Back to my sweet California home, where the heat is dry, the pot legal, and all the young men have beards.
Quick report on Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker, which I finished just now.
This 1944 novel is narrated by a young woman named Ellen who lives with her parents on a Montana wheat farm. She goes off to college in Minnesota, falls in love with a city boy, and has to drop out of college after a bad harvest. She milks the cows. She runs the combine. She goes to teach at an isolated rural school. It hails. It snows. It gets hot. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor. Throughout, Ellen attempts to understand her parents’ mysterious marriage and make sense of her own passionate attachment to the land.
I haven’t read a novel this straightforward in a long time. It’s not a children’s book — and it’s not flat or simplistic — but there’s nothing fancy going on with the writing here. I didn’t copy out any dazzling passages because there weren’t any. By contrast, 10 pages of my notebook are filled with passages from Rachel Cusk’s (amazing) Transit, which is the last novel I finished before this one.
Yet I suspect I’ll remember Ellen’s story long after I’ve forgotten what happened in Transit. This novel is what I think critics mean when they use the words “deeply felt.” I ordinarily dislike the term “deeply felt,” but it captures the emotional purity and intensity of Winter Wheat. It was a very clean and vivid reading experience. I loved it.
This isn’t a blanket recommendation. Not everyone will enjoy Winter Wheat. I read somewhere once that there are two types of readers, those who liked the Narnia books when they were children and those who liked the Little House series. I was a Little House kid. Winter Wheat is for us.
There’s a lot of food in Winter Wheat, as there always is in novels set on farms, which may be one reason why I like them so much. You’re treated to images like: “The bulb in its green paper shade shone down on chicken pie and candied sweet potatoes and Mom’s rolls.” A plot twist turns on a glass of homemade dandelion wine.
I thought as I always do when reminded of the existence of dandelion wine that I would like to taste it one day. I looked up a recipe. To get started, you collect three quarts of dandelion blossoms — and not the whole flower, just the fluffy, weightless yellow petals you’ve stripped off the green head. Three quarts!
Nope. Not today. Sadly, probably never.