In the spring of 1950, Calvin and Betsy Kusek load their family in the station wagon and head west from New York City to relocate to a close-knit town in South Dakota. They settle on a ranch and begin a life in their new state. Betsy becomes a visiting nurse, befriending a quirky assortment of rural characters, and Cal jumps at the chance to serve his community when a seat opens up in the state legislature. Their children, Jo and Lance, grow up caring for animals and riding rodeo.
But things change when Cal runs for the U.S. Senate. The FBI investigates Betsy, and a youthful dalliance with the Communist Party surfaces to haunt the Kuseks. Communist hysteria takes over their small town, inflamed by Cal’s political enemies. Driven by fear and hate, their neighbors turn on them. Decades later tragedy again strikes the family as the ghosts of their past come back to haunt them.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
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MERCY MEDICAL CENTER
DECEMBER 26, 1985
Rapid City, South Dakota, is a small municipality on the western edge of the state. Originally settled by a band of disillusioned gold miners, a sense of melancholy disappointment still prevails. Despite generations of civic promoters, commerce has never taken hold along its restored frontier streets. December, especially, does not come easily here. In the winter months, temperatures can hang below zero, in the teens if you’re lucky, and continuous storms bring galeforce winds, keeping up a moan of desolation that is peculiar to this place, as if speaking the unspeakable when human voices fail.
On Christmas Eve day, 1985, there had been snow on the ground but the sky was clear. During the night the weather changed. Heavy rain began to fall around the same time the police switchboard became flooded with 911 calls. For two more days the skies stayed blustery, then the rain turned to sleet, which pelted the windshield of Jo Kusek’s rental car as she made her way from the airport. Twenty years ago she’d left South Dakota, vowing never to return. As if in retribution, the prairie was drawing her back, this time in the face of a horrific event.
The windshield wipers swept the sludge away in crescents. Jo watched as the familiar road became muddled, then sharp, then obscured again by a layer of ice. And that’s how it would be for the days ahead, as she tried to grasp what had happened to her family. The whole town was in shock. Her sister-inlaw, Wendy Kusek, had been bludgeoned to death with her own steam iron by an intruder on the night of December 24. Jo’s brother, Lance, and their son, Willie, had been savagely attacked as well and were barely clinging to life.
The Kuseks lived on West Boulevard, a genteel enclave of the city’s most affluent. Around seven p.m., one of them had opened the front door of their saltbox house painted a jaunty blue, assuming it was an early visitor for the annual holiday dinner. The dining room table was decorated with fine china and fresh pine boughs, and a good-sized fire was still blazing in the hearth when police arrived some fifty minutes later, summoned by panicked guests. Locked out, with no answer at the door, they’d gone around to the windows and seen the Kuseks lying motionless on the floor in what looked like a massacre.
The community hospital that Jo remembered as a small brick building with an ivy-covered portico had become a lumbering medical center. She parked in a cavernous underground lot. Hatless in the frigid air, too distressed to even zip her parka, she followed the arrows to the fourth-floor surgical wing, where she was directed by a solemn nurse to a characterless brown-andgreen waiting room.
Murmuring sympathies, a small crowd of people she had known all her life rose to greet her. Cattlemen and ranch wives. The garage owner. Her father’s political supporters and the Democratic state chairman. Jo saw fear in their shell-shocked eyes, and not just of the killer or killers, who were still at large. Everyone there had been close to her family, and now they were wrestling with their own guilty consciences. What had been their part in the events leading up to this incomprehensible act?
Newspaper and TV reporters were being kept in a separate room. The turnout was familiar to people who knew the Kuseks’ story. The national press had swarmed Rapid City before, during her parents’ trial. Once again the family made sensational news. Then they’d been fighting for freedom. Now, one by one, they were fighting for their lives.
State Trooper Randy Sturgis, retired, was the first to get to Jo. They hugged wordlessly. He’d also been first to befriend the Kuseks when they drove out from New York City, a young family in a secondhand station wagon, back in 1950. Thirty-five years later, he was the same lanky beanpole, but his hair had turned all white and she could feel a tremor as his hands gripped hers.
“Don’t lose hope,” he said.
Jo nodded, although she felt nothing.
“The doctor said they really won’t know,” he added in a husky voice. “Not for a couple of days.”
“Where is the doctor? I have to talk to him—”
“Jo—” He stopped her. “They’re calling in the state investigators. I promise you, we’ll get whoever did this.”
Jo imagined that they would. After so many years, somebody hated her family enough to murder them. The sheriff must have had a pretty good idea of who that could be. Rapid City was still a small town, after all.
The station wagon was stuck in the mud and Jo’s parents were trying to fix it. This was before State Trooper Randy Sturgis showed up to rescue them. Jo was four and her brother, Lance, still a baby. They had driven almost two thousand miles from New York City, passed through Sioux Falls and crossed into the grasslands, a couple of hours shy of their destination at the Crazy Eights Ranch. The highway here was newly built, and every time the sun came out the road became a beckoning river of silver.
Jo’s father had been driving. He was a lawyer who still wore his hair city-style, slicked back with Vitalis, and he had a dashing mustache that made a thin line over soft, ample lips. He was a confident fellow of thirty-seven, big-boned and good-looking, with a narrow face, sandy hair, eyes typically narrowed in thought, and a long, straight aristocratic nose. His plain decency made Calvin Kusek someone you would trust. Foreman of the jury. The passenger who takes charge when the subway car breaks down. He was sure of himself in a quiet way that inspired others to follow.
It was early spring, 1950. The world as Cal Kusek saw it had lost its innocence and was facing grave dangers. Just last year Truman announced that the Soviet Union had detonated an atomic bomb. Now both sides had it. A believer in old-fashioned cracker-barrel democracy, Cal was fed up with Senator Joe McCarthy running roughshod over civil rights, yet gaining in power. Unstable times called for levelheaded choices, which is how the Kuseks came to leave Manhattan for the heartland of America.
“I always imagined the prairie would be flat and dull,” Jo’s mother, Betsy, had said. “But this is beautiful.”
“Isn’t it, though?” Cal agreed. “Real live Nature! The way it’s suppos’d to be!” he added in a carefree voice that made the endless days in the car sound like a song.
The trip had started on a buoyant note. When both kids had finally quieted down in the backseat and the steel cables of the George Washington Bridge were winging by overhead, the Kuseks touched hands in the natural way of married people and, without having to say a word, affirmed their love and the rightness of their purpose, heading west in order to find a better life for their children.
From the beginning they’d been a matched pair. They were tall and physically alike. Her looks may not have been as striking as his, but she was slim and athletic; her long legs fit his stride. She did her blond hair in waves and had a breakout laugh. Coline “Betsy” Ferguson was the one to call on a dime if you were desperate to complete a foursome. She’d show up with no complaints about it being last minute—and it wasn’t because she didn’t have dates; she was just that kind of friend. Calvin was a dreamer, an attorney fighting on behalf of the workingman. Betsy had gone to jail in support of her union. They both dug oysters and rhythm and blues. A month after they’d met, they were practically engaged.
And why not? It was wartime. Cal joined the army and became a pilot in the Eighty-Second Airborne Division at the rank of second lieutenant. He flew a transport plane from his post in North Africa. On the home front, Betsy got a degree from the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps and worked in a veterans’ hospital. They were married on a three-day pass. When the war was over and Jo was born, they found a studio apartment on the Lower East Side, which in 1946 meant the first move toward a house in the suburbs, but the Kuseks discovered they were out of step with the flush of postwar prosperity.
Rationing was over, and the thrill of making sacrifices was gone. Everyone wanted new, new, new in a mad rush for status: desirable apartments, the latest appliances, jazzed-up cars, and televisions for all. The streets of Greenwich Village, so romantic during their engagement, had taken on a dirty, hard, bohemian edge, overrun by society’s outcasts, who wallowed helplessly in booze and marijuana, and radical beatniks, who wanted to tear everything apart. Uptown, it was the opposite. To get ahead, you had to conform.
Now a family man, Cal could no longer afford the low-paying job of a union lawyer. Brandishing his Yale Law School degree, he landed a position at the distinguished law firm of Berle, Berle, and Brunner, whose senior partner, Adolf A. Berle, a Democrat, was doing vital work to rein in corporate greed under new government regulations. Berle had been appointed to President Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, the advisers at the heart of the New Deal. The prospect of being close to this toughminded leader who fought for civil liberties was electrifying.
But Cal Kusek got nowhere near the famous man. As a new hire, he was assigned scud work that never went to trial. Like everyone else he wore suits and ties to work, with a white shirt and a hat, and was relegated to a cubicle in a musty bullpen of cubicles that spanned the thirty-first floor. He never saw the light of day and went home on a packed subway train, disillusioned by the incremental crawl up the ladder of success . . . to where? He wanted to get his hands around the throat of things like corruption and race prejudice, not just file papers. When Lance was born, they saw two choices: Cal could swallow his pride and stay with the firm, and Betsy could go back to work in order to afford a bigger place . . . or they could change their lives.
The decision to leave New York had been based on a postcard: an ordinary, two-cent postcard stamped Rapid City, South Dakota. It had arrived in response to a letter Cal had written to an army buddy, Sergeant Scotty Roy, a parachutist who’d jumped out of Cal’s airplane during the catastrophic Allied Invasion of Sicily. Their drop point was farther inland, so Cal hadn’t known the extent of the disaster until he returned to North Africa, where he learned that navy gunners had mistaken the American squadrons of C-53s for German bombers and dozens of U.S. transport planes had gone down, destroyed by friendly fire. Soldiers were shot dangling from their parachutes. Pilots aborted and brought the damaged aircraft back punctured by thousands of bullets and with their holds washed in blood.
When Cal had written care of the Crazy Eights Ranch, he didn’t know if Scotty Roy was alive or dead, or in God knows what shape—if he’d had the luck to survive the ground fighting. But the crazy kid who’d always wanted to fly was their only contact west of the Mississippi, so Cal took a chance, writing that the open plains of South Dakota Scotty had so rapturously described seemed to fit what he and his wife, Betsy, were looking for. Could they come out for a visit and see for themselves?
Scotty had replied ASAP. “Great to hear from you, come on out, you are welcome here. Stay as long as you want. Mom and Dad say hello. S. Roy.”
Like pioneers before them, the Kuseks took barely more than their savings and the optimism of youth. Cal would become a “Lincoln lawyer” and serve the rural community, taking a personal approach to the practice of law, one client at a time, and maybe from there he’d venture into local politics. For Betsy, nursing would always be a part of her life, but first she would be a mother and a working partner on the ranch. They envisioned open space and fresh air, raising their own food, getting involved in the schools, teaching their kids the right values. Both were eager for hard physical labor, believing that devotion to each other and their children would sustain them in the end.
The Kuseks realized if they drove across the continent, it wouldn’t be for a visit, it would be for keeps. If their final destination turned out not to be the Dakotas, they’d try Washington or Oregon. If not cattle ranching, then a fruit tree orchard or a vegetable farm. The appeal of South Dakota was that they were practically giving land away out there. During the Depression, so many ranchers had gone belly-up and defaulted on their taxes that counties were selling foreclosed properties for as little as twenty bucks an acre.
They’d decided to take it slow on the trip out west, to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Later they would put their shoulders to the wheel, but for now the task was done. They’d managed to loosen their family ties bit by bit, enough so they could say their good-byes to Cal’s family in Pennsylvania and Betsy’s widowed father and sister, Marja, who lived in the Bronx. Their efficient partnership had taken care of every detail in the huge effort of moving. If they could find an inch of space in the overloaded station wagon, they could relax and be tourists in their own country.
They were free.
The plan was to leave the city by ten a.m., but somehow it was five hours later, and Lance had missed his morning nap. He’d been cranky until he blessedly dropped off to sleep, his big blond head lolling against the window, pale translucent eyelids trembling in the warmth of the spring sun. Cal insisted on smoking his pipe, which caused Jo to announce over and over that she was “vomitatious.” Jo, named for the independent heroine of Little Women, was working on coloring books. She wore her favorite overalls and her hair, sandy brown like her dad’s, had just gotten a new pixie cut. She was a determined child, even at age four seeming to know her own mind, whispering to her baby-self as she chose her crayons, then approving them in her “grown-up” voice.
Somewhere around Paterson, New Jersey, Lance woke up crying and fussed for the next three hours, so that they had to make several rest stops to reshuffle the seating arrangements. Every time he was settled, Jo would innocently push him off the backseat, raising squalls of tears, so Betsy had to ride with Lance in her arms while he tried to squirrel away and grab the steering wheel. At least it was convenient for wiping his stuffy nose, which was turning into a cold.
It was dark by the time they found a motel, since most were still closed for the winter. After tripping over a loose step on the porch, the proprietor—half drunk, with a tubercular cough and falling-down pants—managed to open a frigid bungalow that hadn’t seen fresh air since last year’s Labor Day. When they discovered the room was too tiny to accommodate both their luggage and a rusty folding cot the owner had grudgingly dragged over, Betsy burst into exhausted tears, and Cal ended up sleeping on the cot with his feet sticking out the open door.
Tourism abandoned, the objective became getting to South Dakota as fast as possible. For seven days they drove with purpose, on turnpikes and toll roads, blacktops and main streets, stopping every few hours because the secondhand engine would be overheating again, until they crossed the Missouri River and realized that they were entering the promised land.
The sky was huge and their spirits rose. The prairie was hardly flat, but filled with vivid moss-green folds undulating across millions of acres of open plain—no markers, no fences, just the ageless tracks of winding creeks, spectacular as the African Serengeti, they imagined, and filled, it seemed, with as many wild animals. Herds of golden antelope sprang across their vision, and everywhere the air was filled with birds: chickadees, finches, flashing clouds of swooping terns, and, grandest of all, great blue herons, eagles, and hawks coasting high up on the thermal currents. Pitch-black cows and their babies wandered beneath the bare cottonwood trees, foraging on clumps of winterfat and sage, and the Kuseks stared in awe at their first sight of real cowboys.
They passed through empty towns with stunted names: Presho, Murdo, Kadoka, Wall. They spotted a family of wild mustangs, and man-made ponds with windmills to draw the water that was blanketed by hundreds and hundreds of squawking ducks and geese. In the distance there were flat-roofed farmhouses, but often, because the road had gone this way since the gold rush, they’d see miners’ shacks so old that nothing remained but charcoal studs and air.
Finding their destination became a game. Cal would veer off sharply, calling, “That’s it! That’s our house!” while Betsy, trying to keep hold of Lance, would cry, “Cal, don’t!” and Jo would jump up shouting, “Where? Daddy! Stop! You passed our house!”
“Uh-oh! Daddy made a mistake,” Cal would answer. “That house isn’t nice enough for us. Let’s keep looking.”
This went on until a dark gray storm line manifested on the horizon and quickly grew into a towering thunderhead—so fast that Cal and Betsy barely had time to roll up the windows. The clouds were ugly beasts, sheared off at the top, with columns of black rolling undersides coming directly at them. A forked lightning strike hit the ground and everything turned chalk white, then a burst of rain came down so hard that Jo screamed and took cover, crying, “Mommy!” It sounded like when you spilled a can of marbles on a bare wood floor, only this was a giant pelting them with pails of marbles and thunderously shaking the car. A solid curtain of water obscured the view through the windshield. Cal struggled to keep the car steady, but the hardtop was flooded. The danger now was out-of-control vehicles coming toward them, whose headlights they couldn’t see, so when they glimpsed a turnoff through the downpour, they took it.
Immediately they felt good hard gravel beneath the tires, and with relief continued on a little ways. Then the road turned bumpy, and without warning the gravel ended and gave way to slushy mud, causing them to fishtail wildly back and forth between the gullies on either side. Betsy, wide-eyed, clung to Lance, and Jo was thrown across the backseat. Cal gritted his teeth and fought the wheel, until they came to a gentle, almost anticlimactic stop. All at once they felt the right rear end of the wagon sink, and they couldn’t go any farther.
Betsy struggled out of the car, still holding Lance in her arms. Instantly, like a slap in the face, the wind blew the door shut. You’re not wanted here, it said. This was not the fresh fall wind that flew along Fifth Avenue, streaming the bright colors of department store banners and knocking off ladies’ hats. This wind was burly and powerful, more than thirty miles an hour without a pause; this wind owned the prairie. Always had and always would, and everything that was there was because of it—what could grow and what couldn’t, where the rain fell or was sucked up by drought, which direction the buffalo took to graze and how the Native Americans followed their migration.
Betsy felt a vertiginous sense of space. The wind took away all boundaries. It stripped you of past and future. Were her feet still on the ground? Nowhere was there evidence of humankind. Everywhere she turned she found the disorienting absence of buildings, of knowing where you are in the city by the crosshatches of the grid. Cal was coming around the hood to assess the damage. The only anchors in this new frontier were the trustworthy face of her husband and the baby’s needful cry.
The car was tilted sidelong in the weeds. Jo, ordered to stay inside, was making circles of breath on the window, while Cal crouched beside the rear tire, which was sunk into the clay—not mud, he discovered, and much more slippery. It clung to everything and hardened quickly in the blowing air. Within moments their shoes were caked and their clothing was splattered with streaks. Where they’d turned off was a quarter of a mile away; they could no longer see the main road. They were in the middle of mauve-and-straw-colored alfalfa fields. The storm was holding off, leaving a sky of soft gray clouds that gusted beads of hail. The temperature was close to freezing and the wind kept on. Even outside for a short time, Betsy’s hands were numb with cold and the baby’s face bright red. The first hint of fear crept into her throat.
With clumsy fingers, she changed Lance’s diaper on the front seat, found two sweaters and put them both on him. She took the keys from the ignition and gently closed the door, absurdly telling Jo, “Play with your brother.” At least they’d be safe in the car. She opened the trunk and dug out their summer coats from the picnic ware and children’s books they’d packed so carefully—useless stuff, she realized, unless they wanted to burn them for warmth. Another jolt of fear. Cal was prowling along the ditch. She brought him a light tweed blazer she’d found in the car.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“First of all, we need something for traction.”
She joined his search, but it was futile.
There were no structures that might provide wooden planks to slip under the tires, like you would in a snowstorm back east; there weren’t even trees.
“Cal! What are we going to do?”
“We’ll get out of here,” he promised.
“I didn’t see any gas stations, did you?”
“Not for the last fifty miles,” he said calmly.
Betsy didn’t answer. She had only one bottle of formula left, but didn’t want to burden him with that particular worry. It was four thirty and getting dark. It looked like another storm on the way. The wind that was bringing the developing rain seemed even stronger than before as if to test their resolve to make this move, here and now.
She clutched the thin summer coat around her, incongruously Easter yellow.
“I’m scared for the kids. Lance is just getting over a cold—”
Cal interrupted. “Look at the facts, Betsy. Don’t go by emotions— what do your instruments say?”
She tried to laugh. “For God’s sake, we’re not flying an airplane!”
“The facts are . . . nobody’s hurt, the kids are fine. There’s nothing out here that can harm us. A big hungry bear is not going to come out of the woods, because there aren’t any woods,” he said, going for humor. “We’ll get by, and in the morning I’ll walk to the main road and flag someone down. Relax, honey. There’s a bottle of Scotch in the glove compartment.”
“Can’t give the baby Scotch,” Betsy observed drily.
“Hey, wait a minute. Hold the phone. There’s something.”
Cal’s attention had been caught by the only object standing upright in the landscape of bowed grass. Twenty yards away the remnant of a cattle gate was hanging at an angle on its frame.
“Help me get that off.”
It was made of pipe and discouragingly heavy. They pulled and twisted, and Cal took a tire iron to the hinges. They got it loose and dragged the thing toward the car, but Betsy’s palms were freezing to the metal and she couldn’t keep up. Finally Cal said, “Let me do it.” He picked the gate up and heaved it over his head like some angry god dressed like a professor, staggering to the car, where he threw it to the ground and kicked it into position behind the sunken tire.
“You get in,” he told Betsy. “Put the gear in reverse. When I tell you, hit the gas. Gently!”
They worked for fifteen minutes, easing backward until the tire mounted the metal rungs, nursing forward and gaining traction, but the gate kept slipping sideways. They’d reset and try again, but the spinning wheels dug deeper and finally it was just too cold to be out there. Inside the car, they saw in the mirror that their faces were windburned and their eyes bloodshot red. Cal turned the engine on so they had some heat, but Betsy was shivering so hard, she thought she’d never be warm again. Jo’s teeth were chattering, but she laughed and pointed to their shoes, which had turned to solid blocks of clay.
“You have dinosaur feet!” she said.
Clay was everywhere—smeared on their noses, encrusting the seats, floor, dashboard, and no doubt jamming up the drivetrain under the car. Cal took a map from the glove compartment, along with the pint of Scotch. It was hard to pinpoint their location. It hardly mattered. They weren’t going anywhere.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, author biography, discussion questions, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Home Sweet Home, the provocative new novel by April Smith.
1. Why did the Kuseks decide to leave Manhattan and move to the American heartland? Do you think it served their needs at the time? What kinds of situations motivate people to change their lives so radically?
2. Betsy’s membership in the Communist Party is crucial to the plot. When she first meets Cal it is a problem in their relationship. How is that resolved?
3. Betsy and Cal must adapt to a completely different way of life in rural South Dakota. What are some of the values they learn to embrace?
4. Dutch and the other ranchers feel they get no help from the government, which fosters fierce individualism. What is the appeal of supporting McCarthy? How does this relate to politics around the world today?
5. Cal and Scotty start out as war buddies but their relationship changes when Cal moves west. What goes wrong—and right—between them? Why does Scotty leave town?
6. Betsy faces major challenges as a mother and a working wife. Do you think she is a strong character? What role does her friend, Stelal Fletcher, play in the book? Would you have let your daughter ride off on a horse with Doris Roy?
7. Betsy’s sister, Marja, was blind as a child. Howdid that affect the choices Betsy made? Who dominates and does it shift over the years? How does Betsy reconcile her love for her sister with her brother-in-law’s personality?
8. When Cal first runs for office, how does he convince people to vote for him even though he is a Democrat and the majority of his neighbors are Republicans? What role does the banker, Verna Bismark, play as the lone woman in the politics of Pennington County?
9. What methods did Senator Joe McCarthy use to create the atmosphere of suspicion and mass hysteria that affected so many Americans? Some readers have responded to this book with memories of family members who were impacted by the Red Scare of the 1950s. Do you have a story to tell?
10. Did you notice a motif of fatherhood in the novel? What responsibilities do the fathers share and what obstacles do they face?
11. There are laws that prevent public officials from being sued for slander. Why is the Kusek case different? Considering the risk of more hostility toward his family, why did Cal go forward with the lawsuit?
12. Jo and Lance are very close. What makes them band together? Do you think growing up on a ranch had an effect, or would they have been as close growing up in New York? On a scale of one to ten, how rebellious was Jo as a teenager?
13. Was the principle of the high school, Mr. Emry, justified in secretly recording Betsy’s conversation?
14. How is the FBI portrayed differently in Home Sweet Home as compared to the author’s FBI Special Agent Ana Grey mysteries?
15. How is Jo treated when she returns to Rapid City as an adult to visit her family members in the hospital? How do the townspeople respond to the violent crime? How does their behavior compare to their treatment of her family as she was growing up? Is their reaction surprising? Why or why not?
16. Why did Derek LaSalle attack Lance Kusek and his family years after Cal and Betsy were gone? What did he think he could accomplish? What role does Honeybee Jones play in the outcome? Who or what is the villain in this saga?
17. At the end of the story, Jo believes that “nature will repair itself” (351). What does she mean, and why do you think the author chose to conclude the book on this note? Would you say the prairie is another character in the book?
18. The novel was inspired by real events that took place in Washington State. The author moved the story to South Dakota and reimagined the characters. Do you think by writing this as fiction she was able to provide the reader with a more intimate sense of what they experienced? In what ways does fiction have more or less power than nonfiction?