a quintessentially American odyssey of solitude and adventure. Yearning for love, yet forced by circumstance to be always alone, Loyal comes to symbolize the alienation and frustration behind the American dream.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Frederick Busch Chicago Tribune A rich, dark and brilliant feast of a book.

David Bradley The New York Times Book Review Story makes this novel compelling; technique makes it beautiful.

Michael Upchurch San Francisco Chronicle Superb....Postcards makes Proulx as a gifted prose stylist who renders her characters on the page to mesmerizing effect.

Frederick Busch Chicago Tribune A novel that feels like a fifth or sixth, not a first. This richly talented writer announces with Postcards that we had better, from now on, be listening for her voice...astonishingly accomplished.

Geoffrey Stokes The Boston Sunday Globe E. Annie Proulx's Postcards triumphantly delivers.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this poignant first novel by Proulx ( Heart Songs and Other Stories ), artfully misspelled postcards form the tenuous links between ill-fated young trapper Loyal Blood and his family--Mink and Jewelle, Dub and Mernelle--who eke a meager existence from their ancestral Vermont farm. When Loyal accidentally kills his saucy redheaded sweetheart Billy while making love in the fields, he hides her body in a stone-covered fox den. Abruptly he tells his family that he and Billy are heading west to ``make a new start.'' In a vengeful rage his father Mink shoots Loyal's cows. Loyal endures harsh years of self-imposed exile as, from 1944 to the '80s, he roves from job to job--mining, fossil picking, trapping--each authoritatively detailed. Racked with gagging seizures whenever he tries to touch another woman, sick in his lungs, Loyal doggedly accepts his lot without complaint. Back home the violent, feckless Bloods fall into ruin, attempting arson, serving jail terms and losing the farm, which is sold for trailer parks. Flurries of postcards fly, both personal and commercial: brother Dub answers one for an artificial limb, desperate sister Mernelle responds to a lonely lumberman's ad for a wife. Proulx writes a rich, sensuous prose; she captures the earthy, hard-bitten voices of men and women resigned to travail and documents the passing of an epoch. If there is a fault, it is the overabundance of minor characters randomly introduced into the narrative. (Jan.)
Library Journal
At the outset of this novel spanning four decades, Loyal Blood accidentally kills his girlfriend. The story alternately follows the fortunes of Loyal who, fearing punishment, sets out across America, and the family he leaves behind on their hardscrabble Vermont farm. As Loyal drifts from misfortune to misfortune, variously trying his hand at machining, mining, prospecting for uranium, digging for dinosaur bones, trapping, and farming, he is incapable of forming permanent attachments to people or places. With an uncanny ear for dialog, Proulx takes the Blood family through the changes that pass for progress during the next 40 years. Tersely worded postcards punctuate the heartbreaking stories that form this moving first novel.-- Barbara Love, St. Lawrence Coll., Kingston, Ontario
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684800875
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 8/1/1994
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 622,806
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx is the author of eight books, including the novel The Shipping News and the story collection Close Range. Her many honors include a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and a PEN/Faulkner award. Her story “Brokeback Mountain,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Her most recent book is Fine Just the Way It Is. She lives in Wyoming.

Biography

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx did not set out to be a writer. She studied history in school, acquiring both her bachelor's and her master's degrees and abandoning her doctorate only in the face of a pessimistic job market. Something of a free spirit, she married and divorced three times and ended up raising three sons and a daughter single-handedly. She settled in rural Vermont, living in a succession of small towns where she worked as a freelance journalist and spent her free time in the great outdoors, hunting, fishing, and canoeing.

Although she wrote prolifically, most of Proulx's early work was nonfiction. She penned articles on weather, farming, and construction, and contracted for a series of rural "how tos" for magazines like Yankee and Organic Gardening. She also founded the Vershire Behind the Times, a monthly newspaper filled with colorful features and vignettes of small-town Vermont life. All this left little time for fiction, but she averaged a couple of stories a year, nearly all of which were accepted for publication.

Prominent credits in two editions of Best American Short Stories led to the publication in 1988 of Heart Songs and Other Stories, a first collection of Proulx's short fiction. Set in blue-collar New England, these "perfectly pitched stories of mysterious revenges and satisfactions" (the Guardian) received rapturous reviews.

With the encouragement of her publisher, Proulx released her first novel in 1992. The story of a fractured New England farm family, Postcards went on to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. She scored an even greater success the following year when her darkly comic Newfoundland set piece The Shipping News scooped both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. One year before her 60th birthday, Proulx had become an authentic literary celebrity.

Since then, the author has alternated between short and long fiction, garnering numerous accolades and honors along the way. Giving the lie to the literary adage "write what you know," her curiosity has led her into interesting, unfamiliar territory: Before writing The Shipping News, she made more than seven extended trips to Newfoundland, immersing herself in the culture and speech of its inhabitants; similarly, she weaved staggering amounts of musical arcana into her 1996 novel Accordion Crimes. She is known for her keen powers of observation—passed on, she says, from her mother, an artist and avid naturalist—and for her painstaking research, a holdover from her student days.

In 1994, Proulx left Vermont for the wide open spaces of Wyoming—a move that inspired several memorable short stories, including the O. Henry Award winner "Brokeback Mountain." First published in The New Yorker and included in the 1999 collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories, this tale of a doomed love affair between two Wyoming cowboys captured the public imagination when it was turned into an Oscar-winning 2005 film by director Ang Lee.

Lionized by most critics, Proulx is, nevertheless, not without her detractors. Indeed, her terse prose, eccentric characters, startling descriptions, and stylistic idiosyncrasies (run-on sentences followed by sentence fragments) are not the literary purist's cup of tea. But few writers can match her brilliance at manipulating language, evoking place and landscape, or weaving together an utterly mesmerizing story with style and grace.

Good To Know

Proulx was the first woman to win the prestigious Pen/Faulkner Award.

Proulx fell in love with Newfoundland while she was conducting research for The Shipping News. She now spends part of each year in northern Newfoundland on a small cove adjacent to L'Anse aux Meadows..

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edna Annie Proulx (full name), E. Annie Proulx
    2. Hometown:
      LaBarge, Wyoming
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 22, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Norwich, Connecticut
    1. Education:
      Attended Colby College in the 1950s. B.A., University of Vermont, 1969; M.A., Sir George Williams University, 1973

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Blood

Even before he got up he knew he was on his way. Even in the midst of the involuntary orgasmic jerking he knew. Knew she was dead, knew he was on his way. Even standing there on shaking legs, trying to push the copper buttons through the stiff buttonholes he knew that everything he had done or thought in his life had to be started over again. Even if he got away.

He couldn't get any air, but stood on his knocked-out legs gasping and wheezing. It was like he'd taken a bad fall. Dazed. He could feel the blood hammering in his throat. But there was nothing else, only the gasping for breath and an abnormal acuity of vision. Mats of juniper flowed across the field like spilled water; doghair maple crowded the stone wall wavering through the trees.

He'd thought of the wall walking up the slope behind Billy, thought of it in a common way, of working on it sometime, setting back in place the stones that frost and thrusting roots had thrown out. Now he saw it as a scene drawn in powerful ink lines, the rock fissured with crumpled strings of quartz, humps of moss like shoulders shrugging out of the mold, black lignum beneath rotten bark, the aluminum sheen of deadwood.

A stone the size and shape of a car's backseat jutted out of the wall, and below it was a knob of soil that marked the entrance to an abandoned fox den. Oh Jesus, it wasn't his fault but they'd say it was. He grasped Billy's ankles and dragged her to the wall. He rolled her up under the stone, could not look at her face. There was already a waxiness to her body. The texture of her bunched stockings, the shape of her nails glowed with the luminous hardness that marks the newly dead in the moment before the flames consume or the sucking water pulls them under. The space beneath the rock was shallow. Her arm fell outward, the hand relaxed, the fingers curled as if she held a hand mirror or a Fourth of July flag.

Instinctively he translated the withering shock into work, his answer to what he did not want to understand, to persistent toothache, hard weather, the sense of loneliness. He rebuilt the wall over her, fitting the stones, copying the careless, tumbled fall of rock. A secretive reflex worked in him. When she was locked away in the wall he threw on dead leaves, tree limbs and brush, raked the drag marks and scuffed ground with a branch.

Down the back fields, keeping to the fence line, but sometimes staggering onto open ground. No feeling in his legs. The sun was going down, the October afternoon collapsing into evening. The fence posts on the margins of the fields glinted like burnished pins, the thick light plated his face with a coppery mask.

Grass eddied around his knees, the purple awns burst, scattering a hail of seed. Far below he saw the house varnished with orange light, balanced against the grove of cottonwoods, like a scene etched on a metal plate. The sag of the roof curved into shadows as delicate as a bloom of mold, thickening the trees.

In the orchard he knelt and wiped his hands over and over in the coarse grass. The trees were half wild with watersprouts and deadwood. The mournful smell of rotted fruit came into his nose. "If I get away," he said, dragging breath into his constricted throat, and briefly seeing, not what had happened up beside the wall, but his grandfather spraying the tree with Bordeaux mixture, the long wand hissing in the leaves, the poisoned codling moths bursting up like flames, the women and children, himself, on the ladder picking apples, the strap of the bag cutting into his shoulder, the empty oak-splint baskets under the trees and the men loading the full baskets into a wagon, the frigid packing room, old Roseboy with his sloping, bare neck and his dirty hat, pointed like a cone, nothing but a trimmed-up old syrup filter, tapping on the barrel heads, serious, saying over and over, "Take it easy now, one rotten apple spoils the whole goddamn barrel."

Evening haze rose off the hardwood slopes and blurred a sky discolored like a stained silk skirt. He saw and heard everything with brutal clarity; yet the thing that had happened up beside the wall was confused. Coyotes singling along the edge of the duck marsh called in fluming howls. Wet hand ticking the skeletal bean poles, he walked through the withered garden. Moths like pinches of pale dust battered in his wake.

At the corner of the house he stopped and urinated on the blackened stalks of Jewell's Canterbury bells. The seed husks rattled and a faint steam rose in the trembling shadow of his legs. His clothes had no warmth. The grey work pants, knees stained with soil, were stippled with grass heads and bramble tips, his jacket spattered with shreds of bark. His neck stung from her raking scratches. A gleaming image of her fingernails swerved into his mind and he clamped it off. The cedar waxwings rustled stiff leaves with a sound of unfolding tissue paper. He could hear Mink's voice in the kitchen, lumps of sound like newly plowed soil, and the flat muffle of Jewell, his mother, answering. Nothing seemed changed. Billy was somehow up there under the wall, but nothing seemed changed except the uncanny sharpness of his vision and the tightness that gripped somewhere under his breastbone.

A length of binder twine hung with bean plants sagged between the two porch pillars, and he could see each hemp fiber, the shadows in the folds of each desiccated leaf, the swell of the seed inside the husks. A broken pumpkin, crusted on its underside with earth, parted like a mouth in a knowing crack. His foot crushed a leaf as he opened the screen door.

Wire egg baskets were stacked in the corner of the entry. Water had drained from a basket half full of pale eggs and pooled under Mink's barn boots. The reeking barn clothes, Dub's jacket, his own denim coat with the pocket gaping open like a wound, dangled from nails. He scraped his shoes on the wad of burlap sacks and went in.

"About time. You, Loyal, you and Dub can't get to the table on time we're not waitin.' Been sayin' this since you was four years old." Jewell pushed the bowl of onions toward him. Her hazel eyes were lost behind the glinting spectacles. The ridge of muscle that supported her lower lip was as stiff as wood.

The white plates made a circle around the kitchen table, the shape echoed in the curve of pease around Mink's mouth. There was stubble on his face, his finely cut lips were loosened by missing teeth. The dull silver lay on the yolk-colored oilcloth. Mink clenched the carving knife, sawed at the ham. The ham smelled like blood. Cold air crawled along the floor, the ferret scurried in the wall. On a hill miles away an attic window caught the last ray of light, burned for a few minutes, dimmed.

"Pass the plates." Mink's voice, gone thin since his tractor accident a few years ago, seemed caught in some glottal anatomic trap. He tensed his neck, creased across the back with white lines, and cut at the ham. The label on his overall bib read TUF NUT. The red slices fell away from the knife onto the platter, the glaze crackled by heat in crazy hairlines. The knife was thin-bladed, the steel sharpened away. Mink felt its fragility against the ham bone. Such a worn blade could easily break. His pallid gaze, blue as winter milk, slid around the table.

"Where's Dub? Goddamn knockabout."

"Don't know," Jewell said, hands like clusters of carrots, shaking pepper out of the glass dog, straight in the chair, the flesh of her arms firm and solid. "But I'll tell you something. Anybody that's late to supper can go without. I cook supper to be eat hot. And nobody bothers to take the trouble to set down when it's ready. Don't care who it is, they're not here they can forget it. Don't care if it's Saint Peter. Don't care if Dub's gone off again. Thinks he can come and go as he pleases. He don't care for nobody's work. I don't care if it's Winston Churchill with his big greasy cigar wants to set clown to dinner, we're not waitin' for nobody. If there's something left he can have it, but don't expect nothing to be saved."

"I don't expect it," said Mernelle, squinting her eyes. Her braids were doubled in loops bound with rubber bands that pulled painfully when they were worked loose at night, the teeth too big for the face. She had the family hands with crooked fingers and flat nails. She had Mink's diffident slouch.

"Nobody is talking to you, miss. You make some money on the milkweed pods and you've got to put your two cents in on every subject. How money does change a person. Glad I haven't got any to spoil me."

"I got more good stuff goin' on than milkweed pods," said Mernelle scornfully. "I got three big things this week. I got six dollars for the milkweed pods, I got a letter from Sergeant Frederick Hale Bottum in New Guinea because he read my note with the Sunday school cigarettes, and our class is goin' to see the rubber show in Barton. On Friday."

"How many milkweed pods you picked for that six dollars?" Mink pulled off his barn cap and hung it on the chair's ear. A leak of hair hung down and he continually jerked his head to the left to get it out of his way.

"Hundreds. Thousands. Thirty bags. And guess what, Da, some of the kids turned in milkweeds that was still green, and they only give 'em ten cents a bag. I let mine get all nice and dry up in the hayloft first. The only one picked more than me was a old man from Topunder. Seventy-two bags, but he didn't have to go to school. He could just fool around pickin' milkweed all day long."

"I wondered what in the hell all them milkweed pods was doin' spread out over the floor up there. First I thought it was some idea Loyal had for cheap cowfeed. Then I thought they was goin' to be some kind of a decoration."

"Da, they don't make decorations out of milkweed pods."

"Hell they don't. Milkweed pods, pinecones, spools, popcorn, apples, throw some paint on it, that's it. I seen women and girls make a goddamn hay rake into a decoration with crepe paper and poison ivy."

The door opened a few inches and Dub's florid big-cheeked face thrust into the kitchen. In the thicket of his curly hair a bald spot appeared like a clearing in the woods. He pretended to look around guiltily. When his eyes came to Jewell's he twisted up his mouth in mock fear, sidling into the room with his arm crooked across his face as if to ward off blows. His thighs were heavy and he had the short man's scissory walk. He knew he was the fool of the family.

"Don't hit me, Ma, I'll never be late again. Couldn't help it this time. Hey, I got talkin' with a fella, said his uncle was one of the ones that was up on Camel's Hump where that bomber went down, looking for the survivors of the crash?"

"For pity's sake," said Jewell.

Dub turned his chair around and straddled it, his good arm across the back, the empty left sleeve, usually tucked in his jacket pocket, hanging slack. A Camel cigarette balanced behind his right ear. For an instant Jewell remembered how shapely his forearms had been, the swelling flexors and the man's veins like tight fine branchwood. Mink cut a slice of ham into pieces and scraped them onto Dub's plate.

The kitchen seemed to Loyal to be falling outward like a perspective painting, showing the grain of the ham, the two shades of green of the wallpaper ivy, the ears of drying popcorn joined together in a twist of wire hanging over the stove, the word COMFORT on the oven door, Jewell's old purse nailed to the wall to hold bills and letters, the pencil stubs in the spice can hanging from a string looped over a nail, Mernelle's drawing of a flag tacked to the pantry door, the glass doorknob, the brass hook and eye, the sagging string and stained cretonne covering the cavity under the sink, the wet footprints on the linoleum, all flat and detailed, but receding from him like torn leaves in a flooding river. It seemed he had never before noticed his mother's floral print apron, the solid way she leaned forward, her beaky nose and round ears. They had those ears, he thought, every one of them, forcing his mind away from what was up under the wall, and Mink's black Irish hair, so fine you couldn't see the single hairs.

Dub heaped the mashed potato on his plate, poured the yellow gravy over it and worked it in with his fork. He stuck a lump of chewing gum on the edge of the plate.

"Plane was all over the mountain. One wing clipped a part of the lion, and then it just end-overed, wings broke off here, tail farther down, cockpit belly-bunted half a mile down. Tell you what, they don't see how that guy lived through it, guy from Florida, just layin' on the snow, guts and arms and legs from nine dead men all around him, and all he had was a couple cuts and scrapes, nothing even broke. Guy never even see snow before."

"What lion?" asked Mernelle, picturing the beast behind snowy rocks.

"Ah, the top of the mountain, looks like a lion gettin' ready to jump, other guys thinks it looks like a part of a camel. The lion party wanted to call it 'crouchin' lion' but the camel lovers got their way. Camel's Hump. It's just stone up there, grade A granite. Looks like a pile of rock. Hey, don't look like a camel or a lion or a porcupine. Don't they learn you nothin' in school?"

"Seems like it's been a terrible time the last year or so for terrible things. The War. The Chowder Girl stabbing that needle in her eye. That was terrible. That poor woman in the bathtub in the hotel." Jewell unleashed one of her gusty sighs and stared away into the sad things that happen, that she guiltily savored. Her eyes were half closed, her thick wrists resting on the edge of the table, fork lying across her plate.

"What about the fool things," said Mink, the words tangled in his mouth with potato and ham, the stubbled cheeks flexing as he chewed, "what about that fool that brought the can of blasting powder into the kitchen and put a match to it to see if it would burn. A fool thing, and half the town on fire on account of it and him and his brother's whole family dead or torn up."

"What the hell is this?" said Dub, pulling something from the mashed potato on his plate. "What the hell is this?" holding up a bloodied Band-Aid.

"Oh my lord," said Jewell, "Throw it out. Take some new potato. I cut my finger peelin' potatoes, then when I was settin' the table I see I lost the Band-Aid somewhere. Must of fell in the potatoes when I was mashin' 'em. Give it here," she said, getting up and scraping the potato in the pig's slop bucket. She moved with a quick step, her lace-up oxfords with the stacked heels showing off her small feet.

"Thought for a minute there," said Dub, "that the taters had the rag on."

"Dub," said Jewell.

"I don't get it," said Mernelle. "I don't get what a bomber was doin' near the Camel's Hump. Is there Germans on the Camel's Hump?"

Dub roared in his stupid way. Mernelle could see the thing at the back of his throat hanging down, the black parts of his teeth and the empty gums on the left where the train men had knocked his teeth out.

"Don't worry about the Germans. Even if they made it across the ocean what the hell would they do up on Camel's Hump? 'Ach, Heinz, I am seeink der Blood farm und der dangerous Mernelle collecting ze milkveed pods.'" Dub's grin hung in his face like an end of wet rope.

The food lay on Loyal's plate as Mink had sent it along, the ham hanging a little over the edge, the cone of potato rising, a single iceberg from a frozen sea.

Loyal stood up, the yellow kerosene light reaching as high as his breast, his face shadowed. His leaf-stained fingers bunched, braced against the table. "Got something to say. Billy and me has had enough of this place. We're pullin' out tonight. She's waitin' for me right now. We're pullin' out and going out west, someplace out there, buy a farm, make a new start. She got the right idea. She says 'I'm not even goin' to try to see my folks. Suit me good if I never have to see one of them again.' She's just goin'. I wanted to set it straight with you, give you some idea. I didn't come back for no goddamn dinner. Didn't come back to listen to horseshit about Germans and potatoes. I come back to get my money and my car. Ask you to tell her folks she's gone. She don't care to see them."

As he said it he knew that's what they should have done. It seemed so easy now he couldn't understand why he'd fought the idea.

There was a silence. A discordance spread around the table as though he had blindly hit piano keys with a length of pipe.

Mink half-stood, the hair hung down over his eyes. "What in hell are you sayin'! This your idea of a joke? All I ever hear from you for ten years is how you think this place oughta be run, now you say just like you was talkin' about changin' your shirt that you're pullin' out? For ten years I been hearin' about what you wanted to do with this place, how you wanted to switch off the Jerseys over to Holsteins, 'get a milkin' machine after the War as soon's we get electricity in, specialize in dairy.' Get the pastures and hayfields up, alfalfa, build a silo, grow more corn, concentrate on commercial dairy farmin'. Profit. Put the time into dairyin', don't bother with no big garden, or pigs or turkeys, it's quicker and efficienter to buy your food. I can hear you sayin' it now. You said it until my ears turned blue. Now this. You expect me to swallow this like sweet cake?

"Hey, mister, tell you what else you said. You bitched and whined about the juniper movin' into the fields, talk half an hour about the orchard, suckers, deadwood, the bull spruce is chokin' out the spring in the pine tree corner you said, west hayfields ain't been cut in three year, full of cherry trash. That's what you said. Said you wished the day had forty hours of light so's you could get somethin' done."

Loyal hardly heard him, but saw the rubbery folds from the wings of his nostrils to the corners of his mouth, saw the cords in Mink's neck, thought of the glistening strings just under the skin, thought of the arteries swelled with ropes of blood the size of his finger, thought of the crackling sound of rib bones when he kicked in a fox's chest.

"You can't leave us run this farm alone," said Mink in his buzzing voice, the self-pity getting into his rage. "Jesus Christ, your brother's only got the one arm and my health is down since the damn tractor laid on my chest. I was up to my health I'd beat the shit out of you. You're not worth a pig's patootie. You tell me how in the hell Dub and me can hand-milk nineteen cow alone, two of them damn Holsteins of yours, the one holds her milk back, and kicks. Christ I hate that cow's eyes. You son of a bitch, we just can't do it."

"Goddamnit, the Holsteins are good-natured cows, better than them mean little Jerseys you got. They give damn near twice as much milk as any Jersey." He tumbled into the relief of the old argument.

"Yes, and look how much they eat. And half the butterfat of the Jerseys. The Jerseys is made for this country. They can make out on thin pasture and keep a farm going. They're rugged. Tell you another thing. You just try walkin' off the farm they'll have your ass in uniform so fast it'll take your breath away. There's a War on, in case you forget. Farm work is essential work. Forget out west. Don't you read no papers? Don't you hear no radio programs? Them out west farms dried up and blowed away in the Dust Bowl. You're stayin'."

Dub popped a wooden match with his thumbnail and lit his cigarette.

"I got to go," said Loyal. "I got to. Oregon or Montana — somewhere."

"Put the record on again, Charlie," said Dub, "everybody likes to dance to that one." The smoke streamed out of his nose.

Jewell put her hands to her cheeks and drew down on them, stretching her face and exposing the red inner lids of her eyes behind her glasses. "I don't know," she said. "What about the Army Dinner, we're puttin' on the Army Dinner Saturday night, the big beef stew dinner in the cafeteria style, Army style. I was expectin' you to take me down to the church on Saturday mornin'. You can stay for that. Billy's one of the ones that wears the chef's hats and ladles out the food. She has to stay for that."

"It's on Billy's account we got to go tonight. There's certain reasons. No good to talk about it. I'm goin'." He leaned wildly at them, the black hair curling at the opening of his shirt where the blue-white skin showed.

"Well Jesus Christ, I see the whole thing. You knocked her up. She wants to clear out so nobody don't know. There's a word to describe a fella like you lets himself get backed into a rutty corner where he can't turn around," the voice squeezed along, "but I won't say it in front of your mother and sister."

"Hey, you leave, Loyal," said Dub, "you're finishin' off this farm."

"Well I knew this was goin' to be like takin' a bath in boiled shit, but I didn't know it was goin' to be this bad. Can't you understand nothin'? I'm goin'."

He ran up to the slant-ceilinged room he shared with Dub, leaving the ham on his plate, leaving his chair turned away from the table, leaving the fly-spotted mirror reflecting Mernelle's face. He hauled out the old valise, opened it and threw it onto the bed. And stood a long minute with the shirts bunched up in his hands, the valise gaping like a shout. Down there Mink was firing up, bellowing now, something smashing and rattling — door to the pantry. Loyal dropped the shirts into the valise, and afterwards believed that was the moment when everything shifted, when the route of his life veered away from the main line, not when Billy slumped beneath his blind rutting, but as the shirts collapsed in their cotton limpness.

He found Dub's bottle in a boot in the closet, tightened the cap arid tossed it in, working the stiff strap through the valise buckle as he came down the stairs double-stride, hearing Mink hammering now, seeing the son of a bitch nailing the kitchen door shut. So he couldn't get out.

He was across the room in a few seconds. He kicked out the window and stepped over the raking glass onto the porch, leaving it all, the trapline, the rough little Jerseys, the two Holsteins with their heavy flesh-colored udders, Dub's oily rags, and the smell of old iron in the back of the barn, the wall up by the woods. That part of things was over. It was over in a rush.

Down on the town road he thought it was a sour joke how things had turned out. Billy, always yapping about moving away, getting out, making a new start, was staying on the farm. He, whom never thought beyond the farm, never wanted anything but the farm, was on his way. Clenching the steering wheel.

Something was sticking in his backside, and he felt around, grasped Mernelle's ocarina, the swirled novelty pattern of the Bakelite scarred from kicking around the floor. On the sides were decals of donkeys carrying panniers of cactus. He started to crank down the window to throw it out, but the window slipped off the rail again when it was only a crack open, and he threw the ocarina into the backseat.

It was almost dusk, but at the low place where the meadows swept the trees off to the sides he pulled over to take a last look. But jammed the spurting flashes of what had happened. Had happened and was done.

The place was as fixed as a picture on a postcard, the house and barn like black ships in an ocean of fields, the sky a membrane holding the final light, and there were the blurred kitchen windows, and up behind the buildings the field, the rich twenty-acre field propped open toward the south like a Bible, the crease of the water vein almost exactly in the center of the ten-acre pages. He fished in the valise and got Dub's bottle, swallowed the cold whiskey. Beautiful pasture, four or five years of his work to bring that field up, none of Mink's labor, his, draining the boggy place, liming and seeding to clover, plowing under the clover three years running to build up the soil, get the sourness out, then planting alfalfa and keeping it going, look at it, sweet good stuff, nutty, full of nourishment. That's what made those cows give the butterfat, nothing Mink did, but him, Loyal, the best pasture in the county. That was why he had wanted to go up above the junipers, even though Billy didn't care about the field and couldn't tell good fields from bad, not to do what she thought he wanted, but to look at his pasture from above.

"I heard it all, now," she said. "Looks like any stupid old field to me." She shook her head. "I don't know if I can make something out of you or not, Loyal."

The field looked like black-green fur in the dull light.

"That's your last look," he said, laid Dub's bottle in the glove compartment and threw the car into first. Out of the corner of his eye he half-marked a white dot up in the field. Too big for a fox, wrong shape for a deer. And no stumps in that field.

But he was fourteen miles away from home and half across the bridge, stepping gingerly on the brake to keep from hitting a burr-covered stray, before he figured it out. The dog. The dog was up in the field right where he'd told him to sit. Still waiting. Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 1992 by E. Annie Proulx

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First Chapter

Chapter 1: Blood Even before he got up he knew he was on his way. Even in the midst of the involuntary orgasmic jerking he knew. Knew she was dead, knew he was on his way. Even standing there on shaking legs, trying to push the copper buttons through the stiff buttonholes he knew that everything he had done or thought in his life had to be started over again. Even if he got away.

He couldn't get any air, but stood on his knocked-out legs gasping and wheezing. It was like he'd taken a bad fall. Dazed. He could feel the blood hammering in his throat. But there was nothing else, only the gasping for breath and an abnormal acuity of vision. Mats of juniper flowed across the field like spilled water; doghair maple crowded the stone wall wavering through the trees.

He'd thought of the wall walking up the slope behind Billy, thought of it in a common way, of working on it sometime, setting back in place the stones that frost and thrusting roots had thrown out. Now he saw it as a scene drawn in powerful ink lines, the rock fissured with crumpled strings of quartz, humps of moss like shoulders shrugging out of the mold, black lignum beneath rotten bark, the aluminum sheen of deadwood.

A stone the size and shape of a car's backseat jutted out of the wall, and below it was a knob of soil that marked the entrance to an abandoned fox den. Oh Jesus, it wasn't his fault but they'd say it was. He grasped Billy's ankles and dragged her to the wall. He rolled her up under the stone, could not look at her face. There was already a waxiness to her body. The texture of her bunched stockings, the shape of her nails glowed with the luminous hardness that marks the newly dead in the moment before the flames consume or the sucking water pulls them under. The space beneath the rock was shallow. Her arm fell outward, the hand relaxed, the fingers curled as if she held a hand mirror or a Fourth of July flag.

Instinctively he translated the withering shock into work, his answer to what he did not want to understand, to persistent toothache, hard weather, the sense of loneliness. He rebuilt the wall over her, fitting the stones, copying the careless, tumbled fall of rock. A secretive reflex worked in him. When she was locked away in the wall he threw on dead leaves, tree limbs and brush, raked the drag marks and scuffed ground with a branch.

Down the back fields, keeping to the fence line, but sometimes staggering onto open ground. No feeling in his legs. The sun was going down, the October afternoon collapsing into evening. The fence posts on the margins of the fields glinted like burnished pins, the thick light plated his face with a coppery mask.

Grass eddied around his knees, the purple awns burst, scattering a hail of seed. Far below he saw the house varnished with orange light, balanced against the grove of cottonwoods, like a scene etched on a metal plate. The sag of the roof curved into shadows as delicate as a bloom of mold, thickening the trees.

In the orchard he knelt and wiped his hands over and over in the coarse grass. The trees were half wild with watersprouts and deadwood. The mournful smell of rotted fruit came into his nose. "If I get away," he said, dragging breath into his constricted throat, and briefly seeing, not what had happened up beside the wall, but his grandfather spraying the tree with Bordeaux mixture, the long wand hissing in the leaves, the poisoned codling moths bursting up like flames, the women and children, himself, on the ladder picking apples, the strap of the bag cutting into his shoulder, the empty oak-splint baskets under the trees and the men loading the full baskets into a wagon, the frigid packing room, old Roseboy with his sloping, bare neck and his dirty hat, pointed like a cone, nothing but a trimmed-up old syrup filter, tapping on the barrel heads, serious, saying over and over, "Take it easy now, one rotten apple spoils the whole goddamn barrel."

Evening haze rose off the hardwood slopes and blurred a sky discolored like a stained silk skirt. He saw and heard everything with brutal clarity; yet the thing that had happened up beside the wall was confused. Coyotes singling along the edge of the duck marsh called in fluming howls. Wet hand ticking the skeletal bean poles, he walked through the withered garden. Moths like pinches of pale dust battered in his wake.

At the corner of the house he stopped and urinated on the blackened stalks of Jewell's Canterbury bells. The seed husks rattled and a faint steam rose in the trembling shadow of his legs. His clothes had no warmth. The grey work pants, knees stained with soil, were stippled with grass heads and bramble tips, his jacket spattered with shreds of bark. His neck stung from her raking scratches. A gleaming image of her fingernails swerved into his mind and he clamped it off. The cedar waxwings rustled stiff leaves with a sound of unfolding tissue paper. He could hear Mink's voice in the kitchen, lumps of sound like newly plowed soil, and the flat muffle of Jewell, his mother, answering. Nothing seemed changed. Billy was somehow up there under the wall, but nothing seemed changed except the uncanny sharpness of his vision and the tightness that gripped somewhere under his breastbone.

A length of binder twine hung with bean plants sagged between the two porch pillars, and he could see each hemp fiber, the shadows in the folds of each desiccated leaf, the swell of the seed inside the husks. A broken pumpkin, crusted on its underside with earth, parted like a mouth in a knowing crack. His foot crushed a leaf as he opened the screen door.

Wire egg baskets were stacked in the corner of the entry. Water had drained from a basket half full of pale eggs and pooled under Mink's barn boots. The reeking barn clothes, Dub's jacket, his own denim coat with the pocket gaping open like a wound, dangled from nails. He scraped his shoes on the wad of burlap sacks and went in.

"About time. You, Loyal, you and Dub can't get to the table on time we're not waitin.' Been sayin' this since you was four years old." Jewell pushed the bowl of onions toward him. Her hazel eyes were lost behind the glinting spectacles. The ridge of muscle that supported her lower lip was as stiff as wood.

The white plates made a circle around the kitchen table, the shape echoed in the curve of pease around Mink's mouth. There was stubble on his face, his finely cut lips were loosened by missing teeth. The dull silver lay on the yolk-colored oilcloth. Mink clenched the carving knife, sawed at the ham. The ham smelled like blood. Cold air crawled along the floor, the ferret scurried in the wall. On a hill miles away an attic window caught the last ray of light, burned for a few minutes, dimmed.

"Pass the plates." Mink's voice, gone thin since his tractor accident a few years ago, seemed caught in some glottal anatomic trap. He tensed his neck, creased across the back with white lines, and cut at the ham. The label on his overall bib read TUF NUT. The red slices fell away from the knife onto the platter, the glaze crackled by heat in crazy hairlines. The knife was thin-bladed, the steel sharpened away. Mink felt its fragility against the ham bone. Such a worn blade could easily break. His pallid gaze, blue as winter milk, slid around the table.

"Where's Dub? Goddamn knockabout."

"Don't know," Jewell said, hands like clusters of carrots, shaking pepper out of the glass dog, straight in the chair, the flesh of her arms firm and solid. "But I'll tell you something. Anybody that's late to supper can go without. I cook supper to be eat hot. And nobody bothers to take the trouble to set down when it's ready. Don't care who it is, they're not here they can forget it. Don't care if it's Saint Peter. Don't care if Dub's gone off again. Thinks he can come and go as he pleases. He don't care for nobody's work. I don't care if it's Winston Churchill with his big greasy cigar wants to set clown to dinner, we're not waitin' for nobody. If there's something left he can have it, but don't expect nothing to be saved."

"I don't expect it," said Mernelle, squinting her eyes. Her braids were doubled in loops bound with rubber bands that pulled painfully when they were worked loose at night, the teeth too big for the face. She had the family hands with crooked fingers and flat nails. She had Mink's diffident slouch.

"Nobody is talking to you, miss. You make some money on the milkweed pods and you've got to put your two cents in on every subject. How money does change a person. Glad I haven't got any to spoil me."

"I got more good stuff goin' on than milkweed pods," said Mernelle scornfully. "I got three big things this week. I got six dollars for the milkweed pods, I got a letter from Sergeant Frederick Hale Bottum in New Guinea because he read my note with the Sunday school cigarettes, and our class is goin' to see the rubber show in Barton. On Friday."

"How many milkweed pods you picked for that six dollars?" Mink pulled off his barn cap and hung it on the chair's ear. A leak of hair hung down and he continually jerked his head to the left to get it out of his way.

"Hundreds. Thousands. Thirty bags. And guess what, Da, some of the kids turned in milkweeds that was still green, and they only give 'em ten cents a bag. I let mine get all nice and dry up in the hayloft first. The only one picked more than me was a old man from Topunder. Seventy-two bags, but he didn't have to go to school. He could just fool around pickin' milkweed all day long."

"I wondered what in the hell all them milkweed pods was doin' spread out over the floor up there. First I thought it was some idea Loyal had for cheap cowfeed. Then I thought they was goin' to be some kind of a decoration."

"Da, they don't make decorations out of milkweed pods."

"Hell they don't. Milkweed pods, pinecones, spools, popcorn, apples, throw some paint on it, that's it. I seen women and girls make a goddamn hay rake into a decoration with crepe paper and poison ivy."

The door opened a few inches and Dub's florid big-cheeked face thrust into the kitchen. In the thicket of his curly hair a bald spot appeared like a clearing in the woods. He pretended to look around guiltily. When his eyes came to Jewell's he twisted up his mouth in mock fear, sidling into the room with his arm crooked across his face as if to ward off blows. His thighs were heavy and he had the short man's scissory walk. He knew he was the fool of the family.

"Don't hit me, Ma, I'll never be late again. Couldn't help it this time. Hey, I got talkin' with a fella, said his uncle was one of the ones that was up on Camel's Hump where that bomber went down, looking for the survivors of the crash?"

"For pity's sake," said Jewell.

Dub turned his chair around and straddled it, his good arm across the back, the empty left sleeve, usually tucked in his jacket pocket, hanging slack. A Camel cigarette balanced behind his right ear. For an instant Jewell remembered how shapely his forearms had been, the swelling flexors and the man's veins like tight fine branchwood. Mink cut a slice of ham into pieces and scraped them onto Dub's plate.

The kitchen seemed to Loyal to be falling outward like a perspective painting, showing the grain of the ham, the two shades of green of the wallpaper ivy, the ears of drying popcorn joined together in a twist of wire hanging over the stove, the word COMFORT on the oven door, Jewell's old purse nailed to the wall to hold bills and letters, the pencil stubs in the spice can hanging from a string looped over a nail, Mernelle's drawing of a flag tacked to the pantry door, the glass doorknob, the brass hook and eye, the sagging string and stained cretonne covering the cavity under the sink, the wet footprints on the linoleum, all flat and detailed, but receding from him like torn leaves in a flooding river. It seemed he had never before noticed his mother's floral print apron, the solid way she leaned forward, her beaky nose and round ears. They had those ears, he thought, every one of them, forcing his mind away from what was up under the wall, and Mink's black Irish hair, so fine you couldn't see the single hairs.

Dub heaped the mashed potato on his plate, poured the yellow gravy over it and worked it in with his fork. He stuck a lump of chewing gum on the edge of the plate.

"Plane was all over the mountain. One wing clipped a part of the lion, and then it just end-overed, wings broke off here, tail farther down, cockpit belly-bunted half a mile down. Tell you what, they don't see how that guy lived through it, guy from Florida, just layin' on the snow, guts and arms and legs from nine dead men all around him, and all he had was a couple cuts and scrapes, nothing even broke. Guy never even see snow before."

"What lion?" asked Mernelle, picturing the beast behind snowy rocks.

"Ah, the top of the mountain, looks like a lion gettin' ready to jump, other guys thinks it looks like a part of a camel. The lion party wanted to call it 'crouchin' lion' but the camel lovers got their way. Camel's Hump. It's just stone up there, grade A granite. Looks like a pile of rock. Hey, don't look like a camel or a lion or a porcupine. Don't they learn you nothin' in school?"

"Seems like it's been a terrible time the last year or so for terrible things. The War. The Chowder Girl stabbing that needle in her eye. That was terrible. That poor woman in the bathtub in the hotel." Jewell unleashed one of her gusty sighs and stared away into the sad things that happen, that she guiltily savored. Her eyes were half closed, her thick wrists resting on the edge of the table, fork lying across her plate.

"What about the fool things," said Mink, the words tangled in his mouth with potato and ham, the stubbled cheeks flexing as he chewed, "what about that fool that brought the can of blasting powder into the kitchen and put a match to it to see if it would burn. A fool thing, and half the town on fire on account of it and him and his brother's whole family dead or torn up."

"What the hell is this?" said Dub, pulling something from the mashed potato on his plate. "What the hell is this?" holding up a bloodied Band-Aid.

"Oh my lord," said Jewell, "Throw it out. Take some new potato. I cut my finger peelin' potatoes, then when I was settin' the table I see I lost the Band-Aid somewhere. Must of fell in the potatoes when I was mashin' 'em. Give it here," she said, getting up and scraping the potato in the pig's slop bucket. She moved with a quick step, her lace-up oxfords with the stacked heels showing off her small feet.

"Thought for a minute there," said Dub, "that the taters had the rag on."

"Dub," said Jewell.

"I don't get it," said Mernelle. "I don't get what a bomber was doin' near the Camel's Hump. Is there Germans on the Camel's Hump?"

Dub roared in his stupid way. Mernelle could see the thing at the back of his throat hanging down, the black parts of his teeth and the empty gums on the left where the train men had knocked his teeth out.

"Don't worry about the Germans. Even if they made it across the ocean what the hell would they do up on Camel's Hump? 'Ach, Heinz, I am seeink der Blood farm und der dangerous Mernelle collecting ze milkveed pods.'" Dub's grin hung in his face like an end of wet rope.

The food lay on Loyal's plate as Mink had sent it along, the ham hanging a little over the edge, the cone of potato rising, a single iceberg from a frozen sea.

Loyal stood up, the yellow kerosene light reaching as high as his breast, his face shadowed. His leaf-stained fingers bunched, braced against the table. "Got something to say. Billy and me has had enough of this place. We're pullin' out tonight. She's waitin' for me right now. We're pullin' out and going out west, someplace out there, buy a farm, make a new start. She got the right idea. She says 'I'm not even goin' to try to see my folks. Suit me good if I never have to see one of them again.' She's just goin'. I wanted to set it straight with you, give you some idea. I didn't come back for no goddamn dinner. Didn't come back to listen to horseshit about Germans and potatoes. I come back to get my money and my car. Ask you to tell her folks she's gone. She don't care to see them."

As he said it he knew that's what they should have done. It seemed so easy now he couldn't understand why he'd fought the idea.

There was a silence. A discordance spread around the table as though he had blindly hit piano keys with a length of pipe.

Mink half-stood, the hair hung down over his eyes. "What in hell are you sayin'! This your idea of a joke? All I ever hear from you for ten years is how you think this place oughta be run, now you say just like you was talkin' about changin' your shirt that you're pullin' out? For ten years I been hearin' about what you wanted to do with this place, how you wanted to switch off the Jerseys over to Holsteins, 'get a milkin' machine after the War as soon's we get electricity in, specialize in dairy.' Get the pastures and hayfields up, alfalfa, build a silo, grow more corn, concentrate on commercial dairy farmin'. Profit. Put the time into dairyin', don't bother with no big garden, or pigs or turkeys, it's quicker and efficienter to buy your food. I can hear you sayin' it now. You said it until my ears turned blue. Now this. You expect me to swallow this like sweet cake?

"Hey, mister, tell you what else you said. You bitched and whined about the juniper movin' into the fields, talk half an hour about the orchard, suckers, deadwood, the bull spruce is chokin' out the spring in the pine tree corner you said, west hayfields ain't been cut in three year, full of cherry trash. That's what you said. Said you wished the day had forty hours of light so's you could get somethin' done."

Loyal hardly heard him, but saw the rubbery folds from the wings of his nostrils to the corners of his mouth, saw the cords in Mink's neck, thought of the glistening strings just under the skin, thought of the arteries swelled with ropes of blood the size of his finger, thought of the crackling sound of rib bones when he kicked in a fox's chest.

"You can't leave us run this farm alone," said Mink in his buzzing voice, the self-pity getting into his rage. "Jesus Christ, your brother's only got the one arm and my health is down since the damn tractor laid on my chest. I was up to my health I'd beat the shit out of you. You're not worth a pig's patootie. You tell me how in the hell Dub and me can hand-milk nineteen cow alone, two of them damn Holsteins of yours, the one holds her milk back, and kicks. Christ I hate that cow's eyes. You son of a bitch, we just can't do it."

"Goddamnit, the Holsteins are good-natured cows, better than them mean little Jerseys you got. They give damn near twice as much milk as any Jersey." He tumbled into the relief of the old argument.

"Yes, and look how much they eat. And half the butterfat of the Jerseys. The Jerseys is made for this country. They can make out on thin pasture and keep a farm going. They're rugged. Tell you another thing. You just try walkin' off the farm they'll have your ass in uniform so fast it'll take your breath away. There's a War on, in case you forget. Farm work is essential work. Forget out west. Don't you read no papers? Don't you hear no radio programs? Them out west farms dried up and blowed away in the Dust Bowl. You're stayin'."

Dub popped a wooden match with his thumbnail and lit his cigarette.

"I got to go," said Loyal. "I got to. Oregon or Montana -- somewhere."

"Put the record on again, Charlie," said Dub, "everybody likes to dance to that one." The smoke streamed out of his nose.

Jewell put her hands to her cheeks and drew down on them, stretching her face and exposing the red inner lids of her eyes behind her glasses. "I don't know," she said. "What about the Army Dinner, we're puttin' on the Army Dinner Saturday night, the big beef stew dinner in the cafeteria style, Army style. I was expectin' you to take me down to the church on Saturday mornin'. You can stay for that. Billy's one of the ones that wears the chef's hats and ladles out the food. She has to stay for that."

"It's on Billy's account we got to go tonight. There's certain reasons. No good to talk about it. I'm goin'." He leaned wildly at them, the black hair curling at the opening of his shirt where the blue-white skin showed.

"Well Jesus Christ, I see the whole thing. You knocked her up. She wants to clear out so nobody don't know. There's a word to describe a fella like you lets himself get backed into a rutty corner where he can't turn around," the voice squeezed along, "but I won't say it in front of your mother and sister."

"Hey, you leave, Loyal," said Dub, "you're finishin' off this farm."

"Well I knew this was goin' to be like takin' a bath in boiled shit, but I didn't know it was goin' to be this bad. Can't you understand nothin'? I'm goin'."

He ran up to the slant-ceilinged room he shared with Dub, leaving the ham on his plate, leaving his chair turned away from the table, leaving the fly-spotted mirror reflecting Mernelle's face. He hauled out the old valise, opened it and threw it onto the bed. And stood a long minute with the shirts bunched up in his hands, the valise gaping like a shout. Down there Mink was firing up, bellowing now, something smashing and rattling -- door to the pantry. Loyal dropped the shirts into the valise, and afterwards believed that was the moment when everything shifted, when the route of his life veered away from the main line, not when Billy slumped beneath his blind rutting, but as the shirts collapsed in their cotton limpness.

He found Dub's bottle in a boot in the closet, tightened the cap arid tossed it in, working the stiff strap through the valise buckle as he came down the stairs double-stride, hearing Mink hammering now, seeing the son of a bitch nailing the kitchen door shut. So he couldn't get out.

He was across the room in a few seconds. He kicked out the window and stepped over the raking glass onto the porch, leaving it all, the trapline, the rough little Jerseys, the two Holsteins with their heavy flesh-colored udders, Dub's oily rags, and the smell of old iron in the back of the barn, the wall up by the woods. That part of things was over. It was over in a rush.

Down on the town road he thought it was a sour joke how things had turned out. Billy, always yapping about moving away, getting out, making a new start, was staying on the farm. He, whom never thought beyond the farm, never wanted anything but the farm, was on his way. Clenching the steering wheel.

Something was sticking in his backside, and he felt around, grasped Mernelle's ocarina, the swirled novelty pattern of the Bakelite scarred from kicking around the floor. On the sides were decals of donkeys carrying panniers of cactus. He started to crank down the window to throw it out, but the window slipped off the rail again when it was only a crack open, and he threw the ocarina into the backseat.

It was almost dusk, but at the low place where the meadows swept the trees off to the sides he pulled over to take a last look. But jammed the spurting flashes of what had happened. Had happened and was done.

The place was as fixed as a picture on a postcard, the house and barn like black ships in an ocean of fields, the sky a membrane holding the final light, and there were the blurred kitchen windows, and up behind the buildings the field, the rich twenty-acre field propped open toward the south like a Bible, the crease of the water vein almost exactly in the center of the ten-acre pages. He fished in the valise and got Dub's bottle, swallowed the cold whiskey. Beautiful pasture, four or five years of his work to bring that field up, none of Mink's labor, his, draining the boggy place, liming and seeding to clover, plowing under the clover three years running to build up the soil, get the sourness out, then planting alfalfa and keeping it going, look at it, sweet good stuff, nutty, full of nourishment. That's what made those cows give the butterfat, nothing Mink did, but him, Loyal, the best pasture in the county. That was why he had wanted to go up above the junipers, even though Billy didn't care about the field and couldn't tell good fields from bad, not to do what she thought he wanted, but to look at his pasture from above.

"I heard it all, now," she said. "Looks like any stupid old field to me." She shook her head. "I don't know if I can make something out of you or not, Loyal."

The field looked like black-green fur in the dull light.

"That's your last look," he said, laid Dub's bottle in the glove compartment and threw the car into first. Out of the corner of his eye he half-marked a white dot up in the field. Too big for a fox, wrong shape for a deer. And no stumps in that field.

But he was fourteen miles away from home and half across the bridge, stepping gingerly on the brake to keep from hitting a burr-covered stray, before he figured it out. The dog. The dog was up in the field right where he'd told him to sit. Still waiting. Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 1992 by E. Annie Proulx

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Introduction

Postcards

Annie Proulx

Introduction

His trouble seemed to shift rather than repair.

When Loyal Blood accidentally kills his girlfriend, he abandons his family farm in Vermont and sets out on a journey across America that will continue for the rest of his life. The only communication he has with his family is in the form of postcards of which he sends with no return address. Because of this, he will never learn of his father's suicide, the loss of the farm, his sister's marriage, or his mother's tragic death. Alternating between Loyal's misadventures-including everything from being trapped in a mine to being scalped by an Indian-and the misfortunes of the family he leaves behind, Postcards chronicles the disintegration of the farming industry as well as the fate of the Bloods who must adapt to the new realities of post-World War II life or face their own extinction.

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Postcards is a compelling tale of the dark side of the American dream and "marks Proulx as a gifted prose stylist who renders her characters on the page to mesmerizing effect" (San Francisco Chronicle).

Discussion Questions:

1. For Loyal, what was "the moment when everything shifted, when the route of his life veered away from the main line"? Do you think that he is to blame for the tragic events that befall his family after he leaves the farm-his brother and father being arrested for arson, his father's suicide, his mother's poverty? If so, then is he also responsible for the good that comes out of the bad-his mother's independence, his brother's wealth, his sister's love? Where does this book standin the free will vs. fate struggle?

2. The coyote appears throughout Postcards. Track the coyote's image in this novel and determine what meaning it has to the protagonist and his story.

3. "The place was as fixed as a picture on a postcard" (page 12). Discuss the author's use of postcards-in the title and as chapter headers. How does it tie into the theme of the novel? How is this form of communication important to the character of Loyal?

4. Loyal drifts from job to job-machining, mining, prospecting for uranium, working in an observatory, digging for dinosaur bones, trapping, and farming. What does each industry reflect about his character or quest? Do you see Loyal as a failure or a quitter? Or are they one and the same to you?

5. "He carried the Indian's book around with him for years before he started to write in it" (page 15). Why does Loyal keep the Indian's book? What does he write in it? How are the lives of Joe Blue Skies and Loyal intertwined?

6. "All her life she had taken the tufted line of the hills against the sky as fixed, but saw now that the landscape changed..." (page 126-127). Why does Jewell decide to learn how to drive? How does this decision change the course of her life?

7. Postcards has been compared to classics such as Native Son by Richard Wright and An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Discuss these comparisons as well as any other works with similar themes and quests.

8. Jewell tells her daughter: "It was considered pretty terrible to get divorced, so they put up with a lot, things no woman today would put up with" (page 180). How do the lives of Jewell and Mernelle mirror the women's liberation movement of the time. Do you think the females in this novel fare better than the males? In your opinion, are the characters such as Jewell, Mrs. Nipple, Mernelle, and Starr-women who outlive their husbands-being rewarded or punished?

9. "He had tried to keep the tremulous balance of his life, walking a beam between short friendships and abrupt departures" (page 186). How are the characters that Loyal meets up with in his life-Wulff and Bullet, Ben Rainwater, Mr. Doffin, Jack Sagine, Frank Clove, and the Indian-similar? What do each contribute to Loyal's journey?

10. Postcards is full of irony-the most significant event being the outcome of the discovery of Billy's body, Loyal's reason for self-exile. Talk about other ironies that Loyal is unaware of as well as those that affect his family members. Is there significance to the characters' names?

11. Go back and read only the postcards in the book. Did you discover something you hadn't seen before? Why are there no postcards for the "What I See" chapters? From whose perspective are these chapters written? What does this narrative choice add to the novel?

Enhance Your Book Club:

1. Take your book club to a local farm where you can pick your own produce. Find one near you at www.pickyourown.org or www.newfarm.org/farmlocator.

2. Write an excerpt from the book-a sentence or two that really resonates with you-on postcards and mail them to members of your book club. Keep the cards anonymous and let everyone guess who sent each quote. The person with the most correct guesses get to pick the next book club selection! (Make your own postcards at http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/results.aspx?Scope=TC&Query=postcard)

3. On a map, trace Loyal's journey from Cream Hill, VT to his last destination.

Who Said That?:

"...that's the most important thing in the world, getting to know another person, and probably the hardest thing, too" (Answer on page 121).

"It's curious, really. Neither of us knows anything about the woods. Neither of us knows anything about the other. Yet we both love this place. We both dreamed about huts in the forest when we were kids" (Answer on page 130).

"I refuse to accept the fate life handed me. I will make my own fate" (Answer on page 139).

"I lead a wonderful, clean life" (Answer on page 156).

"The bones are dead, just remains, but the tracks-look, something alive, a living animal made the tracks" (Answer on page 157).

"My work is flawed, but it's a consistent flaw" (Answer on page 169).

"Life cripples us up in different ways but it gets everybody. It gets everybody is how I look at it. Gets you again and again and one day it wins" (Answer on page 173).

"I worked on getting them gardens up the way I like for most of my grown-up life and I am not about to turn them over to the wildlife" (Answer on page 174).

"I could tell you about shotguns, make it sound bad, describe you the grief they've caused, but I come to see it's more like a habit kind of a thing you know, like it's just a pretty good way to clean up a life that's gone dirty" (Answer on page 206).

"This family has got a habit of disappearing" (Answer on page 225).

"There's so much money in the illegal it surprises me anybody's still on the decent side of the fence" (Answer on page 258).

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Postcards

Annie Proulx

Introduction

His trouble seemed to shift rather than repair.

When Loyal Blood accidentally kills his girlfriend, he abandons his family farm in Vermont and sets out on a journey across America that will continue for the rest of his life. The only communication he has with his family is in the form of postcards of which he sends with no return address. Because of this, he will never learn of his father's suicide, the loss of the farm, his sister's marriage, or his mother's tragic death. Alternating between Loyal's misadventures-including everything from being trapped in a mine to being scalped by an Indian-and the misfortunes of the family he leaves behind, Postcards chronicles the disintegration of the farming industry as well as the fate of the Bloods who must adapt to the new realities of post-World War II life or face their own extinction.

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Postcards is a compelling tale of the dark side of the American dream and "marks Proulx as a gifted prose stylist who renders her characters on the page to mesmerizing effect" (San Francisco Chronicle).

Discussion Questions:

1. For Loyal, what was "the moment when everything shifted, when the route of his life veered away from the main line"? Do you think that he is to blame for the tragic events that befall his family after he leaves the farm-his brother and father being arrested for arson, his father's suicide, his mother's poverty? If so, then is he also responsible for the good that comes out of the bad-his mother's independence, his brother's wealth, his sister's love? Where does this book stand in the free will vs. fate struggle?

2. The coyote appears throughout Postcards. Track the coyote's image in this novel and determine what meaning it has to the protagonist and his story.

3. "The place was as fixed as a picture on a postcard" (page 12). Discuss the author's use of postcards-in the title and as chapter headers. How does it tie into the theme of the novel? How is this form of communication important to the character of Loyal?

4. Loyal drifts from job to job-machining, mining, prospecting for uranium, working in an observatory, digging for dinosaur bones, trapping, and farming. What does each industry reflect about his character or quest? Do you see Loyal as a failure or a quitter? Or are they one and the same to you?

5. "He carried the Indian's book around with him for years before he started to write in it" (page 15). Why does Loyal keep the Indian's book? What does he write in it? How are the lives of Joe Blue Skies and Loyal intertwined?

6. "All her life she had taken the tufted line of the hills against the sky as fixed, but saw now that the landscape changed..." (page 126-127). Why does Jewell decide to learn how to drive? How does this decision change the course of her life?

7. Postcards has been compared to classics such as Native Son by Richard Wright and An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Discuss these comparisons as well as any other works with similar themes and quests.

8. Jewell tells her daughter: "It was considered pretty terrible to get divorced, so they put up with a lot, things no woman today would put up with" (page 180). How do the lives of Jewell and Mernelle mirror the women's liberation movement of the time. Do you think the females in this novel fare better than the males? In your opinion, are the characters such as Jewell, Mrs. Nipple, Mernelle, and Starr-women who outlive their husbands-being rewarded or punished?

9. "He had tried to keep the tremulous balance of his life, walking a beam between short friendships and abrupt departures" (page 186). How are the characters that Loyal meets up with in his life-Wulff and Bullet, Ben Rainwater, Mr. Doffin, Jack Sagine, Frank Clove, and the Indian-similar? What do each contribute to Loyal's journey?

10. Postcards is full of irony-the most significant event being the outcome of the discovery of Billy's body, Loyal's reason for self-exile. Talk about other ironies that Loyal is unaware of as well as those that affect his family members. Is there significance to the characters' names?

11. Go back and read only the postcards in the book. Did you discover something you hadn't seen before? Why are there no postcards for the "What I See" chapters? From whose perspective are these chapters written? What does this narrative choice add to the novel?

Enhance Your Book Club:

1. Take your book club to a local farm where you can pick your own produce. Find one near you at www.pickyourown.org or www.newfarm.org/farmlocator.

2. Write an excerpt from the book-a sentence or two that really resonates with you-on postcards and mail them to members of your book club. Keep the cards anonymous and let everyone guess who sent each quote. The person with the most correct guesses get to pick the next book club selection! (Make your own postcards at http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/results.aspx?Scope=TC&Query=postcard)

3. On a map, trace Loyal's journey from Cream Hill, VT to his last destination.

Who Said That?:

"...that's the most important thing in the world, getting to know another person, and probably the hardest thing, too" (Answer on page 121).

"It's curious, really. Neither of us knows anything about the woods. Neither of us knows anything about the other. Yet we both love this place. We both dreamed about huts in the forest when we were kids" (Answer on page 130).

"I refuse to accept the fate life handed me. I will make my own fate" (Answer on page 139).

"I lead a wonderful, clean life" (Answer on page 156).

"The bones are dead, just remains, but the tracks-look, something alive, a living animal made the tracks" (Answer on page 157).

"My work is flawed, but it's a consistent flaw" (Answer on page 169).

"Life cripples us up in different ways but it gets everybody. It gets everybody is how I look at it. Gets you again and again and one day it wins" (Answer on page 173).

"I worked on getting them gardens up the way I like for most of my grown-up life and I am not about to turn them over to the wildlife" (Answer on page 174).

"I could tell you about shotguns, make it sound bad, describe you the grief they've caused, but I come to see it's more like a habit kind of a thing you know, like it's just a pretty good way to clean up a life that's gone dirty" (Answer on page 206).

"This family has got a habit of disappearing" (Answer on page 225).

"There's so much money in the illegal it surprises me anybody's still on the decent side of the fence" (Answer on page 258).

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 6 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 1, 2013

    Lovely, lovely

    Another wonderful tale by Annie Proulx. Told in a string of immersive historical vignettes as if from the perspective of some overarching observer - it is the rich unfolding of lives with the insights of those who've paid attention and the losses of those who haven't. It is about how lives "get lived" and people come and go leaving scars, throwing switches that change the course for others or passing with almost no notice once delivered. It is about how schemes and identities dissipate with the passage of time. Sobering. But in its truths and heartaches one finds, at the very least, the comfort of company.

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  • Posted March 23, 2009

    Annie Proulx Rocks!

    This is my second copy of this book. I loaned my first copy out and it never came back, so I bought another and read it again. I have all of her books and can't wait until there are more. She is one of the few authors that ifeel the need to all of the books and re-read them. Good books are like great paintings. You wouldn't look at a great painting only one time, and good books are the same. In A.P.'s writing you can see, taste, feel and smell what she us writing about. They are just about perfect in every way.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2008

    Still undecided

    As an A Level student studying American literature it was compulsory for me to read postcards, I didn't enjoy it at first but now as i delve further into the novel it is far more interesting. I am still however undecided as to whether or not i like it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2006

    Postcards will haunt you

    Annie Proulx style of writing demands attention as the moment the mind wanders you are lost. I read the Shipping News and really didn't like it, but with Postcards I couldn't put it down. The deeper you go into this story the more tragic it becomes. Loyal stayed with me for days, and that is how I judge a good book, when it won't leave me.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2003

    Typical Good Proulx

    Most like her book Postcards, it is the tale of many characters that embroider a central theme. The ending is a bit convenient and heart warm, with a certain nod to sex and violence.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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