Blue Earth is a compelling novel of Minnesota, a land that guards its secrets. Carver Heinz loses both farm and family in the farm crisis of the 1980s. Displaced into urban Minneapolis, he becomes obsessed with Angie, a beautiful child he rescues from a tornado in an encounter he insists they keep silent. Her close friendship with a Dakota Indian boy fuels Carver's rage and unleashes a series of events that reveal the haunting power of each character's past and of their shared histories, especially the 1862 Dakota Conflict and public hanging of 38 Dakota--the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
"We... see our own lives reflected in Blue Earth 's dark mirror, even as we learn a tragic history kept from us by those who would forever erase our origins... This is a brilliant novel by one of our truly intuitive and accomplished writers" --Margaret Randall, author of Ruins
"Achtenberg's passionate, brilliantly crafted language, combined with her profound ethical imagination, makes Blue Earth one of the most important books to appear at this moment in our history." --Demetria Martinez, author of Mother Tongue
"Achtenberg creates morally complex and culturally diverse characters whose lives are affected by loss, poverty, disease, and war, but whose ultimately redemptive encounters with one another take Blue Earth far beyond its Midwestern setting." --Martha Collins, author of Blue Front
"In the great tradition of Willa Cather and Wallace Stegner, Anya Achtenberg writes of the violence, past and present, that shapes the people of the vast American Midwest. Deep and searing, Blue Earth is perhaps one of the best novels of the past decade." --Kathleen Spivack, author of With Robert Lowell and His Circle
Learn more at www.Anya-Achtenberg.com
From the Reflections of History Series at Modern History Press www.ModernHistoryPress.com
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No, boy, Carver heard in the wind moving over the land that sprawled out behind the old church. When the words struck him, he knew he was turning hard, like the old man had, but his own good bones were still covered in flesh warmed by the golden air of autumn, while his father's were laid out in the black soil, his arms crossed over the Book of God's Word.
Carver felt nothing when he left the hospital that night. They'd stood over him to tell him of his father's last moments. He was sitting right outside the room, facing the glass, watching people race in and out when it happened. He could do nothing but lower his head, and that was the way he walked back into the house, where his mother was wailing and rocking, finding the rhythm of her own death. "Carver," she said when she saw his face, "it's over, then."
She leaned on him after, and on Katie, and he did what he could, working through the night on the acres she still had left. In that night daze, in the hush of silver light that made it seem he was moving through the negative of a photo, his jacket glowing and his face in darkness, he saw his work disappear, though he knew it went back into the land.
His mother did all of the milking herself. She always had. She'd been pretty good, too, at getting the tractor up the rise without it stalling. She wouldn't go near it anymore.
Carver brought over a pot of tea each night, and sat with her before he went to tend to the alfalfa in the front acres. But then she went into the great silence of the farm.
"What is it, Mom?" he asked her one night.
She looked up and put her hand to her ear. "They're laying the tracks to Heaven for me. Can you hear it, the tracks getting set down? I could always hear it, the pounding of the spikes, ever since I was a girl, though the trains were already coming on through each day."
"No, Ma, I can't hear it."
"That's good, Carver. Each person should hear their own sounds inside, not what a mother tells them to. Not what a father says."
It was then that he heard again the shots of the salute at his brother's funeral. He heard the twenty-one bursts, but the firing didn't stop. He kept on hearing it, or maybe it was the cracking of trees in the wind, or his mother making a small humming sound as she turned to him, and a sharp grunt as the hammer fell ringing against the spikes.
"Go, get out of here, son. Go to Katie, now. I'm alright," she said, and sipped her tea.
He touched her hand and was shaken by the small explosion in her throat as another spike was set, then went back out into the moonlight and got to work again. He could at least try to make it right.
No flowers pushed up from the grave where his father slept, turned into silence. Carver knelt by the headstone that said, "Beloved Mother." He wanted her arms around him as so many times when she'd tried to protect him from his father, or comfort him afterwards. But it wasn't his father who had lost the farm. What could he do now, but go on and be hard, if that's what it took.
He stood up and flung a rock at the sun, then walked away, weak-kneed, not certain of the path out.
As he read the notice in the papers that night, Carver understood it for a moment, how men could not own the land, the same way they could not own time. With the farm each day closer to auction, a few hairs fell out of his head whether he brushed hard or not at all. His beard grew in gray if he did not shave it, his stomach rumbled if he did not feed it, and his heart, well, that ached more each day, as he thought of his faraway girl, his perfect Rose, and of his wife, no longer his because of some legal paper, and maybe some misguided notion she had. Or, maybe, and his heart seized up at this, because of his rough ways.
But the seasons would keep on their coming and going, there on the land, even after he was gone to the Cities. The field mice and rabbits would feast there, unless the company that bought the place got rid of them. The land would yield or it wouldn't. The sky would bless it with rain, or would not. The earth would keep on turning, like those speeded up films of night into day, and day fallen to night. And his own wife and daughter would be living in another town, his land under another's plow, the rest of his folks dead and buried, and there was nothing he could do about any of it. That's what everyone said, anyway. Or whispered.
He stopped wondering what it was that had broken him down, made him so hard sometimes. He knew the hand of his father. The loss of his brother. The grief of his mother, and he useless to do a thing for her. Just dig and bury: seed, family, his own sorrow.
He'd already asked every question he could think of. In the silence, he made up his own answers.
Those nights after Kate left and took Rosie with her, Carver figured it out. He knew that they were coming for the farm, and for the things he'd bought and the things he'd made, and this woman, who didn't know the meaning of the word wife, left and took his girl, the flower of his flesh. He packed up all through those days and read the Bible every night, for three or four hours. Then he lay down in the stillness, down in the dirt, and smelled its truth, its giving. And he figured it out, just like he was told by the stars and their pretty pictures, here a great gourd full of water, full of blessing; over there a warrior, and circling his powerful waist, a belt to hold a man together in the darkness to do whatever he had to in the light.
Look to the land, the sky told him, that last night before auction. Own its beauty, the Bible said. Know that its wildness defies God. Walk upon the land, and with your long step, make it yours. It lies beneath you. It needs you to work it, to know it, even to force it, in the harshest weathers, in the plagues of insects, in the dust of drought. In the ice of loss. In the green knowledge of harvest. Plow here. He had heard all this many times. Plow deep in the earth and turn the land to opening. Seed it. With all manner of your needs, for bean and grain and the green tops of the vegetable world, seed the land. Make the rows straight. Water and water until all beauty floats up from the belly of the land. Make it give forth the pink buds from its violet furrows, and eat here, eat what you made flower. Then feed your village, and in harsh times feed no other. Become master of the land in God's image.
Own beauty, he repeated.
It's them that work it, have a right to it. He was told this by the old man, an upright old man in most habits, who stood over his son each evening at dusk and asked him what he did that day, what he accomplished that could be done by no other, just him and the sons he was to have. And he'd wanted a son, always. When Katie told him a child was coming, he was proud and took himself to the fields each day a better man, sure to be echoed by a boy working at his side, full doubled someday by a grown son to leave the land to. He had dreams of the wind coming up to bring that boy to him, and he was strong, fair-haired and strong, and looked to his father with clear open eyes, the land trembling around them as they made their plans — which fields to give what crops, which machinery to fix up and drive through — writing their dreams together into the land. In his head, Carver was seeing the rooms to add on for the little ones who'd come after the first, and he didn't think once that Katie might not give him the child he needed.
She was upstairs for so long with the midwife and the neighbor, and he knew she was strong and clean and wouldn't have any kind of trouble, like some women did. It was the polio that had worried him, but that was a long ago thing. After all, Katie was a farmwoman and knew how to grow a world inside of her.
Imagine, he thought, by lying beneath him, this woman goes on to grow a whole new world within her very flesh.
Well, that day he does what the man should do. He drinks some whiskey, not too much, and sits in the parlor room. He gets up and walks around the house and stares off into the fields, into the burning sun that comes right into the room and sits with him as he waits, the sun glowing fiery and the yells come down the stairs to him like his ears are antennae. He's used to listening for birdcalls and angry sky, for the cough of machinery, the yowl of sick cattle, the sound of plow when it catches rock, when it grabs old bone. But now it's Katie's yells that burst right into his head like his own when he got it as a kid, and he's remembering some of those times and seeing that other face of his father, who loved this land and every stick of God that grew here, died here, and got reborn into nourishment. A hard man with his sons, to show them what was necessary, pushing at Eli till he ran off to the war before he was taken, so when the footsteps come down to tell Carver the wife's okay and the child is here, he falls to his knees and prays, and his heart is so full it leaves no room for embarrassment, until the neighbor says it.
"Carver, it's a girl. Healthy. Perfect."
And then he knows the cruelty of God because he knows he would have to work to love it. He needed a boy. The Heinz family needed a boy and the land needed a boy and when she turns to go back to tend to Katie, he lays his head on the sofa and beats his fists there, pounds till the stuffing comes up through the worn upholstery and flies around his head till he can't raise his fists anymore, and the sofa cushion is flat and empty now, the heart of it flying around the room like a storm of milk.
But they don't hear him. How could they not hear him, when he is calling out his pain? They must think it joy, women who don't understand what sits on a man's shoulders. They stay upstairs a long time, without even coming to look at him there on the cold floor next to the sofa, and then, after the night has moved him through its belly, after he sees his father turn away from him again at the grave of his brother, and his mother stay there weeping and not getting up, the shots of the salute still in the air like steel birds falling for the rest of that year, he runs the fields like a starving rabbit. He sleeps under a tree until something warm moves close to him and raises him up, and takes him like waves up the stairs to the room where they are.
There in bed, Katie is smiling under her tired eyes, and the baby is a little flower she gives him to smell and hold and he knows it is right. This child is given him to feed and protect, the boy will come later, and he can prove that he is a good man now with two females at home, a man that feeds the whole family from right out of the earth spinning under them. Stars in her, she buzzes like a cat in his arms, and he shakes her just gently so that she will know him. Then she opens her eyes and that's when he falls in, forever. He leans down to kiss Katie, but she's asleep, so he puts the baby on her chest and tries to make her suck while Katie still sleeps, and she does, his flower, she sucks, as he holds them both, and knows that he is their protector, their big prairie angel. Then he whispers to his flower, "Grow," and he keeps whispering to her, "grow, grow."
No patience now for packing. He'd been King of the Land, or at least Mayor of the Little City, a city of silos and four-legged citizens, landscaped with soybeans and wheat, and the good timothy grass he'd bale and leave around the fields, like giant cattle curled over on their sides until he had need of them.
He loaded up his car, not enough, what he took, to keep things from rattling around. He took off down County Road 14, wanting to stay off the bigger roads until he was sure he could see over the loose piles of his possessions in the backseat.
It was the beginning of September, and Rosie would be starting school. He reached back behind him to check for the pink knapsack he'd bought for her. Something stirred and was caught up in the wind, and fell before he could see what it was. The clouds stopped moving. Something behind the white face of them was opening into darkness, and maybe his suffering, alone as he was now and without land, had much to do with the dark eye that had caught him in its gaze. Then he saw a bird stumble like it was earthbound, its wings dragged down, and fall back like a child at the side of the road listening to the sounds of the earth. Something like hair flew up now and whirled, raced until it weakened and lay flat on the black earth. He jammed on the brakes and sat in his car in the middle of the road for a moment. He wanted to take a breath and gather his bearings, but then it seemed like the road was disappearing, as the sun struck through and blinded him at the wheel. Someone laid on the horn, and he put his foot on the gas.
As he drove, he saw the fair hair of his girl enter his vision, as if it had slipped through a tear in the day, but it flew blackened under the glare of the sun, and reddened with his straining toward it. It was red cloth now, like a flag ripped up by wind, by time. He slowed down to go through another town, and was distracted by a group of teenagers, boys and girls together, different colors, looking like they were aiming to get into trouble. The light changed, but he stared out at them without moving the car.
"Hey, Mister, what are you looking at?" and it was that harshness of voice that made Carver jump back to attentiveness, and stab the gas pedal. He imagined these kids laughing at him, projects brats, he figured, none of them with a solid root anywhere. And now as he flew down the road, speeding on his own dare, he saw red, red cloth whipping about in the wind, marking each mile he drove away from his roots in the land, from the knowledge that was surely his of how to make things grow.
The numbers kept clicking on his odometer to carry him further from his farm. Something red sliced across his vision. Something soft in him pleaded to go home.
Renter, he was to check that box on the employment application, but wouldn't say all he could afford for now was a shabby motel room. Renter, not owner, same as those kids in the projects, same as the faces he walked past each morning to get to the gas station that would be his place of employment. His place. Paycheck in his hands Friday night. Nothing to put it back into, he thought at first, but a good drunk. Those first few checks, gone as quick as the bartender could pour. But then he began saving to buy back his land, saving every cent he could, for Rosie and Kate, for the farm, and he sat in his small room and watched from the window, the sky and the trees, the children going to and from school, and the awful traffic down the avenue.
"Red light, green light, one, two, three," he heard the children calling in their games.
When the wind picked up the child to dance her through the green air, her end-of-the-school-year dress caught on a splinter of the door. A jagged mouth was ripped in the fabric as the other children were guided to the basement. But Carver had been sitting steady across the road, watching her among the others, though the twister was but a parking lot away. He ran to her as he had dreamt, to carry her to safety, her soft arms around his neck, she like his own sweet girl.
It was more than luck that he was there. It was more than luck that he had dreamt all night of the winds carrying off the farm the bankers had stolen from under his feet. It was more than wind that carried her to the safety of his room, beyond the motel sign that now swung sideways on a dead cord.
Carver set her down and wiped her tears away with his handkerchief. She ran to the window where the rain had spilled through, and pressed against the glass to find the school across the way.
"It's okay, Angie, I know your mom and your pop."
"Sure, they come to my gas station all the time. They show me pictures of you, and I show them pictures of my little girl, and that's how come I know you're Angie."
"Oh," she whispered, and the roof shook, and there was no light in the room as the worst of it came to pass over the motel.
"I have something for you that's very nice," Carver said in a lull in the battering of hail.
The girl looked up, and Carver saw the northern sky in her eyes, and was dazzled again. He pulled out the cedar chest, where the new dress floated on top of layers of old things. He held it up in the dim light and prayed she would see its beauty. Lace, those puffy sleeves, a blossom at the belt and more roses, fine ones, rosettes, the store lady would say, at the collar. He turned to her, soft in his love even as the hailstones struck the tinny roof, ugly but strong, that lay under the raving sky.
"Come put it on," he had to speak up so she could hear him. "Please," he remembered to say, hearing his wife's annoyed cough at his abrupt ways. And what would he do with the dress now, anyway? Kate sent back each package he had mailed to Rosie.
Excerpted from "Blue Earth"
Copyright © 2012 Anya Achtenberg.
Excerpted by permission of Loving Healing Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue Blanket Over Blue Earth,
Book One Journey Out,
Book Two Birds in Flight,
Book Three How Far From the Garden,
Book Four Walking the River,
Book Five Sun and Moon in the Afternoon Sky,
Book Six Floor Plan of Paradise,
Epilogue Dream of Home,