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“A wonderful addition to the ranks of American boy heroes . . . Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer with more poetry, Holden Caulfield with more zest and spirit . . . the kind of book you find yourself finishing at three in the morning after promising at midnight that you’ll stop at the next page.”
—The New York Times Book Review, about Billy Bathgate
“Marvelous . . . You get lost in World’s Fair as if it were an exotic adventure. You devour it with the avidity usually provoked by a suspense thriller.”
—The New York Times, about World’s Fair
The train stop of La Ville was a concrete platform and a lean-to for a waiting room and no ticket-agent window. When you got off, you were looking down an alley to a glimpse of their Main Street. Main Street had a feed store, a post office, a white wooden church, a granite stone bank, a haberdasher, a town square with a four-story hotel, and in the middle of the square on the grass the statue of a Union soldier. It could all be counted because there was just one of everything. A man with a dray was willing to take us. He drove past a few other streets where first there were some homes of substance and another church or two but then, as you moved further out from the town center, worn looking one-story shingle houses with dark little porches and garden plots and clotheslines out back with only alleys separating them. I couldn’t see how, but Mama said there was a population of over three thousand living here. And then after a couple of miles through farmland, with a silo here and there off a straight road leading due west through fields of corn, there swung into view what I had not expected, a three-story house of red brick with a flat roof and stone steps up to the front door like something just lifted out of a street of row houses in Chicago. I couldn’t believe anyone had built such a thing for a farmhouse. The sun flared in the windowpanes and I had to shade my eyes to make sure I was seeing what I saw. But that was it in truth, our new home.
Not that I had the time to reflect, not with Mama settling in. We went to work. The house was cobwebbed and dusty and it was rank with the droppings of animal life. Blackbirds were roosting in the top floor, where I was to live. Much needed to be done, but before long she had it all organized and a parade of wagons was coming from town with the furniture she’d Expressed and no shortage of men willing to hire on for a day with hopes for more from this grand good-looking lady with the rings on several fingers. And so the fence went up for the chicken yard, and the weed fields beyond were being plowed under and the watering hole for stock was dredged and a new privy was dug, and I thought for some days Mama was the biggest employer of La Ville, Illinois.
But who would haul the well water and wash the clothes and bake the bread? A farm was a different life, and days went by when I slept under the roof of the third floor and felt the heat of the day still on my pallet as I looked through the little window at the remoteness of the stars and I felt unprotected as I never had in the civilization we had retreated from. Yes, I thought, we had moved backward from the world’s progress, and for the first time I wondered about Mama’s judgment. In all our travels from state to state and with all the various obstacles to her ambition, I had never thought to question it. But no more than this house was a farmer’s house was she a farmer, and neither was I.
One evening we stood on the front steps watching the sun go down behind the low hills miles away.
Aunt Dora, I said, what are we up to here?
I know, Earle. But some things take time.
She saw me looking at her hands, how red they had gotten.
I am bringing an immigrant woman down from Wisconsin. She will sleep in that room behind the kitchen. She’s to be here in a week or so.
Why? I said. There’s women in La Ville, the wives of all these locals come out here for a day’s work who could surely use the money.
I will not have some woman in the house who will only take back to town what she sees and hears. Use what sense God gave you, Earle.
I am trying, Mama.
Aunt Dora, goddamnit.
Yes, she said. Especially here in the middle of nowhere and with nobody else in sight.
She had tied her thick hair behind her neck against the heat and she went about now loose in a smock without her usual women’s underpinnings.
But doesn’t the air smell sweet, she said. I’m going to have a screen porch built and fit it out with a settee and some rockers so we can watch the grand show of nature in comfort.
She ruffled my hair. And you don’t have to pout, she said. You may not appreciate it here this moment with the air so peaceful and the birds singing and nothing much going on in any direction you can see. But we’re still in business, Earle. You can trust me on that.
And so I was assured.
By and by we acquired an old-fashioned horse and buggy to take us to La Ville and back when Aunt Dora had to go to the bank or the post office or provisions were needed. I was the driver and horse groom. He—the horse—and I did not get along. I wouldn’t give him a name. He was ugly, with a sway back and legs that trotted out splayed. I had butchered and trimmed better looking plugs than this in Chicago. Once, in the barn, when I was putting him up for the night, he took a chomp in the air just off my shoulder.
Another problem was Bent, the handyman Mama had hired for the steady work. No sooner did she begin taking him upstairs of an afternoon than he was strutting around like he owned the place. This was a problem as I saw it. Sure enough, one day he told me to do something. It was one of his own chores. I thought you was the hired one, I said to him. He was ugly, like a relation of the horse—he was shorter than you thought he ought to be with his long arms and big gnarled hands hanging from them.
Get on with it, I said.
Leering, he grabbed me by the shoulder and put his mouth up to my ear. I seen it all, he said. Oh yes. I seen everything a man could wish to see.
At this I found myself constructing a fate for Bent the handyman. But he was so drunkly stupid I knew Mama must have her own plan for him or else why would she play up to someone of this ilk, and so I held my ideas in abeyance.
In fact I was by now thinking I could wrest some hope from the wide loneliness of this farm with views of the plains as far as you could see. What had come to mind? A sense of expectancy that I recognized from times past. Yes. I had sensed that whatever was going to happen had begun. There was not only the handyman. There were the orphan children. She had contracted for three from the do-good agency in New York that took orphans off the streets and washed and dressed them and put them on the train to their foster homes in the midland. Ours were comely enough children, though pale, two boys and a girl with papers that gave their ages, six, six, and eight, and as I trotted them to the farm they sat up behind me staring at the countryside without a word. And so now they were installed in the back bedroom on the second floor, and they were not like the miserable street rats from our neighborhood in the city. These were quiet children except for the weeping they were sometimes given to at night, and by and large they did as they were told. Mama had some real feeling for them—Joseph and Calvin and the girl, Sophie, in particular. There were no conditions as to what faith they were to be brought up in nor did we have any in mind. But on Sundays, Mama took to showing them off to the Methodist church in La Ville in the new clothes she had bought for them. It gave her pleasure, and was besides a presentation of her own pride of position in life. Because it turned out, as I was learning, that even in the farthest reaches of the countryside, you lived in society.
And in this great scheme of things my Aunt Dora required little Joseph, Calvin, and Sophie to think of her as their mama. Say Mama, she said to them. And they said it.
Well, so here was this household of us, ready made, as something bought from a department store. Fannie was the imported cook and housekeeper, who by Mama’s design spoke no English but understood well enough what had to be done. She was heavyset, like Mama, with the strength to work hard. And besides Bent, who skulked about by the barns and fences in the sly pretense of work, there was a real farmer out beyond, who was sharecropping the acreage in corn. And two mornings a week a retired county teacher woman came by to tutor the children in reading and arithmetic.
Mama said one evening: We are an honest to goodness enterprise here, a functioning family better off than most in these parts, but we are running at a deficit, and if we don’t have something in hand before winter the only resources will be the insurance I took out on the little ones.
She lit the kerosene lamp on the desk in the parlor and wrote out a Personal and read it to me: “Widow offering partnership in prime farmland to dependable man. A modest investment is required.” What do you think, Earle?
She read it again to herself. No, she said. It’s not good enough. You’ve got to get them up off their ass and out of the house to the Credit Union and then on a train to La Ville, Illinois. That’s a lot to do with just a few words. How about this: “Wanted!” That’s good, it bespeaks urgency. And doesn’t every male in the world thinks he’s what is wanted? “Wanted—Recently widowed woman with bountiful farm in God’s own country has need of Nordic man of sufficient means for partnership in same.”
What is Nordic? I said
Well that’s pure cunning right there, Earle, because that’s all they got in the states where we run this—Swedes and Norwegies just off the boat. But I’m letting them know a lady’s preference.
All right, but what’s that you say there—“of sufficient means”? What Norwegie off the boat’ll know what that’s all about?
This gave her pause. Good for you, Earle, you surprise me sometimes. She licked the pencil point. So we’ll just say “with cash.”
We placed the Personal in one paper at a time in towns in Minnesota, and then in South Dakota. The letters of courtship commenced, and Mama kept a ledger with the names and dates of arrival, making sure to give each candidate his sufficient time. We always advised the early-morning train when the town was not yet up and about. Beside my regular duties, I had to take part in the family reception. They would be welcomed into the parlor, and Mama would serve coffee from a wheeled tray, and Joseph, Calvin, and Sophie, her children, and I, her nephew, would sit on the sofa and hear our biographies conclude with a happy ending, which was the present moment. Mama was so well spoken at these times I was as apt as the poor foreigners to be caught up in her modesty, so seemingly unconscious was she of the great-heartedness of her. They by and large did not see through to her self-congratulation. And of course she was a large, handsome woman to look at. She wore her simple finery for these first impressions, a plain pleated gray cotton skirt and a starched white shirtwaist and no jewelry but the gold cross on a chain that fell between her bosoms and her hair combed upward and piled atop her head in a state of fetching carelessness.
I am their dream of heaven on earth, Mama said to me along about the third or fourth. Just to see how their eyes light up standing beside me looking out over their new land. Puffing on their pipes, giving me a glance that imagines me as available for marriage—who can say I don’t give value in return?
Well that is one way to look at it, I said.
Don’t be smug, Earle. You’re in no position. Tell me an easier way to God’s blessed Heaven than a launch from His Heaven on earth. I don’t know of one.
|A house on the plains||1|
|Jolene : a life||55|
|Walter John Harmon||87|
|Child, dead, in the rose garden||117|
Posted April 21, 2012
Posted September 20, 2004
SWEET LAND STORIES is another superlative venture for E.L. Doctorow, one of the very finest writers in the country. Though known best for his larger tomes that mingle history and fiction as well as anyone has ever done, this small book of five stories reveals a master in creating characters and stories in a few pages that become indelible in the reader's mind. In his hands the most apparently simple settings become backdrops for complex, extensive tapestries that reveal how the 'little man/woman' can be pitched and tossed into the most bizarre tangle of events and yet somehow survive. In a time when many of us worry about the spiritual vacuum of life in the 21st Century, when the individual seems buried in the media pile of homogenation, look to Doctorow's fertile mind to remember and perhaps redefine the role of the Everyman. These stories are varied and extraordinarily well written: 'A House on the Plains' seems to be a tale of survival found in fleeing an urban center to a new life for a family on the plains, only to become a wholly different surprising macabre tale in the end: 'Baby Wilson' focuses on a couple who walk out a hospital with someone else's baby, flee, and watch their lives mutate; 'Walter John Harmon' concerns a community of brainwashed folk under the influence of a Spiritual Leader and the consequences of manipulation in the religion realm; 'Jolene: A Life' follows the course of an abused orphan through the country as she moves from one bad husband to the next - holding our hearts in her hand; 'Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden' is Doctorow's indictment of the credibility gap in the White House management of Intelligence sharing - a different and terrifying aside on terrorism so much in focus today. Doctorow tells these stories with elegant prose, terse and delicate economy, and once again proves he can spin a yarn better than most writers active today. A Brilliant Collection!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 21, 2013
No text was provided for this review.