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In the Nebraska Sandhills, nothing is more sacred than the bond of family and land—and nothing is more capable of causing deep wounds. In Pamela Carter Joern's riveting novel The Floor of the Sky, Toby Jenkins, an aging widow, is on the verge of losing her family's ranch when her granddaughter Lila—a city girl, sixteen and pregnant—shows up for the summer. While facing painful decisions about her future, Lila uncovers festering secrets about her grandmother's past—discoveries that spur Toby to reconsider the ambiguous ties she holds to her embittered sister Gertie, her loyal ranch hand George, her not-so-sympathetic daughter Nola Jean, and ultimately, herself.
Propelled by stark realism in breakneck prose, The Floor of the Sky reveals the inner worlds of characters isolated by geography and habit. Set against the sweeping changes in rural America—from the onslaught of corporate agribusiness to the pressures exerted by superstores on small towns—Joern's compelling story bears witness to the fortitude and hard-won wisdom of people whose lives have been forged by devotion to the land.
About the Author
Pamela Carter Joern is a widely published author whose work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Red Rock Review, Feminist Studies, and Minnesota Monthly. She is also the author of five professionally produced plays, the winner of a Tamarack Award in 2001, and the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board writing fellowship.
Read an Excerpt
TobyEveryone calls her Toby. Her real name is Gwendolyn, but few know that. For sixty-nine years she's been Toby, ever since her brother John called her Gwendolyn, and she spat peas from her seat in the high chair and said, "That sumbitch called me Gwenlum. My name not Gwenlum. My's Toby." The dog's name. The name stuck, long after the dog died, and now only she and John remember how she got the name, and John, once a fallingdown drunk, either can't tell or no one would believe him. She looks out the upstairs bedroom window of her foursquare house nestled deep in the Sandhills of Nebraska. The sun knifes off the roof of the empty machine shed and stabs at her eyes. She cups her hand over her brow. She'll have to haul water out to the old windmill, rescue the blue morning glories that have started their summer climb. Buttoning her shirt, she automatically recites a childhood rhyme: doctor, lawyer, merchant, chief. She changes the wording for the last four buttons: banker, rascal, shyster, thief. Smoothing her wiry gray hair with a glance in the mirror, she voices her concerns to a god she's not sure she believes in, "Give Lila a safe flight. And grant Malcolm Lord a miserable day. It might do the little wretch some good." Running her palm down the worn stair banister, Toby thinks she'll see Malcolm Lord in hell before she'll give up this place. Her parents built this house in, eleven years before she was born. They ordered it as a kit from Sears, hauled it thirty-five miles overland by wagon from the nearest train depot. She loves everything in this house: the creak in the oak floor at the foot of the landing, the rough maroon bricks of the fireplace, the smell of dust when the furnace kicks in. The red and blue Oriental rug chosen by her mother, frayed in spots, the fringe tangled in lumps to trip over. The leaded glass doors on the half-wall bookcases, where she and her sister used to hoard bags of candy purchased on rare trips to town. The kitchen window facing west. A loud ticking clock. The same corner table her parents used, one leg propped by a wad of cardboard. The wide bay window, where she stands now, looking out on a sweeping canopy of sky. The outside façade, however, tells a different story. The designers called it the Alhambra, after a Spanish palace that doubled as a fortress. Cream stucco, black trim, a scalloped header stretching up from the roof, elaborately carved front columns. Anywhere else, the house might have seemed elegant, or at least exotic. Plopped in the Nebraska Sandhills, it looked ridiculous, a fact missed by Toby's father, who had chosen it because it was the most ostentatious of all the models available. As he intended, the Alhambra stood as a monument to Luther Bolden's success on the Bluestem Ranch. When Toby was a girl, this house lit up the prairie for miles, people arriving by wagon and buggy and early autos to sing cowboy songs around a campfire, drink beer and whiskey on the front porch, dance in the cleared-out sunroom. Luther paraded her shy mother, spun Rosemary around in a red taffeta dress he'd ordered from another catalog, his grip tight on her upper arm. King of the Sandhills. Toby knows that the neighbors smirked behind her father's back. They held grudges, every one of them, justified by her father's legendary ruthlessness. Still, they came to his home and drank his liquor, because they were lonesome and starved for a drop of pleasure, and he knew how to throw a fine party. And most of them, one way or another, owed Luther Bolden. Even if Toby could scrape together the money, she wouldn't alter the façade. She keeps the false scallops, the hint of fallen aristocracy, because the exterior of her house reminds her of what she does not want to become -- another Luther.
Toby moves to get juice out of the refrigerator, bends and retrieves
a pan from the Hoosier cupboard, reaches down the
box of oatmeal. Gertie sits, the Queen of Sheba. More like Luther
every day. Toby knows she's behaving like her mother, passively
resentful. Sooner or later she'll have to do something about it,
but today's not the day. Today they have problems sufficient
She thinks this last, a vestige of some forgotten Bible verse,
and then realizes that Gertie is paging through her Bible. The
King James version, red-letter edition. Worn and dried-out
leather framed by jagged zipper teeth. The zipper hasn't worked
for years, clogged by the tangled tassel of a red crocheted cross
that serves as a bookmark. Gertie roams the pages with her magnifying
glass, head cocked to one side, her center vision robbed
by encroaching macular degeneration. Toby leans over to see
what book Gertie's opened up this morning, preparing herself
for the onslaught that's sure to come. She hopes it's not any of
the letters of the Apostle Paul, that bossy old patrician. Not the
book of Revelation, with its promises of damnation and woe.
She sees that it's the book of Ruth and breathes a little easier.
Well. Two women finding a way to manage, manipulating men
to get what they need, not a bad precedent for what's in store for
all of them. She doubts Gertie will see it that way, but she likes
feeling she has some leverage if Gertie gets going on the shalts
and shalt nots of their lives in this hardscrabble place.
"You want me to come with you?" Gertie asks.
"No, I think I better go alone. She'll be overwhelmed as it is."
Toby pours Gertie's coffee, sets the steaming mug in front of her.
Gertie doesn't look up. "You coddle her too much. Just like
you did Nola Jean."
"Let's don't get started down that road."
"I'm just saying."
Toby says nothing. She rests her hips against the counter,
cradles her coffee cup.
"I s'pose you'll be wanting to give her that front bedroom. I
can move down the hall."
Toby studies Gertie, the roundness of her, the squint of her
eyes through thick glasses. Gertie's out here for the summer because
she hates her little house in town and because Howard's in
the nursing home with Alzheimer's. Her eyes, too, getting worse.
Gertie's daughter lives in Denver and doesn't want her. Her son's
dead, his wife and Gertie not on speaking terms. That leaves only
her grandson, Clay, who Gertie blames for everything that's
gone wrong. And Toby. Toby's the last car on Gertie's train.
"All right," Toby says. She knows Gertie has no intention of
moving out of that front bedroom. Toby had offered her the
downstairs study, a small room with a bath that was added on
after the accident that confined Toby's father to a wheelchair. All
they had to do was swap the desk for a bed. But Gertie wanted
the room that was hers when they were kids in this house.
"Maybe that would be best," Toby adds. She lifts her cup, the coffee
bitter on her tongue.
She watches Gertie turn pink, like a live lobster she once
dropped in a pan of boiling water when she and Walter took a
cruise. She thinks about that lobster and wonders why it amuses
her to see Gertie's discomfort. What kind of monster is she? She
ate that lobster without blinking an eye.
"I might just as well go on back to town. I know when I'm not
wanted." Gertie's high, nasal voice is not her best feature. Walter
used to say it was in a dog's range and beyond human comprehension.
Toby raises an eyebrow and looks at Gertie. She's had some
tough luck, old Gert. Or divine retribution. Either way, Toby's in
no mood to play her games this morning.
"Suit yourself, Gertie. I got to be going, or I'll miss that plane.
I don't want Lila thinking I forgot her."
Gertie's already sitting at the kitchen table. She's dressed for town in one of those outfits old women wear, two-piece polyester, Wal-Mart or K-Mart specials. Peach pants, a white blousy top with peach, mint, and blue flowers made of twisted ribbons. Washable, lightweight, and cheap. Toby refuses such clothes, making her mind up, as she has throughout life, not to be like Gertie. Ten years older than Toby, Gertie's her advance warning, her red light flashing. Instead, Toby wears a plaid cotton shirt, tails out over the bunchy elastic waistline of her jeans. She does allow herself elastic. She's not a fool.
The long drive out to the main road passes the family cemetery. Barbed wire fence, white gravestones peeking out from grama grass. Here and there a yucca with stalks of papery white flowers. Old boots atop six fence posts, the toes pointing home. For all the lost souls, Walter used to say. Toby's grandparents and parents are buried here, alongside Toby's brother who died in infancy. Toby's husband, Walter, too, his heart having exploded one spring during a difficult calving. He died surprised, his arm caught up to the elbow inside a cow. When George, the hired hand, came to tell Toby, Walter was already laid out on the prairie grass. The old cow was done for, bleeding and torn, too weak to rise, her newborn calf standing over her. Toby crouched and laid her hand on Walter's cheek. Without a word she walked to George's pickup, took his shotgun down off the gun rack, fished two shells out of the glove compartment, loaded the gun, walked over, and shot the cow in the head. George said nothing. He helped her load Walter in the bed of the pickup. Then he scooped up the motherless calf and climbed into the truck beside Walter's body with the animal shivering in his arms. Toby drove back to the ranch house, weeping finally, and unable to say whether she was crying for Walter or for the motherless calf. As Toby passes the small green house in the hollow, she takes note of the white picket fence, the crown of bluegrass shaping the front lawn, the cottonwood shimmering in the sun. Her brother John sits in a chair on the porch, wrapped in a blanket, a cup in his hand. George is not in sight, probably cursing the weeds among his tomatoes in the fenced area behind the house. He could be in the barn swabbing the horses down, keeping the black flies from ringing their eyes. She hasn't told either John or George about Lila. They'll have to know, but there's time for that.
She watches three people climb out of the airplane: a middleaged
man carrying a briefcase, an older woman who needs assistance
from the pilot, and Lila. Toby studies the girl. She's wearing
wide-legged jeans with frayed hems, a plaid flannel shirt with the
sleeves cut out at the armpit. Her short dark hair spikes up
in tufts like singed dandelion seed. When she gets close enough,
Toby can see the multiple rings in her ears, one more in her right
eyebrow, a glittering stud in her nose.
The three people enter the hallway where the luggage comes
through. Toby watches through glass. Since the bombing of the
World Trade Center towers, airport security won't allow anyone
but passengers in this area. Lila struggles to lift a heavy suitcase
off a platform. The middle-aged man reaches over her shoulder,
hefts the bag for her. He smiles at her. She glares back. She manages
a smaller bag on her own and walks through the sliding
doors, towing both suitcases behind her.
Toby notices the belly now. Lila's showing, all right, the bottom
two buttons of the shirt left undone. She hides it better than
some, being a tall girl, like all the women in Toby's family. That's
a coincidence, of course. Toby forgets, now and then, that her
daughter is adopted. Some things get passed down -- hand gestures,
a certain inflection of the voice -- but she can't take credit
for her granddaughter's height.
Lila stops in front of her. She looks down at her feet. Toby
won't speak to her until she looks up. She'll have to learn to carry
herself proud through this. People will take their cues from her.
When Lila raises her head, her eyes are clear and blue like the
Sandhills lakes in summer. She has always been a beautiful girl to
Toby: skin golden and burnished, those blue eyes, that dark hair.
The eyes are her dad's, but that hair and skin reveal traces of an
"Mom sent me here because she can't stand to look at me,"
Lila says. She offers this matter-of-factly, and while Toby guesses
it's the truth, she's appalled that the girl knows it. Still, she can't
lie to reassure her.
"Well. Maybe so." She reaches out and hauls her granddaughter
into her arms.
Toby waits in the lounge of the Scottsbluff airport. Nobody much flies to this part of Nebraska, so the airport's small. A coffee shop off to one side, maybe twenty padded chairs, blue tweed upholstery on beige plastic frames. Two women's voices rise and fall like a distant flock of geese. She looks out at the runway, notices how the glass makes the air wobble. She's driven an hour and a half to get here, off the ranch, down a gravel road to the highway, west through four little towns. Her fingers are busy, rolling and unrolling the hem of her shirt.
"Air conditioner's broke," Toby says.
Lila does not turn her head, but offers her hand in a noncommittal
"You feeling all right?"
"How long's it been since you've been out here?" Toby asks.
She means only to pass the time, but Lila bristles. She turns with
a sneer on her face.
"I'm barely old enough to drive, you know. I can't exactly
Toby gnaws at her lip when Lila turns away. Still, she tries
"Four years ago, wasn't it? For your granddad's funeral. Your
mother hasn't been out here since then, either. If I didn't make it
to Minneapolis once in a while, you'd never know you had any
Nebraska relation at all."
"Two Christmases ago," Lila says.
"What's that?" Toby's watching closely, not wanting to miss
the junction off Highway.
Lila turns her face to her. There's accusation in it, even before
she opens her mouth. "That's the last time I saw you. Two Christmases
Toby doesn't answer. She has no defense this girl could understand.
Four years or two years, that's a lifetime to someone her age.
"Your mother off this week? To Paris, I mean?"
"Yeah. I guess. She put me on the plane first." Lila's fingers fiddle
with the dials and buttons on the radio. She hasn't turned it
on, but her fingers are busy there, like a pianist whose hands are
habitually trained. Her left knee bobs up and down to some interior
beat or maybe out of anxiety or teenage adrenaline.
"How's your dad?"
"How would I know?"
Toby's surprised at the bitterness in Lila's voice. She knows
Nola Jean blames Guy for their breakup, too many nights on the
road playing jazz in what Nola Jean calls his Deadbeats Band.
Fed up, she'd forced him to choose between her and his music,
and Guy went with his true love. Somehow, Toby hadn't thought
Lila would take her mother's side.
"Don't you see him?"
"He takes me out to eat once in a while."
Toby nods but can think of nothing to say. She's struck dumb
with the realization of how alone this girl is.
"He'd like me better if I was musical," Lila says.
Toby gears up to deny Lila's statement, then stops. She knows
it's true. She never could relate to Nola Jean, her love for fashion
and what she calls the aesthetic life. Nola Jean flies to Paris regularly
in her job as an airline hostess and sends Toby expensive
blouses and bracelets, trinkets she has no use for. Nola Jean says
she'd come home more often if she could fly here, but she can't
stand all those hours in a car. She could fly to Scottsbluff, cut
the drive down to a couple of hours, but she doesn't trust small
airplanes, even though she's willing now to stick Lila on one.
Toby loves her daughter, but she's too old not to admit that she
might like Nola Jean better if she had taken to ranching the least
They ride a few more miles before Toby speaks again. "Gertie's
staying at the house. You remember Gertie, my sister?"
"Clay's grandma?" Lila turns, her face brightening.
Lila smiles then. A lovely face, when she smiles. "How is Clay?"
Toby thinks hard for a minute. It's too early to tell Lila the
whole story on Clay. "Oh, he's all right. He's farming out on
Gertie's old place."
"George still around?" Lila asks.
Toby smiles, peering ahead down the winding road, watching
it disappear into the hills. She remembers how George used to
take Clay and Lila fishing, the three of them wandering off with
poles slung over their shoulders like slender muskets. "That old
man is rooted to the land. He's got my brother John with him
now. George looks after him."
They've passed Elmyra and the ghostly remains of Perkins,
headed off Highway onto the gravel road that leads up into
the hills. Toby drives fast but keeps a watchful eye for roaming
cattle. Once in a while she spots a red-tailed hawk circling, its
shadow flirting with the thin ribbon of road. On both sides the
land stretches away, speckled with primroses and swathed with
patches of purple larkspur. Here and there a blue lake dots the
surface, formed by rainwater spilling down the side of a hill.
Sometimes the water disappears and resurfaces lower as a wetland
marsh. Or it might keep on going, down, down through
secret passageways to the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge underground
reservoir stretching all the way to Texas. When Toby was a girl
she imagined herself living on a giant ship, cast atop a rolling
ocean. She would lie on her stomach, put her ear to the dry
ground, and listen for the sloshing of phantom waves.
They drive in silence onto the cow path that meanders past
George's house, past the family cemetery. They pull up in front
of the Alhambra. The rose bushes by the front porch need trimming.
The lilacs stray, shabby and overgrown. The lawn has gone
to ruin. In the early morning wild turkeys can be heard nesting
in the cottonwoods, but now the only sound is the buzzing of
insects. That, and the sun, hot and loud, blaring on the roof and
Lila stands looking up at the house, the hills at her back.
"When I was a kid," she says, "I thought this was a palace."
Toby moves up alongside her granddaughter, tries to see the
Alhambra through her eyes. "What do you think now?" she asks.
Lila shrugs. "I'm not a kid anymore."
With that, she picks up her largest suitcase and moves up onto
the porch. Toby, stooping to the smaller bag, watches her struggle
with the screen door. She props it open with her hip, lets it
slam behind her, the sound reverberating across the empty yard.
They don't say much during the first forty miles or so. Toby watches Lila out of the corner of her eye, the girl's face turned toward the window. She can't guess what Lila might be thinking, but she figures she's scared.
Reading Group Guide
The Floor of the Sky
Pamela Carter Joern's novel about guilt and forgiveness is set in the Sandhills of Nebraska, a place as rugged and unyielding as her characters. Toby Jenkins, a 72-year old widow, aims to keep her ranch even though the local banker threatens to foreclose. Then Lila, her16-year old pregnant granddaughter, shows up, metal-studded and angry. As the novel moves through one fast-paced summer, Joern's subtle handling of the complexities of relationship and the changing face of rural Midwestern life leave the reader pondering, resonating, and cheering for Toby and her clan.1. Toby and Gertie live in the Alhambra, an ornate Sears mail-order house built by their father in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills. What meaning does the house hold for Toby? How does Toby's relationship with the house reflect her relationship with both her parents? How does the incongruity of this ornate house on the prairie reflect the cultural/social setting for the book? 2. Joern suggests that living on the land shapes personality. What are the qualities shared by the characters that might be attributed to their devotion to this way of life? At the same time, Gertie and Toby exhibit profound differences, even though they were both raised on the ranch. How do you account for these differences? 3. The world of this novel constantly smacks tradition up against modernity. Things are changing on the rural landscape of America, and yet some things remain the same. What stays the same? What are some of the changes? Do you think the changes will result in necessary progress or irreparable loss? 4. What is Lila's role in the novel? What difference does it make that she is from the city? 5. What are the family relationships explored in this story? Why does Joern choose two grandparent-grandchild roles? How would you describe the relationship between Lila and Clay? What is the purpose of including adoptive relationships? What does Joern seem to be saying about the "glue" that holds families together? What does George's role have to say about how family is defined? 6. The novel moves through a series of community events: the branding, Camp Clarke Days, Lila's birthday party. What is the significance of these events? What do we learn about the lives of these people and the times they are living in? 7. Some portrayals of the rural Midwest weigh heavily on nostalgia, sighing for the "good old days." Others treat the rural Midwest as a cultural wasteland, something to fly over on the way to New York or California. What do you think the author's attitude is about this area? What expectations do you hold about the rural Midwest that were either borne out or debunked by this book? 8. George says about Toby that ". . .the knowing of the truth settles her. This, he understands, is Toby's great secret. This is how she has borne the sorrows of her life. She does not bar the gate against the truth." If this is how Toby has borne the sorrows of her life, how have other characters chosen to deal with sorrow and loss? What are the repercussions of their choices? 9. George also says: "The trouble with this family, he has known for a long time, is that they all choose to be alone." What does he mean? How is this played out with Toby and Gertie? And George? Does this change by the end of the book? 10. Who, if anyone, is the moral authority in the book? Who, if anyone, is the spiritual center? How do the different characters relate to religion? 11. The title, The Floor of the Sky, is taken from a quote by Willa Cather and refers to the big sky over the treeless plains. Joern pays careful attention to the landscape. How does this contribute to the mood of the book? 13. Although he's dead when the book opens, Luther Bolden is a prevailing presence in the book. What sort of man was he? How did he affect the lives of each of his children? What do you think Joern is suggesting about power and apparent success? 14. What do we learn about Lila through her efforts to find a home for her child? Why does she choose Julia and Royce? Did you think that Julia and Royce would accept Lila's baby? Were you surprised that Lila gave up her child for adoption? 15. At the end Toby and George are sitting on the porch of his house, facing east. What lies ahead for them? What do you think will happen to Toby's land? Why do you think Joern ended the novel at this point? Just for Fun: Kirkus Reviews wrote, "His [George's] unspoken love makes for irresistible reading. . .(think Paul Newman with Joanne Woodward). . . A resonant love story, whatever the age of the lovers." If you were making a movie, who would you cast as Toby and George?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book was very touching, and she wrote with just the right voice with each of her characters. I like her style of writing very much and I hope that she'll write another.
Very disappointing. Storyline was very weak. Could have done so much more. But, I really did like the way she did each chapter labeled that characters name for their thoughts. Book is easy reading, quick reading for sure, but boring.