Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Land Remembers by Ben Logan

I read this lyrical book last year and from time to time I read one of its stories again, so it has been sitting alongside my upstairs reading chair.  It's that kind of book, one with stories that  to be re-read, savored and one to keep on my full book shelves.   It was first published in hardback by Viking Press in 1975 and a mass market paperback edition by Avon Books in 1976.  In 1992 a collector's edition was published by NorthWord Press and in 2000 a 25th anniversary edition.  My copy 286 pages, is the eighth edition, first printing, 2006, by Itchy Cat Press in Blue Mounds, WI.  I picked up this treasure at a local book sale and was amazed that I had never heard of it living in the area where the author writes about his farm life just down the road along the Mississippi River, up the hills on the Wisconsin side.  The stories are about life on the farm, his three brothers, mother and father and hired hand Lyle,  the people of the area, the "hilltop world in 1930's in southwestern Wisconsin."  The family farm was on a ridge top, 260 acres is  called "Seldom Seen" and the author traveled as a merchant seaman and worked as a novelist, producer and writer for film and television, living forty miles north of New York City.  But his roots remained in the southwest Wisconsin hillsides, in the mid 1980's he returned to the farm and lives there.  

Back flap
I smiled and was drawn to keep turning pages from the very introductory page, " Laurence, Lee and Lyle, the only ones left who shared that hilltop world with me, told me when we met that I didn't get all my facts straight.  We argued some about that, but mostly I just reminded them of what a neighbor used to say--"when you're trying to tell somebody who ain't been there just how hot it is in a hayfield with the temperature at a hundred degrees int he shade, it's not lying if you make it a hundred and ten."    Now only my brother Lee and I are left."  It's that kind of book, true, life,  comical, sad, whimsy, just a very enjoyable read, and beautifully written.  

Page 3, "There is no neat and easy way to tell the story of a farm.  A farm is a process where everything is related, everything happening at once.  It is a circle of life and there is no logical place to begin a perfect circle.  This is an unsolved paradox for me.  Part of the folly of our time is the idea that we can see the whole of something by looking at the pieces, one at a time."  I am a city girl you could say, but  Jerry grew up in these parts and spent his young years on his grandparents' farm, so I thought he might enjoy this book as well, he has read several of the stories too and each time, says, "this is a good book."  He enjoyed the Chapter about Haying, "Such days were agony, but there was a glory in them.  It was as though in proving ourselves equal to the harsh demands of the land, we glimpsed some hint of immortality."  

Page 13,  Chapter 3, The Awakening Land, Spring was a contradiction.  It was both creeping change and explosion.  Because the soil was frozen solid, four or five feet deep most years, and covered with snow, it held the cold.  The air warmed ahead of the soil in a false feel of spring that was only of the air---not of the entire land." Page 15, "But no one ever talked about a year without a spring.  It was as unthinkable as trying to convince someone that they had never been born."   

I have included quotes to give the flavor of how well written and why I describe it as lyrical.  It is difficult for me to choose one story that I liked better than any of the others, because they are all different, but if I were to limit to only one it would be in the winter section, Chapter 36, The Year the Corn Shredder Stayed All Winter, I have read this about 6 times, it always brings out the grins.  It begins, "Lyle claimed the old men in Petersburg could start swapping stories some morning, changing things as they went along, and go on for three days before they realized they were telling each other the same story."  This is the story of a man named Nubbin,  who works his tractor and corn shredder through the farms.  "The tractor, corn shredder, and Nubbin, the owner were all getting old.  Things kept going wrong on each job and it was early December before the rig came chugging and smoking up to the barnyard gate.  I'd been hearing about Nubbin.  I expected a giant but he was short, about the size of Lyle, had a bright red nose, big bushy eyebrows, and a scraggly beard.  The story was that he was superstitious--never shaved on a week that had a Friday in it."  See what I mean about lyrical, comical,  just reading paints the scene and the characters.

There is a new Afterword in my edition and the very last chapter, The Circle of Life describes a feeling I have shared as I try to piece together ancestry of my family, though I have no affinity for a farm or land.    Page 177, "As the changing seasons carry me forward in time, a stubborn part of me keeps reaching back to preserve, unbroken my linkage with the land. Partly I reach back to find myself at some age of innocence when the land was my whole world.  Partly I try to recapture those taken-for-granted persons I called Father and Mother."   He closes with some sense of tribute to the land, back to ice age, forward to fur trappers,  Indians, old tales.

A 5 star read *****