|Alice | Tin.it | Foto album | Disco remoto | Community|
The Bones of Plenty, 1962
The protagonist of this intense novel set in the straitened days of the Great Depression is a proud and angry man, and Hudson's well-written text is a simmering denunciation of social injustice, of a time when an honest man could break his back with unremitting toil and still not earn a living. Like his famous namesake, the North Dakota wheat-farmer George Armstrong Custer makes a stubborn last stand and aims to go down fighting; the "Indians" who inexorably close in on him during the early 1930s are tight credit, low crop prices, the wheat surplus, an absconding bank manager, insensitive government regulations, inflexible landlords, rapacious middlemen, commodity speculators, drought, dust storms, sheriffs' foreclosures, bad luck, and general hard times worldwide.
Told partially through the perceptive viewpoint of Custer's intelligent, sensitive little daughter Lucy, the novel chronicles daily life on the farm from February 1933 until May 1934 -- the long dawn-to-dark days of incessant labour in the fields and the barn, endless household chores, anxious penny-counting in an effort to make ends meet until the harvest money comes in. George is a top-notch farmer, but has never managed to clear enough after harvest to put money aside and purchase title to the farm he leases from a city shop-owner interested only in his annual rent, ungrateful for the improvements George has made on the land, and utterly indifferent to his tenant's problems or proposals. Take it or leave it, Mr. Vick always tells George when the farmer comes in to renew his lease on the landlord's non-negotiable terms. Too proud and independent to line up with bums and drifters for a handout, or to sign up for an inadequate subsidy in return for taking his fields out of production, George even resents his more prosperous father-in-law's offer of a short-term loan to buy seed.
His wife Rachel is a strong-minded, hardworking, competent housewife, a school-teacher before her marriage, who is dismayed by her husband's increasingly belligerent temperament and his ranting against the faceless shadow-enemies he perceives prowling in the background just beyond reach of his fists. As the unrelenting economic pressure mounts, with no respite in view, her efforts to keep peace in the family often require her silent submission to George's tirades. His calls for armed resistance to foreclosures and cross-country revolution are-- as everyone knows-- just bluster. But the anger is deep and real, the frustration of a man doing his utmost and getting no return on his investment of scarce capital, time, and sweat.
The child Lucy is painfully aware that her father would have preferred a son able to make himself useful the way George had to be as a boy. She's tough and willing, and lovingly does her best to satisfy George's strict standards, but cow-herding turns out to be beyond her; when her father straps her for letting them stray, she hides under the bed in tearful resentment and after Rachel's firm but quiet reproach George is forced to hire a boy-- more money that can't be spared, down the drain. But Lucy's childhood dramas are always swiftly banished by her irrepressible vitality and her joy in the flat, windswept land, its wildlife, its blazing summer sun and its harsh dark winters. Hudson surely draws on her own cherished memories of the North Dakota countryside in such fine passages as this, describing the traditional May Day celebration the Custers attend in 1933: "The May Day field itself was made of all the common ingredients of festivals kept by the anonymous servants of life. It was a canvas for the portrait of hope in equinoxes and solstices that had for centuries made tolerable the lot of those whose lives were, in fact, not tolerable. The feast and the faces might have been painted by Brueghel, and so might the dogs and horses and grass and sky-- extreme, wantonly brilliant, blown by the wind, and embraced by the young, tender fire of a returning sun."
Despite ominous signals like the failure of the local bank, costing George the modest savings put by to carry him through debt-free to the next harvest, 1933 is at first a hopeful year for the struggling Custers and George is confidently planning to try out a new variety of seed to increase the yield. But one setback after another quickly wears him down. His mare loses the foal she was carrying; Mr Vick won't contribute to the cost of seed and George has to swallow his pride and borrow from Rachel's father; the well threatens to run dry, may have to be redug next summer; the crop isn't as abundant and blightfree as predicted; wheat prices are lower than ever; the turkeys don't bring in what they should; and, hoping for concrete help from the government, the local farmers are cheerfully advised to spend money they don't have installing indoor plumbing. When George has paid out what he owes to his father-in-law, Vick, the threshers, the grain elevator, and the railroads, and reckons up his profit, he can count his blessings: he did better than most. And there's next to nothing left. Nothing left but to put his stock and household furniture up for auction, climb into the old car with his uprooted family, and head west to an uncertain, precarious future.
"Where were the god-damned ENEMIES, anyway!" the balked farmer cries. "He'd been blaming everything on losing a measly two hundred and fifty bucks in Harry's bank, but ... he hadn't lost the war in that one disaster-- it was millions of disasters everywhere that had caught up with him ... Custer wasn't making any stand at all. Custer had been waiting and watching for the chance to strike at his destroyers, but he hadn't so much as reconnoitred the battlefield before he was down. Somebody had hit him from behind. Hundreds of men had hit him from behind. Middlemen all over the country, plus the monopolists, speculators, bankers-- they had done him in, and they didn't even have to get close enough to see the colour of his hair..."
The author was born in North Dakota in 1927 and was a child of Lucy Custer's age during the years she so feelingly describes in The Bones of Plenty. Firmly on the side of the "little man," Hudson leaves no stone uncast against social mechanisms that responded primarily to the interests of large land-holding banks and insurance companies, sacrificing the small independent farmers crushed under the burden of rising mortgages and falling crop prices. Her thorough research into the U.S. government's agricultural policies and the documented economic statistics of the period balances her tale's heated emotional thrust with cold, hard facts, and readers born to the prosperity and plenty of the late 20th century will learn what the Depression actually meant to millions of Americans who had to make do with the bones.
© Wordreign, July 1999
Home Recent Books
Images from Myst © 1993 Cyan, Inc. All rights reserved. Myst® is a registered trademarksof Cyan, Inc. Used by permission.