When Farmers Are the Focus of Fiction

From the trailer for the movie version of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres novel. (Screen shot by me.)

One might think novels fully or partly set on farms would tend to be low-key or even boring. Far from true, of course, because human emotions are complex and events can be quite dramatic whether the milieu is rural, suburban, or urban.

Yes, novels featuring farmers often include family discord, marital problems, characters fleeing rural life, backbreaking work, awful weather, money troubles, takeovers by agribusiness, etc. And it almost goes without saying that there are uplifting times, too.

A Thousand Acres, which I read last week, is a prime example of a “farm novel” with multiple layers. Jane Smiley’s Iowa-set book focuses on the fraught relationship between three adult sisters and the even more fraught relationship between that trio and their publicly respected but privately despicable widowed farmer father. It’s painful to read about the dark moments the Cook family goes through, but well worth the effort as the King Lear-influenced novel gets more riveting with each chapter after a slow start. A skillfully written and psychologically nuanced book much deserving of its 1992 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Also set in Iowa farm country is W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, better known for inspiring the movie Field of Dreams. More about baseball and father-son bonds than farming, but the rural setting is indelible.

Over in Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is a farm woman dissatisfied with her marriage and life in general who tries to do something about that — even as the novel’s overarching theme is about the sadly disastrous effects of climate change. Not surprisingly, Kingsolver had a rural upbringing (in Kentucky).

Willa Cather spent some of her childhood on the Nebraska prairie, which is the partial setting of perhaps her best novel: My Antonia. Antonia Shimerda is a farm woman, and the book’s main character is her friend-from-childhood Jim Burden, who moves to the city but continues to feel a strong pull toward his rural roots.

The title character of John Edward Williams’ Stoner novel also leaves the farm (William Stoner becomes a University of Missouri literature professor). But, as is the case with Jim Burden, his farm upbringing has a big formative influence on him.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford’s first marriage is to a farmer. Things do not end well.

R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone focuses on farmer John Ridd and his risky love for Lorna in 17th-century England. The book’s long-ago time frame is a reminder that there was of course more farmland when the world was less populated, meaning a larger percentage of older novels have a rural setting.

Heck, even my densely populated state of New Jersey had lots of open space a century ago, and rural NJ is the setting for Albert Payson Terhune’s His Dog — about a struggling farmer whose life changes enormously when he takes in an amazing canine.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath opens in Oklahoma — where a devastating drought, The Great Depression, and rapacious agribusiness force the Joad family off their farm. They head to California, where roving farm workers such as themselves are treated horribly by rich landowners.

Another book with a farm setting is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, beloved by many younger readers (and many older ones, too).

Then there’s George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a satirical fable that can hardly be called a “farm novel.” But there IS the word “Farm” in the title. 🙂

Any farm-set novels you’d like to mention? (Including ones set outside the United States; my post is mostly U.S.-centric.)

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a way-too-pricey bridge replacement — is here.

This Fiction Isn’t Stranger Than Truth

The former Ogre-in-Chief. (Photo by Seth Wenig/Associated Press.)

A successful novelist and her agent meet for lunch, and the author mentions an idea she has for the main character in her next book.

“Get this,” says the novelist. “The protagonist is a former President of the United States who illegally brings sensitive White House documents to his palatial resort home in Florida, where the papers could be eaten by retired crocodiles in nearby condos.”

“He took those important papers with him after leaving office? Ridiculous plot device,” replies the agent. “No ex-POTUS would ever do that. Suspension of belief is one thing, but that’s more bonkers than Yonkers.”

“Where some of those crocodiles retired from. How about if I make the novel science fiction? After all, sci-fi author Ray Bradbury wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

“That’s what decent-minded Floridians said when Donald Trump headed to their state in 2020,” recalls the agent. “Still, I’m not convinced your protagonist is credible.”

“Also,” the author pushes on, “my protagonist disputes the results of the presidential election he clearly lost by a wide margin, and most members of his political party disgustingly support that brazen undemocratic nonsense.”

“Readers will laugh in your face at something that implausible. And many won’t be wearing COVID-prevention masks…”

“How about if I make the novel a fantasy? You know, like The Lord of the Rings, only the rings are very tiny because the protagonist has very tiny hands.”

“Hmm…tell me more.”

“The ex-POTUS aligns himself with an evil Sauron-like figure named Putt-in, who shares the former President’s penchant for golf instead of work — though Putt-in does find the time to invade a neighboring golf course.”

“I just can’t accept the idea of a former U.S. president vile enough to ride AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ so quickly there’d be no time for Satan to prepare a welcoming brunch of toasted bagels. VERY toasted bagels.”

“Maybe YOU should write a novel,” replies the author. “Anyway, my proposed protagonist is also a misogynistic brute guilty of multiple instances of sexual misconduct yet always avoids criminal prosecution and always avoids losing support from most members of his political party. He’s as Teflon as the pots and pans he never cooks with because he never cooks.”

“What’s gotten into you?” asks the agent. “Your previous characters were all so three-dimensional. Even The Fifth Dimension music group that made a cameo in one of your novels shed two dimensions to fit in.”

“I think I have enough ‘cred’ with my readers to pull off this ex-POTUS character — who’s also virulently racist and anti-LGBTQ, insults people with disabilities, lies constantly, doesn’t read books, is cheap and money-grasping despite being an alleged billionaire, etc.”

“Are you prepared to risk your career like Liz Cheney did?”

“You remind me that my protagonist also successfully urged his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol building to try to get his reelection loss overturned — yet is still nowhere near being jailed for his treasonously fake ‘Stop the Steal’ claims.”

“Is there anything I can do to convince you to ‘Stop the Spiel’ about this novel and not write it?”

“I feel I must write it, even though a protagonist that dishonorable could never exist in real life.”

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local Starbucks unionizing and future plans for my town’s problematic Municipal Building — is here.

Time to Talk Time-Travel Titles

Connie Willis

When it comes to reading fiction, many of us have a guilty pleasure or three. One of mine is time-travel novels.

Yes, few of those novels are great literature, though some come close. But even mediocre time-travel books attract my interest. That’s because the genre can fire the imagination as well as offer wish-fulfillment (who among us hasn’t dreamt of visiting the past or future?). I’m also curious how the protagonist will fit in with the visited time, and whether she or he will be “found out” as someone not of that time. Some time-travel novels also grab readers by cleverly taking unexpected approaches to their temporal leaps, and/or by making strong sociopolitical points, and/or by including real-life famous people in cameos or major roles.

My most recent foray into time-travel fiction, this past week, was Connie Willis’ novel Blackout — which stars several historians from 2060 who go back to World War II-era England to observe people and events, even as the 2060 society’s time-travel system starts exhibiting some glitches that put the historians in added danger. Among the points Willis makes amid the absorbing plot threads is that “average people” (in this case, English citizens of the 1940s) can exhibit a lot of bravery or at least stoicism, and that history unfolds somewhat differently than the way it’s chronicled. Plus there’s the inevitable question of whether going back in time might change history.

One of the memorable fiction works relating to that last possibility is Ray Bradbury’s iconic short story “A Sound of Thunder.”

Re time-travel fiction as a sociopolitical device, excellent examples include Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In Butler’s novel, the vicious evil of American slavery is depicted via the experiences of a 20th-century Black woman yanked back to the pre-Civil War south, while Twain uses his seriocomic time-travel book to satirize deadly militarism.

The Looking Backward novel by Twain contemporary Edward Bellamy puts a lens on the dystopian nature of much of late-19th-century life by making the year 2000 a utopian time. (Our real 21st century turned out differently. 😦 ) H.G. Wells is much more pessimistic about the (distant) future in The Time Machine.

Many other time-travel books offer readers pure entertainment and/or edge-of-the-seat adventure and/or mystery and/or passionate romance. Among them are Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and its eight sequels co-starring 20th-century doctor Claire Fraser in the 1700s, Jack Finney’s New York City-set Time and Again, and Darryl Brock’s baseball-themed If I Never Get Back — all terrific novels.

Other titles I’ve read with a lot or some time-travel elements include Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Karl Alexander’s Time After Time, Marlys Millhiser’s The Mirror, Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Caroline D. Emerson’s The Magic Tunnel, and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” to name a few.

Any time-travel works you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s sorry public pool situation — is here.

Authors Assisting Authors

Susan Glaspell

Last week I discussed writers being influenced by other writers. This week, I’ll talk about writers who helped other writers get published, discovered, or rediscovered.

Novelist, journalist, actress, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Susan Glaspell (1874-1948) is unfortunately almost forgotten these days. She’s best known for her powerful feminist play Trifles that she also turned into a short story called “A Jury of Her Peers,” and for co-founding the Provincetown Players theatrical organization that launched the career of…Eugene O’Neill.

A mesmerizing, superbly acted, half-hour screen version of “A Jury of Her Peers” from 1980:

Poet and shipping-line heiress Nancy Cunard (1896-1965) established The Hours Press — which gave playwright, novelist, and poet Samuel Beckett a major early break by publishing a poem of his. Later, in 1934, Cunard edited and published a massive collection of African-American writers that featured Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, W.E.B Du Bois, and others. (Many in the collection were already known.)

Walker Percy made his name with novels such as The Moviegoer, but is also remembered for helping get John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces posthumously published in 1980. That was after Toole’s mother Thelma’s Herculean years-long effort to get her son’s manuscript noticed following his 1969 suicide. The novel went on to win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In the 19th century, Charles Dickens gave a big assist to a pre-famous Wilkie Collins by running a Collins short story in Dickens’ literary magazine Household Words. Collins and the 12-years-older Dickens became close friends.

One writer can also help another writer posthumously. Alice Walker revived interest in the aforementioned mostly forgotten Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) in various ways — including her 1975 piece about Hurston in Ms. magazine. Walker even replaced the headstone on the uncared-for grave of the Their Eyes Were Watching God author.

Of course, various authors review the work of other authors — with several commenters here doing that so ably on their WordPress blogs. 🙂

Any examples or thoughts relating to this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a rude Township Council and more — is here.